Moonwalker isn’t so much a movie as it is one of the more erratic fever dreams you’ll ever experience in your lifetime. Featuring almost no sensible structure, it careens from segment to segment in a vain attempt to pad out the running time, never quite knowing who it wants to appeal to at any given point. Sometimes it’s a concert film, sometimes it attempts to tell a less than half-baked story, and sometimes it just stops dead in its tracks to showcase a music video. No matter what it tries to accomplish at any given point, however, this much is always clear: Michael Jackson’s vanity was just downright shameful in 1988, and it’s no surprise so many were burnt out by his image.
This silver screen debut for Jackson might have actually worked if someone had just directed a really slick feature chronicling one of his bigger concert performances, as evidenced by the opening of Moonwalker. As Jackson busts out “Man in the Mirror,” one of my favorite (albeit incredibly schmaltzy) singles of his career, no one can deny his stage presence. It’s when director Jerry Kramer takes hold of this footage and starts getting creative that we know something is direly wrong. The shots of Jackson start to become sandwiched between clips of hyperventilating, sometimes unconscious women in the crowd and old footage of Gandhi, the Kennedy family, Jimmy Carter, and Martin Luther King, Jr. So, in sequence: Jackson, fainting women, and historical icons.
What are we as viewers supposed to make of this, considering the moral of the song? True, all of the figures shown “made a change” in the lives of others, as the tune encourages us to do, but I can’t help but bristle at the notion that maybe, just maybe, a comparison was being drawn between those individuals and Michael himself. Even if no one would admit as much, the editing would surely draw anyone to this cynical yet all too honest conclusion. Sorry dear Michael, but you’re no Gandhi, and as for your screeching fans, I highly doubt any of them took your message of love directly to heart.
Speaking of the fans, they’re actually featured in quite a few portions of the film, but never in a truly positive light. When in a crowd they’re represented by no one else but the insane, bleary-eyed groupies who literally try to throw themselves over the cops to get an inch closer to their obsession. In an entirely separate sequence, Michael is forced to flee from them in classic Looney-Tunes style when they spot him while on a tour of Hollywood. Not content to just showcase the pop star’s followers as hair-tearing towers of hormones, Kramer here decides to use the Claymation designs of Will Vinton to paint them as literal, razor-toothed freaks of nature. Some are horrifically obese, but all of them sport hollowed-out expressions of sheer madness as they try to mow down our boy MJ, who disguises himself as a Claymation rabbit to evade their lunacy. It’s a giant punch to the face of anyone who thought about asking the man for an autograph, and more than enough reason to question Jackson’s view of himself.
But wait, there’s so much more to explore in the realm of the odd that is this movie. There’s “Badder,” a remake of Jackson’s signature “Bad” video starring nothing but children. Children sporting five o’clock shadows and bizarre porn mustaches who spend way too much time grabbing their privates in an attempt to copy their older and all-too creepy predecessor. And if you’ve ever wanted to take a trip down the memory lane known as Ain’t He Fantastic Boardwalk, be sure to watch the interminable montage of video and audio clips that chronicle the amazing life of our star. You’ll think to yourself, “Why yes, I do remember the song ‘Thriller’. And yes, Michael Jackson did win a lot of Grammy’s. Goodness, what a life this one simple man has led. Why he’s the American Dream embodied!” Then you would, of course, throw up.
The crown jewel of this truly groundbreaking work of excess and ego-stroking is saved for last, and it’s in the form of a quaint little tale about Michael and his special friendship with a trio of children known as Katie, Sean, and Zeke. Once happy to toss a soccer ball (that’s right Michael, toss the soccer ball) amidst the greenest and sunniest valley ever to be recorded on film in human history, their days of bliss come to a quick end when our boy and Katie stumble upon the wicked den of Mr. Big. As played by Joe Pesci, Mr. Big is a teeth-gnashing weasel of a villain who wants to get everyone on Earth hooked on his oddly vague brand of drugs. He keeps track of his progress by placing live tarantulas on the different nations of a large globe, which seems a bit too complicated to me, but hey, I’m not a drug dealer. Anymore.
So anyhoo, Mr. Big gets a little angry when he discovers intruders, so everyone is forced to run away to…the city. A city of undetermined origins, though from all the steam and towering brick buildings it would have to be…London? Yeah, let’s go with that, considering when they are in said city the children dress up as extras from the set of Newsies or Annie. Mr. Big is determined to see Jackson dead one way or another, but the magic of a lucky star allows our hero to transform into a variety of way-cool forms, including a race car, giant robot, and spaceship. Well, I say “including,” but that’s all he turns into, really, though it would have been awesome if he became one of those Magic Bullet contraptions and made everyone scrambled eggs right after finishing a batch of strawberry daiquiris.
Admittedly, there is some morbid fun to be had by watching this film with your jaw on the floor and absolutely no expectations whatsoever. But there’s just way too much going on here to ever keep your attention for long, and by the time the credits roll you just wanna turn off the television and listen to someone, anyone but Jackson sing. Oh, I forgot to mention the jazz orgy that appears to occur during the video for “Smooth Criminal,” wherein women moan and wail like alley cats…and dissolve into shots of slinky cats. Yeah, I’d make a filthy joke here, but it would be far too easy. Pick up an old copy if you’re prepared for pain. Otherwise, I’d ignore this film’s existence entirely.