Many people, myself included, were skeptical of the new Disney+ streaming service when it was first announced, but that was before seeing the extensive library. Disney as a studio never shied from experimentation, crafting films that were beloved, imaginative, and sometimes overlooked. With the arrival of Disney+, many of these films now have a new lease on life, finding their ways into the homes of old fans such as myself, and new fans just waiting to discover them for the first time.
The Love Bug
The plot of The Love Bug is simple. A down on his luck racer tries to spruce up an old Volkswagon Beetle and quickly finds out that the little car, named Herbie, has a mind of its own. The film features some fine performances by its ensemble, including a very funny turn by David Tomlinson as the villainous Peter Thorndyke. The film also boasts some incredibly fun set pieces, especially the slapstick heavy race in the final act. The Love Bug kicked off one of Disney’s longest-running franchises, spawning four sequels (the latest which came out in 2005) a television remake, and a brief TV series in the early 80s. This charming little comedy still holds up pretty well, not bad for a Beetle.
Escape to Witch Mountain
One of Disney’s darker and more daring films, Escape to Witch Mountain follows two mysterious orphans named Tony and Tia Malone. Tony and Tia have a secret; they can communicate telepathically, can move objects with their minds, and have no idea where they came from. When an eccentric millionaire seeks to exploit them, the two go on the run. After befriending an old widower, the two embark on an adventure to escape their pursuers and find the answer to where they came from. Often lost in the shuffle of the Disney canon, Witch Mountain is a surprisingly influential film, especially with E.T eight years later. The film spawned a sequel four years later, along with a television and a theatrical remake.
Before coming to her own as a dramatic actor, Jodie Foster did a number of films for Disney, including the original Freaky Friday. While Freaky Friday is better known, it’s Candleshoe that stands as her best. In Candleshoe, Foster plays Casey Brown, a young tomboy who is recruited by a con man. Her job? Impersonate the missing granddaughter of a wealthy older woman to gain access to her property, and search for a hidden fortune somewhere on the grounds. Jodie Foster is the standout in an already stellar cast, delivering a great early performance as the spunky and lovable lead. This fun treasure hunt is sure to please, especially when it reaches its frantic and exciting finale.
The Parent Trap
Child star Hayley Mills did no less than six films for Disney during her career, and The Parent Trap might be her most influential. After being separated during their parents’ divorce, two identical twins meet by chance at summer camp. Hoping to get their parents back together, the pair switch places and try to arrange a meeting. Hayley Mills is impressive in a dual role, aided in no small part by some surprisingly convincing special effects for the time. This charming romantic comedy was a major hit when it was first released, and spawned a franchise with three sequels and a remake.
Flight of the Navigator
Flight of the Navigator wasn’t really created by Disney, only distributed by it. Still, the film is a fine thriller with a lighter edge for family audiences. After running a seemingly routine errand, a twelve-year-old boy returns home an hour later only to find eight years have passed for everyone else. As his family and a team of doctors try to find out the truth, a mysterious otherworldly craft is found which apparently has some telekinetic link to the boy. The film works best in its dark and mysterious first half, building an intriguing mystery without pulling any punches. It loses some steam in the second half with the introduction of the ship, but even then is a solidly entertaining family adventure. With an impressive cast including Paul Reubens, Veronica Cartwright and Cliff De Young and a rousing score by Back to the Future composer Alan Silvestri, Flight of the Navigator is one of Disney’s harder-edged and more exciting films.
The Absent-Minded Professor
The Absent-Minded Professor has the distinct honor of being the first Disney film to spawn a sequel, and for good reason. This quirky science-fiction comedy is still very funny. An eccentric scientist bungles his chance at marriage while also discovering a strange plasma substance capable of producing great amounts of energy. Dubbing the substance ‘flubber’ the scientist seeks to share his creation with the world and win back the heart of the woman he loves. Remake in the 90s with Robin Willians, the original is a much more charming comedy with some wonderfully dry humor. Scenes of the titular professor flying his Model T Ford are also very impressive for the time. There’s a reason this was the first Disney film to spawn a sequel. It’s just that good.
The Journey of Natty Gann
Most people would think of a serious period drama when thinking about Disney, but Journey of Natty Gann is one of the studio’s best and most overlooked films. Set in depression-era America, this film follows the struggles of a young girl as she embarks on a cross country adventure to reunite with her father. Aiding her on her quest are a charming drifter and a protective wolf. This film perfectly captures the run-down feeling of the great depression, and also boasts an impressive ensemble. A pre-Twin Peaks Ray Wise delivers a good performance as Natty’s father, and a young John Cusack is great as the charming drifter who accompanies Natty on most of her journey. But the actor who really steals the movie is Jed the Wolf Dog, who you may remember as the shapeshifting Husky in John Carpenter’s The Thing.
That Darn Cat
Can a cat solve a crime? That’s the question this movie seeks to answer. After being kidnapped, a desperate woman leaves a message for help on the collar of a neighborhood cat named DC (short for Darn Cat). After the message is found by the police, the authorities trail the cat in an attempt to find the woman before she’s killed. This film is aided by an impressive and lively performance by its animal star and has plenty of slapstick to boot. In spite of its premise, the villains of the film are genuinely frightening, offsetting the comedy and creating a genuine sense of urgency. Though it was followed by an abysmal remake, it’s the original that still holds esteem as a Disney classic.
The Black Hole
If you looked somewhere between the rousing adventure of the original Star Wars and the dark terrors of Alien, you’d find Disney’s The Black Hole. The crew of a research vessel are drawn to a seemingly deserted spaceship and find a famed scientist still living on board. Though initially drawn to the man’s goal of being the first to venture into a nearby black hole, the crew soon finds something sinister is afoot. Though very much a cash in on Star Wars, The Black Hole manages to be much darker than the film that spawned it, effectively becoming something like a Hammer Horror Film set in space. With an impressive ensemble including Anthony Perkins, Robert Forster, Earnest Borgnine, Maximilian Schell and Roddy McDowell. The Black Hole is an entertaining spectacle worth revisiting.
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids
Most folks wouldn’t call Honey, I Shrunk the Kids an overlooked Disney film, but it has fallen by the wayside in recent years. This is a shame as this science fiction adventure is one of the studio’s most appealing and exciting movies. After they’re accidentally miniaturized by an eccentric scientist, the scientist’s children along with two neighbors begin a dangerous trek across their back yard to reach their house and return to normal size. Along the way, they must contend with such horrors as the garden sprinkler, a lawnmower, and giant insects. Prior to Pirates of the Caribbean, this was Disney’s highest-grossing live-action film, and it’s not hard to see why. The film has great performances by all involved, including Rick Moranis as the scientist and Matt Frewer as his ornery neighbor. With its still impressive action scenes, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is still one of the best family adventures ever made and spawned two sequels.
There are too many great films on Disney+ to be listed here. The streaming service is overflowing with old classics waiting to be rediscovered by modern audiences, but these films are a good place to start. These films speak of the quality, originality, and often overlooked diversity of the Disney filmography. Now that they’ve found their way into the homes of families all over the world, maybe these classics will find a second life.
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