Today is Mickey Mouse house visionary Walt Disney’s birthday. The iconic entertainer changed the face of film with his animated wonders, introducing some of cinema’s most popular cartoon (and live-action) characters for the big and small screens. We felt inspired to take a look at some of the studio’s underdog projects — those films that may have been overlooked while the empire changed direction, along with a few obscure movies you may have missed along the way. Click through to see which of Disney’s woefully underrated, or fascinatingly strange projects made the list. Feel free to add your picks below.
As unlikely as it seems, there’s no mistaking Disney’s short film Destino as a collaborative project with surreal maestro Salvador Dalí. Melting faces, shapeshifting ants, and uncanny eyeballs galore, Destino was an endeavor that began in 1945 and almost never saw the light of day. Financial woes that plagued Disney during World War II slowed production across the board. Destino was resurrected in the late ’90s by Disney Studios France and rebuilt from the original storyboards. The animation is a classic example of the avant-garde experiments that sadly many of Mickey’s audiences know little or nothing about.
From the mid ’70s through the mid ’80s, Disney went through what many refer to as their dark period. After the passing of Disney’s co-founders Walt and Roy Sr. and several box office flops, the company was under the care of Walt’s son-in-law Ron Miller. The newly appointed CEO hired a slew of younger writers and directors that produced more experimental features as the company found its footing again. The 1980 English ghost story Watcher in the Woods was one of those unique projects. Combining gothic horror and supernatural mystery, the atmospheric and often campy tale tells the story of a young girl who heeds a strange call in the woods surrounding her new home. It doesn’t get much better than a creepy Bette Davis and a seriously bizarre ending to the story that tackled unexpected occult subjects.
After Disney’s Saludos Amigos performed positively in 1942, the studio pushed ahead with The Three Caballeros — a good will message to Central and South America during World War II that featured crazed cartoon duck, Donald, on an adventure through Latin America with two feathered friends. Part historical curiosity and part musical extravaganza — starring several of the region’s celebs, like singer Aurora Miranda and dancer Carmen Molina — the film was one of Disney’s first to fuse live-action and animated worlds together. Three Caballeros is a wildly colorful and often surreal piece of semi-propaganda exoticism.
Another underrated gem from Disney’s dark days is the Ray Bradbury-inspired and scripted Something Wicked This Way Comes. When a sinister carnival rolls into a small town, a caravan of creeps targets the weak-willed residents for diabolical mind games. Before Jonathan Pryce was hired to do voiceovers for car commercials, he was wearing a top hat and terrifying children everywhere in the 1983 movie. Jason Robards, Pam Grier (we know, right?), and Diane Ladd also star in the old-fashioned, eerily evocative fright fest.
Any forgotten Disney film that features the villainous voice of Vincent Price is truly a crime. The horror legend takes on the role of one of Disney’s most underrated bad guys, Professor Ratigan — who is just as his name suggests: a giant, egotistical rat. A twist on the Sherlock Holmes stories, The Great Mouse Detective doesn’t feature the lavish songs and dances we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from the studio, but it’s a clever, fun-filled adventure that helped inspire the Disney Renaissance.
Although it has a sizable cult following now, The Black Cauldron didn’t fare well at the box office during its release in 1985. A departure from Disney’s usual family-friendly features, the dark fantasy movie was butchered in the editing room before it hit theaters — due to several questionably violent scenes and one partially nude moment — and was branded with the studio’s first PG rating. Impressively (and expensively) animated with an involving story that features zombie warriors, mystical pigs, and magic, The Black Cauldron was finally given an update on DVD last year.
While we’d be hard pressed to call a $140 million movie “obscure,” 2002’s Treasure Island certainly falls in the “underrated” category for many Disney fans. A visually ravishing, sci-fi take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventure tale, Treasure Island, the film blends nineteenth century style amidst a futuristic setting for a coming of age story. Critics blamed the script and poor characterizations for the box office bomb (the film made less than half of what it cost to produce), but Treasure Planet evokes a highly imaginative sense of Stevenson’s world, which is why it still captivates audiences today.
The highly underrated Elliot Gould starred in one of the strangest films Disney ever put to screen, The Devil and Max Devlin. What could be more bizarre than Bill Cosby as a demonic entity? Not much — except maybe the poor comedic timing of this feature about a man who races to deliver three souls to the big bad downstairs in order to save his own. This one remains an obscure Disney movie for obvious reasons. It did serve a purpose, though. During the UK’s 1980’s video nasty insanity — where movies were being censored left and right, literally pulled off shelves — a journalist apparently conjured up a false accusation against the film to discredit the authorities’ cinematic judgment. The movie was seized, but returned to stores soon after.