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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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Escape to Witch Mountain (1975)

You know who has the best rogues’ gallery in all of TV and films? I’m not talking about the fictional villains, but the actors who played them. The answer is indisputably Tony and Tia from the two Witch Mountain movies. Their opponents were played by Donald Pleasance, Bette Davis, Christopher Lee, and Ray Milland. That’s Blofeld, Baby Jane Hudson, Count Dracula, and that mean guy from Love Story. Pure 100% evil.

And on top of that, the three main adult parts in the first of the two films, Escape to Witch Mountain, are played by Pleasance, Milland, and Eddie Albert as Jason O’Day, the gruff-but-kind old traveler who helps the young castaways. All three men played villains in Columbo in the seventies. If you’re like me and enjoy just sitting back and watching great actors at work, even when the material isn’t exactly challenging, this movie is a complete pleasure.

We were having a long and very lazy Saturday afternoon, so we went ahead and watched this classic today instead of tomorrow morning, and our son just adored it. Escape to Witch Mountain is based on a 1968 novel by Alexander Key, who wrote more than a dozen of these sort of light science fiction adventures for young readers and which we used to devour as kids in the seventies. Him, John Christopher, Madeline L’Engle, and C.S. Lewis were my poison in the tail end of that decade. Yours as well, I bet.

As a screenplay, it’s note-perfect, a flawless 97 minutes without a drop of fat or padding. The director, John Hough, was new to Disney but he already had a pretty fun career, working on favorite TV shows like The Avengers, The Champions, and The Zoo Gang, and directed Hammer’s glorious guilty pleasure, Twins of Evil. Teamed with Disney’s first-rate special effects team – who let the side down a little this time – three veteran actors and two extremely good young kids, he put together a terrific movie.

Sadly, the effects are just not up to Disney’s standard this time. Most of the work before the climax is practical effects done with wires, but sadly I swear I see a new wire visible every time I have watched this movie. I’ve noted with some sadness the way that the print quality of Ray Harryhausen’s films always gives away the “surprise” of something magical about to happen, but that’s nothing compared to the composite shots of the flying Winnebago and upside down helicopter in this movies’s climax. It’s a shame for adult viewers, but kids probably won’t notice. Ours didn’t.

One reason I enjoy this film so much is that it gives kids some believable young heroes with whom they can relate. Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann are extremely good in this movie, even managing to convincingly convey their returning memories as actual memories and not “brand new information” that it’s time for the script to provide. Eisenmann was still a novice at this time; Richards was an industry vet by the time she made this at age ten.

The memories slowly returning, done so well by a cute effect that sees the flashbacks becoming increasingly clearer as the film progresses, really helped keep our son’s attention. He was fascinated by the story and curious where it was going. There’s some typical Disney slapstick along the way – there’s a bear, and a truck that crashes into a lake – and it’s used as perfect punctuation at moments where the explanations are a little talky or the excitement gets a little much. It’s a really great film, and I believe it’s much better than its sequel, but we’ll watch that in a couple of months and see what he thinks.

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The Rescuers (1977)

Did my son wake you this morning? Today, we watched what he pronounced as his all-time favorite movie. He went all Spinal Tap on it. I asked him how much he enjoyed Disney’s The Rescuers on a scale of one to ten, and he replied, “If ten is my absolute favorite movie ever, then this is a ten! No! It’s an ELEVEN!” This was after the longest, loudest fit of laughter I can remember. From the bit where the albatross, Orville, gets his tailfeathers singed by a firework to the destruction of the old organ on the rotting riverboat a quarter of an hour later, he was in stitches.

He’s seen a few Disney cartoon films before, most recently Robin Hood, but he’s never loved one quite as much as this. I agree completely. You, dear reader, almost certainly enjoy Disney cartoons more than I do – I just scrolled down the list and maybe find about five tolerable – but there are two that I adore: this and 1970’s The Aristocats.

But actually, looking over Disney’s animation work, I see that The Rescuers was made at a really curious time for the company. For some weird reason, they were only releasing a new cartoon feature about once every four years. I think that they all at least looked splendid – The Rescuers in particular is blessed with some amazing painted backgrounds – but, in the sixties and seventies, these were all taking a back seat to their far superior live-action films.

And I think that this corporate malaise and disinterest in cartoons is what cost Disney their best asset at the time: Don Bluth. He was apparently the lead of four credited “animating directors,” working under three other credited as “directed by,” and, sick of the bureaucracy and wasted time, set up a rival studio with about 20% of Disney’s staff, and then spent a decade kicking the mouse’s rear at the box office. I’m also deeply disinterested in almost all of Bluth’s output, with only Secret of NIMH and Anastasia of any note, but I find the history fascinating. And I think it’s really neat that The Rescuers and Pete’s Dragon, on which Bluth also worked, both came out in 1977. Good year for for a talent like Bluth to flex his muscles. I can believe that had Disney not turned things around in ’89 with the successful Little Mermaid, they probably would have retired their feature animation unit entirely, and our popular culture would be radically different today.

The Rescuers features Eva Gabor and Bob Newhart as two employees of the International Rescue Aid Society, whose office is in a mousehole in the UN building. Gabor plays Miss Bianca, an agent from Hungary, and Newhart is Bernard, a brave-but-shy janitor who is assigned as her co-agent. Other voice work is provided by people who had some more history with Disney, like Bernard Fox and John Fiedler. Jeanette Nolan and John McIntire would come back to do voice work for Disney’s next cartoon, The Fox and the Hound.

The movie is paced brilliantly. It’s a lean 77 minutes, with songs at the appropriate moments, and the action is really funny. Madame Medusa admittedly may not be in the upper tier of Disney villains, but she’s amusingly vulgar and violent. I love the scene where she’s threatening Penny while removing her false eyelashes before bed. She’s so garish and hideous.

Sure, there’s a lot about The Rescuers that falls into standard tropes, like all the heroic animals being capable of speech and the big mean henchbeasts (here a pair of alligators called Nero and Brutus) mute and stupid, but it’s a movie which is funny when it needs to be and nail-bitingly dramatic when it’s called for. The scene where Penny and the mice find the missing diamond and only have moments to extract it before the tide comes in is just remarkably tense, a downright perfect little scene.

I think that The Rescuers came at an interesting time in animation. I don’t believe this film was shown on HBO, but I still group it, emotionally, with some other favorites that were shown on that channel in 1979-81 or so, movies like The Mouse and His Child (which I’d love to see again), The Water Babies, Dot and the Kangaroo, that Raggedy Ann movie with the blue camel, and, of course, Watership Down. I wasn’t aware of them at the time, but Galaxy Express 999 and the Lupin III film everybody knows, Castle of Cagliostro, which are both excellent, also came out during that period. It was a good time for good cartoons, I think. Maybe we’ll watch some for the blog down the line, and see whether any of them get rated as high as eleven.

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Mary Poppins (1964)

“I didn’t really like it, but I did like it,” said our five year-old critic about Disney’s quite long, but phenomenally entertaining Mary Poppins. It did need a pause for us to explain nannies and suffragettes, and we took an intermission after eighty of its hundred and forty minutes, but he laughed with the slapstick and the dancing and the animation.

For those of you who don’t know much about this movie, it’s about a mysterious and magical nanny who comes to the Banks home to uproot a few things and arrange events so that Mr. Banks will be a more attentive father to his kids. Mom and Dad are played by Glynis Johns and David Tomlinson – add him to the very long list of actors who would have / should have made a better Lord Ffogg opposite Johns in Batman a couple of years later – and the kids by Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber.

Bringing magic into the family’s life, there’s Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, but you mustn’t overlook Ed Wynn as a strange Uncle Arthur, who has a contagious habit of levitating when he laughs. Andrews is not merely practically perfect in every way, but perfect, period. Van Dyke is an absolute joy to watch, if not to listen to. You make allowances for this being a movie with only a half hour of plot because the music and the dancing are so entertaining, but there’s really no allowances for his terrible accent. But you can forgive him because “Step in Time” is just so amazing. In much the same way that the swordfight in The Princess Bride is as good a swordfight as you’ll ever see in a movie, this is the definitive song and dance in a movie for me, even more than the iconic Singing in the Rain. It could go on another five minutes, and only the churlish would object.

Honestly, a hundred and forty minutes and the only thing that takes me out of this movie is Van Dyke’s accent. It’s incredibly fun, supremely witty, packed with great performances, and sports at least four songs that darn near everybody in the western world knows. Our son may not have really liked it, but I did.

For some reason, my laptop adamantly refused to play this DVD for me to get some captures, so the sole image here comes from Cinema Blend.

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