What do we think about, when we think about Condorman? Charles Jarrott’s 1981 Disney adventure shows a studio in chaos, with no idea who their target audience might be, or what they might like. A wave of family-friendly movies had usurped the mouse-house’s identity, and the studio struggled to find concepts which would appeal. So in the wake of successful franchises for James Bond, The Pink Panther and Superman, Condorman attempts to combine elements of each into a funk/jazz-jazz/funk fusion that doesn’t work of a second, but offers amusement in terms of presumption.
What do kids love to see in a movie? How about Barbara Carrera undressing? Oliver Reed’s huge sweaty face in a bad suit? A narrative about a defecting Soviet agent? A wedding interrupted by accusations of infidelity? Condorman’s idea of a good time for families are somewhat wide of the mark; if you have a child whose eyes light up at the above ingredients, I’d be interested to hear about it. This is the story of a cartoonist called Woodrow ‘Woody’ Wilkins, played with a film career-ending American accent by British comic Michael Crawford. As Frank Spencer in BBC sitcom Some Mothers Do Have ‘Em, Crawford was a household name in terms of visual gags, but was surely the wrong choice to play a confident American espionage agent. Although he’s presented as something of a loser, first seen jumping into the Seine in full Condorman costume, the narrative asks us to believe that lowly Woody is mistaken by defecting agent Natalia (Carrera) for the best in the business, and hence the CIA offer Woody a huge budget to bring Condorman and all his gadgets to life to rescue her from her Russian homeland security.
That’s a convoluted narrative to ask any kid to enjoy, and it’s very hard to get a handle on Condorman/Woody, not helped by having a third, animated version of the character in the opening credits, a la Pink Panther and complete with a Henri Mancini score. Although accident prone, Woody takes to the espionage game like a duck to water, and the expected gaffs and pratfalls don’t materialise. Instead, we have elaborate Bond–level action scenes from Remy Julienne, who pulls off two remarkable chases, one using six identical black Porches, and another using a clutch of black speedboats. Expensively shot, these fiery set-pieces are really impressive to look at, if it wasn’t for the strained comic insets and tatty design of Condorman’s car and boat. Reed and Crwford worked together on The Jokers, but barely share a frame here, with both actors looking uncomfortable with the film’s uneven tone.
It all goes wrong in Condorman, with the dialogue notably lame. ‘A rouble for your thoughts?’ asks Woody to Natalia, before they invent a repeated catch-phrase that would make any child shrug; ’If you bring the dips…I’ll bring the Dostoyevsky!’ And even worse, the whole premise of Condorman, based on a book by Robert Sheckley, denigrates the idea of a comic-book character; Woody saves the day with a series of expensive gadgets, with no real training or understanding of what he’s doing or why. The question asked here is; what is a superhero, but an ordinary man who can accessorise?