Inspector Gadget
directed by David Kellogg
(Walt Disney/Buena Vista, 1999)

It's been a disappointing year for children's films. Not much was released, and what was released was a mixed bag.

Tarzan offered superb tree-surfing and a couple of cute comic-relief characters who'll no doubt end up giving hugs on the streets of Disney World. But outside of its technical wizardry, Tarzan came up short. Muppets from Space proved you need more than well-established characters to succeed, and The Iron Giant drew rave reviews, but came with a trailer so long and pedantic that both my kids have so far refused to have anything to do with it.

But of all this year's disappointments, none could out-disappoint Inspector Gadget, Disney studio's live-action recreation of the animated TV series.

Just where director David Kellogg went wrong in bringing Gadget to the screen isn't entirely obvious, at least not at first.

He started with a good cast: Matthew Broderick as John Brown/Inspector Gadget; Joely Fisher as Brenda Bradford, the beautiful scientist who turns Brown into Gadget following a debilitating accident; Rupert Everett as Scolex/Claw, the multibillionaire mad villain who has devoted his life to stealing both Dr. Bradford and Dr. Bradford's work in robotics; Dabney Coleman as Chief Quimby, head of the local police force and a vocal opponent of android officers; Michelle Trachtenberg as Penny, Gadget's niece and sidekick; and Don Adams, voice of the original Gadget, as the voice of Brain, Penny's dog and sidekick.

And there's a story line, or several story lines: how rental cop John Brown becomes gadgetized; how Brown woos and wins the heart of Dr. Bradford; how Scolex/Claw succeeds in stealing Bradford's work and almost succeeds in destroying Gadget by building his own Anti-Gadget; and how Gadget saves the town of Riverton from Claw and itself.

The problem is that to tell all these tales in 78 minutes and still have time for the obligatory closing kiss, Kellogg had to work at the speed of light. He doesn't unravel the story of Inspector Gadget so much as rampage through it, skipping from one fast-paced action scene to the next. The result is characters who don't develop enough to matter, plus a few quick, overdone sight gags that are supposed to keep us laughing all the way.

More importantly, it leads to a dumbing down of a show that's already been pitched to 5-year-olds. At the same time, to keep parents -- mostly fathers, I'd say -- entertained, Kellogg has inserted some high-tech sexual innuendo. That might work in a movie aimed at an older audience. Here it produces the unsettling effect of a film that's been dumbed down and spiced up at the same time. What a great way to miss two target audiences at once.

I first sensed Gadget was in trouble on the way out of the theater when I mentioned it had run only a little over an hour. "Really?" my 10-year-old daughter replied. "It seemed really, really long."

Inspector Gadget was made on a budget larger than that of many developing nations. Its production values are slick, the filming is smooth and the inspector himself comes with enough gadgets to outfit a toy store -- from fire-producing fingers to a detachable ear that serves as an eavesdropping device.

Too bad he doesn't have one that could save this film.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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