Safety will satisfy uplifting sports movie cravings.
Aside from Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar, classic animated films and live-action remakes, what else is there to watch Disney Plus? This list attempts to answer that by rounding up the less obvious picks peppered somewhere among the big hitters. (Anyone else think Disney Plus’ navigation menu could still use some work?)
Fingers crossed you’ll find a hidden gem or two to hit the spot.
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A biographical sports flick that hits all the uplifting notes. Safety is based on the true story of Ray McElrathbey, a freshman at Clemson University on a scholarship with the football team, the Tigers. But his fairytale takes a turn when Ray’s forced to smuggle his little brother into his dorm room and take care of him or lose him to the system. An inspiring story that hits the beats you expect, which makes it all the more comforting.
If you loved Inside Out, Soul is definitely for you. Another trip down existential lane, here Pixar explores what it means to live. Middle school music teacher Joe is on the verge of fulfilling his dream of becoming a professional jazz pianist, when his soul is accidentally separated from his body. In the strange land of The Great Before, he learns about his life’s purpose, passion and spark to live. The first Pixar film to feature an African-American protagonist, Soul is bursting with grand ideas, delivered in a colorful, inventive package. It does what Pixar does best: Keeps both kids and adults entertained.
Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made (2020)
One of the best original Disney Plus movies, Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made is as fun as its title suggests. Timmy Failure is an 11-year-old detective running his personal agency with the help of polar bear Total, his imaginary best friend. Being weird is something to celebrate in this delightful caper bursting with imagination.
Black Is King (2020)
Nearly single-handedly leading the rise of the “visual album” (The Beatles started it all the way back in the ’60s), Beyoncé and her latest, Black Is King, melds together just that: stunning visuals and music from the tie-in album she curated to the recent The Lion King. A “love letter to Africa”, the film’s story is told with the help of some of today’s outstanding black artists, including Beyoncé, who directs as well. With unbelievable cinematography, a score featuring traditional African music, instantly iconic costume design and powerful cultural themes, every second of this personal work of art needs to be glued to your eyeballs.
Instead of hitting cinemas, the live recording of the glorious original 2015 Broadway musical Hamilton slid right onto Disney Plus. Drawing from hip hop and casting non-white actors as historical figures, it covers the life of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton after he arrives in New York City in 1776 and assists General George Washington during the American Revolution, up to his death in a dual with Vice President Aaron Burr. Proving the power of Broadway can translate to the small screen, Hamilton on Disney Plus is a welcome cheaper way to watch the revolutionary piece of American theater.
Apollo: Missions to the Moon (2019)
National Geographic’s documentary on the moon landing shines a light on the human achievement with rare archival footage and audio. Charting our journey to the moon across 12 years and 12 manned-missions, with insight into the astronauts, their families and the thousands of others involved, Apollo: Missions to the Moon provides a fresh, extensive look into the US space program.
If you’re a fan of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, then go behind-the-scenes with the late writer behind the lyrics of their iconic songs. Documentary Howard lovingly unfurls a portrait of Howard Ashman’s life and work, dotted with fascinating clips from the productions of those Disney classics. With music from Alan Menken, who scored the unforgettable songs with Ashman, Howard glows with love for the songwriter and lyricist.
Zootopia, also known as Zootropolis in some countries, has a little more bite than the average wholesome Disney film. It does a good job of explaining its unique world where carnivores and herbivores coexist. But optimistic police officer Judy Hopps still faces the prejudices that come with being the first rabbit in the big city police department. Zootopia adeptly delivers a message of inclusivity through a plot involving peaceful animals turning feral, plus an unlikely partnership between Judy and sly red fox Nick Wilde. Sophisticated as well as packed with pacy and memorable hilarity — the sloth DMV scene is a standout — Zootopia will keep everyone entertained.
Queen of Katwe (2016)
If you’re in the mood for a feel-good movie with a story of triumph over adversity, then Queen of Katwe will more than satisfy. The best part is that it’s based on a true story about the first titled female chess player in Ugandan chess history, Phiona Mutesi. Life in the Katwe slum is a constant struggle, but everything changes when she learns how to play chess. Starring Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo, Queen of Katwe is a winning checkmate.
Hidden Figures (2016)
20th Century Fox
If you’re partial to a true, uplifting story, Hidden Figures ticks all the boxes. The Oscar-nominated biopic brings to light the widely unknown achievements of the Black female mathematicians who were instrumental in helping NASA during the space race. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson are the names you’ll hopefully take away. The women are played by the always magnificent Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe. Classic and essential storytelling.
Pete’s Dragon (2016)
A remake of the ’70s live-action musical comedy, David Lowery’s version of the story about a boy who befriends a dragon drops the singing for a soulful, human tale. A forest ranger, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, does her best to protect the feral orphan boy and his dragon pal, before hunters capture the big green guy. With a dash of E.T. and The Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon is enchanting and sincere, with two souls trying to help each other at the heart.
The Jungle Book (2016)
This live-action/CGI adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s collection of stories brings the tale of an orphan boy living with animals in the jungle to life with a stacked voice cast, including Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson and Christopher Walken. Borrowing elements from the ’60s animated movie, The Jungle Book weaves together spectacular visual effects, musical numbers and a special performance from Elba as Shere Khan, enveloping you in its wondrously vivid world.
The Fault in Our Stars (2014)
The movie that kicked off a rise in sad teen romances. Based on John Green’s hit novel, The Fault in Our Stars follows Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 16-year-old cancer patient who meets the charming Augustus Waters at a support group. Watch the two fall in love over a shared book obsession that leads them on an adventure all the way to Amsterdam in search of a reclusive author. You’ll laugh and weep in equal measure, thanks to transcendent performances from Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort.
A black-and-white homage (and spoof) of old horror movies, Frankenweenie tells a charmingly simple story: A boy named Victor tries to bring his dead dog back to life. Using stop-motion and a host of Tim Burton cast favorites, including Winona Ryder, this take on Frankenstein is a classic Burton oddball story, brought to life with heart, beautiful visuals and a palpable boyish enthusiasm.
Yep, there are about 100 more Avatar movies on the way, but why not rewatch the original that blew everyone’s minds when it came out in 2009 with its insane technical breakthroughs in special effects? The human race invades Pandora and its indigenous Na’vi in a misguided attempt to colonize the lush, habitable moon. Aside from the cardboard cutout characters and obvious A to B script, James Cameron’s epic remains undeniably sensational to this day.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)
The first in the modern adaptations of C.S. Lewis’ fantasy books is the strongest in the trilogy, capturing the wonder and magic of discovering a fantasy world inside a wardrobe. The Pevensie children encounter Tilda Swinton’s White Witch, James McAvoy’s Mr. Tumnus and Liam Neeson’s Aslan as they help protect Narnia from evil. Standing in a snowy swirl of choral music and impressive visual effects, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is big, moving family adventure.
This little gem from none other than Trainspotting director Danny Boyle is filled with eccentric flourishes. Damian is a 9-year-old in the north-west of England who, while playing beside the train tracks, literally sees a bag of money drop into his life. While the kind-hearted and religious Damian donates to the poor, his acts of kindness lead to complications. This unusual kids movie with unusually deep ideas is a total charmer.
A faithful adaptation of Louis Sachar’s YA novel, Holes saw a fresh-from-Even-Stevens Shia LaBeouf take on one of his first major film roles. Stanley Yelnats IV’s family is cursed to the point Stanley is wrongfully convicted of stealing a pair of sneakers and sentenced to time at a juvenile detention camp… where they dig holes in the desert. Along with an immense cast, including Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight and Patricia Arquette, Holes has a visual and thematic sophistication you might not expect from a teen movie.
Freaky Friday (2003)
Mary Rodgers’ novel about a mother and daughter who switch bodies is so good Disney has adapted it three times. The third, starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsey Lohan, charms in large part thanks to Curtis showing off her sparkling comedic talent outside doing her Halloween thing. Watch out for the scene where Mom torments her thoroughly confused son.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Yep, it was based on a Disney theme park ride, but the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie in the ballooning franchise remains its best, in particular for introducing Johnny Depp’s eccentric Captain Jack Sparrow. Sparrow and blacksmith Will Turner attempt to rescue the kidnapped Elizabeth Swann from cursed pirates who become undead skeletons at night. A pure blockbuster buoyed by Depp’s comedic brilliance, The Curse of the Black Pearl makes a pirate’s life look enthralling.
10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
A modernization of The Taming of the Shrew, 10 Things I Hate About You retells Shakespeare’s comedy in a late-’90s American high school setting. New student Cameron attempts to convince Patrick to date the antisocial sister of the girl he fancies, in order to get around their father’s strict rule on dating. Fueled by the late Heath Ledger’s pure charm, with a clever script and an overall buzzing spirit, 10 Things I Hate About You is a cut above your average high school movie.
The Straight Story (1999)
A road trip film directed by David Lynch? Based on a true story of a World War II veteran who drives across Iowa and Wisconsin on a lawn mower? The Straight Story is sublime, from its realistic dialogue, burning orange Midwestern landscapes, to the warm characters who care for the elderly Alvin Straight. One of Lynch’s greats.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
While Tim Burton didn’t write or direct The Nightmare Before Christmas, it’s embroidered with the darkest and scariest objects of his imagination. Jack Skellington, the king of “Halloween Town”, stumbles through a portal to “Christmas Town” and gives celebrating the holiday a go. With music from Danny Elfman and stunning stop-motion animation, The Nightmare Before Christmas is one of Tim Burton’s most original, daring feats.
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
One of Tim Burton’s most personal works, Edward Scissorhands is a modern fairy tale zapped to life with Burton’s gothic flair and big heart. An artificial man with scissors instead of hands is taken in by a suburban family and falls in love with their teenage daughter. The surrealism and comedy found in the suburbia come in stark contrast with Edward’s haunting castle — a testament to Burton’s striking imagination, with added soul from Johnny Depp’s outsider. Completely enchanting.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
The man behind Back to the Future brought his originality to Who Framed Roger Rabbit, set in a 1947 version of Hollywood where cartoon characters and people co-exist. Robert Zemeckis’s setup is both simple and touching: A private investigator attempts to exonerate Roger Rabbit, a “Toon” accused of murdering a wealthy businessman. Not only entertaining, but a technical breakthrough in modern American animation, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is one to marvel at.
The Princess Bride (1987)
If you’re not still quoting Rob Reiner’s classic adventure movie that came out over 30 years ago, it’s time for a refresher, so you can whip out, “Inconceivable!” once in a while. Farmhand Westley must rescue his true love Buttercup from Prince Humperdinck. A fresh take on the damsel-in-distress story, The Princess Bride is the definition of a postmodern fairytale, with a little good old-fashioned swashbuckling thrown in.
The Journey of Natty Gann (1985)
Starring a young John Cusack, The Journey of Natty Gann depicts life in ’30s Chicago during the Great Depression. The titular Natty Gann, a tomboy played by Meredith Salenger, embarks on a cross-country journey to find her father, riding the rails and meeting interesting characters on the way, including a wolfdog (a dog-cross-wolf). With superb lead performances and portrayal of Depression-era life, The Journey of Natty Gann is an ’80s gem worth checking out.
Ron Howard’s rom-com about a man who falls in love with a mermaid scored an Oscar nom for its screenplay — and rightly so, with its perfectly warm, glowy comedy letting stars Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah do their charming thing. Splash is pure comfort viewing with the added fun fact that Hannah’s mermaid tale was designed by visual effects artists to be fully functional.
The Sound of Music (1965)
The iconic songs, Julie Andrews and that famous opening scene in the hills should instantly stir up the childhood joy of watching The Sound of Music. Andrews’ vibrato alone could shake loose lyrics from your brain like: “Doe, a deer, a female deer/Ray, a drop of golden sun.” If you didn’t read that in the way it was sung, it’s time to crack open this enduring classic again and spend a few verses with the seven von Trapp children and their music-loving governess.
That Darn Cat! (1965)
This comedy thriller is about, yep, a mischievous Siamese tomcat, with bank robbers and a kidnapping thrown in for good measure. Sisters Inky and Patti live with their adventurous cat (named Darn Cat or DC), who loves to wander around town, until one night he comes across a bank employee being held hostage. This whimsical novelty might not be the most sophisticated detective story, but with entertaining gags and a stunning performance from our feline hero, it’s a classic Disney charmer.
Mary Poppins (1964)
If you haven’t watched the original Mary Poppins in a while, then prepare for Walt Disney’s crowning live-action achievement to envelope you with its bucket load of sugar once more. With sumptuous sets, indelible songs and overall wonder, Mary Poppins is just about as perfect as its magical titular nanny, who descends from the clouds holding an umbrella to help bring the Banks’ family closer together.
The Parent Trap (1961)
Before Lindsay Lohan made her film debut in the remake of this rom-com, Hayley Mills starred in The Parent Trap, playing both twin sisters on a quest to reunite their divorced parents. A flick that speaks to both adults and kids, the original The Parent Trap thrives on its relatable family dynamic, charming characters and well-timed gags, even if it doesn’t break any new ground.
Old Yeller (1957)
Considered one of, if not the best, movie about a boy and his dog, Old Yeller will emotionally cripple you if you relate to losing a pet best friend. Still, this culturally significant film is one to absorb for many reasons, with its family-friendly coming-of-age story about a boy and his stray dog in post-Civil War Texas.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
Adapted from Jules Verne’s novel about a giant sea monster attacking ships in the Pacific Ocean, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is best known for, among other things, a fight with a giant squid. Not to mention the superb James Mason as Captain Nemo, the likeable anti-hero and commander of advanced submarine, the Nautilus. Considered an early precursor of the steampunk genre, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a voyage you can’t pass up.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Is this the best ever Christmas movie? Whether it takes that mantle or not, the original Miracle on 34th Street is a forever holiday favorite, practically glowing despite being in black-and-white. A New York department store Santa Claus claims to be the real Santa, infecting shoppers with Christmas spirit and destroying the cynicism of anyone who stands in his path. This aggressively delightful movie is a must for your stocking later in the year.
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