When Disney+ launched on Nov. 12, social media lit up with instant reactions to the made-for-the-service "Star Wars" series "The Mandalorian." Subscribers rejoiced in having almost all of the MCU movies in one place. Every episode of "The Simpsons?" Check. The Disney animated classics? All there. But we knew those films were included for the price of a $69.99 annual subscription. What about all of these other random titles dating all the way back to 1928? As with any other streaming service, there's a lot of chaff, but if you're looking for something odd or lesser known that's worth your while, we've got you covered.
Two of Disney’s most fascinating and stylistically audacious 1940s efforts came in support of the United States’ Good Neighbor Policy, which sought to sway south-of-the-border governments away from the pernicious clutches of Nazi Germany. The first feature, “Saludos Amigos” (1942), is just a warmup for “The Three Caballeros” (1944), a raucous musical extravaganza in which Donald Duck is exposed to and enthralled by Latin American cultures. It’s a hoot!
Parents curious to find out if their little ones are ready to handle the horror genre now have access to the perfect Disney-fied toe dip in “Mr. Boogedy," a silly romp about a gag-gift salesman (Richard Masur) who unsuspectingly moves his family into a New England mansion haunted by The Boogedy Man (Howard Witt). Directed by Oz Scott, this 45-minute failed pilot engages kids’ fears of spooky houses and odd bumps in the middle of the night without completely terrifying them. It’s the kind of thing that’s scary in the moment but easily shrugged off before bedtime.
This 74-minute feature is Disney self-promotion at its finest. The story, such as it is, centers on celebrated humorist Robert Benchley’s wanderings around the brand-spanking-new Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California. It’s an entertainingly instructive tour of the various facilities — e.g. the camera room, the ink-and-paint room and, best of all, the animators’ room where we get to meet legends like Fred Moore, Norm Ferguson and Ward Kimball (whose 1950s space exploration shorts should be added to the service posthaste) – that concludes with a charming adaptation of the titular children’s book.
This 1966 episode of "Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color" features Uncle Walt teasing viewers with glimpses of noteworthy park attractions like It’s a Small World, The Hall of Presidents and the soon-to-open Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s a nifty piece of vintage self-promotion, but it’s a weird sit when you realize this Walt-centric episode aired three days after his unexpected death.
Walt Disney loved giving folks at home guided tours of the studio’s animation process, and he did so in a way that somehow managed to explicate the artistry without diminishing any of its magic. This 1956 episode of “Disneyland” is a superior example of these educational, behind-the-scenes featurettes, if only because it places then-modern animation in the context of ancient drawings and shows off a deleted scene from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." One can imagine the next generation of great animators glued to their parents’ television screens, dreaming of watching their own work analyzed in such a manner.
This slickly produced, created-for-Disney+ documentary about The Walt Disney Imagineers’ world-altering innovations in the realm of theme park development is self-mythologizing nonsense at times. But, as directed by Leslie Iwerks (daughter of Don and granddaughter of Ib), it’s absorbing and informative enough to overlook its pro-Walt, anti-labor biases.
If Disney+ has done anything right in its early existence, it’s embracing the studio’s wildly inconsistent catalog of live-action family films. You probably know the classics — e.g. “Swiss Family Robinson," “Old Yeller” and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea — inside and out from childhood, but you’ve probably never seen Peter Tewksbury’s “Emil and the Detectives," an enchanting adaptation of Erich Kästner’s children’s novel. Shot on location in West Berlin, it’s a valuable time capsule of a bygone era and an enthralling family-friendly adventure imbued with just enough real-world danger to make it matter.
For whatever reason, this crowd-pleasing sci-fi lark has gotten lost in the live-action Disney shuffle over the last few decades. While many Disney films from the ‘70s and ‘80s do not hold up, this tale of an extraterrestrial feline, Jake, who finds himself caught up in gambling drama because these movies always had to have a zany gambling subplot, features an appealing cast of flesh-and-blood characters including Sandy Duncan, Roddy McDowall, Harry Morgan, McLean Stevenson and Hans Conried. It’s great comfort food for Gen X-ers, and its furry costar will no doubt delight the youngsters.
Aka “A Spaceman in King Arthur’s Court," this umpteenth variation on Mark Twain’s time-travel yarn is an ultra-broad slapstick effort notable for starring Dennis Dugan, who’d make his pop-cultural mark two decades later as the director of above-average Adam Sandler comedies like “Happy Gilmore," “Big Daddy” and “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan." Ron Moody, unforgettable as Fagin in Carol Reed’s “Oliver!," would reprise his role as Merlin in Disney’s 1995 riff on this tale, “A Kid in King Arthur’s Court."
Disney had no earthly clue what it was doing throughout most of the 1980s, and this aimlessness yielded two of its most interesting fiascos. The first is “Return to Oz," a quasi-sequel to “The Wizard of Oz” that, in the subversive hands of film/sound-editing wizard Walter Murch, wound up being a shockingly dark amalgamation of the second and third books in L. Frank Baum’s series. Though the film was a massive flop, it left deep grooves in the minds of youngsters who absorbed its bleakness at a young age. It is a strikingly audacious movie that’s waiting to scar a new generation of viewers. Only you know if your kid(s) can handle it.
Disney Animation’s long-gestating take on the second book in Lloyd Alexander’s “The Chronicles of Prydain” was supposed to be a game-changer for the studio. It was an epic, PG-rated adventure in the Hero’s Journey mold of “Star Wars” that boasted a dark tone and newfangled computer-generated animation. Alas, the finished film cost $44 million and, following its catastrophic box office failure, nearly bankrupt the entire animation division. It’s not an effective movie at all (it’s dull and lacks the spirit of Alexander’s books), but it’s a singular failure that’s worth watching at least once.
Contrary to popular belief, “The Black Hole” was not Disney’s answer to the industry-altering success of “Star Wars” but rather a space-bound disaster flick looking to cash in on the success of “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno." It is a deeply weird movie that combines space cowboy heroics, telepathic robots and an eerie John Barry score that, if nothing else, nails the sporadically horrific tone. This was Disney’s first PG-rated release and would easily get upgraded to a PG-13 today, so keep that in mind if you feel like sharing this nightmare-inducing sci-fi oddity with your young ones.
If you’re old enough to remember watching film-projected movies at school, you probably have a special fondness for Disney’s True-Life Adventures series. And while everyone loved the cuddly (if occasionally fierce) creatures in “Seal Island," “Bear Country” and “The African Lion," kids with an affinity for creepy-crawlies loved “The Living Desert." Scorpions, wasps and tarantulas get their close-ups in this James Algar-directed, Winston Hibler-narrated documentary. What with several channels stocked full of HD-shot nature shows, it might be difficult to interest kids in these quaint features nowadays, but they’ll surely generate a powerful sense of nostalgia for folks of a certain age.
“Did I dream a made-for-TV drama featuring a prestardom Timothy Hutton as a teen-idol rock star who flees off the grid to an island where exotic animals are killed for sport, or was that real?” Oh, it was real. It was called “Sultan and the Rock Star," and it’s now available to stream on Disney+. Hutton winds up befriending a Bengal tiger named Sultan who’s due to be hunted by the island’s evil owner. A year after its broadcast on “Disney’s Wonderful World," Hutton would win the Oscar for Best Supporting Oscar…for “Ordinary People."
Joe Johnston’s 1991 box office disappointment boasts a devoted cult following, but it deserves to be loved by a much wider audience. Based on the comic books by Dave Stevens, the film taps the same rich vein of Saturday morning serial nostalgia that made “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” franchise-launching phenomena. It’s an unabashed joy that’s waiting to be discovered and adored by younger viewers and, judging from the film’s commercial performance, most of their parents.
Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston — two of Disney’s Nine Old Men – hang out and reminisce about their long tenure at Walt Disney Animation, and it’s about as charming and heartwarming as can be. The film is directed by Thomas’ son Theodore, which means this isn’t a terribly unvarnished recounting of the Disney story, but he knows how to get his pops and his best friend yapping. It’s a tight 89 minutes of animation history.
Longtime Disney producer Don Hahn’s documentary is an entertaining, occasionally revealing look at the near death and unlikely resurrection of the studio’s Animation division after the disaster of “The Black Cauldron." As with any in-house history, you often wonder what’s being held back, but it’s a brisk 85 minutes featuring almost all of the principles: Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and many others.
Disney+ is disconcertingly light on movies from its latest acquisition, 20th Century Fox (and the inexcusable decision to restrict access to Fox’s vault needs to be reversed immediately). For whatever reason, it saw fit to throw in Danny Boyle’s delightful 2004 dramedy about a couple of poor kids who come upon a bagful of British banknotes on the eve of the country’s transition to the Euro. It’s a bighearted family film that’s a little rougher language-wise than most of the other films currently available on the streaming service. If you want Disney+ to get a little less conservative with its selections, be sure to watch this one.
Disney ran the underdog formula into the ground during the 1990s (for good reason given the box office success of movies like “Cool Runnings”), but this Charles Haid-directed yarn about a desperate young man who enters a perilous dog sled race in frigid Winnipeg, Manitoba, to pay his way to college and literally save the family farm works better than most. There’s not much in the way of ingenuity here, but the story is told with conviction, and Joel McNeely’s score is one of the underrated composer’s best.
Though Alex Hirsch’s immensely clever animated series earned no shortage of raves from television critics, it felt kind of buried on the Disney Channel. Now that it’s been freed of its kid-skewing prison, it’s time for adults to discover one of the smartest shows on television, a comedy-mystery-paranormal mash-up that plays like a family-friendly (or, at least, non-profane) version of “Rick and Morty."
You probably know 1928’s “Steamboat Willie” represents Mickey Mouse’s animated debut, but have you actually seen it in full? It’s not the kind of animated short you’re likely to seek out for leisure watching, so its inclusion on Disney+ gives you the opportunity to give it a look-see, and, as some first-time viewers have noted, the kid-friendly Mickey behaves like an absolute maniac in it. All of the early Disney shorts available on Disney+ are worth watching (though keep in mind that they’re somewhat antiquated in their cultural representations).
Another terrific installment in the True-Life Adventures series, “Secrets of Life” focuses on single-cell organisms, ants, plants, flowers, volcanoes and bees! Yes, the bees! Aside from its visually arresting (and revolutionary for the time) uses of miniature lenses and time-lapse photography, this documentary is particularly memorable for its use of Ravel’s “Bolero” to score the miracle of pollination.
“Song of the South” might not be available on Disney+ (ever), but this G-rated adventure of the Reconstruction that finds a white boy and his black friend going on an adventure to save the former’s family plantation has echoes of the studio’s problematic past. This isn’t one to show the kids, but it’s interesting from a wrong-headed-for-1976 perspective. Some Gen Xers might also recall the unusually frightening poster, which made it look like full-on horror film.
This Depression-era, rail-riding adventure wasn’t a hit theatrically, but it eventually found a devoted following on home video thanks to an indelible performance by Meredith Salenger in the title role, a heartthrob turn from John Cusack and a tremendously moving James Horner score. Many ‘80s favorites haven’t aged well, but this film, given its period setting, is waiting to enchant a new audience.
When Disney+ announced its opening day lineup one film at a time in October, “Fuzzbucket” was by far the most baffling title. Did anyone remember a Mick Garris-directed, John Landis-produced made-for-television movie about a boy and his furry imaginary friend who turns visible? Apparently not. But now that we know it exists, we’ve no choice but to watch.
Jeremy Smith is a freelance entertainment writer, and the author of "George Clooney: Anatomy of an Actor". His second book, "When It Was Cool", is due out in 2020.