Revisiting 'Amy,' a Long-Forgotten Disney Movie From a Often-Overlooked Disney Era
(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)
The 1980s were a very rough time for the Walt Disney Company, at least in the first half of the decade. We may now think of the 1980s as the time when Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg joined Disney, steering it to new heights with films like The Little Mermaid and with the expansion of the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. And while that’s all true, the two men didn’t arrive until 1984. The first few years of the decade were a bumpy stretch, marked by minimal animated products and only a smattering of live-action films. The flip side is that the theme parks were moving onward, with the 1982 opening of EPCOT Center and the 1983 unveiling of Tokyo Disneyland.
But the side of the company focused on filmmaking seemed adrift at best. The 1981 film The Fox and the Hound, turning 40 this summer, does have its fans (and some impressive setpieces), but its production was mired by a huge walkout of young animators and a warring battle between the old guard of Disney animation and newer artists who wanted to steer the studio in new directions. Live-action fare wasn’t much more notable; cult films like Tron and Return to Oz are well-liked by fans precisely because they stand against so much of what we envision a “Disney movie” as.
The same is true for another film that celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, the 1981 melodrama Amy.
Starring Jenny Agutter and Barry Newman, Amy is a film focused on a young woman who runs away from her domineering husband, leaving behind a single note as she heads off to teach at a school for the deaf and blind in the Appalachian Mountains, hoping to start a new life for herself as she encourages the school to allow her to teach deaf children to speak as well as sign. Parts of Amy might feel right at home with the kind of uplifting emotional arcs that we think of when we think of inspirational-teacher films like Dead Poets Society or Mr. Holland’s Opus. And parts of Amy are much more focused on self-actualization and the power of a woman learning to stand up for herself. (It’s for that reason why this film fits right in with the other titles in the Female Leads collection on Disney+.)
Amy serves as a fascinating footnote on a certain era of Disney filmmaking, if nothing else. Clocking in at just 100 minutes, the screenplay by Noreen Stone arguably bites off much more than it can chew. In another film, the setup of a mysterious woman leaving behind her previous home, lying about her resume, and becoming close with children could be the beginnings of a grim horror film. And there’s intended to be some level of suspense as director Vincent McEveety cuts between Amy becoming closer with her students and her husband enlisting a private detective to locate his seemingly missing wife.
But in between all of this, there’s a love story (between Agutter and Barry Newman, perhaps best remembered among modern audiences for his supporting roles in The Limey and Bowfinger) and also the arc of Amy proving her worth to the skeptical staff that any deaf child could ever hope to say words, and also subplots between some of those deaf children, and also the heartbreak of losing some of the children at the school to sickness due to a lack of medical equipment and funding. It’s not a bad thing that there’s a lot going on in Amy, but…well, there’s too much going on in Amy.
Just as there are many plot threads attempting to be woven throughout Amy, there’s a bit of a tonal mishmash too. (Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the subplot surrounding the children playing in a big football game against a group of hearing kids who live nearby, and yes, there is a football section in this movie.) The parts of this film that work the best are the parts that seem as if they were smuggled in. Agutter and Newman have a solid chemistry, starting with his local doctor seeming like a chatty souse but climaxing in a lengthy monologue he delivers to her to express his admiration and love for her. And Agutter sells the heartbreak Amy feels due to her having lost her own deaf son at a young age. (Oh, did I forget to mention that part of the story too? It’s only because there’s a lot going on for a 100-minute movie.)
Even some of the more familiar-seeming aspects of the plot manage to work thanks to some carefully placed and acted dialogue. To wit: the matron of the school (Nanette Fabray) is most intensely doubtful that Amy’s work can come to any good, doubting the power of a deaf child learning even one word. But as the story goes on, and as the matron sees how far the students (especially a friendly boy named Henry) have come, her doubts fall and she’s able to communicate with a simple “I’m sorry” how much she respects Amy. Other films would spell it out too heavily, but Amy sometimes has a deft touch.
The film’s treatment of the blind and deaf/hard-of-hearing community is somewhat commendable, too. Though there are a handful of recognizable actors in the film, the children themselves appear to be deaf and blind. (The credits, notably, thank a California school of the deaf, implying that at least its students appeared on camera.) Where Amy falters is no surprise, considering the film’s title; when you watch a film like this so soon after the remarkable 2020 drama Sound of Metal, you realize that it stumbles by offering no interior life to its deaf and hard of hearing characters. Though Amy becomes close with a few of the students, there’s no real tangible sense that they have lives of their own as opposed to serving to help her along in her path of gaining self-confidence.
Maybe it’s more accurate to ask if this film has a legacy, which is no comment on its quality. Amy is a strange beast, having arrived at a time in the history of the Walt Disney Company when the main filmmaking studio struggled with deciding if it was going to make edgier, more mature fare that would appeal to teenagers and adults as well as to kids. Some of the results of that potential notion are darker films like The Watcher in The Woods and Something Wicked This Way Comes (neither of which, it should be noted, are currently available to stream on Disney+ for…reasons, probably?) Some are cult fare that’s got enough of an audience to have wound up on Disney+.
And then there are films like Amy, which must have been a mild box-office performer at best. (Having arrived just a little while before websites like The Numbers and Box Office Mojo tallied weekly historical box-office results means that it’s not easy to find out exactly how much Amy made in the spring of 1981.) Though the movie is decent, and an effectively low-key story, it likely wasn’t a huge hit. The film has been released on DVD as part of the Disney Generations collection, but it’s never been the kind of title you hear often about from 80s-era children. A throwback to dramas like The Miracle Worker is impressive enough, but perhaps not the kind of thing to garner people’s attention over the span of four decades.
But here’s the thing. If you are in the mood for something that isn’t driven by intellectual property and you’re on Disney+, films like Amy exist. There’s not nearly enough content from the 1970s or 1980s on Disney+, specifically from the fallow period when the studio was adrift after the loss of Walt Disney and before the arrival of Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Films like Amy almost seem like happy accidents, then; imperfect, perhaps, but the kind of thing you wish studios made now. You’ve been stuck at home for a while, maybe. You’ve seen all the Marvel and Lucasfilm stuff. You want something different. Try Amy.
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