In Part One, I listed the bottom 10 films in the official Disney animated feature canon, mostly more obscure “package” features of the 1940’s plus a couple more recent stinkers.
Each film is ranked not just on its ability to tell a great story, but also on what it contributed to the furthering of the art of animation, the quality of the art, its lasting impact, and more. It’s not about box office success (some of the greatest Disney films were financial flops), or just about my emotional response to a film. And the farther we go up this list, the more likely my readers will be to disagree with me. You may soon find your favorite Disney film ranked lower than you’d like. Remember, emotional response or wonderful memory of a film doesn’t make it great.
One more thing: I’d still take most of Disney’s worst films over the best films from other studios. The Fox and the Hound is a superior film to Shrek. While The Lego Movie was a huge hit, it doesn’t carry the emotional wallop of Bambi. And while it may not have won Best Animated Feature, Alice in Wonderland is still a better example of the art of animation than Minions.
All that said, here’s the next 10:
44. WINNIE-THE-POOH (2011). Disney returned to hand-drawn animation, the hallmark of the studio, one last time in 2011, in an original story featuring the bear of very little brain. Some of the greatest animators of the 1990’s were given another chance to shine: Mark Henn, Andreas Deja, Tony Bancroft, all were called back in, while Disney Legend Burny Matinson helped craft the story. The songs were written by Robert Lopez and Kristin Anderson-Lopez (who would play a huge role in Disney’s Frozen a few years later) and actress-singer Zooey Deschanel. With all the original voice actors long gone, every character has a new voice, with television’s Craig Ferguson the absolute standout as know-it-all Owl, whose inability to understand “Back Soon” from Christopher Robin sets the entire story in motion. Older adults can enjoy hearing Monty Python’s John Cleese narrate stories far different than the characters he used to play on the British comedy series. It’s a nice film, sweet and tender-hearted, but in the end, it’s really inconsequential, and it’s a shame to see so much talent wasted on a story that would have made a great 1/2 hour television special.
43. THE ADVENTURES OF ICHABOD AND MR. TOAD (1949). Almost a package feature, it’s two very disparate stories forced into one film because of its original working title: “Two Fabulous Characters.” A two part movie, the fabulous characters are J. Thaddeus Toad from The Wind in the Willows and Ichabod Crane from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The trouble comes from the fact that the first half of the film–the story of Toad and his troubles with the Weasles after suffering from Motor Car mania–is so much weaker than the second half. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a standout of Disney feature animation because it’s the perfect combination of story, voice acting, art direction, music, and animation. It never misses a beat as told and sung by Bing Crosby, in his smoothest and crooniest voice, and even if it may seem a bit tacky to call Ichabod “Icky,” it’s one of the finest examples of good narration in any Disney film. Mary Blair’s art direction is beautifully brought to life in all the glorious colors and blue shadows of the story, and the final confrontation between Ichabod and the Headless Horseman is funny, scary, and visually stunning. There’s a reason it should be watched every Halloween–it’s just that good. Sadly, Basil Rathbone’s narration just doesn’t measure up in Toad. He does a fine job, and there’s some great character animation, but The Wind in the Willows is much more than just the story of Toad and his mix-up with the bartender Winky, and the whole affair feels rushed. Yes, it did inspire a classic dark ride at Disneyland, but I’ve never known why.
42. DINOSAUR (2000). A strange hybrid of digital animation and real-life filmed backgrounds, Dinosaur is a bit of a weird film. It was highlighted as the next wave of Disney animation upon its release, and it’s the company’s first foray into full CG animation. It does look extremely good–compare the recent Walking With Dinosaurs years later, and Disney’s dinosaur story is still better-looking. An interesting quest tale about the end of the time of the dinosaurs–it begins with a stunning sequence where the main character’s egg is stolen and ends up on an island miles away from its original home–it is hard to get excited about it when they escape a horrible death toward the beginning of the film because you know how it’s going to end up for them eventually, anyway. It’s weird when the very realistic looking animals, in clearly real places, begin talking to each other. The voice acting is fine, the animation is good, and the whole “idea” of the movie is a cool one. But it just doesn’t click perfectly. James Newton Howard, however, is the real winner out of the creative team–his score is simply perfect, and the best thing to come out of this groundbreaking film. So good in fact, that it lives on today as background music at Disneyland Hotel’s Adventure tower.
41. TREASURE PLANET (2002). It seems like a good idea: Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure novel, complete with pirates and sailing ships, but in space. In hindsight, maybe it doesn’t seem like such a good idea. The directors, John Clements and Ron Musker, had hit gold a couple times for Disney, launching the second golden age with The Little Mermaid, and there are several dazzling sequences and moments in the film. Character animation is good, although the human and grotesque aliens fair better than the more anthropomorphized characters (like Dr. Doppler and Captain Amelia). Glen Keane’s animation of Long John Silver, combined with Brian Murray’s voice acting, is far superior to even Robert Newton’s famous take on the character in Disney’s original live action Treasure Island from the 1950’s. It’s not a musical, although John Rzeznik’s song for Jim, “I’m Still Here” is a nice number that highlights the classic “I want” moment from so many Disney films since Mermaid. James Newton Howard, again, provides a stunner of a score that deserved more recognition come Oscar time. It’s a great collection of moments, but it just doesn’t work as a whole. Maybe, and I shudder to say this, Jeffery Katzenberg was right to pass on it the first time it was suggested.
40. THE MANY ADVENTURES OF WINNIE-THE-POOH (1977). It may not be okay to say this, since there are so many classic moments in these wonderfully gentle, beautifully animated stories, but the trouble is it’s not a great movie. As individual stories, each segment works perfectly. Just like the original books. A.A. Milne’s Pooh books don’t work when they are read all at once, but as individual moments–stories–in the lives of the characters who live in the Hundred Acre Wood. The same is true for the short subjects tied together into this omnibus feature. They all work as shorts, all self-contained, and all nicely animated and voice acted, although for audiences in 1966, when the first Pooh short was released, it may have sounded strange to hear the same voice coming from a villainous boa constrictor (Kaa in The Jungle Book) and the good-natured Pooh Bear. Stirling Holloway makes a better bear than he does a snake, but it shows laziness in casting that so many of the actors were repeats: Barbara Luddy (Kanga) was also in Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, and Robin Hood, Sebastian Cabot (Narrator) was Bagheera in The Jungle Book, Junius Matthews (Rabbit), was Archimedes the Owl in The Sword in the Stone, etc. Each individual story is very sweet, and the songs by the Sherman Brothers are justifiably well-loved by children around the world.
39. LILO & STITCH (2002). It’s an unusual story for Disney, whose features don’t usually take place in a contemporary setting: an alien runs amok on Hawaii and eventually discovers what it means to have a family. When it first came out, it was heralded as a “whole new Disney,” and even the ads used the alien to make fun of Disney’s more classic princess stories. It’s a film with director Chris Sanders’ imprint all over it, from character design to sensibilities, and it has beautiful watercolor backgrounds that compliment the traditional animation. But the main characters can get grating. Lilo, still suffering from the loss of her parents, is an unlikable heroine. Stitch, the alien, is also quite unlikable. Two unlikable characters as heroes makes for trouble, and one almost cheers when Nani, Lilo’s sister, threatens either one of them. In fact, it’s Nani (wonderfully voiced by Tia Carrere) and the aliens Dr. Jumba (another great Disney performance from David Ogden Stiers) and Pleakley (Kevin McDonald, from The Kids in the Hall) who are the most likable characters in the film. There’s a lot of stuff and nonsense along the way as both Lilo and Stitch realize the importance of ohana, but it’s not as groundbreaking today as it appeared to be 14 years ago. However, Mark Keali’I Ho’omalu’s “Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride” and “He Mele No Lilo” are two of the best Disney songs of the last decade.
38. ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1951). Any adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s book is bound to be trouble. It’s an episodic tale with no true dynamic tension or villain, the purpose of which seems to be nothing but create nonsensical situations for the heroine to find herself in and then have long conversations with either herself or the characters. Disney had struggled with his version for awhile, and while it is far from perfect, it’s a brilliant piece of animation art, featuring wonderful vocal performances, more songs than any other Disney film, and a frenetic pace that it actually is able to maintain from the White Rabbit’s first appearance to the very end. Kathryn Beaumont is a delightful Alice, bringing the nearly grown-up conversations she has with a world of zany weirdos a preternaturally sophisticated bent. She is actually better here than she would be in two years as Wendy in Peter Pan. The animators who had been stymied by the package features and war years seemed to cut loose in an effort top each other (which is why the film eventually suffers) and the stylized art direction of Mary Blair nearly shines through. “The Walrus and the Carpenter” segment (with a stellar vocal performance b J. Pat O’Malley) is a highlight, as is any scene with Verna Felton’s maniacal Queen of Hearts. It’s a “lesser” feature because it’s better in part than it is as a whole. It suffers from almost too much story, almost too many characters, and everyone seems to compete for the viewers’ attention. Walt himself realized the “failure” of Alice when it became the first of the classic films to be shown on the Disney TV program.
37. ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE (2001). An original story and idea with a steampunk flavor, Atlantis: The Lost Empire was an ambitious film for Disney when it first came out: the first Disney film in many years with no songs, a sci-fi storyline, and a unique visual style. Coming on the heels of the 1990’s resurgence of Disney animation, it seemed like a good idea for the studio to handle, and it certainly created a great-looking film. The main character, Milo, is performed to perfection by Michael J. Fox (the character is a perfect blend of voice actor and animation), and he’s joined on his adventure by James Garner (returning to Disney after a couple live action films in the 1970’s). The film makes extensive use of CGI in addition to traditional animation, and the filmmakers even went so far as to have linguist Marc Okrand create an original language for Atlantis. It’s a film with great ideas, but ideas alone don’t make a film. The setup and intrigue at the beginning of the film doesn’t seem fulfilled by the end, and the final confrontation between good and evil almost feels rushed. James Newton Howard once again creates a stunning orchestral score, proving himself to be one of the greatest composers to work with Disney since Leigh Harline in the 1940’s. Trouble is, nobody knew what to do with the movie since it was so different from everything that came before–and it usually falls off the radar when ever Disney’s animated films are discussed.
36. Bolt (2008). It’s kind of an underdog story in more ways than one. The story of a dog who thinks he’s actually superpowered (thanks to his role in an eponymous TV show), Bolt was a critical hit, Oscar-nominated, and solid performer at the box office. But because it came at the tail end of the 2000’s, before Disney really began to hit their recent creative stride, it’s kind of forgotten. It’s a strong story with a great fish-out-of-water plotline that eventually morphs into a great buddy film/road movie. The animation is well done, vocal performances are good (John Travolta as Bolt and–gulp–Miley Cyrus as his own), and the main song, “Barking at the Moon,” is a great road trip anthem. The best character in the movie may be the cynical cat, Mittens, whose incredulousness with and growing affection for the dog becomes the heart of the story. Susie Essman gives a very winning performance. Like any great Disney film, it’s ultimately not about the story about the character discovering who he is. Can Bolt be the hero he thinks he is? You probably already know the answer–but the beauty of Bolt is that you can really enjoy the story anyway. It’s a solid little film that helped set the stage for all the great films of the 2010’s.
35. The Three Caballeros (1944). It’s a loosely-stringed together series of stories, songs, and vignettes celebrating South America. It set the stage for many of the “worst” Disney animated films (the package features of the 1940’s and early 1950’s), but it’s a tour-de-force of animation, creative special effects, and a showstopping title song–which is why it ranks so high. It’s Donald Duck’s birthday, and his friends south of the border are helping celebrate. We get to see the story of Pablo, the cold-blooded penguin (Sterling Holloway’s narration is his best performance in any Disney film), a little boy and his flying donkey (full of hilarious visual puns), a trip to Baia, and then explodes into one of the greatest animated sequences of all time with the title song. Combining live action and animation in a stunning way just 16 years after Steamboat Willie, it led the way for later films like Song of the South, Mary Poppins, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The songs are all wonderful, and most of them were already hits by Latin American composers and artists. Mary Blair’s influence is once again seen in the “Have You Been to Baia” sequence, and Ward Kimball’s animation of “The Three Caballeros” is justifiably famous–it never seems to stop, and just gets crazier at goes along. The film takes a surreal trip at the end before literally exploding into a frenzy of color and song. Is it a great story? Not at all. A great moral tale? Nope. The Three Caballeros is simply a fun, enjoyable film that deserves to be seen for the brilliant artistry at work–and for anyone who wants to see why Donald became the world’s biggest cartoon star.
Coming up next week: we make it to #25, where some of Disney’s most recent hits begin showing up. Here’s a few hints: an ambitious sequel, the film that was supposed to be bigger than The Lion King, and a frustrating film that underwent hundreds of changes before it was finally released.