Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Big Disney Letdown: or, Looking Back Bitterly

In looking back at just some of Disney’s 1970s live-action cinematic endeavors, this partial list alone reads like a Shakespearean tragedy:

The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes
Bedknobs and Broomsticks
The Shaggy D.A.
Freaky Friday
The Apple Dumpling Gang
The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again
The Cat from Outer Space
(both M*A*S*H commanders are in this: Harry Morgan and McLean Stevenson)
The North Avenue Irregulars (sounds like an ad for adult diapers)
Hot Lead and Cold Feet
Escape from Witch Mountain
Return to Witch Mountain

And of course, The Black Hole (aka “We passed on Star Wars”).

Disney’s animated features have fared a bit better, not that I’ve seen them:

Robin Hood
Pete’s Dragon
The Rescuers
The Fox and the Hound
(1981; this one was heavily advertised, so naturally I didn’t go and see it)

Don’t know why Disney eschewed its proud and successful animated tradition for Joe Flynn and Dean Jones, but they did and it’s my first impression of Disney the movie studio. Their less-than-stellar legacy is something I can’t grasp. Why would they make the move to live-action movies when they were the world’s leader in animated feature films dating back to 1937? I honestly want to know. If any Disney aficionados out there are reading this and can answer this question, please comment.

Now, it’s time for some bitter reminiscences...tongue in cheek, of course, but more than a kernel of truth.

I remember my parents always raving about Disney's great animated features, but they were too busy splitting up to take me, I guess. For whatever reasons, I never saw those classic Disney animated films on TV or in any theatrical re-releases there might have been. As a result of my deprived childhood and Disney's ineptitude, I've never seen many of those early Disney classics. Fantasia in particular has eluded me all these years. I haven't even bothered to see them on home video; I'd really prefer seeing them on the big screen, but even that's unlikely as they bastardize their own films with politically correct changes. Jerks. So even the home video aspect of this tragic tale can’t rescue me from my lethargy.

Those of you of the Baby Boomer generation have one more thing to be thankful for, and that’s the superiority of your collective Disney experience over that of the so-called Generation X. You had the novelty of the opening of Disneyland, the weekly Disney show at its 1950s and ‘60s peak and the frequent cinematic re-releases of all those animated Disney classics. Even the Generation Y people have a better Disney nostalgia, with virtually every movie made beginning with The Little Mermaid and on through the ’90s. My generation had the Osmonds singing at Disneyland and Bette Midler and Shelley Long “buddy” movies.

When I was a little kid in the mid-to-late 1970s, Disney wasn't doing much animation. Lots of Ken Berry and Dean Jones live-action crapola which bored me to tears. Plus there was the Herbie the Car series, which I actually didn’t mind, especially Herbie Rides Again. That’s the one with Helen Hayes fighting some monolithic building conglomerate who wants to tear down her humble home in favor of some skyscraper. However, the one movie that stings with remembrance was the 1972 non-opus un-classic, Snowball Express. I had suffered through this wretched movie one day in 1982 and vowed never to put myself through that again. A week or so later, a friend and I were going to a movie house to see a Disney movie with his then-twentysomething brother and his girlfriend. Anyway, the morning we were set to go, my buddy came down with the flu. He got to stay home with the comfort of his fever, chills, and vomiting whereas I had to sit still with “grown ups” (as I classified anyone five years or older than me) who, at least to my mind, were going to talk about “adult” things like college, alcohol, and other non-Star Wars action figure-related topics.

Anyway, guess what “surprise” Disney movie we were set to see? You guessed it: Snowball Express. Seeing that film twice in less than a week almost qualified me to do Charlton Heston’s mouthing the dialogue of the Woodstock documentary in The Omega Man, only without the lost idealism. I did feel like the last person on the planet, though.

I recently watched Snowball Express on TV, not as a way of punishing myself, but rather seeing if my hostility and unpleasant memories still held true. Surprisingly, they did not. I enjoyed it quite a bit. Harry Morgan is fun as always, and there are several TV actors who bring a familiarity and nostalgia to the proceedings: Dick Van Patten (who never seemed to work outside of the 1970s), Johnny Whitaker (Family Affair), George Lindsey (Goober from Andy Griffith), and the great blowhard villain from many a 1970s Disney film, Keenan Wynn. Was it Pinocchio? Did it evoke memories of Fantasia? I wouldn’t know, because I still haven’t seen those films.


  1. I have to admit that I have a bit of a soft spot for Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Freaky Friday, but it was certainly a weak period.

  2. Hey, I will defend Escape to Witch Mountain to anyone. And as for Return...er, well it has Bette Davis in it.

    I'm Generation Y, but I was able to get pretty much all Disney movies on VHS at the local video store. As a kid, I would recognize any classical music not by name but as "Fantasia Music." The same way other kids got their musical sense from Looney Toons, I guess. And then there was the Disney Channel and Saturday morning cartoons so I was fairly well indoctrinated at an early age.

    It was a bit of a shock to me though, when I was teaching overseas, to realize that my students has a great knowledge of Pixar movies, but very little Disney. Except for Disney Princesses.

  3. Our 70s parents were lame.

    "non-Star Wars action figure-related topics" - for the record I had ALL of them. They were awesome

    I prefer the old Disney to the new Disney. I won't go see Tangled or any of them. Snow White is still my favorite. Cinderella. Sorry you missed em all. They are good. Though I've never seen Fantasia either

    Incidentally we have in our possession Song of the South which is or was at least very hard to find for awhile.

    Oh, I saw Donny & Marie Osmond in concert. LOL. About a year later my mom took me to see George Carlin. That's where I developed my fabulous sense of humor

    This post was great and it made me laugh a few times. Especially the grown up comment! LOL

  4. This post made me laugh...I'm a huge Disney fan, but I also remember going to Disney movies in the '70s which weren't very impressive. Anyone remember NAPOLEON AND SAMANTHA (1972)? (Jodie Foster's unfeminine little girls bothered me as a child...kind of interesting I was tuned into that at the age of 8 or 10.)

    But the one I do have to defend is SNOWBALL EXPRESS. I remember seeing that one with my Grandpa...twice...and really enjoyed it, especially compared to some of the other films of the era. Dean Jones, Nancy Olson, Harry Morgan...good cast! I'm glad that when you revisited it recently you enjoyed it more. :)

    What's really funny is I recently learned a family friend had been cast in the lead in ESCAPE FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN, and then she broke her leg. Enter Kim Richards (aka Paris Hilton's aunt). My friend decided she was tired of driving to Hollywood for classes and auditions and that was the end of her "career"!

    Best wishes,

  5. Jodie Foster's unfeminine little girls bothered me as a child...kind of interesting I was tuned into that at the age of 8 or 10.

    I thought of Jodie Foster as a live action Peppermint Patty of Peanuts fame. Kind of like how I saw Brett Somers of Match Game as a human version of Madame (look 'em up, kids).

  6. Why were 1970s Disney movies so terrible? Because Walt himself died in the late 60s, and the company struggled for about 20 years after that as they tried to figure out how to recapture the lost magic without him. Even then, it wasn't so much that they made a big switch from animated to live-action--they actually put out more animated films in the '70s than they did in the '60s, and I don't think they significantly increased their live-action output--but that the new guys in charge green-lit projects that Walt never would have gone for, both animated and live-action. The 1970s and early 80s are considered kind of dark days for Disney animation, too--a few of the films did okay (like The Fox and the Hound), but none of them were considered to be critical successes the way many earlier Disney animated movies were . . . and some (like The Black Cauldron) were did really badly at the box office. Also, the studio was broke at that time and animation was expensive--Robin Hood in particular is known for significantly re-using animation from earlier films. Little John is basically just Baloo from The Jungle Book with clothes on, and there's just generally a LOT of animation in Robin Hood that's borrowed from The Jungle Book (and also a little from Snow White and The Aristocats).

    As a Gen-Yer, my childhood pretty much coincided with the Disney Renaissance films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, so I can't sympathize with your plight . . . although I do remember being seriously creeped out by all my childhood viewings of Escape to Witch Mountain, so there's that.

  7. I will defend the Dexter Riley films (Computer That Wore Tennis Shoes; Now You See Him, Now You Don't; and Strongest Man in the World) and Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (not to mention The Boatniks)-- TO THE DEATH! ;-D

    They are family classics. haha

    I'm such an anti-quality film person though. Really, I'm not a fan of most of Disney's "quality" live-action film (I WILL HATE MARY POPPINS TILL THE DAY I DIE), but utterly adore these horribly made films.

    I don't know. Maybe you have to see them first when you're 3 to appreciate them?! ;-D

  8. heh heh... good post, C.K....the one that I remember is 'Gus' - the football playing mule - not real sure the exact year of that one, but definitely in the lower half of the 'live-action' Disney flicks of the time. I liked 'Pete's Dragon' as a kid, probably because it at least had SOME animation in it, albeit against a 'live action' backdrop.

    As for Fantasia - I didn't see it until I was out of college - but I thought it was pretty dang cool, overall... I am pretty big on animation in general, and this one really was a departure from anything else Walt cranked out... it was ultimately taking classical music pieces and making an 'animated music video' of each composition, with mixed results.

    Of course, I HAVE to throw out the fact (or documented rumor, anyway) that Walt wanted Ginger to play in a 'live-action / animated' version of 'Alice in Wonderland'; why she turned it down is beyond me...it may have been a bit hard to convince actors/actresses back then that sharing the screen with cartoon characters wasn't a detrimental career move...but it seemed to work for Gene Kelly with Tom and Jerry!

    Thanks, C.K.!



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