On this day in 1923, Walter Elias Disney and his brother Roy Oliver Disney founded the Walt Disney Company, and nothing was ever the same again. It’s easy to point to the impact of Disney when it comes to kids’ movies and animation, but the company’s influence goes far beyond Mickey, Minnie and all those animals that don’t like to wear pants.
In fact, the Walt Disney Company has its large, cartoonish fingers in all manner of pies. That Disney owns Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm is hardly news, but as the corporation behind ESPN and ABC, you’ve got Disney to thank for SportsCenter, Lost and Scandal, as well. As part-owner of A&E, you wouldn’t have Bates Motel or Duck Dynasty without Disney cash. And, as odd as it sounds, without Disney’s Hollywood Records subsidiary, you might not be able to get Queen records in the U.S. (We won’t even get into the company’s real estate holdings.)
But it’s in movies that the “other side” of the Walt Disney Company has had the most success: With studios including Miramax, Touchstone Pictures and Hollywood Pictures, Disney has been responsible for a surprising number of classic movies that you wouldn’t necessarily link to Uncle Walt. To celebrate the founding of one of pop culture’s ruling monolithic entities, then, here are ten movies that we have to thank Disney for — while at the same time being surprised that they even happened in the first place.
Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986)
So much of this movie — the first R-rated movie ever released by Disney (via its Touchstone Pictures shingle) — feels like a perfect time capsule of the 1980s, whether it’s the self-conscious warning against yuppie materialism as personified by Nick Nolte’s suicidal hobo, the soundtrack by former guitarist from the Police Andy Summers, or the fact that both Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Middler were considered leads for what is, at heart, a romantic comedy of sorts. Whether taken as a time machine or just on its own merits, it remains a surprisingly fun movie.
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Barry Levinson’s dramatization of the real-life experiences of Adrian Cronauer, a DJ for U.S. Armed Forced Radio during the Vietnam War might have been overpowered a little by Williams’ ad-libbed monologues, but the result remains one of Robin Williams’ finest movies, giving him the chance to indulge both his self-consciously zany side and the more subtle actor underneath. Add to that an amazing soundtrack and you’ve got one of the best movies of the 1980s, hands down.
Farewell My Concubine (1993)
The adaptation of Lilian Lee’s novel about lives disrupted by the Japanese invasion of China and subsequent Communist victory was shot by the Beijing Film Studio in China, but brought to the U.S. by the Disney-owned Miramax following its Palme d’Or win at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival. The movie ended up being released in two editions: a theatrical cut, which saw 20 minutes removed from the original, and then an “extended” DVD version which added them back in. Go for the second version — it’s the only version that really makes sense.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
There’s almost no need to explain anything about Quentin Tarantino’s classic follow-up to Reservoir Dogs, because you’ve doubtlessly seen it countless times. But just consider this: Christopher Walken’s speech about shoving a watch in his ass for two years? Uma Thurman snorting heroin and having to be revived by a shot of adrenaline to the heart? Everything to do with the gimp? All of that happened in a Disney movie.
Another 1990s classic of foreign cinema that reached U.S. shores as the result of Miramax, Danny Boyle’s adaptation of the Irvine Welsh novel introduced America to the seedier side of Scotland, the lure of a well-chosen soundtrack (Underworld’s “Born Slippy (NUXX)”? Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life”? Timeless stuff, even with the slightly-more-dated Britpop elsewhere in the movie) and leading men who’d end up playing Obi-Wan Kenobi, Sherlock Holmes and Rumplestiltskin over the next couple of decades.
From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
Before Robert Rodriguez settled into Sin City and Spy Kids, he made this almost-forgotten kitsch classic that teamed George Clooney, Salma Hayek, Harvey Keitel and Quentin Tarantino (proving that, as an actor, he makes a great director) in a horror comedy that can’t quite decide what kind of movie it wants to be (in a good way). Rodriguez remade it into a TV series last year that’s also available on Netflix, but this is a weird and wonderful movie that feels as if it was made to act as an ideal guilty pleasure stream twenty years later.
Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)
Coming from Disney’s short-lived Hollywood Pictures studio, John Cusack plays a hit man on the verge of a midlife crisis who makes the mistake of heading back to his hometown for the 10-year high school reunion. With Dan Aykroyd giving a rare post-Ghostbusters performance that doesn’t make you want to turn off the movie and Minnie Driver being charming as all hell, you can forget High Fidelity and Say Anything — this is Cusack’s best movie.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
Forget the careers of Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith and Steven Soderbergh — if there was any justice in the world, Disney’s ownership of Miramax would be celebrated for giving the world this amazing movie, in which Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore and George Clooney (who also directs) offer up career-best performances bringing the surreal almost-real life adventures of game show host Chuck Barris to cinematic life. Fast-paced, funny as hell and proof that audiences sometimes can’t see greatness when it’s right in front of their eyes (the movie bombed at the box office), Confessions of a Dangerous Mind remains an unrecognized classic.
Kill Bill (2003/2004)
Arguably Tarantino’s crowning achievement, the two-part Kill Bill melds all manner of influences from the notoriously eclectic writer/director’s worldview together into something that finally makes you realize that Uma Thurman was the action hero we’d been looking for all along. That he’s not tried to do a follow-up with Jennifer Lawrence as an adult version of the Bride’s daughter yet is clearly just a sign that he’s keeping something back for when he’s finished with all these westerns he’s currently into.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s modern parable about masculinity, greed and how weirdly magnetic Daniel Day-Lewis can be even when he’s playing a truly despicable character has been named as one of the best movies of the century to date by critics including Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers and Entertainment Weekly veteran Liza Schwarzbaum. It’s a beautiful, chilling monument to one man’s obsession with wealth and self-perception, which makes it a fine tribute to Uncle Walt on this most special of days. Just imagine that “it’s a small world after all” is playing in the background of all the scenes.
Extra Bonus Movie: Escape from Tomorrow (2013)
Not a Disney movie in the official sense — it was actually shot on location in Disneyland and Disneyworld without permission, and edited in South Korea to try and keep its existence a secret from the company — Randy Moore’s surreal, nightmarish horror flick about one man’s breakdown in the “happiest place on Earth” offers another take on the idea of the darker side of the Disney dream. You’ll never want to visit a Disney theme park again. Not that you necessarily wanted to in the first place.