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The World's Greatest Athlete DVD Review

The World's Greatest Athlete Movie Poster - click to buy from MovieGoods.com The World's Greatest Athlete

Theatrical Release: February 14, 1973 / Running Time: 92 Minutes / Rating: G

Director: Robert Scheerer

Cast: Tim Conway (Milo Jackson), Jan-Michael Vincent (Nanu), John Amos (Coach Sam Archer), Roscoe Lee Browne (Gazenga), Dayle Haddon (Jane Douglas), Billy De Wolfe (Dean Maxwell), Nancy Walker (Mrs. Petersen), Danny Goldman (Leopold Maxwell), Don Pedro Colley (Morumba), Vito Scotti (Games Spectator), Liam Dunn (Mr. Winslow), Ivor Francis (Dean Bellamy), Leon Askin (Dr. Gottlieb), Howard Cosell (Himself), Frank Gifford (Himself), Jim McKay (Himself), Bud Palmer (Himself), Joe Kapp (Himself), Neil Toomey (Himself)

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Nowadays, it seems like the only sports films Walt Disney Pictures releases are real life dramas designed to inspire and thrill audiences. The current trend dates back only to the fall of 2000, when the enjoyable Jerry Bruckheimer production Remember the Titans became the studio's second highest grossing film of the year. In the short time since, we've seen The Rookie and Miracle, and though neither of those topped Titans financially
(or, in this critic's opinion, artistically), a third film in this mold will be released at the end of next month, period golf drama The Greatest Game Ever Played. Such dramatic contributions to the world of cinema are more likely to yield tears or applause, but once, not too long ago, Disney made sports films with a sense of humor.

In fact, for a number of years, Disney's treatment of sports (usually depicted at an amateur level) often leaned towards the comedic. Nearly every widely-played form of team athletics was lampooned at some point in a Goofy cartoon. In the '60s, scenes of basketball, track and field, and race car driving were always played for laughs in films like The Absent-Minded Professor, Blackbeard's Ghost and The Love Bug. And several comedy works were devoted entirely to a competitive sport; these range from Gus, the 1976 Don Knotts film about a field goal-kicking mule, to three Mighty Ducks movies centering on a readily-improving children's hockey team coached by Emilio Estevez. Released to theaters in 1973, The World's Greatest Athlete is one of the studio's first "sports comedies" and it fits that definition like a glove. For one thing, no shortage of athletics are featured and for another, the film doesn't take itself seriously for one second.

Coach Sam Archer (John Amos) and assistant Milo Jackson (Tim Conway) are on a losing streak like no other. On safari in Africa, Archer tries to convince Nanu that following him to America is a good idea.

Before even the opening credits roll, Coach Sam Archer (John Amos) is introduced as an enthusiastic coach whose advice seems to fail his players. Apparently, Archer's expertise and bad luck is not limited to one sport; his words of wisdom differ only slightly and as does the result as he guides the football, baseball, and basketball teams of the fictional Merrivale College to defeat. Facing interminable losing streaks and pressure from above (Dean Maxwell, played by Billy De Wolfe), Archer takes a break and sets off for an African gaming reserve with his superstitious assistant Milo (Tim Conway).

There, Archer and Milo discover a Tarzan-like wild child named Nanu (Jan-Michael Vincent) who can outrun a cheetah, as we see in his hilariously unconvincing introduction. Archer immediately recognizes the athletic Nanu as a coach's dream, literally foreseeing the glory the young man will bring to Merrivale as he weaves through trees, gathers melons in a basket, and hurls his spear in the jungle. As you might expect, Nanu informs Archer in broken English that he doesn't want to leave the place he has called home from youth. But Archer takes advantage of a long-held tribal law of the locals which dictates that saving someone's life requires you to follow them around everywhere for the rest of your life, a regulation which would seem to discourage life-saving.

Archer's efforts to have Nanu save his life take some time -- allowing for a funny montage of staged peril gone awry -- but eventually, the coach is able to convince the boy that Nanu is now responsible for another life. This charade gets the approval of Nanu's godfather, a sly witch doctor named Gazenga (Roscoe Lee Browne), who agrees to let his ward travel to the United States with the opportunistic Americans. This establishes the film's George of the Jungle-esque setup in just under a third of its total running time. Sure enough, Nanu is on a plane headed for the Western Hemisphere with his pet, a house-trained tiger named Harri, by his side.

The savage boy and his pet tiger, all cleaned up and ready for college Milo attempts to provide some assistance for the prodigy athlete.

Nanu's American adventures immediately begin with Merrivale, where Archer and Milo have him enrolled and housed. Despite having no prior training whatsoever, Nanu is a remarkable talent at every sport he attempts. He also seems to be fairly talented at attracting the ladies, at least one lady, his tutor named...Jane (Dayle Haddon).
No, the film does not miss the opportunity to capitalize on this obvious nod to Tarzan. Nanu and Jane make progress academically and connect romantically, which generates the obligatory opposition, in the way of Dean Maxwell's nerdy son Leopold (Danny Goldman, who looks about ten years too old for college) who has a thing for Jane. Leopold uses his father's clout to bring Gazenga to Merrivale and his own smarm to enrage Nanu's godfather at the selfish coaches.

While the proceedings are somewhat predictable, they are also consistently entertaining and presented in a way that feels pretty fresh, especially for '70s Disney fare. Things culminate with a 20-minute track-and-field sequence in which Nanu attempts to earn the film's title by earnestly entering every single event la Jim Thorpe. Along the way, Archer and Milo try to guide their prodigy athlete, revel in success, and ultimately find a satisfying redemption. It is worth repeating that, in spite of this, the film does not take itself too seriously, and the decathlon competitions and all else are the source of some amusement.

Milo tries to sneak his way into the frame during a televised interview with the coaches. In his very first appearance, Nanu outruns a cheetah. As you can see, the scene is done in an extremely convincing fashion.

Tim Conway gets top billing and more laughs than any other cast member, but John Amos holds the most screen time and performs admirably as Disney's first African-American leading man since Uncle Remus. The stiff speech of Jan-Michael Vincent, whose claim to fame following this film would be the '80s action TV series "Airwolf", produce amusement, intentionally or not, while Roscoe Lee Browne holds you captive until his character grows cartoonish and annoying.

All in all, The World's Greatest Athlete amounts to a mostly good-natured comedy that is easy to embrace. At times, its abundant silliness becomes too much to swallow, such as the film's repeated resorting to voodoo doll control, the funny-at-first, but run-into-the-ground joke about landlady Mrs. Petersen thinking Nanu's tiger is a person, and a prolonged detour featuring a shrunken Conway slowly making his way around bar props. But the misfires and pacing problems are overshadowed by its likable sense of humor and appealing, time-tested premise. Like some of Disney's other '70s triumphs (such as The Barefoot Executive and Snowball Express) but to a lesser degree, Athlete is a production which would be easy to pick on or critically deride, but the truth is, it provides a fun time for families to enjoy, a delight not often offered from other studios' output.

Buy The World's Greatest Athlete from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital Mono (English)
Subtitles: English; Closed Captioned
Release Date: August 2, 2005
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
White Keepcase

VIDEO and AUDIO

The World's Greatest Athlete joins the ranks of the lucky live action Disney films which on DVD have been preserved in their original widescreen aspect ratios and enhanced for 16x9 televisions. This 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is solid and quite pleasing, which leaves me little interesting to say. Like many other of Disney's '70s films, Athlete doesn't boast the nicest color scheme, but the picture displays great sharpness, clarity, depth, and consistency. For the most part, the element is gladly light on scratches and other intrusions. Some of the footage in "Africa" uses cost-saving effects which stand out by today's standards and are most susceptible to print flaws. There's also the occasional artifact here and there, but by and large, the transfer is clean and well-rendered, which leaves the film to be enjoyed without lamenting the disc's technical shortcomings.

Audio is provided in a Dolby Mono track and it is fairly sufficient. While sports movies do present a keen opportunity to make use of surrounds for ambient crowd noise, in the early '70s, mono was often the way to go, particularly for a budget comedy like this. Dialogue isn't always discernible, but it usually is, and when it's not, we can blame the recordings, not this transfer. The score (which aspires both to tribal Africa and college band sounds) and infrequent sound effects are also capably delivered.

Harri the Tiger says DVD bonus features are grrrrreat! Tim Conway is not actually shrunken. He's just acting that way with the aid of a big glass, as seen in this visual effects component of the semi-disappointing Outtakes reel. Utilizing the original poster artwork, it's the main menu for "The World's Greatest Athlete."

BONUS FEATURES and DESIGN

Like The Boatniks, a fellow '70s comedy which is concurrently debuting on Disney DVD, The World's Greatest Athlete contains two bonus features: outtakes and the film's original theatrical trailer.
Their inclusion, modest offerings though they may be, is entirely welcome, particularly since so many of the studio's live action films have come to DVD without so much as a trailer.

The outtakes reel (10:53), like The Boatniks', does not present the unused footage's original sound recordings. Instead, we get instrumental music from the film and are left to puzzle what's going on. Some of the content appears in the opening credits sequences, so the appeal here may be that it's not covered by titles. Other footage shows a bit of the visual effects work used to make Tim Conway appear so tiny. Altogether, the montage is slightly more enjoyable than Boatniks', which puts it among the less entertaining of supplements. The original theatrical trailer (2:25) is a nice treat, as it displays early '70s marketing sensibilities and illustrates the scenes and laughs that promotions tried to highlight in the film, such as the turns by a host of actual television sports announcers including Howard Cosell.

It's great that Disney may be establishing efforts to provide bonus material on their catalogue DVDs, but the Outtakes reel is only semi-satisfying without dialogue and one hopes better content can be provided. One may also be disappointed that the bulk of the studio's past output is already on disc and most of it without special features, but that's what re-releases are for.

Menus are 16x9-enhanced and feature the cartoonish, now-retro imagery that appeared in the film's theatrical poster art. Each selection screen is accompanied by a bit of score, though this is the same for all but the Main menu. Before the menu loads, individually and entirely skippable previews play for Valiant, classic live action Disney films on DVD, Old Yeller Special (Repackaged) Edition, and Muppet movie re-releases coming in honor of Kermit's 50th Anniversary.

Three dudes and a tiger. Run, Nanu, run!

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The World's Greatest Athlete does not rank among Disney's best or funniest live action comedies, but it certainly does provide an entertaining 92 minutes, even more than thirty years after its release. As far as the film's DVD debut goes, for once, Disney seems to have heard the complaints of those who collect the studio's vintage live action works. The stellar anamorphic widescreen transfer, fine sound presentation, and inclusion of some bonus features put this disc head and shoulders above the treatment bestowed upon most of its kin from the '60s and '70s. As such, it merits a hearty recommendation for fans of '70s Disney comedy and also a mild one for those who feel the class is often rendered too dated or silly. The World's Greatest Athlete may be plenty silly, but the passing of time hasn't erased its ability to provide a fun viewing experience.

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Related Reviews:
Also New to DVD: The Boatniks (1970) Toby Tyler (1960) Johnny Tremain (1957)
Also Starring Tim Conway: The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975) The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979)
Disney Does Sports:
The Strongest Man in the World (1975) Classic Cartoon Favorites: Extreme Sports Fun Gus (1976)
The Mighty Ducks (1992) Cool Runnings (1993) The Big Green (1995) Miracle (2004)
The Wild Child in Disney Films:
Jungle 2 Jungle (1997) Tarzan (1999) The Jungle Book (1967)

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Reviewed August 3, 2005.