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  Incredible Mr. Limpet, The If wishes were fishes
Year: 1964
Director: Arthur Lubin
Stars: Don Knotts, Carole Cook, Jack Weston, Andrew Duggan, Larry Keating, Oscar Beregi Jr, Charles Meredith, Elizabeth MacRae, Paul Frees
Genre: Musical, Comedy, War, Animated, FantasyBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 2 votes)
Review: This entertaining musical fantasy is set during the Second World War and opens with a tongue-in-cheek thank you to the U.S. State Department, for allowing the filmmakers access to “their carefully guarded military secret.” September, 1941: mild-mannered naval clerk Henry Limpet (Don Knotts) loves all things aquatic. His efforts to join the navy sadly meet with rejection on account of his poor eyesight. Withdrawing into his obsession with “bright, cheerful, beautiful” fish, poor Limpet is browbeaten by his wife Bessie (Carole Cook) and meekly endures the taunts of his co-workers and friend George Stickle (Jack Weston), who has just enlisted.

While on a trip to the beach at Coney Island, Limpet falls into the ocean and is magically transformed into a cartoon fish - a limpet, of course. Taking to his new life under the sea, Limpet discovers he has a supersonic belch able to scare a shark or an octopus. It also proves handy when, inspired by the attack on Pearl Harbor, Limpet decides to join the war effort, although he has a tough time convincing the sceptical Navy.

The Incredible Mr. Limpet boasts surely one of the strangest premises of any major studio picture. Whoever thought evolutionary theories, Pearl Harbor, animated adventures under the ocean, a love triangle involving a talking fish, and Limpet’s curious speculation that if mankind were wiped out in a war, fish would do a better job of running the world - would be ingredients for a fun-loving musical comedy? The whole thing is pretty bizarre, but rife with comic potential sadly squandered by the lacklustre pace and meandering subplots.

It’s actually based on a novel “Be Careful How You Wish” written by Theodore Pratt . His work had been adapted for the big screen before, in such films as Mr. Winkle Goes to War (1944) and The Barefoot Mailman (1951), although a number of his other novels featured strong sexual content, including “The Tormented”, a study of nymphomania that was rejected by thirty-four publishers before going on to sell more than a million copies. Try making a Don Knotts vehicle out of that one.

The lovable Knotts, still in the midst of his three-time Emmy award-winning stint on The Andy Griffith Show, sells us on the wistful Limpet’s strange desire, but plays a far meeker character than was his norm. He’s less manic than in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966) or The Shakiest Gun in the West (1967), vehicles that endeared him to generations of kids, and mostly provides the voice for his fishy counterpart. Additional vocals come from the great Paul Frees, as a crotchety crab, and Elizabeth MacRae who voices Ladyfish, an undersea paramour for Limpet.

This develops into a whole subplot with Limpet reluctant to get frisky with fish for fear he’ll betray his marriage. Coupled with cutaways to George and Bessie’s burgeoning relationship on land, this takes surprisingly long getting to what is supposedly the main thread: Limpet helping the U.S. navy fight Nazi u-boats. Director Arthur Lubin was no stranger to this mix of wartime action and comedic fantasy, having created the popular Francis the Talking Mule movies (1950-55), which he later reworked into the television series Mister Ed (“A horse is a horse, of course, of course!”). An underrated talent, Lubin directed two of the best Abbott and Costello comedies, including Buck Privates (1941) and Hold That Ghost (1941), and was a dab hand at family fare with films with Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944), Escapade in Japan (1957) and the second version of The Thief of Bagdad (1961) to his credit.

Unusually for a film made with the full cooperation of the United States Navy, The Incredible Mr. Limpet is pretty cynical about the top-brass. A host of naval personnel seem happy to reap the benefits of Limpet’s hard work and bravery, and the promotions that go with it, but refuse him a rank and salary and don’t even want to meet him, until ordered to do so. Like the Francis movies, Lubin seems to be aiming this at the average, workaday soldier or sailor given little thanks for doing a dirty job.

Although colourful, engagingly designed (the Limpet fish bears a real resemblance to Knotts), and brilliantly integrated with the live action (especially during the climactic submarine chase), the cartoon sequences are strangely stilted and strain for whimsy. These were directed by Robert McKimson. A Warner Bros. stalwart, McKimson was an outstanding animator but a mediocre director, helming many of the weaker Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck shorts during the early 1960s. His best cartoon is the ingenious and witty The Hole Idea (1955) about a man who invents portable holes and it was also his own personal favourite. Also working on the film was Vladimir Tytla, one of Disney’s former superstars best known for his “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in Fantasia (1940).

The film gains momentum once the Nazis develop an array of Limpet-hunting weapons and just when our hero is called to lead the allied invasion of Europe, he loses his glasses. Lubin pulls off an offbeat and wistfully affecting moment when Limpet briefly resurfaces to gently end things with Bessie (“Maybe I was meant to be a fish all along. Maybe nature just corrected her mistake”), but stretches another subplot - about George and the navy searching for Limpet in the present day - into an inconclusive coda. Music by Frank Perkins with songs by Sammy Fain and Harold Adamson, including “I Wish I Were A Fish”, “Be Careful How You Wish” and “Deep Rapture.”

Incidentally, in their adult form Limpets are nearly immobile molluscs that cling to rocky shorelines, which makes them unlikely war heroes. For real results stick with dolphins. Or maybe Lassie, or Rin Tin-Tin.

Click here for the trailer
Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam

 

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