In 1889 Mark Twain wrote his famous story A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Ninety years later, Walt Disney Pictures made Unidentified Flying Oddball. They should have known to leave the past alone!
The plot: NASA has plans to launch the Stardust, a long-range, manned probe that will visit distant worlds. Tom Trimble (Dennis Dugan), along with his perfect android duplicate, dubbed Hermes, launch the shuttle accidentally and thru the use of its faster-than-light propulsion, find themselves in the year of our Lord, 508. From there, Tom meets up with Alisande (whom he call Sandi) as well as Sir Mordred, Sir Gawain, Merlin and King Arthur. Tom uses the tools from his spacecraft to avoid being burned at the stake and killed in a jousting match. But when Sir Mordred and Merlin get their hands on his “laser gun,” Tom must use his 20th Century knowledge of physics to avoid being shot. After saving King Arthur’s Camelot, Tom departs after a tearful farewell to the lovely Sandi, who he’s afraid he can’t take back, for fear that she would age 1,000 years. But on his trip he discovers a goose that stowed away, giving Tom the courage to turn around for the woman he truly loves. End Credits.
Well, part of the fun of doing this project, is that I get to watch films so you don’t have to! While I remember watching this movie from when I was nine, enough that I could tell you a couple things about it at least, watching it now was difficult. This type of film represents some of the worst Disney-based entertainment. It is the most vanilla-based, cardboardy character, sort of film. It’s marketed as a G-rated, family friendly film, which it mostly is. But the really weird part, and this shows up more than once, is the existence of the Playpen magazine (a filmic version of Playboy) that comes back in time with Tom.
Hermes the robot, who is as human as can be we’re told, has smuggled a Playpen magazine onboard for the 30 year flight. When they land in England, Tom uses this magazine numerous times to bribe and cajole favors from Mordred’s squire. Unfortunately before the squire can look into the magazine further, it is burned up in a hay cart Tom is using for a demonstration of his laser gun. For a G-rated Disney film, this is pretty absurd! One reference to the magazine I can see, but the repeated references really put it in the forefront as an out-of-place gag. This is just one of the problems.
The characters are all caricatures. There is nothing really funny, as even the slapstick moments seem to fall short. The only thing apparently keeping Tom from blasting off, after the initial capture and “burn him at the stake” moment, is that he needs to hang out long enough to make a 90 minute movie!
Along with those issues, Tom’s dialogue is so rife with the 70’s culture, that the film is almost as incomprehensible today, as Tom’s discussions of spaceflight were to the 6th Century folk in the film. “Sandi, I just want you to know that I groove on you,” is one example as is “I heard he was into that.” This is just not a well written film.
All that being said, Ron Moody and Jim Dale’s over-the-top performances as the “bad guys,” Merlin and Mordred are fun. They really get into their roles. Jim Dale was previously the bad guy in Disney’s Pete’s Dragon, and has read the books on tape for the Harry Potter series, while Moody was probably best known for playing Fagan in the film version of Oliver. Dennis Dugan would go off to have a much more successful career as a director of films including Happy Gilmore, Big Daddy and Grown Ups.
This film is just one of the adaptations of the Mark Twain story, with two other versions having been made in 1931 (with Will Rogers) and 1949 (with Bing Crosby as a musical). Disney also made another, more successful version called A Kid In King Arthur’s Court from 1995. Interestingly enough, Mark Twain references have appeared in other films I’ve looked at this year. The 2002 version of The Time Machine had the VOX computer reading Huckleberry Finn to the Eloi, while in Timerider, Lyle Swann reads from The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.
So, in closing, unless you’re a huge fan of Mark Twain adaptations, and feel the need to see them all, steer clear of this one!