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Debate Club: Disney's best sci-fi movies (from before the '90s)

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Nov 13, 2019

Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.

Disney's bread and butter has long been animated movies, but the studio also has a rich history of live-action films.

For this week's Debate Club, we're going to be looking specifically at their science fiction offerings from before 1990 — a cool, old-school period that encompassed everything from interstellar dramas to all-ages adventures. To be clear, you won't find a lot of groundbreaking works on this list. (With rare exceptions, Disney wasn't much interested in being cutting-edge when it came to sci-fi.) But these five films will work for the whole family ... and a few have since been remade or rebooted.

Our advice: Stick with the originals.

 

 

The Absent-Minded Professor (1961)

Does this count as sci-fi? Well, it's about a scientific genius who comes up with a new technology that changes the world with its unique and unprecedented ability to change our physical world. So yeah, we're counting it. (It was either that or Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, which is … sort of about the exact same thing?)

It's funny to think that more people know Fred MacMurray for this than Double Indemnity because of Disney. Also: Let’s all pretend the 1997 Robin Williams remake, Flubber, didn't happen.

Escape to Witch Mountain (1975)

A lot of Escape to Witch Mountain's comedy doesn't hold up today — and it occasionally indulges in some dopey very-small-child-friendly pratfalls — but the central premise of two telekinetic siblings trying to figure out their mysterious origins and talents is universal and awfully appealing.

The movie is scary enough but not too scary, and has a flexible enough premise that it could prop up a whole TV series. Based on the Alexander Key novel, Escape to Witch Mountain inspired several sequels and remakes; it wouldn't be the worst idea to maybe try another one.

Flight of the Navigator (1986)

What could have been a half-hearted, cynical attempt to cash in on the success of E.T. — kid rides with alien (or robot, anyway) friend to adventure — is actually smarter and even a little darker than anyone had any reason to expect.

Flight of the Navigator is just wonky enough to be "challenging" but family-friendly enough to be an easy entry-level-to-science-fiction course. And the movie features Paul Reubens as the voice of Max the computer.

The Black Hole (1979)

Clearly, someone at Disney in 1977 was looking at the gaudy grosses for Star Wars and thought, "We need to get in on that action." (Ironically, years later, Disney would simply buy Lucasfilm outright.) How else to explain The Black Hole, the Mouse House's riff on sci-fi adventure that follows a crew (including Robert Forster, Anthony Perkins, and Ernest Borgnine) as they rendezvous with a mysterious vessel parked right outside a black hole? (There's also two robots arguably modeled after C-3PO and R2-D2.)

Combining science fiction with elements of disaster flick and horror, The Black Hole has an operatic, cheesy quality that only makes it more endearing. (James Bond composer John Barry wrote a wonderfully grandiose score.)

Funny enough, Joseph Kosinski, the director of Tron: Legacy, was planning on doing a Black Hole remake. Sadly, that's currently on hold.

Tron (1982)

A film inspired by the video game revolution, Tron daringly merged computer animation and live-action to put viewers inside the world of the machines that would soon be taking over their lives. Jeff Bridges plays a hotshot engineer who gets transported into his job's mainframe — don't ask, it's complicated — and becomes a program fighting for his life. It's hard to explain how eye-popping Tron was for its time, creating a virtual digital world long before such classics as The Matrix.

In the process, the movie gave Disney a series of video games and, eventually, a 2010 sequel. Maybe Tron's effects don't hold up — OK, fine, yes, they definitely don't hold up — but the movie still feels like the dawn of a new era: futuristic in the best possible ways.

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

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