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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Li'l Abner (1940)



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"He cain't he'p it! He's stupid!"

Li'l Abner is a failed film, but it's one of the most fascinating failures I've seen. The film is based the wonderful comic strip of the same name by Al Capp. It's not so well known now, but it's a favorite of mine. The beautiful drawings, delightful characters, outrageous transliterated hick accents, and narrow scrapes with death and marriage were all prized trademarks of the strip.

The film recreates these nuances down to the most trifling details. The characters are spitting images of their hand-drawn counterparts. Even the way the characters move is reminiscent of the way the static drawings suggest the movements of the characters. The dialogue is spoken just as Capp wrote it: terms like "marry up" and "sweet patootie" are recited faithfully, which is fun even when, on occasion, the spoken rendition of Capp's dialogue feels forced.

The problem is that what works in a comic strip doesn't necessarily work in a film. I'm not entirely sure why. Maybe the space for imagination that the strip provides and the film doesn't is what makes the difference. Whatever the case, the writing -- both the story and the dialogue -- isn't strong enough to carry the film. It aims exactly on target but doesn't go far enough. It needs to be funnier, crazier. While I was admiring the faithfulness of the recreation of Al Capp's world, I was thinking how much better the Ma and Pa Kettle movies are at covering similar material.

Still, fans of the strip are sure to find this as intriguing as I did. If the film could be enjoyed as much as it can be appreciated, it would really be something.

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