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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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Big Red

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Big Red

Walt Disney certainly did not invent the dog movie. Canine movie stars had been around since the silent era, including such good boys and girls as Jean the Vitagraph Dog, Strongheart and, of course, Rin-Tin-Tin, the Tom Cruise of dogs. But Walt certainly had an affinity for the genre. Once he started making them, he just wouldn’t let them go, sort of like…well, a dog with a bone.

Big Red (not to be confused, as Wikipedia helpfully points out, with Clifford the Big Red Dog, nor with the soft drink, the chewing gum or Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One, for that matter) isn’t a top-shelf dog movie. But it is a kinder, gentler story than some of Walt’s previous forays into the genre. So far, we’ve seen dogs contract rabies and get shot, get lost in the Canadian wilderness and turn into savage killing machines, and keep a mournful vigil at the grave of their deceased master. By comparison, Big Red has it easy.

When we first meet Red, he’s a prize-winning Irish Setter who catches the eye of wealthy sportsman James Haggin (Walter Pidgeon in his Disney debut). Mr. Haggin buys Red for $5,000 with the intention of entering him in the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. He no sooner gets Red settled into his estate when a young orphan named Rene (Gilles Payant) stops by looking for work. Haggin hires Rene to assist his dog trainer, Emile (Émile Genest, last seen terrorizing Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North).

Rene quickly bonds with Big Red, getting a little too close for Haggin’s comfort. Once he realizes that Red only responds to Rene, he separates the pair, forbidding Rene from any contact with Red until after the dog show. Rene gets it but sneaks up to the big house for one last goodbye. Overly excited at the scent of his new best friend, Red makes a break for it, leaping through a window and getting slashed to ribbons in the process.

Certain that Red will never be a champion now, Haggin orders Emile to put the dog down (people in Disney movies are always quick to have their dogs put to sleep, for some reason). Before he can do the deed, Rene smuggles Red off the estate to his late uncle’s remote cabin. Once he’s nursed Red back to health, Rene returns the dog to his rightful owner. In an attempt to recoup some of his investment, Haggin decides to sell both Red and his mate, Molly, to another dog breeder. They’re loaded on to a train but escape before they reach their destination.

Rene finds out the dogs have gone missing and tracks them down, finding Molly has given birth to a litter of puppies. Once the little family is able to travel, Rene stuffs a backpack full of puppies and starts leading the dogs back to Haggin’s place. Meanwhile, Haggin himself has ventured into the woods looking for Rene. After an encounter with a mountain lion, he’s thrown from his horse, injuring his leg. Fortunately, Big Red and company find Haggin in the nick of time. Impressed by Rene’s integrity, courage and fortitude, Haggin offers to take the boy in again, not as an employee but as his foster son.

Big Red is another Winston Hibler production. Even though humans are featured more prominently than in his previous outings, Hibler’s True-Life Adventures experience is still very much in evidence. The Canadian landscape is practically another character in the film and Red and Molly have ample opportunities to prove they don’t really need a human scene partner.

The film was based on a novel by Jim Kjelgaard, a prolific writer of young adult novels mostly about dogs and other animals. Big Red was far and away his most successful book, spawning two sequels following the adventures of Red’s sons, Irish Red and Outlaw Red. Sadly, Kjelgaard did not live to see his work adapted to the big screen. He had suffered from a myriad of health problems since childhood, causing chronic, unbearable pain. In 1959, he took his own life at the age of 48.

To adapt the book, Disney brought some new blood into the studio. TV and radio writer Louis Pelletier wrote the screenplay. We’ll see his work again in this column, as Pelletier stuck with the studio for the rest of the decade. Walt also found a new director that had honed his skill in television. Norman Tokar had been directing sitcoms and the occasional drama since the early 50s. Walt had been impressed by his work with kids on Leave It To Beaver, a show he’d directed nearly 100 episodes of.

Once Tokar set up shop on the Disney lot, he never really left. In fact, he only ever directed one feature outside the studio, the 1974 family drama Where The Red Fern Grows. But he was a solid team player for Disney, directing movies across a range of genres well into the 1970s. We’ll be seeing a whole lot more of Norman Tokar in this column.

We’ll also be seeing Walter Pidgeon and Émile Genest again. Pidgeon wasn’t necessarily a big box office draw but he was certainly well-respected in the industry. He was a two-time Oscar nominee and former President of the Screen Actors Guild. Sci-fi nerds like yours truly probably know him best as Dr. Morbius in Forbidden Planet. Big Red doesn’t present much of an acting challenge to Pidgeon. The role basically requires him to be stern and aloof, which pretty much sums up his entire screen persona. He’s fine but just about anybody could have played the part and done just as well.

As for Genest, this role is the polar opposite of the sadistic dog-fighter he played in Nikki. Shorn of the mountain man beard he sported in that earlier film, he’s almost unrecognizable as the same actor. As loathsome as he was in Nikki, I never wanted to see Genest around dogs again. But he completely redeems himself here, teaching Rene the tricks of the trade and showing himself to be a loving husband and strong father figure.

One actor we won’t be seeing again is Gilles Payant. He never made another film after Big Red and I’m not entirely sure what happened to him between this movie and his death in 2012 (some sources claim he went into real estate). He’s a little bit stiff and his line readings betray the fact that English was not the Quebecois actor’s first language. But he has a solid screen presence and an easy, natural rapport with Red and the other dogs. Given time and the inclination, he probably could have developed into a decent child actor.

The only real problem with Big Red is it’s a bit of a snooze. Tensions never run particularly high, even when Haggin is being threatened by a hungry mountain lion. The movie is pleasant enough and it’s kind of a relief to see a Disney dog movie where the animals remain largely out of harm’s way. But the stakes start out low and seem to get lower and lower as the movie goes on. For a while, it seems like the movie is leading up to the big Westminster dog show but Big Red never even gets a chance to compete.

Big Red debuted in June of 1962 and it reportedly performed fairly well at the box office, outgrossing Lad: A Dog, a competing dog movie released the same day. Scraps, the Irish Setter who starred as Red, was honored by the American Humane Association with a PATSY Award (a trophy previously won by such Disney animals as Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog and my favorite, Toby Tyler’s Mr. Stubbs). But Walt never returned to the world of Big Red, despite the fact that there were two sequels just sitting there, waiting to be turned into movies.

There were, however, plenty of other dogs (and wolves and horses and even a cat or two) out there waiting for their moment in the Disney spotlight. Walt would have another animal movie in theatres by the end of 1962. And the year after that, he’d finally produce a sequel to his first and most popular dog movie.

VERDICT: Another one that’s not exactly a Disney Plus but slightly better than a Disney Minus. Let’s call this one a Disney Meh.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North

Quad theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North

Walt Disney loved dogs, although you wouldn’t necessarily guess that based on some of the ordeals they go through in his films. We all know the sad fate of Old Yeller. The adorable little pup in Ten Who Dared comes within a whisker of being shot in the face himself. Even the animated dogs have a rough time of it. It’s a miracle all one hundred and one Dalmatians made it back to London in one piece. But all those dogs had it easy compared to Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North.

With Perri, Walt had constructed a fictional narrative about a squirrel using techniques honed by the True-Life Adventures crew. Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North represents the next step in that evolution. Winston Hibler, the narrator and cowriter of the True-Life Adventures, produced and cowrote the screenplay with Ralph Wright, a long-time Disney storyman and later, the voice of Eeyore.

Jack Couffer, one of two credited directors on the film, had been a cinematographer on films like Secrets Of Life. He’d go on to an Oscar nomination for his cinematography on the film Jonathan Livingston Seagull. The other director, Don Haldane, was new to Disney. He was a Canadian filmmaker whose company Westminster Films seems to have specialized mainly in educational films.

Hibler and Wright based their script on the novel Nomads Of The North by James Oliver Curwood. Curwood was a hugely successful and prolific author of Jack London-style wilderness adventure stories that I’d honestly never heard of before sitting down to write this. But evidently, nearly two hundred movies and TV shows have been based on his work, most of which you’ve probably never seen. One you might be familiar with is the 1989 French adventure film The Bear directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud.

Now I’m not going to assume there are too many Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North superfans out there, so perhaps a more detailed plot synopsis is in order. When we first meet Nikki, a Malamute pup, and his master Andre (played by Jean Coutu, a Canadian actor who does not appear to have made many films in English other than this one), they’re peacefully canoeing down the river on their way to “fur trapping headquarters”. They make a pit stop and Nikki goes exploring, discovering a treed bear cub named Neewa.

Neewa had run afoul of a huge grizzly named Makoos and his mother died trying to protect him. Andre finds Nikki barking up at Neewa, spots the mother’s dead body nearby and pieces together what happened. At first, Andre is quite sensibly unsure that bringing Neewa along would be a good idea. But he can’t just leave the cub to die, so he gets it out of the tree and ties Neewa and Nikki together with a rope.

The three Canadian caballeros get back on the river, whereupon Nikki and Neewa predictably begin fighting. Andre’s attention is split between separating the animals and navigating the canoe through some treacherous rapids. Dog and bear cub go overboard, shooting down the rapids at a breakneck pace. Working together, they’re able to reach the shore. Andre searches for his lost dog but when Nikki sees him cruising down the river, the pup assumes he’s been abandoned.

Nikki and Neewa spend the next several weeks lashed together, roaming the forest like a wildlife version of The Defiant Ones. Nikki definitely gets the short end of this deal. Unable to hunt for food, he’s forced to adapt to Neewa’s diet of berries and grubs. When Neewa catches the scent of honey, it’s Nikki who suffers the worst of the bees’ wrath. And when Neewa climbs a tree to catch some sleep, Nikki ends up dangling from the rope beneath him.

Eventually the rope breaks (Andre must have been an Eagle Scout in knot tying) and the two go their separate ways. But the pair developed a bond, or at least some form of Stockholm Syndrome, during their forced cohabitation, so Neewa returns and the dog and the bear grow up together, roughhousing and learning the ways of the forest.

However, all good things must come to an end and when winter hits, Neewa returns to his den to hibernate. Nikki struggles to survive over the next few weeks. Food is scarce and he can’t compete with bigger predators like wolves. Relief comes when Nikki stumbles upon a trapping line. After some trial and error, Nikki figures out how to safely spring the trap so he can get to the bait inside. Our plucky hero has himself a little feast, following the line and stealing the fresh meat from the traps.

Needless to say, this does not sit well with diabolical trapper Jacques Lebeau (Émile Genest, who will be back in this column). Lebeau sets a trap for Nikki, lacing a piece of meat with enough poison to drop a horse. Nikki is smart enough to not eat the whole thing, consuming just enough poison to make him temporarily sick. Lebeau and his Indian guide (whose name is Makoki, played by Uriel Luft, although he’s only referred to as “the Indian” for most of the picture) catch up to Nikki. Impressed by Nikki’s size and strength, Lebeau decides he’d make an ideal fighting dog and starts him on a cruel and ruthless training regimen.

Lebeau and Makoki arrive at the trading camp, only to discover that the new factor has outlawed dog fighting. Nobody seems to take the new rule too seriously and Lebeau soon has a fight lined up. Nikki wins the savage bout but the new factor arrives to put a stop to it. The factor turns out to be Nikki’s old master, Andre. He naturally wants his dog back and Lebeau jumps into the pit to challenge Andre to a fight. When Makoki sees Lebeau pull a knife, he cuts Nikki’s restraining rope and allows the dog to jump in and save Andre.

Lebeau is killed and the entire camp is ready to put down the savage, uncontrollable dog. But once again, Makoki intervenes, demonstrating that Lebeau fell onto his own knife. With the dog exonerated, Andre hires Makoki and the three of them presumably live happily ever after.

Walt Disney's Story Of Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North album cover.

This is a difficult movie to judge on its own merits. It’s never boring, the wilderness photography is impressive and Nikki is a very good boy indeed. Directors Couffer and Haldane stage some very exciting sequences. The human actors are all pretty good, although their contributions are minimal. Genest in particular makes Lebeau into one of the most despicable villains in the Disney canon. Even fellow dog hater Cruella DeVil might find him to be a bit much.

All that being said, I’m not sure I can recommend Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North. There’s a reason this one isn’t available on Disney Plus. This is easily one of the most violent Disney movies I’ve ever seen. Nikki is really put through the wringer and it’s hard to imagine that the animal’s welfare was anyone’s primary concern. If the bullfighting sequence in The Littlest Outlaw rubs you the wrong way, you’re really not going to like seeing two beautiful dogs going at each other in a barren ice pit.

I’m not sure how well Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North performed at the box office. I assume it did okay relative to how much it cost to produce. By 1964, it was airing on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color. After that, it didn’t leave much of a mark. Today, it’s another live-action Disney obscurity. It isn’t impossible to find but you have to put in the effort to seek it out.

If the movie has a legacy, it’s the realization that dogs make much more interesting and sympathetic protagonists than squirrels. Walt would continue to build features around our canine companions. As a matter of fact, we’ll be seeing another one in this column next time. And while all of these movie star dogs will face challenges and obstacles, most of them will dial back the physical peril a few notches. Nikki definitely had it rougher than most.

VERDICT: If you’re cool with dog fights and other scenes that border on animal cruelty, this is a minor Disney Plus. If not, steer clear of this Disney Minus.

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