Confessions of a Hayley Mills Addict: live-action Disney classics worth obsessing over

Haley Mills and Haley Mills in "The Parent Trap"

I was raised by movie-buff parents who instilled in me a love of all things Disney. The films they watched as kids were on regular rotation in our household and we were usually first in line for any of their new releases. So when Editor-in-Chief Trista DeVries and I decided to focus on children’s film for January 2013, I started thinking about how very much I loved vintage live-action Disney films and how it might be a service-y thing to let people know that not all of Disney’s live action movies suck.   Initially I got really excited at the idea of creating a Top 10 list, but then I got worried because how would I ever narrow it down to such a short summary? After much deliberation over my DVD collection, I managed to come up with a lineup that I think will make for some great winter viewing, no matter your age.

Darby O'Gill and the Little People

Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959)

This is truly one of the best fairy tales ever (and incidentally my Dad’s favourite ““ Hi Dad!). A dashing young Sean Connery woos the daughter of local teller-of-tall-tales Darby O’Gill who’s recently captured the King of the Leprechauns and is trying to outsmart him into giving up the location of his gold. One of my most vivid movie memories ever was the first time I saw the awesomely cheesy (yet still kinda scary) banshee that appears near the end of the film.

 

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

This film is definitely right on the line of being a little too intense for children. Written by Ray Bradbury, SWTWC is an eerie story about two boys whose wishes are granted by a demonic circus ringmaster named Mr. Dark (why anyone would trust a guy with that name is beyond me). The film is filled with enough creepy characters, like the blind dust witch, and attractions (never will I enter a Hall of Mirrors again) to make any kid too scared to visit the next carnival that rolls into town.

 

Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins (1964)

This is one of the most beloved Disney films for good reason: Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, toys that put themselves away, a magic carpetbag, and infectious songs that get stuck in your head for days. If you haven’t seen this, stop reading right now, get in your car and go get yourself a copy. I guarantee it will make you want to chuck it all and become a one man band, or a dancing chimney sweep did I mention that Dick Van Dyke rules?

 

wild hearts can't be broken

Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken (1991)

The fascinating true story of Sonora Webster (Gabrielle Anwar), who starts out as a teenage runaway and ends up a performer in one of the Girl-on-a-Diving-Horse shows that were popular during the 1930s. The film also stars dreamy Michael Schoeffling (Jake from Sixteen Candles ) as the romantic lead and although it veers dangerously close to Harlequin Romance sentiment at times, it’s a sweetly nostalgic snapshot of the time period and of a strange sideshow act that has all but been forgotten.

 

The Moon Spinners

The Moon Spinners (1964)

Hayley Mills was the Queen of Disney for much of the ’60s and while not all of her films can be heralded as classics, they’re all equally fun to watch. In this one, Nicky Ferris (Mills) and her aunt (Joan Greenwood) travel to Greece and inadvertently get caught up in jewel theft and murder. Don’t you hate it when that happens?!

Return to Oz

 

Return to Oz (1985)

Beware the Wheelers! A young Fairuza Balk stars in this much darker–and sometimes downright scary–sequel to The Wizard of Oz . It’s chock full of fantastical characters from L. Frank Baum’s other OZ books like the aforementioned Wheelers, Jack Pumpkinhead, Tick Tock the robot bodyguard, and evil Princess Mombi who keeps a cache of heads on hand so she can change her look daily. The film is lush and plays out like a Grimm Fairy Tale come to life – if you’re equally as frustrated by the overly CGI’d (and James Franco-ed) look of the upcoming OZ: The Great and Powerful as I am, then at least take solace in the fact that there’s at least one other film out there (besides the original, of course) that does Baum’s works justice.

The Straight Story

 

The Straight Story (1999)

Not a family movie per se, but it’s definitely the only David Lynch film you should ever consider letting your kids watch. When Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth in an Academy Award-nominated role) hears that his estranged brother (Harry Dean Stanton) is seriously ill, he hops onto a lawn tractor (the only vehicle he’s legally able to drive) and starts the 300 mile journey to his bedside. It’s a road movie unlike any other that you’ll see and what makes it even more incredible is the fact that it’s an entirely true story.

 

Summer Magic

Summer Magic (1963)

Set during the heart of the ragtime era, this charmer starring Hayley Mills is a movie that I make a point to watch at least once a year. Mills is Nancy, a precocious girl who manages to acquire her about-to-be-destitute Boston-based family their dream house in a tiny village in Maine. Much hilarity ensues as they adapt their big city ways to the small-town lifestyle. Burl Ives, as the excellently-named Osh Popham, is one of the highlights of this big-hearted musical.

 

parent trap

The Parent Trap (1961)

This is the film that Hayley Mills is best known for. In it she plays the dual role of Sharon and Susan, twins separated at birth by an ugly divorce and who are reunited at summer camp as teens. They hatch a plan to switch places and get their parents back together. I saw this during the summer that I was 8-years-old and rented it so much that my parents finally bought me my own copy, thinking that would be the cheaper option. The 1998 non-musical remake with Lindsay Lohan is actually pretty good and makes for a fun double-bill.

 

Watcher in the woods

The Watcher in the Woods (1980)

An all-time favourite of mine, this film is based on the (not as great) novel by Florence Engel Randall and tells the story of sisters Jan (Lynn-Holly Johnson) and Ellie (Kyle Richards – now of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills fame), who, along with their parents, move to a creepy old mansion in the middle of a dark forest. The house is owned by the equally creepy Mrs. Aylwood (played to campy perfection by Bette Davis) who lives on the grounds. From the moment they step into the house, strange things begin happening to Jan while Ellie begins hearing voices that tell her to do things (this is a great example of Disney catering to viewers of all ages: the voices tell Ellie harmless things like what to name her new puppy, but the naming process is one of the most unsettling scenes in the film). After talking to the town locals it becomes evident that the woods hold a dark secret and Jan must solve the mystery before Ellie becomes the next victim.

The best thing about the movie is how skillfully it walks the fine line between being too frightening for children and successfully relating to kids on their level about the scariness of moving to a brand new place. Kudos to Director John Hough (he was responsible for the macabre classic The Legend of Hell House) who brings a much needed horror movie sensibility and look to the film. I guarantee that The Watcher in the Woods will make you forget that you’re watching something produced by the “Mouse House” and as you’re shivering and hiding your eyes with a couch pillow, you won’t be able to stop yourself from wondering “why doesn’t Disney make movies like this anymore?”

 


Kristal Cooper has been a film buff since the age of two when her parents began sneaking her into the drive-in every weekend. Since then, she's pursued that passion by working for the Toronto International Film Festival and the Canadian Film Centre as well as spending many a happy hour inside Toronto's wonderful theatres (she still mourns the loss of The Uptown). She is a freelance writer specializing in pop culture and feminist issues, and continues to slog away at her day job as a small cog in the giant machinery of the Toronto film community.

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