Since many of us have a lot more time on our hands with social distancing thanks to COVID-19, I figured it would be a good idea to suggest some of my favorites that are on Disney+.
To offer a wide range, I selected five films or television shows from the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. Additionally, I tried to focus on things that have often been overlooked or considered underrated over the years, so this is why you won’t see classics such as Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast, or new hits such as The Mandolorian, but all are family-friendly!
The Sign of Zorro
The 1950s Disney television production of Zorro is one of my all-time favorite television shows. Sadly the entire series is not on Disney+, however The Sign of Zorro is. So what’s the difference? The Sign of Zorro is a film made up of eight episodes from the first season, and focuses on the battle of wits and swords between Zorro and the greedy Captain Monastario. Guy Williams is charming and dashing as both Don Diego de la Vega and as the masked Zorro. Despite Zorro’s massive success, with even personal appearances by the cast at Disneyland, many people forget the show was made by Disney.
Unlike Zorro, which was a weekly series, Davy Crockett was part of the Disneyland TV show, and was showcased as a mini series within the Disneyland show. It started with Davy Crockett King of the Wild Frontier, and due to its massive success, they did another mini series called Davy Crockett and the River Pirates. Both are available on Disney+. The first tells the classic tale of Davy Crockett from wild frontiersman to politician, and the other is a race between him and Mink Fink aboard keelboats.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Despite being a tremendous success at the time of its release, few people I know have sat down and watched 20,000 Leagues. It is a classic tale, with stunning visuals that hold up immensely well!
True Life Adventures
True Life Adventures was Walt Disney’s first foray into documentaries, beginning in 1948 with Seal Island. The first several were shorts, but in 1953 The Living Desert was produced as a feature. Currently a handful of these are on Disney+, including The Living Desert, The African Lion, Perri, and Jungle Cat. So if you’re into nature, these are really quite educational and fun. I loved them as a kid, owning several on VHS.
The Mickey Mouse Club
Overall The Mickey Mouse Club is a perfect dose of Disney comfort, and a little window into the past. I remember watching episodes late at night during the Vault Disney portion of the Disney Channel in the 1990s. Full of celebrity cameos, song and dance numbers, serials within the episodes such as Spin and Marty, and more, it is sure to brighten your day.
That Darn Cat
A fluffy “tail” of crime and how a cat helps solve it, That Darn Cat features some of my favorite Disney stars at the time, such as Dean Jones, Hayley Mills, and personal favorite Roddy McDowall, plus the Riddler himself Frank Gorshin. And, yes, if you like the 90s remake, it’s on Disney+ as well.
The Ugly Dachshund
In another Dean Jones film, he stars as Mark Garrison who is married to Fran, played by Suzanne Pleshette, and she is utterly obsessed with her dachshund who has just had puppies. Meanwhile Mark dreams of having a “real” dog and gifted a great dane from the family vet, and he attempts to pull it off as just another dachshund puppy. Full of hilarity from talented animals, it’s a fun and silly romp.
Dean Jones and Suzanne Pleshette team up again in what is rather a hokey film, but fun nonetheless. After conjuring Blackbeard’s ghost, new track coach Steve Walker (Dean Jones) finds himself helping out the descendants of Blackbeard’s crew who operate an inn out of Blackbeard’s old hideout and who are about to lose it to a group of oily mobsters.
The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin
Here Suzanne Plashette stars along side Roddy McDowall, who plays the title character, in a story of East Coasters trying to make it out west and they run into many mix-ups resulting in amusing moments.
The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes
Before Kurt Russell was a big action star, he did several quirky comedies with Disney. This one is the first in a trilogy where Russell’s character of Dexter ends up in impossible situations. He also stars alongside Cesar Reomero after his time as the original Joker. From a history of technology perspective the film is quite interesting. I love seeing what computers were like during their early years.
The Cat from Outer Space
The Cat from Outer Space seriously ranks among one of my favorite live-action Disney films. Some of you might even remember when I went as the main character, Zunar J5/9 Doric 4-7, AKA Jake, for Halloween one year. Here, Ken Berry stars to help the stranded alien cat back home. It also stars Roddy McDowall (yes, yet again), Sandy Duncan, Alan Young, and M* A * S * H colonels McLean Stevenson and Harry Morgan.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks
Witches. Nazis. Singing fish. Soccer playing lions. What isn’t to like? Bedknobs and Broomsticks is one of the more mainstream films on the list, but still not extremely well known. After taking in three children due to the bombings in London during World War II, Miss Price, played by Angela Lansbury, displays her talent, and sometimes lack of talent, as a witch to the children, and with their aid ends up fighting off Nazis who land on her town’s shores. With spectacular visual effects that hold up quite well, it also stars David Tomlinson of Mary Poppins, and, once again, Roddy McDowall (it’s the last one on the list, I swear.)
Candleshoe was another childhood favorite of mine that I still enjoy watching. When con man Harry Bundage finds foster kid Casey (played by a young Jodie Foster) running around the streets of LA, he thinks she is a dead ringer for the missing granddaughter of Lady St. Edmund, who supposedly has buried pirate treasure somewhere on her property. Casey successfully passes off as the granddaughter and seeks to find the treasure, while also maybe finally finding a place to call home. The film also stars personal favorite David Niven as the butler of the grand house.
Escape to Witch Mountain
For one reason or another Escape to Witch Mountain has had several incarnations after its own sequel, Return to Witch Mountain. It had a remake in 1995 with a very young Elisabeth Moss well before her time on Mad Men, and another remake in 2009 with Dwayne Johnson, titled Race to Witch Mountain. This film from 1975 is the original. Here twin brother and sister Tia and Tony possess amazing talents, such as making objects move without touching them, and telepathy. Orphaned, they soon find themselves in the hands of a rich man who they learn does not have their best interests at heart. With the help of Jason, played by Green Acres star Eddie Albert, they try to find their way home. It also feature puppets from LA’s Bob Baker Marionette Theatre, and I was thrilled to see some of those puppets in real life not long ago, read about the experience here.
The Apple Dumpling Gang
When three orphaned children strike it rich in the wild west of California, everyone is after them, including the lovable but bumbling bandits Theodore, played by Don Knotts, and Amos, played byTim Conway. Harry Morgan once again stars, this time as the town’s sheriff. The film also had a sequel, The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again, also available on Disney+.
Disney Non-Disney+ Bonus: The North Avenue Irregulars
Sadly, one of my forgotten live-action Disney favorites, The North Avenue Irregulars, isn’t available on Disney+, but is available to rent on other services, such as iTunes. After losing their church savings on a horse race operated by crooks, the new minister, played by Edward Herrmann (who later went on to Gilmore Girls), and his church ladies set out to run the crooks out of town. It is full of utterly hilarious moments that still crack me up. It also stars Gilligan’s Island star Alan Hale Jr., and funny woman Cloris Leachman.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is perhaps main stream, it’s not often considered a classic. Off-beat and full of rather colorful and creative humor, it is perhaps a bit more for the adults, which is why Disney chose to release it under their “adult” banner, Touchstone. While Disney had been combining live-action and animation from the very beginning with his Alice shorts, and gained notoriety for it with Mary Poppins, Roger Rabbit is by far the most successful blend of live-action and animation. Honestly, Bob Hoskins deserved an Oscar for his role as alcoholic private eye Eddie Valiant. The film is also where my favorite “villain sidekick” comes from, Smart Ass, the leader of the Toon Patrol who do the dirty deeds for Judge Doom, played by Christopher Lloyd.
Tron didn’t fare too well when it was originally released in 1982, and even I’ll admit, its story is rather lackluster, but it is noteworthy because of its creativity with and early use of computers. Its relative cult status prior to 2010 made me wonder why Disney decided to gamble with it yet again with a sequel that year, with Tron: Legacy. I’ll admit I do prefer Tron: Legacy, especially since it has such an amazing soundtrack provided by Daft Punk, but Tron is still worth the watch. Tron: Legacy is also available on Disney+.
The Great Mouse Detective
Growing up with a Sherlock Holmes loving father, I was bound to love The Great Mouse Detective. Made during the Studio’s struggling years prior to the Disney Renaissance, The Great Mouse Detective is a cute reimagining of classic Sherlock but with mice. It also features my favorite villain, Ratigan, voiced by one of my favorite stars, Vincent Price. The film is also arguably one of the first to use computers for the impressive Big Ben scene.
Before being a full-length stop-motion animated film in 2012, Frankenweenie was a 29 minute short, which re-tells the story of Frankenstein, but with a boy and his dog. I personally find this original version from 1984 far more charming and heartwarming than the 2012 film, and wondered why Tim Burton felt the need to reinvent the wheel.
Adventures of the Gummi Bears
Gummi Bears is certainly geared toward the kiddos, and is a cutesy series of a group of humanoid bears who co-exist with humans in a medieval setting. This was a staple of my childhood and maybe it will be a walk down memory lane for you, or a new treasure for your own children.
Disney Non-Disney+ Bonus: Condorman
Yet another amazing and forgotten live-action Disney film fails to make the Disney+ cut, Condorman. After a mix-up, comic book artist and writer, Woody, played by the stage’s original Phantom, Michael Crawford, ends up becoming his creation, Condorman. Full of outrageous costumes and gadgets, Woody tackles Russians to save the day. Thankfully, Condorman is available to rent on other platforms such as iTunes.
For one reason or another, The Rocketeer failed to gain commercial success and notoriety, so much so I know people who have had their Rocketeer costumes removed from Disney cosplay groups because people didn’t think it was Disney! But, unlike Roger Rabbit, which many people fail to remember was released under Touchstone, The Rocketeer does bear Walt’s name in the beginning. Based on Dave Steven’s comic under the same name, a pilot trying to make ends meet ends up with fantastical jetpack, but little does he know its origins and that the fate of the world during World War II rests with him.
Like The Rocketeer, Newsies wasn’t a box office hit at the time of its release, and ended up in the cult category, mostly forgotten until it was turned into a Broadway production. While inspired by true events of a group of newspaper selling boys trying to become a union, it takes extreme creative liberties, but it is still very enjoyable, and has big name stars such as Ann-Margret and Robert Duvall who stars as Joseph Pulitzer, and of course a very young Christian Bale as the lead role of Jack Kelly.
I absolutely adored Gargoyles growing up (and still do), and really wish it had had more success, especially since it was so forward thinking. A combination of high-fantasy and crime, Gargoyles was Disney’s first attempt at a dramatic animated series, it also featured a strong female lead who was part Native American, part African-American. Then there is the voice talents, which include Keith David, Jonathan Frakes, Ed Asner, John Rhys-Davies, Tim Curry, and more.
Take characters from The Jungle Book, mix in a bit of Indiana Jones, airplanes, and a tiki bar, and you get TaleSpin. It’s a fantastical world based sometime after World War II, with air pirates, mystical idols, and pineapple drinks. Here Baloo is a struggling pilot who ends up in the employ of Rebecca Cunningham, a single mother operating a cargo shipping company. And while Ratigan may be my favorite animated movie villain, Don Karnage, the leader of the Air Pirates, is my favorite animated television villain. While geared toward children, there are plenty of hilarious puns and more that are for the adults.
Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers
Like TaleSpin, Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers takes established Disney characters and gives them their own series. Here the mischievous chipmunks Chip and Dale have a team that includes mice and a fly to help out those in need.
Still can’t get enough? Check out these bonus films!
Melody Time is a film made up of several shorts with musical elements, and includes two of my absolute favorites, “Pecos Bill” and “Once Upon a Wintertime.”
Ferdinand the Bull
Based on the children’s book under the same title, Ferdinand the Bull tells the story of a bull hauled off to face off against a matador, but all he wants to do is sit and smell the flowers. The book itself, and I assume the film as it was released in 1938, was banned in Germany by Hitler, who labeled it “degenerate democratic propaganda.”
The Old Mill
The Old Mill is a short that was the first to use the multi-plane camera, which would revolutionize animated films. It’s also adorable yet spooky at times.
Waking Sleeping Beauty
If you are a child of the Disney Renaissance like me, then Waking Sleeping Beauty is an absolute must! It covers what the animators at the Studio went through after Walt’s death through the development of The Lion King. What makes it unique from a film making perspective is that it does not have any contemporary interviews, relying only on interviews of the time, and footage that the animators made themselves of their working conditions.
So break out the popcorn and settle in to watch your way through the decades with Disney+!
Are there any forgotten favorites of yours on Disney+? Anything you’ve been enjoying on Disney+ or other streaming services?