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Walt's Vault: 5 Cult Movies on Disney+

  Disney+ is a streaming service that quickly became one of the studio's success stories, providing Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar and a host of cartoons and family-friendly movies from throughout their history (though not all of them - sorry, fans of The London Connection). Although there is plenty to watch, with a company like this that often traded in the fantastical, there were bound to be curiosities popping up, and one of those was 1961's remake of Babes in Toyland, the old Laurel and Hardy fantasy musical that has in turn been based on the stage show operetta. That film remains pretty weird and unsettling in itself, but the Disney version would not be as disquieting, would it? Well, no, but there's a reason why their productions began to attract the sort of viewer who was not exactly the target audience, basically the stoner crowd who, prompted by 1940's Fantasia took to watching Disney efforts high as a kite.

While that was definitely a bad idea for some of them - you can imagine watching Pinocchio on acid would send you to a padded cell by the time the puppet gets to the island - Babes in Toyland was probably a safer proposition. But there was one snag: how to see it? It had been a complete flop back in '61, and Walt was obviously greatly disappointed in it to the extent that it was only seen briefly ever after, at least until the DVD boom gave interested fans a chance to check out what was so wrong about it. Some hated it and agreed it was misjudged throughout, yet others were charmed by its candy colours and relentlessly upbeat nature, so if it was not a faithful transition from the stage show, it did deliver a stagebound representation of what it might have been like to watch a, er, fantasia come to life. Disney had handpicked his biggest human star of the day, Annette Funicello to take the lead as Mary, Quite Contrary.

She is to be married to Tom, The Piper's Son, and as you see all the characters were drawn from nursery rhymes, more or less, aside from the villains. Lead bad guy was Barnaby, not the orange French bear renamed from Colargol for English-speaking kids, but a cliched top-hatted and caped evildoer played by Ray Bolger, that's right, the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. Although it is perfectly possible for actors to take different roles throughout their career, this choice was a strange betrayal of everyone who loved Dorothy Gale's straw-stuffed pal, and though they looked nothing alike, you couldn't help but see little mannerisms in Bolger's performance reminiscent of Scarecrow. There were also two Laurel and Hardy rip-off henchmen for him, Ed Wynn as the Toymaker, talking trees (more Oz?) and a shrinking ray. It is action packed, but even before the wooden soldiers show up, somehow empty. Annette gets a good number about sums, however.

Walt was long gone by the time 1979 brought us The Black Hole, a deep space remake of their 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea dragging in a bunch of other science fiction hits to bolster its simple but pretentious plot. The results were a major flop, and signalled that even their live action division were struggling as the seventies turned to the eighties, ambitious projects like Watcher in the Woods, Dragonslayer and Something Wicked This Way Comes (none of which are on Disney+) floundering since the usual audience were not sure they wanted to watch horror movies and grown-up fantasy flicks from this studio. Even Tron did not do too well, despite tons of publicity (and that is on the streaming service), but perhaps if The Black Hole is shown a lot more attention it will begin to receive its due, for if nothing else it represented some of the finest design (courtesy of Peter Ellenshaw) that you'll see from this era of sci-fi.

Besides that, like Pinocchio and Darby O'Gill and the Little People (both on the service) and select others, this was Disney setting out to be scary, and that is always intriguing. Yes, they're best known for trying to prompt laughter or tears, but when chills were on the agenda, they were captivating, largely because they did not opt for typical horror movie tropes: no gore, for example. In The Black Hole, the fear stemmed from a sense of the cosmic, colder than ice desolation of space, a location that cares nothing for you, and with John Barry's musical score emphasising that unimaginably vast and unfeeling void, the effect was one of an undeniable disquiet. The fact none of this takes place on Earth merely underlined this atmosphere, as if the characters have been abandoned by their home and their Gods for travelling too far into nothingness, and that is summed up by how close they are getting to the event of the title, "the most destructive force in the universe".

The cast employed to bring this to life were no less curious, mostly slightly past their prime performers presumably hoping for a post-Star Wars boost for their careers, including Robert Forster, Anthony Perkins and Yvette Mimieux, though throwing restraint into the hole were Ernest Borgnine as a turncoat journalist and especially the Captain Nemo stand-in, Maximilian Schell, who has an imposing pet, murderous robot called... Maximilian (!). Roddy McDowall and Slim Pickens voiced the most Disney element, the cute robots, which was about as weird as the rest of it, and director Gary Nelson proceeded mash together 2001: A Space Odyssey and George Lucas with wild abandon. It wasn't much liked in 1979, but a cult has formed around it, with the original merchandising amassing huge profits and that spiritual, ambiguous finale firing up imaginations for decades. Not to mention the film's signature shot: an enormous meteorite rolling down the spaceship as the characters flee.

The nineteen-eighties were a grim time for the Disney brand, as flop after flop was released under it - their Touchstone studio was proving far more successful with films aimed more at adult audiences. The Black Hole had been conceived in that way, though they changed their mind when they lost faith in this experiment, but come the mid-eighties, Splash, the mermaid comedy, was far more emblematic of their live action division than, say, Return to Oz, which was met with dismay in 1985. What was the problem? It was a certain classic movie called The Wizard of Oz, from 1939, which cast such a spotlight glare over almost every children's fantasy since that a supposed sequel was never going to be embraced in the same way, especially not when sound designer turned one-off editor turned director Walter Murch was determined to make this vision faithful not to the Judy Garland favourite, but a close adaptation of the L. Frank Baum books they were drawn from.

The results were dismissed by adults as not being the movie they expected from an Oz sequel (where were the songs?!) and by children who not only felt the same but were put off by the melancholy tone and more than that, the frightening effect the grotesque presentation had on them. Well, a lot of children were scared, but a certain type of child, the sort who would graduate to a love of cult movies when they were older, were very impressed indeed with what Murch and a bunch of Star Wars alumni concocted, its Gothic appearance perfect for giving them the creeps in a cosy manner. Dorothy this time was ten-year-old Fairuza Balk, a grave-looking little girl who is sent for electroconvulsive therapy at a mental hospital for claiming to have visited Oz - hilarious, right? When she escapes during a thunderstorm, she ends up back in Oz, but now the Emerald City is in ruins, and Scarecrow has been kidnapped by the evil Nome King, a stone monster with ambitions.

With the help of Will Vinton's Claymation, and the best team of artists and effects people the budget could buy, Return to Oz did resemble Baum's ideas more closely as planned, but he came from a tradition of children's literature that was not so careful to be too traumatic, and things could get very dark very quickly in his books and this consequent film. In fact, this was the equivalent to a horror movie for kids, as a few of the Disney movies from their troubled era were before The Little Mermaid chased away those clouds. What Murch got absolutely correct about the 1939 classic was the tragedy of Dorothy: she will always have to leave Oz and return home to the decidedly non-magical, lonely and inhospitable for little girls life in Kansas at the turn of the century, and the real friends she makes in the land of the magical will have to be left behind. That is why, with Balk's sadfaced, pintsized crusader its heart and soul, this is such a dejected experience in the end.

You can't discuss Disney without mention of their cartoons, and a number of their efforts in that area have gone on to be cult classics, as opposed to much-respected classics full stop. Fantasia was probably the earliest feature to pick up that kind of audience, and after that the likes of Alice in Wonderland and The Black Cauldron have gone on to be the focus of cult interest from certain sections of the film buff community, but that latter was almost the reason the studio decided to stop making animations halfway through the eighties. That would have been a real shame, since we would have missed out on plenty, but one largely forgotten movie is the reason they continued: 1986's The Great Mouse Detective. Based on a series of children's books, it was a rather basic take-off of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories which remain a firm favourite of revisions and remakes well into the twenty-first century, and so iconic they will outlast us all.

But what of Basil, as the hero of this was called? He was named after Basil Rathbone, the first screen actor to be truly identified with the role of Holmes after starring in fourteen entries in a Sherlock franchise: in a neat tribute, we can hear his voice (taken from a recording from the sixties) as the tones of the actual Sherlock in this film. Barrie Ingham was chosen to voice the detective of the title, and his Dr Watson was a Dr Dawson, Val Bettin, some distance away from the starrier cast originally envisaged. Apart from one actor, as Basil's Moriarty was Professor Ratigan, and Vincent Price was chosen to fulfil a long-held ambition to provide his voice which delighted him so much he was latterly wont to say it was his favourite role. You can tell he is having a whale of a time, hamming it up with aplomb, and he was fully warranted for making the film the success it was, though an uncharacteristically saucy dance sequence (not with Price!) had it neglected afterwards.

For The Great Mouse Detective was actually a hit for Disney, albeit not a very major one; they did not spend a fortune on it, and they were beaten by Steven Spielberg's rival production An American Tail (which is arguably inferior as far as entertainment goes, if not artistry), but those who did venture to watch were impressed and good word of mouth had it do pretty well. It did take for that aforementioned mermaid to really revitalise their animations, but little Basil was good enough to be getting on with as he raced through the Victorian London night, searching for a young mouse's kidnapped father and almost inadvertently foiling a plot by the wicked rat to depose and replace the mouse equivalent of Queen Victoria. The Americans were daft for royals in the eighties, and you could regard this film as part of that mania, but more than that it was a Sherlock-inspired adventure with added action, culminating in a battle at Big Ben where our hero fights for his life.

Mind you, the era of expensive Disney flops was not over by the nineties, and in 1991 there appeared a comic book movie based on the art and stories of Dave Stevens, the Bettie Page obsessive who made a career out of nostalgic drawings. This was The Rocketeer, and it was somewhat foolhardily released shortly before Terminator 2: Judgment Day - the Arnold Schwarzenegger blockbuster was simply unstoppable that year and became one of the biggest movies of all time. The Rocketeer? Eh, not so much, and some put the blame on it not featuring a recognisable name actor for its hero role, as Bill Campbell was untried in that arena, and indeed went on to not exactly be a household name. If anything, the biggest star it could boast was his leading lady Jennifer Connelly, who would fuel all sorts of fantasies in that decade, but here was in a wholesome capacity as the peaches and cream heroine who gets kidnapped by the bad guys.

Hey, it was an action movie, that's what happens to women in those. Not excusing it, but there was perhaps more justification for diminished participation in the jetpack-sporting The Rocketeer for that was a cult movie about the cult action movies of the thirties and forties, thus appealed to a specific audience. Mr Stevens and his followers, basically, lapped it up, but not enough of those rendered this project as nothing more than a minor success returned to periodically by fans of serials like King of the Rocket Men, wartime propaganda potboilers and old style movie stars they could cheerfully spot the references to. Timothy Dalton played the villain based around the rumour that one-time Robin Hood Errol Flynn was a Nazi spy, for instance, and there was an entire heavy under Rick Baker makeup to resemble the non-acting tough guy Rondo Hatton, celebrated for his unfortunate disfigurement thanks to untreated acromegaly distorting his face and body.

The gee whiz tone sustained by director Joe Johnston evidently impressed Marvel, for he was sought to helm Captain America: The First Avenger decades later near the beginning of the MCU (the title character's modus operandi was not too different from Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man, when you think about it), but that film took itself painfully seriously, and The Rocketeer was far more of a romp. This adventure was supposed to be fun, like a night out at the pictures used to be when you were a little kid, it was just that by 1991 things had changed, and though Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was not too far from its debut a couple of years before, the eighties were of yesteryear, so imagine how the thirties this was set during felt. Self-consciously corny but relishable, this offered a glimpse of how comic book movies could have gone before DC and Marvel insisted that every movie focused on their superheroes was intended to be an event regarded with utmost gravitas. That's why The Rocketeer has its alternate universe engagement, and that cult following, like all five of these movies. Don't expect to find One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing on Disney+ any time soon...
Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018