Disney live-action films of the 1990s are often remembered for all the wrong reasons. It was the era of smart-mouthed kids, remakes of old TV shows (Inspector Gadget, George of the Jungle), The Mighty Ducks sequels, and other sports movies trying to recreate the success of The Mighty Ducks. Looking over the ‘90s, it is easy to skip over the live-action films altogether to discuss the animated features (Aladdin, The Lion King) and the rise of Pixar (Toy Story, A Bug’s Life). Skipping over these live-action films, however, means missing some important pieces in the company’s history and films that laid the groundwork for blockbusters today, both inside and out of the Walt Disney Company.
Good – The Rocketeer
Twenty years before Captain America, director Joe Johnston got the ultimate try-out for the job with the 1991 comic book adaptation The Rocketeer. Cliff, an ordinary American pilot, gets an extraordinary chance when he discovers a rocket pack. He transforms himself into a superhero, the Rocketeer, and fights Nazis. Trade out the rocket pack for super-soldier serum, and Cliff’s hero’s journey is almost identical to that of Steve Rogers.
While The Rocketeer was not a commercial success at the time, it has gained a following in the years since its release, and many of its stars have gone on to greater success in other projects in the Walt Disney Company, like Terry O’Quinn as John Locke in ABC’s Lost. It also allowed Disney to try out the superhero genre and prepared them for their acquisition of Marvel in 2009. Besides that, The Rocketeer is an entertaining movie with an excellent soundtrack by James Horner, and it has held up over time, something which can’t be said of most live-action Disney movies from this decade.
Best – Heavyweights
How is a comedy about fat camp representative of the best Disney live-action films had to offer in the ‘90s? Heavyweights was written by Judd Apatow, a man who has ruled the comedy genre since the mid-2000s. He has produced, written, or directed some of the biggest comedy hits of the past decade, and he created arguably one of the greatest TV series of all time, Freaks and Geeks. For kids who grew up in the ‘90s, this was their first introduction to Apatow and his lovable underdog protagonists, and when these kids were grown up and ready for R-rated comedies, Apatow had already made the transition with The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up.
Aside from a few soundtrack choices, Heavyweights does not feel dated in its humor or themes. If anything, its messages about body image, healthy living, and the complex issue of childhood obesity are more relevant today. On one end of the spectrum, there are Harvey and Alice Bushkin, played by Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara. They are a nice couple who clearly care about the campers, but they don’t really care if the kids make healthy life choices or not. All that matters is the kids have fun. On the other end of the spectrum is Tony Perkis, played to over-the-top campy perfection by Ben Stiller. He could not care less about the campers or whether they make healthy choices. All that matters is that the campers lose weight so he can sell his weight-loss program infomercial and get rich. Considering that The Biggest Loser just wrapped on its 15th competitive season, there is still plenty of money to be made today by selling weight loss promises to desperate people. The film’s ultimate message of healthy, sustainable life changes is one that society is still trying to learn today, and Apatow’s humor and heart make Heavy Weights a great comedy with a message instead of a heavy-handed PSA, no pun intended.
Worst – Blank Check
Disney’s critics often accuse the company of insidious marketing to children, pushing toys, princesses, and the Disney brand itself in shameful ways. In the case of Blank Check, those critics are absolutely right. Blank Check is 93 disgusting minutes of toys, fast food, junk food, electronics, video games, and consumerist garbage. The cherry on top of this vile, vomit-inducing sundae is a romance between a child and a grown woman. Children of the ‘90s will be tempted to check it out for nostalgia’s sake, but consider this a warning. Hot showers are encouraged immediately after viewing Blank Check to wash away the shame of spending a minute of precious life on this movie.
Honorable Mention – Cool Runnings
Cool Runnings gets an honorable mention for being a sweet, light-hearted Olympics film and for having one of the last performances by comedy legend John Candy. His presence elevates the film from a by-the-numbers sports film to a true nostalgic pleasure.
– Rachel Kolb