This is one of my earliest memories of going to the movie theater—I think the only movie I had seen in the theater before this one was Bambi, which left me an emotional basket case—and I'll never forget walking in while the credits had already started, and being immediately transfixed by the silhouettes of running kids as we heard and saw pursuing dogs. I was seven then, and this movie has always held a special place in my heart since —kids that can communicate without talking, move things with their minds and talk to animals—that pretty much sums up everything I wanted to accomplish in life at that point. I watched it a few years ago and thought "Wow, it still holds up!" then watched it recently in advance of the remake and, well, it doesn't exactly hold up, but at least it's no memory-destroying bomb like The Cat From Outer Space.
So after the evocative title credits, we meet Tony and Tia as they arrive at this orphanage. They immediately meet this obnoxious redhead kid Truck [Dermott Downs, now a television cinematographer] who's a brat with the kids, mainly giving reasons for them to demonstrate their powers. We see Tony lifting himself into the air, and levitating a baseball bat and glove. Later Truck takes Tia's Star Case [basically a fancy purse] and they communicate with a handy black cat which makes him drop it. This cat is named "Winky" because it winks—accomplished by running footage of its winking eye backward and forward. At night, Tia asks Tony if he can hear the dogs, and he can. Soon he is drawing a place… someplace he's sure they'll be going. They both have a really bad feeling about it all.
Then the whole orphanage goes to a matinee [of a classic Disney film, natch] and on the way out, Tia has a premonition about the car across the street. They warn the guy about to get in, Donald Pleasance as "Uncle" Lucas Deranian, and he narrowly avoids getting smashed. He runs home to tell his boss, Ray Milland as Mr. Bolt, who employs all kinds of mediums and swamis and whoever in an attempt to gain an edge in business by supernatural means. Deranian tells Bolt about the kids, and soon Deranian has had paperwork adjusted to lay claim to the kids as their uncle. He takes them from the orphanage, to Bolt's spooky mansion on the seaside [the whole thing seems to have been filmed around Big Sur], and they realize that this is where the dogs are. He has made up their bedrooms to be exactly what every 1975 kid wanted—an ice cream fountain, a stage, etc.—and they're thrilled! Soon Bolt tells them what he wants, and not long after the kids realize: "Mr. Bolt! He's mean! He's never gonna let us go!" And they're right—Bolt is about to ship the kids off to his snowbound chalet! But they're found a map in Tia's Star Case [it's just so precious how they call it a Star Case throughout and never a purse], and realize that they need to get out and go there. So they escape with the help of Thunderhead, the mean old stallion that Tia can communicate with, and they quickly turn the dogs back against their masters. Now they're on the run!
They make it to town where they stow away in the Winnebago of Eddie Albert as Jason O'Day. He's grumpy at first, then just wants to make sure they get a good breakfast, then will just take them as far as Stony Creek, then finally takes full charge of them once he realizes Bolt is after them and they're really good kids. From then on the movie is just a series of escapes, using the help of the kids' powers, with Bolt, the law, and soon a whole pack of superstitious hunters on their tail. Eventually the kids realize that they're from space, and that the ship they were on crashed, and everyone else on it died [bummer!]. They finally contact the people from their planet [who have settled on Earth] and arrange a pickup—now it's just a matter of getting them there in time and showing Bolt a bad enough time so that he'll leave them alone forever.
What struck me most about this movie is the way that kids movies of the past used to have room for MELANCHOLY, whereas kids movies of the present are primarily hyper-sunny affairs with maybe a smidge of "sad face" emotion here or there, but no real bummers. Consider this movie: Tony and Tia are orphans. Their foster parents just died. They know they aren't like anyone else, but they don't know why, and they don't know if they'll ever find anyone like them. Everyone else on their ship died. They are adopted by a man who is set on exploiting them, and ruthlessly hunts them when they escape. They meet a man whose wife died soon after he was married, and who vowed never to love again. He later says he'd prefer to think of the children as his own kids. It's melancholy! It seems the popular conception of childhood was different back then—it was a time of mystery and confusion, where you didn't really understand everything, didn't have much power, and were just at the mercy of forces beyond your control. This movie is a kids' fantasy about having power—it's amazing it's able to generate any suspense at all, given that the kids can overpower the adults at every turn—but still, they're lonely and isolated, and encounter a number of sad people. Who knows, maybe the remake will include some of this, but the trailer includes talk of an alien invasion [huh?], and a laser-shooting bounty hunter, so I'm not so sure.
For me, it's a nostalgia trip, and as a nostalgia trip, it holds up pretty well. As a movie you're just watching now… well, I guess if you have pretty young, wholesome kids. Or maybe if you want to start doing junior compare-and-contrast lessons with the new version when it comes out. Regardless, it's charming, but unless you remember loving it as a kid, you can probably skip it.