Review by C.J. Bunce
Following up on The Toys That Made Us (previously reviewed here at borg), Netflix’s surprise hit documentary series leaning on viewers’ nostalgia with a look behind toys of the past, in 2019 the streaming service added a new series based on the same formula, The Movies That Made Us. The series took a new look at four movies in four hour-long episodes in its first season, including Die Hard, Ghostbusters, Home Alone, and Dirty Dancing, followed by two holiday episodes featuring Elf and A Nightmare Before Christmas. The Movies That Made Us isn’t really about the movies and their impact so much as what strange stories lie behind how the movies were created, from idea to release, including production foibles and hurdles. The show is trying to appeal to a broad spectrum of viewers, and it’s done it again with four new installments for its second season, featuring Back to the Future, Pretty Woman, Jurassic Park, and Forrest Gump. And new episodes are on their way featuring Aliens, Coming to America, and RoboCop, and October staples A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th,and Halloween.
One of the issues of the first season was that the documentary team did not tap key stars for the interviews, and that’s true for the new season, except Sam Neill steps in to discuss Jurassic Park and Gary Sinise talks life after Forrest Gump. Like The Toys That Made Us, the new series isn’t really about the subject of the title, instead taking viewers on a dive into the oddities and difficulties in the business world of pop culture. Like the first season, the second has some fascinating gold nuggets. It also has its problems. Strangely enough, the most interesting episodes feature the making of unlikely blockbuster romantic comedies, with Dirty Dancing last season and Pretty Woman this time around. Often the series is a cheer squad for the unsung heroes of moviemaking. That includes the writers and the editors, as well as the studio head honchos and lower tier Orson Welles wannabes.
The Back to the Future episode focuses on interviews with writer-producer Bob Gale, with an interview with Claudia Wells, who played Jennifer. Most movie buffs know all about the first five weeks of shooting Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly before Michael J. Fox took over the lead role, but if you don’t know then this story is worth a watch. Aside from the initial casting for Wells and other actors brought in to test for Marty, there’s not much new information presented. An interesting connection is drawn between the independent studios that got Dirty Dancing and Pretty Woman off the ground. Pretty Woman, it turns out, owes its success not surprisingly to rising star Julia Roberts, but also to the quirky directing style of Garry Marshall and a savvy editor named Priscilla Nedd-Friendly (Clean Slate, Doc Hollywood, Finding ‘Ohana) who ultimately constructed the movie that audiences saw. And audiences will learn about the rationale behind the creation of Disney’s Touchstone Pictures.
The episode on Jurassic Park is a refreshing change for the series. The series delves into the conflict backstage between the Oscar-winning efforts of Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett to create the next generation of stop-motion special effects, while production designer Rick Carter and art director John Bell–and executive Kathleen Kennedy–look toward the next stage of computer-generated visual effects from the secret efforts of ILM’s Steve “Spaz” Williams and Mark A.Z. Dippé. The episode on Forrest Gump is all about producer Wendy Finerman, who got hooked on the Winston Groom novel (she apparently is the only one who ever thought the book was good) and worked to get a studio to make a film only loosely based on the character. The high point for the episode is a discussion with all-grown-up Michael Conner Humphries, who played young Forrest–he apparently gave Hanks the voice for the character.
Unlike in the series’ first season, not as many key players behind and in front of the camera in these films have passed away, yet the production struggles to get key actors, directors, or any household names to narrate their stories behind the movies. Movie buffs will enjoy the first season even if they didn’t care for the films, simply because it’s always going to be interesting for them to watch the wheeling and dealing of the studio machine told from the people who were there. In that regard, the episodes about Dirty Dancing and Home Alone were entertaining by virtue of their tales of odd ideas that managed to emerge like the Phoenix from dead deals to become major box office successes through a lot of luck and happenstance (told nicely in the episodes). Viewers will find similar content reflected in this season’s shows on Pretty Woman and even Back to the Future.
Are these the “movies that made us”? To some, perhaps. Each of these films became big league box office sellers despite appearing to the studios as initial failures–the audience members truly made the decision of whether they were going to like these films or not. The creator behind the show, The Nacelle Company, continues making its selections based on box office take, which doesn’t really seem to determine what movies “made us,” i.e. influenced generations or provided us with timeless entertainment.
The latest for fans of docu-nostalgia, the next four episodes of The Movies That Made Us are streaming now exclusively on Netflix.