If you took all the lousy movies about kids who befriend magical creatures and laid them end to end, that would be weird and useless. That’s not how movies are measured. But there would be a lot of them, is my point. And one of them would be “Munchie,” an almost perversely inept feature aimed at children and made by people who evidently assume that children are morons who will swallow anything. While I grant you that this view is not wholly unjustified, “Munchie” takes it to extremes.
The title character is a mischievous gnome or imp or troll (fantasy races all look the same to me, I’m sorry) who has magic powers and is about the size of a child or an ALF. He is an animatronic puppet, though his movement is limited to his eyebrows waggling up and down, his eyes semi-opening and semi-closing, and the middle sections of his huge, wide lips moving slightly when he talks. Imagine one of the shoddy characters you’d find at an imitation Chuck E. Cheese, then imagine that character having a stroke. That is Munchie.
Munchie communicates only through sarcasm and wise-crackery, suggesting he may have originated in the Catskills. We hear him before we see him, locked in a box sitting on the passenger seat of a pickup truck being driven at great speed by an anonymous man. The police are in pursuit. Munchie’s voice, provided by Dom DeLuise, comes from the box: “Hey, where we goin’, to a fire?? Oh, I can hear a police escort. How sweet! I like that. I love sirens. They really get your attention! Are we there yet?” DeLuise, a consummate professional, delivers every line with the same passion and enthusiasm he would have used had the lines been funny.
Evading the police, the man in the pickup truck arrives at his destination, a place out in the boonies marked by a sign that reads: “DANGER! BOTTOMLESS PIT! PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK!” You’d think an actual bottomless pit would 1) be a big tourist attraction and 2) have a fence around it, but no. The man throws Munchie’s box into the pit and skedaddles. We never learn who he was or why the police were chasing him, but we’ll soon discover that anyone who tries to get rid of Munchie is a hero.
Some years later, Munchie is discovered by young Gage Dobson (Jamie McEnnan), an unpopular tween introvert who daydreams about being elected class president, i.e., the saddest dream. He’s the “new kid in school,” but he has been for two months, so his excuse for not having any friends is drying up fast. He is regularly bullied by boys who are not larger or stronger than him. His dad is gone, and his mother (Loni Anderson) is dating a gold-chain-wearing, tracksuit-clad, thin-mustached smarm factory named Elliott (Andrew Stevens). Gage’s only friend is the eccentric Professor Cruikshank (Arte Johnson), a dotty old Russian scientist who lives across the street, on loan from the Quaint Movie Character Museum.
Gage’s miserable, hopeless life is made worse when he finds Munchie, still locked in his box, in a cave in the woods near Gage’s house. (How did the box get from the bottomless pit to this cave? Shut up, that’s how.) Gage hears a grating, Brooklyn-accented voice pleading with him to open the box, and he only hesitates for a moment before complying. Look, in general you shouldn’t open boxes that don’t belong to you, but in particular you should never open a box if the request to do so has issued from within the box itself. That’s just common sense. Whatever’s inside is probably there for a reason.
Now we see Munchie for the first time. We recoil at his leering grin, his pointy mouse ears, and his full head of human hair: what the hell is this thing? The movie clearly intends for Munchie to be a lovable scamp that children in the audience will adore, but he looks like a mutation you’d see living in the sewers in a movie set in post-apocalyptic New York. He does a little musical number when he first pops out of the box — but the animatronic creature hardly moves, making the super-exuberant vocal work from DeLuise seem extra desperate and flop-sweaty. It feels like: “Maybe if I SHOUT all my LINES like I’m DOIN’ a SKETCH with BURT REYNOLDS on ‘The Dean Martin Show,’ this CRAPPY PUPPET will ACTUALLY COME TO LIFE!”
Munchie appoints himself Gage’s new best friend and sets out to improve the boy’s life by solving all of his problems: the bullies, Mom’s boyfriend, the weird thing he found in a cave that keeps following him and solving his problem, etc. Munchie can help because he has ill-defined magic powers that he couldn’t use to get himself out of his box prison (because shut up, that’s why) but that he can use for things like making a pizza fly out of a restaurant, zoom across town, and glide through Gage’s bedroom window. For some reason the movie thinks we want to see this entire process, by the way, including the Italian stereotype chef angrily chasing the pizza down the street as it flies away from him, furious that an invisible force is stealing his pizza. (The movie seriously spends more than a minute on this sequence. More than a minute, and less than a hundred dollars.)
In describing the plot of this film, I can hardly improve on the summary furnished by Netflix: “Gage befriends an odd creature that wants to help him with his school problems. Yet the Munchie’s good intentions keep landing Gage into more trouble!” Eloquently stated, whoever wrote that (Google Translate?). Munchie does want to help, but only if he can do it through mischief. Non-mischief solutions to Gage’s problems will not be considered.
So Munchie helps Gage win a fight with one of the bullies (by cheating), sneaks into the administration office to change Gage’s grades on the computer (which is also cheating, and which doesn’t require any magic), and sabotages Elliott’s romantic dinner with Gage’s mom. All of his gremlin-like prank-making is done secretly, so that no one but Gage will know he exists, but Munchie is usually so pleased with himself that he can’t resist saying things like “The drinks are on him!” when he magically spills champagne on Elliott. Munchie is that special kind of irritating movie character: the character who’s ostensibly trying to hide but keeps drawing attention to himself in order to be funny to the audience.
Munchie is eventually discovered by the grown-ups, who of course want to let scientists take him BECAUSE HE’S A TERRIFYING GOBLIN WITH SUPERNATURAL POWERS. Gage and Professor Cruikshank take him on the run. (Yes, there’s a scene where Munchie makes their car fly through the air in front of the full moon like in “E.T.” Why wouldn’t there be?) Don’t worry, everything ends happily enough for there to have been a sequel, “Munchie Strikes Back,” in which Munchie was voiced by Howard Hesseman instead of Dom DeLuise. Because even Dom DeLuise had his limits.