Smith’s Verdict: ***
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
1976’s “Freaky Friday” is one of those Disney live-action comedies that people just go nuts over. People love the gentle comedy that comes with the vintage Disney style of the 1970s. And when I was a kid, I watched this multiple times as well. Also, despite it already being based on a popular novel by Mary Rodgers, it’s also said to be the film that spawned the “body-swap” genre (movies, mostly comedies, in which a man turns into a boy or the other way around, or both), for better or worse.
Here’s the story: A thirteen-year-old tomboy named Annabel Andrews (Jodie Foster) and her mother Ellen (Barbara Harris) aren’t getting along very well. Secretly, they each wish that they could just switch places with each other so that one will see how difficult the other’s life is, and vice versa. And on Friday the 13th, they say their wish out loud, at the same time (despite them being in two different locations). Their wish is granted—Annabel’s mind inside her mother’s body, and the mother is inside her daughter. So now they must lead each other’s lives for the day.
They each find that leading the other’s life is not as easy as they think it is. For example, how can junior high school be anything but fun? Ellen (in Annabel’s body) learns the hard way that knowing all the right answers can make her the object of practical jokes, and she doesn’t know the first thing about field hockey (Annabel’s the captain of the team). Meanwhile, Annabel (in Ellen’s body) realizes that being a stay-at-home mom isn’t all that’s cracked up to be, as she’s the one that has to do all the housework.
Watching “Freaky Friday” now, I find it’s a tad overrated. It doesn’t hold up very well and it’s a tad too goofy for its own good, especially in the final act of the movie. It’s an energetic chase scene in which Annabel drives a car in order to get to Ellen. Hijinks ensue as police give chase. The chase continues through narrow alleyways, on a public sidewalk, a walking-bridge, and eventually ends up in the lake.
Where did this come from? I mean sure, in that era, the Disney studio was crazy about exploiting their budget and letting loose a lot of energetic action sequences purely made for laughs. But while “Freaky Friday” is still silly before that point, it’s a different kind of silly. The screenplay is mainly full of dialogue and little situations for the characters to go through. Why unleash the hijinks-filled madness in the last reel?
Though, to be fair, this chase does lead to the funniest sight gag in the movie—the police car, split down the middle in half after crashing into a wall edge. Of course, the car would crash and wouldn’t rip in two pieces like a sheet of paper. But I don’t care—I laughed.
OK, what don’t I like about the movie? Aside from unleashing all the goofy, action-filled antics in the last reel, what specifically is wrong with this movie? Well…the two lead actresses. Actually no, it’s not the two lead actresses. They’re both very talented and have fun in delivering differing personalities for their age—one acts old, the other acts young. But the problem is that we don’t get enough of their real characters before the big switch. If they hadn’t said anything about this miracle, I probably wouldn’t have noticed any difference. And I sort of don’t—Jodie Foster and Barbara Harris have already played these roles many times, which I know makes them ideal casting choices, but doesn’t make them anything new. Jodie Foster was mature for her age and Barbara Harris was always young for her age. They’re well-cast, but for these roles, you need actresses who will take chances.
Also, I’m all for Disney magic, but there’s one part at the end that just got me scratching my head. When Annabel and Ellen switch back to their normal selves, they suddenly find themselves in the wrong places. How is this possible? (Well, that’s a dumb question—that’s like asking how switching bodies is possible.) Wouldn’t it make more sense if Annabel found herself back in her own body in the place where her body was, instead of being in the same place, only with her own body? It may be nitpicking, but…I don’t get it.
So what do I like about the movie, and why I think it’s worth recommending? Well honestly, it’s the script. The first half of the movie is well-written. Most of the dialogue is very funny and there are a lot of interesting ideas that come about. Even if the problems that these two leads face are predictable, they’re still pretty amusing. My favorite parts are—Annabel-as-Ellen dealing with the drapery man, the carpet cleaners, the mechanic, and a neighbor asking for her hair dryer back ALL AT THE SAME TIME; Annabel-as-Ellen dealing with her picky maid (Patsy Kelly, droll); Annabel-as-Ellen having a pleasant conversation with her crush Boris (Marc McClure), who would rather not be around the real Annabel but has fun with this middle-aged woman, not knowing who she really is; Annabel-as-Ellen bonding with her little brother Ben (Sparky Marcus), whom she hated before; and Annabel-as-Ellen forced into a meeting with her own teacher and principal, (I realized by this point that Barbara Harris has the best moments of the two leads.)
I also really liked John Astin as Bill, Annabel’s father and Ellen’s husband. Bill is the self-centered man who is trying to get these two to hold together in order to impress his bosses at a water-shoe he set up at the lake, where Annabel must water-ski and Ellen must make a feast. He’s constantly reminding them of what they’re supposed to do. He’s also the main reactor to these strange situations. Astin’s bewildered expressions are just hilarious.
So despite my issues with “Freaky Friday,” I do find it to be an enjoyable watch. The film has the usual Disney lighthearted feel and does generate some good laughs in its screenplay. I understand why people love this movie. I only like it—it’s not a great movie, but it’s a good one if you’re looking for something to watch on a rainy day.
NOTE: Now I just remembered my favorite moment from Jodie Foster—Ellen-as-Annabel’s encounter with her husband’s sexy, new secretary and scaring her into showing less cleavage. That was a nice scene.