This feels like cheating. Surely the movie version, the original movie from 1975, is not so obscure as all that. Yet somehow, people I know seem not to have seen it, which I find perplexing. Maybe it’s just that the movie was in near-perpetual rotation on the Lost Disney Channel of My Youth, one of the movies that my sisters and I looked forward to with great delight. However, I do find people who stumble across the movie for the first time, having previously missed the version that came out a few years ago that had, based on its Wikipedia article, so little to do with the original plot that we’re not bothering to cover it here.
In the book, written by Alexander Key, Tony and Tia Malone are teenagers who initially arrive at Hackett House after the death of their foster mother, Nellie Malone. They are tagged as troublemakers because Tia was found in a supposedly locked building rescuing a kitten from a trap. It was locked; locks open for Tia if it’s right for her to be on the other side of them. The two are of unknown age and nationality; they are tall and thin, with pale hair, olive skin, and blue-black eyes. Tia cannot talk, but she communicates telepathically with Tony. She carries a leather case that she calls her “star box,” because it has a design of twin stars on it. She uses it to carry pencils and paper, so she can communicate with people who aren’t Tony. One day, she discovers that it has a false bottom, which conceals money wrapped in a piece of map.
The teens eventually come to the attention of Lucas Deranian, whom Tia remembers as the man who left them with Granny Malone. Rather than go with him, the pair run away in search of Father O’Day, who runs a mission in the grimy downtown area of wherever-they-live. Father O’Day agrees to take the teens, and Tia’s cat Winkie, to the place the map indicates. However, Deranian is hot on their trails, and he’s got the law on his side, having managed to convince a judge that he should be appointed the teens’ legal guardian.
Those of you familiar with the movie are noticing the handful of differences. We do indeed come upon Tony (Ike Eisenmann) and Tia Malone (Kim Richards) on their first day at an orphanage. Their Granny Malone has died. Tia can communicate telepathically with Tony, and she carries a star case. A man named Lucas Deranian (Donald Pleasence) claims to be their uncle. The star case contains money and has a map hidden behind the stars. The children escape from Deranian with a man named O’Day (Eddie Albert), and they have the same big reveal.
However, the Malones are younger—Eisenmann was thirteen and Richards twelve—and they don’t have quite the same record. Also, Tia can talk. Deranian now works for a man named Aristotle Bolt (Ray Milland), and the children are taken to Bolt’s estate of Xanthus. Because Bolt is trying to use their powers for his own nefarious purposes. And rather than being a Fighting Young Priest Who Can Talk to the Kids, he is now a crusty old widower. The kids aren’t looking for him in particular; they just hide in his RV. O’Day is familiar with Bolt and wants to help the kids escape in part to keep him from getting his way. The whole thing has switched coasts, presumably because Disney is a West Coast company.
Oh, also, the kids are blond now. Considerably more American-looking, if you get what I mean—in the book, everyone’s consistently trying to figure out their ethnicity, and in the movie, they look like the kinds of kids you’d find on screens at the time, the kind of Wholesome Middle America types of vague European ancestry who don’t look like they’re from any country in particular other than the US. No one would speculate on their ethnicity—frankly, if they went to Europe or Africa or somewhere, people would assume they were American. No one walking along the street would look at them twice in a small northern California town.
Honestly, it kind of misses the point. From what I can tell, no version of the story focuses on how strange the children are and how they don’t appear to be of any Earth ethnic group. The children are made more normal in pretty much every version. In the original book, it’s even established that their craft was shot down over Hungary during the 1956 uprising there; the children were smuggled out of the Soviet Union. The kids here might as well have splashed down in San Francisco Bay, for all we know about their strangeness. Tony and Tia are immigrants, part of the same sort of immigrant story as Superman, when you get right down to it. We move a bit aside from that aspect of them.
The world is not a welcoming place for the Malones. They are young and strange, and they are up against clear moneyed forces—even when we do not have the explicit Aristotle Bolt and Xanthus, we can tell that Deranian has money to throw around. Theirs is a rather less happy immigrant story; no Ma and Pa Kent for the Malones. On the other hand, there are people like whichever version of O’Day you’re going with, and the implication is that they’ve encountered a few others in their time. At the time the movie was made, Disney was trying to gain an older audience, and the ever so slightly gritty nature of the story was one aspect of that. Unfortunately, they focused more on that than on the special effects at the end.
Next month, we’ll be continuing with our list of movies featuring some really famous people by getting into The First Wives Club. There’s a joke there about Kim Richards’ being one of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, but I don’t know enough about the show to make it. Still, you can help keep the column going by supporting my Patreon or Ko-fi!