In December 2019, the New York Times ran an article about how female directors–like Melina Matsoukas, Greta Gerwig and Lulu Wang–were getting short changed at the Academy Awards (or “largely left out” of the 2020 Oscars “best director conversation,” in more media savvy speak). You know who wasn’t mentioned at all? Danishka Esterhazy, who directed “The Banana Splits Movie” for the Syfy Channel.
You can be forgiven if this film passed you by, but it did happen. Besides, the more pressing question is why the Academy took no notice. Obviously. Is this more evidence of the sci fi ghetto, of horror not being taken seriously by the arts crowd? Or was the movie rightfully ignored as an attempted cash in on the “Five Nights at Freddy’s” franchise?
Young Harley Williams is spending his birthday at a taping of “The Banana Splits,” his favorite TV show about oversized animals that have goofy adventures and definitely don’t kill people. He gets separated from his family trying to meet the cast after the show, not realizing that the Splits–actually intricate animatronics–have been updated with faulty software that gives them a violent streak. Following what was supposed to be their last show, the Splits start killing crew members and kidnapping the audience. Harley has to evade the machines’ malicious machinations and find his family before the show’s Wheel of Endings comes up on “rock out” one more time.
In a few words, “The Banana Splits Movie” is better than it should be but not as good as it could be, and a lot of that is due to Esterhazy’s direction. While I’ve never seen any of her previous films, I will say that under her control “The Banana Splits Movie” looks like a student film, and I mean that as a guileless compliment.
Student films can look more interesting than their professional counterparts because students are usually still in love with making movies, with delighting in figuring out how things can look and how to make them look that way. Esterhazy looks like she loves making movies, and there appears to be a lot of care, and just plain fun, that went into making “The Banana Splits Movie” atmospheric and visually interesting.
The sets are better than average and well photographed, from the novel camera angles framing the dimly lit basements and hissing pop art pipes to the characters’ shadows that creatively fill the screen (the cinematography was by Trevor Calverley and the production design was by Bobby Cardoso, both with thriller credits and both working on an upcoming TV series with Esterhazy).
That’s the better than it should be. The not as good as it could be comes down to the story. On the surface, it’s a pretty straightforward plot of child endangerment and awful people making bad decisions before being hacked up by robots. So why does it seem like there’s some larger statement the film is trying to make about the folly of the worlds we create in media?
The fact the Splits are kidnapping children and forcing them to watch their live show on repeat feels like a sly comment about the film itself, a movie that trots out old characters, far past their purposefulness, the result of media that exists solely to put itself on display. Except, the movie never really develops that beyond handcuffs and a boiler room.
Unless that is the point, that that action has no point, like an absurdist drama.
Unless I’m just making way too big a deal about something called “The Banana Splits Movie.”
To be fair, the film never really develops any of its points, let alone its grander ones. It takes a while for the characters to start getting killed, but once they do, they get knocked down like bowling pins, often at an uncomfortably jarring pace. No one sticks around long enough to expound on or represent any theme, so it’s hard to tell if the film is saying anything at all, whether it’s about corporate greed or the shallowness of social media or the power of friendship or an absurdist media tautology.
Well, at least the rest of the movie is more of a mixed bag and easier to figure out. The performances never rise above just OK. The murders are sometimes quite fun–the ball pit is my favorite–but the CGI is not the best. There’s some dark comedy scattered around, but the film is never funnier than its premise of “retro children’s television show turned into a direct-to-DVD horror film.”
There are plenty of unanswered questions, more than you’ll probably notice, and I guess the ending is set up like there could be a sequel, but something tells me that’s not going to happen soon. Maybe that’s for the best. The visual direction of “The Banana Splits Movie” might surprise you, but it will need a little more time, and a definite decision on its thematic direction, before it’s going to wow anyone as a total package.