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It's easy to say "Kids today don't know how good they have it!" but when it comes to the movies, it had never been, and never will be, as good as the '70s. Hollywood was changing, with the big studio epics fading and the New Hollywood crew, a group of fresh-faced film school kids with names like Spielberg, Coppola, DePalma and Scorsese showing up to revolutionize the industry. The "grown-up" box office was dominated by films like The Godfather and Jaws, while "old-school" titles like Tora! Tora! Tora! bombed. The old guard was being forced to make way for the new generation.
As a child of the '70s, you were that new generation, and that meant the studio that was the biggest name in family entertainment, that had always so carefully straddled the line between nostalgia and aspiration, was now trying to keep its balance on your shifting tastes. The studio's founder and chief creative vision, Walt Disney, had died in 1966, and his son-in-law Ron Miller was willing to try anything to keep the Disney magic alive for a new age. Meanwhile, a pair of new visionaries (whose work would later join the Disney catalog) were rising up with that "one little spark" of imagination that had always fueled Walt's work: a young filmmaker from Modesto, California with his eyes towards the stars, and a puppeteer from Greenville, Mississippi who would wonder aloud why there were so many songs about rainbows.
As a '70s kid, you lived through an incredible and exciting time in TV and movies, and while you can't go back to the days of bell-bottoms and The Brady Bunch, now with Disney+ you can recapture the magic of your childhood. For just $8 a month, you can dive into the expanded Disney catalog, including a treasure trove of titles from the '70s. Here, we'll take a look at some of the films and shows that helped shape a generation; not just the ones that got theme park rides or countless remakes, but some that you saw at that old dollar theater down the road and that lived forever in your heart. With a subscription to Disney+, you'll have access to it all; the big hits, the big swings, and even a cameo from Big Bird.
Here's some of the Mouse highlights for '70s kids looking to take a trip down memory lane:
For a company that built itself on the back of a cartoon mouse, it's surprising to think how little animation was produced by Disney in the '70s. Only three full animated features (The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Rescuers), two hybrid live-action/animation films (Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Pete's Dragon) and one compilation film (we'll touch on that later) were released that entire decade.
Of the original features from that era, our hearts belong to Robin Hood. Maybe it's the way the film's folksy music (sung by Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Roger Miller) meshes with the film's pencil-line-revealing animation technique. Perhaps its the warmth of the vocal performances, with The Jungle Book's Baloo, Phil Harris, returning once again as a bear, this time Little John, and the roguish bravado of Robin Hood being provided by Tony-winner Brian Bedford. There's even a little charm as an adult in spotting where animators reused scenes from other films, tracing over Baloo to craft Little John or repurposing Snow White's famous dance for Maid Marian. Whatever the reason, Robin Hood has held up over the years, serving like a soothing cup of tea for the nostalgic viewer.
Saturday mornings on ABC had a handful of "edu-tainment" interstitials that popped up between installments of Goober and the Ghost Chasers and Lassie's Rescue Rangers, but while The Bod Squad and Time for Timer may have blessedly escaped your brain, you'll never forget the melodies that went along with words like "A noun is a person, place or thing", "Three is a magic number" and, of course, "I'm just a bill".
Schoolhouse Rock! remains a masterclass in using catchy tunes to teach a lesson, as kids of the '70s and on learned about math, grammar and civics in simple three-minute ditties that stayed with them the rest of their lives. Schoolhouse Rock! joined the Disney family in 1996 when they acquired ABC, and even produced some new segments in the 1990s with updated lessons. With songs so informative and catchy that they were enshrined in the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry in 2018, you can now watch all of your favorite Schoolhouse Rock! segments exclusively on Disney+. And you should, because knowledge is power!
In her otherwise lukewarm review of The Island at the Top of the World, The New York Times' Nora Sayre made sure to note, "And the small children in the audience — who broadcasted their responses and opinions throughout — enjoyed the movie loudly." Well, if you were one of those kids who loudly enjoyed Prof. Ivarsson's adventures aboard Captain Brieux's iconic airship Hyperion, this recent addition to Disney+'s offerings is for you. And if you were somehow too busy to catch this in December of 1974, now's your chance to check out this bold attempt to recapture the proto-steampunk power of the studio's classic 1954 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (which is also available to stream on Disney+).
Now, as opposed to the aforementioned 1954 film, the special effects in The Island at the Top of the World aren't exactly cutting edge, nor are lead actors Donald Sinden and David Hartman (the latter of whom would serve as the first host of Good Morning America the following year) quite the powder kegs of charisma that James Mason and Kirk Douglas were. But as a film of its time, all of that adds a certain charm to this unabashedly sincere adventure film, which also boasts an incredible score by Lawrence of Arabia composer Maurice Jarre, and there's no denying the look of that airship has lived on in the imagination of every kid who caught this film when it was first released.
The 1970s were a time where genres that were once considered just B-movie fodder were getting taken seriously, particularly science-fiction and horror. A few years before, horror films like Halloween or sci-fi like Star Wars and Alien created a craze for suspenseful scares and space-age fantasy, Disney was actually ahead of the curve with this star-gazing escape film about two unique amnesiac orphans trying to find their way back home.
With a tone unique to Disney at the time (thanks to them stepping outside their usual stable of filmmakers to bring in Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry director John Hough), Escape to Witch Mountain features some incredible visuals, some pretty high stakes, suspense and dread, and an incredible cast including Oscar-winner Ray Milland, an ominous Donald Pleasance three years before his work in Halloween, and most surprising of all, future Real Housewife of Beverly Hills Kim Richards as telepathic twin Tia. Popular enough to garner a sequel, a made-for-TV threequel and a 2009 remake, Disney dabbled in other space-adjacent adventures like the adorable The Cat From Outer Space and zany Unidentified Flying Oddball (both on Disney+), but it never got as thrilling, imaginative or just plain cinematic as Escape to Witch Mountain.
Every generation has their comedy duo: Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, Burns & Allen. And if you were a '70s kid and a Disney fan, that meant Don Knotts & Tim Conway. The duo did only five comedies together, but for an entire generation, the pairing of The Andy Griffith Show's Barney Fife and The Carol Burnett Show's Mr. Tudball (amongst many others) meant guaranteed laughs.
We could have easily singled out The Apple Dumpling Gang or its sequel for this list (both of which are also on Disney+), but we landed on Gus for the veritable who's-who of "only '70s kids will know" celebs who pop up in this wacky comedy of a field goal– kicking mule. Aside from Knotts and Conway, there are hefty roles for The Mary Tyler Moore Show's Ed Asner as the owner of the fictional football team. the California Atoms, and Happy Days' Tom Bosley as a man out to sabotage said team. But keep your eyes peeled for familiar faces like Hogan's Heroes' Bob Crane, football legends Dick Butkus and Johnny Unitas, L.A. broadcasting legends Stu Nahan and Larry McCormick, and even a silent cameo from Richard Kiel the year before he'd break out as James Bond's fearsome steel-fanged foe, Jaws, in The Spy Who Loved Me.
Kurt Russell was ready to leave Dexter Riley behind by the mid-'70s, donning his once-titular tennis shoes for a final time in 1975 for The Strongest Man in the World (also available on Disney+). Though he'd return to the Disney fold in 1981 for The Fox and the Hound, by that point he was well on his way to action stardom. In the meantime, Disney had its sights set on a new young talent to lead their live-action output, Jodie Foster.
After making her film debut in Disney's Napoleon & Samantha in 1972, the studio offered Foster the challenging role of a young girl and her body-swapped mom in the now classic fantasy-comedy Freaky Friday. FF transcended the typical Disney comedy thanks to Golden Globe nominated performances by both Foster and Barbara Harris, and its genuine attempt to capture a generation gap that by the mid-'70s had become a chasm. The evergreen premise has led to the film being remade and reimagined countless times, but in no small part due to Foster's performance, the original has endured all these decades later. The film is even more remarkable when you realize Foster's Freaky Friday Golden Globe nomination was paired with an Academy Award nomination for a radically different role this same year: Iris, in the decidedly un-Disney Taxi Driver.
Fans of these funny felt vaudevillians have dreamed of this for decades: Finally, all five seasons of The Muppet Show are now in one place. The iconic show that entertained millions from 1976 to 1981, whose blend of wholesome and counter-cultural made anything seem possible, was for decades trapped in tumultuous red tape, making a proper home video or streaming release impossible (turns out Beatles songs are really hard to license. Who knew?). That is, until early 2021, when Disney stunned Fozzie fanatics everywhere by announcing that every season would be available on Disney+, alongside so much Muppet content from the decades since, from the Oscar-winning 2015 The Muppets to the new Emmy-winning incarnation of Muppet Babies.
What makes The Muppet Show stand out from, well, pretty much any other show is the way that it functions as a time capsule but is somehow timeless. One episode would feature an on-the-rise star of the '70s like Sylvester Stallone or Mark Hamill, the next a Hollywood legend like Roy Rogers or Edgar Bergen. Some jokes require an in-depth memory of ephemeral '70s songs and slogans, but the show's absurdist humor is eternal. For the first time since they aired, catch every episode of The Muppet Show, only on Disney+. It's worth it just to hear Debbie Harry of Blondie sing "Rainbow Connection".
Here's where we separate the true Mouse mavens from the Disney dilettantes. Sure, Disney+ is packed with all of the classics like Pinocchio or Dumbo, but if you're the type who clung to all your old clamshells and think "What do I need Disney+ for if I own all the movies?" Well, Disney+ has distinguished itself from other studio-based streaming services by digging far into its archives, pulling out deep cuts never before made available, like this 1977 Wonderful World of Disney episode. In it, The New Mickey Mouse Club, also dubbed the "Disco Mice", take a visit to the company's then-new East Coast vacation destination. But it's not the story or the characters that make this particular entry such a bizarro trip down memory lane.
In the age of 4K blu-rays and HD TVs, you probably haven't seen VHS tape tracking lines or crackling audio since The X-Files was on the air. But amazingly, while the newer titles on Disney+ like Frozen II or The Rise of Skywalker are presented in the most pristine 4K Ultra HD, The Mouseketeers at Walt Disney World was uploaded, fully and unedited, from a VHS recording of the original broadcast. And when we say unedited, that means unedited: the original commercials from that broadcast remain in the special. Yes, scenes of Lisa Whelchel (from The Facts of Life) and Billy "Pop" Attmore running around Walt Disney World are broken up by vintage ads for Shake and Bake and Meow Mix, just like it would have looked on your Sears Silvertone back then. So crack open a Space Food Stick while the Mouseketeers sing the "Pooh Polka," then wash it down with a Tab as they perform a delightfully cornball disco finale in front of Cinderella's castle. With more vintage content like this coming to Disney+ every month, you can really relive your childhood.
Remember that "compilation film" I mentioned up top? Well, it's sort of a trick question: Turns out The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is comprised of the three animated shorts Disney had produced in the late '60s and early '70s, including the Academy Award–winning Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day and Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, the last short Walt Disney himself ever produced.
By the mid-'70s, Winnie had become the newest icon of Disney's animated repertory, with an Oscar under his non-existent belt, a walking, talking, life-size character in the parks, and even a 1972 presidential campaign complete with campaign song. America had Pooh-mania, and Disney capitalized by cobbling together shorts that had played before films like The Ugly Dachshund (also on Disney+) and The Island at the Top of the World into a theatrical feature. Though it wasn't Disney's biggest hit of 1977, coming in behind titles like The Rescuers, Pete's Dragon and Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo (all also on Disney+), it's certainly had the most impact, spawning merchandise, theme-park rides, and even scoring the rare animated theatrical sequel with 2011's Winnie the Pooh, to say nothing of the many other animated films and series Pooh has spawned. If the words "Deep in the Hundred Acre Wood, where Christopher Robin plays..." put some warmth in your heart, don't wait another second to reunite with Pooh and the gang.
In the mid-'70s, USC wunderkind George Lucas had scored a from-out-of-nowhere blockbuster with his 1973 nostalgia-comedy American Graffiti and was preparing to start his next film. That's right, you know what it was called...Radioland Murders. No, really, Lucas planned for his American Graffiti follow-up to be a screwball comedy set in the world of old-time radio, while he tried to secure the rights to Flash Gordon for a future film. When it turned out super-producer Dino De Laurentiis was holding onto the rights with an iron grip, George decided to put all his energy into converting his Flash Gordon dreams into a new, original vision. A space fairy tale set a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
Knowing the history, and how close this movie came to not happening, or knowing that famous opening crawl wouldn't exist if not for the insistence of future Scarface director Brian DePalma (who wrote it himself as a favor to George), it feels like a miracle we ever got it. But even sitting in the theater in 1977, not knowing any of that, Star Wars felt downright miraculous. It's the movie that single-handedly changed the film industry — how stories are told, what audiences want, and most especially how special effects are done. Disney, who had initially turned down the opportunity to produce the film, tried to make their own Star Wars, the cult-classic The Black Hole (also on Disney+), before ultimately acquiring Lucasfilm in 2012. Now you can revisit the film that dominated your childhood imagination alongside the many other stories set in Lucas' remarkable galaxy, from The Mandalorian to Caravan of Courage, all in one place.
Disney's animation department was in a transitional state in the '70s. Walt's trusted "Nine Old Men," the original crew of animators who'd been with the studio from the start, were now in their autumn years. A new crop of animators had been brought onboard, young whippersnappers like Brad Bird (who later helmed The Incredibles and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) and Tim Burton, but they were far too green to take creative initiative.
But one visionary animator was confident enough to grab the reins of the drifting department: Don Bluth. The man who would later independently produce animated hits like Anastasia (also on Disney+) and An American Tail took on a story the studio had optioned years before, of a little boy and his donkey in Bethlehem and produced an animated short to play before the latest release of the studio's classic 1940 film Pinocchio. Rich with the kind of traditional, meticulous animation style and delightfully catchy tunes that had come to define the films of Disney's golden years, The Small One dazzled audiences and signaled a turn away from trying to be "hip" or "trendy" and a return to what had always served as the best motivation for Disney's animation: sincerity and heart. Now a holiday classic in many homes, it's worth revisiting this charming little short, in-between binges of Big Shot and WandaVision.
The idea of a "Muppet movie" was a huge risk for Henson. For starters, these characters had never interacted with the "real world" before. Aside from occasional appearances on Johnny Carson, the Muppets were confined to the highly controlled environment of the TV show's Muppet Theater. Now, Kermit and Co. had to function as believable beings in a fully real world. The endeavor could have imploded in a million different ways, but Jim Henson knew what would make this weird little work speak to not just you and your parents in 1979 but to contemporary kids...and their kids and their kids' kids for the rest of time. It wasn't about making a Muppet movie. It was about making a Muppet movie.
It's what Walt understood, it's what Lucas and Spielberg and every name you've read in here understood. It's why you're reading this article right now, why so many people are subscribing to Disney+, why this massive catalogue of titles it has is so much more than just words and images. The Muppet Movie understands that when you see a smiling Fozzie Bear on your screen, something lights up in you. You're in, as the song says, "the magic store." Its a wild romp, full of wordplay taken to the extreme ("the fork in the road"), fourth-wall-breaking absurdity and a slew of celebrity cameos. Bookended by a song the American Film Institute ranked as one of the 100 Greatest Movie Songs of All Time, The Muppet Movie earned a spot in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry in 2009, and a place in all our hearts whenever we first saw it. It speaks to what we love about movies and television, and why the many dreams and fantasies captured on film and waiting for you on Disney+ have the meaning to you that they do. Like Kermit says in that rainbow glow at the end of the film, "Life's like a movie, write your own ending. Keep believing, keep pretending."
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