On the heels of Close Encounters of the Third Kind came The Cat from Outer Space (1978), a watchable but completely undistinguished Disney comedy made at the end of that studio's 20-year run of lucrative live-action slapstick. Some viewers have noted similarities between this and another Steven Spielberg alien story, E.T. (1982), though the resemblance is slight and coincidental. It's doubtful Spielberg or E.T. writer Melissa Mathison were inspired by this generally lame comedy, unless they felt challenged to do better with the same basic material.
After congratulating Mickey Mouse on his 50th birthday, and following Buena Vista's then-psychedelic logo (like a pack of Fruit Stripe Bubblegum come to life), the film gets underway. A U.F.O. with engine trouble lands near a farm and is quickly tracked and hauled away by military types led by General Stilton (Harry Morgan). The ship's pilot, an alien looking like an ordinary housecat, slips away unnoticed and eventually befriends mild-mannered scientist Frank Wilson (Ken Berry). The cat, whom Frank names Jake, explains through thought-transference (and courtesy the voice of Ronnie Schell) that he needs $120,000 worth of gold to fix his spaceship and rendezvous with his "mother-ship."
With the help of scientist-girlfriend Liz (Sandy Duncan) and chronic gambler/co-worker Link (McLean Stevenson), the three conspire to win enough money to buy the gold. They place a series of bets with bookie Earnest Ernie (Jesse White), planning to use Jake's super-powerful collar, which lights up and can move virtually anything via telekinesis, to influence a series of football games. When Jake is drugged and knocked unconscious by veterinarian Dr. Winger (Alan Young, who knew a thing or two about talking animals), the money is lost but eventually regained in a wild pool game.
Meanwhile, scientist and industrial spy Stallwood (Roddy McDowall), learning of the alien-cat and its wondrous collar, plots with the Blofeld-like Olympus (William Prince) to steal the collar and eventually "rule the universe."
The Cat from Outer Space is a harmless time-killer, passable but never more than that. It's hard to imagine small children holding a lot of interest in or understanding of its high-stakes gambling or mild satirizing of military types (which Disney had done once before, in the long-forgotten Moon Pilot). Adults, conversely, are inclined to find the trite, trivial story more than a little silly. There were probably a lot of bored parents and squirming children running up and down the aisles on this one.
The casting is unimaginative. McDowall, previously a heavy in That Darn Cat, is upon against another pussycat here. Both Morgan and Stevenson are cast in variations of roles they had already played on TV's M*A*S*H, while Berry's Frank isn't far removed from his character on Mayberry, R.F.D..
In a storyline common to myriad Disney comedies going back at least to The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), cheating becomes a means to an end. While movies like Son of Flubber and The Strongest Man in the World probably didn't lead their generations of children to a life of crime, it's amusing how central game-fixing is to the plot of so many Disney films.
The company's mechanical and optical effects work wowed critics and audiences throughout the 1950s, '60s and well into the '70s, but by 1978 those departments were lagging behind, and The Cat from Outer Space's special effects are a long way from E.T. Jake's spaceship is not unattractive, but its simple design and the crude realization recalls Project U.F.O., the hilariously bad Jack Webb-created TV series that was a precursor to The X Files. (Now that's a show that ought to come out on DVD!)
Even on television screens, wires are clearly visible supporting Ken Berry's stuntman during a scene where Frank is levitated to fix something on Jake's spaceship. In another scene, wires used to light up Jake's collar are plainly visible. The "thought transference" aspect of communication was a cheap way to get around having to show Jake's lips moving. The cat (or cats) are well-trained, but never really seem connected to the dialogue Jake's busy transferring to everybody.
Very small kids may be traumatized when vet Alan Young literally puts Jake to sleep. For a good chunk of the movie, Ken Berry carries what looks like a genuinely lifeless cat around with him. In the lame finale, Jake flies around in a rickety vintage airplane, but is doubled in these scenes by a ludicrously stuffed cat. (Viewers with a sense of the perverse will want to freeze frame on the brief glimpses of the moth-eaten cat stand-in Sandy Duncan carries with her in these same scenes.)
Film score buffs will be surprised to learn that Lalo Schifrin wrote the picture's music. Schifrin was then at the nadir of his career, at least in terms of the movies he scored, if not the scores themselves. Among his other films from this period: The Manitou, The Nude Bomb, The Concorde...Airport '79, and When Time Ran Out....
Video & Audio
The Cat from Outer Space looks okay in its 16:9 transfer. The film shows its age in terms of the ugly color stock used at the time; original prints were by Technicolor. The Dolby Digital mono sound is adequate if unimpressive. English HOH subtitles are included, as well as subtitles in French and Spanish. An alternate French audio track is likewise included.
The lone supplement is a full-frame theatrical trailer, complete with narration and text.
The Cat from Outer Space is never awful (well, the final wrap-up comes close) but uniformly stale. For Disney completists only.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.