It's funny how time changes one's recollection of things. I distinctly remembered Disney's 1975 feature-film The Apple Dumpling Gang primarily as a star vehicle for comic actors Don Knotts and Tim Conway. Indeed, both stars are prominently featured on the DVDs packaging in classic "Big Head Syndrome." Since I have not seen the film since the late 1970s, the most I recalled about The Apple Dumpling Gang was some kind of plot about three orphans who owned a gold mine and a cowboy who, due to a shady agreement, was stuck with them until he could find a legal guardian for them. And of course, how could I even forget the pratfall antics of Knotts and Conway.
Funny how things change after twenty-five years or so… the film features the aforementioned comedic duo in only supporting roles. Conway and Knotts show up occasionally as two thoroughly incompetent thieves, to mildly entertaining comedic effect, but the film's focus rests predominantly upon other characters. The Apple Dumpling Gang tells the story of Russel Donovan (Bill Bixby), a gambler on his way to New Orleans. While spending time in the Old West town of Quake City, he agrees to pick up a package at the train station for a local named John Wintle in exchange for five dollars. The package turns out to be three young orphans: Celia, Bobby, and Clovis Bradley. Wintle was their distant uncle and only living relative, and, as it were, skipped town immediately after striking his deal with Donovan. Alas, poor Donovan had unwittingly become the orphans' guardian.
But there's a twist, of course. The orphans are the owners of a huge gold nugget worth an incredible amount of samolians, and soon a gaggle of townspeople from around Quake City are lining up to become the orphans' guardians (out of the goodness of their hearts, of course, and having nothing to do with the children's phenomenal net worth.) In the meantime, Conway and Knotts, as bumbling thieves Amos and Theodore, have their hands full attempting to get their hands on the orphans' gold. Things get even more complicated when Donovan finds himself enamored of the Bradley kids, especially when Wintle returns upon hearing word of their fortune, claiming guardianship of the kids. And then there's that gang of real gangsters, led by Frank Stillwell (Slim Pickens), who also have a vested interest in stealing the orphans' gold, and provide the obligatory "evil bad guy" roles.
But this is a Disney film, isn't it? We know exactly how things are going to turn out, and in that vein The Apple Dumpling Gang really doesn't offer up too many surprises. The movie is sweet, light, and charming, but nothing that provides for an overly compelling experience. This is a prime example of what we think of when we think of "quality family entertainment" -- a gentle, broad-stroked, inoffensive piece of enjoyment that just squeaks by on its breezy charm and wide-eyed innocence. Not great, but on its own merits it's pretty gosh-darn swell.
The Apple Dumpling Gang is presented in a widescreen aspect ratio of 1.78:1, and has been anamorphically enhanced for your widescreen-viewing pleasure. This is a smart looking picture that surprised me on a lot of levels, although I did have some issues with it. The video sports some softness at times, but overall looks reasonably sharp and detailed. I found the color scheme to be mostly impressive, with an excellent display of range and separation, no noticeable bleeding or over-saturation, and rich, deep black levels that provided for a very impressive chromatic spread. On the other, flesh tones seem slightly glowing and pinkish, making everyone look slightly unnatural at times. The transfer looks extremely clean for the most part, with only minor print wear and a slight shimmering during a handful of scenes. Contrasts are well rendered, with some very minor edge-enhancement but nothing too detrimental. Overall, this is a very good transfer indeed.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, but make no mistake: the presentation is practically monaural. For all intents and purposes, this is a workout for your center channel. The orchestral score and cues get the best of the front speakers, as there is very little in terms of defined directionality or spatial effects. Surrounds and LFE are minimal at best, with very minor activity throughout the film. Dialog sounds reasonably acceptable, with some slight hollowness at times but generally pleasing throughout.
The Apple Dumpling Gang has an impressive collection of extras. While it is not labeled as such and is only a single-disc DVD, this release nonetheless retains the menu design and layout of Disney's acclaimed and much-missed Vault Disney line.
The first extra out of the gate is the feature-length Audio Commentary with stars Tim Conway (Amos), Don Knotts (Theodore), Susan Clark (Dusty), and Brad Savage (Clovis). Conway and Knotts were recorded together, as were Clark and Savage, and both sets of comments were edited into a single track. Knotts and Conway spend a lot of time goofing on their characters and remarking on the on-screen action, while Clark and Savage reflect more upon their costars and experiences on the set. It's a good commentary and surely worth a listen.
Next off we have Two Gun Goofy , a six-and-a-half minute cartoon short featuring Disney's wackiest goofball himself. Keeping along with the theme of the main film, the cartoon is set in the Old West and features the endearing Goofy as the local peacekeeper. What's not to love about this cartoon? Great stuff indeed, and a worthwhile addition to this DVD.
Moving into "The Vault", we find ourselves with a host of fine supplements. A Look Back with The Gang is a twenty-four minute documentary that reunites the principal cast to share their thoughts and feelings about the project. Stars Tim Conway, Don Knotts, Susan Clark, Stacy Manning, Clay O'Brien, Brad Savage, and Set Decorator John A. Kuri are predominantly featured in this piece, and it's a sweet and affectionate look back at the film. It was especially interesting to listen to the grown-up Bradley orphans reflect about their own interrelationships as well as what is was like being a child and playing the ultimate "dress-up" game.
Conversations with Tim Conway runs about twelve-minutes long and is a truly entertaining interview with a classic funnyman. Conway reflects upon his own life and career in a light-hearted, enjoyable manner, sharing comical anecdotes throughout the interview. Conway starred in several Disney films throughout his career, and recounts his favorite moments from many of them. For fans of Disneyana, this is a gold mine. For casual fans of The Apple Dumpling Gang, it's a funny little piece that adds to the enjoyment of the disc.
Disney's Rootin' Tootin' Cowboy Heroes is a two-minute video montage that showcases some of Disney's most memorable Western and Cowboy protagonists in both live-action and animation, set to the tune of The Apple Dumpling Gang's theme-song. It's pretty slight, but reasonably cute.
By selecting Lost Treasures, you are treated to a ten-minute video that takes a detailed look at the Disney Backlot, showcasing the various sets, facades, props, and streets that made-up the famed Burbank studio lot. This is more Disneyana goodness, and Disneygeeks worldwide will positively kvell over this addition. I know I did. But seriously, this is a fascinating look into the history and development of Disney live-action films.
The Apple Dumpling Gang Galleries is divided into three sections. Production Stills contains thirty-four photographs taken during the production of The Apple Dumpling Gang. Biographies contains background information for ten members of the principal cast and crew. Advertising is further divided into four subsections: Lobby Cards displays ten lobby card reproductions, Posters contains five poster reproductions, Publicity has ten publicity photographs, and Comic Book contains nine stills of the comic strip based on the film.
1975 Disney Studio Album is a three-and-a-half minute video piece detailing all of the other film, television, and theme park projects that Disney was involved in during the year of 1975. These include the release of the theatrical film Escape to Witch Mountain, the debut of America on Parade and the opening of the Mission to Mars and Space Mountain rides at the theme parks.
Finally DVD Credits highlights... surprise! The DVD Credits for this release! Bet you weren't expecting that!!
Man, you have to love Western gunfights in which absolutely nobody gets killed, passionate yet thoroughly closed-mouth smooches between two suddenly-realized lovers, and an Old West town so clean and inoffensive that it looks like something to the right of the Magic Kingdom's Pecos Bill food court. Yes, we are in Disney territory, aren't we?
What surprised me the most about The Apple Dumpling Gang is how much I found myself enjoying it. The movie is so slight that it could turn sideways and practically disappear from view, and no one will argue that the film is a classic. But it's light, good-hearted, and gentle fun; only a true Grumperstein with a heart of pumice could dismiss the film as inconsequential. Viewed in the context of much of Disney's 1960s and 1970s live-action content, it's practically a classic! This is solid, enjoyable family fare that has about as much subversive content as your average Lawrence Welk episode, only with The Apple Dumpling Gang the laughs are mostly intentional.
So while I only liked the movie, I positively loved the content of this DVD. The presentation of the film itself is certainly decent enough, but the supplemental content was positively surprising and a must for Disney fans. This DVD sports a full-length audio commentary, a cartoon short featuring one of Disney's "Big Five", almost an hour of extra video footage, and dozens of still photographs... and don't forget those DVD Production Credits!! All in all, The Apple Dumpling Gang earns the honor of being the most pleasant surprise DVD of the year for me, and earns a definite recommendation.