Toon Talk: 1970s Live-Action DVDs
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Disney Film & Video Reviews by Kirby C. Holt
Escape To Witch Mountain and
Return From Witch Mountain
Special Edition DVDs
Those '70s Shows
Still reeling from the death of its founder in 1966, the Studio during the so-called â€˜me decade' was stuck in the throws of "What would Walt do?â€?, a phrase that reverberated throughout the Disney Company from lackluster animated features (The Aristocats, Robin Hood) to the safe choices at the theme parks (such as virtually cloning Disneyland in Florida for the new Walt Disney World park).
But no more so was this â€˜stuck in the past' nature evident then in the Studio's live action output. At a time when such filmmaking mavericks as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg were first finding their cinematic footing to great acclaim, the Disney live action films of the 1970s were still trading in on ideas from not so much the '60s, but the '50s: saccharine-sweet family comedies that, although they did have their audiences, were still considered by most at the time as the epitome of the term â€˜square'.
The Disney features of this era roughly broke down into one of three types: the heart-warming animal adventure tale (Napoleon and Samantha, The Bears and I), goofy comedies with (The Barefoot Executive, Gus) or without (The Boatniks, Snowball Express) the lovable antics of said animals, or funny fantasies with a tinge of magic thrown in (Now You See Him, Now You Don't; Charley and the Angel), some involving ... you guessed it, animals (The Million Dollar Duck, The Shaggy D.A.). The quality of these films varied from the good (Freaky Friday) to the bad (The Cat from Outer Space) to the downright ugly (Superdad).
Which brings us to the subjects of the latest wave (more like a â€˜mini-wave') of psuedo-Vault Disney Special Edition DVDs (now regulated to single discs, by the by). And while The Apple Dumpling Gang and Escape to Witch Mountain can be considered minor classics of the time and genre, one has to question how the Escape sequel Return from Witch Mountain made the cut: its most definitely in that â€˜ugly' category I mentioned, i.e. one of the worst films Disney has ever made.
(And that isn't even mentioning the fact that far-worthier live action titles from earlier decades have yet to be Vaulted in this way, such as So Dear To My Heart; Treasure Island; The Shaggy Dog; Darby O'Gill and the Little People; The Absent-Minded Professor; The Happiest Millionaire; The One and Only, Genuine Original Family Band and, oh yeah, a little film called Song of the South ... but I digress ... )
The best of the three, The Apple Dumpling Gang, is a sweet-natured family comedy set in the Ol' West town of Quake City. When a rootless gambler named Russell Donavan (Bill Bixby) becomes the guardian for three orphan children, he is at first at odds with his newfound â€˜fatherhood'. But Donavan soon warms to task ... especially after the threesome uncover a lost treasure in their late father's gold mine. Hi-jinks ensue when every cowpoke in the area - including the bumbling Hash Knife Outfit ... consisting solely of the moronic Amos Tucker (Tim Conway) and the just-a-little-bit smarter Theodore Ogelvie (Don Knotts) - scrambles to get their hands on the kids ... and their gold.
After years of Dorfian imbecilities and Ralph Furley-isms, it's refreshing to go back to the early days of the Conway/Knotts comedic partnership: their goofy antics are still refreshingly hysterical here, and their late-night theft of a firehouse ladder is pure physical comedy gold. Bixby was a great choice for a Disney lead, although he curiously never returned to the Studio; his love/hate relationship with tomboy Dusty Clydesdale (Susan Clark) and the three Bradley kids (Clay O'Brien, Brad Savage and cute-as-a-button, never-made-another-movie Stacy Manning) grounds the film in a reality amidst all the gunfights and tomfoolery. Also of note is the presence of such fine character actors as Harry Morgan, Slim Pickens and John McGovern (in his final film role).