In recognition of Disney’s “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” it’s imperative that we take a trip down memory lane. Although the animated Disney films hold heavier weight on our hearts, there’s no denying the value of the sporadic live-action films released from the House that Mouse built. Below are the ten greatest live-action movies distributed by Walt Disney Studios.
1. Mary Poppins
Who says adults are no fun? Dispelling this age-old assumption, a no-nonsense new nanny floats into a British family’s life and turns their drab into fab. In her first theatrical (and eventually Oscar-winning) role, Julie Andrews makes her mark by adding a spoonful of splendor with some tart lest we misbehave. Alongside affable chimney sweep Bert (Dick Van Dyke), Mary and the aghast Banks children don’t waste an opportunity to find the joy in the everyday. The sumptuousness of “Mary Poppins” lies in its matter-of-fact attitude towards fun. No live-action Disney film so astutely captures the burden of responsibility and the lasting harm it causes without the freedom of amusement.
2. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Harking back to the Errol Flynn swashbucklers of the 1930s and ’40s, this seafaring pirate adventure was one giant ride of cinematic exhilaration. Director Gore Verbinski certainly kicks this Disneyland theme park attraction into overdrive. Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow was an incompetent drunk ruffian to be sure. Yet, his bumbling and prancing and general flamboyance took physical theatre to a captivating new level. Who could have imagined that a perfected performance style would be an instant box office draw, culminating in an Oscar nomination? While the sequels have their fleeting thrills, the first marriage of the Sparrow persona, a rousing Hans Zimmer/Klaus Badelt score and the nostalgic reawakening of a long-lost Hollywood subgenre makes this franchise starter the crown jewel.
Plucked from her 2-D animation trappings and sent to the hustle and bustle of New York City, Princess Giselle (Amy Adams) is a bundle of wide-eyed optimism in a world undeserving of her kindness. There’s something marvelous about leaping from an old storytelling format (hand-drawn) into a new one without losing the everlasting magic of the Disney brand. Sure, the script is overly predictable in its satirical approach, but Adams ensures Giselle’s evolved worldly outlook remains the focus. With memorable songs and an entrancing leading lady in full career bloom, this biting look at the naivete of the “Disney Princess” archetype inspires confidence in never curbing enthusiasm.
4. Hocus Pocus
If there’s one thing Disney has proven, it’s that it can accomplish anything…even spurn a cult classic. Other studios get in a frenzy over how to find new ways to frighten audiences. Instead of horrify them, Disney came up with an alternative to the terror: a Halloween comedy. While not to critics’ liking at the time, Kenny Ortega’s genre revamps delighted by raising the camp factor to a memorable high. As the Sanderson sister witch trio, Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker became the Three Stooges for a new generation of young moviegoers. Slapstick, buffoonish and cheesy dialogue in dripping excess, there was no stopping the film’s legacy: casting a permanent spell of annual satisfaction.
5. The Jungle Book
Jon Favreau’s live-action remake is a soaring improvement over the original carefree, albeit forgettable film. There’s palpable deference to “The Lion King” that’s felt in the way its animal kingdom both congregate and clashes. Newcomer Neel Sethi does a serviceable job forgetting he’s surrounded by animatronics instead of life-like creatures. Dazzling with condensed jungle imagery and a brilliant Idris Elba as the menacing Shere Khan, this is the first and only genuine Disney revision to scoff at mimicry.
6. The Parent Trap/Freaky Friday
I’m never one to create a tie, but considering this is a Lindsay Lohan double feature, the more, the twin-ier! In this sentimental charmer, lovable yet precocious identical twins attempt to course-correct a parental fracture by any prank necessary. Natasha Richardson as the British mother emanates elegant warmth, while Lohan plays both sets of sisters with endearing shrewdness. As for the mother-daughter switcheroo comedy, Jamie Lee Curtis has never been cooler trying to lamely fit in. Lohan is once again magnetic in perfecting the art of being gracefully awkward. The real family tragedy would be choosing between these two Millennial childhood gems.
7. Into the Woods
This potluck of fairy tales — told in a very grim manner — is bolstered by an all-star celebrity cast. Rob Marshall spellbinds by never tugging the reins on his team of actors. They are free to undulate the whimsies of their classic characters yet also explore the missing nuances from past versions. Meryl Streep finds herself delivering another Oscar-nominated role as a witch whose wickedness stems from child estrangement. However, it’s Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife who provides the dramatic center to a twisted spin on tales old as time.
8. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe
A visual culmination of anticipation and execution, Disney serves justice to this timeless staple of early reading. Before Hogwarts there was Narnia, and rediscovering these characters and the frosty domain of the White Witch (Tilda Swinton) was every bit as pleasurable as desired. Liam Neeson voicing Aslan is right up there with James Earl Jones’s Mufasa when it comes to omnipresent safeguarding. While the sequels forgot the innate allure of C.S. Lewis’s universe, this inaugural adventure achieves a balance of high stakes and ensemble consideration.
9. A Wrinkle in Time
Trailblazer Ava DuVernay has far more on her mind than a children’s book reimagining. Rather than exhaust the “Chosen One” archetype, Meg (Storm Reid) embraces her flaws and the bravery of failure. Offering perhaps the most important kernel of wisdom ever found in a YA adaptation, Oprah Winfrey as divine entity Mrs. Which instills how special we are because the universe led to our singular creation. Of even more meaningful note, “A Wrinkle in Time” is a personal love letter to DuVernay’s late father, who passed away prior to filming. The bond shared with a parent is so unbreakable that even distance caused by loss won’t shatter it.
10. Old Yeller
A seminal film for the “Baby Boomer” generation, this canine tearjerker squeezes the heartstrings like no animated movie can. The ending causes an eternity of weeping upon recollection, even to those who only know it by reputation. As such, it becomes a cornerstone for adult transition. Those you love have a finite cycle, and it’s important to understand that at the earliest age possible. This horrific reality is among the largest burdens humankind carries. In sum, “Old Yeller” is that giant gulp of realization (and ultimate acceptance) one takes before moving on to the next phase of life.