Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Unidentified Flying Oddball
Walt Disney was a huge fan of Mark Twain and it’s not hard to understand why. Samuel Clemens was raised in Hannibal, Missouri, about 90 miles east of Walt’s beloved Marceline, the small town where he spent the happiest days of his childhood. Twain’s writing had been a formative part of Walt’s younger days. Years later, Walt would go to great lengths to bring those books to life in Disneyland. Guests could board the Mark Twain Riverboat or take a raft over to Tom Sawyer Island. Walt wanted the riverboat so badly that he paid for it out of his own pocket when the park started to go over budget. So it's a little surprising that the first official Disney movie based on a Mark Twain story didn’t arrive until more than a decade after Walt’s death.
During his lifetime, Walt did produce one Mark Twain adaptation for television. In 1962, Walt Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color aired a three-part adaptation of The Prince And The Pauper starring Sean Scully from Almost Angels. But for whatever reason, Walt never went near the big two, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. The Sherman brothers did, writing the screenplays and songs for a pair of musicals in 1973 and ’74 that poached Disney stars Johnny Whitaker and Jodie Foster. Maybe they would have pitched the idea to Walt if he’d still been alive. Or maybe they had and Walt had his own reasons for leaving those books alone.
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Unidentified Flying Oddball was very loosely based on Twain’s 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court (the movie came out in the UK under the title The Spaceman And King Arthur, then later aired on TV as A Spaceman In King Arthur’s Court, none of which are exactly great titles). Twain’s book had already been adapted for film and television several times, with versions starring Will Rogers and Bing Crosby coming out in the 1930s and 40s. By 1979, it was all but inevitable that Disney would emphasize the sci-fi aspects of the story. The studio had gone all-in on aliens in movies like The Cat From Outer Space and the Witch Mountain series. But they hadn’t done much with the space program since the comedy misfire Moon Pilot back in 1962. The intervening years had done nothing to make them take NASA more seriously.
The prolific Don Tait, fresh off The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again, wrote the screenplay for producer Ron Miller and director Russ Mayberry. Mayberry worked almost exclusively in television. He’d directed two of the three pilot movies for The Six Million Dollar Man, as well as The Million Dollar Dixie Deliverance and The Young Runaways for The Wonderful World Of Disney. As near as I can make out, Mayberry’s only other theatrical release was a 1971 biker flick called The Jesus Trip, although he stayed active on TV well into the 90s.
The movie starts in the present day, with NASA scientist Dr. Zimmerman (Cyril Shaps) making his pitch for the Stardust I, a deep space vehicle capable of traveling faster than the speed of light. Zimmerman has big plans for Stardust but the committee chair, Senator Milburn (Robert Beatty), refuses to entertain the possibility of sending a red-blooded American man (or woman, for that matter) on a mission that could last decades. I guess he didn’t fully grasp the mandate of the manned space program when he signed up for committee duty.
Undaunted, Zimmerman tasks robotics specialist Tom Trimble with creating a fully-functional android. This does not present a huge challenge for Trimble, who quickly whips up a robot named Hermes in his own image. You’d think Trimble would receive a Nobel Prize for cracking artificial intelligence and creating a humanoid robot that’s completely indistinguishable from the real thing but this all seems to be in a day’s work for our man.
Dennis Dugan stars as both Tom Trimble and Hermes. Dugan had been kicking around Hollywood for a few years in movies and on TV. Prior to starring in Unidentified Flying Oddball, he’d landed the title role in Richie Brockelman, Private Eye, a short-lived spin-off of The Rockford Files. He eventually moved behind the camera, directing many of Adam Sandler’s biggest hits including Happy Gilmore, Big Daddy and the Grown Ups movies. In 1994, Dugan returned to Disney to direct the TV remake of The Shaggy Dog starring Ed Begley, Jr.
Everyone is impressed with Hermes but it appears that Trimble may have done his job too well. On the day of the big launch, the robot gets cold feet about the mission and refuses to go. Dr. Zimmerman sends Trimble up into the spacecraft to talk some sense into his creation. While they’re having their heart-to-heart (or heart-to-motorized-servo-unit, as the case may be), Trimble discovers that Hermes has smuggled on board an issue of Playtime magazine, a thinly disguised Playboy clone, which may be the most overtly sexual reference we’ve seen in this column to date. At any rate, Trimble gets himself accidentally locked inside and the Stardust is launched, knocking Hermes unconscious.
Back on Earth, Dr. Zimmerman is unphased by sending a completely untrained non-astronaut into space for the next several years. Sure, it wasn’t part of the plan and there’s no reason Stardust would have been stocked with food, water or even toilet paper, considering they thought they were sending a robot. But Zimmerman wanted a person and now he’s got one, so as far as he’s concerned, it’s all good.
Fortunately for Trimble, his space journey is relatively short. He manages to get the ship into orbit and lands on a planet that may or may not be Earth. Emerging from the craft fully decked out in a spacesuit, he encounters a blonde woman named Alisande (Sheila White), Sandy for short. Sandy takes him for a monster, although not a particularly intimidating one, and casually informs him that he’s landed in England in the year 508 during the reign of King Arthur (Kenneth More). She’s on her way to Camelot to request an audience with Merlin (Ron Moody). She believes her father has been transformed into a goose and hopes Merlin can undo the spell. Trimble’s not sold on the whole goose thing but figures Merlin or Arthur might be able to help him get home, so he tags along.
They don’t get far before they’re set upon by Sir Mordred (Jim Dale from Pete’s Dragon and Hot Lead And Cold Feet) and his faithful squire, Clarence (Rodney Bewes). Mordred makes Trimble his prisoner and marches him along to take him before the king. Since that’s where Trimble was headed anyway, it’s no hardship for him to play along.
Things get real quickly once they arrive at the king’s court. Trimble is finally able to get his helmet off (in another innocently sexy joke, he asks Arthur if he can borrow a wrench and is instead given the use of a wench) and explains who he is. Explaining where he’s from takes a little longer as he launches into a condensed but still lengthy history of everything that’s going to happen between 508 and 1979. Arthur finds the story amusing, if more than a little boring, but it’s not enough to save him. Mordred and Merlin insist he be burned at the stake the next day.
Cooling his heels in the dungeon, Trimble chats with a fellow prisoner stretched out on the rack. This turns out to be Sandy’s father, who has not been turned into a goose, after all. Mordred has secretly been collecting illegal taxes and seizing land from the peasantry in a bid to take over Camelot and unseat Arthur. Sandy’s dad was arrested and tortured when he refused to pay.
The next day, Trimble cranks up the air conditioning in his spacesuit and waddles to the stake looking like a miniature Michelin Man. He deflates as the fire is built up around him, so he still gets a little toasty. But his heat-resistant spacesuit still manages to protect him from being burnt alive. Determined to get rid of Tom one way or another, Mordred orders Clarence to fetch his sword so they can finish this mano-a-mano.
Clarence reluctantly agrees to help Tom in exchange for that issue of Playtime. While Clarence gets Mordred’s sword, Trimble spots Excalibur and easily slides it free of its stone. This seems like it should be a bigger deal but nobody, not even Arthur, even comments upon it. When Clarence returns, Trimble puts Mordred’s sword on the ground and strikes it repeatedly to magnetize it. This would actually kind of work, although it probably wouldn’t turn it into a super-magnet like Tom does. Still, it makes for a cute variation on the traditional sword fight.
Having defeated and humiliated Mordred, Trimble tells Arthur everything he’s learned from Sandy’s father. But when they go to the dungeon to investigate, the prisoner has already been moved. Incensed that Tom would dare impugn his good name, Mordred challenges him to a joust to the death.
Tom can’t magnetize his way out of this one but he still has an ace up his sleeve. He sends Hermes to joust in his place while he and Clarence search for proof of Mordred’s treachery. Hermes is no better at the contest than Tom would have been but he does have the Energizer Bunny ability to keep going and going and going, even as his limbs and head are lopped off one by one. While Merlin puzzles over the disassembled automaton, Tom races in with the evidence he needs. Mordred escapes before he can be arrested and Tom gathers the remains of his “brother” before Merlin can get his mitts on them.
Arthur places Sir Gawain (John Le Mesurier, last seen in this column way back in 1964’s The Moon-Spinners) to shore up the castle’s defenses in case Mordred decides to attack. When Tom offers the use of his NASA-issued laser gun, Merlin, who has been aiding and abetting Mordred, realizes their plot could be in trouble. Recognizing that Tom is falling for Sandy, he commands an oaf named Oaf (Pat Roach, a.k.a. the big bald mechanic who beats the crap out of Indiana Jones in Raiders Of The Lost Ark) to abduct the girl. Once he realizes what’s happened, Trimble asks for Arthur’s help in cobbling together a plan to rescue Sandy and save Camelot.
Decked out in a gleaming suit of armor, Tom speeds off to Mordred’s encampment in a lunar rover to rescue Sandy. He gets her back to safety with the use of the rover’s jet-powered (and visibly piano-wired) ejector seat. With Hermes manning the controls on board Stardust, Tom leads a successful defense against Mordred’s army. In gratitude, King Arthur officially names Sir Tom Trimble a Knight of the Round Table. Tom snaps a Polaroid to bring back home as proof of his adventures and reluctantly says goodbye to Sandy. He’s afraid that bringing her back will cause her to age hundreds of years in a heartbeat. But on the way home, he and Hermes realize that the goose is still on board the spacecraft and seems to be just fine. Making a hard U-turn, Tom races back to Camelot to pick up his lady love.
It makes a lot of sense that Dennis Dugan went on to become a key part of Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison family. It would not take a lot of tweaking to update Unidentified Flying Oddball and transform it into a Sandler vehicle. Like most of Sandler’s comedies, the lead is a dweeby average American surrounded by overqualified character actors kicking back and having fun. If it weren’t for the fact that Martin Lawrence made his own Connecticut Yankee riff in Black Knight around the same time Dugan and Sandler were at the peak of their collaboration, it probably would have happened.
To be clear, Unidentified Flying Oddball is not a great movie. The plot holes are so big you can practically see through them into other dimensions. Trimble is kind of annoying and the part calls for someone with a lot more natural charm and charisma to get past that (although, to be fair, Dugan has a solid deadpan when it comes to playing Hermes). The effects are on the cheap side and roughly half the gags land with a thud.
But on the flip side, the jokes that do work are genuinely funny. Mayberry even turns the shoddy effects into an amusing virtue, opening with a clearly fake shot of Stardust in space that is revealed as a model when Dr. Zimmerman’s hand reaches into frame. It’s also fun to see Tait and Mayberry pushing ever so gently against the edges of the G rating with jokes about Playboy and wenches. As usual at Disney, the times, they were a’changin’ about ten to fifteen years after they’d already changed everywhere else.
The movie is really kept afloat by its supporting cast of British character actors. Ron Moody and Sheila White, both of whom had appeared in the musical Oliver!, are fun as Merlin and Sandy. White in particular gets some funny lines and good moments, which is a nice change from the typical dull-as-dishwater female lead in too many Disney comedies. Jim Dale isn’t quite as amusing here as in Pete’s Dragon or Hot Lead And Cold Feet. He seems to be taking his villainous role a bit too seriously. But he was an engaging presence in these late 70s Disney movies. It’s a shame he didn’t make more of them.
Best of all are Kenneth More and John Le Mesurier as King Arthur and Sir Gawain. More plays Arthur with an over-it sense of weariness. Even Mordred and Merlin’s betrayal seems like just another headache to be dealt with. It’s a refreshingly casual and human Arthur. As for Gawain, he’s like Arthur’s grown son suffering from an arrested case of middle-child syndrome. He’s still eager to please but a little tired of constantly being overlooked. They have a terrific dynamic and both More and Le Mesurier constantly find subtle bits of business to enhance their performances.
The Spaceman And King Arthur was first released in the UK on July 10, 1979. The retitled Unidentified Flying Oddball came out in the States a few weeks later on July 26. Critics didn’t hate it, which probably counted as a win considering the reception some of Disney’s movies had been receiving lately. But audiences waiting for the next Star Wars decided to keep on waiting. The picture lost money and didn’t last long in theatres, probably making way for a re-release of Star Wars in a lot of them.
Unidentified Flying Oddball would not be Disney’s last crack at adapting Mark Twain. In 1990, Mickey Mouse starred in an animated version of The Prince And The Pauper, a short released with The Rescuers Down Under. In 1993, the studio finally got around to tackling The Adventures Of Huck Finn. And in 1995, Ron Moody would once again star as Merlin (alongside up-and-comers Kate Winslet and Daniel Craig) in A Kid In King Arthur’s Court, which doesn’t have much to do with Twain apart from the title and general premise. Even if it doesn’t count as an official adaptation, you don’t use that title unless you’re trying to spark some kind of connection.
Ever since The Absent-Minded Professor all the way back in 1961, Disney had preferred to serve up their sci-fi concepts with a heaping helping of comedy. In a lot of ways, Unidentified Flying Oddball represents the last gasp of those gimmick comedies. There are still a couple of stragglers we’ve yet to discuss. But audience’s tastes had changed. They definitely wanted science fiction and they were ready to take it seriously. Disney was about to take a big gamble on giving the people what they want.
VERDICT: I’ve seen way too many Disney comedies that have left me completely stone-faced, so I can’t hate a movie that made me laugh, even one as dumb as this one. It just barely edges its way into Disney Plus territory.
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