The 10 Weirdest Live-Action Disney Movies
By Mat Elfring on
While the internet is losing its mind over Will Smith as the Genie is the upcoming live-action remake of Aladdin, it's easy to forget that Disney has produced far more live-action movies than animated ones since the company started making films back in 1937, with the debut of Snow White And The Seven Dwarves.
Disney's first live-action movie--that wasn't an animation hybrid--was the 1950 adaptation of Treasure Island. Jump ahead to the 60s, and Disney was pumping out, on average, six movies a year, and the vast majority were live-action as animated films were coming out roughly every three years or so. And there were a few memorable films you've surely seen like 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, The Parent Trap, or one of the million Herbie the Lovebug movies.
Then, there was a short period of time where Disney got a bit weird. Before the studio established Touchstone Pictures, Disney dove into making more mature titles, stepping away from movies that that were zany family comedies about birds that laid golden eggs or any of the other movies that teamed up someone with a wacky animal. This seven-year period saw Disney going out on a limb to explore new avenues in storytelling, which meant more adult content. We're not talking about rated-R material, but the films Disney produced during this time weren't your typical comedy retreat.
And no, we're not taking look at Tron, the company's most successful live-action movie during this period, as it's a hybrid animated/live-action movie, and also, it's awesome, and everyone reading this knows what it is. We're taking a look at the weirdest live-action movies from that time period, presented in order of "least weird" to "what was Disney thinking?
10. Flight of the Navigator (1986)
Flight of the Navigator is pretty tame, when put into perspective. This was the last movie to come out during Disney's "darker era" and two years after the formation of Touchstone Pictures. Chances are, you've probably seen this movie because it's pretty fantastic.
Taking place in 1978, the movie follows David Freeman, a 12-year old boy who falls into a ravine, is knocked unconscious, and wakes up eight years in the future, not having aged a day. It turns out, David had created a telepathic bond with an alien ship--voiced by Paul "Pee Wee Herman" Rubens--that fills his brain with miscellaneous data and takes him on an adventure. Eventually, David gets sent back in time and all is well again.
While this is the brightest movie from Disney's dark time, there are some dark elements, which we've seen in other movies. Most notably is the fact that NASA is the antagonist, and their goal is to study David and institutionalize him. Additionally, David knows that if he travels back in time, to 1978, he risks being vaporized. Our protagonists choices in Act III are psychiatric imprisonment or potentially being vaporized in space. That's a messed up thing to do to a kid.
9. Midnight Madness (1980)
Midnight Madness was the second movie in Disney's stable to get the PG rating. Don't worry, the first one is on this list as well. What's bizarre about this movie is that it feels more like a B-List teen comedy than something Disney produced.
In this 1980 cult classic, a group of college students participate in a competition dubbed "The Great All-Nighter." A game master--who is constantly surrounded by a bevy of women--gives the students clues, which take them to a location, and they get a new clue which takes them to a new location, and so on and so forth.
Midnight Madness couldn't feel less like a Disney movie. Tonally, it has more in common with Revenge of the Nerds than anything else under the mouse's banner. However, what's interesting is that it's stripped down. It's like they took Revenge of the Nerds and replaced all the swearing, nudity, and sexual situations with yucking it up for the camera and bizarre pseudo-sexual moments like jocks spraying women with beer from a keg. It's a movie that's too adult for kids but too kiddie for adults.
8. The Devil and Max Devlin (1981)
You know what Disney needs more of? Satan. The Devil and Max Devlin is one of the films that influenced Disney to create Touchstone Pictures. This fantasy comedy starred Bill Cosby, who played the devil.
A shady landlord named Max Devlin is run over by a bus and dies. He is sent to Hell and told by the devil that he'll be there for all eternity unless Devlin can convince three people to sell him their souls, so Devlin's soul can be free. Devlin ends up getting the souls he needs, but falls in love with the mother of one of his victims. In the end, he sacrifices himself to save everyone's souls, and he ends up beating the Devil because of it.
Although this movie follows a pretty traditional Disney storytelling formula with the main character of the story--who is flawed--learning something about himself and changing, the whole movie centers around people being tortured in the afterlife. Sure, there are plenty of comedic talents to soften the blow, but it's still a movie that's about eternal damnation.
7. Tex (1982)
Tex is the only movie on this list without a genre hook. This is a straight-forward drama. There's no comedy, science fiction, or horror slant to it. It was well-received by critics, with Robert Ebert giving it 4 out of 4 stars.
The film centers around two brothers whose mother passed away. While this happens, their father walks out on the crumbling family, in what is essentially a coming-of-age story about young adults in Oklahoma trying to live their lives without parental figures.
This was a pretty big breakout role for Matt Dillon, who played one of the brothers. Critics applauded the film for its realistic portrayal of adolescents. This was a very serious movie that didn't match the rest of Disney's cannon for the time. Sure, Disney touched on realism many times before, but it never reached the gritty levels Tex did when dealing with death and moving forward.
6. Dragonslayer (1981)
While originally rated PG, more recent TV showings of Dragonslayer got the dreaded TV-14 rating for its violence, adult themes, and nudity. Many people have forgotten about this movie--which was distributed by Paramount, which co-produced the movie--even though this was an Academy Award nominated movie for Best Original Score and Best Visual Effects.
Dragonslayer takes place in the sixth-century where the kingdom of Urland is under the attack of a dragon named Vermithrax Pejorative. In order to keep the dragon at bay, the king offers it virgin women which are selected by lottery. A wizard apprentice decides to take action and goes on a journey to slay the dragon.
Dragonslayer was ahead of its time. The film used Industrial Light and Magic to do its special effects, and it's a movie that debuted during the dawn of the '80s fantasy era, released the same year as Clash of the Titans. This was Disney's first live-action attempt at something like this and the only time they ever attempted a medieval era movie like this.
5. Condorman (1981)
Marvel Cinematic Uni-what? Condorman was Disney's attempt at a superhero film, and it was something else. The opening credit sequence alone is bizarre. Is this a superhero movie, a parody of one, or a dark tale of espionage?
The movie follows Woody Wilkins, a comic book creator who decides to become one of his creations, Condorman. Woody meets a KGB spy and helps her defect. She has the CIA make Condorman be the agent that helps her on the journey. However, there is an assassin after her, and Condorman saves the day.
Sure, you could say Condorman--like Dragonslayer--was ahead of its time, but the movie suffered from a lack of voice. Aside from being a critical and box office failure, it tried to follow the traditional style of Disney family comedy, which didn't work anymore. It's the only movie on this list that didn't tap into something darker and more adult, during this more mature time at Disney, and it's obvious that the people didn't want films like this anymore.
4. The Black Hole (1979)
With the success of Star Wars, Disney attempted to tap into the newly-created fandom with The Black Hole, a space opera that is bleak, disturbing, and dark. That may not be what Disney originally attempted, but that was the end result. Not even a silly floating robot could lighten the mood on this one.
The Black Hole follows an exploratory spaceship from Earth. On its journey, it finds a lost ship just outside of the event horizon of--you guessed it--a black hole. The ship contains a scientist and android drones working for him. And, of course, said scientist is evil and turns on the crew of the exploratory ship. It all ends with the ship heading into the black hole where the scientist and one of his robots merge and burn up.
The moment the audience realizes that the robot drones are actually zombified ex-crew members is horrifying, and the same goes for when the evil scientist dies at the end. Overall, it's a mediocre movie that has some exceptionally memorable moments. It's worth checking out at least once, just to see Disney's first dip into making more mature content.
3. Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
When you think about dark Disney movies, Something Wicked This Way Comes is at the top of many people's lists. The fantasy film was written by Ray Bradbury and adapted from his book of the same name. While Disney has it listed as a fantasy film, it's more horror than anything else.
It centers around the town of Green Town, Illinois. Two boys who received detention hear about a bizarre travelling carnival that go and check out. While at first glance this seems to be your average, run-of-the-mill carnival, there are dark forces at play, and the man who runs the show--conveniently named Mr. Dark--plans to take control of the town and steal the townspeople's souls.
It is a very dark movie filled with horrifying visuals. The music is incredibly eerie, and as a whole, the movie is unsettling. This was a film, however, that was shown to kids in elementary schools during the '80s. I will never forget the day I was shown this movie in my 5th grade class because Mr. Dark disturbed me to my very core.
2. Return To Oz (1985)
MGM's The Wizard of Oz is a classic film that is loved by everyone. So what happens when Disney decides to dive back into the world of Oz? Well, you get something that feels pretty derivative of another movie that came out a year prior, The NeverEnding Story.
Tapping into the darker side of L. Frank Baum's Oz novels--primarily The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz--the movie follows Dorothy once again (who is now, like, 8 years old for some reason), who is taken by her Aunt Em to electrotherapy (I'm not making this up) because Dorothy keeps fantasizing about the land of Oz. Before her alleged delusions are zapped out of her, the building is struck by lightning and Dorothy is saved by a mysterious girl. Somehow, Dorothy ends up back in Oz--after falling into a river--where she must restore the Emerald City to its glory with her new friends, as it's been overthrown by the Nome King.
The film didn't go over well with critics. While it stayed true to the source material, even while adapting two different stories, many felt it was just way too dark for children. The secondary characters were creepy and there is an intense feeling of hopelessness throughout the movie. Return to Oz isn't a bad movie by any means, but it certainly doesn't feel like anything Disney would ever put out, even when it's compared to the other films on this list.
1. The Watcher In The Woods (1980)
Topping this list of the bizarre is Disney's first real attempt at horror with The Watcher in the Woods. At no point in time does Disney pretend this is anything but a horror film, just check out the original trailer.
The movie follows a young woman named Jan who moves with her family into a manor in the rural part of England. The woman next door says than Jan looks a lot like her daughter Karen who disappeared 30 years prior. Strange things begin happening to Jan, and she finds out that Karen went missing after a seance on the night of a lunar eclipse. Jan decides to recreate the seance to bring Karen back, and finds out that a being from another dimension traded places with Karen, and now Karen is stuck suspended in time. Eventually, all is set right and Karen comes back, not having aged a day.
The Watcher in the Woods really nails that '70s horror tone, before the genre completely switched over to slasher flicks. It has the elements of the supernatural, mystery, and suspense that make many horror films of that time great. However, it's a bit of a convoluted mess. The majority of critics did not like it, although it was praised--by a few--for its scary moments. It's one of those films that's better when you talk about it rather than actually watching it.