Last of the Monster Kids

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Friday, June 21, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Johnston (1999) Part 2

6. The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones: Spring Break Adventure

Following the release of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” the Indiana Jones franchise went on a lengthy break. In order to keep interest in the character and his adventures going in-between films, George Lucas had an idea for a television series. Lucas decided to spin the show out of the opening sequence of “Last Crusade,” which focused on a teenage Indy's first adventure.  “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” would find its television home on ABC, starting in 1992. Lucas envisioned the show not just as entertainment but as education, so action-oriented episodes focused on teenage Indiana were followed by more informative episodes centered on a ten year old Indy. In both time periods, the future archaeologist would encounter many well-known figures and participate in historical events. Perhaps because of that educational focus, the series didn't attract the expected viewership. Combined with abnormally high production values, this would result in “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” being canceled after two short seasons.

This, however, was not the end of the series. Four television films would air on the Family Channel in-between 1994 and 1996. In 1999, the series would be released on home video. Because George Lucas just has to do everything his own odd way, the series would not receive a standard, episode-to-episode VHS release. Instead, the show would be edited into a set of twenty-two feature films. Each movie would be made up of material from two separate episodes. The framing sequences featuring a 93-year old Indiana in the modern day (Along with his now non-canon daughter and grandchildren) would be excised from these releases. A small amount of new footage would be shot to link the different segments. This format would be maintained with the eventual DVD release, which also added extensive historical documentaries to further nail home the show's status as edu-tainment.

Considering Joe Johnston got his start working on the special effects for “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” it's not surprising that he would also work on “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.” In-between making “The Rocketeer” and “The Pagemaster,” he would direct the sixth episode of the second season, “Princeton, February 1916.” This episode would comprise the first half of the sixth “Adventures of Young Indiana Jones” movie, “Spring Break Adventure.” So when that compilation film hit VHS in 1999, it would technically become Johnston's sixth feature film.

As the title indicates, the first segment takes place in 1916 in Princeton, New Jersey, when Henry "Indiana" Jones Jr. was sixteen years old. He is less preoccupied with adventuring and more interested in his girlfriend Nancy, daughter of novelist Edward Stratemeyer. Indy hopes to take Nancy to prom in her dad's car, a fancy Bugatti. This plan is cut short when the car's generator dies and, with Europe locked in World War I, it's impossible to get parts. That's when Indy decides to seek help from Thomas Edison's laboratory. This too goes awry where there's a break-in and an experimental electric motor is stolen. German spies are suspected to have snatched the motor. As Indy and Nancy investigated, they discover the perpetrator is far closer to home.

The second half of the film, “Mexico, March 1916,” has Indiana and his dad heading to Albuquerque, New Mexico, a state that was only a few years old at the time. Henry Jones Jr. and his cousin Frank take a weekend trip across the border in hopes of visiting a bordello. Instead, Indiana gets abducted by Pancho Villa's army when they raid the town. After befriending a Belgian member of the revolution, Indy's life is sparred. He even joins up with Villa's cause but quickly becomes disillusioned with it. Along the way, he meets an old enemy that he last encountered as just a boy in Egypt six years earlier.

As a longtime Indiana Jones fan, “Spring Break Adventure” is most interesting for the insight it gives us into Indy's mind before he became the two-fisted hero we all know. Amusingly enough, he wasn't too dissimilar to most teenagers. He was largely interested in girls, fast cars, and adrenaline. While sneaking around in a barn with Nancy, he attempts to get closer to her. Later, he heads into Mexico for the express purpose of getting laid. When we are used to seeing the character fight Nazis and chase after magical artifacts, there is a certain degree of novelty in seeing an Indiana Jones most concerned with driving his girlfriend to prom in a fancy car. Of course, Indy's adventure in Mexico molds him into more of the hero we know, as he learns the cost of war. He even picks up a whip, a fedora, and says something belongs in a museum, which puts far too fine a point on his transformation.

However, as has often been reported over the years,“Young Indiana Jones'” determination to be both educational and entertaining is frequently at odds with each other. The show goes to great lengths to insert historical figures into its narrative. During “Princeton, February 1916,” young Mr. Jones just happens to be dating the daughter of Edward Stratemeyer, whose “Tom Swift” novels inspire part of the plot. (In case you missed the reference, Edward's daughter is also named Nancy and she sleuths around.) Thomas Edison, his tendency to steal credit, the invention of an electric car, and the rivalry with the oil industry are also integrated into the story. Pancho Villa directly motivates the second episode, which also shoehorns in a cameo from a young General Patton. Indiana Jones sure did bump into a lot of historical figures. And it's a bit distracting.

So how does “Princeton, February 1916” stack up as a Joe Johnston movie? The period setting and all the trappings certainly fit in with his boys' adventure style, which also lines up with the “Tom Swift” references. Despite mostly dealing with Indy's relationship with his girlfriend, the episode does feature some unexpectedly fun action beats. Such as Indiana sneaking into an oil factory and being chased while riding a bicycle, which concludes with a surprisingly graceful dive into a lake. The episode wraps up with fist fights, accusation of espionage, and an old-timey car chase. These are fun, decently assembled sequences. The break-in scene also features some of the effectively shadowy imagery we'd see Johnston also use in “The Pagemaster” and “Jumanji.”

The first half of  “Spring Break Adventure” stands alone just fine as its own story. The “Mexico, March 1916” half, directed by Michael Schultz, is less isolated. In fact, this part of the film was originally the second half of “Young Indiana Jones and the Curse of the Jackal,” the two hour pilot of the entire show. So it includes explicit references and connections to some other story that is otherwise not featured in this film. Apparently, the bad guy Indy runs into in Mexico killed a friend of his back in Egypt six years ago, while also stealing an ancient jackal-headed crown. Even more unusual, this VHS installment was apparently released before that part of the series, which would've made this even more difficult to follow. I don't know who made this decision but it sure feels like the kind of weird shit George Lucas would insist on.

However, “Mexico, March 1916” does make up for its narrative hiccups by being the more action-packed of the two episodes. While riding with Pancho Villa, Jones gets involved in a full-on military conflict. There's lots of shooting, machine gun fire, a daring train heist. It ends with a train crashing into a military encampment and exploding in a massive fireball. The climatic fight with the murderer has an entire building going up in flames. These are big stunts for a TV show from 1992! No wonder the series was too expensive for ABC. It's definitely entertaining to watch though. Schultz proves to be a decent action director, even if Indy himself seems to play a fairly small part in many of these sequences.

“The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” would be an early starring role for Sean Patrick Flannery. Flannery has a very loose resemblance to Harrison Ford, explaining why he was probably chosen for the part. Flannery makes for a decent lead. He has a likable, laid-back presence that makes him easy to watch while going on these adventures. Is he believable as a young version of the same character Ford made famous? Not exactly, as this hormonal and inexperienced person seems very different from the Indy we know.  But he probably did a lot of growing up before fighting the Nazis.

Flannery does resemble Indy as we know him more than Lloyd Owen resembles Sean Connery's Dr. Henry Jones Sr. Though Owen definitely nails the uptight part of his personality. The supporting cast includes a few other notable performers. Robyn Lively is cute and displays her own adventurous side as Nancy. Ronny Coutteure is colorful as Remy, the Belgian soldier Indy encounters while in Mexico. Mike Moroff plays Pancho Villa, putting a lot of spirit into Villa's various rousing speeches. I also couldn't help but notice a young Clark Gregg, better known as Agent Coulson, as an engineer working for Thomas Edison.

”Spring Break Adventure” ends with Indiana Jones getting ready to leave for Europe, where he'll become involved in World War I. It sure seems like Mr. Jones' 16th year was non-stop adventure. Watching as a “Indiana Jones” fan, “Spring Break Adventure” is mildly entertaining. Supposedly, it's one of the better installments in the series and is certainly less slow paced than some of the other episodes I've seen. The decision to cut up the series' episodes and edited them together is undoubtedly a distracting one. The film is of limited interest to Joe Johnston's fans, though you can see his trademarks in his episode. [Grade: B-]

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