Unusual among ’70s live-action pictures from Walt Disney Productions in that the film is British from top to bottom, devoid of physical comedy, and quite serious in tone, The Littlest Horse Thieves is a warm period drama about English youngsters who cross class-system lines in order to champion endangered ponies. Although the story has a certain inherently sentimental quality, it doesn’t play out in a cloying way. In fact, the picture occasionally recalls John Ford’s classic saga of Welsh miners, How Green Was My Valley (1941), even though The Littlest Horse Thieves occupies the familiar Disneyfied parallel universe in which good things always happen to good people, even if tragedy occasionally forces kids to learn valuable life lessons.
Set in Yorkshire in the early 1900s, the story concerns a coalmine in which “pit ponies” are used to transport raw product from tunnels to an elevator. The ponies live underground permanently, and the preteen children of miners often sneak into the tunnels so they can help care for the animals. When a new manager is hired for the mine, he determines that using mechanized conveyances instead of ponies would increase productivity and profit. Naturally, when the kids learn their beloved ponies are likely be slaughtered after retirement, they contrive to kidnap the animals—but that’s only half the story. This being a Disney picture, the second half of the narrative involves adults rallying to the children’s cause, culminating in an overly convenient crisis that forces everyone involved to recognize what’s truly important.
Even though it’s filmed in rich color, The Littlest Horse Thieves—which was released in the UK as Escape from the Dark—feels incredibly old-fashioned. The horn-driven score occasionally sounds as if it’s being channeled through rickety old speakers, and the presence of noted British actor Alistair Sim, best known for playing Scrooge in the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol, connects the picture to an earlier era of cinema. Yet none of this is bad. Quite to the contrary, the musty feel of The Littlest Horse Thieves gives the picture a certain mythological quality, like it’s a tale from a storybook sprung to life. And because the real stars of the picture are not the wide-eyed child actors but rather the ponies who “portray” the long-suffering service animals, key scenes radiate simple honesty: Watching a pony relegated to life in lightless caverns is enough to tug at all but the most tightly wound heartstrings.
The Littlest Horse Thieves: FUNKY