Extended Thoughts on ‘The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again’
Directed by Vincent McEveety
Written by Don Tait
Starring Don Knotts, Tim Conway, Tim Matheson, Elyssa Davalos
I feel like I’m going to turn into a broken record, writing these columns, before the podcast even gets to its 100th episode. I keep coming back to the notion of nostalgia, to whether there is a great amount of inherent value in appreciating something from the past, simply because you liked it in the past. It’s not that I don’t have nostalgia for things I cherished in my childhood, it’s that I don’t let that guide me. For example, though I won’t be writing an extended-thoughts column solely dedicated to it, I imagine the idea of nostalgia will be very strong in relation to the new Disney movie Wreck-It Ralph, which takes place in a fictional video-game arcade with some real-world video games and video-game characters among the ensemble cast.
I think it’s the comment from director Duncan Jones—a filmmaker whose work I enjoy greatly, mind you—that set me on this path again. He said, on Twitter, that Wreck-It Ralph was his “most anticipated nostalgia” of the year. Now, I can’t tell you exactly how glib or facetious Jones is being. (And, though this should go without saying, it’s from a tweet, so I’m not trying to blow it out of proportion.) But the idea of nostalgia being all that matters with certain movies or TV shows or some piece of popular culture is ridiculous. I can hear the cries, the grumpy replies: “What, aren’t you nostalgic for anything, Josh?” And the answer is yes, with many caveats. Here’s a random example: Calvin and Hobbes, the American comic strip from the mid-1980s and early-1990s, something that I feel comfortable in calling one of the best pieces of modern American literature. I remember curling up in a chair or on my bed or in school, reading and re-reading and re-reading the various collections by artist and writer Bill Watterson, and I can’t forget the immense sadness I felt when I read that Watterson would be ending the strip in 1995.
So, yes, I have tons of nostalgia, heaps of it, for Calvin and Hobbes. And about a year ago, after finally springing for the massive, three-book complete collection, I went back to the world of the six-year old boy and his stuffed tiger friend, with a combination of trepidation and excitement. Was the strip going to be as fun and intelligent to an adult as it was to a kid? The answer, fortunately, is a resounding yes. Watterson’s artistic abilities grew as the strip progressed, and his wit and honesty never wavered. With respect, then, to the idea that I’m not nostalgic for anything, I present this as a counter. But here’s why I bring it up: it’s not just that I have nostalgia for Calvin and Hobbes (or The Far Side, which was more adult, but equally brilliant). It’s that Calvin and Hobbes holds up. I feel like a lot of movies, TV shows, books, etc., that people are nostalgic for don’t hold up; more to the point, I think most of these people (which, perhaps, includes you, dear reader) are aware that this popular culture doesn’t hold up, but either don’t want to admit it, or don’t care.
And hey, don’t get me wrong. I understand that a person would be unwilling to acknowledge that something they felt was so instrumental to their childhood…well, sucks. Why would you want to rip off that band-aid? I get it. However, I think a lot of the nostalgia-driven mentality in modern popular culture allows people to just shrug and not try to bring something new to a story. In the case of Wreck-It Ralph, I think the mentality was closer to the filmmakers saying, “Well, we got the licensing rights for all of these video game characters. Our work here is done.” Nostalgia, in essence, breeds laziness. The cause is frustrating, but the effect is what I bristle against.
But I bristle against nostalgia in general, and here’s why: nostalgia clouds our memories. Nostalgia is a way to make us fool ourselves, or live in some kind of fantasy. This whole tangent about nostalgia is a long road to the short point that my mind lied to me regarding The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again. As with the original film, I had a strong memory of having watched the two films in this misbegotten franchise starring Tim Conway and Don Knotts. I knew I’d seen these movies as a kid, watched them on VHS multiple times. If I watched them multiple times, I must have liked them, right?
Well, here’s the thing—and it’s likely not that unique, but it’s worth pointing out. When I was a kid, I almost always thought every movie I saw was the GREATEST THING EVER. There were, I’m sure, movies I saw in theaters or on TV that let me down, but until I was 10 or 11, everything was the best. Everything. Home Alone? Brilliant. Dennis The Menace? Cinematic masterwork. The Sandlot? I saw it twice in a week. (Really.) So I probably though that The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again, along with its predecessor, were the bee’s knees, the cat’s pajamas, and other outdated 1950s-era references. I know that some people may question my lack of love as an adult for the other examples I listed, but I stand by it. Hearing someone say this is probably painful, or something you don’t want to hear, but nostalgia is just a shade, blinders we wear to shield us from the obvious truth that a lot of what we liked as children was terrible.
And make no mistake, The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again is terrible. As a historical artifact, an example of how outrageously bad the live-action films Walt Disney Pictures released in the 1970s were, it’s fascinating. So, for Mike and I, as would-be cultural historians, The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again has value. And that is its only value. Just about every possible thing that could go wrong here does. It’s not so much that, as Mike feared, putting the comic relief from the first film as the leads sapped the fun from the concept. It’s that director Vincent McEveety and writer Don Tait have no idea what makes a movie funny, let alone an Apple Dumpling Gang movie. The movie is too disjointed, too scattered, and too overstuffed to have any impact. I didn’t laugh at anything, because when McEveety wasn’t doing a piss-poor job of shooting comic sequences, he and Tait were rushing through every Western cliché they could pack into a 90-minute kids’ movie.
What’s more, they threw in a romantic subplot to placate…who, exactly? Young women? We’ve talked recently about how Disney fears their reputation with girls, that Disney equals princess-themed movies only, and boys shouldn’t be interested in that. The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again is, like its predecessor, clearly targeted more at boys, but throwing in a romantic subplot is the height of pointlessness. If girls are avoiding this movie, there’s no purpose to the storyline. If girls aren’t avoiding this movie, under Disney’s flawed logic, they’ve long since tuned out because, eww, girls don’t like Westerns, right? So I’m not sure why the completely separate story between the soldier played by Tim Matheson and the proper lady played by Elyssa Davalos exists. Yes, Davalos is exceedingly pretty, but she’s not just saddled with a ridiculous and obnoxious character to play, she’s also terrible at engendering any sympathy. Matheson’s not much better, but Davalos is told to play the most shrill and loud harpy possible, worn down by Matheson’s old-fashioned charms almost instantly. There’s no chemistry, no spark in their relationship, almost entirely because no one involved in the production gives a damn. Why should we?
And there’s no humor in the rest of the film. When you get actors like Knotts, Conway, and Kenneth Mars to appear in your movie, you want to be funny. You have the intention of being funny. But the movie really wastes Mars, especially, as a Wild Bill-esque lawman who immediately runs afoul of Amos and Theodore, the title characters. (By the way, it makes no sense for Amos and Theodore to co-opt the Apple Dumpling Gang name, which, if memory serves correctly, was meant to apply to the kids in the first film. But I digress.) Mars can play big and over-the-top characters, as evidenced by his brilliant work in Young Frankenstein. The difference, really, is that he had Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder writing his character in that film, whereas Tait has no comic sense. Neither does McEveety; his inability to shoot comedy, to emphasize what the audience should be looking at to laugh at something, is roughly nil. Whether you find this movie funny or not, it’s hard to laugh at something when the gag is being deliberately obscured by a poor craftsman.
The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again is a bad movie. I’m not sure I think it’s as bad as Mike did, if only because the other 1970s-era live-action movies we’ve highlighted are absurdly ridiculous in their awfulness. It’s not just that they’re unfunny, they work too hard at trying to be funny that they circle all the way around to being execrable. But I can’t recommend it for any reason. And in case you’re curious, I’d be as willing to throw nostalgia under the bus, as it were, if the movie had ended up being enjoyable. Nostalgia is not enough for something to be good. Just because I liked something when I was 7 doesn’t mean a) I’ll like it as an adult or b) that it’s well-made or skillful. Some things from our childhood are that good. Some things aren’t. It’s not a bad thing to admit that, for example, The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again is bad, bad, bad. Nostalgia is just as invalid now as it was before I watched this tripe.
– Josh Spiegel