When comedian Robin Harris died of a heart attack two years ago at age 36, he left behind a CD recording of a live performance in which he played himself, stuck with taking some obstreperous youngsters to an amusement park. Harris' "Bebe's Kids" (citywide), based on that tale, has now become the first animated theatrical feature with exclusively African-American characters as principals.
What an imaginative delight it is, and what a fitting memorial to Harris, struck down on the verge of stardom. It's funny, bouncy, keyed to a zesty, driving score, yet it's also blunt about what it's like to be black in white man's America. Writer Reginald Hudlin has deftly fleshed out Harris' sketch, and director Bruce Smith has given the film a terrific, clean look. Its images are spare and economical, and Smith has drawn inspiration for the film's color scheme--rust, green and blue predominate--from an old book from the Harlem renaissance era. There's charm in the film's stylized vision of South-Central L.A., but it's not allowed to skirt poverty and neglect.
Faizon Lewis supplies the voice of Harris, a funny, sharp dude who has just met the beautiful Jamika (Vanessa Bell Calloway), a single mother who makes it clear that their first date is going to be an outing to Fun World with her small son, Leon (Wayne Collins). Plus three more youngsters--her friend Bebe's kids, three little terrors named LaShawn (Jonell Green), Kahlil (Marques Houston) and deep-voiced Pee Wee (rapper Tone Loc), the toughest toddler there ever was. (A subtle, revealing touch: Each of Bebe's kids has a different skin hue.)
The kids frazzle Robin, but once it's time to drop them off--their mother nowhere in sight--he's able to see them as forlorn waifs living in an apartment so dingy he's moved to remark that the "place looks like MOVE headquarters."
Not surprisingly, an amusement park is the perfect locale for a bunch of irrepressible youngsters to have all sorts of adventures, the most notable being a takeover of a pirate ship, a key feature of one of the park's most popular rides.
That we're always experiencing everything from a black perspective is scarcely ever forgotten. Even before Harris arrives at the park he's hassled by a cop for merely having come to an abrupt stop in his vintage convertible. The grim ticket seller makes it clear that she regards the youngsters as a bunch of thieves. Everywhere loom menacing guards who come on as if they were members of the Gestapo. Amid the fun, "Bebe's Kids" makes it quite clear how constantly African-Americans are viewed with suspicion and mistrust.
In between the mayhem there's a charming fantasy interlude with Robin and Jamika, momentarily free of the kids, on a boat ride in the Tunnel of Love. It imagines the two as a couple in an idyllic sequence in which the figures become line drawings in white against a black background. (Among the touches of color: a shower of red hearts.) "Bebe's Kids" (rated an overly severe PG-13) leaves us with a feeling that we haven't seen the last of them.
Also on the bill: a hilarious animated short, "The Itsy Bitsy Spider."
Faizon Love: Robin Harris
Vanessa Bell: Calloway Jamika
Wayne Collins: Leon
Jonell Green: LaShawn
Marques Houston: Kahlil
Tone Loc: Pee Wee
A Paramount presentation of a Hudlin Bros./Hyperion Studio production. Director Bruce Smith. Producers Willard Carroll, Thomas L. Wilhite. Executive producers Reginald Hudlin and Warrington Hudlin. Screenplay by Reginald Hudlin; based on characters created by Robin Harris. Editor Lynne Southerland. Music John Barnes. Production design Fred Cline. Art director Doug Walker. Running time: 1 hour, 12 minutes.
MPAA-rated PG-13 (some mildly adult situations).