Return to Oz Revisited

(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)

Picture it: a time when the head of Walt Disney Productions said, what if we tried to appeal to more than just families? What if we make a series of boldly innovative films that challenge the notion that we only do one type of film? If that sounds incompatible with the company today, you’d be right, but this was when Ron Miller was in charge during the ‘80s, as he set out to expand the sort of films Disney produced, trying to appeal to a broader and older market. The result was a terrible decade for Disney’s box office, but a fascinating time for filmgoers.

We’ve covered how The Black Hole was sort of the beginning of a series of Disney’s dark, strange movies with a lot of ambition but poor audience reception. This came to a head in 1985 when Disney released two box office bombs that nearly ruined the company. One is an animated movie we’ll cover at some point. The other was a sequel to one of the most famous and beloved movies of all time. That’s right: it’s time to face the wheelers, tap our heels and say ‘There’s no place like a Victorian mental hospital’ as we revisit Return to Oz

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The Rocketeer Revisited

(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)

In 1991, Walt Disney Pictures released two of the very best films to ever fall under their banner. That fall, they would release Beauty and the Beast to widespread acclaim from audiences, critics, and the film industry as a whole. The animated adaptation of the tale as old as time became the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards – it’s a feat that’s never truly been repeated, because the other two animated Best Picture nominees (Up and Toy Story 3) did so in a field of ten nominees, where Beauty and the Beast did so as just one of five nominees. No matter: everyone knows that Beauty and the Beast is one of the studio’s biggest successes, a wonderful, enchanting romance that deserves its iconic status.

I haven’t convened you all here today to talk about Beauty and the Beast. Let’s talk about the other wonderful film Disney released in 1991, smack dab in the middle in the summer. That’s when Walt Disney Pictures tried its hand at making a live-action story that would become a summertime hit at a period when they badly needed one. It was a period piece, an action-adventure, based on a comic book. In the 2010s, The Rocketeer would’ve been a big hit out of the gate. In 1991, it was sadly relegated to cult status.

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Treasure Planet Revisited

(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)

Walt Disney Animation Studios has been the linchpin of the Disney empire. Though the company has had huge success with live-action endeavors and franchise acquisitions, their world dominance began with their animation unit. After hitting some very, very rough patches in the ‘80s, the studio went through what was later called “The Disney Renaissance.” 

From 1989 to 1999 Disney produced critically and commercially successful movies that gave us instant classics like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. However, after the release of Tarzan marked the end of the Disney Renaissance, the studio went through a bit of a sci-fi craze in the early ‘00s, releasing a series of films like Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsonswhich gathered mixed to negative reactions and barely made their money back.

Out of this period, only two earned Oscar nominations. Lilo & Stitch was a commercial and critical success, spanning several films and a TV show (and theme park rides). The other was a visually stunning film that puts a sci-fi twist on a literary classic, but never really took off. Let’s look at one of Disney’s biggest flops: Treasure Planet. 

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Waking Sleeping Beauty Revisited

(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)

The Walt Disney Company is laser-focused on creating and preserving its legacy. As the conglomerate approaches its 100th anniversary in 2023, it’s easy to understand why the company looks back at its own history and wants to ensure that a specific version of that history is what becomes common knowledge. “It all started with a mouse” is the easy go-to quote from Walt Disney, even if that’s not really true. (Mickey Mouse wasn’t the studio’s first hit character, let alone the studio’s first hit animated character.) Of course, the flip side to wanting to create your own legacy is that people might become skeptical that the version of history you’re telling is actually what happened.

That inherent skepticism is one of many reasons that Waking Sleeping Beauty, a Disney-sanctioned and distributed documentary about one of the company’s crown jewels, is so shocking to watch a decade later.

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Don't Look Under the Bed

(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)

Though not the first thing that comes to mind when you think Disney, there is a long history of horror and horror-adjacent productions in the Walt Disney Company. Many of them resulted in failed attempts at doing something new, due to parents complaining about Disney being a family-friendly company and the horror movies damaging that image.

That being said, many of these horror movies inspired millions of kids to become horror fans, due to the unique blending of the genre and Disney’s traditional family-friendly approach. While the promotional push leading to the launch of Disney+ focused heavily on the big franchises like Marvel and Star Wars, as well as their animated classics, there is a healthy offering of horror movies in the streaming service. This week, we’ll take a look at the last original horror-themed movie made by Disney: Don’t Look Under the Bed.

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(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)

In its first couple of months, the Disney+ streaming service has offered its millions of subscribers a wealth of viewing options. If you like Star Wars, check out The Mandalorian or the many earlier films in the franchise. Marvel’s your speed? Good, have at the various MCU movies available to stream. And so on. But if you scroll through the hundreds of options in the Movies area, there are two titles that stick out like sore thumbs. One, a TV episode titled “The Plausible Impossible”, is something this column highlighted last month. 

The other is an hourlong installment from the same show that, depending on your viewpoint, functions as a home movie and time capsule.

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Revisiting The Black Hole

(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)

The post-Walt and Roy Disney era of Disney was a fascinating and very weird one. In the ‘70s, Walt’s son-in-law Ron Miller took over has head of Walt Disney Productions, and set out to expand the scope of Disney movies to appeal to the profitable teenage market that was spending a ton of cash on movies other than the family-friendly Disney flicks. 

Sure, we still got some classic Disney animated successes like Robin Hood and The Fox and the Hound, and live-action family-friendly films like the original Freaky Friday, but this was also and era marked by a series of boldly innovative and very dark films that were not huge successes. However, they showed that the company was willing to take chances. Under Ron Miller, Disney released the cult favorite Tron, the company’s first horror movie The Watcher in the Woods, and the dark sci-fi movie that was going to be their Star Wars, but ended up as an enthralling trip through hell with The Black Hole.

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(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)

The early 1940s were a rocky period for Walt Disney Studios. Though the fledgling animation company had proven that a feature film in the hand-drawn medium was viable for both technical and creative reasons, Disney struggled to recapture the sense of success evinced by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. Though we now think of follow-up films such as Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi as some of the most beloved and well-known classics from the Disney canon, they were far from box-office smashes upon their initial releases. 

Couple that fact with two other dark elements of the year 1941. On a studio level, Disney had to weather a serious, contentious strike among his studio’s animators; and on a national level, the country was pulled forcefully into World War II after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor. America’s entry into World War II led to the government ordering Disney to make propaganda that would help fix international relations with other countries in the world’s darkest hours. And one of the results of that order is a cult classic that recently celebrated its 75th anniversary.

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Darby O'Gill and the Little People

(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)

While the phrase “Disney classics” usually refers to the Walt Disney Animation Studios output, Walt Disney Pictures did make a fair number of pure live-action films that did pretty well at the time of their release. 

Like their animation counterparts, many of these live-action films were based on popular folk tales from around the world. While some of them (I’m looking at you, Song of the South) did a disservice to absolutely everyone alive and were nothing more than offensive caricatures, some of them were actually well-intentioned films that exposed American audiences to myths and traditions from other places in the world (even if they are still in some ways culturally outdated). One of these films is Darby O’Gill and the Little People.

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The Plausible Impossible Revisited

(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)

It’s impossible to comprehend exactly how popular the Walt Disney anthology TV series was back in its heyday of the 1950s and 1960s, in part because it’s still somewhat baffling to ponder what the anthology TV series was to begin with. Now, the phrase “anthology series” calls to mind images of shows like Fargo, True Detective, or American Horror Story. But anthology series that existed back in the nascent years of the televisual medium were drastically different from the splashy, star-driven cable shows of the last decade. The Walt Disney program, which has had multiple names in its decades of existence, shook things up on a weekly basis.

Such is the case with one of the two currently available episodes of the anthology show that you can stream, right now, on Disney+. (If you’re wondering, “Josh, are you ever going to use this column to talk about the other episode I can stream right now?”, don’t you worry. We’ll get there soon enough.) For anyone who loves animation, The Plausible Impossible is a genuine must-watch, because in just the span of 52 minutes, you get a glimpse at how Disney animators of the Golden Age would approach the art of animation. Now, it might seem like an hourlong description of how animation works might do well only on a niche network. At the time, The Plausible Impossible was one of the top-rated hours on television the week it aired.

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