Once a month (or so), one hapless FRC writer will subject themselves to a terrible movie voted on by you, our wonderful readers. This month, Joe gets an unhealthy overdose of banana puns.
I let you pick which talking animal movie I would torture myself with, and Russell Madness won with more than half the vote…
Going into this, people who had already seen the movie tried to warn me that I was making a huge mistake; that I should have nominated something less eye-catchingly vapid. Truth be told, Russell Madness was a last-minute substitution. I originally had Wiener Dog Internationals in that fourth slot. Then, I actually watched the trailer and realized A) there were no talking dogs in it at all, and B) that watching the movie would fundamentally break something inside of me.
So Russell Madness it is, a movie whose attempts at saccharine sweetness are so tragically weak that not even a scenery-chewing John Ratzenberger doing his best Vince McMahon-by-way-of-Guy Fieri impression can spice things up. But I’m getting ahead of myself here; I’ll get to Ratzen-Fieri-Mahon soon enough.
Russell Madness begins with the mega-depressing sob story of a Jack Russell terrier named Russell (voiced by The Goldbergs’ Sean Giambrone), who spends his first year of life in a pet store. While the rest of his litter get to go home one by one to presumably loving families, Russell gets left behind. It might have something to do with the fact that anytime Russell is picked up, he takes a monster piss on the person holding him. And I don’t just mean a long slow burn of a piss; I’m talking Super Soaker blasts of dog whiz all over the place. Russell delivers two of these golden showers in literally the first minute of the movie. Anyway, on Russell’s first birthday, he escapes the pet store for fear of getting shipped off to the pound. Seeking shelter, Russell finds a nice box to hide in behind the old Ferraro Wrestling arena.
The movie’s actual story follows the Ferraro clan, as father Nate Ferraro (David Milchard) drags his wife and kids back home to Portland, Oregon to inherit his father’s old professional wrestling venue. His father’s will stipulates that if Nate can turn a profit with the arena in one year, he can legally sell the place off if he wants. Forced to go into business as a wrestling promoter, Nate drags a bunch of randos and nobodies out of retirement to put on a wrestling show. (Also Fred Willard is there to provide color commentary to all five spectators.) Of course, when Russell shows up and accidentally backflips his way into pinning a wrestler, a star is born and the YouTube hits, media stardom and cold hard cash come rolling in.
One of the things that caught me off guard about Russell Madness is that there is a surprising amount of implied backstory and inside baseball that I’m almost 100% certain no child watching this movie will appreciate, much less understand. For starters, Nate has trouble signing talent to wrestle for him because all the marquee wrestlers are tied up in contracts with Mick Vaughn (John Ratzenberger), the thinly-veiled Vince McMahon analogue mentioned above. He runs the Wrestlers United Federation (WUF), which I almost called “aptly named,” because it’s a movie about dogs, but until Russell comes along there are zero dogs in the league at all.
McMahon is famously litigious when it comes to the WWE, and this is apparently the only character trait Ratzenberger borrowed for his interpretation. (It’s also probably why this movie is called Russell Madness and not RussellMania.) Vaughn spares no expense in first trying to bleed Ferraro’s company dry, then straight up offering him the deal of a lifetime in exchange for Russell’s everlasting soul. To the kids watching at home, Vaughn is just some meanypants bad guy with weird-looking hair. But to the parents and internet movie critics stuck watching the movie themselves, Vaughn is a very pointed reference to an actual megalomaniac you can see on TV every Monday night.
But before Vaughn enters the picture, Ferraro can’t even get wrestlers on the phone because that’s just how much power Vaughn commands. Ferraro is reduced to finding local hack wrestlers on Craigslist, and when that plan fails, he suits up in the spandex himself. Ferraro is willing to put his own body on the line to sell tickets. It’s an admirable and noble sacrifice, because as we all know, professional wrestling is the most real and dangerous sport known to man.
Now look, I’m not going to open a whole can of worms here about how pro wrestling is actually a colossal fake. Wrestling is fun and weirdly operatic, and I wouldn’t take that from anybody. But you can tell Russell Madness is a kids-first kind of movie (gee, Joe, what was your first clue?), because it treats wrestling like it is 100% serious business. Nate’s son Max (Mason Vale Cotton) even has a minor meltdown when he learns some of the wrestlers competing against Russell have been taking dives. Vaughn even pulls his star wrestler, The Hammer, aside and offers him cash to take a dive in the title bout against Russell. This is an odd scene, though, because from a kid’s perspective Vaughn is clearly offering The Hammer a bribe to throw the match, but from the perspective of an adult who understands how wrestling works, this is called “an employer paying his employee to do his fucking job.”
But to Max, wrestling is as real as the tooth fairy and mummies and talking monkeys.
Oh yeah, so there’s a talking monkey named Hunk in this movie. (And a mummy, but let’s not.) Hunk convinces Nate and his family to make Russell a wrestler, and Hunk becomes the Monkey Mickey to Russell’s Rocky. Everyone just kinda goes along with Hunk’s plan, because Hunk and Nate have a history. It’s revealed that he was Nate’s childhood pet, and after the family closed up the arena and moved away, Hunk became a laboratory test subject in an experiment to teach monkeys how to speak. It became such a huge success that the scientists tortured Hunk after the fact. So he escaped the lab, came back to the old family arena and decided to haunt the place for shits and giggles. To reiterate: Scientists actively tried to teach monkeys to talk, and when one of them actually succeeded, they tortured it and threatened to cut it up for science reasons. This is the kind of logic I would expect from an actual child, not adults trying to pander to children. I’m sure this movie makes perfect sense to kids, though, so what the hell do I know?
Wittgenstein once said that if a lion could speak, we wouldn’t understand him. Hunk is living proof that this is true, because I hear the words coming out of his mouth, and I know what he’s saying, but his only frame of reference for the entire planet revolves around bananas. I don’t think we ever even see Hunk eating a banana, probably because one whole banana is as big as he is. That might have been pretty funny, actually. Hey, Russell Madness, why didn’t you do a joke where Hunk works out by deadlifting a banana? Anyway, this doesn’t stop Hunk from talking about bananas all the time. He negotiates Russell’s wrestling contract in terms of bananas; he exits scenes by making like a banana and splitting; he makes banana-related puns pretty much whenever it suits him. It got to the point where I actually spaced out during one of Hunk’s monologues because all of his banana words started running together.
This review has flown off the rails at this point, so let’s try to bring it back home. Russell Madness doesn’t so much achieve the illusion of a dog wrestling as it has human wrestlers flail around like so many sweaty, roided-out mimes while a CGI dog is animated around their necks. Russell’s signature move is called the Russell Tussle, which involves bouncing off the top rope and dropkicking the other guy right in the chest, which is about as much of a finishing move as Hulk Hogan’s infamous Finger Poke of Doom. If ever you needed to see a Jack Russell terrier flip around during a fight trying to choke a guy, you’re probably better off watching Yoda’s fight scenes in the Star Wars prequels. At least Christopher Lee never had to suffer the indignity of losing a fight to a CGI dog.
Russell Madness is a kids movie all about can-do attitudes and believing in yourself in everything that you do, even if that thing is something absolutely ridiculous like convincing the world that your dog can wrestle, or watching braindead children’s movies for a bunch of internet sadists. Now that I think about it, the fact that Ferraro managed to sell this gimmick and turn a homeless dog into the star of the wrestling world proves that he could probably sell anything. Nate Ferraro has a bright future ahead of him as the next Billy Mays if he wants it. Remember kids: Anything is possible with a little elbow grease, Craigslist and a talking monkey riding a motorized monkey scooter.