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.