Considering that he had already appeared in a several hard-hitting movies for grown-ups by this point in his career, it’s bizarre that Jan-Michael Vincent was offered a juvenile role in this squeaky-clean Disney comedy; it’s even more bizarre he accepted the offer. The World’s Greatest Athlete is inane even by the standards of live-action Disney pictures, which is saying a lot. Fed up with his losing streak at a small college, coach Sam Archer (John Amos) and his trusty assistant, Milo (Tim Conway), head off for a safari vacation in Africa. (The fact of two adult males traveling without female companions is unremarked upon, as is their subsequent preoccupation with a half-naked young man.)
During the safari, they discover a white jungle boy, Nanu (Vincent), who possesses extraordinary athletic abilities. Sam learns that, according to tribal custom, a man who saves another man’s life must accompany the rescued man wherever he goes. He thereupon tricks Nanu into such an obligation, or at least believes he does; in actuality, Nanu’s godfather, witch doctor Gazenga (Roscoe Lee Browne), wants Nanu to see the outside world. Accompanied by his pet tiger, Nanu travels to America with Sam and Milo, where Nanu is tutored by pretty teacher/love interest Jane (Dayle Haddon) and groomed for sports competitions. Yes, that’s really the plot—not Disney’s finest hour.
Making matters worse, the picture is filled with painfully stupid physical comedy. There’s an awful running gag about a nearly blind landlady (Nancy Walker) mistaking the tiger for a person, and there’s an excruciating sequence in which Gazenga shrinks Milo down to three inches in height. The screenplay is so blunt that it’s as if the story’s being told to newborns, not youngsters, and pretty much everything related to Africa is nonsensical and quasi-racist—for instance, why does Nanu speak like Tarzan if his godfather speaks perfect English? The climactic scene, in which Nanu performs several athletic events in succession, is enjoyable, and Vincent deserves faint praise for trying to play the movie straight. But with Amos’ unpersuasive overacting, Conway’s nattering-idiot routine, and the degrading sight of Browne wearing feathered headdresses and, at one point, a bone through his nose, The World’s Greatest Athlete is unrelentingly dissonant.
The World’s Greatest Athlete: LAME