Almost A Classic: Pufnstuf

pufnstuf 1970 indexI’m not au fait with H.R. Pufnstuf, a popular tv series which ran briefly in the nineteen sixties, but this musical starring Oliver!’s The Artful Dodger Jack Wild (who also appeared in the tv show) is a crazy old thing and one that I found very appealing. It’s bright, brash and very, very daft, as a young kid called Jimmy (Wild) discovers by chance “The Living Island” where yellow sort of a dragon thing Pufnstuf lives with all of his unusual pals.

Jimmy’s also recently found a talking Flute who he discovers is called Freddy as it can chat away, sounding like Mr Hanky The Christmas Poo from South Park which makes it all the funnier. When Jimmy borrows a boat and finds The Living Island he instantly makes friends with H.R. Pufnstuf, but also attracts the attention of Witchiepoo (Billie Hayes), an evil old biddy (their words, not mine) who wants to steal Freddy.

It’s partially because Freddy is made of gold and is diamond encrusted, but also because Witchiepoo believes that if she plays the flute at the annual witch’s convention she’ll be named Witch Of The Year. After transforming herself in to the blonde dancer Betsy Buggaloo she manages to do so too, but Jimmy and Pufnstuf and co fool her in to thinking her castle is on fire and steal it back. Alas it’s not long before Freddy is back in her hands though, Pufnstuf is being roasted on a spit and the witches (including Martha Raye and Mama Cass) are all partying like there’s no tomorrow. So is this the end for Pufnstuf and friends?

This is all very surreal madness indeed, with a good few of the characters voices based on old film stars like John Wayne and Mae West, while the various animal and plant costumes that the cast are force to wear are delightfully endearing. Most of the characters joke about in a ridiculous manner at the beginning, it might not be the height of dry wit but when a posh tree boasts about her predecessors, a hippy tree responds “Tell it like it is baby, your ancestors were the Mayflower” and it’s all but impossible to not find such silliness laugh out loud funny.

As well as a lot of barmy oddness thanks to Witchiepoo (who moans at one point “Why didn’t I listen to mother and marry a nice, reliable werewolf”) it’s often funny due to the bizarreness of events, and nothing seems to faze Jimmy despite discovering all manner of strange life forms, when he meets a talking boat he just comments “Some of my best friends are boats” which is one of many lines which hint at just how psychologically damaging his childhood must have been. It also contains some strong physical comedy of the variety which must have bruised the majority of the cast, and which never stops being amusing.

The songs are mostly short but sweet poppy numbers, with it beginning strongly as Jack wistfully sings about wishing he was a balloon, and then a giraffe, while there’s a good few about the joys of friendship. It’s a shame that as Witch Hazel Mama Cass only gets one short song but it is a fun number which celebrates individuality and contains appealing if basic lines like “Different is heartache, different is pain / But I’d rather be different than be the same”. Unfortunately there is a gap of about thirty minutes in the middle which is song free, which frustrated as they were often the most unusual and most fun parts of the movie.

If you wanted to be picky you might have an issue with Boss Witch’s Nazi-esque rat guard, who does the whole Nazi salute thing and speaks in a harsh German accent, but otherwise this is free of anything problematic and is largely innocent fun. Jack Wild’s convincing as a youngster despite being 17 at the time of filming, and the rest of the cast are great too, with voice over superstar Don Messick one of the more memorable actors that you’ll hear. A very tight ninety minutes there’s impressively little filler, and if it had included a few more songs than this would have been a contender for the “Our Favourite Films” section of the site, but this is still essential viewing for anyone who likes their comedy movies to be rather strange and unusual.

★★★3/4

Alex Finch.
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