We tend to think of Walt Disney Pictures as chiefly an animation studio — and with good reason — but the house Uncle Walt built has been churning out quality (and often highly profitable) live-action entertainment since the 1950s, something we were reminded of when we noticed that the latest chapter in the Witch Mountain franchise (and the Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s latest bid for the undisputed heavyweight champion of kid-friendly cinema), Race to Witch Mountain, was landing in theaters this Friday. What better time, then, for your pals here at Rotten Tomatoes to devote a Total Recall list to the 10 best-reviewed live-action entries in the Disney canon?
Of course, not all of Disney’s live-action efforts have been critical winners — we’re guessing Condorman is discussed as infrequently as possible at the Mouse House — but not everything that missed the list was a dud: You’ll find plenty of the classics you remember (yes, Old Yeller is present and accounted for), but you’re bound to take umbrage with a few omissions. Some movies missed the cut on technicalities — we limited our scope to films without animation (so long, Bedknobs and Broomsticks) and crossed any co-productions off the list, too (thus sparing Operation Dumbo Drop the embarrassment of being disqualified on critical grounds). Others, however, simply didn’t have the reviews — something we think says a lot about the strength of the competition. So let’s see what we ended up with, shall we? The live-action world of Disney awaits!
Well, well, well. How’s this for perfect? Not only did it provide a starting point for this week’s Total Recall honoree, 1975’s Escape to Witch Mountain wound up making the list itself. While not the best-remembered of Disney’s 1970s properties, this adaptation of the Alexander Key novel helped kickstart a mini-franchise that eventually extended to 1978’s Return from Witch Mountain, a 1982 TV movie and 1995 made-for-TV remake, and, of course, 2009’s Race to Witch Mountain. Placing extraordinary kids in situations of nail-biting, grown-up peril is something Disney has always done well, and Escape is no exception; psychic alien twins Tony and Tia are literally running for their lives from creepy millionaire Aristotle Bolt (Ray Milland). Though not all critics were susceptible to its charm — Vincent Canby of the New York Times called it “a Walt Disney production for children who will watch absolutely anything that moves” — most scribes took its popcorn-flavored blend of action, sci-fi, and family drama at face value, including Roger Ebert, who called it “a sci-fi thriller that’s fun, that’s cheerfully implausible, that’s scary but not too scary, and it works.”
No list of the Disney live-action oeuvre would be complete without a mention of Fred MacMurray’s work for the studio. Although he’d been a major film star for decades before making his Disney debut with 1960’s The Shaggy Dog, it’s MacMurray’s late-period string of pipe-puffing father types that he’s arguably best remembered for, particularly among younger film fans. The most critically successful of these movies, 1961’s The Absent-Minded Professor, casts MacMurray in the title role as Ned Brainard, the accidental inventor of an incredible energy-producing substance known as Flubber. Over the course of the film, Brainerd uses Flubber to make himself look like a talented dancer and helps an entire basketball team cheat during the big game, but thanks to MacMurray’s Everyman charm, you still believe he’s the good guy. It’s goofy, and light as a feather, but Disney has always known how to make the most of those two ingredients; as TV Guide put it, “This is a zanily inventive piece of work, with delightful special effects, which set the style for a long series of live-action Disney films.”
Even in the context of the other classic films in the Disney vaults, 1960’s Swiss Family Robinson was a huge success — its $40 million gross is equivalent to $367 million in today’s money, placing it proudly among the ranks of the most successful G-rated films of all time. Johann David Wyss’ 1812 novel has been adapted on numerous occasions, for film and television, but Disney’s Ken Annakin-directed treatment is the most well-known; although it doesn’t skimp on the cheesy dialogue and cornpone wholesomeness that came prepackaged with many of the studio’s live-action efforts, Lowell S. Hawley’s screenplay does a fine job of drawing enough swashbuckling action and tropical derring-do out of the source material to guarantee a good time for viewers of all (okay, most) ages. Channel 4 Film’s Alistair Harkness spoke for many of his peers when he wrote, “It’s no Pirates Of The Caribbean, but the spirit of adventure, and Disney’s high production values, means that there’s still some fun to be had watching this wholesome family adapt to island life.”
Hayley Mills, like Tommy Kirk before her (and countless fresh-faced Disney teen starlets after her), became a household name thanks to a string of starring roles in Disney live-action films. Mills’ six-movie run got off to a pretty good start with 1960’s Pollyanna; although its box office performance was initially something of a disappointment for the studio, Mills won a special Academy Award for her performance. For many, the film is now considered one of Disney’s earliest live-action classics; though Disney was far from the first to adapt Eleanor Porter’s novel, it’s Mills that people usually think of when they hear the name “Pollyanna” — and for good reason, as even critics who overdosed on the movie’s relentless optimism, like the Time critic who called it “a Niagara of drivel and a masterpiece of smarm,” were often swayed by her performance. Variety, for instance, said her presence “more than compensates for the film’s lack of tautness and, at certain points, what seems to be an uncertain sense of direction.”
By 2002, the “inspirational sports movie” genre was seen as well past its prime — and so was Dennis Quaid: one of the more bankable matinee idols of the 1980s, Quaid was suffering through a dry spell when he signed on for Disney’s John Lee Hancock-directed dramatization of the brief-yet-noteworthy Major League Baseball career of high school teacher-turned-Tampa Bay Devil Ray pitcher Jimmy Morris. Like Morris himself, The Rookie was initially written off by many as an amiable relic of a bygone era — but try as they might, most critics were too charmed by its true-life inspirational story, and Quaid’s refreshingly low-key performance, to be cynical about the film. The Rookie earned a healthy return on Disney’s $22 million investment, kick-started a new chapter in Quaid’s career, and earned a surprising number of endorsements from critics like Looking Closer’s Jeffrey Overstreet, who called it “one of those rare, wonderful ‘formula’ films that … favors understatement over exaggeration, subtlety over sentimentality.”
For a relatively lightweight rom-com, The Parent Trap has enjoyed an incredibly long life; not only was the original film re-released to theaters seven years after its theatrical debut, but Hayley Mills ended up reprising her dual roles for a trio of made-for-TV sequels more than 20 years later — and the career-boosting power of the story of matchmaking twins who play Cupid for their divorced parents proved every bit as potent in 1998, when Lindsay Lohan starred in a remake. Part of Trap‘s appeal no doubt came from its pioneering use of the trick photography that made it appear as though Mills was actually her own twin — a technique later used to notable effect on The Patty Duke Show two years later — but even without special effects, The Parent Trap is a solid, albeit proudly corny, film that benefits from a strong performance by its winsome star. Mills’ charms were even sufficient to win over more “serious” publications, such as Time, whose reviewer wrote, “Surprisingly, the film is delightful — mostly because of 15-year-old Hayley Mills, the blonde button nose who played the endearing delinquent in Tiger Bay.”
Whether you attribute it to beginner’s luck or the steady hand of one of Hollywood’s most quality-conscious studios, it’s worth noting that Richard Fleischer’s adaptation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is both one of Disney’s most highly regarded live-action efforts and its first foray into science fiction. Proving he had an eye for giant squid battles to match his knack for animating adorable fauna, Walt Disney personally produced 20,000 Leagues, helping Fleischer blend an attentive eye to period detail with a rip-roaring action yarn that just happened to have strong Cold War parallels (right down to the mushroom cloud witnessed after the climactic battle). Enlisting the talents of A-list stars like Kirk Douglas, James Mason, and Peter Lorre certainly didn’t hurt Leagues‘ box-office prospects — nor did glowingly positive reviews from the likes of the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, who called it “as fabulous and fantastic as anything [Disney] has ever done in cartoons.”
Younger filmgoers may be more familiar with the 1997 remake, starring Christina Ricci and Doug E. Doug — which, as illustrated by that film’s woeful seven percent Tomatometer rating, is a shame. The 1965 original, starring Hayley Mills as the owner of a robbery-foiling feline (and the immortal Frank Gorshin as the robber), was a perfect example of the sort of goofy, animal-assisted middlebrow flick that Disney’s live-action arm became known for in the 1960s — but if it’s silly stuff, it’s at least eminently well-crafted, thanks to the steady hand of director Robert Stevenson and charming performances from a cast that included Disney vets Mills and Dean Jones. Critics were kind, if not exactly effusive (Rob Thomas of Madison’s Capital Times waved it off as “lightweight, forgettable family fun”) — but it was the titular cat that earned some of the movie’s highest warmest praise, including high marks from the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, who said, “The feline that plays the informant, as the F.B.I. puts it, is superb. Clark Gable at the peak of his performing never played a tom cat more winningly.”
A movie so successful that it spawned a sequel, Tommy Kirk’s career, and the heartbreaking on-screen deaths of dozens of beloved critters, Old Yeller is mostly remembered today for its tearjerking final act and cornpone dialogue — and although this Robert Stevenson-directed adaptation of Fred Gipson’s popular novel certainly doesn’t skimp on the familiar plot points and gooey nostalgia so often identified with the Disney films of the era, it also tries to impart some useful lessons about the tough choices that come with growing up. Those lessons were imparted to a huge audience, too — watching Old Yeller was a rite of passage for multiple generations of filmgoers, among them DVDTalk’s Scott Weinberg, who called it “every bit the warm, comfortable, and tragically bittersweet classic that had you sobbing like a infant the first time you saw it.”
The best-reviewed of Disney’s late 1970s/early 1980s string of family-friendly live-action flicks, Never Cry Wolf offers a surprisingly mature, unflinching adaptation of Farley Mowat’s memoir detailing the years he spent studying the hunting habits of wolves in the Canadian wilderness. One year later, Disney would spin off Touchstone, an imprint which would eventually be responsible for some fairly racy fare, but in 1983, Wolf director Carroll Ballard’s decision to afford audiences a glimpse of Charles Martin Smith’s bare buttocks was a major step for the Mouse House. Though the film wasn’t a giant hit, it did manage an impressive 27-week theatrical run — all the more notable considering its small cast, exceedingly minimal dialogue, and deliberate pace. Critics were suitably impressed, sending Never Cry Wolf all the way to a 100 percent Tomatometer rating on the strength of reviews from scribes like Time’s Richard Schickel, who raved, “Ballard and his masterly crew of film makers have reimagined a corner of the natural world…They leave us awed.”
Check out the rest of our Total Recall archives here.
Finally, we leave you with a clip from one of Disney’s trippiest live-action offerings. It’s a close encouter of the feline kind: The Cat from Outer Space.