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Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Shape Shifters (originally published 12/98)

It is in the nature of an actor's business that he or she must be prepared to portray a wide variety of characters. The actor who plays a sinner today may be asked to play a saint tomorrow. One role may call for them to be elegant and glamorous while the next demands a shaggy and unkempt appearance. Michael Keaton has proven himself adept at accommodating the protean demands of his craft, even to the point of morphing himself into Batman, comic book physique and all. Even so, the prospect of becoming a snowman, as he does in the current release "Jack Frost," must have been a bit daunting. Fortunately, he had the help of some high powered special effects technology in creating the visual illusion, leaving him with only the problem of how to talk like a snowman.

As far-out and unique as the premise of "Jack Frost" might seem, it actually falls within a well established fantasy tradition. The transmutation of a living being into some other form is generically referred to as "shape-shifting." You can find it everywhere in fairy tale lore, from "Beauty and the Beast" to "The Frog Prince." Naturally, moviemakers discovered the premise long ago and have drawn upon it frequently through the years. If stories about shape-shifting pique your imagination, look for these titles on home video.

"The Wolf Man" (1941). One of the most familiar shape-shifters in fantasy literature is the werewolf. Dozens of movies have been made about werewolves, but my favorite remains this staple of the Universal Pictures horror film cycle. Lon Chaney Jr. stars as Lawrence Talbot, a tragic figure who becomes a werewolf after being bitten by one. Although disgusted by the murders he commits in his wolf incarnation, Talbot is powerless to prevent himself from transforming when the moon is full.

"The Cat People" (1942). This was the first of a series of superior horror pictures made for RKO Studios by producer Val Lewton. What begins as a simple love story between an American (Kent Smith) and his foreign bride, Irena (Simone Simon) quickly develops into a macabre tale of shape-shifting and ancient curses. Although she loves her husband, Irena is afraid of physical intimacy. Her fear is that such intimacy will trigger a curse placed on her people, transforming her into a rapacious panther.

"The Shaggy Dog" (1959). Not all shape-shifting movies belong to the horror genre, of course. This Disney classic milks plenty of laughs from the premise of a teenager being transformed into a large dog when he becomes the accidental victim of an ancient magic spell. Tommy Kirk stars as the luckless teen, Wilby Daniels, along with Fred MacMurray as Wilby's father. The plot involves Wilby, in his dog form, discovering a spy ring and trying to inform the authorities, but much of the comedy derives from his efforts to convince his father, who is allergic to dogs, that he really is Wilby.

"The Incredible Mr. Limpet" (1964). During the mid to late Sixties, Don Knotts starred in a number of comic films on the strength of his success as Deputy Barney Fife on "The Andy Griffith Show." In this one, he plays a mousey little bookkeeper whose devotion to his pet fish leads him to wish that he could be a fish himself. When his wish is granted, we switch to animation to follow his undersea adventures.

"Oh, Heavenly Dog" (1980). Back in 1951, a movie called "You Never Can Tell" was released, in which a murdered dog is reincarnated in the form of a human to track down the person who killed him. Unfortunately, this clever film is not available on video. You can, however, see "Oh, Heavenly Dog," which took that premise and reversed it. Chevy Chase plays a murdered detective who comes back as a dog, and must attempt to solve his own murder as a canine.

It may also be worth mentioning that the shape-shifting premise was also the basis for one of the most maligned television programs ever broadcast. It was an ill-fated sitcom starring Jerry Van Dyke called "My Mother, the Car," in which the main character's deceased mother is reincarnated (if you'll pardon the pun) as his automobile, nagging and kvetching at him through the radio speaker just as she had done in life. This one hasn't made it to video, but perhaps that's for the best.

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