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15 obscure movies and TV shows on Disney+ you need to check out

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Nov 13, 2019

When Disney announced the initial slate of programming for Disney+, its new direct-to-consumer streaming platform, it did it in the most extravagantly Disney way possible, with a thread of tweets that wound up breaking a world record.

That's a lot of content. And sifting through it all is a Herculean task, especially considering how many of the titles were met with "WTF that's a real thing?" derision on Twitter. (Yes, they're all real.)

But amid the massive title dump there are some true hidden treasures, movies and shows you might not ever have heard of that you should still be very, very excited about now that Disney+ has arrived.

Candleshoe (1977)

If you've never heard of Norman Tokar, then prepare to get very acquainted when Disney+ hits the market. Tokar made more than a dozen movies for Disney, starting just before Walt's death but mostly during the dark period that followed, famously contributing movies like The Apple Dumpling Gang and Rob Marshall favorite (seriously) The Happiest Millionaire. (He'll be making another appearance on this very list.)

Candleshoe is not one of his more fondly remembered efforts, but it is a charming-enough comedy that features a very young (and very good) Jodie Foster and David Niven in a number of outrageous disguises. Foster plays a young con artist in league with some older criminals who attempt to steal a fortune from an old lady (Helen Hayes in her final film role) but, wouldn't you know it, suffers a crisis of conscience.

Elevated by the caliber of the performances and the story's inherent sweetness, it's not going to be your new favorite movie but it's still worth a watch.

The Cat from Outer Space (1978)

Norman Tokar strikes again! (Told you.)

Disney's The Cat from Outer Space would ultimately be his final movie (he died of a heart attack at the age of 59 less than a year after the film was released), which is sort of fitting. It has that same warmed-over, half-baked feel of many of the movies from that same period (they even recycle a gag from The Absent-Minded Professor) but also feels bolder stylistically than many of the movies from that time at Disney (and indeed many of the movies made by Tokar), especially when it comes to anything involving the cat (his glowing collar is superb).

How many other movies featuring a talking cat from outer space would also feature a direct reference to North by Northwest? Exactly. The talking-alien buddy movie that The Cat from Outer Space eventually turns into, with its mixture of hijinks (so much beer is spilled) and government panic, can easily be seen as the template for ALF, which premiered to much larger commercial success less than a decade later.

Melody Time (1948)

Financial strains put on the Disney studio because of World War II led to shorter animated projects being developed and then later repackaged into loosely connected films. Melody Time was the fifth such film released and one of the more enjoyable. (Also, thanks to the digital wonders of Disney+, you can weave in and out of it, watching segments you love and skipping those that need skipping.)

You might have seen "The Legend of Johnny Appleseed" or "Pecos Bill," but have you ever watched "Blame it on the Samba," which continues the Saludos Amigos/Three Caballeros narrative or the beautifully contemplative "Trees," based on a 1913 Joyce Kilmer poem? Well now here's your chance.

Amphibia (2019)

In recent years, the output from the Disney Television Animation has become some of the strongest in the industry, with gently envelope-pushing shows such as Gravity Falls, Star vs. the Forces of Evil, and the rebooted Duck Tales, while at the same time not garnering nearly as much press or attention as similar shows on other networks.

One show that hasn't gotten nearly the amount of attention it deserves is Amphibia, which just started earlier this year and already feels horribly underrated. A charming, softly surreal series about a young Thai-American girl named Anne (Brenda Song) who gets magically transported to the titular land, populated by odd frog creatures (including one voiced by the animation legend Bill Farmer) and weird monsters. Gravity Falls vet Matt Braly created Amphibia and takes a deceptively simple concept and lends it some rich mythology and world-building, which makes the wait for Season 2 even more excruciating.

The Crimson Wing (2008)

Disneynature is Disney's nature documentary imprint, releasing a new movie almost every year and in the process continuing Walt's message of conservation and exploration that he pioneered in his True-Life Adventures series (more on those in a minute).

Most people take new Disneynature movies for granted, but they really are uniformly excellent and often breathtakingly beautiful and even if you think you've seen most of them, chances are you've let some slip, like The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos, a Disneynature project that was sadly released direct-to-home-video more than a decade ago.

Eerier and more ethereal than many of the other Disneynature documentaries, complete with a soothing, non-celebrity narrator (Norwegian-Scottish journalist Mariella Frostrup), The Crimson Wing follows a cluster of flamingos that live in a lake in Tanzania and is equal parts transfixing and surprisingly horrifying (seeing baby flamingos died because of calcified salt that accumulates over their feet still haunts me). This is a must-see.

Frank and Ollie (1995)

The names Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston are well-known to any animation enthusiast worth their salt, but for most Disney+ subscribers, they'll undoubtedly draw a blank.

Thankfully, this nifty documentary will clue everybody in. Frank and Ollie charts the life and careers of Thomas and Johnston, two animators who were part of Walt's Nine Old Men, the most influential and revered animators of the early animated era. They were also BFFs and much of the joy of the documentary comes from seeing them, in advanced age, sitting beside each other and swapping stories (and completing each others'), as they answer questions from the director, Theodore Thomas (Frank's son).

Other interviewees give context for their work and accomplishments, but it's in these quieter moments that the movie really shines. Just be prepared to be Thomas and Johnston superfans by the time you finish this winning documentary.

The Journey of Natty Gann (1985)

It's fascinating to look back at the types of movies Disney made after Michael Eisner was installed at the top, especially considering the, er, streamlining of the studio's output today.

One of those movies that you can't quite believe they made was The Journey of Natty Gann, an adventure/drama centered around a Depression Era tomboy (Meredith Salenger in her screen debut), who goes on an odyssey to reconnect with her father (Ray Wise) and along the way befriends a wolfdog and falls in with a young, pre-black hat era John Cusack. You know, that old story.

The Journey of Natty Gann is beautifully shot and has some terrific performances (and a really cool canine sidekick) and is the kind of rousing, one-off adventure film that the studio just doesn't make anymore (but really probably should).

Millions (2004)

Notable for being one of the few Fox titles available upon release (and a Fox Searchlight title, no less!), Millions is one of those Danny Boyle movies that time has seemingly passed by. Hopefully, Disney+ will give it new life, because it really is a wonderful little movie.

Set around the time of a fictional transition from the British pound to the European Union Euro, it centers around a pair of brothers who discover a large bag of money near the train tracks and begin doling out small acts of kindness everywhere around them. That's really all there is to it.

Of course there are flashes of Boyle's usual darkness (the bag came from a heist, of course, and the villains eventually begin looking for what's theirs) and surrealism (one of the boys is devoutly religious and thus visited by celestial figures) but is one of the filmmaker's most open-hearted and sweetly sincere efforts ever and will be seen as something of a treasure by those who have never watched (so pretty much everybody). Also, it doubles as an awesome Christmas movie.

Return to Oz (1985)

Fun fact: Walt Disney was obsessed with L. Frank Baum's Oz books and originally wanted to produce an animated Wizard of Oz as the follow-up to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. MGM already had the rights but in the mid-1950s, he bought the rights to 11 other Baum Oz stories and very nearly made his own film in the late 1950s (The Rainbow Road to Oz) that was even previewed on an episode of his weekly television show Disneyland.

Ultimately, Disney wouldn't get a chance to actually make an Oz movie until the early 1980s, on the verge of the studio losing the rights to the books (Walt had purchased the rights to the 12th book in the late 1950s).

Directed by Oscar-winning editor Walter Murch, in what would be his sole directorial credit, the movie eschewed the sunniness of the MGM original (not to mention the songs), instead going for a darker, more Gothic approach. Disney was ultimately baffled and tried to have Murch removed (George Lucas stepped in and defended Murch), and author Harlan Ellison famously accused Disney of trying to bury the film upon its initial theatrical release.

My how the times have changed. Buried no more, see what all the fuss is about when you watch Return to Oz on Disney+.

Strange Magic (2015)

When Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, it acquired the rights to the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises (after buying out Paramount's stake in the latter) but it was also saddled with Strange Magic, which feels very much like a weird leftover that the studio was contractually forced into releasing.

It's got one of the most bonkers premises of any Disney movie ever, made all the odder by the fact that George Lucas supposedly came up with the idea himself: Strange Magic is a story inspired by Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, populated exclusively by grotesque fairy tale creatures. It also serves as a jukebox musical, with numbers inspired by contemporary pop and rock music. (Its title is derived from the Electric Light Orchestra song.)

And, yes, it's sort of a mess, with some uninspired vocal performances and puzzling plotting, but it's also very much worth watching. The visuals come courtesy of Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic visual effects house, only its second feature-length film (after Rango) and the movie was directed by Gary Rydstrom, an Oscar-winning sound designer and Pixar vet.

Tall Tale (1995)

In the '90s, Disney was riding high on a wave of unparalleled critical and commercial success, fueled largely by the so-called Disney Renaissance that returned the studio's animation slate to glory. But they weren't all breakout successes. And one of the pleasures of Disney+ will be to visit those pockets where Disney missed the mark but still created something interesting.

Take Tall Tale, a kind of Avengers of early American mythology that utilizes a Wizard of Oz (there it is again!)-style dreamlike framing device and appearances by Pecos Bill (Patrick Swayze), Paul Bunyan (um, Oliver Platt), and John Henry (Roger Aaron Brown). But what seems like a fairly innocuous project is actually deeply strange, punctuated by fits of extreme violence and complex action set pieces (in a way foretelling Disney's own, not-yet-on-Disney+ The Lone Ranger a couple of decades later).

As directed by Canadian journeyman filmmaker Jeremy Chechik, it doesn't quite stick the landing but its ambition and commitment to weirdness should be commended.

The Living Desert (1953)

Of Walt Disney's many accomplishments, the fact that he created the nature documentary as we know it is often overlooked. Walt's True-Life Adventures, which would pave the way for, amongst other things, the Disneynature imprint mentioned above, stressed conservation and education but were also uniquely entertaining and one of the most entertaining was The Living Desert from 1953.

Filmed entirely in Arizona (but with an emphasis on otherness that makes the whole thing feel like it was photographed on Mars), the Oscar-winning documentary does much to capture the desert landscape and the creatures within. Sometimes startlingly real (there's a showdown between a wasp and a spider that was featured in a sort of True-Life Adventures greatest hits movie in the '70s that is pretty gnarly), it features all the hallmarks that would define the films, including a loose narrative framework, personification of the animals, and playfully informative narration.

And it's less than 70 minutes long! The Vanishing Prairie, a spiritual companion film and follow-up to The Living Desert, is also available on Disney+ and would make for a truly wonderful double feature.

Treasure of Matecumbe (1976)

There are a handful of reasons to watch Treasure of Matecumbe, including a plumb co-starring role by then-Disney regular Peter Ustinov and a serviceably pulpy plot involving shipwrecks and buried treasure (the screenplay is based on a novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Lewis Taylor), but the real reason to pull it up on Disney+ is the same reason I recorded a rare showing of it on TCM a few months back: large swaths of the movie's climax were filmed at the recently-opened Walt Disney World resort.

In fact, the site of the shipwreck was photographed at Discovery Island, a wild nature preserve and trail in Disney World's Bay Lake that was unceremoniously shuttered in 1999. Sure, the movie is well and good, but it works mostly as a time machine to an earlier, more innocent period in Disney history.

Tron: Uprising (2012)

There was a surprising amount of Tron: Legacy footage in the sizzle that ran before the big Disney+ presentation at this year's D23 Expo, which sticks out since they didn't announce anything Tron-related in the actual presentation. (A live-action series seems like a no-brainer but, alas, it has yet to materialize.) But there was a welcome surprise when the list of day one Disney+ content was revealed: Tron: Uprising, the short-lived animated series that served to form some connective tissue between Tron and Tron: Legacy (which Disney believed would be a huge hit and restart the dormant franchise).

Rendered in a cool, videogame-y 3D animation and featuring a starry voice cast (including Elijah Wood, Mandy Moore and franchise mainstay Bruce Boxleitner), Tron: Uprising is a joy to behold for series die-hards (it was overseen by Legacy writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz) and those unfamiliar with the computerized world. It's a truly nifty series, mature and complicated and beautifully animated with ace direction mostly by Charlie Bean (whose new live-action Lady & the Tramp remake is another Disney+ launch title) and a killer score by Joseph Trapanese (who helped wrangle Daft Punk for the Legacy score). Would you like to play?

Waking Sleeping Beauty (2010)

Disney in the '90s was an exciting and hugely profitable time for the company, with renewed creative force thanks to the implementation of executives Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Waking Sleeping Beauty, Don Hahn's surprisingly honest documentary about that period of the company's history, exposes not only the creative and commercial highs but also the bitterness and conflict that was raging behind the scenes.

Hahn, who produced many of the animated features during the so-called Disney Renaissance, brings the insight that only a man who was there to witness the madness and excitement of the time could provide. His relationship with the principles also allows for some frank discussions with Katzenberg, Eisner, and Roy O. Disney, Walt's embattled nephew. Waking Sleeping Beauty also serves as a warm-up for Hahn's new documentary about lyricist Howard Ashman, scheduled to hit Disney+ in 2020.

The moments in Waking Sleeping Beauty about Ashman's illness and untimely death lend it an emotionality that ranks with the very best of Disney's output from that time. Have the tissues handy.

 

 

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