With more and more platforms joining Netflix on the streaming spectrum each month, launching more and more things people could be watching at any given time, there’s more and more collective anxiety about wading through all the movies and shows to find the good stuff. Luckily, we spend lots of time wading through those movies and shows to find the good stuff.
Take Disney Plus. Known for catapulting Baby Yoda to stardom in season 1 of The Mandalorian and being a centralized hub for the Disney animated classics you watched endlessly as a kid, Disney’s streaming service is also home to underrated films you may not recognize at first glance. To get you started, here are eight selections, ranging from features to shorts, that are worth your while.
Queen of Katwe (2016)
Mira Nair (The Namesake, Monsoon Wedding) is a master of the little moments, and her sports drama, about a young girl growing up in an impoverished corner of Uganda who rises to chess greatness, is full of bursts of heartwarming humanity. Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo are in total uplifting mode, swapping hockey pucks for pawns, but still imbuing the movie with the Mighty Ducks. Newcomer Madina Nalwanga leaves you with zero doubt that, with right support and nurturing, a champion can rise from anywhere.
The Love Bug (1969)
Most people know Herbie the Love Bug — would you be surprised if Lindsay Lohan’s Herbie: Fully Loaded holds a place in young millennial hearts? — but fewer and fewer people know The Love Bug, the quintessential mid-20th-century Disney family feature in which the automotive character first came to life. Disney Plus is filled to the brim with disposable, 90-minute adventures with a dash of magical realism, but the rambling tale of a Volkswagen Beetle with a mind of its own is as fleshed out and genuine as they come. Dean Jones stars as Dean, a down-in-his-luck racer who finds new purpose in life (not to mention love in the form of Michele Lee’s mechanic Carole) when he sticks up for Herbie and drives him in the legendary El Dorado race. Herbie’s full of tricks, and they remain satisfying 50 years later.
Donald Duck: Chip an’ Dale (1947)
For more than a decade, every one of Disney’s Donald Duck cartoons opened with the “Donald Duck Song” an absolute bop that tells you everything you need to know about his character. He thinks he’s the most reasonable person in the room, he’s never temperamental, and he’d never start a fight. This is funny because it is demonstrably false, as you can see in Chip an’ Dale, the first named appearance of the legendary chipmunks. These perennial Donald-botherers appear alongside him for the first time here, and establish a familiar formula. Donald is a big jerk to them and, in righteous retaliation, they ruin his entire fucking day. This six-minute short is a beauty of comedic timing and even a bit of cartoon physics, showing that even the staid House of Mouse has always had a little place Looney Tunes-style comedy.
Pete’s Dragon (2016)
There is a reason to be skeptical of the Disney remake machine: The Lion King ... Aladdin ... Beauty and the Beast ... yeah, OK, there are many reasons to be skeptical of the Disney remake machine. But Pete’s Dragon, an update of the 1977 boy-and-his-invisible-beast musical, works at a totally different level. Despite the presence of a giant, fluffy dog dragon, writer-director David Lowery (A Ghost Story, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) grounds the story in the brisk reality of the Pacific Northwest. The visual effects work fades away as a feral Pete is rescued from the woods and reconnects with society. When the movie goes big, Lowery summons the energy of Steven Spielberg’s Amblin films, bringing as much heart as spectacle.
Frank and Ollie (1995)
Walt Disney possessed imagination and ambition, but there’s no Disney magic without Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. Members of the company’s original “Nine Old Men” group, Thomas and Johnston were there as Walt dreamed up the first feature-length animated film, Snow White, and hand-animated classic moments in the features that would establish the studio as an all-ages juggernaut. Frank and Ollie takes viewers behind the scenes of the film and let’s the duo tell their own story in rare interviews. Having been a tough DVD to track down over the years, the film’s finally available with the click of a button.
Conceived and storyboarded by some arty guy named Salvador Dalí back in the early 1940s, Walt Disney Animation kept this surreal short film in limbo to save costs during World War II. Nearly 50 years later, Walt’s brother Roy recovered the boards, gathered the animation troops, and finished a Disney animated film unlike any other. A mix of mythology, dance, and Dalí iconography, Destino is a legit work of art tucked away under many layers of Disney product. It’s a miracle!
Treasure Planet (2002)
A kooky idea pitched by Disney duo Ron Clements and Jon Musker back in 1985, Treasure Planet tosses in just the right blend of steampunk, sci-fi, and early ’00s skater culture into Robert Louis Stevenson’s pirate tale. A 70-30 mix of traditional pirate elements and space opera tropes gives the movie a distinct feel, both in terms of visuals and sounds, where a sweeping orchestral score is mixed with some electric guitar riffs. Treasure Planet is zany and visually stunning, but it was also doomed from the start: The opening date coincided with that of the second Harry Potter movie, which meant that despite solid reviews, Treasure Planet flopped at the box office. If you missed it then, catch it now.