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Watch a young Kurt Russell become a teen cyborg on Disney Plus
From the Vault: As the streaming space keeps growing, massive studio catalogues are becoming more and more available. These include lost and forgotten gems, so-bad-it’s-good duds, and just plain weird pieces of film history. And you probably won’t find them by waiting for streamers to put them in front of you. In From the Vault, Android Authority aims to rescue these titles from the algorithm graveyard and help you get more out of your streaming subscriptions.
When Disney Plus launched in 2019, the big-ticket items were new Star Wars content like The Mandalorian and Disney classics like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. But digging through the “Throwbacks” and “Nostalgic Movies” sections of the Disney streamer is a great way to find buried gold. Gold like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.
This 1969 film offers a campy, retro look at teen life at the dawn of the computer age. And it’s an absolute pleasure to watch.
It’s hard not to get hooked in immediately by the opening title animation, a stop-motion kaleidoscope of faux computer graphics set to a very of-its-time pop song written for the film.
The film spawned two sequels — Now You See Him, Now You Don’t and The Strongest Man in the World — and took place at the fictional Medfield College. Medfield had already appeared as the setting of the Disney film The Absentminded Professor and its sequel Son of Flubber earlier in the 60s.
Director Robert Butler had credits including Batman, The Twilight Zone, The Fugitive, Hogan’s Heroes, I Spy, and Mission: Impossible under his belt. He brings the sense of whimsy, adventure, and energy typical of those shows to The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes for a family film worth revisiting.
What is The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes about?
In The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Dexter Reilly (Kurt Russell) is a below-average student at Medfield College. Despite a fear of flunking out, Dexter and his friends have a real affinity for the school. And particularly their favorite teacher, Professor Quigley.
Knowing that Quigley wants the school to buy a computer, Dexter and his friends want to help. They set out to convince a wealthy local businessman (played by the always-fabulous Cesar Romero) to pony up the money. But while picking up a part for the new tech, Dexter accidentally jacks into the computer. He absorbs its wealth of data and programming to become a walking, talking computer.
Now a boy genius, Dexter gets wrapped up in a gambling scheme with criminals. (The generous businessman’s fortunes may have come by less than legal means.) Dexter and his friends have to get out of trouble and restore order at Medfield before the crooks can stop them.
The risks and rewards of technology
We can’t really talk about The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes without addressing the very dated elephant in the room. The entire plot revolves around a school purchasing a single computer for $10,000.
A single, room-sized computer.
Even setting aside that the price tag would be closer to $75,000 today adjusted for inflation, it’s hard not to enjoy such a premise for its quaintness.
And the film handles technology well, from a thematic stance. Professor Quigley wants to prepare the school’s kids for the future. He firmly believes the school has a responsibility to spend the cash.
And when Dexter first starts using his new gifts, he has to learn that raw knowledge isn’t everything. The people in his life are what matters, and he can’t just ditch them for superficial success “online.”
The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes actually has lots to say about our 21st-century problems.
At a time when school funding and the role of technology in our lives are hot-button issues, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes actually feels like it speaks to a 21st-century audience on our own terms. At least a little.
Kurt Russel has had star power since day one
One of the great pleasures of The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes is in watching its star. A fresh-faced Kurt Russel shines long before he would become a household name.
Russell has been acting for decades and was a recurring face on the Wonderful World of Disney in the 60s and 70s. But to fans of his grittier action hero persona of later years, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes may come as a fun change of pace.
Russell carries the film well as the young Dexter. He balances the boys-will-be-boys rulebreaker, naive do-gooder, and over-confident prodigy elements of the character with skill.
He would have been around 17 when filming took place, and he was already displaying the wide artistic range that makes his later roles in films like Big Trouble in Little China, Escape from New York, The Thing, Breakdown, Grindhouse: Death Proof, and the Fast & Furious franchise such a joy to watch.
A new Disney classic?
Is The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes a forgotten and underappreciated Disney classic?
It certainly had its fans in 1969, with positive reviews in the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times.
A 1969 review in Variety praised Butler’s graduation from the small screen to directing a theatrical feature and called the film “above average family entertainment.”
The New York Times had less favorable words for it, calling The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes “as exciting as porridge and as antiseptic and predictable as any homey, half-hour TV family show.” Ouch!
Mixed reviews aside, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes has aged well and offers plenty for a family movie night. Its tight pacing, simple but clever premise, and sharp overall look all make it a solid find from the vault.
It may not dethrone The Lion King or Frozen in the hearts and minds of the nation’s children, but it’s certainly worth watching. Especially as part of your Disney Plus subscription.