In the 1960s and 1970s, Walt Disney Studios churned out hundreds of films, shot on tight schedules and generally starring actors who had not yet reached or already passed their prime. Most of these low-budget flicks are equally forgettable; the studio made them with the knowledge that the Disney name, coupled with advertisement on the corporation's television show, would guarantee returns from the family market. What's more, in those pre-movie-rental days, the films could be shown as two-part episodes of the weekly Disney tv series after they'd run their course at local theatres.
Napoleon and Samantha, released in 1972, begins with an orphan boy who lives with his grandfather, a fun-loving type who has a chance encounter with a circus clown. When the clown decides to move back to Europe, kid and grandpa inherit his pet, a retired circus lion. As they live in a rural home, they are able to keep the beast's existence a secret. Unfortunately, Grandpa goes the way of all flesh, and Napoleon fears he will lose his freedom and his cat. The boy and his lion run away, joined by Napoleon's spirited female friend, Samantha. They encounter the sorts of dangers kids have in the wilderness in family films (especially when accompanied by friendly carnivores)-- until they meet a mentally disturbed wanted man, who poses a much scarier threat.
Thrown into the mix is Danny, a youthful, "hippie"-type man who adds contemporary interest to a film which Disney easily might have made a decade or even two decades earlier. We also get the obligatory chase scene before the obligatory happy ending.
For a Disney film of this era-- a film about two kids on a romp with a lion-- Napoleon and Samantha features some serious touches. The titular orphan boy must deal with the death of his grandfather, his only parent. And while we never learn what hideous crime our gratuitous villain was supposed to have committed, nor what his plans are with the children, the fact that he ties both up as part of a "game" will likely chill adult spines more than it will their kids'.
There's no great cinematic achievement here, though I suppose young children would still enjoy this film. Napoleon and Samantha remains noteworthy mostly for its retroactively interesting casting.
Jodie Foster appears in her first big-screen movie role, as Samantha. While the script makes no excessive demands upon her, the performance marks her as someone whose career bears watching. Johnny Whitaker, Jody of Family Affair, plays Napoleon, one of the few big-screen appearances of his child-star career (he and Foster would appear together again as Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher in a 1973 adaptation of the Mark Twain classic). Michael Douglas plays the helpful hippy, Danny. And, shortly before achieving 1970s family programming cult status as Grandpa and Grandma on The Waltons, Will Geer and Ellen Corby appear as, respectively, Napoleon's grandfather and Samantha's busybody babysitter. One of the two lions used in the film, meanwhile, had been an MGM logo lion.
Gold Key also produced a comic book adaptation of the film, well-drawn and featuring a somewhat abridged version of the plot.
Napoleon and Samantha was directed by Bernard McEveety and written by Stewart Raffill.