Dork ages seem to be an inevitable part of any long-standing media enterprise, and Disney was no exception. Some people call it Disney’s “dark age,” but that’s not the right name. “Dork Age” suggests adolescence, pimples, cracking vocal chords, awkward social skills. That’s what Disney had.
Disney’s Dork Age is simple to define. It begins after The Jungle Book (1967), which was the very last animated feature Walt Disney himself personally had a hand in. It ends at The Little Mermaid (1989), the mark which everyone agrees was a return to form. In between was mostly cold dead air. Walt Disney died in 1966, his brother Roy tried to take over but also passed away in 1971, and the company generally hit rock bottom for the next couple decades until it found its footing again during the Disney Renaissance.
The dates 1967-1989 also describe Generation X to an eerie degree, at least the period of time when Gen-X kids were in the age bracket where everyone expects them to be Disney fans. Bring up the subject of Disney around a Gen-Xer, and watch them cringe. The Present Author speaking as one, I not only have Disney PTSD, but I have to contend with shocked reactions all the time when people find out I don’t worship everything with Disney’s name on it.
You just had to be there during those years. Oh God, the stinkers! Everybody picks on the few animated features, and rightly so, but forgets the metric flippin’ TON of live action theater spam. Nobody remembers films like The Million Dollar Duck (1971), The World’s Greatest Athlete (1973), The Castaway Cowboy (1974), The Cat from Outer Space (1978), Unidentified Flying Oddball (1979). Even the titles alone sound like ashes raked from the floor of the hell where muses of inspiration are condemned to eternal suffering.
These go on forever! Two whole decades of celluloid diarrhea. And now you know why Gen-X is a little grouchy about Disney during their childhoods. Baby Boomers got Sleeping Beauty Disney. Millennials got Lion King Disney. Gen Z is getting Marvel and Star Wars Disney. Generation X got The Devil and Max Devlin (1981) Disney, with Bill Cosby playing Satan. Aged dandy, didn’t it?
But let’s look on the bright side, however narrow it is. There are a few underrated gems that are fondly remembered from these years, so let’s give them their due.
Hot wheels BCJ94 1963 Volkswagen Beetle The Love Bug Herbie #53 Elite Edition 1/18 Diecast Car Model by Hotwheels
Probably the weakest movie on this list, but The Love Bug (1968) just barely holds up as a forgivable Disney Dork Age movie. At the time, mind you, it was the biggest hit Disney had had in years, so they churned out several sequels which all did worse. Dean Jones, Buddy Hackett, and David Tomlinson were in almost every Disney Dork Age live action movie, but not together as they are here. At least the car is cool, and the story was one time when Disney tried to reach for a little bit of metaphysical Zen in an imaginatively told story. Just gawp in amazement as a jealous Volkswagen wrecks a Lamborghini:
Bonus Buck: If you ever need help identifying a car in a movie, head for the Internet Cars Movie Database. You’re welcome.
DIAMOND SELECT TOYS The Black Hole: Maximilian & V.I.N.C.E.N.T. Vinimate 2 Pack
Critics now point to The Black Hole (1979) as an example of Disney at its darkest and cite it among Disney’s failings. Can you believe their nerve? The Black Hole was among the greatest things Disney did during the Dork Age. Their response to Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey was to summon up a Jules-Verne-style space adventure straight out of the Golden Age of Sci-Fi. The movie looks amazing now in a retro way. It also gives us one of the scariest AI villains in film history with Maximilian, a shiny red nightmare who kills people by disemboweling them with a spinning razor. Give Disney credit, a movie with grim feelings is better than the lifeless chum they were pumping out otherwise.
Funko Popeye Pop Vinyl Figure (Specialty Series)
Yeah, everybody forgets Popeye (1980) was a Disney movie! Albeit, it was actually distributed by Buena Vista and Paramount, but Disney produced it. Even though this movie has a cult following to this day, you still have to admit its flaws. Director Robert Altman was determined to include the entire Popeye universe in one movie, which means inhaling the length of E.C. Segar‘s Thimble Theater comic strip from 1919. The result is a cluttered, cram-packed, confusing mess. Audiences who grew up on Popeye cartoons, featuring a cast they could count on their fingers, were bamboozled to be confronted by the multitude of obscure characters. Imagine doing the first Smurfs movie and including the entire run of Johan and Peewit. Nevertheless, the staggering amount of work they put into Popeye charms you with its sincerity, along with the genius casting of Shelley Duvall and Robin Williams.
TRON Select Series 1 Figure ASST
The only way you could argue that Tron (1982) doesn’t belong on this list is that it’s not the least bit forgotten today. Small wonder, it was Disney’s most outstanding achievement for the better part of two decades. For once, instead of chasing other production company’s taillights, Disney got ahead of the curve, jumping on the video game arcade trend still in its infancy then. Then they created a knockout production of visuals and a stunningly original story for the time. You can show any still from this movie today and have it be instantly recognized. Only Tron looks like Tron.
Here’s Siskel & Ebert’s hot take from 1982:
WALT DISNEY Golden RETURN to OZ PAPER DOLL BOOK (UNCUT) w Card Stock DOROTHY DOLL, Tik-Tok, SCARECROW, JACK PUMPKINHEAD & FASHIONS (1985 Western)
We’re sorry for the weak product pitch this time, but this is all the merch we could locate for the cult classic Return to Oz (1985). What a sad state of affairs, after the beautiful and bewitching spell of this movie. It was not “too scary” at all, but just the right amount of scary for the middle of the 1980’s dark fantasy style. Disney could have shrugged this duty off with a bright and cheerful singalong, but no. They gave us a head-switching witch, crazy maniacal wheelers, Jack Pumpkinhead before Jack Skellington was a thing, and the brilliant casting of a darker, gothier Dorothy with Fairuza Balk (The Craft (1996) !!! and I might add “!”). If you don’t have a crush on Fairuza Balk, no matter your gender preferences, just turn in your geek card now.
Funko Pop Disney: Black Cauldron – Taran & Horned King 2 Pack, Summer Convention, Amazon Exclusive
Oh dear. We have to include one animated feature, here, it’s Disney. Our selection for the honor of least smelly of the stinkers is The Black Cauldron (1985), remembered, once again, for being groundbreaking in how dark it was. Seeing a pattern here? It’s almost like Disney was down in the dumps about something. Despite the flaws (oh so many!) of this movie, you can easily vindicate it by peeking over the fence to The Secret of NIMH (1982) by ex-Disney-alumnus Don Bluth. See, NIMH was a serious, dark animated feature that everybody loved. But let Disney try that and it becomes known as the film that almost killed Disney! Yep, hard to imagine only four years separates this from The Little Mermaid.
Anyway, here’s the Nostalgia Critic to whine at you about it:
That was a short list, but for Disney’s Dork Age, it was surprisingly long. On a side note, while Disney was suffering through these years, Don Bluth’s studio had its prime years. Somebody remind us to talk some more about Don Bluth one of these days…