Disney Plus-Or-Minus: King Of The Grizzlies

Hey there, Mouseketeers! Before we get to this week’s movie, I’d like to get some feedback from you. For a while now, I’ve been toying with the idea of adding a paid tier to the regular Disney Plus-Or-Minus columns (sort of a Disney Plus-Or-Minus+ if you will). This would cover things that fall outside the Disney Plus-Or-Minus umbrella: TV productions, shorts, even Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures eventually.

My first question, obviously, is would this be interesting enough for you to spend a couple bucks a month on it? Secondly, how much sounds like a reasonable amount to charge? Finally, what platform would be best for everyone? Substack? Patreon? Something else I haven’t thought of yet?

Let me know your thoughts either in the comments down below, on the Jahnke’s Electric Theatre Facebook page, on Twitter (@DrAdamJahnke) or however else you might think a message could reach me. Thanks in advance for your thoughts and your continued support of this increasingly ambitious project! And now, we return to our regularly scheduled program.

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's King Of The Grizzlies

By 1970, it had been a decade since Disney pulled the plug on the long-running True-Life Adventures series. In the years since, writer/narrator Winston Hibler had become a producer and most of the movies he’d worked on involved animals. Movies like Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North and Charlie, The Lonesome Cougar used True-Life Adventures techniques in a fictional setting. King Of The Grizzlies pushed that style even farther. It’s the most documentary-like of Disney’s fictional animal features since Perri.

The movie was based on the book The Biography Of A Grizzly by Boy Scouts co-founder Ernest Thompson Seton. Eight years earlier, James Algar, another True-Life Adventures vet, adapted another Seton book as The Legend Of Lobo. The screenplay was by Jack Speirs (writer of Charlie, The Lonesome Cougar), TV writer Rod Peterson, and Norman Wright, who’d been working for Disney since the Fantasia days.

This would be Canadian filmmaker Ron Kelly’s one and only Disney film as a director. He’d continue to focus on local interest stories in his home country into the 1980s. Once again, Hibler utilized Lloyd Beebe and Cangary Limited to produce the nature footage. Director of photography Reginald Morris had a long history of shooting documentary shorts. He’d later become Bob Clark’s go-to cinematographer, shooting films like Black Christmas, Porky’s and A Christmas Story.

The star of the film is Big Ted, a 1,300-pound grizzly bear who worked for marshmallows, but the movie does include a handful of human actors who were presumably paid actual money. John Yesno plays Moki, a Cree who feels a spiritual connection to the bear he names Wahb. Yesno didn’t appear in a lot of movies but he did have a distinguished career as a broadcaster and activist in Canada.

Chris Wiggins costars as The Colonel, Moki’s former commanding officer and owner of the ranch Moki works at as foreman. Wiggins did a lot of voice work over the years, although none of it was for Disney. He voiced a number of different characters on Marvel’s animated shows of the 1960s, including Thor, Hawkeye and, appropriately enough in this context, Kraven the Hunter. Horror fans may recognize him as occult expert Jack Marshak from Friday The 13th: The Series. Wiggins and Yesno would also both appear in the 1980 Canadian TV-movie The Courage Of Kavik The Wolf Dog (John Candy, who will eventually appear in this column, also turned up in that one).

But Yesno, Wiggins and the other two-legged performers are definitely supporting players in this drama. We first meet the cub who would be king when he’s just a few months old, scampering around the mountains with his sister and Mama Bear. After more than 10 minutes of cute-baby-bears-being-cute footage, we encounter Moki. Moki was raised to respect the bear and even has a bear paw tattooed on his hand. So he’s not exactly a great first line of defense when the bear family meets up with the Colonel’s cattle.

Young Wahb starts the trouble when he finds a wayward calf (Hibler’s folksy narration assures us that Wahb’s intentions are strictly friendly). The resulting commotion attracts the attention of the Colonel, who shoots and kills Wahb’s mother and sister. Wahb himself manages to get away after tumbling off a cliff into the river below. In a switch from Disney’s usual anthropomorphic manipulation, the death of Wahb’s family isn’t played for pathos. Hibler lets us know that animals have blessedly short memories for such trauma and Wahb is back on his feet in no time.

A little later, Moki happens across the little bear cub, scared out of his wits up a tree. He rescues Wahb, straps him on to his horse, and rides off. But unlike humans in other Disney nature dramas, he doesn’t bring him home to raise him like a pet. Instead, he takes Wahb up the mountain to the site of his own coming-of-age ritual, far from the ranch. He lets the cub go, wishes him luck and heads for home, figuring they’ll probably never see each other again.

Wahb spends the rest of the year looking for food and meeting his new neighbors. An encounter with a black bear at a honey tree goes from bad to worse when an adult male grizzly decides to show everyone who’s boss. Poor little Wahb barely hangs on while the grizzly tries knocking over the tree he’s climbed. It’s a hard-knock life for Wahb. Winter arrives and Wahb returns to his birth den for hibernation, fighting off a couple of wolverines for squatter’s rights.

The story picks up four years later with Wahb finding a wolfpack circling a slab of meat hanging above a bunch of traps. Wahb springs the traps and heads back into the woods, seemingly none the worse for wear. But those traps were laid by Moki, who recognizes Wahb’s distinctive four-toed track. He finally tells the Colonel about rescuing the cub years earlier. Needless to say, this news doesn’t go over well.

Later on, one of the Colonel’s laziest ranch hands, Shorty (Hugh Webster, who appears in another movie this column will get to eventually), decides to catch forty winks while laying some fence posts. Out for some fun, Wahb knocks over the posts and wakes up Shorty. He manages to escape but the Colonel is now convinced that his ranch is on the verge of turning into a freakin’ country bear jamberoo. He demands Moki set bear traps around the property and to hell with his people’s sacred traditions.

Years later (this movie is big on time jumps), Moki comes face-to-face with Wahb, now a massive seven feet tall. Rather than firing his gun, Moki speaks to him in the language of the Cree. The words soothe Wahb and he leaves Moki alone, satisfied that the two of them are kindred spirits.

Unfortunately, he heads straight to the Colonel’s camp where he once again wakes up Shorty (so lazy), destroys the chuckwagon and chases Slim the cook (Jack Van Evera) up a tree. The Colonel decides that eight years of intermittent bear sightings is enough and heads out to take care of Wahb once and for all.

The Colonel stumbles around the woods for a while, finally catching up with Wahb just as he’s winning a rematch with his old rival grizzly from the honey tree. The newly crowned king of the grizzlies attacks, sending the Colonel tumbling into a ravine. Moki turns up and again speaks to Wahb in Cree, calming him down and sending him on his way. Moki helps the Colonel and they watch the bear marking his territory from a safe distance. The Colonel still isn’t convinced that Wahb won’t be back and raises his rifle to shoot but Moki has already removed the bullets. Finally persuaded that this bear really, truly means a lot to his friend, the Colonel agrees to let Wahb go and live his life in peace.

Theatrical release poster for King Of The Grizzlies

King Of The Grizzlies isn’t the best Disney nature adventure but it’s far from the worst, either. On the plus side, the movie is beautifully shot. Practically every frame showcases a stunning Canadian landscape suitable for framing in your finest ranger stations and fire lookout towers. The animals are pretty great, too. Some of these movies can get a little sleepy and pastoral but this one at least keeps things moving.

The movie is on shakier ground whenever it goes back to its human costars. The relationship between Moki and the Colonel is probably pretty interesting but nobody seems all that interested in exploring it. Rather than trusting the actors to do their jobs, Hibler’s pushy narrator tells us whatever details he decides are relevant. It’s like no one had the heart to tell him that his services would be required less in a movie about people.

The film also appears to have been shot MOS (that’s without synchronized sound, for those of you who didn’t go to film school). What little dialogue there is was added in post-production, which gives those scenes the feel of a late-period Godzilla sequel. You never really feel any connection between Moki and Wahb. You just have to take Hibler’s word for it that it exists. It feels like there’s an interesting movie to be made from this material. But Hibler and his team of writers never quite find it.

King Of The Grizzlies was Disney’s first release of the 1970s, hitting theatres on February 11, 1970. It did…well, I don’t really know how it did at the box office, to be honest with you. I can’t find any receipts listed on the usual box office tabulating sites. But considering that it isn’t currently available on Disney+ or Blu-ray and I’ve never met any ravenous King Of The Grizzlies superfans, I doubt it packed ‘em in.

By now, the True-Life Fantasy format had already run its course but Disney wasn’t quite ready to give up on the hybrid subgenre. The 1970s were very much the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” decade at the studio, returning time and again to previously successful formulas that Walt liked with increasingly diminishing returns. Both Winston Hibler and screenwriter Jack Speirs will be back in this column and they’ll be bringing some more animals along with them. Prepare accordingly.

VERDICT: Despite some redeeming features, this teeters into Disney Minus territory.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Charlie, The Lonesome Cougar

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Charlie, The Lonesome Cougar

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.

Theatrical release poster for the double bill release of The Jungle Book and Charlie, The Lonesome Cougar

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.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Those Calloways

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Those Calloways

By 1965, Walt Disney had perfected the art of making two very specific types of live-action pictures. His True-Life Adventures team, including writer, producer and narrator Winston Hibler, found their documentary skills transferred well to dramatic animal movies like Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North. At the same time, Walt continued to indulge his love of Americana with nostalgic period pieces like Pollyanna set in his favorite era, the early 1900s. Those Calloways gave him an opportunity to combine the two. The results are surprisingly effective.

Those Calloways is based on the novel Swiftwater by Paul Annixter, a prolific writer of young adult fiction primarily about nature and animals. Louis Pelletier, who had recently written Big Red, wrote the screenplay, reteaming him with Big Red’s director, Norman Tokar. Hibler produced the film, bringing along several True-Life Adventure veterans. Dick Borden, who had shot some of The Vanishing Prairie, captured the wild geese footage in the film. The other animal unit was run by Lloyd Beebe and William R. Koehler, fresh off their work on The Incredible Journey.

The animals are important to Those Calloways but they aren’t the focus of the film. Rather, this is a slice-of-life drama depicting a year in the life of the title family, husband Cam (Disney regular Brian Keith), wife Liddy (Vera Miles, last seen as Keith’s wife in A Tiger Walks) and son Bucky (Brandon De Wilde). They live up in the mountains outside the little New England town of Swiftwater, where they’re viewed as local eccentrics. Cam was raised by the Mi’kmaq Indians (and as soon as you heard that bit of news, you could probably figure out why Disney+ slapped its standard “outdated cultural depictions” disclaimer on this). His upbringing has given him a deep affinity for nature, especially the wild geese considered to be a totem of the Mi’kmaq. This marks Cam as a bit of an outsider in a town where most everyone else hunts geese for food and/or sport.

Now before you get all excited and retroactively nominate Those Calloways for a PETA Award, be aware that Cam earns his living as a fur-trapper. And if you watch the movie through 2021 goggles, that dichotomy is going to cause some cognitive dissonance for you. Just keep in mind that conservationism was not an all-or-nothing proposition back in the 1910s. Living off the land very much included hunting, fishing and trapping in order to survive. You can do all that and still be against hunting for sport without being considered a hypocrite.

Cam has big plans for this trapping season, heading out to untapped land that the Mi’kmaq believe holds bad energy. They seem to have a point about that. Cam and Bucky are only on their first preliminary scouting expedition when Cam falls and breaks his leg. With his dad out of commission, Bucky heads out on his own. After the first day, he discovers a wolverine is killing all the game along his trapping line. Bucky and his faithful dog, Sounder, track the wolverine back to its den underneath an enormous treefall. After some intense close-quarters combat, Bucky manages to kill the wolverine with a hatchet, salvaging the season.

Despite a record haul of furs (including enough to make Liddy an ermine wrap as a surprise Christmas present), the market bottoms out. The furs go for less than five hundred bucks, which Liddy assumes will go toward paying off their mortgage. But Cam can’t let go of his dream of building a sanctuary for the geese and spends the entire sum on a down payment for a piece of land with a lake. Liddy is understandably upset but when push comes to shove and the Calloways are evicted from their home, she stands by her man, encouraging him to build a bigger, better cabin by the lake.

A lack of money means that work on the new house and sanctuary proceeds slowly at first (there’s even some shades of Swiss Family Robinson in the Calloways’ makeshift shelter by the lake). But soon traveling salesman Dell Fraser (Philip Abbott of Miracle Of The White Stallions) turns up, claiming to be a fellow nature-lover. He offers Cam some literal seed money to plant the corn Cam believes will bring the geese down to the lake. In reality, Dell represents an investor who plans on turning Swiftwater into a sportsman’s paradise, providing Cam’s plan guarantees that the geese will stop every year.

Not everyone in town has ulterior motives. The other villagers band together and volunteer for a community roof-raising, complete with a couple original songs by the Sherman Brothers! With the Calloways’ new home finished, everything looks on track for a happy ending. But then the geese come back, along with Dell and his entourage of wealthy hunters. When Cam gets wise to what’s happening, he burns down the corn and confronts the hunters, accidentally ending up with a bellyful of buckshot. A town meeting is arranged and while Cam recovers from his wounds, the townsfolk vote to reject Dell and his slick, out-of-town friends. Now you can have your happy ending.

I’ll be honest with you. I had very little expectation of enjoying Those Calloways. And for a while, it looked as though I wouldn’t. With a run time of over two hours, the film is leisurely to a fault and crams in a whole lot of extraneous business. I haven’t even mentioned the burgeoning romance between Bucky and shopkeeper’s daughter, Bridie Mellott (future Dynasty star Linda Evans, making her only Disney appearance). Or the rivalry between Bucky and mechanic Whit Turner (future Nostromo captain Tom Skerritt, who would later romance Hayley Mills in the made-for-TV The Parent Trap II). Or the semi-domesticated bear who hibernates in the Calloways’ root cellar. Or Cam’s occasional struggles with alcohol. Clearly, there’s a lot going on in Those Calloways.

But this is a movie that sneaks up on you and before I knew it, I was invested in these characters. It’s an uneven movie but its high points cover up a lot of sins. For instance, Tokar does a great job staging the wolverine sequence. The claustrophobic cinematography by Edward Colman and tight editing by Grant K. Smith creates a sense of real danger. It’s so good that it’s easy to forget that it’s preceded by several banal minutes of Sounder just scampering through the snow, chasing after weasels and other woodland critters.

Theatrical release poster for Those Calloways

The film’s stars work overtime bringing the audience into the story. Brian Keith and Vera Miles make for a compelling, believable couple. There’s a lot that goes unsaid between them but the way they look at each other speaks volumes. In their first scene together, Keith seems to be apologizing for an earlier fight. We never learn the details of what happened between them but it’s enough to tell us that things aren’t always easy between these two.

Those Calloways offers Vera Miles a much better showcase than her largely unnecessary role in A Tiger Walks. She has several terrific moments but the Christmas scene is by far the most moving. Even before she opens her gift, she takes her time admiring the wrapping and speculating what might be inside. When Cam and Bucky try to hurry her up, she refuses to be rushed. She’s not getting another present until next year, so she wants to savor the moment. When she sees the ermine wrap, she breaks down sobbing, overcome with emotion. Is this all a little bit corny? You bet. Does it work anyway? Absolutely. Miles sells it for all she’s worth. She’ll be back in this column before too long.

Brandon De Wilde was a somewhat unusual choice for a Disney star in that he was already famous by the time Walt signed him. He’d been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in the movie Shane when he was just 11 years old, making him one of the youngest nominees in a competitive category ever. Since then he’d worked steadily in film and television. Walt hired him to star opposite Brian Keith in The Tenderfoot, a Wonderful World Of Color three-parter released theatrically overseas.

De Wilde’s a good actor and a natural Disney star. He’s good-looking, earnest and capable of handling the physical stuff, even when the just-barely-adequate fight choreography lets him down. But he never made another Disney film after Those Calloways. He stayed busy on stage and television but struggled to establish himself in movies, in part because he looked young for his age even by Disney standards. He harbored aspirations to break into music, becoming close friends with Gram Parsons. But in 1972, Brandon De Wilde was killed in a car accident in Colorado. He was just 30 years old.

De Wilde had also worked with costar Walter Brennan before. Brennan was a three-time Academy Award winner now in the autumn years of his career. Those Calloways marked his first Disney project but it won’t be his last. We’ll also see Ed Wynn again, whose performance as the slightly deaf Ed Parker is downright restrained by Ed Wynn standards.  

One name we won’t be seeing in this column again is composer Max Steiner. Steiner was a Hollywood legend having composed the scores to such classics as King Kong, Gone With The Wind, Casablanca and countless others. He had never worked for Disney before but in a way, his rendezvous with Walt seems inevitable. Critics of Steiner’s old-fashioned style of film music consistently accuse him of “Mickey Mousing”, the overly-precise synchronization of on-screen movement to music. Like a glissando to accompany throwing an object or a descending scale when a character walks down a flight of stairs. Steiner’s Those Calloways score largely avoids those pitfalls. And if it doesn’t rank among his best work, it’s still a fine score. Unfortunately, it would end up being his last before his death in 1971.

Those Calloways struggled to find an audience in 1965 and critics were split. Quite honestly, I don’t blame them one bit. This is a long, imperfect movie that squeezes all of its best stuff into the middle. It takes a little too long to get going and then a lot longer than necessary to wrap things up. But it’s a rewarding picture for those who can meet it halfway with some beautiful cinematography, excellent performances and real heart. If it’s not for you, it’s not for you and I get it. But if you’re on the fence, give it a shot. You may be pleasantly surprised.

VERDICT: Despite its flaws, this is a Disney Plus.  

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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: 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: The Vanishing Prairie

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Vanishing Prairie

With the release of Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue, Walt and Roy Disney were almost free of their obligation to former distributor RKO. They still owed them one animated feature, which would end up being Music Land, a re-edited remix of segments from Make Mine Music and Melody Time. But now, the Disneys were free to release whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted.

After the surprise success of the first True-Life Adventure feature, it makes sense that Disney would want to get another one in theaters as soon as possible. And so The Vanishing Prairie became the second release from the fledgling Buena Vista Distribution Company, a mere nine months after the release of The Living Desert.

It isn’t surprising that Walt was able to get The Vanishing Prairie in theatres so quickly. True-Life Adventures had started out as a series of short subjects. Several of these shorts were actively in production when The Living Desert was released, with titles like Bighorn Sheep, Prairie Story and Cat Family. Now that the Disneys were responsible for their own distribution, features made more economic sense than shorts since they could charge theaters a higher rate for them. So Walt directed James Algar to combine several of the in-progress short subjects into a single feature focusing on the wildlife of the American Prairie.

As you can probably tell from the title, The Vanishing Prairie turns back the clock to focus on animals who once roamed freely in abundance but are now in danger of disappearing. This is a fairly forward-thinking position for a documentary in 1954. The idea of wildlife conservation had been around since the turn of the century. Some of the animals concerned in those earliest efforts, including the bison and whooping crane, are featured in the film. But the first federal protection act wouldn’t be enacted until 1966. In ’54, the idea that a species could simply vanish off the face of the Earth hadn’t quite sunk in for most folks.

James Algar established a winning formula with his direction of the True-Life Adventure shorts and he doesn’t deviate much from it here. If you see something cute or funny and want to see it again, don’t worry. Algar’s got you covered with plenty of additional shots of ducks slipping on ice and baby mountain lions playing. He’s more than happy to show it again and again and again.

But The Vanishing Prairie doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of life. We see the mother of those adorable kittens stalk and kill a deer. Although the actual attack is kept off-camera, we do see her drag the carcass back, feed on it with her young and bury the remains for later. This ain’t Bambi, kids.

Some of the footage proved too graphic for 1954 audiences. A shot of a buffalo birthing a calf caused the film to be censored and even banned outright in some cities. To their credit, I don’t believe Disney ever cut the scene themselves. The uncut version is currently available on Disney+.

The footage in The Living Desert had primarily been the work of two men, N. Paul Kenworthy Jr. and Robert Crandall. The Vanishing Prairie utilizes a large team of nature photographers. The footage they were able to capture is absolutely remarkable by 1950s standards. The best of it holds up even today.

Tom McHugh and his team traveled to Montana to film the buffalo. Draped in a buffalo skin, McHugh was able to position himself right in the middle of the herd. Husband-and-wife team Dick and “Brownie” Borden shot some beautiful slow-motion sequences of geese in flight. In arguably the film’s most memorable sequence, Lloyd Beebe and James R. Simon follow a mountain lion as it attempts to track a fawn, getting startlingly close without ever actually finding it.

Kenworthy also returned, creating a cut-away prairie dog burrow to track the animals’ movements underground. Once again, Disney took some heat for including staged sequences like these. Animals enter and exit the burrows on the surface and the camera follows right along, seeming to plunge beneath the earth. Editor Lloyd Richardson does an extraordinary job making this look seamless. But obviously what we’re seeing is impossible. The above-ground footage can’t possibly have been shot at the same time and place as the below-ground footage. In “documentary” terms, this fails as an objective and accurate document of events. But dramatically, it works like gangbusters.

Of course, this was 1954 and not all elements of the film have aged well. Winston Hibler’s introductory narration praises the “Red Man” and his relationship to nature, coming to understand the world in “his primitive way”. Later on, Hibler claims that Native Americans patterned their dances off the mating dances of the grouse. Composer Paul J. Smith lays on some stereotypical Indian music in case you can’t see the similarity. Now, did some tribes actually get inspiration from the grouse for their dances? Possibly, I guess. But without any concrete proof to back up this assertion, the sequence just comes across as, “Hey, look at the funny birds!”

The condescending tone continues when it comes to gender roles. Another sequence shows male and female birds trading off the duties of going out to find food and warming the eggs in the nest. That’s fairly progressive…until the male bird accidentally carries an egg out of the nest and Hibler pipes up to remind us that dads are dumb when it comes to woman’s work. Gotta love the domestic humor of the 1950s.

Fortunately, these are minor moments in a film where the focus remains on the wildlife. Algar, Hibler and cowriter Ted Sears don’t bludgeon you over the head with their conservationist message but it’s definitely present. Hibler never once utters the word “endangered” but nearly every species we meet is described as “vanishing”. The narration includes at least one disparaging reference to “Man, the Invader”. This is clearly understood to refer to white settlers, not the Native Americans who had found a balance with nature.

Theatrical re-release poster for a double feature of The Living Desert and The Vanishing Prairie

Any doubts about the commercial viability of True-Life Adventure features were wiped out by The Vanishing Prairie. On its initial release, The Living Desert had been paired with Ben And Me, an animated featurette about Benjamin Franklin and his best friend and assistant, a mouse named Amos. Skeptics might argue that The Living Desert’s success had been helped by the prospect of a brand-new Disney cartoon. But The Vanishing Prairie was released with Willie The Operatic Whale, the Nelson Eddy segment from Make Mine Music. Not to diminish the popularity of Nelson Eddy but it’s safe to assume that audiences were not primarily drawn to theaters by an 8-year-old cartoon.

The Vanishing Prairie netted Walt Disney his second consecutive Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. It raked in close to two million dollars at the box office. Not at all bad for a picture that was budgeted at less than $400,000. Like The Living Desert before it, The Vanishing Prairie remained popular over the years. In 1971, both films were re-released theatrically as a double feature. The True-Life Adventure features were here to stay. We’ll see a bunch more of them in the weeks ahead.

VERDICT: Disney Plus.

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