There's something timeless about a well-written children's book. And while film adaptations tend to be more dated, and yes, usually a step off the original, the old standards are still a nice fall-back for parents who'd like to introduce their offspring to something more wholesome than what passes for entertainment these days.
Like "My Friend Flicka" (1943), "National Velvet" (1944), and "The Red Pony" (1949), this story revolves around youngsters and horses, and it delivers pretty much the same entertainment value. Based on the 1947 children's book "Misty of Chincoteague" by Marguerite Henry, this charming film with Fifties' values has enough visual vistas, animals, and vicarious experiences to make up for the dated look and the slower pacing. Both of my children (a daughter, age 7, and a son, age 10) liked this. Partly what fascinates now is what enthralled children back then: these kids live a life that many who reside in standard neighborhoods with streets and stoplights and shopping malls wish they could live . . . or at least visit.
"Misty" has almost an early Disney live-action feel to it, with the action confined to a small coastal Virginia town and nearby Assateaguee Island, where orphans Paul Beebe (David Ladd) and his sister Maureen (Pam Smith) now live and explore with their Grandpa and Grandma Beebe (Arthur O'Connell, Anne Seymour). Opening shots establish the lure that the island has for the children, with miles of sand dunes, marshes, hills, and wildlife that includes deer, ducks, geese, heron, and a herd of wild ponies descended from horses the Spanish conquistadors brought to the New World. There are no houses on the island, only a lighthouse, so it's the perfect place to explore. Even the small town of Chincoteague is only sparsely dotted with houses, and the Beebe's house sits right there on the water, with neighbors in sight but still a good walk.
It's a real chunk of Americana, as the kids not only do chores but also work on their own to achieve their goal: to buy the feisty mare that their late father talked about, if she turns up at the annual fire department round-up auction. The kids propose to "gentle" their grandfather's foals before he sells them, once they've established that a semi-tame horse will sell quicker than a wild one and the extra ten dollars it brings can go straight to the kids for a secret they're not telling their grandparents. There's some great footage (and lots of it) of kids working with baby horses that don't even come up to their shoulders. But it's just as interesting for kids today to watch the siblings set and pull up a crab trap (and yes, tease each other), then stand in water and rake clams to sell to a local merchant. And when they visit a decoy maker who's chopping away at a wood block with a hatchet, offering to sweep up, you know you're witnessing a moment in time that we'll probably never see again. Kids, of course, don't know that, but they do know how exotic it all feels, and that's more than enough to compensate for the crew cut, older dresses, and politeness that will floor today's youngsters.
There's also just enough action to keep it interesting, with Paul going off without permission (and needing the Coast Guard to rescue him), and redeeming himself later by rescuing a horse. Girls who watch will bristle when Grandpa tells Maureen she can't participate in an annual tradition because girls just can't participate in Pony Penning Day. And yet, her character isn't just a tag-along. She holds her own against her brother, and works just as hard as he does to try to realize their goal. What stands in the way are a number of things, the most exciting of which is a wild mare nicknamed the Phantom who's fast enough to win a race for the Beebes, but wild enough to pose a problem. Then there's Misty, her foal, which proves another challenge for the children and complicates their plan to buy the Phantom.
Moviegoers will enjoy seeing character actor O'Connell in a bigger role than usual, but the real star of this film is Misty and the rest of the animals, along with the gorgeous Virginia scenery. There's a bridge to the island now, but a book--and a film--like this really take you back to a time when things were less crowded and life was a whole lot simpler.
"Misty" is presented in 2.356:1 aspect ratio, and for a 1961 film (the Sixties produced more than their fair share of grainy movies) it looks pretty good. The colors are just a little faded and there is that ubiquitous grain, but it's nothing that detracts from the viewing experience. There are also a handful of frames where bits of emulsion and flickers of dirt appear, but as crazy as it sounds it only adds to the time-capsule feel that this film now has.
The audio is nothing special, a Dolby Digital Mono that has just a little hint of scratchiness. Again, nothing that really interferes with the viewing experience.
There are no bonus features.
"Misty" is a great family-night film. There's enough Americana to interest the adults, while the children will be drawn to the animals and the land as much as the characters in the film. It's not a prizewinning film, mind you, but you have to give some credit to a film that still holds up 45 years later.