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Disney Deja View: Sorting out the sequels III

Disney Deja View: Sorting out the sequels III

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In the 1970s and beyond, the Disney revisits (remakes and sequels) experienced a lull of sorts. The reasons seem to be twofold: Output in general was down during this period of transition from the Miller years to the Eisner reign. And by the mid-1980s, the feature animation engines were sparking to life, capturing a portion of the studio's creative resources and bringing Disney to yet another renaissance. That next wave of animated classics would produce a whole crop of sequels themselves (examined in the final installment to this series).

Apples Don't Fall Far...

Jack M. Bickham's 1971 novel "The Apple Dumpling Gang" was purchased by the Disney Studios and came to the screen in 1975. In rustic (and aptly named) Quake City, CA, gambler Russel Donovan (Bill Bixby) is asked to pick up a package coming in on a stage, driven by sassy (and beautiful) Dusty Clydesdale (Susan Clark). The "package" is a trio of moppets, Clovis, Bobby, and Celia Bradley, who have been left in Donovan's care, without his foreknowledge. The town and the plot get shaken up when an earthquake reveals a multi-carat hunk of gold to the kids, and numerous parties attempt to steal it. The most inept of the robbers are local swindlers Amos and Theodore, played to the hilt by Tim Conway and Don Knotts.

Conway and Knotts saddled up one more in "The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again" (1979), minus the romantic subplot between Donovan and Dusty. *And* absent the three kids. What's left is a rather episodic, somewhat humorous, 88 minutes of revenge-seeking lawmen, foiled bank robberies, and an entire fort that's torched.

Enjoyment of "ADG Rides Again" probably hinges on the age and maturity level of the viewer; for the under-10 set, it's a laff riot. For adults... not so much.

Which Witch?

In "Escape to Witch Mountain" (1975), Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann are Tia and Tony, respectively, two orphans with extraordinary powers of telekinesis. Evil millionaire Aristotle Bolt (Ray Milland) wants his henchman Lucas Deranian (Donald Pleasence) to capture the kids for his own benefit. The kids latch on to widower Jason O'Day (Eddie Albert), who delivers them safely to Witch Mountain, where we learn the secret behind their powers.

The film is a mixed bag of good and bad: The central performances from Eisenmann and Richards are very good -- in fact, they outshine the teeth-gnashing villains handily. The technical aspects could have been better handled, too, as several wires are visible in the camera trickery of moving objects around on their own. And the blue-screened climax looks unlikely and cheesy by today's standards.

But there was apparently enough interest in the story to continue it, hence "Return from Witch Mountain" in 1978. Tony and Tia are now teenagers on vacation in LA. Tony is kidnapped by a world-domination-plotting scientist Professor Gannon (Christopher Lee) and his greedy sponsor Letha (Bette Davis). Tia, with the help of the scrappy Earthquake Gang, helps him escape, with the chase climaxing at a plutonium plant.

The charm that "Escape" generated ebbs from the sequel, for reasons that include the age of the two leads. They're stuck in that awkward-*** stage, making their "dramatic" scenes a little tough to swallow. Christopher Lee is appropriately black, but Bette Davis has little (if anything) to do. The SPFX are adequate, best rendered when Tony, under the mind control of Prof. Gannon, attempts to steal gold bullion from a museum.

The Witch Mountain franchise tried a cross-over to serial television in 1982, with "Beyond Witch Mountain." Eddie Albert reprised his Jason O'Day role, but Tia was played by Tracy Gold and Tony was Andrew K. Freeman. The gist of the show was the weekly rescue of other Witch Mountain strandees, but the concept never made it beyond its premiere.

The original Disney Witch Project received a complete re-do and a major dumbing-down for a TV remake in 1995. Tony and Tia were Danny (Erik von Detten) and Anna (Elizabeth Moss), and their special abilities are named "purple power," which sounds like a soft drink Barney the Dinosaur would sell. Robert Vaughn played evil Mr. Bolt.

Casual Friday

Annabel and Ellen Andrews are at odds with each other; Annabel is in a rebelling teenager phase, and her mother Ellen pines for her lost youth. When they both wish to swap places at precisely the same moment, the Powers That Be grant the request, and Ellen must navigate a day in daughter Annabel's shoes, and vice versa. This was the plot of "Freaky Friday" (1976), a fish-outta-water comedy starring Jodie Foster as Annabel and Barbara Harris as mother Ellen.
The comic implications of the swapping of a 40-something with a teenager are played to the hilt, as Annabel/Ellen gets mauled on a lacrosse field, blows up a typewriter, and must face the prospect of waterskiing in a show for her real-estate dad's clients. Ellen/Annabel, on the other hand, must cook, navigate the washer, and deal with an unending parade of repair and cleaning people arriving at the home.

The original is sweet, very funny, and contains two dead-on performances. It's tough to decide who is the better delight: Foster-as-Ellen, trying to gulp down an ice cream sundae when she really craves a cigarette, or Harris-as-Annabel, wooing neighbor-boy Boris (Marc McClure) and skateboarding.
"Freaky Friday" got the TV treatment in 1995, but Shelley Long and Gaby Hoffman as Ellen and Annabel can't hold a candle to the prior cast. It's a by-the-numbers outing at best, containing little of the wit of the original.

In 2003, the film was again remade theatrically, keeping the same title but adapting a drastically new (but refreshingly funny) viewpoint. This time, it's Anna (Lindsay Lohan) v. Tess (Jamie Lee Curtis). Anna believes mom is ruining her life by interfering in her romances, criticizing her dress, carping about the noise level of her garage band, and favoring her little brother. Tess is a little distracted: Her practice as a psychologist has her in daily contact with *very* needy patients, and she's getting remarried after the death of her first husband, Anna's father. New beau Ryan (Mark Harmon) spends most of the movie with his eyebrows raised, trying to steel himself for what he's getting into.

The body swap-a-roo takes place at the hands of a well-meaning (but meddlesome) matriarch at the local Chinese restaurant. And the results are hilarious, with Anna-as-Tess facing a panicky interview promoting a book she hasn't read, and Tess-as-Anna navigating the halls of high school, including a vindictive former gal-pal, a jealous teacher, and a state-mandated aptitude test.

Marc McClure has a nice cameo as Boris, now a Fed-Ex delivery man.

The climax, at Tess' rehearsal dinner for the wedding where Anna is expected to play at a band audition, is heartfelt and true.

The two theatrical versions of "Freaky Friday" are the rarity in the Disney sequel canon; they both stand on their own as enjoyable, funny, fresh, and interesting character studies, a nod not only to the creative teams that assembled them but also to the strength of the Mary Rodgers source novel.

Down and Out

The entire southern California rich-n-famous lifestyle got a good skewering in 1986's "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," a Touchstone release. The Whitemans (nudge-nudge) live a completely isolated life in their mega-mansion. Husband Jerry (Richard Dreyfuss) has made a killing in wire dry cleaning hangers (wonder if he's seen "Mommy Dearest"?), and wife Barbara (Bette Midler) flits from psychoanalysis session to nail appointments to shopping binges in the desire to be happy. Even the family dog, Matisse, is under a behaviorist's care. It all turns upside-down when a homeless man (grungy Nick Nolte) wanders onto their property to commit suicide in the family pool.

The following year, Fox Television decided to give the concept a whirl as a weekly series. Hector Elizondo and Anita Morris were brought onboard as the Whitemans, and Tim Thomerson filled in for Jerry. Only Matisse remained from the original cast. This sit-com has the distinction of being the first Fox cancellation ever. The writing, audiences found, was down; therefore, the show was soon out.

Men and Babies

"Three Men and a Baby" (1987) used a French film as the inspiration to play the "Mr. Mom" card, wondering what laughs could be wrung from three bachelors stuck with a babe. Tom Selleck, Steve Guttenberg, and Ted Danson are the titular three men, and while they initially fumble around in sit-com style with diapers and feedings, they eventually find their way.

So in 1990, the melee continues in "Three Men and a Little Lady." Baby Mary's now a five-year-old, is in jeopardy of losing her three dads, as her mother (Nancy Travis) is considering a re-lo to England.

"Little Lady" is much more a romantic comedy, with Selleck on the move to Stop That Wedding! The original may have the aww factor going for it, but the sequel appeals if for nothing more than its slightly more mature outlook.

Let's Get Small

1989's "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" returned the studio to the wacky-scientist comedies of the 1960s, with Wayne Szalinski (Rick Moranis) taking his proper place among the Merlin Joneses and Ned Brainerds of releases past. His shrinking ray zaps his own children (and a neighbor kid) down to ¼-inch height, and they must battle many backyard adventures (ants, bees, the lawnmower) to return home and to normal size.

Excellent SPFX abound in "HISK," but the pacing is a little sit-commy, as if the adult cast is standing around waiting for laughs from a studio audience that isn't there.

In 1992, the "HISK" concept was turned on its side with "Honey, I Blew Up the Kid." Toddler Adam Szalinski and his big bunny get shot by Wayne's growth ray and shoot up to skyscraper size. They then terrorize Las Vegas, in a bright send-up of every monster-on-the-loose-in-a-big-city Sci-fi action flick. The green-screens are a little grainier and the pacing could still be a little brisker, but there's fun to be had.

The small screen called twice in 1997, with "Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves" being released direct-to-video. This time, it's the adults who get small and must navigate their way to safety among the dangers in the household: Hot Wheels, cockroaches, and sleepover girls who gorge on onion dip. (1997). The concept was then serialized, running 66 episodes and winning three Daytime Emmys. Rick Moranis was out and Peter Scolari was in. Often, plots spoofed a number of TV and movie conventions, including James Bond films and "Fantastic Voyage."

Mia Thermopoli

In 2001, the Pygmalion story got an interesting update, with ugly-duckling Mia (Anne Hathaway) discovering -- to her shock -- that she's actually a princess of a tiny pear-producing European country, Genovia. Mia's grandmother, Queen Clarisse (Julie Andrews) comes aboard to mold the gawky teen into a glamour dream. By the last reel, in accordance with the tagline of the film, she rocks; she rules; she reigns in "The Princess Diaries."

The sequel in 2004 brings Mia and grandmamma to Genovia, where there is much questioning of her ability to rule. As it turns out, the ruler of Genovia must be married, so the royals scurry for an appropriate mate.

Both films are tweener fantasies, with much being made of the jewelry, gowns, and glam. But thankfully, there's more weight to these stories, provided by the likes of the regally cool Julie Andrews and the dizzy Heather Matarazzo as best-friend Lilly. The second film also benefits from of a short musical tribute from Julie Andrews, her first on-screen balladeering since a botched surgical procedure silenced her golden singing voice in 1999.

Next up, the Disney animated features and their often not-too-successful sequels.

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