We highlight the unsung classics from the deep roster of Disney+.
Having had a month to comb through the stacks and stacks of classic Disney films now available on Disney+, we decided to make a list. Thanks to all of Disney’s acquisitions, there’s a ton on the site. There’s even quite a bit you may not realize Disney produced or owns. From forgotten animated films to modern television series, here’s what we found in the stray corners of Disney’s vault that may be worth your time.
The Golden Era (1930s-Early 1940s)
- The Reluctant Dragon (1941).
This nuts-and-bolts film has four animated shorts, welded together by a look inside the workings of the new (at the time) Disney animation studio. The titular story is about a dragon who prefers poetry to fighting, and a knight who prefers tea to dragon slaying, and the story-loving peasant boy who solves their problems.
The Reluctant Dragon is a lark, filled with silliness that gets its edge from the expectations of storybook tales. The other shorts are largely forgettable, though the “Goofy How To…” series was always good for a laugh. As a kid, getting to see inside the studio was the real draw, as I desperately wanted to draw cartoons for Disney as a child.
Silver Age (1950s)
- 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
This adaptation of the Jules Verne’s classic about a rogue submarine captain intent on teaching humanity a violent lesson about the evils of naval empire building.
Disney pumped out a slew of star-studded live-action films in the silver age. This gem features Kirk Douglas, Peter Lore, and a somber James Mason as Captain Nemo. It had high adventure, big set pieces, and a strong tragic moral at the heart of the story. Not just a Disney classic but a film classic.
- Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959)
A sodden Irish caretaker has a hilarious rivalry with the King of the Leprechauns, eventually tricking the tiny monarch into saving his estate.
We’ve sung this film’s praise before, so if you want the full details, head here. Suffice to say, it has cool visual effects, fascinating fantasy creatures, and a young Sean Connery trying to sing. What more do you want?
Post Silver Age (1960s)
- The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969)
A student studying computers (Kurt Russell) gets a second-hand machine from a shady businessman. When lightning strikes, the computer downloads its info into the boy’s mind, making him a genius. Unfortunately, the computer also had a lot of criminal secrets on it, ones the original owner would kill to keep safe.
After the bonanza of classic adventure stories in the silver age, Disney pivoted to more lighthearted and family-friendly stories. This era is famous for stuff like The Shaggy Dog, That Darn Cat, and Pollyanna. This film sneaks into the tail end of the era and is worth mentioning for seeing some interesting sci-fi out of Disney, as well as a baby-faced Kurt Russell.
The Bronze Age (1970s-1980s)
- The Aristocats (1970)
A rich cat inherits her owner’s fortune, but a jealous maid gives her and her kittens the boot. With the help of an alley cat and some barnyard animals, she makes her way home to claim her inheritance.
This is kind of the poor man’s version of 101 Dalmatians. Most of the plot beats are the same, just swap cats for dogs. While it lacks an iconic Disney villain like Cruela, it makes up for it with atmosphere. The film is filled with jazz and French culture, giving you an ankle-high view of the grand old country.
- Bednobs and Broomsticks (1971)
An enterprising witch-in-training (Angela Lansbury), aided by three orphans and the bumbling headmaster of her witch school (David Tomlinson), sets about helping Britain during the Nazi blitz.
I would say that this is the poor man’s Mary Poppins, but it does so much more interesting stuff than Poppins. Lansbury plays her witch-as-suffragette character with aplomb and authority. The rest of the cast is likewise great; even the three kids are more memorable than the ragamuffins from Poppins. Like that film, you get live action blended with animation, along with some great practical effects. This felt like a more mature version of Mary Poppins, where the stakes were higher than just learning to grow up prim and proper.
- Escape to Witch Mountain (1975)
Two siblings with mysterious powers are abducted by a crafty millionaire industrialist. They escape with the aid of an old widower, and are drawn by strange visions to Witch Mountain.
This film, which got an update in the 90’s starring Dwayne Johnson, was a real exception for Disney. First, it was full of science fiction and aliens. Second, it was fairly bleak. Instead of witches and magical nannies twitching their noses, we got Disney’s version of Stephen King’s Firestarter: two kids with psychic powers on the run from vicious thugs and cruel experiments. A real departure in tone and scope from other Disney films of the time.
- The Black Hole (1979)
A deep space mission discovers an uncharted black hole, and another ship impossibly orbiting it. They move in to investigate, but get caught in the clutches in a sinister struggle.
OK, so maybe somebody at Disney in the late 70s was reading the tea leaves about science fiction’s big break out. This film initially feels like Lost in Space or Battlestar Galactica, but quickly becomes metaphysical. It ends with a journey through heaven and hell…whether its metaphorical or literal is left up to you. The science isn’t half bad for bleeding edge astrophysics in the 1970s. Some heady stuff, though not always well implemented.
- Dragonslayer (1981)
A young mage must slay a fearsome dragon when his master, a legendary wizard, is apparently killed in the attempt.
I spilled ink on this beauty before. I will just reiterate two facts: this film is gorgeous sword and sorcery, and it ends with God Almighty’s greatest practical effects extravaganza – featuring one badass wizard-and-dragon meat-splosion.
- Flight of the Navigator (1986)
A young boy discovers what is believed to be an experimental space craft, only to discover it is a sentient alien vessel looking to get home.
Wow, more science fiction in Disney’s vault that I remembered! This one features some cool visuals, nice creature designs, and Pee-Wee Herman as the ship. Nice!
- The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
A boy and his companion, a giant golden eagle, are hunted in the Australian outback by a ruthless poacher. Two mice who work for a UN-esque aid society head down under to save him.
Good golly almighty, Disney made a good sequel? They never make good sequels! Not only was this baby a great sequel, it shone a spotlight on the criminally under appreciated original. It also features some of the most gorgeous animation ever out of Disney, pioneering techniques that would become hallmarks of the titans of this era like The Lion King and The Little Mermaid.
- The Three Musketeers (1993)
This era of live-action Disney film featured mostly tired remakes of classics such as The Parent Trap, The Love Bug, and Escape from Witch Mountain (showing that nobody recycles properties like The Mouse.) That, or a surprisingly lucrative run of sports comedies like Might Ducks and Cool Runnings.
So it was surprising when Disney made an old-fashioned storybook adventure. It was doubly surprising as it featured not-yet-cool again actors like Keifer Sutherland and Charlie Sheen (and always-still-cool Tim Curry as the big bad.) It was triply surprising in that it was a ton of fun.
- Gargoyles (1994)
Ancient warriors imprisoned in stone by superstitious humans, the gargoyles commonly found in Gothic architecture are actually living creatures. In the modern day city, they return to life at night in order to fight crime and search for the black magic society that keeps them cursed.
The Disney Afternoon was going full on gang-busters in the 90s, with family friendly stuff like Duck Tales, Tail Spin, and Gummy Bears. It was a real revelation that Disney could put something darker out that would go toe to toe with heroes like Batman and Spider-Man. The series also was a big leap in representation, with a woman of color/indigenous roots as the series’ human lead and the Gargoyles themselves mostly coding as non-white (especially Goliath, voiced with fiery energy by the legendary Keith David.)
The Dark Age (2000s)
- Sky High (2005)
A high school for special teens trains its wards to become super heroes.
The dark age for Disney is an odd term. While Pixar was absolutely killing things in the digital space, most of the animated films from Disney were struggling and failing. You also had the Disney Channel pumping out bland, safe pop culture pap featuring teen idols like Miley Cyrus.
Sky High is by no means subversive, but it is a solid entry into the meta-aware super hero genre later taken up by stuff like Runaways and Kick-Ass. It also features an older and wiser Kurt Russell, so Disney came around full circle on this one.
- The Princess and the Frog (2009)
An aspiring restaurateur has her dreams of a big New Orleans restaurant derailed when she gets accidentally kissed by a frog – who is really a cursed prince. Now a frog herself, she must help him overcome the sly voodoo priest who cast the spell in the first place.
The Princess and the Frog ended the dry spell for Disney animated movies. It was also a milestone for the Mouse opening up the representation for their iconic “princesses” pantheon. For all that, this film feels like it doesn’t get nearly as much attention as other Disney animated flicks, and other films regularly get credit for breaking ground that this flick had already broken wide open.
- Avatar (2009)
You know this movie. It was (until recently) the biggest movie in the world. So it’s not really a hidden gem: people theoretically know it exists…and it’s not actually very good. I include it here just because very few people know that Disney owns it. That’s right, in case you lost count, Disney now owns the rights to 4 out of 5 of the HIGHEST GROSSING MOVIES OF ALL TIME. Nothing like good old fashioned monopolies…
The Renewal Era (2010’s)
- Descendants (2015)
The children of iconic Disney heroes and heroines attend school on a magically sealed island. The children of iconic Disney villains and villainesses plot to crack that sucker wide open.
Like Sky High, this is a high school drama that reworks and explores the tropes of pop culture properties. Instead of capes, we get tiaras and magic wands. It’s a fun three season story (at least for now, but as one of the most popular leads died recently, a fourth season seems in bad taste.) It won’t shatter an preconceptions, but it is a cute little thought experiment to see how the kids of famous characters might have wound up.
- Inhumans (2017)
The Inhumans are meta-humans with amazing powers trying to establish their own society against a humanity that fears and hates them. But they’re not mutants. Marvel wants you to explicitly remember they are not mutants…
With the acquisition of most other sources complete, the Marvel diaspora is now over. That means that Disney is virtually the sole repository of Marvel’s heroes. This series, though not as ground-breaking as stuff like Legion, is included it here because A) you might not know its on Disney+, and B) you, like everyone else, probably hasn’t seen it (it was cancelled for low ratings.)
- Free Solo (2018)
This documentary about free climbing comes to Disney care of their deal with National Geographic. It won an Oscar last year …but I know an Oscar for best documentary means it got about as many eyeballs as the Frost Medal winner. That’s for poetry, by the way. Anyway, check out this winner now that its streaming, whydontcha?