25 great live-action Disney films you (probably) haven’t seen on Disney+ UK
Matthew Turner | On 13, Apr 2020Reading time: 13 mins
Stuck with that tricky what-to-watch-on-Disney+ decision? Fortunately, help is at hand, as there’s nothing we love more at VODzilla.co than throwing some hidden gems your way. Here are 25 of the best live-action Disney films you (probably) haven’t seen on on Disney+ UK.
Note: this feature will be regularly updated, to reflect new additions and deletions.
The Journey of Natty Gann (1985)
Set during the Great Depression, this utterly charming adventure movie sees teenage tomboy Natty (Meredith Salenger) riding the rails from Chicago to Seattle when her penniless father (Ray Wise) leaves her behind to take a job in a Washington lumber camp. Accompanied by a friendly wolf, Natty meets a all manner of interesting people (including a young John Cusack as her love interest) and has several exciting adventures. Director Jeremy Kagan keeps the sentimentality at bay.
Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day (2014)
A very funny family comedy based on Judith Viorst’s beloved 1970s children’s book, this sees young, bad luck-prone Alexander (Ed Oxenbould) wishing that his perfect family – including Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner, both delightful – would have a bad day, just so they knew what it felt like. Director Miguel Arteta (Chuck & Buck) proves an inspired choice and brings a welcome edginess to what could otherwise have been bland, sentiment-heavy studio fare.
The Parent Trap (1961)
Child star Hayley Mills plays a pair of identical twin sisters separated at birth in this charming family comedy. After a chance meeting at a summer camp, Susan and Sharon agree to swap places, in the hopes of getting their divorced parents (Brian Keith and Maureen O’Hara) on separate coasts back together again. This was Mills’ second film for Walt Disney (after Pollyanna) and she’s doubly delightful here, infusing each of her twin performances with energy, wit and imagination, as well as infectious optimism.
Sky High (2005)
A school for superheroes, you say? This little-seen, ahead-of-its-time fantasy comedy is an absolute joy from start to finish. Kurt Russell and Kelly Preston play legendary superheroes The Commander and Jetstream, whose son Will (Michael Angarano) attends the titular high school for super-powered kids (including a pre-fame Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Royal Pain) and has to deal with being labelled a sidekick because he doesn’t appear to have any powers. The witty script is packed with great gags and the casting is nothing short of inspired, with fun turns for Lynda Carter (as Principal Powers) and Bruce Campbell (as Coach Boomer).
Return from Witch Mountain (1978)
An entertaining sequel to Disney’s 1975 hit Escape to Witch Mountain (also on Disney+), this supernatural adventure sees telekinetic twins Tia and Tony Malone (Kim Richards and Ike Eisemann) facing off against a pair of sinister masterminds (Christopher Lee and Bette Davis, both on fine form) as they unleash a diabolical plan that threatens Los Angeles with nuclear disaster. Lots of “molecular mobilisation” (the film’s fancy phrase for levitation) occurs, as the kids join forces with a band of streetwise truants and a friendly goat to save their city. Other notable elements include some great Los Angeles location work and a fun Lalo Schifrin score.
John Carter (2012)
It may have bombed at the box office, but this pleasingly old fashioned space adventure is well worth your time. Based on the novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, it stars Taylor Kitsch as an American Civil War soldier who is mysteriously transported to Mars and finds himself caught up in a war between rival tribes after he falls for feisty princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). Directed by Pixar’s Andrew Stanton (his first foray into live-action), this is beautifully designed with predictably gorgeous effects work and exciting set-pieces, while the smartly scripted story is emotionally engaging thanks to strong chemistry between the two stars. There’s even an adorable alien space dog.
Freaky Friday (1976)
“Mom’s body has got my mind in it!” An early entry in the body-swap genre, this seventies comedy sees tomboyish Annabel Andrews (Jodie Foster) switching places with her strait-laced mother Ellen (Barbara Harris) after they make a mutual wish on Friday the 13th. Firmly family-friendly hi-jinks ensue (i.e. John Astin’s Mr Andrews stays well out of it) as Annabel finds herself responsible for running the household and Ellen has to face the horrors of school, including a typing test and a field hockey competition. Worth seeing for Foster and Harris, both of whom are on top comic form.
Sigourney Weaver as a sinister prison camp warden? That’s just one of the delights on offer in this fabulous children’s adventure adapted from Louis Sachar’s best-selling novel. When unlucky (as in ancient family curse unlucky) Texas teen Stanley Yelnats (a pre-fame Shia LeBeouf) winds up in Camp Green Lake prison camp (which isn’t green and doesn’t have a lake), he’s forced to dig a hole in the desert every day to appease the warden. But what’s really going on? Assisted by his colourful camp mates (who have names like Squid, Armpit, Zigzag, Magnet, X-Ray and Zero), Stanley digs deep as he tries to solve the mystery. Original, inventive and enormous fun.
Treasure Island (1950)
Yargh, Jim-lad! Walt Disney’s first all-live-action feature was this lively adaptation of the classic novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. Robert Newton delivers an iconic performance as wily one-legged pirate Long John Silver, who takes young Jim Hawkins (Bobby Driscoll) under his wing as they embark on a search for buried doubloons. Swashbuckling and skullduggery ensue, enriched by lush colour photography, striking location work (much of it in Cornwall) and plenty of pirate action. (Bonus fact: Muppet Treasure Island is also on Disney+.)
Million Dollar Arm (2014)
This unashamedly feel-good sports movie-slash-fish out of water drama deserves to be much more widely known. Jon Hamm knocks it out of the park as a sports promoter who stages a reality TV competition in India in order to recruit talented cricket players for Major League Baseball. For once, the reductive ‘Jerry Maguire meets Slumdog Millionaire’ tag-line is actually quite accurate, in a good way. Don’t miss this.
Child star Hayley Mills made her Disney debut with this timeless adaptation of the best-selling 1913 novel by Eleanor H. Porter. Mills plays Pollyanna, a young orphan whose indefatigable cheerfulness slowly wins over the embittered inhabitants of a small town. Mills is utterly charming in the lead (she’d go on to make another five films for Disney) and there’s strong support from a starry cast that includes Karl Malden, Donald Crisp and Jane Wyman as Pollyanna’s strict Aunt Harrington. If you can get through this without weeping, you’re officially made of stone.
Jodie Foster co-stars with David Niven in this charming family comedy, her fifth outing for Disney. She plays Casey Brown, a tomboy recruited by a con man (Leo McKern) to pose as a long-lost grand-daughter so she can search for buried treasure at Candleshoe, a stately English manor run by Lady St. Edmund (Helen Hayes). Niven (as Candleshoe’s butler, gardener, and chauffeur) steals the show and is clearly enjoying himself in his multiple disguises, while a feisty Foster is appealing as ever in the lead.
Science Fair (2018)
Who doesn’t love a heart-warming, competition-based documentary? This isn’t quite up there with the likes of Spellbound or Mad Hot Ballroom, but it’s undeniably charming. Co-directors Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster follow nine gifted high school students from around the world as they compete at the prestigious International Science and Engineering Fair. The articulate and funny participants are well chosen by the production team (even if they cheat a bit with the eventual winner) and the film both celebrates intelligence and delivers a welcome and much-needed dose of optimism about the future.
Tim Burton’s animated 2012 feature is also on Disney+, but it’s a delight to discover that the service has also seen fit to put up the director’s original live-action short. Shot in black-and-white, it stars young Barret Oliver as science genius Victor Frankenstein, who brings his beloved dog Sparky back to life after he’s hit by a car and killed. A deliciously dark and very funny riff on Frankenstein, the story also features comic turns from Daniel Stern and Shelley Duvall as Victor’s parents. (Amusingly, Burton was fired by Disney as a direct result of making Frankenweenie – it was intended to play alongside the summer re-release of The Jungle Book and the studio sacked him for wasting company resources, claiming the film wasn’t suitable for the target young audiences.)
Emil and the Detectives (1964)
Based on the best-selling children’s book by Erich Kästner, this exciting adventure story sees ten year-old Emil Tischbein (Bryan Russell) stumbling upon master criminal The Baron (Walter Slezak) and his plan to rob Berlin’s richest bank. Attempting to foil The Baron’s plot, Emil enlists the aid of a group of child detectives lead by street urchin Gustav (Roger Mobley). The engaging thriller plot is heightened by some amusingly tongue-in-cheek narration and the use of authentic post-war Berlin locations, as well as a charming performance from Russell and a colourful turn from Slezak.
The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969)
A very young Kurt Russell stars in this silly-but-fun high school comedy, which also features the uncredited screen debut of Ed Begley Jr. Russell plays Dexter Riley, a bumbling student at Medfield College (a location Disney had previously used in the Absent-Minded Professor movies), who becomes a super-genius after a computer downloads its memory into his brain during a thunderstorm. Russell reprised the role in two similarly-themed sequels – 1972’s Now You See Him, Now You Don’t (invisibility) and 1975’s The Strongest Man in the World (super-strength), the latter of which is also on Disney+.
While You Were Sleeping (1995)
Sandra Bullock graduated to leading roles with this utterly charming rom-com, having previously attracted attention with her supporting turn in Speed. She plays Lucy, a hopelessly romantic Chicago transit worker who’s mistaken for the fiancée of handsome coma victim Peter (Peter Gallagher) after saving his life. Embraced by the Peter’s quirky family, Lucy maintains the deception, only to find herself falling for his suspicious older brother (Bill Pullman). A plot this contrived really shouldn’t work, but it absolutely does, thanks to a witty script, Jon Turtletaub’s assured direction and sensational chemistry between Bullock and Pullman.
Mighty Joe Young (1998)
Charlize Theron befriends a giant ape. That’s all you really need to know about this entertaining remake of the 1949 adventure. Theron plays Jill Young, who’s grown up in the remote mountains of Central Africa with a 15-foot gorilla named Joe as her best friend. When poachers threaten their idyllic existence, Jill and zoologist Gregg O’Hara (Bill Paxton) relocate Joe to a protected animal reserve in California, but vengeful hunter Strasser (Rade Serbedzija) pursues them, determined to capture the big ape at any cost. Arguably better than the original film, Mighty Joe Young succeeds thanks to its strong script and superb special effects, while Joe cuts an eminently sympathetic, even relatable figure as a cuddly gorilla who just wants to be left alone.
Secretariat isn’t as good as Seabiscuit when it comes to movies about famous racehorses, but it ticks several of the same boxes. Diane Lane stars as a 1960s housewife who inherits her father’s stables and discovers a promising horse. Convinced it can win races, she begins to train it, with the aid of flamboyant trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich). The race scenes (enlivened by the use of a POV horse-cam) are the best thing in the film and there are some fun little moments like Secretariat trash-snorting another horse. Worth seeing just so that you’re in on the joke on BoJack Horseman.
Old Yeller (1957)
Disney’s first boy-and-his dog adventure stars Tommy Kirk as teenage homesteader Travis Coates, who reluctantly adopts a yellow mongrel while his father is away on a cattle drive in the 1860s. A series of exciting canine adventures ensue, involving raccoons, snakes, bears, wild pigs and wolves. Be warned – the film regularly topped lists of famous weepies for good reason, but in the meantime, it’s impossible not to be charmed by the image of Travis’ younger brother Arliss (Kevin Corcoran) riding Old Yeller like a horse.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
Adapted from the novel by Jules Verne, this big-budget science-fiction adventure was one of the first films shot in Cinemascope. James Mason delivers a complex performance as the mysterious Captain Nemo, who wages war across the seven seas from his technologically advanced submarine, the Nautilus. Kirk Douglas co-stars as a lusty harpoonist who gets in Nemo’s way. In addition to its Oscar-winning art direction – the Nautilus is a thing of beauty, inside and out – and special effects, the film is best remembered for its stunning battle sequence with a giant squid. Sea-faring fun for all the family.
Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955)
Walt Disney adapted the first three episodes of his successful Davy Crockett TV series into this theatrically released feature, in which the legendary backwoodsman (played by Fess Parker) takes on an alligator, fights a tomahawk duel and gets elected to Congress before heading to the Alamo with his friend George Russell (Buddy Ebsen). It was followed by prequel film Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (adapted from the last two episodes of the series), which is also on Disney+. Of course, the best thing about it the film is its iconic theme song. All together now: “Day-veee, Daaaay-vey Crockett! King of the wild frontieeeeeeer…”
Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968)
In the 60s and 70s, Disney had an extraordinary knack of taking the most ridiculous plots imaginable (cats from outer space, boys with computer brains, that sort of thing) and turning them into entertaining, warm-hearted comedy adventures. Here, Peter Ustinov is a delight as the ghost of the legendary pirate, cursed to wander in limbo until he performs a good deed. He gets his chance when he decides to help – of all things – a local college track team. Scene-stealing support comes in the form of Elsa Lanchester, as an innkeeper in danger of losing her hotel to a local mobster.
That Darn Cat! (1965)
One of the 19 films (including several others on this list, as well as Mary Poppins) that Derbyshire-born director Robert Stevenson made for Disney, this charming comedy crime caper stars Hayley Mills (in her sixth and final Disney movie) as a young girl whose trouble-prone Siamese tom cat holds a clue to a bank heist and a kidnapping. Perennial Disney lead Dean Jones (again, also in several other films on this list) enjoys one of his best roles as the cat-allergic FBI agent assigned to the case.
Greyfriars Bobby (1961)
In addition to bizarrely plotted comedy adventures, Disney is also synonymous with animal-based weepies and they don’t get much weepier than this strikingly shot period drama, enriched with gorgeous Scottish location work. Adapted from Eleanor Atkinson’s 1912 novel – itself based on a true story – the film is set in Victorian Edinburgh and tells the story of Bobby, a Skye Terrier who forms a loyal bond with kindly shepherd Auld Jock (Alex Mackenzie) that persists even after the old man dies. As Bobby steadfastly sticks by the old man’s grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard, he endears himself to all and sundry, in particular the neighbourhood children.