Darby O’Gill and the Little People: The Perfect St. Paddy’s Day Film – (NOT) Disney+ Review

I love this movie and if you don’t love it, drink ‘til you do.

SUMMARY

Darby O’Gill (Albert Sharpe) is an Irish groundskeeper for the estate of Lord Fitzpatrick (Walter Fitzgerald). Darby is one of the few people in the town of Rathcullen that knows that the town is populated by a tribe of leprechauns. Darby continually tries to capture their leader, King Brian (Jimmy O’Dea), who actually tends to consider Darby a friendly rival. Lord Fitzpatrick replaces Darby with a new groundskeeper, Michael McBride (Sean Connery), something that Darby tries to keep secret from his daughter, Katie (Janet Munro). Brian, sympathetic to Darby’s loss, tries to imprison him in his mountain keep, but Darby escapes and ends up finally capturing Brian, who has to give him three wishes. Darby uses the first to force Brian to stay by his side (preventing him from just running out of earshot), but Brian tricks him into using the second to bring Michael and Katie together. 

Having a nice time with a small friend.

After a local bully (Kieron Moore) tries to steal Michael’s job and Katie’s hand, Katie finds out that Darby had lied to her and yells at both her and Michael. She then chases a horse and, unfortunately, contracts a fever. Because King Brian is with Darby, Darby sees a banshee appear for Katie and call a headless death coachman to take her away. Darby uses his third wish to take the place of Katie and is carried off towards death. However, while in the coach, Darby wishes that he could have Brian’s company as a friend in the afterlife. Brian points out this is a fourth wish, which voids the other three, meaning Darby cannot be in the Death Coach. However, Katie has now recovered and thus cannot be taken either. Everyone gets to stay in Ireland and live happily ever after. Except for the bully, because he tried to get between Sean Connery and a lady. 

The violin is a key plot point.

END SUMMARY

*Update* So, I watched the copy of the film that I already owned to write this. It turns out that Disney has uploaded an altered version of the film onto Disney+ which dubs over much of Jimmy O’Dea and Albert Sharpe’s dialogue. The explanation appears to be that Americans can’t understand Irish accents and don’t understand when people have short exchanges in Munster Irish. This is one of the worst decisions I can imagine.

Perhaps the thing that is least believable about this film is what it was made in 1959. While most of us nowadays are familiar with forced perspective thanks to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, this film took that to an entirely different level and did so back when the only way to film a chariot race was to build a giant racetrack and just reenact it. In order to film several scenes in this film, the practical effects had to be pushed beyond the limit of what existed at the time, something that Walt Disney himself loved to do. To put it more in perspective (PUN INTENDED), just lighting these complicated scenes pulled so much power that it blew out a local substation. Additionally, there are many scenes in the film that clearly are not done solely through forced perspective, but through a combination of perspective and Chroma-Key work, something that was still mostly in its infancy at this point. The main reason they could pull it off was actually because Walt Disney had previously used it for his live-action/animated “Alice” shorts in the 1920s. Because of this use of careful and, mostly practical, effects, this movie holds up unbelievably well for its age. I’m sure that the version on Disney+ has been further retouched from my childhood, but if you had the old VHS copy of this movie growing up, you know that the magic of the scenes held up pretty well. Oh, and the Banshee/Death Coach scenes still creep me out.

When rotoscoping going wrong actually goes right.

It’s pretty clear that this movie would not have gotten made if it had not been a passion project for Walt Disney. He spent over a decade working on the script and the premise, even studying Irish folklore at the Dublin library while developing it. He picked Albert Sharpe to play the lead because he enjoyed him in a stage play years beforehand (his original pick, Barry Fitzgerald, declined to do the movie). Jimmy O’Dea was cast because Disney saw him doing pantomime. Connery was borrowed from Fox because Disney thought he was good looking enough to be a love interest with little screen time (which ended up getting him noticed by Albert R. Broccoli and thus auditioned for James Bond), while Munro was a contract player for Disney. Interestingly, in order to preserve the illusion that the leprechauns were real, Disney did not credit the actors playing the wee folk, instead giving “thanks” to King Brian and his subjects. He even had a special episode of Walt Disney Presents titled “I Captured the King of the Leprechauns” in which he and Albert Sharpe chase down King Brian to ask him to help make the movie. It’s all the little extra efforts that pay off in the end. 

Walt Disney had a bigger pot of gold than him.

As far as the film itself, I do love the story. Most of the film is Brian and Darby in their strange bromance and that’s genuinely a great relationship that grows over the course of the film. The performances are all great, although I admit that Sean Connery doesn’t really sell the song as much as they probably hoped. Still, “Pretty Irish Girl” is a great song and it really captures the small-town Irish vibe that the film was going for. It helps that it is used perfectly within the movie as a shortcut to believably move Katie and Michael’s relationship forward quickly. 

Overall, just a great movie. Grab a Guinness and check it out. 

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