The movie enjoyed near-universal acclaim upon its release 50 years ago this week (on August 27, 1964). It went on to be nominated for 13 Oscars, including Best Picture, and it won five of them, including Best Actress for film-newbie Julie Andrews, in the role that has defined her career ever since. Over the past five decades, "Mary Poppins" has become not only a beloved staple that seemingly every kid has watched, but also proof that the Walt Disney studio could make family-friendly live-action movies that were every bit as artistically worthwhile as Disney's landmark animated features.
Today, the Disney brand has grown to enbrace movies for grown-ups (released under such imprints as Touchstone), the Pixar line of computer-animated features, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe that encompasses "Guardians of the Galaxy," "The Avengers," and all related costumed comic-book characters. Still, the word "Disney" instantly brings to mind family-oriented features, usually animated, from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" to "Frozen." But as "Mary Poppins" proved, the live-action films released under the Walt Disney banner deserve recognition, too. Here are 30 of the best ones, films designed to delight generations of young viewers and their parents.
Gallery | The 30 Best Disney Live-Action Movies
- 30. 'Darby O'Gill and the Little People' (1959)
This Irish fantasy is stuffed to the gills with blarney and stereotypes. Still, it features a couple of winning performances. One is Albert Sharpe's as the title character, a wily codger who matches wits with the king of the leprechauns. (The forced perspective effects that put Darby in the same frame as the wee folk are surprisingly effective.) The other comes courtesy of the pre-fame Sean Connery, as the singing swain who courts Darby's daughter. Sounds silly, but the rugged charm on display here is what earned him the role of James Bond.
- 29. 'Tron' (1982)
The plot, in which video game designer Jeff Bridges finds himself trapped in his own creation, is nothing to write home about, but the execution is still eye-opening more than three decades later. The pioneering use of CGI effects looks charmingly retro now instead of state–of-the-art, but it's still visually striking.
- 28. 'The Muppets' (2011)
Disney actually started distributing the Muppets' movies with 1992's "Muppet Christmas Carol," but the Jason Segel reboot was the first one made after Kermit & Co. became Disney's intellectual property. Writer/star Segel's goal was to recapture the feeling of the pre-Disney Muppet films he'd loved as a kid, and the result is, like "Enchanted," a winning send-up that mocks because it loves. It helps that "Enchanted" star Amy Adams is along for the ride. Segel's let's-get-the-band-back-together plot puts too much focus on the movie's meta-narrative (yes, it's been a long time since the Muppets were movie stars; will anyone today still want to see them?), but it's so great to have them back that it hardly matters.
- 27. 'The Apple Dumpling Gang' (1975)
Disney made a number of Western comedies in the late '70s, but this initial one is the best. It's about three orphans who strike gold, only to learn that their problems are just beginning. Bill Bixby and Susan Clark are along for the ride as romantic leads, but the movie really belongs to Tim Conway and Don Knotts, who make a classic comedy duo as a pair of incompetent outlaws.
- 26. '101 Dalmatians' (1996)
The live-action remake of Disney's animated classic isn't the greatest movie, but it's worth including just for Glenn Close's delicious, delirious performance as Cruella De Vil, the snarling fashionista with the two-toned hair who schemes to turn a giant litter of spotted puppies into a fur coat. Watch for Hugh Laurie (not yet famous in America as brainy TV doctor Gregory House) as a dim-witted henchman.
- 25. 'The Black Hole' (1979)
The first Disney movie ever to earn a PG rating is this intense, scary sci-fi adventure of space explorers who encounter at the edge of a black hole a lost ship, run by a mad scientist (Maximilian Schell) and a menacing robot. Seen by many at the time as a "Star Wars" ripoff, the movie today seems more akin to "2001: A Space Odyssey," especially with its mind-twisting finale that dares explore the very limits of existence.
- 24. 'The Absent-Minded Professor' (1961)
Bumbling inventors are a staple of live-action Disney fare, from college whiz-kid Dexter Riley (played in three movies by a young Kurt Russell) to Wayne Sxalinski (Rick Moranis in the "Honey, I..." movies), but the first and best is Ned Brainerd, played with understated befuddlement by Fred MacMurray in a series of movies that started here. In this one, he invents flubber, a substance that can make cars fly and turn inept college hoopsters into basketball-dunking machines. Chaos ensues, and only the buttoned-down Brainerd can fix it.
- 23. 'The Shaggy Dog' (1959)
Disney has rebooted this franchise several times, but we'll stick with the original, black-aqd-white comedy about a teenage boy (Tommy Kirk) under a spell that keeps turning him into a fluffy-haired sheepdog at the most awkward moments. (Makeup and special effects are surprisingly convincing.) Generally considered Disney's first live-action comedy, this one throws in Cold War spies, girls (notably, Mouseketeer Annette Funicello), and broad slapstick, elements that would become Disney live-action comedy conventions over the years to come.
- 22. 'The Love Bug' (1969)
The unfortunate title suggests an STD, but it's a spirited comedy about Herbie, the Volkswagen Beetle with a will of his own and a need for speed. In this initial Herbie feature, he plays matchmaker between Dean Jones and Michele Lee. Most of the comedy comes from journeyman performers like Buddy Hackett (as the loopy mechanic who gives Herbie his name) and Disney regular David Tomlinson (as the snooty dealer who offloads Herbie but schemes to get him back once he becomes a racetrack sensation), but Herbie himself proves an astonishingly agile slapstick comic. There have been many sequels, a TV series, and a Lindsay Lohan reboot, but stick with this debut film, the last live-action movie overseen by Walt Disney himself.
- 21. 'Escape to Witch Mountain' (1975)
For kids, this is a good creepy sci-fi/horror tale that's scary but not too scary. Two young, orphaned siblings (Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards) who possess remarkable psychic powers go on the run from a tycoon (Ray Milland) who wants to harness their gifts for his own purposes. Turns out the only person who can help them is a curmudgeonly RV driver ("Green Acres" star Eddie Albert), who agrees to drive the kids to the title spot, location of an ancestral home they barely remember. As they try to piece together the nightmarish memories that explain their past, Milland's forces are closing in. This one spawned several sequels and a reboot starring Dwayne Johnson, but stick with the wide-eyed original.
- 20. 'Freaky Friday' (1976)
The 2003 Lindsay Lohan-Jamie Lee Curtis remake of the mom-and-daughter-switch-bodies comedy is good (Curtis is especially funny), but we'll give the edge to the original, which hews closer to the source novel (Mary Rodgers adapted the screenplay herself) and which features Jodie Foster at the height of her teen-tomboy appeal as the daughter-turned-mother and a fizzy Barbara Harris as the mom-turned-schoolgirl. Extra points for casting goofy John Astin, a.k.a. Gomez Addams, as the befuddled dad.
- 19. 'Something Wicked This Way Comes' (1983)
Ray Bradbury adapted his own novel into the screenplay for this fine, kid-appropriate horror movie about a carnival barker (Jonathan Pryce, in the film that put him on the map) who can grant wishes, but only with a Faustian twist. It's up to two small-town boys to put an end to Mr. Dark's reign of terror. Bradbury was reportedly unhappy with changes the studio made to his adaptation, including some flashy special-effects sequences (like a stunning spider stampede), but the film still holds up as frightening fable.
- 18. 'The Rocketeer' (1991)
Joe Johnston's adaptation of the 1982 graphic novel was overlooked upon its release, but today, this homage to the period in Hollywood and aviation history chronicled in Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator" plays as a delightfully retro adventure. Billy Campbell is a stalwart stunt pilot whose discovery of a jet pack turns him into the flying hero of the title. Jennifer Connelly is at her dreamiest as his girlfriend, a Hollywood ingénue. Timothy Dalton is aptly roguish as an Errol Flynn-type leading man who's actually a Nazi spy, and future "Lost" star Terry O'Quinn is a surprisingly sane and cogent Howard Hughes.
- 17. 'Remember the Titans' (2000)
For about a decade surrounding the turn of the millennium, Disney excelled at inspirational sports movies ("Cool Runnings," "The Rookie," "Miracle"), most of them (save the "Mighty Ducks" franchise) drawn from real life. The most beloved of these is "Titans," starring Denzel Washington as Herman Boone, a coach hired to integrate a Southern high-school football team in 1971, at a time when the Civil Rights movement was fracturing. Racial tensions are high, not just at the school but throughout the whole town, and it's up to Boone, with his no-nonsense emphasis on discipline and teamwork, to bring everyone together.
- 16. 'Old Yeller' (1957)
The ultimate boy-and-his-dog movie. Set in the pioneer past, the movie remains timeless today. It's certainly as bluntly effective a tearjerker as it was when you saw it as a child.
- 15. 'The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' (2005)
The first and best of the three (so far) adaptations of C.S. Lewis' fantasy series invites plenty of wonder and terror as four English kids hiding out in the countryside from the ravages of the Blitz find themselves in an even scarier world, the frozen police state run by Tilda Swinton's fearsome White Witch. Disney's Narnia is a lot like the Matrix: the religious symbolism is there, if you want to see it, but if you don't, you can simply enjoy the stories on the level of pure adventure. Bonus points for casting James McAvoy as the faun, Ray Winstone as the beaver, and Liam Neeson as lion king Aslan.
- 14. 'The Princess Diaries' (2001)
As in director Garry Marshall's "Pretty Woman" a decade before, you can practically watch a star being born before your eyes as the movie progresses. Here, it's Anne Hathaway, who transforms from gawky urban teen to international royalty under the tutelage of her regal grandmother, played by Mary Poppins herself, Julie Andrews. Hathaway remains refreshingly down-to-earth throughout, as if to suggest that any girl can be a princess; all she needs is self-confidence, poise, and a good eyebrow-tweezing.
- 13. 'Bedknobs and Broomsticks' (1971)
It's not as good as "Mary Poppins," a movie "Bedknobs" often blatantly steals from, but it still plays like an inventive blend of "Poppins," the "Narnia" movies, and the "Harry Potter" films. Angela Lansbury is a middle-aged, inept student of witchcraft; "Poppins" pop David Tomlinson is her equally clueless instructor. Together, along with three refugee kids, they share adventures involving a flying bed, an undersea kingdom of animated animals, and a unit of invading Nazi soldiers. Loads of fun, really.
- 12. 'Oz the Great and Powerful' (2013)
Made in the vein of Tim Burton's similar live-action re-imagining of "Alice in Wonderland," Sam Raimi's "Wizard of Oz" prequel offers a similar trip/nightmare. Yes, the production design and CGI effects are to die for, but the movie wouldn't work without James Franco as the mountebank who discovers in himself a capacity for heroism he never imagined he possessed, and a surprisingly scary Mila Kunis as his opposite, a good girl who discovers her own untapped potential for witchy villainy.
- 11. 'Alice in Wonderland' (2010)
Tim Burton's 3D sequel to Lewis Carroll's classic fantasy tale is perhaps his most visually striking movie; certainly, it's the most visually overstuffed and lushly colorful. Here, Alice is a nearly-grown and nearly-engaged teen (Mia Waskikowska) who follows the white rabbit back to the dream/nightmare realm because she has some unfinished business (childhood baggage, if you like) before she can move on and forge her own path as an adult woman. Top-billed Johnny Depp lends some surprising depth to his Mad Hatter, but the movie really belongs to Wasikowska and to Helena Bonham Carter as the comic, capricious Red Queen.
- 10. 'The Parent Trap' (1961)
The Lindsay Lohan remake from 1998 is pretty good, but it's hard to beat the charming Hayley Mills as the pair of twins who switch places in order to force a reunion between their divorced parents (future "Family Affair" star Brian Keith and a luminous Maureen O'Hara). Mills, who had been almost irritatingly perky as the relentlessly optimistic title character in Disney's "Pollyanna," shows off real range here; it's easy to believe she's playing two very different sisters.
- 9. 'Treasure Island' (1950)
Disney's first fully live-action feature was this stirring, fun version of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic pirate tale. Bobby Driscoll (who'd soon face off against Captain Hook as the voice of Disney's Peter Pan) makes a fine Jim Hawkins, but of course, Robert Newton steals the movie as a scenery-chewing Long John Silver.
- 8. 'Honey, I Shrunk the Kids' (1989)
Rick Moranis is yet another in Disney's long line of bumbling inventors; he's tailor-made for the part of a crackpot scientist whose shrink-ray inadvertently zaps his son and daughter (and two neighbor boys), accidentally forcing the wee foursome to fend for themselves in a suburban yard that's now a terrifying and vast jungle. Funny, scary, and clever.
- 7. 'Never Cry Wolf' (1983)
Disney has long excelled at both nature documentaries and scripted adventures in beautiful but forbidding landscapes that pit protagonists against the wild. This one combines both genres, telling the true story of Farley Mowat (future "Untouchables" star Charles Martin Smith), whose research of wolves and caribou in the Canadian tundra proved that the wolves actually played a beneficial role in the chilly region's ecosystem, and that the area's truly dangerous predator was man. Director Carroll Ballard, who displayed a unique flair for animal films with "The Black Stallion," outdoes himself here with this majestic, underrated gem.
- 6. 'Swiss Family Robinson' (1960)
The classic novel of a castaway family becomes a rousing adventure movie here. John Mills and Dorothy McGuire shine as the parents, but the real star of the movie is probably that treehouse, full of cleverly improvised labor-saving devices and booby traps. Who wouldn't want to live there?
- 5. 'Enchanted' (2007)
Before its release, "Enchanted" was seen as a big creative risk for Disney. A live-action spoof of Disney's many princess cartoon features? As it turned out, the movie was as much a loving tribute as a parody. It helped that Amy Adams (in her starmaking performance) played it perfectly straight as a fantasy-world princess trapped in modern-day Manhattan. Smart casting also included Patrick Dempsey (every bit the charming urban prince he is on "Grey's Anatomy"), "The Notebook" jiltee James Marsden (continuing his run as the Ralph Bellamy of our time), Susan Sarandon (playing against type as the villainous sorceress), Timothy Spall (as a typically bumbling henchman) and future "Frozen" star Idina Menzel as an urban princess who deserves a happily-ever-after of her own.
- 4. 'Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl' (2003)
There was a time when it seemed like Disney was bent on turning every Disneyland theme park attraction (the Country Bears, the Haunted Mansion) into a cheesy movie, but this one transcended its origins to become something weird and wonderful. Johnny Depp gets most of the credit, and indeed, the movie wouldn't work without his singularly strange Capt. Jack Sparrow, but director Gore Verbinski deserves his due for his inventive staging of the movie's swashbuckling action and supernatural scares. Alas, none of the sequels has been anywhere near as inspired, but this franchise-launcher still holds up well.
- 3. '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' (1954)
The Disney studio joined the big leagues of adventure film factories with this A-list adaptation of Jules Verne's visionary science-fiction story about a Victorian-era nuclear submarine. A-listers James Mason (as the bitter Captain Nemo) and Kirk Douglas (as rebellious sailor Ned Land) give the movie both pathos and muscle. Underwater adventure scenes (like the famous giant-squid attack) make Nemo's world a place worth finding.
- 2. 'The Straight Story' (1999)
Yes, David Lynch made a G-rated Disney movie. Even stranger, it's based on a true story. Richard Farnsworth (in his crowning performance) is Alvin Straight, a World War II veteran too old and frail to drive a car anymore and a man who's so determined to reconcile with his estranged brother in another state that he drives to see him on a riding lawnmower. In Lynch's hands, Alvin's trip becomes an epic quest and an inspirational spiritual journey, one that's otherworldly and dreamlike enough to remind you that it's a David Lynch movie.
- 1. 'Mary Poppins' (1964)
Actually, "Saving Mr. Banks" sheds a new light on this beloved classic. As an adult viewer, you can still appreciate all the magic that delighted you as a child – jumping into the chalk pictures, the tea party on the ceiling, the self-cleaning nursery, the dancing chimney sweeps, and those catchy Sherman brothers' songs that will be lodged in your brain forever. But you also recognize that P.L. Travers was right – it wasn't the kids who needed saving, but the parents, who are too preoccupied with grown-up trivialities to spend quality time with little Jane and Michael. The children just need Mr. Banks (David Tomlinson) to go fly a kite with them, but it takes him the whole movie to realize that he needs it too.