Studio: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
Length: 100 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Languages: English 2.0 Mono
MSRP: $19.99 (available only on demand from Amazon.com)
Film Release Date: March 20, 1981
Disc Release Date: June 28, 2011 (the box calls it a 2010 DVD Release)
Review Date: July 7, 2011
"What would Walt do?" In the 45 years since Walt Disney’s death the answer to that question has been the speculation of Disney executives, employees, fans, and Hollywood gossip columnists alike. It was constantly on the mind of Walt’s immediate heirs. By the end of the 1970s, times had changed dramatically, but at Disney it had changed little since December 15, 1966, except that the company's fortunes were on the wane. Box-office revenues had plummeted, there was dissension in the ranks of the animation staff, and the long string of high-concept, low-budget comedies was near an end. There was a great deal of resistance to change within the company, but they had no choice if the studio was to survive another decade. Walt would certainly do that.
From 1979 to 1983, the studio released a handful of unusually dark PG-rated films, and almost all of them were box-office underperformers, disproving their theory that the G rating was the main deterrent to box office success. Meanwhile, the venerable Sunday night anthology TV show was also hemorrhaging viewers while slotted on NBC up against CBS’s 60 Minutes. Changes were made here, too. Disney bragged to TV Guide that they would offer more original fare and more modern and socially relevant programming, but little came of these plans just yet. The most that came from it was Amy, a low-key, gentle film about a woman teaching deaf children to speak. The studio was so impressed with the final result decided not to let languish on TV against 60 Minutes, but released it theatrically instead. Its theatrical life was short-lived and barely noticed, it infrequently got airplay on The Disney Channel when it was a high-quality pay-cable channel—I watched it there once in the early 1990s and had not seen it since then—and even when Disney licensed many of their niche titles to Anchor Bay, this was only released on VHS, after being unavailable for more than a decade since its original release. Now after 30 years of obscurity, Amy is finally available on DVD through a Manufacture-on-Demand service called “Disney Generations,” which is exclusively available at Amazon.com.
Prior to Amy, deafness had previously been depicted in such films as Johnny Belinda and The Miracle Worker, and deaf actress Linda Bove had become a staple of the cast of TV's Sesame Street, but Disney never even acknowledged the existence of disabilities in any way. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs they took precautions to avoid any suggestion that Dopey had any sort of mental disability. Now they were making a whole film where it was central to the plot. But the film isn’t mainly about the treatment of deaf children, at least not in the Afterschool Special or TV talk show sense. As the title suggests, it’s about Amy Medford (Jenny Agutter), a woman in the early 1900s trying to escape her bad marriage by becoming a speech teacher at a rural Southern school for blind and deaf children. She intends to teach them to speak, which at the time was believed to be impossible, a view reinforced by the school’s matron, Malvina Dodd (Nanette Fabray, who struggled with hearing loss for years). She insists that deaf and blind children should accept their limitations and resign themselves not to fight for anything better. Even after Amy successfully teaches a deaf teen named Henry (Otto Rechenberg) how to speak and bonds with him, not everyone is convinced. Meanwhile, as a blind boy suffers from a stomach ailment, a doctor, Ben Corcoran (Barry Newman) comes to the school and quickly bonds with the children—but needs to do a little more work to bond with Amy. As Amy’s wealthy husband Elliot (Chris Robinson) tries to find her with the aid of a private investigator, it is revealed why Amy cares so much about the well-being of deaf children, and why she left: she had a deaf son who died of a heart condition at age 6, and Elliot told her she was unable to bear a “normal” child. Through her work with the children, they change her into a much stronger woman, even when adversity and tragedy strike the school.
Like many of the studio's regular directors, this film’s director, Vincent McEveety, had a background in TV; he has directed no theatrical films since this. His prior outings for the studio were all high-concept, low-budget gimmick comedies of the type the studio was trying to get away from at the time, and he has never gotten the acclaim of other Disney live-action directors like Robert Stevenson. But his television work away from Disney includes such classics as Star Trek, The Fugitive, and Gunsmoke, so drama is not out of his league. Hands down, this is the best of his Disney features. His directorial style is utilitarian and never escapes that 1970s TV movie feel, but he is surprisingly sensitive with Noreen Stone’s intelligent and (mostly) realistic script that never patronizes the disabled characters or sensationalizes the subject matter, and his cast, who does an admirable job on the whole. Jenny Agutter is excellent as the title character; her performance brings depth, strength, and sympathy to the role of a woman struggling to find herself, and Nanette Fabray is fine as the doubting Malvina. Additionally, some of the deaf and blind characters were actually played by deaf and blind actors, while others were not. It is refreshing to see a Disney film go into largely uncharted territory, and even better when it does so as well as Amy does. This film deserves to be more widely seen, and I would certainly welcome more family-friendly adult dramas bearing the Disney name—the only one since this that I can recall off-hand is David Lynch’s The Straight Story—but these are not the kind of films that move merchandise and draw huge crowds on opening weekend. Although I don’t know how the youngest members of the family will respond, older ones will be more receptive.
The film is presented at a ratio of 1.33:1. I am not one to tolerate MAR releases; I have spent more than two thirds of my life believing that all films, good or bad, should be presented in the correct aspect ratio, and my work as a reviewer will reflect that. However, since Amy was originally shot for television, there are some shades of gray in this instance. It is highly unlikely any theater showing this film would have screened it at 1.33:1; for years Disney’s preferred ratio for flat films was 1.75:1, and there has been vigorous debate about which aspect ratio is correct. This will likely reignite those debates.
That said, the transfer is a mess that wouldn’t have passed muster with Anchor Bay 10 years ago, let alone today. It looks so old I expected it to end with the old, five-minute “Walt Disney and You” commercial that used to appear at the end of Disney videos back in the early 1980s, but it actually ends with a Buena Vista International TV logo of mid-1980s vintage. It is interlaced, riddled with heavy grain, dirt specks and scratches—the credits are a chore to watch from the dot crawl—and suffers from weak color saturation, softness that couldn’t possibly be from the camerawork, and crushed blacks with little shadow detail. Overall it looks like a worn-out 16mm print that is in the early stages of fading. Other studios have remastered many of their titles for their MOD programs. I sincerely hope “Disney Generations” doesn’t refer to the number of generations the video master is removed from the original negative, and that future releases will at least come from masters made in this century.
The film is presented in Dolby 2.0 mono. Overall, the audio is better than the video but it still isn’t the best. The acoustics of the dialogue in Disney films of the 1960s and 1970s is indescribable but unmistakeable once one hears it. There is little sonic ambience, giving the dialogue scenes an unnaturally dry feel—the fact that some of the dialogue is obviously redubbed does not help—but Robert F. Brunner’s music score and the film’s opening theme (“So Many Ways”, sung by Julie Budd, who was starring in The Devil and Max Devlin for the studio at the same time) sound decent, but not particularly dynamic, with lackluster high ends. It’s basically your average boxy 70s mono track.
This film has been ignored by the studio for three decades, and since they refused to spring for a new transfer, it’s unsurprising that there are no extras. Even the menu had no thought put into it. The word “Play” is the same size of the film’s title. The chapters are placed arbitrarily every 10 minutes as if it was made with consumer grade DVD burning software.
An intimate, warm, endearing, unpretentious, and well-acted drama from a time when Disney needed a change of pace, Amy is a gem that desperately needs some polish. I recommend the film, but I also wish there was an alternative to this utterly lazy—but not unsurprisingly so—effort by Disney to get niche material out to those who want it. Unfortunately, being a MOD, you’ll have to bite the bullet and buy it if you want it. It’s better than nothing, but not by a lot, and Disney can and should do better.