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None Of This Is At All Ridiculous: A Review of Gumby: The Jade Warrior

Director: Christopher Nolan; Writers: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan; Cast: Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Tom Hiddleston, Michael Fassbender, Scarlett Johansson, Max von Sydow, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine, Ben Kingsley

Director Christopher Nolan does it again, serving up a gritty re-imagining of a childhood classic—better call a sitter, because this is Gumby for grown-ups. In what will surely be the start of a gripping new franchise, Nolan explores themes of corruption, compromise, and the real cost of being made out of clay.

The film opens with a jolt, when Gumby’s parents Gumbo (Max von Sydow) and Gumba (Marion Cotillard) are murdered by a deranged potter identified only as The Kill-n (Tom Hiddleston). Some parents organizations have objected to the graphic nature of the violence here, particularly in the already-infamous pinch-pot scene, but it is this brutality that shakes our anti-hero out of the stupor of sex, drugs, and idleness in which he has been spending his young adult years and propels him on a bloody journey of self-discovery.

Adrift following his parents’ murders, Gumby (Christian Bale) leaves Gumbville and travels the world in search of peace, finding himself at last in a Llasa monastery where he apprentices himself to a mysterious hooded figure known only as The Oriental (Anglo-Indian actor Ben Kingsley plays the Tibetan monk in a bit of casting that Nolan referred to as “close enough”). From The Oriental Gumby learns meditation and martial arts, channeling his rage—and his considerable physical flexibility—into a plan for revenge.

Back in Gumbville, he trades his millions for a secret identity as the Green Guerilla, perpetrating a series of daring hits on a number of The Kill-n’s associates in order to force his adversary out of hiding. But as the body count mounts, the Teal Terror is forced to ask himself, is he becoming as evil as the villain he seeks to overcome? Is anyone truly innocent? Must power corrupt? What is the price of secrecy? These are the kinds of deep questions that assure us in the audience that yes, a fifty-year-old children’s television show about a play-dough man is well worth our critical contemplation.

The Jade Warrior luxuriates in its brooding color palette, exchanging the ebullient green clay we may remember from our childhoods with the smudged color of swamp mud. The clay itself appears over-handled and bruised, the thumbprints of its manipulators still clearly visible on the greasy surface. Nolan shot the entire film in order, and so we watch the Celadon Cavalier becoming increasingly soiled on the outside even as his interior life becomes more poisonous. Gumbville’s skyline is always dark, its skies moonless, and only the glistening viscera appears in full color, bright red and lusciously wet. This, apparently, is what we want Gumby to look like.

Through an uneasy alliance with corrupt cop and yellow clay dinosaur Prickle (Michael Fassbender), the Malachite Mercenary learns that his parents (a nuclear scientist and a Congressman) were eliminated in a conspiracy that goes straight to the dark heart of government. Soon the Hunter Hunter finds himself at war with a motley collection of international arms dealers, retired Soviet spies, and the men behind the powerful Color Me Mine franchise.

Through a series of flashbacks and dream sequences we see Gumby’s earlier life with his best friend Pokey (Hugh Jackman), an orange clay horse with a chilling secret, and his beautiful but dangerous fiance, Goo (Scarlett Johansson). Johannson exudes erotic menance as the shape-shifting blue mermaid with a mind of her own, and Michael Caine brings tremendous range and depth to his portrayal of Gumby’s childhood dog Nopey, whose only word is “Nope.” Hiddleston may have been a controversial choice for Gumby’s mysterious antagonist, but even his detractors must admit that he chills with his delivery of the Kill-n’s classic catchphrase, “You’re fired!” And Christian Bale shines as the kind of actor whose self-serious pronouncements convince us that none of this is at all ridiculous.

Visionary director Nolan gives us a Gumby for our age, exchanging the glib campiness of the fifties classic for a serious adult film that challenges us to confront our darkest longings in the person of a small clay figure with no external genitalia and the ability to make only four or five distinct facial expressions.

Production is already underway on Gumby: The Kneading, but in the meantime franchise fans can tide themselves over with the crossover Gumby vs. Bullwinkle out later this year.

Summer Block has published essays, short fiction, and poetry in McSweeneys, The Rumpus, Identity Theory, DIAGRAM, PANK, The Nervous Breakdown, and many other publications.