I don’t think I ever saw this as a kid, and I think I always assumed that the lion was Napoleon and that Samantha, obviously Jodie Foster, was the main character. I think these are reasonable assumptions—clearly, if you’re putting a lion in your movie, you’re going to name your movie after the lion. And, clearly, the kid you’re naming the movie after is going to be the main character. And clearly, it is harder than you’d think to avoid a main/mane joke in there even if you simultaneously cannot think of a good one. Only two of these things actually turn out to be true; Samantha really is played by Jodie Foster, in her first film role. And the main/mane thing.
Napoleon, in fact, is a young boy, played by Johnny Whitaker. He lives with his grandfather (Will Geer); presumably, his parents are dead. His grandfather is a bit of a character. His best friend is Samantha, who is not supposed to play with him. But her parents are on a trip without her, leaving her with the housekeeper, Gertrude (Ellen Corby). One day, Napoleon and his grandfather are out walking in the mountains, and they see an old clown (Vito Scotti) who is planning to return home at long last. Only he can’t take his lion with him. His lion is old and toothless and only drinks milk. Napoleon cheerfully agrees to take him in, to his grandfather’s astonished dismay.
Only then, Grandpa dies. Napoleon is supposed to be waiting for a letter from his uncle, but he’s uncertain about that. He’s certain he’s not interested in an orphanage. They sure won’t let him take Major, the lion. He hires a philosophy student named Danny (Michael Douglas) to help bury his grandfather and decides to just stay in the house and wait. This rapidly fails to work out, and Napoleon now plans to cross the mountains and stay with Danny instead. Only Samantha wants to go with him, and she is missed in a way that Napoleon won’t be.
In fact, the movie makes it relatively plain that Samantha’s homelife is in some ways worse than Napoleon’s. Her parents are alive, and she has money, but her parents are distant, and she doesn’t have anyone but them. So okay, part of this is that it’s summer, and they aren’t in school. But the only friends the kids have are each other; the only family they have are legal guardians—or else family they have no contact with. Let’s not forget that the housekeeper doesn’t seem to like Samantha very much, or at least isn’t capable of showing her that affection.
The movie scarred Jodie Foster. Like, literally. Both physically and mentally. She was walking with one of the stand-in lions. “I was walking ahead of him. He was on an invisible leash, some piano wire. He got sick of me being slow, picked me up and held me sideways and shook me like a doll.” And by “picked me up,” she means in his mouth. The trainer told the lion to drop her and it did, but she has scars on her stomach and ailurophobia. You can’t really blame her. She was nine at the time.
The plot does not make a whole lot of sense, really. It almost reads as though someone had a dream that they then cast Jodie Foster and Michael Douglas in. Danny is a philosophy student who needs a job to pay for a (cheap, especially by modern standards) textbook, and he appears to be spending the summer herding goats in the mountains? The lion is getting all of its nutrition from milk and is perfectly happy to live in a chicken coop? And the chickens are okay with it, too? The whole motorcycle chase, which I won’t get into because spoilers? It’s a deeply weird movie.
Not really bad, you understand. Even at nine, Jodie Foster was talented. And while I think of Johnny Whitaker as “the kid who looks like the kid who picked on Tony and Tia in Escape to Witch Mountain,” he wasn’t actually bad. He was in The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!, among other things (including, sigh, A Talking Cat!?!), and he’s clearly talented. And Michael Douglas, of course. The script is screwy but not terrible; the kids’ dialogue is even relatively believable for how kids think and talk. And the score is good enough to have been nominated for an Oscar, though it lost to Limelight, the only competitive win of Charlie Chaplin’s career.
The movie was filmed in rural John Day, Oregon. And by “rural,” I mean, “even today, it has 1744 people and is the largest town in its county.” It’s lovely and scenic and all that. And, yes, the kind of place where you can believe you’d have an old man like Napoleon’s grandfather; I know enough about the rural areas of the Pacific Northwest that certain aspects make a lot more sense to me than they probably would to some of my friends.
I also have to say that I appreciate the movie’s attitude toward the system. Which, yes, is flawed, but I think Napoleon has a rather Dickensian view of orphanages, possibly encouraged by his grandfather. The movie doesn’t pretend that Napoleon would be better off raising goats and studying philosophy with Danny. Danny’s place on the mountain isn’t a bad place for Major—though the advantage of setting this in summer beyond the lack of structure for the kids’ lives is the fact that no one discusses how you keep a lion through a Cascades winter—but Danny is not going to be Napoleon’s new father figure. And that’s okay. Yeah, Napoleon’s too old to be adopted, probably, but there’s no reason to assume he’ll be like Jodie Foster in Candleshoe when he gets older.
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