While Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children did thoroughly average business at the box office, and there’s a veritable anti-hype surrounding his upcoming Dumbo remake, there was a time when Tim Burton was the new Steven Spielberg. A whimsical auteur with a distinct style who produced hit after hit, Burton’s stories of misfit characters who clash with society resonated with audiences, whether they dressed as bats or had scissors for hands.
Of course, his successes as director would make him an invaluable collaborator, so it wasn’t long before he took up producing reins. Beginning with cartoons based on Beetlejuice and Brad Bird’s Family Dog, Burton graduated to films with his 1993 pet project, The Nightmare Before Christmas. Shortly afterwards, Burton got in touch with comedian Chris Elliot to work on a fantasy comedy, but vacated the director’s chair in favour of Adam Resnick.
In a fantastical reworking of Rudyard Kipling’s Captain’s Courageous, spoilt brat Nathaniel Mayweather (Chris Elliot) is thrown on seafaring rust bucket ‘The Filthy Whore’, manned by slobs and scallywags. Enroute to claim his inheritance in Hawaii, Mayweather and co. encounter all sorts of seafaring oddities, including giants, monsters and talking food.
What immediately jumps out about Cabin Boy, as well as being its strongest feature, is its production values: old Technicolor and Harryhausen adventure films are the order of the day in the film’s use of colour, sets and even the odd dosage of elaborate costumes and stop motion special effects for the various creatures (including living ice monsters and an Indian goddess), and it does look fairly good. Steve Bartek’s score is fittingly whimsical and silly, again taking cues from old screen adventures, but it doesn’t have as much staying power as Danny Elfman’s music from the time and Burton’s other projects.
What isn’t so fitting is a joyless, almost adult cynicism in the writing that clashes horribly with the imagination on display. Cabin Boy’s biggest problem is how completely indecisive it is as to its target audience: it wants to be both a colourful family adventure on the high seas with monsters and bright colours, and yet also loaded with really racy gags that seem completely out of place. The film is loaded with all kind of scatalogical and sexual material that feels cheap and driven solely by a gross-out factor to try and squeeze out any meager laugh it can.
Not helping matters is that the plot itself is completely and utterly inconsequential, with no real arcs or sense of danger, and the characters are all various shades of bland, with Mayweather being an insufferable, as well as incredibly dumb, twit. Elliot’s charisma can’t salvage the lame gags he’s saddled with, and his chemistry with his co-stars (including the more than capable likes of Brian Doyle Murray, Melora Waters and Andy Richter) is virtually non-existent, only dragging it down further.
Honestly, it’s not hard to see why Tim Burton passed on directing Cabin Boy himself. It’s hackneyed, sloppy and determined to have as little fun with its surreal universe as possible. How does one look at old fantasy films and think that poop jokes are a much needed improvement? The only novelty to this film is it being probably the last live action Hollywood production to use a fair amount of stop motion, but even then, you could just browse those clips on Youtube and spare yourself this train wreck.