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The Peanut Butter Solution

1985, Starring Mathew Mackay, Siluck Saysanasy, Alison Podbrey, Michael Hogan, Michel Maillot, Helen Hughes. Directed by Michael Rubbo.

Throughout the 1970s, Quebec quietly established itself as the centre of production for Canadian children's films. The success of 1970's The Christmas Martian spawned such venerable kiddie fare as Jacob Two Two Meets the Hooded Fang (1972) and Mystery of the Million Dollar Hockey Puck (1976), but it wasn't until the 1980s that the industry became one of the cornerstones of Canadian b-film production, thanks primarily to the efforts of one man Rock Demers.

Demers was there from the very beginnings of the tax shelter era in Quebec. Just a few years after Cinepix started distributing grindhouse and softcore sex reels to theatres, Demers founded Faroun Films to focus on the distribution of French-Canadian movies. There were a couple of kid's films in Faroun's roster, but most were racier fare including Giles Carle's Les Males (1975) and Frank Vitale's Montreal Main (1974). In the late 1960s, newly introduced tax shelter incentives convinced Cinepix and other distributors to try their hand at producing films. Demers got involved too, supplying completion funds for Bernard Gosselin's The Christmas Martian, a Quebec-made children's film he had already acquired for distribution.

When it was finished, Demers had The Christmas Martian dubbed into a variety of languages and exported it across the globe. Perhaps because children are more forgiving towards the inherent problems with foreign-language dubbing, Demers found the film to be a success far beyond the other films he had distributed, which usually had limited, primarily Quebec audiences. It was ten years later before he hit upon the idea of producing an anthology of twelve children's films called Tales for All.

Demers started up a new company, Les Productions La Fete, which aimed to copy The Christmas Martian's success with multi-language dubbings and a large distribution base. Eight scripts were already commissioned by the time the first in the Tales for All series, The Dog Who Stopped the War, appeared in 1984. The Peanut Butter Solution followed one year later, and both were critical and box-office success to such a degree that La Fte became known as "Disney of the North," and Demers decided to expand his original idea to include more Tales.

The Peanut Butter Solution has since become the most popular and fondly remembered Tale, thanks to its surreal plot. It is the story of Mike, who lives with his father, an artist, and his sister Suzy. One day, Mike learns that a sweet old homeless couple he knows may have perished in a fire in an abandoned house. Before he can go investigate though, it's off to school where his over-dramatic art teacher "The Signor" chastises him for daring to use his imagination while painting a still life of a dog. If there's anything The Signor can't stand, it is children using their imaginations. After that unpleasant experience, Mike and his (male) friend Connie finally escape to the charred remains of the building. Mike climbs up a shaky ramp to take a peak inside, but soon screams in fear as he comes tumbling back down. When he hits the ground, he slumps into unconsciousness, leaving Connie to take him home.

But the trouble is just beginning. Mike wakes up the next morning to find that all his hair has fallen out from the fright, only he can't remember what scared him so badly. He sinks into a deep depression, and refuses to leave the house. When his father buys him a wig, Mike starts to emerge from his shell, but it falls off during a soccer game, leading to ridicule from his peers. Just when it seems like Mike's hair will never grow back, he goes down to the kitchen for a snack one night and sees the ghosts of the elderly homeless couple. The woman gives him a recipe for a hair-growing paste, full of delightfully gross ingredients. The secret of the ooze, she claims, is the peanut butter that holds it all together. Mike makes the concoction and slathers it all over his head. The next morning, he is shocked to see that sprouts of hair have appeared! Connie also uses some paste to give puberty a little kick in the pants by spreading it on his crotch.

The peanut butter solution works even better than Mike ever imagined so well in fact, that his hair won't stop growing. By lunch that day Mike is sporting a Jim Kelly-sized afro, and the next day he looks like Cousin It. Connie has taken to giving him haircuts during class, but he's got a problem of his own: whiskers hanging out of his pant legs! When the teachers tire of their impromptu hairdressing sessions, the kids are kicked out of school, their hair deemed "too distracting."

Just when the weirdness appears to have peaked, The Peanut Butter Solution launches in a whole new direction. A rash of child kidnappings occur, and Mike disappears along with them. Connie and Suzy are out looking for clues when they see some strange paint brushes for sale--unmistakably made from Mike's hair--in a local shop. They stake out the store and find out it's The Signor who is supplying the brushes. Connie hides in the back of the art teacher's van and leaves a trail of sugar for Suzy to follow along on her bike. But when a street washer melts the sugar away, Suzy loses the scent and Connie finds himself in a children's sweatshop where Mike and his unstoppable hair are strapped to one end of a paint brush manufacturing assembly line.

While The Peanut Butter Solution and the other initial La Fte productions were always international in scope, it wasn't until the Canadian/Polish The Young Magician (1987) that a Tale was made jointly with another country. Many of the following Tales for All were co-productions, making Demers an early crusader for the co-production treaties now established between Canada and several other countries. And he's not done yet. Recently, Demers launched a new series of Tales for All in 2001, hoping to recreate the excitement he once had with favourites like Tommy Tricker and The Stamp Traveller.

Unfortunately, La Fete's attempts to foster an international audience has bitter consequences for Canadian film fans. The Quebec children's films of the 1970s were perhaps some of the most proudly Canadian films ever made, weaving Canadian locations and flourishes into the plot until the movies quite literally could not have been made in any other country. The Christmas Martian, Demers' first big international success, is probably the only one of his children's films specifically set in Canada, as he has abandoned this legacy in favour of the bland, flavourless settings that producers assume appeal more to an international audience. The setting of The Peanut Butter Solution and the other Tales are so carefully calculated to be "anywhere," that they end up being nowhere.

Although slightly derivative of the "magical" aspects of childhood seen Jacob Two Two Meets the Hooded Fang (1972), The Peanut Butter Solution has proven it has just enough of an eccentric Dr. Seuss touch to permanently wedge itself in the memories of young viewers. Watching it again today, the film holds up generally well, despite some dated special effects. Likewise, the message of the film ("Imagination is wonderful!") might illicit a groan from anyone over the age of 12, but corny messages are a staple of Tales for All. If La Fete really is the "Disney of the North," then The Peanut Butter Solution is undoubtedly our Freaky Friday.

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