In 1979, Walt Disney Studios released a live-action film adaptation of the Mark Twain novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The film is entitled Unidentified Flying Oddball. It follows the 1960s and 70s trajectory of the studio of making somewhat outlandish, semi-screwball family movies.
The story has two centres to begin with. One is the medieval court of King Arthur; Camelot and all the intrigue and treachery surrounding it. The other is NASA, and a scientist named Tom Trimble.
Tom has designed a humanoid robot, who looks exactly like him, Hermes. But when Tom blasts off instead of Hermes, and ends up travelling through time, the two worlds collide.
The mild mannered Tom is taken to King Arthur and presented as a curiosity, and must now deal with deception, double-dealing and much more rough treatment than he is accustomed to. Can Tom overcome the constraints of his own era to become the hero in the alien world of King Arthur?
The premise is as the title suggests: oddball. It feels flimsy, taking ideas like the Walt Disney approved That Darn Cat! and The Parent Trap into a whole other dimension. Perhaps a few steps too far into the ridiculous, and even a little too juvenile.
Of course, the basic underlying plot of a man out of his own time trying to bring some of the developments he knows and understands in order to help people from an earlier civilisation, is basically interesting. This has been used as a plot device in many other movies. In and of itself it can be compelling, and so it is in this case: perhaps in part due to its founding in Mark Twain’s own story.
Whatever the execution may lack in finesse, is more than made up for by the impeccable cast which is largely made up of British actors. Legends of British cinema, stage and television are gathered in the roles of King Arthur (Kenneth More), Sir Mordred (Jim Dale), Merlin (Ron Moody), Sir Gawain (John Le Mesurier) and Clarence the servant (Rodney Bewes).
Dennis Dugan stars as Tom Trimble. He does a great job of playing the everyman American, so out of place among everyone else. Kenneth More brings a noble confusion to his King Arthur which is pleasing. As a British viewer, to see both the actor and character being respected, partaking in the comedy but not lampooned, is wonderful.
In fact, it begs the question: why was More not cast in earlier Disney pictures? It seems he would have fitted right in alongside Dean Jones and Hayley Mills, Keenan Wynn and Nancy Olson. More’s comic timing is impeccable and he is the perfect age to play such a distinguished role.
Jim Dale and Rodney Bewes only add to this, and the flawless John Le Mesurier is a delightful foil in his peak post-Sergeant-Wilson era.
Overall, this film is light-hearted, a little wacky but surprisingly compelling and definitely enjoyable. It could not be called cutting edge or innovative; it is recycling many conventions and plot devices. But it is the packaging that somehow just works.
The execution of the comedy and action which ensue from the slightly unbelievable set-ups is actually pretty impressive.
This is a film that can be enjoyed by the whole family. It takes certain elements perhaps further than Walt Disney himself would have. But in the end it does what he wanted movies to do: it entertains the whole family.
Unidentified Flying Oddball is available to stream on Disney Plus.