As a movie studio, The Walt Disney Company comes with a lot of baggage, especially when analyzing their almost century worth of output through a contemporary perspective. At the same time though, for much of their history Disney’s work is synonymous with childhood. The images flashing on the screen conjure the whimsy and nostalgia of youth. After all, the company wasn’t always fighting to buy up all the “intellectual property” they could get their hands on.
Like so many others, Disney was a large part of my childhood. Initially, of course, it was thanks to the resurgence the studio enjoyed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Before long though, I found my way to their early work and absolutely fell in love.
So, I wanted to take some time and deep dive into my Top 5: Favorite Nostalgic Disney films!
5.) The Parent Trap (1961)
I suppose I hold both the 1961 and 1998 versions of The Parent Trap in high esteem. However, first and foremost in my heart is the first film, starring Hayley Mills, Brian Keith and Maureen O’Hara. The story is a cute one following a pair of twins separated at a young age, when their parents (Keith and O’Hara) divorce. When the girls turn thirteen they end up being sent to the same summer camp (it seems, their parents still think alike) and each quickly learns the other exists. They soon engage in an elaborate ruse to get their parents back together. They’ll switch places!
Thinking back on it, The Parent Trap is one of the first live action movies from Disney’s Golden Age I remember watching and it was also the film which propelled me into the studio’s other works of the time.
I revisited The Parent Trap occasionally over the last number of years and quickly discovered how much it changes with the perspective of age. As a child, my world obviously revolved around Mills and her brilliant performance. I wanted to be Sharon… complete with Grandfather Charles Ruggles.
Lately though, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the grown-ups, particularly Brian Keith. (My complicated thoughts on Joanna Barnes’ Vicky is another essay on its own). As a child, it’s so easy to read the characters particular one way… the boring old people. However, it soon becomes clear these adults aren’t the “grown-ups” you see as children. Mitch and Maggie are just two kids who married young, had twins and are just trying to live their lives. All of a sudden, The Parent Trap takes on a whole new meaning.
The Parent Trap is available to stream on Disney+.
4.) Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
I spoke of my love for Swiss Family Robinson in December when I celebrated Tommy Kirk‘s birthday here on Ticklish Business. The 1960 classic is based on a novel by John David Wyss and follows a family who find themselves shipwrecked after a violent storm. The movie features a talented cast led by John Mills, Dorothy McGuire, James MacArthur, Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran.
Aside from its novel source material, Swiss Family Robinson was brought to the big screen in 1940 and later as a TV movie in 1958. However, the 1960 version, with all its Disney glitz and glamour, stands as the essential take on the story. The high value production looks flawless, easily capturing not only the whimsy of the story, but at the same time, the tension and the uncertainty of this family’s situation.
Coming squarely in the middle of Disney’s Golden Age, Swiss Family Robinson is an essential for fans of all things Disney. There is a sense of joy and nostalgia deeply rooted in Swiss Family Robinson which is so prevalent in all of Disney’s work during the era, from the other films and television, to even the parks. Swiss Family Robinson is a definite throwback, but it is a fun one.
Swiss Family Robinson is available to stream of Disney+.
3.) Peter Pan (1953)
Disney’s bread and butter for much of their life span has been animation. In truth, I’m surprised this is the first animated feature to make this list. So many of these films are all-time classics which have lived on for decades and are sure to be with us for many more.
It goes without saying Peter Pan does have its struggles when viewed through a contemporary lens (as many of these films do). These issues have been discussed and should continue to be examined. These works are historical documents and these depictions will never be right; however, understanding this is important to viewing these movies as the historical artifacts which they are.
Peter Pan enjoys the staying power it does thanks to the movie’s ability to capture the sense of wonder inherent in childhood. While so many of Disney’s works from this era feel like story books brought to the screen, there is something in Peter Pan which pushes it a step further. It comes alive on the screen and transports viewers to Neverland. You aren’t just watching what is happening to Cinderella or Lady and the Tramp, you actually travel to Neverland with Wendy, Peter and the Lost Boys.
Peter Pan is currently streaming on Disney+.
2.) The Rocketeer (1991)
Coming in 1991, The Rocketeer is a great deal newer than the rest of these picks; however, this glossy superhero story is a joy and certainly earns a place next to the well-remembered hits of Disney’s Golden Age. Justice for The Rocketeer!
The Rocketeer hit theaters at the peak of Disney’s cultural reawakening during the 1980s and 1990s. The film follows a stunt pilot in 1930s Hollywood who stumbles upon an experimental jet pack and uses it to become the super hero Tinsel Town didn’t know it needed… much to the annoyance of his “dress extra” girlfriend. Billy Campbell stars in the movie opposite Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin and Timothy Dalton.
The Rocketeer is one of the movies I credit with turning me into the film historian who waxes nostalgic before you. I was six years old, I didn’t know what I wanted with life, but I knew I wanted to go there (Hollywood in 1938). The beautiful period piece was a dominant part of my formative years and continues to be one of my favorites to this day.
In The Rocketeer, director Joe Johnston captures a beautiful and idealistic sense of nostalgia which shines through on screen. This movie is hopeful, earnest and demonstrates such a pure sense of wonder, that it could have easily come out of Disney’s Golden Age… hence its inclusion on this list.
The Rocketeer, like the others on this list, streams on Disney+.
1.) Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Alright, last but definitely not least, we have the movie I’ve declared the most beautiful to come out of the Disney establishment, the 1959 classic, Sleeping Beauty.
Sleeping Beauty is one I remember watching a lot when I was young. In fact, there might be pictures floating around of yours truly dressed up as Merryweather for one of my first Halloweens. Like the other movies I’ve mentioned, Sleeping Beauty is a film which not only stuck with me, but also evolved thanks to age’s changing sensibilities.
It’s easy to write off animation as “kids films”; however, in the case of Sleeping Beauty, it’s a bit more of a challenge. When I revisited the work into my twenties, I discovered that the fun and entertaining feature I loved as a child is a piece of art. In fact, I’d argue that the work on Sleeping Beauty shows the still young team at Disney reaching a pinnacle of storytelling. Sure, movies like Fantasia are visual marvels, but Sleeping Beauty reaches new levels of not only visual storytelling, but also in its narrative thanks to a host of fun and likable characters.
Sleeping Beauty is available to stream on Disney+.
The Walt Disney Company holds a special place in the hearts of many, for a number of different reasons. With a history as long and varied as theirs, no single person’s list of favorites would look exactly the same. That’s part of the fun of it, Disney means something slightly different to everyone.
What are your favorite nostalgic Disney films? Shout them out in the comments.
Podcaster, film historian, and general lover of all things classic film and television. Studying the contributions of women behind the camera in classic television.
You can find me on Twitter @kpierce624!