Directed By Chris Columbus
Starring – Robin Williams, Sally Field, Pierce Brosnan
The Plot – Eccentric actor Daniel Hillard (Williams) is an amusing and caring father. But after a disastrous birthday party for his son, Daniel’s wife Miranda (Field) draws the line and files a divorce. He can see his three children only once a week which doesn’t sit well with him. Daniel also holds a job at a TV studio as a shipping clerk under the recommendation of his liason. But when Miranda puts out an ad for a housekeeper, Daniel takes it upon himself to make a disguise as a Scottish lady named Mrs Doubtfire. And Daniel must also deal with Miranda’s new boyfriend Stu Dunemyer (Brosnan).
Rated PG-13 for some sexual references
– Taboo subject matter. It’s refreshing, especially in the early 90’s, that a children’s movie takes the time to convey the complications and effects from a distanced marriage that has run its course over many years, and what “Mrs. Doubtfire” preserves in originality, it also brings with it an underlying tug at the heartstrings for compelling drama that every member of the family can enjoy. This is very much a story that is reflective of the kind of things that were going on in my household, and what’s even more commendable is that the film maintains its set of consequences all the way till the end, choosing never to relent on the real problems that originally existed within this marriage for the sake of a happy ending. What’s even more accredited is that my opinion of importance for the film has changed as I’ve gotten older. I used to think it was Williams alone that made the movie, but as I got older I realized it’s the believability of the relationship dynamics that preserve a level of heart rarely seen in a movie for all ages.
– Elevation in the material. The humor in the movie is alright, but made even better by Williams’ endless raw energy to the commitment of the role, that would otherwise stop these gags dead in their tracks. Daniel’s personality transcends that of the animated characters who he voices, juggling a double threat of sarcasm and quick wit that make it easy to depict the perfect father and testing husband in the same breath. For my money, it’s the times of vulnerability over the changing complexity of Daniel’s world, like the Children’s Services interviews, that left more of an impact over me than the physical humor ever could, bringing with it some unforgettable one-liners that couldn’t be quoted or remembered without Williams’ one-of-a-kind familiarity.
– Plenty of material to fill two hours. For a comedy in the 90’s, 120 minutes might be asking a lot, especially in the waning attention span of younger audiences, but “Mrs. Doubtfire” is all about dynamics that ultimately lead to Daniel becoming a better person for himself and his kids. So it’s in the time dedicated to these dynamics that better materialize this transformation, and help better establish the characters surrounding the film’s dual protagonist. My favorites are Doubtfire’s interaction with Stuart, depicting a virtual tug-of-war where only one man sees all of the cards laid out on the table, as well as Daniel’s personal time with his kids, in which each of them displays a different emotion towards their father. It proves that not only is Daniel fighting a physical battle within himself and the Doubtfire persona, but also in many battles surrounding him that demand him to try harder in ways he never could’ve imagined.
– An important lesson. Many people have a favorite line from this movie, but the one throwaway line that I’ve always taken with me in my critic career is the one at the dinner meeting, in which Daniel describes to Mr. Lundy (Played warmly by Robert Prosky) what it takes for kids shows to succeed. He says “Don’t patronize kids. They’re little people, you have to personalize. Make it fun and educational. If it’s something you’d enjoy, they’d enjoy”. What’s so important about this line is it establishes what so many kids movies (Especially in modern day) get wrong about the children’s genre of films. Boisterous explosions and fart noises are on display instead of heart, and this is something that I’ve always tried to communicate to my readers, who think that judging kids movies so personally is ridiculous.
– Firing on all cylinders. This is a very utilized cast on every end of the age spectrum, and far just beyond Williams’ dual threat dedication to the role, that sometimes required as many as twenty takes and multiple cameras per scenes, due to Williams’ constant improvisation, there is much depth as well in the supporting ensemble. Sally Field’s Miranda juggles a complexity of what’s right for her children versus what’s right for her heart, and even though she is the responsible one, we never take anger in the mature decisions that she is forced to make. Likewise, Pierce Brosnan is also an exceptional antagonist for Daniel without becoming a cartoonish version of a character. Brosnan’s charm and articulate demeanor is something that moves him miles in feeling like a perfect suitor for Miranda’s now empty nest, and Columbus masters him with being everything that Daniel is not. The kids are also surprisingly on-point, especially that of 8-year-old Mara Wilson, who was at the height of her career during this picture. Wilson gives some shall we say adult line reads, but is delivered in a way that doesn’t feel forced or manufactured like most kid actors do. Mara’s range is right at eye level with her respective age, and that helps these scenes of engagement feel all the more natural because of it.
– Academy award winning make-up. This is obviously the staple for the movie, as the whole plot is based on the transformation from Daniel to Mrs. Doubtfire. While there are some believability issues on the very size of Doubtfire’s physical profile, particularly in the immense shoulder structure, I can say that the prosthetics involved do a solid job of making Williams familiar face virtually disappear in the role. What’s even more credible is that the movie takes three minutes of a montage sequence to show you everything involved in the behind-the-scenes tweaking of the actor, an aspect on camera that you rarely get to see, if only during DVD additional extras that are never anything but tacking-on for special features. The facial wrinkling feels authentic of the natural aging pattern, and the wig and wardrobe combination are the perfect closing notes on bringing to life this complete elderly immersion. An interesting note is that Robin Williams own real life son didn’t recognize him in the costume until he began speaking, cementing that the work was years ahead of its time in terms of attention to detail.
– As an adaptation. Many people never knew that the movie is based off of a novel by Anne Fine in 1987, called Madame Doubtfire, and when comparing the two forms of media, the movie is around 90% faithful, all the while changing the things necessary to translate it smoothly to film. Of the major differences from the novel, Natalie (Mara Wilson) is the first child to find out it’s her father in costume, the children as a whole are more rebellious and almost always act out in self-interest, and Daniel is an actor, not a voice actor. On the latter, I think the change is necessary because it makes it easier to believe Daniel’s voice distortion as much more versatile when you consider he has been doing it his whole life. Likewise, we would never have such great scenes as the prank calling one to Miranda, in which he sports no fewer than seven different voices while calling.
– Third act problems. Aside from the fact that Daniel commits to two different people in the same place on the same night at the same time, the believability in changing four hour prosthetics with such ease in such a confined space is something that I have a great strain in coming to terms with. At the very least, this would take around ten minutes to completely strip off what he’s currently wearing, then another ten minutes to change in to the next costume, and that would seem a bit suspicious to two parties that are patiently awaiting his arrival. This set-up as a whole is a desperate attempt at bringing every on-going plot to a head, for the convenient third act wrap-up Not to mention how not one single person asks a single question as to why Doubtfire is carrying in a gigantic gym bag to an elegant restaurant in the first place.
– Conventional filmmaking constantly on display. Part of what has always bothered me about Columbus as a director is his complete inability to include any form of excitement or experimentation to his presentations, and “Mrs. Doubtfire” is surely no different. The camera work is mundane, operating at the usual character eye level frame that we’re used to, as well as nothing of tantalization with long takes or unorthodox editing style in pasting everything together. Likewise, the musical score from Howard Shore is about as uninspiring and par for the course as you can imagine, garnering a balance between flute and piano music that is sure to be playing the next time you are fortunate enough to spend more than ten seconds in an elevator or dental office. For me, lack of style is the one glaring negative that the movie features, and if it managed to even attempt to carve out a 90’s niche in cinematography personality, then I think it would better prove that not just anyone could’ve helmed Robin Williams in drag.
– Too many liberties with the final cut. I watched the DVD special edition of this film, and was shocked and dismayed to see that some of the most important and character-driven scenes were left on the cutting room floor, leaving some obvious holes in development once you’ve seen them. For one, there isn’t a scene in the movie where we truly witness Daniel’s misery without being around his kids, but the deleted scenes features such a scene, and on top of it does a strong job in displaying the case for Williams as a serious actor, a fact that was unknown in 1993. We also rarely get enough opportunities at seeing the negatives of divorce from a child perspective, and that too is included in a scene that primarily focuses on the effect of the kids hearing the cause of parental squabbles. Scenes like these could’ve better supplanted “Mrs. Doubtfire” with more of a much-needed dramatic pulse to better illustrate that real lives were hanging in the balance here. Without them, there’s the unshakeable conclusion that no matter what, everything will be alright, and I think it’s a huge disservice to the paralyzing nature of a child’s world crumbling down.
– Robin Williams in real life divorced his wife to marry his nanny. In the film, his wife divorces him, and he becomes her nanny. Strange.
My Grade: 7/10 or B