A serial killer. Arson. Just-released-from-prison-after-15-years-sex. Child abandonment. The near murder of a child by his adoptive father. Animal torture. An unethical child welfare system. Kidnapping. If all these things exist in a film it must be the 1990 family feature Problem Child starring John Ritter, Michael Richards, Jack Ward, Gilbert Gottfried, and Michael Oliver as the title seven-year-old who excels at violence. I kid you not when I mention those things. They are all in the film.
The film was not a critical success, though it did debut at number three in the box office, spawn two sequels (that's two more than Citizen Kane), and an animated series (one more than Citizen Kane). Not bad for something that wasn't screened for critics (a common practice for movies considered so bad that they won't pass the intensely critical eye of the A&E editor from a Wyoming newspaper).
Problem Child was rated PG, so you can imagine that the serial killer stuff and John Ritter going to murder his child are played for laughs, but those concepts are there nonetheless, and it all makes for a fairly dark film if you are to take it seriously. The plot involves a family that is duped into adopting a little boy who is nothing but a problem. He causes mass destruction, hurts animals, and sets things on fire. One can only imagine what he'd do when that erection would start to mean something. He also starts a pen pal relationship with a serial killer, who breaks out of prison to visit him (and later kidnaps him and his adoptive mother after he has sex with her on the kitchen floor). Disney this ain't.
Taken at face value, this film is kind of bold in its absolute commitment to bad taste. There are some gags that are actually funny, too, but as a comedy the whole thing kind of fails. (Though to be fair, a kid will probably like this and not get the entire underlying dark theme.) As a family film, it fails. Had the comedy been toned, though, it would've made a passable thriller. Watching it, I did not view it as a comedy. Instead, I looked at it as if it were real, and it comes out pretty damn disturbing.
I haven't seen the sequels, and I barely remember seeing commercials for the animated series. I can't imagine any of them being as twisted as the first film, however. That kind of magic really only comes around once ... and in this case it has happened by what I can only assume is a mistake or a really long lapse in sound judgment. (Considering that the director went on to do Beverly Hills Ninja I think it is safe to say it is a mistake.) If they do keep up with this film's theme, though, I will declare it as the most subversive family film franchise in cinematic history.
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