If you ask people what type of film a “Disney” film is, you’ll get a variety of answers. Everyone seems to have a feel for what a Disney motion picture should be, but nobody can quite articulate it clearly.
Even Walt himself had an opinion about this.
During a staff meeting in the 1950’s to discuss future projects, one of his employees said about an upcoming film “We can’t make that, it’s not a typical Disney film.” Walt immediately replied, “heck, I’m Walt Disney and even I don’t know what a typical Disney film is!”
It’s more of an instinctual thing. We all grew up with Disney movies, so we recognize them immediately without ever having to see the name “Disney” on the poster. That’s why it’s so jarring when we come across a film made by Disney that just seems too weird to be one of theirs.
Here are ten that fall into this unusual category.
Victory Through Air Power (1943)
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and America’s entry into World War II, the Disney Studio campus in Burbank was essentially taken over by the military, because it was right next door to an aircraft assembly plant and had lots of room to quarter troops. Almost all of Disney's output went towards the war effort.
Walt was downcast over having to abandon his work on several feature films in their pipeline as many of his animators went off to war and funds dried up. He regained his focus after reading a book by a Russian military hero named Alexander De Seversky called “Victory Through Air Power.”
The book was controversial. It advocated using long range planes to bomb the Nazis and other Axis powers into submission. De Seversky was having trouble getting people to listen to his message, but Walt saw an opportunity. He personally financed a film adaptation, which contained some interesting bits of animation (including a short on the history of aviation, which was later chopped out of the film and spun off into its own educational film.)
Most of the 70 minute running time, however, consisted of De Seversky directly addressing the camera in his thick Russian accent and making his case for the superiority of Allied air power. It was as close to outright propaganda as Disney ever came in a feature.
The film was not a box office smash. Walt and De Seversky pretty much made it to catch the attention of exactly two people, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, which it did.
Both leaders were enthusiastic after seeing "Victory" and screened it for their top military brass. Long range bombers were then put into use, which did - as Walt predicted - help end the war.
After Disney went back to making more mainstream films, "Victory" was put into their vault and did not resurface for another 61 years, except for screenings at a few film festivals and colleges. In 2004 it was included on a Disney DVD set of World War II era shorts. Even so, most Disney fans have never heard of this odd film.
Walt Disney Presents: The Story Of Menstruation (1946)
Nope, that’s not a typo, you read it right. Disney did indeed produce an animated film about the most personal of female issues.
After the war ended, the Disney Studio was in severe financial distress. Walt was desperate for revenue.
If a film like “Victory” was successful in educating and influencing an audience of politicians and generals, Walt reasoned, then perhaps corporations would be willing to hire Disney to make films promoting their products in an entertaining manner.
The Kimberly Clark Company (then known as International Cello-Cotton) produced several feminine hygiene products under the Kotex brand, and was one of the first to sign up. They contracted Disney to make a ten minute short about the female reproductive system which was to be shown in public schools.
The film had a great emphasis on biology and hired a respected gynecologist as a script advisor, to help overcome any objections from the public or school board members. It was so well done that it was awarded the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. In addition to the film, schools were given booklets to be distributed to the students and teachers which followed up on the messages in the movie, but also (conveniently) contained advertisements for Kimberly Clark products.
Though menstruation is an essential part of the reproductive system, the film never came close to mentioning sex. It is notable, however, as being one of the first Hollywood studio films to use the words “period “and “vagina” when discussing female anatomy. The film also featured an animated depiction of a half naked teenage girl showering.
Disney got out of the corporate sponsored educational film business a few years later, once their feature films like "Cinderella" and "Peter Pan" began bringing in steady income streams, but “The Story Of Menstruation” and similar films - like “Advice on Lice” - will continue to be curious footnotes in the company’s history.
The Three Caballeros (1945)
On the surface, this seems like a typical Disney film, with colorful characters, great music, even a starring role for Donald Duck. Dig deeper and you will find a most un-Disney like style to this follow up to 1942s “Saludos Amigos“.
The pace of this film is frantic and overwhelming. Unlike the leisurely South American travelogue/documentary feel of “Saludos”, this film moves faster than the speed of light. You don’t get a chance to catch your breath. Perhaps it was a response to the success Warner Brothers was having with its madcap Looney Tunes series, but Disney broke from its regular calm, deep and realistic animation style with “Caballeros” to utilize avant garde, abstract images that whiz by. The character of the Aracuan bird, who interrupts scenes throughout the movie and goes in and out of frame, is annoying to Donald and the Caballeros but would fit right with Bugs Bunny and his crew over at Warners.
The term “psychedelic” had not yet come into popular usage, but it certainly describes what you see onscreen. Disney had already dipped its toes into this art form with the pink elephant hallucination sequence in "Dumbo", but they went full out here. “Three Caballeros” is a swirl of colors and acid trip imagery set to a beat of Latin rhythms.
A different animation style alone doesn't classify “Caballeros’ as unusual. (“Fantasia” has some pretty wild images, too.) What gives this film its offbeat status is the way Donald Duck is depicted.
Donald had always been the bad boy of Disney films, but in this film he goes completely off the deep end. Disney animators allowed Donald to let his libido rage out of control.
It seems that as soon as Donald used his passport to travel south of the border, he lost all sense of decency and decorum. No Disney character had ever shown unbridled lust before “Caballeros”, as Donald does. In scene after scene he is chasing after or drooling over his female human co-stars. One section even has him descending on a Mexican beach full of scantily clad women and trying to grab at whatever body parts he can. The other two Caballeros (Jose Carioca and Panchito) even say to the audience that Donald is acting like a wolf in Duck‘s clothing.
Most of the sexual innuendos (intentional or not) in “Caballeros” sailed right over the heads of children in the audience, but still it’s odd to see them in a supposedly wholesome Disney offering.
Bon Voyage! (1962)
Fred MacMurray had already established himself as quite the comic actor in Disney's 1961 film “The Absent Minded Professor.” It was a gigantic box office smash. Walt figured that MacMurray's next film was sure to draw the same family audience. Unfortunately Disney saddled him with an inappropriate clunker.
As described in the logline, “Bon Voyage!” looks like a winner. An American suburban family travels overseas to Europe for the first time and has lots of wacky adventures. Disney even cast two of their biggest child stars, Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran, to support Mac Murray. The problem was not in the plot, but in the themes, which proved to be too adult for Disney.
Marital strife, French call girls propositioning minors, young lovers quarreling, gigolos on the prowl, stereotypical “ugly American’ behavior and messy trips through the Paris sewers all figure prominently in this movie. To make matters worse, “Bon Voyage!” runs over two hours long, while most family films are wise enough to realize that 90 minutes seems to be the breaking point for the attention spans of smaller audience members.
By the 1960s parents were inclined to automatically bring children to any film with the Disney name on it, for a bit of entertainment the whole family could enjoy. “Bon Voyage!” missed that mark completely. Any other studio would be let off the hook for putting out a supposed wholesome film with such mature themes (twenty five years later Warner Brothers had a box office hit with the similarly themed “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” ) but Disney is held to a higher standard and “Bon Voyage!” remains one of its least watched productions.
Miracle of the White Stallions (1963)
We are conditioned to expect certain things from Disney, like a virtuous hero/heroine, adorable, wise or witty sidekicks, cute children (or a childlike character), moments of comic relief, cuddly animals, and a scary villain. “Miracle of White Stallions” has none of these.
Here’s what you get instead: Nazis, starving villagers prone to looting and murder, bombed out ruins, fancy show horses in peril, and not a child in sight. Oh, and the gruff American General George S. Patton makes an appearance. Can this really be a Disney film??
Yes it is, and it’s actually quite a lovely film at that. Unfortunately you never get the sense that you are watching something produced by Disney. The only tip off comes when Eddie Albert, as a Nazi officer, sings a Sherman Brothers song written especially for the film.
The plot is based on the true story of a Nazi colonel - played by Robert Taylor - in charge of the famed Austrian school of Spanish riding Lippizan White Stallions. He does his best during the later part of the war to convince the Nazi high command to bring his treasured horses to safety as Allied bombs rain down. Hitler’s lackeys - trying to save their own lives as the Third Reich crumbles around them - are unresponsive, so Taylor’s character defies direct orders and risks everything to save the Stallions, enlisting the help of fellow horse lover Patton, who just happens to be bringing his army through the area on their way to victory in Berlin.
The conclusion of the film features a performance by the Lippizan Stallions which is stunning. “White Stallions” has lots of pageantry and drama, but not much appeal for kids. Families stayed away upon its release, and it was a box office flop.
Watching “White Stallions” now, it feels like a standout MGM or Columbia movie. (In fact director Arthur Hiller, who later helmed such classics as “Love Story”, “Silver Streak” and “The In Laws” made his feature debut with this film.) That’s a great compliment for any film, but still not quite like Disney.
The Devil and Max Devlin (1981)
After Walt’s death in 1966, Disney got stuck in a creative rut for over a decade. By 1981, they were trying desperately to modernize their films to appeal to young crowds accustomed to the more realistic and gritty cinematic style that took hold in the 70s.
The studio had already broken the PG barrier with 1979s “The Black Hole” and 1980s "Midnight Madness", so they went a step further and darker with “The Devil and Max Devlin", the first Disney film to actually use expletives (mild as they were) like “damn!” and “son of a bitch!”
They hired Elliot Gould, who had been one of the biggest counter-culture screen idols of the 1970’s, to star in the picture. Gould was cast as the titular hero, Max Devlin, but the script left no room for audiences to sympathize with him.
In a modern twist on the Faust story, Max Devlin is a loathsome person who is sent to Hell after being hit by a bus. (Yes, Disney did actually show him descending into Hell. The special effects were amazing, of course, but also very frightening.) To cheat death, Max makes a deal with the Devil - who goes by the not so subtle name of Barney Satin.
Bill Cosby was cast as The Devil.
This was a few years before Cosby's cuddly NBC sitcom fatherly image (and decades before the current scandal) but it was still very odd to see the Jello Pudding pitchman and Fat Albert creator caked in red makeup and horns, threatening Elliot Gould’s character with eternal damnation while the flames of Hell blaze behind him.
To help himself, and only himself, Max schemes to steal the innocent souls of a young boy, a teenager, and a naïve twenty something singer and turn them over to the Devil in his place. What a guy! Max Devlin definitely made a strange addition to the Disney roster of leading men.
“The Devil and Max Devlin” was roasted by critics and audiences alike as the most anti-Disney film ever made in the company’s history. In some places the film was the subject of boycotts and editorials criticizing Disney for dipping too broadly into religious themes.
In response to the criticism, Disney began exploring options for a second distribution banner that would separate and distinguish their future PG and - gasp!- R rated films from their family friendly ones.
In just a few short years, Touchstone Pictures would be born.
Ruthless People (1986)
“Down and Out In Beverly Hills” had already claimed the title of the first R rated feature to be released by Disney (under the newly created Touchstone Pictures name.) Still, when “Ruthless People” was released a few months later, it was a shocker.
While “Down and Out’ is a light hearted fable with a happy ending, “Ruthless People” is just a mean spirited, though hilarious, film all the way through. Based on the O Henry classic tale, “The Ransom of Red Chief”, this film tells the story of Sam Stone (Danny DeVito) a self made millionaire who hates his wife (Bette Midler) and is secretly delighted when she is kidnapped, hoping she will be killed. Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater play the sympathetic kidnappers.
The film is filled with infidelity, nudity, hostility, premeditated murder and allusions or references to bestiality, animal cruelty, and spousal abuse. Profanity abounds.
You might think that the studio tried to distance itself and leave no connection between the parent company and their new edgy offshoot. Nope. There are all sorts of Disney references and in-jokes here. The kidnappers wear Donald Duck masks, Sam whistles “Zip a Dee Doo Dah.” when he thinks his wife has been murdered, and at one point Bette Midler’s character says to the kidnappers “who are you supposed to be, Huey and Duey?” (Poor Louie, Donald's third nephew gets left out this time.)
This dark Disney comedy concludes with no happy ending, it goes out just as nasty as it began, with Bette Midler kicking Danny DeVito’s character off a pier and into the ocean. Rumor has it that Midler and DeVito phoned each other after the film’s premiere to commiserate about how they just killed their careers by soiling Disney’s name. ("Ruthless" was actually a success, and the duo would go on to make several other Disney films - both animated and live action.)
There have been lots of raw Disney/Touchstone fims since, but "Ruthless" came along early in Touchstone‘s history. Audiences in 1986 had not yet learned to distinguish the two studio names and still saw Touchstone films as “Disney” films. In the years since its debut, the ratings board has even changed "Ruthless People" from an R to a PG-13, reflecting shifting audience standards.
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
Legendary sci-fi author Ray Bradbury (The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451) was an unabashed Disney fan. He was also a personal friend of Walt's. When Epcot Center was being developed, it was Bradbury who contributed the script for the Spaceship Earth ride. It was no surprise then when Disney Studios finally got around to making one of his stories into a film. Unfortunately they chose one of his most un-Disney like creations.
“Something Wicked This Way Comes” is Bradbury’s semi autobiographical fantasy novel, published in 1962, about his childhood in Waukegan, Illinois. It’s based on an encounter he had with a traveling carnival. The book has some pretty dark themes, exploring the relationship between good and evil and how greed can lead one to go against their better judgment. Not the type of fluffy stuff you’d expect from a Disney film.
One of the lead characters is called Mr. Dark, the owner of the carnival. He blows into town in the Fall, long after other carnivals have gone away, and immediately begins seducing innocent townspeople with promises of fulfilling their deepest desires. Mr. Dark (played by Jonathan Pryce in one of his earliest screen roles) is basically a stand in for the Devil himself.
The heroes are two pre-teen boys who sneak into the carnival one night and discover Mr. Dark’s secrets.
Dark first attempts to seduce the boys into joining his circus. When that fails, he tries to have them killed, sending his evil minions to do the job in terrifying fashion. Eventually good prevails, with an assist from the father of one of the boys (Jason Robards) who saw through Mr. Dark from the very beginning.
This film (and, to a lesser extent, the 1980 film “Watcher In the Woods”) remains one of the most frightening ever produced by Disney. It was their attempt to branch into more suspenseful horror features to help lure teen audiences back to Disney in the 80s. It didn’t work.
One thing is guaranteed, however. “Something Wicked This Way Comes” will almost always evoke nightmares in any child who happens to stumble across it and watch it just because of the Disney name.
Bradbury (and the critics) were generally pleased with the film, but audiences were not and it died at the box office. It has gained more fans since the DVD release and Pryce’s most recent film appearances (including “Pirates of the Caribbean“) , but it still remains an anomaly among traditional “family’ films.
This is a most obscure Disney film that straddles a strange line.
Produced before Touchstone Pictures came along, the film was far too mature for Disney audiences, and the decision was made to release the film with no studio name attached to it. It appeared in cinemas all over the world as an “orphan” film.
Disney’s attempt to imitate an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, “Trenchcoat’ stars Robert Hays (fresh off his starring role in the smash hit “Airplane”) and Margot Kidder (forever typecast as Lois Lane) in a convoluted film set in Malta about international spies. The title is an homage to the preferred outerwear of secret agents in movies for generations. There are mix-ups, terrorists, incompetent police, and nuclear secrets scattered throughout. I’d describe the plot, but it’s still confusing, even after repeated viewings.
If you look hard enough in vintage video stores or on the internet, you might find a copy of this film, which was released on VHS for a short time in late 1983. Other than that, “Trenchcoat” has disappeared completely. Disney realized that they should never have gotten into the Hitchcock business, and “Trenchcoat’ has subsequently slipped through the cracks of time. There isn't even a trailer available that I can post, Disney has pulled all of them from You Tube.
The Black Cauldron (1985)
Billed as the 25th animated classic in the long line of Disney films, “The Black Cauldron” is one of their most reviled and misunderstood pictures, and was one of their biggest flops. It also has the honor (or dishonor) of being the first Disney animated film to be rated PG.
As most of the original Disney artists began to retire in the late 1970s/early 1980s, classic hand-drawn methods were being phased out, in favor of modern computer assisted ones. Then, a bunch of youngsters entered the studio, fresh out of art school.
This was the first generation of animators actually weaned on the classic Disney style. They were eager to make their mark and to explore new stories. Disney’s 1979 hit “The Rescuers” served as a test run for them, and a way to learn from the remaining masters. The new guys began to push for edgier material to keep up with other contemporary animators, like Ralph Bakshi, who were exploring darker, more adult themes, leaving Disney in the dust.
“Dungeons and Dragons” and other role playing games had also moved into the mainstream by then, and the American public was re-discovering interest in medieval fantasy themes. The new animators wanted to tackle something ambitious, along the lines of JRR Tolkien’s classic “Lord Of The Rings” series, or to develop a story that had characters embarking on a dangerous quest. (Jim Henson had just done so with "The Dark Crystal")
The Disney studio brass finally concluded that Lloyd Alexander’s 1964 book series, “Chronicles of Prydian” would be their best option.
The story concerns a pig keeper named Taran who fancies himself a warrior. He has a pig named Hen Wen who is stolen by the evil horned king, who wants to use the pig to help create a black cauldron, which will raise an army of the dead. Meanwhile, back in the forest, there is a princess named Eilowny, who … have we lost you kids yet?
When your movie has a sidekick with an unpronounceable name like Fflewddur Fflam you know that you’re in trouble.
"The Black Cauldron" cost a lot of money to make, but earned next to nothing at the box office. It was so unremarkable that when Disney took it out of circulation for 15 years, hardly anyone complained.
It is now widely available on DVD and BluRay, and has its cult following of fans and admirers, but still baffles many youngsters and adults who watch it.
In the wake of "Cauldron" and other 70s and 80s misfires, Disney - under the new leadership of Michael Eisner, Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg - started heading in a brighter direction, one closer to Walt's original vision. They began churning out more traditional "Disney" films, filled with mermaids, genies, beasts, princesses and kings.
Disney fans everywhere were relieved.