Opened: Sept. 6, 1996 | Rated: PG
In preparation for seeing "Bogus," I ate two sticks of celery hoping to somewhat counteract the saccharine sweetness of what I was sure would be a candy-coated message movie.
But less than a minute into the title sequence -- a cloudy collage of dancing clowns that looked like a Gene Kelley number directed by Frederico Fellini -- I had to admit I'd been hasty in my pre-judgment.
As it turns out, "Bogus" is sweet, but not heavy handed, and may very well be the best kids' movie this year.
The story, about Albert (Haley Joel Osment), an imaginative little boy who grew up backstage in Las Vegas, gets inside the kid's head and vividly illustrates how his surroundings become a jumping-off point for his endless imagination.
When Albert's mother dies in a traffic accident (an appropriately brief scene), he is unwillingly packed off to live with his New Jersey godmother (Whoopi Goldberg) who knows nothing about children and even less about having fun.
To cope with his less-that-glittering new life away from sequined magicians and lavish production numbers, Albert creates an invisible friend, Bogus (Gerard Depardieu), with whom he creates all kinds of ice cream and swordplay fantasies.
In a scene that perfectly captures imagination come to life, Albert draws a simple crayon face that suddenly begins speaking to him with an animated mouth.
"Could you make my nose a little bigger?" the face asks. "And more hair, lots more hair," until it begins to resemble Depardieu, who then comes bursting off the page.
Director Norman Jewison ("Moonstruck") went to great pains to not only blend imagination with reality, but also to hint at where Albert's imagination comes from.
His best friend in Vegas was a French magician, therefore Bogus is French. His fantasy world is a high-tech, Vegas-like, surrealistic place that has its roots in sequences from "Singin' In the Rain," and "An American In Paris."
Even his dreary new life in drably urban Newark provides him inspiration. The fire escape outside his bedroom window to Albert is a circus rope ladder, and when workaholic Whoopi drags him on a trip to buy catering supplies he sees the warehouse as one big ice cream parlor.
Accented with dozens of character-defining moments like when Goldberg's flashes back on her own childhood and finds herself sucking on her toothbrush like a kid, "Bogus" is inventive, thoughtful and perfectly cast.
Who better than Goldberg to play a orphan who grew up into a bitter adult and rediscovers her playfulness through the eyes of a little boy? Osment (one of the kids on "The Jeff Foxworthy Show") is adorable, of course, but he also seems to have put some thought into what makes Albert tick. He's acting here, not just playing.
And Depardieu, who I normally can't stomach, is splendid as the insightful imaginary friend -- a role that could have gone to, say, Robin Williams, and lost it's inspiration under the crush of star-driven re-writes.
At its core "Bogus" is heavy on cliches -- an orphaned child, grown ups that don't understand kids -- in fact, this could be a long-lost Shirley Temple script dusted off for the '90s. But like in Albert's imagination, these central themes are only serve as a foundation that "Bogus" builds on like a 6-year-old with a new box of Legos.
If ever there was a sappy kids movie that could melt cynical hearts, this is it.
©1996 All Rights Reserved.