Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959)

Disney’s done a lot of projects related to Scotland: Scrooge McDuck, Gargoyles, Pixar’s Brave, The Ballad of Nessie…but almost nothing from the Emerald Isle of Ireland. And it’s odd, because there’s a treasure trove of Irish lore just waiting for a mainstream studio with a massive brand name and appeal to share with the masses this side of the Atlantic. But aside from the Disney Channel Original Movie Luck of the Irish, there isn’t much of anything. Except this little gem. Starring a Scottish guy. Who sings. And he would later go on to portray the world’s greatest super secret agent.

Band your buddies, brave the Blarney, and bring beer! Let’s travel to the realm of the little people and have a round!

The plot: In the rural Irish town of Rathcullen, Darby O’Gill is an elderly caretaker of Lord Fitzpatrick’s estate, and is often spending his time sitting in the pub telling stories about leprechauns, and his frequent encounters with their king. But Fitzpatrick is looking to replace Darby with a younger man, Michael McBride, played by Sean Connery. Yeah, that Sean Connery. Darby doesn’t want to retire, even with the cozy benefits he’s offered, and he asks Michael that the impending retirement be kept secret from his grown daughter, Katie.

One night, Darby once again meets with King Brian of the leprechauns, captures him, and extorts three wishes from him. Darby watches as Katie and Michael slowly grow fond of each other, while King Brian goads then together. All the while, the town bully, Pony Sugrue, is eyeing both Katie and Darby’s job, and plots to get both.

How’s the writing? It’s pretty weak in a lot of areas, but a lot of it is compensated for by its Irish charm.

The movie clocks in at 93 minutes and even that feels too long. Much of the movie feels padded and wayward. Much of that is because of the movie’s lackadaisical feel. It kinda meanders and wanders wherever it feels like it, without any true conflict or focus. The only true antagonist is Pony (And yes, that is his real name), and his mother, who is a self-interested, nosy type to her Gaston-esque son.

Other times, the plot just doesn’t seem to know what to do with itself. There’s the Darby and King Brian plot, which mingles with the Katie and Michael subplot, which mingles with Pony’s antics before it arrives at the conclusion with the Banshee. It can get tedious, even confusing, but a few scenes make it easier to get through.

Does it give the feels? Not as much as you might think. The romance subplot doesn’t feel particularly compelling, but when the movie closes in on the third act, where Katie is clinging to life, the tensions run high. The Banshee comes haunting, and despite Darby’s attempts to ward it off, he uses a wish to ask for the Coíste-Bodhar, the death coach, to come whisk himself away instead. This is where the movie feels genuinely sad, as the elderly, self-sacrificing man rides away, with his closest friend at his side, comforting him in his most desperate time. After all the trickery and deception, the two are astoundingly close friends, and it rings truly emotional.

Who made it worth it? Without a shred of doubt, Albert Sharpe as Darby and Jimmy O’Dea as King Brian have some of the most brilliant onscreen chemistry I have ever seen. They spend most of the movie matching wits and bickering, but it’s profoundly clear they have a long history together and they have a deep mutual respect. In the very first scene with King Brian, he abducts Darby and intends to keep him in Mount Knocknasheega forever, but only as a means so he may avoid breaking the bad news to Katie about losing his job.

Best quality provided: I watch this movie every St. Paddy’s Day because of the rich relationship between Brian and Darby, but a close second are some of the effects. This movie is often considered a marvel in special effects. In the scenes where Darby and Brian interact, they look like they’re really there. These aren’t little people or CGI, it was forced perspective, which made the effect look startlingly, enchantingly real.

Also, there is a recording out there of Sean Connery singing the film’s signature song, “Pretty Irish Girl”, even though it’s dubbed in the movie. I’ve heard it and I like it myself. It has a nice melody, and it’s a great conversation piece to say you know an Irish Disney song sung by the Scottish Sean Connery before he was James Bond. Listen to it here. In fact, it’s said this movie was what got Albert Broccoli’s attention to cast him in Dr. No. And the rest is history…you know, until The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

What could have been improved: For all the praise we give this movie for all its stellar special effects for 1959, there’s a few that don’t hold up particularly well. The Banshee and the Death Coach are chromakeyed in and look very awkward by today’s standards. When the horse starts changing colors, or Darby’s subsequent fall down a well happen, they do look fake, even by 1959’s standards. When Brian or the other leprechauns leap around, it’s obviously using wires, but at what point do I become a jerk about it?

Plus the unfocused story can lend itself to a very low-key atmosphere, more often than not, it just feels lazy here. Like the writer Lawrence E. Watkin just wasn’t sure where he was going with the narrative.

Verdict: This movie has quite a few flaws. And top of it may be a rather inaccurate, Americanized look at Ireland. But I find this movie very charming and fun. A must-watch every St. Patrick’s Day. I give it six jugs of poitín out of ten.

Anois téigh ar an scannán seo!

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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