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Disney Deja View: Sorting out the sequels

Disney Deja View: Sorting out the sequels

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"You can't top pigs with pigs," said Walt Disney himself, when theater owners and the general public, enamored with his "Three Little Pigs" (1933), demanded more porcine predicaments on the silver screen. Walt apparently wasn't thrilled with the artistic challenges of going over familiar territory, but he did eventually succumb.

In fact, what evolved was a trend that -- owing to the number of made for video sequels and quickie knock-offs -- many today believe has been taken to extreme, much like those marching broomsticks in "Fantasia," which, once started, aren't easily stopped.

Treasure

"Treasure Island" (1950), for example, begat "Treasure Planet" (2002). These two films represent the longest stretch between original and remake AND the biggest evolution in technology, with "Treasure Island" being a traditional shoot and "Treasure Planet" being a combo of computer, traditional, and deep canvas animation techniques.

The advantage of the 1950 version lies significantly in that scurvy dog with a heart of gold, Long John Silver. Robert Newton as Silver version became a Hollywood archetype, ala Clark Gable/Rhett Butler and Humphrey Bogart/Rick Blaine.

Brian Murray tries to evoke some of Silver's charming bluster and hidden menace, but he remains a distant shadow of his forebear. Despite the difference, "Treasure Planet" does show a fair amount of imagination and whimsy, as the entire crew becomes a collection of genetically shaken creatures and cyborgs, Even the Silver's traditional parrot has been translated into a squib of shape-shifting jelly named, appropriately enough, Morph.

Welcome to Sherwood

Disney's live-action "The Story of Robin Hood" (1952) was later rethought and given a new look in the animated "Robin Hood" (1973). Dashing Richard Todd played Robin, and Joan Rice was Marian. The film includes many nice touches that were not part of the Warner Bros 1938 classic, including a system of communication involving whistling arrows shot through Sherwood. The film is also rather up-front with its violence, containing a particularly grisly ending for the Sheriff of Nottingham (Peter Finch).

Once animated, "Robin Hood" became a rather silly affair, show-boating the vocal cast and their ready-made personalities rather than any true artistic vision. Brian Bedford tries to strike the appropriate balance between romance and bravado, but he's hampered by a glut of secondary characters, a number of oddball anachronisms, and a meandering script that contains little of the political intrigue of the original. While Bedford is plain vanilla, Peter Ustinov as Prince John is clearly the best part of the movie, with his immature reactions to being foiled and his hilarious episodes of scenery-chewing.

Phil Harris is onboard again as the roly-poly bear, Little John. He's friendly enough, but the audience's love of Harris as a Disney sidekick was beginning to wear thin. Also thin, obviously, was "Robin Hood's" budget, evidenced by the reuse of animated cels from other sequences. "The Phony King of England," a weird hoedown number, lifts the "Wanna Be Like You" dance from "The Jungle Book."

Davy You-Know-Who

"Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontierwas a gigantic success in 1955, spawning boomerkids to snatch up coonskin caps at an alarming rate. It was, of course, three episodes of the "Disneyland" TV show merged together ("DC Indian Fighter," "DC Goes to Congress," "DC at the Alamo"), but audiences craved more. The Crockett phenomenon was unstoppable, with 10 million copies of the multi-versed "Ballad of Davy Crockett" theme song sold that year.

All the Crockett legend is here on display, from the opening where he's starin' down a ba'r to his eventual appearance at the Alamo. His right-hand man, George Russel (Buddy Ebsen) is on standby for action and adventure, and much shooting, riding, and tomahawk tossin' follows. The gaps in the TV series installments are bridged through clever map animations and some new lyrics to the "Ballad."

The death of the central hero at the Alamo didn't stop the studio from revisiting the franchise; the creative staff merely opted for a prequel in 1956's "Davy Crockett and the River Pirates." The subsequent film (two "Disneyland" episodes cobbled) opens with more of a lighthearted tone, but eventually, George and Davy get down to business, helping defeat Mike Fink, King of the River, in a race down the Natchez. It's Gullywumper v. Bertha Mae.


Dog Tales

Author Fred Gibson was hired to work on the adaptation of his own book, "Old Yeller," to the screen. Equal parts Western adventure, wrenching drama, and warm family comedy, the 1957 film that resulted is just about perfect. The screenplay, direction, and acting are first-rate, from lead Tommy Kirk as Travis to the irascible Jeff York as Bud Searcy to even young Kevin Corcoran, whose scamp of an Arliss does eventually grate some.

"Old Yeller," once beyond its tissue-wadding tragedy, ends on an upbeat: Yeller's pups are apparently as inquisitive, spirited, and adventurous as he was.
Savage Sam" is one of those pups, and in 1963, the Coates' story continues... with some changes. The elder Coates are out of the picture; therefore, Travis, Arliss, and Lisbeth Searcy (recast from Beverly Washburn to Marta Kristen "Lost in Space's" Judy Robinson]) are pretty much on their own. Until Uncle Beck appears. Just in time, too, for soon after, the kids are abducted by injuns, and it's up to Uncle Beck and Sam's tracking skills to save the day.

The treatment of the Indians "Savage Sam" is blatantly stereotypical, but such was the convention of the day. Modern PC audiences balk at the notion of scalping them for revenge and calling them blood-thirsty savages, but much of this ire is misplaced, and the film should be taken in its proper context.

In Canis Corporae Remako

"The Shaggy Dog," unleashed in 1959, again tapped Disney's contract players (MacMurray, Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran) in a sit-com fantasy: A Borgia ring's curse complicates the life of a teenager who finds it. In "Absent-Minded Professor" mode, the cinematography is black-and-white, which lends an appropriate creepiness to the film's darker moments. And somehow underscores the madcap business of an Old English Sheepdog wearing pajamas or driving a roadster.

In 1976, Disney asked the burning (and loaded question), "Whatever happened to the cursed Wilby Daniels?" And the reply came in "The Shaggy D.A.": He grew up as Dean Jones to run for district attorney, trying to escape the curse (and the dog catcher!), at the same time he beats out his opponent for office, crooked John Slade (Keenan Wynn).

Both movies work quite well and earn big laughs, with the latter having a slight edge in technological advancements. The sequence where Wilby is brought to the pound -- which gleefully sends up ever Warner Bros prison picture ever made -- is plainly brilliant.

Next time: The Disney live-action movies of the 1960s and their sequels.

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