Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Cat From Outer Space
It is extremely difficult to make a good movie. It is almost impossible to make a perfect one. But every so often, the stars align to bring forth something truly magical. All elements come together, from the cast to the script to the director to the visual effects to the music and all on down the line, to create something that transcends the ordinary. These are films to be celebrated, to be held up as paragons of what cinema is capable of at its finest. These are films like The Cat From Outer Space.
The title role is played by Rumple and Amber, siblings from the same litter and two of the finest thespians the feline community has ever produced. Together, they…oops. Gotta go.
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Hey, Jahnke here. Sorry about that. I got up from my desk for a few minutes and came back to find my cat had written all that. I knew it was a mistake to teach him to type.
As you might have guessed, when you assign yourself the task of writing about a movie like The Cat From Outer Space, it’s hard to take it entirely seriously. This column has looked at movies about football-playing mules, ducks that lay golden eggs, monkeys that pick hit TV shows and, on multiple occasions, sentient Volkswagen Bugs and people that turn into shaggy dogs. And yet, even with all that competition, The Cat From Outer Space might be the single goofiest movie we’ve covered to date. It’s the kind of premise that either makes you say, “Now that I’ve gotta see,” or “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” or possibly both.
The brain trust responsible for this opus begins with screenwriter Ted Key. Key has already gifted us with such nonsense as The Million Dollar Duck and Gus. This would be Key’s last film credit. He continued to write and draw his syndicated comic strip, Hazel, for many years before retiring in 1993. Key passed away in 2008 at the impressive age of 95.
This will also be the last film for director Norman Tokar. Tokar had become one of Disney’s most prolific filmmakers since making his debut with Big Red back in 1962. He was also one of their most inconsistent directors, helming everything from underrated oddities like A Tiger Walks to the musical megaflop The Happiest Millionaire. When it came to comedy, he got off to a shaky start with The Ugly Dachshund (and yes, you’ve all made it abundantly clear that many of you love that movie but I stand by my dismissal of it). But he eventually got his groove in the genre and enjoyed his biggest hit with The Apple Dumpling Gang. He died in 1979, just a year after the release of his final film, at the age of 59.
In addition to Rumple and Amber, Tokar and producer Ron Miller filled the cast with familiar faces. In fact, I might even say this is the Disneyest cast that ever Disneyed. There’s Ken Berry from Herbie Rides Again. Sandy Duncan from The Million Dollar Duck. Roddy McDowall from That Darn Cat, The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin, and Bedknobs And Broomsticks. Hans Conried from Peter Pan, Davy Crockett and The Shaggy D.A. Harry Morgan from too many to mention at this point (although we last saw him in The Apple Dumpling Gang). And that’s not even getting into all the side characters.
One person who was new to Disney was McLean Stevenson. Stevenson started out as a comedy writer and performer on different variety shows, including a stint with Disney alum Tim Conway on The Tim Conway Comedy Hour. His breakthrough role came in 1972 as Lt. Colonel Henry Blake on the iconic sitcom M*A*S*H. He left the series after three seasons, with a final episode that still delivers a gut punch. His replacement the following year was none other than Harry Morgan, making The Cat From Outer Space the only movie to feature both commanding officers of the 4077th. Stevenson’s career never really recovered after leaving M*A*S*H and this would be his only Disney appearance, which is a shame. His low-key affability adds an amusing rhythm to the picture.
If The Cat From Outer Space had come out ten years earlier, it almost certainly would have included a fun animated title sequence and an earworm of a theme song. Unfortunately, the titles simply play over an introductory scene of feline astronaut Zunar-J-5/9 Doric-4-7 (soon to renamed Jake) making an emergency landing in his spacecraft. The UFO is discovered by a farmer and soon the military, led by General Stilton (Morgan), shows up to take command.
Nothing against the score by Lalo Schifrin, who had also just composed the score for Return From Witch Mountain, but if you’ve got a title like The Cat From Outer Space and don’t write a funky song to go with it, you’ve missed an opportunity. In fact, the opening credits occasionally get in the way of what’s happening on screen, filling it with text while dialogue and action unfolds underneath it. Granted, the movie is already a little long and this would only make it longer. But it would help make this feel more like a movie and less like an extended episode of The Wonderful World Of Disney.
Stilton has the spacecraft moved to a nearby army base where NASA scientists can only confirm that it is neither Russian nor American. Looking for answers, Stilton takes the ship’s power source, a glowing, floating artichoke-shaped doohickey, to the brainiacs at the Energy Research Laboratory. Dr. Heffel (Conried), Dr. Liz Bartlett (Duncan), and Dr. Norman Link (Stevenson), who would rather be on the phone with his bookie than in a meeting, all float theories but admit they really don’t know what it is. Dr. Bartlett suggests calling in junior scientist Frank Wilson, whose “unusual and eccentric” ideas may prove useful.
Because Wilson is played by Ken Berry, an actor with all the edginess of Pat Sajak, he doesn’t come across as particularly unusual or eccentric. Nevertheless, he’s kicked out of the room for cracking wise but his theory turns out to be correct. Impressed, Zunar-J-5/9 Doric-4-7 decides he can trust Frank and sneaks into his lab. Frank names the cat Jake and Jake reveals that he can telepathically communicate with humans thanks to the glowing collar around his neck. It also enables him to move objects telekinetically. Maybe Jake’s planet is in the same neighborhood as wherever the Witch Mountain kids are from. Comedian Ronnie Schell, who previously appeared in The Strongest Man In The World, Gus and The Shaggy D.A., provides the voice of Jake. He also appears in the film as Sgt. Duffy, although his Duffy voice was dubbed by another actor after everyone realized it was obviously the same guy.
Jake only has a couple days to repair his spacecraft and rendezvous with the mothership. In exchange for Frank’s help, Jake offers to give him scientific information that will advance humanity by leaps and bounds. But first, they need to sneak onto the army base and find Jake’s ship to diagnose the problem.
The military and the eggheads at E.R.L. aren’t the only parties interested in Jake’s spaceship. E.R.L. turns out to be harboring a corporate spy named Stallwood (McDowall) who works for a James Bond villain called Mr. Olympus (William Prince). Stallwood tracks Frank’s every move, gathering information for his employer and growing increasingly convinced that the cat has something to do with all this.
Turns out that Jake’s ship only requires a relatively simple fix. The bad news is that the Earth equivalent to the alien metal they need is gold, $125,000 worth, to be exact. Since Frank doesn’t have that kind of cash just laying around, Jake convinces him to bring Link in on their secret. With an assist from Jake, Link’s gambling addiction could easily bring in the money they need.
They win the first two of the three football games Link bets on. But a new problem arises when Liz shows up with her cat, Lucy Belle. Frank had told her earlier that Jake was sick to get out of a date. But now, Frank and Link are so distracted by the game (and Jake busy flirting with Lucy) that nobody notices when she calls in a neighbor who happens to be a veterinarian (played by Scrooge McDuck himself, Alan Young) to take a look at Jake. Before anyone can stop them, Lucy slips Jake’s collar off and the vet injects him with a powerful sedative. Jake goes out like a light, along with any hopes of winning the third game.
Frank and Link bring Liz up to speed and they head down to the pool hall run by Link’s bookie, Earnest Ernie (Jesse White, best known to viewers of a certain age as the lonely Maytag repairman). Link’s already lost the bet but Frank is pretty sure he can use Jake’s collar himself to give Liz a telekinetic edge hustling pool. Unfortunately, Frank doesn’t quite have the finesse necessary and Liz ends up losing to Sarasota Slim (Fred Whalen, who was apparently a real-life pool shark).
Jake regains consciousness just in time to see Liz lose her first game. The cat tells Frank to challenge Ernie to a rematch, goading him into offering increasingly astronomical odds with each new condition. The terms of the bet are settled upon and Jake helps a blindfolded Liz clear the table and score $125,00. They beat it out of there and head directly to the local gold store where they acquire a gold brick (again, maybe a leftover prop from Return To Witch Mountain). Jake focuses his collar powers on the gold and reduces it to the necessary size and shape.
Just then, Stilton and the military barge in to Frank’s apartment to place everyone under arrest. This doesn’t pose a serious problem since another of Jake’s magic collar powers is the ability to stop time for about 20 minutes. Frank borrows Stilton’s uniform and car to sneak Jake back onto the base and get him home. But as soon as they’re gone, Mr. Olympus and Stallwood turn up to toss another spanner in the works.
Frank fast-talks their way onto the base despite looking and sounding absolutely nothing like General Stilton. The repairs are made and Jake phones home to make sure he hasn’t missed the rendezvous. But before he can take off, Link is dumped off with the news that Mr. Olympus has kidnapped Liz and Lucy Belle. Frank insists that they can handle it and Jake needs to rejoin the rest of his fellow space-cats. But Jake has grown fond of his new friends (and caught feelings for Lucy, natch), so he sends his unmanned (uncatted?) ship back home and races off with Frank and Link to rescue the gals.
As instructed, the guys race to the abandoned airport where Mr. Olympus is waiting. But Mr. Olympus apparently didn’t have a Plan B because as soon as he sees that Frank is being pursued by the army and half the cops in California, he takes off in his helicopter. The only other plane is a beat-up old two-seater that doesn’t even look to have an engine but that’s no problem for Jake and his all-powerful collar. He soon has them airborne and in pursuit.
Mr. Olympus tries forcing them down but only ends up damaging his own chopper. The bad guys bail out, leaving Liz and Lucy Belle trapped without parachutes. Jake gets the plane as close as he can, allowing Frank to perform a daring midair rescue. Back on the ground, all is forgiven and Jake is welcomed as an emissary from a friendly alien culture. Even better, he’s sworn in as a citizen of the United States by a judge played by none other than the Dukes of Hazzard’s nemesis, Boss Hogg himself, Sorrell Booke (who’d also popped up in Freaky Friday).
I don’t know if anyone who currently works at Disney subscribes to this newsletter or checks in to read this from time to time. If any of you are out there, I’d like to address these next remarks directly to you. At some point, you or someone at your fine organization will be tempted to remake The Cat From Outer Space. Don’t try to deny it. I’m not even mad about it. That’s just the nature of the industry. I get it. When that day comes, please remember what I’m about to tell you now.
Don’t. Just don’t. You will ruin it and everybody will be mad at you.
Here’s the thing. The first thing to go from a modern remake of The Cat From Outer Space would be the cat himself. It would be some god-awful computer-generated abomination whose lips move when he talks and uses his paws to manipulate the controls of his ship and probably learns to skateboard or rap or some stupid shit like that. This would not be an improvement. No matter how photo-realistic you may think it looks, it’ll still look lousy.
The charm of The Cat From Outer Space lies almost entirely in the fact that the alien is literally just a cat doing cat things. If it was a dog or a horse, you could kind of make it look like Jake was talking by giving him peanut butter or something. Cats don’t play that game, at least not for long. So instead of talking, the cat communicates telepathically. You might not be able to get a cat to open his mouth on command but he’ll stare at you all day long. Problem solved.
The cats who play Jake and Lucy Belle are great but Tokar really doesn’t get them to do anything that they wouldn’t have done on their own. They hit their marks and look in the right places and that’s about it. When Jake is knocked out, I’m pretty confident that Tokar just gave the cat an actual sedative. I don’t know if that would fly with animal rights activists today but it seems a heck of a lot more effective and humane than trying to “direct” the poor cat.
Of course, real cats couldn’t be used for sequences like the aerial finale. Tokar’s solution is to simply prop up a stuffed cat in the cockpit of the plane and hope nobody notices. Naturally, he lingers a little too long on these shots, making it extremely obvious what we’re looking at. Fake cat aside, this is still one of the more exciting and kinetic action sequences in a live-action Disney picture to date. It goes on way longer than is necessary and Sandy Duncan’s grating cries for help get tiresome real quick. Even so, it’s a more impressive climax than we’ve come to expect from these movies.
The other good reason to leave The Cat From Outer Space alone is that Steven Spielberg basically already remade it. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is about two boys and a girl who help a stranded alien make his way back to his home planet. Both movies even share a scene where the alien helps elude their pursuers by telekinetically causing the bike he’s a passenger in to fly. I’m not saying E.T. would have been better if Spielberg had used a cat instead of a squishy little animatronic puppet. But it definitely would have been a lot cheaper.
The Cat From Outer Space hit theatres June 30, 1978. It did ok with both critics and audiences. It wasn’t a blockbuster but it didn’t lose money, either. It basically had the kids audience sewn up but couldn’t compete with more grown-up hits like Grease, Jaws 2 and Heaven Can Wait. It was the kind of movie parents dropped their kids off to go see while they went shopping or saw something else. Disney had always made movies like that but by 1978, it was getting harder to survive if the majority of your ticket sales were discounted kiddie admissions.
With the exception of my cat and his feline friends, nobody is going to mistake The Cat From Outer Space for an unsung masterpiece. But it works as a silly Disney gimmick comedy with a typically convoluted plot that barely hangs together and colorful supporting roles filled by game character actors. As Hollywood changes to adapt to a post-Star Wars landscape, we’ll be seeing fewer and fewer movies like this one. Rather than poking holes in it, which would be akin to shooting fish in a barrel with no water, let’s just enjoy a simpler time when a movie this purely ridiculous could play with the big boys.
VERDICT: My cat has vowed to smother me in my sleep if I give this anything other than a Disney Plus, so that’s what we’ll go with.
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