The Disney studio churned out more than their fair share of limp and lethargic live-action features during the 1960s and 70s. For every one example like Mary Poppins they unleashed a half-dozen titles like The Gnome-Mobile, Monkeys, Go Home!, and The Million Dollar Duck. The King of the Castle, Mr. Walt Disney himself, passed away in 1966, and it was this particular era in his studio's history that's generally remembered as the darkest and most laden with forgettable cinematic chaff.
Which is why an amusing and fairly endearing little Western comedy like The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin proves to be such a mild surprise. Absent was much of the overwhelmingly silly slapstick and in its place was a charming lead performance by Roddy McDowall and a story that, until the rather goofball finale, chugs along quite amicably.
The setting is old-time California, and the gold rush is in entirely full swing. A runaway boy named Jack and his oh-so-proper butler Griffin find themselves on the road to high adventure as they are forced to contend with devious villains, slow-witted pugilists, perpetually smelly townsfolk, and the omnipresent promise of a huge "mother lode." But when Griffin inadvertently hauls off and socks a huge bully, the die is cast: "Bullwhip" Griffin becomes an instant legend. And while much of Jack & Griffin's adventures take place on the wide-open California plains, the journey begins and ends with a big bout of fisticuffs.
Can the prim & proper butler defeat the seething man-mountain known as Ox? Will our heroes ever be able to keep any of the gold they've discovered? And what of Jack's sister, Arabella, who's recently arrived from Boston to search for her beloved butler and little brother?
Well, it is a Disney flick, so you can naturally expect a fair share of happy endings; fortunately, much of The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin delivers a solid handful of clever twists and quietly exciting adventures before all is said and done. McDowall proves that, while he's not exactly your traditional leading man, he's more than capable of anchoring a family flick on sheer wit and simple charm. A young Suzanne Pleshette delivers a sweet and demure performance, while Karl Malden steals a fistful of scenes as the ever-conniving Judge Higgins.
It's tough to say whether or not the kiddies of today will be able to appreciate the quaint and silly charms of The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin, but those who've suffered through several of the Disney studio's worst 1960's product should find themselves pleasantly surprised by what's offered here. It's not high art (and it's sure not even close to "classic" status), but The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin presents some old-fashioned family fun that won't have the grown-ups running for cover.
Video: Wow! A dusty old catalog title from Disney that's not presented in a flat and bloated Pan & Scan transfer? How excellent! Yep, The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin is indeed presented in a rather vibrant and colorful Widescreen (1.66:1) Anamorphic format, and regardless of what you think of the movie itself, this is a great-looking DVD. If only the folks over at Disney DVD would be this kind to all their old-school live-action releases.
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono, which means the dialogue, sound effects, and score are all jockeying for that one-speaker position. Toss in a few catchy tunes by Robert & Richard Sherman, and you're listening to one potentially crowded Mono track. But fret not, Bullwhip fans (yes, all nine of you), because the audio quality is quite strong indeed.
Extras: Aside from a brief collection of mini-trailers that open the DVD, you get nada.
Perhaps it's just because I've always been a big Roddy McDowall fan that I found myself smiling along with The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin. But compared to the broader, sillier, and more mindless Disney releases from Bullwhip's era, this one's like finding a little gold nugget in a field of dry sand. Oh, and the cute little interstitial animation sections are a real hoot, too.