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Blu-Ray : Recommended
Ranking:
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Release Date: March 12th, 2024 Movie Release Year: 1992

Brain Donors

Overview -

Blu-ray review by: Justin Remer
Twenty years before the Farrelly Brothers made their own version of The Three Stooges, the Zucker Brothers (Airplane!, The Naked Gun) produced something similar. They re-did the Marx Brothers with a new take on the classic A Night at the Opera. Originally titled Lame Ducks, the end product limped into theaters in 1992 as Brain Donors and is being revived on Blu by Kino Lorber. The Zuckers and Marxes have enough shared comedy DNA that much more of this foolhardy flick works than it reasonably should. Recommended.

OVERALL:
Recommended
Rating Breakdown
STORY
VIDEO
AUDIO
SPECIAL FEATURES
Tech Specs & Release Details
Technical Specs:
Brand New HD Master – From a 4K Scan of the 35mm Original Camera Negative
Video Resolution/Codec:
1080p/AVC MPEG-4
Length:
80
Aspect Ratio(s):
1.78:1
Audio Formats:
DTS-HD MA 5.1 and 2.0
Subtitles/Captions:
English
Special Features:
NEW Audio Commentary by Director Dennis Dugan, Moderated by Film Critic and Author Lee Gambin, NEW Audio Commentary by Film Journalist Staci Layne-Wilson
Release Date:
March 12th, 2024

Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take

Ranking:

I don’t use the word “foolhardy” lightly in describing Brain Donors. There’s a certain amount of hubris innate in deciding to remake a canonical movie, whether you’re William Friedkin (Sorcerer), Mike Nichols (The Birdcage), or the Farrelly Brothers (The Heartbreak Kid). You might pull off something good, but it will most likely lurk in the shadow of the earlier work no matter what. 

A Night at the Opera, the source material for Brain Donors, isn’t beloved because of the story. It's because of the iconic Marx brothers: their signature looks, their baked-in personae, and their unparalleled chemistry. It’s the same issue that the Farrellys encountered in their latter-day Three Stooges movie, and one that they arguably couldn’t overcome either.
That said, Brain Donors works much better than it has any right to. The Zuckers assigned their frequent collaborator Pat Proft to write the script (although Jim Abrahams reportedly contributed some uncredited material). Proft successfully evokes the verbal loop-de-loops and farcical door-slamming of the source material without directly lifting gags or sequences.

Director Dennis Dugan, who was coming off of Problem Child and later became one of the house directors for Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison empire, has a strong sense of comic rhythm that keeps the film zippy and light on its feet. With this kind of 10-gags-a-minute comedy, viewers will no doubt assess the hit-to-miss ratio differently. This viewer groaned quite a bit but I was also charmed and shocked into laughter more times than I expected.

The three gentlemen that have been tapped to replace Groucho, Harpo, and Chico are John Turturro (!?), rubber-faced stand-up Bob Nelson, and English working-class comedian Mel Smith. Their styles don’t match every nuance of the Marxes but they fit the broad types well enough, and they ricochet off each other with remarkable dexterity. With his black horn-rimmed glasses and frizzy pompadour, Turturro doesn’t quite look like Groucho – or even Barton Fink – so much as Elvis Costello with a cranked-up libido and jet-fueled motormouth. Nelson is good with physical gags, and he nails Harpo’s blend of childlike sweetness and unrepentant skirt-chasing. Smith’s streetwise sensibility is a good analog to Chico, even if he comes off a little dimmer than his model. Nancy Marchand (yes, the future Livia Soprano) is well-cast as the film’s Margaret Dumont. Jokewise, there are many blatant attempts to update the humor to a PG-13 ‘90s sensibility. For instance, the famous Bob Costas line from BASEketball – “You’re excited? Feel these nipples!” – makes its first filmic appearance here, delivered by Turturro with lascivious glee.

Plotwise, the film is pretty faithful to the original. Marchand’s dowager is bankrolling a ballet company, rather than an opera, with Turturro’s ambulance-chasing charlatan as its embezzling figurehead. Smith and Nelson assist him in his schemes to keep in the old lady’s good graces. Juliana Donald and Spike Alexander are the young dancers seeking stardom who are also too earnest by half – an aspect of the original that didn’t need such faithful reproduction. George de la Peña is a solid straight-faced villain who can also dance his ass off.

To its credit, Brain Donors moves so quickly that the film proper doesn’t overstay its welcome and wraps up around the 70-minute mark. Will Vinton, the father of Claymation, provides an extended stop-motion opening credit sequence and ridiculous coda to nudge the film to a more commercially acceptable running time. The opening credits feature clay versions of our three leads interacting with a goofy duck, presumably a remnant of the film’s original title, Lame Ducks. Thank goodness they didn’t decide to revise the cartoon to have the characters messing around with a sentient brain or something.

Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Brain Donors comes in a standard keepcase with a slipcover that duplicates the cover art. The disc loads to a copyright warning and KL Studio Classics logo before the static menu, accompanied by Mark Mothersbaugh’s opening theme music.

Video Review

Ranking:

I reviewed Brain Donors on DVD years ago, and I was just looking at some of the screencaps I took at the time. The AVC-encoded 1080p 1.78:1 presentation on Kino’s Blu-ray is sourced from a new 4K scan of the original camera negative, and it looks so much more vivid and colorful than that old DVD. While this movie is not something one would think of as “lush” necessarily, there is something to be said for a high-quality scan from 35mm film. Skin tones are accurate and everything looks crisp and pleasing in motion.

Audio Review

Ranking:

The soundtrack is offered in two possible mixes, both lossless: DTS-HD MA 5.1 and 2.0. I might seem like a weird luddite, but I often prefer simpler mixes when it comes to film from this era. The 2.0 mix sounds more present to my ears, although the 5.1 does provide decent immersion and ambience. Dialogue is of utmost importance and always comes through clearly, along with plenty of goofy SFX. The music by Ira Newborn (with theme music by Mark Mothersbaugh) is well-supported in both mixes and provides the kind of comic emphasis viewers come to expect from his work with the Zucker brothers. 

One major annoyance: the English subtitles are designed for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers, but appear to have been written as a cue sheet for the foley artists. Every single sound, including actions that are happening clearly onscreen, are described in the subtitles. Also, whoever wrote the transcription either ran out of verbs or doesn’t understand what clattering is. Numerous times when a door opens – often onscreen – it is described in the subs as “(door clattering).”

Special Features

Ranking:

Kino Lorber offers two newly recorded commentaries and a healthy selection of comedy trailers in their bonus section.

  • Audio Commentary by director Dennis Dugan, moderated by Lee Gambin - Recorded over Zoom, this newly recorded commentary is full of fun tidbits about how this project came together as well as many other showbiz stories from Dugan's long career in film, TV, and comedy.
  • Audio Commentary by Staci Layne-Wilson - Film journalist Layne-Wilson provides more background on the making and release of the film.
  • Trailers - A theatrical trailer for this film, as well as these other Kino Lorber releases: 

Final Thoughts

Brain Donors is better than you’d expect, but it still comes off as fairly slight. The cast is winning, and (to this reviewer’s taste) more of the script’s scattershot jokes land than don’t. Whatever your take, I find it heartening that a film as neglected by film history as this can score a new 4K scan and come out looking as good as it does. Dennis Dugan’s commentary is full of fun showbiz stories and worth the upgrade if you’re on the fence. The whole release comes Recommended.

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