Most of us look back on our college years with great fondness, except for the occasional night of overindulgence. This week, Disney releases Monsters University, the prequel to the 2001 animated hit Monsters, Inc., that glances back at the academic origins of James Sullivan and Mike Wazowski as well as the roots of their friendship.
Though computer animation has become the prevailing medium for both Disney and Pixar, given the themes of Monsters University, we thought it was high time to reexamine some landmarks from the studio's past. Specifically we thought we’d take a look at some of our favorite live-action films in the Disney catalog and see if they carried any lingering relevance to contemporary cinema. You know, just another fun afternoon with the kids.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
The little ones in your household may not recognize the enormity of the acting talent assembled for Disney’s 1954 filmic adaptation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; names like Peter Lorre, Kirk Douglas and James Mason sailing right over their heads. However, despite being decades behind the technology they are used to seeing on TV and in the movies, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, with its underwater monster battles, still has the power to dazzle and amaze the younglings as much as it does the grown-ups.
It is true that David Fincher has been working on developing the remake for quite some time. However, as we have been taught from the likes of The Shaggy Dog and Flubber, remakes don’t necessarily rejuvenate interest in the original movies. Instead, let’s consider Guillermo del Toro’s upcoming project, a tiny little film called Pacific Rim. The advertising alone on Pacific Rim has reignited interest in giant monsters of the deep. If nothing else, and it’s certainly so much more than this, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea will provide the perfect sensory appetizer for the family eye feast that will be Pacific Rim.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
There was a time, before the advent of the PG-13 rating, when family films boasted a great deal of backbone. Bold, thought-provoking material masquerading as “kids' movies” captured our partially terrified imaginations when we were younger, and remain powerful film experiences for us today. Disney’s Something Wicked This Way Comes is a strange Faustian fantasy based on a novel by the great Ray Bradbury, and Jonathan Pryce’s performance is absolutely captivating. In the film, a small town is visited by a mysterious circus that seems to offer the citizens everything they might desire… but at a cost.
These days, there is an unfortunate amount of children’s cinema so bereft of substance as to insult the intelligence of even its youngest viewer. Something Wicked is both an enjoyable morality play as well as a movie that will challenge fledgling film fans. If nothing else, they’ll never see the governor character from The Pirates of the Caribbean the same way again.
The Black Hole
Two years after the overwhelming success of Star Wars, Disney released its own deep-space adventure. Featuring a stellar cast that included Anthony Perkins, Ernest Borgnine and Robert Forster, The Black Hole centers on a research team that comes across a long-lost spacecraft perched in a very precarious place. The visuals are incredibly ambitious, as is the film’s overall conceit of traveling through the most volatile of cosmic events. In addition, much like Something Wicked, there are some borderline horrific moments: murderous robots with eviscerating appendages. But it is indeed the eponymous subject matter of The Black Hole that connects it to the climate of film today. The interest in the more scientific end of the sci-fi spectrum is exceedingly high right now. Christopher Nolan’s upcoming project Interstellar, for example, explores the idea of wormholes and gravity fields. Hopefully, Nolan also recognizes the important of hovering robotic comic relief.
The Absent-Minded Professor
A scatter-brained scientist accidentally invents a rubber-like substance with the unique ability to defy gravity in one of Disney’s most beloved live-action comedies. Fred MacMurray, amidst the rising popularity of his TV series My Three Sons, plays the titular professor with so much goofy charm. The slapstick sight gags hold up extraordinarily well, the basketball scene is especially funny, but ultimately The Absent-Minded Professor excels because it’s a movie with a lot of heart. It is this strong emotional core that has similarly allowed Pixar to enjoy such monumental success. One need only recall the lovely opening scene of Up to understand the studio’s commitment in this regard. Come to think of it, Up’s Carl Fredricksen, with his own gravity-defying machination, might also qualify as an absent-minded professor.
The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes
An affable, but mischievous college student finds his brain synched with a computer after experiencing an electric shock while trying to repair the machine. His newfound abilities also carry with it grave consequences when the donor of the computer, a local criminal, discovers the boy’s brain also uploaded info on his nefarious enterprises. As with The Absent-Minded Professor, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes is not so much science run amok as it is science gone wacky.
Though its use of giant, clunky tech and the preponderance of groovy teen fashions certainly date the film, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes is still a great deal of fun and features a very familiar young lead. Long before he was Snake Plissken, Kurt Russell starred in several of Disney’s live-action comedies. It’s remarkable to note how much charisma he possessed even as a sprat. However, much like Sully and Mike in Monsters University, these movies represent Russell’s humble beginnings.