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.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes - 1969

Disney was known for zany comedies, but it seemed that all of their college-based films were guaranteed hits. The Absent-Minded Professor, Son of Flubber, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, and The Monkey's Uncle made a ton of money for the studio. So it's hard to believe that almost five years passed before they would make another similar film. The reason may be that they were waiting for a star at the studio to reach the right age.

With three Disney films under his belt, plus three TV movies for The Wonderful World of Color, Kurt Russell's star was on the rise and Disney was eager to test his marketability as a leading actor. A lesser-known talent at the studio, Joe McEveety, started as an assistant director in 1958 on Zorro and carried the same title on the Merlin Jones films. He began his writing career with this original story, written with Russell in mind to play Medfield College (of Absent-Minded Professor fame) student Dexter Riley. This production may have started with TV as the end goal, evidenced perhaps by TV director Robert Butler, who had never directed a feature film before. Joe Flynn from The Love Bug plays Dean Higgins. Other familiar faces include Richard Bakalyan (Never a Dull Moment), Cesar Romero (Zorro) and John Provost (Timmy on Lassie - non-Disney). Famous voice actor Frank Welker, most famous as the voice of Fred from Scooby-Doo, also stars in this and its sequels.

Filming took place almost entirely on the Disney Studio lot. Interiors were built on the sound stages. The studio buildings, which Walt had designed to look like a college campus, doubled as Medfield College. The same backdrop used in Walt's tapings of the Disneyland series in out of his office window is used in Medfield's interior shots. Theses buildings represented college campuses before in the Merlin Jones series. Robert Brunner and Bruce Belland wrote the title song for the opening credits. A technical engineer who was working on building Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL named Ko Suzuki was brought in to create digital graphs and equipment used in the computer scenes.

The film begins with an animated opening credits featuring computer bleeps and tennis shoes to the song "The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes." Dean Higgins of Medfield College can't afford to buy a computer for the school, to the detestation of Dexter Riley and his fellow students. Dexter is able to convince his old employer A. J. Arno to donate an old computer to the college, however Arnold is a crook who had his staff developing a computer to predict gambling outcomes. During a storm, Dexter sneaks into the computer lab to use the computer to help him cheat on a test and ends up getting an electric shock through the computer. During his test, Dexter discovers that he can dish out all of the answers at an extremely high rate, like a computer would. Dean Higgins has him checked out by a doctor who determines that he has become a human computer. Higgins forces him to compete on a game show to gain attention for the school. Dexter wins and becomes highly celebrated, catching the attention of A. J. Arno, who uses the old code in him to predict gambling bets. Dexter eventually gets kidnapped by one of Arnold's cronies and it's up to his friends to rescue him in the nick of time before a big game show that could win Medfeild $100,000. However during the rescue chase, Dexter bumped his head and in the middle of the competition, he begins to lose the computer's information and becomes normal Dexter Riley again. However, one of Dexter's friends on the team knows the final answer and wins the money for the school.

The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes was released on December 31st, 1969, making it the last film of the decade by a single day. It was critically bashed for being predictable and inaccessible to adults. But it was a huge box office success, leading Disney to produce two sequels (the first Disney trilogy). It premiered on The Wonderful World of Disney in 1972 prior to the sequel's theatrical release (Now You See Him, Now You Don't) and it was released on home video in 1985.

I grew up in a world where owning a personal computer was normal, but my parents and educators always told stories of how they grew up knowing of a computer as a giant machine that filled a whole room. The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes must have a lot of sentimental value for people who grew up during the 60's and 70's. I was first exposed to the story in 1995 with the Kirk Cameron remake on Disney Channel and didn't see the original until I was in high school. The film is your typical fun Disney comedy, with less laughable moments than classics like The Absent-Minded Professor, but enough charm to hold its own. It is clear that much of the films' success can be attributed to Kurt Russell, who is so charming and likable as Dexter Riley that makes that character so memorable. Fans of Summer Magic may recognize the old yellow house with a bright 70's paint job during the rescue scenes towards the end of the film. There are a few references to this film at Walt Disney World in the Journey into Imagination attraction. There's a door in the queue with Dean Higgins' name on it and in the ride, there's a computer room with a sign that says "No Tennis Shoes." There's also a Medfield jacket on a char in the room.

The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes is currently available on Blu-Ray as a Disney Movie Club Exclusive. This disc features a recent restoration that is well done, exhibiting great detail and accurate colors. The alternative is the DVD release, which features the VHS master in fullscreen with excess grain and scratches in the print. The high definition restoration is also available digitally from all major providers.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Rascal - 1969

Walt Disney Productions continued operating without Walt in much the same fashion as it did when he was alive, sticking to a formula that worked. Based on the book Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era by famed newspaper editor Sterling North in 1963, the studio was inspired to adapt it into an uplifting animal film. An who better to make it than the same team behind the other great Disney films of it's ilk.

Norman Tokar, who started his Disney career directing another animal movie called Big Red, was chosen to direct. Harold Swanton adapted the screenplay after doing Willie the Yank for The Wonderful World of Color. Bill Mumy was cast as Sterling, having previously stared in Disney's TV movie Sammy, the Way Out Seal. John Fiedler, voice of Piglet, plays their gardening neighbor in his first on-screen role for Disney. Steve Forrest plays his father in his first of two Disney roles. Jonathan Daly also begins his Disney career here as Reverend Griffith. Character actress Elsa Lanchester plays a picky housekeeper in her final disney role (most memorable as Katie Nanna in Mary Poppins). Famous actor Walter Pidgeon narrates as sixty-year-old Sterling Holloway. The film was shot on soundstages and the backlot at the Disney Studios in Burbank, as well as nearby Golden Oak for outside shots. Matte paintings help convince that audience that this is Wisconsin at the turn of the century.

The film begins with young Sterling North walking with his dog and a raccoon as the narrator recalls back to his boyhood and the most unique friend he ever made. A series of vignettes are depicted during the credits of the boy and his raccoon riding bikes, eating ice cream, etc... The film then flashes back to before Sterling met his funny friend on the last day of school. When his dad picks him up from school, they have a heart-to-heart about the recent death of Sterling's mother. When their dog Wowser chases a raccoon away from her home, her babies follow... except for one. Feeling sorry for the little fellow, Sterling's dad takes him in and they name him Rascal. When his father and sister leave Sterling home with a housekeeper who abandons him, he fends for himself and lives happily with Wowser and Rascal. He occupies his summer building a canoe while his teacher and reverend express their concerns about how much time the boy spends without adult supervision. Summer ends with a race between a horse-drawn carriage and a motor car. The story flashes to Thanksgiving when Sterling's sister comes home for a visit with her fiance. When she finds out that Sterling spent most of the summer alone, she gets furious and resumes household duties and cancels the marriage. Her dad is able to convince her that he will stop being an absent father and stay home. When Rascal fights to get out of the house and Sterling tries to stop him, Rascal bites him. He realizes that he can't keep him forever. Sterling takes Rascal out in his finished canoe and sets him free in the forrest, where he meets a girl raccoon. They are quickly chased by a bobcat, but Sterling witnesses Rascal defeating the beast and knows he will be fine. The film ends with Sterling sailing away and giving his dear friend a goodbye wave.

Rascal was released on June 11th, 1969. It got mixed reviews, praised for the performances but bashed for being overly sentimental. It wasn't much of a box office draw and debuted on TV a short time later in 1973. It didn't make its home video debut until 2002, when it arrived simultaneously on DVD and VHS.

I first enjoyed Rascal during it's home video release. Growing up in Wisconsin and being a fan of period films at the turn of the century, I really connected to Rascal. To me, it feels like the first scene of Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress expanded into a film. Bill Muny is so likable and the animal actors are so appealing that it's hard to not enjoy it. When Sterling and Rascal say goodbye at the end, you get the same sense of melancholy cultivated at the end of The Fox and the Hound. There's also a lot of hidden gems to make Disney fans keep their eyes peeled. The neighborhood the Holloway's live in is the same Residential Street used in the filming of classics like The Absent-Minded Professor and That Darn Cat. It was common practice for studios to reuse props and set pieces in other productions. Viewers with a keen eye will notice some items in the Holloway home from Pollyanna. Rascal was the first film professionally reviewed by Gene Siskel, who gave it a thumb down.

Rascal is still available on DVD, with a transfer that was marginally restored, but with room for improvement. The film was presented there in pan & scan fullscreen, but the film was theatrically release with a widescreen aspect ratio 1.78:1. There aren't any bonus features on the DVD. The film is now available on iTunes, where it can be purchased in widescreen (1.66:1, gaining some image on the top and bottom that wouldn't have been seen in theaters). The HD restoration is flawless, making the film look like it could have been produced today.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Smith! - 1969

Walt Disney had a lot of success with Westerns on TV, but his theatrical efforts had previously disappointed. Films like Westward Ho, the Wagons and Ten Who Dared were critical and box office failures. But with the studio still making films the way Walt would have, under the leadership of his brother Roy O. Disney, it was inevitable that the genre would be revisited. The source material was a book called Breaking Smith's Quarter Horse by Paul St. Pierre.

Michael O'Herlihy directs his third and final Disney film. Louis Pelletier adapted the screenplay, his final theatrical film for Disney. Iconic film star Glenn Ford was signed on for his only Disney film to play the lead role. Nancy Olson returns to the studio, after memorable roles in Pollyanna and The Absent-Minded Professor. Her costar from Professor, Keenan Wynn (son of Ed Wynn) also returns for this film. Two songs in the film are written and performed by Bobby Russell.

The film begins with a song about Smith set to Native American drawings on a wooden board depicting the story. Smith arrives at his farm after a disappointing hunt for meat. His wife tells him that she suspects the murderer Jimmy Boy is living with their Native American friend Antoine in his shack nearby. His wife is upset that Smith gives so much of their stuff to their neighbors, but Smith says if he doesn't nobody else will. Antoine is hiding Jimmy Boy and asks Smith to sneak him to Canada, but Smith convinces him to stay and wait for a trial. When a reward of $500 is offered for Jimmy Boy's capture, Antoine turns him in and collects the cash, since Jimmy Boy was going to willingly go to trial anyway. He buys a car with the money, but the breaks are shot and he quickly gets in a wreck. He is thrown in jail after accidentally pleading guilty to being drunk, meaning he won't be able to testify for Jimmy Boy. Smith has to borrow money from his wife to pay the $10 bail. A translator is present at Jimmy Boy's trial, but Antoine is uncomfortable and Smith ends up substituting midway through the prosecution. Following the trial, Smith is placed in jail for thirty days for getting into a fight with the sheriff. When Antoine reveals to the judge that he can speak English, he is able to convince the judge to let Smith go free. The film ends with Smith's friends arriving to help him cut his hay crop, a gesture of true kindness and friendship.

Smith! was released on March 21st, 1969. Released during a time when Native American rights were a hot button issue and shortly after congress passed the Indian Civil Rights Act, Disney was quiet with their marketing efforts. Critics ignored the film and so did audiences, making it a box office failure. Surprisingly, Disney chose not to air it on their weekly series and it wasn't made available again until 1987 when it made its home video debut.

This film breaks Disney traditions in many ways. It's a story about racism and one man passionate enough to speak out in favor of freedom for all. It's about corruption in a small town where those in power refuse to recognize new laws. It's a much better film than the title would suggest and holds up as a unique entry in the catalogue of Disney films. Producer Bill Anderson was striving to attract a more adult audience with this film, recognizing the importance of appealing to more than just kids or families. This was years before the studio would add a division for that very purpose with the creation of Touchstone in 1984. The original working title was A Man Called Smith.

Smith! is currently available on DVD as a Disney Movie Club exclusive. A nice restoration was done and the film is presented in widescreen, but there aren't any bonus features. It is also available digitally exclusively on amazon, where it can be purchased in HD on select devices (amazon does not allow HD on iOS devices).

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Love Bug - 1969

When Dean Jones brought Walt Disney a script in the mid-1960's about the first sports car in America that he was interested in making, Walt told him he had a better car story for him. The story that Walt had in mind was Boy/Car/Girl by Gordon Bufford. After Walt's passing, a committee was formed that would pick projects based on what Walt might have done. Bill Walsh adapted Boy/Car/Girl into the classic film we know today as The Love Bug.

Disney's top director, Robert Stevenson, was assigned as director. Dean Jones was attached to the film from its inception, but the toughest casting choice was the car itself. They had a casting call that included a Toyota, Fiat, Volvo, MG, and a Volkswagen. The VW Beetle got the role because studio employees that passed by it would pet it. Buddy Hacket was cast when Bill Walsh saw him performing in Las Vegas. In that same act, Buddy had a story about a French ski instructor named Herbie, which inspired the name of the car. David Tomlinson returns to the studio as the villain after his memorable role as Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins. Joe Flynn makes his Disney debut, best remembered for his role as Snoops in The Rescuers and Dean Higgins in the Dexter Riley series. Iris Adrian has a small role as the carhop, who would become one of the most memorable side character actresses at Disney in the 1970's.

The movie begins with a drag race as the credits play. One of the losers, Jim Douglas, heads home defeated to find his eccentric roommate Tennessee making a sculpture out of his wrecked car parts. While shopping for a new car, he sees a pretty girl named Carole and walks into the upscale dealership, owned by Peter Thorndyke. About to be shown the door, a Volkswagen Beetle rolls in from the back and bumps him in the leg. The little car follows him home, causing him to get in trouble for allegedly stealing the car. If Jim will pay for the car, Thorndyke won't press any charges. On his drive home, the car forces him off the freeway and hides under a bridge. He takes it back to return it and Carole joins him for a drive to validate that the car works properly. When they start to argue, the car starts driving itself and takes them to a drive-in, where it locks them in the car and forces them on a date. When Carole offers to refund him for the car, he decides to keep it after seeing how fast it can go. Tennessee believes the car has a spirit and is alive, but Jim dismisses it and does some maintenance to race it. After winning his first race, Thorndyke offers to buy it back. Carole suggests a deal where Thorndyke will bet the remaining payments Jim owes against Jim's shares of the car. Whichever driver wins gets to keep it. Meanwhile, Tennessee has named the car Herbie as Jim goes on believing that his driving is what is winning the races. After buying a real race car with the winnings from the races, Jim agrees to sell Herbie to Thorndyke, causing the depressed car to run away and attempt suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge. Jim tries to stop him and almost falls, causing Herbie to backup and save him. On the drive, Herbie destroyed a Chinese restaurant and the owner wants the car as payment. Jim makes a deal where the car belongs to him, but Jim gets to drive him in the next race. If Jim wins, the man gets the money and has to sell Herbie back for a $1. During the race, Thorndyke tries to sabotage Jim by replacing their gas with water and spraying oil on the road. Herbie is able to overcome these hurdles with some amazing tricks, including tearing himself apart to win the race and stay with Jim. The owner of the Chinese Restaurant had made a deal with Thorndyke to get the car from him if Jim lost the race, but in the fine print of the contract Thorndyke had to hand over his dealership if they lost. The film ends with Carole and Jim getting in a restored Herbie for their honeymoon.

The Love Bug premiered at Grauman's Chinese Theater on March 13th, 1969, where valet parking was exclusive to attendees in Volkswagens. The studio wasn't expecting the massive success of the film, which went on to become the highest grossing film of 1969, and the second highest grossing film in Disney history at the time, second to Mary Poppins. It made $17 million in its initial release. It was rereleased in 1979 and premiered on home video in 1980.

Herbie has an undeniable charm and it's easy to see why this was such a big hit. It follows the basic Disney formula for successful comedies, but has a freshness that makes it feel new. Of the Disney films made in the 1960's, this one represents the unique qualities of the era the best. Optional titles included ThunderBug, The Magic Volksy, and Beetlebomb before they decided on The Love Bug. Dean Jones plays another character in the film, the memorable hippy at the drive-in. Eight different bugs were used to play Herbie, each built to perform different tricks. In pre-production, Herbie was going to be red, but was switched to pearl white. The iconic scene with Herbie skipping across the pond was shot at Disney's Golden Oak Ranch. To promote the film, Disneyland had a Love Bug day, where guests would bring their Beetles to the park dressed up for a parade. Dean Jones presenting the winner with an award. The number 53 came from Bill Walsh's favorite baseball player, Don Drysdale of the LA Dodgers.

The Love Bug has inspired more follow-up projects than any other live-action Disney film property. Four direct sequels were made: Herbie Rides Again in 1974, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo in 1977, Herbie Goes Bananas in 1980, and Herbie Fully Loaded in 2005. In 1982, Disney attempted a TV series starring Dean Jones that only laster 5 episode on CBS called Herbie: The Love Bug. In 1997 Disney made a TV movie also called The Love Bug, a modern take on the story loosly inspired by the original film that also had a Dean Jones cameo. In 1999, Walt Disney World opened the All Star Movies resort, which features a Love Bug wing.

The Love Bug is currently available on Blu-Ray as a Disney Movie Club Exclusive. This version has a wonderful new restoration, but loses all of the bonus features from the 2-disc DVD set, which includes a making-of feature, commentary, and vintage promotional material. The film is presented in widescreen with a decent restoration. The film is also available in a 4-movie collection paired with the first 3 sequels, but you lose the second disc and therefore most of the bonus features. The new restoration is also available digitally from all major providers.