It’s a busy life in Space Camelot.
Mordred: “A Joust! To the Death!”
Tom Trimble: “You wouldn’t consider changing that to a game of chess?”
King Arthur: “Chess…to the death?”
The title of this movie varies depending on how old you were and where you were when you first saw it. In some places, it was released as Unidentified Flying Oddball and in others as The Spaceman and King Arthur. Or, if you’re like me, you remember seeing on TV during one of its many airings on The Wonderful World of Disney where it went by the title A Spaceman in King Arthur’s Court. Whatever you want to call it, this space-based Disney romp has now crash-landed on DVD. Will it charm you with nostalgia, or will you want to toss it into the nearest rift in the space-time continuum?
Those eggheads at NASA have come up with a new space shuttle, the Stardust, which uses temporal energies to travel great distances. Fearing this would be too risky for a human astronaut, they call upon awkward genius Tom Trimble (Dennis Dugan, The Howling) to build a humanoid robot pilot for the first flight. Tom takes to the project enthusiastically, creating Hermes, an android that looks just like him. Hermes is a little too human, though, and gets jitters just before take-off. When Tom enters the cockpit to talk some sense into his doppelganger, the ship’s rockets unexpectedly fire, flinging Tom into outer space. A malfunction in the temporal engines then sends Tom back in time to England, during the reign of King Arthur (Kenneth More, Father Brown). Tom’s spacesuit and high-tech gadgets initially have everyone thinking he’s an enemy to the throne. But when he discovers that Sir Mordred (Jim Dale, Pete’s Dragon) and the wizard Merlin (Ron Moody, Oliver!) have a plot to overthrow Arthur, suddenly it’s up to Tom to save the day.
This movie would seem to have everything going for it—spaceships, swordfights, laser guns, jousting, androids, gloomy dungeons, jet packs, and a cute girl who thinks her father has been reincarnated as a goose. All the hallmarks for a successful film. But it never quite comes together the way it should.
For one thing, the target audience is the very, very young, so the plot is simplistic and the humor is broad and oafish. Tom takes his experiences in stride. Whether he’s discovering he’s in the past, or being threatened by an evil knight, he faces each adventure and misadventure with the same dopey grin on his face. Part of this is the “golly gee-whiz” nature of the character, but it doesn’t add to any believability to any given scene.
For example, during his first meeting with King Arthur, Tom answers the question “Where are you from?” by attempting to cover the entirety of American history, from Columbus to the present. A few fades to show the passage of time, and we see everyone in Arthur’s court asleep and snoring away while Tom cluelessly continues his too-detailed history lesson. This is the “wacky” style of humor on display here. If the creators had taken the time to come up with some really clever anachronistic twists, this could have been a solid comedy, but, instead, they went the easy way out with some cheap and obvious gags.
I know, I know, this movie was made for first graders, and I’ve probably become jaded by watching too much stuff that came later, like Futurama, Red Dwarf, and, especially notable in this case, Army of Darkness, but Unidentified Flying Oddball just struck me as a little too dumbed-down. The funny bits could be funnier, the sci-fi bits could be crazier, and the big battle at the end could have been more adrenaline-pumping. The movie’s cute, but it could be a lot better.
Dugan does a moderate to good job as the nerdy scientist hero while a collection of stately British actors do their best straight man routines around him. Shelia White (Confessions of a Driving Instructor) provides a few quirky laughs as the romantic interest who finds the android more appealing than its look-alike human creator, and Rodney Bewes (Jabberwocky) is similarly quirky as Tom’s befuddled blacksmith sidekick. It’s just too bad that these performers didn’t have a wittier script to work with.
The picture quality here features just enough flecks and scratches to be a minor distraction. Otherwise, though, the colors are bright and vivid. The mono sound is free of defects, but hardly the booming aural experience we’ve expect from our DVDs. The only extra is a Disney DVD promo that plays when you first put the disc in.
So, the real question is, will your kids like this movie? I’d say the very young will laugh along with it at the appropriate times. As they get older and savvier, though, they’ll likely look past the simplistic jokes and story, and demand something a little funnier and flashier.