A long list of young Disney actors graced the big screen during the 1950s and 60s including Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap (Lindsey Lohan played the part in the 1998 remake.), Kurt Russell in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and Kevin Corcoran in Swiss Family Robinson, The Shaggy Dog and Old Yeller.
Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber were two other child stars that performed together in three Disney classics during that time—Mary Poppins, The Three Lives of Thomasina and The Gnome-Mobile. In their third film, the young actors play a pair of children who visit their grandfather D.J. Mulrooney (Walter Brennan), a millionaire in the lumber business.
Meeting them at the airport, D.J. takes the siblings on a picnic in the forest where Elizabeth (Dotrice) stumbles upon a two-foot-tall gnome named Jasper (Tom Lowell) and his grandfather, Knobby (also played by Walter Brennan). The distraught Jasper is worried that the old man is about to die of sadness. Believing they are the only gnomes left in the world, Knobby fears his grandson will never fall in love and find a wife.
Contrary to the reaction most adults would have, D.J. doesn’t seem overly surprised by the appearance of the little people and pledges to drive them to a pristine forest in his Rolls-Royce in hopes of finding more of their kind. Unfortunately, along the way they encounter a shady freak show owner (Sean McClory) who kidnaps the two small men to showcase in his carnival show.
When called on to help find the missing miniatures, D.J.‘s office assistant, Ralph Yarbey (Richard Deacon) proves to be no help. Convinced that his eccentric and passionate boss has finally waddled over the edge of reality after he confesses to seeing gnomes, Ralph arranges to have the old man committed in an asylum.
Like many classic Disney tales of the time, it is up to the children to save the day by staging a jailbreak for their grandpa and hunting down a new colony of gnomes with eligible girls for Jasper.
By today’s standards the film’s special effects are as simplistic as the storyline. However, the production features some strong performances including those by Brennan in which he plays two hardheaded old men who argue frequently. Other cast members that bring an engaging sense of comedy to their roles are Charles Lane as the asylum’s Dr. Scoggins and Ed Wynn as another gnome leader. (Wynn, a vaudeville comedian who took up acting later in life, died before the release of this movie. During his career, he employed his acting abilities in a number of other comedic and serious roles including parts in The Absent-minded Professor, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and the voice of the Mad Hatter in Alice and Wonderland.)
Directed by Robert Stevenson who helped produce a number of well-known Disney movies during this era, this film failed to garner the same attention and critical acclaim as some of his other theatrical releases. However, this enchanting escape into the magical world of little people is one that many young families will likely enjoy.