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.