Disney's 1994 family movie slate was a rather strange run

From future famous stars to some truly strange plots, Disney's family movie slate in 1994 was one of the weirdest for the company's history
THE MIGHTY DUCKS - "Episode 101" - (ABC/Liane Hentscher) EMILIO ESTEVEZ
THE MIGHTY DUCKS - "Episode 101" - (ABC/Liane Hentscher) EMILIO ESTEVEZ /

1994 is an interesting year when it comes to Disney movies. Usually, folks will instantly recall two films that were not only among the biggest box office hits Disney ever had but created amazing legacies: The Lion King and The Santa Clause. However, the rest of Disney's slate this year was….unique. 

Granted, the early 1990s were a much different time for movies themselves. The VCR was still the only way to watch at home, and theaters were constantly packed. Disney wasn't the only studio doing some unusual family films in 1994, as there were quirky bits from Milk Money to Little Giants to North, which famously inspired one of Roger Ebert's most savage reviews. 

Still, looking at Disney's slate 30 years ago is intriguing, with a few movies that are amazing got green-lit, while others are more notable for the now-famous faces they featured. Here's a quick look back at Disney's 1994 family movie slate, which showcases the offbeat time of the early 1990s. 

Iron Will was a wild adventure story (January 14)

Disney has always been drawn to some movies based on real events, and this was their entry for 1994. Based on the 1917 dog-sled race from Winnipeg, Manitoba, to Saint Paul, Minnesota, Mackenzie Austin is a young man whose father sacrificed himself to save him from an accident (because it can't be a Disney movie without a dead parent). Trying to make money for college and his family, Austin enters the 532-mile trek across frozen tundras in a brutal winter. 

The movie has some gorgeous vistas, filmed in Minnesota and a few future famous faces such as Kevin Spacey as a newspaperman who sees Austin as a great publicity draw and Brian Cox as a rival owner wanting to take him out. It's pretty standard for such inspirational movies but its low box office shows why it was dumped in January. 

Blank Check had a truly weird romance (February 11)

1994 was filled with movies about a kid suddenly inheriting a windfall of some sort, but this film was one of the weirdest. The plot is about a kid constantly ignored by family and schoolmates who accidentally runs into a crook who has just pulled off a million-dollar robbery. Thanks to the shenanigans that can only happen in a Disney movie, the guy ends up cashing this million-dollar "blank check" and swiftly lives a lifestyle that clearly would cost more than a million dollars (see the mini-theme park in his backyard).

So that's offbeat already, but then there's the turn of the FBI to send an agent (Karen Duffy) to get closer to the kid. So yes, we get a 13-year-old crushing on a woman in her twenties, complete with taking her out to dinner. The movie was a surprise box office success, but that bizarre "romance" makes it more than a bit creepy to watch today. 

D2: The Mighty Ducks tried to amp up the action (March 25)

The first The Mighty Ducks movie was a surprise smash for Disney with Emilio Estevez as a lawyer whipping a junior hockey team into winners. It first does a "happy ending override" to the first film as Gordon's dreams of joining the NHL are dashed by a knee injury. He returns to Minnesota, where he's hired to coach the U.S. team at a Junior Goodwill Games. That gives a chance to mix the original players with new characters. 

There is a fun dynamic in Gordon embracing a rich lifestyle and his professional training clashing with the Ducks. A quirky bit is the gang meeting some street hockey players, as "urban" stuff was hot in the early 1990s and then the stay player of that team joining the DuIt's not a bad sequel if repeating some bits from the first film, but not quite as fun as the original Ducks 

White Fang 2 seemed a direct-to-video entry (April 14)

Disney was starting up the whole "direct to video" stuff in the early 1990s, yet this sequel ended up in theaters. 1991's White Fang was a good adaptation of the Jack London novel, with Ethan Hawke as a young man bonding with a wolfdog while prospecting for gold in Alaska. Its good box office greenlit a sequel which was more "inspired by" the original tale. That's proven by how Hawke just makes a brief cameo at the start to pass the dog off to a new character played by Scott Bairstow. 

From there, we get a wild story with Alfred Molina as a religious crook trying to drive natives off their land to steal the gold there. Bairstow teams up with a native girl with a flair for arrows for some family-friendly action sequences. It's not an awful movie but just reeks of something that today would be a straight to streamer fare rather than a big-screen entry and a  pretty forgettable sequel. 

Angels in the Outfield has a future famous face (July 15)

This remake of a 1951 film is notable for starring a then-unknown Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a young boy whose distant father leaves him at a foster home. When asked when they'll be a family again, the dad replies, "When the Angels win the pennant." Not grasping sarcasm, the kid prays that the dead-last baseball team can be winners. Watching a game, he's stunned to see a pack of angels swooping down to help a player pull off an impossible save. Enter Al (Christopher Lloyd), who explains the kid is the only one who can see the angels.

The supporting cast is good, like Danny Glover as the manager who thinks he's dealing with a weird kid but comes around to it with the effects of the angels helping the team fun. There is some warm family stuff, a good message on belief, and interesting timing, as it was released just before the MLB strike ended the real-life baseball season. It's retained a good following and notably launched a future Hollywood star in Gordon-Levitt to be one of the better Disney entries of this year. 

Camp Nowhere was more like a Disney Channel movie (August 26)

Technically, this was under the Hollywood Pictures label, but it sure felt like a Disney movie. It also feels like the sort of film the Disney Channel would produce in the early 2000s. A pack of kids are sick and tired of the lame summer camps their parents send them to and concoct a scheme to create the perfect one. They hire an actor (Christopher Lloyd again) for a fun sequence where he poses as "counselors" from different camps and an imaginative bit where the camp sign is changed for every family dropping a kid off to what they think is a computer/military/fat camp etc. 

We get hijinks before the kids learn the lesson that doing whatever they want isn't as fun as they thought it would be. Lloyd is having a good time with the scene of them changing the camp around and an okay ending, yet it's still the sort of movie that you'd see as a streaming release these days rather than a serious theatrical run 

Squanto: A Warrior's Tale is a forgotten Thanksgiving film (October 28)

Dropped into theaters with almost no marketing, this movie is pretty much forgotten by all but the biggest Disney film fanatics. It's a take on the first Thanksgiving, and like many movies of the early '90s, its take on history is loose, to say the least. There are great settings in the Canadian wilderness, and Mandy Patinkin is always a delight. 

Still, if you're looking for historical accuracy, it's best to go elsewhere. From inventing battles between natives and the crew of the Mayflower to the presentation of the first Thanksgiving, it's no wonder this barely made a blip in the box office and makes Pocahontas look like a faithful historical adaptation. 

The Jungle Book was an early live-action take but terrific (December 25)

Over two decades before the 2016 Jungle Book, Disney had a better live-action take. To be fair, this is based more on the original Rudyard Kipling book, so there are no talking animals. What we get is Jason Scott Lee as Mowgli, raised in the jungles and handling the dangerous beasts in some great stunts. 

The supporting cast includes John Cleese, Carl Elwes, Sam Neill, and a young Lena Headey, with Lee doing a wonderful job with little dialogue for the lead. The climax is a thrilling sequence in a temple laced with traps that would challenge Indiana Jones. Released at Christmas, it ended up being a sleeper hit for the company and in many ways better than most of the live-action fare of today.

Thus, Disney's 1994 family slate is a unique time capsule of the period and that's without counting the Return of Jafar video sequel. Some were hits, others flops but showcase how 30 years ago, theaters were still the place for folks to experience the Disney magic.