Category Archives: disney

The Island at the Top of the World (1974)

Our son was four when we started this blog, and while he remembers many of the programs and movies that we watched in its first couple of years – in part from repetition – many others have faded away. That’s the nature of memory of preschoolers; we all have a few solid memories from age four and five, but it takes more than a single viewing of even an exciting movie that a kid really enjoys to sink in during the years when there’s so much else in the world to absorb and remember. And if it’s a movie that I got from the library, then there’s no opportunity for repetition.

So since some other action-adventure films in the Jules Verne tradition and style – the various takes on Journey to the Center of the Earth and In Search of the Castaways – have largely faded from his memory, Disney’s 1974 adaptation of Ian Cameron’s novel The Lost Ones wasn’t nearly as familiar and old hat to him as it was to his parents. We had never seen this film before, and yet we kind of did.

One thing I really appreciated: this film gets in gear immediately. I was talking with an old pal about the unbearably bloated Godzilla: King of the Monsters this weekend and told him how I just missed ninety minute movies. I checked the running time, saw this movie was only an hour and a half long, and breathed a happy sigh of relief. The characters and situations are introduced on the go, and all the background events necessary to get the expedition started are explained as we’re moving along with them.

Island stars David Hartman as a turn-of-the-century scientist. And yeah, it’s the same guy who’d later host Good Morning America forever, which might’ve sparked the same oddball reaction from me as when people in Britain learn that the longtime Blue Peter presenter Peter Purves had been in Doctor Who for a year in the sixties. Donald Sinden plays the millionaire looking for his missing son, Jacques Marin is the captain of an airship, and Mako, who guest-starred in everything in the 1970s, plays an Eskimo guide.

So was it any good? It certainly didn’t do anything new, and every plot beat, from the lost civilization to the gods being angry to characters who we thought were dead showing up again to the only female having a heart of gold to help our heroes, was one we’ve seen before. The science was absurd and the movie keeps confusing archaeology with anthropology. But it still unfolded at a pleasantly brisk pace, and kept the kiddo excited and surprised, and it gives us lava, explosions, hidden passages, whirlpools, and dangerous animals. If you’ve never seen it before, or if you’re young enough that you might as well not have, then it’s a splendid picture.

This post has been written amid the remarkable distraction of our son watching The Avengers for the tenth time.

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Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

How nice, it seemed, in a world of dreary and utterly unnecessary remakes, for Disney to actually make a sequel to an old film. Except this isn’t a sequel. Mary Poppins Returns is actually a remake of the original, every plot beat completely familiar and done with modern gloss. It follows the template and order of the original’s moments so precisely that the only thing that’s different is the casting and subtle changes to professions. Here we meet the oddball relative who was played by Ed Wynn last time and by Meryl Streep this time, and then we’ll visit the bank, and then we’ll have the great showstopping dance routine that was performed by chimney sweeps last time and by lamplighters this time. Even the mother figure is the same. Last time, she was a suffragette and this time, she’s organizing labor.

That said, while I wished desperately for some moments that would veer wildly away from the original’s format, it certainly succeeded with our favorite seven year-old critic, who remembers the original, but not particularly well. And if I hadn’t seen the original eight or nine times previously, I suppose the only real complaint I’d have is that the villain has no reason whatever to be a villain. Seriously, why is Colin Firth being villainous in this movie? Why does he compound his villainy by pretending to be sympathetic? Is there buried treasure under the Banks house or something and the movie just forgot to tell us?

But in its favor, Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda are practically magical, if not quite perfect, and the songs are nice, and the cameos by Nackvid Keyd and Angela Lansbury, so many years since the last time these actors danced with cartoon animals, certainly made me smile. David Warner takes over as a character from the original movie, and he’s always fun to watch as he bellows and shouts.

And in the category of really big wins for this movie, I have to say that the fantastic musical hall scene built around “The Cover is Not the Book” should go down as one of the absolute best musical numbers in any Disney film, ever. Also, if this film doesn’t win an Oscar for best costumes, something is downright wrong with the world, because the strange pastel-on-porcelain garb that the characters wear on their trip into the cartoon world is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

In other words, all the elements were in place for a truly fine movie. Everything but an original story. Should Mary Poppins one day return to assist the next generation of Banks children, I hope that family is having a completely different problem for Mary to tackle in a completely different way.

Photo credit: Time.com

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The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975)

A couple of months ago, I checked out The Aristocats from the library to show our son. Before the film, there was an ad for other Disney selections and our son hooted. “I want to see that cowboy movie,” he yelled. Well, if we must, I said.

I don’t know how I’ve never seen this movie, but I guess I never did. Between HBO showing all sorts of live-action Disney movies and the public library having summers of films, I thought I must have seen this and forgotten, but I didn’t recognize a frame of it. I guess I must’ve seen the sequel!

For more than an hour, I figured I’d write something brief and possibly dismissive about this silly movie. It’s cute, but it didn’t raise much more than a chuckle. However, that wouldn’t be entirely true. Honesty compels me to report that John McGiver delivers a line about how stupid Theodore and Amos are that, a full minute later, had me gasping for air, I laughed so hard. I mean, you miss a minute of a movie from laughing, you can’t call it a bad movie.

McGiver’s just a small piece of a terrific cast. I’ll always make time for a seventies Disney live-action film because they’re full of great character actors. Everybody seems to think of this as a vehicle for Don Knotts and Tim Conway, but they’re actually providing supporting roles to a story led by Bill Bixby as a hapless gambler suddenly burdened by three orphans. He thinks that a marriage of convenience to a stagecoach driver played by Susan Clark might give the kids a home as well as a chance to nip out and play some poker, but things get complicated when the children, who own a deed to a mine everybody thinks is worthless, unearth a giant gold nugget valued at more than $87,000. Suddenly everybody wants to be part of these kids’ lives. Harry Morgan tries to keep order as the town’s sheriff, judge, and barber, with supporting roles for McGiver, David Wayne, and Slim Pickens.

But Conway and Knotts do walk away with the proceedings in one perfectly-timed slapstick scene after another. They play criminals so incompetent that the sheriff just lets them wander around freely, because bad guys who can’t afford the bullets to “throw lead” don’t present much of a danger to the public. I can imagine that, in lesser hands, stopping a movie’s narrative for a full five minutes to watch two characters steal a ladder might be an indulgence, but darned if our son didn’t spend every second of them chuckling and giggling. This is perfectly judged comedy for seven year-olds. It ends with a chase and everybody getting dunked in the river, inevitably, but our kid whooped that this was the greatest “chase montage” he’s ever seen, and the “boat fire truck” that Bixby and Pickens find themselves on in the end was his favorite part of the movie.

I’m not entirely sure I need to watch the sequel. Or Million Dollar Duck, if there’s an ad for that hiding on some other DVD at the library. Fingers crossed.

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What We’re Not Watching: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh

We’re not watching Disney’s 1964 mini-series The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh for our blog, because both the original television version and the feature film, called Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow, are out of print. It seems to be one of the most curious omissions from Disney’s extensive library of old live-action material, a project that has only been released in limited editions and returned to the “Disney Vault” to collect dust while bootleggers profit.

Doctor Syn was the hero of a series of juvenile adventure novels written by Russell Thorndyke. Most of the books appeared in the 1930s and were still pretty popular with kids into the seventies. I remember seeing copies in the library with the same sort of design, and appeal, as Jack London’s books, or those lurid 1960s hardbacks-for-kids editions of Kidnapped and Treasure Island. The stories are set in the 1770s, where the Reverend Doctor Christopher Syn appears to be a respectable English vicar in a remote coastal village, but by night, he dresses in a horrifying Scarecrow costume with a glow-in-the-dark mask and leads a band of smugglers, getting in needed material from France to avoid the crippling taxes levied by the king. With the military bent on destroying the ring, and constantly capturing one low-level smuggler or another, it’s full of daring escapes, cunning plans, last-minute rescues, that sort of thing.

There was a feature film at the height of the books’ popularity in the thirties, and then Hammer and Disney went at the source material in the early sixties. Hammer might fairly be accused of hearing a big idea coming down the pipe and rushing something into production. That version stars Peter Cushing as the renamed “Captain Clegg.” Disney’s has Patrick McGoohan as Syn, with George Cole as his ally Mipps. The three-part adaptation was shown on the ABC anthology series Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color in 1964. It also features some familiar faces from 1960s British film and television like Jill Curzon, Geoffrey Keen, and Patrick Wymark.

Like some other Disney material that we’ve seen, Scarecrow was released in a variety of formats and lengths. The 150-minute TV version was edited down to a 100-minute feature film which was shown in several countries. In the 1980s, the series started to get a small, strange, underground buzz as something worth looking out for. You’d see it mentioned here and there as a lost classic worth seeing. The delightful guidebook Harry and Wally’s Favorite TV Shows, essential in its day, singled out McGoohan’s wild and manic performance as the Scarecrow and made it sound like something I needed to see.

It was out on VHS for a while. There was a limited release of an edit of the movie (possibly a little different from the first movie release), but in that old Disney way, it became impossible to find. A limited edition DVD came out in late 2008. You can buy a copy for a few hundred dollars on eBay. You can also get a pirated copy from any number of sellers right this minute for a whole lot less, but we don’t do that at our blog.

The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh has remained in the “Disney Vault” for almost a decade. There are higher profile projects for the Mouse to worry about these days, and smuggling on the Cornish coast hasn’t captured the imagination of any kids in a long time. Still, it’s been about ten years, which is, they say, the average time that the locked-away releases remain in the Vault. Maybe we might see Doctor Syn dust off his mask and scream that terrifying laugh of his again one day soon?

Photo credit: Disney Wiki, which points out that in one of Disney’s recent comic books, the Scarecrow returned to team up with Captain Jack Sparrow, which is probably a far more interesting event than anything that happened in the third, fourth, or fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

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The Moon-Spinners (1964)

I have to admit that every once in a while, I pick a complete flop with our son. He didn’t like Disney’s The Moon-Spinners at all. I thought it was a perfectly fine adventure film for kids, especially American kids in that early sixties sweet spot right before the Beatles exploded into pop culture.

I’ve often felt that Hayley Mills was absolutely in the right place at the right time. She had a legion of young girl fans and she was perfectly cast, often by Disney, as the engaging lead in fun movies like The Parent Trap and In Search of the Castaways, and of course she usually had dreamy boys with English accents around. You know how many of those girls who showed up to scream at the Beatles when they arrived in New York were Hayley Mills devotees? All of them.

But I guess that fifty-four years later, there’s not quite as much in a movie like this to thrill a six year-old boy. It sounded promising enough. There’s danger, intrigue, stolen jewels, and Eli Wallach and Paul Stassino as dangerous criminals. Plus there’s a terrific set of stunts when Hayley gets locked in a windmill by the baddies and everybody climbs out down the sails and blades. Honestly though, the part he liked the best was when Wallach got chased out of some ruins by feral cats.

For slightly older viewers, the story concerns Mills’ character, Nicky, and her aunt, played by Joan Greenwood, visiting a small village in Crete at the same time that a young man arrives in the hopes of finding some emeralds, stolen while under his care in London some months previously. So the young people get to have an adventure while an impressive cast of character actors, including Sheila Hancock, John Le Mesurier, Andre Morell, and George Pastell, provide support.

The lack of any of Disney’s trademark comic slapstick was perhaps one small failure in our son’s eyes, but this is a much more straightforward adventure movie than their seventies output, without a lot of levity. There is one deliciously funny moment where Mills breathlessly recounts her escapades to a millionaire played by Pola Negri, who definitely needs a drink before the recap is finished, but that’s more for the grown-ups in the crowd. I think somebody our son’s age would probably read that scene as played straight, because yes, that’s an accurate recap of the story so far. And viewers his age probably wouldn’t see the small hints to the audience in the way adult characters play certain scenes. We instantly knew that John Le Mesurier’s character wasn’t being completely honest in his explanations, but the reality of what he’s actually up to still eluded our son. And Sheila Hancock brings surprising tension to a scene in which her character gets drunk and talks too much, but all of these adult conversations just seemed like noise to him because it’s more subtle than the Hulk knocking over buildings.

So perhaps six was a little young or perhaps the movie is just a dated piece that’s going to appeal more to older viewers anyway, especially the older viewers who enjoy seeing all these great actors. Maybe we should have waited a couple of years, but I’m certainly glad of the experience and enjoyed the movie very much.

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The Black Hole (1979)

I don’t know why in the world I never saw Disney’s The Black Hole in theaters as a kid, but I had about thirty of the bubblegum cards and convinced myself it was going to be one of the all-time greatest movies ever. The film eventually showed up on HBO and chunks of it kept me satisfied enough to watch it again and again.

To modern eyes, there’s a little less to recommend it. On the plus side, if you like music, there’s one of John Barry’s very best scores, and if you like set design, there’s a fair amount here to pop your eyes out of your head. Otherwise…

This is a movie where people talk way too freaking much. Worse, they are forced to deliver some really stilted and awkward dialogue. Early on, Ernest Borgnine is forced to say “How that must have galled Doctor Hans Reinhart!” Nothing else that comes out of anybody’s mouth is much better. It’s a hundred minute exercise in what Orson Welles once called “things that are only correct because they’re grammatical, but they’re tough on the ear.” I couldn’t even focus on the silly story because these terrific actors – Borgnine, Anthony Perkins, Roddy McDowell, Slim Pickens, Robert Forster in what would have been the Joseph Cotton role in other hands – are forced to deliver such painful lines.

But watch this with a kid and you can ignore a lot of it. Our son was curious and fascinated at first, spent several agonizing minutes worried and concerned about the creepiness of the gigantic Cygnus, somehow locked in stationary orbit around a black hole, and then exploded with excitement once the gunfights began. And to be sure: they’re pretty darn good gunfights for kids.

The iconography is, of course, straight from Star Wars. This has cute robots, quasi-stormtroopers, and a great big, menacing brute of a Vader Villain in the form of the Satanic red Maximilian. The robot is silent; it communicates with its power saws. It really is a great design for a robot. As V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B. are instantly identifiable as heroes – and why Disney hasn’t been selling V.I.N.CENT toys in its stores, I’ll never understand – then Maximilian just silently screams evil. It’s a real shame he’s not in a better movie than this.

As our son jumped up and down, thrilled by the faux-troopers losing their laser gun battles, I wished this could have been better. I dislike how the movie drops science-sounding words into the narrative, like “event horizon” and “Einstein-Rosen bridge,” without considering how a movie that actually paid attention to science could have been a much, much better experience. Instead, a character mentions Dante’s Inferno early on, and that’s where this film wants to go, leading to one of the downright stupidest endings in movie history.

Shortly before the meteor storm whizzes through the Cygnus’s anti-gravity field, I whispered to my wife “You’ve never seen this? Dr. Science will be very upset with the ending.” She grumbled “Dr. Science is already upset.”

No, this isn’t a good film, but the music is terrific, and V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B. are instantly charming and wonderful. I love their design and their characters. They are among my favorite of all the many R2-D2 clones in film and TV. The special effects are an interesting mix of then-state of the art computer-controlled motion control, traditionally animated lasers and rocket exhaust, and the wire work that Disney’s team had mastered on the Witch Mountain features, meaning your heart breaks whenever you see a string onscreen. It’s good enough to thrill and frighten children, but it should have been good enough to do the same for grownups.

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Return from Witch Mountain (1978)

There’s a churlish and contrary side of me that remains petulantly bothered by Disney’s 1978 film Return from Witch Mountain. My complaint is that Tony and Tia don’t get to do nearly enough together. Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann had such fun chemistry together in the original film, and they’re separated for nearly the entirety of the sequel.

On the other hand, they don’t waste time getting this story moving. I like the way this movie just takes off running. Ten minutes in, and we’ve met the villains, as played by Christopher Lee and Bette Davis. I don’t believe that either actor would have listed this movie among their ten best, but boy, are they ever fun. They’re properly evil, too. The only thing in this film that troubled our son was Christopher Lee knocking out Tony with an injection – could movie makers get away with anything like that today?! – but he recovered and enjoyed the daylights out of this.

I’ll tell you who else would enjoy the daylights out of this: anybody who grew up in Los Angeles in the mid-1970s. There’s a lot of location filming here as Tia meets up with a gang of truant kids called the Earthquakes and hides out with them looking for Tony. Bizarrely, she doesn’t think about going to the police for help. I get that identifying herself would be a huge issue, but the subject just doesn’t come up.

Speaking of police, I guess if I’m being honest, the only thing about the movie that actually aggravates me is the mammoth plot hole about Bette Davis’s station wagon. Once the baddies have stuck a mind control chip behind Tony’s ear, they’ve got an accomplice with telekinetic powers and she plans to heist a museum of $3,000,000 in gold. But she didn’t think it through, and her car is totaled by the giant stack of gold bricks. At no point do the police follow up on this. Of course, in Disney films, policemen are only ever present to either have their own cars wrecked, or lower their eyebrows, ticket pad in hand, when somebody else’s car gets wrecked, but seriously, nobody followed up on the destruction of the getaway car to see who owned it?

Anyway, with our heroes separated, the movie’s effectiveness comes down to the chemistry with their co-stars. Eisenmann has the totally thankless task of playing an emotionless slave for almost the whole film; he’s a blank slate for Lee and Davis to be simply evil. Richards is teamed with a kid gang played by young actors who are pretty entertaining, too. One of the gang is played by “Poindexter,” a child star who seemed to inevitably take roles in the seventies that Robbie Rist had turned down. The gang’s leader is Christian Juttner, who we’ve seen in Ark II and Wonder Woman, and who we’ll see again in a recurring part in the first season of The Bionic Woman in a couple of months. Grown-up support comes from the wonderful Richard Bakalyan as a jerk of a taxi driver who steals the kids’ luggage and deserves what he gets, and Barney Miller‘s Jack Soo as “Yoyo,” the truant officer trying to catch the Earthquakes.

With that in mind, it’s probable that, with its dated optical effects, rear-screen projection, obvious stunt doubles and wire-work, Return from Witch Mountain looked a little old-fashioned to audiences in 1978 as Star Wars and all of its imitators were showing up in theaters – more on that subject very soon – but our son probably enjoyed this even more than the original. The telekinetic chaos is genuinely fun to watch, even if Davis really should have tried her museum heist after dark, and the effects scenes are perfectly paced to keep children interested.

Our kid absolutely loved the really excellent car chase about halfway through the film, and when Tia telepathically sends a goat to fetch the Earthquakes, he was roaring. The animal ends up in a car while its driver is oblivious – we’ve seen that before from Disney – and then all the tough-guy kids end up hanging from pillars in their hideout’s big room while it brays and nips at their legs to get their attention. He was laughing so hard he nearly cried, and made up a “Chasing the Goat” song.

So yes, perhaps Davis and Lee might have done well to heed the old advice about not working with kids and animals, because for this six year-old, they were downright forgettable in the wake of the slapstick comedy. But the grown-ups appreciated seeing these giants at work. The film is flawed but entertaining, but they elevated it a little in my book. Plus, of course, whenever we will see Christopher Lee in any other film or show – and we certainly will – I can remind our son “He was Professor Garron in Return from Witch Mountain!”

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Treasure of Matecumbe (1976)

Over the last several months of writing this blog, I’ve been cross-checking actor and director credits in IMDB while also searching around for new ideas for films to watch together. If I’d ever heard of Disney’s Treasure of Matecumbe before last year, it’s news to me. Definitely one of the company’s lesser-known features, it’s a quite good family adventure film, a search for gold in 1870s America.

As befits a movie that’s flown under the radar, it’s also the victim of some considerable misinformation. It was released on DVD in 2008 under the Wonderful World of Disney label, and a few sites have stated that this was made for that long-running TV anthology. It turns out that it was not. I did one last little double-check and bit of research before writing this, thank heaven, and ran into this article at TCM, written by a friend-of-a-friend, Nathaniel Thompson, which explains that it did get a theatrical release in the US. A little more checking and it seems it debuted on July 9th of 1976, and showed up on the TV series a good eighteen months later, where it must have been edited by about fifteen minutes, because this is a packed movie, very nearly two full hours.

The young stars of the film are Johnny Doran, who had impressed me very much in that “explaining death to kids” episode of Isis, and Billy “Pop” Atmore, who was a regular on The Mickey Mouse Club. Among the grown-ups, a really impressive cast including Robert Foxworth, Joan Hackett, Peter Ustinov, and Vic Morrow. I was very amused by one little cameo. I’ve been noting how certain directors keep coming back to use actors again, and Rex Holman shows up for thirty seconds as an informer in New Orleans. Eight years before, this film’s director, Vincent McEveety, had used him as Morgan Earp in the one Star Trek episode I actually enjoy, “Spectre of the Gun.”

Like many of Disney’s travel movies, this one has an episodic feel to it, and about halfway through, there’s a musical interlude when the party docks at a river landing where the menfolk haven’t seen any women in heaven knows how long. I love watching movies with my son for many reasons, but a big one is that he will often appreciate something that I never could without him. If I were reviewing movies that I watch on my own, I’d grumble that this bluegrass hoedown is completely superfluous to the story and unnecessary. But it turns out that it’s perfectly timed and very welcome. He was up on his feet and dancing along and when, inevitably, people get dunked in the river, he was roaring with laughter.

This isn’t a movie with very much levity and precious little of Disney’s seventies slapstick. In fact, Morrow’s character is far more realistically evil and cruel than your typical Disney antagonist, and guns down a man early in the story. There’s even a quite surprising scene where a character is rescued from being lynched by the Klan, which I certainly didn’t expect to see in a Disney movie. And the ending has a very surprising undercurrent. I don’t think children will really understand just how grim it actually is, but this certainly isn’t Keenan Wynn getting hoist on his own petard by a Volkswagen. So when the opportunities for laughs did come, we appreciated them.

I was really impressed by the production, which took the actors on location in Kentucky, Florida, and California, and subjected them to swamps and lashing rain. There are some obvious stunt doubles and stock footage and animated swarms of insects and painfully poor rear-screen projection, but they really did throw millions of gallons of water on big name actors and stick them on boats in the Everglades. You’ll watch this and think it’s a huge shame that they only captured half the dialogue shots on location and filled in the rest in the studio.

Anyway, Ustinov plays a traveling medicine show “doctor,” and his small river boat gets blown up, which our son strangely insists was the scariest part of the movie despite looking to the grown-ups like nothing at all consequential. Then the climax, in which Morrow and his henchmen square off against an angry Everglades tribe, had him cheering and loving it, while I gulped, knowing the grisly fate that awaited the villains. You can never tell with kids, which is part of what makes this so fun. Five-nearly-six might have been a little young for this movie, but he has seen a lot of films and action-adventure TV and might be a little more mature than many viewers his age, so if you’re thinking about showing it to your own kids, bear that in mind. I’m glad that we watched it and he certainly enjoyed it.

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