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The Million Dollar Duck DVD Review

$1,000,000 Duck Movie Poster The Million Dollar Duck

Theatrical Release: June 30, 1971 / Running Time: 92 Minutes / Rating: G

Director: Vincent McEveety

Cast: Dean Jones (Prof. Albert Dooley), Sandy Duncan (Katie Dooley), Joe Flynn (Finley Hooper), Tony Roberts (Fred Hines), James Gregory (Rutledge), Lee Harcourt Montgomery (Jimmy Dooley), Jack Kruschen (Dr. Gottlieb), Virginia Vincent (Eunice Hooper), Jack Bender (Arvin Wadlow), Billy Bowles (Orlo Wadlow), Sammy Jackson (Frisby), Arthur Hunnicutt (Mr. Purdham), Frank Wilcox (Bank Manager), Bryan O'Byrne (Bank Teller)


By 1971, Disney making a live action comedy starring Dean Jones and an animal was not exactly news. In a span of just a few years, Jones had established himself as the studio's choice leading man and it was not uncommon for him to have a cutesy creature for a co-star. Typically, Jones (who turned 40 in 1971) played the likable straight man, a down-to-earth fellow balanced by a domesticated Great Dane or a pack of grape-picking chimpanzees. Even when not accompanied by a furry friend, the formula was carried out by a spirited Volkswagen or a rowdy pirate's ghost personified by Peter Ustinov.

Million Dollar Duck was the seventh Disney comedy that Jones headlined and while it sticks to a mostly tried-and-true structure, the end product feels somewhat flat in comparison to the actor's other films for the studio.

Jones plays Professor Albert Dooley, a scientist who doesn't have pupils so much as animal subjects whose intelligence is tested on a regular basis under the supervision of Dr. Gottlieb (Jack Kruschen). As the title or even a tiny knowledge of the film's thin scenario implies, the film involves a duck who will prove quite valuable. But before we can get there, the film lets us see Albert's family. He has a cheerful, absent-minded wife named Katie (Sandy Duncan) and son named Jimmy (Lee Harcourt Montgomery, who upholds the three-named child actor legacy). In addition, Albert and company have a financial problem. Their house seems to be a modest size and all, but the bills keep accumulating and so the family needs to "economize." That means no fifty dollar dog for Jimmy and more of Katie's unorthodox apple sauce for Albert.

At his workplace, Albert (Dean Jones, right) tries to encourage a dim-witted duck to pass one of Dr. Gottlieb's tests. In her film debut, Sandy Duncan plays absent-minded housewife Katie. Her expression here sums up the character pretty well.

In case the contrast of the title and opening scenes do not make it crystal clear, yes, the Dooleys are about to walk into some major financial prosperity. The source of this is a dim-witted duck who even with Albert's coaching cannot pass the simplest test at the lab. Dr. Gottlieb deems the duck useless and Albert is set to take it home, but not before the duck receives some accidental radiation first. The duck, unharmed, becomes a temporary pet for Jimmy, who quickly takes a liking to it. Predictably enough, though, the white, not-so-bright Pekin wreaks a bit of havoc for the cantankerous next-door neighbor Finley Hooper (Joe Flynn, frequent antagonist of live action Disney fare). Simple mathematics tells you what will happen when you add a duck to a scene involving a pool, a dog, and a grumpy U.S. Treasury worker. This is played broadly, like all of the film's gags, which expect more laughter than they deserve.

This slapstick splashdown in the Hoopers' pool actually does advance the plot, since it confirms that the duck (who Jimmy has named Charlie) can indeed lay eggs on cue. That cue is a dog barking or something that can emulate a dog barking with the right pitch. Something like Dean Jones? Now you're getting it! When burying the chemically questionable eggs in the backyard, Albert makes another discovery - after they're hatched, the eggs have yolks of solid gold!

With Charlie plopping out eggs on command and those eggs always hosting golden yolks (and always accompanied by a "ding" sound effect), it would appear the Dooleys' financial troubles are over. The family's transformation isn't quite rags-to-riches since they're not that poor to begin with and Albert wants to make sure they don't spend frivolously. Still, Katie wants a new hat, Albert longs to upgrade his jalopy to a pricey yellow sports car, and the theme of avarice provides a flimsy moral grounding. (The running joke is that Albert is more concerned about the valuable duck than his own son.) Meanwhile, Fred Hines (Tony Roberts), Albert's friend assumes the role of the family's partner/legal advisor in their lucrative new operation. This materialistic lawyer has few qualms about spending the money as it comes in.

AFLAC must really want his insurance. Joe Flynn is all wet as Finley Hooper, Treasury bigwig and the Dooley's grumpy neighbor.

A fair amount of time is devoted to just how the Dooleys can convert golden egg yolks into actual capital. First, Katie tries to simply deposit a yolk at the bank to make up for her overdrawn checking account. When that doesn't work, she makes her way to every refinery in the area, exchanging her identically-sized nuggets for its monetary equivalent. The morality is blurry; Katie tells the truth to refinery employees who all laugh off her tale of a gold-laying duck. Nonetheless, the film assumes the tone of a crime caper.

When they're alerted to the unusual activity, the U.S. Treasury sees a less complicated issue and they pursue this criminal operation which they view as a direct threat to the nation's and the world's economy. (Talk about playing your silly premises straight-faced...) This of course presents an opportunity for Finley Hooper to try and crack the case and bring his neighbors to justice. It also means a fairly standard final act, in which the protagonists sort out their moral priorities while the authorities tail them.

The Million Dollar Duck's interesting premise is just about the only thing unique to the film, which does not realize its comic potential. The heavy setup and climax feel stilted and neither is particularly believable nor conducive to the wacky comedy Disney has succeeded with time and again. It's hard to dismiss the film as bad, because its variables stand for elements that normally do provide an entertaining time and the light comedy never disengages you altogether.

But the film simply feels dated and stale. The former claim can often be forgiven since a Disney film's age often lends itself to nostalgia or a certain comedic charm. In this regard, you get a couple of wild-driving hippie teenagers and even an appearance from President Richard Nixon (not really him). But the film's more noticeable staleness stems from its reliance on formulas, with very little that's original enough to spice things up. It's not that the standard wacky live action Disney comedy had run its course by 1971; these same formulas would be put to great use in later films like Freaky Friday and the Dexter Riley sequels. The components of Million Dollar Duck simply leave you wanting more - something that's sharper, funnier, clever, or compelling.

This boy and his duck! The visual effect on a budget, a staple of the '70s Disney comedy.

Disney's DVD release for Million Dollar Duck comes at a time when another film with the words "Million Dollar" in its title is very much in the public discourse. Million Dollar Baby, Clint Eastwood's boxing film, may have won Best Picture at this year's Oscars, but Million Dollar...Duck was an awards player more than thirty years earlier. That's not a joke. Surprisingly enough, Duck was met with two nominations in the Academy Awards' little cousin, The Golden Globes. For her bubbly film debut, Sandy Duncan was considered in the New Star of the Year category, while Dean Jones was one of the five nominees for Actor in a Leading Role (Musical or Comedy) alongside Willy Wonka's Gene Wilder. Thanks to a pair of one-named actors, neither Duncan nor Jones won, but it certainly makes an interesting side note and perhaps an argument for not taking the Golden Globes too seriously.

In fact, Jones is more or less on auto-pilot, as his normally keen comic timing and likability are not up to par. It's odd that this nomination would be pretty much the only one of his career when he gave several similar but better performances in other Disney comedies. The same can be said (except for the commendation) for Joe Flynn, who does the same act he did across from Kurt Russell but much less tactfully. At least Duncan, who only appeared in one other Disney film, is a fresh face and her airheaded Katie is a little different from the other sensible mother/wife figures of this class.

Those who dismiss all of Disney's live action comedies of the '70s might cite The Million Dollar Duck as an uninspired example which simply plops variables into the studio's formula. It's not really fair to abandon this class, because in spite of similarities (and one begins to wonder, "Was there a Disney comedy in the '70s without a car chase or a police appearance?!"), there are several highly entertaining films that remain lots of fun more than three decades later. Though early '70s Dean Jones, an animal sidekick, a family, and a wacky premise should have equaled a film as golden as Charlie's yolks, that's not really the case here. The climactic action scenes are replete with dated special effects, with unconvincing matte shots abound and the film resorting to mannequins at its visually weakest. But by the time you get to them, you'll feel you've already been here and had a better time with a similar formula Disney comedy.

Buy The Million Dollar Duck from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.33:1 Reformatted Fullscreen
Dolby Digital Stereo (English)
Subtitles: English; Closed Captioned
Release Date: April 12, 2005
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5)
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
White Keepcase

VIDEO and AUDIO

On DVD, Million Dollar Duck is presented in a 1.33:1 fullscreen transfer which does not preserve the film's original theatrical aspect ratio, whatever that may be (probably 1.75:1). The framing of the opening credits sequence suggests this is an open matte presentation, as none of the names or the Ward Kimball animation approaches the top or bottom fifths of the frame. No unsightly framing was noticeable throughout the film. At times, there appeared to be excess head space. At other times, one can't imagine the film being shot any tighter. As such, some cropping is probably involved but as it's not a very wide film, so the difference from the theatrical dimensions is minimal.

Still, it's pretty clear that even after all the years it took to arrive on the format, efforts have not been taken to make Million Dollar Duck nice and vibrant on DVD. The film isn't in the best condition, but it fares quite a bit better than The Barefoot Executive (which came to theaters the same year and makes its DVD debut simultaneously). There are plenty of intrusions on the print: scratches and artifacts turn up with a greater frequency than you'd hope.

Overall, it's not a very pretty looking DVD. Part of that is the film itself, from the gaudy-looking Dooley house to the browns and yellows (or are they dirty-whites?) which tint the Albert's workplace and the streets. Fleshtones seemed inconsistent and with an occasional excess of red. The unpleasant visuals can be attributed both to a '70s color scheme that doesn't hold up well and an unremastered DVD which leaves the film looking dated. At least sharpness was pretty solid and the print was mostly clean aside from the regular cameos by scratches and artifacts. A couple of shots appear to be grainy (like the effects work near the end), but this wasn't a major issue on the whole.

It ain't a Bug, but Dean is lovin' it! The economic leaders of the world are up in arms over the threat of synthetic gold.

If this was a more noteworthy DVD release, Disney wouldn't have reused an old video master. But that's what they've done, complete with the Buena Vista International logo at the end of the film.

Audio is presented in a Dolby Digital Stereo track. You'd be hard-pressed to realize it's a stereo sound mix if not for the package's listing. It's basically mono with the exception of the opening credits music. The audio's volume is low, so you'll have to crank up the dynamics to hear things clearly. Dialogue is somewhat tinny-sounding but mostly decipherable. Like the picture, work hasn't gone into making the soundtrack more vital, but it's passable, if hardly discernible from the Mono tracks on other catalogue DVDs.

BONUS FEATURES and DESIGN

The only bonus feature (if you can call it that) is the standard 90-second preview for other vintage live action Disney films which have received better treatment on DVD. This promo is years old, and it's pretty much time for a new one which at least features some of the dozens of movies which made their Disney DVD debuts last year. Oh, and yes, it certainly would be nice to have some insight on this film, as forgettable as it is. Dean Jones spoke extensively on The Love Bug's solid DVD and the documentary on his work for Disney probably mentions this film briefly along with his many others. But nothing, not even a little trailer for the film, has been included here.

The 16 x 9 menus are silent and still. They present the disc's few selection screens with colorful golden egg-themed backgrounds. FBI warnings are now unskippable and play before the film rather than at the start of the disc. To avoid them, simply select Chapter 1 from the Scene Selections menu and the movie proceeds without interruption.

Albert's quite proud of his eggs. Want golden yolks? Bark like a dog.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

This DVD debut of Million Dollar Duck isn't likely to please many. Those who have been actively waiting for a Region 1 release are bound to be disappointed by the weak picture quality, non-widescreen presentation, and absence of bonus materials. (It's doubtful that this very basic disc offers anything above the similarly fullscreen, barebones DVD that was released to Region 2 a year ago.) Meanwhile, those who are unacquainted with the film will probably find it a stale, by-the-numbers take on the studio's formulas. Disney has made far livelier and more amusing comedies, several of which feature star Dean Jones and plenty that don't. While not many of them have been treated to a better DVD presentation, some have and they merit a stronger recommendation than this.

More on the DVD

Related Reviews:
New To DVD: The Barefoot Executive (1971) | Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. (1966) | The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (1967)
Also Starring Dean Jones:
The Ugly Dachshund (1966) | The Love Bug (1969) | Snowball Express (1972)
Blackbeard's Ghost (1968) | Monkeys, Go Home! (1967) | Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo (1977)
Also Starring Sandy Duncan: The Cat From Outer Space (1978)
Disney's '70s Comedies: Now You See Him, Now You Don't (1972) | No Deposit, No Return (1976)

UltimateDisney.com | Review Index | Classic Live Action (Pre-1980) Films Page | 2005 Catalogue DVD Slate | Dean Jones on Disney DVD

Reviewed April 7, 2005.

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