The Pink Panther series stands to this day as one of the all time greats of comedy. With one entry after another being hailed as a classic, there was no shortage to enjoy, despite long gaps here and there (and some forgotten entries with other actors). With its memorable characters, hilarious slapstick, amusingly lax attitude to continuity, and perhaps an over-reliance on the titular diamond (a problem when the title of the franchise centres around the one specific thing), there was never a dull moment.
The series began with 1964s The Pink Panther. An ensemble heist picture, this was surprisingly not as wacky as later entries would become. It's not even that broad of a comedy. There are moments of slapstick, but much of the humour is more subtle. Clouseau is also not the main lead (with that role going to The Phantom, if anyone). While these things may make the movie weird for those familiar with the rest of the series, it's still a great movie, and a memorable beginning.
Next up was A Shot in the Dark, which told an amusing (if confusing) murder mystery, and contained countless hilarious moments. It also introduces the classic characters of Chief Inspector Dreyfus, and Cato.
1968s lazily titled Inspector Clouseau was the first misfire of the series. Made without Edwards or Sellers, or Mancini, it tried to continue things with a new team, only to fail so utterly it was partially responsible for putting the series into hibernation for a while (that, and the growing rift between Sellers and Edwards). This film isn't irredeemably awful, and it has some amazing music, but for the most part it just doesn't compare, specially the frankly annoying lead performance by Alan Arkin.
It was 7 years later when the series returned, with the aptly named Return of the Pink Panther. The old crew were all back, and firing on their A-game, delivering yet another comedy classic. A hilarious film all round that delivers everything we know and love, there's very little not to enjoy.
The next entry was Strikes Again (or Strikes Back as I always think), and it's hailed by many as the best in the series. It has some of the funniest moments, best scenarios, and greatest ideas. This entry verges more into camp comic book territory, by turning Dreyfus into a full-on supervillain, but it does so in such a fun way that it's hard to dislike. This really was the highest moment for the franchise.
The character of Clouseau really evolved as the series progressed, his quirks and personality getting more and more pronounced. He starts out as a relatively straightfaced Frenchman, not even affecting any funny words. A bigger emphasis is placed on this in the next film, and slowly things get more overt. There are also changes to the pitch he speaks in, and even his appearance. Then there are the disguises, which get crazier as they go along. How much one likes this really depends. I like it to an extent, but do feel the series did begin to take it too far after a certain point.
I'd say Strikes Again really represents the tipping point for the series. That movie has the perfect amount of zaniness, tempered with the right amount of down-to-earth humour and situations. If it had've just had any more wackiness, it would have gone too far, and that is exactly where all four subsequent sequels fail.
Revenge is by no means a bad movie. Mediocre at worst. But it represents the series's downfall. It focuses too much on absurdity without anything grounding it, and it begins to feel very Americanised, with the villains now a conglomorous (not a word, should be) mafia, rather than a single memorable villain (like Dreyfus or Lytton) or fun whodunnit. The film still has some classic moments though, and treats the material with enough respect that it's hard to hate the movie, especially by the surprisingly thoughtful ending, which I feel is a good place to end the series if you ever had to.
And by God they would have if they'd had any sense! Peter Sellers sadly died before his time in 1980, leaving the series in limbo. He had just begun plans for the series' next and final entry-Romance of the Pink Panther, which was to feature Clouseau falling in love with a female cat burglar, and taking up a life of crime. Whether or not this movie would have been any good is up for debate. On one hand I like that they had an end in mind, though I'm not totally sold on making Clouseau a criminal. And who knows if the series' decay would have truly set in by this point for all parties involved, Sellers included.
The next entry in the series was Trail, and Misguided is one of the words for it. Disrespectful, Insulting, Depressing. There are many more you could come up with. A Frankenstein-style patchwork film, it cobbles together a bunch of outtakes and deleted scenes, and tries to create a cohesive narrative with them, before eventually devolving into a clipshow. This is not only a failure, it's a downright disgrace. The movie purports to be paying respect to Sellers, but it instead only spits on his name, and his wife thought the same, enough to file a lawsuit against the film.
Made back-to-back with the previous entry, Curse tried to continue the pointless and doomed 'Search for Clouseau' storyline, and add in a new leading man-The American Clifton Sleigh. The intent behind his was to have him be the new leading man in a series of sequels, setting the action to L.A or some such city. Frankly it was wishful thinking that Blake Edwards ever thought this was possible. The series was already 20 years old. The last thing it needed was a makeover that would remove literally everything from the series that we loved. No Clouseau, no supporting cast, no France. Instead it becomes just another American police comedy, like a million others. Did they seriously expect this to go on for another 20 years? It couldn't even do it with the Pink Panther name attached.
After this the series took a hiatus, and it returned 10 years later with Son. Not a return to form, and still lambasted by critics and fans alike, this final entry at least tried to do its own thing, and out of the three post-Sellers films, it's the one that most feels like a real movie. It too tries to create a new line of sequels, but at least does it in a less misguided way, following the adventures of Clouseau's son in France and Lugash. The movie isn't that great, and has its bad moments, but a lot of good too, namely Dreyfus's more paternal role, and a surprisingly sweet romance with the returning Maria Gambrelli. While it never got the sequels it so desperately wanted, I'm glad that it at least ended the series in a reasonably good place. Clouseau's legacy is ensured as his kids take up the mantle, and Dreyfus gets a happy ending.
13 years later, Hollywood returned to The Pink Panther with the 2006 remake starring Steve Martin, followed by a sequel. These were critically savaged, and most audiences hated them too (though they do have their fans). I agree with most of the criticisms levelled at them. They're very Americanised, the jokes are unsubtle and often unfunny, and many things are annoying. The sequel does improve a little, but not enough for there to be a third.
The best I can say about them is that they are workmanlike. They range from bad to mildly satisfactory, but at their worst they are simple by-the-numbers Hollywood fare. While you might not feel entirely satisfied when watching them, at least you don't feel depressed! Kudos, Steve Martin and co. You may not have lived up to expectations, but you at least surpassed the worst film in the series! I know that sounds like a backhanded comment, but I'm genuinely grateful!
And so that was that. The series is well and truly over. Maybe we'll get another remake down the line (inevitable), and who knows, maybe it'll even be good (doubtful).
Overall, the later half of this series is to be avoided like the plague, but when Peter Sellers was alive, these were some of the funniest movies around! Classic after classic, and all well worth a watch! Bound to be new favourites if you haven't seen them before, you've gotta check them out...