Judge Steve Evans laments the career downturn Sean Connery took when he left off making this kind of charming kids' entertainment in favor of some ridiculous spy franchise.
A touch o' blarney…a heap o' magic…and a load o' laughter!
When elderly Darby O'Gill loses his job as an estate caretaker, he catches the king of the leprechauns and demands three wishes. A pre-James Bond Sean Connery fights, sings (!), and woos Darby's daughter.
Facts of the Case
Darby O'Gill (Albert Sharpe, Brigadoon) and his daughter Katie (Janet Munro, Swiss Family Robinson) live on idyllic Emerald Isle off the coast of bonny Ireland. Darby enjoys telling wild tales of leprechauns over a few pints at the local pub, but he can't keep up with the maintenance of an estate under his care. When the owner sends in strapping young Michael McBride (a 29-year-old Sean Connery) to take over the job, Darby frets over his family's future. But good fortune is his when Darby captures the king of the leprechauns and orders the little monarch to grant the traditional three wishes before he will be set free.
Much merriment ensues as the leprechaun king and his wee subjects weave their magic on Emerald Isle. Michael and Katie exchange shy glances while the town bully makes his own schemes. A dreaded banshee lends a little gravitas to the suspenseful climax.
One of the great Disney live-action films, Darby O'Gill and the Little People still shimmers with the quality and loving care that went into its production. Shot on location in Ireland, with interiors and special effects produced stateside, the film is utterly charming without being cloying. The trick photography that places leprechauns in the same scenes with normal-sized actors is virtually flawless. Disney's team of technicians came up with pioneering techniques such as mirror shots and forced perspective—optical trickery that Peter Jackson would deploy 40 years later when placing hobbits in the same shot as humans. So convincing are the optical effects that my 8-year-old daughter, who already has a sophisticated appetite for well-wrought children's films, wanted to know if Darby O'Gill and the Little People relies on computer-generated imagery, or CGI. Since it was released in 1959, I assured her the film does not.
As for Connery, his performance in this picture sparked one of the great legends of modern cinema. Producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, who owned the movie rights to most of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, was mulling his casting options for an action picture to be called Dr. No. But Cubby couldn't find the right actor to play James Bond. Dissatisfied with the auditions, Broccoli shared his frustration with his wife, who remembered watching Darby O'Gill and the Little People. As the story goes, his wife pondered the problem, looked her husband in the eye and declared, "Sean Connery is the best-looking man I have ever seen."
Janet Munro enjoyed a brief run in Disney films before a failed marriage compounded by substance-abuse problems ended her career and life. When you know this, her fresh-scrubbed face and dulcet voice become all the more poignant in this fantastical and romantic evocation of turn-of-the-century Ireland, an emerald-green country that exists only in the fond imaginings of Disney and directors like John Ford, who lovingly created a pastoral portrait of his native land in The Quiet Man.
Disney releases quality DVD product, although it's often pricey. Here, the studio presents a sumptuous digital transfer of Darby O'Gill and the Little People with the original mono soundtrack. Audio and video are crisp as an autumn apple. Extras consist of three features: an in-depth and fascinating look at the creation of the special effects, a piece on Connery's arrival in Hollywood and early career—including a recent interview with the Scotsman—and a whimsical short with Walt Disney, who personally thanks the leprechauns for their cooperation in the making of the film. These lighthearted touches underscore the effectiveness of Disney's business acumen, delighting people as they cheerfully part with their money. This tradition continues nearly four decades after his death. Although the bonus feature with Uncle Walt was filmed in black-and-white for the old Wonderful World of Disney television show, it was clearly an expensive and elaborate advertisement to produce. This short feature also demonstrates that Disney was an early master of integrated marketing—using his television program to promote an expensive feature film. Remember, this was decades before product placements and promotional tie-ins with Happy Meals became a ubiquitous part of doing business in Hollywood.
Still, it's hard to sustain such cynicism when confronted with a delightful motion picture. Disney's successful business strategies are mentioned here merely for perspective.
Darby O'Gill and the Little People would make a fine double feature with Disney's The Gnome Mobile, which is a sort-of sequel.
I respectfully offer these endorsements from my children, who constitute the core demographic for this timeless film:
"Funny, funny, funny," says Darya, 8. "The special effects were great. The whole movie was cool. Even the banshee."
"It was good," opines Sanders, 7. "Really good special effects. And it made me laugh."
"I liked the kitty," says Sophia, not yet 4. "It's a happy movie."
Should the sentiments of my kids not suffice, I declare Darby O'Gill and the Little People guilty of delivering superb family entertainment.
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Scales of Justice
• "Mr. Connery Goes to Hollywood" Featurette
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