Saturday, June 14, 2014

Napoleon and Samantha (1972)

          For every family film made by Walt Disney Productions that hit the bull’s-eye in terms of marrying subject and theme, there seem to be half-a-dozen oddities whose plotting is explicable only if one imagines Disney people pulling random narrative elements from a hat. For instance, Napoleon and Samantha is about preteen runaways who embark on an adventure with a former circus lion until the children are endangered by a psychopath and rescued by a graduate student. Oh, and a huge portion of the film comprises a soulful exploration of mortality, with depressing speeches about death and a lengthy funeral scene. Yet the strangest thing about Napoleon and Samantha is that it’s watchable despite the loopy storyline. Veteran Disney director Vincent McEveety moves things along quickly, as always, and the cast benefits from the presence of seasoned performer Will Geer, as well as that of newcomers Michael Douglas, who was in his early 20s when he shot the picture, and Jodie Foster, who wasn’t yet 10. Alas, none of these people is the lead, with that function instead performed by ’70s kid-flick star Johnny Whitaker. He’s no worse than any other Hollywood kid trained in faking emotions, but his work exists on a plane far below that occupied by his more notable costars.
          The peculiar movie begins by establishing the lifestyle of rural urchin Napoleon (Whitaker), who lives with his kind-hearted grandfather (Geer). Napoleon’s best friend is Samantha (Foster), who resides nearby with her stern guardian, Gertrude (Ellen Corby). One day, Napoleon and Grandpa encounter an old circus clown who is traveling with Major, a tame lion. Inexplicably, Grandpa accepts the clown’s request to become Major’s caregiver. After a few cutesy scenes of life on the farm with a lion, Grandpa dies, so Napoleon goes to a job office and hires graduate student Danny (Douglas) as a gravedigger. Seriously, this is the plot! Lying to Danny by saying that a relative will soon collect Napoleon, the boy instead embarks on a trip with Major—and Samantha, who tags along for reasons that are never particularly clear. Then, once the trio survives near-misses with nasty animals and steep cliffs, they track down Danny—who promptly leaves them in the care of a stranger. Naturally, Danny discovers the stranger is an escaped psychopath (as one will), and runs to the kids’ rescue. For viewers willing to ignore logic, Napoleon and Samantha has a few admirable elements. Douglas, Foster, and Geer elevate their roles as much as possible, given the material, and Major—an animal performer featured in myriad films and TV shows—has an impressive bag of tricks. Plus, truth be told, the scenes about death have a certain lyricism, even if they feel like they belong in a different movie.

Napoleon and Samantha: FUNKY

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