This is one of those posts that is sure to cause disagreement, because of the very nature of lists, and the very nature of film. What appeals to one person doesn’t appeal to another. Why I may love a particular film may not be important to another person. And with Walt Disney Animated features, because they are so much a part of our collective lives, there’s very little chance that any one person could agree on what makes one film in particular the “best” Disney film.
But like I said, this is my list. This is how I think all 55 films from Walt Disney Animation Studios, beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 and ending with Zootopia in 2016, should rank, from worst to best. Here, we start with the bottom 10. The following ten films, are what I consider to be the worst of the animated films ever released by the true masters of the art form. Which shows that even the masters can have a really bad day. What do you think?
55. Home on the Range (2004) This is it. The bottom of the Disney barrel, and it’s a sad place to be. This was the studio’s last hand-drawn feature for many years, which is a sad way to end the legacy started with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It’s a well-drawn film, with some stellar character animation, and great Western-style songs by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater (whose Oscar-winning for previous Disney features was highlighted in the film’s marketing). But it also features cows as the main characters. Cows. Cows, which are so visually unappealing that Disney stopped animating one of its original animated stars (Clarabelle the Cow) because of that whole udder thing always being there. In addition, casting Roseanne Barr (who has one of the most grating voices of all time) as the heroine was a bad decision. The film clearly doesn’t know whether it wants to be a comedy, a musical, a Western, or an road trip/buddy movie. While it does have some great moments (the songs are a definite highlight, “Little Patch of Heaven,” “Wherever the Trail May Lead” and “Will the Sun Ever Shine Again” are all very good songs that deserved a better film to live in) and some genuinely funny moments, the film really doesn’t find its voice. Randy Quaid does give a stellar vocal performance as the main villain, and his song is also a standout. Sadly, it’s not enough. This is just a weird film that lives in a forgotten corner of the collective Disney consciousness.
54. Chicken Little (2005) Disney’s first CG film is also one of its worst. While it has a cute concept and a great father-son relationship (voiced nicely by Zach Braff and Garry Marshall, and a great song by Five for Fighting about their relationship), it tries too hard to be funny and ends up coming across more annoying than anything. Character design is weird, and it doesn’t trust the source material story enough to actually do something with it. Instead of a great moral tale, it becomes a strange movie about anthropomorphized animals battling aliens. Pop culture references may be what sells a Dreamworks Animation film, but they don’t work from the Mouse House. Any Disney film that ends with a dance party (like nearly every Dreamworks film) is just not getting it, and it shows that here, the creative team at Disney had forgotten what made it so successful just 10 years earlier: a good story. How the studio famous for adapting fairy tales could screw this one up so badly remains a mystery. Sorry, Zach Braff, your vocal performance deserved to be in a better film.
53. The Aristocats (1970) Despite its inception before Walt Disney’s death, this is one of the studio’s worst films, feeling very much like a feline version of 101 Dalmatians, but without that film’s charm or classic villain. Instead, a film that is supposed to be set in 1910 France features dogs from the American South, Jazz (which didn’t show up in Paris until after WW1), 1960’s love beads, balmly English geese, and the most ineffectual villain of any Disney film, ever. And don’t get me started on the fact that O’Malley is just Baloo the Bear in cat form. On a side note, the song “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat,” although out of place from a historical setting, is a great song, sung to perfection by Scatman Corothers and Phil Harris. In addition, Eva Gabor is quite lovely as Duchess, and gives a hint at who good she will be in a few years as much different animated character. Paul Winchell’s appearance as a Siamese Cat who speaks in an unfortunate “Asian” accent (with a hint of Tigger) is a bit cringe-worthy today. Yes, Marie the kitten has gone on to be a favorite, but that is due more to Disney’s Consumer Products division than to her being an actually interesting character. Perhaps it would have worked better as it was originally intended: a live-action, two-part television show.
52. The Sword in the Stone (1963) With great source material comes great responsibility, and Disney’s treatment of the Arthurian legend, based on the wonderful book by T.H. White, is just the opposite of great. While I have always loved the character animation, especially that of Merlin and Archimedes (the owl, whose extended laugh at one point in the film is in itself a great comedic moment), the film just seems like it wasn’t very high on the studio’s priority list. Missed opportunities abound, especially with such great source material. Instead of an epic film, it’s slapdash and sometimes silly. The vocal performances by Karl Swenson (as Merlin) and Junius Matthews (as Archimedes) are probably some of the best in any of the animated features, but Wart is voiced by no less than three different boys. While the wizard’s duel and interaction with Madame Mim is easily the best part of the film, it’s tiresome to see dancing mops and brooms so far after Fantasia. The songs, by the Sherman Brothers in their first studio outing, are just okay, (the best one is the opening, sung by a bard, “The Sword in the Stone”), and the final sight gags with Merlin in Bermuda shorts are just not right. Great voice acting, great animation, wasted in a lame adaptation about one of the greatest legends of all time.
51. Saludos Amigos (1942) This is not a bad film per se, but just not a cohesive collection of short films. The first of the “pacakage” features from Disney during the war years, it has several great segments, including the “Pedro” short about a little mail plane on its first adventure, Goofy’s first real “How To” short, showing how to be a South American cowboy. The highlight of the film is the “Aquarela de Brasil,” which introduces Joe Carioca and makes great use of the song (which went on to have a life of its own). From a historical perspective, the most intriguing parts of the film are the live-action segments interspersed throughout, showing Walt Disney and his associates touring South America on a goodwill tour. It’s fun to see Walt and his team in action, especially the great Mary Blair, who would go on to be so influential at the studio in later years. The title song did earn itself an Oscar nomination, and individually, the pieces are fine. But it’s just not a good feature.
50. The Fox and the Hound (1981). Don’t get me wrong, I love some of this film. Glen Keane’s breakthrough animation of the bear fight still stands as a highlight during the dark days of Disney Animation after the Don Bluth walkout and before the second golden age began–and it justly earned him his place as one of the greatest animators of all time. But the songs are not good (the sing-talking song the Widow sings as she drops off Tod at the game preserve is especially grating), Paul Winchell’s use of his Tigger voice as the character of Boomer the bird is tiresome, and the whole thing seems cloying and manipulative. You know from the beginning of the story that nature will take its way, and eventually the two cute friends are going to be enemies. While the voice work of Corey Feldman and Keith Coogan as the younger versions of the main characters are quite adorable, Kurt Russell as the grown up Copper seems to not match the much older Mickey Rooney as the grown up Tod. There is no real “villain” in the story, which greatly narrows the dramatic appeal. The fox in the title is a very likable character. However, the hound is kind of a jerk. Is it nature or nuture? Well, you get to decide, and wonder just what Tod saw in that little creep Copper.
49. Make Mine Music (1946). Like the other package films of the 1940’s the parts of this film are better than the whole, especially since the Company has edited out one of the best sequences (“The Martins and the Coys”) because of “too much violence.” Featuring popular singers and performers of the 1940’s, there are several good moments in the film: “All the Cats Join In” by Benny Goodman comes to life in a fast-paced “sketch to animation” stylization based on animator Freddy Moore’s infamous pinup girls, “Casey at the Bat” features Jerry Collonna’s hyper and quite funny retelling of the famous baseball story, with lots of verbal word play and puns brought to life in a way that only animation can. “Johnny Fedora and Alice Blue Bonnet” by the Andrews Sisters amazingly makes you feel for the characters–two hats that fall in love. On a lesser note is Sterling Holloway’s narrative version of “Peter and the Wolf,” with the classic musical tale being brought far too literally to life. The highlight of the film both artistically and narratively is “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met,” which tells the story of an operatic whale named Willie. Willie’s daydream of playing various great opera roles onstage at the Metropolitan Opera is fantastic–and Nelson Eddy, who tells the story, also sings every character part–including the three-part harmony of the titular whale Individually, segments are great. But as a feature, it feels like it’s missing something.
48. Robin Hood (1973). This is a hard one for me personally, since it was the first Disney animated film I saw in theaters and my connections to it run deep. But it’s just not very good. Despite outstanding character design by Ken Anderson and great character animation by Disney’s Nine Old Men (in one of their last features), it’s a piecemeal film made up of interconnecting sequences, strange voice casting (several famous Western stars like Pat Buttram show up in Nottingham, England–in the Middle Ages), and, because of budget concerns, reused animation from films like Snow White, The Jungle Book, and The Aristocats. At this point, Phil Harris’ casting as Baloo (oops, I mean “Little John”) seems just plain lazy, and the entire football fight scene to “On Wisconsin” is just plain weird. It does feature some good songs by Roger Miller (personal favorite is “Not in Nottingham,” which is probably the most depressing Disney song ever written) and the Oscar-nominated “Love,” which is almost Chet Baker-esque. The best part of the film is easily the jolly good vocal performances by Brian Bedford as the title fox and Peter Ustinov as the villainous Prince John.
47. Melody Time (1948). Another one of the package films. Highlights are Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers’ retelling of Pecos Bill (although later video releases have cut all smoking references from the film due to Disney’s current “no smoking in movies” policy), which features great character animation by the Disney artists and great singing by the famous cowboy star and his band. The Andrews Sisters do a fantastic job with Little Toot, about a tugboat that can’t seem to stay out of trouble. The song itself is extremely catchy, and Disney animators make an anthropomorphic boat quite loveable. I do like having Donald Duck and Joe Carioca reuinte in Blame it On the Samba, which is a great song and features a fun mix of live-action and animation. Johnny Appleseed has lived on, in part because of the song “The Lord is Good to Me” and singer Dennis Day’s performance as both Johnny and his Angel. Melody Time is a nice collection of stories and songs, but it’s just not a great film. (Special mention must be made to Mary Blair, who was an inspirational artist for the studio, and whose influence is clearly seen in both Johnny Appleseed and Once Upon a Wintertime–her influence on the look of Disney films into the 1950’s only begins to be noticed here.)
46. The Black Cauldron (1981). I would like to rank this film higher, but it’s a troublesome movie. It’s clear that the story team knew they had epic source material (Lloyd Alexander’s Newberry Award winning Prydain Chronicles based on Welsh legend) and do their best to imbue every moment of the film with a sense of “bigness.” The stakes are very high–the destruction of the known world by an army of deathless warriors–and there is a sense of danger unheard of most Disney films. Watching, one is actually a bit concerned for the safety of the main characters. But the danger doesn’t come from the primary villain at all. The Horned King is scary looking and suitably gravelly voiced (by John Hurt), but he doesn’t do anything except wait for the titular cauldron to bring his army of skeletons back to life. He’s a menacing presence of danger, but he himself doesn’t feel dangerous–and that’s the film’s biggest weakness. A villain whose face is a skull with horns coming out of it should get into the fray a bit. Imagine Sleeping Beauty if Maleficent didn’t become a dragon or Star Wars without Vader flying into the final Death Star battle. It’s like The Horned King doesn’t want to get dirty. Made by a new generation of Disney animators, who show very well what they had learned from the masters (it’s very well animated), it was a risky film: no songs (although the score by Elmer Bernstein is quite good), lots of dead bodies and a sense of menace, and the longest prolonged cleavage joke in family animation history. But the risk doesn’t lead to reward. For a film where the entire world is threatened, it feels like the biggest risk was playing it safe. And I’ve always loved this movie. (Maybe Disney will get it right with the just-announced live action adaption of the series.)
45. Fun and Fancy Free (1947). Combining two separate stories into one, this is one of the last “package” films created by Disney. Wrapped in live-action segements (ventriloquist Edgar Bergan and his pals Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd are having a party with Luanna Patten in Hollywood–wow, that even sounds weird), the movie tells the story of Bongo the Bear and Mickey and the Beanstalk. Bongo is a nice enough story with cute songs and Dinah Shore delivers well (“Lazy Countryside” is a beautiful lullaby), but there’s nothing very engaging about a circus bear who decides he wants to live in the country. Mickey and the Beanstalk, however, is a fantastic adaptation of the classic fairy tale with Mickey and his pals Donald and Goofy as the protagonists. The animation of the trio is top-notch, the character voicing by Clarence Nash, Pinto Colvig, and Walt Disney (in his final appearance as Mickey) is perfect. Songs include “In My Favorite Dream,” sung by the Singing Harp (Anita Gordon) and “My, What a Happy Day,” and the best song in the movie, “Fee Fi Fo Fum,” sung by a giant who is so likable that–well, let’s just say they veer from the source material. Billy Gilbert, the voice of Sneezy the dwarf, delivers an even better performance as Willie the Giant.
So there you have it. The bottom of the Disney barrel. I’m certain that there are a few choices here that will raise the ire of a few Disney fans out there. So, what do you think? What’s your feelings about this list?
And are you ready for number 44-34? How will your favorite Disney film fare? Part Two next week on The Disneyland Dad.