Not to judge a book by its cover, but when you write a column about bad movies and you stumble across something called “Slappy and the Stinkers,” you tend to feel like half the work has been done for you. “Slappy and the Stinkers” sounds like its own review. “Is this movie any good? Well, I’ll tell you this: it’s called ‘Slappy and the Stinkers.’ The end.”
Learning that it stars Bronson Pinchot, a bunch of annoying kids, and a farting sea lion is almost redundant. Of course a movie called “Slappy and the Stinkers” stars Bronson Pinchot, a bunch of annoying kids, and a farting sea lion. What else could it be?
“Slappy and the Stinkers” is the kind of generic-brand, pseudo-Disney children’s comedy that you’ll see playing on the VCR in a pediatrician’s waiting room, and which will one day be logged into evidence after a receptionist loses her mind from watching it all day and murders someone. It was conjured into existence, perhaps using dark magicks, after the success of “Free Willy” made marine animals all the rage in Hollywood. “SATS” doesn’t even bother to hide its inspiration. When the kids decide to help a sea lion escape from an aquarium, one of them says, “Like ‘Free Willy’! It’s Free Slappy!” I’m surprised that wasn’t the movie’s advertising tagline. “It’s like ‘Free Willy,’ but with a seal!”
(Interesting trivia fact: Do you know the difference between a sea lion and a seal? You do? Well, good for you, smarty-pants. Nobody cares.)
The Stinkers of the title are a group of five kids, all about 8 years old, who are attending a summer program at the prestigious Dartmoor Academy, a snooty private school run by fussy headmaster Morgan Brinway (B.D. Wong). The group consists of a tough-talking leader, a good kid, an asthmatic nerd, a girl, and a black boy, which means they meet the federal requirements to be registered as a Little Rascals knock-off and are therefore eligible for grant money. Brinway calls them the Stinkers because they are always getting into trouble — nothing serious, just whimsical mischief along the lines of attaching a leaf-blower and some wings to a desk chair to see if they can make it fly. (They cannot.) They also like to sneak out of the opera appreciation class that Brinway teaches, though that can hardly be described as “stinky” behavior when it is the only natural response to such a class.
Brinway is assisted by a woman named Harriet, played by Jennifer Coolidge doing an annoying Scandinavian comedy accent. When something goes wrong and Brinway starts mincing and flouncing and blustering like a fey Yosemite Sam — in other words, about every eleven seconds — Harriet is usually there to calm him down with her annoying Scandinavian comedy accent. Jennifer Coolidge and B.D. Wong are both skilled actors who have been delightful to watch in other productions, and if you asked either of them about “Slappy and the Stinkers” I bet they would pretend not to know what you were talking about.
The other employee at Dartmoor is Roy, the groundskeeper and bus driver and all-around handyman played by Bronson Pinchot. Roy is clearly meant to be a stoner, but he has to be the PG-rated, kid-friendly kind of stoner who just comes across as incredibly stupid, like Shaggy in “Scooby-Doo” or Tara Reid in real life. During a field trip to the local aquarium, Roy hears the word “octopus” and says, “Octopus? Here, puss, puss, puss!,” because he thinks it’s a kind of cat. Then the octopus in question reaches out of the water and grabs Roy’s hair with its tentacles, for comedy. It is that kind of movie.
It’s during this field trip that the Stinkers encounter Slappy the sea lion. Within seconds of being introduced as a character, Slappy farts loudly, as if the movie was worried that his being a sea lion wouldn’t be enough of a novelty to hold our interest. “Sure, he’s an aquatic mammal who does tricks,” said a producer. “But today’s kids have already seen that! I’ll be damned if they’ve seen a farting seal, though!!” Slappy farts three more times in the movie, and also has a scene where he gorges on chocolate-flavored laxative and then sits on a toilet. Kind of a waste that the movie paid for a whole sea lion when all it needed was the anus.
Watching Slappy for less than a minute and hearing him break wind is all the motivation the Stinkers need to arrive at the decision that they must get Slappy out of the aquarium and back into the ocean, where he will surely be happier and less gassy. A sequence of events too nonsensical to be described in human language leads to the Stinkers getting Slappy out of the facility and on to the school bus. Their plan is to sneak him back to Dartmoor, and then to figure out how to get him to the ocean. They contemplate this from the parking lot of the aquarium, from which the ocean is clearly visible and cannot be more than 100 yards away.
They get Slappy back to Dartmoor and hide him for the afternoon in Mr. Brinway’s hot tub. Wouldn’t a hot tub actually be a terrible place for a sea lion? Don’t worry, the film clears up that plot hole by having the Stinkers mix in a lot of ice and salt, thereby recreating Slappy’s natural habitat. But how will they feed him? Don’t worry, the film addresses that plot hole, too, by having the Stinkers order $150 worth of fish from a local fish-and-chips franchise and telling the delivery guy to just charge it to Brinway. You know how take-out restaurants will deliver food to your house and you can just say, “Oh, charge this to So-and-So?” It’s like that.
The kids figure Brinway never comes home early and never uses his hot tub anyway, whereupon Brinway decides to do both. (He makes the decision immediately, lest we forget the comedy set-up that has been put into place.) So then there are shenanigans and hijinks related to getting Slappy out of the hot tub before Brinway sees him, and to Brinway wearing an American flag Speedo, and to whatever other assorted humiliations the movie can conceive to inflict upon Brinway in this short space of time, lest we forget that without farting sea lions and abused authority figures, the movie would just be 15 minutes of over-acting children shouting dumb dialogue.
It is decided that Slappy will spend the night with Witz (Carl Michael Lindner), the asthmatic nerd and neurotic worry-wart of the group. The rest of the Stinkers tuck Slappy into bed with Witz and then one of them says, “Try not to wheeze! To a sea lion, a wheeze might sound like a mating call!” This only makes Witz more nervous, which makes him wheeze, which makes Slappy kiss him on the forehead, which makes everyone laugh because now Witz might get molested by a sea lion, LOL.
The next day they load Slappy into an old free-standing bathtub they have lying around, put it on a wagon, and use their bicycles to haul it to the beach. (To their credit, they do not go to the same beach that they walked past when they left the aquarium.) But Slappy looks out into the ocean, sees stock footage of a killer whale, and refuses to enter the water because killer whales eat sea lions. “No, it’s OK!” the Stinkers tell him. “It’s just stock footage! It’s from another movie!” But Slappy won’t listen, on account of not having ears. Now the Stinkers’ plan is to take Slappy back to the aquarium they stole him from in the first place, making this the most confused conservation message I’ve ever seen in a movie.
Meanwhile, a villain named Boccoli (Sam McMurray) has been trying to steal Slappy himself so that he can sell him to a circus on the black market. This was before Craigslist, when the only way circuses could get animals was from the back of a guy’s van. But never fear, the kids pull a lot of painful pranks on Boccoli, “Home Alone”-style, and rescue Slappy and get him back to the aquarium, where he’ll live happily and fartily ever after.
(Note: Bronson Pinchot’s character serves no function in the story. It is possible that he was included only because Pinchot was under contract and had to rack up another 10 minutes of screen time before the studio would let him go.)