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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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The Gnome-Mobile (1967)

Haven’t you got a gnome to go to?

Every so often in the sixties and seventies, Disney released a film that really captured the precise year it was made just perfectly. Then there’s The Gnome-Mobile, which could have been made anytime in a span of about three decades. About the only way to nail this down to 1967 is the age of the actors. It’s just a goofy, timeless comedy that our five year-old absolutely loved. They just killed with this one. It’s got a song that he loved, a car chase, a boy chase – about which more in a second – and a bad guy who had him growling like he hasn’t done since a few particularly evil Batman villains had him furious.

The film stars Walter Brennan in two roles, as a kind-hearted magnate named Mulroney, and as Knobby, a 900 year-old gnome who is losing his will to live as his grandson Jasper cannot find a maiden gnome to marry. Or any other gnomes, for that matter. They appear to be the last of their kind. Mulroney, who is traveling from San Francisco to Seattle with his grandchildren in a beautiful old Rolls-Royce, offers to help them find a new forest and the possibility of meeting other gnomes.

Deeply ridiculous complications await them. The gnomes are kidnapped by the owner of a freak show, and Mulroney’s trusted chief of security tries to have his boss committed to a conveniently close asylum after all this talk of gnomes. The children are resourceful to a degree unseen outside Hollywood. They’re played by Matthew Garber and Karen Dotrice, making their third joint appearance in a Disney film together.

If I hadn’t watched this film with my son, I doubt I’d have enjoyed it very much. But he went wild for it. He loved the shenanigans the kids got into, and all the mischief. He hid his eyes, he sang along, and he laughed uproariously throughout it. Other than the Herbie films, I’m not sure he’s enjoyed any Disney movie more than this. If you’ve got a five year-old, you should check this one out.

I was most surprised that he enjoyed the climax as much as he did. Of course, the gnomes do find another large group. This one is led by Ed Wynn as Rufus, in his final performance, and Jasper seems – for just a moment – to have his pick of more than a dozen attractive young maiden gnomes. He’s immediately smitten with Violet, who is shy and disliked by the other women, but Rufus informs Jasper and Knobby that they have it backward. In their world, the women pick their dates.

The chase for Jasper is very, very reminiscent of Sadie Hawkins Day in the film version of Li’l Abner, which we certainly must watch one day. Jasper desperately tries to avoid all the other cute girls in order for Violet to grab him until Rufus counts to seven. There’s lots of magical jumping and swinging from vines and using acorns as obstacles. This scene really is huge fun, and our son begged to watch it again as soon as we finished.

And does Jasper get grabbed by the right girl? Well, of course he does, dear readers, it’s a Disney film!

Incidentally, the credit below must surely be one of the weirdest I’ve ever seen in a movie.

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Swiss Family Robinson (1960)

When I was a kid in the seventies, we took a family trip to Walt Disney World in Florida. It wasn’t the Haunted Mansion that scared me senseless, nor the hideous animatronics in the Hall of Presidents, it was just the idea of the Swiss Family Treehouse. Somehow I got the notion that you had to walk all around the attraction on tightropes, and if you fell, then tough luck, you would plummet to the ground or a raging river below.

Well, somehow I got over it and really enjoyed that part of the trip. I hadn’t seen the movie or read the original novel, but there was a Swiss Family Robinson TV series on the air around that time, which starred Martin Milner as the father, and I liked watching that a lot as a kid. I wanted to add that to our rotation here at the blog, but the darn thing’s never been available on home video. I guess we’ll have to make do with Disney’s version, which I’m reasonably confident is a bigger and better production anyhow.

This is a classic adventure tale in the tradition of many Disney films of the day, with one darn thing after another befalling the attractive cast. The Robinsons decided to flee the Napoleonic wars of Europe for a new life in the colonies of New Guinea, but are shipwrecked. From there, they have to put up with sharks, tigers, snakes, you name it. Oh, and pirates. These are fairly awesome, no-joke, downright mean south Pacific pirates, too. None of that “arrr” nonsense.

The cast is led by John Mills, and by chance I’d just finished watching him in a fun 1974 series called The Zoo Gang, which is kind of a Mission: Impossible cash-in set in the south of France. As for familiar Disney faces of the day, there’s also Dorothy McGuire, from Old Yeller, Janet Munro, from Darby O’Gill and the Little People, and James MacArthur, who had made Kidnapped the previous year and would stay hugely in demand throughout the sixties before co-starring for more than a decade as “Danno” Williams on Hawaii Five-O.

While it is a good film, this was a long, long one, and boy, did we ever feel it. The problem is that once Fritz and Ernst rescue a cabin boy who turns out to be a girl disguised as a boy to avoid a grisly fate at the hands of the pirates, the simmering jealousy between them becomes incredibly tedious. If, perhaps, you’re a girl who wouldn’t mind imagining yourself in the place of Munro, with two good-looking shirtless young men to choose from, the twenty minutes they spend stewing might possibly be a little more bearable.

There’s enough animal action and close escapes in the film to keep our five year-old entertained, and the climactic battle against the pirates completely thrilled him. The whole film is full of surprising stunts and physical business between the animals. I wondered how on earth the stuntmen playing the pirates didn’t escape with serious injury, never mind the poor ostrich that keeps being mounted, and the tiger and two dogs that get into a rumble. It builds to a terrific climax and some surprising decisions taken in the conclusion, and is overall a very well-acted and well-made movie. If it were not for some mushy stuff as Munro comes closer to making her decision which boy she likes better, he’d probably have called it a complete success!

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Napoleon and Samantha (1972)

This morning, we enjoyed Disney’s 1972 film Napoleon and Samantha, which I’d never seen before. It’s a surprisingly heavy film for something that the company, these days, promotes as a nice, light, and breezy part of their back catalog. It stars Johnny Whitaker, one of the biggest child actors of the day, along with a rising star named Jodie Foster. Wonder what happened to her?

In the movie, Johnny plays Napoleon, a ten year-old kid who lives with his ailing grandpa in a small town. They take ownership of an old lion from a retiring clown (Vito Scotti!), which is a bit contrived, but you have to make allowances to get the plot going. Grandpa dies, and Napoleon asks an unemployed “hippie” named Danny to help bury him on a hill. Danny is played by an amazingly young Michael Douglas. If you thought he looked like a baby in The Streets of San Francisco, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Facing the orphanage, Napoleon and his friend Samantha leash up the old lion and undertake one of those “incredible journeys” that were common in the era, hiking up and down a few mountains looking for Danny’s cabin. They’re naive enough to think they won’t be missed, and that they won’t get into trouble. There’s a tumble off a high mountain peak, a cougar, and a bear to contend with on the way.

About which: I was conflicted about some of the events of the movie, but that wrestling match between the lion and the bear was downright impressive. Would any filmmaker today try anything like that? Even understanding that was a pretty old lion and a big crew of wranglers must have been right behind the camera, wild animals can be really dangerous. Just ask Foster: she was mauled, and permanently scarred across her back, by one of the old lion’s younger stand-ins!

But we were expecting a lighthearted adventure, and while the middle of the movie provides that, the first and last third of the film were each quite heavy. Will Geer’s grandpa character is marked for death right from the beginning, and it’s a huge weight on the tone. Last month, we watched an episode of Isis that dealt with death and I mentioned how, in tune with the times, the explanations were built around a discussion of seasons, calling it “Ecclesiastes by way of the Byrds.” Well, before he goes, Grandpa specifically talks about seasons, and at his small funeral on the hillside, Danny recites Ecclesiastes. It was the seventies, man.

But the climax is what really surprised me. Danny leaves the kids in the care of a friend at his cabin and hikes back to town to explain to everybody where the children are. Samantha’s family housekeeper fingers him as the weird hippie with whom the missing Napoleon had been seen, and he’s arrested by policemen who do not want to listen to him. Awaiting the police chief, Danny spots a wanted flier in the station. His friend is a dangerous criminal on the loose, who’s escaped from a mental institution.

It’s typical in Disney films of the seventies to have a climactic chase, with goofball cops having safe but hilarious accidents. But bizarrely, the director chose to keep Napoleon and Samantha completely offscreen, so Danny’s escape and race back to his cabin, with cops in pursuit, is a chase in the dark, a race against time. And sure, we know perfectly well that in a ’72 Disney film the children will be perfectly safe, but the director elected to ratchet the tension and desperation off the chart, and the wacky motorcycle stunts aren’t funny when the tone is deadly serious.

Our son was a good deal squirmier than usual, in part because he was looking forward to a late morning swim, but I think he felt the weight of this movie. He enjoyed it and thought it was “pretty cool,” and I enjoyed it and was intrigued by the wildly varying tone. It’s an uneven film, but I’m glad we gave it a try.

Some neat casting notes: Whitaker and Foster were reunited the following year in United Artist’s Tom Sawyer. His next film, however, was another one for Disney called Snowball Express, which also featured Mary Wickes, an actress who had a small three-line role here. After Express, Whitaker made a TV movie for Disney called The Mystery in Dracula’s Castle with his friend Scott Kolden. In 1973, Sid and Marty Krofft scooped up Whitaker, Kolden, and Wickes to star as the humans in Sigmund and the Sea Monsters. And you just know that they must have wanted Jodie Foster for the recurring part that Pamelyn Ferdin ended up playing!

Aggravatingly, The Mystery in Dracula’s Castle does not appear to have ever been released on home video. There’s another thing I’d like to watch with my son for this blog but can’t.

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Pete’s Dragon (2016)

Earlier today, Daniel got his second trip to a movie theater to see the new Pete’s Dragon, which you can very easily believe is a sequel to the original. Who knows how long dragons live, anyway? Elliot was probably fluttering around North America for the last couple of hundred years helping out kids in need. It’s just chance that two of them were named Pete.

Live action Disney films are a good deal leaner and meaner these days than in the heyday that we’ve been watching for the blog. This is a good half an hour shorter than the original. There’s an economy of storytelling here, with ample space for the spectacle, but no time wasted on musical numbers or forced humor that doesn’t go anywhere. There are certainly a few amusing moments in the film, but they all serve the plot in obvious ways and do not linger. I was very, very impressed with the script, especially how the two antagonistic brothers, played by Karl Urban and Wes Bentley, are mostly left to the actors’ body language to define.

While the last twenty years of deeply dopey shows and TV movies on the Disney Channel might lead you to suspect the studio forgot how to cast anything, the studio bosses clearly know what they’re doing on their big features. Pete and his new friend Natalie are played by terrific young actors named Oakes Fegley and Oona Laurence. Bentley and Urban are both very good, but the heart of the movie is shared by Bryce Dallas Howard and Robert Redford, and Redford just makes every single thing look effortless, doesn’t he? They’re both wonderful and believable.

Elliot sounds – and looks, of course – more like an animal than he did in the original, but he still grumbles and sneezes and makes oddball noises and looks at cows with bemusement, so the old fellow’s just as charming as ever. His human foes have slightly greater firepower than they did when we last met, and I was very concerned with how my son would react to a bigger threat to Elliot than Shelley Winters and some hillbillies.

He did really well, and was silent for a good 99% of the movie, which was better than some of the rest of the audience. I think that it’s probably a movie that will frighten grownups more than it will children. It opens with the explanation of why Pete has spent six years living in the Pacific Northwest without any human company, and I was worried about that as well. But that didn’t faze him, and nor did the nighttime scenes of Elliot defending his territory, nor the scenes of Elliot’s capture. (Tranquilizers are used rather than bullets.)

In fact, I only noticed him getting worried just once, and that was during the climax, when a truly exciting scene that had him smiling and hopping in his seat suddenly turned a little dark, and Howard and Bentley’s characters are shown to have been endangered by Elliot. He recovered well, and pronounced the film “pretty cool.” We had a great time.

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In Search of the Castaways (1962)

Our son is at that hilarious age where hot lava is everywhere. Everywhere. So I’m obliged as a parent to show him a movie or two in which some volcanoes erupt. In Search of the Castaways, another Jules Verne adaptation from Disney, and one of six (!) films that Hayley Mills made for the company in the 1960s, has a terrific volcano eruption. It also has an earthquake, a flood, a giant condor, gun runners, and basically one darn thing after another getting in the way of two kids trying to find their shipwrecked father.

Daniel completely loved it. No sooner did the earthquake scene – a bizarre but wonderful moment in which our heroes slide down a mountain on a whacking big rock – end than he begged us to pause the movie and wind it back so he could see it again. He pouted just a little bit when we declined.

Top-billed in the movie is Maurice Chevalier, playing a kindly, upbeat, and wildly optimistic professor, and he’s well-matched with Wilfrid Hyde-White, a spritely young 59, which is a baby in Wilfrid Hyde-White years, who plays an unbelievably naive, yet cynical lord who owns several ships. One of these went down a few years previously with Captain John Grant at the helm. Captain Grant’s children, played by Mills and Keith Hamshere, and the professor have a damaged message-in-a-bottle from their father and persuade Lord Glenarvan to head for the 37th parallel to find him. But is he in South America, Africa, or Australia?

So this globetrotting drama is downright huge fun for kids and it was a mammoth hit in the sixties. It seems somewhat forgotten these days, but its impact remains big on filmmakers. One of the climactic bits in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull seems to take its inspiration from the earthquake scene. It’s nowhere as blatant as the Stagecoach homage in Raiders, but Spielberg clearly knows it.

After some initial squirminess, our son really enjoyed the movie, and I was pleased by the unpredictable one-darn-thing-after-another nature of the search, with a hilarious number of obstacles thrown in our heroes’ way. As with Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, this began life as a serialized novel in monthly installments, so naturally the film is going to feel episodic, but the director, Robert Stevenson, really makes it work. It only just occurred to me that Stevenson, who did quite a lot of work for Disney, directed four other films that we’ve watched together for the blog: The Love Bug, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Herbie Rides Again and One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing.

Also appearing in the movie: Roger Delgado has a very, very small part as a sailor, but blink and you’ll miss him; he’s onscreen for not even twenty seconds. Wilfrid Brambell, who either made the first series of Steptoe and Son immediately before or right after this, I’m not sure, gets a meaty bit toward the end as a loony old man. The immortal George Sanders is obviously up to no good as a well-dressed man who may know what has happened to Captain Grant.

I’m not sure why In Search of the Castaways isn’t better remembered. Some of the special effects have dated, but others remain pretty amazing. It’s a great family adventure and we had a ball. Our son even said that he liked it better than 20,000 Leagues. And, once we finished, I was happy to start the film again so that he could watch the earthquake scene one more time.

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20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

We sat down to watch Disney’s fabulous 1954 adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea this morning and I enjoyed it like I always have. It’s a real classic. In the last sixty years, there have been a whole lot of adventure movies that follow in this one’s footsteps. It was directed by Richard Fleischer, who later helmed a couple of other movies I may show my son one day.

In some of the other stories about Disney films at this blog, I’ve praised the studio’s excellent casting. Man alive, did they ever nail it here. James Mason is the iconic Captain Nemo, and Paul Lukas, Peter Lorre, and Kirk Douglas play his guests – slash – prisoners, and you couldn’t cast better than those four in 1954. Mason’s just perfect. In these more sensitive times, there’s a backlash to casting an actor of European ancestry in the role of Nemo, but Mason’s performance is so defining that it may be a very, very long time indeed before audiences will even understand an Indian actor (like Naseeruddin Shah, who played Nemo in the ridiculous League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) in the part.

It’s not flawless. While it’s mostly undated, the ooga-booga cannibals of a south Pacific island are very cringeworthy, and I really had to question whomever gave the order to start firing when the landing parties start coming over the ridge at Volcania. You’d kind of think that whatever military or privateer force that was would want some answers before they started trying to murder everybody in that lagoon, you know?

Other than these issues, it’s a massively entertaining movie. The themes are a bit over our son’s head, and we did have to pause to explain that in the 1860s, submarines on the scale of the Nautilus simply didn’t exist, and that Verne’s novel was a work of science fiction speculating about technology that was impossible in its day. He was okay. He’s done better with movies, but he’s also had a lot on his mind lately, getting used to our new home and getting ready to begin a new school, so he’s not been on his very best behavior.

While the climax of the film is the incident at Volcania, the real centerpiece is the battle with the giant squid. Holy anna, it’s amazing. Of course, any remake could certainly do as good a job today with computer effects, but you won’t convince me anybody will ever actually surpass it. And of course, it scared the pants off Daniel. He didn’t flee like he had done from some of the threats and villains we’ve seen in earlier shows, but he was crawled into his mommy’s lap, babbling to himself to keep himself brave.

Captain Nemo is killed and goes down with his boat in this movie, but this is certainly not the last time that we’ll meet the character as we watch classic adventures together in this blog. I am, however, reasonably confident that none of the actors who followed Mason in the role ever got to deliver a line like “Mr. Baxter, if you think you’re seeing mermaids and sea monsters, you’ve been submerged too long!” We’ll find out for sure before too long.

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