Nikki Ferris (Hayley Mills) travels with her musicologist aunt (Joan Greenwood) to the Greek island of Crete. There she meets the charming stranger Mark Camford (Peter McEnery), and gets pulled into a life-or-death adventure against a murderous thief (Eli Wallach).
Released back in 1964, The Moon-Spinners is a thriller produced by Walt Disney Production, directed by James Neilson, and based on the novel by Mary Stewart. It is the fifth of the studio’s six films made with popular teen star Hayley Mills, and co-stars noted performers Eli Wallach (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), John Le Mesurier (Dad’s Army), André Morell (Quatermass and the Pit), and silent film star Pola Negri – in her final role.
It is an oddly mature film for Disney in the 1960s. For one thing, characters are placed in general peril. People run away under gunfire. Someone even gets shot. There is a level of violence – both actual and threatened – that, while not particularly intense, does extend beyond what one typically expects from the studio’s pre-1980s pictures. It helps the film to bring a stronger impact and sense of engagement than much of the family-oriented ‘safe’ fare generated at the time.
Hayley Mills brings a typical wealth of charisma to the lead role, making young Nikki Ferris not just brightly optimistic and pleasant but also strong-willed and driven. Her escape from captivity from a locked-up windmill is one of the film’s more suspenseful highlights, and lets Mills show off a very grounded and brave characterisation. She is also distinctively different from many other thriller protagonists in the manner in which she goes about her investigations. There is a bright optimism to her that helps keep the film family-friendly.
The film’s supporting cast by-and-large give away that the film was mostly shot in England, with a range of stars from British television allowing for an active game of ‘where have I seen that actor?’ As the film’s only other American star Eli Wallach provides plenty of menace as the villainous Stratos, but it is a simplistic part. As the romantic lead Mark Camford, Peter McEnery feels unconventionally attractive but charming – but also, it must be said, a little too old-looking to be romancing the teenage Nikki. Things are comparatively chaste, but also a little uncomfortable.
Outside of the English studio sequences, the film does run a pleasing line in Cretan location work. The comparatively exotic setting does make a striking difference for this Disney film, setting just apart enough from other films of the period to stand out. Its slightly more mature delivery than the norm separates it out: there’s menace and threat, but an unexpectedly non-violent third act that manages to entertain and surprise. Mills’ comedic talents are put to great use here. Director James Neilson captures it all like a breezy delight. It’s not his best film – that remains Dr Syn, alias the Scarecrow – but it is remarkably close.
The Dream-Spinners is an enjoyable confection, and among Disney’s long catalogue of anodyne family entertainments it does stand out well from the pack. Its tone is distinctive enough to stick in the mind. As an unchallenging palette-cleanser, it is a remarkably easy watch.