Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Run, Cougar, Run

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Run, Cougar, Run

Because Disney is a for-profit business that enjoys making money, the studio has a better track record than most when it comes to the availability of their library. Between Disney+, digital rentals and purchases, and physical media formats from video cassette to 4K Ultra HD, you can track down the vast majority of titles from Disney’s fabled vault. (They also rival George Lucas when it comes to altering the past with post-post-production tweaks and edits but that’s another issue.) When a Disney movie is simply unavailable, such as (ahem) The Southern Movie, that’s usually a deliberate decision and not an oversight. So when I run across a movie like Run, Cougar, Run that does not appear to have released on any home entertainment format, my first thought is, “Hoo-boy, what’s wrong with this one?”

Run, Cougar, Run is another mix of True-Life Adventure-style nature footage with actors in a fictional narrative. James Algar, who had directed most of the True-Life Adventures and had worked on other animal movies like The Legend Of Lobo and The Incredible Journey, produced Run, Cougar, Run. Algar had joined the studio as an animator on Snow White all the way back in 1934. This would be one of his last feature credits before retirement, although he did work on a few more TV productions.

Director Jerome Courtland was a former actor who appeared in Disney’s 1958 western Tonka. He went on to direct a couple of Wonderful World Of Disney TV-movies like Diamonds On Wheels and Hog Wild (which is apparently an inspirational tearjerker about a pig farmer who’s crippled by an angry hog and not a wacky comedy). Courtland will be back in this column as a producer.

Louis Pelletier based his screenplay on the book The Mountain Lion by Robert William Murphy. This would be Pelletier’s last Disney credit in a career that stretched from 1962’s Big Red to Smith! in 1969. His next and final writing credit was on a 1978 episode of The Love Boat. Pelletier passed away in 2000 at the age of 93.

The star of the show is Seeta, a female mountain lion supervised by Lloyd Beebe, the longtime Disney hand who’d also trained Charlie, The Lonesome Cougar. But the human actors are more recognizable here than they were in movies like Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North. Stuart Whitman had been nominated for an Oscar about a decade earlier for his work in The Mark. Since then, he’d appeared in some good films like The Longest Day and Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines. But by 1972, his career had taken a hard turn into television and exploitation movies like Night Of The Lepus. His only other Disney credit was opposite Darren McGavin in the Civil War TV-movie The High Flying Spy. Whitman retired around the turn of the 21st century having amassed a fortune thanks to smart real estate investments. He passed away from cancer at the age of 92 in 2020.

Alfonso Arau from Scandalous John costars as Etio, the Mexican sheepherder. This would be Arau’s last Disney film for quite some time. He went on to appear in movies like Romancing The Stone and Three Amigos! He also established himself as a director, helming such films as Like Water For Chocolate and A Walk In The Clouds. In 2017, he finally returned to the Disney fold as the voice of Papa Julio in Pixar’s Coco.

Like so many other Disney nature pictures, Run, Cougar, Run relies on a folksy narrator to propel the plot whenever the humans aren’t around. This time, it’s Ian Tyson, the Canadian folksinger and songwriter. Tyson was half of the folk/country duo Ian & Sylvia, alongside his wife at the time. Ian & Sylvia perform the opening song, “Let Her Alone”, written by “Bare Necessities” songwriter Terry Gilkyson. The song sums up the movie’s pro-conservation theme but unless early 1970s folk music is your jam, it probably won’t send you on the hunt for old Ian & Sylvia records.

Ian introduces us to Seeta, the mother of three young kittens, and her mate who I guess we’ll call Tom. Seeta and her family live in the American Southwest (the movie was filmed mostly in Arches National Park in Utah). She watches over the adorable young’uns while Tom roams the countryside hunting for food. Every so often, she visits Etio, a sheepherder who works for rancher Joe Bickley (Douglas Fowley, last seen in this column all the way back in Miracle Of The White Stallions). Etio appears to have a Snow White-like effect on the local animals. When he’s not tending his sheep, he’s strumming his guitar and singing to his furry and feathered friends.

Etio’s tranquil routine is disturbed by the arrival of Hugh McRae (Whitman), a hunting guide who leads tourist parties out to shoot big game. McRae has a couple of businessmen from Denver (played by Frank Aletter and Lonny Chapman) coming in who want to bag a mountain lion. Etio reluctantly tells McRae that there are a few cougars in the area but since they’re a gentle family raising kittens, it would be best to leave them alone. McRae scoffs at this. He’s firmly of the belief that the only good lion is a dead one.

McRae’s plan isn’t very humane or even sporting. He plans to capture one of the cougars, keep it penned up at their base camp overnight, then give it a little bit of a head start and let the two city slickers pretend like they’re hunting. Maybe if there’s still time after they can shoot some fish in a barrel while they’re at it.

Unfortunately, McRae’s first attempt goes very badly. He manages to shoot Tom with a tranquilizer dart but the cougar is still able to escape. Pursued by dogs, Tom tries to leap a gorge. Groggy from the tranquilizer, Tom misjudges the distance and falls to his death. This makes Etio more determined than ever to stop the hunt. Now if McRae kills Seeta, the three kittens will be left to fend for themselves. Killing Seeta will essentially kill them all.

Inevitably, McRae does capture Seeta and cages her up at Joe Bickley’s place. The night before the big hunt, Etio serenades her with his trademark animal-soothing melodies. Seeing this, one of the business jerks begins to have second thoughts about this whole deal. Not his buddy, though. He seems ready to strap the cage to the back of his truck and drive straight to the nearest taxidermist.

The next morning, Etio decides to take matters into his own hands. He approaches the cage unarmed and sets Seeta free, despite McRae’s warnings that the cat is likely to turn on him. Instead, Seeta allows Etio to escort her to the edge of Joe’s property and heads back to find her children. Furious, the bloodthirsty tourist forgets all about giving Seeta a head start and opens fire. His companion, on the other hand, has had a change of heart. He opts to hang out at the ranch while his friend chases after Seeta. McRae heads out too, although mostly just to make sure the tourist doesn’t shoot his own foot off.

Seeta leads McRae and his dogs on a spirited chase, eventually ending up at the same gorge that cost Tom his life. The cougar makes one last, all-or-nothing leap and a reprise of “Let Her Alone” signals that everything’s going to be OK. Well, at least until McRae leads another crew of rich assholes after her.

For those of you filling out your Forbidden Disney Bingo Card, Run, Cougar, Run has an unsavory premise (big game trophy hunting), wildlife footage (potential animal cruelty) and Alfonso Arau as a Mexican sheepherder who spends most of his time playing the guitar and napping (potential racial stereotyping). On paper, any one of those could be the reason why Disney isn’t doing anything with this movie. But none of those elements are extreme or troublesome enough to warrant locking it in the vault permanently.

Let’s start with the last of those potential objections. Arau is one of those actors who perpetually seems on the edge of caricature even on his best day. His exaggerated accent and broad, ingratiating smile are always just on the cusp of turning him into a cartoon. That said, Arau had a much cringier role in Scandalous John and that movie isn’t too difficult to find. Etio’s a genuinely sweet character and a nice showcase for Arau’s talents. I can honestly say I’ve never seen someone play a guitar with an owl perched on the headstock before.

Most of the animal action, produced as usual by Ron Brown’s Cangary Limited, is standard Disney fare. The cougar kittens get up to cute kitten shenanigans, Tom wrestles a bear…you know the drill. Tom does kill an elk, which is mostly kept off-camera, and Seeta does mourn over her mate’s dead body but there’s nothing in here that you can’t find in virtually every other Disney nature movie.

As for the premise itself, hunters have never enjoyed a particularly positive reputation in Disney films. But these guys are right up there with the unseen hunter who killed Bambi’s mom on the scale of unlikable jerks. The movie’s anti-sport hunting message is a good one but maybe Disney figured parents would rather not have to explain to little Susie and little Johnny why somebody would design a whole vacation around shooting a cat in the face.

At the end of the day, the most likely reason Run, Cougar, Run has been forgotten is the simplest one: it’s pretty boring. Disney made a LOT of movies like this over the years and it doesn’t take much for a successful formula to turn into a deeply trodden rut. There’s nothing here we haven’t seen many, many times before at this point. The animals are cool and the scenery is lovely, even if the Spanish subtitled transfer somebody uploaded to YouTube fails to capture it. The human actors all do their work admirably (the movie also gives a small role to western character actor Harry Carey Jr., not seen around these parts since The Great Locomotive Chase). But it’s a meal we’ve been served once too often and it’s grown stale.

Disney recognized the diminishing returns of their True-Life Fantasies. Run, Cougar, Run opened on October 18, 1972. It would be one of the last films of its type. Not that Disney was done with animals, of course. But from now on, they’d take more of a back seat to their human costars. The days of building an entire movie around animals just being animals were coming to an end.   

VERDICT: Disney Minus.

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