Insanity is relative in the final installment of the Pink Panther series, starring “gifted comedian” (Variety) Roberto Benigni along with Panther alumni Herbert Lom, Burt Kwouk and Claudia Cardinale. Fueled by Benigni’s “wacky charm” (Blockbuster Entertainment Guide) and “splendidly fractured English” (Halliwell’s Film and Video Guide), Son of the Pink Panther proves that a family resemblance can sometimes be painfully obvious.
An Arabian princess is kidnapped, and it’s up to Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Lom) to save her. Fortunately, there’s no Clouseau around to plague him this time! But when a klutzy local cop with the unfortunate name of Jacques (Benigni) is assigned to help him, he manages to run Dreyfus over and blow him up – all on his first day on the job. Soon Dreyfus begins to fear that if Clouseau has a long lost son, he would be a lot like this!
eyelights: the inspired opening credits. the returning series cast. Cato’s costume. Henry Mancini’s score.
eyesores: Benigni’s physical comedy skills. the lack of laughs. the third act.
“I knew a man named Jacques. When he died, ten years ago, I thought “Thank God!” I never thought another one like him could exist… and then I met your son.”
After the dismal failure of ‘Trail of the Pink Panther‘ and ‘Curse of the Pink Panther‘, Blake Edwards shelved the notion of keeping the Pink Panther series alive. Instead, he continued with his film-making career, releasing eight picture in the span of ten years, many with a variety of then-hot stars, but all with lacklustre results.
By the early ’90s, he decided to return to the well (and golden goose), writing, producing and directing another Pink Panther film, ‘Son of the Pink Panther’. It would bring back many of the past films’ cast members in their original roles, with the intention of reviving the series with a new lead, Roberto Benigni.
At the time, Benigni was a huge success in Italy, but was relatively unknown in North America. It was likely hoped that, by bringing everyone previously associated to the franchise, it would be possible to draw audiences to the cinema to see him. It didn’t work: ‘Son of the Pink Panther’ was a commercial and critical failure.
I remember when the film was coming out, how it was touted as the re-invigoration of the franchise. Benigni, whose work I had already seen, was described as greatly improvisational and Edwards expressed much enthusiasm for his performance as Jacques Clouseau, jr. (né Jacques Gambrelli). It certainly made me curious.
Sadly, the picture is bogged down by a weak script, a cheap-looking production, and, surprisingly enough, the star’s inability to perform physical comedy.
The problem is quickly apparent with our introduction to the character of Gendarme Gambrelli, who crashes into Police Commissioner Dreyfus’ parked car: although his plunge over the car was well done, he then gets up and proceeds to put his hat on backwards and his gloves wrong, whipping them at people feebly. It fails to impress.
A similar problem surfaces soon thereafter, when he goes to the hospital to follow-up on the crash: Gambrelli rides his bike into fresh cement and stumbles his way out of it. What doesn’t help in these moments is that the camera is static and we are forced to watch long shots of this painful choreography. Editing might have helped.
Soon after, Gambrelli pretends to be a doctor so that he may get close to some kidnappers. The kidnappers, seeking medical attention for their leader, Hans (played by the inimitable Robert Davi), grab him. His routine trying to help Hans is similar to like Sellers’ at the end of ‘The Pink Panther Strikes Again‘: it’s far too cartoony, over-the-top. And unfunny.
Where Benigni does well is in inserting similar manners of speaking (accents, expressions) as Sellers’ Clouseau, all the while giving the character his own flavour. Unfortunately, the mixture that made Clouseau is hard to replace, and Gambrelli is slightly goofier, and not dignified enough to make up for his lapses. Contrast is everything.
He does have some priceless moments, however:
- After disguising himself as a doctor, he walks out of the hospital and calls for an ambulance (“FFFFT! Ambulance!”) as though they were taxis. The way he did it was hilarious! However, his singing “If you’re looking for a doctor, a very good doctor..” on his way out, to catch the attention of the kidnappers, was stomach-churning stuff.
- Similarly, later in the picture he goes to a Lugash restaurant, donning one of Professor Balls’ outrageous costumes (one that made no sense, I should note). It was a mildly amusing affair, with him stepping on everyone’s toes along the way. However, the exaggerated pratfalling was too much and it killed the scene.
And that’s part of the problem with Benigni’s debut in the Pink Panther series: every single funny moment is spoiled by something ineffectual. It’s hard to say which elements belong to Benigni and which belong to Edwards, given that the improvisations have always been a strong element of the Pink Panther series, so I don’t entirely blame Benigni.
After all, the script itself needed help.
The core story is excellent, actually: After the kidnapping of the Princess of Lugash, Dreyfus is sent out to take over the investigation, only to beump into Gendarme Gambrelli. Curious about the bumbling fool, he discovers that he is the secret love child of Jacques Clouseau and Maria Gambrelli (from ‘A Shot in the Dark‘).
But the local Police Chief is unhappy with Dreyfus taking over his investigation and purposely assigns Gambrelli to Dreyfus as revenge. Gambrelli, now chief investigator on the case, is out to find the kidnappers before they can do harm to the Princess, whose father is being extorted out of a fortune and into abdicating his throne.
Hilarity ensues. Or should.
The key problem with the script is that it depends largely on Benigni’s performance. Also, unlike the most successful Pink Panther films, the dialogues aren’t nearly as rich in non sequiturs and one-liners. This means that, having put all its money on a unreliable horse, the filmmakers have essentially ensured this “comedy”‘s failure.
There are some nice touches, however:
- The Princess and the lone female kidnapper are both martial artists; they aren’t wimps (at least in theory – the actresses couldn’t support the parts). Too bad Edwards has never been excellent at shooting action (he did well during the end sequence, though – a first).
- I love the subplot that has political forces conspiring to back Gambrelli without his knowledge – to further their aims, naturally. This at least explains his otherwise unfathomable success. Unfortunately, it also means that the film turns into an action picture at the end.
- I really like that Jacques has a twin sister (played by Benigni’s spouse), even if she only pops up at the end. Had they made more movies in the series, the pair could have been a lot of fun to watch – so long as Jacques jr. continued to get most of the screen time.
And I have some favourite bits:
- The opening credits are the most inspired ones in a long time: a mix of live action and animation, it begins with the Pink Panther taking the baton from Henry Mancini to conduct Bobby McFerrin and his group in their superb rendition of “The Pink Panther Theme”.
Naturally, the cartoon version of Gambrelli pops up and bumbles his way through the sequence, so the Pink Panther tries to stop him (making him the “victim” for once). It’s kind of amusing, and the animation is excellent. It’s the freshest part of the whole picture.
- Henry Mancini’s “The Gambrelli Theme” is brilliant. It not only retains the flavour of “The Inspector Clouseau Theme”, but it adds tremendously to the whimsy of the Gambrelli sequences. Had Benigni’s physical comedy chops been better it would have been a marriage made in heaven.
- Professor Balls sells Cato a hilariously inappropriate disguise: that of a Hasidic Jew with a Hitler moustache. The combo is transgressive to say the least, but the fact that Cato is Asian totally adds to the mix. To me, this is absolutely priceless.
But there are a lot of ill-conceived aspect to the picture:
- Firstly, there’s the introduction of Gambrelli. Dreyfus was there when Gambrelli introduced himself to the Princess, but he later asks the Police Chief who he was – even after the Chief assigned Gambrelli to him. Why doesn’t the name ring a bell?
- It doesn’t make much sense that Dreyfus and Maria Gambrelli fall for each other. There’s no real spark and they barely know each other. Had they flirted or been smitten, fine, but having them get married just like that was far too contrived for me.
- Gambrelli and the Princess fall for each other. I understand why he does: she’s cute. But why in the world would a rebellious westernized young princess be remotely interested in him – let alone totally be enamoured with him?
- Cato (as portrayed by Burt Kwouk) is an awesome character, but his first encounter with Gambrelli isn’t: he attacks him in a park, at their rendez-vous point, but it’s just one lunge. It was all too brief, especially when one considers Cato and Clouseau’s classic encounters.
- Suddenly Gambrelli becomes a political hot potato and he’s being called back by Dreyfus. How so? How did Dreyfus come to that conclusion? There’s a missing piece here that should have been expanded upon. Done in this fashion it seems random.
To top it all off, the whole third act seems rushed, with large bits missing.
For instance, while Gambrelli’s trying to rescue the Princess, there’s a combat between various forces taking place outside. This takes place off-screen even though the whole scene hinges on it. Meanwhile, Gambrelli’s presence in this rescue mission was inconsequential. And unfunny.
I’ve always wondered if the picture was trimmed by the studio in post-production. Edwards’ Pink Panther films have always clocked in at close to two hours in length, but this one runs at a mere 95 minute – a good 20 minutes shorter than usual. It seems very much out of character.
I have found nothing to substantiate this theory, mind you, even though this has nagged at me for two decades, since I first saw the movie. But it would make sense: Edwards always spent a fair bit of time on exposition and this film is short on it. I hope deleted footage will someday be found to prove me right.
Sadly, not only does ‘Son of the Pink Panther’ end on this uneven note, it is hammered home with an unfunny ceremony awarding Gambrelli (now Clouseau) a medal for saving the Princess. This scene is entirely indicative of the picture’s problem, resting as it does on Benigni’s (in)ability at physical comedy.
This was to be Blake Edwards’ final bow: it was his last Pink Panther film and he would only make one more TV movie before retiring for good. It would also be Henry Mancini’s final curtain call, as he passed away the next year. ‘Son of the Pink Panther’ was the end of an era.
If only it had been able to usher in a new one.
Date of viewing: October 26, 2014