Underrated '80s Disney Movies That Really Take Us Back

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Vote up the forgotten Disney movies curious viewers should add to their queue.

When you've been around as long as Walt Disney Productions has and you've released as many films as the industry titan has, there are bound to be a few underseen gems in the mix. Even in the doldrums of the 1980s, a decade where the Walt Disney Company scrambled to survive and ended up bringing Michael Eisner and Frank Wells on board to save the House of Mouse, there are more than a handful of movies that have become underseen cult hits over the years.

Whether it is the big-budget animation of not-quite-classics such as The Black Cauldron and The Great Mouse Detective or underappreciated films forgotten to time like The Journey of Natty Gann and Never Cry Wolf, there is something for everyone here. Want an adventure film? There's Dragonslayer. Supernatural horror? Something Wicked This Way Comes fits the bill. Need a musical? Oliver & Company has Billy Joel and Bette Midler! So vote up the Disney flicks you remember loving from yesteryear you think modern audiences should check out.

  • Spurred by the unprecedented success of the Star Wars movies, 1980s cinema became defined by science fiction. Family-friendly hits like E.T. the Extraterrestrial and Back to the Future, R-rated thrillers like Aliens and Predator, and bonafide classics like Blade Runner and The Thing (in addition to the final two original Star Wars films) turned the ‘80s into the decade of sci-fi. Disney, as beholden to trends as every other Hollywood studio, got in on the action as well with releases like Tron, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and 1986's Flight of the Navigator.

    Flight of the Navigator is about a 12-year-old boy who is abducted by an alien race, travels 560 light-years away, and ends up with a telepathic link to a spaceship. It's pretty heady sci-fi for a kids' movie, and revisiting the film today is a real treat. While both the CGI and practical effects are quaint by modern standards, they were cutting-edge at the time of release and hold a retro charm that can't be denied. Oh, and the music by Academy Award-winning composer Alan Silvestri is a delightful mashup of traditional scores and ‘80s synth-heavy electronic pop. Will Bryce Dallas Howard’s Disney+ remake be able to live up to the legacy of the original? Only time will tell.

    3,662 votes

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  • The first thing that comes to mind when you hear “Walt Disney” is animation. Walt Disney Animation Studios kicked things off in 1937 with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and hasn't looked back since. The overall quality of the output may have waxed and waned over the years, but Disney has been synonymous with animation for almost a hundred years now. As such, it is never surprising when an animated Disney film ends up being a solid, well-made flick and The Great Mouse Detective certainly is that.

    Based on the Basil of Baker Street novels, The Great Mouse Detective is about a mouse who emulates Sherlock Holmes in every way possible, even living below the sleuth at 221B Baker Street in London, England. On its face, The Great Mouse Detective is a movie of simple delights. It's basically Sherlock Holmes for kids. Adult viewers, however, will get a kick out of all the Sherlock references and admire the craft on display. Also, The Great Mouse Detective served as the directorial debut for Ron Clements and John Musker, co-directors of unabashed hits like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Moana.

    2,492 votes

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  • 3
    2,367 VOTES

    It seems a little unfair that the infamous Disney Renaissance is considered to have begun with 1989's The Little Mermaid. It's true that Disney embarked on an age of unparalleled animated success beginning with Mermaid, but that makes it sound like 1988's Oliver & Company was a failure when it was anything but. It may not reach the heights of the greatest films Disney animation has to offer, but it is miles better than other Walt Disney Animated Studios offerings like Chicken Little or Home on the Range

    And, at the end of the day, the musical retelling of Oliver Twist did pretty well at the box office despite being released on the same day as The Land Before Time. You could do way worse than spending an hour-and-a-half listening to a Disney musical with performances from Billy Joel and Bette Midler. Throw in voice work from Cheech Marin, Dom DeLuise, and Robert Loggia as well and you've got a solid mix of star talent to boot. Besides, don't you love Disney animals?

    2,367 votes

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  • 4
    2,141 VOTES

    1985's The Black Cauldron is best remembered today for nearly signaling the end of Walt Disney Animation Studios entirely. A tumultuous five-year production process saw the budget skyrocket and a box-office take of just over $20 million saw it recoup less than half of the reported cost. Disney was under new management at the time and, well, it's not like the animation arm had been lighting up the scene since Walt's untimely passing in the 1960s. 

    A few generations of kids missed The Black Cauldron entirely as Disney refused to put it out on home video all the way until 1998. Can you imagine any Disney film being withheld from home release for 13 years nowadays? Today it stands as a relic of Disney Animations' dark age. A time when all bets were off and musicals were passé. The Black Cauldron can feel a bit disjointed as a result of its roller-coaster production process, but it is absolutely exhilarating at points. Besides, it's narrated by John Huston! Its villain is voiced by John Hurt! How cool is that? Also, Eilonwy has to be one of the most underrated Disney princesses of all time.

    2,141 votes

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  • Be honest… you've never heard of 1985's The Journey of Natty Gann, have you? It's okay! It's not like Disney has been out there pushing this one with massive marketing campaigns. It's even sitting there on Disney+, waiting for you to watch it. Right now! A 1980s critical smash starring Meredith Salenger and John Cusack that tells a coming-of-age story during the Great Depression is just beckoning to be streamed by the masses.

    It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design. That's got to be worth something! Its supporting cast is headlined by Ray Wise, Lainie Kazan, and Scatman Crothers. They're all great! James Horner, the man behind the score of Titanic (among many others), did the soundtrack. He was an incredible composer! We're running out of ways of convincing you that this is an extremely solid film, you guys…

    1,388 votes

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  • It's somewhat of a miracle that 1983's Something Wicked This Way Comes even exists as a Disney product. After all, when you think of the House of Mouse, do you think of “dark fantasy”? Not particularly, right? Even when Disney does venture into the macabre, it's for something like The Haunted Mansion theme park attraction, which is more tongue-in-cheek than genuinely scary. Couple this with an extremely troubled production where rewrites and reshoots were abundant and the fact that Something Wicked This Way Comes made it out into theaters becomes pretty amazing.

    With a screenplay by the great Ray Bradbury, adapted from his 1962 novel of the same name, Something Wicked This Way Comes is probably the darkest film ever made by Walt Disney Productions. It tells the story of two 13-year-olds and one of their fathers who stand up to the villainous Mr. Dark and his carnival of dark delights that feasts on the souls of innocent humans. An early scene-chewing performance from Jonathan Pryce as Mr. Dark is a standout, although the craziest thing about the entire movie is that Disney would lean into genuine horror like this. It may have a PG rating, but Something Wicked This Way Comes is not for little kids whatsoever. Throw in beloved actors like Pryce, Jason Robards, Diane Ladd, and Pam Grier, and you've got the bones of an underseen classic.

    1,470 votes