On November 12th, the Walt Disney Company launched it new streaming service Disney+. Though limited in scope right now, the service has the potential to offer an incredible assortment of films and TV shows through the company's various brands: Disney, Lucasfilm, Pixar, Marvel, National Geographic, and 20th Century Fox. And in the mix are some classics of Retro-Victorian Scientific Romances, including some unexpected hidden gems.
The following is a guide to what Disney+ has available, with the apologies that I'm subscribed through the Canadian version of the service. It has already been made apparent that Disney+ is unable to break the geo-locked curse of Netflix.
Without further ado:
- 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). Of course, any Disney+ viewing list should be topped with this, one of the most important films in the company's history. When looking to produce their first epic, feature-length, live-action film at Disney's Burbank studio (a quartet of live-action films had been produced before this in England, using money tied up there during the Second World War), Walt looked no further than a classic adventure story of his youth, Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Distilled into a lively picture with action, music, and perhaps surprising drama, it became an instant hit whose echo still rings down in Disney's parks to this day. One hopes that with it now available on Disney+, new audiences will rediscover this classic.
- Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959). One of the many Jules Verne adaptations to come out in the wake of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, this adaptation now enters the Disney fold through the company's acquisition of 20th Century Fox. It is fitting, not only because it so-closely hews to the style laid out by Disney, but Disney has already made a Journey to the Center of the Earth theme park attraction in Tokyo DisneySea. Unfortunately the Disney film In Search of the Castaways and Fox film Five Weeks in a Balloon (both 1962) have yet to appear on Disney+, but these four films are significant examples of the Atomic Age revival of interest in Jules Verne and Victorian Sci-Fi.
- Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) and Atlantis: Milo's Return (2003). Disney revisited the theme of submarines in their turn-of-the-century phase of Retro-Victorian Sci-Fi. Atlantis got something of a cult following for its faithful translation of the Lovecraftian, Pulp-styled work of comic artist and writer Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy. The direct-to-video sequel was a compilation of three episodes for a failed Atlantis TV series. If one never bothered to get that DVD (and one would be blameless), Disney+ is a good opportunity to finally see it.
- Treasure Planet (2002). Inexplicably maligned, Treasure Planet was certainly no worse than any other Disney animated film from the time period, and considerably better than most. It begins with the bones of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, which is already good source material. Then it transplants that timeless story into a gorgeous post-Hubble outer space with a 70/30 mix of 18th century seafaring and futuristic Sci-Fi technologies. Hopefully Disney+ will lead to its reappraisal.
- John Carter (2012). Speaking of reappraisals... Disney's adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars, directed by Andrew Stanton of Finding Nemo and Wall-E fame, with script by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, was actually quite good. Unfortunately it was lost in Disney's shuffle and the company threw it under the bus when it was barely out of the gate, depriving it of its best chance to gain a cultural foothold and its sequels Gods of Mars and Warlord of Mars.
- Tarzan (1999), Tarzan and Jane (2002), and Tarzan II (2005). And now speaking of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Disney`s adaptation was probably the best since the original Johnny Weissmuller films of the 1930's. The original film - a straightforward action film with incidental soundtrack by Phil Collins, at the time a departure from the Broadway musical-style of the 1990's Disney animation renaissance - is excellent. It first sequel, Tarzan and Jane, was a compilation of three unaired episodes of the Legend of Tarzan TV series which has yet to appear on Disney+. The series itself, though suffering from terrible animation, made excellent use of Burroughs' concepts including Opar and Pellucidar. Tarzan II was another direct-to-video sequel exploring Tarzan's boyhood years.
- Swiss Family Robinson (1940 and 1960). One of the biggest surprises hidden away in Disney+ was the original 1940 version of Swiss Family Robinson. When making their celebrated 1960 version, Disney bought up the rights to the previous 1940 RKO Pictures version. The last time it surfaced was in excerpts on the 2-disc "Vault Disney" edition of the 1960 version. Now both versions appear, in full, on the streaming service, both very very different and very compelling takes on the story in their own ways. One also hopes that the 1940 version is only the first in a rich back-catalogue of films from Hollywood's Golden Age that Disney acquired through 20th Century Fox.
- The Great Mouse Detective (1986). Join Basil of Baker Street and Dawson as they attempt to foil the vile Ratigan's attempt to replace the Mouse Queen of 19th century London with a tinkerer's automaton in this charming homage to Sherlock Holmes. The Great Mouse Detective was actually the second Disney film I remember seeing in theatres, after a re-release of One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) and before a re-release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), after which I felt I got too old for Disney films right as the Disney Renaissance happened.
- The Jungle Book (1967 and 2016). Both the original animated version and the recent live-action/CGI version are on Disney+ (as well as the 2003 animated sequel Jungle Book 2). The 1967 version is the final animated feature that Walt Disney was involved with, but is widely regarded to have suffered for the lack of his guiding hand in its homestretch. The 2016 version goes back to the source material by Rudyard Kipling to produce a driven, emotionally satisfying film with an actual story.
- The Sign of Zorro (1960). Disney's iconic Zorro series (1957-59) is not on the streaming service yet, but one can find the 1960 feature film abridging the original 13-episode story arc. Though not Science Fiction, the masked avenger righting wrongs in Spanish California is a distinctly American take on the Scarlet Pimpernel-style of superhero and direct inspiration for Batman. Disney's version is also the unequivocally best version of him.
- The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (1967). A comedy of the California Gold Rush, Bullwhip Griffin was one of the last remaining films that Walt Disney had worked on prior to his death in 1966. It is a slapstick comedy in the silent movie vein, with wonderful title cards by animator Ward Kimball reinforcing the film's dime novel, Vaudville aesthetic. It also ends with a charming, retro-futuristic vision of modern San Francisco.
- Mickey Mouse: Wonders of the Deep (2015). This third season episode of the modern Mickey Mouse cartoons invokes 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in both its film and theme park forms. The entire Mickey Mouse series is hilarious in its own right, with its copious Disney Easter eggs and return to Mickey's ribald roots during his black-and-white days (such as his first official cartoon, 1928's Steamboat Willie, which is also available on Disney+).
- Around the World in 80 Days (2004). Despite departing significantly from the novel, the Walden Media produced (and Disney distributed) version of Around the World in 80 Days starring Jackie Chan and Steve Coogan still has much to recommend it. It's not as epic or classic as the 1956 version, but its still highly enjoyable and makes good use of Phileas Fogg's recasting as a mad inventor.
- The Black Hole (1979). Disney's entry into the bleak field of languid 1970's Sci-Fi suffers for its time period and is otherwise a straightforward futuristic film. Yet the style of its ship is unmistakably Gothic in ways comparable to Treasure Planet or Event Horizon (1997).
- Tall Tale (1995). A league of extraordinary characters from American fakelore - Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, and John Henry - must unite to save Paradise Valley from a developer with a pretty awesome-looking steam engine. A largely forgotten film, it's worth another look if you've already got Disney+.
- Return to Oz (1985) and Oz, The Great and Powerful (2013). These Disney-made sequels and prequels to the 1939 MGM Wizard of Oz are controversial, red-headed step-children. Oz, The Great and Powerful was a vain attempt to dig up a revisionist fairy tale in the wake of the Broadway smash hit Wicked, and it shows. Return to Oz is a more feverish, even nightmarish, film that still haunts me some 35 years later. But it is also very inventive in its imagery, and stands up very well as an adaptation of the Oz stories in its own rights, if one can divorce it from comparison to the 1939 musical.
- La Luna (2012). Not Science Fiction per se, this Pixar short has all the romance and charm of a Georges Méliès film. A young boy must find his own way in the family business, which happens to be sweeping the Moon of fallen stars.
Disney+ has much more to offer than Retro-Victorian Scientific Romances, of course. Nearly every Disney animated classic is on there, many of the True-Life Adventures nature documentaries (my favourite being The Vanishing Prairie), Disney Afternoon cartoons, and much vintage content (the US version has the first five episodes of The Mickey Mouse Club, for example). My only complaint is that it needs more vintage content from the Disney vaults, especially those original episodes of the Walt Disney's Disneyland/Wonderful World of Color/Wonderful World of Disney TV series, and that they need to break the geo-lock so everything on the US version is available in Canada. The service also features several National Geographic documentaries (including two on two of my most favourite places in the world, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon national parks). The future will undoubtedly bring more films in the genre, such as In Search of the Castaways and Island at the Top of the World (1974). For now though, that's a pretty good list to keep one going.
P.S.: No, Disney didn't pay me for this, though I certainly wouldn't have turned it down.