You’ve likely heard this famous Walt Disney quote before. It’s a dictum that rings true when you’re watching any of his most beloved classics, like “Dumbo,” “Pinocchio,” or “Mary Poppins”. Disney never “played down” to his young viewers, and he never undercut his adult fans, either. Disney’s determination to deliver movies that entertained the entire audience was one of his chief strengths as a producer: He made family movies, not just children’s movies.
This philosophy was never more apparent than in some of Disney’s campier and more outrageous live-action movies in the late ‘50s and ‘60s. In the years before his death in 1966, Disney produced a string of wacky comedies like “The Shaggy Dog,” “The Absent-Minded Professor,” and “Son of Flubber.” They’re all expressions of his penchant for satire, but also give a nod to his keen interest in science, the future, space travel, and technological innovation. Encapsulating all of these interests perhaps more than any other is the movie “Moon Pilot.” If you’ve somehow missed this one, put it on your short list of movie night must-sees.
Directed by James Neilson and based on the novel “Starfire” by Robert Buckner, “Moon Pilot” takes good-humored yet no-holds-barred shots at the U.S. Space Program, the FBI, its own era (you won’t believe the over-the-top hair, costuming or set design), and also trendy subcultures of the day (look for Sally Field in her first-ever movie role as an uncredited featured extra in a riotously funny beatnik send-up).
The premise is this: Tom Tryon stars as Captain Richmond Talbot, an astronaut preparing to be the first man to orbit the moon. While still here on earth, he encounters “Lyrae,” a beautiful French bombshell of an alien from another planet (Dany Saval, who, at the time, was touted as the “next Brigitte Bardot” and yes, she is all that). The comedy setup is that Captain Talbot has been forbidden from anything that would raise his heart rate or divert his attention from his upcoming mission — including contact with women. However, the eyelash-batting Lyrae has inside information about spacecraft imperfections and wants to warn Talbot. In short order, the two of them fall madly in love.
“Moon Pilot” came before the remarkably similar “I Dream of Jeannie” that ran on television just a few years later (astronaut/bombshell genie combo vs. astronaut/bombshell space alien combo) and the humor and setup are precursors of movies that came much later, like “Spaceballs,” “Galaxy Quest,” and the “Austin Powers” movies. It’s clear “Moon Pilot” was ahead of its time, yet unlike some of these other space send-ups, it never strays from the Walt Disney ethos: it’s suitable for the whole family, and genuinely entertaining for audiences of all ages.
Grab a couple of TV dinners, set up your folding trays, and make this your retro family night movie this week!