By the 1970s the Golden Age of Disney animated movies was clearly over and the studio began to focus on their live-action movies, for not only were they cheaper to make than animated features but you could also make a dozen or more live-action films for the price of one animated feature. Sadly the gamut of quality in these live-action movies ranged wildly from excellent adventure tales like The Island at the Top of the World to the less than memorable zany comedies such as One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, and one could almost suspect that many of these lower budgeted films hit theatres for just a quick buck, with no real intent to become lasting classics or big money makers, but were really meant to provide content for the studio’s very popular television show The Wonderful World of Disney. A prime example of this would be 1978’s The Cat from Outer Space, as its low budget, and a cast of mostly television actors has a very “Made for Television” feel to it.
The premise for The Cat from Outer Space was nothing new to audience goers as aliens being stranded on Earth for repairs dates back to the 50s with It Came from Outer Space, a film that this Disney version clearly wanted to invoke by their choice of title, but instead of a one-eyed horrifying looking alien creature the boys at Disney went in the cute and cuddly direction, with a house cat. Of course, a few years later a young Steven Spielberg would take the stranded alien premise with his film E.T. The Extraterrestrial in a slightly different direction, which funnily enough had more of the classic Disney feel of childlike wonder than anything the studio had managed to put out in years. Now looking back, without our nostalgia glasses on, let’s take a peek at Disney’s The Cat from Outer Space.
The movie opens with an unidentified flying object landing in a farmer’s field because it is suffering some kind of mechanical failure, and before you can say “Anal Probe” a farmer has called in the military and the place is soon swarming with guys in uniform. First on the scene is General Stilton (Harry Morgan), a four-star general who is bound and determined to find out if this strange craft is some kind of commie weapon, and along with him is Colonel Woodruff (Howard Platt), Captain Anderson (James Hampton) and Sergeant Duffy (Ronnie Schell) – Schell also provided the voice of the cat – and they will be supplying much of the comedy relief for this movie as they bumble along trying to track down the alien invader.
The spacecraft’s occupant had managed to exit his ship before the military arrived to snatch his ship, and is thus able to follow them back to the army base, and being the alien is in fact a cat he is able to quietly sneak around and find out what the Earth men are planning to do. Lucky for him General Stilton seeks advice from the local science lab Energy Research Laboratory (E.R.L.), hoping to find out how the alien’s propulsion systems works, and even luckier for the space cat he encounters one of the visiting scientist Dr. Frank Wilson (Ken Berry), whose radical scientific theories just so happen could be key to fixing his damaged ship, but Frank is an “Out of the Box” kind of thinker and is kicked out of the briefing by Stilton, not so much because of his outlandish theories but because of his terrible attempts at humour. Ken Berry was a staple of television throughout the 60s and 70s, most notably in The Andy Griffith Show and its spin-off Mayberry RFD, but as good as a comic actor as Berry is he can’t really pull off the scientist aspect of the character, and he basically makes Fred MacMurray’s Absent Minded Professor look like Albert Einstein by comparison.
The cat is named Zunar-J-5/9 Doric-4-7, who Frank names Jake for the sake of convenience, and the cat promises to give Frank advanced scientific knowledge if he would help with the fixing of the spacecraft (apparently whatever planet this cat is from they don’t have any kind of non-interference prime directive), Frank quickly agrees and thus madcap shenanigans can now begin. Rounding off the comedic cast of characters is Dr. Elizabeth “Liz” Bartlett (Sandy Duncan), who is in the thankless role of a fellow scientist at E.R.L. and is this movie’s possible love interest and girl hostage when things go bad. Then we have Dr. Norman Link (MacLean Stevenson), another scientist from E.R.L. but one who is more interested in drinking Frank’s beer and losing money to his bookie than he is in science (his specialty is garbage and I’m not sure what field of energy that falls in), and because the military doesn’t quite fill the antagonist bill completely we have another employee of E.R.L. by the name of Mr. Stallwood (Roddy McDowall) who is in fact a spy. But what kind of spy is he? Is he a Russian spy working for the commies? Maybe he’s an industrial spy employed by a rival research company? Either one of those would have made perfect sense but this movie has no intention of ever making sense.
And what interest would a shadowy organization have in an alien cat? Well, what they really want is Jake’s magical collar. And why is that you ask, well we learn that on Jake’s home world cats are at the top of the evolutionary ladder, as he explains, “In our civilization that’s as far as we needed to evolve. We developed our brains to a fine point. Now, man rose off his four legs and developed tools, machinery, agriculture and chronic pain in his lower back. We developed tools for the mind. This collar here, it amplifies brain power.” With the collar Jake can amplify his telekinetic and telepathic abilities; he can defy gravity, freeze people in their tracks, and most importantly he communicates telepathically with Frank so the people at Disney don’t have to worry about getting a cats lip movements synced to any kind of dialogue. What doesn’t make sense is that Jake tells Frank that without the collar he’s just an ordinary cat. If that is the case how did these advanced cats manufacture and develop the tools required to make those special collars? Because according to Jake without them they don’t have telekinesis to move shit around. Last time I checked cats do not have opposable thumbs, which is one of the key things that allowed man to become top of the food chain. So I’m not sure how even super smart cats managed to pull this off, and it would have been much simpler for the script to state that it only amplified his ability and that even without the collar he’d still have some degree of telekinetic and telepathic ability. Of course, this would have prevented those comic moments when he loses his collar and our heroes have to figure out how to pull off whatever scheme they’ve got going without Jake’s help.
And why would our hapless heroes be hustling pool when they’ve only got a short time to fix Jake’s ship? Well turns out that to fix the ship they need about $120 thousand dollars worth of gold, and Link’s bookie connection is the only way to get that kind of money fast enough. Disney has clearly stated in such films as Son of Flubber and Black Beard’s Ghost that cheating is completely okay as long you have a good reason, but unfortunately in this movie, the cheating isn’t even orchestrated all that well.
• Jake makes a horse win a race by speeding up the animal in such a fashion that it goes from being several lengths behind to winning the race in a matter of seconds, which most likely would have exploded the poor horse’s heart and tore up most of its muscles.
• They hustle their neighbourhood bookie by winning a pool game against the bookie’s ringer, but the manner in which they make the balls fly around the table telekinetically there is no way the crooks wouldn’t suspect foul play, our heroes would most likely find themselves fitted with a nice pair of cement galoshes.
With gold in hand, Frank and Jake are able to fix the ship, after of course having to outwit the military every step of the way (Frank is able to pass himself off as General Stilton because the base gate guard is clearly clinically blind), but once things seem all wrapped up a wrinkle appears in the form of Stallwood’s mysterious boss Mr. Olympus (William Prince), who had his goons kidnap Liz to force our heroes to hand over the cat’s collar. How does this plan work? Well, Mr. Olympus sends Link to deliver the ultimatum to Frank and Jake, while they are working on the ship inside the base’s hanger, and once again the military personnel show their lack of sense by letting Link on the base, with him simply stating that he is the General’s friend. Worse is that the manner in which Mr. Olympus planned to counter Jake’s ability to freeze people is never explained, nor what he exactly planned to do with the collar if he managed to get it.
Note: Somehow Mr. Olympus believes this collar won’t just make him a lot of money but will also somehow help him conquer the universe. Sure telekinetic and telepathic powers are pretty nifty but I don’t see them on par with something like the Death Star.
The film’s big finale has a chase between a helicopter occupied by Mr. Olympus and company and a wreck of a bi-plane being flown by Jake’s collar and a terrified Frank. The flying stunt work on display during this sequence is quite good, harmed of course by close-ups of our leads that are clearly in front of a badly processed blue-screen (not to mention the really fake-looking stuffed cat prop that was supposed to be Jake), but as good as some of the moments in this chase are it goes on far too long. By this time in the movie we’ve had Frank and the gang win the money needed to get the gold, they then managed to infiltrate the military base (a second time I might add) against all odds, next they fixed the ship in time for Jake to make the rendezvous with his mothership, but then the ending is hijacked by this silly subplot with the Bond villains.
The Cat from Outer Space though released theatrically does, as mentioned, have a very made-for-television vibe to it, which is not surprising as director Norman Tokar was known mostly for his television work – he had helmed a handful of Disney projects such as Follow Me, Boys! and The Apple Dumpling Gang – but the kindest thing you can say about his stuff is that it is competent and work-man-like. Clearly, he was like many directors brought on by Disney Studios as just “guns for hire” with no individual style required or probably wanted. One can look back at The Cat from Outer Space with fondness, but at most, it can be charitably called inoffensively nice, with a couple of fun comic moments. Sure this a movie aimed at kids but for me, that’s no excuse for poor storytelling, as just a year later we’d get another sci-fi comedy from Disney called The Unidentified Flying Oddball, which was about as scientifically accurate as The Cat from Outer Space, it at least worked the comic elements a little better. Then that very same year we’d get Disney’s The Black Hole where we’d see that maybe Disney should have stayed focused on the comedy aspect and left science fiction to other studios.
• General Stilton brings the spacecraft’s propulsion unit to E.R.L. to get the best minds on the case but then for some reason, he puts the unit back inside the ship. Wouldn’t that thing be kept in a lab to be studied?
• Frank is able to use Jake’s collar in the same fashion as the space cat. Does that mean we are just as mentally evolved as these space cats? If so does that mean we’ve just been too lazy to develop interstellar travel?
• Jake hits on Liz’s cat which would be like a human hitting on a particularly attractive neanderthal.
• Mr. Olympus and his goons are all wearing parachutes in the helicopter, which is a strange thing for anyone to do unless you had planned to bail out from the start.
• Jake decides to stay on Earth and is allowed to as a representative of an off-world “friendly power” but when he is sworn in as an American citizen he makes the judge float up into the air.
The Cat from Outer Space (1978)
The Cat from Outer Space isn’t a bad film it’s just fairly forgettable as are most of the performances and action scenes. If you come across this film some Saturday afternoon while flipping channels it’d may be worth keeping on in the background while you get some housework done