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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

THE EMPEROR OF PERU -- Movie Review by Porfle

I think I remember seeing a VHS copy of surrealist director Fernando Arrabal's THE EMPEROR OF PERU, aka L'odyssée de la Pacific (1982), in a budget bin somewhere once, with a different name and a really crappy-looking cover, and thinking that it was just about the last thing in the world I'd even think of watching. Now I'm glad I've gotten a chance to see it, but I really wish I'd seen it when I was a kid.

This low-budget French-Canadian production starts out looking like one of those obscure foreign children's movies that your local station might've pawned off on you on Saturday afternoon along with PIPPI LONGSTOCKING or SUPERBUG. Certain elements, however, raise this odd effort above the norm as it matter-of-factly explores some rather serious territory while often veering into a pleasingly headscratching surrealism.

Toby and his older sister Liz are a couple of playful, somewhat spoiled kids living with their rich uncle and aunt, who also take on a Cambodian refugee named Hoang for the summer as he awaits placement in foster care. The three children become fast friends and have many biking adventures in the woods, where they meet a crippled old former railroad engineer named Tubo (Mickey Rooney) living in a vine-covered freight car converted into a hermit's shack.

Toby discovers a derelict locomotive engine near an abandoned roundhouse, and with Tubo's help the children restore it to working order. Their plan is to travel to Cambodia and find Hoang's mother, who had to give him up during their flight from oppression, so that he can marry her.

This is complicated when the mayor shows up and announces that the city council has voted to place Tubo into a rest home for his own good. As the police descend on his secluded shack with lights flashing, the children scramble to prepare the locomotive for their escape.

Much of the film's running time is devoted to depicting Toby's wild flights of fantasy in which sees himself as a champion drag racer, a dashing astronaut, a celebrated orchestra conductor, and a courageous fire chief braving the raging flames to rescue his beloved duck, Federico, from a burning building.

The segments are narrated by a breathless play-by-play commentator ("Braver than Popeye! Braver than Joan of Arc!" he exclaims) and also feature a deadpan Hoang as trenchcoated ace reporter Bumphrey Gokart. This is the usual kid-fantasy stuff done in a light and entertaining style and is quite amusing.

Taking the film beyond such fluff, however, are Hoang's startlingly serious flashbacks of life in Cambodia, one of which shows sadistic soldiers invading his village and holding a child upside-down by his feet, threatening to shoot him. We also learn that his father has been taken away to a concentration camp, and witness Hoang's traumatic separation from his mother during their escape from Cambodia. She makes him promise that he won't cry, which explains why Hoang always seems so solemn and stoic--he's still trying to keep his promise.

In a quietly intimate conversation late at night in Hoang's bedroom, he reveals to Liz his intent to find his mother and marry her. Liz asks, "And when you marry your mommy, will you know how to kiss her? Like in the TV ads?" In an accompanying flashback, his mother's comforting face is replaced by that of Liz herself. This is the kind of thought-provoking stuff Uncle Walt probably wouldn't have felt inclined to include in his version of the story.

As in those old Swedish PIPPI LONGSTOCKING movies (which I love), adults are either sympathetic allies who are themselves childlike, or absurdly officious nincompoops. Mickey Rooney's "Tubo" is the former, introducing himself as the Emperor of Peru when they first meet and offering the kids a cigar. When told that cigars give you cancer, he retorts, "That's not true! Doctors with all their hogwash. I'll tell you what gives you cancer--soap and water! Washing all the time! That gives you cancer, only faster." Toby responds brightly, "I'll have a cigar!"

Clearly, this isn't one of those films intent on pounding sundry lessons into young viewers' heads. The kids are shown having outrageous adventures free of adult supervision and doing pretty much whatever they want, existing in their own world which operates by their own rules.

They even discover an old coal mine thanks to some indigent circus performers they encounter and start mining coal for the locomotive's steam engine, which the severely screw-loosed Tubo thinks is simply grand.

Rooney, one of the greatest actors who ever lived, has a ball in his role, clearly ad-libbing much of his dialogue and letting his own vast stores of natural nuttiness fully round out the character. In Tubo's own fevered fantasies, he's either a bewigged emperor with an army of midgets or, fittingly enough, Napoleon, and in one segment reminiscent of the old TV faith-healer shows we get to see him rising joyously from his wheelchair thanks to Toby, the world's greatest doctor. "Marry your mother?" Tubo bellows in response to Hoang's plan. "Why, if more of my subjects had only married their mother, we'd have had less divorces!"

This movie has been released on VHS with such titles as ODYSSEY OF THE PACIFIC and TREASURE TRAIN. One DVD version I found online was called LITTLE CHAMP and was paired with Shirley Temple's THE LITTLE PRINCESS as a two-fer.

The DVD from Cult Epics is in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen with both English and French soundtracks and English subtitles. There are no extras. Edith Butler's musical score contains both the usual jaunty kid-movie music and some nice New-Agey stuff.

THE EMPEROR OF PERU falls a tad short of strict political correctness, and may actually be a little weird, but I think sometimes that's good for kids. It causes them to form their own thoughts instead of simply absorbing someone else's. And the strangely open-ended fadeout--which reminded me, believe it or not, of the end of RUNAWAY TRAIN--will probably leave you wondering what the heck you just watched, no matter how old you are.



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