Review: Doctor Proctor’s fart powder

Jo Nesbø is one of Norway’s biggest literary exports, world famous for his Harry Hole crime novels. On the side he is also a children’s book author, and two feature films have been adapted from his Doctor Proctor series. This is the first one.

Having sold more than 30 million crime novels in over 40 languages, entertained thousands as the lead singer in rock band Di Derre, created the TV series Occupied and written four books for children (which sold 900.000 copies in 37 countries), Jo Nesbø is a man of many trades, and most of what he touches becomes gold. No surprise then that his first Doctor Proctor book from 2007 was made into a feature film in 2014. Doctor Proctor’s fart powder is the first of so far two movies, directly based on the first Proctor book.

Aimed at middle-grade children, the titular doctor is one of two local, competing inventors in a town to where 11 year old Bulle moves. He befriends Lisa, also around 11, and they soon find themselves in the workshop of their neighbour, Doctor Proctor, a typical mad scientist/inventor. Their world is not very different from ours, just a little, and when the doc invents a powder that makes you fart so hard that you can fly, the two children turn the invention into a successful commercial product. The only problem is that the evil competitor Thrane, who lives in a small castle, has dispatched his twin sons Truls and Trym to spy on what’s going on. Oh yes, there’s also the matter of a dinosaur-sized snake…

Children’s movies are big business in Norway. Only a handful are made every year (only a handful of everything is made in Norway, actually) but some of them become quite successful, and Doctor Proctor’s fart powder is no exception. In fact, the film became Norway’s third most popular theatrical film in Norway in 2014, beaten only the local action comedy Børning and the blockbuster The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. It might surprise you, but 6 of the 10 most watched movies in Norway in 2014 were children’s movies. My personal theory about this is that a children’s movie automatically doubles or triples the number of tickets sold due to parents always having to join their kids in theatres. Or siblings and friends. Some movies are based on old, familiar works that adults also want to see, such as Journey to the Christmas star, but newer franchises benefit from the fact that children most of the time can’t go to a movie alone. Fair enough, films are financed in part by ticket income. However, as far as Doctor Proctor’s fart powder is concerned, you can tell already by looking at the poster art that this a high profile movie that presses all the right buttons. Made on a big budget of 41 million NOK (5 million dollars / 4.3 million euros), the film employs A-list actors and comedians, and refrain from nothing as it throws jokes, sets, special effects and childlike imagination at the viewer at high speed.

Even though the universe of the film looks distinct and complete, the first thought that came to my mind was Roald Dahl and Kjell Aukrust, two authors with separate styles but still having that genuince, warm X-factor in common. It’s not that Fart Powder is a rip-off or copy, but it has the same level of detail, vivid flair and honest playfulness that the best storytellers offer. You can see this in the stylized characters, in the colourful sets and other designs, and in how the film takes something as primal and basic as farting seriously. Granted, everyone in the movie laughs at farts but farts have become a comic book superpower in this film, an actual ability based on impossible chemistry, not unlike some Marvel superheroes. Indeed, the film feels more like a comic book than a film, and that is a compliment in this case. A novel is turned into a movie that feels like a comic book (but without explicit panel graphics that make up the intros to some movies, just to explain that it is a “comic book movie”) – it’s a beautiful thing, in a slapstick sense. The doc also conveys the spirit of another Norwegian recluse and inventor, Reodor Felgen. Since the 1950s, Felgen has been the poster boy for clever inventors, a bit like Disney’s Gyro Gearloose but more beloved by Norwegian readers and film fans. Misunderstood, poor and with engineering failures, and yet grounded and sensible, both Felgen and Proctor suceeds only when they take the aid of helpers they didn’t know before. That is perhaps even the core message of the film, should there be one; accept the unknown and benefit from collaboration.

Twisted adults, evil geniuses, an underdog hero with crazy hair and a big heart, and cute kids; those are the main types of characters in the film. There is one more type, though. Lisa, one of the three main characters. Lisa is a stright girl, in fact she is the only straight character in the film. She is not dressed funny, she does not speak in a weird way, she is not exaggerated like all the adults and her co-stars, and she is not a typical nerd with big spectacles. Lisa is conspicuously normal, and in a way that disturbs me. Is it an attempt to avoid displaying girls in a ridiculous way? In this day and age, men are not role models, women are, and the character of Lisa thus feels contrived. In her normality, she is the different one.

The snake also feels misplaced. Where does it come from? What is its function in the film, other than adding some CGI and trying to up the adventure feeling by adding forced dangers? Throwing in more or less random monsters is a cheap trick, even when children are the audience.

Doctor Proctor’s fart powder speaks to your inner child and sucks you in without needing to know much in advance. The film’s Back to the Future-like unapologetic qualities should entertain adults and children alike.

Directed by Arild Fröhlich.

Norway, 2014.