Welcome to Good Burger, home of one of the most underrated children’s comedies of the 90s. Good Burger came along at a time when the decade had really hit its stride, finally free of the shadow of the 80s and just before it melded into the next millennium. I’d go so far as to say this movie has one of the best representations of being a kid at the time, because it takes the format of what we were watching on television and turns it into a feature-length film.
Those of us fortunate enough to remember the days when Nickelodeon was hosted by Stick Stickly will be familiar with the movie’s stars Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell. These two were the stars of Kenan and Kel, which popped up after both actors got their start on the hit show All That. There are quite a few All That alumni in the cast, unfortunately including the recently exposed abuser Dan Schneider, who was also a writer and producer. Among some of the other letdowns of the movie are a few ableist premises and a couple cracks involving a crude understanding of gender. While all of these drawbacks do lessen the experience overall, it’s hard to recall a film or Nickelodeon show of that time that didn’t suffer from the same failings. In general, it’s less cringeworthy to revisit than most mainstream media of that decade.
While the movie features teenagers, the barebones plot and imaginative view of the world make it clear its aim is younger audiences. The basic premise is that Dexter (Kenan), has to get a summer job to repay his teacher Mr. Wheat, a character Sinbad gives a super cool vibe stoked by his nostalgia for the 70s and the Civil Rights movement. Dexter has to earn the money because he smashed his mother’s car into Mr. Wheat’s. Seriously, I’m not seeing why it’s a bad thing that his teacher expects him to pay for repairs when Dexter was driving with no license and no insurance. Anyway, Dexter gets hired and quickly fired from the hip new burger joint Mondo Burger. He heads to Good Burger where Ed Mitchell (Kel), and a motley assortment of characters try to portray fast food work as anything but draining and grossly underpaid. When Mondo Burger opens and takes all the city’s customers, Dexter comes up with a plan to get their business back when he discovers Ed can make a magical secret sauce that everyone loves. They eventually discover that Mondo Burger is using an unapproved additive in their burgers to make the patties huge, so they embark on a mission of clumsy espionage to set things right. Ed dumps the additive into the Mondo meat machine or something, and the burgers grow so large they explode. Lots of people run away screaming. The cops show up. A giant burger falls on Mr. Wheat’s car. Everyone is happy, except Mr. Wheat, the people eating at Mondo Burger, and the bad guys, I guess.
There’s some basic underdeveloped romance that seems like it wants to be a part of something, but ultimately it’s the friendship between Dexter and Ed that really moves the whole show forward. Dexter and Ed are essentially rehashed versions of Kenan and Kel from the television show: Dexter is the scheming class clown type who plays a sardonic straight man to Ed. While many might describe Ed as dim, a more apt definition would be genuine, naive, and literal. The idea of interpreting common figurative language literally has existed in comedy forever, but given how much of Ed’s character really hinges on this premise as well as his pure views and kindness, Good Burger manages to do the cliché justice. Ed is always singing the movie’s original song “We’re All Dudes” to remind us that this is, indeed, the 1990s. We also get an eyeful of rollerblades, yo-yos, and food that resembles slime being squirted all over some dudes who deserve it. Oh no, now I’m calling everyone a dude, too.
Alongside the Nickelodeon cast, the supporting characters are a who’s who of various fame outlets in the 90s. As unnerving as it is to see Carmen Electra’s character trying to seduce a teenager, she is only one of many names we recall from that time. Shaquille O’Neal, Sinbad, Abe Vigoda, Shar Jackson, Marques Houston (Batman from Immature/IMx), Robert Wuhl, and George Clinton all show up at some point. The roles also went to some faces we didn’t realize we’d be seeing more in the future, like J. August Richards and Linda Cardellini. This all serves as an example of a good cast and great acting managing to make a mediocre script shine. It takes someone with a dry delivery like Abe Vigoda to create humor in lines like, “Can you get me to a hospital? I think I broke my ass.”
As far as the underlying message here, there’s basic kids’ issues like parents splitting up and neglect. The script drives home why it’s terrible to take advantage of people, especially when they’re really sweet and honest. I’m not meaning to give the writers more credit than they deserve, but there are some anti-capitalist leanings to the plot’s villainizing of Mondo Burger. Mondo’s decor is a retro-futuristic diner with neon lights and shiny outfits resembling what Star Trek’s uniforms might look like if it had aired on Nickelodeon. It’s aesthetically very similar to the anti-consumer culture satire of Vaporwave. Their usage of unauthorized meat growth serum plays upon the valid fears we hold regarding what is done to our food before it reaches our tables. There’s a push for excess, trickery, and world domination behind this evil burger joint, which doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you’re pointing out what’s wrong with the capitalist greed that creates burger monopolies. However, many of the other aspects of Mondo, such as their uniformity, rigid structure, and the fact that the owner speaks about himself in third person suggest that this is basically just a nightmare for children. That’s because children love chaos and hate “the man,” because he destroys hometown burger joints with super cool Burgermobiles, I assume.
Good Burger isn’t memorable in the same way E.T. or A Christmas Story are. You won’t see 90s kids clamoring for Good Burger memorabilia any time soon. It’s more like a dream half-stirred when something revives it randomly in your day. It’s always there in your subconscious, lurking, waiting to suddenly remind you that we’re all dudes and that Good Burger is home of the Good Burger, can I take your order? And maybe you won’t remember Mr. Wheat as a giant decorative burger smashes his car and he cries, “Why? What have I done?” But honestly, what did he do? He’s only concerned because he knows Dexter can do better but is not serious about school. And the kids keep causing him property damage for no reason! And caring and asking for what he’s owed doesn’t mean he deserves this! Oh sorry, what I meant to say is, it’s not Classic Burger, it’s not Great Burger, it’s just Good Burger.