Disney Live-Action Movies: Best/Worst
BEST Saludos Amigos/The Three Caballeros (1943/45)
Commissioned by the State Department to promote the Good Neighbor Policy — a wartime initiative to strengthen ties between the U.S. and Latin America — Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros are spirited episodic travelogues through Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. But they're also two of the more experimental entries to the Disney canon, boldly mixing animation with live-action photography, like when Donald Duck shimmies with flesh-and-blood samba dancer Aurora Miranda (sister of Carmen), and even for the first time showing a behind-the-scenes look at Disney's own animation process. This diptych fiesta still pulses with life. ¡Olé!
BEST So Dear to My Heart (1949)
In So Dear to My Heart's Jeremiah Kincaid, an Indiana farmboy given to scrapbook-keeping and sing-alongs with Burl Ives, 11-year-old Bobby Driscoll created the archetypal Disney movie youngster: orphaned but under the guardianship of a stern, possibly misunderstood, authority figure (in this case Beulah Bondi's Granny); always precocious and curious, especially when it comes to beehives and horseshoes; likely to associate with outcasts or fight for lost causes; the black sheep of his community. If the last point wasn't clear enough, Driscoll's Jeremiah even adopts a young black lamb and enters him in the county fair, despite the snickering of the country townsfolk. So Dear to My Heart is a dewy evocation of turn of the last century Americana — Disney's Meet Me In St. Louis.
BEST Treasure Island (1950)
Based on Robert Louis Stevenson's briny adventure novel, Disney's first entirely live-action feature, starring Bobby Driscoll as boy hero Jim Hawkins and Robert Newton as peg-legged, parrot-carrying buccaneer Long John Silver on a quest to unearth pieces of eight, is as much fun as a Yo Ho Ho and a bottle of rum.
BEST 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
With a cast led by Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Peter Lorre, and Paul Lukas, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea probably would have been good no matter what. But Disney's decision to recast Jules Verne's whale of a tale as a Nuclear Age parable was truly inspired — and the studio's first instance of live-action filmmaking as formidable art.
BEST Old Yeller (1957)
Boy meets dog. Dog steals hens from boy's farm. Boy befriends and trains dog. If I don't have much to say about one of the movies' most tender human-canine relationships, it's not because I'm trying to avoid spoilers. I'm really too busy wiping away tears while typing these words.
BEST Pollyanna (1960)
Hayley Mills, Disney Girl par excellence, forever lodged herself in people's hearts as ''The Glad Girl'' of Harrington, who makes it her mission to open the eyes of some small-town depressives, including a bid-ridden hypochondriac (Bewitched's Agnes Moorehead), a fire-and-brimstone preacher (Karl Malden), an aged recluse (Adolphe Menjou), and, most of all, her frigid Aunt Polly (Jane Wyman). If you could put Pollyanna in capsule form, the makers of Zoloft would be put out of business.
BEST Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
Not just a great Disney adventure film, a great adventure film period. John Mills, professional ''movie mom'' Dorothy McGuire, and their three sons are shipwrecked on an island rife with tigers, hostile jungle terrain, and pirate Sessue Hayakawa. What to do? Build a designer treehouse outfitted with enough makeshift booby traps to put Kevin McCallister to shame.
BEST The Parent Trap (1961)
Let's get together, yeah yeah yeah! With Hayley Mills doing double duty as twins how could divorced parents Maureen O'Hara and Brian Keith stay apart?
BEST In Search of the Castaways (1962)
If only one Disney movie could be rediscovered, let it be this one. Hayley Mills stars as the daughter of a missing sea captain who enlists the aid of Maurice Chevalier and My Fair Lady's Wilfred Hyde-White on a globe-trotting search to find her father. With a message in a bottle as the only clue to Daddy's whereabouts, they endure earthquakes, avalanches, floods, cannibals, and a dastardly George Sanders.
BEST Mary Poppins (1964)
If you honestly don't know why this is one of the best Disney movies ever made, get thee to your Netflix Queue. Or at least go fly a kite.
BEST The Shaggy D.A. (1976)
We, the people, find the defendant Dean Jones guilty of multiple counts of side-splitting hilarity as a prosecutor who turns into a pooch at a moment's notice. Sentence to be determined after we stop laughing.
BEST Tron (1982)
Disney painted with pixels in their visionary early deployment of CGI about a genius computer programmer (Jeff Bridges) trapped inside a dystopian cyberspace lorded over by a dictatorial operating system who maintains order via terrifying gladiatorial (video)games. Digital jazz, man.
BEST The Rocketeer (1991)
Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a... man with a jetpack! Director Joe Johnston channeled the retro flair he'd later bring to Captain America: The First Avenger in his adaptation of Dave Stevens' 1982 graphic novel about a Hollywood stunt pilot (Billy Campbell) who discovers an experimental jetpack — perfect for fighting a Nazi zeppelin attack! Rounding out the stellar cast are Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin, Terry O'Quinn, and, as a swashbuckling movie star who's really a Nazi spy, a mustache-twirling Timothy Dalton.
BEST Cool Runnings (1993)
The Olympic journey of the Jamaican bobsled squad that first competed at the 1988 Calgary Games was the kind of winning, oddball story that seemed to write itself. Throw in John Candy as the team's disgraced coach and you've got a movie that's grabbed the gold.
BEST The Santa Clause (1994)
Today, audiences may shout ''Ho Ho Ho!'' at Tim Allen for a whole other reason, but in 1994 it was genuine laughter over this loveable slice of yuletide cheer. The Home Improvement star plays a divorced dad stressed out by a corporate job that keeps him busy at the holidays, only to take on another job that keeps him even busier at the holidays — that of the new Kris Kringle. Allen's rapid aging, weight gain, and beard growth as he becomes the man in red are undeniably hysterical. Just be sure to leave the two inferior sequels out of your letter to Santa.
BEST Squanto: A Warrior's Tale (1994)
Criticized at the time for its historical inaccuracies, Squanto is actually a noble effort to show the traumatic, eventually genocidal, disruption to Native American life that occurred following first contact with Europeans. Adam Beach shines as the titular warrior who, years before the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, was abducted, enslaved, and sent to London — a journey which, in the film, leads him to cross paths with Michael Gambon as a sadistic fop and Mandy Patinkin as a Franciscan monk. Squanto's eventual escape and return to America are the stuff of thrilling drama, and unlike cozy Thanksgiving stories of peace and togetherness the movie ends with his people dead and him utterly alone. If you think that needed a spoiler alert, you need to brush up on your history stat.
BEST The Straight Story (1999)
David Lynch directed a Disney movie? Worlds collide! The Straight Story is one of the Mulholland Drive auteur's gentlest, most spiritual efforts, a tone poem of forgiveness and reconciliation about an aging farmer (Richard Farnsworth) who travels across the country on a lawnmower to see his brother (Harry Dean Stanton). No gas-sniffing psychos, no dancing little people, no Sting in a thong, but still pure Lynch.
BEST Freaky Friday (2003)
After years of tabloid headlines, it's understandably difficult to remember what a good actress Lindsay Lohan used to be. So for a reminder, check out her remake of the 1976 body-swapper Freaky Friday in which she ably steps into shoes originally filled by Jodie Foster as a teenager who switches places with her stuffy mom (Jamie Lee Curtis), a role that requires her to essentially play two different characters. Maybe that came easy for Lohan, though, since she had already pulled double duty as twins in her equally impressive debut, the 1998 remake of The Parent Trap.
BEST Miracle (2004)
If the story of the U.S. hockey team's upset victory over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics isn't the stuff Disney movies are made of, then we don't know what is.
BEST Enchanted (2007)
The rare ''modern update'' that tweaks a tried-and-true formula and gets it right, Enchanted pushes Disney's fairy-tale brand of damsels in distress, earnest princes, wicked stepmothers, and poisoned apples into the 21st century while still honoring the tradition we know and love. As the apple-cheeked Giselle, Amy Adams brings everything that's instantly iconic about a Disney Princess — the unstoppable sunniness, the tendency to break out suddenly in song, the ability to supervise pot-scrubbing rodents — to flesh and blood life. Talk about animated!
WORST The Moon-Spinners (1964)
As strong as the Hayley Mills canon is, it's not without its duds. And not even the presence of Eli Wallach as a jewel thief can save this sorry excuse for a ''suspense film'' set on the isle of Crete. Mills should have quit while she was ahead after 1963's charming Summer Magic.
WORST Candleshoe (1977)
Jodie Foster followed up her Oscar-nominated role in Taxi Driver with a twee British romp masquerading as an Ealing-style heist film. Call it Kind Hearts and Mouseketeers.
WORST The Black Hole (1979)
What hath Star Wars wrought? Disney's cash-in on the late '70s sci-fi boom was particularly inept space schlock.
WORST 101 Dalmatians (1996)
Cruella De Vil
Cruella De Vil
If this doesn't bore you
No dreadful film will.
To watch it is to
Take a sudden chill
Cruella, Cruella De Vil.
At first you think this remake is the devil
But after time has worn away the shock
You come to realize
You've seen these dark designs
Pulled out from underneath a rock.
This brainmelting dreck
This inhuman beast
It ought to be locked up
And never released
The world was such a wholesome place until
101 Dalmations Redux.
WORST Jungle 2 Jungle (1997)
The greatest crime of this foray into grossout kulturkampf about a latter-day Mowgli brought to the city is not that it's Tim Allen's worst film — which, mind you, is saying something. Nor even that it's representative of Disney's fixation on jungle dwellers at that time. (The equally unwatchable George of the Jungle would be released the same year, with the nasal Phil Collins wails of 1999's Tarzan right around the corner.) It's that Jungle 2 Jungle began the insidious movie-title practice of using the number ''2'' as a preposition. And it wasn't even a sequel!
WORST The Haunted Mansion (2003)
In a 1971 issue of Film Comment noted critic Jonathan Rosenbaum declared the Haunted Mansion attraction at Disneyland and Disney World to be as ''purely cinematographic'' as a horror movie by master filmmaker F.W. Murnau. Sadly, Disney's eventual big-screen adaptation was not quite as satisfying. Actually, it may be the worst film they've based on a theme park ride to date, at least until the inevitable release of Space Mountain: Embrace the Dark.
WORST The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement (2004)
When Julie Andrews, having recently lost her crystalline voice due to vocal-cord nodules, tentatively begins speak-singing a tune, she's almost immediately cut off by Raven-Symone! That's so... shameful. But perfect for the Deuce Bigelow: European Gigolo of Disney sequels.
WORST Around the World in 80 Days (2004)
Disney Exec 1: Hey, I've got an idea! How about we remake the all-time worst Oscar winner for Best Picture?
Disney Exec 2: The Greatest Show on Earth? Everybody loved Jimmy Stewart as a clown.
Disney Exec 1: No, silly, we all know the DeMille Estate is run by litigious jerks. I'm talking about Around the World in 80 Days. Think of it, by remaking the worst Best Picture winner, you have only one way to go: up!
Disney Exec 2: Of course. Maybe we can get Steve Coogan to play Phileas Fogg. Kids love Steve Coogan. Now if we can just squeeze his Michael Caine impersonation into the film.
Disney Exec 1: And Jackie Chan's really hot right now after The Tuxedo and The Medallion. As long as we prevent him from doing anything that will upset the insurers, I think we've got our Passepartout...
Disney Exec 2: ...''You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!'' Oh, sorry, I was still thinking about Coogan's Michael Caine impersonation. But, yes. Greenlight!
Disney Exec 1: While we're at it, there's a little Edgar Rice Burroughs story we should keep in mind. Think: Tarzan on Mars.
Disney Exect 2: Do tell!
WORST Bedtime Stories (2008)
Like most Adam Sandler movies, this is a film that you should never, ever watch before going to bed.
WORST John Carter (2012)
Disney discovered the hard way that unless you have Arnold Schwarzenegger saying ''Get your ass to Mars!'' you should never make a film about the Red Planet.