Weirder Than Tron: Obscure Disney Films

watcher in the woodsUp until a few years ago, when you mentioned live-action Disney movies of days past, you might think of The Parent Trap, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, or maybe Pete’s Dragon.  Hardly ever did anyone mention Tron.

Well, that all changed with the game Kingdom Hearts II.  Tron was the basis of a level in that game, right up there with Pirates of the Caribbean, and suddenly kids (and some adults) were going back to the original movie to fully understand what the heck was going on.

Then, with the massive, slow advertising build-up to Tron: Legacy, others have found or rediscovered the original movie so they could be “in” on all the viral stuff going on at cons.  Thus, within a span of just a few years, we have virtually a new generation watching this little old live-action Disney film from the early 80s.

And by and large, the reaction I’ve heard is something along the lines of: “WTF?  That’s a Disney movie?  Huh… what was going on with Disney back then?”

The answer is, Disney was sort of having a midlife crisis.  Walt died in the sixties, and Roy, Sr died in the early 70s; the main creative force behind the Disney company was gone.  The orphans had to find their own path, their own voice.  In animation, which takes longer to produce, you can see some of the generic sixties style in the early 70s (The Aristocrats), but they start to find their way back as time goes on (The Rescuers).

But for live-action, the late 70s and early 80s were really an experimental period, the crazy college years.  And some of the movies produced during that period are worth a watch, whether it’s because they’re so good, so bad, or so outright bizarre.

Watcher in the Woods (1980)

This is most likely the most bizarre of the bunch I’ll mention today.  Jan and her family move into a house, and apparently bears an unsettling resemblance to a girl who disappeared years ago under strange circumstances.  It just gets weirder from there – seance stuff, an eclipse, travel through time and space, and potentially aliens.

Get this – the original, Lovecraftian ending was so out-and-out strange and confusing that they pulled the movie from theaters, rewrote the ending, and re-released it.  For the full Watcher experience, try to find a copy of the DVD that has the alternate endings, or try to find them online.

Child of Glass (1978)

This one is technically a TV movie, but it’s a spooky, nostalgic favorite that I just had to include (and still fully in the Dark-Disney spirit of the time period).  Based on the novel The Ghost Belonged to Me, it’s a tale of a modern boy and his friend who have to solve the murder of a girl his age from the Civil War.

This movie, despite being a Wonderful World of Disney feature, is surprisingly dark.  Spoiler: The little ghost girl is tossed down a well by a family member in a “re-enactment” watched through a crystal ball.  Later the kids wind up in that very same well to retrieve a piece of evidence, and watching this as a child, all I ever wondered was if her skeleton was still down there as well.  Perhaps someone who made The Ring saw that movie and had those thoughts as well.

That being said, it’s still a kids’ movie, so it’s not much more than spooky, and the acting is all over the place.  Oh, and it features a teenaged Violet from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

North Avenue Irregulars (1979)

This is a movie that you pretty much just have to know about.  It’s not really one of those that you’ve heard of but haven’t gotten around to seeing; either you’re in the club, or you’re not.

Edward Herrmann (yes, of Lost Boys/Gilmore Girls fame) stars as the new minister of the North Avenue Presbyterian Chruch.  He’s not the typical minister that this sleepy town is used to; the widower pulls up with his two kids on a motorcycle, and he wants “rock music” to shake up and expand the congregation (all the while being the nerdiest nerd you ever did see).

Some of his techniques, however, soon expose him to the world of organized crime, and he has to team up with the inexperienced women of North Avenue to help out the Treasury Department.   Various hilarious misadventures ensue.

This is actually a little underrated gem from this time in Disney’s history.  The cast is jam-packed with great actors like Cloris Leachman and Barbara Harris (look for a very young Melora Hardin – Jan from The Office). It’s also kind of interesting in that a movie about a minister and his church actually has next to nothing to do with any religious message.

It’s pretty easy to find on DVD if you know to look for it; apparently it was released in the UK as Hill’s Angels (blech).

The Black Hole (1979)

This movie manages to walk the fine line between the sci-fi of Tron and the weirdness of Watcher in the Woods.  Another star-studded cast, too: Robert Forster, Anthony Perkins, Ernest Borgnine, to name a few.

A ship, the Palomino, is on an exploratory mission when they encounter another Earth ship that disappeared twenty years before, sitting on the brim of the largest black hole ever encountered.  The crew of the second ship, the Cygnus, is long gone, presumably dead en route back to Earth.  Only the Captain remains, with his new crew of robots.  The Captain, of questionable sanity, has developed all kinds of groundbreaking technology, but he’s about to conduct his greatest experiment: fly into a black hole to see what’s beyond.

The film moves from sci-fi into a kind of horror/fantasy mashup.  I’ll confess: I watched this film specifically for this post, because I had heard general sentiments of WTF from everyone I knew who had seen it.  It’s another dark one; it’s easy to get complacent when you’ve got goofy-looking robot sidekicks, including one with a Southern accent named B.O.B, but this is ultimately not that kind of movie (in fact, it was the first Disney movie to get a PG rating).   It’s… it’s sort of like an American movie with lots of elements of Doctor Who from the same era, but it’s ultimately lacking what Doctor Who has that makes it good. Oh, and by the way, the ending is enough to compete with Watcher in the bizarro contest.

It’s not surprising that this movie hasn’t really stood the test of time beyond a dim, disturbing memory from former traumatized children.  Still?  If Disney plans to revisit/ make a sequel to any other films from this era, I would place bets on this one – it’s got interesting core concepts and they could go in all sorts of different directions with today’s technology.  Still, if they’re already remaking 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, it could be redundant.

Or maybe not so redundant – I hear there’s some Black Hole in-jokes in Tron: Legacy.

So if Tron is no longer obscure enough for you, try out these other forgotten gems of questionable worth from Disney’s past.  In some, you might find a new favorite; in others, you might find a new candidate for your next MST3K party.

With the success of the Tron sequel, are there any lost Disney films you’d like to see revisited?  Which ones should never be unearthed?

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