10 great live-action Disney films

From The Love Bug to Enchanted: 10 highlights from over 70 years of Disney adventures in live action.

3 August 2023

By David Parkinson

The Love Bug (1968)

It was a 1941 animators’ strike that prompted Walt Disney to start experimenting with live action. Animated shorts and features were time-consuming and expensive, and Disney was suitably encouraged by The Reluctant Dragon (1941) and So Dear to My Heart (1948), which mixed live action with animated segments, to greenlight the studio’s first fully live-action feature: the 1950 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

As postwar fiscal regulations meant that Disney had monies tied up in Europe, he decided to shoot his initial live-action ventures in Britain. But diminishing returns on these historical adventures persuaded him to refurbish the Burbank studio to accommodate a soundstage. Content was needed for the new TV series Disneyland, so focus shifted to topics that would appeal to American children, such as the hit Davy Crockett trilogy.

The 1960s saw Disney concentrate on contemporary family comedies, which were often headlined by the likes of Fred MacMurray and Hayley Mills and frequently featured a quaint, if troublesome animal. Kurt Russell became the studio’s defining live-action star of the 70s, starring in several campus romps. Such pictures kept the studio afloat while the animation arm was struggling to connect with its audience.

Pictures like Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) introduced a darker tone, which was also evident in sci-fi offerings The Black Hole (1979) and Tron (1982) – films that sought to ride the blockbuster wave by pioneering new techniques such as computer-generated animation.

In 1984, Touchstone Pictures was launched to tap into the grown-up market, while the Disney Channel produced its own original kidpix. Few were more popular than High School Musical (2006), which enjoyed a new lease of life on the Disney+ streaming platform (launched in 2019).

Meanwhile, hit franchises such as Pirates of the Caribbean have continued the tradition of inspiring attractions at Disney’s theme parks. Furthermore, the ongoing project to give the studio’s animated gems live-action makeovers has delighted young and old alike by combining innovation and nostalgia.

Treasure Island (1950)

Director: Byron Haskin

Poster for Treasure Island (1950)

Fifteen years after Disney had considered an animated version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 novel, this swashbuckling quest for Captain’s Flint’s buried loot became the studio’s first entirely live-action feature. Joining forces with RKO, Disney funded the project with revenues frozen in postwar Britain and cast Robert Newton as Long John Silver alongside a host of local screen stalwarts. 

The sole American member of the cast, Bobby Driscoll, arrived to play Jim Hawkins on the back of his Oscar for outstanding juvenile actor in the 1949 thriller The Window. However, so that the 13-year-old could shoot on location in the West Country and on sets at Denham Studios, Disney had to flout UK work permit and child labour regulations. Newton and director Byron Haskin reunited on the non-Disney sequel Long John Silver (1954), while the studio returned to Stevenson’s piratical plot for Muppet Treasure Island (1996) and Treasure Planet (2002).

The Living Desert (1953)

Director: James Algar

Lobby card for The Living Desert (1953)

Having landed five Oscars for the shorts in the True-Life Adventures documentary series, Disney decided to apply the technique of imposing storylines on to nature footage captured by freelance crews to a feature. Inspired by the insect imagery submitted by UCLA student N. Paul Kenworthy Jr, Disney dispatched him to the arid south-west with entomologist Robert H. Crandall to create a succession of mini-dramas that were designed to entertain as much as educate. 

Animated maps were used to provide context, while certain sequences were abetted by special effects. Cognisant of the target audience, narrator Winston Hibler’s description of mating rituals and life-and-death struggles could seem coy, and some critics complained of anthropomorphism. But juries at Cannes and Berlin and the Oscar electorate were suitably impressed. Moreover, this $300,000 doc grossed $5 million at the box office and transformed the way in which the natural world was presented on screen.

20000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

Director: Richard Fleischer

20000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

Another live-action classic that had initially been earmarked for animation, Disney’s version of Jules Verne’s science-fiction masterpiece was a hugely ambitious undertaking. Requiring a soundstage and a water tank to be installed at the Burbank studio, the action tested the ingenuity of the production design and special effects teams. Yet, guiding inspiration Harper Goff was denied both an on-screen credit and an Oscar for his efforts because he wasn’t a union member. 

Richard Fleischer, the son of Disney’s 1930s cartoon rival Max Fleischer, was hired to direct, while James Mason headlined as Captain Nemo opposite Kirk Douglas’s Ned Land. But the real stars were the submersible and the giant squid in the tempestuous nocturnal tussle. Some of the sets were recycled for an attraction at Disneyland, while the ‘making of’ documentary Operation Undersea (1954) won an Emmy. More recently, David Fincher and James Mangold have each toiled over a Nemo origin story, before Disney+ commissioned the forthcoming 10-part series, Nautilus.

Old Yeller (1957)

Director: Robert Stevenson

Old Yeller (1957)

Disney had never shied away from the sadder aspects of life. But even those raised on Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942) would have blanched as rancher Travis Coates picks up the family shotgun and traipses outside at the climax of this much-loved doggie drama. Studio suits had tried to persuade Disney to append a happy ending to this adaptation of a Fred Gipson novel, but he trusted his instincts and the picture grossed over $8 million. 

Shooting on the Golden Oak Ranch in the Santa Clarita Valley, trusted director Robert Stevenson guided Mickey Mouse Club regulars Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran through their big-screen debuts. They would go on to play brothers in four more Disney features, including the sequel, Savage Sam (1963). Spike, the yellow Black Mouth Cur who had been bought from an animal sanctuary for three dollars, would also live to film another day, in Fox’s 1960 film A Dog of Flanders.

The Absent Minded Professor (1961)

Director: Robert Stevenson

The Absent Minded Professor (1961)

Although The Shaggy Dog (1959) provided the template for Disney’s madcap comedies, it was the second of actor Fred MacMurray’s seven assignments that refined the formula. The plot was inspired by Samuel W. Taylor’s 1943 short story, ‘A Situation of Gravity’. But Ned Brainard, the accidental inventor of a sticky substance with added bouncing power, was based on Princeton professor Hubert Alyea, whom Disney had witnessed giving an explosive demonstration at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. Indeed, MacMurray even borrowed some of Alyea’s mannerisms. 

The effects responsible for getting Brainard’s car airborne and putting a pep in the step of the college basketball team were nominated for an Oscar, along with the film’s art direction and cinematography. The studio would return to Medfield College for its first-ever sequel, Son of Flubber (1962), as well as for the Dexter Riley trilogy of sci-fi romps starring Kurt Russell in the early 1970s. Robin Williams played the eccentric boffin in the 1997 remake, Flubber.

The Parent Trap (1961)

Director: David Swift

The Parent Trap (1961)

Based on Erich Kästner’s 1949 novel Lisa and Lottie, this comedy of errors remains one of the most enduringly popular Disney live-action features. Reuniting with director David Swift, who had guided her to a ‘juvenile’ Oscar in Pollyanna (1960), Hayley Mills excels as identical twins Sharon McKendrick and Susan Evers, who meet at summer camp after being respectively raised in isolation in Boston and California by their divorced parents (Maureen O’Hara and Brian Keith). 

Credit should go to the effects team behind the split-screen process that allowed Mills to act opposite herself. But don’t overlook Susan Henning, the reverse angle stand-in who received a special Donald Duck award from Disney for her uncredited contribution. Having had an unexpected transatlantic chart hit with the Sherman brothers ditty ‘Let’s Get Together’, Mills reprised her roles in three tele-sequels (one in 1986 and two in 1989) before Lindsay Lohan doubled-up in Nancy Meyers’ 1998 remake.

The Love Bug (1968)

Director: Robert Stevenson

The Love Bug (1968)

Director Robert Stevenson and screenwriter Bill Walsh were key members of the Disney cadre, and the pair behind gems like Mary Poppins (1964) and That Darn Cat! (1965) reunited for this car-racing caper, derived from Gordon Buford’s story ‘Car, Boy, Girl’. It proved to be the last live-action project to benefit from Walt Disney’s personal input before his death in 1966.

Herbie was chosen after the crew fussed over the white Volkswagen Beetle during a pre-production line-up of chic cars, with Walsh adding the red and blue racing stripes as a patriotic gesture. Now ensconced as a Disney regular, Dean Jones occupied the driver’s seat in a rally tussle with David Tomlinson’s proto-Dick Dastardly. Only Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid did better box-office business in 1969, and the sequels Herbie Rides Again (1974), Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo (1977) and Herbie Goes Bananas (1980) duly followed before Lindsay Lohan took the wheel for Herbie Fully Loaded (2005).

Freaky Friday (1976)

Director: Gary Nelson

Freaky Friday (1976)

Respectively coming off Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (both 1976), Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster were paired as Ellen and Annabel Andrews in Disney’s lively adaptation of a bodyswap novel by Mary Rodgers (the daughter of musicals maestro Richard Rodgers). 

Whether jousting with washing-machines or electric typewriters, or struggling to master driving or water skiing, Harris and Foster contribute wonderful displays of controlled physical comedy, as mother and daughter undergo an inexplicable transformation during a breakfast-time squabble. Harris is often hilarious, although each received a Golden Globe nomination. Hopefully this and the Disney caper Candleshoe adequately compensated Foster for being unable to play Princess Leia in Star Wars (both 1977). Shelley Long and Gaby Hoffmann (1995), Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan (2003), and Heidi Blickenstaff and Cozi Zuehlsdorff (2018) have headlined subsequent remakes.

Cool Runnings (1993)

Director: Jon Turteltaub

Cool Runnings (1993)

Disney had done sports films before, such as Gus (1976) and The Mighty Ducks (1992), but the initial plan to recall the progress of the Jamaican bobsleigh team at the 1988 Winter Olympics as a realist drama had to be shelved after funding for Lynn Siefert’s screenplay, Blue Maaga, failed to materialise. Instead, Cool Runnings evolved into an underdog comedy, following the rookie quartet as they overcome adversity and prejudice en route to Calgary. The results grossed $155 million from a $17 million budget.

Spared dangerous stunt-work by director Jon Turteltaub’s use of TV footage of the actual event, the actors still had to contend with front office requests to model their accents on Sebastian the crab from The Little Mermaid (1989).

Enchanted (2007)

Director: Kevin Lima

Enchanted (2007)

Disney had already started the sequence of live-action remakes of its animated classics when it released this loving parody of the fairytale canon. The project took a decade to develop, with a number of rewrites changing the tone of Giselle’s odyssey from the cursed kingdom of Andalasia to modern day New York. Having pipped Kate Hudson and Reese Witherspoon to the lead, Amy Adams gives a superbly knowing performance as the princess-to-be who morphs from cel to human form via a Times Square manhole.

Ironically, revisiting the 2D animation style of the studio’s golden age required outsourcing the opening section to a company run by former staffer James Baxter. The imagery abounded with nostalgic nods to pictures past, while also commenting on bygone visual and storytelling conventions. Disney+ released a sequel, Disenchanted, in 2022.

Making Magic: 100 Years of Disney is at BFI Southbank throughout August.

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