The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969)

Did you know Kurt Russell was the very last thing Walt Disney said before he died?!

Actually, that’s not true. It was, however, one of the last things he wrote down, mostly because Kurt Russell was an up-and-coming teen star at the Walt Disney Studio, having appeared in Follow Me, Boys!, The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band, The Strongest Man in the World, and The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit. He continued to pop up in several more live action Disney productions through the 70’s, even appearing in The Fox and the Hound, Tombstone, Miracle, Sky High, and most recently, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2. He’s got quite the resumé. But he had to get through those bitter, awful years of the seventies with Disney.

During the first twenty years after Walt Disney’s death in 1966, no one at Disney knew what the hell they were supposed to do. Walt died pretty unexpectedly and he hadn’t prepared anybody for it. Worse, Walt was impulsive and almost no one could foresee his next cockamamie notions, and by and large, almost all of them worked. So how do you keep running a studio with the same level of success when your CEO was as unpredictable as they came? Sadly, the board had no answer, and every proposal was met with “What would Walt have done?”

What made this suck was 1.) a group of adults spent two decades second-guessing a dead man, and 2.) they decided to do exactly what Walt wouldn’t have done: play it safe, not take chances, and make inoffensive movies. Even if you like movies like The AristoCats, Robin Hood, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and The Rescuers, you can’t argue that they’re more than just kind of okay. There’s nothing groundbreaking or innovative about them. They just kind of show up, do a thing, and end.

But you can at least be glad that they didn’t try to pander to kids. It’s painful today when we get The Emoji Movie, but can you imagine if, say, a movie from 1969 tries to show us what a computer is?

Oh yeah.

Cram some clumsy computer-concocted creations, Kurt. Let’s dive into…The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes!

The plot: Dexter Reilly is just one of many college students at Medfield, where the dean struggles with the idea of getting a computer (You know, back when one of these things was thousands of dollars and the size or a room?). Dexter and his buddies, who were eavesdropping, coax businessman A. J. Arno (Played by Cesar Romero) to donate his. The problem is he used it for his illegal gambling ring. Late one night, Dexter sneaks in to replace a part during an electric storm, causing the computer to shock him, and he suddenly becomes a genius, knowing every mathematical equation, fact of human history, geography, you name it. He becomes an international celebrity (while leaving his buddies behind), and even gets arrested when the police bust up a gambling den. Meanwhile, the dean doesn’t want to lose his former-delinquent, now-star-student.

But Dexter leads an academic quiz tournament for Medfield (Because that’s totally fair.) when a word causes him to glitch and recite details of Arno’s operation on live TV (That’s why you delete your search history, dude.) Arno and his goons kidnap Dexter, and his friends are off to save Dexter from…discomfort, I guess.

How’s the writing? Oh, let me count the ways! Because it’s all just so terribly, horribly awful…and I love the crap out of it.

The big thing here is that computers in 1969 were, of course, not the products we know today. They were just super-huge calculators that do only what they’re programmed to do. But a teacher in the movie suggests you can program a computer to open windows, order groceries, and other household tasks, LONG before Smart House made that fantasy seem even remotely plausible. Even today, we know computers aren’t inherently all-knowing, they have to be programmed with that knowledge. And if Arno was using it to rig gambling rackets, why the heck was he programming it with so much useless information?

But enough about the computer stuff. This movie is all over the place. Dexter’s friends barely have individual identities (I think one of them is supposed to be his girlfriend), and are more joined at the hip than The Delightful Children From Down the Lane from Codename: Kids Next Door. Dexter himself just kind of breezes from scene to scene with minimal emotional investment. The celebrity thing is just a montage for a few laughs. His friends try to rescue him by painting the house he’s held in orange and green.

There’s plot elements here, that’s for sure. But they aren’t tied together well AT ALL. And because they didn’t want to do anything with what they wrote, the plot lays there pretty flaccid and inoffensive, not willing to make a compelling story.

Who made it worth it? Really, almost no one. Dexter himself is seen as the loser student, but the script takes such little interest in him that there’s no reason for us to be invested in him or his welfare. And he actually gets so few lines, because he gets propelled from plot point to plot point worse than Aurora in Sleeping Beauty.

The Dean might have been an interesting character, but he’s rendered completely toothless as a fool who’s only concerned about the school’s reputation and budget. He’s not even a bad guy, he’s just wishy-washy. Even Arno could have been a funny bad guy, but he doesn’t get anything truly significant, funny, or even threatening to say. I mean, for crying out loud, he used to be Adam West’s Batman series’ Joker! Worst of all, none of these characters really care for anyone else, except the girlfriend and Dexter’s friends, but we’re given so little about them that you can’t really latch onto them.

The best quality provided: As a millenial who is typing this on an outdated iPhone, I am thoroughly charmed by how this movie thinks computers work. I wanna so badly “Condescending Wonka” meme face and say “So THAT’S how you guys thought these things worked, huh?”

But it’s not like I’m just being patronizing to a nearly 50-year-old movie for tackling a subject too advanced for the writers. I’m not a jerk. However, at one point, the school nurse looks into his ears and literally sees blinking, beeping circuit boards. Just saying “applejack” causes him to trance out and monotonously spout out various codes. And quite inexplicably, toward the end, Dexter’s brain crashes. He stutters out answers slower and slower before he passes out and every bit of data is gone from his head. Not that there’s any sense to it other than plot convenience.

I would say they were about as serious as Adam West’s Batman, but they also ask us to believe that computers know everything ever. The suspension of disbelief is dead in the water here.

What could have been improved: This movie needed to be sillier. Nothing about it demonstrates that we need to just accept this is the nutty kind of world it is. Oh, it’s campy, sure, but context is important.

Compare a comedy like The Hangover to, say, Deadpool. The former has a lot of crazy things happen in it, but they’re based in real world logic. But Deadpool made zero pretenses and quickly established that there was a lot of crazy, stupid stuff going on that wouldn’t be entirely fact-based.

If this movie really embraced the lunacy of the idea, it might have gotten away with some of the gags, but it really didn’t seem to want to, resorting instead to cheesy jokes and implausible scenarios that make us ask “…Really, guys? Seriously?”

Verdict: Sadly, if you remove all the computer inaccuracies from this movie, you would be left with a steaming pile of blah. It’s written by someone who just wasn’t invested in the story and it just kind of wanders like a lost toddler in a grocery store. I want there to be action, intrigue, and logic, but there’s none to be had. So I’m left with laughing at all the computer stuff, because in the end, it’s “adorable”. I give it two applejacks out of ten.

By the way, did you know they remade this movie for TV in 1995? And there’s an homage to it Epcot’s Journey into Imagination Ride?

Yeah, I don’t get it, either.

Author: TAP-G

Writer, former podcaster, entertainment enthusiast. Movies and media have the power to shape our world and vice versa. Let’s take a deeper look at them.

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