14. Never Cry Wolf (1983)
It’s a pity that director Carroll Ballard didn’t come along during Walt Disney’s lifetime. Though he has, to date, directed only six films, his studies of the intersection of man, animal kingdom, and nature are always sophisticated, subtle, highly visual and imbued with a reverential magic for the natural world. In other words, he has achieved what Disney was reaching for with so many films concerning kids and their wondrous pets.
Though still best remembered for his directorial debut, 1979’s The Black Stallion, he also gave Disney a fine film with his second effort, Never Cry Wolf in 1983.The story concerns a rather unseasoned biologist assigned to study the decline of the caribou population, supposedly due to local wolves, in the forbidding Arctic. The callow, rigid young man is exposed to a variety of harsh situations both natural and man-made and must learn to adapt to both the ways of nature and native peoples and to respect nature’s law of the survival of the fittest.
Charles Martin Smith, best remembered for 1973’s smash hit American Graffiti, and respected stage and stage character actor Brian Dennehy headed the small cast of humans in the film but, in Ballard’s sure hands, nature was the true star. The theme was the sad one that nature was being sold out, especially by those who, by rights, should have been its guardians. The reviews were excellent and the film did business but cooler heads at the studio realized that the label “Disney picture” hurt this more complex and adult film and decided to create the subsidiary division known as “Touchstone Pictures” to handle such films in the future.
15. The Journey of Natty Gann (1985)
Walt Disney was no stranger to the concept of kids having to grow up and face the adult world at a too young age. For most of the barren period the studio experienced between Mary Poppins and Tron, this idea was put to the side. However, a touching modern variation of the this theme was introduced to the modern Disney era with The Journey of Natty Gann, a period film set in the rugged American Northwest during the years of the Great Depression, an era never featured in earlier Disney films.
The plot concerns a plucky young woman who must take to the rails and hostile back roads of rural America in order to be reunited with her father, who had to leave her in a less-than-optimal place while he desperately searched for work. Befriended by a wolf (only in Disney…) and a decent young man, who become her travelling companions, the girl must go through a number of tough situations unusual for a Disney film. With a solid cast including Meredith Salenger, John Cusak, and Ray Wise, the film wasn’t an overwhelming hit with the critics but did breathe new life into an old formula.
16. Honey, I Shrunk The Kids (1989)
Speaking of formulas, Disney, visionary as he was, knew that the higher quality stuff had to be paid for somehow (and if he didn’t his shrewd businessman brother Roy reminded him). To this end, the studio regularly produced a number of light fantasy films aimed at the younger set. These films were the bane of not only critics everywhere but discerning adults forced to take their kids to see them.
Honey, I Shrunk The Kids was to be another in that tradition but the studio added a layer of clever smartness to the mix (not a lot of smartness, but some). Also, the studio engaged expert comic actor Rick Moranis (after his SCTV colleague John Candy passed on the role and suggested him for it) in the role of the wacky scientist who accidently shrinks his and the neighbor’s kids and even more accidentally throws them out in the backyard, settings them off on a comic adventure.
Nobody expected anything big of this one but it became, up until that time, the highest-grossing Disney live action film ever (holding the title for five years). It produced two sequels and a TV series but, more importantly, it set off a new wave of similar films, many of which were remakes of older Disney hits . And so history repeated itself…
17. The Straight Story (1999)
Director David Lynch is one of the great modern film directors. A Lynch film looks and feels like no other, and his view of life and the world is quirky and unique to say the least. After shocking the cinematic world with such films as Blue Velvet (1986) and Wild at Heart (1990) what could he possibly do to stun and surprise movie cultist everywhere? It could only be one thing: making a G rated Disney film! The one precedent in his oeuvre was 1981’s The Elephant Man, which, like this film, is based on a true story of a man in distressed circumstances who refuses to give up or admit defeat.
In this case, the protagonist is Alvin Straight (played by the wonderful stuntman-turned-actor Richard Farnsworth), who, though frail and very ill, is determined to get to the brother he has not spoken to in many years in order to make things right before it’s too late. With no other method of travel available he sets off on a riding lawnmower to go on a 240-mile journey.
Improbable, but it really happened and Lynch, who can always see the unusual in even the most mundane situations, saw this offbeat tale as a great vehicle for his talent and, unbelievably, he was right! It wasn’t a controversial shocker but it was every bit as much a Lynch film any he has ever made, full of striking images and unusual episodes. It also features a superb Oscar-nominated performance from Farnsworth, and fine support from Sissy Spacek and Harry Dean Stanton . As with so many of the best Disney live-action films, it wasn’t a hit at the box office but it is a lovely fiscal folly.
18. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (2005)
C.S. Lewis was a distinguished writer who took up the study of Christianity from an intellectual vantage point and became a fervent believer, even after the tragic early death of his wife. He wrote several books on the subject, highly regarded by even those not kindly disposed to Christian literature. To help his beloved step-sons cope with the loss of their mother, he created a series of books with a subtle Christian subtext in which a group of children enter a magical dimension via a portal within an old wardrobe in the attic of their large old home.
Narnia, the kingdom they entered, is filled with multiple fantastic forces of good and evil. The children must learn to navigate their new world, which will impinge on how they live their lives in the more realistic world. The idea of making the seven book series into films had bounced around for years but the mammoth success of the film versions of the novels of another British author, J.R.R Tolkien, (the “Lord of the Rings” series) reawakened interest in Narnia.
The Lewis estate trusted Disney and the company didn’t let them down. The films, especially the first, were well-made and huge hits. Of all the modern Disney films, these films may well be the films with the strongest claim to join the ranks of the classics of the past.
19. Maleficent (2014)
Walt Disney may have had a few wrong guesses about the reception his live-action work would receive but he even more rarely made a miscalculation concerning his animated works (and considering the many years of planning and execution that went into them, he could ill afford to miscalculate). One of those few times was Sleeping Beauty in 1959. This was one of the first Cinemascope animated films, certainly an early wide-screen effort for Disney.
In retrospect, what was he thinking? Did he believe that little boys would want to go to a film called Sleeping Beauty, featuring a heroine named Aurora Dawn and featuring a big scene where her animal friends help her make a dress? (OK, he pulled it off with Cinderella a decade earlier but times had changed.) However, like all Disney animated films, it kept being re-released until it finally got into the black.
Subsequent generations found that beyond a certain repulsiveness concerning the title character and her fairy guardians was a real compensation: the evil witch Maleficent, one of the most strikingly drawn Disney characters ever. Her morphing into a fiery dragon for the film’s climax is a classic film moment. Shrewd people at Disney, who have learned to mine the past, rethought the character as the subject of a live action film that would retell the classic story from Maleficent’s point of view. They reimagined the character as basically sympathetic but misunderstood due to her fierce appearance, who was also more sinned against than sinning.
From the moment pictures of star, Oscar winning actress Angelina Jolie, in her horned, purple-blue makeup and winged black costume hit the internet, there was real buzz about this one. The picture didn’t let the public down for it is an imaginative and persuasive new version of an old and beloved tale, well told. Featuring a fine cast including Elle Fanning, Imelda Staunton, and Leslie Manville, the film was a huge hit and shows how old classics can live again.
20. Into The Woods (2014)
Disney’s last release of 2014 shows how far the company has come in returning to the glory days of its ability to make truly fine family films. Stephen Sondheim is one of the great composers and lyricists of the modern musical theater and his early works such as West Side Story and Gypsy also saw success as movies. However, his recent works have been loved somewhat more by the critics than the public and many have not made it to the big screen.
Into The Woods (1986) and was one of Sondheim’s bigger hits in recent times (a fine book by his frequent partner James LaPine helped). The show weaves together the plots of several fairy tales, plus a new fairy tale-like story, to create an examination of the tales children are told and what the stories are truly saying to the children and the effect this has on their lives. It looks like a kid’s show but it is not. The thought of classic Disney using this material is unthinkable. In fact, but for a videotaped version of the original production, intended for TV and video, there seemed to be no successful buyers for the project.
However, after another Sondheim show, Sweeney Todd, made to film in 2007 after a similar long slog, Disney decided to try for Into The Woods. Buying the rights, the studio decided that the makers of Sweeney Todd were on to something in pairing down the score and simplifying the lyrics, which had been intended originally for sophisticated Broadway audiences. This made it more accessible toa general audience, including children.
As with many of Walt Disney’s A productions, a superior cast was assembled including Emily Blunt, Chris Pine, Johnny Depp, Tracey Ullman, Anna Kendrick, Christine Baranski, and, in her first Disney film, acting goddess Meryl Streep, who has been Oscar-nominated for her performance as the witch from the story of Rapunzel. Yes, theater purists have protested the loss of many songs or reprises and some potent plot points had to go but a real film has emerged and one that will bring this show to a greater audience than it has ever known before. This effort would have made Disney proud.