The Misadventures of Merlin Jones

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I grew up on the Mickey Mouse Club. Even before the New Mickey Mouse Club was introduced in the late 70’s, I was watching reruns of the original 50’s version. I didn’t realize it wasn’t a current show and that all those kids were now adults. Of course the biggest star to come out of the original Mickey Mouse Club was Annette Funicello. She continued to make films with Disney well beyond when the club ended, even as she was starring in the Beach Party series for AIP. One such film cast her alongside another one of Disney’s young stars, Tommy Kirk, as he played the title role in 1964’s The Misadventures of Merlin Jones.

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Merlin Jones is a bit of an odd but brainy student at Midvale College. He’s a bit of a goofball, but the gorgeous Jenny (Funicello) for some reason only has eyes for him. One day as Merlin is doing an experiment involving a football helmet with various wires attached, a mishap causes him to suddenly be able to hear the thoughts of others. He tries to keep this a secret at first, but when he overhears someone thinking about a diamond robbery he feels the need to swing into action. It turns out that the would-be criminal is none other than the town judge (Leon Ames)…who Merlin is already in trouble with over some traffic violations. Merlin convinces Jenny and the police that he is telling the truth about reading minds, but takes it upon himself to a launch an investigation…since the cops can hardly get a search warrant from the man being investigated.

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This mind reading story only fills the first half of the film, though. As everything gets resolved with that storyline (and Merlin miraculously loses the mind reading ability) he embarks on another adventure involving hypnosis. After having been hypnotized himself in a class, Merlin sets about hypnotizing the chimp Stanley so he will stand up to his abusive keeper (Norm Grabowski). The plot gets thicker when Merlin hypnotizes the judge which results in the kidnapping of Stanley.

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These live action comedies from Disney are never what could be considered the height of the cinematic art form. They’re often corny but can be fun on a certain level. This film plays a bit like two episodes of a sitcom stitched together. The two halfs of the film really have nothing to do with each other except that they involve the same characters. The events of the first story have pretty much no bearing on what happens in the second story. That alone makes the film feel a bit underdeveloped and disjointed.

The first story, involving Merlin being able to hear people’s thoughts, is the stronger chapter. I was a bit surprised that they didn’t stick with this gimmick for the duration of the film. There are a few funny moments, but the filmmakers come nowhere close to using this gimmick to its full potential. The second story really falls flat. It’s so convoluted that it’s very easy for the audience to just tune out.

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The film does get by, though, on the strength of its leads. Tommy Kirk had been working his way up through the Disney ranks since Old Yeller. At this point he was very well suited to playing this lovable doofus sort of role. He’s very likable, believably ingenious but also appropriately awkward. Annette Funicello (who is simply credited as “Annette”) is downright adorable but also a bit underused. Though she is a part of Merlin’s adventures, she doesn’t really get a whole lot to do. They should’ve made her a bit brainier character who contributes to Merlin’s experiments in a more significant way. As is, her main character trait is having an inexplicable crush on Merlin.

Is this film all that funny? Not really. Is it finely crafted? Not by a long shot. But is it entertaining? Yeah, on a certain level it is. I guess the bottom line is The Misadventures of Merlin Jones is one of those harmless Disney comedies that’s no great shakes but still manages to be somewhat charming.

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