Walt Disney passed away December 15, 1966, and in the decade that followed, the Walt Disney Company struggled to define itself. Should the company stay beholden to Walt and his vision, asking themselves what Walt would do, or should they take the opportunity to try something new? The decades that followed Walt’s death were a mix of trying to recreate old magic and experimenting with new genres and styles.
Good – Bedknobs and Broomsticks
In Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Disney was returning to a tried-and-true formula, one that had worked beautifully in Mary Poppins. The screenplay was based on a book series by an English children’s author, the story of a magical woman and the children under her care. Mary Poppins’ director Robert Stevenson helmed the project, which combined live action and animation. Robert and Richard Sherman, the team responsible for Mary Poppins as well as numerous other classic Disney songs, wrote the music and lyrics. Even David Tomlinson, George Banks himself, returned to play a leading role alongside Angela Lansbury, a talented actress of stage and screen. The similarities are not coincidental. This formula worked before and could work again. The question is, did it?
Bedknobs and Broomsticks is a good film, though not a great one. Songs like “Portobello Road” and “The Age of Not Believing” are beloved by Disney fans, but they aren’t as widely known and loved as “Chim Chim Cher-ee” or “Feed the Birds.” A genuine believer in magic meeting a street charlatan who sells magic tricks for a living is a fine set-up for a good old-fashioned Disney musical, and the film should have a slight camp factor considering that the good guys are using magical powers to fight Nazis. Still, it is a case where the film as a whole is slightly less than the sum of its parts. The pacing often drags, and there isn’t a definitive cut available, as many different edited versions have emerged over the years. Some of the animated sequences feel random and out of place in the larger story, like the soccer match on the Isle of Naboombu. Overall, Bedknobs and Broomsticks is an important film for understanding this era of the Walt Disney Company and worth a viewing, even with its flaws.
Best – Candleshoe
Candleshoe is a film mostly forgotten in popular culture today. It is a story that has been told before. A young woman bears a striking resemblance to a missing heiress. She is enlisted by a con man to pass her off as the missing heiress and steal the family fortune. Their plans are complicated, however, when she starts to care for the family and doesn’t want to go through with it. What sets this otherwise ordinary film apart and makes Candleshoe one of the best of this era?
First, the film falls outside of the traditional Disney formula in a number of ways. Jodie Foster, as Casey, is a likable protagonist, but she is also deceitful, opportunistic, and technically living outside the law. She pushed the boundaries of what a Disney hero could be, paving the way for characters like Aladdin and Emperor Kuzco. Second, the film refined a new variation on the “Save the Farm” trope. In Candleshoe, kids are searching for hidden treasure so they can “save the farm.” As a kid, watching other kids go on a treasure hunt adds a layer of adventure and puzzle solving to an otherwise tired story. This variation on the trope was later popularized in the ‘80s by films like The Goonies, and Candleshoe can take some credit for that. Finally, it quite simply is one of the best Disney films of this era. Jodie Foster sells Casey’s tough edge and hidden vulnerability very well, and the comedic performances of David Niven as the overworked butler and the legendary Helen Hayes as the sweet, unassuming grandmother should not be missed. Candleshoe might be forgotten in name, but it shaped the future of live-action kid movies and proved the Walt Disney Company could make great films after Walt’s death.
Worst – Snowball Express
Snowball Express takes tired jokes, an overly complicated plot, and green-screen skiing sequences that drag on unnecessarily and wraps them up in a wholly unappealing package. Dean Jones starred in a number of Disney films over the years with questionable quality from The Shaggy D.A. to The Ugly Dachshund, but Snowball Express is probably the worst.
Honorable Mention – The Love Bug
While Snowball Express is the worst film Dean Jones made with Disney, The Love Bug is easily his best and most lasting contribution, inspiring four sequels, a made-for-TV movie, and a sitcom.
— Rachel Kolb