I recently posted a 5 part list of 100 non-Disney, non-Pixar and non-Ghibli animated films in the hope of inspiring fans of the medium of animation to look beyond the more well-known studios to discover some lesser-known gems. In doing so however, I worried that I might give the false impression that I do not adore the output of these animation titans. In order to rectify this possible misconception, I’ve decided to write some articles ranking the films of Disney, Pixar and Ghibli from worst to best. I’m beginning with Disney and focusing on their main canon; that is, the 56 animated features released under the Walt Disney Animation Studios banner between 1937 and 2016 (I haven’t included their most recent film Ralph Breaks the Internet, for the simple reason that I haven’t seen it yet). For clarity, I’ve divided the films into three tiers. Tier 3 starts with the very worst Disney films and works up to some interesting failed experiments and watchable but lesser works. Tier 2 features higher quality work and beloved staples that just fall short of the absolute cream of the crop. Tier 1 will be made up of my 20 favourite Disney films. So without further ado, let’s plunge headlong into the Disney canon and start arguing the case for our personal favourites. I already know number 45 will land me in hot water!
56. HOME ON THE RANGE
If ranking the Disney films has occasionally proved difficult for a fan such as myself, choosing the absolute bottom-of-the-barrel nadir of the studios output was a surprisingly easy task. In 2004 Disney was in the middle of a critical and commercial slump from which it seemed they might never emerge. This doomy sense of lost magic was cemented by the release of Home on the Range, an excruciating tale of a group of dairy cows in the Old West who go on a quest to save Patch of Heaven, the ranch on which they live happily (despite the implied brutality of the gratuitous opening shot in which the Disney logo is branded onto the screen with a painfully lascivious sizzle). From its first scene which seems to aim for Chuck Jones style slapstick but forgets to factor in the importance of timing, Home on the Range feels desperate to please but incapable of appealing to any but the basest of audience instincts. While the voice cast features plenty of talent, they seem to have been assembled without any consideration for how they will complement each other, so you get the aural clash of Roseanne Barr and Judi Dench exacerbating the sense that nothing is coming together. Home on the Range was the last hand-drawn Disney feature for half a decade, its box office failure forcing the studio to rethink their approach.
Although it was a financial success upon its release in 2000, Dinosaur is probably the Disney animated feature that most people would forget when trying to list the studio’s output. A concept that had been kicking around since the 80s but was only realised when the necessary technology became available. This was Disney’s first computer-animated feature, combining realistic dinosaur characters with live action backgrounds to fairly striking effect. But unfortunately that is where the appeal ends. The problem with Dinosaur is it is so thoroughly bland in terms of plot, character and even title that it fails to distinguish itself in any way beyond visual innovation. Perhaps the original intention to make Dinosaur a film without dialogue and with a darker, more violent edge would have served its realistic look better but by this point the dinosaur concept had been thoroughly nailed by Steven Spielberg in Jurassic Park and the critical failure of that film’s sequel had already shown how visual flair wasn’t always enough to carry a feature length runtime. Dinosaur also evokes previous Disney indignities with its inescapable parallels with Don Bluth’s 1988 hit The Land Before Time, a film that outgrossed Disney’s release of that year, Oliver and Company. Ultimately though, Dinosaur’s main problem is a tonal clash between bold visuals and bland storytelling, resulting in a lumpen, humourless and forgettable experience.
54. CHICKEN LITTLE
Upon its release in 2005, Chicken Little was a commercial hit, reversing the 21st century slump Disney had been going through. So why isn’t it a better known film rather than a rarely-screened, half-forgotten curio. There are several reasons Chicken Little has fallen into relative obscurity. As Disney’s first entirely computer-animated feature, its look has undoubtedly dated in a way that highlights the gulf in quality between the Disney and Pixar films of the mid 00s. Though it plumps for a deliberately more cartoony style than the more sophisticated Pixar films or the realism of Dinosaur, Chicken Little now looks like something a computer-savvy teen could knock up at home. But the real problem with Chicken Little is the storytelling. The plot is completely all over the place, almost shading into the level of insanity that derailed Don Bluth projects like Rock-a-Doodle. It concerns a young chicken who causes widespread panic in his town when he raises the alarm that the sky is falling. This seemingly erroneous claim causes the young chicken to be ostracised by the community, setting up an arc in which credibility must be regained in the face of another seemingly incredible emergency. There were several roads the film could have gone down here and the original notion of a sinister conspiracy at a summer camp might have served the plot well. Instead, Chicken Little underwent drastic rewrites in which an invisible UFO and an accidentally abandoned alien are introduced into the plot, sending it into a dramatic tailspin. In the face of this narrative swerve, Chicken Little completely crumbles and this fact did not go unnoticed by critics. If posters featuring a cute little chicken brought audiences flocking to the film, Chicken Little’s imbecilic storyline prevented it from making a lasting impression and ultimately it couldn’t reverse the studio’s critical shortcomings in the same way it did its commercial slump.
53. BROTHER BEAR
Brother Bear arrived at a time when Disney was groping around for a 21st century identity, resulting in a series of interesting, unusual if not always successful animated features. By contrast, Brother Bear’s tale of a tribesman who is transformed into a bear by vengeful spirits returns to a simpler, more traditional style of storytelling. Originally conceived when the success of The Lion King led Disney CEO Michael Eisner to demand more animal-centric films, Brother Bear spent many years in development but in its journey from concept to finished product it never shook off that machine-tooled sense of cash-grab repetition. Its blandness feels indicative of its intention to repeat the box office business of a mega-hit and, as is so often the case with films that have that intention, the heart of the story is lost amongst the visible machinations of the whole enterprise. Although it did decent business and garnered an Oscar nomination, Brother Bear inspired an appropriately muted critical response and remains a thoroughly uninspiring, magicless plodder.
52. FUN & FANCY FREE
During the 1940s when the war effort began to take over Disney studios and many animators were utilised in making propaganda films, the feature film division was kept going by the production of ‘package films’. Generally considered lesser works, the package films were often cobbled together from shorter projects that had been in development or feature film ideas that were ultimately deemed unworthy of a full-length runtime. Despite their reputation, the package films often work very well for what they are and are strung together using unifying themes that make sense. The major exception is Fun & Fancy Free, the fourth of the six package films. Two completely unrelated shorts slapped together with some hastily shot live-action footage, Fun & Fancy Free not only feels awkward but also uncinematic, its small stories more suitable as precursors to main features rather than a part of the main feature itself. ‘Bongo’ is a cutesy, tedious romantic adventure about an escaped circus bear while ‘Mickey and the Beanstalk’, the film’s main attraction, is a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk featuring Mickey, Donald and Goofy. These three characters had worked beautifully together in a series of popular shorts and Mickey has recently been boosted as a prestige figurehead with projects like Brave Little Tailor and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Ultimately, ‘Mickey and the Beanstalk’ fits in nicely with this clutch of shorts but fails to distinguish itself as worthy of a place in a feature film. It is the highlight of Fun & Fancy Free but this is sadly indicative of the film’s lack of distinction.
51. MEET THE ROBINSONS
Following in the wake of Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons suffers from many of the same problems including slightly awkward computer animation and an overcomplicated plot, all exacerbated by a troubled production process in which almost 60% of the film was scrapped and remade. When it was released in 2007, Disney was on the cusp of pulling themselves out of their slump and Meet the Robinsons feels like one of the last of its truly weak creations. That said, it is certainly an improvement on Chicken Little and its boisterous comedy and convoluted plot involving orphans, time machines and alternate realities feel like a laudably ambitious choice rather than a by-product of desperate flailing. Perhaps the most noteworthy element of the film is a final quotation presented in stark black and white and attributed to Walt Disney: “Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things… and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” It feels like a bold statement of intent that also acknowledges the flawed ambition of then-recent productions and the continued determination to create magic again.
50. THE BLACK CAULDRON
It could have been brilliant. The rights to Lloyd Alexander’s five volume fantasy epic The Chronicles of Prydain were purchased as early as 1971 at the urging of veteran animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson, who envisaged something as magnificent as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But fourteen years in development hell with a revolving door of contributors turned The Black Cauldron from a would-be masterpiece to a jumbled mess. The first Disney animated feature to be given a PG rating, The Black Cauldron aims for a darker mood than most of its predecessors but executive anxieties resulted in revisions and recuts, as well as the rejection of some potentially revolutionary character designs by a young Tim Burton. The promise of the project was frittered away as the darkness was toned down and the lighter comedic elements began to spread, clashing awkwardly with the source text. The Black Cauldron isn’t a total write-off as its thrilling trailer attests but ultimately the troubled production is there on screen for all to see, with the animation veering between epic and cheap-looking and the story flailing wildly to try and accommodate the shifting tone. Despite its obvious shortcomings, The Black Cauldron was at the time the most expensive animated film ever made and its failure to recoup its costs earned it the reputation of ‘the film that almost killed Disney’. Hurting from the embarrassment of being beaten at the box office by The Care Bears Movie, Disney neglected to release The Black Cauldron on video until the late 90s, by which time it had developed an inevitable cult following. But sadly the film doesn’t live up to the hushed tones in which nostalgic fans speak of it.
49. OLIVER & COMPANY
Disney were on the cusp of their second Golden Age when Oliver and Company came out in 1988 but few would have predicted the renaissance on the evidence of the film. A meandering revamp of Oliver Twist starring a cat and a group of tough street dogs, Oliver and Company sounds reasonably promising but it falls down in the script and animation departments. Although Disney used their new Computer Animation Productions System (CAPS), in which they’d just invested fifteen million dollars, to spice up the backgrounds, the crucial character animation frequently looks cheap and rushed. The great idea to cast Billy Joel as a hip canine take on the Artful Dodger pays off in the catchy Why Should I Worry? sequence, undoubtedly the film’s highlight, but a strong voice cast that includes Bette Midler, Cheech Marin, Robert Loggia and Dom DeLuise can’t fix the broken-backed plot. DeLuise’s presence is indicative of the ongoing box office feud between Disney and former employee Don Bluth, whose own animated features were starting to pick up momentum at the box office. In the event, Bluth’s The Land Before Time opened at number one in the same week Oliver and Company stalled at number four. While the Disney film ultimately outgrossed Bluth’s and became a financial success, critics who praised The Land Before Time were less enamoured of Oliver and Company and the weak notices coupled with that opening week trouncing left the studio dusting itself off once more.
Opinions differ on exactly which films deserve inclusion under the Second Golden Age umbrella but many see 1999’s Tarzan as the final film of the Disney Renaissance. In terms of box office clout and visual innovation, Tarzan earns its place alongside other popular Disney releases of the 90s but in many other ways it is a film that leaves much to be desired. Opting for the more serious approach to storytelling also chosen by contemporaries like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Pocahontas, Tarzan falls victim to the curse of irritatingly clashing comic relief in the form of some anthropomorphic jungle creatures who stick out as awkwardly as, in retrospect, its computerised innovations also do. Tarzan’s other major innovation was to feature a collection of songs that are largely not performed by the characters themselves. Instead they are performed by their composer, Phil Collins, and his maudlin tones are allied incredibly poorly to the action taking place underneath. Since they don’t pause to sing the songs themselves, the characters go about their business as the songs are played and this unsynchronised action is sometimes utterly preposterous. Finally though, Tarzan fails mostly in the storytelling stakes. While the first clutch of films in the Disney Renaissance had reclaimed classic storytelling for the studio, the recent encroachment of a distinctly 90s character had begun to quickly date later additions to the canon and make them seem like a middle-aged parent trying to rap the times tables. Chief offender here is Rosie O’Donnell’s sassy, Brooklyn-accented gorilla Terk whose interminable presence sinks the film completely.
Following the comparatively serious Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules felt like a breath of fresh air in 1997 with its primarily comedic tone, cartoony design and endearing rough edges. Developed and directed by Ron Clements and John Musker off the back of their massive hit Aladdin, Hercules aims for a similar tone but unfortunately misses the mark. Although it received critical acclaim, with special mention going to James Woods’ drily amusing turn as villain Hades, Hercules starts off at too high a volume and keeps going with this in-your-face style, quickly becoming exhausting. Detrimental in this respect are the Muses, a Greek chorus of gospel-singing women depicted on the side of a Greek urn but clearly modelled on a plethora of 90s diva pop stars. Deliberate anachronisms such as these would soon begin to litter the Disney catalogue again, instantly dating films that should be aiming for timelessness. Hercules’s more down-to-earth design also hampers the film’s appeal, appearing rushed rather than edgy and energetic, and the film visibly struggles with the adult nature of some of the Greek myths. Though a storyline involving adultery was understandably excised, the lascivious chasing of clearly-unwilling nymphs by Danny Devito’s satyr Phil tips its hat to the lusty nature of these mythical creatures at the expense of good taste. Such lapses may not have the power to derail the film individually but they mount up, with Hercules emerging as a crude, misjudged knockabout triviality. It may have seemed refreshing when it first popped up amongst a barrage of films clearly straining for artistic excellence but its lack of pretension is not enough to make up for its lack of quality.
Although they have repeatedly shown a dedication to quality, Disney at its worst cannot shake off the whiff of product. It would be naïve to imagine that any animated feature created by a major studio was not encumbered with the weight of commercial concerns but the very best Disney films mask such considerations beneath their ability to mesmerise, entertain and bring out the child in everyone. Mulan is a fairly well-loved from the 90s Disney renaissance but its fans tend to be mainly those who grew up with it. By the time Mulan came out, I was sixteen and had temporarily lost interest in Disney films, focusing on other concerns like music, GCSEs and the emotional agony of adolescence! So by the time I got round to seeing it, the film already felt dated and underwhelming, something that never happens to the best of Disney’s output. But the main issue for me is that Mulan ultimately fails to adequately disguise its status as product. You can almost see the Happy Meal toy of Mushu the dragon sidekick (Eddie Murphy, in a precursor to his even more annoying turn in Shrek) and taste the limited edition Szechuan sauce dripping off the McNuggets. This creaky commercialism-over-quality vibe is epitomised in the character of Crick-ee, a cutesy cricket sidekick who was added to the film against the wishes of the director and story department but at the behest of CEO Michael Eisner. Animator Barry Tempe recalled “I would sit in meetings and they’d say, ‘Well, where’s the cricket during all this?’ Somebody else would say, ‘Oh, to hell the cricket.’” Ultimately, Mulan proves vaguely entertaining in a bland, cartoonish way but its limited charms are swallowed up by a distractingly dull plot, underdeveloped characters and that unshakeable whiff of a western movie premiere awash with Chinese lanterns and fortune cookies.
Yes, that’s right. I’ve put Frozen in Tier 3! Look, I don’t want to be a jerk about this. I understand that Frozen was a genuine phenomenon and brought great happiness to millions of children and adults alike. I understand the appeal of that inescapable ‘Let It Go’ song, having heard enthusiastic children belting it out with abandon in the streets. I understand that its snowy landscapes and comic-relief snowman, as well as its late November release date, forever tie it to Christmas and therefore up the nostalgia quotient considerably. I’m not trying to take these things away from anyone and I genuinely love how much people adore this film. That said, I continue to be slightly puzzled by the fact that Frozen’s commercial explosion was matched by a similar outpouring of affection from critics. I’ve watched this thing several times now and there are things that I like; I like that the emphasis is placed on the relationship of the two sisters rather than the romantic relationships, I admire the animation and its strong evocation of a snowy landscape. But for me the story is flabby and fails to pull all its threads together satisfactorily. Worse still, the characters are bland, with Olaf the Snowman, the film’s obvious breakout character, being awkwardly stapled onto the film even after the storyline contrives a great emotional entry point for him. He tags along with the main characters, chuntering away annoyingly like a popsicle-ised Donkey from Shrek, but he is rarely actually acknowledged as part of the action, making him another in a long line of tacked-on comedy sidekicks. And the ubiquitous ‘Let It Go’ aside, the soundtrack veers from forgettable to irritating, with the horrible ‘Love is an Open Door’ standing out as one of the worst Disney songs ever. Still, what do I know, eh? Frozen is, at the time of writing, still the top grossing animated film of all time, its success unfortunately resulting in a forthcoming sequel. I hope it lives up to fans high expectations, I genuinely mean that. After all, Frozen may not have a place in my heart but neither is my heart made of ice!
44. MAKE MINE MUSIC
The third of Disney’s package films, Make Mine Music is a sort of budget Fantasia but featuring a range of different musical styles rather than just classical. It crams ten segments into 75 minutes, including a version of Prokofiev’s ‘Peter and the Wolf’ and a reading of Ernest Thayer’s poem ‘Casey at the Bat’. There’s nothing particularly wrong with Make Mine Music, though its sequences are hit and miss and none of them emerge as essential. When the war disrupted his attempts to take animation to new levels of quality, Walt himself proclaimed “From now on it’s mashed potatoes and gravy” and Make Mine Music is the epitome of that statement. In this era, Disney’s average material was still high quality stuff and Make Mine Music has some good segments but they all tend to fade from memory immediately, save perhaps for the finale ‘Willie the Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met’ which, in its tale of an opera singing whale who is ultimately harpooned to death, may stick in the mind for the wrong reasons!
43. FANTASIA 2000
When Walt Disney released his third animated feature Fantasia, his intention was to keep it on continual release in cinemas but to replace previous sequences with newly produced ones so audiences never saw the same film twice. Though the initial commercial failure of Fantasia quashed this idea, the subsequent embracing of the film as a classic of animation meant that Walt’s original idea never quite went away, with the notion of a sequel kicking around the studio for many years. In 1999 that sequel finally became a reality, with seven newly animated sequences accompanied by the evergreen ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment from the original film. Like most anthology films, the original Fantasia included, Fantasia 2000 is a hit and miss affair but it does show an encouraging willingness to experiment with different styles of animation. The computer animation in the film has dated badly, with the strange flying whales of the ‘Pines of Rome’ sequence looking eerily lifeless and the decision to use Hans Christian Anderson’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier as the basis for the CG segment accompanying Shostakovich’s ‘Piano Concerto No. 2’ drawing instant and inescapable comparison’s with the more sophisticated Toy Story films. But there is much to admire in the wonderful ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ sequence which brings to life an animated New York City based on Al Hirschfeld’s newspaper cartoons, one of Disney’s boldest stylistic decisions of the era. The comedic ‘Carnival of Animals’ sequence in which a group of synchronised flamingos attempt to control a goofball rebel element is striking and fun, while the closing ‘Firebird Suite’ sequence is classic Disney-does-scary, hand-drawn brilliance. But the film shoots itself in the foot by opting to mirror the live-action introductions of the original with some terribly hammy guest hosts, including Steve Martin and Penn and Teller, whose antics disrupt rather than complement, as the pompous but dignified original intros had. And while it honours Walt’s original intentions, including the classic, vastly superior ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ cannot help but overshadow all the new segments and it doesn’t help that it appears right before by far the worst sequence, ‘Pomp and Circumstance’, which features a choppily animated Donald Duck as Noah’s assistant on the ark. It’s a low point in a mixed bag but its juxtaposition with the perfection of ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ illustrates well how Fantasia 2000 never comes together as a coherent whole and must instead settle for being a grab-bag of curios.
42. TREASURE PLANET
Disney’s 2002 box office bomb Treasure Planet breaks my heart because it comes so close to being exactly the sort of film I adore. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker had pitched the idea of Treasure Island in space ad early as the late 80s and never quite let go of the idea. By the time they were given the green light, the technology to make Treasure Planet look as spectacular as it needed to be finally existed and the four-and-a-half year production period was spent elegantly combining hand-drawn and computer animation to striking effect. Wisely opting to eschew a cold, futuristic vibe for a warmer, classic adventure atmosphere in which gorgeous galleons are transported, sails and all, into outer space and space suits are not necessary for survival. Unfortunately, for all its ravishing visuals, Treasure Planet is weighted down with too many ideas and under-realised characters, which slows its pace down to a crawl after an extremely promising start. A strong voice cast struggles gamely with the material but the arrival of a lumbering, half-robotic Long John Silver scuppers the film before the adventure has even begun and matters aren’t helped by Martin Short’s annoying turn as a malfunctioning robot. Ultimately, Treasure Planet is sunk by too much attention being placed on its world and not enough on the inhabitants of it. Like the cyborg Silver himself, it ends up feeling like neither one thing nor another, and its diverse, promising elements cannot be reconciled into a satisfying whole.
41. THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG
There was a lot of buzz around Ron Clements and John Musker’s The Princess and the Frog for several reasons. Not only did it star the first African-American Disney princess but it also marked the studio’s return to traditional animation for the first time since Home on the Range was deemed to have killed the medium for future Disney films. While both of these elements were positive, The Princess and the Frog failed to set the box office alight as the studio had hoped it would and hand-drawn animation once again took a back seat. There was much anxiety among commentators about how sensitively Disney would handle a New Orleans set story starring African-American characters but the studio listened and responded to several criticisms, including changing the central character’s name from Maddy to Tiana in order to avoid drawing parallels with the offensive term ‘mammy’. The animation was also stronger than some of rockier-looking latter day Disney efforts that preceded The Princess and the Frog. The soundtrack by Randy Newman also contained some excellent, memorable songs. So what exactly happened? Disney’s own research into the disappointing box office takings suggested that audiences found the traditionally-animated film about a princess to be old-fashioned but the problem for me rests squarely with the film’s all-over-the-place plot. Though it takes inspiration from the original Brothers Grimm story The Frog Prince, The Princess and the Frog adds a new twist wherein the princess herself (who is actually an aspiring chef in fancy dress) is converted into an amphibian when she kisses a prince who has suffered the same indignity. The pair must then find a way to regain human form before it is too late. This quest eventually involves a trumpet-playing alligator, a family of Cajun fireflies and a voodoo queen. The characters themselves aren’t terrible but they feel stuffed into the plot rather than introduced naturally and the myriad influences from classic Disney (acknowledged influences include Lady and the Tramp and Bambi, although there’s definitely a bit of The Jungle Book in there too) clash with each other and the vaguely modern tone. The result is a bizarre gumbo indeed, which is agreeably lively and attractive while never feeling especially coherent or satisfying.
40. THE ARISTOCATS
Many people see the 70s as the beginning of a significant downturn in quality for Disney’s animated feature films but I tend to disagree, numbering several of the films they put out during that era among my favourites. But the first Disney of the decade, The Aristocats, is a conspicuously flimsy effort which loses a wafer thin plot amongst a barrage of overzealous noise and colour. Disney’s previous film The Jungle Book was a hard act to follow and the approach The Aristocats opted for was to attempt to almost directly replicate elements that had worked so well in that film. So you get a jazz-tinged score, a plethora of memorable comic characters and some well-timed slapstick sequences. Unfortunately there is nothing to hang these charming decorations upon and the film becomes more like a variety revue than a coherently plotted story. One major mistake is the casting of Phil Harris, so iconic as Baloo in The Jungle Book, in the role of smooth alley cat Thomas O’Malley. Harris’s good-natured boom is too powerful a voice for a comparatively small-framed creature and this pivotal character fails to come together. The Aristocats also lacks a strong villain, with Edgar the butler doubling up as bad-guy and hapless loser which removes any sense of real danger. The scenes in which Edgar tries to retrieve incriminating evidence against him from two oblivious hound dogs are the best in the film but in top-drawer Disney they would merely have been a memorable sideshow to the crucial main plot. Many later Disney films would suffer from a decent story filled with forgettable characters. The Aristocats seems to put all its effort into developing vivid characters and then fumbles its attempt to cram them all into the film. A drunken goose named Uncle Waldo is particularly conspicuous in this respect. The excruciatingly narrow thread by which The Aristocats hangs for most of its runtime finally snaps during the finale, resulting in one of the strangest closing scenes of a Disney film ever as the screen is saturated with psychedelic colours and almost every character turns up to dance to a reprise of the admittedly memorable song ‘Everybody Wants to Be a Cat’. It’s like a precursor to the dance-off sequences that end so many 21st century animations but filtered through the drug-addled tail-end of the 1960s.
39. WINNIE THE POOH
The ongoing popularity of Disney’s Winnie the Pooh franchise has been staggering. Since his Disney debut in 1966 with the short film Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, Pooh and his friends from the Hundred Acre Wood have managed to claw their way into the top five biggest selling franchises in the world. This phenomenon has been kept alive by a steady flow of short films, TV series, video games, cuddly toys and a handful of theatrically released features produced by Disney’s smaller Disneytoon Studios. But with 2011’s Winnie the Pooh, Disney brought the bear of very little brain back into its main canon in a charming adventure that, at the time of writing, is the studio’s last traditionally animated film. With its 63 minute runtime, Winnie the Pooh is one of the studio’s shortest films and while this may be a deliberate choice, the overwhelming impression is that it is because of a lack of material. That’s not to say that what there is isn’t delightful enough but Pooh’s gentle world was always best experienced across a short runtime and even with the mild sense of threat provided by the notion of a mysterious monster called the Backson, Winnie the Pooh feels more than long enough by the hour mark. Though it is ultimately a trifle, this affectionate little film has enough going for it to land it at the higher end of Tier 3 Disney.
38. SALUDOS AMIGOS
Released the same year as Bambi, the last film of Disney’s original golden age, Saludos Amigos was the first of Disney’s “mashed potatoes and gravy” package films and is a very different proposition from the high-art aspirations of the studio’s previous films. That said, across its slim 42 minutes lifespan, Saludos Amigos manages to delight fairly consistently with its four segments, interspersed with live action footage of Disney artists touring South America. Saludos Amigos was conceived as a goodwill gesture to cement good relations with Latin America and counteract their existing ties with Nazi Germany in the face of the US’s entry into World War II. The film’s important achievements give it a leg up in a historical sense but the animated sequences themselves also demonstrate just how high the quality of Disney’s animation was at this time that they could be considered mediocre. That said, Saludos Amigos does have more of a short film festival feel that a feature film vibe, its thematic link making for a weaker and less cinematic unifying force than Fantasia’s classical music. Still, we get a couple of great Donald Duck shorts (including the splashy, invigorating ‘Aquarela do Brasil’, in which the animators were clearly reaching for something more artistically exciting), a fine Goofy short (usually cut nowadays to remove scenes of Goofy smoking a cigarette) and the sweet story of Pedro, an airmail plane who gets caught in a vicious storm. It’s solidly entertaining stuff, even if a lack of historical context or lack of interest in the same might cause many modern viewers to reject Saludos Amigos in favour of one of Disney’s better-known titles.
There are differing opinions on when Disney’s second renaissance (or third golden age) begins and, though I would personally cite a slightly earlier film as the trigger, there are many who name Tangled as the first film of this era. A visually-striking, forcefully realised take on Rapunzel, Tangled is certainly one of the first films in a long time that saw Disney exuding a palpable confidence. This confidence is at least partly earned, with Tangled’s plot being well worked-out to expand its source text from its tower-bound narrative, but there’s also an off-putting modernism about the film that sacrifices classic storytelling in favour of sassy anachronisms and a sense of humour that occasionally seems too eager to please in its self-aware silliness. These problems were ironed out somewhat in Tangled’s sister film Frozen, although the issues with plot and character in that film still make it a less enjoyable work than Tangled in my book. If it falls back a little too much on a then-fashionable gag-heavy approach, Tangled also moves along at a fast pace and feels good-natured even when the jokes aren’t landing, making for a breezy, enjoyable experience that only narrowly missed out on inclusion in Tier 2. But as its outward confidence is not enough to completely mask the tonal jumble at its centre, the top of Tier 3 is where it has ended up.
That’s it for Tier 3. I hope you’ll join me for Tier 2 where things start looking up distinctly in the Magic Kingdom. Until then, let me know what you think I’ve got horribly wrong or bang on the money.