Over the course of his 35-year career, Robin Williams has been loathed by audiences about as often as he's been loved by them. For every Dead Poets Society and The Birdcage, there's been a Jack and a Toys. He's in our good graces again now with the TV series The Crazy Ones (ceaseless patter consisting of random vocal impersonations will never go out of style), just in time for the 20th anniversary of his biggest hit: Mrs. Doubtfire.
Yes, it's been 20 years since Thanksgiving 1993, that fabled week when Doubtfire Fever took hold on America. Twenty years! If Mrs. Doubtfire were a real person, she would almost certainly be dead now. And if you saw Mrs. Doubtfire in theaters, You're Old®.
Mrs. Doubtfire was a smash hit, the number-two film of 1993 (after Jurassic Park) and the top box office success of Robin Williams' career at that point (it even made a little bit more than Aladdin). It earned $219 million in the U.S. and an equal amount overseas. Adjusted for inflation, it's still Williams' biggest hit.
The film's success was not a surprise. Williams had been a bankable movie star since Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), followed by hits like Dead Poets Society (1989), Hook (1991) and Aladdin (1992). Mrs. Doubtfire capitalized on Williams' newfound popularity with younger audiences, promising a family-friendly comedy that would also appeal to parents who remembered Mork & Mindy.
Yet despite a premise that sounds geared toward kids (especially kids whose parents are divorced), the PG-13 film has a fair amount of coarse language and some sexual references. It's also much more casual about gay issues than family films of the early '90s generally were, with Harvey Fierstein and Scott Capurro's same-sex relationship treated with nonchalance. It's treated with jokes, too -- Williams refers to them as "Uncle Frank and Aunt Jack" -- but that was still fairly progressive.
Now, as far as I'm concerned, Mrs. Doubtfire goes wrong in the very first scene and never recovers. The film starts with Robin Williams' character, a voice-over actor, recording lines for a cartoon, which has already been animated and is playing on a monitor in front of him. He gets in trouble when he ad-libs because now the dialogue won't match the animation. But that's not how cartoons are made. Everyone knows they record the voices first, then do the animation. Why? To avoid this very problem.
Of course, then Williams dresses up like an old English lady and becomes a housekeeper for his ex-wife and children and nobody recognizes him, and that isn't plausible either. But it's still the cartoon thing that bugs me the most.
When Mrs. Doubtfire was released the day before Thanksgiving 1993:
- It opened against the Clint Eastwood/Kevin Costner drama A Perfect World, the off-brand animated We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story, and the runaway-brothers dramedy Josh and S.A.M.. Mrs. Doubtfire took first place at the box office, of course, and stayed there for another week before being bumped by Wayne's World 2.
- If Mrs. Doubtfire was sold out at your local multiplex, your other choices would have included Addams Family Values, The Three Musketeers, Carlito's Way, The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Piano. Jurassic Park was still on 700 screens, too, in its 25th week of release.
- The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had just been passed by the American, Canadian and Mexican legislative bodies. It continues to be a major component of many paranoid uncles' Facebook posts.
- Future American Idol singer Scotty McCreery, Two and a Half Men actor Angus T. Jones, and Arnold's son Patrick Schwarzenegger were all a few weeks old. A Clockwork Orange novelist Anthony Burgess, Incredible Hulk actor Bill Bixby and teen heartthrob River Phoenix were all freshly dead.
- Five days earlier, Nirvana had played the MTV "unplugged" concert that would become legendary. Snoop Doggy Dogg's Doggystyle album was brand new. Ace of Base's The Sign had just been released in the U.S. There's three major events in music history right there.
- The number-one song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart was Meat Loaf's "I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Wouldn't Do That)," in which "that" refers to picking her up at the airport during rush hour. Other radio hits that week included Mariah Carey's "Dreamlover," UB40's "Can't Help Falling in Love," and Janet Jackson's "That's the Way Love Goes."
- The Food Network had just launched (a couple days before Thanksgiving, smart). Elsewhere on TV, the first "Got Milk?" commercial had recently started airing (the one with the peanut-butter sandwich and the radio trivia contest and "Aaron Burr"). The Nanny was brand new on CBS and would eventually run for six years before Fran Drescher's voice was declared a biological weapon and banned by the United Nations.
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