Of all the things adulthood and modernity and “civilized life” chase away, it’s the sense of wonder that leaves the biggest hole. The older we get, the harder it seems to be to experience that feeling of excitement you felt when you saw a lightning bug the first time, or you found out that dish detergent, water in a bucket and a bent coat hanger could make huge bubbles. Late South African writer/director Jamie Uys was one of the rare adults who never lost his ability to be surprised or his appreciation of whimsy, and “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” which became 1980’s Little Movie That Could, is a mostly enjoyable testament to his spirit.
The structure of “The Gods Must Be Crazy” includes three threads and begins, appropriately enough, with a story of discovery. The first thread charms because of the amusing narrator (Paddy O’Byrne) and the erstwhile hero, Xi (N!xau), a Ju/’hoansi bushman who discovers a Coke bottle in the sand. The bottle is a revelation to Xi, who lives with his family in the searing Kalahari Desert and knows not of civilization. (He and his family believe cloud trails left by airplanes are “evidence of the gods’ flatulence”). Xi believes the bottle to be a gift from above, but it brings trouble to the tribe — in the form greed, envy, refusal to share. Surely the gods are mistaken, he reasons, and the Evil Thing must be thrown off the end of the world. It is on this journey that his story crosses with that of Andrew Steyn (Marius Weyers), a biologist doing research in South Africa, and Kate Thompson (Sandra Prinsloo), a new teacher in the nearby village school. That one will be besotted with the other is a given, and if their courtship weren’t so dotted with wild stunts and pratfalls it might detract more from Xi’s determined quest, the heart of the film.
The final thread — by far the least interesting — involves a political uprising masterminded by dictator Sam Boga (Louw Verwey). Boga’s thread, which marks the loony convergence of all the film’s storylines, lacks both the innocent, curious charm of Xi’s earnest journey to dispose of the bottle and the nutty slapstick of Kate and Andrew’s blossoming relationship. Though it leads to a fitting and satisfying end, Boga’s brutish coup d’état doesn’t gel with the light-hearted tone of “The Gods Must Be Crazy” and thus feels tacked-on, as if Uys decided the film needed a last-minute shot of political credibility. Although this thread speaks to the shifting tides of political rule in South Africa, Boga’s story is jarring and out of place. More than that, it also feels highly sanitized and farcical, with the violence made to look more comical than anything else; thus, this part of the film has the distinction of seeming too violent and not violent enough to be accurate.
Upon its release, however, it wasn’t the violence that caused waves. Scenes in “The Gods Must Be Crazy” depict Xi as awestruck and confused by what he sees, from airplanes (he thinks they’re birds with wings that don’t flap) to automobiles. When he first meets Kate and Andrew, who are white, he assumes they are “gods” because they are heavier than anyone he has known, wear strange garbs and command powerful contraptions, like the jeep Andrew bogs in the lake, then gets hoisted into the trees (discover the “how” of that one yourself). Uys also takes liberties is his portrayal of the Ju/ʼhoansi as taken aback by the world outside the desert. Does “The Gods Must Be Crazy” exploit N!xau, an unknown bushman until the film’s release, and the Ju/ʼhoansi? That’s dependent on the viewer’s reaction to the ending and Xi’s opinions of the people he encounters. His initial belief that Kate and Andrew are gods fades quickly, and while he stays in their world for a time he is never of it. It does not alter values or deter his mission; perhaps it becomes a tall tale to amuse his family. In the end, Xi goes back to his world without walls unconcerned with clocks and schedules and technology. For Uys, more interested in creating comedy than social commentary, that is just as it should be.