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Good Children’s Movies (1975-80): Dogs, Horses & Flying Oddballs
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Good Children’s Movies (1975-80): Dogs, Horses & Flying Oddballs

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David Appleford itcherEven if most of the films during the latter half of the seventies weren’t filmed in outer space, it certainly felt that way. Because of the enormous success of the family-oriented adventure, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, plus the phenomenal success of ‘Star Wars’, Hollywood suddenly looked to the skies. ~ David Appleford

At a Deadly Pace, They Came From… Outer Space

When it came to quality children’s films, the first half of the seventies belonged to the U.K., but by the mid-seventies, British rule lost its grip. Sci-fi was suddenly King.

That’s not to say that the British film industry suddenly quit delivering good family-oriented movies. Both the comical children’s musical ‘Bugsy Malone’ and the large-scale musical, ‘The Slipper and the Rose’, were not only well-received by the press but continue to be popular. Plus, Lionel Jeffries who directed ‘The Railway Children’ returned in 1977 with ‘Wombling Free’, based on the popular children’s TV series, ‘The Wombles’. It wasn’t a hit, but at least those furry feet remained firmly on the ground.

However, once Luke Skywalker arrived and blew up that Death Star in that galaxy, far, far away, movie trends changed overnight.

While the adults watched Sigourney Weaver battle ‘Alien,’ children’s movies saw the release of ‘Unidentified Flying Oddball,’ ‘The Black Hole,’ and the comedy, ‘The Cat from Outer Space.’ If you can find them for home viewing, go ahead and enjoy; younger family members will still have fun.

But if you’re interested in something without rockets, laser beams and aliens, consider the following five recommendations.

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Phenomenal Children’s Movie Recommendations

‘The Prince and the Pauper’ (Richard Fleischer, 1977)

“If you think the food may be poisoned, why not feed it to a dog, or a plumber?”

Based on Mark Twain’s famous family adventure, though oddly re-titled ‘Crossed Swords’ on its American home turf, ‘The Prince and the Pauper’ was a rousing adventure intended to repeat the same success of 1973’s ‘The Three Musketeers.’ It even cast many of the same actors, including Oliver Reed, Charlton Heston and Raquel Welch.

Plus, banking on the success of the musical, ‘Oliver!’, director Richard Fleischer cast Mark Lester in the twin roles of the royal Prince Edward and the commoner, Tom Canty.

The plot remained faithful to the novel; the identical looking Prince Edward and the London street pauper, Tom Canty, swap identities. As an old-fashioned adventure, the story can’t be beat. Plus, by showing the film to your family, you’ve now introduced your children to a classic novel that might inspire them to actually read a book. But for older family members, particularly movie buffs, it’s the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that may be of more interest.

Rex Harrison played the Duke of Norfolk while Charlton Heston played King Henry VIII. Both had worked together in 1965 but were in conflict. Throughout the filming of ‘The Prince and the Pauper’ they avoided each other like the London plague, causing tension on set. Ernest Borgnine as cockney John Canty could not affect a London accent, so after a while, he stopped trying and continued the role as an American, even though some scenes retained his attempts as being a Brit. But it’s poor Mark Lester who suffered the most.

Even though Lester’s twin roles were supposed to be nine-year-olds, he was actually eighteen. In a drunken state, actor Oliver Reed is said to have brought a prostitute on set as a birthday gift for Lester to celebrate his big day.

This was Lester’s last film. Critics were so savage on his performance, he quit acting.

Your children won’t care for any of this – they’ll lap up the adventure – but for you, knowing some of the problems behind the camera can only enhance your movie-watching pleasure when you sit down to enjoy it with the kids.

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‘Gulliver’s Travels’ (Peter R. Hunt, 1977)

Over the years, the classic Jonathan Swift tale of Gulliver and his adventures at sea has been re-told on the big screen several times. This 1977 adventure with Richard Harris in the lead differed from the others by mixing live action with animation.

Even though the film is considered mild by Swift aficionados – Gulliver’s adventure concentrates mostly on his time on the island of Lilliput with its tiny inhabitants and ends before any further islands are discovered – children should be thrilled by the sight of a giant Richard Harris walking among the animated characters who happen to be just one-twelfth the size of regular humans.

The film was first considered in 1968 with Kirk Douglas in the lead, but delays in production halted everything until ’74 when filming finally began. Then it was shut down due to money problems until ’76 when financing was found and filming resumed, which probably explains why the film’s length is a scant 81 minutes and the story ends after only the first adventure. Adults may complain, but its intended audience of children won’t notice any problems; they’ll have a great time.

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‘The Magic of Lassie’ (Don Chaffey, 1978)

“If Lassie isn’t going to be in this family, then I don’t want to either!”

Just about every movie-going generation knows the classic female collie Lassie who first appeared in a 1938 short story and later expanded to the famous ‘Lassie Come-Home’ novel. The fictional canine proved to be a huge Hollywood box-office draw, inspiring numerous films and even a TV series that ran from 1954 to 1973.  Everyone loved Lassie. Yet, strangely, there’s a whole new generation of children who may never have heard of her. This is where the 1978 adventure ‘The Magic of Lassie’ comes in.

First, this film is different from other Lassie adventures; it’s a musical. The songs were written by The Sherman Brothers, known for their Disney features, ‘Mary Poppins’ and ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks.’ In fact, one of the songs used in ‘The Magic of Lassie’ called ‘Nobody’s Problems for Me’ was a song cut from ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks.’

This musical story of Lassie, who tries to find her way home from Colorado to California, was not a box-office hit. That’s why its star, the legendary James Stewart, is said to have retired from acting. It was also his last film. But its commercial failure had less to do with the film’s content – it’s actually very upbeat and works perfectly well for children – and more to do with timing.

Those pesky sci-fi films like ‘Star Wars’ continued to attract larger crowds leaving Lassie in the dust. The film was supposed to be a lengthy pilot to promote a new Lassie TV show, but low takings at the box-office brought all plans to a halt, and this film, despite breaking an opening day box-office record at Radio City Music Hall in its 1978 New York premiere, is today all but forgotten. Look for it.

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‘The Black Stallion’ (Carroll Ballard, 1979)

“We’re gonna show everybody that he’s the fastest horse in the world.”

Perhaps the most famous film on this list, and with good reason; this is a great film. But time has not been kind to this adventure, and two, maybe even three generations of young movie-goers may never have heard of it.

Based on a 1941 novel by Walter Farley, the story revolves around a young boy (Kelly Reno) shipwrecked on an island with a wild Arabian stallion whom he befriends. Once rescued, the boy and the horse return to America where a retired race horse jockey (Mickey Rooney) trains both the boy and the wild horse for the most anticipated horseracing event of the year.

Not only is this exciting, it’s also a gorgeous looking film. With almost no dialog during the desert island scenes, ‘The Black Stallion’ is a triumph of story-telling, relying mostly on its well framed and expressive cinematography. But its strength as a great looking film actually worked against it when it was first made in ’77. The film was left in the can, mostly forgotten for two years by the studio after some execs saw the completed production and considered it too arty for children.

It was only when famous filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola and pushed for its distribution that the film was released. Good thing, too. It was not only a hit but was nominated for two Academy Awards, a Golden Globe, and a BAFTA. Rent, buy or stream this, then watch it with your children. If you haven’t seen it, you’ll enjoy it as much as they will.

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‘Unidentified Flying Oddball’ (Russ Mayberry, 1979)

“Right after I’m burned at the stake I’ll tell the whole story to King Arthur.”

Our only sci-fi-type family film on the list. Coincidentally, after ‘The Prince and the Pauper,’ the works of Mark Twain inspired another family adventure in the late seventies. Mixing increasingly popular ‘Close Encounter’ sci-fi themes but with history, Walt Disney Productions turned to Twain’s ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ and remade it as ‘Unidentified Flying Oddball,’ or simply, ‘UFO.’

It’s basically the same setup as Mark Twain’s original. A modern-day American goes back in time to King Arthur’s Camelot, only in this version, with renewed interest in everything sci-fi, the American is an astronaut and the mode of time-traveling transport is a spaceship called Stardust.

Even though this is known as one of the only Disney films to ever mention the adult magazine, ‘Playboy’, in its dialog, ‘Unidentified Flying Oddball’ is a great adventure for children. It’s also nice to see such a colorful cast of great British character actors of the seventies in a Hollywood comedy. Jim Dale, Ron Moody, John Le Mesurier and Rodney Bewes all play characters in King Arthur’s Court. Kenneth More joined the cast at the last minute when another actor pulled out.

This would be Moore’s last film. Ron Moody would go on to reprise his role of Merlin in a second Disney remake of Twain’s novel in 1995, this time called ‘A Kid in King Arthur’s Court,’ but without the spaceship.

Speaking of the spaceship, you can see it for yourself. If you ever take a break on the Isle of Wight, consider a visit to Blackgang Chine, the UK’s oldest theme park. The spaceship Stardust is there as an exhibit.

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A Generation of Great Family Entertainment

The late seventies may have re-ignited a box-office interest in B-movie sci-fi but the new decade expanded it. The ‘Star Wars’ saga actually grew in popularity, and Steven Speilberg’s theme of benevolent aliens in ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ continued with the most popular alien of all, ‘E.T.’.

But the seventies remain as the most interesting movie decade that gave families great entertainment not only from Hollywood but also from Great Britain.

We won’t mention the Belgian 1976 animated feature, ‘The Smurfs and the Magic Flute,’ nor the UK version that cut the film in half to just 43 minutes. Some films were just never meant to be on anyone’s recommended list.

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