Ten of the Strangest Disney Live-Action Films You Probably Forgot About

When you think of Disney movies, what comes to mind are beloved tales meant to entertain both adults and children. They can be epic fairytales brought to life, artistic animated films full of beloved characters, or fun-loving adventure films. In the live-action realm, Disney has made a habit of adapting real-life stories from American history to the big screen, or else making films which feature animals, wacky professors, or flying nannies.

The films this article covers are not like this at all. They are Disney live-action movies, but they defy our expectations of what a Disney live-action movie should be. Some of them are ambitious, pushing outside the envelope, and should be applauded. Others are hairbrained attempts at Disney to match popular trends with disastrous results. Most of these films are ones you have not heard of. Because of their diversion from our expectations of Disney films, they have either faded from our recollection or else have not been remembered as Disney films in the first place.

In no particular order, here is a look at 10 live-action films we wouldn’t expect from Disney:

The Great Locomotive Chase (1956)

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Plot? It’s the Civil War, and Union spy James J. Andrews (Fess Parker) is on a top-secret mission: to steal a Confederate train outside of Atlanta and take it back to Union territory in Tennessee, using it to sabotage and destroy Confederate supply routes along the way. But the train’s conductor (Jeffrey Hunter) is on to Andrews and is determined to try his best to throw a wrench in the Union spy’s plans before he delivers the train to his fellow soldiers.

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Having a Disney movie with a topic of trains sounds like a good idea that would appeal to all ages. But this isn’t just a train movie. It’s movie about the efforts of a group of Union soldiers during the Civil War. War, in any form, is not quite as good a topic for a family film, and so you have to wonder how this one got greenlit. This is a dilemma many Disney live-action films faced when trying to recreate a story from American  history. We all know history is messy, so how to you make a family-friendly film without the unpleasantness? Easy…you purposefully ignore it, or water it down to provoke a certain sentiment. Hence, we get a film like this one where the “American spirit” is heralded without mentioning the fact that many of the heroic men who had partaken in this mission ended up being executed by the Confederacy.

Meet the Deedles (1998)

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Plot? Twin thrill-seekers Phil (Paul Walker) and Stew Deedle (Steve Van Wormer) are hip Hawaiian surfers shipped out to Wyoming for summer camp … before they’re expelled from school! But when they get sidetracked to Yellowstone National Park, they fall into jobs as rookie rangers to impress a sexy lieutenant. That kicks off a hilarious wilderness adventure as the Deedles battle prairie dogs, surf roaring rapids, and rescue Old Faithful from a vengeful ex-ranger.

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In the late 80’s/early 90’s, goofy buddy comedies were all the rage. To this day we fondly remember Bill & Ted, Wayne’s World, and Dumb and Dumber. This was Disney’s attempt at the same formula, and well, it failed miserably. 4% on Rotten Tomatoes probably says all that needs to be said. The problem, besides lazy writing, is the film’s attempt to be outrageous and family-friendly at the same time. All the other goofy buddy comedies we love don’t have such limitations put on them. Definitely not Paul Walker’s finest hour.

Midnight Madness (1980)

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Plot? Leon picks college students to participate in his all night scavenger hunt. Five teams receive clues to solve leading them to the next clue site hidden in the city.

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Another Disney production trying to capture the popularity of a popular trend in film. This one is a mix of Animal House and Cannonball Run or It’s a Mad Mad Mad World. It’s an epic comedy film with a large ensemble cast. set against a backdrop of collegiate hijinx. This one’s earned a bit of a cult following over the years, thanks to early bit roles from Michael J. Fox and Paul Reubens, and the inescapable charm that comes from an outrageous comedy watered down by Disney to achieve a “PG” rating. In fact, Disney chose to keep its involvement as much of a secret as it could because the studio feared its association would turn off the intended teenage audience. 

Operation Dumbo Drop (1995)

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Plot? Soon-to-retire Captain Sam Cahill (Danny Glover) and his unit labor to build a secret relationship with a local Vietnamese village in order to conduct surveillance on an enemy weapons-smuggling operation that goes through on a nightly basis. When the enemy discovers this, they kill the village’s elephant as a punishment. Cahill, his replacement Captain T.C. Doyle (Ray Liotta) and a team of special forces must locate and transport another elephant in time for the village’s spiritual event.

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A live-action comedy making reference to one of Disney’s animated classics in the title can’t be good, and this one isn’t. To start with, the odd premise is based on a real life story, but not in the Disney-fied way that it is depicted on the big screen. You see, the movie is based on actual operations during the Vietnam war. Elephants were used for labor in Vietnamese villages, and the US Army bringing them elephants was seen as a way to buy favor with villages who could otherwise have been assisting the Viet Cong. If controversial war-time strategy doesn’t sound like wholesome family entertainment, you’re right. The movie tries hard to make the film as inoffensive as possible to other cultures, but at the same time it plays up the US war effort. So, in effect, the film compromises itself, and what you have left is a bunch of fart jokes.  

Return to Oz (1985)

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Plot? Dorothy discovers she is back in the land of Oz, and finds the yellow brick road is now a pile of rubble, and the Emerald City is in ruins. Discovering that the magical land is now under the control of an evil empire, she sets off to rescue the scarecrow, the tin man and the lion with the help of her new friends.

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These days, we see a lot of delayed sequels. As such, we have experience in how terrible they can be. Back in 1985, Disney decided to release a sequel to the beloved Wizard of Oz, a movie Disney did not even produce in the first place. The intellectual property rights of the original novels had run out, and Disney had purchased them some years prior. The film’s decision to use a much darker tone is a head-scratcher, and the film is arguably terrifying instead of fun like the original. To make it even worse, the director was fired in the middle of production because he was behind schedule, but Disney had to hire him back to finish it. The result is one of the most unnecessary sequels ever made.

Darby O’Gille and the Little People (1959)

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Plot? Just-fired Darby O’Gill (Albert Sharpe) does not want to tell his daughter, Katie (Janet Munro), that his position has been taken by a dashing younger man (Sean Connery). Then, on his way home, Darby slips through a portal to the land of the little people. There he meets the leprechaun king, Brian (Jimmy O’Dea), and winds up accidentally bringing the little monarch home with him. Darby then demands Brian grant him three wishes, but the request brings Darby bittersweet, and unexpected, results.

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If you’ve ever wanted to see Sean Connery singing in a Disney film, have we got a treat for you! When considering popular movie topics for children, Irish folklore is not what comes to mind. There’s song and dance, fox hunts, drinking games, and wish-granting. To make it even weirder, this movie stars Sean Connery in one of his first major roles. That means you get to see Connery singing in a Disney musical. But this is one film where the uniqueness is an advantage. Good music, special effects, originality, and great acting make this film a rare forgotten Disney Gem.

Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. (1966)

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Plot? A Navy pilot (Dick Van Dyke) is marooned on an island with a headhunter’s (Akim Tamiroff) daughter (Nancy Kwan) and outcast tribal women.

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Back in the 60’s, this film was a riot. Today, we expect more from our entertainment. This film is representative of a whole slew of hairbrained comedies Disney pumped out in the 60’s with little to no plot. It stars Dick Van Dyke, and much of the movie is a one-man show. Having a Navy pilot marooned on a tropical island is one thing, but then you have an escaped space monkey, and an exiled beautiful woman for him to interact with. The preposterousness is only matched by the intelligence-insulting comedy and the length run time. Certainly the film does some things well, and Van Dyke’s star power can’t be ignored, but there’s no reason to watch this film except for nostalgia.  

Trenchcoat (1983)

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Plot? An aspiring mystery writer (Margot Kidder) hooks up with a real, live CIA agent (Robert Hays) during a two-week stay in Malta.

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For a period of time in the early 1980’s Disney experimented with the release of more adult-themed movies. Trenchcoat was not the first of these films, but it was one of the last because it ended up being a complete failure. Audiences and critics hated the film and it bombed at the box office. Disney even shied away from promoting the film, with original versions not having any mention of Walt Disney Studios as the production studio. The failure of Trenchcoat lead to the creation of Touchstone Studios, a branch of Disney that would focus on PG-13 and R rated films. As a separate division, Touchstone Studios could give the attention to these more mature films without having to worry about corrupting the Disney brand name, which is what sort of happened with Trenchcoat.

The Devil and Max Devlin (1981)

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Plot? The devil’s helper (Bill Cosby) will let a slumlord (Elliott Gould) go free if he can lure three innocents to the bad place.

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This was one of the first films Disney made during its experimentation phase with more adult-themed films. The problem with this one wasn’t the premise or the intent, although casting Bill Cosby as the devil might seem less controversial today than it was back then. The problem with this movie is that it didn’t diverge enough from Disney’s family-friendly formula to be as good or as funny as it could have been. I guess the fact that the film was a comedy about dealing with the devil, Disney thought the premise would be edgy enough on its own. It ends up being a mostly mundane movie with a crowd-pleasing happy ending. Besides the involvement of Cosby, it didn’t take any risks, it didn’t push as far as the concept needed. As a result, it has been all but forgotten today.

The Straight Story (1999)

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Plot? A retired farmer and widower in his 70s, Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) learns one day that his distant brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) has suffered a stroke and may not recover. Alvin is determined to make things right with Lyle while he still can, but his brother lives in Wisconsin, while Alvin is stuck in Iowa with no car and no driver’s license. Then he hits on the idea of making the trip on his old lawnmower, thus beginning a picturesque and at times deeply spiritual odyssey.

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David Lynch is known for making strange, surreal movies. He’s the type of director that you would have thought would be the last choice to helm a Disney movie. And yet, he did (technically). But that’s not even the strongest aspect of this film. The weirdest thing about it is that the film is entirely conventional. This is David Lynch’s most straight forward, “normal” movie, his only film with a “G” rating, and the only one he personally didn’t write. Lynch would later call the film “his most experimental.” And he made it for Disney, a company that isn’t known for releasing independent drama films in the first place. The weirdness works on multiple levels.