“Encino Man”

Oscar success revives classic 90’s comedies

Disney’s “Encino Man” (1992) is not one of the great comedies of the 1990’s but has made a bizarre return to pop culture. Now that Brendan Fraser and Key Huy Quan are Oscar winners, all eyes are on this somewhat charming, mildly funny and dopey hit they made together decades ago. 

Fraser stars as an unfrozen caveman teenager who goes to high school, along with his pals, played by Sean Astin and Pauly Shore, in search of “major babes.” That’s it for the plot. There’s very little wit, as nothing here is as truly funny as the “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer” skits commandeered by the late, great Phil Hartman on “Saturday Night Live” during this era. A few real chuckles can’t overcome the awful wannabe “Quest For Fire” opener, relentless sexism, and a makeover scene set to Right Said Fred (any guess which song?).

In the same way Link the Caveman thawed and returned to the human population, this mid-range hit has become a blockbuster on streaming services and major nostalgia fodder. Why? Now that the film’s stars have become Hollywood royalty, boomers and millennials are willing to return to an ancient time (The Clinton Years) to either revisit or newly discover this carefully preserved slice of teen movie cheese. 

Everyone here has done better, even Shore, whose “Son-In-Law” (1993) is his “Citizen Kane.”

Fraser’s awesome commitment to material this silly is better served in “George of the Jungle” (1997) and Quan’s role is too small for someone so talented. Considering how Quan provided the emotional center of the unpleasant “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984) and was a key scene stealer in “The Goonies” (1985), its’ unfortunate that the first act of his Hollywood film career initially ended here. Thankfully, “The Whale” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” demonstrated how far both have soared since appearing in “Encino Man.” 

Aside from the frequent use of the word “gazoongas,” this Disney attempt at a “Teen Wolf” has no edge. This was made during the company’s animation renaissance, when the animated features (namely “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King”) were groundbreakers, while the live action films were either “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” or middle of the road guilty pleasures like this. A fun fact about this movie that I’ve been carrying around for decades: Regis Philbin and Kathy Lee Gifford were offered the roles of Pauly Shore’s parents and turned Disney down. According to Philbin, “We could’ve saved that movie!” 

“Encino Man” is less a nostalgia kick then you-had-to-be-there lark, comparable to the cinematic works of Yahoo Serious (if that name draws a smile of recognition, then you are, indeed, the audience for “Encino Man”). Anyone who remembers the movie year of 1992 will agree that “Wayne’s World,” released a few months earlier, is a masterpiece in comparison. 

It’s not difficult to understand the appeal of rewatching something so mindless after disposing it decades earlier. Yet, if the draw is seeing Fraser and Quan working, thirty years before their deserved career comebacks, then there are a few worthier alternatives: for Fraser, seek out “School Ties” (also released in 1992) and “Gods and Monsters” (1998). Quan’s scene midway through “Temple of Doom,” where his pained “I love you” and a sudden thrust of a flaming torch represents both the ultimate sacrifice and the fruition of the father/son bond his character shares with Indiana Jones, is still moving. 

If there’s a lesson here for up-and-coming film actors, it’s that, in order to work toward Oscar glory, sometimes you have to start at the bottom and make something like “Encino Man.” 


Wurst’s Streaming Picks

Photo courtesy Universal Pictures.

The Bourne Legacy (2012)
While Jeremy Renner recovers from his unfortunate accident, let’s give another look at this mostly stand-alone, underrated and Matt Damon-less entry in the Jason Bourne series. Renner’s Aaron Cross battles a wolf in the first act and choke slams a lot of villains in this smart, thrilling entry. (on Netflix)

Nobody’s Fool (1994)
The best movie ever made about small town life. Paul Newman’s magnificent performance as a worn-out construction worker who cares for the oddballs in his life is deeply felt and very funny. The supporting turns by Jessica Tandy, Melanie Griffith and Bruce Willis (in one of his best performances) couldn’t be better. I revisit this one every year. (on Paramount+)

Giorgio Moroder’s Metropolis (1984)
Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece, about the need for unity between different classes, is the most influential sci-fi film ever made. Moroder, a once popular 80’s musician and composer, made the film his own in this one-of-a-kind cinematic mix tape: the story remains, but now with splashes of color, a shorter running time and a cool 80’s soundtrack. Not definitive, but the most approachable way to watch Lang’s essential epic for the first time. (on Kanopy)

Barry Wurst