Friday, July 29, 2011

Miracle of the White Stallions - 1963

Walt Disney made many successful films abroad, mostly because he had funds that had to be spent in other countries, but sometimes because a story intrigued him so much that his quest for authenticity lead him to film there for accuracy. Having had success with a film called Almost Angels a year prior, which was filmed in Austria, he set his sights once more on this beautiful European country. This film is based on a book based on a true story called The Dancing White Horses of Vienna by Colonel Alois Podhajsky.

Arthur Hiller was hired to direct his only Disney film, who at the time was mostly a TV director. AJ Carothers adapted the screenplay, his first of several Disney projects. Like other internationally filmed Disney movies, there aren't many familiar faces for Disney fans. However, audiences at the time may have recognized two actors. Well known screen star Robert Taylor was cast in the lead role towards the end of his film career and TV star Eddie Albert plays Rider Otto. He later found success on shows like Green Acres and Petticoat Junction. Filming was done entirely on location in Vienna, Austria, in many of the locations that the real story took place. The Sherman Brothers wrote a song for the film called "Just Say, Auf Wiedersehen."

The film opens with a narrated history of the Lipizzan horses set to footage of the stallions and ponies playing in a field. The movie takes place in the Spring of 1945 towards the end of World War II. Col. Podhajsky gets a visit at the Spanish Riding School from Nazi generals denying a request to remove the horses from Vienna for their safety and forcing them to remain open, despite all of his staff being sent to war. Fearing for the safety of the horses, Podhajsky sneaks the horses out of Vienna on a train to a refuge castle. A group of men unsuccessfully attempt to steal the horses to get away. Podhajsky hears that an American general, General George S. Patton Jr., will give money to help save the school if they can throw a private performance for him. The performance earns them the protection of the American Army. A battle ensues as they attempt to relocate the horses, which are only saved because they mixed the Limizzans with other common horses to confuse the Nazis. Upon their joyous return to Vienna, they give their first performance since the Nazis invaded to tremendous applause.

Miracle of the White Stallions was released on March 29th, 1963. While critics recognized the animal actors, they generally bashed the film. Their complaints included the plot being boring for kids and not exciting enough for adults, the actors performances being too cold and calculated and the long run time. It didn't strike a chord with the public and was a failure at the box office. It debuted on TV in 1965 and made its home video debut in 1987.

While Miracle of the White Stallions is beautifully shot and has a few great moments, it is a generally disappointing film. The audience is given little reason to care for the characters or an emotional understanding of why it is important to save the horses, other than to preserve tradition. Perhaps one of the weirdest things about the film is the clash of accents. Robert Taylor makes no attempt at hiding his stern American accent in a cast of real Austrian actors, putting something that doesn't belong at the center of a film that otherwise strives for authenticity. As the film unfolds, all of the Austrians seem very concerned with protecting the horses, but the audience doesn't get to see a performance until the second half of the film, making it hard to understand why they are so revered. The real Colonel Podhajsky choreographed the horses in the film and their dance sequences are interesting, but certainly not worth sitting through the rest of the film to see. Calling it bad would be an overstatement, but it's not particularly great either.

Miracle of the White Stallions is currently available on DVD. The film is presented in fullscreen, but it would have originally been released in matted widescreen, most likely a 1.75:1 aspect ratio. The opening credits are presented in open matte since they would get cut off it shown in the fullscreen aspect ratio. The film looks decent, but is flawed at times with flickering and discoloration. There are no bonus features.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Son of Flubber - 1963

 For all of the successes Walt Disney had in motion pictures, he had yet to produce a true sequel. He was famous for saying "You can't top pigs with pigs" when sequels to his famous short, The Three Little Pigs, weren't as well received as the original. However, for his TV audience he would often continue stories that became popular. Davy Crockett, for example, was killed off after three episodes, but viewers were delighted to find two more episode the next season (both seasons were edited and released theatrically as Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates). But after having big success with The Absent-Minded Professor in 1961, it would have been bad business not to have attempted a sequel.

Robert Stevenson returned as director, Fred MacMurray, Nancy Olson, Keenan Wynn, Tommy Kirk and nearly every other actor from the first film returned for the sequel. Ed Wynn makes a cameo appearance as a different character than he played in the first film. And Bob Sweeney (Toby Tyler and Moon Pilot) joins the cast in his last Disney role. Ron Miller, a college football player himself, coproduced this film with Bill Walsh. The film was mostly shot on the Walt Disney Studio lot. Much of the football sequence was actually shot indoors due to the challenges of pulling off the special effects in an outdoor environment. Like the original, this film was shot in black & white to hide many of the secrets behind the special effects.

The film begins with fighter jets being passed by a flying Model T. As the credits play, Professor Brainard and student Biff Hawk fly to the pentagon to ask for money he has yet to receive for his invention of flubber. They return home empty handed as Medfield College is preparing to fund a new science building, dubbed Flubber Hall. However, when Professor Brainard can't pay back the school's loan to Alonzo Hawk, he threatens to level the college. Upon arriving home, a company offers him a million dollars for exclusive rights to flubber, but because of his outstanding deal with the US government, he is unable to accept. Meanwhile, the IRS is after him because his projected earnings were high and they feel he owes them more money than he paid, even though he has yet to receive a penny for his invention. Brainard and Betsy get in a fight, but the professor is soon distracted with helping the school's football team by providing them with flubber gas. He also uses flubber gas to create "dry rain," designed to pull moisture from the air during a drought, but the fighting between him and Betsy intensifies when she meets his old girlfriend, Desiree, and she moves out on him. Brainard's dry rain invention has a side effect where it shatters nearby glass, unbeknown to him. He turns down another scheming offer from Alonzo Hawk, who wants to turn flubber gas into a weapon, and helps Medfield win the football game by inflating a player and throwing him with the ball instead of the ball itself. He is then put on trial for flubber gas, which is perceived to be dangerous due to its glass shattering side effects. However, when a witness proves that it also caused crops in the area to grow large he is let off the hook.

Son of Flubber was released on January 18th, 1963. Critics unanimously agreed that it wasn't as good as The Absent-Minded Professor, but was equally as funny. Audiences flocked to see it, making it a huge hit. It made over $9 million in its theatrical release. Son of Flubber was rereleased to theaters in 1970. It didn't make its TV debut until 1980 and was released on home video in 1984. A colorized version was released on VHS in 1997.

This sequel is cut from the same cloth as most in that it basically tries to recreate what was successful about the first one. That's not necessarily a bad thing and Son of Flubber is certainly a decent and funny sequel to The Absent-Minded Professor. However the one fault that it does have is a big one, which is that too much is going on at the same time. The reason the first one worked so well was that the story was rather simple. Son of Flubber feels like it tries to be two films at once. Walter Elias Disney Miller, Walt Disney's grandson, makes a cameo appearance as a baby in a pitch reel when the company wants exclusive rights to flubber. The satellites at the end of the film were reused from a Ward Kimball segment of The Wonderful World of Color called Eyes in Outer Space that was made in 1962. A toy of Flubber was produced as a tie-in with this movie by Hasbro. Unfortunately, it had to be recalled when it was discovered that it contained an unidentified substance that gave some children a rash. Other merchandise from the film included footballs with the logo and an inflatable football player toy.

Son of Flubber is currently available on DVD. It is presented in its original black & white, however the aspect ratio is pan & scan fullscreen instead of its theatrical widescreen ration of 1.75:1. This is surprising following the outcry Disney received after releasing the first film in fullscreen and color. Disney had to rerelease it in black & white and widescreen, so its curious why they would crop the sequel. At any rate, the disc contains a single bonus feature in the form of a photo gallery that presents behind the scenes photos, marketing material and merchandise form the original release. Consumers have the option of a standalone DVD, as well as a 2-pack where it is paired with The Absent-Minded Professor. The film is available in widescreen on iTunes, where it is also available in HD.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

In Search of the Castaways - 1962

Walt Disney had much success with the two action/adventure/fantasy films he had previously made, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Swiss Family Robinson. It is not surprising that the source material for his third would also stem from the mind of Jules Vern, who wrote 20,000 Leagus. Inspired by one of his lesser known novels, Captain Grant's Children, In Search of the Castaways is a big budget, star studded film designed to be the next big hit from the master of family entertainment.

One of Walt's best directors, Robert Stevenson, was put in charge of the picture. Part of the reason Walt was attracted to the story was that it had a part for a teenage girl and he was looking for something different for one of his favorite stars, Hayley Mills. Internationally famous Maurice Chavalier was cast in his first of several Disney films. Keith Hampshire, who plays Hayley Mill's brother, was personally discovered by Walt when he saw him in the lead role in a London production of Oliver while on vacation. This was the only live action Disney film for George Sanders, but he did return to the studio as the voice of Sher Khan in The Jungle Book. Much of the film was made indoors at Pinewood Studios in England. Syd Pearson and Peter Ellenshaw lead the special effects team. The Sherman Brothers wrote four songs for the film: "Merci Beaucoup," "Grimpons," "Enjoy It" and "The Castaways Theme."

The film opens with footage of a message in a bottle at sea while the credits play. The story takes place in 1858 and starts in Glasgow. Mary and Robert Grant show up at a yacht with Jacques Paganal, a geography professor, to alert Lord Glanarvan that their father who was lost at sea on one of his ships is actually alive, as evidenced by the message in a bottle they received. He doesn't believe the story, but Mary convinces his son John to persuade Lord Glanarvan to change course to South America to find him. Once in the snowy mountains of South America, an earthquake dislodges the cliff they are camping on, sending them sliding down a mountainside and into icy caverns below. Robert gets thrown off a cliff during the ride and is rescued by a giant condor. A local Indian shoots down the condor before it can take Robert to its nest to feed its babies. He knows of the tribe that held their father captive and has heard that he was sold off to andother tribe in the Pampas. He leads them there and along the way, they stop for the night in a giant tree. A flood strands them in the tree for several days and a jaguar ends up in it too. Lightning strikes and the tree catches on fire, followed by a tornado which uproots the tree and turns it into a raft until they are rescued by their Indian guide. He takes them to the village where they discover that their father was never one of their prisoners. Jacques remembers that the shark in which he found the message is native to Australia so they head there. A man named Thomas Ayerton claims that Captain Grant has been captured by the Maori tribe. Mary and John discover a little too late that Thomas lied to them to use their ship for a gun run. It turns out, Thomas was on Captain Grant's ship and sent him overboard in a life boat the way he sends them off the ship. They are taken captive by the Maoris and imprisoned, where they meet one of Captain Grant's crewmen Bill Gaye. He is particularly delighted to meet Robert, who is small enough to fit through a gap in their prison cell. That night they escape and are chased through the mountains by their captors. They hide in a safe spot as the volcanic mountain erupts and scares the Maoris away. They take back their ship and Captain Grant, who is happily reunited with his kids.

In Search of the Castaways had its world premier in London on November 14th, 1962 and entered wide release in the US on December 19th, 1962. Critics were fairly mixed about it, noting that while the film had plenty of adventure and a good pace, there wasn't much substance to it and it didn't live up to what audiences expected from Disney. It was a big success at the box office and audiences loved it, particularly young children. It was rereleased twice in theaters in 1970 and 1978. It made its TV debut later in 1978 and was released on home video in 1984.

I never saw this film as a kid, but I imagine I would have loved it if I had. It rides high on entertainment value, with an exciting plot that never gets boring and plenty of twists and turns along the way. The cast is great in their roles, especially Hayley Mills and Maurice Chevalier. And two of the songs, "Enjoy It" and "The Castaway Theme," are sure to get stuck in your head. Surprisingly, the one area this film falters on is special effects. While the ride down a broken cliff is a fun scene, close up shots are obviously filmed in front of a moving screen and long shots are some of the worst use of models I've seen in a film from the 1960's. The giant condor is also completely unconvincing and almost laughable. However, you can't fault the filmmakers for having an imagination that effects technology hadn't caught up to yet. Not all of the effects are bad though. Peter Ellenshaw's matte paintings are pretty dazzling and the volcano scene is impressive, especially when considering that it was shot indoors! It's only when you compare this film to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Swiss Family Robinson that you realize the studio could have, and had, done better. But it's a thoroughly enjoyable adventure/fantasy film in its own right.

In Search of the Castaways is currently available on DVD. The film is presented in fullscreen, but it was originally presented in a widescreen aspect ratio of 1.75:1. A minimal restoration was done, but the print features many flaws and lesser known films from the era look far better on their releases. It is also surprising that there are no bonus features for a film with this amount of star power and special effects. The film is available on iTunes, where it is presented in widescreen and in HD.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Legend of Lobo - 1962

After the True-Life Adventure series ended, Walt Disney continued to make animal films that had a script instead of "letting nature tell the story." This film is based on a collection of stories by Ernest Thompson Seton, one of the founding members of the Boy Scouts of America. Similar to Niki, Wild Dog of the North, a narrator is used to explain the action on screen.

The film was shot entirely on location in Sedona, AZ. James Algar, animation director turned live action producer for most of Disney's nature films, co-wrote and co-directed this film. The other writer, Dwight Hauser, had previously worked for the studio as a writer on the People & Places and True-Life Adventure films. The other director, Jack Couffer, had a very similar background directing many of the True-Life Adventure films. Disney legend Rex Allen provides the narration, with help from the singing group The Sons of the Pioneer. They wrote most of the songs in the film, except for the title song which was done by the Sherman Brothers. This was Rex's first narration of many Disney films.

The opening credits play against footage of a wolf running. As many wolves begin to howl, Rex Allen starts to sing "The Legend of Lobo" as we learn that Lobo is a wanted wolf who is a menace to the citizens nearby. The story is told in flashback as we are introduced to young Lobo and his family. His father, Elfaro, has a hard time hunting because they live in somewhat of a wasteland. When Elfaro decides to relocate the family after seeing hunters in the area, Lobo gets lost and has to fend for himself. He is reunited with his family when confronted by a rattle snake. Lobo's mother gets killed by hunters and Alfaro ends up in a hunter's trap. Lobo stays with him to keep watch, but has to leave when the hunters return to the scene. He joins another pack and finds a mate, but the pack leader doesn't approve so the two wolves leave the pack. They make a home out of an old Indian dwelling. Shortly after, his mate has puppies. Lobo angers the cattle men because he almost exclusively hunts their cattle. This prompts wanted posters to be put up with reward money for his capture. Lobo's mate ends up in a hunters trap and is used as bait to catch him. Lobo is able to free her and his new family ventures off in search of a new home.

The Legend of Lobo was released on November 7th, 1962. Critics generally felt that while the narration was outstanding, the visuals on the screen didn't match the excitement. I was unable to find box office financial data for this film, but I'm assuming it made money since this format didn't stop here. Possibly due to its run time (too short to be split into two episodes, too long to be just one), it was never aired as part of the Disney Sunday night program. It made its home video debut in 1985.

I never got to experience this film as a kid, but if I did I probably wouldn't have sat through the whole thing. While the beginning is fairly adorable when Lobo is a puppy and there is quite a bit of excitement towards the end, the middle gets very slow and it can easily lose any viewers attention. I disagree with the critics about the action on screen not representing the narrative. I thought it was well filmed and several scenes were expertly done. In general, I'm not a big fan of narrated animal movies and Disney certainly did a better job with its previous effort, Nikki, Wild Dog of the North. Of the two films, that is the one I would personally recommend.

The Legend of Lobo is currently available on DVD as a Disney Movie Club Exclusive. The film is presented in fullscreen, although it was originally shown in a widescreen aspect ratio, most likely 1.75:1 (Disney's most common ratio for this era). There appears to have been a minor restoration and the film looks pretty good. There are no bonus features. It is also available on iTunes where it is also presented in fullscreen, but with the option of buying in HD.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Almost Angels - 1962

Walt Disney had a few successes with making films abroad, mostly in the U.K. Most likely due to the large amount of traveling he did in Europe, he decided to test out another location. His inspiration this time came from the Vienna Boys Choir in Austria. The source material was an unpublished story by German author Robert A. Stammie about a boy who desperately wanted to be part of the choir. The screenplay was adapapted by Vernon Harris. While this was his only Disney film, his most famous screenplay was for Columbia Picture's Oliver in 1968.

 Filming took place entirely in Austria. Being an international film, there aren't many familiar Disney faces. Vincent Winter who plays Tommy had a small role in Greyfriars Bobby and later appeared in The Three Lives of Thomasina. Sean Scully, who plays Peter, also made a TV movie for Disney that same year that was an adaptation ofThe Prince and the Pauper. Director Steve Previn had a career directing for television. This was his only Disney film, although he directed several made for TV Disney movies.

The film begins with footage of Austrian landscapes as the credits roll. When a train rolls in returning the Vienna Boys Choir from a tour, the conductor's son Tony decides he wants to be a singer. His mother takes him to audition and he gets in for a probationary period, but his father doesn't want him to do it. His dad changes his mind once he sees the amazing school Tony will attend as part of the choir. A boy named Peter is in charge of getting Tony acclimated, but rivalry starts to form between them when the director notices that Peter's voice is starting to change and takes an interest in Tony's soprano voice. Peter attempts to get Tony in trouble for having a contraband radio, but instead his probation is extended and he is made a full choir boy. When Peter's solo is given to Tony, he tries to lock him in a room to prevent him from performing. Tony sneaks out the window and hugs the ledge to get into the room to perform. Tony doesn't tell on Peter, who overcomes his jealousy and helps him with his songs. Peter's voice changes so much that he can't perform anymore. Tony wants to make sure he comes on the tour, so they have another boy sing for Peter backstage. But Peter realizes the conductor knows something is amiss and runs offstage during the performance. In the end, the conductor takes Peter on tour as his conducting apprentice.

Almost Angels was released on September 26th, 1962 as a double feature with a rerelease of Lady and the Tramp. The marketing angle was "Mischievous Dogs and Mischievous Boys!" Critics gave it great reviews, praising its cute story and great songs. It did well at the box office primarily because of the animated classic it was paired with. However, audiences must have enjoyed it because Walt was convinced that he should make more films abroad. Internationally, it was known as Born to Sing. It had its first TV airing in 1965 and made its home video debut in 1986.

 There is much to love about Almost Angels. The lush landscapes and historic filming locations in Austria make it feel authentic, and the use of the real Vienna Boys Choir certainly adds to this. As someone who grew up as a choir boy, I relate to many of the conflicts in this film. It also does a good job of showing that there is nothing girly about boys being in a choir (except for the scenes where the boys dress like girls for a performance). The classical music is a delight as well. On the whole, its a delightful picture that certainly deserves a bigger following. It would be great if the same audience that has recently been captivated by High School Musical and Glee could take an interest in this film about one of the most historical choirs in the world.

Almost Angels is currently available on DVD as a Disney Movie Club Exclusive. Disney made a mistake when producing this DVD and put the PAL version instead of the NTSC version on the disc, meaning it runs faster than it should. This is most noticeable during panning shots. The film is also presented in fullscreen, when its theatrical aspect ratio was widescreen 1.75:1. It has no bonus features.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Big Red - 1962

 Walt's love of dogs had caused them to become source material for many of his live action films. And while audiences weren't always receptive to them, he didn't stop making them. A book called Big Red by Jim Kjelgaard was the inspiration for Walt's next dog film. At it's core, it's the story of how a lost dog brings two unlikely people together in a touching way.

The screenplay was adapted by Louis Pelletier, his first of many Disney films. TV director Norman Tokar was brought on to direct his first theatrical film and first of many for Disney. Walter Pidgeon stars in his only onscreen Disney role. Émile Genest returns to the studio after playing in Niki, Wild Dog of the North. The rest of the cast were mostly French Canadian actors who didn't appear in any other American films. It was produced by Winston Hibler, famous for the True-Life Adventure series. He no doubt lent his expertise at filming animals to many of the scenes. Filming was done mostly on location in La Malbaie, Quebec, Canada and at Big Bear Lake in California. Some of the interior scenes were filmed on sets at the Walt Disney Studios. The Sherman Brothers wrote two songs for the film: "Mon Amor Perdu" and "Emile's Reel."

The film begins with Mr. Hagan buying an Irish setter for $5,000 as the credits play. We then see a young boy approach a dog kennel where the Irish setter gets so excited to see him, he twists his paw in the gate and when the boy opens it, the dog takes off into the woods and the boy chases it. It turns out he is an orphan who is looking for work and Mr. Hagan decides to hire him. The dog's name is Red and he takes a liking to the boy, whose name is Rene. Rene objects to Mr. Hargan's training methods of Red and starts to privately train him. When Mr. Hagan finds out, he moves Red into his house and forbids Rene to see him until after the dog show so that Red will be completely obedient to him. When Rene goes near the house, Red jumps through a glass window to get to him and gets injured. Mr. Hagan wants to have him put down, so Rene steals him and takes him to his deceased uncle's cabin until he is rehabilitated. Rene returns Red to Mr. Hagan and quits his job. Red and Mr. Hagan's other Irish setter, Molly, are shipped off to be sold. However, both dogs escape in transit. Meanwhile Rene has taken up a job as a farm hand when he hears what happened to Red. He runs off to find him when nobody else believes they are alive. When he reaches them, Molly has had Red's puppies. Mr. Hagan learns that Rene has left and he takes off in search of the boy, where he gets knocked off his horse when a cougar approaches and his foot gets pinned behind a boulder. Red finds him and gets in a fight with the cougar and Rene arrives in time to shoot the wild cat and save both Red and Mr. Hagan. Mr. Hagan decides to adopt Rene and they return home with Red, Molly and the puppies. 

Big Red was released on June 6th, 1962. Critics admitted that the film had charm, but felt it wasn't as good as Disney's most recent films. It wasn't a success at the box office either. It was shown on TV only two years later in 1964 and made its home video debut in 1984.

As a standalone film,  Big Red is charming and heartwarming. Rene is an inspiring young boy and Gilles Payant does a great acting job in the role. Walter Pidgeon is also superb in his portrayal of Mr. Hagan, a task that couldn't have been easy given many of the unlikable things his character has to do. He pulls it off meticulously so that the audience never truly dislikes him. The on location shooting creates some beautiful imagery as well. The story is intriguing. It's only when you compare it to some of Disney's other dog movies that it is unable to hold its own. The title draws a lot of similarities to Old Yeller, which is clearly the better of the two films. But if you're a lover of Disney dog films and have never experienced Big Red, it is certainly deserving of your attention.

Big Red is currently available on DVD as a Disney Movie Club Exclusive. The film is presented in its original matted widescreen aspect ratio of 1.75:1, although the back of the box mistakenly lists it as fullscreen. The film appears to have gone through a minor restoration and looks pretty good. There are no bonus features. The film is also available on iTunes in widescreen and in HD.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bon Voyage! - 1962

Walt Disney's main reason for making films was to provide quality entertainment for the whole family. He had great success in almost every genre except for comedy, where his successes tended to more childish in nature. With Bon Voyage!, he set about making a film that was as much for adult viewers as it was for children. The film is based on a book of the same title, written by husband and wife Joseph and Marijane Hayes.

Writer/producer Bill Walsh adapted the screenplay, having previously done most of the Disney comedies including The Shaggy Dog and The Absent-Minded Professor. Fred MacMurray had become Walt's go-to actor for family comedies and Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran, who previously played his sons in The Shaggy Dog, were cast as two of his three children. Debora Walley plays the daughter in her first of two Disney films. And Jane Wyman returns to Disney after starring in Pollyanna a few years earlier, although this would be her last film for the studio. It is directed by James Neilson, fresh off the set of directing Moon Pilot. Much of the filming took place on location in Paris, France. The title song was written by the Sherman Brothers.

The film begins with an entertaining travel montage as the title song plays. The Willard family from Indiana arrive in New York City to depart on a cruise. The minute they arrive, problems begin including the daughter Amy meeting a boy named Nick that Harry, the father, doesn't like, Elliott mopes about his girl he left at home, the youngest song Skipper gets into mischief and Harry's in-laws throw an uncomfortable going away party for them. Things get serious with Amy and Nick, Elliott forgets his girl back home and becomes a womanizer and Harry realizes that he is getting too old to keep up with Skipper. Harry and Katie assume the problems with their children will stop when they get to Paris, but Amy runs off with Nick who was supposed to go to England, but followed them instead. Katie goes to visit a friend who now lives in Paris and Eliott is out dating, leaving Harry with Skipper, who convinces him to take a tour of the city sewers where Harry gets lost and embarrasses himself. When Nick joins a family outing, he and Amy get in a fight because Nick doesn't believe in marriage. At a party Harry has too much too drunk and passes out. Meanwhile, Katie was being hit on by a persistent man who causes a fight between the happy couple. They relocate to the French Riviera for the remainder of their trip where Amy becomes a big hit with boys on the beach. Nick shows up and gets jealous. Elliott gets in trouble with the mother of a French girl who claims he took her daughter's "virtue" and demands that he pay money or she will call the police, thinking they are rich Americans. Harry says the right thing to do would be for the two to get married which scares them away. On their last night in France, Katie's pursuer returns so Harry punches him and gets arrested. Nick comes to his rescue and having seen a successful marriage, changes his mind about it. The film ends with the whole family dancing and having a good time as fireworks shoot into the night sky.

Bon Voyage! was released on May 17th, 1962. Critics hated it, citing its long run time (132 minutes) as its biggest fault. They also complained that it kept bouncing between a film for kids and a film for adults without successfully doing either. Audiences ignored the critics and the film was a success, grossing $5 million at the box office. It was nominated for two Academy Awards for best costume design and best sound. Much of the filming took place on location in France. The scenes on board the cruise were filmed on a real ship, the S.S. United States, which is currently in Philadelphia being preserved. It made its TV debut in 1970 and was first released on home video in 1987.

I first saw Bon Voyage! when it made its DVD debut in 2004 and I instantly liked it. All of the actors are delightful in their roles, although Kevin Corcoran is too old for some of the lines his character says. The film is longer than it ought to be and the editing department certainly could have been a bit more severe with some scenes, but more often than not it is very entertaining and funny. I will say that I was surprised at some of the content for a film that bares the name Walt Disney. The film gently touches some issues that today would warrant a PG-13 rating if taken any further, such as horny teenagers, prostitution and talk of virginity. The good news is with its long run time, any kids will probably be asleep before those scenes arrive and those that aren't won't really understand the issues since Disney handles them in a very subtle manner. While it may not be the typical Disney family comedy, Bon Voyage! is a great 60's family comedy.

Bon Voyage! is currently available on DVD. The film is presented in pan & scan fullscreen, although the original theatrical aspect ratio was 1.75:1 widescreen. It doesn't appear that a restoration was done, since most scenes seem discolored and some have excess grain. This is most likely the original VHS master quickly put on DVD. There are no bonus features. The film is available on iTunes where it is presented in widescreen and in HD.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Moon Pilot - 1962

Most of Walt Disney's live action films were period films, but by the early 1960's he had produced a handful of modern comedy films. What sets Moon Pilot apart is that it is somewhat political. It's based on a serial from The Sunday Evening Post called Starfire by Robert Bruckner, which was packaged as a novel to go along with the film release. The Disney film is just as satirical, poking fun at the FBI, US Air Force and the astronaut program all at the same time. It's interesting to note that in the mid 1950's, Walt had several episodes of Disneyland devoted to the possibilities of space exploration and the Tomorrowland section of his theme park was all about a future in which man could walk on the moon. It's clear that he must have been dissatisfied with the progress that had been made.

To direct the film, Walt hired James Nielson, who had primarily been a television director and had done two episodes of Zorro for Disney. This was his first of several Disney films. Walt's son-in-law and future head of the studio, Ron Miller, has his first producing credit on this film. Tom Tyron was a familiar face for TV audiences and had played the lead in Walt's serialized version of Texas John Slaughter. His love interest is played by Dany Saval, a French actress making her US film debut. This is the only Disney film either ever made, but the rest of the cast has a few familiar faces, including Brian Keith and Tommy Kirk in a "guest starring" role. Bob Sweeney will also be a familiar face to anyone who saw Toby Tyler. Maurice Tombragel adapted the serial into a screenplay, after being a TV writer for several Disney productions. Filming took place mostly on location in San Francisco, with some scenes shot on the Disney Studio backlot.  Three songs were written for the film by the Sherman Brothers: "The Seven Moons of Beta Lyrae," "True Love's an Apricot" and "The Void." However, only "The Seven Moons of Beta Lyrae" is a full song. The rest are sung by beatniks with no accompaniment.

The film begins in the control room of the astronaut program as they prepare for a shuttle to land. And air force plan grabs the cargo that is jettisoned and a chimpanzee named Charley emerges, having returned from the first trip to orbit the moon. The general decides that he now wants to send a man on the same trip and asks for a volunteer and he wants the trip to take place this week to beat other nations that want to be the first to the moon. When Charley pokes Captain Richard Talbot in the back, he accidentally volunteers himself for the top secret mission. He flies home to visit his family and on the flight, he meets a strange girl name Lyrae who somehow knows all about the mission. After telling the general the FBI takes Talbot into their protection, but Lyrae gets to him anyway to warn him that the mission will put him in danger and he leaves with her. She gives him a formula for a solution that will protect him when the space shuttle is coated and reveals that she is an alien. Romance begins to bloom between them, but Lyrae disappears when the Air Force takes him. After blasting off for his space mission, she mysteriously appears on his ship. She invites him to her planet and they take off singing, much to the disdain of the general.

Moon Pilot premiered on February 9th, 1962 and entered wide release on April 5th of that year. Critics were pretty positive towards it, enjoying the political satire (and even praising the chimp for making it appealing to kids). And while it wasn't a huge success at the box office, it cost very little to make and turned a profit. A full episode of Wonderful World of Color was devoted to promoting the film called "Spy in the Sky." The film was never rereleased in theaters, but made its TV debut in 1966 and had its first home video release in 1986.

I first saw Moon Pilot a few years ago on a secondhand VHS I bought from a video store. The film is very slow to start and it lost my interest then. However, I enjoyed it much more this time around. Its biggest problem is that the title of the film suggests that there will be a great deal of time spent in space, but most of the film takes place on Earth so I was expecting a completely different kind of film. For a comedy, it only made me laugh once during a police suspect line full of beatnik girls (which features an uncredited Sally Field in her screen debut). However, the story is charming if the viewer is patient enough to make it 40 minutes in when the plot gets interesting. The FBI allegedly approached Walt Disney to complain about their portrayal in the film. It has fallen into obscurity over the years and its not hard to see why. It's not very memorable and ranks low when compared to some of the amazing films the studio was releasing at this time. But it's not an entirely bad film and has some moments that are worth watching.

Moon Pilot is currently available on DVD as a Disney Movie Club Exclusive. The film is presented in pan & scan fullscreen, but it was filmed and originally presented in a widescreen aspect ratio of 1.75:1. The film looks clean, suggesting that a restoration was done prior to release. There are no bonus features. It is available on iTunes where it is presented in widescreen and HD.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Babes in Toyland - 1961

Walt Disney had been able to accomplish a lot in the live action film business in just one decade, but one of the few genres he had yet to tackle was the live action musical. In 1954, Walt bought the rights to the the cannon of Oz books by L. Frank Baum (except for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which was still under contract to MGM). Walt had originally wanted to make an animated version of the books as a follow up to Snow White in the 1940's, but when he sought the rights he discovered that MGM already had them. His new idea was for a film called The Rainbow Road to Oz that would feature various Oz characters and star the Mouseketeers in the lead roles. A teaser episode of Disneyland featured the Mouseketeers performing proposed musical numbers from the film and dressed in the mock-up costumes. However, by 1958 the project was shelved most likely due to the fact that Oz as a film property is hard to touch without drawing comparisons to the MGM film.

By 1960, Walt had settled on a different property, Victor Herbert's operetta Babes in Toyland, written in 1903. While most of the Mouseketeers had moved on, Annette Funicello was still active at the studio with a successful music career. She was originally supposed to play Ozma, the lead in Rainbow Road, so it makes sense that she was cast as the lead in this film. Ray Bolger was cast in his first and only Disney role as the villain Barnaby (he played the Scarecrow in the 1939 Oz film). Ed Wynn as the Toymaker was also an interesting choice since he was MGM's original top pic to play the Wizard, but he turned down that role. Teen crooner Tommy Sands was cast opposite Annette in one of his first film roles. More familiar Disney faces flush out the large cast, including Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran and the duo of Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon who starred in Zorro and Toby Tyler together.

The film was shot entirely indoors at the Walt Disney Studio. Jack Donohue was ultimately chosen as the director after several other directors left the project, and this was his first and only film for Disney. Ward Kimball directed all of the animated sequences, including the stop motion toy soldiers march. Ward Kimball also cowrote the screenplay along with Joe Rinaldi and Lowell S. Hawley. While most of the songs were taken from Victor Herbert's operetta, Mel Levin had to provide English lyrics to each of them. Studio songwriters George Bruns and Mel Leven also wrote three additional songs: "The Workshop Song," "The Forest of No Return" and "Slowly He Sank into the Sea" are Disney originals.

The film begins with a playbill that opens to reveal the credits while an overture of Victor Herbert's music plays. After the credits, Sylvester the goose pokes his head through blue curtains to introduce Mother Goose, who plays host to this play on screen. As the curtains open, Mother Goose Village is celebrating the wedding of Mary Quite Contrary and Tom Piper, which will take place the next day. However Barnaby, the man in the crooked house, has plans to marry Mary for the money in her dowry. He sends his henchmen to kidnap Tom and Mary's sheep to make her desperate enough to marry him.  However, instead of throwing him into the ocean like Barnaby asked, they sold him to some gypsies to double their profit. Mary initially refuses Barnaby's proposal upon hearing the Tom had drowned at sea until her sister, Little Bo Peep, returns home to report that the sheep are missing. As she contemplates accepting Barnaby as her husband, a band of gypsies come into town to put on a show. To everyone's surprise, the gypsy fortune teller is Tom in disguise. After reuniting, Tom and Mary and her siblings run to the Forest of No Return to find the sheep. The talking trees capture them and take them to Toyland, which has been abandoned with the exception of the Toy Maker and his assistant. The group decides to stay and help the Toy Maker assemble toys to meet the Christmas deadline, but Barnaby intervenes. He uses a shrinking ray to shrink Tom, who wages war against the full size crooked man with an army of toy soldiers. After defeating Barnaby and being restored to regular size, Tom and Mary return to Mother Goose Village where they get married and take off in a sled for their honeymoon as the curtains close on the happy scene.

Babes in Toyland was released on December 14th, 1961. Critics were pretty harsh on it, claiming that none of the characters were interesting, the stakes are never high and that anybody who is not a small child will be bored by it. While it had a huge marketing campaign, with a whole episode of The Wonderful World of Color devoted to how it was made, it was not a box office success. It grossed $4.6 million, which would be around $50 million today with inflation, but it reportedly cost more than that to make. It was never rereleased to theaters and made its TV debut in 1969. It was released on VHS in 1982, one of the first home video releases the studio ever did.

I first saw Babes in Toyland as a child on TV. I fell in love with it then and I still enjoy it today. However, I think the critics in 1961 may have been right about needing to have seen it as a kid to enjoy it because every adult I've met who first saw this film when they were an adult have disliked it. It's very easy to spot the many faults of the film, namely the fact that all of the characters are one dimensional, but the amazing sets, designed to look like a play, are also fairly one dimensional so it all fits in my eyes. To me, the whole film feels more like a televised version of a Rogers & Hammerstein production than a big budget Disney musical. The special effects in the film are also worth giving it a view. Many of them would appear a few years later in Mary Poppins when Disney attempted another movie musical. After filming, the sets were on display at Disneyland until 1963. The wooden soldiers have become a staple of Disney Parks' Christmas parades.

Babes in Toyland is currently available on Blu-Ray. The film is presented in a widescreen aspect ratio of 1.67:1, possibly the open matte ratio (originally presented in 1.75:1). The Blu-Ray release received a substantial restoration, displaying the film with accurate colors and clarity. The film is also available on DVD, where it is sadly presented in pan & scan fullscreen and used the VHS master from the 80's, displaying many flaws in the film that were corrected for the Blu-Ray. Neither of these releases contain any bonus features. It is also available on iTunes in widescreen and in HD.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Greyfriars Bobby - 1961

Walt Disney had a large personal interest in animals and stories about them, but few animals were highlighted in his films as much as dogs. He had already produced a handful of films that put them front and center, including Lady and the Tramp, Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog and One Hundred and One Dalmatians. For his next project, Walt was inspired by a book based on a touching true story, Greyfriars Bobby by Eleanor Atkinson.

Walt hired Don Chaffey to direct his first of several Disney films (the most famous of which was Pete's Dragon). Since he used an all UK cast, he wasn't able to pull from his normal stable of stars but there are a few familiar faces. Donald Crisp plays James Brown after playing the mayor in Pollyanna. Laurence Naismith had a small role in Third Man on the Mountain and would later appear in The Three Lives of Thomasina (also directed by Don Chaffey). Duncan Macrae, Andrew Cruickshank and Alex Mackenzie had small roles in Kidnapped and Duncan and Alex also returned for Thomasina. While a lot of location shooting was done in Scottland, including the original graveyard the real Bobby slept in, the Edinburgh Village scenes were filmed on sets at Shepperton Studios in Surrey, England.

The film opens with a narrative introduction set to footage of Scotland as the credits play. Bobby is an adorable Skye terrier that lives on a farm and worships one of the farm hands, Old Jock. When Jock is fired because the family can't afford him anymore, Bobby runs away after him to the town of Edinburgh. Old Jock soon dies of pneumonia and takes to sleeping on his grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard (cemetary). The caretaker removes Bobby from the kirkyard every night, but he finds his way back in. The little dog eventually captures the hearts of the caretaker, a restaurant owner named Mr. Trill and all of the neighborhood children. The law in Edinburgh is tough on stray dogs, and without a legal owner, Bobby risks being put down. The Lord Provost claims that because Mr. Trill feeds the dog, he should pay the license fee. Mr Trill refuses on the principle that the dog doesn't sleep in his home and therefore doesn't belong to him. At the last minute, the neighborhood arrive at the courthouse, having saved up enough money to pay for the license. The film ends with Bobby returning to Old Jock's grave to sleep as the neighborhood children are heard off camera saying "Goodnight Bobby."

Greyfriars Bobby was released on September 28th, 1961. Critics were mostly favorable to it, citing its charm and beautiful imagery as it's strengths. The two criticisms they threw at it were that the plot takes too long to develop and that the accents are often hard to understand, a recurring criticism for every Disney film using accents (they said the same thing about Rob Roy and Darby O'Gil and the Little People). It was not a success at the box office and made its television debut in 1964. It received its first home video release in 1986.

Greyfriars Bobby is a beautiful and touching film that stays with you, without ever getting too emotional. I fell in love with this film a few years ago when I first saw it. It's a shame that it hasn't grown in popularity over the years like other great Disney films that didn't do well originally because it certainly matches the quality of those films. The book on which the Disney film is based does delineate from the true story quite a bit. Bobby's real owner was a policeman who died of tuberculosis. When the law mandated that Bobby be put down without an owner, it was actually the Lord Provost who paid the fee. A statue of Bobby is in the real Greyfriars Kirkyard. The story inspired another film in 2006 by Picadilly Pictures called The Adventures of Greyfriars Bobby in the UK.

Greyfriars Bobby is currently available on DVD. The film is presented in fullscreen, however it was filmed and originally presented in a widescreen aspect ratio of 1.75:1 meaning this is a pan & scan release. There are no bonus features. It is also available on iTunes, where it is correctly presented in widescreen and in HD.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Nikki, Wild Dog of the North - 1961

Walt Disney's True-Life Adventures series ended in 1960 with the film Jungle Cat, but it was far from the end of Disney films starring live animals. In 1957, he produced a film called Perri that was advertised as a "True-Life Fantasy" because it was actually based on a book. He used his True-Life film crew to capture staged scenarios with animals to tell a story, and that is exactly what Nikki, Wild Dog of the North is. Two film units were set up in Canada for this film, one of which was headed by Jack Couffer who receives full director credit. Winston Hibler, producer of most of the True-Life Adventures, produced and co-wrote this film. The source material was a book called Nomads of the North by James Oliver Curwood.

The film begins with opening credits against footage of Canada's beautiful landscapes. The story begins with a trapper named Andre Dupas and his domesticated wolf dog Nikki. When Nikki runs off, he discovers an orphaned bear cub named Neewa. Andre ties them together as they take off down the river, but they are tumbled out of the canoe when they get to rapids and Nikki and Neewa must fend for themselves. They do alright until Neewa hibernates for the winter and Nikki begins to grow hungry since he is not a natural hunter. He learns how to trick hunter traps and begins to steal meat that was meant for bait. The hunter gets angry and poisons the meat. He and his Indian guide follow Nikki's tracks and trap him, but a wolf comes and they witness Nikki defeat the wolf that attacks him. The hunter decides to train Nikki as a dog fight dog by being cruel to him and making him hate everybody, including humans who he was always kind to. After training Nikki, the hunter learns that dog fights have been made illegal, but continues the fights anyway. The town factor arrives to break up the fight and the hunter pushes him into the dog pit hoping Nikki will attack him, but it turns out the factor is Andre, who Nikki won't harm. The hunter umps in the pit to kill Andre, but is killed himself when he falls on his own knife during the fight and dies. Andre takes the Indian guide with him and Nikki with him on his next adventure. When they arrive at a familiar place, Nikki runs off to find Neewa, who is now a full grown bear no longer interested in playing. He returns to Andre and they take off in the canoe.

Nikki, Wild Dog of the North was released on July 12th, 1961. It received favorable reviews, although there wasn't a ton of fanfare when it was released. It was by no means a failure at the box office, but it wasn't a huge success either. It never received another theatrical release, but was presented on TV in 1964. It made its home video debut in 1986.

It wasn't until a few years ago that I had seen or even heard of Nikki, Wild Dog of the North. I've never been a big fan of Disney's narrated animal movies, but this is clearly one of the better ones. It does get fairly boring when Nikki and Neewa are off on their own, but the pace picks up again when the hunter enters the story. It is surprising how violent the film can get, especially when you consider that this is a Disney movie made for families. The dog fight scenes are intense and there is blood. And the death of the hunter isn't gory, but is expertly done so that it is hard to watch. I think my main problem with the film is that the ending doesn't make up for the troubles that Nikki endures. He ends up in the same place he was when the film started and while he certainly was wiser as a result, it ends with little celebration. It's not a bad film by any means, but it pales in comparison to some of the other live action Disney films of the era and doesn't leave a lasting memory either. The true strengths of the film are that it is well made in gorgeous locales and the performances from both the human and animal actors are well done.

Nikki, Wild Dog of the North was released on DVD in 2000 through a short licensing agreement with Anchor Bay. It has been out of print since 2003 when the deal ended and is one of the few titles that Disney hasn't rereleased on Disney DVD. The Anchor Bay release doesn't have any bonus features and has removed the Buena Vista title card before the film. The film is presented in fullscreen, which was most likely not its original theatrical aspect ratio. The film appears to have received a mild restoration. Some scenes look amazing, while others have excess grain and scratches on the film. The DVD is hard to come by and can be expensive. It is available on iTunes, where is is also presented in fullscreen, but this is the less expensive way to get it.