Quick…name a favorable film where the landscape is run by (or at least partially include) the demographic of little people as part of the instrumental storyline? C’mon…it should not be that difficult, okay? If you want to mention say Darby O’Gill and the Little People then that would fine. How about Bad Santa or Poltergeist for that matter?
In That’s Good Enough, Short Stuff: Top Ten Films Featuring Little People we will take a look at some of the mini megastars that inhabited these movies and contributed their fair share of entertainment value to the on-screen proceedings. The debate as to whether some of these selected films featuring these pint-sized performers are considered positive, exploitative or dismissive are not up for discussion (although one of these considerations could apply in the minds of a few folks). Instead, we want to celebrate the inclusion of little people as they have made an impact in the universe of films just like other demographics that entertained for our viewership enjoyment.
Some of the selections mentioned in That’s Good Enough, Short Stuff may be obvious to some and surprising to others. Whatever the case we cannot escape the fact that being a little person in front of the camera carries tall expectations…or in some instances not so much. Whether fabulous or faulty the cinematic experiences of little people in a variety of films (drama, comedy, horror, science fiction, etc.) is something worth noting with sense of accomplishment and purpose. Tiny is terrific especially if it can bring poignancy, laughter, sadness or contemplation to the big screen.
The selections for That’s Good Enough, Short Stuff: Top Ten Films Featuring Little People are (in alphabetical order):
Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999)
THE REEL DEAL: Verne Troyer’s character Mini Me solidified the diminutive actor as a pop cultural icon worldwide as the sliced-down sidekick to Dr. Evil (Mike Myers). Mini Me was not a man of too many words but his toxic gestures spoke volumes and made him one of the most lovable cut-down criminal minds that wickedly made the Austin Powers spy spoof series so devilishly infectious. Understandably, some would argue that Troyer’s Mini Me served as an unkind sideshow for little people touching upon vibes of being demeaning with undercurrent negativity. Frankly, Mini Me was not the MAIN joke so much as him being in on the running joke just like the rest of us. In fact, Mini Me was probably the most sensible rogue standing tall in comparison to his clueless cueball mentor Dr. Evil and the equally cartoonish adversary Austin Powers.
Gulliver’s Travels (1939)
THE REEL DEAL: Based on the classic Jonathan Swift tale we are treated to the animated version of the hulking hero Gulliver as he arrives in the town of Lilliput. Gulliver is wedged between an on-going dispute involving the two tiny kingdoms (Blefiscu being the other one) as he tries to right the wrong of the teenie tot villagers while advocating peace and tolerance among the puny population. This Dave Fleischer-directed 1939 animated feature still resonates in its timeless message about acceptance and trying to create a cooperative society of differences. The forgettable 2010 Christmas Day version of Gulliver’s Travels starring Jack Black does not remotely hold a candle to Fleischer’s conscious-minded cartoon from yesteryear.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
THE REEL DEAL: The mystique of hobbits and other fascinating Middle Earth personalities make up J. J. R. Tolikien’s magical universe in the wondrous fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. The burden of suspense and adventure rests on the miniature shoulders of hobbit Frodo Baggins (Elijiah Wood) and the “fellowship” of his traveling companions as they try to keep the powerful One Ring away from the grips of the dastardly Dark Lorn Sauron looking to destroy the Middle Earth surroundings. All small-packaged species–hobbits, dwarf warriors, elves–comprise the unconventional band of heroes looking to thwart the presence of evil in the name of Tolkien’s arresting literary imagination through filmmaker Peter Jackson’s eye-popping camera lens.
The Station Agent (2003)
THE REEL DEAL: Writer-director Thomas McCarthy’s refreshing dramedy The Station Agent is a quiet and observational character study of three angst-ridden lonely hearts that form a developing friendship around the mutual appreciation for trains/railroads and identification for alienation. The center of the trio is anti-social Finbar McBride (future “Game of Thrones” star Peter Dinklage), a withdrawn and reserved self-conscious man with dwarfism. Fin is an isolationist and is weary about socializing around others for fear that his small physical size would cause an awkwardness for him and those he encounters–simply unwanted commotion that Fin is looking to avoid at all costs. Upon inheriting a train depot from his recently departed elderly friend Fin looks to live on the property in complete solitude without any human contact. However, the expectation of Fin wanting to cut ties with the humanity around him is short-lived as he learns to open up and relate to equally dysfunctional confidantes in Cuban snack truck operator Joe (Bobby Cannavale) and depressed artist Olivia (Patricia Clarkson) suffering from tragic personal losses. Dinklage is the emotional ingredient that provides the psychological turmoil as the miniscule man that gradually breaks out of his protective shell to face a big hardened world that has dominated his skeptical psyche. Te Station Agent is a triumph not to be missed by enthusiasts of honest, lyrical storytelling.
The Terror of Tiny Town (1938)
THE REEL DEAL: The Terror of Tiny Town is throwaway cinema and if anyone–little people or normal-size people alike–chooses to be insulted by this gimmicky musical all-dwarf western featuring star Billy Curtis as Buck Lawson then you are excused. Curtis and the movie handlers, whose knee-high John Wayne antics are carried out on a pony, is probably meant to spoof the western serials at that time when they were so wildly popular. Still, one gets the sense that the obvious visual gags and intentional depiction of dusty trail dwarfs saddling up for some Old West chicanery was just plain misplaced tongue-in-cheek fodder that completely missed the mark being an entertaining put-on. The advertisement of “with an all-midget cast” even feels degrading in a tasteless serving of exploitation. So why does The Terror of Tiny Town make a top ten list featuring laughingstock little people on the frontier? Simple…it is crappy cinema with a wink for being somebody’s guilty pleasure. Hey, little people in cinematic stinkers have as much right to stink up a storm on the big screen as the rest of us, correct?
Time Bandits (1981)
THE REEL DEAL: The early 80’s British fantasy adventure film Time Bandits had some top-notch names attached to this time-traveling project. Everyone from Sean Connery to Sir Ralph Richardson participated in this frivolous vehicle that highlighted the spirited exploits of a tyke Kevin (Craig Warnock) and his band of dwarf time travelers as they jumped from one historical period to another in search of lucrative treasures while trying to evade the mighty Supreme Being. Despite the notable cameos that pepper Time Bandits and the infectious George Harrison soundtrack (the main tune “Dream Away” is as catchy as a signature song can be) the consistent charming element are the bit-sized Bandits (Randall, Fidgit, Og and Strutter) that keep the imaginative spirit flowing through their escapist frolicking. Whether rubbing shoulders with Robin Hood or contending with mythical moody giants, Time Bandits serves as a platform for colorful and wacky little people/performers to lend some magical mischief at the movies.
Under the Rainbow (1981)
THE REEL DEAL: It would take the hideously goofy Chevy Chase/Carrie Fisher 80’s nostalgic comedy Under the Rainbow to present the madcap proceedings of comedic chaos when the Culver Hotel (conveniently located across from the MGM studios) decides to take advantage of the upcoming cinematic phenomenon known as The Wizard of Oz. The plan in general is to market the hotel as “Rainbow Hotel” and bask in the glory of anticipated Oz mania. The faceless frenzy in Under the Rainbow pastes together synthetic silliness that showcases a rowdy convention of little people (or “wannabe munchkins for the film”) staying at the Rainbow Hotel not to mention the inclusive rambunctiousness of various Japanese tourists, a pesky dwarf Nazi spy (Billy Barty), visiting royalty, a scatterbrained hired assassin and an FBI agent (Chase) looking to control the whole zany affair. This flaccid farce has all the appeal of an after-meal burp and not only soiled the legacy of The Wizard of Oz but seemingly stained the career of one of the best known little people actors in veteran Billy Barty. Indeed, Under the Rainbow is an embarrassment of tainted riches but it is also a gleeful presentation of little people partaking in a festive flop.
THE REEL DEAL: The Ron Howard-directed fantasy period piece Willow gave audiences a special kind of unconventional hero in Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis), a dwarf farmer/magician out to protect the safety of a unique and mysterious baby from the corrosive claws of a wicked queen looking to control the child for her own sinister purposes. Howard, along with his collaborative partner George Lucas and his brand of visual and special effects wizardry, creates a rustic magical universe where shortened champions such as Willow and his fellow followers add to the mystique and moodiness of the surreal fable. The prophecy of dwarf do-gooders, an evil sorceress, a charismatic swordsman with swagger–all fortify the stimulating aura that defines Willow. It is nice to witness the participation of the legendary Billy Barty as High Aldwin–perhaps one of Hollywood’s most cherished little people actors that ever graced the entertainment radar screen for generations of fans in television and movies. And yes Billy…we will forgive you for Under the Rainbow.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
THE REEL DEAL: Okay, for the youngsters and young adults out there that can only relate to the updated take on the millennium-made Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory starring the eccentric Johnny Depp do not narrow your options completely. In other words, do some homework and introduce yourselves to the original Mel Stuart-directed musical fantasy that starred the true Prince of Bizarre in the genius Gene Wilder as reclusive chocolate candy connoisseur Willy Wonka. Sure, the little people in this sweet-toothed world of yummy edibles were mainly the kiddies (along with lead tyke Charlie as played by Peter Ostrum). Nevertheless, Willy Wonka had his share of factory helpers that were costumed little adult helpers on hand to usher in the flashy and frolicking festivities that were the candy-coated kookiness rooted in yesterday’s classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
THE REEL DEAL: Do we really need to go into descriptive mode for what the iconic masterpiece in the fantasy-driven musical The Wizard of Oz has done to uplift the childhood memories of generations since its release over seven decades ago? Munchkins. The Yellow Brick Road. Kansas. Tornadoes. Toto. Good and Bad Witches. Dorothy and her ragtag posse: the Tin Man, Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow. And of course the Wizard of Oz himself! But this is a film column about little people so we must pay respect to the most famous pack of pint-sized personalities ever assembled on the big screen–the merry-minded munchkins! Hail to these special and memorable performers that helped bring a sense of fun-filled fantasy to movie audiences after so many years of countless showings. The munchkins deserve their due that definitely rests somewhere under the rainbow.