The Lion King, Sleeping Beauty, Escape to Witch Mountain, Return From Witch Mountain, The Apple Dumpling Gang (Disney) The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, Casper, Babe, Pig in the City (Universal) Pinocchio (Miramax) Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends (Classic Media)
Maybe you can explain this to me: I'm driving by a PayLess Shoe Store today, and see not one but two advertisements for Disney's new The Lion King DVD in the window. Is this a tie-in for PayLess' new line of lion-hide boots, or another example of a marketing world run amok?
Either way, if you're reading this, you're probably plugged-in enough to have heard that the new Lion King disc features a new musical sequence. Those (like me) who would prefer Disney to leave their classic films be (and concentrate on making better new ones) will be happy to know that the package also contains the original theatrical cut of the film, arguably the last success before a long creative slump overtook the studio. The Mouse House has another edition of a cartoon classic out now; happily, Sleeping Beauty keeps the new pop song segregated as a special feature, not edited into the 1959 film.
Disney has also been upping its output of vintage live-action features. Readers of a certain age may recall matinee screenings of Escape to Witch Mountain and Return From Witch Mountain, but I'm guessing they don't remember much about them. Any film that has Christopher Lee and Bette Davis hatching plans to harm bland Disneytots (they star in the second film) can't be entirely without merit. I have better childhood memories of the willfully corny The Apple Dumpling Gang, but it's telling that the DVD's package has four sets of photos of comic-relief pair Don Knotts and Tim Conway, and none of ostensible star Bill Bixby, who may have been a swell guy, but doesn't exactly carry the film. The dimwitted duo were popular enough to merit a sequel all their own, which, unfortunately, is not available on a widescreen disc.
The truly inimitable Knotts is also featured on some new releases from Universal. The best performance of the bunch, The Love God, isn't exactly kids' stuff, as it centers around a hero who unwittingly becomes a front for a girlie magazine. The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, though, is pretty harmless stuff in which Knotts has to spend the night in a haunted house. I haven't tested Knotts' scrawny, bug-eyed appeal on any 21st-century youngsters, but it's hard to believe that he wouldn't make most of them laugh. Staying on the haunted house front, Universal has Casper out in time for a little innocuous Halloween fun, featuring a young Christina Ricci, but really starring a computer-generated ghost.
So much of the stuff parents rent for their offspring to watch is at best harmless, at worst mind-numbing. It's nice when a movie rises above the pack, especially when it's one you wouldn't expect. When Babe (Universal) came out in 1995, there was no way to convince me I would like a movie starring farm animals. I was stunned when I finally saw it on video; "heartwarming" is usually a code word for "sappy," but not here. This is a pig story worth watching.
Babe's sequel, Pig in the City, threw some people off by presenting a darker, more pessimistic vision than its predecessor, but didn't even approach the befuddlement factor of Roberto Benigni's Pinocchio (Miramax). I have yet to read a single favorable comment about the American version of the film, which was hastily and quite sloppily dubbed by such actors as John Cleese and Eddie Griffin. Parents, I think, judged the film even less appealing, finding it laced with uncomfortable implications and unintentional innuendo. Old fairy tales are often crammed with scary content that is "adult" by today's standards, but try telling that to somebody raised on Disney's sterilized fables.
On the other hand, the legendarily odd Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum (who called the dubbed version the worst film of 2002) is almost lavish in his praise of the original Italian version, seeing many subtleties in it that were either lost in translation or chopped out entirely by Miramax. The brave among you can decide for yourselves: The company's two-disc package contains both versions of the film, along with a featurette about the creation of the English-language version.
Finally, for an infinitely more successful blend of adult and elementary-school appeal, Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends has made its way onto little shiny discs, the complete first season coming courtesy of Classic Media and Bullwinkle Studios. The Jay Ward series only gets more clever as the years go by; the sophistication of the humor and the library's worth of references make it some of the hippest kid stuff ever. The funny thing about Mr. Peabody and his colleagues was, they never give kids the impression that they're sneaking the smart stuff over their heads. When I was little, I knew the characters were making some jokes I didn't understand, but their winking delivery made me feel part of the club all the same. Decades later, "Fractured Fairy Tales" and Boris & Natasha are richer than they were then. (And that's without any new musical numbers thrown in to spice it up, although the DVDs producers have made some strange minor changes to the title sequences and audio.) •