Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Live-action edition. Unidentified Flying Oddball

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. We’re finished with the animated films and have moved on to the live-action films. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Unidentified Flying Oddball 1

Year: 1979

Source materials: Very loosely based on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain

Budget: $5.25 million

Plot: NASA has built a new spacecraft capable of traveling almost as fast as light. Unwilling to risk an astronaut due to the potential time dilation, NASA contacts scientist Tom Trimble who creates an android copy of himself named Hermes. At the last minute, Hermes doesn’t want to go because he is afraid he won’t return. Tom enters the capsule to talk to him, when the rocket is accidentally launched. Instead of going to the nearest star, the pair travel 1400 years in the past.


The ship lands in England, where Tom meets Alisande. She is traveling with a goosd to Camelot to see if Merlin can turn him back into her father. He is captured by Mordred, who takes him in front of King Arthur. Although Tom explains who he is and when he is from, he is sentenced to burn at the stake. In tbe dungeon, he witnesses Alisande’s father being tortured into admitting a false cknfession so Modred can steal his lands.


Tom realizes that the asbestos in his space suit will protect him from the fire. When he is burned, he escapes and flees into the castle. Mordred vows to capture him. Tom makes friends with Clarence, Mordred’s put-upon squire. He magnatizes Modred’s sword so when they fight, the sword attracts every small piece of metal until it is impossible to wield.


Arthur takes Tom into hus confidence, and Tom tells him about Mordred’s land grab scheme, but when they go to the dungeon, Alisande’s father is not there. Insulted, Mordred challenges Tom to a joust. Tom reactivates Hermes and has him joust in his stead. While the joust plays out, Tom and Clarence discover evidence of Mordred’s treachery. Mordred flees.


Mordred gathers his army and attacks, but Tom uses his scientific knowledge and his ship to defeat them. Arthur makes Tom an honorary Knight of the Round Table. They want to take Alisande with them, but they worry that she will not survive the time dilation.


In the ship, they notice that the goose is on board, and they also notice that she hasn’t aged. Deducing that Alisande would survive the trip, they head back for her.

Changes from the Source Material: Other than the spaceship? The basic premise is the same, but that’s about it. Alisande and Clarence are characters in the book, and the protagonist is sentenced to burn at the stake, but he is saved in the novel by his knowledge of an eclipse.

Background: Disney’s A Kid in King Arthur’s Court follows the same premise. Moody again plays Merlin in the film. The film was shot on location and at Pinewood Studios London, Shooting locations included Alnwick Castle in Northumberland. A banquet hall within the castle walls was converted into a commissary to provide meals for the more than 150 filmmakers and 1,000 extras. All of the extras were rounded up from within a 50-mile radius, including the people of the historic market town of Alnwick.

A large special effects team headed by Cliff Culley and Ron Ballanger created Hermes, the robot; laser guns; a jet-pack that flies; a magnetized sword; and a 25-foot-long space shuttle aircraft with a retractable ramp and compact four-foot moon rover that expands to seven feet, with various screens, a solar disc, and a large hydraulic arm that emerges and operates on cue. When space suits designed by NASA proved impractical, a space-garb specialist, Olinkha Horne, was put to work to create new costumes.

Cast: Jim Dale returns as Mordred.

Dennis Dugan as Tom Trimble/Hermes. Although he has many credits as an actor, he is brst known for his partnership with Adam Sandler, with whom he directed Happy Gilmore, Big Daddy, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, Grown Ups, Just Go with It, 2 Jack and Jill, 3 and Grown Ups 2. Ron Moody as Merlin. He is best known for his portrayal of Fagin in Oliver! and its 1983 Broadway revival. Moody earned a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award nomination for the film, as well as a Tony Award nomination for the stage production. Other notable projects include The Mouse on the Moon, The Twelve Chairs, and Flight of the Doves.

Kenneth More as King Arthur. His credits include Genevieve, Raising a Riot, Reach for the Sky, The Admirable Crichton, and A Night to Remember. He starred in Doctor in the House, the first of the popular Doctor film series. Later films include The Comedy Man and The Greengage Summer. He also enjoyed a revival in the much-acclaimed TV adaptation of The Forsyte Saga and the Father Brown series. John Le Mesurier as Sir Gawain. A prolific chsracter actor, he is perhaps best remembered for his comedic role as Sergeant Arthur Wilson in the BBC television situation comedy Dad’s Army.

Critical Reception:

  • Variety wrote, “Pic has some good slapstick touches and offers a generous serving of visual tricks and space hardware, though on a par with ‘Star Wars’ in that department it ain’t.”
  • Linda Gross of the Los Angeles Times stated, “The film will provide mildly amusing summer fun for those having their first encounter with castles and kings. However, ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,’ ‘Knights of the Round Table’ and ‘Camelot’ all captured the vigor of medieval England with more passion.”
  • Carla Hall of The Washington Post wrote, “The plot—obviously derived from ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’—has the customary quantum of Disney cuteness as the story unravels predictably. But it takes advantage of the situation for some funny lines.”
  • Martyn Auty of The Monthly Film Bulletin stated, “Quintessentially Arthurian locations and resplendent colour quality (that owes more to the processing lab than to Northumberland) put this updated version of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court a cut above its predecessors in the current Disney craze for space-visitor yarns.”

My take: There are some fun moments, but I feel that Dale and Moody are wasted here. After watching Dugan act, one can see why he went into directing.

Next Week: The Black Hole