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 contains 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 dive into Tier 2.
36. MELODY TIME
By the time Melody Time, the fifth Disney package film, was released in 1948 it had been six years since Disney had released a full-length feature focusing on one story alone. But if critics were starting to miss the magic of Dumbo and Bambi, Melody Time at least kept audiences happy by offering a more accessible version of Fantasia in which classical music is replaced by popular music of the time. Melody Time was a modest success and its greater musical continuity makes it flow better than its predecessor Make Mine Music. The animation feels more confident and there is a greater emphasis on stronger narratives in sequences like ‘The Legend of Johnny Appleseed’, ‘Little Toot’ and ‘Pecos Bill’, while looser segments like the dance party of ‘Blame It On the Samba’ (featuring Donald Duck, the most frequently recurring character in the package films) and the terrific surrealism of ‘Bumble Boogie’ are carried by pure energy and visual invention. The era of package films was winding up by the release of Melody Time but its consistently enjoyable achievements show how Disney were beginning to master the art of compiling odds and ends into something that feels like a satisfying whole.
From a critical point of view, Pocahontas is often seen as the moment the Disney renaissance slammed into a wall. Although it was another huge commercial success, Pocahontas was roundly criticised for taking the interesting life story of a real Native American woman and reducing it to “noble savage” stereotypes with a tacked on romance. There is much to cringe at in Pocahontas, from the talking-to-trees simplification of Native American culture (the trees talk back, incidentally) to the well-meaning but fumbled depiction of racism that culminates in an uneasy musical number called ‘Savages’. But revisiting Pocahontas after a couple of decades, a lot of positive elements have been overlooked in retrospect. For one, Pocahontas is one of the most gloriously gorgeous films Disney has ever produced. Combining realism and perfectly-pitched stylisation to ravishing effect, the film is a constant pleasure to behold. The much-derided animal sidekicks are also used fairly well, mercifully kept only semi-anthropomorphic (you can talk to trees in this world, just not animals!) and deployed sparingly to enliven an occasionally over-earnest plot. And the soundtrack features a couple of rather wonderful, rousing songs sung by Judy Kuhn as Pocahontas; ‘Just Around the River Bend’ and the Oscar winning show-stopper ‘Colours of the Wind’. While it may fail in the storytelling stakes, Pocahontas still stands as one of the most beautiful looking animated features of its decade and its plus-points are enough to pull it into the lower-reaches of Tier 2 Disney.
34. THE FOX AND THE HOUND
The Fox and the Hound is a touching and modestly effective examination of prejudice and how our societal roles define our relationships, as examined through the friendship of Tod and Copper, a young fox and hound dog respectively whose convention-defying relationship is put to the test by the pressures of expectations. Filled with potential to be a really interesting and engaging piece, The Fox and the Hound emerges as a frustrating film in that its flashes of genuine brilliance are counterbalanced by moments of generic sentiment that temper its ambition to say something profound. This visible tug-of-war was the result of an awkward time for the Disney studio in which the old guard were beginning to cede their thrones to a new generation of eager young animators. While many of Disney’s legendary animators worked to encourage their proteges, others took exception to the revolutionary approaches for which these young upstarts were pushing. This offscreen war is most apparent in the film’s refusal to allow the death of Chief, a hunting dog who is struck by a train while pursuing Tod, a plot point which inspires the breakdown of his relationship with Copper. The stories themes and dramatic weight clearly rest upon Chief’s death but co-director Art Stevens’ vehement (and wrong, incidentally) insistence that Disney had never killed a main character before and weren’t going to start now placed conservative rigidity above story integrity and Chief’s fatal injuries were reduced to a broken leg, despite the criticisms of the new animation team.
It may seem like this narrative clanger would be enough to completely derail The Fox and the Hound and cast it into the darkest corners of Tier 3 Disney. Fortunately, the innovations and energy of the upcoming animators could not be completely suppressed and their work makes The Fox and the Hound a deeply interesting, at times ravishing film. Look, for instance, to the subtlety of the slow-burning opening sequence in which autumnal melancholy and eerie silence foreshadows the offscreen murder of Tod’s mother. For a studio that usually kicked off their films with upbeat blasts of brass and ornate storybook visuals, its a remarkably restrained and emotionally effective preface to a story that, by all rights, should have retained these feelings at its core. Also notable is the climactic fight sequence between Copper, Tod and a large bear which received great critical praise at the time and continues to be regarded as a great sequence in Disney history. That The Fox and the Hound could have been a masterpiece is clear and the potential in the young animators that was here stymied by tyrannical conservatism was later given the chance to emerge fully both at Disney and outside of it. The unfettered creativity of the likes of John Musker, Ron Clements and Glen Keane drove the Disney Renaissance while classic non-Disney animated features like Jerry Rees’ The Brave Little Toaster clearly display the brilliance these animators were capable of if allowed to work unchallenged. Even when battling an inflexible regime, talent like this cannot be completely stamped out and that is why The Fox and the Hound remains an intriguing, at times excellent film. It just could have been so much more.
Before it ballooned into the part-mesmeric, part-bloated 2 hour plus concert film it became, the seeds of Disney’s Fantasia were planted when Walt expressed interest in creating a special Mickey Mouse short in order to boost the character’s waning popularity. Mickey had already secured his place in film history but Disney’s affection for his first major star character drove him to envision an epic short based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ and set to Paul Dukas’s orchestral piece inspired by the poem. The poem tells the story of a sorcerer’s assistant who, left with a list of chores, attempts to use his master’s magic to lighten his load. The Disney version sticks closely to this tale, casting Mickey as the titular idle opportunist who enchants a broom to fetch pails of water for him. After drifting off to sleep and dreaming of himself as an all-powerful wizard, Mickey awakes to find the floor awash with water and is powerless to stop the broom continuing to fetch more. In chilling silhouette, he hacks the broom to pieces with an axe… only to find that the pieces spawn into new brooms and soon there are an army of them all intent on fetching more water. The return of Mickey’s master puts a stop to the spell. A simple morality tale, ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ remains by far the most popular segment of Fantasia and was included in its entirety as part of the belated sequel Fantasia 2000. Mickey had never looked handsomer, redesigned from his original hollow-eyed look to finally have pupils and stripped of his famous red dungarees in favour of a long red coat and wizard’s hat. Though he only appeared in this garb the once, Mickey as the sorcerer’s apprentice became one of Disney’s most iconic images. Though it ultimately became part of something much bigger, ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ still plays equally well as a standalone short as well. It’s exquisite animation, perfectly timed to the music, represents some of the finest work the Disney studio ever turned out.
My adoration of ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, however, does not extend to the whole of Fantasia. While its achievements in animation are undeniably astounding, the film does not avoid the hit-and-miss quality that pervades so many anthology films. Of Fantasia’s other six segments, the bold abstract imaginings of ‘Toccato and Fugue in D Minor’ and the Hell-on-Earth terrors of the climactic ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ stand out in terms of entertainment, while there are moments of unbelievable beauty and endearing whimsy in ‘The Nutcracker Suite’s depiction of changing seasons. But elsewhere the whimsy is stretched to the point where it begins to sicken, as in the much criticised ‘Pastoral Symphony’ with its capering teenage centaurs, while I’ve never been much of a fan of the famous balletic elephants, ostriches, crocodiles and hippos in the ‘Dance of the Hours’ sequence, whose broad humour feels somewhat misplaced. Nevertheless, a good dose of laughter would be welcome after the interminably dull ‘Rite of Spring’, which depicts the formation of the planet right through to the extinction of the dinosaurs. It’s an exquisitely detailed sequence but for me it epitomises why Fantasia, which is for many the definitive Disney classic, only reached the bottom end of Tier 2 for me. Too often it feels like a treasured antique doll’s house that no-one is allowed to play with; beautiful to look at but not as much fun as it should be. I applaud its ambition and there’s no denying its striking achievements but rarely do I have the inclination to sit through its entire two hour runtime.
After eight years spent producing package films, Disney kicked off the 50s with their first animated feature based on a single story since 1942’s Bambi. While the Disney films of the 50s are rarely as ornate or ambitious as those first golden age classics, this is the decade in which the studio found its feet commercially once more with a clutch of what would become some of its most famous films. Cinderella was the first of these charming, accessible gems and its success saved the studio from a $4 million debt and made further animated features a viable option. There were many critics at the time who considered Cinderella as grand an achievement as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and while this enthusiasm has faded a little in retrospective critical appraisals, Cinderella is still acknowledged as an important work in the Disney canon. For my part, I’ve always found Cinderella charming but thin. It is reliably entertaining across its short runtime but it is telling that even across 75 minutes the film seems to struggle for material. Far too much time is spent focusing on the antics of Cinderella’s mice friends and their battle with Lucifer the cat, which is the sort of sideshow that would be sparingly used to enliven a more confident film but here eats up a surprising amount of the runtime. The blandness of the human characters make it easy to see why the focus was shifted to the animals and while ‘Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo’ was Oscar nominated for Best Original Song, it’s surely a weak showing musically when this half-realised piece of whimsy is the standout. For all its shortcomings, Cinderella is an attractive and enjoyable animated fairy tale but it feels more like an important step back towards single-narrative features than the classic it is so often hailed as.
31. PETER PAN
J.M. Barrie’s hit stage play is notorious for how difficult it is to adapt for the screen without losing the magic and directors from Joe Wright to Steven Spielberg have stumbled in the attempt. My favourite Peter Pan adaptation is actually the relatively forgotten 2003 film by Muriel’s Wedding director P.J. Hogan but probably still the best-known of the silver screen versions is the Disney animation. Though it is generally seen as a classic, on closer inspection Peter Pan is an uneven film which only occasionally channels the enchantment so crucial to making the material work. After all, this is a play that famously asked the audience to bring Tinkerbell back to life through their reactions. While it is difficult for a film to credibly break the fourth wall in this way (Akira Kurosawa’s One Wonderful Sunday attempted this trick, some would say to the detriment of its own dignity), a good Peter Pan film should at least make the audience feel involved to the same level, even as it fails to actually acknowledge their presence. Disney’s film, with its weak musical numbers and slightly irritating protagonist, sputters a little in this respect but there are high points. In Tinkerbell, Peter Pan gifted the Walt Disney company a lifelong mascot while the preening, neurotic Captain Hook is a consistently interesting and entertaining villain. If the magic doesn’t last for the whole runtime, it is at the very least sprinkled at appropriate intervals to keep up the momentum. Peter Pan was well received on release and continues to be cherished in some quarters, although contemporary reviews are rarely without mention of the jaw-droppingly offensive ‘What Made the Red Man Red’ song which somehow slipped the net when Disney was removing inappropriate moments from its catalogue. Still, thank god that shot of Goofy smoking in Saludos Amigos is gone, eh?!
30. LILO & STITCH
A truly unusual and thoroughly delightful Disney film, Lilo & Stitch was well received critically and commercially upon its release in 2002. Unfortunately, the film arrived at a strange time for Disney animation. Though a laudable tendency to experiment had characterised the studio’s early 21st century work, that same tendency was about to result in over half a decade of failed experiments and though they would claw their way back to critical and commercial success with the studio’s second Renaissance, this also resulted in a handful of creatively successful oddities like Lilo & Stitch being forgotten amongst the sea of misfires that followed them. Based on a character created in the 80s by co-writer and director Chris Sanders (who, along with writing and directing partner Dean DeBlois, went on to make Dreamworks’ hit animation How to Train Your Dragon), Lilo & Stitch tells the story of two misfits who come together: Lilo is a young Hawaiian girl being cared for by her older sister after the death of their parents, while Stitch (aka Experiment #626) is an illegal genetic creation from space who was created for the purpose of causing chaos and destruction. When Stitch escapes his would-be captors and crash lands in Hawaii, he is adopted by the lonely Lilo. Given Stitch’s nature, chaos is bound to ensue, especially when you throw a watchful social worker and Stitch’s creator tasked with his recapture into the mix.
Lilo & Stitch sounds bizarre and it is, but its convoluted style works in a charming way that subsequent, similarly complex Disney films like Treasure Planet and Chicken Little failed to recapture. This is because, as well as bucketloads of quirky charisma, Lilo & Stitch also has real heart. Sanders and DeBlois infused their crazy concoction with realistic elements including the impoverished lifestyle that many Hawaiians were experiencing as a result of a recent economic downturn, something that is juxtaposed with the film’s lush, watercolour backgrounds that are so effective in evoking what looks on the surface like a tropical paradise. Also central to the film is the notion of family, something that is evoked with far less cheap sentiment than in many lesser animated films. The travails of Lilo’s older sister Nani are played for both laughs and pathos, as she struggles to ensure she will not be separated from her sister by social services. Making the central relationship that between two sisters was highly unusual for animated films and this approach would be repeated to greater commercial success in the following decade’s monster-hit Frozen.
As was common for Disney films of this era, there are no musical numbers sung by the characters themselves. Instead, Lilo & Stitch uses a soundtrack of Elvis Presley songs, an approach that feels entirely appropriate to the film’s rebellious singularity and infectious energy. With its mish-mash of wild sci-fi, realistic social context, handsome artwork and off-kilter humour, Lilo & Stitch shouldn’t work but it does. Disney’s attempts to create similarly quirky fare only proved that the film was a one-off, although it did spawn three non-theatrical sequels and a 65-episode TV series, as well as a Japanese anime TV series named Stitch! Not a bad legacy for a film that seems to have been comparatively forgotten by so many.
29. THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER
Though critical reports on what films constitute the so-called Disney Renaissance differ, the four big-hitters that are always mentioned are The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King, four of the studio’s most successful and enduringly beloved films. What invariably goes completely unmentioned, however, is that there was a fifth film that came out in the midst of those titans which has been all but forgotten. Released the year after The Little Mermaid reignited excitement for new Disney animated features, The Rescuers Down Under was a rarity for Disney in that it was a sequel. Though Disney have churned out several low-quality, straight-to-video follow-ups to their classic features, at this point in time they had not mounted any full-scale theatrical sequels. Odd then, financially successful though it was, that the comparatively modest 70s Disney film The Rescuers should be the source for which they chose to break this tradition. Few people would choose it as among their absolute favourite Disney films and no-one seemed to be crying out for or expecting those characters to be revisited.
Nevertheless, The Rescuers Down Under was deemed a commercially-viable product and was duly served up as a pre-Christmas treat in 1990. Obviously conceived of during America’s short-lived obsession with Australia, the lengthy production process required for animation unfortunately meant that the words ‘Down Under’ in a title no longer had the same cachet as when the project was pitched. Likewise, a rise in interest in the Action/Adventure genres caused The Rescuers Down Under‘s creators to decide against including musical numbers that would slow down the plot, instead promoting the film as an adventure film. But the success of The Little Mermaid and its superb soundtrack had very much reinstated audiences’ interest in big animated production numbers, something that would be duly adhered to throughout the Disney Renaissance and which consequently made The Rescuers Down Under seem even more out of step. After its initial poor-showing at the box office, Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg abruptly pulled all of the film’s TV advertising, reducing its visibility and scuppering its chances even further.
The story of The Rescuers Down Under‘s release is a sad one but, despite mixed reviews and commercial failure, it is a film that has aged well. Its environmentally-concerned plot which pushes animal rights to the forefront feels progressive where it may have once felt opportunistic, while the visuals, which made exclusive use of the CAPS (Computer Animation Production System) process, are sumptuous, making the most of the outback setting and providing thrilling moments like a child’s mesmerising flight on the back of an eagle. The dark plot, which features a memorably menacing villain in George C. Scott’s foul poacher and kidnapper Percival C. McLeach, was heavily criticised at the time of release but again feels more in step now with an animation community that is generally treated less patronisingly by critics. Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor are both back in the central roles of the heroic mice Bernard and Bianca, while the death of Jim Jordan who voiced the popular character Orville the albatross in the first film was dealt with respectfully by introducing a similar character, his brother Wilbur (of course), voiced by John Candy.
There may be a hint of tiredness in the idea of resurrecting the basic idea of a previous film but The Rescuers Down Under is significantly different from its predecessor while also offering fans the opportunity to revisit some of their favourite characters. The slapstick goofiness of The Rescuers is largely replaced by a thrilling, genuinely tense atmosphere and the Action/Adventure target the creators were aiming for is squarely hit. It may seem modest when compared to the Disney juggernauts that surround its release, but The Rescuers Down Under is well worth unearthing.
28. THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME
Though it was reasonably well-received critically and commercially, Disney’s version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame seems to have fallen out of favour a little since then, on the rare occasions when it is mentioned at all. Criticisms of the film range from the fact that it deviates significantly from its source material, that it fails to blend its numerous tones effectively, and that age old criticism of animated films, that it is too scary for children. But in there second film as directors (following the huge hit Beauty and the Beast), Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise crafted something extremely impressive in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a dark, serious, powerful work with ravishing visuals and a cinematic scope that was lacking in its immediate successors. It’s true that the notion of giving Quasimodo some comedic gargoyle sidekicks sounds better on paper than it works on screen but this small concession to comic relief is not enough to derail the epic sweep of the rest of the film. Everything feels amped up in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, particularly the forceful realisation of one of Disney’s most terrifying villains, the conflicted Judge Frollo, whose god complex drives a spellbindingly intense musical number called ‘Hellfire’. This played a large part in that tiresome nonsense about scaring children being trotted out again, underestimating young audiences while simultaneously attempting to restrain the creativity and complexity of animated films. Part of what makes The Hunchback of Notre Dame so refreshing is its disregard for such concerns. It harkens back to classic Disney when the scares were sought out with the same dedication as the laughs. If The Hunchback of Notre Dame occasionally trips over its own story, it is quick to right itself and covers up these missteps with glorious visuals and an overwhelmingly compelling musical score by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz which largely defies the easy lifting-out of specific numbers for use in clip-shows (the goofy ‘A Guy Like You’, sung by the gargoyles, notwithstanding). All in all, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is as ambitious as anything Disney did in the 90s and if it doesn’t quite come together as a masterpiece, it is still a glorious experience to watch it get close.
27. BIG HERO 6
When the mega-hit Frozen was followed up with the superhero comedy Big Hero 6 it came as something of a relief, confirming that the upturn in inventive, different Disney material was not about to be derailed by a return to more traditional fairy tale musicals. Instead, the studio unleashed their first animated feature based on Marvel Comics characters but this was not a transparent attempt to jump on the coat-tails of the MCU either. Big Hero 6 took an extremely obscure comic as a jumping-off point but developed it into something very different from both the original source and the superhero juggernauts eating up the box office. Set in the futuristic city of San Fransokyo, Big Hero 6 follows the adventures of Hiro, a prodigious high school student whose early enrolment into a top university is marred by the death of his older brother in a fire at the institution. While working through his grief, Hiro discovers Baymax, an inflatable healthcare robot his brother had been developing before his death, and the two team up to investigate the nefarious activities of a mysterious figure in a Kabuki mask. Aided by his brother’s friends from the university, Hiro and Baymax uncover a criminal conspiracy which is tied to his own personal tragedy. A film unlike any Disney feature before it, Big Hero 6 is a consistently enjoyable action-adventure with an emotional throughline about grief which makes it more resonant than similar fare. The unusual, strange and endearing presence of Baymax is the film’s trump card and the character stands out amongst the frankly rather annoying ragtag bunch of desperate-to-be-lovable misfits that make up the other four members of the titular team. While their Scooby Doo-esque antics are a drag factor, Big Hero 6 largely distinguishes itself from other superhero fare in a crowded market.
26. SLEEPING BEAUTY
1959’s Sleeping Beauty ultimately became the last big fairy tale film Disney would put out for 30 years and Walt reportedly pushed for the film to be a spectacular work of art. With its backgrounds inspired by medieval art and characters that Walt demanded by “as real as possible, near flesh and blood”, Sleeping Beauty certainly qualifies as a masterpiece in a purely visual sense. But the animators also struggled with the rigidity of the styles being imposed upon them and this is clear in the film’s comparative lack of a sense of fun. There is an austerity about Sleeping Beauty that makes it a rarely reached-for film in the Disney catalogue, with the dull prince and princess characters taking centre stage unbolstered by the strong supporting players of other Disney classics. This was tempered to some degree by the three fairy characters Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, whom veteran animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston fought to make less realistic and more whimsically appealing. For all its more serious tone, Sleeping Beauty is also a very solidly told tale and even when you can see the animators straining to create a masterpiece, this feeling is balanced by how often they find themselves succeeding. The film is perhaps best remembered for having an excellent villain in Maleficent, a memorable wicked fairy whose appeal has endured to the extent that she was given her own live-action film decades later, something which unfortunately kicked off a trend for a series of popular but pointless live-action remakes of Disney animated classics.
25. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
The first animated film to be taken seriously enough to receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination (this feat was not repeated until Up eighteen years later), Beauty and the Beast confirmed that the critical and commercial success of The Little Mermaid was no fluke. Once again recapturing the old Disney knack at classic fairy-tale storytelling, Beauty and the Beast is visually stunning, bringing together traditional hand-drawn animation and striking, sweeping computer animation which makes the famous ballroom scenes seem as if they actually are filmed in a real room. Crucially though, Beauty and the Beast is more than just a visual treat. If the storyline itself is a little limiting, this is compensated for richly by the excellent cast of bewitched humans who now take the form of items of furniture in the Beast’s castle. The potential for grotesquerie in this conceit is overcome by wonderful designs and the characters are further enlivened by a top-notch voice cast including the great double act of Jerry Orbach and David Ogden Stiers as Lumiere and Cogsworth, a candlestick and a clock respectively, and a marvellously motherly Angela Lansbury as teapot Mrs. Potts, who gets to sing the film’s iconic titular theme song. This is just one of a handful of terrific songs including the beloved ‘Be Our Guest’, the operetta-style opener ‘Belle’ and the hilarious ‘Gaston’, the perfect theme song for the film’s hysterical egotist of a villain. With all these elements in place, Beauty and the Beast quickly settled into its reputation as a classic and remains a high watermark for many Disney fans who grew up in the 80s and 90s. Although I think there are more interesting Disney films than this superbly mounted but fairly predictable fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast is undeniably one of the most crowd-pleasing and enduring films the studio has produced.
24. THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE
Released at a crucial time for the Disney animation department, The Great Mouse Detective emerged in the shadow of the critical and commercial bomb The Black Cauldron, a film whose promise of great things had been lost in a jumbled, difficult production process. The watchful eye of the studio’s new senior management was thus cast upon The Great Mouse Detective in search of justification to continue with the regular production of the animated features that had made the company famous. Hyperbole is rarely entered into with as much gusto as it is on the lips of negative critics, so while The Black Cauldron earned the nickname ‘the film that almost killed Disney’, The Great Mouse Detective is rarely called ‘the film that saved Disney’ but it could just as well be. Opening to strong reviews and good box office, the film convinced Disney’s top brass of the viability of their animation department, thereby setting the stage for the Disney Renaissance of the late 80s and early 90s.
Based on Eve Titus’s children’s book series Basil of Baker Street, The Great Mouse Detective was the first film to pair Ron Clements and John Musker as directors and the deft balance of comedy and adventure that characterised their later films is immediately apparent in The Great Mouse Detective. Handsomely recreating a noirish, fog-engulfed Victorian London, the film is impeccably cast and populated with memorable characters. British theatre actor Barrie Ingham reportedly won the central role of Basil in the space of a six minute audition so spot-on that a portion of it was used in the final film. The inspired casting of Vincent Price as the villainous Professor Ratigan, meanwhile, lead to that character being extensively redesigned to better compliment Price’s unique style of delivery. The Great Mouse Detective largely eschews Disney’s trademark musical numbers in favour of focusing on a sustained atmosphere and a tight plot, and sacrifices whimsy in favour of character. Basil and Ratigan are two of the strongest leads the studio had realised in over a decade, while Fidget the bat-henchman is a fiendishly memorable creation and pairing Basil’s mystery-solving gang with a hound named Toby who belongs to Sherlock Holmes himself and who dwarfs the other principals is typical of the film’s inventive nature.
Perhaps The Great Mouse Detective‘s most cherishable sequence is its extraordinary climactic battle atop Big Ben, which mirrors elements of the Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Final Problem’. Originally intended to play out on the hands of the clock, Basil and Ratigan’s epic fight was eventually rewritten to crash through the clock’s face and incorporate the inner-workings of Big Ben, the whirring cogs and grinding gears adding to the ever-present threat of the clocktower’s menacing height. In order to make it as authentic as possible, layout artist Mike Peraza and his team were given unprecedented access to the inner workings of Big Ben, after which they spent months designing its animated equivalent. The work paid off, providing The Great Mouse Detective with a finale worthy of its overall excellence.
For all its popularity at the time, The Great Mouse Detective is rarely spoken of that highly these days. Despite the crucial part it played in making the Disney Renaissance possible, the success of those films released between 1989 and 1994 somewhat overshadowed The Great Mouse Detective‘s more modest, if no less charming, achievements. In an 80s climate in which most of Disney’s best work was being done on TV shows like Gummi Bears and Duck Tales, The Great Mouse Detective stands out amongst lesser product like the studio’s clunky follow-up Oliver and Company.
23. THE THREE CABALLEROS
Absolutely guaranteed to confuse and bewilder any viewer who doesn’t know what they’re getting themselves into, The Three Caballeros remains Disney’s most wildly surreal animated feature. The second of Disney’s package films following the barely feature-length Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros was also the second of two films made as part of the studio’s goodwill message to South America. As such, the film is rich with South American culture and revels in a celebratory and eventually hallucinatory sense of gay abandon. The Three Caballeros predecessor was really just four animated shorts loosely linked together and to begin with it looks like The Three Caballeros will follow the same format. The linking storyline here features Donald Duck receiving birthday presents from his friends in South America. The first of these presents, a film projector, leads to the projection of two charming shorts, ‘The Cold Blooded Penguin’ and ‘The Flying Gauchito’. However, this episodic approach gives way to a more unified narrative structure with the arrival of cigar-smoking Brazilian parrot Jose Carioca, a character first introduced in Saludos Amigos. Jose presents Donald with a pop-up book about the Brazilian State of Bahia which they magically enter and mingle with live-action locals, dancing a samba with singer and actress Aurora Miranda, with whom Donald falls in love.
The arrival of a third character, the gun-toting Mexican rooster Panchito, leads The Three Caballeros into segments about Mexican culture in which the three friends explore more live action locations, interspersed with comedy routines involving piñatas and magic carpets. They also encounter many young, beautiful women on Mexican beaches, all of whom Donald lusts after in the same way as he did with Aurora Miranda. This surprisingly aggressive sexual element of the film, with Donald portrayed as a cat-calling womaniser, struck many critics of the time and since as a little tasteless and it still sits oddly in an otherwise good-natured film, but it also ultimately leads to the film’s trippy finale in which Donald again falls for a Latin American singer, this time Dora Cruz. Her crooning performance of ‘You Belong to My Heart’ leads Donald into a surreal reverie in which he appears drunk on love, stumbling around in a daze, multiplying himself, dancing in the sky and interacting with suggestive cacti.
The Three Caballeros very much foregrounds visuals and technique over storytelling, its documentary and travelogue elements providing the canvas on which Disney’s artists can unleash all sorts of playful innovations. The package films were, by their very nature, meant to be inexpensive ways of keeping the feature department going in tough times but The Three Caballeros is testament to the fact that these limitations did not dull the sense of invention still very much alive at the studio. Viewed without preparatory context, the film can be utterly bewildering but watched as a sort of surreal art piece it is frequently exceptional and invigoratingly energetic. The film’s short, frantic title song features some of the studio’s liveliest and funniest animation of the era.
The third massive hit of the Disney Renaissance and the second helmed by Ron Clements and John Musker (after their 1989 film The Little Mermaid which kicked off this period of rejuvenated acclaim), Aladdin briefly became the highest grossing animated film of all time before it was quickly surpassed by its successor The Lion King. Not without its share of controversy, including accusations of racism for the indelicate line “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face” in the opening number ‘Arabian Nights’ and suggestions that elements were plagiarised from Richard William’s long-in-production The Thief and the Cobbler, Aladdin is nevertheless fondly remembered for being one of the fastest and funniest of the Disney films. A large percentage of the credit for both of these adjectives is usually handed to Robin Williams whose star turn as the Genie dominates the film from the second he first appears on screen. Williams improvised much of his dialogue, recording hours of footage which animators were then able to plunder for inspiration. The resulting sequences, particularly the lengthy scene in which Aladdin and the Genie first meet, are thrillingly inventive and full-to-bursting with belly laughs. It is a mistake too often made, however, to attribute Aladdin’s success entirely to Williams’ presence. The film is a great one through-and-through, keeping up the breakneck pace set by the Genie even in scenes in which he doesn’t appear, such as an exciting escape-by-magic-carpet from a treasure-filled cave or Aladdin’s jaunty introductory musical number ‘One Jump Ahead’. Though some critics perhaps correctly remarked that overall the music in Aladdin was not as enjoyable as in other films of the Disney Renaissance, the blistering number ‘Friend Like Me’, performed with invigorating gusto by Robin Williams, single-handedly blows most of its competition out of the water and makes forgivable even the drippy ‘A Whole New World’, the film’s big romantic ballad which has quickly become one of the studio’s most regrettable touchstones of kitsch.
21. THE ADVENTURES OF ICHABOD AND MR. TOAD
The last of the Disney package films, the exquisite The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is still to my mind among the studio’s brightest creations and proof positive that a virtue can be made of limitations. Unlike, say, Fun and Fancy Free which was clearly thrown together from unrelated leftovers, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is brilliantly linked by bridging sequences in which two narrators debate the greatest literary character of all time. Basil Rathbone narrates the ‘Wind in the Willows’ portion while Bing Crosby croons his way through the ‘Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ section. This sets up a friendly British vs. American debate, with each segment tapping into all the folksy charm associated with the narrator’s native land. Rathbone is likably droll as the narrator of Toad’s story (“There was only one thing wrong with Ratty’s cure for Motor Mania. It didn’t work”), while Crosby is the lynchpin of Ichabod’s story, his warm narration and spirited singing standing in for the absence of dialogue. Although ‘The Wind in the Willows’ material was actually taken from an aborted attempt to make a full length feature and ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ footage was apparently begun with similar intentions, the stories work together both despite and because of their differences. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad thus becomes a celebration of the diversity and richness of the storytelling tradition across international borders.
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad works so well as a whole that it is perhaps surprising to learn that the two sections have regularly been split up and distributed separately as short films. I first encountered the ‘Wind in the Willows’ as a standalone film on Christmas TV and it was there I fell in love with it. Though it was the more critically acclaimed of the two segments upon initial release, many fans of Kenneth Grahame’s source novel noted that the poetic, languid style had been replaced by a broader, pacier approach. It is true that this ‘Wind in the Willows’ feels very different to, say, the carefully crafted Cosgrove Hall production of the same book that appeared in the 80s, but in making these changes it forges its own distinctive take on British eccentricity from an American viewpoint. The decision to make Badger Scottish and rechristen him MacBadger is questionable, largely due to the fact that Campbell Grant’s voice work on the character is broader and less believable than Groundskeeper Willie! But this version of the story also adds an unforgettable new character in the shape of Toad’s friend Cyril, a broadly-accented Lancashire horse based on George Formby who steals every scene he’s in. The Disney version of ‘The Wind in the Willows’ also fixes a gaping hole in the original narrative that always bothered me. In Grahame’s story, Toad actually does steal a motor car, thus his subsequent prison break and return to Toad Hall would render him a fugitive, something that everyone just seems to conveniently ignore. In Disney’s version, Toad is the victim of a con artist who tricks him into exchanging Toad Hall for the car before then reporting it stolen. Some may say this is a moralistic softening of the original text but it also makes a hell of a lot more narrative sense. It also allows Disney to stage a climactic battle for Toad Hall in which the main characters fight a bloodthirsty gang of weasels in an attempt to reclaim the deed to the mansion. It’s a sequence that would have stuck out like a sore thumb in Grahame’s novel but which works a treat in Disney’s version of the story.
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad then hands over to Bing Crosby who uses his full vocal range to relate the tale of Ichabod Crane, a beloved but arrogant schoolmaster whose popularity with the local women puts him at odds with town bully Brom Bones. Whimsically colourful and charming, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ is presented as a musical piece, with Crosby’s narrator ever-present and telling the story as much through song as through prose narration. But the film takes a dramatic turn at its climax with one of the greatest sequences in Disney history. Having failed to intimidate Ichabod through his usual methods of brute force, Brom Bones instead torments him psychologically by planting seeds of a local legend that a headless horseman stalks the forest. A shaken Ichabod must then ride home from a Halloween party alone. Haunted woodland sequences are a staple of Disney animation but this one pulls every trick out of the bag, combining frantic humour with genuine dread as Ichabod comes face to… um, neck hole with the Headless Horseman himself. The build up to this meeting and the subsequent chase through the forest is a masterclass in animated horror, culminating in a surprisingly downbeat climax. In Washington Irving’s short story, it is heavily implied that Brom Bones himself is posing as the Headless Horseman to terrorise Ichabod but Disney’s version leaves the door wide open for various theories. Did this haunted chase really occur or are we seeing an extension of Ichabod’s imaginings? Is he spirited away by the Horseman or did he scarper to another town, driven out by his own cowardice and superstition? As with the ‘Wind in the Willows’ section, while there is undoubtedly something to be lost in adaptation, the Disney version of ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ actually improves on Irving’s ambiguous but suggestive ending by adding greater doubt in the audience’s mind. All told, it’s a masterful short which compliments the gentle British segment of the film perfectly.
Though contemporary reviews of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad focused strongly on the ‘Wind in the Willows’ section, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ has latterly picked up a large cult following too, ensuring that a solid critical reaction to the film has grown over the years into an acknowledgement that this is something of an overlooked classic. As the last of the package films, it paved the way for a return to the more coherent storytelling of Disney’s feature-length classics of the 50s in which fairy tale familiarity once again took a firm hold.
That’s it for Tier 2. I hope you’ll join me for Tier 1 where you’ll find what, in my opinion, constitutes the very best of Disney. Until then, let me know what you think I’ve got horribly wrong or bang on the money.