As long as Walt Disney was alive, nature films had a place at his studio. The genre had evolved over the years, from short films to feature-length True-Life Adventures to fictional narratives with animal protagonists. They weren’t always blockbusters but Walt liked them and they were usually inexpensive enough to turn a reliable profit.
But by late 1967, Walt had been gone for almost a year and the nature pictures were on their way out. Winston Hibler, Disney’s long-time writer and narrator of the True-Life Adventures, kept the tradition alive. But most of the nature shows had migrated to television. These days, animals were more likely to costar with established stars like Brian Keith (in A Tiger Walks) or Dean Jones (in The Ugly Dachshund or Monkeys, Go Home!…or most of the movies Jones had appeared in so far, come to think of it). Animals hadn’t been the whole show since The Incredible Journey back in 1963.
This might help explain the somewhat unusual release of Charlie, The Lonesome Cougar. Honestly, I struggled with whether or not to even include Charlie in this column. The movie was released concurrently with The Jungle Book, playing in most markets as a double bill. Clocking in at 75 minutes, it’s too long to be considered a short but it’s certainly not a very long feature (The Jungle Book itself is only 78 minutes). It feels like a TV production. As a matter of fact, it somehow managed to get an Emmy nomination when it aired on The Wonderful World Of Disney a couple years later. But Disney itself includes it on their list of Disney Films and that makes it official enough for me.
Most sources, including IMDb, Letterboxd and Wikipedia, credit Winston Hibler as the director of Charlie, The Lonesome Cougar. I’m not entirely sure how they came to that conclusion as the movie itself does not have a directing credit. Regardless, he definitely produced the film and cowrote it with Jack Speirs, a longtime staff writer who had been writing Walt’s Disneyland TV introductions since the ‘50s.
If anyone other than Hibler could make a claim to directing the picture, it’s field producer, cinematographer, and animal supervisor Lloyd Beebe. Beebe had been working with Disney since the ‘50s, training and housing animal actors from his ranch in Sequim, Washington. In 1972, Beebe received permission from the studio to open his facility, Disney’s Wild Animal Ranch, to the public. It’s still open to this day, now operating as the Olympic Game Farm. You might even be able to meet a descendent of Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar up there.
Beebe and his team, including collaborators Charles L. Draper, Ford Beebe and William Bacon III, are most responsible for what makes Charlie memorable. He has a knack for staging animal action, whether it’s cute and adorable or fraught with danger. This isn’t necessarily the most thrilling of the Disney nature movies but Charlie does have a very winning personality and that goes a long way.
Rex Allen, who had previously lent his familiar voice to The Incredible Journey, The Legend Of Lobo and several shorts, returns as narrator. Allen would continue to narrate educational films and TV productions for Disney but this will be his last appearance in this column. He kept on doing voice work, narrating the 1973 animated adaptation of Charlotte’s Web and countless commercials, for many years until his death in 1999.
We first meet Charlie at the height of his lonesomeness, a kitten without a mother to look after him. Yes, it’s another orphaned Disney animal but at least this time, we’re spared having to watch the traumatizing event. Charlie is soon discovered by Jess Bradley (Ron Brown), a forester employed by a logging company in the Pacific Northwest. Jess knows Charlie doesn’t stand a chance on his own, so he takes the young cat home with him.
Charlie grows up fast and most everyone at the logging camp seems to love having a pet cougar wandering around. His only enemy is Chainsaw, the excellently-named dog of camp cook Potlatch (Brian Russell, who would later write for such TV shows as The Life And Times Of Grizzly Adams and Greatest Heroes Of The Bible). Their feud ends up causing a commotion during the launch of the big river drive. Charlie ends up scaring the cook off the big floating kitchen, so Jess leaps on board to rescue the supplies. With the cook back on shore, the boss enlists Jess to take his place and Charlie becomes the team mascot.
Their time on the river comes to a bad end when Charlie accidentally sends the kitchen floating downstream while Jess is napping. The float is destroyed and Charlie is banned from the camp. Jess builds an enclosure for him but starts spending less time around the house after he meets a new girlfriend. Lonesome once again, Charlie escapes and finds a girl-cougar of his own. Sadly, their relationship is doomed once they get hungry. The semi-domesticated Charlie is unable to fend for himself and, cougars being cougars, his new gal pal is disinclined to share her prey.
Charlie decides to head back to Jess’ place but has become hopelessly lost in the mountains. Over the next few months, Charlie slowly learns to fend for himself, not unlike Nikki, Wild Dog of the North. Eventually, one of his misadventures leads him to a log flume which he rides back to the camp. He heads back to Potlatch’s kitchen by instinct but ends up trapped inside by Chainsaw.
The next morning, Potlatch finds a hungry, scared, full-grown cougar locked in his pantry. The men corner Charlie in a freight elevator and just as the boss is about to shoot him, Jess turns up, sure that Charlie will remember him. Jess wins that bet and soon, he and his new fiancée bring Charlie to a wildlife sanctuary high up in the mountains, free to reconnect with his lady friend (or, if not that, another, virtually identical female cougar). Ain’t love grand?
Charlie, The Lonesome Cougar does not stray far from the established pattern for films of this type. If you’ve enjoyed the adventures of Lobo, Nikki, Perri, or any of Disney’s other critter stars, you’ll probably like this one, too. Hibler, Beebe and the rest of the team use a bit more movie trickery than usual to accomplish sequences like Charlie’s flume ride. But there’s still plenty of legit animal action to enjoy. Charlie’s participation in a log-rolling contest against a lumberjack was real, included after Beebe discovered one of his cougars had a knack for it.
Beebe also captured some exciting footage of historical interest. The log drive was shot on the North Fork of the Clearwater River in Idaho. This had been a vital and spectacular part of the logging industry since 1920. Beebe ended up filming one of the last river drives in America. In 1971, the Clearwater floated its last logs as the Dworshak Dam closed the North Fork. Beebe’s footage is a genuinely thrilling sight, vividly depicting an authentic log drive as it happened.
But if you’re not into logs or cougars or cougars that roll logs, there’s not a lot here you haven’t seen before. Almost all Disney movies are formulaic to some extent but the nature movies are particularly cookie-cutter. That’s not to say this is a bad example of the genre. It’s certainly a whole lot more enjoyable than The Legend Of Lobo, for instance. But by 1967, Disney’s nature formula was beginning to be a bit stale.
VERDICT: There’s just enough here to make it a very minor Disney Plus if you’re a fan of these movies.