Disney+ has officially arrived, with all the force and weight that Uncle Walt’s 600 lb. entertainment gorilla can muster. The Mouse plays for keeps, and the buzz around event releases like The Mandalorian and the various MCU projects immediately put their streaming service in the top tier alongside Netflix and Amazon.
But Disney’s strengths go beyond their acquisition (and undeniably strong shepherding) of hot IPs such as Marvel and Star Wars. Their library stretches back over 80 years, and a large amount of it is available for streaming. Animated features go without saying, and if you need an instant cache of timeless classics (and their often less-than-timeless direct-to-video sequels), the service has you covered. But the company isn’t one to leave it at that, and if you dig deeper into the available content, you’re going to find a lot to love.
We’ve picked 15 of the quieter gems on the new service, spread out across the company’s history and reflecting various facets of their development, and listed chronologically.
The Reluctant Dragon (1941)
The Reluctant Dragon is a bit of an oddity by animation standards. It arrived at a time when the studio was struggling to repeat the phenomenal success of Snow White, and both Pinocchio and Fantasia had underperformed at the box office a year earlier. The Reluctant Dragon was an attempt to mitigate that: a “feature film” that consisted largely of a documentary about how animation is made. It was overlaid with a fictional story about a writer pitching the story to Walt (who plays himself), and a few shorts – including an “extended” version of the titular short as the capstone – are interspersed throughout the running time.
It’s a wonky beast indeed, but it turned a profit, and while the various pieces are an odd fit, all of them are solid and entertaining.
(On a darker note, the film was released in the middle of an animators’ strike at Disney. The Reluctant Dragon featured prominently in the strikers’ signage, not only because it was in theaters at the time, but because Walt himself appeared in the film. The strike ended with Walt recognizing the union, but the incident left lingering scars in both the man and his company.)
The Living Desert (1953)
No single individual has won more Academy Awards than Walt Disney, largely on the basis of animated shorts from the 1930s and nature documentaries from the 1950s. The Living Desert was the first feature-length doc Disney attempted, and quietly holds a very important place in the company’s history. Like Snow White, it appeared only after Disney had tested the formula with shorter movies. From a business perspective, it marked the first time Disney distributed one of his movies himself: ending his long-standing partnership with RKO Pictures and creating Buena Vista Distribution which remains a key part of Disney’s corporate make-up today. It also won him another Oscar, while setting the pattern for the wealth of nature documentaries to follow. And while it was rightfully criticized for softening the harsh realities of the natural world, it remains a fascinating artifact of a key point in the company’s history.
Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959)
A perennial St. Patrick’s Day favorite, this kiss of the Blarney Stone holds up not only because of its reasonably accurate take on Irish folklore but because of the brilliant use of practical effects such as forced perspective and split screen. Its storyline is also very Disney, with a wily old Irishman matching wits with the King of the Leprechauns, and Sean “Not Actually An Irish Person” Connery romancing Janet “Also Not Actually Irish” Munro in suitably chaste and family friendly fashion, it’s one of the stranger – and more inexplicably durable – examples of Disney’s live-action canon.
The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969)
Walt Disney’s purported last words before his death were “Kurt Russell”, written on a piece of notepaper. At the time, the young actor had just signed a big contract with the studio, and in the ensuing decade became the studio’s most bankable star with hits like The Barefoot Executive and The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit (a number of which are available on Disney +). The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes was Russell’s biggest hit at the time, spawning two sequels and setting the table for Disney’s live-action offerings of the 1970s. It’s also a telling moment in the career of one of Hollywood’s most enduring and beloved stars.
Return to Oz (1985)
This mid-80s not-quite-a-sequel was an initial box-office bomb, and resulted in a lot of pearl-clutching at the time from those who felt it dishonored the beloved Judy Garland film. The ensuing years have restored its charms to their proper perspective, and while it holds its share of shadows, that seems to have endeared it to the same wee ones its critics sought so desperately to protect. More faithful to the L. Frank Baum novels than the 1939 version and featuring an amazing array of practical-effects creatures from the Jim Henson company – as well as a terrific turn from Fairuza Balk as Dorothy Gale – it makes a fine treat for older children ready for something a little spookier.
The Rocketeer (1991)
Comic-book movies were a much different beast when The Rocketeer arrived in the summer of 1991, and despite critical raves, the movie never caught fire at the box office. That’s a shame because it’s a sterling homage to 30s pulp heroics, as a dashing hero (Bill Campbell) uses a rocket pack designed by Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) to battle Nazi spies in pre-war Los Angeles. Director Joe Johnston successfully replicated the tone and feeling of this effort with the first Captain America movie… playing a vital role in the development of the MCU in the process.
Darkwing Duck (1991-1992)
The launch of the Disney Channel in the early 1980s served as a precursor to their current streaming service: adopting the same template of original series and classic programming that Disney+ has taken to heart. They found long-term success with many of the cartoons developed for the channel, including the likes of DuckTales, Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers, and TaleSpin which enjoy a solid reputation today (and are included in Disney+). The best of them is Darkwing Duck an avian retake on the Shadow It received two Daytime Emmy nominations during its 3-season run and maintains a cult following who appreciate its slapstick send-up of grimdark crimefighters.
Believe it or not, there is footage of Christian Bale dancing that DOESN’T end with him burying an axe in Jared Leto’s skull. Like a lot of titles on this list, the live-action musical Newsies! – depicting the trials and tribulations of street-level newspaper hawkers in the ear of William Randolph Hearst – bombed at the box office, but found new life on video. With songs by Alan Menken and a talented cast who don’t appear in musicals much, it holds a strong cult appeal for those on the right wavelength.
X-Men: The Animated Series (1992)
The X-Men were quiet trailblazers on a number of platforms beyond the Fox feature films that helped pave the way for the MCU. Disney’s purchase of Fox gave them the rights to Marvel’s Merry Mutants, and while there’s no sign of the feature films on Disney+ yet, that doesn’t mean that X-fans have nothing to look for. The animated series – premiering just a few weeks after the groundbreaking Batman: The Animated Series in the fall of 1992 – was the first real introduction to the characters for audiences outside the comics. Though less-than-polished at times, the animation took pains to duplicate the four-color look from the comics, and five seasons let it revel in several beloved storylines … including Days of Future Past and the Dark Phoenix saga, which later became fodder for feature films. (In the case of Dark Phoenix, the animated version remains the demonstrably superior adaptation.) Also look for Wolverine and the X-Men from 2009, an underrated single-season series that takes a similarly respectful tone towards the source material.
The Sandlot (1993)
“You’re killing me Smalls!”
Scattered here and there amid the Disney+ line-up are acquisitions from Fox that don’t involve either mutant superheroes or galaxies far far away. The biggest is The Sound of Music, but Disney+ carries a number of quieter Fox pick-ups including this cult favorite from the early 1990s. The story is pure Disney – a coming-of-age comedy about an athletically inept young boy finding validation through his neighborhood baseball team – but it carries a saltier edge that helps it stand out from the softer live-action traditions of the Mouse. Fox may be gone, but it’s nice to see a few small pieces of their legacy here.
Gargoyles was part of Disney’s creative resurgence in the 90s, as well as proof that they could break out of the cute-cartoon-animal mold and tell darker and more sophisticated stories. It started with the TMNT model – in this case, the last of a race of noble monsters who turn into stone by day and reawaken in modern New York to fight various flavors of villainy – but quickly found its own voice thanks to a strong vocal cast (led by the great Keith David and including a number of Star Trek alums like Jonathan Frakes and Marian Sirtis) and complex themes of loss, betrayal and fellowship. It developed a following over the course of its three seasons, and with no less a figure than Jordan Peele keenly interested in a reboot, now is a great time to see what engendered such passion.
“Rhapsody in Blue” and “Firebird Suite” from Fantasia 2000 (2000)
Walt Disney conceived of Fantasia as an evolving feature, with new musical sequences periodically swapping out older, less successful ones. Fantasia: 2000 was an earnest effort to honor that vision… with decidedly mixed results. The film leaned too heavily on burgeoning computer animation for too many of its sequences, creating a dreadfully dated set of shorts that have aged about as well as bell bottoms. The two exceptions both relied largely on traditional 2-D techniques: a version of “Rhapsody in Blue” inspired by Al Hirschfield’s caricatures, and a closer from Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite that might approach Night on Bald Mountain for sheer emotional power. Skip the rest, but don’t let these two pass without a viewing: they’re as strong as any animation the studio ever produced.
The Kid (2000)
Bruce Willis isn’t strongly associated with family friendly viewing, but hidden deep in his resume is this delightful number about an unlikable image consultant who magically meets his younger self. It sounds like a shaky gimmick, but under the direction of John Turtletaub, it turns into the kind of story that Disney excels at: a grown-up shaking off his cynicism by remembering the child he used to be. The humor stays gentle, the sentiment is earned, and Willis once again goes against type to demonstrate just what a versatile actor he can be.
Treasure Planet (2002)
This steampunk reimagining of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic remains one of the studio’s biggest box-office bombs, and is generally cited as the movie that killed traditional animation for good. It’s hard to square that circle with the lively, clever and surprisingly faithful results onscreen. It should be celebrated as one of the company’s masterpieces. Instead it’s been relegated to cult status at best… and richly deserving of rediscovery. (I dare you to hear Emma Thompson say “zip your howling screamer” and not fall in love on the spot.)
Tron: Legacy (2010)
TRON might be the studio’s ultimate red-headed stepchild: too niche to live, too unique to die. The sequel to 1982’s original TRON is widely regarded as an also-ran at best, and the failure of the Uprising animated series put the franchise on more or less permanent hold. And yet, like another figure made famous by star Jeff Bridges, it abides. The kinetic TRON: Legacy captures the spirit of the first film’s weird little world inside a computer, aided by deeply underrated visual effects, a strong mythic storyline, and bells and whistles like the Daft Punk score (climbing the charts as one of the best ever composed), making it far more durable than its reputation suggests.
Disney+ is live-streaming and currently available at. www.disneyplus.com.