Happy Feet: Little Bigfoot (1997) & Little Bigfoot 2: The Journey Home (1998)

Dave checks out a pair of family-friendly sasquatch movies directed by legendary fight choreographer Art Camacho, while screenwriter Richard Preston Jr. explains why he made the leap from science fiction to kiddie fare.

If you’re ever tempted to pick up A Filmmaker’s Journey, Art Camacho’s excellent memoir about his life in the movie business, then a glance across the authors bio on a popular online retailing site will inform you that LITTLE BIGFOOT (1997) was the third highest grossing release for distributor Republic Pictures Home Video. If you read further, the author’s pimping spiel boasts of a two-star review in TV Guide as well, which is perhaps pushing the boundaries of supposedly ‘good’ notices too far.  

“It turns every character into a one-note bore,” the notoriously savage publication opined. “The Evil Businessman, the Perky Mom, the Cute Sister etc. – all the better to piledrive its conservation message home. There’s no subtlety or relief from the chest-pounding self-righteousness, as sorrowful Bilbo the Bigfoot literally hugs the stumps of murdered redwoods.” [1]

A little overcritical if you ask me. After all, we’re in the derivative world of presales for those paladins of video-era pulp, PM Entertainment. They’d already scored good numbers with their first foray into sasquatch territory, Corey Michael Eubanks’ Bigfoot: The Unforgettable Encounter (1995), which confirmed that Richard Pepin and Joseph Merhi’s call to venture into family fare was a very good – and very lucrative – decision.

Art Camacho had been in the PM fold for several years, starting out with acting parts in Ring of Fire (1991), before taking on a multitude of roles like fight choreographer (Street Crimes (1992)), writer (Lion Strike (1994)), and, eventually, director (The Power Within (1995)). He’s a great example of what someone with dexterity and ambition could achieve in the company, and speaking to The Action Elite recently, Camacho was effusive in his praise:

“I can’t say enough good things about them, especially Joseph Merhi. He’s a throwback to the Louis B. Mayer-type of producers who lead with their gut. I remember my early experiences with them were so great. PM Entertainment not only got me my SAG card, but they gave me my first fight choreography job and my first directing job. One day on the set of Magic Kid (1993), Joseph came up to me and asked me if I wanted to direct movies. I didn’t know if he was serious, so I nonchalantly said, “Yeah, that’d be cool.” Within two weeks I was a feature film director.” [2]

It was Merhi’s sink or swim, try-’em-and-test-’em approach that no doubt landed Camacho the reins of Little Bigfoot. True, his previous film, The Power Within, dealt with a similar demographic – but it was still very much based in a martial arts comfort zone for the then-debuting helmsman. The shift into the cryptid realm and its non-combat themes of ecology and family must have been more of a challenge, albeit one that Camacho handles with an admirable degree of assurance.

A ruthless logging company are chopping their way through the lush Cedar Lake forests, which, in turn, is endangering the lives of the small habitat of bigfoots who live there in secluded anonymity. Thankfully, the Shoemaker family are about to vacation in that part of the world, and Payton (Ross Malinger); his sister, Maggie (Caitlin); and older brother, Peter (Chris Finch), find themselves in the perfect position to save this endangered species and frustrate Mr. Largo (Kenneth Tiger), the demanding boss of the environment debasing outfit.

Shot among the surrounding areas of Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino National Forest, Ken Blakey’s pleasing cinematography ensures that this amiable time-passer is hard to dislike. Screenwriter Richard Preston Jr. churned out a double-figure tally of screenplays for PM during his time there and showed an impressive flexibility to move from the sci-fi action of CyberTracker 2 (1995), to what would amount to a pair shaggy-suited family capers. These days, the author – who was born in Los Angeles but grew up in Ontario – is busy penning swashbuckling steampunk tales through his book series The Chronicles of the Pneumatic Zeppelin, but he looks back at his genre-hopping PM sojourn fondly.

“Rick Pepin liked science-fiction, so that was pretty much exclusively his thing,” says Preston. “However, they had this pair of producers who were making a movie for PM, and they asked for a writer. We got along well, so I ended up doing Little Bigfoot for them. I liked doing family stuff, and I did a few things for Fox Kids later on in my career.”

Above: LB in full flight. “The most horrifying thing on earth!” jokes scripter Richard Preston Jr. of the effect.

As TV Guide hinted, the preservationist angle is a touch heavy-handed, and on occasion, it feels like the eponymous mini-yeti isn’t given the level of attention you might have been expecting. Still, Larry Finch’s animatronics deserve a nod, especially considering the absolute nightmare they proved to be on set.

“That mechanical head was probably the most horrifying thing on earth!” laughs Preston. “They got pushed back so far because of it. It was like a mechanised puppet. You know, they’d do all these great takes, and the camera would pan to the cute mechanical bigfoot, and it would look like he’s being choked to death because of a glitch in the design. It repeatedly malfunctioned and it would begin having these terrifying-looking seizures in the middle of a scene or something!”

Interestingly, the most contentious aspect of the picture is whether it’s a sequel to the aforementioned Bigfoot: The Unforgettable Encounter or not. Matt McCoy returns as Nick Clifton, now shifted from park ranger to local Sheriff – though I think it’s more of an in-joke based upon some coincidental casting rather than any purposeful attempt to tie these movies together.

With presales already having put Little Bigfoot into the black, it’s no surprise that LITTLE BIGFOOT 2: THE JOURNEY HOME (1998) started rolling six months after the first movie wrapped, and a full year before the original graced the shelves of Blockbuster Video. Camacho is back, as is Preston Jr., but in terms of casting, it’s a whole new family faced with a very similar problem: saving bigfoot.

Instead of P.J. Soles’ single mom, here we have Stephen Furst’s bumbling single dad, Derby. Derby has trekked into the country on a camping expedition with his daughter, Shelly (Melody Clarke); son Brian (Home Improvement‘s Taran Noah Smith); and the smuggled aboard best mate of his boy, Mike (Roseanne‘s Michael Fishman). And this time, it’s not lumberjacks that are the problem; it’s a wealthy landowner (Steve Eastin) involved in an ownership dispute over a patch of sacred Indian land that he’s determined to seize.

Featuring the titular character far more prominently than the last outing, Little Bigfoot 2 goes full-on Spielberg. Having merely alluded to the tropes of the master in the original, this follow-up is unashamedly E.T. (1982) lite, with the kids deciding to take the four-foot furball home. Naturally, Derby is oblivious to all the resulting shenanigans and the late, great Furst seems to be channelling his best Woody Allen impersonation, complete with stuttering dialogue and high-waisted pants.

Less self-aware and plodding than the manner in which the series began, the sequel has a much looser feel at the expense of ‘a message’. Opting to be a romp packed with goofy hijinks and the type of daft comedy that younger kids revel in, Little Bigfoot 2 is a fun experience. There’s even time for Camacho to add some PM trademarks like a car chase, chopper sequence and a handful of swiftly cut aerial shots!

“Oh, the family films still had the PM template,” affirms Preston. “They wanted things to get moving, maybe not as often as in the action films, but structurally it wasn’t that much different. Even if it was something as relatively innocuous as a kid on a bike trying to get away from a mountain lion – they wanted the film to move. True, you didn’t have push it that hard as there is a gentler pace to them, but PM were the action company, so they expected a degree of momentum to anything you did for them.”

You can take the company out of the action movie, but you’ll never take the action movie out of the company…

[1] Little Bigfoot Review, TV Guide.
[2] All New Interview with Art Camacho by Eoin Friel, The Action Elite.

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