Danny Johnson Saves the World (2015)

For those of you who came in late, Christopher R. Mihm is one of the most prolific “garage band” filmmakers out there.

He and his crew of volunteer helpers have been making unique ultra-low budget SF and horror movies for over an decade now.  Made mostly of duct tape and cardboard, they are some of the best retro-Fifties genre films around, although they were made for so little that they would make the budget of Teenagers from Outer Space look positively bloated.

Several of his most recent films have explored new old territory, including a hard-edged, Post World War II noir thriller, an upcoming post-Apocalyptic Spaghetti “Mid-Western,” and this, his first children’s film.

It is also his first puppet film.

One Christmas, Grandpa Johnson (Mihm regular James Norgard, the only adult face in the entire film) tells his grandkids the story of how he saved the world.  The evil queen of a puppet-like alien race wants to put the Earth under her mind-controlled rule, starting with the children, and only young Danny and his new, puppet friend Steve can stop her…

Now the official publicity compares this one to such unlikely films as E.T., The Princess Bride, and The Goonies.  However, I’d be tempted to say it’s closer to Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (although it isn’t appallingly awful), or perhaps, even closer, to one of those old children’s TV series from the Fifties or Sixties.  Perhaps it might even be more accurate to say that it really doesn’t resemble much of anything anyone ever made before.

Sharp eyed fans will note that Danny was a bit player in two of Chris’ earlier films: Terror from Beneath the Earth and The Giant Spider.  We even get a sly reminder of this in one of the two best moments of the film, when Grampa Johnson nods off for a moment, then is a little confused about where he left off, and tries to remember which of the times he saved the world he’s been telling them about, complete with a  few quick flashbacks to those moments, including a short clip from The Giant Spider (the other, a beautiful post-modern gag, comes a bit later, when Grampa Johnson recounts what happens aboard the alien saucer when he triggers the Gatekeeper’s automatic defenses.  While he recounts a furious, pitched battle with robots and rayguns, what we actually see is young Danny and Steve playing what amounts to a sort of videogame to shut down its countermeasures).

While Michael Kaiser is back again in a monster suit — as yet another robot  — he also plays the voice of the alien King.  Somehow, I find myself thinking of the little in-joke in Attack of the Moon Zombies, when they pointed out that Michael does actually speak.  This time around, he remains unseen, as usual — but not unheard.

This time around, in addition to the army of cute puppet aliens (I particularly like the alien Queen, which one recognizes instantly as as a pretty good caricature of Mrs. Mihm herself), we get more stop-motion animation than we’ve seen in a Mihm film before (including a dinosaur, and the wonderfully goofy meat monster).

One could grumble that the children in the cast are all a little flat.  Yes, they could have used more coaching, but let’s face it, that probably would have cost more than the rest of the film.  Besides, most child acting is a little wooden anyway.

The puppets are a basic, muppet-like hand puppet design, and for the most part are expressive enough to carry the show.  However, one misses the stick puppet hands Jim Henson’s would have given them:  it doesn’t take long to notice that they mostly stand in one place and talk.

However, that’s not enough to spoil the fun:  Danny Johnson Saves the World easily ranks among the best of Christopher Mimh’s films.

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