Color, 1953, 89 mins. 49 secs.
Directed by Roy Rowland
Starring Tommy Rettig, Hans Conreid, Peter Lind Hayes, Mary Healy
Indicator (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL), Mill Creek (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Sony (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)

Bunny Lake Is Missing

Bunny Lake Is MissingMaking a family-friendly fantasy film is always a tricky prospect; for every film that scores a direct hit, be it The Wizard of Oz or The Neverending Story, you have dozens of films that never quite found an audience or only became minor cult favorites. Traditional classic status wasn't to be for the atomic-age musical fantasia The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, which was greeted by scathing reviews and an indifferent public when it was released by Columbia Pictures after a massive amount of recutting and reshoots. However, even with the attempts to tone down the film's darker and more satirical aspects, the result is still a surreal delight that made its mark on generations of younger viewers whose psyches were imprinted with images of hundreds of young children forced to play on pianos stretching to infinity. Its fan following has contributed to grow over the years as well, helped in part by the fact that this was the brainchild of Dr. Seuss and was produced by Stanley Kramer, who would be one of the studio's biggest filmmakers for over a decade.

Though he has an essentially happy life at home with his widowed mother, Heloise (Healy), young Bartholomew Collins (Rettig) has one big problem: his arrogant piano teacher, Dr. Terwilliker (Conreid), whose dictatorial teaching methods have Bart resenting in the instrument with all of his heart. The one person who offers some sympathy is the local plumber, August Zabladowski (Hayes), who seems to be a candidate for Heloise's affections, Bunny Lake Is Missingand when Bart slips off into a dream, all three adults play pivotal roles. Terwilliker becomes a maniacal tyrant who's planning to open a Bunny Lake Is Missingsprawling music institute with several hundred children forced to work punishing practices on a long piano, and Bart's mom is both his hypnotized assistant and his betrothed. Only August as the institute plumber offers hope of escape, and he and the young boy have to join forces to come up with a plan to stop the nefarious Dr. T once and for all as he plans a grand 500-child performance of his music masterpiece, "Ten Happy Fingers."

As an inventive spectacle this film certainly delivers, and its weird tone (accentuated by the bumpy cuts and reshoots) makes it the kind of thing that gets its claws in when you stumble across it on television. In narrative terms it has some substantial problems, especially the fact that most of the film clearly takes place inside Bart's head which means that the narrative stakes never feel very high and any sense of internal logic goes flying out the window. That leaves this somewhere between a narrative family feature and a plotless avant garde film, which is likely why the film has not only aged well but in some ways feels more peculiar and fascinating than ever before. It's also interesting to see the Seuss aesthetic translated to live action (decades before the horrifying attempts to drag the Cat in the Hat and the Grinch away from the animated world), with one of the brightest and boldest Bunny Lake Is MissingTechnicolor palettes Bunny Lake Is Missingyou'll ever see in an American film. The timing of its release likely had something to do with the bad reception, as its portrayal of resentment and fascism simmering under the veneer of all-American suburbia and reconstituted families after World War II wasn't exactly something that would sit well with a lot of audiences.

The strange history behind this film provided plenty of material for a potential special edition, but the first Blu-ray from Mill Creek in the U.S. didn't even try. A bit better was the previous Sony DVD included in its 2007 Stanley Kramer set, which had a brief 2-minute Karen Kramer intro, a "Dr. T on Screen" featurette (14m34s) with Cathy Lind Hayes (daughter of married stars Hayes and Healy), featured dancer George Chakiris, Karen Kramer, and longtime champion Michael Feinstein chatting about the film, and "A Little Nightmare Music" (11m44s) focusing on the soundtrack's creation with Feinstein focusing on the techniques of composer Frederick Hollander. Feinstein was also instrumental in a stunning three-CD set released in 2010 by Film Score Monthly that's easily the final word on the film's daring music.

The 2017 dual-format Blu-ray and DVD edition from Indicator is based on the same excellent, eye-popping restored HD Sony transfer used for the Mill Creek, but the far more generous and skillful encoding makes for a pleasing viewing experience with finer film grain; the bump to LPCM English mono (with optional SDH subtitles) versus the previous lossy Dolby Digital track is nice selling point as well. Film historians Glenn Kenny and Nick Pinkerton team up for a very packed new audio commentary that's loaded with interesting trivia about many of the major talents behind the production, with notes along the way about the film's transformation on its way to the final cut, the odd side projects of some of the participants, some artistic similarities to Invaders from Mars, a lot of material about Dr. Seuss and Kramer, and a fair amount about Rettig, who was cast in Lassie while he was making this film and went to a pretty astonishing life Bunny Lake Is Missingbefore his death in 1996. They don't really go much into director Roy Rowland, but you'll find out plenty about him in "Father Figure" (18m32s), a new Fiction Factory interview with son Steve Rowland about his dad's entire career. It's a very warm but Bunny Lake Is Missingcandid chat, including memories of the long, close collaboration between the filmmaker (who also later made Meet Me in Las Vegas, Hit the Deck, and Witness to Murder) and the heartbreak after the film's disastrous preview screening, which led to Kramer promptly hacking out ten songs in the editing room without consulting the director or writer. Feinstein returns for the more substantive, updated "Crazy Music" (16m25s), in which he shows off a letter he received from Dr. Seuss while hunting down the original music, talks about assembling the soundtrack, explains the love he felt for this film after a 1982 screening, and explores the intricacies and Brechtian qualities of Hollander's compositions. (It's nice to see he's a big fan of the impressive "Dressing Song," too.) Ported over from the DVD are the Karen Kramer intro, "Dr. T on Screen," and "A Little Nightmare Music," plus you also get the (really underwhelming) original theatrical trailer and Joe Dante's presentation of the Columbia reissue trailer (under the title Crazy Music) for Trailers from Hell. Since this film had much more extensive still photography than the average studio production, over a hundred great production shots are included in a gallery, while the limited edition (3,000 units) also comes with an insert booklet featuring a new essay by Peter Conheim along with promotional material and press kit excerpts.

Reviewed on June 23, 2017.