I've sometimes daydreamed about what the past masters of cinematic fantasy -- Georges Milihs ("Voyage to the Moon") or James Whale ("Frankenstein") -- might have done with the Prospero-like powers of computer animation, although I know it's not necessarily true that a genius does better work with more resources. What I do know now, after seeing Vincent Ward's "What Dreams May Come," is that mediocrity with a mega-budget behind it becomes mediocrity of a whole new order. The bland bad taste responsible for the Country Kitchen patterns printed on rolls of paper towels, when blown up to titanic proportions, can literally take your breath away. And not in a good way.
This is one of those love-will-conquer-death stories where the main character spends the first 45 minutes or so having the rules of the afterlife explained to him by an infinitely patient and excruciatingly patronizing guide. In this case, the deceased is Chris (Robin Williams), a neurologist who until recently lived with his wife, Annie (Annabella Sciorra), in a place where everything -- their house, the streets, even the graveyards -- is awash in artificial lavender blossoms. The movie's production designer is listed as one Eugenio Zanetti, but I'm pretty sure this is a pseudonym for a 10-year-old girl because that's exactly the age I was when I talked my parents into letting me paint my room, and everything in it, purple.
Chris is the sort of doctor who lisps and twinkles at his child patients and always has a hefty bunny to dump in the arms of their querulous parents. He and Annie are soul mates, even though their bond has been tested by the deaths of their two children in a car accident four years earlier. She paints enormous, tacky, idealized landscapes that look like they should be on the cover of a book that tries to persuade you to adopt a creepy new religion. When Chris is also killed in a car accident, Annie's paintings get stormy and bleak, a slight improvement. As a lingering ghost, Chris worries about her, but Cuba Gooding Jr., playing a blurry entity who talks like Mr. Rogers, convinces him to move on to the next world.
At first, Chris' afterlife is gooey like paint (because he was also an art lover), but eventually he finds himself in a "dream house" that Annie once painted for him, situated by a grotesquely scenic alpine lake. Astonishingly, this house has even more blossoms than his place on earth. It resembles the least appealing display in a suburban flower show that has gone cancerous and is slowly, horribly taking over the world -- just looking at the colors will probably rot your teeth. Inside lurks an assortment of quasi-Eastern objets d'art that do not bear up under cursory examination.
A treacly Asian stewardess (don't ask) then takes Chris to a vast stairway beside another lake where people in Elizabethan costumes stroll back and forth or fly clumsily through the air; picture an entire Renaissance Faire on stage wires. There are little skipping girls in white pinafores and a man in a stovepipe hat riding one of those old fashioned bicycles with a huge front wheel, all suffused with golden light. Coos and giggles fill the soundtrack. Soon, however, Cuba returns to announce that Annie has committed suicide and if Chris wants to see her, he's going to have to journey down to hell.
This threw me. Wasn't he already in hell? What could be worse than a world seemingly designed by the people who make white porcelain geese with blue bows around their necks for twee B&Bs? Nothing, actually, for when Chris enlists Max von Sydow (!) to guide him to the underworld, he finds a place with huge, wrecked ocean liners in flames, where everything is black and white. It's nothing special, but at least there aren't any blossoms. The damned dress like the chorus of "Les Miserables" or sprawl, pale-limbed and groaning, on the ground. Most of the imagery in this part of "What Dreams May Come" is lifted from Dori's engravings for Dante's "Inferno," just as much of the imagery in the earlier parts of the film are taken from Caspar David Friedrich and trippy 19th century landscape painters Thomas Cole, Maxfield Parrish and Albert Bierstadt. Ward and Zanetti (if that is indeed "his" name), have the unholy ability to amplify the kitsch quotient in all of these artists to the point that it overwhelms everything else. Seeing the shadows of their pictures in "What Dreams May Come" feels like seeing your best bad-girl friend from high school turned into a beaming, brainwashed, pastel-clad, born-again matron. Even the nightmares here are cute: In one of the rare effective hell scenes, Chris staggers across a plain paved with muttering faces, and one of the faces starts kvetching at him like a Jewish papa.
Relevant memories from Chris' earthly life crop up regularly -- oh, you, know, just the high points, low points and turning points, which means that every 10 minutes or so someone's tearily chucking a kid under the chin, or saying, "I believe in you, you know that?" or "Now don't you ever give up!" "What Dreams May Come" delivers arias of cheap sentiment as regularly as Fed Ex, and Williams is right there, crinkling up his leprechaun face, for each and every one of them. Although the film's vision of Annie's personal hell makes for one of its few moving moments, that tiny bit of subtlety only sinks into the vast marshmallowy goo surrounding it.
By the movie's numbingly predictable end, the notion of a visually unleashed cinema seems like a monstrous mistake -- we've handed over the atom bomb to the Teletubbies! It's too late, of course, and God ("Oh, He's up there somewhere," chirps Cuba in "What Dreams May Come," although what "up there" means to someone who's already in heaven is a bit confusing) only knows what new horrors await us in an age of banality run amok.