Amazing transfers of two ’70s Disney films that eschew the usual studio factory look in favor of a refreshingly mature style.
When Disney ventured into the live-action field of motion pictures, they typically fell into 2 reasonably distinct categories: there was, of course, pure children’s fare like Flubber and The Apple Dumpling Gang that the little ones would love but made most parents cringe, and there were the productions that existed on another level – films whose elements would strongly appeal to the young ones, but took on more adult themes as well. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea could hardly be called a ‘children’s film’, and how many kids were given nightmares by Patrick McGoohan’s scarecrow mask in Dr. Syn? Those films sported high production values, expert casts, and they dealt with, in the words of the MPAA, “adult themes”. The line between those films and the more madcap variety was rarely blurred successfully – how many children begged to see One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing because of the Disney name and fun-sounding title only to be bored senseless by the leaden plot dealing with Chinese spies and stolen microfilm?
Director John Hough must have seemed a strange choice to helm a Disney film in 1975; his previous work included a decidedly adult Hammer film, Twins of Evil, an effective haunted house thriller, The Haunting of Hell House, and the car chase dust-up Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, but his experience would give Escape to Witch Mountain a refreshingly adult feel missing from most of the studio’s output. Of course, everyone over 35 knows the secret behind the telekinetic and telepathic abilities of orphaned siblings Tony (Ike Eisenmann) and Tia (Kim Richards), and even in ’75 we knew not to trust Donald Pleasence before he falsifies adoption papers in order to bring them to boss Ray Milland’s massive California hacienda so that he can manipulate their powers to his own, presumably evil, ends. We instantly loved Eddie Albert (who, like Pleasence, didn’t noticeably age from the late ’50s through the early ’80s) from the moment he appeared with his Winnebago. Sure he was a gruff widower, and nearly threw the kids out after they snuck into his camper, but he certainly isn’t going to kick them out on an empty stomach now, was he? And we don’t feel like we’re giving anything away by saying that the conclusion involves a UFO, particularly since an image from the scene is included on the box art!
Escape’s popularity among kids is no mystery; what child hadn’t dreamed of levitating people and things at will? It’s the ultimate child-empowerment fantasy come to life! Escape was released a year before Carrie added a macabre twist to telekinetic ability (even though we’re left to wonder exactly how Milland was going to utilize the children’s powers), and it felt like something brand new. With the benefit of hindsight, a live-action Disney film that didn’t relentlessly pander to its audience seemed like a rare bird indeed. Both Escape and its sequel eschew the typical Disney factory look thanks to director Hough, who brings a refreshingly mature style to the proceedings.
Only during the major telekinetic effects sequences does the film fall into the traditional mold, with adults flailing their limbs and gesturing wildly; reacting to both flying props and post-production opticals like players in a Mack Sennett short. The special effects are pure Disney, meaning a combination of hastily assembled matte shots and the suspension of people and things from wires. The children’s ability to levitate never looks like anything more than a wire rig hoist-up; I’m not sure what sort of patience kids today will have for these silent era effects, but the quality of the production will likely win over all but the most video game-hardened pre-teen.
The world into which Return from Witch Mountain was released in1978 was a far different one than that of its predecessor. In the prevous year, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind had reset the standard of acceptability for effects in science fiction films, an expensive lesson that took Disney several years of pricey missteps like The Black Hole to learn. Both young principals return – 3 years older and noticeably more mature. The pair had a bigger share of the film to carry the second time around –Richards plays most of her early scenes with younger actors, making her seem that much older – and they do so without the irritating Pollyanna quality that seeped into many young Disney performers (they’re also devoid of the constant adult guardian figure provided by Albert in the first film).
They’re once again supported by a terrific group of older actors, including Christopher Lee and Bette Davis as, respectively, a mad scientist and his impatient benefactor, whose experiment in mind control is interrupted by Tony when he saves the life of their unwilling guinea pig (played by the great Anthony James, whose memorably angular face has him enshrined in the henchman hall of fame). The film departs from the original in several ways; the tone of the Escape remains, though with more of a ‘young adult’ adventure edge, befitting the rapidly-nearing-teenage-years stars, but most importantly, Tony and Tia are split up early in the show and spend most of the running time apart, which actually deprives the film of their chemistry together (the two went on to play siblings again in the nifty TV shocker Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell in ’78 and also have cameos in the soon to be released Race to Witch Mountain).
The conclusion of the film, when a still mind-controlled Tony is forced to have a psychic showdown with his sister (with Lee in the background shouting “Kill her!” into the transmitter controlling Tony’s mind) might be upsetting to younger viewers, but Return has a snappier pace than the first film, and makes for a more entertaining time than the occasionally meandering original (though the Los Angeles exteriors are much less interesting than the northern California cool of the first film). Hough also made sure that the casting of the adult antagonists reached the same watermark as before; Lee and Davis appear to be having a ball as the baddies, and if they deemed the material beneath them, it never shows in the performances.
However good or bad Race to Witch Mountain turns out to be, we have it to thank for the amazingly bright and sharp transfers on the new DVDs. We’re certainly no expert on the restoration of films prior to a disc release, but either Disney spent a bundle sprucing these up or they have the cleanest vault elements in the business. Only the shots with dodgy matte work or optical effects have that “less than perfect look”.
Both discs feature scene-specific commentary tracks featuring director Hough and leads Richards and Eisenmann (the latter were thankfully recorded together and make for a very pleasant listen), a just-under 30-minute making-of documentary, a trivia track, a “Studio Album” featuring clips from all Disney features released in that given year, and one Disney cartoon (”Pluto’s Dream House” on Escape and “The Eyes Have It” on Return).
Escape features an extra interview segment with Hough, a clip compilation entitled Disney Sci-Fi, and a featurette on the special effects. Return features an extended interview segment with the now adult members of the “street gang” that helps Tia search for Tony, another clip compilation, “Disney Kids with Powers,” and our favorite extra, a rare interview with Lee for a Spanish television station (in Spanish – one of the many languages the actor speaks with near fluency – with subtitles), in which the actor is sporting the enormous mustache grown for his upcoming role as a Gypsy in The Passage.