Looking back over the 55 animated films Walt Disney Feature Animation has created since 1937, there’s an impressive, overarching quality to the movies created by Walt Disney and his successors. It’s interesting in that even some of Disney’s worst movies are still far superior to movies released by other studios, and the benchmark set by Disney is pretty high.
However, not every Disney movie is great. Some, as noted in Part One, are “bad” or just “not good.” Part Two showcased some films that had potential, but still could not be judged as “great.” Part Three shows that as we look at better films, it gets more difficult to judge–some truly great movies are forced to a lower ranking simply because there are far superior films ahead of it.
Here in Part Four, there is certain to be at least one controversial choice. But even here, as we rank #23-#14, there are some truly stellar Disney films that may not rank as high box office success or emotional attachment aren’t how they’re being measured. Legacy, impact on the art of animation, what it means to the Disney empire, impact on culture–all of these, in addition to the emotional factor, contribute to each film’s place in the hierarchy.
So let’s begin with the most controversial choice in this list.
#23. BROTHER BEAR (2003). When it was released in 2003, Brother Bear was considered a second-rate version of The Lion King set in the wilds of Alaska. I think it is actually one of Disney’s most solid films of the 2000’s, with an intriguing and original story, fantastic character animation, songs by Phil Collins that are superior to what he composed for Tarzan, and several stunning sequences. Disney itself seemed to want the film to fail–justifying the move to CG animation–opening the film on a Saturday, instead of the usual Friday, meaning it lost being #1 at the box office to Scary Movie by a mere $600,000. The film deserved better, because it’s a great male-centered story, with strong familial bonds between brothers a highlight and not something Disney normally delves into. The story of a selfish younger brother who is transformed into a bear and the way he bonds with a young cub, Brother Bear is beautifully animated. Clearly inspired by the landscape paintings of Albert Bierstadt, it’s gorgeous to look at, with stunning backgrounds and two aspect ratios (the movie goes from regular widescreen to anamorphic widescreen after the transformation) that highlight the difference between the “real” and the “animal” world. Bryon Howard, who went on to direct for Disney, including their 55th film, Zootopia, does great work with the lead character, Kenai. Songs by Phil Collins are better than his previous Disney outing, helped by the fact that they are sung by artists like Tina Turner and The Blind Boys of Alabama. The best song is “Welcome,” sung as Kenai and Koda arrive at the salmon run (later used as the theme for Disneyland’s 50th anniversary parade), but nearly every song is a standout. The score, by Mark Mancina and Collins, is superior to the music created for Tarzan, making great use of the Bulgarian Women’s Choir singing Inuit for “Transformation,” when Kenai becomes the bear. Brother Bear is a nearly forgotten film, coming after the disappointing Treasure Planet and before my “worst” Disney film, Home on the Range. It’s an epic film with fantastic voice acting (Joaquin Phoenix and Michael Clarke Duncan are both standouts), great comedy, and a strong family angle that makes its emotions well-earned. It’s a better movie than many remember, and it deserved better than Disney treated it.
22. CINDERELLA (1950). Walt Disney’s first major feature of the 1950’s was also the first full-length feature since Bambi in 1942. It was hailed by public and press alike, who turned the movie into a huge hit, with multiple Oscar nominations (for music and sound). While it may have felt revelatory after the dismal “package” features of the late 1940’s, the film pales in comparison to later Disney fairy tale adaptations. While it has great moments, well-loved songs, and some very endearing mice, the reliance on live-action footage means the animation can be stodgy at times. Everything about the film is “safe,” and it is clear that Disney needed this movie to be a hit–an advance and improvement over his biggest earlier hit, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs nearly 15 years earlier. Cinderella herself is very sweet, but kind of dull. Prince Charming has a nice duet, but except for a yawn during the ball, he has very little personality. The true characters of the film are Lady Tremaine, the evil stepmother, and the two main mice, Jaq and Gus. Eleanor Audley’s performance as the stepmother is a perfect lead-in to her best Disney role (Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty), and she’s never out-and-out mean to Cinderella directly, using her influence over her daughters to get the dirty work done–which may even be worse. Her snide looks, animated by Frank Thomas, are perfectly done. Jaq and Gus, the two main mice, are perfect comic creations, nicely voiced by Jimmy MacDonald (then voice of Mickey Mouse) and animated by Ward Kimball and John Lounsbery. The Fairy Godmother (voiced by Verna Felton, her 2nd of 7 performances in Disney films, and one of her best) gets the best song of the film, “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” which received an Oscar nomination and became a big hit. “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” is also a highlight song, while the song the mice sing as they sew Cinderella’s dress is quite catchy. It’s a perfectly nice film, and it’s certainly better than the next Disney princess film (Sleeping Beauty), but it’s just not the groundbreaking film Disney’s Nine Old Men, the best animators in history, were capable of. It’s nice and sweet, like its heroine. And that about sums up its problems as well.
21. THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989). Unless you saw The Little Mermaid upon its initial release in 1989, you can’t quite understand the impact this film had on both Disney and animation in general. The moment “Under the Sea” ended in 1989, audiences burst into applause, the way they did after a Broadway showstopper. And that’s what The Little Mermaid was–a hearkening back to the golden age of the Broadway musical–and Disney animation–in that the songs advanced the story, were part of the story. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, who had written the off-Broadway hit Little Shop of Horrors, seemed like an unlikely duo for an animated film adaption of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale about a mermaid who falls in love with a prince and ultimately sacrifices herself because of her love. Walt Disney and his team had tried to bring the story to life for many years, but couldn’t get through the story’s difficulties. Menken and Ashman succeeded, brilliantly, because they got to the heart of the story, wrote brilliant songs that helped advance that story, and gave the new generation of Disney animators (especially Glen Keane and Mark Henn who animated Ariel, the titular heroine, and Ruben Aquino, who brought Ursula, the sea-witch, to life) some of the best characters to appear in a Disney film in generations. The art is beautiful, a great example of the power of “traditional” animation, and the scene where Ariel bursts from the water after transforming into a human is still one of the most stunning moments I’ve ever witnessed on the big screen. Beautiful effects animation, the most since Fantasia in 1940, help bring the underwater world to life. Ariel is the first Disney princess with actual drive and motivation (even if it’s “just” to marry her prince), and the voice work by Jodi Benson is still a marvel. She’s perfectly voiced and sung, and her big number, “Part of Your World,” is up there with “Over the Rainbow” as one of the best “I want” songs in film history. Her guardian crab, Sebastian, is wonderfully voiced by Samuel E. Wright, who gets two of the other great songs in the film, the aforementioned “Under the Sea” and the “love song,” “Kiss the Girl.” Having a diminutive Jamaican crab carry most of the humor and music may seem risky, but Sebastian is up there with Jiminy Cricket as a perfect combination of character, songs, and animation. Unfortunately, the rest of the characters in the film suffer because Ariel, Ursula, and Sebastian are so strong. Prince Eric, the object of Ariel’s affection, is good-looking and more active than previous princes, but he’s still very one-note. And the fact that he can’t recognize Ariel simply because she can’t talk still grates. It’s the music that makes The Little Mermaid a huge part of the Disney legacy. It reawakened a whole generation to the true wonder of how great song can tell a great story, and set the stage for Disney’s Second Golden Age to begin. The film won two Oscars, for Alan Menken’s score, and for the song “Under the Sea.” Without The Littler Mermaid, we would not have Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Tangled, or Frozen. Many people owe their earliest childhood memories to the red-headed mermaid, and that’s a legacy Walt would have been proud of.
20. LADY AND THE TRAMP (1955). One of Disney’s best animal stories, Lady and the Tramp had been in development since the 1930’s. A beautifully animated film told from the perspective of a female Cocker Spaniel named Lady, a mongrel named Tramp, and the other animals they encounter during the course of the film. Filmed in widescreen CinemaScope, it required the artists to learn new techniques in layout, animation, and background art. Coming just a few years after Cinderella, the advances in human animation are clear, and the detailed early 1900’s settings gorgeously fill out the screen. It’s a worthy “talking-animal” successor to Bambi, and the dogs are wonderfully characterized and perfectly voice acted, with stellar performances by Larry Roberts (in his one major screen role) as Tramp, Barbara Luddy (in her first of seven vocal performances for Disney) as Lady, and Peggy Lee, who voiced Darling, Si & Am, and Peg, in addition to cowriting all the songs. Lady is a winning character, and seeing her progress and growth over the course of the film is a highlight, seeing her innocence in interacting with cats, babies, and, of course, the streetwise Tramp. Tramp is an ideal hero, full of charm and wit, yet sensitive–the way he cares for Lady from their very first meeting through the end of the film is obvious. One of many wonderful moments, and an iconic one, is the spaghetti dinner shared by the title characters to the music of “Bella Notte,” easily the most famous song in a film full of wonderful songs. Although it is loosely based on a story by Ward Greene, Lady and the Tramp is mostly original, which makes it a true first in Disney film history. The final chase through the streets is one of many highlights, as is the gentle song that opens and closes the film, one of Disney’s only original Christmas songs. It’s a lovely, charming, and very romantic story–and deservedly in the top 20 of all Disney’s animated films.
19. THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG (2009). The first traditionally-animated Disney film since Home on the Range, The Princess and the Frog is a wonderful film. Influenced by the look and feel of Lady and the Tramp, which the filmmakers felt was a highlight of Disney’s Silver Age, it’s full of well-thought-out characters, fantastic songs, and a few moments of truly stellar animation. Loosely adapted from the story of The Frog Prince, it features a twist in that the girl who kisses the frog ends up becoming one herself. Their adventures to escape from the “Shadow Man” (who caused the transformation in the first place) lead them from the streets of New Orleans to the bayou, all beautifully recreated in warm colors and tones. It’s clear the artists were attempting to bring the glory back to an art form that was in danger of dying (and still is), and they pulled out all the stops to create a film that would equal the great Disney films of earlier ages. The villain, Dr. Facilier, is one of the best in recent memory, voiced to smooth perfection by Keith David. He is likable and detestable at the same time, and his big song, “Friends on the Other Side,” is one of the film’s highlights. Also quite memorable are Ray, a lovelorn firefly, and Louis, a jazz-loving and trumpet playing aligator. But the film belongs to Tiana, one of Disney’s best “princesses” (she isn’t one until the very end of the film). Tiana is driven, strong-willed, and full of passion She doesn’t wish upon a star, determined to work hard to make her dreams come true, and her theme song, “Almost There,” is a far cry from Aurora’s “I Wonder.” Animated by Mark Henn and voiced by Anika Noni Rose, she is a fantastic creation. The music by Randy Newman, known to most animation fans for his work on Pixar’s Toy Story and Monsters film, is a fun homage to the New Orleans of his boyhood, while the songs are all great. Famed jazz artist Dr. John sings the Oscar-nominated song “Down in New Orleans,” which sets up the story, the feel, and style of the movie. Sadly, the film did not do as well at the box office as it should have, victim to a bad title (perhaps the word “princess” threw off families without boys) and opening just five days before Avatar. It’s a wonderful throwback to a previous age of Disney films, while featuring the strongest Disney princess ever.
18. MEET THE ROBINSONS (2007) Based on a book by famed illustrator William Joyce (whose style is felt throughout the film), Meet the Robinsons is a funny, fast-paced, and ultimately sentimental (in a good way) story about family. It’s the rare Disney movie to feature a fully-formed family unit, especially one with extended relatives, even though the main character, Lewis, is an orphan in search of a family. At the heart of the story is the fact that everyone needs a place to belong, a place to continue to develop and grow and pursue life’s greater callings: and family is where that can happen best. When a boy from the future takes Lewis with him, he sets in motion a series of life-changing experiences–and some brilliant animation sequences, wonderful character interactions, all set to one of Danny Elfman’s best film scores. Rob Thomas’ song, “Little Wonders” perfectly encapsulates the heart of the film: “Our lives are made in these small hours, these little wonders.” As Lewis meets the Robinsons, he comes to understand the importance of the small moments, the beauty in the tiny interactions that have life-altering consequences. The film also has one of Disney’s most hilarious villains, a nefarious black-suited man in a bowler hat (complete with long twirly mustache) who has it out for Lewis for some reason. By the end of the film, all the characters get their “good” ending, and Lewis realizes that he can let go of the past and all that it meant to him, because the best thing to do is, as the Walt Disney quote that ends the film says, “Keep moving forward.” Great voice acting, a hilarious encounter with a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and a surprising twist make Meet the Robinsons a wonderful movie from start to finish. It’s highly underrated in the Disney catalog, deserving a much higher place as Disney’s first good non-traditional animation film, and a great message as well. The music in the movie is great, including British jazz-pop artist Jamie Cullum as a singing frog who brings great energy to Rufus Wainwright’s “Where is Your Heart At?” while Wainwright himself contributes two great songs. We could all learn, like Lewis does, to realize that our lives are made in “these small hours.”
17. BIG HERO 6 (2015). When Disney purchased Marvel, many fans wondered when it would lead to an animated superhero film. While it’s not about some of the most famous heroes in the Marvel lineup, Big Hero 6 is easily one of the best superhero films of all time, superior in many ways to the other great animated superhero film, Pixar’s The Incredibles. An origin story, the film is adapted from the comic of the same name, set in a fictional city called San Fransokyo, where a group of awkward geniuses join together to discover the identity of a super villain who killed their best friend. The unlikely hero of the story is Hiro, the best friend’s little brother. Also a genius, he is uncertain about what to do after his brother’s death, but finds a close friend and surprising ally in a Healthcare Provider Robot named Baymax. It’s a stunning combination of design and story, brilliantly animated and wonderfully acted, especially in the performance of the huggable balloon Baymax (animated by Hyun-min Lee and voiced superbly by Scott Adsit). The film is beautiful to look at and full of nicely diverse characters without being obvious about it. It’s also full of great humor as well as great heart, with the relationship between Hiro and Baymax one of Disney’s greatest duos. Big Hero 6 is also a technical marvel, with a brand-new software developed simply for lighting effects that bring the Tokyo/San Francisco mashup to life with great detail. Ultimately, though, it’s the characters and the team dynamic that make Big Hero 6 one of Disney’s great successes. Joining together to create a superhero team, the friends learn to trust and rely on each other. Even better, they help the young Hiro become the hero he can truly be–the person his brother always believed he could become. When Hiro is confronted with a devastating choice, he is able to honestly say, “I am satisfied with my care,” even when it can be the hardest thing he’s ever had to say. Big Hero 6 is a fantastic Disney film, but it’s also one of the best stories in the Marvel Universe, and it fully deserved its Oscar for Best Animated Feature.
16. THE LION KING (1994). Full disclosure: I worked for Disney during the summer of 1994, when the entire country went crazy over this film and everything from stuffed animals to t-shirts to that incredible opening song was everywhere. During development, The Lion King was the underdog of the studio, with the prestige picture being Pocahontas. Ironically, the “talking animal movie” was a much bigger hit and became a permanent part of pop culture. The Lion King became the biggest animated film of all time because of its winning combination of great animation, incredible voice talent, songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, and one of the best film scores ever. In retelling the story of Hamlet in the plains and jungles of Africa, Disney’s storytellers and animators bring considerable skill and heart to a story that dangerously comes close to being too familiar–uncle murders father, son is exiled, and eventually comes back to avenge his father’s death. That pretty much sums up the plot of The Lion King, but that’s not the strength of the film. The strength lies in some of the best voice acting of any animated film ever and Disney animators at the top of their game. Because it wasn’t the prestige film, there’s a looseness to the film–and the acting–that makes it incredibly fun. The murderous uncle, a lion named Scar, is one of Disney’s best villains because of Jeremy Irons’ vocal performance and Andreas Deja’s animation. It’s a great combination that really shines every time Scar talks with his nephew, Simba, and even more in “Be Prepared,” where Scar sings of his plans to take over Pride Rock and rule with this hyena army. Two of Disney’s best comedic performances are found in Timon and Pumbaa, two animals who attempt to teach Simba how to live “worry free,” or, as they call it, “Hakuna Matata.” The duo are voiced by Broadway veterans Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella, who shine in a vaudevillian way. The best song, however, is the truly eye-popping opening number, “The Circle of Life.” With its opening chant (sung in Zulu by Lebo M., who directed the choirs used throughout the film and contributed to to the score), striking visuals, and a great vocal performance by singer Carmen Twillie, it’s deservedly considered one of the best beginnings to any Disney film. Hans Zimmer’s Oscar-winning music is a triumph, and easily his best score in a career full of amazing work. It’s so musical that much of it was adapted into songs for the Broadway version of the film. It’s a great film, but the last act feels rushed, and the female characters are underwritten. The story is too familiar in many ways, which is why it ultimately isn’t one of my top 10 Disney animated films. But The Lion King, like Frozen, will forever be part of the cultural zeitgeist and a huge part of the childhood of any kid who was alive in the 1990’s.
15. Mulan (1998). Mulan is the rare Disney film featuring a female lead who is not a princess or queen–or who eventually becomes a princess or queen or whatever. It’s based on an ancient Chinese legend about a girl, Fa Mulan, who saves her country from invasion. In the film, Mulan is a girl whose love for her father causes her to go to great lengths to protect his honor. In doing this, she disguises herself in his armor and joins the army to protect her country from the Hun invasion. Eventually, her secret is discovered and she is left to die. Along the way, Disney gives girl fans their strongest female character ever (again, sorry, Elsa). The movie doesn’t end with a wedding, and there is little hint of romance. In Mulan, the stakes are too high. This isn’t just a story about a boy and a girl, it’s a story about nations at war, with the lives of millions at stake. The first half hour of the film is essentially comedy free, although the opening song, “Honor to Us All,” uses light humor to show how the title character’s intended destiny is getting married and having kids. The scene where Mulan decides to take her father’s place is wordless, using incredible cuts between takes, close-ups, and Jerry Goldsmith’s fantastic score (easily one of his greatest) to add great sense of power and drama to her decision. Eventually, the family’s “guardian” is sent to protect Mulan from danger. The diminutive dragon, Mushu, becomes her staunchest ally and biggest fan. Winningly voiced by Eddie Murphy (far superior to his role in the Shrek films), Mushu is both funny and endearing, effectively lightening the mood when things get too serious. Although Mulan has songs, including the song “Reflection,” which became a hit for Christina Aguilera, they are not necessary. At this point, Disney was still doing musicals, so it seems like they couldn’t get away from what was working, which only holds the film back. They are perfectly fine, but they are not needed, and the film reveals this clearly when they disappear halfway through. Jerry Goldsmith’s score, though, is so good, it’s disappointing he didn’t get a much-deserved Oscar. Made by many members of Disney’s B-team (in the now-defunct Florida studio), Mulan is a truly wonderful film with a fantastic main character (voiced by Ming-Na Wen and Lea Salonga), strong family ties (again, a rare Disney film in that the main character has both parents alive)–it’s remains one of Disney’s best.
14. THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE (1986). In the history of Disney animated films, there are many moments when a particular movie set the course for films to follow. 1937’s Snow White obviously was the birth of feature animation, Cinderella reminded audiences that Disney could do more than just omnibus features. The Great Mouse Detective is one of those films. Released after the disastrous box office of The Black Cauldron and produced on a shoe-string budget, it was the success Disney Feature Animation needed at just the right time. Without The Great Mouse Detective‘s success in 1986, there would have been no Little Mermaid in 1989, and we all know what came after that. It’s easily one of the worst titled Disney films, considering it was based on the much better titled book Basil of Baker Street, but it’s a high-speed, funny, and witty adventure where talking animals live parallel lives to Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, and Professor Moriarty in Victorian England. The main characters, Basil (voiced by Barrie Ingham, to perfection) and Professor Moriarty (played by Vincent Price, who wisely never falls into a parody of himself and creates a whole new, and wickedly hilarious, character) are brilliant animated creations, and they are surrounded by a host of wonderful characters as well. The little lost girl who sets the story in motion (Olivia Faversham, voiced by 8 year old Susanne Pollatschek, whose Scottish brogue is so strong Disney considered dubbing her voice) is adorable without being annoying, while her father is voiced in a familiar way by Alan Young, who also voices Scrooge McDuck. The film made incredible early CG use in a fight scene in the clockwork of Big Ben, but it’s in the humor that the story really shines–especially when Ratigan captures Basil and leaves him in an elaborate trap. The score was by legendary composer Henry Mancini, while pop star Melissa Manchester contributed a song as well. It’s one of Disney’s most unsung films, but it’s a tightly paced adventure film with great characters and even better humor. Without The Great Mouse Detective, there would have been no “Disney Renaissance,” and Disney animation would most likely have ceased to exist. It was the right film at the right time–and it’s truly one of Disney’s best films.
Next time, we get to #13 all the way to #4. But we’ll save the top three Disney films, and my pick for the greatest Disney animated film of all time, for another time. There are a few princesses, a gothic drama, more talking animals, and some of the biggest hits of the 1950’s. So stay tuned!