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Case Number 05526: Small Claims Court

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Cocoon: The Return

Fox // 1988 // 116 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Neil Dorsett (Retired) // November 5th, 2004

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All Rise...

Judge Neil Dorsett calls this the best movie to watch when you're done at the early bird buffet dinner.

The Charge

The gang from Cocoon returns to Earth for a visit and a brief, bland adventure.

The Case

How to approach Cocoon: The Return? It is a movie that is purely by the numbers, a movie that is sickly with nutrasweet so as not to make the heart pound too strongly from sugar. It is a movie that has little in the way of voice, a movie that is inferior to its predecessor in every way (hardly a unique quality among sequels, of course). It has Steve Guttenberg and Courtney Cox in it. It provided late career income for its respectable aged stars. It is somewhat fascinated with itself and assumes a probably unwarranted level of affection for the characters. And it reverses the attitude of its predecessor almost entirely. Sounds like it might be kinda bad, eh? Well, to my mind, yeah. It's bad. But even as I say it's bad, I think of the memorabilia and magazines from my grandmother's bedroom and know that this movie does, or at least did, have an audience.

Sadly, it's something of a captive audience when we're talking about feature film scale, with so little entertainment material that is new but directed at seniors. So there is an element of contempt and blandness (above and beyond the call of duty) that creeps into material directed toward seniors, just as there is in the more voluminous field of children's fare. And that is where Cocoon: The Return operates: it's a children's movie for old people. Like a children's story it's presumptuous about the interests of the audience based purely on age, assuming a love for Benny Goodman the way one assumes a six-year-old wants a ball glove; which was also true somewhat of Cocoon, but the progenitor was both fresh and well-crafted where this movie is grist from a mill. The movie actually offers a brief summation of this premise during its closing credits, which present highlights sequentially from both Cocoon and the sequel. The difference is evident even from the clips, with the variably composed and lit scenes from Cocoon making The Return look like a television episode. The choice of director is clearly the key here; where Ron Howard at the time was an up-and-comer, this time a director with a lot of television and older cinema experience, Daniel Petrie, has been employed—and he's taking no chances.

Anyhow, it's been a handful of years since three elderly couples had their first close encounter with a certain group of Antarean field scientists who were on earth to recover some dormant members of their species from a watery suspended state. The couples, who experienced renewed vitality after swimming in a pool that neighbored their retirement community, were actually sapping the strength from the aliens imprisoned in the cocoons that had been placed in the pool. Some small level of adventure ensued and the cocoons were transported to an Antarean spacecraft with the three couples in tow, having been offered a permanent stay of execution by the Antarean health system. And Steve Guttenberg drove a boat and attempted to provide comedy relief. Welp, some things haven't changed at least.

So here we are with Bernie Lefkowitz (Jack Gilford, Cheaper to Keep Her), the man who stayed behind to mourn his dead wife when the three couples left the planet. He's still in mourning, but keeps tabs on the families of his old friends. In particular there's a problem with David, the grandson of Ben Luckett (Wilford Brimley, The Thing, Quaker Oats). David (Barrett Oliver, D.A.R.Y.L.), despite being at least fourteen, is having a confidence problem due to his poor performance in little league. But before we even really notice much about that, Bernie opens his door to find Art Selwyn (Don Ameche, Moon Over Miami and a bajillion other things) in the first of many "Hey, great ta see ya!" moments the film will offer. They take a minute to say, "Hey, great ta see ya!" to each of the returning expatriates, the ladies Maureen Stapleton (Interiors), Jessica Tandy (Driving Miss Daisy), and Gwen Verdon (Damn Yankees), along with Hume Cronyn (The Parallax View) as Joe Finley. The couples take some rooms and prepare to enjoy a vacation into their own old home, but they're only here because they hitched a ride on another cocoon problem: once more the cocoons (one, anyway) have been discovered and the life of an Antarean is endangered as a result. Cue plot #2.

Sara (Courteney Cox, from that Springsteen video) is an oceanographic scientist far too young to have completed her degree who works at an oceanographic organization, which has made an interesting discovery of a strange hollow rock at the bottom of the sea. I know, you're thinking, they found a rock at the bottom of the sea, big whoop. Well, they can tell it's a special rock. So they drag back the rock and crack it open and find this skinny glowing dude who looks at all times like he's nodding off on heroin. But he doesn't seem to feel so good after a while, even though he develops a bond with his attractive young…err, friend (quickly embroiled in the standard underdog vs. bosses plotline). But why doesn't he feel good? And what can the oceanographers do to help him? Actually, that question is barely considered by the scientists (naughty, naughty science!), but thankfully there's some skilled specialists come to town. The septuagenarian couples didn't exactly fly themselves back to Earth, after all. An elite Antarean rescue team is on the scene, headed by "Kitty," (Tahnee Welch) who'd gotten some Earthside experience in the previous movie. And she knows who'll do anything for her—that's right, it's the Gute! Well, Jack Bonner (Steve Guttenberg, Police Academy)—hey, great ta see ya!—has done some good things for his tan, but the rest of his life doesn't seem to be going so well as he's still hawking crappy souvenirs and giving glass bottom boat rides. On the other hand, he doesn't seem to have any ambition beyond that, so maybe his life is going well. Finally, after time catches up with one of their number, the remainder of the couples must all make the decision whether to return to Antares or stay and accept their mortality—something which most of them, despite having long completed their obligations to the world (they'd expected to be dead by now, after all), feel is necessary.

So what we have here is a framing device for a series of encounters for the senior characters, culminating in a third-act collision between plotlines. The first hour of The Return is largely given over to reprisal of the "old folks getting frisky" from Cocoon; this time, we see the girls on a shopping spree and the boys defeating young whippersnappers at basketball (to the tune of "Sweet Georgia Brown," just in case you were worried it might be subtle). This time instead of a stuntman pretending to be Don Ameche as he breakdances, we get the real Ameche horribly bluescreened into the basketball court so that he can make a leaping, Antarean-assisted slam dunk. Not to be a spoilsport, but I think it takes some of the starch out of the whole "beating youngsters at their own game" bit when you start pulling out the super-powers. It's one thing to pull out a spontaneous knowledge of breakdancing because you're good in the ballroom—"Master the sword and you master all other arts" and all that jazz—but this is actual floating, you dig. If I was the ref, I'd have called him for traveling. But never mind that. Before one can get one's gorge back down from that little moment, it's off to the playground for story time with Jessica Tandy, who delightedly and in grandmotherly style recounts her own story to an enraptured bunch of kids who were having a perfectly fun time playing before she showed up. This is the part where I know I'm a curmudgeon and must admit it—I have found the matronly "story time" voice to be horribly condescending since my own actual childhood. Even for that realm though, it seems like Tandy's overplaying it, working it for every last little reaction…well, it made me sick. But then the movie hit her with a car! So that kind of made up for it. Meanwhile! Brimley helps out his grandson with his ball game in a scene that clearly made both actors miserable ("Put a little pepper on it," Brimley growls, "Little pepper." The "you little bastard" is implied.) and Verdon catches one in the oven from Ameche, surprising all. Meanwhile (again), Bernie, obsessed with his grief, is introduced to the vigorous Ruby Feinberg (Elaine Stritch doing a Martha Raye bit), a younger (sixtyish) motel owner who refuses to accept his self-pity when the two are thrust at one another.

Boy, writing it down this way makes it seem like there's a lot going on in this movie. And I guess there is. For people who merely wish to revisit the characters of Cocoon, this may be perfectly satisfactory, because that's exactly what it delivers. On the other hand, it sure doesn't deliver much else. All the individual plotlines are formulaic and riddled with cheesy and/or uncomfortable moments, and they never really come together into a whole. When the adventure finally kicks in toward the end, it's unexciting and filled with silly cutting (Ameche is apparently quite the quick-change artist!). The senior players are a mixed bag this time: Cronyn, Stapleton, Gilford, and Verdon are exactly the same as before, but Tandy is full of herself, Brimley is clearly uncomfortable, and Ameche…well, Don's just not too damn good this time, apart from one scene where he and Verdon consider the situation of their new offspring—will the baby be raised entirely in an alien world? Most of Ameche's scenes, though, are composed of jaw-jutting and a large voice. Maybe he's actually just more into it than everyone else and doing better, but either way he sticks out as over the top. Courteney Cox displays the exact same non-acting that she's done since day one and will still do if hired. Her lack of growth as a performer over the years is really quite something. Barrett Oliver seems mopey and miserable for real rather than like he's doing a character; he wasn't often seen again on screen after this, so maybe that's an indication that he was fed up with the child-actor's life. Doesn't help this movie, though. Tahnee Welch is gorgeous, but basically walking through the movie like a spokesmodel, although there's a funny moment at her expense when Kitty "drops the suit." And the Gute. What can you say about the Gute? Did we really think he was funny back then? Well no, not really, but the guy seemed to get a lot of work. Guttenberg and Welch team up for the movie's single most embarrassingly contrived and stupid scene, where Kitty gets drunk and sends her optical effect flying all around a restaurant, massaging the souls of unsuspecting diners. Brian Dennehy drops by to say "Hey, great ta see ya!" at the very end in a perfunctory guest appearance, and seems not to give one single damn about the proceedings. A lot of the movie's drama revolves around Gilford and Stritch, which is all well and good as they do seem to develop a rhythm together, a bit, but this plotline is filler so they have little to do but run through the old "connect with the alienated guy" bit.

When I looked up Cocoon: The Return on IMDb to get some details for this review, I was shocked to discover it had been exhibited in 70mm. Why? Was it just a shuck and jive to make people think there would be something to look at? Or just to follow up on the first film, which had a moment here and there to genuinely warrant the larger format? This movie is as visually stimulating as an episode of The Rockford Files, minus the cool opening credits. The 70mm release does lend authenticity, however, to the disc's 5.1 Dolby Digital track, as it potentially (I have no way to verify this, so "potentially" it is) would be based upon the existing six-channel 70mm audio track rather than being cobbled from the stereo 35mm prints. Fox presents the image both anamorphically enhanced and in a 4:3 panned and scanned version. The picture is quite well-represented, with lots of vibrant old Hawaiian shirt color and beach scenes, and edge enhancement is mild. Two trailers are included for Return and one for Cocoon (sadly, it's not the ultra-cool "dripping cocoon" teaser), with decent transfers on all three. Oh, and Courteney Cox and Guttenberg are the ones who make the spine on this disc. Ridiculous!

Cocoon: The Return is found guilty of blandness and rote. While it might make a suitable gift for Grandma (and doubtless the shared evening at the movies with the grandparents is its real raison d'etre), I'd be careful…she might wind up thinking you don't like her. Stick with the original.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 72

Perp Profile

Studio: Fox
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
• English
• Spanish
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
• Comedy

Distinguishing Marks

• Trailers: Cocoon movies


• IMDb

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