Boxing movies hold a special place in the world of sports movies, if only for the fact that the underdog never had a better sounding board than this.  Pugilistic pugs giving all their heart, soul and muscle to prove they’re something to a world who doesn’t believe in them.

Wallace Beery benefited from it.  Paul Newman and Robert DeNiro got props for it.  Sylvester Stallone owes his career to it.

There are more boxing movies out there than you may well be aware of, and all of them – more or less – follow the same formula: fighter with heart struggles up from nothing to make it to the top of the heap.

Now when I gave the names of Beery, Newman, DeNiro and Stallone, understand that they are the best-recognized stars of this genre.  There are other actors out there who have strapped on their padded gloves and kissed the canvas.  Fred Williamson, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Brad Davis, Jon Voight, Mr. T, Dolph Lundgren, Carl Weathers and Tim Conway… all have spent time in the square circle.

And so did one other particular figure… who just happened to be a kangaroo.

…kinda.

Okay, this movie I’m getting into has a kangaroo as its lead pugilist – even has its name as the title of the flick – but as anyone who has even one black eye can see, Matilda has a real kangaroo in it just like 2004′s Garfield starred a real cat.

1978 gave us a lot of movies to consider, including a boxing movie to end all boxing movies.  That one was Rocky II.  But it (and American International Pictures) also gave us Matilda, which is really less about boxing than it is about being honest, true to one’s self and fair… and no, this isn’t a Walt Disney picture – let’s not give THEM any ideas.

Now, let’s give the plot a 10-count: penny-ante talent agent Bernie (Elliott Gould) is down on his luck and fresh out of usable talents until he takes a trip down under to Australia and discovers female boxing kangaroo named Matilda, which knocks out all comers.  Almost immediately, Bernie decides to finally break into the big time by taking Matilda and her trainer Baker (Clive Revill) back to The States and having this Marsupial Mauler fight a few rounds against a human.  Of course, Bernie has to deal with a protective animal rights activist named Karen (Karen Carlson), boxing commissioner Wildman (Roy Clark), world-weary sports columnist Parkhurst (Robert Mitchum), a well-connected hood named Uncle Nono (Harry Guardino) and the current boxing champ of the world, Dockerty (Larry Pennell).

Before I get to anything else, let me address one point first and foremost: what the hell is a cast like this doing in what is basically a kiddy-fied version of Rocky?  Most of these people have been in some darned good projects before and since, why are they here??  All I can think is that producer Albert S. Ruddy was a great pitchman, trying to convince a cast like this to do a movie version of a book by Paul Gallico that must have started as an afterthought and ended up thoughtless.

Paul Gallico.  The man who wrote the books “The Poseidon Adventure”, “Thomasina”, “Miracle In the Wilderness” and “Mrs. ‘Arris Goes To Paris”.  He wrote a book about a boxing kangaroo that – according to this script adapted by producer Ruddy and co-writer Timothy Galfas – gives us insight as to the boxing world and how the Mafia (if there was one) machinates things, but not so much as to kangaroos and how the real world operates.  Would you guess that in a basic rundown of this story it would become a tale of moral and emotional growth, with a mix of love story and self worth in there?  Apparently, this was being aimed, as I said, for kids.  All well and good, but then why have the well-connected hood think of using Matilda’s pouch for smuggling cocaine?  This must have been for the same kids who guffaw at their family’s annual Thanksgiving showing of Goodfellas and every episode of “Jersey Shore”.

Elliott Gould was, unfortunately, in the downward spiral of his career with his shouting, extremely overcompensating performance here and in other films like Mean Johnny Barrows, Harry And Walter Go To New York, Escape To Athena, 1979′s The Lady Vanishes, The Last Flight Of Noah’s Ark, Falling In Love Again, Dirty Tricks, The Devil And Max Devlin…. Comparatively, this was just another drop in an already overflowing bucket of slop that proved only that Gould would do anything for money.  Instead of looking interested in what was going on, he just bugs his eyes, shouts his lines and flaps his arms around like those balloon men in front of car dealerships.  From M*A*S*H to this in eight years time – that’s gonna be one humiliating AFI tribute there, Elliott.

Let’s put another few of Matilda’s stereotyped and stunted feature actors in perspective here.  Clive Revill: The Assassination Bureau and Avanti!.  Harry Guardino: Houseboat and Dirty Harry.  Lionel Stander: Mr. Deeds Goes To Town and Once Upon A Time In The West.  Robert Mitchum: Night Of The Hunter and Cape Fear (both versions).  Lenny Montana: The Godfather and Fingers.  Art Metrano: They Shoot Horses Don’t They? and How Stella Got Her Groove Back.  Roy Clark: …uh… well, “Hee-Haw” and “The Beverly Hillbillies”.

As I said, the actors onscreen here have been in things far less-embarrassing than Matilda.  Sure, Metrano was in two Police Academy flicks as well as Going Ape! and that Andy Sidaris guns-and-breasts epic Malibu Express, but I’ll bet you he brought those up before he’d bring Matilda up in conversation.

Even the director has done better.  Daniel Mann has lensed Come Back Little Sheba, The Rose Tattoo, The Teahouse Of The August Moon, Butterfield 8, Our Man Flint, Willard (yes, the killer rat thing), and such well thought-of TV films as Playing For Time and The Man Who Broke 1000 Chains.  But a movie like Matilda doesn’t exist for talent.  A movie like Matilda doesn’t exist for acting.  And a movie like Matilda sure doesn’t exist for a good story.  It exists for Matilda herself.

You’d think that we’d at least get… oh, I dunno… A REAL KANGAROO??  Even a cheapie kiddie effort like this should be able to have a kangaroo hopping around with boxing gloves and look halfway convincing.  You’d think so, wouldn’t you?  What do we get?  A guy in a kangaroo suit.

A.  GUY.  IN.  A.  %#$&*!@.  KANGAROO.  SUIT.

I’m going to name this guy, too.  Gary Morgan: he was the first Richie Petrie in the pilot for what became “The Dick Van Dyke Show”.  Apparently he stayed busy after the fact with small roles in TV and in films like Logan’s Run, Pete’s Dragon and The Final Countdown, but he also had to bide his time by getting stuffed into a kangaroo suit, hopping around and punching people.  Ah, Hollywood.

And this suit is NOTHING like a kangaroo.  I know we’re supposed to suspend our disbelief when watching a movie.  But when we have distance shots of a REAL kangaroo in some shots and Morgan in his suit and mask bobbing and weaving, that’s a little too much suspension for me.  In a decade where we could have a realistic looking King Kong sneer and squint and blow air on Jessica Lange, we expect more in a fake kangaroo that should at least be able to twitch.  Near the end it wiggles its ears, I think, but that’s as close to Rick Baker territory as we (or this movie’s world) ever get.  Those dead eyes.  Those dead, unblinking eyes staring into the hapless viewer’s soul with every shot of that accursed monstrosity’s face.  Did Ruddy & Company not realize they were making nightmare fuel for kids instead of a new Flavor Of The Month to rival Santa Claus or The Easter Bunny?

Not a thing in Matilda works.  Let’s forget the ratty Halloween costume-looking thing we have headlining for a minute.  Let’s talk about its story.  If this was a straight-up parody of boxing films, this would have worked (it almost sounds like a National Lampoon take on Rocky).  Even if we had a real kangaroo play the whole flick and just made with the judicious cutting and editing to make it look as if it was boxing and jabbing, that could have worked as well.  As it is, every character having a heart-to-heart discussion with each other, Clive Revill bookending the film with directly-into-the-camera monologues about Matilda and how she’s affected everybody’s lives and playing the whole thing serious (or at least as serious as they play it here), it’s deadly.  And making with mawkish sentiment about the bad guys realizing how bad they are, the cynical guys realizing they may be just a tad too cynical and the heels realizing how heely they are to everybody… you’d expect violin music to pop up at their moment of truth.  In fact, there just may have been – if not, then color me disappointed.

But of course, what with Matilda being a shoo-in for big success (what with that youth / boxing / kangaroo market out there as-yet untapped), we had product tie-ins aplenty.  Tennis balls, plastic model vans, and thanks to no less a restaurant than McDonald’s, we get to see Matilda stop at Mickey D’s for a couple of cheeseburgers.  Nice.  In fact, this movie was the one for which McDonald’s first developed their Happy Meals.

So as you can see, there’s some thing even processed pink slime can’t improve.

Now, this $5.2 million-or-so kiddie boxing epic of course lost big and took a lot of people down in the sea of red ink.  It lost big.  In fact, for as much hype as this thing got (I even remember some TV musical special featuring that poor bonehead in the Matilda suit hopping around, as well as some posters at my local theater promising us that Matilda was indeed “COMING SOON”), how did it fail so utterly and completely?

My explanation is simple enough: there are some concepts that are so bad in their planning stages that they never make it from Point A to Point B in whole or in part because of their bad conception.  Who in their right mind would have thought that a boxing movie for kiddies with a kangaroo as its star – or at least a guy in a really bad suit – would have the same appeal as Rocky or The Champ or any other underdog-bucking-the-odds film would?

Matilda is just plain painful to watch.  Brain-numbing.  Deadening.  Stultifying.  Even Elliott Gould – a man who had the temerity to star (with Donald Sutherland) in a movie called S*P*Y*S – can be seen visibly struggling every moment to not break free and run off-screen; run somewhere far away where there are no cutesy-poo stereotypes, no horrific kangaroo masks, no over-simplified good vs. bad stories and no misplaced product placement.  And I can’t say I blame him.

Oh and before I forget, the main theme for Matilda, “When I’m With You, I’m Feelin’ Good”, is sung by Pat Boone and his daughter Debby Boone, two of the Seventies’ most wholesome, squeaky clean and neatly-pressed white people ever.  THAT oughta keep the curious away.