After almost nine decades and despite a few missteps, Disney is still drawing in audiences with animated hits like “Frozen” and “Big Hero 6” as well as Kenneth Branagh’s live-action reimagining of “Cinderella."
But despite the number of "classics," it's only natural that a few films have slipped through the cracks.
Here are five Disney films — animated and live-action — that, for one reason or another, didn't get the attention they likely should have received. With the exception of "John Carter," all of these films are currently available to stream on Netflix. They are also available on DVD and Blu-ray and to rent or purchase via services such as Amazon Instant, Vudu and iTunes.
“The Great Mouse Detective” (1986, rated G) — When people talk about the Disney Renaissance, they usually start with “The Little Mermaid.” However, the movie that got the ball rolling — and singlehandedly prevented Disney animation from being shut down in the mid-1980s (as described in detail in Jim Korkis' two-part article "How Basil Saved Disney Animation") — was this underappreciated gem.
Released a year after the financially disastrous “The Black Cauldron,” “The Great Mouse Detective” managed to turn a profit even after having its production budget slashed in half by new studio chief Michael Eisner. Its box-office performance convinced Eisner and Co. that Disney animation still had life in it, something that co-directors John Musker and Ron Clements proved in a big way with their next two features, “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin."
“The Great Mouse Detective” is also significant as Disney’s first animated feature to incorporate CGI (during a climactic scene inside Big Ben in which 2-D characters were animated and then inserted into a 3-D background of moving clock gears).
Most of all, though, it’s just a fun movie — not to mention a fantastic way to get kids hooked on the world of Sherlock Holmes from an early age.
“The Rocketeer” (1991, rated PG) — “The Rocketeer” could be one of the best comic book movies ever made. Unfortunately, it predated the current superhero movie trend by a full decade, so it never quite managed to find the audience it deserved.
And that’s a shame, because much like “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “The Rocketeer” perfectly captures the feel of a classic 1930s serial, cramming together gangsters and FBI agents, rocket men, spies, evil Nazi plots and old-school Hollywood into a single, delightful movie.
It also contains tons of references to real-life figures. Timothy Dalton (the then-current James Bond) is especially great as the Errol Flynn analogue Neville Sinclair. Another baddie, Lothar (played by Tiny Ron Taylor), is based on horror icon Rondo Hatton. And “Lost” star Terry O’Quinn plays Howard Hughes.
Largely on the strength of “The Rocketeer,” director Joe Johnston was called on 20 years later to direct a different period comic book movie for Disney: “Captain America: The First Avenger.” “The Rocketeer” is quite possibly the better of the two.
Over the years, there have been talks of rebooting the property, but frankly, it’s hard to imagine it being done any more perfectly a second time around.
“Atlantis: The Lost Empire” (2001, rated PG for action violence) — There’s no question that “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” is a step down from the string of hits Disney produced in the 1990s. Even in terms of animation, it just doesn’t quite compare.
That said, there are still plenty of reasons it deserved a bigger audience than it got. For one thing, it was Disney animation’s first foray into science fiction (paving the way for a string of movies with sci-fi elements, including “Lilo & Stitch” and “Treasure Planet”). In lieu of the studio’s usual wells of inspiration, the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, “Atlantis” draws primarily on Jules Verne stories like “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” On that front, it does a fantastic job. There are even some nods to Disney’s own 1954 live-action version of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” that film buffs will appreciate.
The art style is also very different (in a good way) thanks to comic artist/Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, who did designs for the film.
Likewise, the script is enjoyably off-kilter with tons of lines that will probably fly over the heads of most kids — and some adults, too. (One of the writers credited is none other than “Avengers” director Joss Whedon.)
All of those things combined make for something that really doesn’t feel much like a Disney movie, in all honesty, so it’s easy to understand why it didn’t destroy the box office the way Disney films are supposed to. But families, especially ones with older kids (it is a little on the violent side for a Disney cartoon), should definitely consider checking it out if they haven’t already.
“Treasure Planet” (2002, rated PG for adventure action and peril) — Unlike “Atlantis,” it’s not quite so easy to see why “Treasure Planet” wasn’t a bigger hit.
First of all, it’s downright gorgeous. Blending traditional animation with CGI, an effect that is still stunning more than a decade later, it opted for a more classic Disney look. The character designs are polished, and the animation is some of the smoothest you’ll find.
Although criticized by Roger Ebert as “gimmicky,” the decision to set everything in space amid flying ships and grotesque alien species put a fun spin on a story that otherwise would have felt too familiar. (Not including “Treasure Planet,” there are at least nine different movie versions of “Treasure Island,” according to IMDB, including Disney’s 1950 adaptation.)
It also featured some pretty memorable characters. Long John Silver (Brian Murray) is equal parts likable and hateable, as he should be, and Martin Short’s B.E.N. — a marooned robot who’s gone a little crazy — is one of the funnier Disney sidekicks in recent memory.
Generally speaking, “Treasure Planet” received positive reviews, garnering a 68 percent "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Picture. (It lost to “Spirited Away.”)
Despite all that, it bombed at the box office, earning just $38 million domestically (via Box Office Mojo).
“John Carter” (2012, rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action) — “John Carter” should have been the beginning of a major new franchise. It had everything going for it: a talented director (Andrew Stanton of “Finding Nemo” fame), the support of Pixar head John Lasseter, great source material (Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series), a script co-written by two Oscar winners and a Pulitzer Prize winner (Stanton, “Brave” director Mark Andrews and author Michael Chabon), gorgeous cinematography (including lots of stuff shot in Utah), award-winning special effects and a flat-out phenomenal cast.
As it stands, though, according to some estimates, “John Carter” might actually be the biggest box-office flop of all time.
One of its biggest problems may have been that Burroughs’ Barsoom novels were just too darn influential. Everything from Superman to Flash Gordon to “Star Wars” to “Avatar” owes its existence to Burroughs’ pulp hero — so much so that “John Carter” itself was, ironically, perceived by some audiences as derivative.
Jeff Peterson is a native of Utah Valley and studied humanities and history at Brigham Young University.