An Unlikely Disney Gem Perfect for Halloween

Darby O'Gill and the Little People Film Poster, Disney, 1959

I was musing this week over how much the definition of “spooky” has changed over the past thirty or so years.  When I was a kid Halloween was about ghosts and witches.  It was a holiday that stirred the imagination and one that held a particular mystery for children.  Costumes were seldom elaborate; my mother could do wonders with just a few scraps of old clothes and a drugstore makeup kit.  And the weeks leading up to Halloween seemed to last forever.

Walking through the woods, ankle deep in dry fragrant leaves, we’d talk of haunted houses and other spooky things while dreaming about how much candy we were going to take home on the big night.

Halloween then was still more about old legends and superstitions.  Ghosts were the biggest threat of being out after dark, unlike today where Halloween has been taken over by extremely violent, adult-themed characters.  Witches and phantoms have taken a back seat to serial killers and madmen.

Albert Sharpe as Darby and Jimmy O'Dea King Brian, film still

Even by today’s standards the special effects employed in ‘Darby O’Gill and the Little People’ in 1959 were visually impressive.

Now if you’re like me and you like to watch a few films at certain times of the year to get you in the holiday spirit, you no doubt have your favorites.  Among mine is Darby O’Gill and the Little People, a Disney gem that has fallen off the radar in recent years, and one that is fun, spooky, and the whole family can watch without fear of causing psychological problems later on down the road.

The Banshee

The darkest element of ‘Darby O’Gill’ is the banshee, perhaps the most famous dark spirit of Irish mythology

This film was on television a lot for some reason when I was about eight or so and I swear I must have watched it a hundred times.  The title can be somewhat misleading as it suggests a cuteness that was never intended, and thankfully does not rear its ugly head anywhere in the film.  Anyone who knows their Irish legends knows that leprechauns were, in fact, not the cute little men that have made their way into popular culture today but were a race to be avoided at all costs.  Darby O’Gill and the Little People masterfully combines many different sinister legends regarding the fates of those who tangled with the faerie realm.  Not a Halloween film per se Darby O’Gill has plenty of spooks and legends to satisfy the Halloween spirit – from the dreaded pooka and the legendary banshee to the phantom Death Coach known as the cóiste-bodhar (sometimes pronounced coach o’bower) driven by the headless horseman known as a dullahan.

The phantom Death Coach known as the cóiste-bodhar (sometimes pronounced coach o'bower) driven by the headless horseman known as a dullahan.

The phantom Death Coach known as the cóiste-bodhar (sometimes pronounced coach o’bower) driven by the headless horseman is one of my favorite parts of this film.

If you’ve never seen this movie, or if you haven’t seen it in many years, I suggest you get a copy and watch it this year.  The cast is wonderful and includes the ever eccentric Estelle Winwood and a young Sean Connery, whose appearance in this film brought him to the attention of producer Albert R. Broccoli, who at the time was casting the first James Bond film, Dr. No.  The director, Robert Stevenson, made many Disney live-action classics including Mary Poppins and The Absent-Minded Professor.  The haunting backgrounds were painted by Peter Ellenshaw, a genius of matte painting who went on to win an Academy Award for his work on Mary Poppins.

Albert Sharpe as Darby and Jimmy O'Dea King Brian, film still

The use of forced perspective to create the illusion of the “little people” in this film gave it a realism that was lacking in other fantasy films of the period.

So if you’re looking to watch something different this Halloween, something supernatural but with some whimsy and a bit of Disney flair, I can’t recommend this movie enough.  It’s one of those sadly neglected Disney films that deserves its place in the lexicon of Disney live-action classics and is a pleasure to watch anytime of year.

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