Few companies throughout the history of the world have been so shameless in their pursuit of the almighty dollar as the Walt Disney Company. After breaking the mold in 1934, Disney has never shied away from creative marketing and release strategies to wring every last dollar out of its most beloved pieces of intellectual property. Each week, we’ll look at the House of Mouse’s various sequels, prequels, spin-offs, and various misadventures, relegated from the silver screen to the small screen. Is there any artistic merit to be found? Or was each film mostly conceived as an excuse to print more money? Join me as we search for the answers from the wonderful world of Di$ney.
Why does this exist?
Hollywood is a reactionary business. Every time a film breaks through to mainstream culture, the rest of the business tries to replicate that film’s success until it becomes so diluted that we forget what made the original film so special in the first place.
Consider The Matrix, and the innumerable copycats that thought that its charm lay simply in its groundbreaking special effects. Even the James Bond franchise, which has created enough imitators of its own, has been known to crib from other action successes throughout its run.
All of this is to say that, by 2013, superhero films had all but completed their takeover of modern cinema. The Marvel Cinematic Universe began to consistently dominate the year-end box office and would never again relinquish its stranglehold on American movie-going dollars.
I imagine that the pitch meeting for Super Buddies went something like that scene from the Poochie episode of The Simpsons where the team of writers tries to come up with a name for Itchy and Scratchy’s new sidekick. That’s kind of how all of the Buddies films have felt — kind of a “first thought, best thought” mentality — except this one feels more culturally relevant now that the franchise had run out of holidays on which to riff.And it feels like the ideal place to end this series — the proverbial snake eating its own tail, with Disney creating the superhero explosion, the direct-to-video sequels to its beloved hits and, eventually, the streaming boom. Although it was still clinging to life in 2013, physical media wouldn’t survive as the dominant species for too much longer; Netflix would soon begin to create original content but was still a bustling hub for movie-watching, Hulu had carved out a solid niche for streaming cable and network programming, and Amazon Prime Video wasn’t far off from its own cultural footprint.
What’s going on here?
Bartleby, Budderball’s owner, throws a superhero-themed birthday party based on his favorite comic book. You don’t need me to tell you which humans and animals tag along, but the pups soon discover five magic rings that conveniently fit around their necks and give them magical powers. MudBud can turn invisible. Rosebud runs at super-speed. Budderball gets super-strength. Buddha can use telepathy. BDawg can stretch. They all get their own coordinating outfits, although it’s not as if they have a secret identity they’re trying to conceal.
Meanwhile, the superhero from Bartleby’s comic — Megasis, an alien that can take the shape of another being — comes to Earth in search of the magical rings. He’s being pursued by an evil alien with similar powers, and it’s up to the Buddies to stop him. But first, the pups must thwart a robbery at — where else? — a candy store. Super Buddies feels like certain plot points were focus-grouped by a bunch of 7-year-olds to see what would make for the silliest situations. The robbers flopping around at the hands of the Buddies’ powers reminded me of the “has this ever happened to you?” segments of the worst infomercials.
Of course, no superhero origin story would be complete without a montage of the heroes learning how to effectively use their powers, and Megasis teaches the Buddies to not only maximize their abilities but to use the power of teamwork. The Fernfield sheriff switches bodies with the evil alien and turns into a pig (social commentary much?) before the final confrontation with the Buddies. What are the kids up to during this battle, you ask? Reading comic books and trying to figure out a solution. More on that in a bit.
How much of the original is preserved?
Initially, I wanted to believe that Super Buddies‘ overblown budget was a result of what was left over from the previous four Buddies films. But then I remembered an early scene where a giant Purina dog-food bag was featured front and center, and it all made sense. This film goes all out, putting the Buddies in some of the most insane situations yet, and easily contains the most extensive use of CGI in the series to date.The cast list is also easily the most impressive of this series, especially in the voiceover department. Colin Hanks voices Megasis. John Michael Higgins is Drex, the evil alien. Tim Conway is the sheriff’s dog. Amy Sedaris is a chicken. Debra Jo Rupp is a cow. Zendaya is a pony. Atticus Shaffer is an evil monkey. But let’s not short-change Michael Teigen as the sheriff, giving an insanely committed physical performance, especially in the second half when his body is inhabited by an alien; I liken it to Vincent D’Onofrio’s performance as the evil cockroach in Men In Black.
Does this ruin the original film?
As I observed last week, this series is full of arbitrary rules to prevent its human characters from doing anything worthwhile, forcing the animals to pull off the action. Super Buddies has this in spades, not only preventing Megasis, the real superhero, from fighting the bad guy but leaving out the kids as well. They’re left literally just outside the battle, apparently completely oblivious to what’s going on, as they try to search for a solution in the comic books. I get it; we’re watching Super Buddies, not Super Kids, but the loopholes that director / co-writer Robert Vince creates for himself is laughable at best.
When I first mapped out this series, I had initially left off the live-action films, meaning the coverage would have ended with The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning. If I could go back and warn myself of the impending train wreck that these films would turn out to be, would I do it? As mind-numbing as they have mostly turned out to be, I hope the highlights — the truly bananas story decisions and character beats — have come across in these essays. None of these live-action films has been good by any metric. But there are moments that still stand out in my memory, sometimes even more than those of their animated counterparts.
Disney is, and always has been, capable of telling successful stories for kids and adults. Now that we’re at the end of it, I’m still not convinced that the entire home-release endeavor was much more than a flagrant cash grab. But especially now that they’re all available at no extra cost from the rest of Disney’s catalog, there’s no real harm in firing up one of them to pass the time — with the exception of the live-action Jungle Book, of course.
- Next Time: NOTHING! As the Buggles once said, “Streaming killed the direct-to-video star!”