Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Rascal
Animals had been a huge part of Walt Disney’s aesthetic even before he’d started making live-action films. The studio temporarily became a veritable zoo during the production of films like Dumbo and Bambi as real elephants and deer were brought in for the animators to study. And if there was anything Walt liked more than animal pictures, it was the honey-glazed, Norman Rockwell-style nostalgia for smalltown America in the early years of the twentieth century.
Even though Walt had been dead for a few years, the studio that bore his name was still very much guided by the interests and tastes of its founder. So while a movie like Rascal feels out of step with the prevailing trends of late 1969, it makes perfect sense as a Disney movie. The problem is that it doesn’t exactly feel like a Walt Disney movie. Instead, it feels like a faded carbon copy of earlier successes.
Walt surely would have related to the subtitle of the book that provided Rascal’s source material. Sterling North’s Rascal: A Memoir Of A Better Era was published in 1963 and it went on to win a shelf-load of children’s book awards including the prestigious Newbery Honor. Walt may well have been familiar with the book himself. He’d based his 1948 live-action/animation combo So Dear To My Heart on an earlier North book. Everything about Rascal fell directly into Walt’s wheelhouse.
Former animator and True-Life Adventures veteran James Algar produced Rascal. Norman Tokar, most recently responsible for The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit, handled the directing duties. The screenplay was written by Harold Swanton, whose only other Disney credit was on the Wonderful World Of Color two-parter Willie And The Yank (released theatrically overseas as Mosby’s Marauders).
Like so many other live-action Disney features, Rascal takes place in the bucolic American Midwest (Wisconsin this time) in a 1918 seemingly untouched by outside forces like World War I. That’s not the case with the book. The movie cuts out an absent older brother, away fighting in the Great War, as well as a sequence where young Sterling contracts the Spanish flu. The presence of a Stanley Steamer is just about the only thing left that gives the setting any specificity.
Former Lost In Space star and future Dr. Demento mainstay (thanks to Barnes & Barnes’ all-time great novelty song “Fish Heads”) Bill Mumy stars as young Sterling North. Walter Pidgeon, who had previously appeared in Tokar’s boy-and-his-dog drama Big Red, narrates as the older Sterling. It’s the beginning of summer vacation and the North family is still recovering from the recent death of Sterling’s mother. His older sister, Theo (Pamela Toll), has been taking care of things for their frequently absent father (Steve Forrest), whose work takes him on the road from state to state.
On the last day of school, Mr. North picks up his son and takes him out into the country for a surprise. A lynx has wandered down from Canada and made its home in the Wisconsin woods. The lynx surprises a family of raccoons, who manage to get away but leave the youngest behind. The young raccoon wouldn’t last a day with a lynx on the hunt, so Sterling brings the little fella home, naming him Rascal.
The Norths’ neighbors are less than thrilled by the new pet. Garth Shadwick is afraid Rascal will spook his prize horse, while Cy Jenkins warns that his old coonhound will chase him off the second he looks at his corn patch sidewise. But all the animals seem to get along just fine and Sterling vows he’ll “de-varmint” Rascal to ensure Cy’s corn remains untouched.
By the way, the great character actors Henry Jones and John Fiedler made their live-action Disney debuts here as Garth and Cy. Fiedler had joined the Disney family earlier, providing the voice of Piglet in Winnie The Pooh And The Blustery Day, a role he’d stick with right up until his death in 2005. Both Jones and Fiedler will be back in this column.
Theo has to return to her own job in Chicago, so she lines up interviews for a potential live-in housekeeper. Mr. North agrees to meet with Theo’s favorite, the no-nonsense Mrs. Slatterfield (Elsa Lanchester, making her fourth and final appearance in this column, although she’d go on to appear in the Wonderful World Of Disney two-parter My Dog, The Thief). But after realizing that both he and Sterling crave a bit of nonsense, Mr. North dismisses her and decides they can take care of themselves.
Mr. North soon returns to his life on the road, leaving Sterling on his own to have the best summer of his life with Rascal and his dog, Wowzer. He builds a canoe in the middle of the living room. His concerned schoolteacher, Miss Whalen (Bettye Ackerman), stops by with Reverend Thurman (Jonathan Daly) to see how he’s getting along. Fortunately, Mr. North makes it home himself, just in time to get everybody drunk on homemade cider. Most of all, Sterling writes copious letters to his sister, assuring her that Rascal’s just fine and pretending that Mrs. Slatterfield actually got the job.
Of course, the summer isn’t all cider and canoes. Rascal gets loose in the general store and trashes the place, turning everyone in town against Sterling and his raccoon. The local constable (Robert Emhardt) issues a citation for keeping an unlicensed varmint or something and threatens to hold Sterling responsible for damages unless he keeps Rascal caged up.
Sterling is just about to set Rascal free when Mr. North butts in. Turns out that Garth has made a not-entirely-friendly wager with local auto enthusiast Walt Dabbett (Richard Erdman) that his horse-and-buggy can beat Walt’s Stanley Steamer in a fair race. A lot of folks, including the constable, have bet good money on Garth to win. But things aren’t looking too promising until the Norths arrive with Rascal. Garth takes the raccoon as a passenger and that’s somehow enough to spur the horse on to victory. Now everybody loves Rascal again. Well, everybody that matters, anyway.
Everything goes back to normal until Theo comes home for Thanksgiving with her new beau, Norman (Steve Carlson). She hasn’t even made it to the house when she learns that Mrs. Slatterfield hasn’t been working for the family at all. Enraged, Theo abandons Norman and heads home. She’s appalled by the mess and finally has it out with her irresponsible father, reminding him in no uncertain terms that he still has a son to raise and no one to help.
That same night, Rascal hears the mating call of a female raccoon through the window. He predictably goes nuts and tries to escape through Theo’s room, waking her and everyone else. When Sterling goes to grab him, Rascal bites his finger. Sterling’s more sad and surprised than seriously hurt and realizes that now it really is time to let Rascal go be the varmint he always was. At the same time, Theo’s heart-to-heart has the desired effect and Mr. North decides it’s time to grow up and be a real father for a change.
Sterling sets out in his homemade canoe to return Rascal to his old stomping grounds. (By the way, Wisconsin experienced then-record snowfall during the Thanksgiving of 1918, not the balmy Indian summer weather Sterling paddles through here.) Rascal quickly locates his lady racoon (or a lady racoon, anyway) and they go off to make little Rascals. But before Sterling leaves, that lynx spots the happy couple and attacks! Sterling starts back to help but Rascal and Mrs. Rascal don’t need it. They outwit the lynx, sending him tumbling into the water. Looks like they’re gonna be just fine.
It's interesting that Rascal was Disney’s very next movie after Smith! Both films are quiet, low-key affairs that amble along at their own pace, seemingly unconcerned with sending the audience to sleep. They also both have acoustic, folksy theme songs by Bobby Russell. Unfortunately, while Russell’s “Summer Sweet” does indeed include the lyric “You Rascal You”, it only makes you wish you were listening to the Louis Armstrong song of that name instead.
Of the two, Rascal is certainly the superior film, although, considering what a waste Smith! ended up being, that is the faintest of praise. Sterling North’s book sounds pretty good and I think an interesting movie could be made from it. Steve Forrest’s character remains frustratingly two-dimensional until the end. But after Theo lets him have it, you can see the complexities that a richer film could dig into. A suddenly single parent mourning the loss of his wife in his own way, who very much loves his son but has never really been there for him? That’s an interesting character.
Forrest does the best he can with what he has to work with, although he’s more comfortable as the glad-handing dreamer than the wounded, irresponsible father. This would be Forrest’s only Disney feature, although he did make a couple of Disney TV appearances. Television became Forrest’s bread and butter in the 1970s, starring on the show S.W.A.T. and appearing in loads of guest shots, TV-movies and miniseries. He’s a charismatic screen presence. I’m sorry we won’t be seeing him back in this column.
Bill Mumy turns in a nicely restrained performance as Sterling, probably more nuanced than someone like Tommy Kirk would have given had this been made a decade or so earlier. But to my eyes anyway, he seems a little old for the part. In the book, Sterling would have been around 11 or 12. Mumy was 15 when Rascal was released, maybe 14 when the movie was shot. Not necessarily a huge difference. But to this Gen-Xer, when Sterling is left alone, my first thought was, “What’s the big deal? I was left on my own all the time at that age.”
Mumy seems like the sort of kid who would have been right at home on the Disney lot, especially in earlier movies like Old Yeller and Big Red. But this will also be Bill Mumy’s only appearance in this column. He’d earlier appeared in a couple of TV projects, Sammy, The Way-Out Seal and For The Love Of Willadean. But by 1969, I guess the studio was going all in on Kurt Russell as their resident juvenile lead and didn’t want to split their attention. Besides, Mumy was already fairly established thanks to growing up on TV in shows like The Twilight Zone and Lost In Space. Disney always preferred their young stars home-grown.
My biggest problem with Rascal is that there just isn’t much to it. For some folks, this might not be a deal-breaker. It’s pleasant and unchallenging and, at a brisk 85 minutes, is never in danger of overstaying its welcome. But it’s never a good sign when you have to really think to remind yourself what happened in a movie you just finished watching. When I sat down to write this column, all I could remember was the canoe in the living room, Rascal wreaking havoc on the general store and something about a horse racing a car. And I wasn’t too sure about that last one. For all I knew, my brain was mashing up The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit and The Love Bug. The perils of watching too many Disney movies, I guess.
Rascal was released on June 11, 1969, making this the last movie in this column to come out before I was born. Ouch. It didn’t have a huge impact, although it was the first movie ever reviewed by Gene Siskel in the pages of the Chicago Tribune (he didn’t like it). But a later adaptation of Sterling North’s novel would have a major effect on Japan, of all places.
In 1977, an anime adaptation of North’s book, Araiguma Rasukaru, began airing in Japan. The series was wildly popular. As a result, Japanese kids began begging their parents for racoons, an animal indigenous to North America. But just like Sterling, these kids eventually realized that racoons make terrible pets and they released them into the wild. So many racoons were imported that they eventually became a real nuisance, destroying crops and cultural landmarks. The government moved to ban the import of racoons but it was too late. Japan had been infested with an army of Rascals.
Back home, Rascal has its champions but it remains fairly obscure. It isn’t currently available on Disney+ and the studio has never done much with it on disc. Unless someone decides to remake it, I don’t foresee a huge resurgence of interest in Rascal any time soon. There are just way too many other places to get your coming-of-age-with-a-cute-animal fix these days.
VERDICT: Disney Minus