Movies & TV / Columns

The Top 10 Live-Action Films to Watch on Disney+ Right Now

November 13, 2019 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Star Wars Darth Vader Empire Strikes Back

At long last, Disney+ has arrived. The Disney-created streaming service launched on Tuesday with a host of new content like The Mandalorian and Encore! amidst an impressive amount of library titles. Fans have jumped in (not without some technical issues early on) and are enjoying plenty of what’s on the menu.

There’s no shortage of classic and new television series to watch on the service, and no doubt most people are diving into stuff like The Mandalorian, X-Men: The Animated Series, Gargoyles or what-have-you. And of course, this being Disney we have animated films galore. But the live-action offerings shouldn’t be slept on either, whether it’s the Marvel and Star Wars films or the classic Disney and Fox offerings from the 1990s and earlier. Tonight, I thought I would dive in and take a look at the best live-action movies to watch as you jump on Disney+ for the first time.

Caveat: There only a couple qualifiers I made to this list: it had to be live-action films currently on Disney+, obviously. The other one I made is that I could only choose one Marvel Cinematic Universe film and one Star Wars film, because otherwise this list would be heavily populated with those. I ranked the films based on what I felt the best films to jump right in and see are. This isn’t strictly a “Best Films on Disney+,” but rather the best films to watch on the service right now. That’s a specific but important difference that vastly affected what made it onto the list.

Honorable Mention

The Sound of Music (1965)
Return to Oz (1985)
Freaky Friday (2003)
The Sandlot (1993)
The Rocketeer (1991)

#10: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Disney Plus Pirates

Remember when the Pirates of the Caribbean films were actually fresh and enjoyable? There’s a ton of debate on when that exactly came to an end, but I think most of us can agree that the first film was a blast. Johnny Depp provides a lot of the fun for this film with his off-kilter performance while Keira Knightly and Orlando Jones play the charming odd couple romantic pairing. This film was an unlikely success story, as few people expected a movie based off a Disneyland ride to do much of anything. And yet, it proved not only to be a financial bonanza for Disney but an Oscar-nominated film — for acting, no less, thanks to Depp. We can debate how quickly the series dropped off after that, but this one is the perfect mix of blockbuster adventure and popcorn supernatural fantasy.

#9: Mary Poppins (1964)

Disney Plus Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins largely speaks for itself in terms of reputation. It says a lot that the 2018 sequel Mary Poppins Returns was viewed as not standing up to the original by most people even as they praised that film on its own merits. Disney is known for its string of animated hits in the 1950s and 1960s, but it also had some very notable live-action entries, and this is the clear best of them. Andrews created an iconic role on the screen in her feature film debut, winning an Oscar for her work. The music is unforgettable, the performances all spark, and the hybrid animation sequences are well-done. It’s the absolute quintessential Disney live action film, and the apex of what Walt Disney was trying to do outside of his animated films during that period.

#8: Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

Disney Plus Center of the Earth

A lot of what currently sits on Disney+ in terms of films consists, understandably, of the Disney lineup. There are some notable Fox entries as well, such as The Sandlot and Avatar. One notable gem is Journey to the Center of the Earth. This Henry Levin-directed adaptation of the Jules Verne classic came at a time when film was fighting to maintain its relevance in the advent of television. Big budget effects were the order of the day and Henry Levin’s sci-fi epic proved to be a big hit. It’s a little cheesy, but only in the most charming ways and the effects work is very influential. This is a classic adventure story that, while lacking in the CGI of modern epics, tops many of them in terms of pure unadulterated fun.

#7: Miracle (2004)

Disney Plus Miracle

I’m not a sports guy, but I can’t turn down a good inspirational sports film. And Miracle is among the best examples of that genre. Kurt Russell gives a career performance as coach Herb Brooks in this underdog tale of the 1980 US men’s hockey team’s gold medal match against the dominant Soviet team. When these films often fall apart, it’s because the magic isn’t enough to sustain us through some incredibly familiar tropes of sports docudrama. Magic is one thing that’s never in short supply here. Russell leads a wonderful cast while Gavin O’Connor makes the most out of Eric Guggenheim’s script for a tale that is generally rousing, even if you’re not a hockey fan or even a sports fan at all. If you haven’t seen Miracle, you now no longer have an excuse not to check it out.

#6: Flight of the Navigator (1986)

Disney Plus Flight of the Navigator

Flight of the Navigator is pure 1980s science fiction nostalgia. This strange, fantastic little film balances science fiction fun and the terror of alien abduction in a surprisingly poignant and well-acted little adventure film. Joey Cramer does some pretty fine work as young David Freeman, plucked off the Earth in 1978 and set back down eight years later, not having aged a bit but with a head full of star charts and alien knowledge. There’s plenty to enjoy here, from the Alan Silvestri score to the visual effects work — quite good for a relatively low budget and the 1980s era — and the acting work. It’s probably sacrilegious to some to even say this, but throughout the years if I’ve ever had a chance to see E.T. or Flight of the Navigator, I invariably choose the latter. It contains all of E.T.’s charm in a more interesting package, and it’s unfortunate that this film never had the other’s box office success.

#5: The Muppet Movie (1979)

Disney Plus Muppet Movie

Several of the Muppet films are currently on Disney+, though sadly not the original show or The Muppets Take Manhattan. (Sony still owns those properties.) The Muppets are essential viewing, and if you’re going to start somewhere then you should probably start at the original film. The Muppet Movie is essentially a road trip movie that kicks the film side of the franchise off and tells the origin of how the Muppets met. This is perhaps the film that most successfully captures the essence of the original television show, and it provides a launching point with which you can move on to watch the sequels. The film is innovative in how it uses meta-humor, something that the franchise lost track of in later years (see: the 2015 ABC series). This is pure Jim Henson magic and it’s awesome to get the chance to see it again.

#4: Queen of Katwe (2016)

Disney Plus Queen of Katwe

This is by far the newest of the films on this list and represents another aspect of the benefits of streaming services: catching films that didn’t make blockbuster splashes at the box office. Queen of Katwe doesn’t have the visual flair or popcorn thrills of a Marvel movie, but it’s still a delightful, inspirational story about Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi. Lupita Nyong’o shines as Nakku, the mother of young Phiona (an also-fabulous Madina Nalwanga) who rises through the ranks to compete at the World Chess Olympiads. Mira Nair directs the film with a real sense of personal awareness and gives it a sense of reality amidst the sincerely inspiring overtones. There are raw edges to this film, and they serve to enhance the story at every step. For people who aren’t too keen on sports films to get their inspirational feel-good moments, Queen of Katwe presents a more than adequate alternative.

#3: Iron Man (2008)

Disney Plus Iron Man

If you’re going to watch the MCU films on Disney+ — and let’s face it, if you have the service you almost certainly are — you kind of have to start with the film that kicked it off. Is Iron Man objectively the best film in the MCU? I would say no. But it provides a great place to start and kick off a watching project. (It’s important to note that some films like Ant-Man & The Wasp, Black Panther, and Avengers: Infinity War aren’t on the service quite yet due to rights issues, so you don’t have to rush yourself.) Tony Stark is the man whose success made the Marvel Cinematic Universe possible and while we can argue about the success of his second and third films, the first holds up in just about every way. Many people are getting Disney+ in no small part due to the MCU, and here’s where you should really start.

#2: Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)

Disney Plus Roger Rabbit

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is the absolute pinnacle of live action/animation hybrid to date. That’s almost beyond debate. The 1988 Robert Zemeckis cartoon murder mystery is one of the best films on Disney+ regardless period, not just in terms of the ones you should watch right now. Zemeckis’ take on the script by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman — adapted by someone less-good mystery novel by Gary K. Wolf — finds the tricky niche where it plays great for kids but has some distinctly adult jokes that work on their own level. The live-action performances by Bob Hoskins and Christopher Lloyd are beyond reproach, leaning into the slapstick cartooniness to strike a perfect balance with the animated characters who are themselves given standout voice work from the likes of Kathleen Turner, Charles Fleischer, Lou Hirsch, Mel Blanc and others. A film like this could easily have become dated very quickly due to the hybrid style, but it still looks great and plays wonderfully even in 2019. If you aren’t looking for a franchise film, I can’t imagine a single better live-action movie to start with.

#1: Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Disney Plus Star Wars Episode V

I mean, obviously a Star Wars film was going to top this list. And I debated which one it was going to be pretty fiercely. Sure, A New Hope is the one that kicked everything off, and I do love it. On the other hand, even if I do not love this one The Phantom Menace is one I could see audiences using to watch chronologically. But for me, Empire Strikes Back is the perfect film to start with. It is absolutely the best film in the franchise to date, for one thing. Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill had found their groove as characters better here and play off each other much more effectively.

It’s also not burdened with the fact that the first film is written by George Lucas, who is a great director and had great story ideas but comes up somewhat lacking as a writer. Empire Strikes Back hits all the right nostalgia beats, and it’s not burdened with as many of the tweaks that Lucas kept making to the films in the Special Editions. It might be legitimately the best film on Disney+ right now by any measure, and by my reckoning is the best place to start diving into what the service has as live-action feature offerings.