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Good Children’s Movies (1960-65): Lost Islands, Flying Balloons & a Giant Chicken

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David Appleford itcherThe sixties were a great time for family films. Compare the world of today with how it was back then and you have to admit, the world seemed far less complicated and certainly more innocent. Nowhere was this more evident than in big screen family entertainment. Plus, even though there were several film studios that released movies aimed at children, there was only one that truly had its finger on the pulse of youngsters: Walt Disney. And it was during the early sixties that Uncle Walt produced what remains the jewel in his family entertainment crown. ~ David Appleford

Spoonfuls of Sugar

When Disney cast Julie Andrews as a magical nanny in ‘Mary Poppins’ (find out more about the remake here) it was all because of the actions of another studio. London’s Julie was already the toast of Broadway with the big family musical ‘My Fair Lady,’ but when Jack Warner cast a movie version, he ignored everyone’s expectations and went with non-singer Audrey Hepburn, believing that no one outside of Broadway would be interested in an unknown Londoner. This gave Walt Disney the opportunity he was looking for.

Not only was our Miss Andrews a huge success, but that year, she also won the Academy Award for Best Actress over Audrey Hepburn. In her Oscar night acceptance speech, with tongue firmly in cheek, Julie Andrews even acknowledged Jack Warner’s casting choices by facetiously giving thanks directly to him for making her Disney Oscar possible.

Both big screen versions of  ‘Mary Poppins’ and ‘My Fair Lady’ are certainly worthy of attention, especially if you or your family have yet to see either, but they’re also so famous they hardly need to be on anyone’s recommendations list. Instead, check the following five films from the same period. Not only will the kids have a great afternoon of old fashion adventure and fun, but if you’ve never seen them, you’ll be just as hooked.


Adventurous Children’s Movie Recommendations

‘The Lost World’ (Irwin Allen, 1960)

The best title for a woman is still “Mrs!”

Michael Creighton may have used the same title for his second Jurassic Park novel but the original Lost World was actually written several decades earlier as part of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger series of adventures.

Fantasy director Irwin Allen bought the rights for the novel, and in 1960 he made a big, widescreen colorful adventure that was a huge success, though today the whole thing is understandably overshadowed by new technology and practically forgotten.

Professor Challenger (Claude Rains) takes a group of colleagues to the darkest regions of the Amazon where a lost world of prehistoric creatures are said to live. Once there, the professor and his companions encounter all kinds of obstacles, including the dilemma of how to get out of the place alive before that active volcano on the horizon decides to erupt.

By today’s standards, the dinosaurs and various other Jurassic era creatures look tame to say the least. Director Allen wanted to use the stop motion technique of films like ‘King Kong’ or ‘Jason and the Argonauts,’ but the budget wouldn’t allow it. Instead, he had to settle for lizards and various other living reptiles from the zoo wearing plastic horns then film them in a way as if to suggest they were giants. 

There’s nothing scary here for the older set, but for younger ones not yet jaded by CGI, there’s plenty to have them sitting on the edge of their seats. Plus, if you’ve never heard of Professor Challenger, then here is a good place to introduce yourself. Author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is said to have preferred writing stories about the professor over his more famous literary invention, Sherlock Holmes.

‘The Moon-Spinners’ (James Neilson, 1964)

Everybody lies when it serves their purpose, even the stars…

Adapted from a suspense novel by author Mary Stewart, ‘The Moon-Spinners’ is a Walt Disney version of an adventure told in the vein of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller but for families. Despite great reviews and the appearance of Disney favourite Hayley Mills, the film failed to attract audiences and found itself sliced into three episodes for ‘Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color’ TV show as if it was a series. Fortunately, the DVD release put things back together again.

Hayley Mills plays Nikky, a young woman spending time with her mother on the Greek island of Crete. While there, she becomes embroiled in the dangerous adventures of a jewel thief who is hiding out on the island at the same time. The title refers to the small coastal inn where Nikky and her mother stay.

In the novel, the character of Nikky was considerably younger than eighteen year-old Hayley Mills, but the English actress was so popular with audiences – this was her sixth film with the Disney organization – that at the time, there was never any question as to who Hollywood was going to cast. And even though audiences in 1964 may have stayed at home, there’s plenty of thrills and spills to enjoy today, particularly the windmill sequence that will have everyone biting their nails, guaranteed!

‘Mysterious Island’ (Cy Endfield, 1961)

This was just the beginning. We escaped, but only into the clutches of the greatest storm in American History…

The original British title was ‘Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island’ but later, the famous French author’s name was dropped from posters and movie theatre marquees. It’s difficult to say why, but perhaps it all had something to do with how the story was adapted. The finished work was only loosely based on the author’s original novel.

During America’s civil war, a hot air balloon helps a group of Union soldiers escape from a Confederate prison camp. But there’s a massive storm brewing overhead and that hot air balloon with passengers is whisked away to an uncharted island that happens to be home to several mutated animals, like giant crabs, oversized bees and something that looks like a giant chicken.

Originally, the movie was to be like the novel and contain no creatures, but the film’s producers felt the adventure was too boring without them, so the monsters were brought in. Unlike a year earlier where Irwin Allen was forced to use lizards and make them look pre-historic, director Cy Endfield had a somewhat bigger budget and hired stop-motion expert Ray Harryhausen to bring on the creatures.

The end result is a great, old-fashioned, adventurous fun, even if the feathers on that giant bird appear to change color from long shots to close-ups.

‘Five Weeks in a Balloon’ (Irwin Allen, 1962)

What? I don’t steal! I am an *honest* slave trader. Oh, yes, little things, they come my way once in a while…

Like the ’61 production of ‘Mysterious Island,’ ‘Five Weeks in a Balloon,’ was also loosely based on a Jules Verne fantasy novel, plus there’s another balloon, but here, the emphasis was on comedy.

Filmed as a colorful, widescreen extravaganza, comic actor Red Buttons joined sixties pop star Fabian along with comedienne and singer Barbra Eden plus classic actors Cedric Hardwicke, Peter Lorre and Richard Haydn on an adventure across the skies of darkest Africa, and they do it all in a hot-air balloon. 

Tony Curtis is said to have wanted to make the film starring himself as early as the mid-fifties, but it was director/producer Irwin Allen that eventually negotiated the rights to the Verne novel and made his own movie. This would be Allen’s last sixties film as a movie producer before he turned his attention to fantasy television shows such as ‘Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,’ ‘Land of the Giants,’ and ‘Lost in Space.’

In the Jules Verne novel, the balloon is called the ‘Victoria.’  In the film, Allen changed it to the ‘Jupiter.’ For whatever reason, he must have liked the name. ‘Jupiter’ is also the name of the spaceship in ‘Lost in Space.’

‘Jack the Giant Killer’ (Nathan H. Juran, 1962)

You have a choice to make, King Mark – your daughter or your throne. In a week I shall return for your answer…

The fairy story of Jack and his giant was filmed several times before producer Edward Small was interested in a remake. Inspired by the success of a similar 1958 fantasy adventure ‘The 7th Voyage of Sinbad’, producer Small not only tried the repeat that success, he even hired many of the same names from the Sinbad adventure to star in his own movie, including the leading man, Kerwin Mathews and director, Nathan H. Juran.

Like any good fairy tale adventure, there are giant dragons, demons and all kinds of assorted stop-motion creatures created by an evil sorcerer that young, brave farm lad Jack has to battle in order to win the hand of a princess.

There’s an interesting story behind the release of this 1962 adventure which remains a head-scratcher, even today. Because of the similarity between ‘The 7th Voyage of Sinbad’ and ‘Jack the Giant Killer,’ Columbia Pictures, who owned ‘Sinbad,’ threatened to sue.

As a result, producer Small re-edited his film and later changed it into a bizarre, full-blown musical. It was almost thirty years later when the original, non-musical version was released, and that’s the one you can find today. Plus, in Britain, the ’62 release was delayed even further until 1967, once cuts were in place to tone down some of the scarier monster moments.

Take my word: by today’s standard, there’s nothing scary, but it remains a magical, fun adventure for children all the same.


A Wind of Change

Maybe there was something about those fun, monster adventures that clicked with family entertainment in the early sixties that changed the flow of children’s films in the second half of the decade.

Disney would continue to rule as it had done for some time, but there was something about those Irwin Allen adventures – not to mention the box-office failure of ‘The Moon-Spinners’ – that began to erode the Magic Kingdom’s hold on family audiences. The next five years of children’s films would illustrate how.

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