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Disney+ is just about the greatest thing that any Disney fan could have possibly hoped for. In one place, we have nearly every movie and TV show the studio has ever created. Whether you’re a fan of Walt Disney Animation or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, whether you’re looking for something for little kids or grown-up kids, so much is there to be viewed.
And yet, if you really want to expand your Disney education, you actually need to expand your horizons beyond Disney itself. The fact is that there are a lot of non-Disney films that have strong Disney connections, both positive and negative. These films can help somebody not only looking to enjoy the media, but understand it better. Here are six incredible movies that aren’t from Disney, but are still incredibly important for Disney fans.
Little Shop Of Horrors
In 1986, we got the movie version of the stage musical based on the 1960 Roger Corman movie of the same name, Little Shop of Horrors. Needless to say, making a musical about an alien plant that eats people was a strange choice, but then Howard Ashman, who wrote the musical, was a bit of a strange, yet brilliant, man. He was so brilliant that Disney wanted to bring him in to work with the studio on films. Ashman would, in turn, bring in his musical partner on Little Shop, Alan Menken, and the two would start work on The Little Mermaid. Ashman and Menken would continue to work for Disney on Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. The pair are largely responsible for the entire existence of the Disney Rennaissance. Alan Menken still works with Disney to this day, and recently achieved the coveted EGOT, with every award coming from a Disney project.
Beauty And The Beast (1946)
Like so many of the stories that have become animated Disney films, Beauty and the Beast is a classic story that has been told countless times over the generations in number of different ways. However, it doesn’t take a film historian to watch Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film adaptation and see the ways that this particular version of the story influenced the Disney musical. The character of Gaston is largely based on a similar character in the Cocteau film, and even the look of the Beast himself is clearly inspired by this movie.
The Secret Of NIMH
Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH is probably one of the most popular animated films not made by Disney, but its connection to Disney is that it very well could have been a production of the Mouse House. Bluth was an animator at Disney throughout the 1970s, and he actually pitched Secret of NIMH to the studio as a potential Disney project. Eventually, frustrated with Disney and its prevailing “What would Walt do?” mentality, Bluth led something of a coup, leaving the company and taking a number of Disney animators with him. They would go on to start a new company, and The Secret of NIMH was their first effort.
There were certainly some sour grapes between Don Bluth and Disney, but they were nothing compared to the way Jeffrey Katzenberg felt after leaving the company as the head of Walt Disney Studios. There was a lot of bad blood between the future Quibi executive and then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner, including a lawsuit over money Katzenberg believed Disney owed him. Eisner had brought in Katzenberg when he became CEO, but things went downhill quickly. The negative feelings between the two can clearly be seen in the movie Shrek, which was made by Katzenberg’s new company after leaving Disney, Dreamworks. The movie takes aim at all the classic fairy tales that Disney was famous for, includes a specific dig at Disneyland and It’s a Small World, and the resemblance between the evil Lord Farquaad and Michael Eisner cannot be understated.
The relationship between the Walt Disney Company and Studio Ghibli is a difficult one to say the least. While Disney was responsible for the North American distribution of many of Hayao Miyazaki’s most beloved films, few of them actually got seen in theaters on initial release. The one major exception is Spirited Away. Many at Disney, and Pixar specifically, including John Lasseter, were huge fans of Miyazaki’s work, and Lasseter personally lobbied for Disney to handle Spirited Away’s distribution when most of everyone else at Disney were done with the studio. The movie would go on to win an Oscar, but Studio Ghibli films can’t be found on Disney+. Instead, they're all found today on HBO Max, which says a lot about just how sour this relationship with Disney got despite its successes.
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure
Tim Burton’s history has always been comingled with Disney. Burton was an artist at Walt Disney Animation, having a hand in projects like The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron in the 1970s and '80s, and he would go on to work with Disney on future projects like The Nightmare Before Christmas and the live-action Alice in Wonderland. However, it was one of Burton’s final projects working at Disney, the short film Frankenweenie, which reportedly caught the eye of Paul Reubens, resulting in Burton getting his first job as a feature film director with Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. It's entirely possible that Burton's directorial career wouldn't even happen without Big Adventure, and to that, he owes Disney and Frankenweenie. Which is a good thing, since some at Disney thought Frankenweeinie was so bad it resulted in Burton losing his job. Eventually, Disney came around, and Burton even got to make a feature-length version for Disney in 2012.
The Walt Disney Company is nearly 100 years old, and in that time, Disney has grown from a company simply known for wholesome family entertainment to be one of the dominant brand names on the planet. You don’t get there without being impacted by the influence of others, or without influencing the world around you, in both positive and negative ways.
There’s a lot of great films and series on Disney+ that will give you Disney history, but unsurprisingly, they won’t tell you the whole story. There are many others worth seeing if you’re curious about the people behind the movies that you love.