Faux Film Festival
Television contributes to the knockoff ethos mostly through clever programming. If any version of a big-budget movie was previously filmed, it finds its way onto TV near the time of the new movie's release. Not officially knockoffs, the scheduling of these films work in much the same way, siphoning directly from someone else's advertising budget to gain viewers for an approximation of the originally promised experience.
In recent years, however, television has produced exploitative stinkers all its own and released them in the months preceding a well-hyped motion picture. The best is the 1996 Fox network movie Tornado!, starring Bruce Campbell and released weeks in advance of the vacuous Jan de Bont summer thriller Twister.
Here's what puts Tornado! into the knockoff elite: It's a TV movie on America's fourth favorite network and has no hope of matching the big special-effects budget of a film like Twister, which is the whole point of Jan de Bont's slick blower. Working in the same overheated-acting style as the feature movie to more ridiculous effects, Tornado! was geared toward those viewers with air disturbances on the brain. Watched now, it becomes an advertisement for the integrity of the actors, who play it straight despite what must have been intimate knowledge as to the limits of the movie's quality.
Sam Raimi cult actor Bruce Campbell gets special consideration in this category for also appearing in the rare television knockoff of a little-seen but well-regarded feature film called Normal Life. Viewers wishing to see screen siren Ashley Judd's over-the-top, largely naked performance in this 1996 John McNaughton film will easily stumble onto the 1997 ABC TV movie In the Line of Duty: Blaze of Glory ("inspired by" the same true crime story as the McNaughton film) and will have to settle for TV sitcom actress Lori Loughlin and no nudity at all. The fact that Bruce Campbell would probably be a better match for Judd and the feature film's Luke Perry a better match for Loughlin blurs the lines between original and knockoff in wonderful fashion. And in a final example of intra-industry profit sharing, Tornado!'s production company, Hallmark Entertainment, is also responsible for the 1996 miniseries Titanic, which provided gainful employment to George C. Scott, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Tim Curry and relieved countless video store owners, who were able to stock a seemingly new video bearing the title Titanic during the theatrical run of James Cameron's megahit.
The parent in our opening example watching the Aladdin that the kids proclaimed "not real" could have been watching the official "Not Disney Version" or something very, very official indeed. Disney has released video-only sequels to several of its films, most notably Aladdin (The Return of Jafar) and The Lion King (Simba's Pride). Disney might call these films plot-furthering bridges between movies and potential sequels, but visiting the same characters with only a percentage of the original voice cast and shoddier animation for a more limited audience officially makes these films knockoffs, and don't let Disney convince you otherwise.
While Disney gets the award for the breadth and depth of its accomplishments, other companies have done good work in the category. Don Bluth's All Dogs Go to Heaven, a giddy celebration of undead pet ownership, has sponsored direct-to-video sequels, as has the dinosaurs-as-orphans film The Land Before Time. The most recent sequel-as-knockoff is Bartok the Magnificent, a follow-up to the big-budget animated superflop Anastasia. The sequel focuses on the original movie's most-obviously-Disney-knockoff character: the Hank Azariavoiced wacky bat character. A knockoff film featuring a knockoff character type from a major studio officially opposed to knockoffs is a powerful testament to the effect that redubbing bad, same-named movies has had on a multibillion dollar industry and it's a fitting close to our celebration of same.