With the Pirates of the Caribbean movies more accessible than ever, and a summer season void of blockbusters, this month we’re diving deep into Disney’s swashbuckling series. Grab your cutlass and hoist the colors: here be Polygon’s take on all things PotC.
The most extraordinary thing about Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl is that it somehow made tons and tons of money despite the fact it was rooted in two things that had historically bombed critically and at the box office: pirate movies and movies based on Disney theme park attractions.
Younger, theme-park agnostics might not realize that the Disney attraction came before the billion dollar franchise and that it was only recently retooled to include elements from the movies. But back in 2003, Pirates was a risky gamble — after all, has there ever been a Disney movie based on an attraction that was … actually good? Pirates was not the first movie to lift iconography from the parks, nor was it the last, but it is irrefutably the best of them. (Jungle Cruise, which was set for a July 24 release date, may yet prove this wrong when it ultimately comes out in 2021).
What were the other Disney movies based on theme park attractions? I’m glad you asked. True to character, I buckled up for a ride on every other Disney movie based on a theme park attraction — which were easier to find today, thanks to Disney Plus, but some have been completely buried. Behold, every Disney movie based on a theme park attraction, from worst to best.
[Ed. note: This post contains slight spoilers for Disney movies based on theme park attractions]
6. The Haunted Mansion (2003)
Based on: The Haunted Mansion
Eddie Murphy stars as someone whose first name I can’t remember, but he and his wife run a real estate business called Evers and Evers. His wife gets a chance to look at this creepy mansion, except they’re about to go on a family vacation and his wife is all like, “But honey, family time” and he’s all like, “Babe, this mansion is worth MILLIONS of dollars think of the commission.”
So they decide to stop by quickly with the kids before heading on vacation, but it starts to rain, and they become trapped by a flooded river. It turns out the creepy guy living alone in the mansion with his creepy butler — who are both ghosts, shocker! — lured them there because Eddie Murphy’s wife is the spitting image of his long-lost love and he wants to ghost-marry her? There is a lot going on in The Haunted Mansion, none of it interesting.
The fact that this movie sucks so bad is almost hilarious in hindsight. Both The Haunted Mansion and the first Pirates movie came out in 2003. Both are based on by far the most popular attractions in Disney parks. And yet, while Pirates launched a billion-dollar box office franchise, The Haunted Mansion is one of the most boring movies I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s neither funny nor scary — not even a fun spoopy — and just slogs along. I’m not even sure what it is about this movie that makes it so unmemorable, because to be perfectly honest, I fell asleep five separate times during its one-hour-and-29-minute runtime. Is it the misuse of Eddie Murphy? The complete deviation from the fun of the Haunted Mansion attraction? The fact that the entire “mystery” of the mansion is completely revealed in the opening?
The Haunted Mansion is available to stream on Disney Plus, if you dare.
5. Tower of Terror (1997)
Based on: The Tower of Terror
This 1997 made-for-TV movie is the first based-on-an-attraction movie made by Disney, which is funny because the ride itself is based on Twilight Zone. Tower of Terror follows washed up journalist Buzz (Steve Guttenberg), who’s on the hunt for a big story after years of writing for supermarket tabloids. After a mysterious old lady shows up at his door begging him to write about the Hollywood Tower, he decides to pursue the story — only to get entangled in a supernatural plot full of ghosts, intrigue, and murder. Kirsten Dunst is also here, starring as his niece.
Tower of Terror isn’t bad when you remember it’s going off a made-for-TV budget. The mystery is a touch more interesting than the one in The Haunted Mansion, mainly because the movie doesn’t spoil 90% of the mystery in the opening sequence and instead unveils it like a functional mystery might. Still, it’s a bit clunky, especially when Buzz has to argue to people that reestablishing his career is more important than helping some dead people he’s just met — c’mon, this man needs to pay taxes and rent!
He eventually comes to the epiphany that helping ghosts he just met is more important than a byline that could single handedly restore his journalistic credibility, so make of that what you will.
Tower of Terror is available on DVD.
4. Tomorrowland (2015)
Based on: The Tomorrowland land
Unlike Tower of Terror, Tomorrowland had a whole lotta budget. From director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol), the movie posits the idea of a pocket dimension where the world’s most innovative thinkers have gathered to create a utopian society. Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), a teenager who sabotages construction vehicles in her free time and dreams of space exploration, gets a pin that transports her to this dimension. With the help of a mysterious girl named Athena and also George Clooney, Casey sets off to find this Tomorrowland.
Out of all these movies, Tomorrowland is the one that gets closest to acknowledging it is based on a theme park. George Clooney even gets to Tomorrowland by riding on It’s A Small World. They play the theme from the Carousel of Progress. Does it work? To me, it seemed like a cloying reminder, but hey, results may vary.
The thing that bothers me the most about Tomorrowland is that there are so many good bits of the movie — the entire message of optimism and working together for a better future; Brit Robertson’s character being a plucky female lead without being grating; Clooney playing a Dad Figure — but the execution clunkers along. It’s not so much that the movie is 80% exposition, but the fact that out of the three characters it focuses on, two of them know what’s going on and just refuse to tell Casey. It’s a mystery, but two of the leads know exactly what the answer is and we know they know, so it just turns into a frustrating mess! The resolution comes too suddenly, too quickly, with too many unfortunate implications if you think too hard, but the postscript at the end, wherein all the innovative minds of tomorrow are invited to come to Tomorrowland — artists, scientists, gardeners, and more — made me genuinely cry, so there is that.
Tomorrowland is available to rent or purchase on Amazon Prime.
3. Mission to Mars (2000)
Based on: Mission to Mars
Based on the now closed attraction of the same name, Mission to Mars, directed by the legendary Brian de Palma, follows a mission to mars … gone wrong. Don Cheadle is the sole survivor of one mission, after a freak encounter with an ominous statue massacred his fellow astronauts. The team sent to follow him to establish a Mars colony retools their landing into a rescue mission. Lieutenant Dan Gary Sinise plays Jim, a recently widowed astronaut, whose passion for space exploration has recently been reignited.
Mission to Mars has a coherent beginning, middle, and end, which is more than can be said about the majority of movies on this list. It would be more enjoyable were it not bogged down by dialogue that feels like a parody of astronaut movies (“OK, we’re ready to light this candle!”), but at least the plot mostly makes sense. The characters are a bit bland, save for the kooky alien reveal at the end, but they are really there to be figures in a mission that keeps going wrong (Gary Sinise was also in Apollo 13). Overall, an interesting movie that could be better but at least I did not fall asleep!
Mission to Mars is available to rent or purchase on Amazon.
2. The Country Bears (2002)
Based on: The Country Bear Jamboree
The Country Bears is objectively a terrible movie and yet there was not one moment of it that was not entertaining. It’s definitely a movie that falls in the “so laughably bad that it wraps around to being good” though rarely is that the intention. The basic premise of The Country Bears is that a young bear named Beary (voiced by Haley Joel Osment) — who has absolutely no idea he’s adopted by humans — runs away from home when his adopted brother reveals he just doesn’t belong. He makes it his mission to reunite the Country Bears, his favorite band, and the rest of the movie is a big Blues Brothers-esque reunion. Steve Buscemi plays the villain, a banker who has been personally slighted by the Bears (I won’t say why because of spoilers), who is bent on destroying the famed Country Bear Hall.
This movie is full of celebrity cameos, ranging from Sir Elton John and Queen Latifah to early-2000s, B-list pop stars Krstal and Jennifer Paige (who both get full musical sequences!) The lead singer from the Eagles is also there to make a comment about how the Bears were better than the Eagles. Every moment of this movie is turned up to 11, every absolutely wild plot point treated with theatrical gravitas, that you can’t help but enjoy it. Nothing about this movie makes sense, which means that it all kinda gels into a ridiculous somewhat coherent mess. It may not be a good movie, but it is sure as heck a good time.
The Country Bears is available to stream on Disney Plus.
1. Dinosaur (2000)
Based on: Dinosaur
I would like to formally rescind every drag I’ve made at Dinosaur’s expense on this website. In previous articles, I’ve alluded to how boring it is, but I realize now that compared to the vast majority of Disney movies based on attractions, it is the epitome of Fine Cinema. The CG-animated movie follows an iguanodon named Aladar, who has been adopted by a lemur family right after an asteroid decimates their homeland. After wandering the desert, Aladar and the lemurs join a herd of other dinosaurs in their quest to the nesting grounds, a place of salvation. The leader of the herd has a survival of the fittest mentality, but Aladar wants to make sure no dinosaur gets left behind.
There is debate on whether this movie is based on the ride, exactly, since it was technically pitched before the ride was a thing. It’s not officially on the Disney wiki, but the calculus of the movie seems born from the ride, so they’re symbiotic enough to include. Also, no one wants The Country Bears at the top of this list.
Dinosaur has a coherent plot and clear character motivations. There are stakes involved. The dialogue is not cringey. The animation is stunning, especially for the time (the backgrounds were all filmed on location, with the dinosaurs added after). Overall, it’s a good watch! Please forgive me, Dinosaur, for ever besmirching your name.
Dinosaur is available to stream on Disney Plus.
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