5 Forgotten Disney Films
The good stuff the Mouse House rarely talks about.
Relax, I’m not here to cancel Disney (as if that were even possible at this point.) No, Disney has already made some of their socially-dated material pretty hard to find, changed their theme park attractions, and cut out all the pornographic frames those cheeky animators slipped into animated films. They’ve always been pretty on top of staying “family friendly”, at least for whatever mainstream family values were at the time.
However, there have been times where Disney took a few risks or tried something new and it simply didn’t pan out as expected. Whether it be business reasons, creative reasons, or just bad timing, not every Disney film has garnered the appreciation that their fairy tales and princess movies have. And that’s a shame, because there are Disney movies out there for honest-to-god cinephiles and fans of quality animation. These days we tend to take for granted that Disney owns everything and will make a bazillion dollars on whatever cross-platform kid’s film they release. We don’t really think of Disney films as labors of love from Nine Old Men.
Here are five that are totally better than their reputation warrants, and worth introducing to a new generation that thinks the live action remakes pass for decent entertainment.
Make Mine Music (1946)
Walt Disney Animation Studios came out of the gate strong in 1937 with the world’s first feature-length animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, that still holds up today. However, between Bambi (1942) and Cinderella (1950) is a period that all but the hardcore Disney fans tend to forget about. Walt Disney had dedicated himself to the US war effort, a true believer rah-rah patriot that modern audiences might recognise in Tony Stark’s dad. He actually met with President Roosevelt on policy, and was instrumental in promoting the use of air power in World War II (it had played only a minor role in the first war) and in promoting unity in the Americas in resistance to the Axis powers. Disney’s animation efforts were largely dedicated to propaganda films during the war.
But for the small staff of animators who hadn’t joined the military, Disney tried to keep them on the payroll by giving them shorts to work on, which were collected and released as anthology films. These have a reputation as being like “Fantasia-lite”, simpler animation with popular music instead of classical. But there’s enough to recommend watching all of them at least once, and my favorite is this one. As well as developing some sequences that were left out of Fantasia (1940), it continues Disney’s tradition of retelling of folk tales from various cultures. The two best are “Casey at the Bat” (an American tall tale) and “Peter and the Wolf” (a classic Russian dark children’s story). That latter is a masterclass in how to compose musical themes in film, since it actually takes the time to show different instruments playing for different characters. John Williams, eat your heart out.
The Sword in the Stone (1963)
This was the last film Walt himself completed production on before his death, and the wizard Merlin is partly based on him. It was a financially-successful film, but is regarded as a somewhat slight endeavour by critics. I think that’s rather unfair because, as with Merlin’s efforts to groom young Arthur into a good king, there’s some genuine wisdom here. Merlin has become an iconic Disney character, replacing the stern magician from Fantasia (Yen Sid) as the kind of mad, cantankerous genius portrayal of Walt. He’s used in other properties and around the theme parks, but the film itself is the only pre-1970s Disney narrative film to not be remade, adapted, or serialized.
Not that I’m begging for a weak live-action remake, but I do think there’s certainly enough to warrant one. It’s not just that this is an adaptation of the Arthurian legends, possibly England’s greatest gift to film history as it just keeps giving and giving. But it rather departs from those and does its own thing for much of the breezy runtime. There are all the animal transformation scenes, several great songs by the legendary Sherman Brothers (the most prolific film soundtrack composers of all time), and some wonderful hand-drawn animation that’s just beautiful to look at still-frames of, not to mention the much-lauded magic battle finale. Not for nothing, but I think the iconic squirrel sequence where Arthur has to break up with a young squirrel by explaining that they’re actually different species is where I learned my entire break-up technique from…
Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)
This hybrid of live-action and animation was released during a period that marked a supposed slump for Disney. Most of their films were still successful, but they didn’t have a true grand slam both critically and commercially after The Jungle Book (1967) until The Little Mermaid (1989)… although some would argue 1977's The Rescuers fits the bill. The film is an adaptation of two books by Mary Norton — The Magic Bedknob and Bonfires and Broomsticks — hence the film’s portmanteau title. Norton was somewhat of a beloved figure in British literature and the film’s story continues in the grand British spirit of rallying the common people to fight against Nazi incursion. Perhaps for these reasons, it was released first in the UK, but found less success in the US later.
For a long time, this film was forgotten and lumped in with the many late-1960s/early-1970s experimental efforts with animation and special effects in live-action films. Perhaps due to the fantasy elements and the score by (once again) the Sherman Brothers, the film lived in the shadow of comparisons to Mary Poppins (1964). But Poppins is more similar to The Sound of Music (1965), with the interaction between Julie Andrews and kids and the lovely songs. While there are plenty of under-appreciated songs here, it’s much more of a whimsical adventure film, featuring much more animation, many more creative special effects, and rather a rollicking finale. It’s a film more likely to energize kids than bore them, and it took a long time for the adults to catch on to the appeal. It was finally restored after several decades, and can now be viewed with three additional songs put back in!
The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
Another film during the supposed ‘Disney slump’ that faired better in the UK than in the US. (Its title was changed from “Basil of Baker Street” out of concerns it would be “too English”). There’s actually a great Basil Rathbone cameo in this, and the whole thing is rather a tribute to his rendition of Sherlock Holmes, but it’s no more too-English than Mulan was too-Chinese. This was actually a fine film in the classic Disney tradition, with some truly great animation, excellent source material (the Holmes stories), and even a few great songs: two of which were sung by Vincent Price and composed by Henry Mancini!
Unfortunately, this is another Disney film that seemed overshadowed by a more popular one: in this case, An American Tail, which was released the same year. This film was financially successful, but it tends to get lumped in with films like the one that came just before, The Black Cauldron (1985), an infamous Disney bomb. That film has since found a cult following (and I was obsessed with it since I first saw it in the theatre), but this one remains under-appreciated. It was something of a changing-of-the-guard for Disney, the last film that one of the Nine Old Men worked on, and the first film that two up-and-coming key animators worked on: Ron Clements & John Musker… more on them later. This was also the first Disney film to have a scene animated primarily by computers (the clock tower finale) — a technique later used to great effect in Beauty and the Beast (1991) as well as The Lion King (1994) and many more. It’s a truly charming film that has that certain Disney magic in the expressions of the characters and the emoting throughout that reels you in. It easily holds up alongside the more-famous Disney classics.
Treasure Planet (2002)
From 1989 to 1999 was a kind of renaissance period for Disney; a time when they enlisted the most popular musicians of the time to collaborate with them on original visions of classic stories. Although they floundered a bit with the untimely passing of lyricist Howard Ashman, they had so many talented individuals collaborating that all management had to do was get out of the way and give them a little room to take risks. However, shakeups in Disney’s management led to a change in the Animation Studios and how they were run. The new Suits brought in to tell the animators how to create ended up being the death of Disney’s new Golden Age, but there were a few legacy projects that still finished up under their tenure and came out very interesting. You could make a case for either Atlantis (2001) or Brother Bear (2003 — a film I love) but I want to highlight Treasure Planet as a film that deserves more recognition.
The suits at Disney animation were pushing to get off fairy tale adaptions and instead make ‘cool, young movies’ with lots of silly humour and recognisable tropes to appeal to a different audience. Perhaps in an effort to compete with Pixar or perhaps to shed Disney’s image, but whatever the reason, it’s a strategy you can see led to horrible results in their films from 2004 to 2010. However, the proven Disney hitmakers of Clements & Musker had written and directed The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin (1992), and Hercules (1997), as well as The Princess & The Frog (2009) and Moana (2016) later, and this was their legacy project. They wanted to get back to a strong base (Treasure Island in this case) and to try something new instead of sticking with successful tropes. And they hired on a jaw-dropping cast of voice talent to do it!
Treasure Planet was an ambitious film with gorgeous hand-drawn animation that combined obvious CG animation for much of the sci-fi look of the movie. It aimed for a sort of futuristic steampunk aesthetic, updating typical pirate visuals on Musker’s “70/30 design rule”, where everything is 70% old-timey and 30% futuristic. Rather than a princess and a musical romance, it’s an unabashed adventure story with a rousing score by the phenomenal James Newton Howard. Perhaps for all those reasons, it was a big flop. Disney had already planned for sequels and theme park rides, but all that was cancelled after the premiere weekend. In a rather horrible bit of planning, they released this the same opening weekend as Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Die Another Day, and Disney’s own The Santa Clause 2. Disney had also gone from releasing one movie per year to sometimes two in the same year, and it seemed they had just greatly overestimated the audience’s hunger for this story. That said, it’s really a ripping yarn that has aged pretty well despite the early CG, and totally deserves a look.
Bonus: The Sweatbox (2002)
If mentioning the management change at Disney leading to a new slump piqued your interest, you have no idea of the juicy behind-the-scenes drama that exists to be dug into. Although it found some success, The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) was originally going to be a very different movie, a grand musical written by Sting in the tradition of Phil Collins with Tarzan (1999) and Elton John with The Lion King before that. However, this film became the marquee victim of the new ‘cool young Disney’ management…and all of it got caught on film. The Sweatbox started as a typical making-of documentary by Sting’s wife, but the resulting chaos that was captured is apparently something Disney is not keen to have anyone see. They technically satisfied their contract by releasing it in a Los Angeles theatre for about two weeks in 2002, but have since buried the doc. I wrote in detail about it here, or you can hunt around for it online and maybe find someone’s upload of it…. It’s a fascinating peak behind the curtain of how Disney films end up slipping through the cracks.