The file marked Disney Horror films isn’t too substantial; the notion of staff hailing John Hough’s The Watcher in the Woods as ‘This could be our Exorcist’ suggests that the company were indeed looking in surprising directions in the early 1980’s. The Watcher in the Woods came out just before The Shining, and has a number of similar tropes, notably children discovering backwards writing on the windows of a crumbling mansion. But Watcher was pulled by the company bosses, re-edited and given a new opening and closing sequence; the original version, and Hough’s preferred version, are even harder to find than this 1982 reissue. Safe pair of hands Vincent McEveety was drafted in for the reshoots, but the regular reader of this blog will know that John Hough is the draw here; from Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry to Biggles, his skills are first rate. Here, he brings a real gloss to proceedings as David McCallum and his family move into an old house, where Bette Davis has a secret relating to a missing child and a spectral presence. Since the 1980’s, PG horror has become something of a staple, but in 1980, the whole concept of a children’s horror movie seemed like a contradiction. Hough’s movie has plentiful jump scares, like a child putting on a witch’s mask, that don’t connect to the main narrative. But reboots and remakes are welcome when they right wrongs; Disney’s idea was ahead of the curve, and even though there’s been a take Lifetime tv movie remake with Anjelica Huston, it would be nice to see Disney get to grips with this property and see what attracted them to it in the first place. It’s certainly got atmosphere, even if the story defies logic for children and adults alike.
Hard-boiled noir and political satire are two things one doesn’t expect in a Disney film; perhaps the rise of Pizar has cause Disney to raise their game, because Zootopia, aka Zootropolis, is smart stuff. In a city of animals, it’s quite literally a concrete jungle out there for Officer Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) to negotiate, so she falls back on the help of diamond-in-the-rough fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). They’re on the trail of a substance that unleashes the primal instincts of the carnivores amongst the Zootopia population, a plot device straight out of counter-culture 70’s extreme cinema like God Told Me To or Blue Sunshine. Of course, Zootopia doesn’t go too far down this road, and everything is satisfyingly sorted with the help of the celebrated comedy sloths, a crime-boss clearly modeled on Marlon Brando and a jolly Shakira song to finish. Zootopia is a colourful delight, popping with sight-gags and clever references for all ages, helped by the fact that the tricky central idea is explored in unexpected depth.
An odd but rewarding slice of revisionism from Disney, Robert Stromberg’s dark fantasy looks at the story of Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of villainess Maleficent (Angelina Jolie). With her horned headdress and high cheekbones, Maleficent is a fearsome creation, played to the hilt by Jolie, but kittled out with a backstory that explains her outsider disposition. Stromberg’s film turns the fairy tale on its head, delivering a non-family friendly message that’s some way from the original narrative. Some of the details, notably the fairies who protect Aurora (Elle Fanning) are smugly done, and Sharito Copley’s nemesis is a trial to watch, but Maleficent offers the kind of modern take on a classic story that was sorely missing from Kenneth Branagh’s dull Cinderella.
A collaboration between Disney and Marvel, Big Hero 6 is a wonderfully deft animation for children that’s got more to say than most grown-up dramas. Sold as an ET-like drama adventure about Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) and his robot friend, Beymax, Don Hall and Chris Williams fashion a more soulful story about a boy with an absent father; Beymax’s protruding belly and drunk-act when on low battery power mark him out as a amusing parody of parental values and vices. Hiro enlists Beymax’s help to uncover who is responsible for the death of his brother against a steam-punk SanFranTokyo setting, beautifully realised; with Scott Adsit providing Beymax’s voice, Big Hero 6 offers plenty of winning humour and bursts of profound poetry on its way to a tear-jerking ending.
A remake of the old RKO movie, Ron Underwood’s 1998 re-imaging in a lush and family friendly movie that plays up the affection between Joe and Jill Young (Charlize Theron). Transported from Africa to Hollywood, Joe is disconcerted by all the noise (he takes a dislike to car alarms) and years for his sweetheart Jill, who he has enjoyed a decade in the jungle with. Theron has proved her chops as an actress elsewhere, but she’s a perfect heroine for this Disney film, looking luminously beautiful and believable as the girl that Joe will do anything for. A surprising flop, Mighty Joe Young is a charming family film, delivered with as much sensitivity as a love-struck giant gorilla can muster. Ray Harryhausen has a cameo that gives the impressive effects a stamp of approval.
When Disney get it right, films like Frozen clean up; it’s also interesting to see what happens when the studio lose their way. 1985’s The Black Cauldron was a very expensive flop; with no songs, a plotline involving the raising of the dead, and a dark tone that led to several sequences being removed, it’s normally posted missing from Mouse House history. Which is a pity, since viewed today, The Black Cauldron is a visually accomplished fairy-tale. Based on Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, Ted Berman and Richard Rich’s film details the rise of Taran (Grant Bardsley) a humble boy who is tasked with taking care of an oracular pig. The pig’s visions of the future holds the key to the black cauldron itself, which the Horned King (John Hurt) wants to use to unleash an army of the dead. Taran’s cutsey pal Gurgi, a teddy bear version of Gollum, is about the only kid-friendly element in this dark fantasy, one which looks great and feels narratively fresh; it’s well worth discovering on Amazon Prime.
An indirect sequel to the classic film, Return To Oz junks the musical numbers and the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion characters, and pushes Dorothy into darker territory. Played by Fairuza Balk, she’s initially introduced going through strange psychiatric experiments by the sinister Dr Worley (Nicol Williamson). Dorothy escapes the electro-shock treatment and returns to Oz, to find it transformed into a macabre wasteland. Frank L Baum’s imagination was the source for characters like robot Tik Tok and Jack Pumpkinhead, but while these innovations are true to the source novels, the result is nightmarishly entertaining, making some off parallels between Kansas life and Oz that go far beyond the original film in their incisive, disturbing commentary. Return to Oz gave a generation of children sleepless nights, and it’s not hard to see why, but Return to Oz is far more ambitious than Sam Raimi’s Oz: The Great and Powerful.