Saturday, October 23, 2010

Ten Who Dared - 1960

By 1960 Walt Disney had already made a handful of Western's based on popular historical figures and novels and most of them had been very successful. It must have made perfect business sense to invest in more and this time Walt chose the journals of John Wesley Powel, the first man to travel down the Colorado River, as his source material. Unfortunately, the final result didn't reflect the spirit or financial success of his previous efforts.

Walt hired William Beaudine to direct. He had worked for Disney several times before, directing episodes of The Mickey Mouse Club, Spin & Marty and one of Walt's previous Western films Westward Ho, the Wagons. John Beal, who had previously work for Disney as the voice of adult Jeremiah in So Dear to My Heart, was cast in the lead role as John Powel. Brian Keith (The Parent Trap) made his Disney debut in this film. David Stollery, famous amongst youngsters as Marty from Spin & Marty, was cast in his final film for Disney before stepping out of the Hollywood spotlight. Much of the film was shot on location in Utah, with some scenes obviously shot in a studio. Ten Who Dared was produced by James Algar, famous for his True-Life Adventures film series. While there are hardly any animals in the film, he most likely lent his expertise to the on location shooting.

The plot of Ten Who Dared is pretty dull. A group of ten men, lead by Army Sergent John Wesley Powel, are attempting to travel down the Colorado River in search of gold. All of the men come from diverse backgrounds and are separated into boats. From the moment their journey begins, none of the men get along. More chaos ensues as they lose boats and encounter other challenges, such as a member of the party getting sick. The film ends with an epilogue about what happened to the men after they made it to the end of the river.

Ten Who Dared was released on November 1st, 1960, and was instantly bashed by critics. They mostly blamed bad writing, but many jabbed at the unconvincing effects and unrealistic performances. Audiences responded similarly and Ten Who Dared was a box office failure. It was later aired on the Disney TV show.

Many Disney fans claim Ten Who Dared to be the worst Disney movie ever made. Personally, I think that's too harsh. The company has certainly made worse films since, but it is probably the worst film made by Walt Disney, the man. For as hard to sit through as it is, it has a few redeeming qualities. The best parts of the film are the scenes filmed on location. And while most of the performances are lackluster, Brian Keith shines in his Disney debut.

Ten Who Dared was released on DVD as a Disney Movie Club Exclusive in 2009. The DVD presents the film in fullscreen, most likely open matte versus pan and scan. The film was most likely released in matted widescreen, however we are lucky that Disney released it on DVD in the first place as it is sure to not be a top seller. The transfer appears to be the same one used on the VHS release in the 1980's and there are no bonus features. The film is also available on iTunes in fullscreen.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Sign of Zorro - 1960

When Walt Disney decided to package the hit Davy Crockett episodes of Disneyland into two feature films for American audiences, it was a stroke of genius since it allowed for them to finally be seen in color (TV was only available in black and white at the time). However his new successful TV series, Zorro, was filmed in black and white to keep production costs down. The Sign of Zorro was originally created for international audiences in 1958 who weren't quite as familiar with the Disney TV series. The US release came a year after the second and final season of the series had aired.

For the Zorro TV series Walt Disney created a new section on the backlot solely for production, which would later be reused in many of the studios' Western films. Guy Williams, a former model who was unable to find success in feature films, was given his big break when Walt cast him as Don Diego De La Vega/Zorro. Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon were placed in supporting roles that created some of the series' best moments. Both would go on to star in several Disney movies (one of which, Toby Tyler, had already been released by this time). Due to the series' strict shooting schedule, several directors were used. As a result, The Sign of Zorro gives credit to both Norman Foster and Lewis R. Foster as directors.

The Sign of Zorro presents the first story arc from the TV series. Don Diego is returning to Los Angeles from college after three years of being away. On his way, he learns that Lost Angeles has been corrupted by a new Commandant who runs his own crime ring and puts innocent people in jail. He takes on the alias of Zorro to fight the Commandant and changes his personality to a scholar only interested in books while his servant Bernardo pretends to be deaf and dumb so that people will talk freely in front of him and he can tell Diego what is happening in the town. Zorro's adventures find him saving his father from false imprisonment and fighting a fake Zorro that the Commandant hired to turn the people against Zorro. Eventually the commandant believes that Diego is Zorro and arrests him. When the viceroy arrives to see Zorro, it turns out to be an old friend of Diego's who refuses to believe that he is the masked avenger. The viceroy fires the Commandant and all are seemingly happy.

The Sign of Zorro was released on June 11th, 1960. While the Zorro TV series was an instant success and was canceled not due to poor ratings, but a dispute between Disney and the network, The Sign of Zorro was unable to capture any of that success. It was bashed by critics due to it's TV style acting and quick editing. Audiences didn't flock to see it the way they did for the Davy Crockett films either. With Davy, the films were released after only one airing of each episode and there was also the added draw of seeing the film in color. Zorro, on the other hand, had been on the air for three years with reruns, so audiences didn't lack access to viewing Zorro the way they did with Davy.

I was never a fan of Zorro as a kid, but have come to like it a lot in my adulthood. I recently watched every episode of the Disney series, so I am familiar with the material from which The Sign of Zorro was edited. I find this film hard to sit through because they tried to cram too much information into a short time frame. Five episodes totaling 125 minutes were edited down into an 89 minute feature. In addition, so many episodes were cut in-between what was selected that having seen the full story arc, I feel cheated by missing what I know should be there. Perhaps I would enjoy it more if I was unfamiliar with the original series.

Disney hasn't released The Sign of Zorro on DVD, but it was released on VHS twice. Copies of both releases are fairly easy to come by. The TV series was colorized in the 1980's and both seasons of the series were available on DVD in that format from the Disney Movie Club, but went out of print in 2009. Disney released both seasons of the show in black and white in 2009 through the Walt Disney Treasures series. Those DVDs also featured the four hour long episodes that were on Walt Disney Presents. However the Treasures seasons were limited to 30,000 copies each, which sold out quickly. Scalpers sell them for more than double what they originally cost.

The easiest way to own The Sign of Zorro is the iTunes digital copy, where it is presented in fullscreen black and white, meaning you aren't missing any of the filmed picture.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Pollyanna - 1960

Walt Disney was fascinated by the turn of the century, the era in which he grew up. By 1960 he had already used this setting in a handful of his films. Every guest who entered Disneyland walked down Main Street U.S.A., a tribute to his hometown the way he remembered it as a boy. So it is easy to see why he would want to adapt a popular book from his childhood, Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter, into a feature film.

David Swift started his career with Disney as an in-betweener in the animation studio. He went on the become a television director for other companies, but Walt saw his potential as a feature film director and gave him his big break with Pollyanna. Walt handed him the book and Swift returned with a treatment that Walt instantly gave the green light. Walt went all out, getting an all star cast to fill the main roles including Jane Wyman, Karl Malden, Agnes Moorehead, Kevin Corcoran and Nancy Olsen, who was cast through a personal phone call from Walt Disney after a five year hiatus from film. Hayley Mills, daughter of famous actor John Mills, was cast in the title role when Walt saw a British film she made with her father called Tiger Bay. The movie had some location shooting in Santa Rosa, with the rest filmed at the Disney Studio and at Warner Bros.

Pollyanna is the story of an orphaned daughter of a minister who is sent to live with her Aunt Polly, a wealthy lady who practically owns the town of Herrington. Pollyanna was blessed with a cheery disposition and a gift to see the good in almost every situation, but she is placed in a town of mostly miserable people who tend to see the bad in everything. Aunt Polly gives Pollyanna a room in the attic, as far away from her as possible. Pollyanna soon befriends Aunt Polly's staff and an orphan boy named Jimmie Bean. As she spends more time in Herrington, she starts to change everyone's attitude. She convinces an old hypochondriac to get out of bed and live life to the fullest, a curmudgeonly man who lives alone to change his ways and a reverend who strikes fear into his congregation to preach good news to his followers. When the town throws a big charity bazaar to help build a new orphanage, Aunt Polly doesn't let Pollyanna go because she disagrees with the cause. Jimmy Bean convinces Pollyanna to sneak out by climbing a tree, but on her return trip home, she falls and paralyzes her legs. Aunt Polly's old love, Dr. Chilton, says that they can perform a surgery to fix Pollyanna, but they will need to lift her out of her depression for it to be successful. At that moment, the entire town shows up on their doorstep to shower Pollyanna with gifts which cheers her up as Aunt Polly and Dr. Chilton, now a reunited couple, take Pollyanna to the hospital on a train.

Walt Disney's Pollyanna was released on May 19th, 1960. Critics instantly applauded it as the best live action film that Disney had ever made. However, box office results fell short of expectations. The film cost $6 million to make and it earned just over $3 million in theaters. Walt attributed the low grosses to the title, which he thought sounded to "sweet" for boys to want to see. However through several TV airings and the inception of home video in the 1980's, Pollyanna has garnered a significant fan base and is now heralded as a classic, a title it more than deserves.

I first saw Pollyanna as a kid when Disney Channel still played classic Disney movies. I instantly fell in love with it, even at a young age. If I had to make a list of the ten best live action films that Disney ever made, Pollyanna would definitely be on that list. In the 1980's Disney made a TV musical version of the story with an African American cast called Polly. It was so successful that a sequel was made titled Polly Coming Home

Pollyanna was released on DVD in 2002 as part of the short lived "Vault Disney Collection." This wonderful 2-disc set presents the restored film in its original widescreen aspect ratio and attempts to recreate the theatrical experience by playing the short cartoon that accompanied the film in its initial release. Some wonderful bonus features fill this deluxe set, including a making of documentary, a commentary by Hayley Mills and David Swift, information about the era in which the film takes place and many more features that are sure to delight every Disney fan. The DVD is still available. The film is also available on iTunes in widescreen and with the option of buying it in HD.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Kidnapped - 1960

Walt Disney had already made quite a few action adventure films by 1960, so audiences should have come to expect this type of movie from him. As in most of his previous efforts, he once again turned to classic literature as his source material. This time a novel called Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. The first all live action Disney film was another Stevenson adaptation, Treasure Island.

Walt chose a familiar director in Robert Stevenson, who had previously directed Johnny Tremain, Old Yeller, Darby O'Gill and the Little People in aditon to episodes of Zorro. He would go on to be Walt's primary director, eventually directing Mary Poppins. Peter Finch was a famous actor in England and was familiar to the Disney studio since he played the Sheriff of Nottingham in Disney's The Story of Robin Hood. James MacArthur was still under contract with Disney, having already starred in The Light in the Forest and Third Man on the Mountain. Like Disney's earliest live action films, Walt chose to shoot on location in the UK and hired a primarily English cast and crew.

When David Balfour's father dies, he is sent to live with his Uncle Ebenezer. When David learns that his uncle has stolen his father's property that should belong to him, Ebenezer tricks him into boarding a ship intent on selling him into servitude. The ship ends up colliding with another boat and they are forced to take on the lone survivor, Alan Breck Stewart. David leans of a plot to kill Alan and warns him. Together they take over the ship and Alan convinces David to help him get to land outside of the British ruling. To return the favor, Alan helps get a confession out of Ebenezer so that David can have the property and money his father left for him. The film ends as Alan leaves David to go on another adventure.

Kidnapped was released on March 25th, 1960, although some cities opened it earlier on February 24th. US critics agreed that it was well made, but the general consensus was that for an adventure film it was rather dull. There were also complaints that the story was at times unclear and confusing to viewers. It found little success in the states. In the UK, however, critics praised it for staying truthful to the literary classic on which it was based and it enjoyed much more success there.

While I tend to agree with the US critics on their opinion of Kidnapped being somewhat dull and having a few scenes that slow the story down, I also enjoy the film. I feel it has enough redeeming qualities to outweigh the negatives. It has great performances by all of the cast, including Peter O'Tool in a in his first on-screen role. It is incredibly well made and the location shooting really adds to the visual richness of the film. And Peter Ellenshaw delivers some great matte paintings to deliver some of the more impossible shots. If you're a fan of other Disney adventure films from this era, you're sure to enjoy Kidnapped as well.

Kidnapped was released on DVD in as a Disney Movie Club Exclusive. A wider release hasn't been given yet. Like most DMC Exclusive DVDs, this film has no bonus features, or even chapter listings. The transfer is the same one used from the VHS, so the film is plagued by excess grain, color flickering and artifacts that a restoration would have helped. The film is also presented in fullscreen, which was likely not it's original theatrical aspect ratio since by this time most films were released in widescreen. However, we are lucky to have access to this film at all.

The film is also available on iTunes, where it is also in fullscreen.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus - 1960

Walt Disney loved making movies about the turn of the century most likely because it reminded him of his own childhood. He made quite a few during his lifetime, but Toby Tyler stands out as one of the best. The film is based on a children's book of the same title by James Otis Kaler, which was published in 1880. It is possible that Walt read this book as a child, which may have sparked his interest in adapting it as a feature.

Charles Barton was brought on to direct after having spent several years at Disney directing episodes of Zorro in addition to installments of the Disneyland series and most notably, The Shaggy Dog. Kevin Corcoran headlined the film as Toby after already making a name for himself at Disney. By this time, he had already starred in Old Yeller and The Shaggy Dog in addition to becoming a regular member of The Mickey Mouse Club, where he was known as "Moochie." Gene Sheldon and Henry Calvin would also have been familiar faces due to their supporting roles on Zorro. Most of the movie was shot at Disney's Golden Oak Ranch, with city scenes being filmed on the backlot at the Disney Studios.

Toby Tyler is an orphan boy taken in by his poor aunt and uncle. He gets in trouble for neglecting his chores when the circus comes to town, causing his uncle to say things he doesn't mean. As a result, Toby runs away to join the circus. He is hired by the head Concession salesman (a "concessionaire") and is treated as an outcast by the other circus children, who are performers. He manages to make friends with a few adults and a chimp named Mr. Stubs. Toby gets his moment to shine when one of the horse riders gets injured and he fills his place as a performer. When he learns that his uncle is sick, he runs away with Mr. Stubs. After some commotion, he and Mr. Stubs return to the circus where his aunt and uncle have heard of his success and come to see him perform.

Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus was released on January 21st, 1960. Critics raved about the film, praising Disney for his simplistic representation of circus life. Despite critical acclaim, Toby Tyler failed to find success at the box office. It was never re-released theatrically, but enjoyed some success in TV airings.

I first saw Toby Tyler as a kid when my mom rented it for me. I instantly fell in love with it. In fact, I hid the VHS and told my mom I lost it so that I could keep it, since it wasn't available for sale to the general public. And while this film is sure to delight children, it packs a lot of charm and humor for adults as well. I've seen it more times than I can count and I still enjoy it a lot. Disney fans should note that the credits say "Introducing Ollie Wallace." Oliver Wallace was Walt Disney's main composer and he wrote the score for most Disney films of this era. In the film, he plays the orchestra conductor. If you ever find yourself in Baraboo, WI, be sure to visit the Circus World Museum. The historic circus wagons that Walt Disney bought and refurbished for Toby Tyler and later reused in parades at Disneyland have retired there.

Toby Tyler was released on DVD in 2005 and is still available in that format. As is typical for Disney's DVD releases for older films, the DVD doesn't contain any bonus features. In addition, most Disney films of this time were filmed in fullscreen with the intentions of being matted into widescreen in theaters. The DVD presents the fullscreen version, which is not the original theatrical ratio. It is available on iTunes in widescreen, where it is also available in HD.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Third Man on the Mountain - 1959

Walt Disney and his family had taken to vacationing in Europe and after a trip to Switzerland, Walt became infatuated with the heritage and culture. This sparked his interest in making a film set there. He finally settled on adapting a book called Banner in the Sky, which was based on a true story.

The movie was mostly filmed on location in Zermatt, Switzerland. Walt hired Ken Annakin to direct, who was used to making Disney films abroad after directing The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men and The Sword and the Rose. For his two leads, he turned to two of his most recent young stars. James MacArthur had previously starred in The Light in the Forest and Janet Munro was fresh off the set of Darby O'Gill and the Little People. A professional rock climber was hired to film most of the climbing sequences and the actors had two weeks of climbing training prior to shooting. Mountain filming required the crew to travel by mule, helicopter and in on instance, walk across a trechorous glacier to get some of the shots. A minimal ammount of matte paintings were used in this film, making the cinematography that much more impressive.

The film is centered around Rudi, the son of a famous mountaineer who died trying to climb the Citadel, the tallest mountain in Switzerland. One day while playing hookie from his job as a dishwasher at the town's hotel, he finds Captain Winter stranded and saves him. He is invited on an expedition, which he ruins by getting stranded and making the rest of the team come after him. Rudi spends his summer trying practicing climbing with his boss and his daughter, Lizbeth. Romance begins to bloom between them, but it is disrupted when he finds out that Captain Winter is hired another guide to help him climb the Citadel and Rudi runs after them. During the journey, Rudi finds a passage his father had found but never showed anybody which would make the Citadel climbable. On the way to the top, Rudi stays with a fellow climber who gets injured and forgoes being one of the first to reach the top. As a result, he becomes an even bigger hero than the men who made it and he is acclaimed as a hero, even though he is the third man on the mountain and not the first.

Third Man on the Mountain was released on November 10, 1959. It was a critical success and was highly acclaimed for it's magnificent location shooting, great writing and excellent performances. Unfortunately, it was a box office dud. It failed to find an audience, which was a shame because it was an expensive film to make. It was later edited and shown in parts on the Disneyland TV show, retitled Banner in the Sky, the title of the book it was based on.

It's a shame that Third Man on the Mountain never enjoyed success in later years because it really is a great film. Today it is known by most Disney fans as the inspiration for the Matterhorn attraction at Disneyland, but as a film it is well made and very enjoyable. It's a fairly simple story that is told so well that it's hard not to find yourself cheering for Rudi. That, mixed with the amazing cinematography and wonderful characters, make this one of the most underrated Disney films of all time. Film buffs should look for a cameo by Helen Hays, James MacArthur's mother.

Third Man on the Mountain was released on DVD in 2004. Sadly, it contains no bonus features. What's worse is that no restoration was done, so the print is marked with excess grain and artifacts that shouldn't be there. The film is also presented in fullscreen, which was not the normal theatrical ratio by 1959. While the film may have been theatrically released that way, it is more likely that it was filmed in fullscreen and cropped into widescreen for it's theatrical release. Due to the fact that the framing feels natural and open, I'm guessing that the DVD presents the full filmed ratio. It is available on iTunes in widescreen, where it is also available in HD.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Darby O'Gill and the Little People - 1959

After making two feature films that combined live action with animation (Song of the South and So Dear to My Heart), Walt Disney had his sights set on making a third film in a similar manner. So in 1948, Walt Disney and a team of artists went to Ireland for inspiration. While there, Walt publicly announced that he was making a film called "The Little People" based on two books by Herminie Kavanagh about a man named Darby O'Gill and the stories he told about Leprechauns. However, the idea was soon shelved when Walt got too busy with the revived feature animation department and the planning of his groundbreaking theme park, Disneyland.

Ten years later the film was put back in production, this time as an all live action feature. The title was changed to Darby O'Gill and the Little People and a new script was written by Lawrence Watkin, who wrote several earlier Disney films including Treasure Island, The Story of Robin Hood, and The Light in the Forest. Robert Stevenson was assigned to direct after directing Old Yeller and Johnny Tremain. He is most famous for directing Mary Poppins. Walt cast Albert Sharpe as Darby O'Gill after seeing him in a play. Newcomer Sean Connery was cast as well and it was this film that brought him to the attention of Albert Broccoli who cast him as James Bond. Jimmy O'Dea was cast as the king of the leprechauns, but received no screen credit because Walt wanted audiences to think that the leprechauns were real. In fact, the film even begins with a thank you note to the leprechauns from Walt.

Darby O'Gill is the caretaker of a wealthy estate where he lives with his daughter, Kate. However, his boss forces him to retire due to his age and the fact that he spends most of his time at the pub telling stories about his failed attempts to catch the king of the leprechauns. His boss sends a younger man, Michael, to take his job just as Darby is captured by the leprechauns. He escapes and is able to reverse the situation by capturing King Brian and making him grant three wishes. Darby's first wish is for the King to stay with him for two weeks while he thinks about his other wishes. Darby accidentally wastes his second wish as Katie and Michael begin to like each other, but when she finds out that he is here to take her father's job, she runs off and gets injured. As the banshee and death coach comes for Katie, Darby uses his third wish to ward it off and save her life. However, it turns out that they weren't after Katie at all and actually came for Darby. King Brian rides with Darby to inform him that Katie is alright and he releases Darby from the death coach. The film ends with Katie and Michael together and Darby living with them.

Darby O'Gill and the Little People opened on June 26th, 1959. It was critically acclaimed for its great performances, groundbreaking special effects and representation of Irish folk lore. Unfortunately, audiences didn't respond the same way. Despite a full episode of Disneyland devoted solely to promoting the release, it failed to find an audience. It was later re-released in theaters in 1964 and many of the actors voices were dubbed over due to complaints that audiences couldn't understand the dialogue. It didn't find success until it was broadcast on television.

Today, Darby O'Gill and the Little People has a moderately large fan base and has become a perennial holiday classic around St. Patrick's Day. The film really deserves more success than it has received. While sometimes slow paced, it has many qualities that make a great film. The special effects look great and most of the techniques created for this film are still in use today. Leonard Maltin considers this to be one of the best Disney films. Hopefully it will continue to gain success as new generations are introduced to this delightfully whimsical film.

Walt Disney's Darby O'Gill and the Little People was released on DVD in 2004 and is still in print. The DVD boasts a new restoration, a retrospective interview with Sean Connery, a look at the special effects and the hour long episode of Disneyland that promoted the film to audiences. The DVD presents the film in fullscreen, which it claims is the original aspect ratio. However, there is a discrepancy on that issue. The original projection guides sent to movie theaters during its original release instructed them to crop it in widescreen, which would make fullscreen the incorrect aspect ratio. But when I attended a screening of the film at the D23 Expo, they presented it in fullscreen. At any rate, the fullscreen version feels perfectly framed, leading me to believe that it is indeed the correct aspect ratio. It is also available in a 4-movie collection where it is paired with The Gnome-Mobile, The Happiest Millionaire, and The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band. 

The film is also available on iTunes where it is presented in fullscreen and in HD.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Shaggy Dog - 1959

The TV boom of the 1950's allowed Walt Disney to successfully enter the TV market with three hit series: Disneyland, The Mickey Mouse Club, and Zorro. The fourth TV series that Walt was considering concerned a teenage boy who would uncontrollably turn into a dog based on a book by Felix Salten, author of Bambi, called The Hound of Florence. And thus, the premise for The Shaggy Dog was born. This film was originally cast with TV in mind. Thus, many of Disney's own TV stars, including Mouseketters Annette Funicello and Roberta Shore were cast, as well as Disney's Hardy Boys' Tommy Kirk and Kevin "Moochie" Corcoran and Spin & Marty's Tim Considine. In the role of the parents, Walt cast TV star Jean Hagen and in his first of many Disney films, screen star Fred MacMurray.

Surprisingly, The Shaggy Dog was the first Disney feature film made entirely in black and white. The Reluctant Dragon featured a black and white opening similar to The Wizard of Oz, but this was the first Disney film without any color. The reason wasn't because it was intended for TV, but rather that many of the special effects would look obvious in color. Director Charles Barton had a primarily TV background and he had previously directed several episodes of Zorro for Disney. Bill Walsh wrote the script, who wrote many of Disney's biggest live action films, including Mary Poppins.

The film opens with a stop motion animated sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the film. Wilby Daniels lands in hot water with his dad when he accidentally shoots a missile through his house. A new family moves into the neighborhood with a sheep dog and Wilby develops a crush on their daughter, Franceska. However, an accident at a museum causes an ancient ring to fall into Wilby's pants and when he discovers the ring, he recites the Latin phrase inscribed on it and turns into the neighbors sheep dog. Wilby heads back to the museum where the professor explains that he will turn into the dog at random and the only way to stop turning into a dog is to perform an act of heroism. While on a double date at a dance, Wilby turns back into the dog and is mistaken for the neighbor's dog. While in their house, he finds out that Franceska's father is a spy. A series of comedic events leads to Wilby as a dog stealing a car and leading a police chase to catch the spies. Wilby ends up saving Franceska's life, which breaks the spell, but she of course thinks that her dog saved her.

The Shaggy Dog was released on March 19th, 1959, and was a huge success. Critics found the premise unique and the humor top notch, albeit a little similar to that of a TV sitcom. But more importantly, audiences couldn't get enough of it. It cost less than $1 million to make, but it grossed $9 million, becoming the second highest grossing picture of the year behind Ben-Hur.

Walt Disney's The Shaggy Dog is one of the most iconic Disney comedies of all time. It sparked a series of formulaic comedies for the studio and even though it was the first, it is still considered one of the best. It went on to inspire a sequel in the 1970's, a made for TV remake in the 1990's and a theatrical remake in the 2000's, but none of them were able to capture the lightning in a bottle. If audiences and critics had any doubts about Walt Disney's mark on live action films, they were finally removed with this film.

The Shaggy Dog is currently available on DVD as a standalone release and bundled with its sequel, The Shaggy D.A. The film is presented in its original black and white widescreen version. The DVD also contains a colorized fullscreen version, a retrospective interview with the cast, a tribute to Fred MacMurray, and an audio commentary. It can also be found in a 4-movie collection where it is paired with The Shaggy D.A., the Tim Allen remake, and The Ugly Dachshund. It is also available on iTunes where it is in widescreen HD, but doesn't include any bonus features.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Sleeping Beauty - 1959

For Walt Disney's sixteenth full-length animated feature, he wanted to try something very ambitious. The concept for Sleeping Beauty was that it would look like a moving piece of art. Each frame would be worthy of being displayed in a gallery. Walt also decided to film it in the new Technirama70 widescreen, a format that was both wider and larger than CinemaScope. As a result, all of the paper the animators used had to be bigger as well. Story development on Sleeping Beauty started in 1951, meaning that in total it took 8 years to make. Animation alone took 6 years because of the level of detail in each frame. The art design was done by Eyvind Earle, who made a lot of contributions to the design of Lady and the Tramp.

Walt originally had his team of songwriters create songs for the film, but in the end he decided to use the music from Tchaikovsky's ballet and put words to his pre-existing music. The voice of Aurora was Mary Costa, a young opera singer who went on to have a great opera career. Maleficent was voiced by Eleanor Audley, a great TV actress who was the narrator in Cinderella and the voice of Madame Leota in the classic Disney park attraction, The Haunted Mansion. Verna Felton plays Flora, the good fairy and she also played the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella. Barbara Luddy plays Merriwether and she was also the voice of Lady in Lady and the Tramp. All of the sound was recorded in Germany where the best recording equipment was.

Like most Disney fairy tales, Sleeping Beauty begins with the opening of a book. Once upon a time, a princess named Aurora was born and betrothed to a neighboring kingdom's Prince Philip. But the evil fairy, Maleficent, angered by the fact that she wasn't invited to the celebration, places a curse on the baby that before sunset on her sixteenth birthday, she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. Unable to undo her spell, one of the three good fairies makes it so that she will sleep instead of die, but the only way for her to awaken is by true loves kiss. To keep Aurora hidden from Maleficent, the three fairies disguise themselves as peasant women and raise Aurora in the woods. On the eve of her sixteenth birthday, she meets a man in the woods and falls in love with him. When she finds out that she is a betrothed princess, she is upset. And as she is returned to the castle, Maleficent finds her and Aurora pricks her finger. Meanwhile Prince Philip has been captured by Maleficent. The three fairies help him escape and give him a sword and shield so that he can defeat Maleficent, who has placed a forest of thorns around the castle and turned herself into a fire breathing dragon. Good triumphs over evil and Aurora is surprised to awaken to a kiss from the man she met in the woods, who is her betrothed Prince Philip.

Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty premiered on January 29th, 1959. At $6 million, it was the most expensive animated film ever made. Sadly, it earned $5.8 million, less than what it cost to make, meaning Disney lost money on it. Critics were unkind to the film, calling it unimaginative and too similar to previous Disney films. Perhaps in response to the lack of critical praise, audiences didn't flock to see Walt Disney's latest animated feature.
Nowadays, it is hard to see what critics had a problem with in Sleeping Beauty. It is a beautiful film with wonderful characters, romantic music and lots of excitement. Thankfully, time was very kind to the film. It was re-released five times in theaters and each time it gained a new audience that was able to appreciate the grandeur of it. Today, it is one of the Walt Disney Company's most prominent animated classics and is included in their Diamond Edition home video line, which celebrates their fifteen best selling animated films. Sadly, Sleeping Beauty was the end of an era. It was the last time that Disney would pour a lot of money into an animated feature for many years to come. In addition, it was the last film to be hand inked by the legendary ink and paint department. The next animated film, 101 Dalmatians, was the first to use the new Xerox process in which the animator's drawings would be directly scanned onto celluloid, losing the fluid feel that the hand-inked films had.

Today, the legacy of Sleeping Beauty is huge with the Disney company. In 1955, the castle that was the centerpiece of Disneyland was named Sleeping Beauty Castle in honor of the in-development film. Today, Princess Aurora owns real estate at Disneyland Paris and Hong Kong Disneyland as well. An attraction based on the film will be included in Walt Disney World's Fantasyland expansion at the Magic Kingdom. And thanks to the ever popular Disney Princess franchise, Aurora and other characters from Sleeping Beauty are among the most heavily merchandised Disney characters.

Sleeping Beauty
 is currently available on Blu-Ray as a Diamond Edition. The film has been fully restored and is presented in 2.55:1 widescreen, which is wider than its original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio because it shows the full animated image. However, this single disc release only adds new bonus features to promote the film Maleficent. I recommend the previous Blu-ray from 2008, which featured the exact same transfer but had more bonus features. That 2-disc sets contains a making-of documentary in addition to many great bonus features and a CineExplore picture commentary. The Platinum Edition of Sleeping Beauty was put back into the vault on January 31st, 2010.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Tonka - 1958

In the 1950's, Native Americans were commonly featured in films as the enemies of cowboys. Disney was one of the few studios that was sympathetic to indians, often painting them in a positive light. And while civil rights for Native Americans didn't become a political issue until the 1970's, Walt Disney was ahead of his peers with films centered around indians. Tonka is based on the story of Comanche, the single horse to survive the Battle of Little Big Horn, also known as Custer's Last Stand. It was originally conceived as a 5 part episode of Disneyland, but was filmed instead as a single film.

Tonka begins as an indian named White Bull tries to catch a wild horse and fails, losing a rope that he borrowed which gets him into trouble. While searching for his bow and arrow, he finds the horse tangled up in the rope, so he fences him in and keeps him a secret. He names the horse Tonka and trains him in secret. He eventually brings him back to his villiage, where Yellow Bull claims the horse as his own and mistreats Tonka. White Bull decides to free Tonka to prevent him from being abused more. Tonka ends up in the hands of Captain Miles Keogh of the US army, who names him Comanche. As General Custer plans genocide on the indians, the indians develop a plan to defend themselves against the white soldiers. When White Bull finds out that Tonka is with the army, he goes to visit him and is found by Captain Miles, who is kind to him after realizing their common interest in the horse. When the army arrives to surprise the indians, they are surprised to find that the indians were waiting for them. The entire army is killed and many indians died in the battle as well, but White Bull and Tonka survive. Tonka (Comanche) is given a medal for being the only survivor on the army's side and White Bull is put in charge of Tonka.

Walt Disney's Tonka was released on December 25th, 1958. Critics loved it, praising the excellent writing and performances as well as the lush shooting locations. I was unable to find box office records for the film, but it was most likely a success because it was broadcast on TV multiple times before the advent of home video. However, since that time it has faded into obscurity and when most people hear the word "Tonka," they think of the toy truck company.

I first saw Tonka in 2005 when a local video store closed and I purchased many of their Disney VHS tapes. I remember enjoying it, but soon forgot about it. Watching it again, I realized what an amazing movie this is. As an audience, you really feel for Tonka and White Bull, thanks in large part to an excellent performance by Sal Mineo in his only film for Disney. While the film is fictional, it is based on real historic events and the battle at the end is supposedly true to what really happened. Fans of Disney's Zorro might recognize Britt Lomond as General Custer because he played Capitan Monastario on the hit TV series. Tonka has even more in common with Zorro because it was written and directed by Lewis Foster, who wrote and directed many episodes of Zorro.

Tonka was released on DVD in 2009 as a Disney Movie Club Exclusive. The disc has no bonus features and the film is presented in fullscreen. While some Disney films of the time were released that way, it is more likely that the film was released in matted widescreen. Therefore, the DVD aspect ratio is most likely not the original theatrical ratio. At any rate, it's nice to have the film available at all, since it was out of print for nearly 20 years. It is also available on iTunes in fullscreen.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

White Wilderness - 1958

The sixth True-Life Adventure feature would set its sights North to the arctic region of the world. It took more than twelve photographers six years to gather all of the footage used in the film. Because of the harsh extremes in climate that this film was shot in, this was some of the first film footage ever shot in Antarctica.

Like the other True-Life Adventures, White Wilderness opens with a paintbrush as the narrator explains the ice age and how it changed animal life on Earth. Animals highlighted in the film are walruses, polar bears, seals, beluga whales, lemmings, ducks, wolves, and wolverines. The film ends as the sun sets on snow covered mountains.

White Wilderness premiered on August 12th, 1958. Like the other True-Life Adventures, it received mixed reviews from critics. Those that disliked it couldn't get past the sometimes humorous narration and editing. Those that praised it were in awe of the footage featured. Audiences ate it up as well and it was re-released several times in theaters. It won an Academy Award for best documentary and was also nominated for best music.

I'm not a big fan of White Wilderness and I think the reason is that so many other nature documentaries have covered the arctic region so well that this pales by comparison. However, it's still an enjoyable film. The True-Life Adventures are surrounded by controversy for staging sequences that didn't occur naturally, but the biggest example can be found in this film. Supposedly the crew purchased a group of lemmings and literally pushed them off a cliff to film the mythical mass suicide. Had this film been made today, animal rights activists would not have allowed it to happen, but in 1958 it was legal, albeit unethical.

White Wilderness was released on DVD in 2006 as part of the Walt Disney Legacy Collection. It can be found on the first volume of the True-Life Adventures series where it has been fully restored. The DVD is now out of print and copies are hard to find. It is available on iTunes where it can be purchased in HD.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Light in the Forest - 1958

Like Old Yeller before it, The Light in the Forest is a western based on a popular book. The fictional novel of the same name was released in 1953 and was written by Conrad Richter. This would be the final Disney film for Fess Parker, who at the time was Disney's biggest star. However, it was the first of four Disney films for James McArthur. Most of the film was shot in Tennessee, but some scenes were shot in California.

The film takes place in 1764 as a peace treaty is made with the chief of the Delaware indians to release all of their white captives. A young white man named True Son who was raised by the indians is reluctant to go because he feels like more of an indian than a white man. He is taken to Pensylvania where his birth parents are waiting for him. His birth name is Johnny Butler and Del Hardy, the man who was in charge of returning Johnny, is ordered to keep an eye on him. Johnny's aunt and uncle have an indentured servant named Shenandoe who's parents were killed by indians. Against the odds, Johnny and Shenandoe become friends, which turns into a relationship. Before Del leaves, he arranges for Johnny to have some land on a mountain. Johnny asks Shenandoe to marry him just as his indian cousins arrive and Johnny's uncle kills one of them. He runs back to the Delaware who go on the warpath killing settlers. Realizing that what they are doing is wrong, Johnny thwarts their efforts and leaves the tribe. When he gets back to town, he has to fight his uncle. After winning, Johnny and Shenandoe go to his mountain as the film ends.

The Light in the Forest premiered on July 8th, 1958. It received mostly positive reviews from critics who praised its more serious subject matter for a Disney film and also its winning performances. Box office records for the film aren't publicly available, so I don't know if it was a success. It was never re-released theatrically, although it aired several times on TV before the advent of home video.

My first experience with The Light in the Forest was actually with the book, which I had to read in middle school. After reading it, our teacher showed us this film version. Both versions are great, but the film is quite different from the book. At any rate, it's a beautiful film about prejudices and the fact that there are good and bad people everywhere. The film is well made with beautiful cinematography and great acting. It's definitely worth seeing.

The Light in the Forest was released to VHS several times, most recently in 1997. While it has never been widely released on DVD, an educational version can be purchased from Disney Educational Productions for the steep price of $29.99. For this review, I used a VHS copy. Hopefully Disney will give this film a wide DVD release so that more people can experience it.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Old Yeller - 1957

In the 1950's, America was obsessed with western films, so it seemed only fitting that Disney would make westerns as well. Davy Crockett was such a huge hit for Walt, both on TV and in its theatrical releases, that two other Disney westerns, The Great Locomotive Chase and Westward Ho the Wagons!, followed a similar formula and starred Fess Parker. It seemed only fitting to include him in the next Disney western film. However, even though he would share top billing with Dorothy McGuire, Fess Parker would have very little screen time. The true stars of this film were newcomers Tommy Kirk and Kevin "Moochie" Corcoran. Tommy Kirk had recently appeared as Joe Hardy in The Hardy Boys, a serial on The Mickey Mouse Club. After that, he was signed to a long term contract with Disney. A similar thing happened with Kevin Corcoran, who occasionally appeared on The Mickey Mouse Club and earned the nickname "Moochie" for the character he played in The Hardy Boys.

The main difference between Old Yeller and the previous Disney westerns is that the other films had a lot of action and suspense, but little emotion. Old Yeller is almost the opposite. While there are a few suspenseful scenes, it is mostly a laid back film about a simpler time. This film is sure to strike any viewer with an emotional chord as well, as it does get very sad. Old Yeller is based on a book by Fred Gibson, which had already taken America by storm becoming a best seller, so audiences in 1957 might have already known how the book ended. But because this was a Disney film and since Disney is famous for sugar coating things, audiences didn't expect the film to have the same ending. Surprisingly, Disney's Old Yeller is faithful to the book.

The film opens with a theme song reminiscent of "The Ballad of Davy Crockett." The film opens on a Texas family who's father is leaving for a few months to sell their cattle. He leaves his oldest of two sons, Travis, in charge of keeping up with the farm's chores. However, a stray dog causes them problems, but the dog proves useful when he saves Arliss from an angry bear. One day, a man comes claiming that the dog is his, but when he sees how much the dog means to the family, he lets them keep him. As he leaves, he warns him of the hydrophobia that's been affecting animals nearby. When a wolf gets onto the farm, Old Yeller fights it off to save the family. When Travis' mom realizes that the wolf had hydrophobia, he locks Old Yeller up to wait and see if the dog has it. Two weeks later, Old Yeller turns on Travis and it becomes clear that he has been infected. As a result, Travis has to put down the dog he has come to love. Travis' dad soon returns as Travis is burrying Old Yeller. Their neighbor Lisbeth brings them one of her dogs puppies which are also Old Yeller's. As Travis begins to take a liking to the new puppy, the film ends with the same song that opened the film as the puppy and the boys play.

Old Yeller was released on December 25th, 1957 and was a huge success. Critics adored it and audiences flocked to see it, making Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran instant stars. Since its original release, Old Yeller has become a part of American culture. To this day, it is one of the most critically acclaimed Disney films and when you mention the film to most people, they will get a little emotional.

When Walt Disney decided to make Old Yeller I'm sure he knew that this would be a special film, but I doubt that he could have foreseen that this film would be popular for generations and become a part of almost every American's childhood. It was certainly a part of mine and I remember balling the first time I saw it. I've seen it about 15 times and it still brings tears to my eyes. The performances are all amazing and realistically played, including the animal actors. The film does an amazing job of making you fall in love with Old Yeller so that when Travis has to put him down, it's as if it is your dog, too. Few films are able to touch audiences in the same way and few films stay with you the way that Old Yeller does.

Old Yeller is currently available on DVD paired with its sequel, Savage Sam. Both films are compressed onto the same disc. The 2-disc set includes an audio commentary for Old Yeller, a making-of documentary and a retrospective on Tommy Kirk's Disney career. The film has been fully restored and is presented in its original widescreen aspect ratio. A standalone version was released in 2002 and is now out of print, but is the recommended version because the film is less compressed and therefore looks a little better. Bonus features are identical between the two releases. It is also available on iTunes in HD widescreen, but the digital copy doesn't include any bonus features.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Perri - 1957

For the fifth True-Life Adventure feature film, Walt Disney decided to do something different. Instead of letting nature tell the story as he had with the previous films, he would film animals to tell a prewritten story and call it a "True-Life Fantasy." The source material was a book by Felix Salten, the author of Bambi which Walt had previously adapted as an animated feature. Filming took place between Utah and Wyoming to tell the story of a female squirrel named Perri.

doesn't begin with a spinning globe or a paint brush like the True-Life Adventures, but instead opens like a regular Disney film outside of the series. The story begins in Wildwood Heart as lots of baby animals are being born. The perils of being a baby animal are displayed as several animals try to get at the baby squirrels, but they are saved by their mother who then teaches them how to walk. We follow Perri as she learns about predators and tries to make friends. She meets a male squirrel named Porro, who finds it challenging to build and keep a home. As winter arrives, Perri keeps dodging a martin who is intent on eating her. When Spring returns, also known as "together time," Perri attempts to make Porro her mate. However, a forest fire puts a cease to "together time" as all of the animals try to find shelter. Rain stops the fire, but just as Perri and Porro find each other, the martin finds Perri and Porro must save her. Just as Porro is about to be caught, a bobcat comes and gets the martin. The film ends happily with Perri and Porro sharing "together time."

Perri was released on August 28th, 1957. Critics were fairly mixed on the film. Many praised it for its accomplishment of using real nature footage to tell a pre-existing story, but most bashed it for the same reason. While the film was a box office success, Walt Disney decided to not make any more True-Life Fantasy films. However, this wasn't the last film of its kind. Disney would go on to make many animal films with a similar narrative. Perri was successful enough to get several theatrical re-releases in 1964 and 1972. It was nominated for an Academy Award for best score.

This True-Life Fantasy is a bit of a mixed bag in my opinion. It feels like a lot of time is spent on other animals, which takes away from the main focus, Perri, and stops the story. However, it has a lot of strengths. All of the scenes are exquisitely shot and beautiful. The suspenseful scenes are gripping and there are plenty of gorgeous scenes, some of which even combine animated elements. The music is wonderful and its easy to see why it was nominated for an Oscar. The films main downfall is the story, which isn't that intersting. While the story has a lot in common with Bambi, and even includes a cameo by the prince of the forest, it lacks the heart and warmth of that film.

In the history of home entertainment, Perri has only been released on home video once in the U.S. and that was in 2006 when all of the True-Life Adventures were brought to DVD as part of the Walt Disney Legacy Collection. It can be found on volume 4 and includes a variety of bonus features specific to Perri. Sadly, the DVD is now out of print and copies have become rare and hard to come by. It is now available on iTunes where it is available in HD.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Johnny Tremain - 1957

Like many Disney films of the 1950's and 60's, Johnny Tremain started as a two part episode of the Disneyland TV series. Based on the novel by Esther Forbe's, the film tells the story of a fictional character who lived during the Revolutionary War. Disney fans might recognize a familiar face. Johnny's love interest is played by a teenage Luana Patten, one of Disney's first contract stars from Song of the South and So Dear to My Heart. This was also the first Disney film directed by Robert Stevenson, who would go on to direct many classic Disney films, including Mary Poppins.

Johnny Tremain is a silversmith's apprentice who is secretly a relative of Johnathan Lyte, the richest man in Boston. When Johnny's hand is injured while repairing a cup for Mr. Lyte, he reveals his relation to him only to be locked in jail for allegedly stealing. After being freed by Paul Revere, he joins the Sons of Liberty and helps at the Boston tea party. From there, Johnny serves as a spy, finding out information about the red coats plans. He joins the revolutionary war to fight for America's freedom, winning the heart of his friend Priscilla.

Johnny Tremain premiered on June 19th, 1957. Information about its box office earnings and critical reception are hard to obtain, but the fact that it was shown on TV only a year later leads me to believe that it was not a big success. However, time has kept this film alive, in large part due to the success of the book. I was required to read the book as part of my elementary education and we subsequently watched this film in class. It is something that has stuck with me ever since. It's a wonderful and uplifting film about the American spirit and why its so important to stand up for what you believe in. This film was the inspiration for an unbuilt area of Disneyland that was to be called Liberty Street. However, that idea would be reused in 1971 when Walt Disney World opened. One of the lands of the Magic Kingdom is called Liberty Square and at the heart of it is the liberty tree, full of lanterns just like in the movie.

Walt Disney's Johnny Tremain was released on DVD in 2005 and is still available. The film is presented in fullscreen, although it was originally released in widescreen. The film is accompanied by a promotional piece from the Disneyland series that promoted the film's theatrical release, as well as Walt Disney's original television introductions to both parts of the film. It is available on iTunes in widescreen where it is also available in HD, but there aren't any bonus features with the digital copy.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Westward Ho the Wagons! - 1956

Following America's obsession with westerns in the 1950's and the huge success of the Davy Crockett series and films, it seemed a wise choice for the Walt Disney Studios to rush another western into production. Tom Blackburn was chosen to write the screenplay, the same man who wrote all five episodes of Davy Crockett. The star of that series, Fess Parker, was cast as the lead, as well as Jeff York, who played Mike Fink. George Reeves, famous from TVs Adventures of Superman was cast as the group's leader. And to fill the roles of the children, Walt went directly to his new hit series, The Mickey Mouse Club. The studio spared little expense and filmed it in CinemaScope, the third Disney film to be shot in the new ultra-widescreen process.

Westward Ho the Wagons! takes place in 1846 as some of the first covered wagons travel to Oregon. When Pawnee indians steal some of their horses, their chances of making it become bleak. One of the children gets captured by the Pawnee and a rescue mission is planned and they get their horses back during battle. At a trading post, some kids trade buffalo hides for Sioux indian robes. However, an altercation with the Sioux over one of the girls who they believe is good luck. The chief arrives that night to make a trade for the girl and the feud is furthered when the settlers refuse. But when the chief's son is sick, the settler's doctor heals the boy and they make peace. The boy is saved and peace is restored as the settlers continue towards Oregon.

Walt Disney's Westward Ho the Wagons! was released on December 20th, 1956. I was unable to find any anformation on how it performed at the box office or what the critical reception was. However, there are two theme park references to the film. A covered wagon can be found in Frontierland at Disneyland with the words "Westward Ho" painted on the side and in Walt Disney World, a food stand is given the same name. As a film, Westward Ho the Wagons! delivers plenty of entertainment and excitement. The film has several songs which are all great and many of the action scenes are thrilling. Where the film falls flat is the story. If it wasn't filmed in CinemaScope, I would assume that this was a 2-part episode of the Disneyland series that was edited into a feature film. My theory is that it was written for TV and made as a feature instead, which would end up happening a lot with later Disney films.

Westward Ho the Wagons! is available on DVD as a Disney Movie Club Exclusive. However, the DVD release is not the original theatrical version, but instead presents the edited 1961 version that aired in two parts on the Disneyland series. Both VHS releases presented the film this way as well. In addition, all releases are presented in pan and scan full screen, so you won't get the full CinemaScope effect and are missing half the picture you should be seeing. This same fullscreen edited version is also available on iTunes.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Secrets of Life - 1956

For the 4th True-Life Adventure feature (and 11th film in the series), Walt Disney decided to do something a little different. Instead of focusing on a particular geographic region or a specific breed of animal, he chose to focus on miracles of natures tiniest creatures, including flowers and insects. As a result, it is hard to describe and was even harder to market (look at the lack of explanation in the film's original theatrical poster).

Secrets of Life begins with a paint brush in the same fashion as the other True-Life Adventures. The brush takes us through the makeup of our planet. The first topic is plants and how nature helps their seeds get planted. Many unique seeds are shown as they travel and overcome obstacles to germinate. Next, bees collect pollen from the new plants and we follow them into their hive and learn the specifics of their life. From bees, the film transitions into many other types of insects, including ants and grasshoppers. Next the film pops underwater and shows many unique creatures that live their and fascinating specifics of their lives. The film ends with footage of erupting volcanoes creating more land masses.

Walt Disney's Secrets of Life premiered on November 16, 1956 and was a big success. Critics praised it for being less slapstick than previous True-Life Adventures and for its revolutionary photography since this was one of the first times that slow motion flower growth was ever photographed. Audiences responded to it as well and it was a success.

Many fans of the True-Life Adventures series place Secrets of Life fairly low on their lists of favorites, but in my opinion it is the best in the series. It's diverse subjects prevent it from becoming stale or boring like the others. Production on Secrets of Life required more photographers than any other True-Life Adventures film. The bee sequence alone took three years to shoot.

Secrets of Life was released on DVD in 2006 as part of the Walt Disney Legacy Collection. It can be found on the fourth volume of the True-Life Adventures series where it has been fully restored. The DVD is now out of print, but copies are still easy to find. It is also available on iTunes in HD.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Davy Crockett and the River Pirates - 1956

Even though Davy Crockett died in the third installment of his Disneyland series and the subsequent film made from them, Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier, that didn't stop Walt Disney from making two more TV episodes and packaging them into a second feature film, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates. It's hard to call it a sequel since it actually takes place before the end of the first film, but no explanation is needed for audiences to understand that this is simply more stories about Davy.

The film begins with Davy and Georgie heading North to sell their furs. They decide to travel by river and end up making enemies with Mike Fink, self proclaimed "king of the river." They agree to a keelboat race and Davy assembles a crew. Even though Mike Fink sets up lots of traps to prevent Davy from winning, he wins anyway and Mike Fink agrees to take he and Georgie North to sell their furs. On their way to get horses from friendly Chickasaw Indians, Davy and Georgie are kidnapped by a group of Chickasaws because white men have been killing members of their tribe. They enlist Mike Fink and his crew to help stop the river pirates that have been posing as Chickasaws. They set a trap for the pirates by disguising themselves and bragging about the gold they are transporting at different ports so that the pirates will come after them. A battle ensues as Mike Fink's keel boat sinks. Of course, Davy, Georgie and Mike are able to stop the pirates and make the river safe for passage as "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" plays for the last time.

Davy Crockett and the River Pirates premiered on July 18, 1956, 8 months after the two episodes it was edited from originally aired. Like most fads, the Davy Crockett phenomenon had mostly died down by the time this film was released, so its success didn't match the previous feature. These were the final episodes for Davy on the Disneyland program and therefore, the last film.

As a film, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates has better flow than King of the Wild Frontier, but the source material isn't as interesting. I find the Mike Fink plot to be fairly pointless and while the river pirates segment is a lot more entertaining, it isn't enough to save the first half of the film. And of course the preferable way to view this material would be in its original episodic form, not the repackaged feature. The series inspired two attractions at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World. The Davy Crocket Explorer Canoes are a fun attraction that are still available at Disneyland on the Rivers of America, but were removed at Disney World. And the Mike Fink Keel Boats were another nostalgic mode of transportation at both parks, but neither are still around.

Walt Disney's Davy Crockett and the River Pirates is currently available on DVD paired with first film, Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier. Both films are presented in fullscreen, the way they were filmed, but not their original theatrical aspect ratio, which was widescreen. All five original, uncut Disneyland episodes were released to DVD in 2001 as part of the Walt Disney Treasures collection. That 2-disc set was limited to 150,000 copies and has become heavily sought after by collectors. The film is available on iTunes, where it is available in fullscreen and in HD.