I don’t know how many times I’ve failed to write about this movie because I thought, “No, of course I’ve already done that one.” Which I suppose would’ve been something, when I considered briefly watching all of Disney’s live action films in chronological order. (The reason I didn’t was lack of availability, a problem not actually solved by Disney+.) It’s definitely one of the movies my sisters and I went out of our way to watch when it aired on The Disney Channel when we were kids, and I think it’s one of the first dozen or so movies I bought on DVD. At that, I know I’ve bought it more than once, when there were special features I wanted.
Tony (Ike Eisenmann) and Tia (Kim Richards) arrive at an orphanage, having lost their adopted parents. They have no memory from before the adoption, when they were five and three, respectively. They have grown up with the name Malone but know it isn’t theirs, even if they know nothing of their past. One day, a bully at the orphanage, Truck (Dermott Downs, now a director mostly working on the CW’s DC shows), takes Tia’s “star case,” and when the kids’ cat Winky knocks it out of his hand, it reveals a map hidden behind the design of two stars on its front.
Before the kids can resolve what this all means, they rescue a man named Lucas Deranian (Donald Pleasence) using precognition. He works for a man named Aristotle Bolt (Ray Milland), who wants to use ESP or something to make quite a lot of money. Deranian claims to be their uncle and takes them to Bolt’s estate, Xanthus, but the kids are aware of what Bolt is like and escape. They end up stowing away in the RV owned by Jason O’Day (Eddie Albert), and he helps them find where they belong.
Obviously, Pleasence, Milland, and Albert are all credited ahead of the kids; well, even now, what non-Disney stuff can you name that the kids have done? (She was Maclean Stevenson’s daughter for 38 episodes of Hello, Larry and was in Black Snake Moan; he was in Star Trek II and a couple of Disney dubs of Ghibli movies.) I find it a little more interesting that she’s billed ahead of him since his name usually comes first when the kids are talked to at the same time. Oh, sure, Gillian As A Younger Person didn’t notice, when first viewing Roman Holiday, who Irving Radovich was; I’m not sure I even thought about Green Acres. But still; Disney has always gotten some pretty impressive adults to appear in their movies.
Shame about the special effects, though. There’s a lot to recommend this movie, but oof. Honestly, I’d like to see a version where they were at least cleaned up a little—not replaced, necessarily, but I’m sure you could do a lot to fix the flying Winnebago scenes toward the end that make it look a lot less obviously “someone is moving a cut-out across the shot.” It’s especially embarrassing for a Disney movie, because you know the studio had been doing more convincing effects in 1961 making Fred MacMurray’s Model T fly.
But the kids are engaging; the performances and indeed the writing only get really bad whenever anyone feels the need to emphasize that Tia is remembering something. Milland’s delivery of the line about how Winnebagos can’t fly upside down gets me every time. Eddie Albert is a great crotchety old man, and Donald Pleasence has always been a go-to choice for “smarmy guy trying to make you trust him.” And most of the effects are so smooth that I didn’t think of them when thinking of the bad ones—there is a lot of stuff done with the kids’ telekinesis that holds up.
This is, however, one of the Disney movies where I’ve read the book; I think I found it at a library sale or something. What I find interesting are three of the changes made. First the kids are older in the book—around sixteen or so, about to be on their own. Making it, especially in the late ’60s when the book was written, less unusual to see the kids on their own. Second, instead of a widowed nomad, they are helped by a priest, Father O’Day. (I’d also note that the book is clearly set on the East Coast and the movie is clearly filmed on the West Coast, but that’s not hugely important.) In fact, he volunteers, come to that.
Finally, I’d note that the children in the movie are blonde and all-American-looking and wholesome. As long as you leave them alone, there’s little outwardly different about them from any number of the other orphans—though it’s a typical Disney film of this era and has a fairly diverse band of orphans. Still, in the book, the two are generally “foreign-looking.” Darker, for one thing. I assume it was a deliberate choice on the part of Alexander Key, just as casting a couple of blonde kids was a deliberate choice for the film. After all, how bad can the kids be if they’re Just Like Us, For a Given Definition of “Us”?