Even Walt himself had an opinion on this. During a meeting with his staff to discuss future projects, one of his employees supposedly said about an upcoming film “We can’t make that, it’s not a typical Disney film.” Walt immediately replied, “heck, I’m Walt Disney and even I don’t know what a “typical Disney” film is!”
It’s more of an instinctual thing, we grew up with these films, so we recognize them immediately without ever having to see the name “Disney” on the poster. That’s why it’s so jarring when we come across a film made by Disney that just doesn’t seem to jibe with our preconceived notions.
Here are ten that fall into this "unusual" category.
Victory Through Air Power (1943)
Walt was downcast over having to abandon his work on several feature films already in the pipeline, as many of his animators went off to war and funds dried up. He regained his focus after reading a book by a Russian military hero named Alexander de Seversky called “Victory Through Air Power.”
The book was a controversial proposal advocating the formation of an Allied Air Force made up of long range planes which could effectively bomb the Axis powers into submission with a minimum of forces on the ground, thereby shortening the war. De Seversky was having trouble getting people to listen to his message, but Walt saw an opportunity to use the Disney Studio to achieve that goal.
Walt personally financed the film version of the book, which did contain some interesting bits of animation (including a short on the history of aviation, which was later chopped out of the film and spun off into its own educational film.) Most of the 70 minute film, however, consisted of De Seversky directly addressing the camera in his thick Russian accent and making his case for the superiority of American air power.
It was as close to outright propaganda as Disney ever came to making in a feature film.
The film was, as you’ve probably guessed, not a box office smash. It was not, however, intended for general audiences. Walt and De Seversky pretty much made this film to catch the attention of exactly two people, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.
The gambit worked.
After private screenings of the film, both Churchill and FDR were enthusiastic. They even screened it for their top military brass. De Seversky’s ideas subsequently began to be adopted and long range bombers were put into production and use, which did - as De Seversky predicted - have a beneficial impact on the Allied effort. You might even say that this simple Disney film actually helped contribute to the successful resolution of a terrible worldwide conflict.
When the war was over and Walt went back to making his more mainstream films, Victory Through Air Power was put into the Disney vaults and did not reemerge on the public scene for another 61 years. In 2004 it was included on a Disney Treasures DVD set of its World War II era films. (prior to that it had only been seen in film festivals or college classes.) Even so, this unusual feature film remains one of the most overlooked in the Disney canon.
The Three Caballeros (1945)
The pace of this film is frantic and overwhelming. Unlike the leisurely travelogue/documentary feel of “Saludos” this film moves faster than the speed of light.
You don’t ever get a chance to catch your breath in this madcap film. Perhaps it was a response to the success Warner Brothers was having with its quick witted and snappy Looney Tunes series, but Disney broke from its regular calm, deep and realistic animation style with “Caballeros” to utilize avant garde, abstract images that whiz by. (For instance: the character of the Aracuan bird - a poor man's Wood Woodpecker - interrupts scenes throughout the movie and goes in and out of frame, annoying Donald and the Caballeros. He'd fit right with Bugs Bunny and crew at Warners.)
The term “psychedelic” had not yet come into popular usage, but it certainly describes what you see onscreen in this film. While the studio had already dipped its toes into this art form with the pink elephant hallucination sequence in 1941's "Dumbo," the Disney animators went full out here. “Three Caballeros” is a swirl of colors and acid trip imagery set to a beat of Latin rhythms.
You might ask how a different animation style classifies “Caballeros’ as unusual? Well, that alone doesn’t do it. (After all, “Fantasia” has some pretty wild images and has been embraced as a Disney classic.) What gives this film its offbeat status is the way Donald Duck is depicted.
Donald had always been the bad boy of Disney films, but in this film he goes completely off the deep end.
Maybe they were trying to put him on an equal plane with his rival screen mallard Daffy Duck, but Disney animators allowed Donald to let his libido rage out of control in this picture. It seems that as soon as Donald used his passport to travel south of the border, he lost all sense of decency and decorum. No Disney character had ever shown unbridled lust before “Caballeros”, but Donald goes hog wild here. In scene after scene he is chasing after or drooling over his female human co-stars. One section even has him descending on a Mexican beach full of scantily clad women and trying to grab at whatever body parts he can. At one point, the other Caballeros (Jose Carioca and Panchito) point out to the audience that Donald is acting like a wolf in Duck‘s clothing, all while trippy images of women and suggestive shapes swirl by. (See photos below for examples.)
There are so many sexual innuendos (intentional or not) in “Caballeros” that it would take pages and pages to list them. I’m pretty certain that most of them sailed over the heads of children in the audience, but still it’s odd to see them in a supposedly wholesome Disney offering.
Like “Victory Through Air Power’ and other Disney films made during the war era, “Three Caballeros” was buried in the vaults for decades as a dated relic of the 1940‘s. Only now is it being discovered by mass audiences thanks to VHS and DVD releases. While Donald’s actions may seem tame to 21st Century viewers given what we are constantly exposed to on TV and in the movies, “Three Caballeros” still feels out of step with the rest of Disney’s productions.
The Story of Menstruation (1946)
Disney's Story Of Menstruation
After the war ended, the Disney Studio was in severe financial distress. Walt and Roy were desperately looking for revenue streams wherever they could, so that production on animated features could resume. Their production of "Victory Through Air Power" three years earlier gave them an idea.
Walt and Roy surmised that if a film like “Victory” was successful in educating and influencing an audience of politicians and generals, then perhaps corporations would be willing to hire Disney to make films promoting their products while also dispensing educational messages in an entertaining manner. Yes, they were essentially selling out and doing quasi-commercials but they had no choice.
The Kimberly Clark Company (then known as International Cello-Cotton) makers of feminine hygiene products, was one of the first to sign up. They contracted Disney to make a ten minute short about the female reproductive system which was to be shown in public schools.
The film had a great emphasis on biology and had a respected gynecologist as a script advisor, to help overcome any objections from the public or school board members. The film was so well done that it actually was awarded the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. In addition to the film, schools were given booklets to be distributed to the students and teachers which followed up on the messages in the movie, but also (conveniently) contained advertisements for Kimberly Clark products, most notably their Kotex brand.
Though menstruation is an essential part of the reproductive system, and the first image we see is that of a baby in a bassinet, the film never touches on reproduction, nor does it mention copulation. It is notable, however, as being one of the first Hollywood studio films to use the words “period “and “vagina” when discussing female anatomy. At one point, the film also contains an animated depiction of a half naked teenage girl showering. To the relief of Disney and Kimberly Clark, nobody raised a fuss about the finished product.
Disney got out of the corporate sponsored educational film business a few years later, once their feature films began bringing in steady income streams again, but shorts like “The Story Of Menstruation” and “Advice on Lice” will continue to be curious footnotes in the company’s illustrious history.
Bon Voyage! (1962)
When described on paper, “Bon Voyage” looked like a winner: An American suburban family travels overseas for the first time and has lots of wacky adventures. They even had two of their biggest child stars, Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran there to support Mac Murray.
The problem was not in the plot, but in the themes, which proved to be too adult for Disney.
"Bon Voyage!" contains scenes of marital strife, hints at call girls propositioning minors, lovers quarreling, gigolos on the prowl, stereotypical “ugly American’ behavior and trips through the Paris sewers.
To compound the errors, the film runs well over two hours long. Most family film producers (even to this day) are wise enough to realize that 90 minutes seems to be the breaking point for the attention spans and rear ends of smaller audience members. Disney seemed to forget that here.
By the 1960’s parents were inclined to automatically bring children to any film with the Disney label, for a bit of entertainment the whole family could enjoy together. “Bon Voyage!” missed the mark completely.
Any other studio would be let off the hook for putting out a supposed family film with such mature themes (twenty five years later Warner Brothers would have a box office hit with a similarly themed “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” ) but Disney is held to a higher standard and, as a result, “Bon Voyage!” remains one of its least known or seen live action efforts.
Miracle of the White Stallions (1963)
Even so, we are conditioned to expect certain things from Disney, like a virtuous hero/heroine, adorable wise or witty sidekicks, cute children (or a childlike character), moments of comic relief, cuddly animals and a scary villain. “Miracle of The White Stallions” has none of these.
Here’s what you get instead: Nazis, starving villagers prone to looting and murder, bombed out ruins, fancy show horses in peril, not a child in sight. Oh, and notoriously humorless American General George S. Patton makes an appearance as well.
Can this really be a Disney film??
Yes it is, and it’s actually quite a lovely film at that. Unfortunately you never get the sense that you are watching something produced by the Disney company. The closest tip off comes when Eddie Albert, as a Nazi officer, sings a delightful Sherman Brothers song written especially for the film.
The plot is based on the true story of a Nazi colonel, played by Robert Taylor, who was in charge of the famed Austrian school of Spanish riding Lippanzer White Stallions. He does his best during the war to convince the Nazi high command to bring the horses to safety when the allies start their march on the Third Reich in 1945. Hitler’s minions are unresponsive to the pleas, so Taylor’s character defies direct orders and risks his life to save the Stallions, enlisting the help of fellow horse lover Patton, who just happens to be marching his army through the area on his way to Berlin.
The conclusion of the film features performances by the Lippanzer stallions which are stunning. Sadly the horses are more captivating than Taylor, whose wooden acting style drags the film down. “White Stallions” has lots of pageantry and drama, but not much appeal for kids. Families stayed away in droves upon its release, and "White Stallions" was a box office flop.
Watching it now, it feels like a standout MGM or Columbia war film which could easily play in heavy rotation on Turner Classic Movies. (In fact, director Arthur Hiller, who later helmed such classics as “Love Story”, “Silver Streak” and “The In Laws” made his feature debut with this film.) That’s a great compliment for any film, but not quite up to Disney standards.
The Devil and Max Devlin (1981)
The studio had already broken the PG barrier with 1979’s “The Black Hole”, so they went a step further and darker two years later with “The Devil and Max Devlin.”
First, they hired Elliot Gould, who had been one of the leading faces of the 1970’s new wave cinema movement, to star in the picture. (By this time Gould's film career was on the wane.) He was ostensibly cast as the hero, but the script left no room for audiences to sympathize with Max.
"The Devil and Max Devlin" was also the first Disney film to use expletives (mild as they were) like “damn!”, "Hell" and “son of a bitch!”
The plot is a modern twist on the Faust story. Max Devlin is a terrible misanthropic person who is sent to Hell when hit by a bus. (Yes, Disney did actually show him descending into Hell, fire and brimstone and all.) To cheat death, he makes a deal with one of the devil’s minions, Barney Satin (not too veiled reference there, eh?) If you are going to cast someone as the quintessential evil demon and assistant to the lord of the underworld, you couldn’t find a better actor for the part than loveable clean cut comic Bill Cosby.
I know, I’m scratching my head at that casting choice too.
Granted, this was a few years before Cosby took over television with his eponymous NBC show, but it was still disconcerting to see him caked in red makeup and wearing horns while the flames of Hell blaze behind him. Barney constantly threatens Max (who, in the course of the movie, plots to steal the innocent souls of a young boy, a teenager and a naïve twenty something singer, just to save his own) with terrible pain and suffering if he doesn't carry out the orders given to him.
What a strange addition to the Disney roster of film heroes.
“The Devil and Max Devlin” was roasted by critics and audiences alike as the most anti-Disney film ever made in the 60 year old company’s history . In some places the film was the subject of boycotts and editorials chastising Disney for dipping broadly into religious themes.
As a way of responding to the feedback, Disney began exploring options for a second distribution banner that would separate PG and R rated adult films from those of a family nature. In just a few short years, Touchstone Pictures would be born.
Produced just before Touchstone Pictures came along, the film was too mature for Disney’s usual family audiences, but too tame for moviegoers accustomed to nudity and violence in adult films. Thus the decision was made to release the film with no corporate name attached to it. It appeared in cinemas all over the world as an “orphan” film. The hope was that one would never suspect that this film came from Mickey’s parent company and that box office its totals would rise without alienating loyal fans.
Neither option materialized.
In what looks like Disney’s attempt to get into the Alfred Hitchcock suspense/thriller business, “Trenchcoat’ stars Robert Hays (fresh off his starring role in the smash hit “Airplane”) and Margot Kidder (forever typecast as Lois Lane) in a convoluted film set in Malta about international spies (hence the title, the preferred outerwear of secret agents in movies from the very beginning.) There are mix-ups, terrorists, incompetent police, and nuclear secrets scattered throughout. I’d describe the plot, but it’s so convoluted that I still can’t follow it after repeated viewings.
If you look hard enough in vintage video stores or on the internet, you might find a copy of this film that was released on VHS in 1983. Other than that, “Trenchcoat” has disappeared completely. It is as if Disney never made this film.
If "Trenchcoat" had been a Touchstone film, I think perhaps you might have seen a 25th anniversary release with commentary by Hays and Kidder (or something like that) just to add to the Disney coffers, but I have the feeling that even the people inside Disney have no idea that this film lies wilting in their vaults.
Disney should never have tried to emulate Hitchcock, and “Trenchcoat’ has subsequently slipped through the cracks of time.
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
Unfortunately they chose one of his most un-Disney like creations.
“Something Wicked This Way Comes” is Bradbury’s semi autobiographical novel, written in 1962, about his childhood in Waukegan, Illinois. It’s based on an encounter he had with a traveling carnival. The book has some pretty dark themes, exploring the relationship between good and evil and how greed can lead one to go against better judgment. Not the type of fluffy stuff you’d expect from Disney.
One of the lead characters is called Mr. Dark, the owner of the aforementioned carnival. He blows into town in early Autumn and immediately begins seducing innocent townspeople with promises of fulfilling their deepest desires. Mr. Dark (played by Jonathan Pryce in one of his earliest screen roles) is basically a malevolent creature, a stand in for the Devil himself.
The protagonists are two pre-teen boys who sneak into the carnival one night and discover Mr. Dark’s secrets.
Dark first attempts to seduce the boys into joining his circus. When that fails, he tries to have them killed, sending his evil minions to do the job in terrifying fashion. Eventually good prevails, with an assist from the father of one of the boys (Jason Robards) who saw through Mr. Dark from the very beginning.
This film (and, to a lesser extent, the 1980 film “Watcher In the Woods”) remains one of the most frightening ever produced by Disney. It was their attempt to branch into more suspenseful horror features that would hopefully bring teen audiences back to Disney. It didn't really pan out for them. One thing is guaranteed, however. “Something Wicked This Way Comes” will almost always evoke nightmares in any child who happens to stumble across it and watch it just because it says Disney.
Bradbury (and the critics) were generally pleased with the film, but audiences were not and it died at the box office. It has gained more fans since the DVD release and Pryce’s most recent film appearances (including “Pirates of the Caribbean“) , but it still remains an anomaly among traditional “family’ films.
The Black Cauldron (1985)
As most of the original Disney animation staff began to retire and the classic methods were being phased out for modern computer assisted ones, a bunch of young turks entered the fold, fresh out of art school.
This was the first generation of animators weaned on the classic Disney style. They were eager to make their mark and explore new stories and methods. 1979's “The Rescuers” served as a test run and a way for the young ones to sharpen their skills. They began to push for edgier material to keep up with other animators, like Ralph Bakshi, who were exploring more adult themes.
By the 1980's, “Dungeons and Dragons” and other role playing games had moved into the mainstream and the American public was re-discovering interest in medeival themes. The new animators wanted to work on something along the lines of JRR Tolkien’s classic Lord Of The Rings series (those rights were owned by Bakshi) and so they set out to find a similar story that had characters going on a quest.
They finally concluded that a version of Lloyd Alexander’s "Chronicles of Prydian" books would be their best option and so they made it the big Disney release for the summer of 1985.
Not a good choice.
"The Black Cauldron" concerns a pig keeper (what a job description, inspires great awe indeed) named Taran who fancies himself a great warrior. He has a pig named Hen Wen who is stolen by the evil horned king who wants to use the pig to help create a black cauldron, which will raise an army of the dead. Meanwhile, there is a princess named Eilowny, who … oh who cares, this plot gets tedious and convoluted about half hour in.
When your movie has a sidekick with an unpronounceable name like Fflewddur Fflam you know you’re in trouble.
"The Black Cauldron" cost a lot of money to make, but brought in next to nothing at the box office. It was so unmemorable that when Disney took it out of circulation for 15 years, almost nobody complained.
It’s now available on DVD, but still baffles youngsters who watch it.
Ruthless People (1986)
While “Down and Out’ is a light hearted fable with a happy ending, “Ruthless People” is just a mean spirited film all the way through.
Based on the O Henry classic tale, “The Ransom of Red Chief”, this film tells the story of Sam Stone (Danny DeVito) a self made millionaire who hates his wife (Bette Midler) and is secretly delighted when she is kidnapped, hoping she will be killed. Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater play the sympathetic kidnappers.
In the course of this nasty film, we are exposed to images of infidelity, nudity, hostility, premeditated murder and allusions or references to bestiality, animal cruelty, and spousal abuse. The “F” word is heard several times.
Audiences might have forgiven this as a non-Disney Touchstone effort, believing that the studio tried to distance itself with no visible connection between the parent company and its new edgy offshoot. Unfortunately, Disney left all sorts of references and in-jokes that would be squelched immediately using copyright laws if any other studio tried to use them in a picture. The kidnappers wear Donald Duck masks, Sam whistles “Zip a Dee Doo Dah.” when he thinks his wife has been murdered, and at one point Bette Midler’s character says to the kidnappers “who are you supposed to be, Huey and Duey?” (Poor Louie, he gets left out this time.) Even the poster had a very cartoony feel to it.
This film even contains perhaps the most offensive line in Disney history. This is a family friendly blog, so I can’t transcribe the quote exactly. Let’s just say that Danny DeVito’s character answers a call from a stranger who accidentally dials DeVito's number, thinking it's that of his girlfriend. DeVito - who is alone at that moment - responds by lying to the man and supplying graphic verbal descriptions of what the man’s girlfriend is supposedly doing to him under the table. This is meant to be funny, but it comes across as uncomfortable.
There is one great line (“I’ve been kidnapped by Kmart!”) delivered by Midler when she sees the squalor that the two kidnappers live in. Nevertheless this train wreck of a film concludes with no happy ending, it goes out just as nasty as it began, with Bette Midler kicking Danny DeVito’s character off a pier and into the ocean.
Rumor has it that Midler and DeVito phoned each other after the film’s premiere to commiserate about how they just killed their careers by soiling Walt Disney’s name. (Midler and DeVito would both eventually go on to make several other Disney films - animated and live action - perhaps as penance for this awful project.)
The public's negative reaction to this film was not one of prudishness (there are other films of the era that are far more vulgar) but "Ruthless People" came along too early in Touchstone‘s history. Audiences in 1986 had not yet learned to distinguish the two studio names and still saw Touchstone films as “Disney” films. Perhaps it's being overly unfair to “Ruthless People” to hold it up to that standard, but it still left a bit of a dark stain on Disney’s previously unblemished record.