[18 December 2008]
Mr. Bean is a comic icon with few peers. He is the most widely recognized and beloved ambassador of British comedy since the Monty Python troupe. Through this character, Rowan Atkinson simultaneously looks back to the silent film era for inspiration and provides inspiration to a new generation of comedians (if Mr. Bean were an American, he would be Steve Carrell’s Michael Scott).
The original Mr. Bean television program can, and should, be enjoyed by audiences of all ages: actual children can relate to Atkinson’s man-child character while everyone else can laugh, or cringe in sympathetic pain, for all the awkward moments Mr. Bean manages to create for himself. Mr. Bean is a truly great comic creation, one that can ride an escalator like anyone else and somehow make it funny.
All that being said, no one ever need purchase Mr. Bean: The Ultimate Collection.
I suppose it would be kinder to say that this seven-DVD set is for ultra-psycho fans only. Mr. Bean is like Cheap Trick: the early stuff is amazing and the rest is really not, although there are occasional reminders of greatness here and there, and a solid attempt to resurrect the legacy in the later years. Most Cheap Trick fans would prefer to buy four different versions of At Budokan instead of a monstrous boxed set that includes crap like The Doctor, and therefore no such monstrous boxed set exists.
In the case of Mr. Bean, for some reason, it does. The Ultimate Collection contains every bit of Bean on film from the beginning to the present (excepting much of the Mr. Bean: The Animated Series and brief bits of the original series edited out for time). This exhaustiveness makes the set a perfect holiday gift for Rowan Atkinson’s mother.
The first three discs of The Ultimate Collection contain the 14 original episodes of the Mr. Bean live-action TV series, which first aired between 1989 and 1993. These discs include everything already available in The Whole Bean set released in 1994, a cheaper, shorter, and more consistently satisfying set than The Ultimate Collection. After the understated delight of the original episodes comes Bean: The Movie (1997).
Mr. Bean’s transition to a bigger screen (and a bigger market) is marred by many problems that may have been unforeseeable and proved to be insurmountable. How do you make a feature film for a large, general audience around a main character whose most endearing quality is his ability to alienate himself? How can you make a film for and about families if your main character mails Christmas cards to himself? How do you transition a basically silent star to a soundtrack-heavy 1997 sound picture? If Bean: The Movie has the ultimate answer to these questions, it is simply that you don’t.
Bean: The Movie is a fish-out-of-water movie, whether it intended to be or not. Mr. Bean is stuck in a filmic situation that differs completely from his native habitat. The 2007 sequel, Mr. Bean’s Holiday, is a more earnest effort to reconcile the spirit of the original Mr. Bean series with the Hollywood family film zeitgeist. By sending Bean to France with no grasp of the French language, the film allows him to at least keep quiet.
Also, while the first film took Bean to unnecessary and inappropriate extremes to attempt humor (Mr. Bean as an accidental surgeon, with two lives in his hands?), Mr. Bean’s Holiday offers a wider palate of humor and returns some subtlety to the enterprise (some). All the same, the film is too bright, too loud, and just too big for the funny little British man to be effective.
The last two discs of The Ultimate Collection contain the first nine episodes of Mr. Bean: The Animated Series. It makes little sense to reduce Rowan Atkinson’s talent to his voice, since Bean is an essentially silent character, but that is exactly what The Animated Series does. Taken on their own terms, however, the animated episodes are charming-enough children’s fare. Few adults would find much of interest in them, and that’s really the problem with The Ultimate Collection: the only audience that would enjoy it from beginning to end is that select fraternity of six to eight year-olds who have the attention spans of college graduates.
Perhaps such a select group is the target audience for this set, because many children would avoid bonus features and this set has few. Most of those included, however, are worth the viewer’s while. Some extra, “Never-Before-Seen-On-TV” skits are included with the original series, as well as some sketches from Comic Relief UK featuring Atkinson as Bean. The set includes no audio commentary tracks, but several documentaries are scattered across the discs. Most of these regard the making of Mr. Bean’s Holiday, lending that film an air of serious artistic effort (beyond its merit) that is not given to the nearly feature-less Bean: The Movie.
Most of the documentaries in the set include some input from interviews with Rowan Atkinson, and the 40-minute “The Story of Bean” centers around an interview with the actor. These interviews with Atkinson really add some weight to The Ultimate Collection because they provide a contrast between Atkinson-as-Bean and Atkinson-as-Atkinson. Watching Atkinson discuss his work out of character allows the viewer to appreciate the thoroughly high quality of his acting: When Atkinson becomes Bean he is absolutely no longer Atkinson. He never winks and he does not simply put on a mask. He morphs.
In total, however, The Ultimate Collection leaves the viewer with a mixed opinion of Rowan Atkinson. He has obvious talent, but in this set, his mediocre material outweighs the brilliant stuff. The Whole Bean (which includes “The Story of Bean”) is all the Bean one really needs. Everything else is stuff only a mother or an ultra-psycho Bean-iac could love.