Last week I shared my picks for the ten most overrated films in Disney’s live-action canon. This week, we’re going to take a look at the flip side and explore the most underrated live-action Disney movies.
Believe it or not, some Disney productions just don’t get the respect that they deserve. That fact could be for a number of reasons: the movie didn’t make enough of a dent at the box office, the picture was overshadowed by another film, or the release just hasn’t had time for fans to consider it a classic. Whatever the reason, these ten films have gone underrated for too long. Enjoy!
10. Pete’s Dragon (1977)
The first movie I remember seeing in the theater was Pete’s Dragon. (I had to have seen Star Wars earlier in the year, because I remember the excitement of a Star Wars watch I received for Christmas, but I just don’t remember it.) Disney first optioned the story of an orphan boy and the dragon he befriends back in the ‘50s, but sat on the property for two decades.
The film contains the hallmarks of a classic – great songs, an Oscar-nominated score, plenty of talent in the cast. Unfortunately, it came near the tail end of the Ron Miller area, which was a low point in quality for the studio. I can’t help but believe that had it debuted at another time in company history, people might remember it more fondly today. Still, it’s worth checking out.
9. The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975)
On paper, the combination of Tim Conway and Don Knotts sounds like comic gold, and on film the duo proved it. In The Apple Dumpling Gang, Conway and Knotts play a pair of bumbling crooks looking for gold to steal. A trio of orphans find the gold and con a gambler and a stagecoach driver into marrying and adopting the kids.
The Apple Dumpling Gang is a clever comic western in which the kids are cute but not too precious or plucky and the plot is pleasant and fun. But the true geniuses of the movie are Knotts and Conway, who play their dimwitted roles to perfection.
The Apple Dumpling Gang serves as a reminder of sweet, simple times when the entire family could enjoy great films together.
8. Follow Me, Boys! (1966)
Fred MacMurray cemented his relationship with Disney by making eight films with the studio in the ‘50s and ‘60s. MacMurray’s Disney output was so significant that he was named the first Disney Legend in 1987.
In one of his Disney films, Follow Me, Boys!, MacMurray plays a musician who takes on the role of Boy Scout leader in order to impress the woman he wants to marry. He unwittingly gives up his dream of becoming an attorney by serving the community, and after twenty years the entire community pays him back by honoring him for leaving a lasting impression on so many lives.
Follow Me, Boys! has the distinction of being the final film released during Walt Disney’s lifetime – just a few weeks before his death. It stands to reason that a movie of such heartwarming sentiment would come at the end of an era like it did. This is a sweet, wonderful picture that somehow tends to get overlooked these days. What a shame.
7. The Watcher in the Woods (1980/1981)
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Disney began to experiment with darker, more mysterious subject matter in some of their productions. One producer pitched a particular project to Disney executive (and Walt’s son-in-law) Ron Miller, telling him that the film could be their Exorcist.
The Watcher in the Woods featured Bette Davis as the owner of a manor where a family moves in with a daughter who resembles her own who disappeared thirty years before. The family sees a mysterious light in the woods near the home, which turns out to be an alien who had abducted the owner’s daughter.
After a test run in New York City, Disney retooled the ending and rereleased the picture a year later. It still failed to catch fire with audiences, which is a shame, because The Watcher in the Woods is creepy fun and a surprise for a Disney movie.
6. Candleshoe (1977)
Jodie Foster has become such a force as an adult actress that it’s easy to forget how talented she was as a child. In Candleshoe, she matches wits with legends like David Niven and Helen Hayes as a street kid sent to con an old woman out of money hidden on her estate.
Foster plays Casey, a tomboy sent to the Candleshoe estate with the aim of finding treasure buried somewhere near the home. Instead, she develops a friendship with the owner and her staff and finds the treasure to help prevent Candleshoe from falling in the hands of the taxmen.
The film’s treasure-hunt plot, with its elaborate clues, makes for great fun. Naturally, the top-drawer cast does a fine job, and the English sets are breathtaking. Candleshoe is a buried treasure in a decade that didn’t have that much going for it.
5. John Carter (2012)
Director Andrew Stanton fulfilled a hundred-year odyssey when he brought John Carter to the screen in 2012. The film version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars starred Taylor Kitsch in the title role of a Civil War veteran who mysteriously finds himself on Mars (Barsoom). Naturally, Carter becomes a hero to some of the inhabitants of the Red Planet.
It turns out audiences weren’t quite ready for Stanton’s steampunk vision of Burroughs’ work. The movie failed at the box office, and Disney abandoned plans to turn the property into a trilogy. That’s a shame, because what I called in my review “an escape from the modern science fiction/action blockbuster, a throwback to old-fashioned films with unambiguous heroes and villains” is a blockbuster that packs genuine thrills.
If you dismissed it before, give John Carter a try, and if you didn’t like it the first time, give it a second chance. You just might find it worthwhile.
4. The Parent Trap (1960)
I railed against the 1998 Lindsay Lohan remake of The Parent Trap in last week’s post, and now on the flip side, I get to praise the original. I have so many fond memories of this film growing up, and I think most people would still consider it a classic had the inferior remake not overshadowed it.
Hayley Mills shines as Sharon and Susan, twins separated when their parents divorced. Their schemes to reunite their parents are fun and clever, and let’s face it: even the most jaded viewer can’t help but sing along to “Let’s Get Together,” even though Mills isn’t the best vocalist in the world (and she doesn’t even pretend to play the guitar).
The original version of The Parent Trap is heartwarming instead of cloying, sweet instead of busy, and far superior to the remake. Nobody does it better than Hayley Mills did.
3. Enchanted (2007)
For so many years, Disney treated their fairy tale stories with such a rarefied air that seeing the studio make fun of its own creations can come as a bit of a shock. In Enchanted, Disney lovingly pokes fun at the genre conventions of its films with a terrific sense of humor and pitch-perfect performances. And it works!
Amy Adams plays Giselle, a would-be princess from an animated land who winds up in real-life New York City. Giselle’s fish-out-of-water adventures lead her to fall in love with Robert (Patrick Dempsey), a jaded attorney and single dad, all the while pursued by her prince, his wicked stepmother, and her henchman.
The songs are great, the costumes magical, and the movie itself outshines the sum of its parts. Why Disney has not promoted Enchanted more, and why critics don’t consider it a modern classic, I’ll never know.
2. Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
Before Survivor and Castaway, the Robinson family found themselves stranded on an unspoiled island after a shipwreck, leading moviegoers on a family adventure unlike any other. Swiss Family Robinson provides thrills, suspense, comedy, and the best treehouse in history!
When the Robinsons decide to make a home (rather than just a shelter) on the island, they do it in style! And when they choose to defend it –making them possibly the only Swiss people in history to fight a battle – they choose cleverness and ingenuity over rage and fear. The boys’ adventures exploring the island and meeting (and fighting over) Roberta create a fun diversion in the film’s middle third.
We don’t see family adventures of this type like we used to, which makes Swiss Family Robinson that much more special. I just don’t see why we don’t hear it mentioned more as a classic. (And by the way, I don’t think I’ll ever forgive Disney for replacing the Swiss Family Treehouse at Disneyland with Tarzan’s Treehouse!)
1. Song of the South (1946)
No other film in the Disney canon has generated more controversy – or suffered needlessly for that controversy – than the Oscar-winning Song of the South. Disney’s take on the Uncle Remus tales of Joel Chandler Harris have become a lightning rod for criticism, which I detailed last year. Because of the accusations of racism, Disney has refused to release Song of the South on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is a shame.
Authorities like Leonard Maltin and Floyd Norman, Disney’s first African-American animator, have come to the feature’s defense. Norman once showed Song of the South to an audience at a black church in Los Angeles in the ‘80s, and the congregation enjoyed it – he went on to remind readers that the picture is “not a documentary on the American South.” Costar Hattie McDaniel recalled that she would not have appeared in the film had it been “degrading or harmful.”
Song of the South does take place in a different era in our country’s history – though not during the days of slavery – and deserves some thoughtful examination and discussion. But, rather than being a racist tale, it is a charming, wonderful movie for the whole family, and it merits an audience today.