In Parts One and Two, I ranked the bottom 20 films of Disney’s 55 full-length animated features. Most of them were probably not too surprising, although Lilo & Stitch proved to be a bit controversial for some.
This week, we jump into the next 10, and here’s where I’m confident I’ll ruffle the feathers of Disney fans. There’s a lot of good films in Disney’s oeuvre, and people feel passionately about their favorites. Every list like this is somewhat subjective, even if I’m trying to go beyond emotional response and judge things like its art, music, lasting impact on the Disney legacy, and more.
All that to say, if your favorite film is only ranked at 25 or below, sorry. It wasn’t intentional. But when there are so many good movies, the great ones will rise to the top.
34. THE JUNGLE BOOK (1967). The last animated feature produced under Walt’s guidance, it’s one of those really-well-loved films that is actually just not very good. It features some great songs, especially the Oscar-nominated “The Bear Necessities” by Terry Gilkyson and “I Wan’na Be Like You” by the Sherman Brothers. The animation, by Walt’s famous Nine Old Men, is top notch, really showing masters at the top of their craft. But it lacks cohesiveness–there’s a generic plot about getting Mowgli back to the Man Village before Shere Khan the tiger can kill him– but most of the story is just an excuse to get the quite boring Mowgli from one interesting set piece to another. Ostensibly the main character, Mowgli is the most boring character in the film, and he doesn’t really make anything happen–nearly everything in the film happens to him, not because of him. Phil Harris’ easy-going vocal delivery as Baloo is fantastic–it’s no wonder the next two Disney features featured his voice acting. Every major character in the film is well-voiced–especially Shere Khan (George Sanders), King Louie (Louis Prima) and Bagheera (Sebastian Cabot). The trouble is, the voices are almost more important than the animation–and the characters are clearly modeled on the actors. This kind of celebrity voice casting became a far-too-dominant trend in animation, which is used very much to this day by studios (Dreamworks in particular is guilty of this). It’s sad that the last film Walt helped bring to theaters is probably one of his least inspired. It’s “safe” Disney, and a far cry from the risk-taker who made Pinocchio or Fantasia.
33. THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER (1990). One of Disney’s rare animated theatrical sequels (at least before recent announcements), the further adventures of Bernard and Bianca and their attempt to rescue a boy named Cody from a vile Australian poacher is a good movie. It sets out to tell an adventure tale and does so with great animation, stunning camera work, a fantastic score by Bruce Broughton, and stellar voice work by Bob Newhart, Eva Gabor, and George C. Scott. The trouble is, whereas The Rescuers was a gentle story with a powerful villain figure, the sequel almost has too much going on. The kangaroo rat Jake’s attention to Bianca, the unnecessary sidelining of John Candy’s albatross Wilbur in the weird field hospital–plus the extended sequence with the endangered animals (who we never see released and must assume meet untimely ends)–all of this distracts from the main story. Scott’s McLeach is one of Disney’s best villains, a poacher who will stop at nothing to score the big prize, and his interactions with his pet goanna are wonderfully animated and acted. Marihute, the giant golden eagle McLeach is after, is another stellar piece of animation by Glen Keane. While the film is a hallmark in animation history because it was the first to use the CAPS system, and the first partnership between Disney and Pixar, it pales in comparison to the films released before and after, and even in relation to the original film.
32. OLIVER & COMPANY (1988). Released on Mickey Mouse’s 60th birthday, this retelling of the Dickens’ Oliver Twist was a surprise box office hit. It was just the 8th animated feature since Walt Disney’s death 22 years earlier, and came at a dangerous time for Disney animation. The company was just recovering from an attempted hostile takeover, the box office failure of The Black Cauldron, and Don Bluth, a former Disney animator, was making big strides with his partnership with Steven Spielberg (An American Tail in 1986 was the biggest non-Disney animated film at the time). So an adaptation of a classic story with the main characters as a cat and dog was risky, although the film was helped by having Billy Joel and Bette Midler as voices, and the most extensive use of computer animation in a film to bring New York City’s streets to life. The movie also marked the Disney debut of songwriter Howard Ashman (who’d gained success with Little Shop of Horrors with Alan Menken), who wrote “Once Upon a Time (In New York City),” sung by Huey Lewis over the opening sequences setting up the story. The animation is good, if nothing too eye-popping, and the other original songs in the film, particularly Barry Manilow’s “Perfect Isn’t Easy,” are good, too. It’s a good movie, it beat The Land Before Time at the box office, and helped Disney decide to release an animated film every year. That alone assures its place in Disney history, because it’s what led to the second golden age of Disney animation.
31. FANTASIA 2000 (1999). The idea for more Fantasia started with Walt Disney himself, who originally saw the movie as one in perpetual release, with sequences added and removed as necessary. It took almost 60 years, and his nephew Roy, to bring that idea to fruition. Fantasia 2000 is a stunning film, showing Disney animation at its heights during the second golden age. Like the original film, each sequence is set to a different piece of classical music, which has a story told without dialogue. It shows what animation can do as a visual medium, something Walt had been obsessed with but lost when World War II intervened and put his features to a temporary end. Whales fly through the air, a flamingo plays with a yoyo, abstract shapes dance and threaten, and one of America’s greatest artist’s drawings are brought brilliantly to life to the music of one of its greatest composers. It’s not quite as experimental as the original film–there’s much more story to each sequence than there is in Fantasia, but it still looks beautiful, and it sounds amazing. Like Fantasia, Fantasia 2000 is a brilliant combination of sight and sound, but, unlike the original, it’s quite breezy and moves along at a quick pace. While each sequence has its strengths, the standouts are easily Rhapsody in Blue, Firebird Suite, and Piano Concerto No. 2. It was the first Disney film released in Imax (exclusively on January 1, 2000), and continues to show what great art, even in a commercial film, can look like–something Walt would have approved of.
30. WRECK-IT-RALPH (2012). An original story about a bad guy who longs to be the hero, set in the world of video games, Wreck-it-Ralph had been in development of some sort for years at Disney. It’s unique in that the hero is really a villain, and like almost every Disney film since The Little Mermaid, he’s really just trying to figure out his place in the world. It’s also a great satire on video game culture and tropes, with characters from classic arcade games making cameo appearances throughout. Perhaps its greatest asset is John C. Reilly as the titular hero, who makes audiences sense the frustration he feels at always being excluded and never getting to be a good guy. When he eventually befriends another outcast (Sarah Silverman, in her least irritating performance ever), he is able to realize that “I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me.” The final battle with the story’s real villain seems overdone, and visually, it’s hard to look at due to the character design, which is one of the film’s only missteps. Songs are only incidental, but Owl City’s “When Can I See You Again” is quite catchy and found greater life as the theme for Disneyland’s Paint the Night Electrical Parade. It’s not a groundbreaking film, but it has a heart as big as its hero’s hands, and was a big enough hit that Disney has recently confirmed a sequel is in the works.
29. SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959). Easily one of the most beautiful animated films ever made, Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty is a triumph of design over story, and it suffers greatly because of it. The final “princess” film overseen by Walt himself, Sleeping Beauty is one of the rare films where one artist’s style is seen in everything from characters to backgrounds to effects. Lavishly produced and animated, the familiar fairy tale was art directed by Eyvind Earle, whose highly decorative and rigid stylings created a beautiful, sumptuous look for the film–but resulted in adding years to production and causing the animators to hate the look of what they were working on. Walt was so busy with the building of Disneyland over the course of the film’s production that he had little time for his traditional story meetings, and this seems to have led to the film’s greatest problems. After the success of telling Snow White and Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty suffers from not enough humor, a main character who just has stuff happen to her, and a villain who deserves a better film–and certainly a better ending. Maleficent, the evil fairy whose curse on the infant princess leads to the title moment, is a triumph of design, name, animation (by Marc Davis) and voice acting (Eleanor Audley, who had previously voiced Lady Tremaine in Cinderella and would go on to perform Madame Leota for The Haunted Mansion). She clearly outmatches every single person in the film, from the helpless kings to the old maid fairies and the hapless prince. When she transforms into the dragon at the end, it’s obvious who should win (even the animators would have liked to kill off Philip)–but the film has to end with the princess waking up, so she’s doomed to die. It’s a mistake that hurts the film–in the same way having Luke Skywalker take out Darth Vader would have ruined the original Star Wars. The Oscar-nominated score is justifiably famous, adapted by George Bruns from Tchaikovsky’s ballet, and is considered the first film score recorded in stereo. It has one standout song (“Once Upon a Dream,” adapted from the ballet’s waltz), but the rest are really forgettable. It’s one of the greatest Disney films in terms of style–but the lack of a solid story hurts it terribly. Nice to look at, but not much “there” there.
28. POCAHONTAS (1995). This was supposed to be the movie that got Disney its first Best Picture Oscar (and not for animated feature, either). Unfortunately, it followed a little film called The Lion King and that–and problems with historical accuracy–kept it from being the next big Disney film. Pocahontas is quite beautiful to look at, colorful and full of life–it’s a true testimony to the power of animation in the way it depicts the New World and the beauty of nature. Although the story itself is a bunch of hoopla (John Smith allegedly made the whole thing up, and the real Pocahontas was probably just a child when it happened), it’s nicely told. Irene Bedard and Judy Kuhn bring the title character to life, and coupled with Glenn Keane’s stunning character animation, she’s one of Disney’s greatest heroines. Strong, assertive, beautiful–and she gets two killer songs: “Just Around the Riverbend,” a different kind of “I want” song (a standard in Disney films of the 1990’s) and “Colors of the Wind,” a paean to living in harmony wth nature. Mel Gibson’s performance as John Smith is also quite good, and he shows off a nice singing voice in the “production number,” “Mine, Mine, Mine,” which highlights all the ways the English settlers will deforest and ruin the Virgina countryside. David Ogden Stiers makes his second Disney film appearance, playing two characters, including the film’s villain, Governor Ratcliffe, who carries most of that same song and reveals himself to be a racist, greedy, white man–a politically correct villain if there ever was one. One of the major problems with Pocahontas, besides its historicity (although the filmmakers did work with both Native Americans and the Jamestown Settlement), is that Ratcliffe, the main bad guy, is a very unattractively designed character whose primary clothing colors are garish. While the voice acting and singing by Stiers is great, every time we see Ratcliffe onscreen, we want to hide our eyes–and not because we are scared. The background story behind the making of the film explains many of its problems–executives with no story skills or animation background were making many of the story decisions–including having the characters of Meeko, Flit, and Percy (the cute animals of traditional Disney films) not talk. In the end, Pocahontas suffers because it’s too serious, and not “Disney” enough. Which is a shame, because Alan Menken’s songs (with Stephen Schwartz) are all top notch, and deservedly won Oscars–the only Oscars the film was nominated for.
27. THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE (2000). It’s easily Disney’s funniest animated film, and the jokes stem largely in part from star David Spade’s highly sarcastic style. Wisely, however, it’s actually more of a buddy comedy/road movie, and John Goodman makes his first animated appearance as the foil to Spade’s humor. This was not what the film was supposed to be, however. It was originally conceived as a variation on The Prince and the Pauper set in Peru, with a grand and epic story and songs by pop star Sting. As the film went further and further along, costing more and more money, Disney executives got nervous and pulled the plug and the original director left. What Kingdom of the Sun (its original title) might have been can only be briefly glimpsed in the Sting songs Disney was forced to release to keep him on the project at all. What we did end up with isn’t epic at all and features one of Disney’s greatest bromances (Spade and Goodman), and two of their funniest villains. Eartha Kitt (as primary villain Yzma, a skeletal brewer of potions who turns Spade’s titular hero into a llama on accident–it actually makes sense in the movie) and Patrick Warburton (her dim-witted but handsome sidekick) are comedic gold, and the timing of their dialogue is practically perfect. The film’s visual sensibility seems more Chuck Jones (famed Warner Bros. cartoon director) than Walt Disney. It did get an Oscar nomination for Sting’s “My Funny Friend and Me,” which is a great ode to friendship, and eventually led to a spinoff cartoon on Disney Channel. It remains one o the least-merchandised films Disney ever produced–llamas aren’t particularly cuddly.
26. FROZEN (2014). Sorry, everyone. The biggest grossing animated film of all time ranks in my bottom 20. While it features incredible songs (beyond the mega-hit and Oscar-winning “Let It Go”), beautifully animated snow effects, and a girl-power story that leaves the boys behind, it’s just good. I loved Frozen (very loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen) when it was released and even blogged about it frequently (including calling it the “best animated musical since Beauty and the Beast“–which I still believe), but it ultimately suffers from giving the biggest song–and hence, the focus of marketing and merchandising–to the wrong character. By putting so much of the film’s focus on Elsa, who is clearly not the main character, the one character who actually changes over the course of the film, the young princess Anna, is left behind. Although both characters are marvelously voiced (by Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell, respectively), it is Anna who is the most likable and eventually sees her sister (and helps the audience do the same) not as antagonist and monster, but as flawed and broken. In addition, Anna follows in the tradition set by Rapunzel in Tangled in that she is awkward and goofy and more “real” than other perfectly poised Disney princesses like Cinderella and Aurora. Elsa comes across as a one-note character, empowered to be herself, but cut off and isolated, she doesn’t realize how much her sister has grown and changed until the final moments of the movie. In addition, there’s the troublesome characters of Pabby Troll and the rest of the trolls who only show up twice in the movie: to offer bad advice (his bad advice at the beginning of the film sets the stage for young Elsa’s turmoil over her powers) and to sing the really forgettable song in the film. The character who steals the film is the ugly snowman, Olaf, voiced to perfection by Broadway star Josh Gad. He’s easily the best Disney sidekick in generations, hearkening back to characters like Jiminy Cricket, who serve to both comment on and get involved in the action. His song, “In Summer,” is also the film’s comic highlight. Winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, Frozen hit the cultural zeitgeist and struck a huge chord with young women everywhere he enjoyed the empowering storyline and turned the big song into a phenomenon. It may be Disney’s biggest animated hit, but it’s definitely not its best.
25. TARZAN (1999). Giving Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan the Disney animated treatment may have seemed an unusual choice 10 years after The Little Mermaid, but it’s easily the greatest film adaptation of the familiar story and made groundbreaking use of Disney’s Oscar-winning “Deep Canvas” technique for giving 3D backgrounds a painted look to match hand-drawn animation. With stellar character animation (Tarzan is again a standout thanks to the talent of Glen Keane) and voice acting (Minnie Driver is in particularly good form as Jane Porter) and great songs by pop star Phil Collins, Tarzan was a welcome box office success for Disney and helped introduce the character to a whole new generation. The villain, a hunter named Clayton, is wonderfully voiced by Brian Blessed, but his motives are clear from the start and it’s not difficult to see who will ultimately win–the “civilized”man or the ape man? Grating in particular are the two supporting animal friends, Tantor and Terk, an elephant and gorilla voiced by Wayne Knight and Rosie O’Donnell. The less annoying of the two is Terk, whose humor stems from being huge yet easily frightened. After the success of Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin, it seems that Disney wanted to give standup comedians free rein in their vocal performances, but O’Donnell is not as gifted as Williams, and her character can be grating. The film won an Oscar for Collins’ lullaby-ish “You’ll Be in My Heart,” but every song is successful in narrating the story of Tarzan’s journey from birth to eventually becoming the “king of the jungle.” Mark Mancina’s score for the film borrows heavily from the assistance he gave during The Lion King (both the film and the musical), but it hits the right notes and is beautiful when it needs to be. While it eventually gave way to an inferior television show and direct-to-video sequels, the original Tarzan is one of the best films Disney produced in the 1990’s, when its animators were still taking chances and not playing it safe. Tellingly, it would be the biggest animated hit the studio would have until Tangled, 11 years later.
24. HERCULES (1997). A light-hearted take on Greek myth (inexplicably using the Roman variant of the main character’s name), Hercules is the follow up film by the directors of Aladdin, and it shares many sensibilities with that film: a young hero trying to discover his place in the world, a smart and take charge heroine, a funny sidekick to help him along the way, and a supporting character who virtually steals the entire show. Whereas Aladdin had the Genie, Hercules has Hades, the villain of the piece–and the best character in the entire film. Ostensibly the bad guy (he does try to murder Hercules as a baby), Hades is smarmy, fast-talking, and irritated at being the only god who doesn’t get to hang out in sunny Olympus. Determined to get his rightful place in the home of the gods, Hades will stop at nothing to release the Titans and destroy Zeus, Hercules’ father. As acted by James Woods (and animated in a tour-de-force by Nik Ranieri), Hades is a used car salesman, a Hollywood pitchman, and the shady uncle you know you can’t quite trust but still kinda want to. Other characters are well-voiced and drawn (particularly Susan Egan’s Megara and Danny DeVito as Philoctetes, a satyr who wants to see one of his trainees finally “go the distance”) and the style of the film, influenced by British cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, is a nice change of pace from other Disney films of the time period. Unafraid to tease itself, Hercules even teases the Disney empire (the Disney Store in the film is called The Hercules Store–which was a temporary name given to all Disney Stores in North America upon the film’s premiere) and contemporary America’s way of turning everything into merchandise. The songs by Alan Menken and David Zippel (a Tony Award winner for Broadway’s City of Angels) are a sendup of gospel and Motown, with the best song being “I Won’t Say I’m in Love,” in which Megara refuses to admit (with the help of the Muses) she’s in love with Hercules. If you’ve never watched Hercules, then you’ve missed out on one of the greatest performances in animation history: Hades is right up there with the Genie, Maleficent, and Jiminy Cricket as the perfect marriage of voice and art.
The higher you get in the ranking of these films, the more difficult it becomes. Many of the films in this group are favorites of mine, highlights of my time working with the Walt Disney Company (I have fond memories of merchandising for The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Emperor’s New Groove, Tarzan, Hercules, and Fantasia 2000). The next 10 in the list will include at least one controversial choice, several talking animals, some princesses, and Disney’s strongest female character (sorry, Elsa). Where will your favorite rank? And what do you think will show up in my top 10?