Sometimes in life, you encounter something at once deeply improbable and unsettlingly real, something that raises profound questions about the nature of the world. The alien deep-sea life of the Mariana Trench. That one parasite that turns snails into caterpillar disco zombies. A splatter film using the fully licensed likenesses of Hanna-Barbera’s Banana Splits.
The project has been getting a lot of attention online, primarily because it appears on the surface to be a reskin of Five Nights at Freddy’s. But the truth is a bit more complex than that. I mean, yes, it is absolutely a reskin of Five Nights at Freddy’s. But there is so much more going on in addition, from multiple story arcs to attempts at character drama to at least half a dozen Chekhov’s Guns. By the end, to be fair, I really did feel as though a character from a Sid & Marty Krofft show had beaten me violently over the head with a two-by-four.
Then and Now
The original Banana Splits series premiered in 1968, a blend of Laugh-In and The Monkees with mascot characters and sets designed by the aforementioned Sid & Marty Krofft. The brothers broke into television thanks to the Hanna-Barbera gig, going on to work on projects like H.R. Pufnstuf, Land of the Lost, and Furby. Which explains a lot.
The Splits team consisted of four animals: Fleegle the Beagle, Drooper the Lion, Bingo the Ape, and Snorky the Elephant (who spoke only in honks). Their show ran in some form until 1982, and was revived briefly in 2008. After that, it was laid to rest.
What this film presupposes is, what if it hadn’t been?
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The Horror of the Splits
Meet Harley. He’s a kid who loves the Banana Splits and has no friends because he’s a weirdo. His mom Beth wants his birthday to be the happiest day ever, so she gets him five tickets to see the Banana Splits live. Accompanied by his mom, jerk stepdad, burnt-out teenage brother, and a classmate forced to go so he’ll have a “friend” with him, he heads to the studio. From here, Harley’s birthday fades into just one of maybe half a dozen storylines
The main (?) plot thread focuses on the Splits being cancelled, as the network’s Chad VP of programming declares he’s leaving children’s TV for something darker and edgier. Onstage things aren’t much better, as human co-star Stevie has decided tonight’s the night to go on a crazy alcoholic bender. In the audience, a desperate stage dad looks for a way to throw his young daughter into the limelight, and a pair of Instagram influencers look for a way to give all 200 of their followers a look backstage for those sweet likes.
Oh, and also the Splits are animatronics programmed by some Dr. Moreau guy and given the prime directive “The Show Must Go On.” When said programmer hears the show is over and his beautiful children are no longer needed, on goes the literal kill switch that will bring suffering to everyone who betrayed his creations.
What Went Wrong?
It’s kind of hard to know where to start when tackling this movie. On the one hand, it seems wrong to dress it down, as it bills itself as a “horror comedy” and thus sounds like it isn’t trying to be taken seriously. On the other, there’s a difference between a self-aware Bad Movie and a genuinely messy screenplay.
What sticks out most about is how visible the seams of the script are. Awkwardly-presented scenes abound, either because they’re simply plot hole fillers or as obvious setups for callbacks in the third act. A friend and I spent the first half of the movie casually noting which lines and actions would be mirrored as deaths, and the Venn Diagram of guesses and deaths was a perfect circle.
The overabundance of story arcs was obviously initially an attempt to set up some killable characters: jerky network exec, arrogant actor, unpleasant stage dad, millennials and their gosh-darned social media… and it managed that, to be fair. Of all the people killed off, only one hadn’t been depicted as too cruel or annoying to live. The problem became that the film tried to value all of these stories equally, when focusing on Beth’s garbage can of a husband while treating the rest as undeveloped idiots we want to see killed by robots would have been more efficient.
Speaking of gruesome deaths, let’s get back to the Snorky the Elephant in the room: the Five Nights at Freddy’s comparisons. From the existence of murderous, free-roaming animatronics in the first place to a security guard delivering the legend of them walking around at night; from the robot endoskeletons bearing a strong resemblance to Cawthon’s designs (plus some Terminator for good measure) to camera angles depicting scenes right out of game stills. And, of course, the linchpin of a lonely little boy’s birthday turning into a horror show. It is what it is.
What it almost certainly isn’t, though, is the actual discarded FNaF script. It was recently reported that the FNaF film’s delay was due to dissatisfaction with the screenplay, leading to rumors that the Banana Splits film was in fact a retooled version of that screenplay. Despite the obvious similarities, the two scripts have no writers in common. Plus, this seems to be more a mix of elements from the first tetralogy of games than any sort of purposeful adaptation. No, this is just good old-fashioned coattail-riding.
All those elements together — an overly busy story, awkward writing, the genuine need to be something it’s not, and the fact that at one point a school-aged girl sings “My Humps” — lead to a movie that’s almost not worth watching. Almost, because believe it or not, it does have some saving graces.
So what’s good about The Banana Splits Movie? For one thing, Eric freaking Bauza.
Bauza is currently the voice actor carrying on the legacy of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and lots of other classic cartoon characters. He voices all three of the talking Splits in this movie and knocks it out of the park. Even in the midst of some genuinely god-awful scenes, I couldn’t help but be amazed at how well he nailed each voice and differentiated them all, to the point that I wasn’t even aware it was just one guy at the wheel. He was wasted on this flick.
Dani Kind of Wynnona Earp is another wasted talent… I would say, except in spite of all the messes this script makes, it still gives her some serious gold. She plays Harley’s mom Beth, who goes from put-upon housewife to badass Action Mom over the course of the film. Beth is stunning. I would die for this woman. She deserves the world, and she got The Banana Splits Movie.
There are also some moments where they really do nail the absolute dissonance that makes or breaks “ruined childhood” projects. Because that’s the entire point: throwing that dissonance into even sharper relief than it already was. More often than not, the movie feels more like an extreme haunt that happens to have mascot costumes, rather than actually juxtaposing the terror with the Splits’ personalities. Once in a while they get it right, though, like the scene where Drooper rocks out after setting a man’s head on fire.Really, that’s probably the worst part of all: the fact that The Banana Splits Movie has a handful of these moments that are utterly perfect in their gruesome weirdness. Fleegle’s cartoonish “Ta-da!” as a man’s guts spill onto the floor. That perfectly-timed crash as a Banana Buggy runs over a character marveling that he’s somehow still alive. They were there, reminding us that they could be done; and sometimes falling short of greatness is worse than never approaching it in the first place.
Unfortunately, even going in willing to accept that it was simply cashing in on a popular franchise didn’t really cushion the blow of this movie just being a mess. A mess with a handful of really clever moments, sure, but these moments could and likely have already been compiled into a much shorter YouTube video. This was never going to be a cinematic masterwork for the ages, but it had the potential to at least be an entertaining stopgap.
As it stands, the most we can really take from The Banana Splits Movie are a few quality reaction gifs, a new theme cover by Patrick Stump, and the glory that is Action Mom. And maybe, just maybe, Scott Cawthon and Blumhouse will see that this is how desperate we’ve become for onscreen animatronic carnage and get a move on.