Disney Live Action Spotlight: Return to Oz

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This marks the final week of my Disney live action film spotlight. The last live action film I want to highlight is one that bombed critically and commercially on initial release. But since then, it has turned into a cult classic. It’s the much-maligned sequel to the classic film The Wizard of Oz. Yes, this week I want to give some love to Return to Oz, a film that probably gave a lot of kids nightmares in the 1980s.

So, why did Return to Oz fail initially? Well, there are several reasons. The first is that people went into it expecting to be colorful and cheery (not that the original didn’t have it’s scary moments) . Add to that the fact that it was coming from Disney, a studio known for upbeat family entertainment. To say that Return to Oz was darker than its predecessor would be an understatement. But you know what? That’s okay. Kids should experience dark and challenging films. They build character and prepare you for the reality that worlds both real and fictional can be scary. Some of the best books we read, or had read to us as kids, were steeped a little in creepiness: The Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (and pretty much everything by Roald Dahl), Harry Potter…I could go on. The fact is we don’t need to shelter kids from everything. I could do a whole piece on that subject, but I’ll stop. Back to the movie.

So what is sweet Dorothy Gale up to in the sequel? Here’s a brief summary to get you up to speed:

Dorothy Gale (Fairuza Balk) has recently come home to Kansas from the Land of Oz is now almost back to perfect health since the incident of the tornado, only she cannot get that wonderful place out of her head. She frequently talks about it and cannot get any sleep at night. Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) worries about her health/well-being. Thinking that she is suffering delusional depression and acute insomnia, she decides to take her to see a special doctor in another town. While he tries to treat her with electro-shock treatment and take those nasty dreams away from her head, she is rescued by a mysterious girl who leads her back to Oz for a new adventure.–IMDB

And what delightful childhood fantasy doesn’t start with a child getting shock therapy? It’s like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for kids. Thankfully Dorothy escape with the help of Nurse Wilson (Jean Marsh). When she makes it to Oz, she sets out to save the magical land with the help of some new companions: her pet chicken Billina, Tik-Tok, Jack Pumpkinhead, and the flying Gump. Oz is not the same as it was when Dorothy last visited it. Its residents have turned to stone and the Emerald City is in ruins. It turns out the Nome King is responsible for destroying the once magical land. According to the Nome King, Scarecrow stole emeralds from him to build the Emerald City. Logically, he must be punished. How the curse is eventually broken I will not reveal. That’s one of the films interesting plot twists. Before I move on, I want to recognize Fairuza Balk for her performance. She’s excellent as Dorothy. It’s one of the best performances by a child actor I’ve ever seen. Okay, now let’s talk about the world of Oz in terms of its visuals.

One of the few bright spots for Return to Oz when it was originally released was that its visual effects team was nominated for an Oscar. When you see the film you’ll understand. This is a glorious film to look at. It has a beautiful yet twisted look to at. Let me highlight a few of my favorite things. First there’s the design of the creatures known as the Wheelers. Those things gave me nightmares as a kid. They’re humans with wheels in places where you normally see hands and feet. Yeah, creepy as hell! And of course I have to mention the Nome King. When you see him in full demonic form it’s one of most disturbing moments in the film. That’s saying something considering what a twisted movie this is. Oh, did I mention the display of talking severed heads? Princess Mombi has a collection of talking, severed heads. She changes heads the way regular people changes outfits.

Return to Oz is delightful in its twisted creepiness the same way The Nightmare Before Christmas is. One of the many things I appreciate about Walter Much’s film is that it’s a kids film that doesn’t treat kids like idiots. It lets them experience a mystical yet dark world, but doesn’t hammer them with lots of mindless action or banal syrupy songs. I love a great Disney musical, but not every film for kids has to be easily digested and marketable. Films that take chances are few and far between these days. Personally, I would rather see a film that’s ambitious and fails than one that recycles the same plot lines and character archetypes. Whether you love or hate Return to Oz, you have to admit it’s imaginative. If it’s been a while since you’ve seen this film, I really think you owe it a second look. Here’s hoping that one day this film finally gets the respect it deserves.

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Disney Live Action Spotlight: Flight of the Navigator

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All this month I’m spotlighting Disney live action films. This week’s selection is an underrated gem from 1986. It’s called Flight of the Navigator. The film boasts not only impressive special effects, but a fascinating science fiction story.

To get you up to speed, here’s the plot in a nutshell:

The year is 1978: 12-year-old David Freeman (Joey Cramer), playing in the woods near his home, is knocked unconscious. He awakens and heads home, only to find strangers living there. He also finds that the year is 1986, and that he’s been officially missing for eight years. NASA officials determine that David was abducted by aliens during his blackout, and hope to scan the boy’s brain in order to unlock a few secrets of the universe. Answering the call of a strange, unseen force, David boards a well-hidden spaceship and takes off, guided by the jocular voice of a computer named MAX (voiced by none other than Paul Reubens, aka Pee-Wee Herman). Realizing that he can’t fit in to 1986 so long as he’s a child of the ’70s, David hopes to retrace the steps of his alien abductors and get back to his own time.–Fandango

While some of this sounds like The X-Files for kids, it’s not just a low-rent alien movie. Anchored by Joey Cramer’s solid performance as David, Flight of the Navigator is an endlessly imaginative film. The story keeps you guessing. Remember when we used to have smart screenplays and kids movies weren’t just about mindless action? Those were good times. But I digress.

Aside from the solid cast and smart writing, the real star of Flight of the Navigator is the spaceship itself. the production design by William J. Creber, art direction by Michael Novotny, and set decoration by Scott Jacobson is a wonder to behold. It’s, if you’ll pardon the pun, out of this world. What the film does well that films today fail to do is that the sets and effects enhance the story without  overshadowing it. They provide a sense of wonder that makes the film that much more absorbing of an experience.

But enough about the effects. They’re great to look at, but not the whole reason to see Flight of the Navigator. There’s the fact that the spaceship’s computer is voiced by Paul Reubens of Pee-Wee Herman fame, the fun of watching David unravel the mystery of his blackout, the excitement of space exploration once David gets back on the spaceship, the revelation of David’s connection to the spaceship,and watching all the NASA scientists try to solve the mystery behind David’s erratic brain activity after his disappearance.

Flight of the Navigator has some neat robots and other science fiction special effects. But it’s also an intriguing mystery. The film is enjoyable for both kids and adults. While some of the effects may seem dated, it’s still a lot of fun. The film isn’t going to be mistaken for Star Wars anytime soon. But it’s a good introduction to science fiction/adventure films for kids. It’s one piece of film nostalgia from the 1980s that I’m happy to revisit. Even if science fiction isn’t typically your cup of tea, I bet you’ll find something to like about Flight of the Navigator. It’s one of Disney’s best kept live action film secrets.

Disney Live Action Spotlight: That Darn Cat

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It’s week two of my Disney live action film spotlight. For this week’s film spotlight, I am embracing my inner cat lady. My pick is That Darn Cat from 1965. Forget the remake that came out in the 90s. The original is one of the most charming family films you’ll ever see.

Let’s cut straight to the chase. Here’s a rundown of the plot.

The Randall sisters, Patti (Hayley Mills) and Ingrid (Dorothy Provine), never have a dull moment, thanks to the antics of D.C., their trouble-making Siamese cat. When D.C. wanders into an apartment where bank teller Margaret Miller (Grayson Hall) is being held hostage, the clever captive writes “help” on her watchband and attaches it to the cat. Upon finding the message, Patti and Ingrid contact the FBI, and soon agent Zeke Kelso (Dean Jones) is there to investigate.–IMDB

That Darn Cat has a lot of great Disney ingredients. There’s the presence of Hayley Mills, star of many great Disney films, including The Parent Trap. Mills has such a great screen presence and a natural charm that she’s perfect for this kind of fun Disney fare. Mills is joined in the film by Dean Jones, another Disney movie regular. You may remember him from Herbie,the Love Bug and The Ugly Dachshund. Jones is a delight to watch on-screen. He has a lot of fun playing the FBI agent. There’s a lot of other great acting talent in this movie: Roddy McDowall, Elsa Lanchester, and Frank Gorshin are among the talented cast.

But as a lover of cats, my favorite character is the mischievous Siamese cat. The cat has all sorts of hilarious adventures as a sort of animal spy. The FBI puts a tracking device on the cat, in the hopes that he will lead them bank to the hideout of the bank robbers. Tracking the cat leads them through several backyards and a drive-in movie theater. The scene at the drive-in is just comic gold. If that doesn’t make you laugh I don’t know what will. Along with the fun of the caper plot, there are fun subplots. My favorite is Elsa Lanchester playing the nosy neighbor. There’s also Roddy McDowall’s romance with Hayley Mills’ sister. All of it works together and provides for great entertainment. Nothing feels forced in the story.

That Darn Cat isn’t just a mindless action movie. It has a lot of inventive slapstick humor and a very talented cast. It’s a fun caper movie that the whole family can enjoy. Hayley Mills does a terrific job in the lead part. She and the cat are just adorable together. And the cat is just a riot. The cat could have been a silent film star. The animal has a ton of personality. This is a breezy romp that is sure to please. See it if you haven’t already. If you have, watch it again. It’s enjoyable for viewers of all ages.

Disney Live Action Spotlight: Swiss Family Robinson

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Greetings, readers! With the start of a new month comes a new monthly blog spotlight. With my trip to Disney World coming next month (55 days!), it seemed like as good a time as any to do a Disney spotlight. While people are most familiar with Disney’s animated features, the studio has also churned out some great live action films over the years. My pick for the first week of this spotlight is one of the best. It’s Swiss Family Robinson from 1960.

The story is about a family and how they are forced to survive on a desert island.

A family in route to New Guinea is shipwrecked on a deserted tropical island. They are forced to remain on the island because of the damage to the ship and the pirates that are roaming the islands. They create a home on the island (centering around a huge tree house) and explore the island and its wildlife. Plenty of adventure ensues as the family deals with issues of survival and pirates, and the brothers must learn how to live on the island with an uncertain future.–IMDB

While the plot is pretty straightforward, it takes some interesting twists and turns. But the real fun of Swiss Family Robinson comes not from family melodrama, but in the interaction of the family members and the imaginative ways they come up with to survive on the island. The come up with unique inventions to take the place of modern amenities. The best of them is the giant tree house that they build. There’s also the constant threat of a pirate attack to keep viewers on their toes. At one point, the family blows up the ship wreckage to keep the pirates from regaining their navigational bearings and coming after them. There’s a plot twist where the pirates capture another ship and hold its captain and cabin boy for ransom. The family’s two sons Fritz (James MacArthur) and Ernst (Tommy Kirk), rescue the cabin boy who turns out to be a girl named Roberta (Janet Munro).

Swiss Family Robinson is the type of imaginative family entertainment you just don’t see enough of anymore. The parents (John Mills and Dorothy McGuire) are positive role models, the fun comes not just from mindless action but from watching the family deal with living under extraordinary circumstances, and the breathtaking look of the film (it was the first widescreen Disney film shot with Panavision lenses).

The family in Swiss Family Robinson is the kind we all want to be a part of. They love each other, have adventures, and are people who are fun to be with. If I were to pick my favorite character it would be Francis (Kevin Corcoran). He’s the youngest of the boys and takes charge of investigating the island’s wildlife. He spends his days exploring and collecting animals. He even rescues two Great Danes that were shipwrecked with them. Oh, and did I mention all the cool booby-traps the family comes up with to outsmart the pirates? My favorites are a pit with a tiger and coconut bombs. These people could give the crew of Gilligan’s Island a run for their money.

Swiss Family Robinson, skillfully directed by Ken Annakin, is a red-blooded adventure in the proud tradition of Treasure Island and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. If you’re looking for a great film to watch and enjoy with your whole family, Swiss Family Robinson is the film for you.