2019 may have been an enormously profitable year for Disney, but it also was the studio’s worst purely in terms of creativity. The more money they make through the franchises they’ve bought (namely Marvel and Star Wars), the lazier their own output has become. Whereas my generation had the benefit of being introduced to Disney’s animated classics on the big screen—my very first trip to the theater was to see the 1987 re-release of 1950’s “Cinderella”—the studio’s current CEO, Bob Iger, apparently thinks that these meticulously textured treasures now appear too primitive to kids raised on iPhones. How else to explain last year’s onslaught of increasingly pointless Disney remakes, culminating with the worst offender, which I posted about on Facebook last July as soon as the embargo lifted? Here is what I wrote, in full…
Some films you hope you’ll be alive long enough to see get made. I wish I had died before Jon Favreau’s “The Lion King” was regurgitated onto unsuspecting screens around the world. This is the most useless shot-for-shot remake since Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho.” It fails spectacularly on three crucial levels: 1. The characters’ faces are completely devoid of expression; 2. Not once did the celebrity voices seem to be emanating from the animals’ flapping gums; 3. It makes no inspired use of photorealistic animation, apart from creating emotionally embalmed versions of what already exists in a vastly superior form. The only way this would’ve worked is if the story was told without dialogue, thereby allowing us to get lost in the expensively mounted illusion, yet that would’ve taken actual imagination, and perhaps a few new storyboards. It cannot be a coincidence that the film’s best sequence centers on excrement. If this is where cinema is headed, count me out.
Needless to say, I got a few comments on that post (98, to be exact), yet the vast majority of them were in agreement with me. It’s infuriating to see so much money and talent wasted on a two-hour episode of “Mr. Ed.” In a year where “The Lion King” topped my list of the year’s worst films, the last thing I wanted to do was sign up for Disney’s new streaming service. How could I possibly support a studio that represented the nadir of mainstream American cinema? Well…then I read about the archive that would be included on Disney+, and I’ll confess that I caved in fairly quickly. All of the hand-drawn masterworks I grew up loving are freed from the vault, providing a vital alternative to the dreck that Disney has been spewing out lately. If you happen to have a Disney+ account, here are ten more gems currently streamable on the platform that I highly recommend for you and your family to discover together…
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Featured here thanks to Disney’s buyout of Fox—a landmark merger with potentially horrendous long-term consequences—is George Seaton’s holiday perennial about a man who portrays Santa Claus in the Macy’s Parade, and insists he’s the real deal. As embodied by Oscar-winner Edmund Gwenn, this is a Kris Kringle for the ages: warm, witty, benevolent yet still prone to smacking a Scrooge-like naysayer (eyebrow-twisting Porter Hall) when it is warranted. What people tend to forget is just how funny this film’s ensemble is, from William Frawley and Jack Albertson to cinema’s finest Bob Cratchit, Gene Lockhart, as the judge whose kids won’t forgive him for putting Santa behind bars. This also happens to be the film that materializes on Kevin’s television in “Home Alone,” foreshadowing not only writer John Hughes’ own remake of the picture, but director Chris Columbus’ very next film, “Only the Lonely,” pairing John Candy with “Miracle” star Maureen O’Hara.
Old Yeller (1957)
There was perhaps no better director of live-action Disney fare than Robert Stevenson. In addition to helming the studio’s all-time greatest achievement, 1964’s “Mary Poppins,” he’s also responsible for a handful of equally brilliant works that weren’t afraid to tackle the more traumatic growing pains of youth. Based on Fred Gipson’s book of the same name, this film has gained notoriety for the climactic tragedy that befalls its titular canine lead, much to the heartache of its young owner, Travis (Tommy Kirk). When I viewed the movie for the first time a couple years ago, this sequence was every bit as wrenching as I had feared, yet what surprised me was how the hopeful note it subsequently arrives at felt wholly earned. It’s immensely refreshing to see a children’s film explore the moments in life that “haul off and knock you flat,” before showing how they can be overcome. It’s an uplifting ending precisely because it’s an honest one. With that said, steer clear of the godawful sequel, “Savage Sam.”
Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959)
Some of my earliest nightmares were inspired by Stevenson’s next feature, and no, it’s not because the film contains actual footage of Sean Connery singing (at least he puts the entire cast of “Paint Your Wagon” to shame). This is the ultimate St. Patrick’s Day movie, detailing the adventures of an elderly Irishman (Albert Sharpe) who stumbles upon a hidden kingdom of leprechauns. Viewed over 60 years after its original release, the forced perspective shots and ingenious sets that make the little people appear miniaturized while somehow managing to match their eyelines with that of Darby is masterfully convincing. It makes all the digital trickery of modern blockbusters appear all the shoddier in contrast. And then there’s the Banshee, a malicious spirit whose sudden appearance behind a door caused an entire gymnasium of kids in my elementary school class to leap from the floor before laughing in exhilaration. In fact, this would also make stellar programming for Halloween.
Not all Disney classics stick the landing. Even Stevenson’s last great film, 1971’s “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” has a last scene that’s so lame, I was hoping it would lead to its star, David Tomlinson, waking up next to Glynis Johns (his wife from “Mary Poppins”), a la the “Newhart” finale. No ending to a Disney film, with the exception of “Poppins,” has left me as choked up as the one that concludes David Swift’s marvelous portrait of an optimistic young girl (played by my dad’s childhood crush, Hayley Mills) who transforms the spirit of a cynical town. In a film ripe with A-grade character actors (Jane Wyman, Agnes Moorehead, Reta Shaw, to name a few), I especially loved Karl Malden as the misguided reverend, whose fire and brimstone sermons could serve as a satire of the fear-mongering fanaticism fueling so many recent propaganda pictures. Make fun of the movie’s stigmatized title all you want. This half-century-old masterpiece has more guts—and more tangible soul—than most family films today.
The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
Though Disney has no business owning the Muppets, considering the fact they clearly have no clue what to do with them (and according to Frank Oz, they have shown no interest in making the veteran performers who originated these characters active creative participants), I’m grateful that Disney+ has at least included three of Henson & Co.’s cinematic works on their service: 1979’s “The Muppet Movie,” 1992’s “The Muppet Christmas Carol” and this splendid 1981 comedy. Marking the feature directorial debut of Jim Henson, this picture contained perhaps the most mind-boggling feats ever achieved by the Muppet performers, including a dizzying climb up a drain pipe detailed in Oz’s essential documentary, “Muppet Guys Talking.” This is also the grandest big screen showcase for Miss Piggy, who affirms her status as a bonafide star, whether she’s tearing up the dance floor, channeling Esther Williams or flirting with Charles Grodin (whose mere presence earns this film the alternate title, “The Heartbreak Pig”).
Long before she directed her own films featuring blonde heroines, Sofia Coppola donned a Barbie wig in this delightfully quirky 1984 short film from former Disney animator Tim Burton. Shelved for many years by Disney, along with the sketches that would eventually inform “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (also streamable on Disney+), this comedy finally saw the light of day once its creator suddenly proved himself to be a bankable name. It pays loving homage to the aesthetics and tone of James Whale’s “Frankenstein” films, while foreshadowing numerous future Burton pictures through its playful production design. The scrappily crowd-pleasing yarn centers on young Victor Frankenstein (Barret Oliver of “The Neverending Story”), who is determined to bring his dead dog back to life, causing much bewilderment—though not as much as you might expect—for his parents (played by the uproariously deadpan duo of Shelley Duvall and Daniel Stern, who really deserved their own movie).
Return to Oz (1985)
It is downright uncanny just how closely the costumed Jack Skellington, hero of “Nightmare Before Christmas,” resembles Jack Pumpkinhead, the character created by L. Frank Baum for his Oz books, who is played in this unabashedly eerie fantasy by Brian Henson (just a year prior to portraying Hoggle in his dad’s Lewis Carroll-esque adventure, “Labyrinth”). Unwisely marketed as a sequel to Victor Fleming’s immortal musical, “The Wizard of Oz,” the perversity begins with Dorothy (an impeccably cast Fairuza Balk) nearly being subjected to shock treatment, and the film only gets darker from there. Walter Murch, the Oscar-winning sound editor of “Apocalypse Now,” chose this movie as his first directional effort, and it turned out to be his last, after it left critics and audiences alike mumbling, “The horror…the horror…” That’s a damned shame, since this picture is so singular in its gloriously audacious weirdness, further enhanced by the remarkably expressive stop-motion of Will Vinton.
Sister Act (1992)
So taken was I with this euphoric comedy upon first video rental, fresh off its release, that I clearly remember dancing around the house as the cast sang “Shout!” over the end credits. Directed by Emile “Dirty Dancing” Ardolino (just a year prior to his death from AIDS-related complications) and written by Paul Rudnick under the alias of Joseph Howard (with additional script doctoring from Carrie Fisher), this film is a rollicking spin on the formula set by “Lilies of the Field,” the Oscar-winning vehicle for Sidney Poitier—whose last name is evoked by Whoopi Goldberg’s heroine, Dolores Van Cartier (while the lesser sequel ripped off Poitier’s “To Sir, With Love”). Though my own faith in organized religion has evaporated over time, I am more moved than ever by this film’s liberating spirit, illustrating in each of its cheerfully subversive musical numbers how there is more than one true way to worship, and how the walls of a church are not meant to separate its inhabitants from the outside world.
Empire of Dreams (2004)
Disney’s recent mishandling of “Star Wars” is nearly as unforgivable as its wasting of the Muppets. Though I loved “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi,” last year’s messy culmination of the nine-picture saga, “The Rise of Skywalker” (complete with an ending lifted directly from “Avengers: Endgame”), failed to satisfy, as have the increasingly pointless spinoff films. Edith Becker and Kevin Burns’ two-and-a-half hour documentary—originally released in a DVD boxed set—takes us back to a simpler time not so long ago (just over four decades), when George Lucas first conceived of the original trilogy, three ageless entertainments that even he couldn’t top with his stilted prequels. Last year, I had the privilege of interviewing Paul Hirsch, the Oscar-winning editor of “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back,” who shared with me how the attack on the Death Star was perfected without John Williams’ score. Make sure to check out the wealth of priceless anecdotes offered in his memoir, A Long Time Ago in a Cutting Room Far, Far Away…
The Mandalorian (2019)
Who could’ve guessed that Disney’s most successful “Star Wars” spinoff would take its cue from one of the streaming platform’s more head-scratching titles, “Three Men and a Baby”? All they did was subtract two of the men and turn the remaining one into a likable clone of Boba Fett, who goes against his protocol as a bounty hunter by saving the life of a childlike creature—one that resembles an infant version of Yoda (I’m guessing its parents are E.T. and Baby Sinclair). The bond that forms between this unlikely duo emerges as the heart of the show, and it is flat-out irresistible to behold. Already on the road to post-“Lion King” redemption, series creator Jon Favreau captures the rugged spirit of retro western serials (the sort that Tarantino honored in “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”), while wisely relying on practical effects—Josh Rosengrant (“Jurassic Park”) and TaMara Carlson Woodard (“Where the Wild Things Are”) are among the credited puppeteers—to bring the character christened by fans as Baby Yoda to life. It is, quite simply, the most adorable scene-stealer in many a moon, winning the heart of its co-star Werner Herzog while proving that the old-school magic of puppetry will easily best lifeless computer animation any day. The Force is strong with this little one.