Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones

Theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones

In the early 60s, Tommy Kirk and Annette Funicello were Disney’s favorite screen couple, although you wouldn’t know it based solely on the films covered in this column. Annette made her big-screen debut in The Shaggy Dog, playing second fiddle to Roberta Shore as Tommy’s primary love interest. Their roles were reversed in Annette’s big-budget musical Babes In Toyland. Tommy Sands was Annette’s leading man while Tommy Kirk was stuck playing Ed Wynn’s goofy sidekick.

It was on television that Tommy and Annette finally had a chance to click. They starred together in The Horsemasters and Escapade In Florence, two Disneyland two-parters that received theatrical engagements overseas. The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones was clearly intended for a similar release but, for reasons known only to Walt, it got bumped up to American movie theatres. It’s a baffling choice because this is not some widescreen Technicolor epic that demands to be seen on the silver screen.

The story was concocted by gimmick comedy maestro Bill Walsh and scripted by the husband-and-wife team Alfred Lewis Levitt and Helen Levitt. The Levitts were victims of the Hollywood Blacklist who had only recently begun to find work again, credited under the pseudonyms Tom and Helen August. Robert Stevenson, the prolific director behind such previous hits as The Absent-Minded Professor and Son Of Flubber, was recruited to bring some of that Flubber magic to the project.

For Tommy Kirk, Merlin Jones was a natural extension of the roles he’d played in The Shaggy Dog and the Flubber pictures. The Shaggy Dog’s Wilby Daniels was an amateur inventor and Biff Hawk had somehow become Fred MacMurray’s assistant in Son Of Flubber. Merlin Jones is, as the Sherman Brothers’ catchy title song helpfully explains, the scrambled egghead, the campus kook of Midvale College (not to be confused with Medfield College, home of Flubber). Annette plays Merlin’s loyal and remarkably patient girlfriend, Jennifer.

In the first part of the two-act adventure, Merlin creates an EEG machine out of a football helmet with a bunch of antennas and other assorted gizmos stuck to it. An accidental electric shock supercharges his brain, giving him the power to read minds, a fact that his science professor (Alan Hewitt, another Flubber alumni) is weirdly unimpressed with.

As Merlin comes to grips with his new ability, he reads the thoughts of no-nonsense Judge Holmsby (Leon Ames, last seen in this column as Medfield College’s President Daggett) as he tries to figure out where to stash some stolen diamonds. Merlin, who has already had some run-ins with the judge, determines that Holmsby is leading a double life as a criminal mastermind. The police don’t believe him at first. Even after he demonstrates his ESP, they can’t lift a finger without real evidence. So Merlin and Jennifer break into the judge’s house and dig up the supposed diamonds. But it turns out the whole thing was just a wacky misunderstanding. Judge Holmsby is leading a double life as a writer of detective fiction under the name Lex Fortas. Everyone agrees to forget the whole thing provided they keep Holmsby’s alter ego a secret.

Merlin’s telepathy disappears just in time for the second episode half of the film. This time, Merlin is conducting experiments with hypnosis. After hypnotizing his cowardly cat into chasing a dog up a tree, he decides to help Stanley the chimp stand up to his bullying keeper, Norman (played by custom car builder turned actor Norm Grabowski). The hypnosis works a little too well and when the science lab ends up trashed, Merlin is once again dragged in front of Judge Holmsby.

Now that Merlin and Holmsby are friendly, the judge has a request. He wants Merlin to hypnotize him into committing a crime that goes against his moral code as research for his next book. Merlin commands the judge to break into the lab and steal Stanley. The plan works perfectly but Merlin is caught trying to return Stanley the next morning. He’s arrested for the crime and, unfortunately for him, the judge doesn’t remember that he was actually the guilty party.

Theatrical release poster for The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones

Even by live-action Disney comedy standards, this is some deeply silly stuff not meant to be taken seriously even for a second. The only fair way to judge something like this is whether or not the gags land. Some do. The cat chasing the dog up a tree is kind of funny. Tommy gets a cute bit in the library where he’s overwhelmed by the loud thoughts of his fellow students (including one of Walt’s favorite targets, a poetry-writing beatnik). But overall, the movie is eminently disposable. These are all supposed to be smart characters but they behave in some of the dumbest ways imaginable. I understand Judge Holmsby forgetting about the details of his crime but did he also forget that he asked Merlin to hypnotize him in the first place?

At least the cast seems to be having fun. Tommy and Annette are a pleasant team and they play off each other well. Grabowski was pushing 30 at the time and looks about 40, so he’s an odd choice to play a college jock vying for Annette’s affections. Ames and Hewitt are squarely in their comfort zones as frequently befuddled authority figures. But the movie is so inconsequential that it begins to fade from memory even as you’re watching it. It also lacks the inventive visual effects that helped elevate previous gimmick comedies. That low-rent feeling does nothing to dispel the sense that this project would have been more at home on TV.

Sadly, The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones spelled the end of the line for Tommy Kirk’s Disney career. Tommy’s teen years had been miserable as he struggled to come to terms with his homosexuality. At the same time, his off-set behavior had become increasingly out of control. Alcohol and drugs began to sink their claws into him and he clashed with costars Fred MacMurray and Jane Wyman on the set of Bon Voyage.

While filming Merlin Jones, Tommy started seeing a 15-year-old boy on the sly. The kid’s mother found out about the affair and contacted Disney. This was the last straw for Walt. The fact that Tommy was gay was something of an open secret that Walt could ignore as long as it remained more secret than open. He decided not to renew Tommy’s contract and cut him loose. Later in 1964, Tommy was arrested for possession. The charges were later dropped but his All-American boy reputation was irreparably damaged.

And yet, this is not the last we’ll see of Tommy Kirk in this column. Money talks and, when The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones became an out-of-left-field hit in February of 1964, Walt brought Tommy and Annette back one last time for a sequel. In the meantime, Tommy followed Annette to American International Pictures where the two costarred in Pajama Party, a spinoff/sequel to AIP’s popular Beach Party series. Tommy plays Go Go, a Martian sent to Earth on a mission of conquest, because that’s the way those movies roll.

The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones is a minor entry in the Disney catalog that inexplicably hit it big. I think a lot of the credit for that goes to the Sherman Brothers song and the stop-motion animated titles by Xavier Atencio and Bill Justice (who had done similar work on The Parent Trap and The Shaggy Dog). Those are certainly the most memorable elements of the movie. But despite the fact that everything else is by the numbers, it was a shockingly popular film that even got a re-release in the 70s. Why it struck a chord is beyond me. I guess there’s just no accounting for taste.

VERDICT: Not actively bad enough to be a full-on Disney Minus but it’s borderline.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Three Lives Of Thomasina

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Three Lives Of Thomasina

You don’t have to be a professional animal trainer to figure out why there are a lot more dog movies than cat movies. Dogs’ emotions are written all over their furry little faces. They’re known for being brave, loyal and friendly. They’re also a heck of a lot easier to train.

Cats, on the other hand, are independent and somewhat inscrutable unless they’re purring and rubbing against you. Even the most well-behaved, well-trained cats have an attitude like they’re only willing to go along with your plan as long as it suits them. It’s not an accident that the most popular cat videos are the ones capturing them doing something stupid. Don’t get me wrong, I love cats and consider myself a cat person. But it’s a lot of fun to see these self-satisfied little gremlins make fools of themselves.

When Walt Disney branched out into live-action animal pictures, he understandably focused on the canine set. It wasn’t until The Incredible Journey that a cat received a costarring role alongside two dogs. A few months after that film was released, The Three Lives Of Thomasina made a domestic house cat the center of attention for the first time.

The movie is based on the novel Thomasina, The Cat Who Thought She Was God (great title) by Paul Gallico. Gallico was a former sportswriter whose work had provided the basis of the Lou Gehrig biopic The Pride Of The Yankees, earning him an Oscar nomination. He retired from the sports beat in 1938 and became a prolific fiction writer. His work for young people includes The Snow Goose and Manxmouse, a childhood favorite of J.K. Rowling. Grownups probably know him best for his novel The Poseidon Adventure, although I’d wager more people have seen the movie than read the book.

Gallico cowrote the screenplay with Robert Westerby, whose first work for Disney had been Greyfriars Bobby. Greyfriars Bobby and Thomasina have a fair amount in common. Both take place in Scotland around 1912 and both center around devoted pets who melt the hearts of cold, emotionally repressed men. So it makes sense that Walt also rehired Don Chaffey, the director of that film.

Don Chaffey had kept busy in the years between the dog movie and the cat movie. For Disney, he’d directed a pair of TV productions (The Prince And The Pauper and The Horse Without A Head) that received theatrical releases overseas. He’d also picked up a gig for producer Charles H. Schneer, directing the Ray Harryhausen classic Jason And The Argonauts. Chaffey will eventually be back in this column but not for awhile. He spent the better part of the 1960s back home in England, alternating between film and television. Some of his best work would be multiple episodes of the series Danger Man (retitled Secret Agent in the US) and The Prisoner starring his Three Lives Of Thomasina leading man, Patrick McGoohan.

McGoohan had been poised to become a breakout star since the mid-1950s, but it hadn’t quite happened yet. He was an acclaimed stage actor but producers couldn’t seem to find the right movie roles for him. In 1960, he was cast in Danger Man, a half-hour spy show that ran a little over a year before it was canceled. He turned down some other spy roles, including James Bond and Simon Templar on The Saint, and instead signed on with Disney. After appearing in Thomasina and TV’s The Scarecrow Of Romney Marsh, Danger Man was revived as an hour-long series. This version caught on and McGoohan finally became a star. While he won’t be back in this column for quite some time, we will eventually hear from him again. McGoohan returned to Disney for his last film, voicing Billy Bones in the 2002 animated feature Treasure Planet.

In The Three Lives Of Thomasina, McGoohan stars as Dr. Andrew McDhui, a widowed veterinarian whose near-total lack of compassion isn’t exactly winning over the locals. If a beloved pet is beyond help, McDhui coldly informs the owner that old Rover needs to be put out of his misery.

McDhui lives with his daughter, Mary (Karen Dotrice), and her beloved cat, Thomasina (who narrates the film in the voice of Elspeth March). Mary enjoys dressing Thomasina up in doll clothes and pushing her around in a baby carriage (even here, the quickest way to humanize a cat is to humiliate her). One day, Thomasina is injured while making her rounds down at the market. Mary begs her father to save the cat but he’s otherwise occupied, trying to save the life of a blind man’s dog. He takes a quick glance at Thomasina, declares her beyond help and orders his assistant to have her destroyed.

Poor Mary is heartbroken and announces that her father is now as dead to her as Thomasina. She and some other children stage an elaborate funeral procession for Thomasina through the village. And it’s right around here that the movie takes a quick detour into the elaborately weird. It switches to Thomasina’s point of view as she tumbles through space and ends up in Cat Heaven. She ascends a stairway straight out of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter Of Life And Death, makes her way through dozens of other cats to appear before a gigantic statue of the Egyptian cat goddess Bast. You kind of have to see it to believe it. It’s sort of cool but it’s definitely odd.

Anyway, the kids’ funeral has attracted the attention of Lori MacGregor (Susan Hampshire), a beautiful young hermit rumored to be a witch. The kids run away at the sight of her and Lori discovers that Thomasina is still breathing. She takes the cat back to her cottage, where she nurses all sorts of different animals back to health. Thomasina slowly recovers but she has no memory of her previous life.

Meanwhile, the local kids have decided to run Dr. McDhui out of town by starting a whisper campaign focused on the fact that he didn’t even care enough to save his own daughter’s cat. The villagers’ faith in old-fashioned folk remedies returns as their distrust in science deepens (that sounds familiar). With word spreading about the beautiful witch with the miraculous healing powers, McDhui decides to pay Lori a visit. They work together to save an injured badger with Lori respecting McDhui’s knowledge and skill and McDhui admiring her compassion and gentle touch.

As Thomasina begins to remember her previous life, she finds herself drawn to Mary’s window on a stormy night. Mary catches a glimpse of the cat but Thomasina runs off before she can get to her. She chases after her pet and, because it’s raining and this is a Disney movie, immediately comes down with pneumonia. The doctor does everything he can but in the end, McDhui turns to Lori for help. Love conquers all.

The Three Lives Of Thomasina is a bit of a bumpy ride but it’s not a bad little movie. For such a low-key affair, the movie has a lot of different parts that don’t always fit together seamlessly. The Cat Heaven detour is just one extreme example. I didn’t even mention the ramshackle gypsy circus that’s brought up on charges of animal cruelty toward the end. McDhui and Lori team up to get them shut down and I suppose the sequence exists to further cement their bond and rehabilitate McGoohan’s callous character. But it comes just as McDhui is trying to save his daughter, so it’s like a climax in the middle of another climax.

It’s to Chaffey’s credit that the movie works as well as it does. He wisely stacks the supporting cast with wonderful character actors including many familiar Disney faces. Laurence Naismith and Alex Mackenzie were both previously seen in Greyfriars Bobby. Wilfrid Brambell was last seen alongside Hayley Mills in In Search Of The Castaways. Finlay Currie has been in this column several times, most recently in Kidnapped. Even the kids are familiar. Vincent Winter and Denis Gilmore were choirboys in Almost Angels. And while we haven’t seen Karen Dotrice or Matthew Garber in this column previously, we’ll be seeing them again soon enough. Thomasina ended up being a sort of screen test for the kids before moving on to Mary Poppins.

The movie also works as a technical achievement. Cats are not easy to work with on film sets and cinematographer Paul Beeson captures some impressive, long tracking shots of Thomasina making her way through the village. The animals were provided by Jimmy Chipperfield, whose family had owned and operated Chipperfield’s Circus in England since the 1680s. Jimmy left the circus in the 1950s and began training animals for films and television. He definitely earned his keep on this film, providing cats, dogs, frogs, badgers, deer and other assorted critters.

His daughter, Mary Chipperfield, would later take up the family business, serving as a trainer on the live-action 101 Dalmatians remake. Unfortunately, Mary was also eventually found guilty on multiple charges of animal cruelty, mostly surrounding her performing chimpanzees. Hopefully the animals in Thomasina were treated well, although some of those shots of the cat flying through space look a little sketchy.

Preview screenings of The Three Lives Of Thomasina took place in December of 1963 but the film didn’t go into general release until June of ’64. It did just OK at the box office and critics were fairly unimpressed. Years later, film critic and Disney expert Leonard Maltin championed the picture in his book The Disney Films. I wouldn’t rate it quite as highly as Maltin does but I agree with his claim that it deserves to be better known. At its best, this is a cute, charming little movie that carries a nice message about the importance of loving our pets. If my biggest criticism is that the movie packs in too many ideas, that’s actually a pretty good problem to have.

VERDICT: A low-key Disney Plus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Sword In The Stone

Theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Sword In The Stone

When The Sword In The Stone premiered on Christmas Day of 1963, it had been nearly three years since Disney had released an animated feature. That movie, One Hundred And One Dalmatians, had been a huge hit, a much-needed success after the costly failure of Sleeping Beauty. But it wasn’t enough to single-handedly keep the animation division off the chopping block. Roy O. Disney was still trying to convince Walt to get out of the cartoon business. And while Walt’s interests were now primarily with Disneyland and the commissioned exhibits that were scheduled to debut at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, he still had a soft spot for animation.

Cartoon production had slowed to a crawl in the wake of the Sleeping Beauty layoffs. By 1960, there were only two projects in active development. Both had been in the works for years. One of them was Chanticleer, based partly on the play by Edmond Rostand with elements of the Reynard the Fox tales. This had already been shelved once before in the 1940s. After the success of Dalmatians, animators Marc Davis and Ken Anderson tried to revive the project as a Broadway-style musical. Walt gave them his blessing provided they start fresh, without relying on any of the old concept art or story work.

In the meantime, Bill Peet was dusting off another long dormant story. Walt bought the rights to T.H. White’s The Sword In The Stone all the way back in 1939. But the project kept getting placed on the back-burner. First World War II sidetracked all feature development. By the time the studio was ready to make cartoons again, other properties like Peter Pan and Cinderella had taken priority. But Peet had an advantage over those earlier attempts. By now, there had already been a phenomenally successful adaptation of White’s work: the 1960 Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot. It was a good time to be making another King Arthur movie.

While animators Davis, Anderson, Wolfgang Reitherman, Milt Kahl and songwriters George Bruns and Mel Leven all worked on Chanticleer, Bill Peet cracked The Sword In The Stone on his own. This was practically unheard of at Disney. Since the very beginning, the story department worked in teams, crafting stories visually in marathon gag sessions. This time, Peet decided to write a screenplay before drawing the storyboards.

Ultimately, Walt worked out a compromise with Roy. He couldn’t bring himself to completely axe the animation division but he agreed to kill one of the two competing projects. At this point, Peet’s project probably didn’t appear to have much chance of surviving.

Concept art by Marc Davis for Walt Disney's Chanticleer

The Chanticleer team made their elaborate pitch, complete with brand new concept art (like the image above) and songs. It went over like a lead balloon. Walt had never thought a rooster made for an attractive, sympathetic hero and the new material didn’t change his mind. The jokes were flat and the music was uninspiring. The rest of the animators (and Roy) preferred Peet’s idea if, for no other reason, than because it’d be easier (and cheaper) to animate people instead of farm animals. And so, Chanticleer was dead. Again.

(Years later, ex-Disney animator Don Bluth would attempt to put his own spin on the Chanticleer idea with Rock-A-Doodle. Its reception, both from critics and at the box office, suggest that the Disney folks were right to stick it on the shelf.)

Needless to say, Bill Peet was not the most popular guy on the Disney campus after Chanticleer was killed. The team switched their focus to The Sword In The Stone, although not everyone was happy about that. In another departure from Disney’s standard operating procedure, Wolfgang Reitherman became the sole director of the film with Frank Thomas, Milt Kahl, Ollie Johnston and John Lounsbery credited as directing animators. Peet and Kahl were in charge of character design and even though Kahl had been one of the pro-Chanticleer animators who initially nursed a bit of a grudge toward Peet, he eventually grew to enjoy the new project.

Peet tried to stay relatively faithful to White’s original 1938 novel (the author later revised the book to retroactively serve as the first volume of The Once And Future King). Unfortunately, Roy and Walt demanded the project be brought in on a much, much lower budget than usual. This meant Peet couldn’t have too many characters. Large pieces of White’s book were cut, leaving Peet and Reitherman to focus on a small ensemble cast.

In theory, this shouldn’t be a big deal. The story focuses on young Arthur (or, as he’s none-too-affectionately known, Wart), ward of Sir Ector and aspiring squire to Sir Kay (played by Norman Alden, later the voice of Aquaman on Super Friends). They live more or less alone in a rundown castle until Wart drops in on Merlin the great wizard. Merlin has foreseen Arthur’s future and moves into the castle, along with his owl Archimedes, as his tutor. Merlin’s lessons consist almost entirely of transforming Wart into different animals (a fish, a squirrel, a bird) to see the world from their perspective.

The main problem with all this is that virtually nothing happens. Whatever lessons Wart is meant to learn take a back seat to gags about lovesick squirrels and dishes that wash themselves. Most movies would tie these incidents together at the climax with Arthur using these lessons to overcome some obstacle. That doesn’t happen. If he learns anything at all from being turned into a fish or a bird, it remains safely hidden.

The movie briefly comes to life when Wart runs afoul of Madam Mim. As Merlin’s archenemy, Mim decides to kill the boy out of spite. But Merlin arrives in the nick of time to challenge her to a wizard’s duel. This sequence at least has some spark and imagination in the animation. But again, Arthur is sidelined. The fight is between Merlin and Mim and doesn’t really serve a greater purpose. At least Martha Wentworth (previously heard as Nanny in One Hundred And One Dalmatians) is a delight as Mad Madam Mim.

If only Mim arrived in the story sooner. By the time she shows up, the movie is barreling toward its conclusion. Kay is summoned to London for a tournament that will decide the next King of England. Wart forgets Kay’s sword back at the inn and hurries back to collect it. Finding the inn locked up, he grabs the first sword he sees, which is, of course, the sword in the stone.

At first, no one believes his story, so they put the sword back and everyone tries to pull it out again. When Arthur demonstrates that he alone can remove the sword from the stone, the prophecy is fulfilled and he becomes King. Merlin comes back and assures him that he’ll be great. Someday, they’ll even make a motion picture about him! Sigh.

Theatrical re-release poster for The Sword In The Stone

Look, The Sword In The Stone has its champions but I think it’s safe to say that this is nobody’s favorite Disney cartoon. It’s the studio’s first animated feature (as opposed to earlier package films) that can accurately be described as boring. The story is non-existent. The animation is cut-rate, recycling not only its own footage but bits from earlier films. And the hit-to-miss ratio on the gags leans heavily toward the latter.

Character actor Karl Swenson (probably best known to TV viewers of my generation as Lars Hanson on Little House On The Prairie) provides the voice of Merlin. His anything-goes spirit and use of anachronistic references makes him a bit of a precursor to Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin. But whatever his strengths as an actor, Karl Swenson was no Robin Williams. Merlin ends up feeling half-formed, neither particularly wise or imposing but also not as wacky and fun as he could have been. At least Madam Mim has a distinct personality.

Sebastian Cabot is a bit more successful as Sir Ector. The character design seems…let’s say, heavily influenced by the King in Cinderella. But Cabot’s booming voice suits the character well. Cabot had already appeared in a couple of Disney’s live-action features, Johnny Tremain and Westward Ho The Wagons! This was his first voice-over performance for the studio but we’ll be hearing from him again. We’ll also be hearing from Junius Matthews, the voice of Archimedes and another returning voice from One Hundred And One Dalmatians.

Originally, Wart’s voice was provided by Rickie Sorensen, a child star who could also be heard as one of the puppies in Dalmatians. But when Sorensen’s voice started to change midway through production, Wolfgang Reitherman recruited his son, Richard, to finish the job. Then Richard’s voice broke and younger brother, Robert, was put behind the mic. But instead of re-recording any of the dialogue, the finished performance is a bizarre Frankenstein’s monster of all three boys. It’s a peculiar, distracting choice. You can clearly hear the differences between the three voices. It’s a rare example of Disney underestimating his audience. Obviously everyone involved just assumed nobody would notice or care.

The Sword In The Stone also provided Richard and Robert Sherman with their first opportunity to write original songs for an animated film. Unfortunately, the songs are merely OK. For the most part, they’re catchy without being particularly tuneful or memorable. “The Marvelous Mad Madam Mim” and “A Most Befuddling Thing” are good examples. They kind of get stuck in your head but you can’t really hum them or sing along. If nothing else, they’re better than the ponderous title song.

“Higitus Figitus” is the film’s best-remembered song and I’m sure that’s by design. Merlin sings it while magically packing all his worldly belongings into a single valise. If the Shermans were not explicitly told to write another “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” for this sequence, I’m sure the storyboards left little doubt as to what was expected of them. The sequence and the song are emblematic of the film as a whole: we’ve seen better versions of this before.

Critics and audiences tended to agree with that assessment. Reviews were mixed and even the most enthusiastic notices tended to be a bit lukewarm. It earned less than $5 million at the box office, enough to turn a small profit but a fraction of what One Hundred And One Dalmatians (or even Son Of Flubber) had pulled in.

The Sword In The Stone has its moments and for some, those high points may be enough. But overall, the film is a colossal disappointment. An animated Disney telling of Arthurian lore sounds like the sort of movie that should be an event. Instead, it’s a missed opportunity and a sign the once-mighty studio that had once been at the forefront of animated storytelling had begun to lose its touch.

VERDICT: It’s not terrible but compared to what had come before? It’s a Disney Minus.  

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Incredible Journey

Theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Incredible Journey

Even though Walt Disney was no longer in the True-Life Adventures business, he’d continued working with the wildlife photography specialists at Cangary Ltd. Together, they’d made such films as Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North, Big Red and The Legend Of Lobo. But while the team at Cangary consistently brought their A-game, capturing some spectacular animal footage for each movie, the folks at Disney weren’t living up to their end of the bargain. The films looked great but the stories built around the footage left a lot to be desired.

With The Incredible Journey, Walt finally found a story that could live up to the work done at Cangary. Longtime True-Life Adventures steward James Algar produced and adapted the screenplay from the novel by Sheila Burnford. The premise can be boiled down to a single sentence. Three pets who think they’ve been abandoned make a cross-country journey back home. It’s the kind of simple, internationally relatable story that is guaranteed a spot on your local news whenever anything remotely like it happens in real life.

While most of the crew (including Algar and nature photographers Jack Couffer and Lloyd Beebe) were Disney veterans, director Fletcher Markle was new to the studio. Markle was a Canadian writer, director and occasional actor who started out in radio, creating the influential anthology series Studio One. When Studio One went to television, Markle went with it. Throughout the 1950s, he worked on some of the best shows from the golden age of television, including Studio One, the Boris Karloff-hosted Thriller and Front Row Center.

There isn’t much in Markle’s career to suggest that he’d even be interested in The Incredible Journey, much less a good fit for the project. He only directed four features altogether, mostly crime dramas like Jigsaw. The Incredible Journey was his only Disney project and his last credit as director. Afterward, he stayed in Canada where he produced and hosted the long-running interview series Telescope. Telescope debuted in 1963, the same year The Incredible Journey was released. One of Markle’s first guests was none other than Walt Disney.

Our three heroes are Luath, a young Labrador Retriever, Bodger, an older Bull Terrier, and Tao, a Siamese cat. Although they belong to the Hunter family, we first meet them in the rustic bachelor home of John Longridge (Émile Genest, still making up for his mistreatment of Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North). Longridge is an old friend of Professor John Hunter (John Drainie) and godfather to his daughter. When Hunter receives an offer to become a visiting fellow at Oxford, Longridge volunteers to look after the animals.

Longridge has plans to leave on a two-week hunting trip, so he leaves a two-page note with instructions for his housekeeper (Beth Amos). But the second page is accidentally destroyed, giving her the impression that he was bringing the animals with him. After Longridge leaves, Luath assumes they’ve been left to fend for themselves, so he decides to return home to the Hunters with Bodger and Tao following close behind.

As long as the focus remains on the three animals, The Incredible Journey is on solid ground. Either the animals were incredibly well-trained or the units assigned to cover them were incredibly patient. Most likely, it was some combination of the two. The bond between these animals feels genuine. When Tao and Luath defend the weak and exhausted Bodger from a mother bear, it’s genuinely stirring. When Tao is forced to leap across a beaver dam to cross a river, it actually feels like the dogs are cheering him on from the other side. The animals, the editing and the music all work together to sell these moments.

The animals also encounter a handful of people along the way. A friendly hermit (Tommy Tweed) seems like he’s going to be helpful, sharing his stew with the trio. But when they don’t sit at the table like proper houseguests, he goes around and eats their portions. Tao almost drowns and is nursed back to health by a young girl (Syme Jago) and her family. And when Luath gets a face full of porcupine quills, a passing hunter (Robert Christie) removes them and gives the dogs food and shelter for the night.

The Incredible Journey only stumbles in its second half, after Longridge returns home to discover the animals missing. Longridge is understandably worried and he makes an effort to track them down. But none of this is very interesting since we already know exactly where they are. And in the end, his search leads nowhere and has no impact. The animals find their way home on their own, just like we knew they would. It’s even harder to care when he breaks the news to the Hunters. At this point, we have nothing invested in the family and everything invested in their pets. Jumping back into their lives is just a waste of time.

Most of the human actors in The Incredible Journey are not household names, unless your household is particularly into the history of Canadian broadcasting. John Drainie, who appears as Professor Hunter, was once called “the greatest radio actor in the world” by no less an authority than Orson Welles. Tommy Tweed and Robert Christie were also radio fixtures on CBC. To Americans, the most famous performer would have been Rex Allen, returning to narrator duties after The Legend Of Lobo. Fortunately, the Sons of the Pioneers decided to sit this one out. No musical interludes to interrupt the narrative flow this time around.

Although there aren’t any original songs, The Incredible Journey did mark the end of a significant musical era. Longtime Disney composer Oliver Wallace, who had been with the studio since the 1930s, died just two months prior to The Incredible Journey’s release. Over the years, he had composed music for countless short subjects, animated and live-action features and documentaries, winning an Oscar for his work on Dumbo. With Wallace’s passing, the torch was officially passed to the next generation of Disney composers.

When The Incredible Journey was released in November 1963, it made a respectable amount at the box office. It wasn’t a blockbuster but it outperformed other recent Disney animal movies like Savage Sam. It also never entirely faded from memory, thanks to re-releases and TV broadcasts. Twenty years later, the studio produced a remake. Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey made some significant changes to the original, most obviously giving the animals the voices of Michael J. Fox, Sally Field and Don Ameche. They also changed their names and I can certainly understand why. Luath, Tao and Bodger are some of the most awkward pet names I’ve ever heard. Homeward Bound did very well, generating a sequel in 1996. This column will get to those movies in due course.

All these years later, The Incredible Journey remains one of Disney’s best animal adventures. It has the heart and emotion that was missing from the earlier adventures of Nikki and Lobo. It seems that to make a truly humane animal picture, all they had to do was get rid of most of the humans.

VERDICT: Disney Plus  

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Summer Magic

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Summer Magic

One of Hayley Mills’ greatest strengths as a young actor was her earnestness. There was no artifice to her performance. What you saw was what you got. When she delivered a line, you felt like she truly believed it. Only someone like Hayley Mills could have taken the reheated corn of Pollyanna and turned it into something palatable, if not exactly fresh.

Her English accent was a key element in that image. Summer Magic marks her fourth appearance in this column and so far, we’ve seen her play a bona fide British citizen exactly once, in the Jules Verne adventure In Search Of The Castaways. Every other character she’s played has been born and bred right here in the good old U S of A. But she never once attempts to hide her accent. The movies themselves make no effort at explaining or justifying it. It just is what it is. She’s not trying to pretend to be something she’s not. And even when playing characters as deeply American as the twins in The Parent Trap, nobody in the audience ever seems to mind.

Summer Magic is the first time that accent sounds out of place. At first glance, there’s no reason it should. The movie finds us squarely back in one of Walt’s favorite genres, the early 20th century nostalgia piece, just like Pollyanna. But this time she’s got a family: widowed mother Margaret (played by Dorothy McGuire, Disney matriarch of Old Yeller and Swiss Family Robinson), brothers Gilly (Eddie Hodges) and Peter (Jimmy Mathers, younger brother of Leave It To Beaver star Jerry Mathers), and cousin Julia (Deborah Walley). Not a one of these people seems like they could be related to the others.

This disconnect starts to make sense when you realize that Summer Magic was never intended to star Hayley Mills in the first place. The movie was based on the 1911 novel Mother Carey’s Chickens (you can see why they changed the name) by Mary Douglas Wiggin and adapted for the screen by Sally Benson, whose semiautobiographical stories had formed the basis of the similarly nostalgic 1944 MGM musical Meet Me In St. Louis.

Walt began developing the project as a starring vehicle for his star Mouseketeer, Annette Funicello. But Annette had grown tired of waiting around the Disney lot. She was a huge TV and recording star but Walt had only cast her in two features: a small supporting role in The Shaggy Dog and the big-budget musical boondoggle Babes In Toyland. Sick of waiting for her Disney ship to come in, Annette took a role opposite Frankie Avalon in the American International Pictures teen comedy Beach Party. Miffed that his star had taken another gig, Walt scratched her from Summer Magic and brought in Hayley Mills.

Beach Party came out about a month after Summer Magic and was a surprise hit, so AIP quickly signed Annette up for more. Eventually, she would be joined at AIP by her once and future Disney costar, Tommy Kirk. But for now, both Annette and Tommy were still under contract to Walt, so they’ll be back in this column.

Summer Magic might have worked a little bit better with Annette since it is essentially a musical with seven original songs by the Sherman brothers. It’s not that Hayley Mills couldn’t sing. She certainly proved she could carry a tune in her previous films. But Annette was a more natural musical performer who had already had some success with songs written for her by the Shermans. The movie feels tailor-made to Annette’s strengths a lot more than Hayley’s.

Comic book adaptation of Summer Magic

Personality is important here because there isn’t a whole lot of plot driving this story. The movie opens in Boston as the Carey family prepares to move out of their longtime home after the death of the patriarch. But Nancy Carey (Mills) remembers an idyllic vacation the family once spent in the small town of Beulah, Maine, particularly a vacant yellow house that her father loved. Nancy writes to Beulah’s postmaster, exaggerating the direness of their situation, and finds that the owner of the yellow house, Tom Hamilton, has been away in China for years, leaving the local postmaster/chief constable in charge of his affairs. He’s willing to rent the Careys the house for just $60 a year.

Upon arriving in Beulah, the postmaster, Osh Popham (Burl Ives, returning to the Disney fold for the first time since the 1948 nostalgia-fest So Dear To My Heart) immediately discovers that he’s rented the house under false pretenses. But rather than being annoyed, he’s charmed and delighted by the new arrivals and bends over backward to help out. Osh also runs the general store and he sells the Careys whatever supplies they need to fix up the house below cost. He provides free labor just so he can have some folks to chat with. Osh’s son, Digby (amusingly played by Michael J. Pollard, of all people), is getting ready to leave for the Big City, so Osh offers Digby’s job as delivery driver to Gilly. He even volunteers his daughter, Lallie Joy (Wendy Turner), to generally make herself available to help the Careys with whatever they may need. Osh Popham is more generous than Santa Claus.

The only voice of reason in all this is Osh’s disapproving wife (Una Merkel, last seen as Brian Keith’s housekeeper in The Parent Trap). She’s pretty sure that Osh hasn’t bothered to ask for Mr. Hamilton’s permission to rent the house and knows full well that he hasn’t told the Careys about it. But whenever she tries to tell them the truth, old Osh comes up with some distraction to prevent it.

When Osh discovers that the Careys are essentially broke, he claims that Mr. Hamilton is so happy with all the improvements being done that he’s refused to accept any more rent. The only stipulation is that the Careys hang a portrait of Mr. Hamilton’s “mother” in a place of honor. Of course, there is no such picture. Osh rummages around in a storage room and finally finds a portrait of a stern temperance leader to pass off as Mrs. Hamilton.

The Careys plan a big open house/unveiling ceremony for Halloween. But who should arrive back in town the day of the party but Tom Hamilton (Peter Brown), who turns out to be a lot younger and handsomer than we’d thought. Osh confesses everything, telling Tom that both he and Nancy have been writing but Osh never bothered to send the letters, assuming that Tom would never get them anyway. Tom’s not entirely happy about the situation but thinks Nancy is a charming, sweet girl, so at the very least, he won’t ruin her party.

The movie ends with Tom and Nancy dancing and most of the family still in the dark about his real identity. Osh reminds his wife that he knew everything would turn out all right in the end and, in a way, he’s right. I guess every story has a happy ending if you stop telling it before you get to the part where people are forced to deal with the consequences of their actions.

That isn’t quite all there is to Summer Magic but it’s pretty close. The arrival of Nancy’s spoiled cousin, Julia, upsets the family dynamic for a little bit but she eventually comes around and the two girls grow close. That sisterly bond is tested when they’re both smitten by the handsome new schoolteacher, played by James Stacy. Fortunately, the teacher only has eyes for the older Julia and the movie sidesteps any messy hints of romance between him and Nancy.

Even so, Stacy’s own troubled history makes any scenes between he and the girls a little cringey. In 1995, the actor was sentenced to a six-year prison term for molesting an 11-year-old girl. This is not the kind of guy you want to see hanging around our sweet, innocent Hayley Mills. Stacy will actually be back in this column eventually but he’ll look a lot different when he does. A 1973 motorcycle accident cost him an arm and a leg, literally. He made a bit of a comeback after his recovery until his arrest and conviction put an end to his acting career for good. He died in 2016 and later turned up as a character in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, played by Timothy Olyphant.

Compared to James Stacy, the other members of the cast had far less turbulent post-Summer Magic careers. Deborah Walley made her Disney debut in Bon Voyage! (also directed by Summer Magic‘s James Neilson). She would soon join Annette Funicello in defecting to the AIP camp, appearing alongside Frankie and Annette in Beach Blanket Bingo. While Summer Magic would be her last appearance in a Disney feature, she would later do some voice work for Chip ‘N’ Dale Rescue Rangers.

Eddie Hodges, who plays aspiring musician Gilly, became a star on Broadway, originating the role of Winthrop in The Music Man. His first film, A Hole In The Head, saw him perform the song “High Hopes” with Frank Sinatra. He continued to act in movies like The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn and sing, landing a hit record in 1961 with “I’m Gonna Knock On Your Door” when he was 14. Considering Hodges’ musical background, it’s a little surprising that he isn’t given his own song in Summer Magic instead of being relegated to Mills’ duet partner. Hodges’ show-business career was essentially over by the end of the decade but he’ll be back in this column before he retires.

Summer Magic soundtrack LP

As for the songs themselves, they aren’t exactly peak Sherman Brothers. Some of them, like “Pink of Perfection” and “Femininity”, are kind of fun and they all have that same trademark lilting bounce that the Shermans did so well. But with very few exceptions, they don’t grow organically out of the story. They’re just a bunch of random songs that the movie occasionally stops in its tracks to accommodate.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in “The Ugly Bug Ball”. Burl Ives sings this nonsense ditty to young Jimmy Mathers, accompanied by what appears to be stock footage of insects left over from the True-Life Adventures series. It has absolutely nothing to do with anything and overstays its welcome by a solid minute-and-a-half.

Summer Magic was released in July 1963 to mixed revies and indifferent audiences. Its box office take was a fraction of what Mills’ previous Disney vehicles had brought in. Hayley Mills herself would later say it was the worst of her six Disney films. And yeah, it’s not great. But it’s such a harmless, innocuous little trifle that it’s hard to call it a bad movie. I could certainly understand if some people have a soft spot in their heart for it. On the other hand, I would find it very hard to believe that Summer Magic is anybody’s favorite Disney movie.

VERDICT: Who am I to argue with Hayley Mills? It’s a Disney Minus.  

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Savage Sam

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Savage Sam

For years, Walt Disney had been an outspoken opponent to the very idea of sequels. But apparently pulling the trigger on Son Of Flubber, the follow-up to The Absent-Minded Professor, convinced Walt that sequels weren’t such a bad idea after all. Within six months of Flubber’s release, Walt had another sequel in theaters. Perversely, he decided to make a sequel to the one movie that seemed uniquely resistant to continuation.

From a dollars-and-cents perspective, a sequel to Old Yeller makes perfect sense. Fred Gipson’s novel was an award-winning modern classic. Walt’s movie adaptation had been even bigger, an indelible cinematic experience that marked a generation. So when Gipson published his sequel, Savage Sam, Walt understandably snatched up the movie rights immediately.

But narratively, you really have to question the need to continue this story. Setting aside the fact that the title character is shot dead by the end of the picture, Old Yeller is fundamentally a coming-of-age story about young Travis Coates (played in both films by Tommy Kirk). By the movie’s end, Travis does in fact appear to have come of age. His character arc has reached its natural conclusion. How many more dogs does this kid have to shoot before he can be considered a man?

Dorothy McGuire and Fess Parker couldn’t be persuaded to return to their roles as Katie and Jim Coates. In Parker’s case, I’d wager that Walt didn’t even bother to try. The two men hadn’t exactly parted on the best of terms when Parker left the studio. McGuire, on the other hand, had recently starred in Swiss Family Robinson and will soon be back in this column. Without Parker, they probably just figured it made more sense to eliminate both parents altogether.

Jim and Katie are in San Francisco, tending to a sick grandmother, leaving the boys at home to tend to the Coates homestead. Travis is in charge and it’s going about as well as you’d expect, since younger brother Arliss (Kevin Corcoran, of course) is still an obnoxious little hellion. If anything, he’s even worse now, pouting and whining and throwing rocks at his brother whenever things don’t go his way. The boys have a new dog, Sam, the son of Old Yeller although he doesn’t look anything like the puppy we were introduced to at the end of the first film. Sam is almost as uncontrollable as Arliss but at least he’s got a more pleasant personality.

The boys haven’t been left completely on their own. Their previously unmentioned Uncle Beck (Brian Keith, making his fourth appearance in this column) stops by now and again to look in on them. And their neighbor, professional mooch Bud Searcy (Jeff York, his sixth) is on hand to help himself to a plate of beans. Meanwhile, Bud’s tagalong daughter, Lisbeth, still seems to be nursing a mostly unrequited crush on Travis.

Marta Kristen steps into the role of Lisbeth, replacing Beverly Washburn. Kristen was just starting out in the business. A few years after Savage Sam, she’d be cast as Judy Robinson in Lost In Space, starring Disney’s former Zorro, Guy Williams, as her father. Beverly Washburn would also become a cult star with roles on the original Star Trek and in the unhinged drive-in classic Spider Baby. Apparently the role of Lisbeth Searcy is a young actress’ ticket to cult stardom.

The story doesn’t really kick in until Sam and Arliss chase after a pesky bobcat that’s been sneaking around the homestead. Travis and Lisbeth go looking for them, finding them still harassing the now cornered and harmless cat. Travis tries dragging Arliss away and while they’re squabbling, a riding party of Apache horse thieves happens by. They capture the kids and knock Sam unconscious, leaving him for dead.

The Apache admire Arliss’ spirit and decide to make him one of their own. Lisbeth is presumably meant to be turned into an “Indian squaw”. As for Travis…well, he’s kind of useless, so when he falls off a horse, the Indians don’t bother going back to pick him up. Fortunately, Uncle Beck and Bud have rounded up a posse (including Dewey Martin, who had starred in Disney’s Daniel Boone TV show, Slim Pickens and Royal Dano, his granite face sculpted into a permanent scowl) to rescue the kids. Sam has also recovered, so the posse follow his lead as he tracks Arliss’ scent across country.

You can probably see where all this is headed. The posse stays on the trail, despite some hardships and bickering. Dano’s character is presented as the most virulent Indian hater of the group. And while Keith patiently explains that he’s got a good reason to hate (Indians slaughtered his entire family), he’s also quick to cut him off after they rescue the kids and Dano’s still out for blood. So you see, not everybody is down to start indiscriminately murdering every Indian they meet. Just those who have a really, really good excuse.

Look, there are obviously many stories of Native Americans capturing white women and kids and either raping and killing them or raising them on their own. Those tales form the basis of one of the best Westerns of all time, John Ford’s The Searchers. Walt himself already explored the subject with more nuance and sensitivity five years earlier with The Light In The Forest. The thing is, The Light In The Forest is not a particularly nuanced or sensitive film. But compared to Savage Sam, it’s downright enlightened.

Savage Sam simply takes a handful of characters the audience is theoretically fond of and plunks them down into a standard issue Cowboys & Injuns picture. And I say “Injuns” because these are not Indigenous Peoples or Native Americans or even “Indians”. These are cartoon characters, presented with zero subtlety or respect, and played primarily by actors without a drop of Native ancestry. One notable exception was Pat Hogan, a member of the Oneida Nation who had previously appeared in Davy Crockett and Ten Who Dared.

The only halfway sympathetic Indian is a peace-loving Comanche who rides along with the Apache played by Dean Fredericks. Fredericks had the sort of ambiguously ethnic look that led to him playing a wide range of inappropriate roles. His most famous part came when he dyed his hair blond to play the title role in the TV adaptation of Milt Caniff’s Steve Canyon. The Comanche helps the kids out a little bit, even if that usually just means he’s not actively participating in their abuse. He certainly doesn’t factor into their rescue all that much.

Theatrical release poster for Savage Sam

It’s no secret that I am not a fan of Old Yeller. But I can appreciate what others see in it, even if I don’t personally enjoy it. The same can’t be said for Savage Sam. This is a coarse, ugly movie that has virtually nothing in common with its predecessor. Director Robert Stevenson had at least been able to instill Old Yeller with some charm and pathos. Norman Tokar, who had previously demonstrated his ability to work with dogs and kids in Big Red, focuses instead on rote action sequences. He isn’t able to give Sam the same winning personality as Yeller. If there’s any kind of silver lining to it at all, at least Sam’s still alive at the end of the picture.

Sadly, the same can’t be said of the real-life inspiration for Sam and maybe some of the film’s unpleasantness can be explained by the events surrounding its creation. Walt hired author Fred Gipson to write the screenplay for Savage Sam in collaboration with William Tunberg, just as he’d done with Old Yeller. But Gipson was fighting a losing battle against alcoholism by this time. One weekend while working on Savage Sam, Gipson’s son, Mike, came home from college. He found their dog, who Sam was based on, chained up in the backyard and beaten to death. Mike went back to school and committed suicide. Not long after that, Gipson’s wife filed for divorce.

Savage Sam would be the last book Fred Gipson published in his lifetime, although he continued writing up to his death in 1973. A third Coates family adventure, Little Arliss, was published posthumously in 1978 and was turned into a 1984 TV special, although not by Disney.

Critics and audiences agreed that Savage Sam was one of Disney’s weaker efforts when it premiered in June 1963. It earned less than half of Old Yeller’s box office take. Compared to Son Of Flubber, which made nearly as much as The Absent-Minded Professor, it had to be considered a major disappointment. The fallout obviously hit Fred Gipson hardest but the movie’s failure also had repercussions for Tommy Kirk. This would be his last dramatic role at Disney. We’ll see him in this column again but when he returns, it’ll be back to comedies. And for Tommy Kirk, it’ll also be the beginning of the end.  

VERDICT: Disney Minus  

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Miracle Of The White Stallions

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Miracle Of The White Stallions

Walt Disney’s name had been synonymous with family entertainment practically from the very beginning of his career. But that doesn’t mean that all he made were children’s films. Every so often, he’d become interested in a story that held very little appeal for the small fry and was geared, more or less, toward adults. Walt being Walt, they were still suitable for viewing by audiences of all ages. It’s just that younger audiences would likely be bored stiff by them.

Miracle Of The White Stallions appears to be one of Walt’s grown-up passion projects brought on by his life-long love of horses. It’s inspired by the true story of Colonel Alois Podhajsky, an Olympic equestrian and director of the world-famous Spanish Riding School in Vienna, and his efforts to save the school’s one-of-a-kind Lipizzaner horses from the ravages of World War II. In a way, it’s a spiritual cousin to two very different earlier films: the World War II documentary Victory Through Air Power and Almost Angels, the behind-the-curtain look at the school that houses the Vienna Boys’ Choir.

Podhajsky himself served as a consultant on the film and choreographed the performance sequences, much as Alexander P. de Seversky consulted on the adaptation of his book, Victory Through Air Power. Podhajsky can be spotted in the final performance, riding close behind Robert Taylor, the actor who portrays him. AJ Carothers adapted Podhajsky’s book into screenplay form. Prior to this, Carothers worked primarily in television including a stint on Fred MacMurray’s sitcom, My Three Sons. Miracle Of The White Stallions was Carothers’ first job at Disney but it won’t be his last.

The director was another newcomer to the Disney studio. Arthur Hiller also got his start in TV, first in his native Canada, then in the US where he helmed multiple episodes of such shows as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Route 66. Miracle Of The White Stallions was his second feature, following the teen drama The Careless Years in 1957. This would be Hiller’s only Disney film. In 1970, his film Love Story would turn into a phenomenon that catapulted him to the A-list. He’d later direct such comedy classics as Silver Streak and The In-Laws, as well as a handful of projects for the Disney-adjacent Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures beginning with 1987’s Outrageous Fortune. There is absolutely nothing in Miracle Of The White Stallions that foreshadows his future career.

When it came time to assemble the cast, Walt again looked outside of the usual suspects. Robert Taylor had been a popular leading man since the 30s, starring in such films as Magnificent Obsession and Quo Vadis. In 1959, he crossed over to television, starring in the popular crime drama The Detectives. He had just finished his stint on that show when he made Miracle Of The White Stallions, his only Disney appearance.

Podhajsky’s wife was played by Lilli Palmer. She’d become a star in Hollywood in films like Cloak And Dagger and Body And Soul. But she also had an active career in European productions such as the 1958 remake of Mädchen In Uniform. Palmer too was one and done with Disney. She’d continue to bounce back and forth between Europe and Hollywood, film and TV, right up until her death in 1986.

Eddie Albert costars as Podhajsky’s right-hand man, Otto. Albert was already an Oscar-nominated character actor when he made his Disney debut, having received a Best Supporting Actor nod for Roman Holiday. He’d also costarred in Frank Capra’s Our Mr. Sun, the first of the Bell System Science Series, which a lot of people think was made by Disney but wasn’t. Eddie Albert will eventually find his way back to this column but not for awhile. A couple of years after Miracle Of The White Stallions, he landed the lead in the long-running sitcom Green Acres. In 1973, he’d get his second Oscar nomination for The Heartbreak Kid. By the time he gets back to Disney in 1975, he’ll have become a beloved fixture of film and television.

As the film opens, World War II has entered a critical phase. Colonel Podhajsky has been ordered by the Nazis to keep the Spanish Riding School open as a symbol to Austrians that life is continuing as normal. But the war is getting closer to Vienna. Podhajsky has already removed a number of priceless works of art and relocated the Lipizzaner mares to Czechoslovakia for their safety. After an aerial attack comes perilously close to destroying the school, Podhajsky again seeks permission to move the stallions to safety. And once again, he is denied.

But one Nazi officer remains sympathetic to Podhajsky’s request. General Tellheim (Curd Jürgens or, in the Americanized spelling, Curt Jurgens) reminds Podhajsky that his order to protect the school’s most precious artifacts remains in effect. And what is the Spanish Riding School’s most precious artifact if not the lineage of the Lipizzaners?

Podhajsky, his wife and staff load up their remaining wagons and flee Vienna at night. After a perilous train journey, they arrive at the estate of Countess Arco-Valley (Brigitte Horney), a resistance sympathizer who has opened the grounds of her home to refugees after her husband was placed in a concentration camp. While they’re at the estate, the war ends and American troops arrive, using the estate as a base of operations.

American Major Hoffman (James Franciscus) recognizes Podhajsky from his victories at the Olympics. So Podhajsky asks for one more favor. He needs to retrieve his mares from Russian-occupied Czechoslovakia. Without them, the ultra-rare Lipizzaner breed will die out. There’s nothing Hoffman can do but he has an idea. The troops are about to receive a visit from noted horse-fancier General George S. Patton (John Larch). If Podhajsky can throw together an impromptu performance that impresses Patton, he might be able to help.

Miracle Of The White Stallions is an interesting, surprisingly mature film. It’s essentially a war movie but most of the action takes place off-screen. There are a couple of well-staged fighting sequences and some suspense but it’s overall a very talky film. That’s not necessarily a negative. The cast is uniformly excellent and the dialogue is good. But it’s not a movie for the easily bored. The movie’s reliance on conversation was probably a necessity brought on by budget restrictions. This is one of those rare cases where the real-life incidents were actually more action-packed than the cinematic depiction. The Disney version pares things down to the bare minimum.

Podhajsky is an unusual choice for a leading man. He’s a strict taskmaster devoted to duty and tradition and Robert Taylor does nothing to soften his rough edges. The support of the folksier and more likable Eddie Albert is essential in making Podhajsky more relatable. Curd Jürgens also gets a terrific scene where he comes to terms with the fact that he’s now a Nazi war criminal. He’s not proud of what he did during the war but refuses to hide behind the excuse of just following orders. The sympathetic Nazi can be a tough character to swallow but Jürgens does some nice work shading in General Tellheim.

Of course, the stallions are the real stars of the movie. Classical dressage is an extremely specialized skill and Hiller uses it sparingly, treating it almost like a special effect. The film builds up to an extended performance and it’s genuinely impressive. If you had any doubts that these horses and traditions were worth preserving, this sequence alone dispels them. The film probably could have benefited from including a bit more of the stallions, particularly early on. It’s one thing to be told what makes the Lipizzaners unique and the movie’s opening voice-over narrator does exactly that. But it’s something else to see them in action. Giving the audience a taste up-front could have saved some time later on.

Released in March 1963, Miracle Of The White Stallions was greeted with a collective shrug by critics and audiences. This unfortunately seemed to be a fairly common reaction whenever Disney strayed too far outside his comfort zone. It’s too bad because this is actually a pretty good little movie. If this or other atypical Disney productions had received a more positive response, maybe Walt would have felt emboldened to take more risks with his movies. As it is, this remains an interesting curiosity, another orphaned Disney film you won’t find on Disney+ or on Blu-ray. It’s worth a look if you can track it down, especially if you love horses.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Son Of Flubber

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Son Of Flubber

Son Of Flubber was Walt Disney’s first sequel, with an asterisk. Nearly twenty years earlier, he released The Three Caballeros in response to the tremendous response to Saludos Amigos. Caballeros is every inch a follow-up to Amigos but since neither of those movies follow a narrative framework, they don’t entirely count. The same could be said of Melody Time, a spiritual sequel to Make Mine Music. Then there’s Davy Crockett And The River Pirates. It’s obviously a sequel (well, prequel) to Davy Crockett, King Of The Wild Frontier. But they were originally produced for TV, not the big screen. So sure, if you take all of those sequels-but-not-really out of the equation, Son Of Flubber was first.

That’s certainly a distinction Walt himself would have made. He had explicitly stated in interviews that he didn’t like sequels. He didn’t seem to have any compunction about going back to the same well and trying to make something the same but different. But sequels, especially in those days, weren’t supposed to offer anything but more of the same. If that’s what Walt Disney’s definition of a sequel was, he absolutely delivered on it with Son Of Flubber.

The gang’s all here from The Absent-Minded Professor. Everyone from director Robert Stevenson and screenwriter Bill Walsh on down to Fred MacMurray and Charlie the dog returned for part two. The movie picks up almost exactly where the first one left off. Professor Brainard (MacMurray) and his new assistant, Biff Hawk (Tommy Kirk), are flying the Model T down to Washington hoping to collect some of that sweet, sweet government money they’ve been promised. Unfortunately, that’s going to take some time. The Secretary of Defense (Edward Andrews) explains the labyrinth of red tape that must be navigated in order to maximize their eventual pay-out. Why settle for less when you could get more? So Brainard and Biff are forced to return to Medfield College empty-handed, except for vague promises that it’ll all be worth it someday.

As always, the financially strapped Medfield needs the money now. The college has made plans for an elaborate new science center, Flubber Hall. When Biff’s father, Alonzo P. Hawk (Keenan Wynn), discovers that Brainard didn’t get the money, he gleefully announces plans to bulldoze the entire campus on the first of the month unless his loan is repaid.

Meanwhile, Brainerd is having some domestic troubles with his new bride, Betsy (Nancy Olson). She’s being courted by some Madison Avenue types (led by comedian Ken Murray) who want to buy the rights to Flubber. They dazzle her with the promise of furs, pearls and a million dollar check and come armed with sample commercials for such products as Flubberoleum, a revolutionary bouncy floor guaranteed to change the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Suburban America. But once Brainard admits that his government contract prevents him from selling Flubber to anyone else, the ad men pack up and leave.

As they walk out, a man from the government (Bob Sweeney, last seen in Moon Pilot) walks in. However, the agency this government man represents is the IRS, not the Defense Department. He’s here to collect the tax on the prospective earnings reported by Brainard based on the millions he’s been promised. The fact that he hasn’t actually received any of that money yet doesn’t matter. When Brainerd tells the heartless taxman that he’d probably put his own mother in jail, Mr. Harker assures him that he already has for unreported income on her homemade jams and jellies.

In desperate need of money (and refusing to let Betsy go back to work as a secretary for his once-and-future rival, English professor Shelby Aston, again played by Elliott Reid), Brainerd gets back to work on his latest invention. Flubbergas appears to have several interesting properties but Brainerd hopes it will allow mankind to control the weather. A successful experiment made it rain inside from the steam off a boiling tea kettle. But when he tries to go bigger by aiming it at a distant cloud, it doesn’t appear to work. It does, however, shatter every last piece of glass within its reach, unbeknownst to Brainerd.

Biff, in the meantime, is working on an alternative use for Flubbergas. With his pal Humphrey (Leon Tyler, one of the basketball players from the first film) acting as guinea pig, Biff tries to create an inflatable football uniform that allows the player himself to be thrown into the end zone. His experiments aren’t entirely successful, unless his goal was to repeatedly destroy the chicken coop owned by Brainerd’s neighbor, milkman Mr. Hummel (played by Preston Sturges regular William Demarest, a couple of years before he joined the cast of MacMurray’s sitcom My Three Sons as Uncle Charley).

MEANWHILE meanwhile, Shelby Aston is up to his old tricks, trying to steal Betsy away from Brainard, and this time he’s brought a secret weapon. He invites Brainard’s old girlfriend, sexpot Desiree de la Roche (Joanna Moore), over to dinner at the Brainards. Betsy eventually becomes convinced that Desiree and Brainard have rekindled their old affair, so she leaves him, temporarily moving in with her old boss, Medfield College President Rufus Daggett (Leon Ames) and his wife (Harriet MacGibbon).

As for all that broken glass, Alonzo Hawk’s insurance company has been left holding the bag for thousands of dollars in claims. He figures out that the whole thing started at Brainard’s house and proposes another crooked deal, using the Flubbergas in service of an elaborate insurance scam. Brainard refuses, of course, and Hawk threatens to bring the full force of the law down on him.

Despondent over all these setbacks, Brainard agrees to help Biff out with his project. This time, the inflatable football uniform works and Medfield trounces rival Rutland College in essentially a replay of the first film’s basketball game. Brainard has no time to savor the victory, however. Hawk makes good on his threat and the police arrive to haul Brainard off to jail.

Brainard looks to be in a tight spot until Buzz turns up at his trial with a surprise witness. It’s none other than Ed Wynn, one of the only actors from the original Absent-Minded Professor who does not reprise the same role here. Now he’s the Chief Agricultural Officer and he presents evidence that Brainard’s invention does work, just not in the way he intended. The Flubbergas has somehow supercharged the atmosphere, turning Medfield’s formerly barren farmland lush and verdant, producing giant-sized fruits and vegetables. Wynn dubs the phenomenon “dry rain”. Brainard is once again a hero and the case is dismissed, despite overwhelming evidence that he was clearly guilty of the charges he faced.

Son Of Flubber theatrical poster

Believe it or not, I did not have high expectations going into Son Of Flubber. The Absent-Minded Professor is a fun little movie but there’s nothing about it that left me saying, “More of these characters, please.” But here’s the thing. Son Of Flubber is actually a surprisingly good, funny sequel. That is, right up to the point where, all of a sudden, it isn’t.

The first several scenes are terrific. Walsh’s screenplay takes aim at government inefficiency and absurd tax laws and lands quite a few hits. Disney had previously lobbed some softballs at Uncle Sam in Moon Pilot but the jokes here are funnier and fresher. The sequence with the ad men pitching their ludicrous products is even better. The sight of a typical suburban dad bouncing his baby off a Flubberized floor will never not be funny. This is all good stuff suggesting we’re about to get a smarter, more satirical movie than is actually coming.

The trouble starts when Walsh and Stevenson decide to refocus on Brainard’s latest experiment. From here, they seem content to simply deliver a rehash of the first film. The football game apes the rhythms and gags of the basketball game down to the second. Even Paul Lynde, making his film debut as the game’s color commentator, can’t liven things up. Once again, Brainard flies his Model T over Shelby’s car and once again, Shelby crashes into James Westerfield and Forrest Lewis, the cops from The Absent-Minded Professor and The Shaggy Dog. This time, Brainard floods Shelby’s car with rain, which is admittedly kind of a cool effect. But the punchline to the gag is the same.

The movie’s biggest problem is its focus on Brainard and Betsy’s marital problems. Try to set aside the fact that they’re completely rooted in retrograde stereotypes. Brainard’s “no wife of mine is going to work” attitude will have modern women rolling their eyes, while modern men will (hopefully) be equally insulted by Brainard’s total inability to even feed himself without his wife. No one ever accused Disney of having progressive views on marriage.

The bigger issue is that we’ve seen all this before. The triangle between Brainard, Betsy and Shelby was already one of the weakest elements in the first film. Bringing Desiree into the mix does nothing to change that. We already know that Betsy’s willing to put up with a lot from her husband. The guy left her standing at the altar three times, for crying out loud. She ought to be smart enough to see through Shelby’s transparent attempt to wreck her marriage.

The Brainards’ marital woes are endemic of the film’s tendency to repeat itself. A love triangle was part of the first movie, so it needs to be part of the new one whether or not it makes any sense for the story or the characters. It’s also one subplot too many in a movie that’s already overstuffed with dangling plot threads. The business with the taxman is smart and funny but it’s forgotten the second Bob Sweeney leaves the picture. The same goes for the ad men and the brass down in Washington.

None of that seemed to matter much to critics and audiences in 1963. Most critics agreed that even though Son Of Flubber wasn’t as fresh and original as The Absent-Minded Professor, it still breezed by on its light, buoyant tone. Audiences turned out in droves. The movie premiered in January of 1963 and went on to become the sixth highest-grossing movie of the year, behind much bigger movies like Cleopatra, How The West Was Won, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Tom Jones and Irma la Douce. It was a bright spot in an otherwise so-so year for the studio.

I can’t end this entry without discussing the Great Flubber Fiasco of 1962-63. In the autumn of 1962, Disney teamed up with toy company Hassenfield Brothers (who would shorten their name to Hasbro by the end of the decade) to mass produce Flubber, a bouncy, stretchy glob that was more or less the same as Silly Putty.

Flubber - the Toy

Kids loved Flubber but shortly after the release of the film it was meant to promote, reports started to surface of an outbreak of skin rashes in schools nationwide. Flubber appeared to be the cause and, while nobody at Hassenfield Brothers or Disney ever stepped up to claim responsibility, the bad press was enough to doom the product. By May, Hassenfield decided to yank Flubber off the market.

This is where it gets really fun. Hassenfield Brothers now had a whole lot of potentially toxic Flubber and no idea how to get rid of it. Landfills flat out refused to accept it. Burning it produced a thick, greasy black smoke that stank up the vicinity for miles. They tried to sink it in a lake but the Flubber balls just floated right back up to the surface.

Finally, Hassenfield Bros. just did as Atari would do years later with their unwanted E.T. video game cartridges. They dug a big pit, buried the Flubber and built an employee parking lot on top of it. And supposedly, that’s where Flubber is to this day, buried beneath Delta Drive in Pawtucket, RI. Some say that on hot days, the Flubber bubbles up through cracks in the asphalt. That, along with some of the other details of the story, might be a bit of an exaggeration. But this is the kind of story where it’s more fun to print the legend.

For the time being anyway, Walt Disney was through with Flubber. The studio wouldn’t touch the stuff again until the 1988 TV remake of The Absent-Minded Professor. But we have not seen the last of Medfield College, Alonzo P. Hawk, or most of the film’s cast and crew. Almost everybody will be back in this column sooner or later. Those Disney contracts must have been written on Flubber. People keep bouncing back for more.

VERDICT: The first half is a Disney Plus but the second is a Disney Neutral at best.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: In Search Of The Castaways

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's In Search Of The Castaways

In 1962, Hayley Mills was on top of the world. Her first two Disney films, Pollyanna and The Parent Trap, had been huge hits. The latter movie even netted her a hit single, “Let’s Get Together” by the Sherman Brothers. After The Parent Trap, Disney allowed her to return to England to make Whistle Down The Wind, based on a novel by her mother, Mary Hayley Bell. Whistle Down The Wind was another hit and Mills scored a BAFTA nomination for Best British Actress. Stanley Kubrick offered her the title role in Lolita but her father, John Mills, nixed that idea. Walt himself probably also played a part in keeping Hayley out of Kubrick’s film. After all, his contract players were typically kept on a very short leash.

Hayley Mills was by far the most bankable box office star Walt had ever had under contract. Up to this point, his biggest live-action hit had been his 1954 adaption of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. So it isn’t difficult to piece together how In Search Of The Castaways came about. The combination of Hayley Mills with the spectacle of another Jules Verne fantasy adventure must have seemed like a license to print money.

Robert Stevenson, who had proven himself equally adept with drama (Old Yeller), adventure (Kidnapped) and comedy (The Absent-Minded Professor), was assigned to direct. Lowell Hawley, the screenwriter of Swiss Family Robinson and Babes In Toyland, adapted Verne’s novel, originally titled Captain Grant’s Children.

Associate producer Hugh Attwooll had a somewhat unusual arrangement with Disney. He’d been working in the British film industry since he was a teenager, steadily working his way up through the ranks. His career was briefly interrupted by World War II and he spent a little while in Hollywood, working mostly for RKO, before heading back to England and Pinewood Studios. In 1959, Disney hired him to work on Kidnapped, beginning a long association with the studio. But unlike most other Disney crew members, Attwooll was never under contract. The studio simply liked his work and continued to hire him to as a producer for nearly everything they shot in England. His final credit was 1981’s Condorman, so we’ll be seeing a lot more from Hugh Attwooll.

Walt ran into a couple of small hiccups when it came to casting the film. He wanted Hayley Mills’ younger brother, Jonathan, to play her on-screen brother. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get the time off school and wasn’t able to follow in his sister’s footsteps. The role instead went to Keith Hamshere, who was then appearing on the West End in the musical Oliver!

In Search Of The Castaways ended up being Hamshere’s only big movie role but it was still a formative experience for him. At the time, he was interested in photography as a hobby and spent much of his downtime hanging out with the film’s stills photographer, John Jay. Jay encouraged Hamshere’s passion and gave him lessons. A few years later, Jay hired Hamshere to work as his assistant on 2001: A Space Odyssey (a surprising number of Kubrick connections to this movie). After that, Hamshere had a new career. He went on to become a much-celebrated stills photographer in his own right, working behind-the-scenes on such films as Barry Lyndon, Superman II, and a whole bunch of James Bond movies. He makes a cameo in License To Kill as, what else, a wedding photographer.

Walt also cast Charles Laughton as Lord Glenarvan, the shipping magnate who leads the titular search. But Laughton was forced to drop out of the picture after he was diagnosed with cancer. He died on December 15, 1962, just a few days before In Search Of The Castaways had its American premiere. Laughton was replaced by Wilfrid Hyde-White, the delightful British character actor.

The other two marquee names in the cast were Maurice Chevalier and George Sanders. Chevalier started his career in Parisian music halls before coming to America in the 1920s. He was a huge star in Hollywood throughout the 30s before a contract dispute sent him back to France. He had only recently begun making American films again with a role in Billy Wilder’s Love In The Afternoon in 1957. He followed that up with Gigi, an enormous hit and winner of multiple Oscars including Best Picture. In Search Of The Castaways would be his first collaboration with Disney but not his last. He’ll be back.

So will George Sanders, the great Oscar-winning star of All About Eve. Sanders was one of those rare actors who moved effortlessly between leading roles and supporting character parts. Sanders’ career (and life) had some tumultuous ups and downs but in 1962, he was still doing reasonably well. Two years earlier, he’d played the lead in Village Of The Damned, a low-budget horror movie that seemed to surprise everyone by becoming a sleeper hit. Between Village and Castaways, Sanders appeared in four more films and a few TV episodes, so he was certainly busy.

Alternate poster design for In Search Of The Castaways

Our story opens in 1858 Glasgow as Mary and Robert Grant (Mills and Hamshere) along with eccentric Professor Paganel (Chevalier) attempt to crash a bon voyage party hosted by Lord Glenarvan. Mary and Robert’s father vanished without a trace when his ship, one of Glenarvan’s fleet, went down. But Paganel recently found a bottle with a note in it that appears to have been written by Captain Grant. It isn’t entirely legible but Paganel and the kids believe it contains enough clues to be track Grant’s location.

At first, Glenarvan refuses to believe any of it. But his son, John (played by Michael Anderson Jr., the son of director Michael Anderson, who had himself filmed a Jules Verne adaptation, Around The World In 80 Days), started crushing on Mary the second he laid eyes on her. He persuades his father to mount an expedition. After some deliberation, Paganel decides that Grant’s most likely location is South America.

Up to this point, director Robert Stevenson has been setting us up for a relatively straight-forward adventure like Swiss Family Robinson. But once the searchers arrive in South America, Stevenson changes course and steers his ship toward Wackytown. The adventurers spend the night high up on a mountain in an area prone to earthquakes. When the quake hits, their rock shelf splits off, sending them careening down the mountainside and through a spectacular ice cavern on a stone toboggan. At the end of the ride, a giant condor appears and plucks Robert out of the snow, carrying him off to his aerie. Things look grim for Robert until a well-placed shot from a passing Indian, Chief Thalcave (Antonio Cifariello, continuing the tradition of Italians passing for Indians), rescues the lad.

Thalcave says he knows where the castaways are being held prisoner and agrees to lead the group. But before they get there, they decide to camp for the night by an enormous tree in a flood plain (these folks don’t use the best judgment when selecting campsites). Sure enough, a tidal wave floods the area, stranding the adventurers in the tree. Thalcave goes for help. While they’re awaiting rescue, a jaguar arrives to menace the group and a lightning storm threatens to burn down the tree.

They are eventually rescued by Thalcave but when they arrive at the village, it turns out that these aren’t the men they’re looking for. Paganel finally admits he was wrong about South America. They should be looking in Australia, which was where Lord Glenarvan wanted to go in the first place. So this entire trip (and basically the whole first half of the movie) has been a complete waste of time.

Off they go to Australia, where they encounter Thomas Ayerton (Sanders), who also claims to know where Grant’s ship went down off the coast of New Zealand. Turns out that Ayerton is actually a gunrunner. He and his men took over Grant’s ship, setting him adrift, and now intends to do the same thing to Glenarvan and his crew.

Glenarvan and company reach shore where they’re promptly taken prisoner by a tribe of Maori cannibals. They’re thrown into a hut with Bill Gaye (Wilfrid Brambell, best known, depending on where you’re from, as either Steptoe on the long-running British sitcom Steptoe And Son or as Paul McCartney’s Grandfather in A Hard Day’s Night). Bill Gaye was a shipmate of Captain Grant and has been planning to escape and rejoin him. But his plan depends on squeezing through a small window, just big enough for a boy Robert’s size.

They manage to escape the Maori, losing them by hotfooting it across an active volcano. Finally, they find Captain Grant (Jack Gwillim, who will always be Poseidon from Clash Of The Titans to me) dealing with the treacherous Ayerton. With Glenarvan’s ship left relatively unguarded, they recapture the vessel and rescue Captain Grant. All’s well that ends well.

In Search Of The Castaways soundtrack album

If Walt’s goal was to recapture the magic of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, he didn’t quite succeed. This is an unrepentantly goofy and amiable film. It doesn’t have a strong presence like James Mason at its center. The action sequences are treated with all the gravity and realism of a Donald Duck cartoon. The songs by the Sherman Brothers are silly little tunes with little to no bearing on what’s actually happening on screen. But if you can get on the movie’s wavelength, it offers some minor pleasures.

The cast certainly appears to be having a good time. Chevalier and Hyde-White are both a lot of fun, reacting to various life-or-death perils as if they’re minor inconveniences. Hayley Mills continues to be a charming screen presence. If she fails to generate many sparks with her romantic lead, that can probably be forgiven considering she was all of 15 or 16 years old at the time. And Keith Hamshere manages to avoid the Kevin Corcoran trap of overly precocious child actors.

The movie’s light touch works against it in some ways. It’s hard to become too invested in the search when every character sings a jaunty song in the face of mortal danger. And the midway revelation that they’ve been looking in the wrong place elicits groans more than anything else. It’s easy for the audience to check out at this point. If nothing we’ve seen so far has actually mattered, why should we expect that to change in the second half?

The film also borrows liberally from other Disney films. The search for castaways feels like it could be the flip side to Swiss Family Robinson. The oversized bird that captures Robert feels like an attempt to outdo some of the giant creatures from 20,000 Leagues. And the third act appearance of Bill Gaye brings to mind Treasure Island’s Ben Gunn, another long-haired, half-crazed sailor. They even have the same initials. But despite the film’s many flaws, it’s a hard movie to dislike. It coasts by on charm and spectacle, even as you find yourself rolling your eyes at some of its more unbelievable aspects.

In Search Of The Castaways was Disney’s big Christmas release for 1962. Critics weren’t exactly rapturous in their praise but most admitted that it was harmless fun, if nothing else. Audiences, on the other hand, seemed to love it. It became one of the highest-grossing films of the year in both the US and the UK. Hayley Mills’ winning streak wasn’t over yet. Neither was Robert Stevenson’s. He’ll be back in this column almost immediately.  

VERDICT: I had enough fun with it to make it a minor Disney Plus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Legend Of Lobo

Theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Legend Of Lobo

Big Red was released in June of 1962, about a year after Greyfriars Bobby. Besides the adventures of the little Skye Terrier, 1961 also brought us Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North (and One Hundred And One Dalmatians, for that matter). Perhaps fearing that his animal pictures were getting into a bit of a rut, Walt decided to do something different than just another dog movie. His next picture, released in November of 1962, would be a wolf movie. So maybe not all that different.

The Legend Of Lobo was another production from the former True-Life Adventures team led by producer/writer James Algar. Algar cowrote the script with Dwight Hauser (father of cult star Wings Hauser) from a story by Ernest Thompson Seton, a wildlife writer and one of the founding pioneers of the Boy Scouts of America. Dwight Hauser had worked on several documentary shorts for the studio, including the Oscar-winning Ama Girls (part of the People & Places companion series).

Jack Couffer, whose work as field producer and cinematographer had enlivened such films as Secrets Of Life and Nikki, shot the film with Lloyd Beebe, another long-time True-Life Adventure contributor. The editor, Norman Palmer, had also worked on True-Life Adventures dating back to Beaver Valley in 1950. Curiously, The Legend Of Lobo has no credited director. Perhaps the entire team felt they’d all contributed equally. Maybe it was an attempt to save some money on union fees. Whatever the reason, it’s an unusual omission.

The Legend Of Lobo distinguishes itself from previous animal pictures like Perri and Nikki primarily through its narration. Like Perri, the film has no spoken dialogue. But instead of the folksy narration of Winston Hibler, The Legend Of Lobo features a musical voiceover from Rex Allen and the Sons of the Pioneers. The Sons of the Pioneers had previously appeared alongside Roy Rogers in Melody Time, performing “Blue Shadows On The Trail” and “Pecos Bill”, although most of the members of that incarnation of the group had since moved on, replaced by new Sons of the Pioneers.

Rex Allen was never a Son of the Pioneers but he was cut from the same cloth as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. He was a late addition to the Singing Cowboy subgenre, making his film debut with The Arizona Cowboy in 1950. Westerns were on their way out by the 1950s, or at least transitioning over to television, but Allen still managed to become a box-office draw. In 1956, he landed his first Disney gig, narrating the Oscar-nominated short Cow Dog. This started a long association with the studio. In 1961, he narrated the animated short The Saga Of Windwagon Smith. A little later, he’d provide the voice of Father for the Carousel of Progress attraction that debuted at the New York World’s Fair before moving to Disneyland. We’ll be hearing from Rex Allen again in this column.

Allen was also a talented songwriter but he didn’t write The Legend Of Lobo song that recurs throughout the film. That job went to Walt’s new favorite songwriters, Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. The Sherman Brothers had been kept extremely busy since joining the studio in 1961, cranking out tunes for everything from The Parent Trap and Moon Pilot to Disney’s upcoming World’s Fair attractions (including “It’s A Small World”). Allen also performed the Shermans’ “There’s A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” for the Carousel of Progress. “The Legend Of Lobo” is not one of their most memorable numbers. The only reason it gets stuck in your head is that it pops up so frequently.

Narratively, The Legend Of Lobo hews closely to the template established by Perri. We first meet Lobo as a young cub, the independent and headstrong son of El Feroz, mightiest of all wolves. While El Feroz is out hunting, a cougar discovers the wolves’ den. The cougar is ready to pounce when she’s unexpectedly shot by some passing cattlemen. The humans don’t find the den but the wolves decide it’s time to move on anyway.

As the wolf family hits the trail, L’il Lobo allows his curiosity to separate him from the rest of the group. He messes around with a tortoise and an armadillo before getting trapped by a rattlesnake. Fortunately, Lobo’s parents have been looking for him. They hear his plaintive howls and come to the rescue just in the nick of time. Most things in this movie happen just in the nick of time.

Lobo grows up and starts hunting with his family. But El Feroz has set his sights on the cattle being driven through the territory. It isn’t long before the cattlemen begin hunting down the wolfpack. And since this is a Disney movie, Lobo’s parents are soon killed, leaving Lobo in search of a new pack.

The cattlemen, like the other humans in the film, have no dialogue and aren’t credited. But if you look closely, you might recognize them as Walter Pidgeon and Émile Genest, reteamed after their appearances in Big Red. It wouldn’t surprise me if they shot all their footage in a day during a break in production on the earlier film.

Lobo finds a mate and becomes leader of the new pack, continuing to prey on cattle. The cattlemen respond by placing “Wanted” posters all over, offering a reward for the capture or killing of “the wolf known as Lobo”. There are no pictures on the posters, so these raise all sorts of questions. How do they know Lobo’s name? Without a picture, how are people meant to know they’ve got the right wolf? “Excuse me, you wouldn’t happen to be Lobo by any chance?” “Nope, my name’s Steve. Lobo lives two dens down.” “Sorry, my mistake!”

At any rate, a hunter eventually turns up and tracks Lobo and Mrs. Lobo back to their den, an abandoned cliff-dwelling accessible by a tree-bridge. The hunter manages to trap Mrs. Lobo but Lobo rounds up the pack to create a cattle stampede. In the chaos that follows, Lobo rescues his mate. But recognizing that the area has become too dangerous, Lobo decides it’s time to move on and leads the pack to pastures new.

As usual, The Legend Of Lobo is a handsome looking film. Couffer and Beebe capture some nice wildlife photography, even if it lacks the wow factor of earlier True-Life Adventures. Couffer would eventually return to Disney to produce a much better movie about wolves, the underrated 1983 drama Never Cry Wolf. But for now, he seems content to just film wolves being wolves.

Hyperbolic title aside, Lobo doesn’t seem like a particularly extraordinary wolf. The Shermans’ song works overtime to sell us on Lobo’s mythic stature among wolves. But we don’t get to see any of the legendary feats that earned him his reputation. On the one hand, that’s fine. Nobody’s going to bring their kids to a movie with multiple sequences of wolves slaughtering cattle. But it also makes you wonder why they decided to film this particular story in the first place. Sure, the wolves are just trying to get along but you can understand why the cattlemen are trying to kill them. And since movies like this don’t deal in moral ambiguities, the wolves are portrayed as the good guys and the humans are the bad guys.

Wolves are beautiful, majestic animals but they’re also apex predators. It’s a whole lot easier to make a movie about a sympathetic squirrel or a sympathetic dog than it is to make one about a sympathetic wolf. The Legend Of Lobo works about as well as it can under the circumstances but there’s still a strain between how the story is told and what we’re actually seeing. Between the tonal whiplash, the ordinariness of the animals’ behavior and the repetitious song, this short feature (it clocks in at barely over an hour) feels about three hours long.

The Legend Of Lobo didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Nevertheless, Algar and Couffer remained committed to the idea of making narrative feature films with animals and as few humans as possible. Their next project would hit theaters in 1963. And this time, they’d make things a lot easier on themselves by focusing on three domestic house pets instead of squirrels or wolves.

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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