Top 10: Best Live-Action Disney Films

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Beauty and the Beast duet

Animation and Disney are often synonymous. The company’s unprecedented legacy of lush visuals and unforgettable cartoon characters has made it an incomparable machine in the animation field. From its groundbreaking first feature “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1937 to its insanely successful joint venture into computer animation with Pixar studios – its most recent film “Finding Dory” is ranked as the highest-grossing animated debut of all time – makes Disney the foremost distributor of animated stories.

However, with so many animated titles throughout the studio’s 80-year history, it’s easy to forget Disney’s live-action fare.

Disney’s first live-action film, “Treasure Island,” was released nearly 70 years ago in 1950. The studio went on to release 18 more live-action titles that same decade and has since then released over 250 live-action films.

So in honor of Disney’s latest live-action film, “Beauty and the Beast,” a make-over of its 1991 classic, here are 10 live-action Disney films that should not be forgotten.

“Beauty and the Beast” opens in theaters Mar. 17.

Check out the list down below and weigh in:

10. “Maleficent” (2014)

The film is not perfect. Linda Woolverton’s screenplay turns star Angelina Jolie into an archetypal victim. The film’s allegory about sexual assault survival and revenge attempts to add depth and prescience to a classic fairytale, but its broad brush stroke approach makes the film trite and plateau on progressiveness early on. Despite such setbacks, however, the film manages to redeem itself by reexamining the relationships between certain characters and subverting romantic tropes that have in the past marred the genre.

Woolverton and director Robert Stromberg succeed in restructuring and redefining Maleficent and Aurora’s (Elle Fanning) relationship that behooves the current social climate. The film attempts to satisfy the many spectators who expect film’s to not just pass the Bechdel test, but to underscore the importance of complicated female relationships. Jolie is wonderful in her performance. Her emotional shifts are seismic yet believable; from innocent to traumatized to delightfully maniacal to loving, she nails it. Woolverton and Stromberg’s edits make “Maleficent” one of the most creative and humane revisitations of a Disney classic to date. And, of course, the film is a visual paradise, full of uncanny imagination and pain-staking labor that can be appreciated by all.

9. “Blank Check” (1994)

Fellow millennials who grew up on the Disney Channel will remember this oft-unappreciated gem. Put simply, it’s a film about a 12-year-old boy named Preston who finds himself in the possession of a blank check and becomes a millionaire. He splurges and shells out on shopping binges, limo services, a mansion, a go-kart track, a water slide, etc. Much like the Macaulay Culkin film of the same year, “Riȼhie Riȼh,” the film gives into this deep-rooted childhood fantasy of unchecked power and wealth with reckless abandon of basic common sense.

For example: Who would give a kid a blank check? Why would the kid limit himself to only one million dollars? And what kind of bank president would personally hand over that much cash to a kid? Yet with all its hurdles concerning realism, “Blank Check” entertains the idea of unmitigated access to the things kids like – toys, gizmos and ice-cream for dinner.

It’s true, “Blank Check” adds luster to materialism, as pointed out by the Los Angeles Times in its review of the film. Despite all of Preston’s spending though, he manages to procure more losses than gains in the end. The film’s timeworn adage about money and happiness creeps up right in time to forewarn the youth about lusting over material possessions but not before allowing every kid to live out his or her ultimate dream through a capitalizing 12-year-old – or as I saw it growing up: the coolest kid in the world.

8. “The Parent Trap” (1998)

Perhaps it’s sacrilege not to include the 1961 original that inspired this Lindsay Lohan version, but it’s a side effect of growing up in the ‘90s. Before the unflattering evolution of Lohan began, she starred in a string of Disney films. “The Parent Trap” was her first feature film, directed by Nancy Meyers (“Something’s Gotta Give”) and starring Dennis Quaid and the late Natasha Richardson as the parents. Lohan did other remakes for the studio (“Herbie Fully Loaded,” “Freaky Friday”) but “The Parent Trap” was able to bottle her during her effervescent pique.

Using split screen, Lohan played twin sisters – and pretty convincingly. She’s able to be spunky when playing Hallie and then dials it back to showcase Annie’s cultured, ladylike demeanor – not to mention doing it with a British accent. Its familiar premise doesn’t take away the excitement of watching the twins meet for the first time after their heated fencing match. The film is fun, charming and sweet, revolving around a sisterly bond and trying to reunite divorced parents. The film will make you yearn for your own lost identical twin, reassert your appreciation of the awesome song choices in all of Meyers’ films and, undoubtedly, give you a craving for Oreos and peanut butter.

7. “Heavy Weights” (1995)

This comedy classic about a youth fat camp run amok by a fitness zealot has continued to ripen with age. The film’s strong cast, clever writing (co-written by Paul Feig who also stars) and excellent use of a villainous Ben Stiller as a bizarro Tony Horton, marks this film as mandatory viewing. Before Stiller ran Globo Gym and took Chuck Norris’ name in vain, he played Tony Perkis, a fitness instructor at Camp Hope whose methods on helping his overweight pupils bordered on psychotic. When Tony wasn’t working on his physique, he was terrorizing the boys with surprise snack raids, grueling hikes, cheesy “can you smell it?” pep talks and cancelled lunches.

Balancing out Tony’s extremist behavior (which at one point included ordering his lackey to break a block of ice on his stomach while resting on a bed of nails) is the rest of Camp Hope, consisting of a young, personable group of child actors, including “Saturday Night Live” staple Kenan Thompson. Once again, Feig has drafted a story that externalizes the struggle between the underdog and the powers that be. His male hero is Pat (Tom McGowan), an overweight counselor with a heart of gold who gets along with the kids and gets to date the attractive nurse. “Heavy Weights” makes the case for balance, a rational approach to health and – who am I kidding? It’s about Stiller. Stiller steals the film.

6. “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” (2005)

One of Disney’s greatest accomplishments was bringing Narnia to the big screen. Based on C.S. Lewis’ 1950 children’s fantasy novel, the first installment in the “Chronicles of Narnia” franchise introduces us to four siblings and their accidental discovery of a magical world replete with talking animals and mythical beings, an evil witch and a waging war between good and evil. As the Pevensie children chart their way through Narnia they meet many characters such as Tumnus the faun (the top-half played by James McAvoy), the godhead Aslan (voiced perfectly by Liam Neeson), a peaceful lion and the rightful King of Narnia, and the icy White Witch (Tilda Swinton).

Lewis’ fantastical world is fully realized in the film, capturing all the beautiful terrains, from the snowy to the rocky, and showcasing the author’s extensive fascination with Greek and Roman mythos, including unicorns, minotaurs and centaurs around every corner. Although Lewis, himself, has called his series an allegory on Christianity, the books have come under fire for what some conservatives have called occult promotion, while others have accused the author of blatant racism and sexism. It looks like Disney was able to avoid polarization because the film went on make over $745 million worldwide and produced two sequels, although not as successful and, honestly, neither that good. It’s a shame Disney has no current plans to finish out the series, considering the last book “The Last Stand” is an epic bookend, but at least we’ll always have “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” to recall fondly.

5. “Waking Sleeping Beauty” (2009)

It’s difficult to believe, but there was once a time when the future of Disney’s animation department was dim. Struggling to survive after massive employee vacancies, box-office bombs and new management in the 1980s, the studio pulled off an incredible comeback that lead to a string of animated successes from 1989 to 1999 known as the Disney Renaissance era. Using archival footage and interviews, home movies and original sketches, director Don Hahn (a long-time Disney producer on many notable films) takes viewers into this pivotal time in the studio’s history and highlights the real characters of Disney – its animators.

Watching the story pitch meeting of “The Little Mermaid” is just as enchanting to watch as seeing the film itself. Audiences get to witness the genesis of some of their favorite Disney tales through the eyes of the creators who struggled at times to make deadlines and communicate effectively. Yet through perseverance, commitment, love of their craft and margaritas, they were able to get the studio back on track, pumping out hit-after-hit over the next decade. Recognizable faces make appearances throughout the documentary, a fresh-faced Tim Burton, at the time just an animator and storyboard artist, and John Lasseter, also an animator at the time who went on to write, produce and direct several Disney films and shorts.

The documentary climaxes during its “Beauty and the Beast” sequence, passing through the un-colored sketches like a flip book and seeing the indefatigable effort that went into every curve and tracing that would eventually become one of the more beloved entries in the studio’s film vault. You’re not a Disney fan until you see this documentary.

4. “The Princess Diaries” (2001)

Before Anne Hathaway was a huge star, she played a totally adorkable teen in “The Princess Diaries.” Full disclosure: this film plays into anti-feminist tropes about beauty, conformity and self-esteem (and that’s not even tapping into the privilege aspects), but there’s also many good things to be said about the film concerning friendship, kindness and trying to remain internally authentic. Hathaway’s character Mia embodies every awkward girl amalgamated into one person. She’s shy, clumsy, unpopular and subjected to teasing by her crush’s cheerleader girlfriend (Mandy Moore). Luckily, Mia has best friend Lilly (Heather Matarazzo) around to keep her level-headed. The casting of Matarazzo is a nice tip-of-the-hat to the nightmare of growing up as an uncool teenage girl – a role she nailed in Todd Solondz’ 1995 black comedy “Welcome to the Dollhouse.”

Hathaway’s spirited persona shines through, perfectly complimenting the always elegant Julie Andrews, who plays Mia’s royal grandmother. Watching Andrews eat a corndog in the film is like seeing a dog walk on its hind legs. And there’s plenty of celebratory moments like when Mia stands up to her bully in an unforgettable scene involving an ice cream cone or when she goes with the underdog when she finds herself in an uncomfortable love triangle. For all the things the film got wrong, I’m willing to forgive it. Just like Michael forgave Mia when she sent him a pizza with “sorry” written in M&M’s.

3. “Hocus Pocus” (1993)

There are three certainties in life: death, taxes and “Hocus Pocus” airing on TV on Halloween. After all these years, the film has yet to wear out its charm (see what I did there?) and has become a nostalgic event worth revisiting every October. The multifaceted talent that is Bette Midler shines as Winifred Sanderson the leader of a trio of Salem witch sisters who dabble in the dark arts and are accidentally resurrected in modern times. Rounding out Midler’s boastful Winifred is the incompetent Mary (Kathy Najimy) and the beautiful yet vacuous Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) who seamlessly, and unintentionally, blend in on Halloween.

Their plan of world domination backfires when a sexless teen, his crush, his sister and a talking cat unite to bring the sisters down. “Hocus Pocus” is a fun, spooky-themed comedy with plenty of campy elements – Midler’s look feels inspired by an episode of “Rupaul’s Drag Race” and that’s not a dig. And in regular Midler fashion, the film is also a musical, featuring the ridiculously catchy “I Put a Spell on You” number that transforms a room full of partygoers into dancing zombies. You can’t expect less from director Kenny Ortega, who helmed all the “High School Musical” films and the Michael Jackson doc “This Is It.” Not even the King of Pop himself could overthrow “Hocus Pocus” being Ortega’s most popular and widely adored work.

2. “Remember the Titans” (2000)

Inspired by a true story, the mighty, mighty Titans was a newly integrated high school football team that, despite many hurdles, went on to win the Virginia State Championship in 1971 and caught national attention from the press and even President, at the time, Richard Nixon. It’s a story worthy of the Hollywood treatment. The racial politics surrounding this event though, made it seem like an ill-fitting with Disney – we’re talking about the same studio that made the overtly racist musical “Song of the South” in 1946. The studio made the right move however, by bringing on board Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington, playing the serious-minded coach Boone whose unorthodox methods lead his diverse team to unexpected victory.

The film avoids the ubiquitous mistake of the white savior narrative that so many Disney films have made and continue to make (“McFarland, USA,” “Million Dollar Arm” and “Glory Road”). Coach Boon’s avoidance of special treatment and his stance on being a “mean cuss” to everyone brought out the best in his players and made for some amusing and sometimes heated confrontations. His team consisted of a mixed bag of personalities and backgrounds portrayed by the likes of Donald Faison (i.e.: the scene where his character can’t decide if football is fun or not), Ethan Suplee as the husky, gospel-loving Louie and recent Oscar nominee Ryan Gosling who was dancing and singing in this film long before his “La La Land” role.

“Remember the Titans” is perhaps Disney’s best sports film (sorry, “Air Bud”). It’s a film that was more than a sum of the political circumstances during its setting, becoming a passionate tale about collaboration, friendship, patience, tolerance and, more importantly, football.

1.  “Mary Poppins” (1964)

Julie Andrews’ first big role as the titular nanny launched her into the stratosphere of Hollywood royalty, resulting in an Oscar win and prefaced her starring role in another big musical hit “The Sound of Music” the following year. The charming classic revolves around a magical nanny and the two children she’s tasked to look after as they embark on colorful journeys and burst into musical merrymaking during her visits. “Mary Poppins” fuses live-action and Disney’s famous animation in scenes involving spontaneous dance numbers and sidewalk art comes to life.

Andrews’ charisma lights up the screen from the moment she pops into the frame, descending from the ether with her talking umbrella and bottomless bag in hand, until her last farewell. Poppins’ dulcet voice, pearly smile and peppy attitude helped her glide her way into the hearts of her audience, both on and off screen. The film’s most ostentatious sequence involves a spirits-lifting song with a tongue-twisting verse, sung by Andrews and her chimney sweeping co-star Dick Van Dyke, complete with an interactive cartoon background.

The inspiration of many of the songs, written by brothers Richard and Robert Sherman, was depicted in the 2013 film “Saving Mr. Banks” about the road blocks Walt Disney went through in obtaining the literary rights to produce the film. Whatever struggle the studio had in making “Mary Poppins” fails to show in the final product.

Let us know your favorite live-action Disney films in the comments below.

  • Reece

    Enchanted, Jungle Book, Saving Mr. Banks are also notable (I’d definitely exchange them #10, 9 and 8..)

  • Spencer

    1.) Mary Poppins (1964)
    2.) 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
    3.) Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
    4.) Old Yeller (1957)
    5.) Enchanted (2007)
    6.) Remember the Titans (2000)
    7.) Pollyanna (1960)
    8.) Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
    9.) The Parent Trap (1961)
    10.) The Absent-Minded Professor (1961)

  • Joey Magidson

    Miracle for a sports movie citation from the mouse, though Bedknobs and Broomsticks might be my number one overall.

  • Kevin

    Very good list. The only big omission that I would add on is the live action 101 Dalmatians. The movie is good, Jeff Daniels is fun, and Glenn Close is perfect as Cruella and absolutely nomination worthy for an Oscar.

    So my list would be:

    10. National Treasure(sue me, it’s fun)
    9. Miracle
    8. Freaky Friday
    7. Hocus Pocus
    6. The Chronicles of Narnia
    5. Remember the Titans
    4. 101 Dalmatians
    3. The Jungle Book
    2. Glory Road
    1. Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl

  • Greg

    You put Maleficent but not Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and The Jungle Book?

    Anyway for me my top 10 is :

    10- Pirates of the Caribbean : Dead’s Man Chest
    9- TRON : Legacy
    8- Maleficent
    7- Cinderella
    6- The Jungle Book
    5- Pirates of the Caribbean : The Curse of the Black Pearl
    4- Beauty and the Beast
    3- The Parent Trap
    2- The Chronicles of Narnia : The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
    1- Bridge to Terabithia

  • Tee

    1. The Jungle Book
    2. Mary Poppins
    3. Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl
    4. Bedknob and Broomsticks
    5. The Parent Trap
    6. Remember the Titans
    7. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
    8. Hocus Pocus
    9. Honey I Shrunk the Kids
    10. Bridge to Terbithia