Utter the name Disney, and memories of cartoons and magic swell in our hearts. The crabbiest human beings melt into childlike whimsy at the mention of films like Fantasia or The Brave Little Tailor. The media machine that drives our recollections tends to pay more attention to the big titles, or the ones that match our pre-established notion of what Disney is “supposed” to be. Often people do not equate the strange and unusual with the name of Disney. With the release of TRON: Legacy, we here at Mania wanted to mention some of the weirder Disney genre films out there. They were often old-fashioned, released on DVD with no fanfare (as the original TRON was in 2002), or simply cannot be found in any form today, but they were nonetheless a part of Disney that no one should miss… especially lovers of unusual cinema.
Walt Disney Pictures’ first science fiction film features Kirk Douglas singing “A Whale of A Tale,” which needs to be seen to be believed. Based on the Jules Verne novel, the film features a deep-sea bound crew out to prove the existence of sea monsters. When their boat is attacked by a monster, the survivors are set adrift and rescued/captured by the crew of the Nautilus. Its Captain, Nemo (Jame Mason) is a megalomaniac nuclear scientist who hates the world at large… and yet still remains surprisingly sympathetic. The battle between the submarine and the giant squid has fed the imagination of geeks worldwide, with references wherever you look (including a brief nod in Blizzard’s new World of Warcraft Cataclysm expansion).
Crotchety old Irishman Darby O’Gill (Albert Sharpe) has spent a good part of his life as the town fool, mostly because he tells everyone about his adventures as a leprechaun hunter at the corner pub. Then said old man is captured by leprechauns. His beautiful daughter is besieged by one good potential suitor, played by none other than Sean Connery (pre Bond), and an unsavory town bully as well. Wackiness ensues, with a full cornucopia of odd Irish mythical creatures—rendered in very 1950s-style effects--and redubbing due to the difficulty understanding the original Irish accents. This film is a blast; rent it if you can find it.
Fairy tales set the scene in this acid trip of a film. The songs are wonderful, and the colors are straight out of an oversaturated children’s book. It features another incredible cast that includes Annette Funicello, teen idol Tommy Sands, Ed Wynn, and the incomparable Ray Bolger (Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz) as the villain, Barnaby. All of them scamper through a landscape that feels more like Pooh’s Heffalump dreams than a magical land of whimsy and joy. You’ll never know how strange Disney films can get until you take a look.
Long before Jack Sparrow (but long after Disney’s first completely live action film, Treasure Island), there was Peter Ustinov as Captain Blackbeard. As the fates would have it, Blackbeard’s ghost has been placed in limbo by his witchy wife until he can perform a good deed. He gets his chance when a group of old ladies (the descendants of Blackbeard’s crew) try to save their inn from an evil crime boss. If it sounds weird, just wait till you see it. The humor might be a bit old fashioned, but it holds up surprisingly well otherwise.
Dexter Reilly (played by the not-quite-Snake-Plissken Kurt Russell) is a student at a small private college that finds itself unable to purchase a computer. A crooked gambler (Cesar Romero) somehow gets involved “helping” the school with their money problems. But when a freak accident occurs involving (what else) lightning, Reilly miraculously transforms into the human equivalent of a computer. With his freaky new abilities, he quickly becomes aware of new ways to win the cash his school needs.
Despite its odd premise, the combination of live action and animation in this film is every bit as magical as any of Disney’s other endeavors. During WWII, a rag-tag group of orphans are reluctantly placed with a woman, Eglantine Price (none other than Angela Lansbury), training to be a witch. Misadventures abound when the gang goes in search of her teacher, Emelius Browne (David Tomlinson) who turns out to be an elaborate con man. Magic begins to rule the path of the strangely combined band of misfits, and strange and wonderful things bring them together. Bedknobs is often overlooked in favor of Mary Poppins, but the comparison remains unfair, and I think this film stands alone on its own charm.
Tia and Tony are siblings with some very special talents. When a wealthy man becomes determined to acquire the children and their powers, the two orphans slowly piece together the fragmented memories of their family, and origins. In the case of the remake, newer is certainly not better (with all due respect to the Dwayne Johnson), but try to see the original sometime. It is a bit slow with character development, but still makes for an excellent sci-fi fairy tale.
Pete, an abused orphan, runs away from his swamp people adoptive parents with the help of his friend Elliot. Did we mention that Elliot is an enormous invisible dragon? The fantastic singer/actress Helen Reddy plays Nora, who provides a safe home for Pete, and hopes to free him from his “imaginary friend delusion.” Then Dr. Terminus (Jim Dale) rolls into town as a snake oil salesman who, along with Nora’s drunken father Lampie (Mickey Rooney), are the only people who believe in Pete’s “tall tale.” For all its oddball qualities, the musical numbers in this film are very hummable, and were a favorite of mine as a child. And let’s face it, who doesn’t want a dragon for a friend (and occasional heavy)?
We all figured that cats were from outer space anyways. But this film proves it when Jake the telepathic feline lands on Earth, and needs a human’s help to fix his ship. Jake has super powers when donning his glowing collar; he uses them to basically rig sporting events in his favor to get the cash necessary to acquire the materials he needs to return home. Another strange cast here, with Sandy Duncan and Roddy McDowall amongst the wackiness. It might make you reconsider just waiting to open that can of soft food for your intensely fixated kitty.
This film is a one-of-a-kind adaptation of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court. NASA astronaut Tom Trimble (played by Dennis Dugan more noted for directing films such as Happy Gilmore, and Big Daddy) must help save King Arthur’s throne from the evil machinations of Merlin and Sir Mordred (brought to life by the always brilliant Jim Dale, an actor able to render the wonderful and strange stereotypes of old-fashioned stage productions believable). The film comes complete with an android, NASA shuttle, and knights jousting: a unique example of Disney stretching its family friendly label into some very weird directions.
Location, location, location. The poor Black Hole film had the misfortune of opening after Star Wars, full stop. Unfortunately, it didn’t change with the times, and remains a blaring demonstration of old storytelling and limited special effects. As a child, I remember being baffled when I told my parents I loved it, and they just laughed. Then I grew up. The cast is surreal, with actors like Roddy McDowall and Slim Pickens pulling their names from the credits rather than admitting to voicing the odd trash-can robots. Anthony Perkins (yes, of Norman Bates fame) stars as the dashing hero, and Oscar winner Maximillian Schell eats up the scenery as the strangely Captain Nemo-esque villain. The incredible score written by John Barry (James Bond theme, Out of Africa) was the world’s first soundtrack to be digitally recorded. It was also the first PG-rated film for Disney, which created Touchstone shortly thereafter to handle the company’s more adult films.
Make no mistake, this is a horror movie, and an excellent one; seeing it come from the House of Mouse is quite a trip. The circus rides into a small Midwestern town with Jonathan Pryce, front and center as the most overlooked and nerve-wracking film portrayal of the devil. He tempts and manipulates the good people of the town, and only a pair of young boys can stop him. Strange and marvelous casting choices also abound, including a fun little moment with Pam Grier as a fortune telling seductress. Papa Disney would have been proud that his company had the sophistication to ask the kind of questions that this film did about childhood, the power of wishes (good and bad), and the consequences those dreams can have.
Created a few years before the animation renaissance rescued the company’s fortunes, this film features a young protagonist, David, who is abducted by an alien, and reappears eight years in the future. The world feels threatened by him, and frightened that he has not aged at all during his absence. He and a robot named Max (voiced by Paul Reubens) plan a way to return him to his family in the past, as if nothing ever happened. This film was ill received in theaters, but has since become a cult classic, and for good reason. The effects hold up remarkably well, and the quirky boy-and-his-robot plot still makes a wonderful adventure story.