Saturday, July 16, 2011

Now You See Him, Now You Don’t (1972) & The Strongest Man in the World (1975)

          These follow-ups to the 1969 Disney hit The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes continue the adventures of Dexter Riley (Kurt Russell), a science major at fictional Medfield College who keeps stumbling upon formulas that give him amazing abilities. Unlike most live-action Disney offerings, the Medfield movies lack cutesy kids and syrupy sentimentality; instead, they’re brisk slapstick diversions featuring enthusiastic performances by teenagers and slickly professional turns by veteran comedy pros. Since all three pictures in the series recycle the same reliable storyline—Medfield is in financial trouble, and only Dexter and his pals can save the day—they don’t demand much of viewers, but they’re entertaining nonetheless. In The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, an accident gives Dexter a computer brain that gets exploited by local crime boss A.J. Arno (Cesar Romero), who uses Dexter’s skills to win big at the track. By far the best of the three pictures (admittedly, not the highest hurdle to vault), Computer sets up the world of the series, especially the comic relief of Medfield’s amusingly inept leader, Dean Higgins (Joe Flynn).
          In the second picture, Now You See Him, Now You Don’t, Dexter and his buddy Schuyler (Michael McGreevey) stumble upon a formula for invisibility. When bad old A.J. Arno (Romero again) buys up the lease on Medfield, the boys make themselves invisible and snoop on him, only to discover he plans to foreclose on the school and turn it into a casino. Investigative high jinks ensue, with a climax involving Arno and his hoodlum accomplice Cookie (Richard Bakalyan) becoming invisible and evading police in an invisible car. It’s all very cartoonish, of course, but the sight gags mostly work and the tone is consistently light and amiable. Now You See Him features a lot more Dean Higgins (still played by Flynn) than the first picture, and he delivers enjoyable buffoonery during two long sequences of playing golf, first spectacularly with help from an invisible Dexter and then abysmally without.
          Predictably, the series runs out of gas in the third picture, The Strongest Man in the World, the sci-fi hook of which is, as the title bluntly states, Dexter becoming super-strong. Russell, who is exuberant and likeable in all three pictures, is sidelined in Strongest Man, with Schuyler (still McGreevey) getting substantially more screen time. That’s not a good thing, nor is the too-prominent presence of old-school comics like Eve Arden and Phil Silvers. With grownups taking center stage, including returning players Flynn and Romero, there’s way too much bug-eyed overacting, and not enough of those gosh-darn crazy kids. Strongest Man is the first Medfield picture to feel padded, and it’s just as well Disney gave up on the series after such a lackluster third entry. Trivia buffs may enjoy noting that a young Ed Begley Jr. shows up briefly in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes as a student at rival State University, then returns in Now You See Him, Now You Don’t as a star pupil at Medfield; this says a lot about the continuity, or lack thereof, between the pictures.

Now You See Him, Now You Don’t: FUNKY
The Strongest Man in the World: LAME

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