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