Seeing the Krofft puppets on the big screen is something I still have yet to experience, but watching the widescreen release of the 1970 film Pufnstuf is about as close as I’m probably ever going to get. I’m old enough to remember watching H.R.Pufnstuf and other Krofft shows on Saturday mornings, but born too late to have seen this movie in the theater, I can only imagine how much it would’ve blown my pre-teen mind seeing it in all its psychedelic glory. I say “psychedelic” without irony: I’ve always watched all of the Krofft oeuvre at face value. Yes, I do understand that it’s very likely all of the production team were using various substances heavily during the filming, but I still watch the film with the mindset of a 10 year old, enjoying everything about Pufnstuf as it is delivered. You really don’t need to be stoned to love Billie Hayes’s over-the-top performance as Witchiepoo, although it probably can’t hurt.
Written as sort of a prequel to the television series, Pufnstuf brought everything from that show to the theaters, inviting Mama Cass Elliot and Martha Raye along for the ride as guest stars.We see how Jimmy (Jack Wild) gets lured to Living Island, the magical home of Mayor H.R. Pufnstuf, through the machinations of Witchiepoo, who covets Jimmy’s talking golden flute. She wants to use the bejeweled instrument to impress Boss Witch (Raye) during the upcoming Witches’ Council convention and be named Witch of the Year. Also competing for this award is Witch Hazel (Mama Cass), performing a showstopping musical number, “Different,” which became something of a personal anthem for me. The lyrics talk about realizing how hard it is to be different from everyone else, until you find your tribe and start to realize that it’s not so bad to be different. I saw the film for the first time shortly after coming out in my late teens, and naturally, I felt like Mama Cass was singing directly to me.
Witchiepoo disguises herself and steals Freddy the Flute, leading to Jimmy and friends tunneling into her castle to rescue him and her retaliating. The whole movie goes back and forth this way, with Jimmy and friends at first gaining the upper hand, followed by Witchiepoo capturing Pufnstuf and roasting him on a spit to serve up to the other witches. The witches are finally defeated by everyone disguising themselves as the one thing the witches fear: fairy angels before Witchiepoo has a chance to get named Witch of the Year.
The film feels very episodic in nature, although it doesn’t reuse any plots or dialogue from the series, outside of Witchiepoo’s constant attempts to steal Freddie the Flute. It’s almost a retelling of the pilot, expanded for the feature format, without much of a connection otherwise to the ongoing series. All of the characters and sets are the same, but having come out after the complete original run of the show, it stands alone storywise. You don’t need to have seen the series to enjoy the film, or vice versa. Of course, to enjoy the series, you do have to appreciate the Krofft style of giant puppets and broad humor, minus the laugh track that punctuates so many of the TV episodes. In a world without Saturday morning cartoons, though, its existence is mostly for nostalgia’s sake anymore. There are news items about the entire Krofft catalog coming to Cineverse, a channel available via Roku and similar platforms, allowing new generations to come to love Land of the Lost, The Bugaloos, and H.R. Pufnstuf, assuming they are able to find it. The content landscape is a little more cluttered than when it was just ABC, CBS, and NBC and eating cold cereal all morning.