The sub genre of science fiction/comedy was certainly no stranger to the Disney Studio, as they made good money off such classics as The Absent-Minded Professor and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, but it was in 1979 that the studio decided to tackle Mark Twain in their adaptation of his satiric tale of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Now, the Mark Twain story dealt with a man hit in the head, who then wakes up under a tree in a rural area of Camelot, while the Disney version used a spacecraft and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, so to be clear, Disney is going a tad off book with this one.
The movie opens with NASA director Dr. Zimmerman (Cyril Shaps) explaining Project Stardust – a space mission that will allow them to explore the planets of this galaxy and beyond – to a group of political and military personnel, and he runs into problems when he mentions that this will be a manned flight. Senator Milburn (Robert Beatty) stops him in his tracks, “You intend to put fine young American men into that untried contraption, and shoot them out of this world into some Never Never Land!” With the danger of his funding being cut Zimmerman calls on NASA jack-of-all-trades Tom Trimble (Dennis Dugan) to build a humanoid, “I want a robot that can walk, talks, sees, reacts, the works.”
The robot is named Hermes, after the Greek god of speed, and not only does it look human but it also has human reflexes and responses to a given situation, but this turns out to be a mistake because when it finally comes time to launch the spacecraft Stardust on its legendary mission they run into a small problem; Hermes doesn’t want to go as he fears he will never come back. Trimble is sent into the cockpit to convince Hermes to continue with the mission and it’s there that he learns that not only does the robot have such emotions as fear and anxiety but he’d also smuggled a Playmate sex magazine on board, “Thirty years is thirty years I suppose” is Trimble’s response to finding the magazine, which is possibly the only masturbation joke to ever be slipped into a Disney family film.
Unfortunately, before Trimble can convince Hermes to go forward with the mission the Launchpad is struck by lightning and the spacecraft blasts off. Trimble begs Dr. Zimmerman to abort the mission but the good doctor sadly states, “Impossible, we can’t abort the mission now, just make yourself comfortable, and when you get back there will be a nice little surprise in your pay envelope.” With those parting words from his dick of a boss Trimble tries to get the craft turned around but the shuttle then engages its atomic, sending the pair through time and space.
Note: Dr. Zimmerman seems rather cavalier about sending Trimble to his death, as the thirty-year mission was planned with a robot in mind, so there wouldn’t have been any food on board for a human passenger.
Hermes was damaged during the launching accident, so it’s up to Trimble to land them back on Earth, but when they do he’s a bit shocked to find out that they haven’t landed back at Cape Canaveral instead they have arrived at Cornwall England in 508 AD, just a stone’s throw from King Arthur’s Camelot. Trimble ventures out of the spacecraft in a full EVA spacesuit, that includes the standard mirrored visor, and this, of course, has a rather scary effect on a 5th-century peasant girl Alisande (Sheila White), who takes Trimble to be some sort of monster. The character of Ali is easily the highlight of the movie, and actress Sheila White’s comedic timing as a superstitious maiden is brilliant, as she plays this somewhat dim yet lovable girl who believes the goose she is carrying is her father turned into a fowl by dark magic. In fact, her father was captured by the nefarious Sir Mordred (Jim Dale), this film’s chief villain, as part of a land grab scheme that would allow him to fund an army big enough to overthrow King Arthur. Ali was heading to Camelot to seek Merlin’s aid when she came across the landing Stardust, and she does her best to dissuade Trimble from going there.
Before Trimble has a chance to explain to Ali that he isn’t a monster they are captured by Sir Mordred and are marched off to Camelot to see the King. Now, this is a Disney film so one doesn’t expect it to be all that faithful to the Arthurian legends, but this movie is more in keeping with Monty Python and the Holy Grail than it is to the tales of the Round Table found in more notable works such as Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. In this version of Camelot King Arthur (Kenneth More) is more a doddering old man than the one who united a kingdom into a Golden Age, and he mostly bickers with the equal-aged Sir Gawain (John Le Mesurier) like an old married couple. Merlin (Ron Moody) is introduced as a court magician, who dazzles the residents of Camelot with simple sleight-of-hand party tricks, and is eventually revealed to be in league with Mordred. The villainous Mordred himself is shown to be the most accurate depiction of his “historic” analog, as he is still a betrayer of the King even in this version. What is missing here is all the other Knights of the Round table. Arthur explains to Trimble that Lancelot, “Has taken leave, something about rescuing a maiden” but the one major character that is decidedly absent, with no explanation, is that of Guinevere. I think maybe Arthur was lying to Trimble and he was just covering up for the fact that Lancelot had actually run off with King’s wife.
In Mark Twain’s book, our hero was able to prevent himself from being burnt at the stake by predicting a solar eclipse, having previously learned of this historical event from an almanac, while in the Disney movie Trimble survives simply because his spacesuit is fireproof. It’s really not fair to compare Twain’s novel, which was a satire of the romanticized ideas of chivalry and of the idealization of the Middle Ages – which was common in the novels of Sir Walter Scott and other 19th-century literature – while the Disney movie was simply a goofball fish-out-of-water comedy. Where Twain’s hero used his knowledge of the future to modernize medieval Europe; creating factories, ending slavery and developing gunpowder and modern weapons, poor ole Tom Trimble simply has his robot pal Hermes stand-in for him when Sir Mordred challenges him to a joust, uses his shuttle’s land rover as well his jetpack and portable laser to defend Camelot from the forces of Mordred.
Throughout the film we get Trimble trying his best to survive in this rather perilous time, where almost every hand is against him, for he must expose the villainous machinations of Sir Mordred, who he discovers has Ali’s father locked in the dungeon – him not being a goose never does quite sink into Ali’s brain – and he uncovers documented proof that Mordred is snatching up land in a bid to overthrow Arthur – which he does while Hermes gets his head and limbs knocked off while jousting against Mordred – and he attempts to win the heart of Ali, who reveals her feelings to Hermes thinking the robot is Trimble, and then Merlin is revealed to be a traitor as well when he steals Trimble’s laser gun, kidnaps Ali, and delivers them both to Mordred. Lucky for us Trimble knows that a laser is no match for a good reflective surface, so he rushes off to confront Mordred wearing Arthur’s gold-plated armour.
Disney’s Unidentified Flying Oddball is a charming and harmless comedy, one that is populated with gifted character actors in service of a rather lite script, a script with a very tenuous grip on reality. That Trimble survives a sword fight with Mordred, by magnetizing the knight’s blade just hitting it with a hammer, is all about the comedy and not scientific probabilities, and after winning the day Trimble reluctantly leaves Ali behind because he is worried that the trip back to the future aboard the Stardust would cause her to age a thousand years. I’m not sure how that even remotely makes a lick of sense, but it doesn’t matter because as Trimble and Hermes engage the light drive they discover Ali’s goose had stowed away on board, and as it didn’t appear to rapidly age Tom orders Hermes to turn the ship around and head back to Camelot and get his girl.
This was of course not the only adaptation of Mark Twain’s novel, Will Rodgers and Bing Crosby both starred in theatrical adaptations of this book, and even the Transformers took a stab at the subject with “A Decepticon Raider in King Arthur’s Court,“ but for me, I will always have a soft spot for Disney’s Unidentified Flying Oddball, or as it’s also known A Spaceman in King Arthur’s Court. It may not be the best time travel movie ever made but it is easily one of the most charming, and my only real criticism hasn’t anything to do with how fast and loose it played with science but with the change of Arthur’s faithful friend and mentor Merlin into a betrayer. That was just wrong.
Unidentified Flying Oddball (1979)
Director Russ Mayberry delivered a fun and lighted hearted romp through the halls of Camelot. Though it may have been a little too light on science the cast was great, with Sheila White being particular great here, and it’s a film I can recommend for the whole family