Smooth-talking gambler Russel Donavan (Bill Bixby) rides into a rundown town out west called Quake City where, for a small fee, he agrees to hold on to a package for local ne'er do-well John Wintle (Don Knight). Too late Donavan discovers the "package" delivered by lady stagecoach driver Dusty (Susan Clark) is none other than Wintle's nephews Bobby (Clay O'Brien) and Clovis (Brad Savage) and little niece Celia (Stacy Manning). Realizing he has been conned Donavan tries to off-load the orphans but has no luck given Clovis kicks anyone that tries to touch him and Celia has a seemingly uncontrollable bladder. On top of that their mischievous antics wreck half the town costing Donavan almost everything he wins at poker. But when the children unearth an enormous gold nugget at an old abandoned mine suddenly every disreputable cuss in town wants to adopt them.
"What would Walt do?" That was the question posed multiple times each day at Disney in the Seventies as the studio struggled to cope with the loss of its visionary founder. In filmmaking terms the answer appeared to be "stick with what worked" as they settled into an easygoing formula of cute kids, cuddly animals and slapstick antics in a variety of settings, overlooking the innovative qualities that established films like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) or Mary Poppins (1964) as classics of their kind. In the case of The Apple Dumpling Gang (a title that means next to nothing beyond the one scene where the kids mention apple dumplings are their favourite treat) that formula was applied to a would-be rollicking comedy western. Onetime child actor turned frequent Disney helmer Norman Tokar directs in an unremarkable television friendly style very common for Mouse House product at the time. Though the wide western vistas help alleviate a sense of cramped claustrophobia the film closely resembles one of the more lighthearted episodes of western shows like Gunsmoke or Bonanza that were notably on the wane on television by this point.
Adapted from a novel written by Jack Bickham, the plot only deceptively revolves around the three kids who do not contribute all that much to the film. Equally, though this marked the final theatrical feature for Bill Bixby who went on to TV immortality as Doctor David Banner, human alter-ego of The Incredible Hulk, the well-worn playboy-gambler-becomes-family-man strand of the plot proves far less compelling than the antics of inept outlaws Theodore and Amos played by Don Knotts and Tim Conway. The filmmakers evidently realized the happy family side of the story was rather dull given the amount of screen time bestowed on this lovably dopey duo. It is worth watching just for the scene where Knotts accidentally sets his rear end on fire then feigns nonchalance while Conway lights a cigarette. Conway was a veteran of sitcom McHale's Navy and The Carol Burnett Show while Knotts was an established icon off the back of an Emmy award-winning stint on The Andy Griffith Show and a run of family friendly comedies throughout the Sixties, e.g. The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966) and The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964). Disney was the next logical step for Knotts and he became a fixture of some of their more popular comedies before re-teaming with Conway for what proved the biggest hit of Roger Corman's career in the New World production, The Private Eyes (1980).
Tokar's direction is heavy-handed on cuteness and slapstick lacking the dexterous touch of his earlier work in the Sixties. The plot tends to meander, catching fire whenever Knotts and Conway contribute another scene-stealing pratfall, but dawdling on Donavan's ugly duckling romance with Susan Clark whose tomboy stagecoach driver comes across a more physically convincing woman of the west than is usual in a Disney movie though, at the risk of seeming unkind, does not quite pull off her swan-like transformation. In all fairness, Bixby seems a tad urbane and frankly mild mannered for a man of the west albeit one known for his gift of the gab rather than way with a gun. Some of the elaborate set-pieces are laboured and excessively storyboarded by the Disney team though beneath the surface gloss this is the closest the family friendly studio got to a revisionist western. Come on, this has a town full of filthy, foul-mouthed old timers, mean drunks, a gun-toting judge (Harry Morgan) and even ageing whores though obviously these aren't described as such. The film is almost two thirds of the way through before it finally establishes an antagonist in the form of Slim Pickens as Stillwell, a scurvy outlaw with a gammy leg in a squeaky neck brace due to a mishap involving Amos. After the kids convince nice outlaws Theodore and Amos to steal their gold so they won't have to leave town with their legal guardian Uncle John, a contrived plot twist ensures the staging of a riotous gunfight involving the entire town before things end, the way all Disney movies did in the Seventies, with a big ridiculous chase sequence involving obvious rear-projection. Don Knotts and Tim Conway returned, this time as the undisputed stars of The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979).