Look Who’s Talking, and the story of a ridiculously quick sequel

Look Who's Talking Too
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Few Hollywood studios have managed to turn a ridiculously quick sequel from scratch as Tri-Star did with Look Who’s Talking Too.

The phrase ‘sleeper hit’ is rarely used legitimately when describing modern movies, but surely it’s a badge that the original Look Who’s Talking movie can wear with pride. Released in 1989, it was and is a film that hinged on a gimmick: that there’s couple who have a baby, and we the audience get to hear the baby’s thoughts, courtesy of the voice of Bruce Willis.

Willis scored a pretty legendary deal for a role where he didn’t appear on screen once. For what turned out to be around four days of voice recording work, he took a small upfront fee, and a cut of the box office gross, amounting to somewhere between eight and ten percent. When the film hit big out of nowhere at the American box office, Willis would take home at least $10m – more than twice he got for Die Hard a year or two before.

Look Who’s Talking came from writer/director Amy Heckerling, best known to this point for the film Fast Times At Ridgemont High and National Lampoon’s European Vacation. For Tri-Star, that picked the film up after three other studios passed, it cost it $7.5m for the physical production of the movie. It released the film in US cinemas on October 13th 1989, with John Travolta (then deep in a career lull) and Kirstie Alley in the lead roles. The industry word was that Tri-Star feared it had a dud, given that it’d delayed the release of the film by seven months from its original March 1989 date. It’d be fair to say the studio had the last laugh here.

For when Look Who’s Talking was released, it promptly topped the box office chart for a good month, taking in over $140m in America alone. Rarely in those days for a Hollywood comedy, it travelled overseas too, and the film’s total gross – including worldwide sales – was $297m in cinemas alone. It defeated Patrick Swayze in Next Of Kin, Michael Douglas in Black Rain, Steel Magnolias, and Ted Danson in Dad.

Look Who's Talking

Look Who’s Talking

Look Who’s Talking was, thus, a staggering success, and Tri-Star fully intended to capitalise on it. What therefore followed was one of the speediest crankings out of a sequel in mainstream Hollywood history. This, to be clear, wasn’t one of those instances where the studio agreed to shoot films back to back, or committed to a second film even before the first was released. Tri-Star saw the box office returns of the first movie, and then decided it wanted number two. It’d locked people in just in case, but the studio was equally surprised by how big a hit the film turned out.

Thing is, Tri-Star wanted its follow-up really very, very fast. There’d been a teaser at the end of the first film, but what would be called Look Who’s Talking Too was greenlit, written, shot and released 14 months and one day after the release of the first film. The original hadn’t actually made it to UK cinemas until April of 1990. By June, the sequel was filming. By August, it’d wrapped.

It’d be fair to say that Tri-Star, that had pushed Heckerling to make a sequel she really didn’t want to make. It’d also be fair to say that you can tell. The running time of the film is a mere 82 minutes (the original was 96), and that includes a rerun of the opening sequence from the first film, which knocks out the first few minutes. Take out the credits too, and the film runs to around an hour and a quarter of thinly-stretched new material. I’m all for the argument that movies tend to run too long, and that nobody walks out of a film and says ‘I wish that was 20 minutes longer’, but still: it was always Police Academy films that were derided for their photocopier scripts, yet no Hollywood comedy sequel takes the piss to quite the level of this one.

There was more material available for the final cut, incidentally, as deleted scenes popped up on American television.

Yet with no story left to tell – the thin narrative was started, told and completed in the first film – what we get is a retread with some more star names bundled in. The plan had been to bring Richard Pryor in on voicing duties, but his health problems led to him dropping out. Instead, the new additions were Roseanne Barr and Damon Wayans, with Willis predating where his career’s ended up by picking up another cheque for a few days of work.

It’s not a good film this, and Heckerling – when she does talk about it – suggests strongly that she didn’t enjoy the experience of making it. She wouldn’t return for the trilogy-closer, 1993’s Look Who’s Talking Now!, where Tom Ropelewski was hired to direct instead, and he co-wrote the script with Leslie Dixon. His highest profile work would be The Next Best Thing, starring Madonna and Rupert Everett. Dixon would go on to write the screenplay to Mrs Doubtfire

Yet, surprisingly, if Look Who’s Talking Too is one of the very worst Hollywood comedy sequels of its era, there’s a case that Look Who’s Talking Now is one of the most underappreciated. I’m not suggesting Oscars, but the three year gap to the third movie was better spent. No longer was the focus on talking babies: now it was talking dogs, which made for better comedy. No Bruce Willis in this one, sadly. He had to find his easy payday elsewhere.

Look Who's Talking Now

Look Who’s Talking Now

Still, the box office magic was gone. Look Who’s Talking Too was absolutely savaged by critics, and audiences saw through it pretty quickly too. The box office tumbled from near-$300m to just shy of $50m. The third film? It dropped further, to $22m. It became clear that the first film was a genuine sleeper hit moment, and that metaphorical lightning in the bottle couldn’t be recaptured.

Of course, it’s not stopping Hollywood having another go. There’s now talk of a fresh reboot/remake/reimagining/whatever phrase they come up with this time, and a new attempt to capitalise on Look Who’s Talking. Jeremy Garelick, who directed the underrated romcom The Wedding Ringer, was said to be attached before the plague happened.

Should it arrive, it’d be nearly three decades since the last film in the series, and that feels like the kind of gap where the odds of a better movie have improved.

Certainly, the 14 months from the first to the second film – designed to capitalise on the popularity of the original – didn’t work, and the only series to find that out to the same degree since was, I’d argue, Bad Moms. That hugely enjoyable 2016 comedy was followed 16 months later by A Bad Moms Christmas, which felt as rushed as it was.

Still, plans are afoot there for Bad Moms 3. And who knows? Bruce Willis might be available for some voiceover work…

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