The creators of the great purple scourge, Barney the Dinosaur, have an unspoken contract with parents palatable for all involved: We buy their videos and an occasional plush toy for our 3- and 4-year-olds and make Barney's brain trust obscenely wealthy; they in turn create benignly lobotomized entertainment that holds our non-demanding kids in thrall; our kids watch TV and allow us a few precious minutes of peace.
The most important element is parental trust in Barney to be blandly wholesome, so that we have to endure only a few seconds of it while we cue up the VCR for our tykes.
Family movies, on the other hand, imply a rather different contract: Parents buy tickets and popcorn for the whole family; filmmakers deliver light entertainment that kowtows to kids yet is not so brain-dead as to alienate sentient adults. "Barney's Great Adventure: The Movie," the first theatrical film featuring the green-bellied beast, takes that big old fat foot of Barney's and stomps that contract beyond recognition.
For a long stretch, "Barney's Great Adventure" is essentially plotless, as some kids and a token African American pal are left with farmer grandparents.
Two girls, about 7 or 8 (and therefore too old to like Barney in the real world, but I guess the filmmakers couldn't find 4-year-olds capable of competent line readings), love Barney, while the obnoxious, too-cool-for-the-room 10-year-old boy dismisses him--"Imagination? That's kid's stuff!" he snorts derisively, before Barney comes to life and upbraids him.
In a way, "Barney's Great Adventure" serves as a rare sort of revenge fantasy for younger siblings who have been constantly abused by older, "cooler" brothers and sisters; here, the bratty older kid is taught a lesson.
It also--finally!--shows that Barney indeed does have a mean streak, as he secretly, disingenuously delights in humiliating those who disparage him.
Initially, the film is taken up with singing public-domain songs and tuneless original ditties. The second half gets a little more surreal, as Barney and the kids chase a magical egg around town, encountering along the way a parade, a circus, a balloon show, a few drab eccentrics and Barney stalwarts B.J. and Baby Bop.
This section of the movie recalls, in turns, "8 1/2," "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen," "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," if only Mssrs. Fellini, Gilliam, Kubrick and Spielberg had been functional morons.
At film's end, everyone sings that cursed "I Love You" song, and the Star Child--er, that is, the latest addition to the Barney marketing machinery--is revealed: Twinken, a shaggy, gray-haired puppet who doesn't really do anything except, of course, look dully adorable stacked in toy store aisles.
The flat lighting and two-dimensional sets of the TV screen serve Barney far better than a modestly expanded budget and a director insistent on using locations, romantic lighting and mildly adventurous camera angles.
Barney looks both more real and more magical on video; on film, he's clearly a doofus in a felt outfit.
* MPAA rating: G. Times guidelines: This movie is more wholesome than any "Leave It to Beaver" episode.
'Barney's Great Adventure: The Movie'
Trevor Morgan: Cody
Diana Rice: Abby
Kyla Pratt: Marcella
Polygram Filmed Entertainment presents in association with Lyrick Studios A Steve Gomer film. Directed by Steve Gomer. Produced by Sheryl Leach, Dennis DeShazer. Screenplay Stephen White. Executive producer Ben Myron. Director of photography Sandi Sissel. Editor Richard Halsey. Production designer Vincent Jefferds. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.