Over the years, Disney has released a whole bunch of animated features. It’s kind of their thing. Many of these films are much-loved classics, while others have more or less fallen off the radar.
In the interest of science, I watched five Disney animated features that you may not have known existed (or at least they’re not ones that you think about very often). I had seen them all before, but I sat through them all again so that I could share my opinions about them.
The Black Cauldron (1985)
In The Black Cauldron, a young boy by the name of Taran starts out as an assistant pig keeper and ends up on an epic quest to save the land from the evil Horned King and his army of bloodthirsty skeletons. Along the way he meets a princess, a bard, and a scruffy little creature named Gurgi, all of whom join his journey as he battles the bad guy’s henchmen. The film also has fairies, the undead, witches, and a magic sword–pretty much all the fantasy trappings.
I’ll admit that I have a soft spot for The Black Cauldron. As a kid, I loved the novel that it’s based on (which is part of a five book series called the Chronicles of Prydain). It also came out when I was about eleven and I was really into sword-and-sorcery fantasy stories, so the tale of a scrawny kid going up against a skeletal king and his undead legion was very much up my alley.
Here’s the thing, though, that I’ve noticed in watching The Black Cauldron as an adult: it’s not a fun movie. It’s exciting, sure. It can be funny at times. It has a bit of romance. But I wouldn’t call it fun. In fact, it’s downright dark for a Disney film, and actually pretty scary. Sure, Snow White and Bambi and others may have scary moments, but they don’t have an undead army, and they’re balanced by lighter elements that The Black Cauldron just doesn’t really have. The Horned King himself, too, is very creepy-looking and pure evil (and without that comical element that later villains like Jafar and Ursula brought to the screen). Really, it’s by no means a bad movie. The animation is good, and it certainly tells a compelling story. It’s just not what one expects when they think of a Disney movie.
As a side note, too–it’s generally considered to be the film that almost killed the Disney Animation Studio. It cost $44 million to make, and only made back around $21 million of that. That loss nearly resulted in the animation department being shut down. It then took about ten years before Disney released it on home video. It did enjoy a bit of park presence, though: costumed characters appeared, and Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom briefly had a restaurant called “Gurgie’s Munchies and Crunchies”. Also, on rare occasions, the Horned King pops up with the Disney villains and he’s appeared in other Disney animation (like House of Mouse) as well as in some Disney video games.
So is it worth embarking on this journey? I would actually say yes. It is a piece of Disney Animation Studio’s history, so it’s kind of worth it just for that, and overall it really is a pretty good movie. If you’re the type who prefers happy musical tales full of humor, it may not be your thing, but if you love strong storytelling and a great adventure than it could be right up your alley.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
Atlantis: The Lost Empire tells the story of Milo Thatch, a young researcher in the early 1900’s who is obsessed with the titular lost city. He teams up with a ragtag group of mercenaries aboard a submarine, goes searching the depths, and locates Atlantis and finds that people still live there. Hijinks ensue.
This movie is… weird. Don’t get me wrong, I love weird films, but in the case of Atlantis it’s almost like a bunch of different people had a bunch of different ideas and they opted to just shove all of these concepts into the movie and hope they’d mesh. You’ve got mechanical monsters, magic, golems, a volcano, an aerial battle inside said volcano, and of course a civilization hidden under the sea. At times it does all work together, but just as often it seems a bit disjointed. There is some cool stuff happening throughout, but there are also a few points where I was wondering what was going on.
There’s actually a lot to like in Atlantis. The exploration story itself, which has a very Jules Verne vibe, is cool. The characters are voiced by a great cast that includes Michael J. Fox and Leonard Nimoy. The art style, by comic book artist Mike Mignola (who created Hellboy), is really neat. Unfortunately, there’s a lot to not like as well. For the most part, the supporting characters are one-dimensional (even when they try to flesh them out). At no point did I feel emotionally connected to the characters or their plight, like I do in many other Disney stories. The script seems to add bizarre mystical elements as needed, which don’t always make a whole lot of sense, and it made the story seem a bit all over the place at times.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire got mixed reviews, and ultimately didn’t do that well at the box office. However, it’s developed a bit of a cult following since then. At different fan conventions (Disney, comics, etc) you can even sometimes see cosplayers dressed up like characters from the film.
Should you take the plunge and watch Atlantis: The Lost Empire? I’d say pass on it, unless you’re a Disney completionist who feels the need to see every movie the studio has ever put out. It’s a decent enough adventure, and there’s some fun to be had, but overall it’s just not good enough to warrant going out of your way to check it out. Even Disney themselves rarely acknowledge the film: the characters never really show up (despite Kida, an Atlantean, technically being a Disney princess) and there are virtually no references to the movie in the parks or other media.
Treasure Planet (2002)
Recipe for Treasure Planet: Take the classic story of Treasure Island, put it in outer space, and a motley assortment of aliens and robots. Add in a mix of hand-drawn animation and CGI. Throw in a random power ballad by John Rzeznik (of the Goo Goo Dolls). Mix well.
The star of Treasure Planet is a young man named Jim Hawkins. Jim is extremely smart, but a little troubled, and causes no shortage of headaches for his single mom. A chance encounter with an old swashbuckler puts Jim in possession of a map which supposedly leads to the legendary treasure of infamous pirate Captain Flint, and Jim sets out on an adventure involving fantastic locales and bloodthirsty buccaneers.
Treasure Planet is a surprisingly faithful retelling of the classic pirate tale Treasure Island, reimagined as a science fiction story. Some creative liberties are obviously taken to fit it into the new setting (I’ve read the book, and I don’t recall any mention of Long John Silver being a cyborg), but amid the alien planets and spaceships the core of the story is more or less intact.
I think Treasure Planet is a blast. I’m a big fan of the original book, so I figured that I would either love the film for being an exciting new version of the story or I’d hate it for wrecking the fun and adventure of the novel. In my opinion, though, this galaxy-spanning take on the tale worked and brought the story to a new generation. The animation style–a mix of styles in which hand drawn characters are set against CGI backgrounds–is pretty cool, and the voice cast included stars such as David Hyde Pierce, Emma Thompson, Martin Short, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It was written (as well as directed and produced) by John Musker and Ron Clements, the same duo who wrote/directed/produced The Little Mermaid.
Sadly, Treasure Planet didn’t exactly resonate with movie-goers (despite a 2002 Oscar nomination for Best Picture). In terms of box office dollars it was actually a spectacular bomb, and the reviews ranged from really good to fairly terrible. As a result, Disney opted not to pursue their ideas for a direct-to-video sequel and a television series (and, as far as I’m aware, it never had any park presence), meaning that a potential Treasure Planet franchise was done before it ever took off.
I highly recommend checking out this one if you get the chance, though. It’s a fun adventure with some cool characters and impressive visuals, and it is (loosely) based on a literary classic.
An orphaned iguanadon, raised by lemurs, treks across the prehistoric world after a meteor destroys his home. He and his furry family join up with a large group of other dinosaurs as they all migrate to the safety of the lush”nesting grounds”. It wouldn’t be an adventure without conflict, though: starvation, velociraptors, and some carnivorous carnotaurs stand between them and their goal.
Dinosaur has a few things going for it. The animation technique, featuring CGI characters set against real-life backgrounds, is impressive. The voice performances–by actors such as DB Sweeney, Ossie Davis, Alfre Woodard, and Julianna Margulies–are solid. Disney even had enough faith in the movie to very loosely base an Animal Kingdom attraction on it: the ride formerly known as Countdown to Extinction was renovated into DINOSAUR shortly after the film’s release, and Aladar (the lead dino) was put out front.
Unfortunately, while it’s not necessarily terrible, Dinosaur just isn’t that good either. The story is lackluster, and for the most part the characters just aren’t fleshed out. There are some weird choices that were made, too. Like, why can all of the good dinosaurs talk but the velociraptors and carnotaurs (the villains of the piece) just growl and roar? Why utilize a really cool animation technique that uses real-life locations and then set most of the movie in a barren wasteland? Why is the funniest part a recurring joke about someone being urinated on?
If you’re really into dinosaurs and you want to see Disney’s take on them, then it could be worth digging this one up just for curiosity’s sake. Otherwise, just ride the DINOSAUR attraction the next time you’re at Animal Kingdom. It’s honestly more exciting than the movie it’s based on.
Meet the Robinsons (2007)
Meet the Robinsons is about a futuristic family, time travel, and a villain in a bowler hat. Lewis, a young inventor living in an orphanage, ends up traveling into the future and crossing paths with a very unusual family. Along the way he combats the machinations of a time-traveling bad guy who seems particularly motivated to steal his inventions and cause all sorts of mischief. There are lounge singer frogs, a tyrannosaurus rex, and a meatball cannon. Oh, and the bowler hat is a robot named Doris.
Full disclosure: I love absurdity. The weirder my entertainment, the more entertained I generally am. Meet the Robinsons is bizarre even by my standards, which is simply glorious.
The thing is, all the oddity works, and the story is cohesive despite all of the absurdity. It’s a really fun movie with a lot of laughs and even a few Disney in-jokes (like the futuristic city being called Todayland). It has heart, too, and does a great job of balancing the humor and weirdness with some touching moments. The characters are great, and the story itself is pretty intelligent. It actually requires you to pay attention to the plot points simply because there’s so much going on, but that can be a bit tough when you’re laughing at the hilarious moments (of which there are plenty).
Meet the Robinsons was animated entirely via CGI (and was shown in 3D in properly equipped theaters), and the cast includes Tom Selleck, Angela Bassett, and Adam West. It got generally positive reviews, and it did respectably in theaters though it wasn’t necessarily a blockbuster. It’s pretty much fallen off of the radar since then, with no follow-ups and nothing in the parks to remind people that it exists.
Seriously, watch this one. It’s so weird, funny, moving, and just a lot of fun. I’m a little disappointed that it didn’t take off–I’d love to have seen Imagineers incorporate the “weird futuristic inventions” theme into Tomorrowland.
Plus, the villain wears a robotic bowler hat!
So, here’s my final summary:
The Black Cauldron: It’s not exactly a fun movie, but it’s still very good. It won’t leave you with a happy fuzzy feeling like many other Disney films do, but it’s definitely worth watching. It’s a fairly important part of Disney animation history, too, in its own way.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire: There are interesting concepts here, and it’s a cool adventure tale, but it just doesn’t really come together. Unless you’re really into stories about Atlantis, or you want some obscure cosplay ideas, you can skip this one.
Treasure Planet: A great retelling of the classic pirate tale, with 100% more cyborgs and spaceships. It’s a fun movie that I think has something for everyone (as long as everyone likes swashbuckling aliens and adventures on strange planets).
Dinosaur: A neat animation technique can’t save this one. The film just isn’t very compelling or entertaining, thanks to a lackluster story and some odd choices. If you need to see everything that Disney has ever released, go for it, but otherwise you can pass on this.
Meet the Robinsons: It’s so bizarre, but it’s really a lot of fun. Amid all of the weirdness there’s a very Disney-esque story about family in there, too. There’s also a tyrannosaurus rex. I really recommend this one, especially if you’re as big a fan of absurdity as I am.
While some Disney films are considered cinematic masterpieces, others–like the five listed here–have all but been forgotten. In a couple cases that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but some of the others (in my opinion) deserved better.
Also, let’s be honest–more Disney features (and movies in general) could use robotic bowler hats.