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Disney isn't just the home for animated adventures and musicals; the studio has also released some of the best and most groundbreaking science fiction movies ever made. From TRON to A WRINKLE IN TIME, Disney has shown us grand adventures that take place far out at the edge of the universe.
If you're spending a lot of time inside right now and feeling like you need to get as far away as possible, Disney's best sci-fi movies are excellent getaways. These movies are part of the cinematic childhoods for many people, and this is the ideal time to introduce them to new generations.
Disney's first major science-fiction opus was developed as a blend of three hit movie templates: The grand sci-fi of 2001; the box-office-topping disaster movies of the early 1970s; and the character-oriented pop sci-fi of STAR WARS. As a result, THE BLACK HOLE is a blend of several divergent interests. It's got robot characters clearly influenced by George Lucas and a storyline about a rogue scientist — Dr. Hans Reinhardt, ably played by Maximilian Schell — whose obsession with the phenomenon of a black hole has tipped into madness. It also features jaw-dropping effects, a terrifically uneasy score by John Barry, and one of the strangest endings in any Disney movie. (Not coincidentally, THE BLACK HOLE is also the first PG-rated movie produced by Disney.) There's nothing like it.
Long before YA series based on novels about fulfilled destiny were all over movie screens, and years prior to the dominance of superhero movies with characters whose "normal" looks belie unusual origins, there were the WITCH MOUNTAIN movies. ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN adapts Alexander Key's 1968 sci-fi novel of the same name, and follows two orphaned children who have psychic abilities as they search for links to their mysterious past. Their adventure is a chase movie for all ages, with exaggerated villains, some pleasantly helpful side characters, and a couple of big orchestrated setpieces that put the kids' powers to use — not to mention an ending that turns the tale into great science fiction for young viewers.
This adaptation of Ray Bradbury's novel is a crisp young adult horror/sci-fi/fantasy that is truly perfect for fall — it is set just as leaves change color in October — but plays well at any time of the year. Young friends Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade are initially excited when a carnival comes to town, but Will soon begins to suspect the traveling entertainment caravan is a cover for some dark force. (The name of the ringleader, Jonathan Pryce's character Mr. Dark, might be his first clue.) SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES has an impressive cast (Jason Robards, Diane Ladd, Pam Grier) and some excellent visual effects, but the movie really stands out for its convincing melancholy tone, and the way it turns aging and unrealized dreams into unsettling young adult horror.
This alien encounter movie stands alone from other Disney sci-fi films, in part because it wasn't actually produced by the company. Disney distributed this independent production which follows 12-year old David, who awakens after a strange event in the woods near his home to discover that eight years have passed. A boy from 1978 is now in the middle of an entirely different cultural moment in 1986. Joey Cramer plays David perfectly, capturing the uncertainty of a boy who has been yanked out of his own time. He keeps the movie flying high after David gets his hands on a spaceship that might be related to the event that took eight years of his childhood, when FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR shifts gears into an upbeat sci-fi action movie.
The first wave of arcade video games was massively popular when Disney released this computerized adventure, but even then TRON was way ahead of its time. Jeff Bridges stars as Flynn a software engineer who, after being ousted from his old company, hacks into the corporate system in search of evidence to prove his authorship of key assets. He does not count on the system having developed a form of artificial intelligence, however, and Flynn is digitized and pulled into the system, where he has to fight for his life. TRON is a beguiling blend of animation, early computer effects, and in-jokes about software and video games. It was totally unique and an important precursor to THE MATRIX. A sequel, TRON LEGACY, followed in 2010, with even more spectacular visuals and a score by Daft Punk that stands as one of the best electronic movie scores ever recorded.
It took a long time for Madeleine L'Engle's novel to come to the big screen, but director Ava DuVernay pulled off quite a feat of adaptation. For one, she cast an impressive new talent, Storm Reid, to play Meg Murry, the daughter of a vanished scientist. Then DuVernay and her team came up with beautiful ways to visualize a wide array of planets in a distant system — and to create the prison in which Meg eventually finds her wayward father. A WRINKLE IN TIME does not look like any other sci-fi film of its kind; perhaps it's better to say there is no other movie like it.
All images courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.
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