Disney+ has arrived. The new streaming service from (you guessed it!) Disney retails for $6.99 per month on its own, or in a bundle with Hulu and ESPN+ for $12.99 per month — with the bundle’s programming going beyond the family-friendly confines of the Walt Disney brand.
Disney+ is launching with a number of original programs. Chief among them are The Mandalorian, a limited series set in the Star Wars universe; a live-action remake of Lady and the Tramp; and Noelle, a movie where Anna Kendrick plays Santa’s sister, because sure, why not. (We’ll have more to say about these programs soon.)
But the real draw of Disney+ is its expansive catalog, which will eventually contain nearly every single property the Walt Disney company owns. (And since it owns everything made by 20th Century Fox, Marvel, Lucasfilm, Pixar, and more, that’s a lot of programming.) While the service won’t offer the famously controversial Song of the South, whose racist caricatures have long made it Disney’s secret shame, you’ll be able to see plenty of other deep cuts, as well as some controversial details, like the racist caricature crows in Dumbo. (Apparently the animation makes them okay?)
Our good friends over at Polygon have a complete list of everything that will be available on Disney+ on day one (including every frickin’ episode of The Simpsons). But if a list of hundreds upon hundreds of titles feels intimidating, allow us to guide you through the jungle just a little bit.
Because you probably know about Iron Man and Star Wars and The Simpsons. But have you considered checking out some of Disney’s more obscure titles? Here are a handful of picks from the Vox Culture staff, designed to help you wade through the onslaught and find something to watch.
Return to Oz (1985)
Flailing in its attempts to reconnect with a family audience that had seemingly moved on to other pursuits, Disney spent the first half of the 1980s in an increasingly desperate panic, unsure of where to turn next. But then it hit on a seemingly foolproof idea: Make a pseudo-sequel to The Wizard of Oz (1939), one of the most cherished films of all time.
Never mind that that movie was an MGM production and, thus, Disney couldn’t use many of its most iconic elements and visuals. Instead, the studio would return to the source material by adapting a rough mash-up of L. Frank Baum’s first two Oz sequel novels: The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904) and Ozma of Oz (1907). Acclaimed editor and Oscar-winning sound designer Walter Murch (who had worked on everything from The Godfather to George Lucas’s pre-Star Wars films) would make the big step up to the director’s chair.
The movie was a colossal flop. Its depiction of an Oz was full of men on wheels, a witch who could remove her head, and numerous favorite characters frozen into stone statues that were too much for many children, who were terrified. (It also might have been too much for their parents, honestly.) And that’s before you get to the part where Dorothy is sent to receive electroshock therapy right before being whisked back to Oz.
Murch’s derivations from what Disney thought he was making — another happy musical — were so serious that he was almost fired from the production before Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and other famous directors staked their considerable reputations in Hollywood on Murch getting to make the movie his way.
Combined with the similarly freaky-to-kids The Black Cauldron (also released in the summer of 1985), Return to Oz became both a cautionary tale — try not to scare the kids too much — and a cult sensation, precisely because it scared young viewers as much as it did.
It is a genuinely daring and thoughtful kids film, and the era of streaming might be the perfect time for it enjoy a moment in the sun. By taking seriously the idea of how Dorothy might be treated after returning from Oz and spinning seemingly wild tales about the land, then taking some of the most unusual elements of Baum’s follow-up novels (which are terrific in their own right), Return to Oz created a story that stands proudly alongside the original film, with a very different tone and visual language. In an era where Stranger Things and The Nightmare Before Christmas are adored by many, Return to Oz is exactly the right kind of horror-lite to watch with a child who loves things that go bump in the night. —Emily VanDerWerff
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
Growing up, I didn’t watch as many Disney movies as many of my peers. But a few titles did sneak into our home VHS collection or into our library haul, and the one most often on rotation in our home was dearly beloved: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, released as a feature film in 1977.
Technically, this Pooh movie was a collection of shorter stories rather than a coherent narrative, though I can’t say my brother and I ever really noticed. Three previously released short animated films about Pooh and his friends — The Honey Tree, The Blustery Day, and Tigger Too — were linked together with new interstitial material. The result was a loosely continuous story, capped off by an ending in which Christopher Robin must leave Pooh, but Pooh will always be waiting for Christopher Robin.
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh was the last film that Walt Disney himself was directly involved in, and it’s also the source of some songs I can absolutely sing on demand now, decades later. My personal favorite scene and tune come from The Blustery Day, which gave us the immortal “Heffalumps and Woozles” song and its accompanying dream (or really nightmare) ballet that feels every bit as trippy as something you might see in a psychedelic movie dance sequence.
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh sent Disney down a path of Pooh-mania, spawning a fourth featurette (A Day for Eeyore) in 1983; the TV series The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, which ran from 1988 to 1991; the 2011 standalone film Winnie the Pooh; and other properties and merchandise galore. I discovered during my first trip to Disney World that you can buy just about anything molded or stitched or printed or stuffed to look like Pooh, in both his TV iteration and a more “classic” form, in which he looks a lot more like he did in the A.A. Milne novels where his story began.
Which is why I still like this film: It’s sweet, funny, and weird, in the way Milne’s novels are. And having watched it so many times as a kid, when I read the novels as an adult, I gained an appreciation for how a story could be told within the mind of a child — in this case, Christopher Robin — and have something subtle but important to say about life, friendship, and the importance of always, always keeping an eye on your pot of honey. —Alissa Wilkinson
The Journey of Natty Gann (1985)
By typical Disney standards, The Journey of Natty Gann registers as an anomaly — a harrowing, frequently bleak tale of poverty, family separation, and unjust Depression-era social systems. Combine Annie and Newsies with The Incredible Journey and Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, and you’ll have an inkling of just how weird Natty Gann is in the annals of Disney classics.
Natty Gann (Meredith Salenger) is a teenager in the 1930s; the film follows Natty after she becomes separated from her father, who’s abruptly forced to leave her behind in Chicago after he’s offered a job out West. Determined to rejoin him, Natty tries to make her way across the country — alone and broke and traveling mainly by train-jumping. During the trip, she befriends and falls in love with a charming vagrant named Harry, played by a 19-year-old John Cusack in one of his earliest roles. She also rescues an abused wolf, whom she names Wolf and who becomes one of Disney’s very best dogs. (He was played by an Alaskan malamute named Jed who became an offscreen celebrity.)
The film is ultimately schmaltzy, but also gutsy in a lot of unexpected ways. It notably pits Natty against a litany of evil grownups, and emphasizes that her world is kind but predatory and unpredictable. Instead of portraying a loving family bond as a natural byproduct of a humane and benevolent world, as is usually the case in Disney films, The Journey of Natty Gann portrays human connection as a solace worth fighting for — and not always a dependable one.
Upon its release in 1985, The Journey of Natty Gann received both reluctantly polite and openly snide critical reviews that bely the cult following it’s since gained, and the renewed love modern critics have found for its endearing performances, its gorgeous cinematography, its truly great girl-meets-dog friendship, and its unusually tough main character. To me, growing up in a world where Disney heroines were always soft and uniformly feminized, Natty’s drab, androgynous clothes and tough exterior were revelatory and relatable — a kind of tomboy chic that held as much magic for me as a genderqueer pre-teen as any fairy tale Disney ever animated. When I first started writing stories, my heroines all dressed in drag and wore baggy coats and newsboy hats — a fictional army of Natty Ganns embracing their outcast status and inspiring a journey of my own. —Aja Romano
Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends (1981)
The person I am today, for better and for worse, was formed by a combination of influences: My parents and siblings, being the oldest child in my family, my nanny named Gloria, Brad Pitt in Thelma and Louise, and the ’80s cartoon Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends.
I first saw Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends in reruns in the late ’80s. The title is a little misleading, because Peter Parker a.k.a. Spider-Man’s “friends” are the two characters known as Firestar a.k.a. Angelica Jones and Iceman a.k.a. Bobby Drake. They seem to be his only friends, though occasional guest appearances by the X-Men and a couple of Marvel heroes are sprinkled throughout the series.
Spider-Man, Firestar, and Iceman are all college students by day — their college fashion sense is actually pretty neat — and costumed superheroes by night (and sometimes also by day). Spider-Man has the web-slinging powers of a spider; Firestar can control heat, microwaves, and fire; and Iceman, as his name suggests, has the ability to manipulate ice.
They also dispense life lessons about bullies and feeling like an outsider. One episode, “A Firestar Is Born,” details Angelica’s origin story of growing up with a bully named Bonnie who made her afraid of her power and afraid of being different. I remember that episode making me feel better about second grade.
But Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends isn’t limited to afterschool special territory — the trio takes on an array of villains, like one who lives in video games or one who plans to unleash a dinosaur army to destroy the earth. In retrospect, it’s not clear that the show’s powers that be were aware of the inherent campiness they were earnestly serving to kids. Watching the show as an adult unlocks a different level of entertainment than the one that was intended. And I’m so glad it’s back. —Alex Abad-Santos
Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995)
Disney knows how to force our tears out of us; just think about all those dead parents in the studio’s cartoons! While I wouldn’t call tragedies like Bambi and The Lion King treacly, a cynic could easily cast those weepy titles as nothing more than melodrama. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but it’s also not necessarily a good thing for those with less tolerance for tearjerkers.
The depths of Disney’s sad-or-sappy movie library have never been more obvious than with the launch of Disney+. Dumbo, Old Yeller, Homeward Bound, The Fox and the Hound — they’re all present and accounted for. And in the further reaches of the back catalogue is one of my favorite sad, arguably emotionally manipulative movies: Mr. Holland’s Opus.
It’s live-action, which makes it tougher to defend than many of its animated peers. (I find that human-led dramas are even more shamelessly sappy.) But Richard Dreyfuss somehow makes a very endearing lead as Mr. Holland, a composer who channels his failed career into a passion for teaching. The film follows him through decades of working with students who begrudgingly take up instruments and, thanks to his mentorship, learn to fall in love with music and performance as much as he does.
Obstacles like Mr. Holland’s rocky marriage and son, Cole, who was born deaf and is therefore unable to listen to his dad’s music, are obvious stabs at preparing the audience for the film’s emotional climax. (Mr. Holland does a sign language performance of John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy” at a school concert and just thinking about it breaks! My! Dumb! Heart!) But I cried every time I watched the film as a young person learning about the trials and errors of relationships and families and life pursuits. It’s almost 2.5 hours long, and its predictable twists make it a good background movie: Put it on while doing something else, and then perk your ears and stare at the TV all glossy-eyed during key scenes like the one where Mr. Holland grandstands about the importance of music performance or makes up with his doting wife after a fight.
I’ve seen Mr. Holland’s Opus maybe 10 times in the last 15 years, so I know exactly how his life pans out. That Disney+ makes his story readily available to both myself and anyone else seeking a melodramatic but touching flick is a welcome comfort. —Allegra Frank
Is Thumbelina a good movie? No, not even close. But in certain moments, it’s a beautiful movie — and as a case study in the great animation wars of the early ’90s, it can’t be beat.
Animator Don Bluth was a rising star at Disney during the 1970s. But in 1979, disillusioned with a corporate structure he saw as stagnant and moribund, Bluth left Disney to found his own animation company, Don Bluth Productions. There, he could abandon the classic Disney formula and make animated movies darker and moodier than anything Disney would ever consider touching.
Don Bluth Productions spent the next 10 years putting out increasingly sophisticated animated films, movies edgier and more exciting than anything Disney produced during that period: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven. But in 1989, Disney put out The Little Mermaid and launched the Disney Renaissance. And in the face of Disney’s creative rebirth, it rapidly became clear that Don Bluth Productions was about to become an also-ran.
Thumbelina was Bluth’s frantic response to the gauntlet that Disney’s The Little Mermaid threw down, and it’s not really successful. It’s a princess-centric fairy tale about a girl “no bigger than your thumb,” on a quest to reunite with her true love, a prince. And just to make it completely clear that the movie is cast in The Little Mermaid’s mold, Thumbelina is voiced by Jodi Benson, who also lent her shimmering soprano to Ariel.
Thumbelina doesn’t have the wit or the playfulness of The Little Mermaid. Thumbelina is a bit of a wet blanket of a character, and none of the song lyrics can hold a candle to the work Howard Ashman did in The Little Mermaid. But moment by moment, the animation is stunning: Take a look particularly at the scene in which the fairies perform “the gilding of the leaves” to usher in the fall, and the way plumes of golden light trail out behind them, illuminating the rich and endless twilight all around.
And as the byproduct of an independent animation studio fighting desperately against the Disney monolith, even while acceding to the formula Disney built, Thumbelina is fascinating — especially now that, with the advent of Disney+, Bluth’s great escape attempt has finally failed. Thumbelina belongs to Disney now. Que será, será. —Constance Grady
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