Napoleon and Samantha is about two young small-town children, and the unique adventure they experience. While that may sound like a familiar Disney premise, the film works quite well and easily distinguishes itself from the studio\'s other fare.
When the film opens, best friends Napoleon (Johnny Whitaker, who Disney must have seen as its new child star in 1972) and Samantha (Jodie Foster in her feature film debut) lead simple lives. When not in school, they\'re playing about and going to a little store owned by Mr. Gutteridge (Henry Jones), where they exchange empty bottles for jellybeans to feed to a horse named Charlie.
But things change for Napoleon. After a night at the movies, Napoleon and his warm, aging grandfather (Will Geer) come across a clown named Dimitri (Vito Scotti), who is celebrating the end of a long partnership with his lion Major. As Dimitri is retiring and returning home to Europe, he is looking to unload Major. Napoleon is more than glad to take in the tame circus lion, and with Grandpa\'s approval, Major\'s new home is a cage with the family\'s chickens.
Napoleon and Samantha are best friends. This is Dimitri, the clown that fate introduces to Napoleon and his grandfather one night.
Napoleon quickly takes a liking to Major, and along with his grandfather, oversees Major and his milk-only diet (the result of bad teeth). But more is about to change for the boy: his Grandpa is dying. While very sick, Grandpa sends a letter to Napoleon\'s last living relative, an uncle from New York that he\'s never seen. Before he can get a response, though, Napoleon\'s grandfather dies.
Suddenly on his own, the boy\'s fears of living in an orphanage are not aided by the fact that Grandpa\'s letter is returned as unclaimed. At the advice of Samantha, Napoleon goes to the employment office to find someone to help bury his grandfather, per his wishes. He finds Daniel Arlington Williams III (Michael Douglas, in one of his earliest film roles), a political science major who is looking for temporary work to pay for schoolbooks.
Danny helps Napoleon bury his grandfather and after some hesitation, agrees to keep it a secret for Napoleon and Major\'s sake. When Napoleon says he\'ll stay at Samantha\'s house, Danny leaves. This is the first of a few half-brained decisions that the good-hearted college student makes that the film and its young protagonists let him get away with.
Thanks to Dimitri, Napoleon and Samantha have a new friend: Major the lion! Napoleon\'s grandfather is on his deathbed.
In reality, Napoleon doesn\'t plan on staying with Samantha. Instead, he intends to hike the treacherous mountains of the Northwest with Major and see if they can live with Danny. Samantha simply can\'t miss the adventure and she is soon alongside her freckle-faced redhead friend and his enormous lion.
The journey begins pretty much as you would expect. When the kids get in trouble, such as when a wildcat or bear shows up, the lion comes to the rescue and saves the day. There\'s even the obligatory scene in which Napoleon hangs off the edge of a mountain, dearly clinging to a rope attached to his lion. Still, in the face of hunger, peril, and a poor sense of direction, Napoleon and Samantha press on over the mountains in the hopes of getting to Danny\'s place.
Meanwhile, back at home, Samantha\'s housekeeper Gertrude (Ellen Corby) is worried about her, and she alerts the authorities to check out Napoleon and the \'hippie\' she last saw him with. These same authorities find the secret burial spot of Napoleon\'s grandfather and begin to investigate. As the children\'s journey subsides, a few misunderstandings lead to a misguided police hunt.
Napoleon, Samantha, and Major set out on an incredible journey to Danny\'s. He\'s no James MacArthur!
Napoleon and Samantha changes gears a few times. It starts out as an intimate small town coming-of-age tale, develops into a grand expedition in the wild, and then finishes with a quick-paced, action-packed climax. However, this refreshingly only leaves surprises ahead for the viewer. Through it all, the film remains entertaining and most interesting. The hybrid of subjects and tones works incredibly well, as the story stays fresh and highly watchable.
The young leads are compelling, and Michael Douglas\' top-billed college student is a good role and makes for a highlighting performance. There\'s excitement and sweetness and all of the elements successfully come together for a quality Disney film.