As Brendan Fraser and Ke Huy Quan share the Oscars stage, it's time to revisit their 1992 comedy, Encino Man.
Last Updated: 10.30 AM, Mar 13, 2023
IN 1992, an American comedy titled Encino Man was released to scant critical acclaim, but considerable commercial success. The cast was a mix of known names and upcoming ones: there was Sean Astin, who'd become famous thanks to his stint as a child actor, most notably in 1985's The Goonies. There was Pauly Shore, whose star at MTV was on a steep rise. There was an actress called Robin Tunney, making her debut with the film. Years later, she'd be a fixture on the small and big screens, especially with her roles in shows like The Mentalist and Prison Break. Sean Astin wasn't the only successful former child actor in the ensemble: his Goonies castmate Ke Huy Quan, also known as Short Round from Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom, had a small role. And then of course there was the titular character — the Encino Man — played by a strapping young actor who'd only just emerged on screen in the previous year's Dogfight: Brendan Fraser.
Cut to 2023 and both Fraser and Quan were back sharing the same stage. With lauded roles in their respective films, The Whale (dir. Darren Aronofsky) and Everything Everywhere All At Once (dir. the Daniels), this awards season has been an emotional reunion for the former co-stars. The poignancy of their recent triumphs, capped by Oscar wins for both — Best Supporting Actor for Quan and Best Actor for Fraser — at the 95th Academy Awards is sharpened by the similarities of their trajectories, notwithstanding the obvious divergences.
For Fraser, The Whale has marked a leading role in a film after nearly a decade. Considering how universally beloved he is as an actor — first as the star of blockbusters like George of the Jungle and the Mummy franchise; then in more sombre turns as part of award circuit favourites like The Quiet American and Crash; onwards to the past few years, where his off-screen persona of introspective candour and vulnerability has endeared him further to audiences — the time away from centrestage didn't go unnoticed. Fraser spoke out about the challenges he'd faced — alleged sexual harassment by Hollywood Foreign Press Association president Philip Berk during the 2003 Golden Globes; myriad surgeries to fix the injuries that were a byproduct of doing his own stunts; life itself (a divorce, co-parenting three kids).
Meanwhile, Ke Huy Quan had seen roles dry up amid the transition to adulthood. Few, if any, meaningful parts were being written for Asian American actors. Quan moved to the production side of the film business for over two decades, until the runaway success of Crazy Rich Asians made him believe a paradigm shift was in the offing. When he took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor alongside his Everything Everywhere co-star Michelle Yeoh (Best Actress), it was a historical milestone: two Asian actors winning at the Academy Awards in the same year. The moment was sweetened further when Everything won Best Picture — and Harrison Ford aka Indiana Jones himself walked onto the stage to present the award, leading to a happy embrace between him and his "Short Round" Quan.
The groundswell of support and goodwill for Quan and Fraser has been tremendous as they bagged one well-deserved honour after another for their comebacks. On YouTube, a clip from Encino Man, depicting one of the interactions between their characters, has fans posting congratulatory messages and discussing how heartwarming it has been to see the two actors share the same stage 30 years later. The clip in question is of Quan's character — the computer club president of the high school Fraser's character, Link, is currently attending — approaching him before a class trip to a natual history museum. Link shelters Kim from the jokes of two obnoxious classmates, taking him under his "wing" as they enter the museum.
Encino Man (renamed California Man for some territories, including Europe and Asia) was about two high-school losers Dave (Sean Astin) and Stoney (Paul Shorey) whose actions (aided by an earthquake) inadvertently unearth a prehistoric man, preserved in a block of ice. When the ice thaws, the man comes to life. Some mishaps and an iconic makeover sequence later, they rechristen the Encino man "Link" and provide him with enough of a cover to pass off as a foreign exchange student at their school.
Link's good looks and physical prowess, as well as his quirky personality, make him instantly popular, and Dave and Stoney too bask in the reflected glory. There are all the predictable turns that make Encino Man a quintessentially '90s high school movie: one of the leads (Dave) nursing a crush on the popular girl dating the insufferable campus jock, the ingenious slacker (Stoney), cool kids versus the nerds (as evinced by Quan's character Kim), a school dance with a choreographed routine (truly an 'infectious groove'). Despite the boilerplate narrative, Encino Man still has an infectious energy and charm.
A more nebulous connection that can be traced within the film: the director and writer duo, Les Mayfield and George Zaloom, whose credits before Encino Man mostly including official making-of features for a bunch of iconic films (including Poltergeist and Apocalypse Now) had also made a behind-the-scenes movie for an Indiana Jones title — not Temple of Doom, but the one that came after: The Last Crusade. The duo ran a prolonged and persuasive campaign to get Brendan Fraser on board. In fact, he was very nearly not Link, with first Pauly Shore and then Ben Stiller being considered for the role. Shore thought a character closer to his MTV persona might work better with the audience, and thus Stoney took shape. Meanwhile, Stiller was a shoo-in, but scheduling conflicts and Fraser's audition convinced Mayfield and Zaloom that they had to have the latter on board at any cost.
Fraser wanted to be seen as a serious actor — not just a comic star. But Encino Man ended up being the first of a specific type of protagonist that the audience responded to him as: the himbo with a heart of gold. As Link, or George (of the Jungle) or Adam (in Blast from the Past), Fraser was, as writer Anna Bogutskaya notes, a character who was seemingly unaware of his own good looks, had a sort of wide-eyed view of the world, an innocent whose innocence was all the more endearing for being encased in such an improbable, impossibly beautiful package.
Fraser's career took off after Encino Man, while Quan's tapered away. But when the two actors were part of The Hollywood Reporter's annual roundtable, they shared a moving exchange, with Fraser saying of himself and Quan: "We're still here". Circa 2022, there has been growing buzz at Disney+ for an Encino Man 2. With Fraser and Quan in the midst of a dazzling career resurgence, support for a follow-up film — from both within and outside the studio ecosystem — can only gain greater momentum.