Monday, March 31, 2008

Disney Films That Aren't (Part One)...

Sometimes when my friends and I go to the movies as the credits start to roll and we begin talking about what we liked and didn't like about a film, I also tend to have in the back of my head...

"This coulda' been a Disney film."

What do I mean by that? Well, usually it comes up when I've seen a film that reflects the kind of story one would expect from a Walt Disney Picture. A good story that is suitable for the entire family. One that can be enjoyed by parents and kids without talking down to either of them. One that stresses values and commitments. One that focuses on compelling characters that provide ideals and role models that keep an audience interested.

So, I know some of you are then asking... "What are some of these films?"

The Harry Potter series

J. K. Rowling's tale of an orphaned boy that is a potentially powerful wizard in a battle of good versus evil is a perfect example of this. I remember after seeing "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" thinking why didn't Disney buy this property? The characters and richly detailed story are perfectly in line with the kind of family fare that the Mouse should be putting out.


Don Bluth's film based on the real life princess from Russia is wonderful film about the Czar of Russia's daughter and features great animation with an equally devilish villain, Rasputin. This film could have easily had the Disney logo before it. The story and characters are pure Disney even if the distributor is not.

The Mask of Zorro

I loved this film. It should have been made by Disney. It had the perfect story, setting and actors to retail the adventures of the man that leaves behind the letter "Z". Truly a great time. I told my friend as we left the theater that this should have been made by Disney. It was a modern retelling of the old Zorro show. Disney had done it as a television show in the 50's and the Suits should have realized its potential now. Sadly, another studio beat them to it. The sequel, unfortunately was horrible... it's almost as if they forgot what made the first one good.

The Indian in the Cupboard

On his ninth birthday a boy receives an old cupboard from his brother and a little Indian figure made of plastic from his best friend. These two gifts turn out... a flawed, but sweet tale about magic and the meaning behind it. Worthy of having the castle in front of it.

A Little Princess

Alfonso Cuarón's enchantingly heartwarming and heartbreaking tale of a girl named Sara whose her father enlists to fight for the British in WWI, that travels to New York to attend a boarding school. Soon she battles with the headmistress, Miss Minchin, who belittles her and works at grinding down Sara's view that every girl is a princess(very Disney, btw). A wonderful film. This would have been a great film to have done for Mickey... actually, any film Alfonso Cuarón does would be great for the Mouse. His adult films as well as his family films, but this being a Disney site/post it makes sense going with the family film category.

Peter Pan

When I first heard of this film I was aghast... why/how remake a classic? Especially one that has been done many times on stage and screen. Of course, I've since then decided that it all depends on the approach you take with certain material. As the "Neverland" script I mentioned in my "Top 5 Scripts Not Made By Hollywood" post. I was amazed at how fresh and interesting the movie was even though I knew the story, P.J. Hogan and Michael Goldenberg's script takes the classic J.M. Barrie book and gives us a lively, inspired take that is very difficult to do with something so known and well loved. If Disney is going to remake "Alice in Wonderland" and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" I hope they take this course... it would be a smart move.

Babe & Babe: Pig in the City

I know I said I don't care much for CG talking animal movies, but "Babe" was to me, a modern representation of "Charlotte's Web", with all the morals and lessons of that classic book... since then, Charlotte's Web has been made into a film, but I think that "Babe" is a better representation of it than the official adaption. Chris Noonan did a great job with the original and surprisingly, George Miller(Mad Max, Road Warrior) one-upped him in the sequel to make an equally interesting tale.

Home Alone & Home Alone 2

I'm a little hesitant calling these would be Disney films because they could also be Warner Bros. cartoons with the hi-jinx that take place throughout the story. Little Kevin getting left behind on Christmas to fend for himself against the looniest, dumbest crooks to ever break out of a cell block. The second film is essentially a remake of the first(like Terminator 2) with a bigger budget and new locations.

The Lord of the Rings series

I'd like to kick Michael Eisner's butt for letting this fall out of Miramax's hands, but perhaps it's for the best as it was originally going to be just two films and taking it to New Line helped flesh it out to one film per book... of all these films, this is truly the one that actually was going to be a Disney film or at least one of the film companies owned by the Mouse. This grand tale has everything one would want in a sweeping epic from Disney. Although I liked "Narnia", I didn't warm to it as much as this film series which had a much grander and layered story. While "Narnia" felt like a fairy tale one tells your kids, this one felt like a fantasy one reads by themselves.

The Iron Giant

Brad Bird's best film so far is his first. The utterly classic tale of a boy growing up with a single mother that is looking for a friend, searching for a father and finds both in the form of a giant robot from outer space. Set in the highly paranoid late 50's when the "Red Scare" was running across the nation. A pure delight. What E.T. is to Spielberg, this is to Bird. I only wish that it had been made by Mickey and the gang, it might have gotten a better marketing push and ended up being a box office success instead of just one with the critics.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

What "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" did for the current generation, this film did for the 70's generation. This wacky, sometimes dark film is filled with wonder and song set about the factory of the mysterious Willy Wonka as played by Gene Wilder. While I love Johnny Depp, this film gets the story right in more ways... while Depp's portrayal comes off as a "What would happen if Michael Jackson owned a candy factory" kinda thing. A vigorously smart tale that doesn't talk down to the audience, be they child or be they parent or anything in between...

The Secret of Nimh

Don Bluth's greatest film and finest achievement. After leading a revolt from Disney because of declining quality and lack of direction, Bluth created this tale that was to show Disney how to make a great animated film(again). The story of Mrs. Frisbie, a field mouse recently widowed and is forced to care for her 4 children by herself. Mrs. Frisbie goes on a fantastic journey to find help for her family. The animation design is pure Disney... the studio that put it out was not. For shame, Mouse... for shame.

The Princess Bride

Rob Reiner made an utterly charming film that boys, girls and adults alike can enjoy. Giants, a beautiful princess with villains and swashbuckling swordplay from a leading character modeled after Errol Flynn. Oh, and Billy Crystal funny as he can be. This should have been part of the Disney family of films.

October Sky

Another film set in the late 50's dealing with the race for space and Sputnik... my favorite film by Joe Johnston, actually one of only a couple I like by him. The other being the flawed Disney film, "The Rocketeer"(meddlesome Suit interventions and a story for another day). Based on the true story of Homer Hickam who grew up in a small coalmine town and developed a love of rockets after seeing what was happening in the larger world around him. With a small group of friends he pursues his love against a narrow minded town and critical father. Sweet, almost "Capraesk" quality to the film and that is saying a lot from me since I adore Frank Capra. File this under shoulda, coulda, woulda for the Mouse.

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Ok, now if Disney can make it's own enjoyable, pedestrian rip-off of this with "National Treasure" then why the heck couldn't they of done the original? That's what I keep saying to myself. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg together are the closest thing we've really had to Walt Disney(Lasseter being the one exception). There is a reason, more than financial that Indy and Star Wars are in the parks... they belong in the Disney canon of films even if they aren't owned by Disney. Everything about "Raiders of the Lost Ark" says Disney... too bad Disney didn't say yes when it came to making this.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off

A great film about a fun loving kid that rebels against the societal norms of his school and family just to have a "Day Off" from the grind. Life moves pretty fast, as Ferris says... although I don't watch or mind films like "High School Musical", it would be great to see Disney Suits trying to find modern representations of this 80's classic to entertain tweens and adults alike. I say, "Save Ferris, Save the Mouse"...

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

Steven Spielberg's love letter to growing up in a divorced family combines his love of science fiction(Amblin, CEOTK) with a tale of a family trying to cope with what life throws at you. Especially when it throws an alien from another planet at you. The story of Elliott and his family living in a suburb of a Californian town that discovers we are not alone. The boy's isolation and longing for a redemptive father figure are played out as he befriends someone like himself. Someone that feels lost and alone in a world he didn't create... even if that someone is from millions of miles away. Classic and again... pure Disney. Ironically, this one was offered to Disney and Ron Miller and his Suits turned it down. There were questions about scenes in the script Ron felt a Disney audience would be unaccepting of. He was kicking himself after opening weekend, of course...

The Secret Garden

Agnieszka Holland's film based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic book is an amazing, spectacular family film. Caroline Thompson's screenplay is dead-on perfect in presenting a young British girl born in India who loses her parents in a tragic earthquake. She returns to England to live at her uncle's castle. Once there, the uncle, troubled by his own loss neglects her as did her lost parents and she explores the estate, discovering a garden that has also been locked and neglected(see a motif building here?). Some of the servants boys befriend her and together they restore the garden while discovering the many secrets that the castle holds. A marvelous film to watch with kids or without. Pure Disney, though it is not...

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

I never really thought of Ian Fleming(James Bond's creator) as a children's novelist, but this film is based on a book by him. The screenplay by Roald Dahl(yes, that Roald Dahl) and director Ken Hughes captures the story of an eccentric professor that invents Steampunk type gadgetry that is always in financial trouble. He creates a revolutionary car which a foreign government wants to have and tries to acquire by any means necessary. Much fun and lampooning thus doth begin...

Star Wars Trilogy(original)

The original saga of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker is a living, breathing throwback to the days of Flash Gordon serials and is the sort of valued tale that the Mouse should have been turning out in the 70's. It's attempt was "The Black Hole" which didn't exactly meet the expectations of Suits or audiences. Star Wars is a story that was built for Walt Disney Pictures and should George Lucas or his kids ever decide to sell Lucasfilm, is the most compelling reason the Mouse should buy it. No other company, in my opinion, could handle this property better than Disney.


Anonymous said...

I think many of Don Bluths films fit the pattern of true Disney films, capturing the animation and story telling prowess that made Disney so great back in the day. Special mention from me goes to 'All Dogs go to Heaven' which IMO is his very best film. I really wish this was a Disney film, then such a beautiful and charming film wouldn't be so overlooked as it unfortunately is.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Honor! Looking forward to part two. I might check out some of the films on this list and make it a Blockbuster Night!

Anonymous said...


a cannon of films sounds a mite dangerous

Honor Hunter said...

Thanks anonymous,

That's the trouble when you write these things at 4 in the morning in a whirl and spell check doesn't know the difference...

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your always entertaining posts regardless.

I would add "The Corpse Bride" to your list if you're taking suggestions.

Ghosthost2 said...

I would add "The Corpse Bride" also. I strongly agree with Raiders and Star Wars, there is a reason these characters fit so seemlessly in Disneyland.

Ghosthost2 said...

Did Raiders actually get proposed to Disney? It kind of sounds like that from this article. Also, add Back to the Future. Disney was offered it, but passed it up because they thought it was too risque. Disney passed on E.T., BTTF, and LOTR, Disney has made some really stupid decisions.

Joe S. said...

I totally know that feeling of when a movie falls under the Disney style. While most of that list is absolutely right on, I totally disagree with Raiders of the Lost Ark. There is a certain hardness to it that makes it work so well, and Disney tends to soften things up for their movies (case in point... the battle scene in Narnia). Imagine the scene at the end with the Ark as it melts heads and explodes bodies. I find it hard to believe that Disney would have done it the same. I firmly believe that the trilogy was in the best hands with Paramount (at the time). I also have a hard time imagining Star Wars as anything other than Twentieth Century Fox.

Joe S. said...

Oh, and please don't take my response as too negative! I thought you hit the nail on the head with the rest, and I've been enjoying reading your blog!

Honor Hunter said...

No problem Joe,

Not everyone agrees with me...

I'm secure in my opinions so I don't worry about what people tend to say for the most part. It's my blog and my views so I guess that's what people expect when they come here. Glad you enjoy the blog.

Ghosthost2 said...

The POTC movies are just as violent and 'hard' as Raiders. POTC 3 is way more violent than Indy 3. I don't know if I would call Narnia 'softened up,' it was a pretty soft story in the first place. Now, The Golden Compass movie that New Line did was 'softened up' big time. BTW the scene where the Ark is opened in Raiders is similar in tone and feel as Fantasia's 'Night on Bald Mountain.'

Anonymous said...

Great post Honor! You're not alone about thinking about this kind of stuff.

I remember reading somewhere that the original Harry Potter manuscript was passed around and was eve in the hands of the Disney publisher before Scholastic got a hold of it. Can you confirm this? Can you imagine if Disney made that 7 book deal with Rowling..?

And I wonder how the movies would have turned out. I'm not a big fan of the current movies (as I am very picky being a fan of the books), but I'd be interested to see if Rowling would have allowed Pixar to make her films.

And if Eisner let the Weinsteins make the deal with Peter Jackson, imagine Disney having the rights to Harry Potter, LOTR, and Narnia?

Iron Giant should definitely be a Disney movie. What a waste at WB. said...

I agree 100% that Secret of the Nimh is the best Bluth film, and also the most Disney-esque film of that time period . . . the most Disney-esque film until 1989's Little Mermaid. A classic property that should have been under the Disney umbrella--but they were too busy with the Black Cauldron (ugh). Some of the movies you mentioned are ones that I feel could have only been improved if they had been under the Mouse--Anastasia was passable, to me (I kind of feel that way about Pocohontas, too, so maybe it wouldn't have been any different) but I think a little of that Disney magic would have gone a long way.

I went to see Iron Giant in the theater, and was amazed at how good it was at the first viewing. It's held up well over subsequent viewings--there are things I like better, each time I watch it. Whether from the House of Mouse or from anyone else, it's just unfortunate that excellent film didn't get the attention it deserved. It was a great, great movie.

But the important thing is the future, and Lasseter's reign is going to be a good one. Not only does everything I see from Wall*E make me think it's going to be like most of the Pixar films--that is, as good as the stuff I see before the movie, the movie still ends up being much better than I was even hoping--and the classic 2D stuff like the Frog & The Princess is undoubtedly going to be more classic Disney, for Lasseter's influence.

Frankly, I'm glad that not only Disney has made worthy family and fantasy films . . . but I'm even more pleased to know that Disney will be again cranking out modern classics under Lasseter's watch.

rehallag said...

Interesting topic and the sort of thing I have also thought about. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is the best example. That was practically a Disney movie just made by another company. It had the Sherman brother's music, Mary Poppin's star. Broccoli made it and interestingly that wasn't the first time he was inspired by Disney. He pegged Sean Connery as Bond due to the Darby O'Gill Disney movie.

I don't think Don Bluth's stuff is Disney.

The thing I wonder about more than anything else is Thomas the Tank Engine. That has become very popular as it has been made.

It seemed a perfect fit for Disney and I wonder if Disney ever considered it. It has a lot in common with Disney productions that were made. It is based on a Children's book series from England like Mary Poppins or Winnie the Pooh.

Most of all it is all about trains. Given Disney's love for trains and all that came out of that, I've wondered why in the 50's Disney didn't pick up on the Thomas Railroad series. Did he never hear of it? Or was Disney not interested in it?

Anonymous said...

Another one to add: The Black Stallion. In one of the books I once had outlining the Disney Productions (I believe it was published by Disney), I remember reading a quote that jumped out at me (because I'm such a fan of the movie), he said that The Black Stallion should have been a Disney production. It had amazing reviews (I believe Roger Ebert rated it the best movie of the year, obviously, when it was released). :)

Anonymous said...

It seems as if any film made in the past 30 years "could" have been made at Disney. I really hate these posts because they're so damn blanketed. I'd much rather read why Disney turned down projects. Scripts are optioned on a daily basis in Hollywood.

Almost every major studio has a chance to scope out a script that's being shopped around town. I don't have much faith that Disney would have kept the specialness of the script if they would have picked it up. I imagine E.T. being much more watered down.

Anonymous said...

Wow, someone needs to do their research. Peter Pan is already a Disney Classic, released to theatres in 1953.

Anonymous said...

I don't really understand this topic. Why exactly would these films need to be under the disney umbrella? Isn't a good film good regardless of the company? If it has some similarities to other disney films, then it's not unexpected due to disney's influence.

Unknown said...

Disagree with Lord of the Rings. Leave the medieval head-chopping to someone else. It was bad enough in Narnia.