The set is officially called TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Family, but a more honest title might have been Four Family Films of Various Quality, Each About Animals. Yes, Warner Bros. has repackaged some decade-old DVDs into a new value pack, branded it with the venerable Turner Classic Movies network's trademark and declared its contents to be amongst the "greatest classic films." Now, I could go on a detour and offer an entire list of the top 10, 25 or 100 greatest classic family films, which would in turn inspire many comments about other better titles that were omitted. But let's simply accept that there are many better family films than The Incredible Mr. Limpet, Flipper, Lassie Come Home and National Velvet.
That said, the set isn't entirely without value, especially considering the low retail price for four films on two double-sided discs. In fact, I quite enjoyed the second disc, which includes two British-set Hollywood films about small-town working-class kids who love their animals. As for the first disc, well...I better just give the full rundown:
The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964): There's an undeniably half-baked quality to this tale of an awkward fish nerd, played by Don Knotts, who turns into an animated fish and helps the Allies defeat Nazi Germany. The animation looks cheap, the dialogue is out-of-sync with the lips, action scenes are lifeless and repetitive, the structure wildly loses track of characters and the attempted farce of military bureaucracy feels very, very written. Knotts himself is the film's saving grace, exuding an eminently likable personality in every scene.
Flipper (1963): This hit film inspired a famed TV show, but then again, what movie in this set DIDN'T? (ANSWER: Mr. Limpet.) Flipper is a mediocre B-movie that flirts with entertainment. Luke Halpin stars as Sandy, a boy who one day goes out to blow a speared dolphin's brains out with his daddy's double-barrel shotgun, but instead decides to keep the intelligent water mammal as his pet. Throw in some trumped-up conflicts and you can drag that out for a solid 87 minutes.
The film fails to give its dolphin character anything to do. In the scene in which Sandy shows-off Flipper's tricks to all the kids in the town, he really only shows one trick: fetching. Flipper can go get a hat and bring it back! Or he can go get a snorkel mask and bring it back! You'd be surprised at how many more props I could list.
The editing in the action sequences creates no sense of space. It feels like they shot a bunch of dolphins, sharks, whatever, then randomly cut in the human being swimming in the water, without a care as to where, why or how anyone was moving. If the filmmakers didn't care about the scene, I'm certainly not going to.
National Velvet (1944): Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney elevate this tale of a horse-loving, small-town young English girl and the wandering former jockey who helps her bring her horse to the Grand National race. Despite some amusingly awkward scenes and characterizations--coupled with a rather odd view of how to pursue one's dreams--the relationship between the two characters pulls the plot forward.
Lassie Come Home (1943): This is the one that got me. Of the set's three films about children in love with animals, only Lassie Come Home transplants that love to the audience. Sentimental and mushy it may be, but there's real heart in this adaptation of Eric Knight's immortal story of one adorable dog's quest to return to the recession-stricken owners who had to sell him.
Roddy McDowall plays young Joe, whose loving Collie wakes him every morning and meets him when he gets out of school. Until one day he's sold and sent off to Scotland, where he escapes and embarks on a harrowing trip through a collection of colorful characters and pretty scenery.
Director Fred M. Wilcox (Forbidden Planet) deftly stages Lassie's brave trek with a clear vision of the dog's obstacles and no question as to how high the stakes are. And I must say that Pal--the dog playing Lassie--can act. Sure, the makeup and mud help earn our sympathy, but so do the dog's expression of joy, fear, concern and anger. After the previous entries, I was beginning to doubt that any animals, no matter how cute the dolphin or beautiful the horse, could really capture my affection via film. This one proved me wrong.
I know you thought you were done flipping discs, but welcome back to 1999. The four films are presented on two double-sided discs, with a single layer on both sides. The part that makes this so annoying is that Warner could have put two over-compressed single-layer encodes on one dual-layer side and saved us the trouble of flipping, if only they'd bothered to author custom menus.
Either way, we're stuck with some rather ugly encodes. While there are no hugely distracting artifacts, the picture is generally a bit blocky and much uglier looking than it should be.
The first, fishy disc presents both films in anamorphic widescreen, preserving their 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Mr. Limpet, while a tad soft in places, wins as the cleanest picture of the bunch. The source material of Flipper is in slightly worse shape, with some dust and light damage in a few spots, but overall it is clean. There's also some stock storm and underwater footage that was obviously drawn from degraded stock. Any attempt to clean it up, however, would have been tantamount to rewriting the history of the film's production, so I whole-heartedly approve of its presence. However, the transfer isn't processed very well--there is a fair, albeit not dealbreaking amount of blocky artifacts, and some sharpening effects render the grain harsh and unnatural.
The second disc's films are both presented in their original 4x3 aspect ratio. As the source material gets older, the picture degrades. Seeing as Lassie Come Home's cinematography garnered an Oscar nomination, the quality is disappointing. A healthy amount of scratches and dirt speckle many of the scenes, and there's even a big, thick blue emulsion scratch down a couple shots (however, this scratch may be inherent to the film, as it disappears and reappears, as if one roll of film were messed up and they couldn't reshoot). Again, the flaws are over-emphasized by the image processing.
Both Lassie and National Velvet are older Technicolor films, and as is the case with many such titles, the color temperature tends to flicker oddly at times. For a brief moment in Velvet, the color strips seem to go out of alignment, resulting in a blurry picture. Again, damage and specs can be seen throughout, as well as some distractingly ugly highlights.
The Incredible Mr. Limpet includes mono English and Spanish audio, while the other three features include English and French mono tracks. These sound rather typical for unrestored period audio--some crackles and muffled voices, but generally acceptable. Each film includes English, French and Spanish subtitles.
There's no sense of unity to the menus and extras for each film (other than that, instead of looping, the feature automatically starts playing after 30 seconds of menu), and the quantity and quality of features varies from disc to disc. However, despite some entertaining archival bits, nothing is particularly enlightening.
The Incredible Mr. Limpet shows off the most impressive collection of extras. The Introduction by Don Knotts contains an interview with the actor, who remembers his time working on the film and discusses its rise from initial failure to "perennial favorite."
The cheesy promotional newsreel Weekend at Weeki Wachee documents the media junket held in Florida for the film's first-ever underwater premiere. Yes, they projected the film through water, in an aquarium theater. The voice-over exudes pride in this accomplishment, but I can't help but assume that no one had ever projected a film through water before because it would look terrible. Tellingly, the segment shows zero footage of the picture on that underwater screen.
The Cast & Crew slide will be a lifesaver for those who still can't figure out how to work the imdb.
Henry Limpet's Fish Tank features little mini-segments on the film's five main characters and/or actors, with clips and recollections from Knotts, who predictably has something nice to say about everyone. The menu exudes a rather old-school vibe, with the kind of silly setup that was done back in the early days of DVD. Little details of each character--a fin, an earring, etc.--highlight themselves as hidden buttons that lead into the segments. But two of the characters have more than one button that plays the exact same bit. And there's no play-all option. I'm not even sure if the missing Magnificent Ambersons footage would be worth the hassle, but these generic segments certainly aren't.
Also antiquated and clunky, the Get in the Swim with Henry memory game requires you to repeat patterns of animated fish poses, using small, hard to decipher graphics. I can't imagine any family member having much fun here.
The Theatrical Trailer starts with CBS Radio host Arthur Godfrey talking about the film, its underwater premiere, and a new 45 rpm single featuring the "I Wish I were a Fish," sung by "12 wonderful kids" rather than the thin-voiced Knotts. And then it goes into a typical movie pitch with clips and an energetic voice-over.
There are also some DVD-ROM features. Yes, dear reader, I went through the cumbersome installation process so that you would know what thrilling activities awaited your computer. Unfortunately, I never saw anything but a blank navigation window with the Warner Bros. Logo in the upper-left corner. Better luck to you.
If you feel like skipping Flipper, you could just watch the Tom & Jerry short Salt Water Tabby, whose main connection to the feature is that it takes place on a beach. It has a couple amusing gags, however, so I'll allow it.
Be warned, the Theatrical Trailer's volume level is much higher than the feature, so your ears may be in for a shock when you go to play it. The trailer is presented in anamorphic widescreen. The left and right edges of the print have faded to a yellow-ish color. The Trailer for Flipper's New Adventure doesn't make me want to watch the film, but includes a totally clever opening about a publicity-starved star scandalously garnering attention by swimming nude! (Hint: It isn't Halpin.)
Lassie Come Home's disc doesn't have much going for it other than a short documentary named Fala. Subtitled "The President's Dog," the film is indeed a documentary about FDR's famous Scottish Terrier. The Commander in Chief even makes an appearance. The narrator speaks as the dog from its point of view, seeing itself in the center of attention in the world's affairs.
The Lassie Trailer Gallery contains the film's original theatrical trailer, along with those for sequels Son of Lassie and Courage of Lassie. Taylor, who played MacDowall's sister in the first film takes up the starring role in the third, which is of course compared to National Velvet.
You'd think that National Velvet would have a cartoon set in a butcher's shop or something, but, alas, there are no features on the disc.
If you're looking for an inexpensive collection of family films or have nostalgic yearning for some of the titles in this compilation, you may want to pick it up. Otherwise, you'd probably be better off renting, given the unevenness of the films and the less-than-amazing video quality.
Jeremy Mathews has been subjecting films to his criticism since 2000. He has contributed to several publications, including Film Threat, Salt Lake City Weekly, the Salt Lake Tribune, In Utah This Week and The Wasatch Journal. He also runs the blog The Same Dame and fronts the band NSPS.