When people of a certain age (cough)young(cough) think about Disney films, they think of the animation. And that’s fair. It was what built the famous House of Mouse, after all. And while they never completely stopped making live-action films, their output did have a few fallow periods.
But in the years before Lucas and Spielberg grabbed the imaginations of the world’s kids, Disney put out a lot of truly fun family friendly movies. Ranging from historical adventure to comedy to animal films, they turned out a surprising number of films that, if they’re remembered at all these days, they’re not thought of as Disney films.
A quick refresher of some of their iconic films before I list my five personal favorites.
- Treasure Island (1950) — Disney’s first live action feature.
- 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) — One of several adaptations of Jules Verne stories they did.
- Old Yeller (1957) — Responsible for scarring generations of kids for life.
- Shaggy Dog (1959) — You remember this one, don’t you?
- Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959) — Can you possibly not remember Sean Connery’s first ever movie?
- Kidnapped (1960) — This adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel was directed by prolific Disney director Robert Stevenson. The book was on the 8th grade reading list, and guaranteed once a year someone in their oral report would casually claim that the director and book’s author were the same person (suggesting they saw the movie rather than read the book) and the teacher never caught it.
- The Love Bug (1968) — Not only did it spawn three sequels, it also scored a remake with Bruce Campbell in 1997 directed by Peyton Reed.
- Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) — So good they remade it with the Rock!
- The Black Hole (1979) — Disney tried to get in on those fat Star Wars bucks with this gorgeous epic. Amazing design, beautiful score, great cast, and a rare PG rating due to a robot coring out a character with a giant chest-mounted juicer.
- TRON (1982) — Come on! Who doesn’t love Tron?
But as good as those are (The Black Hole in particular really holds up. If you haven’t seen it, track it down for the matte paintings alone!), my personal favorites are a little different. The following list is by date of release, and not preference. Grab your popcorn and let’s go!
Does anyone else remember this Jules Verne adaptation? Starring Haley Mills in one of six movies she made for the studio, it also featured the French legend Maurice Chevalier. Following a mysterious note from a lost sea captain father saying he’s on the 37th parallel, his children set out on a global trek to find and rescue him. it might not be well remembered now, but it was the third-biggest box office draw in the U.S. for the year, behind Lawrence of Arabia. Now, admittedly I haven’t seen this movie in 30 years, but it left one hell of an impression on me. Most of the film is a man-against-nature adventure, but I’ll be the first to admit that the final act involving a fierce Maori tribe likely did not age well. That aside, it was jam packed with lighthearted thrills. Floods! Earthquakes! Lava! Waterspouts! Jaguars! Avalanches! Condor attacks! In viewing the trailer for the 1978 theatrical re-release, it really does appear that the world has it in for these characters!
When I was a kid, Dr. Syn was my kind of superhero. Think of him as the Zorro if Zorro was a pirate & smuggler who was a reverend during the day and the terrifying Scarecrow of Romney Marsh at night. Based on a series of books, the first of which was published in 1915, several studios have done some type of adaptation of the material. This is my favorite, and not just because it stars Patrick McGoohan of The Prisoner fame. It also appeared in three parts on Wide World of Disney, but in a somewhat edited version (or so I’m led to believe, having never compared the two versions side by side). Bonus points for the fun theme song.
First off–Jodie freaking Foster, to say nothing of Leo McKern, Helen Hayes, and a wonderful David Niven. Second, what an overlooked classic! I’ve had several conversations about this movie with my friend and fellow author Rosemary Jones who seems to be the only other person I know who loves this movie. Jodie Foster plays a tomboy ruffian in the foster system who is recruited by a pair of con-artists to pose as the long-lost granddaughter to Lady St. Edmund to find a lost pirate treasure rumored to be hidden on the family estate, Candleshoe. David Niven in particular needs to be seen to be believed, as this is a brilliant comic role for him. Rich with mystery and full of heart, the less I give away the better. But despite being over four decades old, it’s still a classic. I’d share a trailer but not only do they give away too much, they’re frankly terrible. So instead, let the poster win you over with charm.
Ok, full disclosure, I haven’t seen this movie in a long time and I fully expect it could suck. That doesn’t stop it from being a favorite, however. For one, it’s about a comic book creator who strikes a deal with the CIA to turn his superhero character Condorman into a reality in order to help a Russian spy defect to the west. Secondly, the comic creator/Condorman is played by Michael “Phantom of the Opera” Crawford while the always wonderful Oliver Reed plays the Russian bad guy. Full of whimsy, gadgets, and action, it’s absolutely ridiculous. Imagine if Disney wanted to make a James Bond movie but drew inspiration from a colorful, goofy superhero. And unlike other superhero movies, this one never falls victim to taking itself too seriously. Lower your expectations, pop the popcorn and pour yourself a couple of stiff drinks. Then turn off your brain and enjoy it.
I love this movie without reservation. It doesn’t hurt that the Ray Bradbury novel on which it’s based is hugely influential favorite of mine. But combined with some genuinely spooky PG scares, some great art direction, and flawless performances from Jason Robards as the aging father Charles Halloway and Jonathan Price as the villainous Mr. Dark, it’s hard to beat this movie. Bonus points, Pam Grier plays the creepy Dust Witch. I remember reading at the time that the movie was greenlit as an excuse to keep the visual effects team who did TRON on the payroll, and it kind of shows in places. But I have no objections. A perfect movie for an October afternoon. If you haven’t seen it, by all means track it down. Maybe the fact that I virtually grew up in the library like Will Halloway, that my dad was a librarian like his, shaped my love of the film. Maybe I just like dark carnivals. I did edit an anthology of dark carnival superhero stories for Cobalt City after all, and I doubt that would have happened with out Something Wicked. Anyway, let’s close out with my favorite scene from the movie, the library showdown between Charles and Mr. Dark late in the film. Still so magical thirty-five years later.
Those are my favorites. If you’re old enough to remember that lost golden age of Disney’s live action films, I’d love to hear what your favorites are! Share in comments!