Saturday, April 18, 2015

Napoleon and Samantha - 1972

Cute kids and animals were a hallmark of live-action Disney films and at first glance Napoleon and Samantha looks like just another in a long list. However, Disney was prepared to break a few conventions with this latest endeavor. Rather than a cute comedy, this film is far more serious and deals with heavier themes.

Johnny Whitaker returned as the lead for his second Disney film, the first one being The Biscuit Eater. Jodi Foster makes her feature film debut here, a freckle-faced 9-year old who'd been working on TV since she was 4. This was her first of four Disney films that she would make in the 70's. Michael Douglas (son of Kirk Douglas from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) became a household name this same year on the TV series The Streets of San Francisco. He plays a hippie in this, his only Disney film. However he did return to the studio for 2015's Marvel film Ant-Man. The lion was a star in his own-right. Zamba was 16-years old and 500 pounds when he made this film, but he'd been working in Hollywood since 1955 and appeared in a slew of Tarzan films and on many major TV shows, such as I Dream of Jeannie and Gilligan's Island. Mary Wickes also has a bit part in this. She was the live-action reference for Cruella DeVille in One Hundred and One Dalmatians and two of her most iconic roles would come later in Touchstone's Sister Act and Disney's animated version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. John Lupton also returned for the first time since 1956's The Great Locomotive Chase.

Producer Winston Hibler, who worked on the True-Life Adventure films and most of Disney's animal films, scouted the perfect filming locations in Oregon. The towns of John Day and Canyon City served as the civilized locations, with unsettled land serving as the wilderness the children trek through with their lion. TV director Bernard McEveety was assigned to this, his first of several Disney films and TV movies.

The film opens with a stylized credit sequence with moments from the film depicted in felt cutouts. Napoleon and Samantha are kids in a small town who make money selling bottles they find. When Napoleon and his grandpa, his caregiver, happen upon a retired circus clown they agree to take his tame lion Major into their care. When his grandpa passes away, Napoleon keeps his death a secret out of fear of ending up in an orphanage. He hires an out-of-work young man named Danny to help him with a secret burial. When his only living relative, an uncle in New York, doesn't respond to the letter he sends, Napoleon and Major decide to embark on a multi-day hike to Danny's cabin with Samantha and her chicken along for the journey. Their adventure pits them against a mountain lion and a wild bear. Meanwhile, Samantha's babysitter discovers that she is missing and alerts the police, who discover Napoleon's grandfather's grave and begin a search for the missing children. They find Danny who returns to town to tell Samantha's sitter that she's alright, but she calls the cops and has Danny arrested for kidnapping. When the police refuse to go to his cabin to prove the kids are alright, Danny discovers that the man he left the kids with is a wanted man and breaks free, stealing a motorcycle and leading a chase to his cabin. Danny is cleared of the charges when the wanted man is caught and he convinces Danny to give foster care a try, guaranteeing that Major can stay with him. The film ends with Danny and Napoleon going off on an adventure with Major to find Indians.

Napoleon and Samantha was released on July 5th, 1972, and received mostly favorable reviews, but it wasn't a box office success. It was released internationally as a double feature with a re-release of Dumbo. Buddy Baker's score was nominated for an Academy Award. It premiered on The Wonderful World of Color in 1975 and made its home video debut in 1986.

Disney strayed from their typical formula with this film, but not too far. It features kids and animals, but the plot is much deeper than usual. While not a comedy, the film does feature the now-cliche chase sequence as its climax. Overall it's enjoyable, but the film suffers from pacing issues and is very slow to start. Michael Douglas and Jodi Foster both give wonderful performances. The clown in the film plays a flittering song on his flute, which is a modified version of "You Can Fly" from Peter Pan which can be heard at the end of the Disney Parks attraction Peter Pan's Flight. Jodi Foster recalled a terrifying experience during this film in an interview on the Freaky Friday DVD. The lion picked her up and shook her like a rag doll during a take, leaving Foster with permanent scars on her stomach and back, plus a lifelong fear of cats. Foster and Johnny Whitaker costarred in MGM's musical version of Tom Sawyer the following year, which was co-written and featured music by the Sherman Brothers.

Napoleon and Samantha is currently available on DVD, which features a restored print done in 2004 and is presented in widescreen (1.85:1 instead of the theatrical ratio of 1.75:1). There are no bonus features on the disc. This restoration looked amazing in 2004 compared to the way the other live-action catalogue films from Disney looked. This same restoration is available in HD through iTunes, which exhibits more detail than the DVD version. But in comparison to the newer HD remasters that are available digitally, this one exhibits many more white specks and dust.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Biscuit Eater - 1972

Walt Disney Productions had adapted many great novels to the screen that had been previously made by other studios. In that respect, you could say that when Walt made his version of Treasure Island, Robin Hood, or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea they were all remakes. However, the first all-out remake the studio ever did was in 1972 with The Biscuit Eater. It was a short story by Bill Street that published in 1939 in The Saturday Evening Post. Paramount made a feature-length film version in 1940, which is considered the first "sleeper hit" because it cost little to make, had no big stars, but was a big success at the box office. While it was made thirty years earlier, the original was frequently shown on television. So modern audiences in the early 70's would have been familiar with the story.

Disney's screenplay was written by Lawrence Edward Watkin, who retired shortly after. His other Disney writing credits include Treasure Island and Darby O'Gill and the Little People. Director Vincent McEveety took on a more serious endeavor than Million Dollar Duck with this film. Johnny Witaker was a familiar face from TV's Family Affair when he was cast in his first of three Disney films. He is the only actor in this film that would become a familiar Disney face, although audiences would have also been impressed by Lew Ayres, star of the famous Doctor Kildare series at MGM. He fell out of favor in Hollywood after being vocal about his displeasure in being drafter for World War II.

1972 was an interesting time for the Walt Disney Company. Roy O. Disney passed away at the end of 1971, just months after Walt Disney World opened. His second in command, Donn Tatum, took over as chairman and CEO of the company while his son Roy E. Disney remained an executive. The Sherman Brothers steared clear of the studio after Bedknobs and Broomsticks because it had become a much different environment than they experienced when Walt was alive. They didn't have to look far for the next studio songwriter, Shane Tatum (Donn's son) wrote his first song "Moreover and Me" for this film and sings it as well.

The film begins with footage of Lonnie and his dog playing while the theme song plays. Lonnie's been trying to teach his dog how to point to help him hunt, but the dog is too smart and spoiled to do it. Lonnie's dad forces him to give the dog to the local gas station owner. Behind his dad's back, Lonnie convinces his best friend Text to take the dog and they name him Moreover. The boys train him well, but the dog's desire to eat eggs gets him into trouble when he sneaks into a neighbor's yard and almost gets shot. They enter Moreover into a competition where he competes against the dog Lonnie's dad trained. Moreover would have won, but Lonnie called him the name he hates ("biscuit eater") to make the dog run off fearing his dad would lose his job as a dog trainer if he lost. The boys lose the dog and their mean neighbor poisons him, but thankfully he survives and the film ends with a promise to enter him in next years' competition.

The Biscuit Eater was released on March 22nd, 1972. Unlike the 1940 version, critics downgraded it to just another film about a boy and his dog and didn't see much heart in it. Audiences, perhaps because the original was available on TV in reruns, didn't flock to the theater to see it. It made its Wonderful World of Color debut in 1976 and surprisingly wasn't released on home video until 2002, when it was released simultaneously on VHS and DVD.

While mostly entertaining, the biggest problem with The Biscuit Eater is that it's not very memorable. It never tugs at your heartstrings, but it has good pacing and an appealing cast. It also deserves to be applauded for having a racially diverse cast, something that was fairly rare for Disney films. It's the second Disney film to have an African American lead actor (the first was Song of the South way back in 1946). It's never stated and isn't immediately obvious, but the film is supposed to take place in the 1930's. You can tell if you pay close attention to the appliances, automobiles and the fact that nobody has a television set. This is definitely a film from a different time where the boys have a rifle and use it while hunting unsupervised. However, gun safety is at least brought up in a scene soon after the boys acquire the rifle. While the dog is often called a "biscuit eater" as an insult, he never once eats a biscuit in the film (only eggs). The dog who plays Moreover was a German wire-haired pointer named Ralph Von Wolfgang. He belonged to a tree trimmer who worked at Disney's Golden Oak Ranch, where most of the movie was filmed.

The Biscuit Eater is currently available on DVD where it is presented in fullscreen with occasional dust and excess grain in the print. A more recent restoration was done and is available digitally on iTunes. The film looks much better now, but still has some imperfections.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Bedknobs and Broomsticks - 1971

When Mary Poppins was in preproduction, Walt Disney put everything on hold while he waited for P.L. Travers to finalize the film rights. Fearing that they wouldn't get the rights, Walt had a backup plan. Bedknobs and Broomsticks was a book by Mary Norton he purchased in case Travers held out. He assigned the same story team and the Sherman Brothers to adapt it into a film. However, they didn't get too far before finding themselves back to work on Poppins.

After Walt passed away, the studio began to work on many projects that Walt either didn't get to or had passed up. Yearning to recapture the success of Mary Poppins, the Sherman Brothers found themselves back at the studio to finish Bedknobs and Broomsticks. One of the new songs written was "The Age of Not Believing," which was inspired by the brothers' doubtful feelings of pulling off the picture without Walt. In addition to the songs written specifically for this film, they also recycled a deleted song from Mary Poppins called "The Beautiful Briny Sea." The same story team from Poppins returned to finish the script, Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi. However, the studio forced an animated soccer match into the script that they objected to, which was written by Ralph Wright and Ted Berman.

Robert Stevenson, who directed Mary Poppins, directed this film as well. Ward Kimball directed the animated sequences. Julie Andrews was the first choice to play the lead, but she turned it down. Angela Lansbury, who was originally considered to play Poppins, was cast instead. David Tomlinson from Mary Poppins was cast opposite her. Roddy McDowell is another familiar Disney face, having appeared in That Darn Cat and The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin. Production took place mostly at the Disney Studio in Burbank. Exterior sets were built on the backlot while the sound stages were filled with the massive Portobello Road set. A few shots required a second unit to travel to England. When production wrapped, the film was over two hours long, which caused most movie theaters to refuse to show it. Roadshow musicals were quickly falling out of favor by 1971 and Radio City Music Hall wanted to book the film, but needed it shortened to include their Christmas stage show on the same program. Twenty-five minutes of the film were cut for its original theatrical release.

The film opens with a tapestry-inspired credit sequence. Eglantine Price is an apprentice witch who is forced to take three children into her care during World War II. After the kids see her flying on a broomstick at night, they threaten to reveal her secret to improve their living conditions. Instead she compromises, enchanting a bedknob to take them wherever they want. Their first stop is to find Professor Brown in an attempt to get the final spell from her correspondence course. It turns out the professor only had half of the book. They track down the other half in Portobello Road, but find that the most important page is missing. In a daring escape from a thug, they flee to the island of Naboombu, which is inhabited entirely by animals bewitched to behave like humans. King Leo on the island has the final spell Eglantine has been waiting for, which she uses to enchant an army of empty armor to scare the nazis out of England.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks had its world premier on October 7th, 1971 in London. It debuted in theaters on December 13th, 1971. Critics were mixed on it, most comparing it to Poppins. It made $17 million at the box office, but cost an estimated $20 million to make. However, the studio decided to rerelease it in 1979, although they edited it further to just 98 minutes. It made its home video debut in 1980. In 1996, the studio attempted to restore the film to its original length. The footage for one musical number ("A Step in the Right Direction") couldn't be found and some audio elements had to redubbed because the original audio elements were destroyed.

It would be impossible to top Mary Poppins and Disney learned this the hard way with Bedknobs and Broomsticks. However, it's still a very enjoyable film. The Sherman songs are mostly great, but none of them tug at the heart the same way "Feed the Birds" does. Angela Lansbury is marvelous here as well and was nominated at the Golden Globes for her performance. Like Poppins before it, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences nominated the film for a slew of awards, including Best Song ("The Age of Not Believing"), Best Costume Design, Best Score and Best Art Direction. It took home the award for Best Visual Effects. Comparing the theatrical cut to the extended version, I actually feel the theatrical cut makes for a better film. It has much better pacing and doesn't lose any major plot elements.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks is currently available on Blu-Ray in widescreen (1.66:1 instead of the correct 1.75:1). The film looks amazing in high definition and is presented in its original theatrical cut (117 minutes). The deleted scenes and songs are available as bonus features. However, if you want to see the extended version that was restored in 1996, you'll have to buy the "Enchanted Musical Edition" DVD (the DVD included with the Blu-Ray is the theatrical cut and loses most bonus features). The same restoration found on the Blu-Ray is available digitally on iTunes, which also includes all of the bonus features.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Million Dollar Duck - 1971

Walt Disney Productions' zany comedy for 1971 drew inspiration from Aesop's Fables. The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs inspired Million Dollar Duck. Using a familiar formula and familiar faces, Disney seemed to be playing it safe with this film.

Director Vincent McEveety made his Disney film debut with this film, although he had previously directed three TV movies for the studio (The Ballad of Hector the Stowaway Dog, Smoke and Menace on the Mountain). The story was created by Ted Key, who would go on to write other Disney films including The Cat From Outer Space, with a screenplay by Roswell Rogers. Dean Jones was cast in the lead role, his first Disney project since The Love Bug three years prior. Sandy Duncan was not yet a household name when she was cast as his wife (she went on to have her own TV special filmed in Disneyland). Other familiar Disney faces include Joe Flynn (The Love Bug, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes) and Atrhur Hunnicutt (A Tiger Walks).

An open casting call was held for the duck, with Webfoot Waddle winning the role. He enjoyed weekends off floating in the studio pond during production. Most of the film was shot on the Disney lot, with residential street as the main backlot setting for exterior shoots. The farm set appears to be Disney's Golden Oak Ranch and there is also quite a bit of shooting around the greater L.A. area.

The film begins with an animated title sequence where the duck keeps bringing eggs to the bottom of the screen. Albert Dooley is a scientist with money problems. When his boss decides to get rid of a lab duck, Albert takes it home. But after the duck ate his wife's weird apple sauce and was exposed to radiation, the duck begins laying eggs with a golden yolk. When Katie begins to spend the eggs, the government gets on their trail and spies on them. When Albert's son runs away with the duck, it becomes a race against the feds to get them back.

Million Dollar Duck was released on June 30th, 1971. Critics bashed the film, which was reportedly one of only three movies that Gene Siskel ever walked out on. It didn't cause much of a sensation at the box office. It debuted on The Wonderful World of Disney in 1974 and was released on home video in 1986.

I've read several reviews of this film from various blogs and they all unanimously hate it, but I can't understand why it deserves such scathing reviews. Dean Jones and Sandy Duncan are delightful in this. Sandy Duncan was even nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance in this film. Is it dated? Very much so. Duncan's character is a dumb-as-rocks housewife stereotype and there are a few racist elements to the film as well, although nowhere near as bas as in The Boatniks. But when viewed through a nostalgic lens as a reflection of the time in which it was created, Million Dollar Duck is fairly enjoyable. It has a heartfelt message about not letting money destroy relationships and the formulaic chase is fun with the addition of Dean Jones (and a mannequin stand-in) riding through L.A. on a raised cherry picker.

Million Dollar Duck is currently available on DVD, where it is presented in fullscreen. The presentation is an open matte VHS master that features dust, scratches and excess grain. A more recent restoration was done that is available digitally in HD on iTunes. That version is in widescreen 1.66:1 (correct aspect ratio would 1.75:1). Scratches and dust have been removed from this version and the film looks much better in HD.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Scandalous John - 1971

While Disney films from the 1970's are typically defined by goofball comedies that weren't particularly funny or memorable, there are a few exceptions. Producer Bill Walsh chose to adapt a book called Scandalous John by Richard Gardner that was a Western retelling of the classic Don Quixote. The screenplay was written by Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi (the duo behind Mary Poppins and The Love Bug).

Robert Butler returned to direct his third film, a big departure from his other Disney work (The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and The Barefoot Executive). Brian Keith returned to the studio after 6 years away. This is his final Disney film, although he did return for a TV movie in 1986 called The B.R.A.T. Patrol. His sidekick Paco is played by Alfonso Arau, his first of two Disney films. The rest of the cast are mostly unknown actors, but Harry Morgan (The Barefoot Executive) is in this and would become one of the most frequently used character actors at Disney for the rest of the decade. John Ritter appears in his second and final Disney film (The Barefoot Executive) before becoming a household name on Three's Company. Famous songwriter Rod McKuen wrote the score and song "Pastures Green" for the film. Filming took place from September to December of 1970. Most of the filming was on location in Alamogordo, New Mexico, with interior scenes shot in Arizona's Old Tucson Studio. They also travelled to South Dakota to shoot the railroad scenes.

John McCanless was once a great rancher, a hero in his Western town. But after the loss of his wife, he began to lose his mind with delusions of grandeur. He hires an illegal immigrant named Paco to be his ranch hand and their adventures include trying to block a plan for a dam that would flood his property (real), fighting off an indian attack (delusional), leading a cattle drive (real... but with only one cow) and finding the legendary golden city of Quivera (delusional). They are followed by John's granddaughter Amanda, who is worried about her grandfather's health, and Barton Whitaker, the man trying to stop him from getting the money to save his ranch. In an accidental shoot out, John is fatally wounded and by poetic happenstance, it happens under a sign that reads "Quivera."

Scandalous John was released on June 22nd, 1971 in a limited release. It is unknown why the studio would want to limit the exposure of this obviously expensive film (shot on location in multiple states in Cinemascope). Even more curious for a Disney film that didn't make money in its theatrical release, Scandalous John never aired on The Wonderful World of Disney. It wasn't seen again until 1986 when it was released on home video to rental stores.

Was Disney trying to hide Scandalous John? And if so, why? It was made at a time when the story of Don Quixote had renewed interest thanks to a Broadway musical that opened in 1965 called The Man of La Mancha. By 1971, United Artists was working on a film version, so perhaps there was some agreement that Disney would limit the exposure of Scandalous John so that audiences wouldn't be tired of the story. This is all speculation on my part because I can't see a reason why Disney would make a high quality film like this and then not give it a proper release. If they were concerned about the brief racial undertones (there's a scene where Paco is almost deported), they could have easily edited those out.

Brian Keith gives his finest performance of any of his Disney work in this film. John McCanless is quite a character and his performance is consistent throughout. With his beard, accent and gruff voice, he's actually hard to recognize as the dad from The Parent Trap. The film has a slow pace, but the cast is so likable that it's easy to forgive as the story unfolds. There are also some genuinely funny moments, such as John and Paco riding horses through a Main Street full of cars and riding them into stores to shop. It's a rare gem in a decade full of mediocre and forgettable films.

Scandalous John is available on DVD as a Disney Movie Club Exclusive where it is presented in its Cinemascope widescreen ratio of 2.35:1. It was released in 2009 and received a gentle restoration then, but has excessive grain. That same restoration is used for digital HD versions of the film, but for some odd reason Disney chose to crop it to a standard widescreen ratio, meaning you are missing lots of picture on the sides. It's a confusing choice that I can't understand and as a result, the DVD is the version I recommend.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Barefoot Executive - 1971

In a very short time, Kurt Russell went from being a supporting actor at Disney to being a leading man. His first headlining role was in 1969 with the first Dexter Riley film, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. It was so successful that it quickly made him the studio's most bankable star. They were quick to find him another project before returning to the Dexter Riley formula. 1971's The Barefoot Executive was in the same spirit as The Misadventures of Merlin Jones and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and must have seemed like a guaranteed hit at the time.

Drawing even more similarities to The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, both films share the same director (Robert Butler), writer (Joseph L. McEveety) and producer (Bill Anderson). The two even share a few supporting cast members, including Joe Flynn and Alan Hewitt. And the theme song, "He's Gonna Make It," was written by the same team that wrote the song for Computer (Bruce Belland and Robert F. Brunner). Heather North plays Kurt Russell's girlfriend and if her voice sounds familiar, it's because she's the voice of Daphne in Hannah Barbara's Scooby-Doo series. This is also the film debut of John Ritter, five years before becoming a household name on Three's Company. The film was mostly shot on the Disney Studio lot, with one week of location shooting in Long Beach, CA.

Steve is a mailroom clerk at UBC trying to move up, but nobody will listen to his TV ideas. When he comes to the realization that his girlfriend' Jennifer's chimp always watches the highest rated TV programs, he uses his uncanny knack for picking hit shows to climb the corporate ladder behind her back. When a jealous coworker discovers his secret and reveals it to his bosses, the network execs try to steal the chimp to edge him out. Their attempts are foiled, but when they offer Steve money to buy the chimp, he has to choose between wealth or doing what's right.

The Barefoot Executive was released on March 17th, 1971. It received mixed reviews and wasn't successful on the same level as The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, despite all of the similarities. It made its Wonderful World of Disney TV debut in 1972 and was released on home video for the first time in 1985.

The best word to describe this film is "cute." All of the actors are likable and if you've seen a lot of Disney movies from the 60's and 70's, this one is full of familiar character actors. The premise is clever and fun, but isn't quite enough to fill a feature film. There's a lot of obvious filler with jokes that never really pay off. The funniest moment is a running joke about how the chimp likes to grab a beer during commercial breaks. But with so much done right, it's hard not to enjoy The Barefoot Executive. Among the programs Steve shows the chimp is a clip from Babes in Toyland. The film grew in popularity over the years thanks to Kurt Russell's star power and multiple TV airings. In 1995, Disney did a TV remake for Disney Channel.

The Barefoot Executive is currently available on DVD. It is presented in open matte fullscreen, which looks like a VHS master. The colors are over saturated and there is a lot of dust in the print. It was recently restored in HD and its available digitally through all major providers. The colors seem more natural, dust has been removed and it is presented in widescreen (1.66:1, although the correct aspect ratio would be 1.75:1).

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Wild Country - 1971

It may be surprising to modern audiences that Disney produced many Westerns throughout the 50's, 60's and 70's. They were sometimes more family friendly and silly like The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin, but could also be quite serious and mature like Smith!. However, for all of their efforts their only true success with the genre was on television and neither Walt, nor the studio that he left behind, ever came close to matching the success of Davy Crockett. The Wild Country falls in the more serious category.

The film is based on a book called Little Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers by Ralph Moody, which was an autobiographical tale from when he was eight and was the first in a popular series. The screenplay was written by TV writers Calvin Clements and Paul Savage. Director Robert Totten was hired to direct, who was also specialized in TV and had done a few TV movies for The Wonderful World of Disney. Steve Forrest took top billing, who also played the dad in Rascal. But the most recognizable Disney star of the era was Vera Miles (Those Calloways, Follow Me Boys). Ron Howard, still known here as Ronny Howard, plays their eldest son and his brother Clint Howard plays the youngest. Their father Rance Howard has a cameo in this film, making it the first theatrical film they all appeared in together.

Filming took place entirely on location in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which is also the setting of the story. Filming took place in the summer of 1970 over a seven week span. Seven wind machines were brought there from Walt Disney Studios and were used in combination with three snowplanes to create the tornado that appears on screen. 80 acres of greens had to be painted tan to give the illusion of drought.

The film begins with a stagecoach traveling through the country as the credits play. The Tanner family have moved from Philadelphia to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to start a new life for themselves. However, they quickly find that their new home is broken down. They make the best of their situation, but things get even more complicated when they find out their neighbor, Ab Cross, has cut off the water supply to their farm. Jim, the father, attempts to establish rules in lawless Jackson Hole, a struggle that proves harder to do than it seems. They reach yet another setback when their home is damaged by a tornado. Just as they are about to give up, a court order arrives to legally settle the dispute with Ab Cross. In retaliation, he has their barn set on fire and when the family tries to put it out, Ab tries to shoot them. Eldest son Virgil steps in at the last second with a rifle to save the family. After his death, Ab's men step up to help the family rebuild their barn, feeling guilty for the part they played and the story ends on an optimistic tone for the future.

The Wild Country was released on January 20, 1971. The movie poster advertised that Walt Disney World would be opening that October. Critics were generally positive, praising the pacing and chemistry between the family actors. However, it was not a big draw and didn't do much at the box office. It made its TV debut on The Wonderful World of Disney in 1975 and was released on home video in 1986.

For a Disney film, The Wild Country is surprisingly violent and intense. But perhaps an even bigger surprise, it's a really great film. There are several scenes of hand-to-hand fighting with a bit of blood and the tension between the Tanner's and Ab Cross is much greater than your average Disney film. There are a few moments reminiscent of Old Yeller, particularly Clint Howard's character who is basically Arliss (always trying to catch animals, desperate to get a dog). There are also plenty of scenes of the family interacting with wildlife, including the birth of a filly. While this was Ron Howard's only on-screen role for Disney, he would have a great impact on the company with his directorial debut Splash in 1984, which launched Disney's less-family oriented division Touchstone Pictures.

The Wild Country is currently available on DVD as a Disney Movie Club Exclusive. The film is presented in full screen and is believed to be the original VHS master. The print has quite a few scratches and dust artifacts and the colors seem faded. There aren't any bonus features. This same version is available digitally from all major digital providers. It is one of the few Disney films that hasn't received a more recent HD restoration.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Aristocats - 1970

Although well established as a live-action film studio by 1970, animation had always been, and would continue to be, the hallmark of Walt Disney Productions. Walt Disney passed away at the end of 1966, a year before his final animated masterpiece, The Jungle Book. But before he passed, he had already greenlit the next animated film... The Aristocats.

The origin of The Aristocats dates back to a decade prior when Mr. Ed was groundbreaking TV. Walt tasked producer Harry Tytle with finding an animal story that would make a good two-part movie for The Wonderful World of Color. Tytle and director Tom McGowan brainstormed and drew inspiration from a story about a mother cat and her kittens lost in New York City paired with the success of One Hundred and One Dalmatians and conceived of a similar story set in Paris. The original treatment featured a butler and a maid as villains and while hiding from them on the streets of Paris, the mother cat would hide each kitten in a foster home that could nurture their talents. McGowan hired Tom Rowe to write the script, paying for it out of his own pocket. However, the story got shelved at the studio and Tytle proposed that they retool it as an animated feature in 1963. Walt loved the idea, but story development kept getting sidetracked by other projects (World's Fair, Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book) until the story men were left to deal with it without Walt's supervision.

The end result of The Aristocats would be a team of artists who spent their careers up until then under a leader who always had final say. They were thirsty to prove themselves, so many changes were made to the film that ultimately wound up on screen. Woolie Reitherman took sole directorial duties again, having directed both The Sword in the Stone and The Jungle Book. The casting team hired mostly Disney regulars. Phil Harris (Balloo in The Jungle Book) returned for his second of three animated films at Disney to play Thomas O'Malley. Eva Gabor makes her first Disney appearance as Duchess (she would go on to voice Bianca in both The Rescuers and its sequel). Other recognizable Disney voices include Sterling Holloway (Winnie the Pooh), Paul Winchell (Tigger) and Thurl Ravenscroft (singing bust in The Haunted Mansion). This was the last Disney film for Hermoine Baddeley who voiced Madame and played the maid in Mary Poppins. It was the final film for Bill Thompson who plays Uncle Waldo and passed away in 1971. His memorable Disney voice work includes Smee in Peter Pan, Jock in Lady and the Tramp and the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. Outside of Disney, he was most famous for being the voice of Snoopy.

Because the music was in development at the same time as The Jungle Book, it shares many of the same songwriters. Terry Gilkyson, who wrote the Oscar nominated "The Bear Necessities," wrote "Thomas O'Malley Cat." The Sherman Brothers wrote a complete score of songs for the film as well, but only three would wind up in the final film: "The Aristocats," "Scales and Arpeggios" and "She Never Felt Alone." After Walt passed, the executive committee that approved all studio decisions edged the Sherman's out and they left in 1968 to pursue freelance careers. When the story team decided to introduce a jazz band of cats to the story, they called upon jazz writer Al Rinker and a new studio songwriter, Floyd Huddlestone, to write "Ev'rybody Wants to Be a Cat." The character of Scat Cat was based on Louis Armstrong, who was meant to voice the character. However, he was too sick to do the role by this time and Scatman Crothers was hired. While a famous jazz singer in his own right, Crothers was instructed to do his best Armstrong impression.

The film's opening credits features line art of the characters from various scenes over brightly colored textured backgrounds as the song "The Aristocats" plays. While Madame is making her will, her butler Edgar overhears that all of her wealth is willed to her cats first, then to her butler. Duchess and her three kittens (Berlioze, Toulouse and Marie) live in a grand mansion in Paris and spend their time practicing the arts. Edgar drugs the cats and takes them away at night on his motorbike with plans to drown them in the river. However, two farm dogs charge the bike and he loses the kittens in a ditch in his attempt to escape. Duchess and her kittens are unable to fend for themselves, but find help in an alley cat named Thomas O'Malley, a loner who cant resist Duchess' charm. On their journey, they meet a gaggle of catty geese and a jazz band of alley cats. Meanwhile, Edgar realizes he left evidence at the crime scene and returns to clean it up. The dogs cause him more trouble and he arrives back at the mansion at the same time as the kittens. The alley cats help them trap Edgar in a shipping container bound for Timbuktu. Madame adopts Thomas O'Malley and uses her money to start a home for alley cats.

The Aristocats had its world premier in L.A. on December 11th and was released to theaters on December 24th, 1970. It was not critically acclaimed and most reviewers agreed that it was a big decline in quality for Disney. However, audiences loved it and made it a big box office hit. It was rereleased in 1980 and 1987 and was released on home video for the first time in 1996.

My first exposure to The Aristocats was in 1996 when it came out on VHS. I remember being extremely excited to see a Disney animated classic that I had never seen before. And I remember loving it to the extent that we had plushes of the five main cats from Disney Store. Because I grew up with it, it's hard to see why critics were so harsh. But in their defense, they were comparing it to the Disney animated films that came before it and it does rank towards the bottom of that list. It fascinates me that the animation team was trying to spread their wings and do their own thing on this film, yet the final product has so much in common with both One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Jungle Book. Both Dalmatians and this film are about household pets on the run from a villain. This film even ends with its own version of the Dalmatian Plantation. The Jungle Book is a string of chance encounters with interesting characters, which is basically how the cats spend their time on the run. It's completely unoriginal in its attempts to be different. The bottom line is if you don't love these characters, you won't love the film. Parts of George Bruns' score for this film sound surprisingly similar to another Disney cat movie, That Darn Cat, which was composed by Robert Brunner. Disney fans with a keen eye may spot Lady's hat box from Lady and the Tramp in the attic during "Ev'rybody Wants to Be a Cat." When the film was new, the Scat Cat band were regular walkaround characters at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Each cat was a bright neon color instead of their natural fur colors. There used to be a shop in Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom called The Aristocats (it is now Sir Mickey's) and there is currently a lounge at Disney's Port Orleans French Quarter Resort called Scat Cat's Lounge.

For the past decade, The Aristocats has grown exponentially in popularity. It has nothing to do with the story, the music, or the animation. Instead, it has everything to do with little girls obsessed with a white kitty wearing a big pink bow... Marie. The Marie craze started in Japan, where merchandise sold like Hello Kitty and the character began greeting guests at Tokyo Disneyland. Upon releasing similar merchandise here in the states, Disney quickly realized that American girls love Marie too. It is now common to see her at Magic Kingdom, Disneyland and Epcot. The character became so popular that a direct-to-video sequel was in the works in 2005 that would have featured Marie lost on her own in Paris. That sequel was shut down when John Lasseter took over Disney Animation, but I wouldn't be surprised if that idea resurfaces again someday.

The Aristocats is currently available on Blu-Ray, where it has been lovingly restored and is presented in widescreen 1.66:1 (although the original theatrical ratio was 1.75:1). This combo pack features a number of bonus features between the Blu-Ray and DVD, including deleted songs, an interview with the Sherman Brothers, an excerpt from a Disneyland episode called "The Great Cat Family," and a scrapbook. Because the film was created in fullscreen with the intention of being cropped in widescreen, some may prefer to view the full animated image. The only fullscreen DVD release was the Gold Collection DVD from 2000. However, the restoration is the same one done in 1996, which features dulled colors and scratches in the film.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Boatniks - 1970

Walt Disney Productions started the 1970's focused mostly on getting Walt Disney World ready than anything else. With construction in full swing on the opposite side of the country, the studio continued to make films the way they thought Walt would have. The Beatniks seemed dated before it even came out and one has to wonder if the script had been conceived a decade prior (the term "beatnik" was no longer popular by the early 1960's).

The Boatniks has its roots in TV, with a story by Marty Roth and screenplay by Arthur Julian, both writers almost exclusively for sitcoms of the 60's and 70's. Director Norman Tokar, who had been one of Disney's top film directors since 1962, was also a TV veteran with nearly 100 episodes of Leave It to Beaver under his belt. Walt's son-in-law Ron Miller produced the film.

Robert morse was cast to headline the film, his only starring role at Disney. He is best known for starring in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and was recently a series regular on AMC's Mad Men. Stefanie Powers plays his love interest, her first of two roles for Disney. Other notable actors include Phil Silvers, Norman Fell, Mickey Shaughnessy, Walley Cox and Don Ameche. While none of these names are familiar Disney faces, they would have been very familiar to audiences in 1970.

The film begins on the water where the coast guard is responding to the calls from pleasure cruisers who are having trouble with their boats, mostly caused by their own stupidity. As the previous skipper steps down, Ensign Garland relocates to take the job. At the same time, three jewel thieves are passing through his Southern California jurisdiction on their way to Mexico. In a coast full of beautiful women, Ensign becomes attracted to Kate, who teaches at a boating school. The two become close when Ensigns boat stalls and Kate rescues him. When the thieves lose their jewels at the bottom of the ocean, Kate is the first one to notice something suspicious with the trio. Unable to obtain the jewels themselves, the thieves fly in a Japanese pearl diver. Ensign and Kate spy on them as the confused diver brings up various items before finding the basket. Upon discovering that she learned English, the diver takes some of the jewels as payment for her silence. When Ensign sees her leave their hotel with a diamond bracelet, he is sure that these men are the jewel thieves he's heard about on the news. During a boat chase, the thieves steal a small submarine to get to their water plane to Mexico. Too heavy to take off, the thieves have to throw the jewels out of the plane to take off in time. Ensign recovers the basket of jewels and the Mexican authorities are notified to catch the crooks when they land.

The Boatniks sailed in to theaters on July 1, 1970. Critics bashed it, but audiences made it a financial success. It reappeared in theaters in 1972 as a double feature with Song of the South and had a standalone rerelease in 1977. It made its TV debut on The Wonderful World of Disney a year later in 1978 and debuted on home video in 1984.

For a zany Disney comedy, The Boatniks has few jokes that actually work. The side characters are all morons and the stupidity depicted is more annoying than humorous. Add to that an ending that literally stalls for ten minutes with nothing happening and you have a truly lackluster film. So much of the film was shot on noisy boats and docks that most of the audio was rerecorded in post production and the dialogue doesn't always align with the lip movements. The film carries a G rating, although if it were resubmitted today it would be PG for the amount of bikini-clad ladies and the way the men objectify them. There are jokes that today are considered racist towards Japanese and Mexicans and there is even a gay joke. For those who didn't grow up with this film, The Boatniks offers little more than a lot of nice looking boats.

The Boatniks was released on DVD in 2005 with a fullscreen presentation. Surprisingly, the disc featured bonus features in the form of the theatrical trailer and an outtake reel. The DVD used the previous VHS master, but a more recent restoration has been done. The film is available in HD widescreen (1.66:1) digitally from all major providers. The color palette feels muted, but it presents more detail than the DVD and is at least in widescreen, although the original theatrical ratio was 1.85:1.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

King of the Grizzlies - 1970

While Disney rarely had success with narrated live action movies starring animals, that didn't stop them from continuously making them. The tradition that started in the late 40's with the True-Life Adventures series morphed into story-driven films starring animals, such as The Incredible Journey and The Legend of Lobo. In these films, animals were the true stars with human actors taking a back seat, requiring a narrator to explain the thoughts and emotions of the animal actors.

Jack Spiers (Charlie the Lonesome Cougar) wrote the screenplay based on a book called The Biography of a Grizzly by Ernest Thompson Seton. Ron Kelly directs his only Disney film. Familiar voice Winston Hibler narrates and produced this film. The animal production crew spent two years filming Big Ted, a 7-year old bear who was rewarded with marshmallows for performing tricks. Like most Disney animal films, the cast featured unknown actors. Filming took place on location in the Canadian Rockies of Alberta and British Columbia.

In traditional Disney fashion, this film opens with a book, albeit a journal. The story starts with a young bear cub named Wahb and follows him as he grows up. A Cree Indian named Moki discovers Wahb one day while mapping the boarders of his ranch. Wahb gets himself into trouble on numerous occasions, such as stealing food from a black bear, an encounter with wolverines, and hunting Moki's cattle. Moki begins to set traps to stop Wahb, but the smart grizzly succeeds in destroying each of them. Because a bear is Moki's totem, when the two meet again they acknowledge each other as brothers. Wahb eventually becomes the biggest bear on the mountain, earning the title "Grizzly King." When the Colonel decides to hunt Wahb, he soon finds himself being hunted by the Grizzly King instead. It's up to Moki to save the Colonel by convincing his brother bear to step down.

King of the Grizzlies was released on February 7th, 1970. It didn't impress critics and didn't do particularly well at the box office. It made its TV debut on The Wonderful World of Disney in 1973 and was first released on home video in 1986.

As far as Disney animal films go, King of the Grizzlies is pretty mediocre. There are plenty of cute bear scenes in the beginning when Wahb is a cub, but the repetitive nature of the story gets tiring fast. It probably would have made a better episode of The Wonderful World of Disney. Similar themes from this film were better executed many years later in Brother Bear. 

King of the Grizzlies was released on DVD in 2002 in fullscreen without any bonus features. The film quality was full of excess grain, colors were dull while scratches and artifacts plagued the print. Disney restored the film more recently and it is available in HD widescreen (1.77:1) through most digital media providers. This version still has scratches and artifacts, but grain has been reduced and colors are more stable.