Total Recall: Best Live-Action Disney Movies
Which of the Mouse House's family-friendly romps comes out on top?
We tend to think of Walt Disney Pictures as chiefly an animation studio -- and with good reason -- but the house Uncle Walt built has been churning out quality (and often highly profitable) live-action entertainment since the 1950s, something we were reminded of when we noticed that the latest chapter in the Witch Mountain franchise (and the Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's latest bid for the undisputed heavyweight champion of kid-friendly cinema), Race to Witch Mountain, was landing in theaters this Friday. What better time, then, for your pals here at Rotten Tomatoes to devote a Total Recall list to the 10 best-reviewed live-action entries in the Disney canon?
Of course, not all of Disney's live-action efforts have been critical winners -- we're guessing Condorman is discussed as infrequently as possible at the Mouse House -- but not everything that missed the list was a dud: You'll find plenty of the classics you remember (yes, Old Yeller is present and accounted for), but you're bound to take umbrage with a few omissions. Some movies missed the cut on technicalities -- we limited our scope to films without animation (so long, Bedknobs and Broomsticks) and crossed any co-productions off the list, too (thus sparing Operation Dumbo Drop the embarrassment of being disqualified on critical grounds). Others, however, simply didn't have the reviews -- something we think says a lot about the strength of the competition. So let's see what we ended up with, shall we? The live-action world of Disney awaits!
Well, well, well. How's this for perfect? Not only did it provide a starting point for this week's Total Recall honoree, 1975's Escape to Witch Mountain wound up making the list itself. While not the best-remembered of Disney's 1970s properties, this adaptation of the Alexander Key novel helped kickstart a mini-franchise that eventually extended to 1978's Return from Witch Mountain, a 1982 TV movie and 1995 made-for-TV remake, and, of course, 2009's Race to Witch Mountain. Placing extraordinary kids in situations of nail-biting, grown-up peril is something Disney has always done well, and Escape is no exception; psychic alien twins Tony and Tia are literally running for their lives from creepy millionaire Aristotle Bolt (Ray Milland). Though not all critics were susceptible to its charm -- Vincent Canby of the New York Times called it "a Walt Disney production for children who will watch absolutely anything that moves" -- most scribes took its popcorn-flavored blend of action, sci-fi, and family drama at face value, including Roger Ebert, who called it "a sci-fi thriller that's fun, that's cheerfully implausible, that's scary but not too scary, and it works."
No list of the Disney live-action oeuvre would be complete without a mention of Fred MacMurray's work for the studio. Although he'd been a major film star for decades before making his Disney debut with 1960's The Shaggy Dog, it's MacMurray's late-period string of pipe-puffing father types that he's arguably best remembered for, particularly among younger film fans. The most critically successful of these movies, 1961's The Absent-Minded Professor, casts MacMurray in the title role as Ned Brainard, the accidental inventor of an incredible energy-producing substance known as Flubber. Over the course of the film, Brainerd uses Flubber to make himself look like a talented dancer and helps an entire basketball team cheat during the big game, but thanks to MacMurray's Everyman charm, you still believe he's the good guy. It's goofy, and light as a feather, but Disney has always known how to make the most of those two ingredients; as TV Guide put it, "This is a zanily inventive piece of work, with delightful special effects, which set the style for a long series of live-action Disney films."