In previous posts, we’ve ranked all the animated features produced by Walt Disney Feature Animation since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released in 1937. It’s an incredible hodgepodge of films of diverse genres (animation is an art form, not a genre), but for the most part, the quality of what Disney animation puts out continues to give it the edge over the output from other studios.
Here we reach to nearly the pinnacle of Disney animation. The top three films will be ranked individually, with an entire post devoted to each (when you’re a masterpiece, you deserve a little more exposition). There will probably be at least one surprise here, and a few people may be disappointed. If your favorite’s not here, it’s either lower down on the list, or it is one of the rare films at the top. Once again, a film’s 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.
#13. TANGLED (2010). A splendid take on the tale of Rapunzel, Tangled is one of the worst-named Disney films, ever. Avoiding the word “Princess” in its marketing may have been a shrewd move after the financial disappointment of The Princess and the Frog, but Tangled (called Rapunzel nearly everywhere else in the world) is one of the best fairy tale adaptations to come out of the Mouse House. The story is generally similar to the Grimm Brothers’ story, except Rapunzel actually escapes her tower, goes an adventure with an incredibly awesome rogue, and has the worst “mother” in the history of cinema. Long in development as a leap forward in digital character animation by Disney master Glen Keane, the film eventually saw the light of day under directors Byron Howard and Nathan Greno. It’s the first CG film to feel and look like a movie Walt would have made. The character design is classic Disney (well, classic Disney since Keane’s Ariel in The Little Mermaid), the visuals are beautiful to look at, and the marriage of animation and voice work is stellar. The three leads, Rapunzel (Mandy Moore), Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi), and Mother Goethel (Donna Murphy) all handle their duties beautifully. Rapunzel is both innocent and tough, Flynn is the scoundrel with a heart of gold, and Goethel is chilling in her disdain for her “adopted” daughter, and the mental cruelty she shows the girl tops even that of Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. She never displays magical powers, but she is clearly a nasty piece of work. The songs by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater are excellent. Trouble is, there isn’t enough of them to make the film like an animated musical, and this is one of the film’s major weaknesses. There’s only four songs, and there are moments where it feels like they’ve left something out to either add more action (and please boys in the audience) or to cut the running time. The best song is “I See the Light,” the love duet set to the truly beautiful floating lantern scene, and it deservedly received an Oscar nomination. In the wake of Frozen, it’s hard to remember that Rapunzel and Flynn exist, and are easily the best Disney couple, ever. But remember, every time you see perky and fun Anna in Frozen, Rapunzel did it first.
12. THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1996). One of the greatest musical masterpieces of the 1990’s is also Disney’s darkest film. Tackling big issues like religious hypocrisy, lust, genocide, and racism (to name just a few), this adaption of Victor Hugo’s sprawling novel focuses on the character of Quasimodo, the titular hero (fantastically voiced and sung by Tom Hulce, most famous for playing Mozart in Amadeus), and his desire to escape from the confines of the cathedral he’s been forced to live in all his life by Judge Claude Frollo, his adopted father and “protector.” In a brilliant combination of musical exposition and animation, the opening song (“The Bells of Notre Dame”) explains the film’s central conceit: “Who is the monster and who is the man?” You see, Frollo, while virtuous and on the side of justice, is a callous murderer who killed Quasimodo’s mother and nearly threw the infant into a well upon realizing the baby was deformed and ugly. Yes, all of this happens in the first three minutes of the film, and it’s a breathtaking introduction, beautifully sung by Paul Kandel as Clopin, the self-proclaimed king of the gypsies. Sweeping camera movements, soaring over and around the medieval cathedral that sits at the center of a dark Paris, only add to the epic nature of the film, accompanied by the majestic score by Alan Menken, who does his greatest work for Disney here. Using elements of Latin chant throughout, but to greatest effect in Frollo’s confession, “Hellfire,” Menken’s score is powerful, thunderous, and a far cry from early music, and the songs (co-written with Stephen Schwartz) are easily some of his greatest musical songs in that they expand and help tell the story in ways the music from Aladdin just couldn’t. The film suffers from too many characters (Phoebus is well-acted by Kevin Kline, but he’s unnecessary to the plot, and the trio of gargoyles, clearly there for the kids, distract from the more serious tone), and it does take liberties with Hugo’s novel. But, it’s a daring chance of a movie, something that no animated family film has tried to do since, and that is to present a serious story, a musical even, with the epic flavor of Hollywood’s greatest historical dramas. It’s a completely underrated film with incredible animation (the diffused light in the Rose Window in “God Help the Outcasts” is something Walt would have loved), amazing songs (“Hellfire,” sung with incredible gusto by Tony Jay is a stellar example of songwriting, animation, and voice acting–all about Frollo’s uncontrollable desire for Esmerelda, the gypsy), and two of Disney’s strongest leads in a complex and deadly father/son relationship. Kudos to the animation team at Disney for even attempting something so audacious–and succeeding so beautifully.
11. ONE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS (1961). Walt Disney read Dodie Smith’s original novel and immediately secured the film rights, and it does seem like the perfect concept for an animated film. The story of two Dalmatians whose puppies are dognapped by the evil (and perfectly named) Cruella deVil for very nefarious purposes, the film is a highlight of 1960’s Disney animation, and the last great feature produced by Walt himself. However, it ranks so high on this list for four very distinct reasons. The first is that 101 Dalmatians (as it is also written out) was one of the first Disney films to be driven by a single story man, Bill Peet, whose treatment of the film was so good that Walt did very little to change or correct it. This was revolutionary at the studio, and especially in animation, where story was a collaborative effort. Another reason for the film being #11 out of 55 is that Ub Iwerks, Walt Disney’s oldest co-worker dating back to his pre-Hollywood days, and Ken Anderson, an art director at the studio, completely revolutionized the way animated movies were made. Using a Xerographic process in both animation and in backgrounds, the cost of animated movies shrank significantly (important to the studio after the disappointing Sleeping Beauty), enabling Disney to continue making animated films. The rough animation drawings were transferred directly to the cels, eliminating an entire step and giving audiences an even better look at the great line work of Disney’s Nine Old Men. The third is that it’s the rare Disney animated film to have very few songs, especially considering the main human character is a songwriter. Of course, when one of the film’s only songs just happens to be “Cruella deVil,” one of the first “villain” songs, jazzy and witty, it’s ok when there aren’t many. Finally, the villain in the film is one of Disney’s greatest creations, masterfully drawn and animated by Marc Davis, and voiced to perfection by radio actress Betty Lou Gerson. She kidnaps puppies to skin them, but she’s kind of charming, even though you do wonder how she and Anita could ever have been friends in college.
10. ZOOTOPIA (2016). Disney’s latest animated film is one of its best, and the only one from the past decade to land in my top ten. In this talking animal movie, visually inspired by one of Disney’s worst (Robin Hood), there is much more than meets the eye. Visually, it’s a beautiful film. The city of Zootopia, where all mammals live in harmony, and where “anyone can be anything,” is a visual treat, with distinct feels and cultures for the main groups of inhabitants who live there. Storywise, it’s a hodgepodge Chinatown-esque conspiracy film starring a bunny cop and a reluctant but charming fox. Even typing that out makes me hate it. Zootopia is more than a talking-animal movie, though. It’s a fantastic fable about stereotypes, racial harmony, and Shakira. It’s a funny film. It’s also clever, very witty, beautifully animated, and has a lot to say about life. In short, it’s more than just a cute idea–it’s a crime film, a comedy, and ultimately, a surprisingly deep study of what it means to be, well, human. Voice acting is uniformly excellent, although it’s Nick Wilde, the sly fox played by Jason Bateman, that really takes the cake in terms of delivery, timing, and pace. Music by Michael Giacchino is on par with his scores for various Pixar films, and yes, Shakira’s song is good, too. But it’s not just beautiful animation, great character design, or a good story that make Zootopia one of Disney’s best (with none of the trouble of earlier Disney films like Frozen). This is the achievement of Disney’s latest animated film: it gets everyone to ask some really big questions about our prejudices and misconceptions. It’s a timely message, deftly presented with humor and grace. I think Walt would be proud that an animated film could not only entertain, but make people think–that’s what great art should do.
9. THE RESCUERS (1977). In the list of “great” Disney films, 1977’s The Rescuers rarely comes up. It’s not a showy film, there are no princesses, and it was released during the Studio’s lost years following Walt’s death. But The Rescuers is a true triumph, a last hurrah by some of the great Nine Old Men before they passed the torch to a new generation of animators, and it’s a beautifully told tale with only one slight misstep. Adapted from the Miss Bianca books by Margery Sharp, the story quickly establishes itself: a little girl has been kidnapped, held in an abandoned old riverboat in a place called Devil’s Bayou. She drops a message in a bottle, hoping someone will come and rescue her. Eventually the message is found by some mice who quickly send it to the Rescue Aid Society, housed in the basement of the United Nations building. Miss Bianca, a beautiful Hungarian mouse (voiced wonderfully by Eva Gabor), volunteers for the task and chooses the humble janitor, Bernard (a fantastic performance by Bob Newhart), to be her companion. The story takes off from there, and the two heroes discover a pawn shop owner named Madame Medusa (Geraldine Page) is the kidnapper: she’s forcing Penny to search for a huge diamond called the Devil’s Eye. That’s the plot, which is pretty intense for a family film. It’s one great movie, though. The animation is top-notch (Milt Kahl’s work on Madame Medusa is a tour-de-force in itself) and the clarity of story is Disney at its best, especially after the meandering plots of The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, and Robin Hood. This was only the third animated film released after Walt’s death, and it showed the world that when it captured what was most important (story), no studio could do it better. The character interactions are uniformly excellent, but it’s ultimately strongest when it focuses on the titular mice or the cruel Medusa, who says one of the most cutting lines in any Disney film: “Adopted? What makes you think anyone would want to adopt a homely little child like yourself?” It’s a damaging line, hurtful beyond words, and sets up beautifully the Oscar-nominated “Someone’s Waiting for You,” which reminds Penny not to give up–and leads to her finally meeting her little rescuers. The one misstep is the band of bayou animals, voiced by Disney perennials of the 1970’s–they seem extraneous to the very tight plot, and are clearly there to add much-needed levity to a pretty serious film. The Rescuers was Disney’s last animated blockbuster until The Little Mermaid, 12 years later, and it still stands the test of time. Because, as Walt often reminded his team, story is everything.
8. ALADDIN (1992). If only for Robin Williams’ hilarious and brilliant performance as Genie, 1992’s Aladdin would rank as a great achievement in animation. But Aladdin is 1990’s Disney firing on all cylinders, attempting things the studio had never done before, and succeeding brilliantly. The story is the familiar one about the boy who find a magic lamp, releases a genie, and tries to win the heart of a girl while an evil vizier attempts to stop him. But in the hands of directors John Clements and Ron Musker, along wth the music of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, and animators like Andreas Deja, Glen Keane, and Eric Goldberg, the story is bigger, better, and surprisingly deep. It’s a true movie musical, with memorable songs like “A Friend Like Me,” “Prince Ali,” and “A Whole New World,” and one of the best Disney villains, Jonathan Freeman’s Jafar, whose calm delivery of most of his lines makes him even scarier. It’s a uniformly excellent film on all levels, a magical and fun story for kids, a hilarious movie full of jokes for adults, and a great contemplation on what it means to be yourself. Aladdin hates his identity as just a “street rat,” longing for something more. Jasmine wishes she didn’t have to live the life of a princess. The Genie longs to be free. It’s not until Aladdin finally embraces who he actually he is that he can become something more, and ultimately help the other characters find that freedom as well. Effects animation in the movie is top notch, with magical swoops and swirls, the amazing Cave of Wonders, and the still-thrilling escape from the cave on the wonderfully animated Magic Carpet, a character in itself. Aladdin takes everything the team learned from the success of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast and became Disney’s biggest hit in years. It’s still a timeless retelling, full of incredible animation, great music, fantastic characters (Scott Weinger’s Aladdin shines as well, as one of Disney’s strongest male heroes), but the film will always shine brightest because of that Genie, the perfect combination of animation and actor–and easily Williams’ greatest performance.
7. DUMBO (1941). Disney’s shortest animated feature is also one of its best, telling a beautiful little fable about believing in yourself and not giving up. The hero never says a word, but he inspires everyone who has ever felt alone or outcast to realize they can be more than what others say they are. Dumbo is a perfect film in every way. After the expansive art experimentation in Fantasia, Bambi, and Pinocchio, Walt turned to a simple, very “cartoon-like” method of storytelling in Dumbo, mostly due to cost–the war in Europe had made each of the previous film expensive failures. The economy of storytelling on display in Dumbo–necessitated in part by budget constraints–keeps it moving quickly and eliminates non-necessary characters, but always keeps the emotion at the core of the film. It’s ultimately a story about a baby who is rejected by society, removed from the care of his one protector (who is called “mad” because she stepped in to protect her child from mockery), and left to his own devices. The only characters who show any compassion to Dumbo at all are outside the “norm” of society: Timothy Mouse, who is the elephant’s “natural” enemy, and the crows, who ultimately turn from teasing the elephant to helping him. The animation doesn’t look like it was done on a budget, with beautiful sequences and songs like “Look Out for Mister Stork” and “Song of the Roustabouts” not only advancing the plot, but giving the animators a chance to shine like they did in the earlier Golden Age films. The famous “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence is tour de force in stylized animation, amazingly cutting edge 75 years later, something that still influences animators today. Voice acting is uniformly excellent, with Edward Trophy’s Timothy a standout as the only friend Dumbo has–until he meets the crows, whose leader is voiced by Cliff Edwards, in a far different performance than the one he gave as Jiminy Cricket. The movie packs a lot of songs into is short running time and deservedly won the Oscar for Best Score, while being nominated for the beautiful lullaby, “Baby Mine.” If you haven’t watched it recently, watch it again. Dumbo is a fantastic example of Walt’s team doing what they did best: advancing the art of animation while telling a story that could only be told through their incredible artistry.
6. BAMBI (1942). Hard to believe today, but the incredibly lifelike animation in Bambi was a disappointment to critics upon its first release. Having brought deer into the studio for the animators to draw from life, adding layers of realism unheard of at the time, along wth the stunning background work of Tyrus Wong, Bambi is one of the greatest animated films ever made. Less than 14 years after the rudimentary animation of Steamboat Willie, Disney and his artists made a film that continues to influence and inspire through its detail, attention to combination of visuals and music, as well as telling a serious story with no magic, no true comedic characters–the only fantasy is that the animals talk to each other. The effects department shines beautifully throughout the film, matching the haunting score by Frank Churchill, and songs sung by offscreen voices in the still-thrilling forest fire, the battle between Bambi and Rollo for Faline, and, in one of my favorite animation moments ever, the “Little April Shower” sequence. There is incredible tension in the film, most of it due to an offscreen villain. The threat to the animals by humans is more palpable here than an any other great “conservation” film, due, once again, to the incredible storytelling that lets the audience feel what the animals feel beyond just showing what man does to them. As the animals hide toward the end of the film, one quail can’t handle the tension anymore, and as she panics, the audience feels her terror continue to grow. In the same way, the famous moment when Bambi’s mother tells him to run–and he is left alone and scared after her sudden death–shows the power of animation to do something “regular” film may not be able to accomplish. Bambi may have been ahead of its time, as Walt continued to push the boundaries of what a “cartoon” could do and be, but it has rightly earned its place not only as one of the greatest animated films, but one of the greatest films of all time.
5. PETER PAN (1953). Walt Disney had wanted to do an adaption of the classic story for years, and initially hoped it would be his follow-up to Snow White. Thank goodness he couldn’t secure the rights from the Great Ormand Street Hospital until many years later–Peter Pan benefits from the strength of his animators’ experience (this was the last film all the Nine Old Men collaborated on) and a studio that was back in the swing of things following the dark years of the late 1940’s. Disney’s adaptation alters a few significant things from the original book, but it does stick to the spirit of the play by giving the audience a wonderful window into the world of Neverland in a way that even a heavy special effects live action film has yet to match. Peter Pan is a truly mischievous boy (and Disney’s was the first adaptation where he was actually played by a boy) and Bobby Driscoll, who grew up as a Disney star in films like So Dear to My Heart and Treasure Island, delivers the best performance of his career. His Peter is funny, naive, irritating, and selfish. In short, he’s the perfect preteen boy, and it’s only the centering influence of Wendy (Kathryn Beaumont, also the voice of Alice in Alice in Wonderland) that calms him down and helps him finally care about somebody beyond himself. Tinkerbell the pixie became an iconic character in her own right, and Captain Hook (voiced by Hans Cornreid and animated by Frank Thomas) is a classic character, although he doesn’t ever seem truly villainous. He is callous (he shoots a man in the middle of his credenza) and manipulative, and the scene where tricks Tinkerbell into revealing Peter’s hideout is a wonderful piece of character animation. The songs in the movie are all uniformly excellent, but the standout is “You Can Fly! You Can Fly! You Can Fly!” Beginning as spoken dialogue as the Darling children attempt to join Peter as he flies about the nursery, the Jud Conlon Chorus eventually takes over (the choral arrangement is perfect), and for the first time in history, audiences could see the flight from the nursery to Neverland. It’s a fantastic sequence, and when the children and Peter land on the minute hand of Big Ben, it’s a pretty wonderful moment. Disney’s version of Peter Pan is the version of the story for most people, and that’s a good thing. It’s a boyish adventure, with pirates and mermaids, and yes, Indians (probably the only misstep in the film, but it’s also a key part of Barrie’s original story). It was the biggest grossing movie of 1953 and continues to be a huge part of the Disney legacy: anyone ever seen Tinkerbell fly around the castle at the start of the Disneyland television show?
4. SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937). It’s still the “fairest of them all.” Watching it again, it’s hard to believe the film came barely 9 years after Steamboat Willie. It’s the movie that cemented Walt Disney’s place in film history, launched an entire film art form, and it continues to shine as a stunning film achievement. Knowing he could never expand his studio if they continued to make short films (even ones as amazing as Three Little Pigs or The Old Mill), Walt leveraged everything to create the first full-length animated feature. He not only staked his company’s financial future on it, he put all his personal resources into the film’s budget as well. The history of Snow White is well-documented, including the evening when Walt sent his animators to dinner and then brought them back, acting out the entire story for them. Story is everything in Snow White. It’s a tightly drawn plot with very little extras thrown in, both out of economy of story, and also because of limitations in budget and and skill. The movie’s characters are uniformly excellent, with only the Prince being a minor character–again, mostly due to lack of skill–the animators couldn’t quite get him “right.” The true stars of the movie are the seven dwarfs, unique for the first time in the telling of this old fairy tale because Disney gave them each a personality (and a matching name). They are all wonderfully animated, and the affection they have for the girl they find asleep in their bed is genuinely felt due to fantastic voice acting as well. The standouts are Grumpy (voiced by Pinto Colvig, the voice of Goofy) and Dopey (who doesn’t know if he can talk, because he’s never tried), who sets the bar for “great Disney sidekick.” He’s a wonderful comic creation, never treated as foolish, just very naive and childlike. The evil Queen–who turns herself into the quite scary Old Hag–is regal and evil, setting the stage for evil stepmothers with disdain in their voices. The music of Snow White is also revolutionary in that songs help propel the story and aren’t just random song moments. Long before Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! did it on Broadway, Walt and his team used songs to move the story forward and explain the character’s motivations. “I’m Wishing” and “Someday My Prince Will Come” are the first “I want” songs sung by a Disney hero (explaining their big desires), while “Heigh Ho” introduces the dwarfs, what they do, and helps move them from the mine to their cottage in the woods. Another first, thanks to the film, was the introduction of a “soundtrack album.” Until Snow White, releases of recordings from movies had never occurred. The backgrounds and art direction by Albert Hurter, Gustaf Tenggren, and Ferdinand Horvath give a European picture book look to the film and can be seen in the intricate carvings in the dwarfs’ cottage, the queen’s throne, and the forest where Snow White runs for her life. Upon the film’s release it was hailed as an artistic triumph, with even the great Russian director Eisentsien proclaiming it the greatest film ever made. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was wildly successful, influencing studios (The Wizard of Oz in 1939 was MGM’s attempt at a musical fantasy), and making Walt enough money to build the studio in Burbank where The Walt Disney Company is still located. The impact of Snow White on popular culture, but more importantly, on the art of animation, Walt, and his studio, can be felt to this very day. While the voice acting may be dated (particularly in the main character), the film is still a testimony to the power of a story well told, regardless of the medium of the telling. It would push Walt to believe that animation could do anything, and he would nearly bankrupt the studio again proving that animation wasn’t just cartoons–it was serious, wonderful, beautiful art.
It should come as no surprise that most of the greatest “Disney” films are those personally overseen by Walt himself. He was not a fantastic artist, by his own admission. But he had the incredible ability to lead a diverse group of people into attempting impossible things. He single-handedly turned animation from being something added to a real movie into the movie itself. He became the darling of the art world, the critical community, and for a few crazy years it seemed like the sky was the limit. Without Walt, there would be no such thing as an animated film. Without Bambi, there would be no Zootopia. Without Snow White, there would be no The Little Mermaid. Without Dumbo, we wouldn’t have The Lion King.
It should also come as no surprise that the top three films on this list are films heavily influenced by Walt. Only one of them was produced after his direction, but it’s the most “Walt”-like film of the current generation of animated films. The other two pushed the art of animation to heights they would never again achieve, regardless of how good the movies are today–to attempt to make them today would be financially impossible, and they wouldn’t have the genius of Walt Disney guiding them along. But we’ll get to those next.
Next week: Disney’s greatest fairy tale.