(Today’s retrospective is dedicated to Disney Legend Tommy Kirk (1941-2021), who starred in numerous hit projects for Disney including 1957’s Old Yeller, where he directly participated in one of cinema’s most devastating sequences, and 1959’s The Shaggy Dog, in which he played the young inventor who transformed into the titular character. He also appeared in two of the films that we’ll be covering today, where he played the son of one of Disney’s most notable recurring antagonists of the ’60s. Rest in Peace, Mr. Kirk.)
Today’s Disney Retrospective is going to be a little different than most of the ones that I’ve done so far since I’m not necessarily focusing on a single franchise. Instead, we’ll be looking at a bunch of films that share one thing in common, their setting. In the ’60s and ’70s, several live-action Disney films were set at the fictional Medfield College, which was named after a town in Massachusetts where several friends of Walt Disney lived. Many historians have noted that Walt visited them frequently and often used to land one of his planes on their property on a private airstrip that is partially still around today. So then, what films will we be looking at today if I’m not doing a single franchise? Well, there are two main series of Disney films that took place at Medfield College. The first of them follows the exploits of a well-meaning but forgetful science professor who creates an incredibly rubbery substance that he calls ‘Flubber’. There were two films made in the ’60s about this character and the original film would end up getting remade in the ’90s, resulting in a film that I’m sure many folks of my generation are decently familiar with. The other series of films is a trilogy (plus a 1995 made-for-TV remake of the first film) that centered around a student at Medfield named Dexter Riley, notably played by Kurt Russell, who tries to help keep the college from falling into financial ruin via various inventions that end up affecting him in unique ways. In fact, every single film that we’re about to discuss in today’s retrospective consists of a plot where the main characters try to help the college get out of debt, so I apologize in advance if it seems like I’m starting to repeat myself at times. Thus, without further ado, it’s time to head back to school, Disney style, as we look at the seven Disney films that were set at Medfield College. This is the Medfield College Anthology.
Also, just a quick disclaimer before we begin. While the following 7 titles were the only Disney films that were specifically set at Medfield College, another Disney film, 1976’s The Shaggy D.A., is set in the town of Medfield, which means that it’s technically set in the same location. However, since that film doesn’t feature the college at any point, I won’t be looking at it today.
ACT 1 – THE FLUBBER SAGA
THE ABSENT-MINDED PROFESSOR (1961)
We begin today’s retrospective with one of Disney’s earliest live-action hits, The Absent-Minded Professor, which was based on a 1942 short story titled A Situation of Gravity by Samuel W. Taylor as well as being partially inspired by Hubert Alyea, a chemistry professor at Princeton University who was known for his explosive (figuratively AND literally) science demonstrations. It was one of many classic live-action Disney films directed by Robert Stevenson, whose work with the company includes the likes of 1968’s The Love Bug and, of course, the one and only Mary Poppins. With a pedigree like that, it shouldn’t come as that big of a surprise that this film is another well-made family-friendly Disney comedy that features plenty of entertaining sequences that fully capitalize on the concept of a miraculous rubber substance that can defy gravity, such as the famous scene where the main protagonist, Professor Ned Brainard, uses it to help Medfield’s struggling basketball team. Fred MacMurray headlines the film nicely as Professor Brainard as does Nancy Olson as Brainard’s fiancé Betsy Carlisle, who he, unfortunately, keeps forgetting to get married to. This is also notably the first appearance of a recurring Disney villain, Keenan Wynn’s greedy land developer Alonzo Hawk, who would go on to appear in this film’s sequel and the previously reviewed Herbie sequel, Herbie Rides Again. In short, despite the usual ‘dated politics’ that are often seen in an older film like this and the fact that it gets a bit meandering near the end despite a modest 97-minute runtime, The Absent-Minded Professor is another indisputable classic of Disney’s early forays into live-action films.
SON OF FLUBBER (1963)
Thanks to the success of the original Absent-Minded Professor, a sequel was announced not long after its release, thus making it one of the first major Disney films to get a sequel. Really, though, the fact that this occurred at all is quite fascinating given that this was back when Walt Disney was still alive. As anyone well-versed in Disney history will surely point out, Walt wasn’t too keen on the idea of sequels, famously quoting that “you can’t top pigs with pigs” in response to the idea of doing follow-ups to the studio’s iconic Three Little Pigs short. And to be fair to Walt’s stance on the matter, Son of Flubber does often come off as one of those sequels that, for the most part, simply rehashes a lot of the same beats as its predecessor. You’ve got Professor Brainard’s various experiments and the wacky antics that ensue, a scene where he pranks his romantic rival with said experiments and a major sporting event where Medfield’s group of underdogs use them to beat their physically superior rivals from Rutland (only here it’s during a football game instead of a basketball game). There are also a few plotlines that are very much in line with what some sequels end up falling victim to by undoing elements of the previous film’s happy ending, such as a love triangle subplot involving an old flame of Professor Brainard’s that ultimately goes nowhere. But for what it’s worth, Son of Flubber still manages to be another enjoyable comedic romp thanks in large part to the return of all the major cast and crew members from the first film, from director Robert Stevenson to stars Fred MacMurray, Nancy Olson, Keenan Wynn, and Tommy Kirk. Thus, while it’s very much a sequel that’s not as good as its predecessor, there’s still just enough of all the things that made The Absent-Minded Professor an enduring staple of Disney’s live-action catalog to make this a worthwhile watch.
(Now, before we continue, I just want to note that there are technically two other Absent-Minded Professor films that served as pseudo-sequels to the original. These two made-for-TV films starred Harry Anderson of Night Court fame as Professor Henry Crawford, the late Professor Brainard’s successor as Medfield College’s chemistry professor who rediscovers Brainard’s lost formula for flubber. However, due to issues regarding the availability of these films, I won’t be covering either of them today. While the 1988 Absent-Minded Professor film can currently be found on YouTube, the same can’t be said for its 1989 follow-up, The Absent-Minded Professor: Trading Places. At the time of this retrospective’s publication, I cannot find it anywhere online, and to be perfectly blunt, I personally feel that attempting to find it would be too daunting of a process for the sole purpose of covering it here.)
Just one year after he wrote and produced the live-action remake of 101 Dalmatians, John Hughes tackled a different Disney remake with the remake of The Absent-Minded Professor, Flubber. It was also notably the second time that he had collaborated with director Les Mayfield, who had previously helmed a different Hughes-penned remake, 1994’s Miracle on 34th Street. Overall, Flubber is a lot like the 101 Dalmatians remake in that it generally maintains all the main story beats from the original; missed weddings, flying cars, a big basketball game, etc. Likewise, any changes that are made to Bill Walsh’s original script, outside of making this film’s version of Flubber a sentient substance, mostly come in the form of aesthetic differences that are in line with the remake’s more modern setting. For example, instead of a loyal canine companion, this film’s Professor Brainard is accompanied by a flying robot assistant named Weebo (notably voiced by The Little Mermaid herself, Jodi Benson). However, despite doing quite well at the box office, where it earned over $178 million worldwide ($93 million of that domestically), Flubber didn’t exactly do well with critics. And for the most part, this stems from something that I mentioned a few months ago when I reviewed the 101 Dalmatians remake in that this was during a time when John Hughes’ work underwent a considerably noticeable tonal shift. In other words, whereas Hughes had made his mark on the industry with his sharply written (and often edgy) comedies, his 90’s films were known more for their juvenile slapstick humor, and Flubber is undoubtedly a prime example of that with pratfalls and head smacks galore.
And yet, even with that in mind, I still find this to be an enjoyable watch. Now, full disclosure, I will fully admit that what I just said is largely stemming from the fact that this is an incredibly nostalgic film for me as I watched it repeatedly growing up (and before you ask, I also watched the original a couple of times on VHS when I was younger). That said, though, I also recognize WHY this one didn’t fly well with everyone (no pun intended), such as the argument that Robin Williams may not have been the best choice for the lead role since Professor Brainard isn’t exactly the most likable protagonist. And yet, Williams still manages to find some opportunities to display his comedic talents and all-around earnest persona (even in a role like this that, to be fair, wasn’t that much different from its 1961 counterpart) because… well, he was just that good. Regardless of the quality of the films that he was in, Williams’ talent was always able to shine through and serves as a keen reminder of why he continues to be missed to this day. In short, if you’re willing to ignore some of the weird narrative updates that Hughes makes to this story (e.g. the subplot involving Weebo’s romantic feelings towards Brainard) and a couple of instances of incredibly dated 90’s CGI, Flubber is a relatively harmless remake of The Absent-Minded Professor. The original is still the better film at the end of the day, but to be perfectly frank, I can’t bring myself to be too hard on what was very much a childhood favorite of mine.
ACT 2 – THE DEXTER RILEY TRILOGY
THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES (1969)
We now move on from the antics of Professor Brainard to the adventures of Medfield student Dexter Riley, originally played by Kurt Russell who, for those who are unaware, mainly got his start in the business as a prominent male lead for Disney in the ’60s and ’70s. As for the first installment of what is called the Dexter Riley trilogy, 1969’s The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, it very much establishes the key recurring beats that would define these three films. Each installment revolves around an incident in which Dexter gains incredible powers from the latest Medfield experiment as he works with Medfield’s bumbling Dean Higgins (Joe Flynn) to help win money for their financially struggling school while dealing with the threat of corrupt businessman A.J. Arno (Cesar Romero), who also wants to capitalize on Dexter’s newfound abilities. In this first film, an electric shock that Dexter sustains while working on Medfield’s newly acquired computer ends up turning him into a walking supercomputer, and while this ultimately results in a largely by-the-numbers plot, this is still a solidly entertaining family flick that’s fully bolstered by the series’ three main leads. Even in the early stages of his career, Kurt Russell successfully showcased the strongly charismatic screen presence that would end up defining him as an actor. Joe Flynn, meanwhile, provides solid comedic relief as Dean Higgins while Cesar Romero is enjoyably over the top as main antagonist A.J. Arno. As such, while it’s admittedly a rather average outing as far as Disney’s live-action filmography is concerned, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes does succeed in being a pleasantly easygoing crowd-pleaser.
NOW YOU SEE HIM, NOW YOU DON’T (1972)
The lead trio of Kurt Russell, Joe Flynn, and Cesar Romero all returned for a follow-up in 1972, Now You See Him, Now You Don’t. The film also saw the return of the original’s director, Robert Butler, a veteran director of television who has notably helmed the pilot episodes of several classic shows such as Batman with Adam West (and, of course, Cesar Romero) and the original pilot for Star Trek that featured Jeffrey Hunter’s Christopher Pike rather than William Shatner’s James T. Kirk. In this film, Dexter and his friends come up with a special formula that can turn them invisible. This results in what is quite frankly the most entertaining premise of the entire trilogy, especially since this film does a better job than its predecessor did when it comes to capitalizing on the potential of its premise with plenty of fun invisibility-related set pieces such as the one where Dexter helps Dean Higgins win a game of golf. And while some of the film’s invisibility effects have obviously dated quite a bit, the whole film, in general, is better-paced and a lot more consistently humorous than the first film was. All this helps it to overcome another straightforward plot that, dare I say, kind of feels like it straight-up ignores the events of the previous film at times. In other words, there’s not a single mention of everything that Dexter went through in the first film, including the fact that A.J. Arno tried to have him killed (which, as you might have guessed, is not brought up at all once Arno makes his first appearance in the film after being released from prison). Still, for what is undoubtedly another one of those often forgotten live-action Disney films from the studio’s ‘darker days’ (especially seeing how it surprisingly isn’t on Disney+ at the time of this post’s publication unlike the other two films in the trilogy), Now You See Him, Now You Don’t is, against all odds, a superior sequel.
THE STRONGEST MAN IN THE WORLD (1975)
The final installment of this trilogy, 1975’s The Strongest Man in the World, saw a notable change in direction. This time, directorial duties were handled by the brother of trilogy writer Joseph L. McEveety, Vincent McEveety, whose work we’ve previously discussed on this site via the Herbie the Love Bug retrospective that I did a few years ago as he had directed two of that franchise’s films and a few episodes of its short-lived TV series. Unfortunately, this is easily the weakest installment of this trilogy as it’s derailed by some questionable narrative and production decisions. It’s not outright terrible, per se, as there are a decent number of sequences that properly maintain the kind of wacky scientific antics that these films are known for. However, the film suffers considerably from some incredibly weak pacing, with some sequences dragging on for way longer than they need to be. Not only that, but the film has a surprisingly limited amount of screentime for Kurt Russell as Dexter, who’s literally absent for at least a third of the runtime. Instead, more time is spent with Dean Higgins, A.J. Arno and his right-hand-man Cookie, and new characters like Eve Arden and Phil Silvers as the owners of rival cereal companies, the former of whom teams up with Medfield to promote the super-strength formula that Dexter and his friends come up with. Now, granted, this may have had something to do with Kurt Russell beginning to transition into non-Disney projects at this point in his career, but nevertheless, the severe lack of his trademark charisma is quite noticeable. As such, the Dexter Riley trilogy ends up concluding on a mediocre note as The Strongest Man in the World is, unfortunately, a major dud that’s largely undone by a messy plot that, despite having just enough of its predecessors’ most recognizable elements, almost feels like it’s from another franchise.
THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES (1995 REMAKE)
Finally, we conclude today’s retrospective with the made-for-TV remake of The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, which first premiered on February 18th, 1995 on ABC. This was one of four remakes of classic live-action Disney films that aired on the network during the 1994-95 season, with the other three being remakes of The Shaggy Dog, Escape to Witch Mountain, and Freaky Friday. It also notably served as the directorial debut of Ant-Man trilogy director Peyton Reed who, just two years later, would helm another made-for-TV old-school Disney ‘remake’ via The Love Bug with Bruce Campbell. But whereas Reed’s Love Bug was admittedly more of a sequel than a remake given the role that the series’ main protagonist Jim Douglas played in it, this new version of The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes is a more straight-forward remake that, like Flubber, doesn’t make a lot of noticeable changes to the original’s script. Outside of the usual modern aesthetic updates, the only major narrative differences include things like having its main antagonist be the resident genius from Medfield’s rival Hale University (who happens to be 12 years old, by the way…) instead of a corrupt businessman and a decently improved role for the film’s female lead and Dexter’s love interest Sarah Matthews. That latter difference is particularly notable seeing how, in the original trilogy with Kurt Russell, all three films paired his Dexter up with a different female lead who barely factored into the main plot.
In the remake, Dexter Riley is played by Kirk Cameron, who does a solid job in the role overall even if his version of Dexter is arguably cockier than Kurt Russell’s Dexter was in the scenes from the original film where Dexter’s fame started to go to his head. Still, like with any of Lindsay Lohan’s star-making roles, a project like this shows that, despite Cameron’s current reputation, he was a genuinely talented young male lead. Here, he’s joined by 90’s comedy mainstay Larry Miller in a scene-stealing turn as the remake’s equivalent of Dean Higgins, Dean Valentine, and Dean Jones (who, of course, would then go on to reprise his role as Jim Douglas in The Love Bug two years later) as Hale’s Dean Carlson albeit in a relatively minor role compared to everyone else. As for the film itself, I’ll fully admit that there’s not much else for me to talk about as it’s very much your standard made-for-TV film. Despite a few overly campy moments and some plotlines that don’t really go anywhere such as a pair of government agents who think that Dexter’s been responsible for a recent string of high-profile government hacks, it’s an enjoyable little piece of 90’s nostalgia. Granted, I don’t recall ever watching this when I was younger (although I wouldn’t be surprised if I had) but I do believe that I would’ve enjoyed this as a kid just as much as I did with the likes of classic Disney Channel Original Movies from the ’90s and early 2000s like Halloweentown, The Luck of the Irish, and Smart House.
And that concludes today’s retrospective on the 7 Disney films that were set at Medfield College. Thanks for following along and be sure to sound off in the comments below with any childhood memories that you have of these films. And be sure to follow us on social media @TheDisInsider to stay up-to-date on everything that has to do with the House of Mouse.