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 is made up of my 20 favourite Disney films. So without further ado let’s dive into Tier 1.
20. THE MANY ADVENTURES OF WINNIE THE POOH
Of all the Disney animated features, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is the only one that’s a bit of a cheat as it is actually made up of three previously-released short films stitched together with a small amount of new material. This matters little, however, when the featurettes of which the film is composed are so thoroughly charming and there is something to be said for having them combined in one easily accessible package. Not only that but the film actually manages to link them together in a completely convincing way, creating a story that seems deliberately episodic in a way that builds up an easy-going impression of a small community and its daily occurrences. The Disney Winnie the Pooh’s boast many great creative touches, particularly casting Sebastian Cabot as narrator and having the characters actually walk around in a giant storybook, hopping across the book’s spine and interacting with the written text. Most of the well-loved characters are in place, including Christopher Robin (whose childhood wonderland is so exquisitely captured), Eeyore, Owl, Kanga and Roo. The unusual decision to replace Piglet with a gopher in the original short Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree caused much public outcry and was reversed in the following short Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, which is the prize of the whole collection and won a well-deserved Oscar in 1968. Although it was great to have Piglet in place, the gopher is a great character too. An independent tradesman, he repeatedly tells his clients “I’m not in the book, you know”, one of the cleverest jokes in the whole film. Alongside the comforting whimsy and gently relaxing storytelling for which the Pooh films are known, viewers may be surprised to find a couple of more surreal sequences in the shape of the ‘Heffalumps and Woozles’ musical number, which recalls the nightmarish shapeshifting of Dumbo’s infamous ‘Pink Elephant on Parade’, and a surprisingly spooky scene in which Rabbit finds himself lost in the woods and is driven to near insanity by the sounds around him.
19. THE RESCUERS
Based on the book series by Margery Sharp, The Rescuers was a big hit for Disney in 1977 and generated a small amount of buzz about a return to form after several less enthusiastically-received films. Unfortunately, the film was followed by what many consider to be the worst period for the studio and The Rescuers is sometimes retrospectively swallowed up by the subsequent critical and commercial downturn. But this good-humoured, fast-paced adventure story of two mice, Bernard and Bianca, and their quest to rescue a kidnapped orphan from a criminal duo has a significant place in the Disney catalogue, its numerous successful re-releases making it the first Disney feature to be given a theatrical sequel. With its emphasis on action and comedy, The Rescuers is one of Disney’s most reliably entertaining films, its narrative never slowed down by stopping for musical numbers. Some have noted that the comedic style is somewhat more broad than classic Disney (the villain’s defeat comes by way of her smashing into a tin chimney while water-skiing on a pair of alligators) but it’s all part of The Rescuer’s scruffy charm. The recruitment of a ragtag band of heroic bayou creatures recalls the rescue mission in 101 Dalmatians and if The Rescuers lacks that films innovative visuals, its knockabout momentum, coupled with an effective layer of melancholy and genuine moments of peril, points the way to the high quality children’s cartoons of the 80s and 90s, several of which Disney produced themselves. There are plenty of great moments in The Rescuers, such as Bernard and Bianca’s attempts to evade two brutish alligators by hiding in a pipe organ, but its lack of a recognised classic sequence or showstopping song often see it getting overlooked. In my book, its rugged charm, its gallery of memorably offbeat characters and its headlong, devil-may-care pacing all push it into the upper reaches of the Disney canon.
18. ALICE IN WONDERLAND
Walt Disney’s desire to adapt Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland dates back to his earliest years as an animator but the complexity of the project saw it shelved several times. After Disney finally achieved his goal of making an Alice film, he quickly dismissed it as lacking a heart, of sacrificing emotion in favour of the cerebral. While this sentiment was echoed by many contemporary critics, Alice in Wonderland’s hallucinatory intelligence and slyly grotesque edge proved to be a major selling point later down the line when the film was adopted by the psychedelic crowd. After the visual experimentation of Fantasia had seen it become a surprise hit among late 60s stoners, Alice in Wonderland proved to be the natural successor and the studio even leaned into this newfound appeal with an advertising campaign for its mid-70s re-release that quoted directly from the Jefferson Airplane song ‘White Rabbit’. It might have taken a change in public and critical tastes for Alice in Wonderland to be seen as the classic it is now recognised as but this should not see it pigeonholed as a counterculture classic when it plays equally well with young audiences who are almost always more sophisticated than most adults are still willing to give them credit for. Taking elements from both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Alice in Wonderland plays as a deliriously strange and wildly funny series of sketches which mix the curious appeal of Carroll’s deft wordplay with the energy and colour of Disney’s beloved creations. Although Carroll devotees and literary critics were quick to dismiss Disney’s version (often for intellectually and culturally territorial reasons which were thin veils for snobbery and xenophobia respectively), the film is very careful to preserve the unsettling sense of threat that lurks at the heart of even the most whimsical of Carroll’s temperamental creations. The sheer anarchy of sequences like the Mad Hatter’s tea party, the volatility of the Caterpillar and the lascivious glee of the Cheshire cat (not to mention the psychotic decapitation-happy Queen of Hearts) all make the film as genuinely unsettling as it is visually interesting and darkly amusing. If Walt’s issue with Alice in Wonderland was that it lacked heart, it’s easy to imagine that allowing him to tinker with it further would have ruined the film by imposing saccharine elements on a framework which has no room for them. Mercifully, the film was released in the gloriously bizarre version we have today.
17. THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE
Originally conceived as an epic adventure film called Kingdom of the Sun, set to be bursting with show-stopping songs, breath-taking artwork, big-hearted observations on the nature of mankind and not one but two romantic plots, The Emperor’s New Groove emerged as a completely different beast. Though the collapse of Kingdom of the Sun has been mourned by many, not least its original director Roger Allers, the film it turned into, though completely different from the Disney tradition to which the original incarnation was set to pay reverent tribute, is one of the studio’s funniest and most underrated gems. As the film passed into the hands of director Mark Dindal and writer David Reynolds, it morphed into a Chuck Jones-inspired comedy. The original Prince and the Pauper style plotline was dropped in favour of a buddy picture about the arrogant, narcissistic and self-centred Emperor Kuzco (a hysterically witty David Spade) who is inconveniently turned into a llama and must enlist the help of Pacha (a hugely sympathetic John Goodman), a villager whose house he intends to destroy for his own selfish ends. The dynamic between Spade and Goodman is priceless, especially since Kuzco’s transformation from evil to good is held back until very late in the narrative, allowing Reynold’s screenplay to revel in his pithy cynicism.
But as is often the case in Disney films that lean more heavily towards the comedic, the real scene-stealers here are the villains. As Kuzco’s visibly withering adviser and part-time witch Yzma, Eartha Kitt has a whale of a time, mixing a relish for evil with a desperate fear of encroaching age. Patrick Warburton, meanwhile, steals every scene he’s in as Yzma’s henchman Kronk, whose dim-witted complicity is balanced by his abundant good nature. Kronk’s status as a henchman is acknowledged as a sort of cover in some artful dialogue between Yzma and Kuzco in which it is all but stated outright that he is another in a long line of toyboys designed to massage Yzma’s fading vanity.
Despite almost sharing a name with the classic Hans Christian Andersen’ tale The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Emperor’s New Groove in fact has nothing to do with that story. In the film’s only musical number, a boisterous opening salvo sung by Tom Jones that is constantly interrupted by jokes, the Emperor’s groove is referenced but ultimately it has a deeper metaphorical meaning referring to a way of life determined by how you treat other people. The script keeps this element under the surface, its necessary happy ending relying on heart but not excessive sentiment. The only hint of the latter comes in the shape of the closing credits song ‘My Funny Friend and Me’ by Sting, an entirely unsuitable choice that was a remnant salvaged from the original Kingdom of the Sun project but which clashes badly with The Emperor’s New Groove‘s style.
With its uncharacteristic style and humour, The Emperor’s New Groove feels typical of early 2000s Disney. Coming off the back of their 90s Renaissance, they were a studio searching for an identity and while the haphazard approach they took initially resulted in three unusual, underrated gems, it ultimately resulted in a nosedive in quality that many wondered whether they would pull themselves out of. Fortunately, they did so emphatically the following decade and the identity crisis was certainly worth it if it resulted in films like this one, even if it also stuck the world with Home on the Range!
16. LADY AND THE TRAMP
Made amidst Disney’s clutch of 50s adaptations of well-known fairy tales and children’s stories, Lady and the Tramp stands out as an original story developed by artist Joe Grant based on sketches of his own dog, Lady. Walt Disney liked the sketches and commissioned Grant to work on a feature based on them but it was when Walt read journalist Ward Greene’s Cosmopolitan article ‘Happy Dan, the Cynical Dog’ that the project really came to life. The notion of introducing a scruffy stray as a foil for Lady’s prim sweetness saw Lady and the Tramp develop into a classic love story about two canines from different sides of the tracks. Punctuated with action scenes, the romance plays out at a leisurely pace which makes it more enjoyable and convincing than many of Disney’s more forced courtships and the steady rate at which Lady and the Tramp moves allows viewers to take in its major delights; the nicely-realised dog’s-eye-view of the world and the gallery of delightful supporting characters. Although a couple of offensively rendered Siamese cats may be the first supporting characters that leap to many minds, the most memorable character in Lady and the Tramp is Peg, a stray Pekingese voiced to perfection by singer Peggy Lee. The spotlight hits Peg during the film’s best sequence in which Lady ends up in a dog pound, surrounded by a ragtag group of unlucky mutts who highlight to her the difference between her world and Tramp’s. With smouldering attitude and just enough suggestive content for adults to pick up on, Lee croons the smokey ‘He’s a Tramp’ in which she recounts Tramp’s womanising history and implies her own romantic past with him.
If Lady and the Tramp hits its peak in the dog pound, its most iconic sequence is undoubtedly the scene in which the titular couple share a spaghetti meal in an alleyway. Quite understandably, Walt hated the idea of this scene and thought dogs eating spaghetti would be ridiculous. Fortunately, legendary animator Frank Thomas was dead set on proving Walt wrong and animated the scene himself in order to prove its potential. On seeing the results, Walt held his hands up and the scene went in the finished film, quickly becoming the moment which entered the DNA of film history. Any concerns Walt may have had about dog maws smeared in pasta sauce with stray dangling bits of linguine hanging out were obliterated by the elegance of this delicately romantic sequence in which a sacrificed meatball becomes a symbol of commitment and a shared strand of spaghetti is the gateway to love’s first kiss. The spaghetti scene may have played a large part in Lady and the Tramp’s initial drubbing at the hands of critics who found it far too sentimental but the power of this sentimentality has overwhelmed such cynicism over the years and the film, which was an instant hit with audiences, has also gone on to be seen as one of the studio’s great classics.
15. THE LITTLE MERMAID
The Little Mermaid holds a place of enormous importance in Disney history as the film that rejuvenated the studio critically and commercially, ushering in the Disney Renaissance that continued well into the 90s and produced several monster hits that are still among the best loved Disney films of all time. The apocryphal popular narrative of a studio on its knees being saved by this film is not entirely true, given that the two preceding films had been decent-sized commercial hits and, of Disney’s 80s output, only the disastrous The Black Cauldron had truly bombed, but The Little Mermaid took it to the next level, becoming the studio’s biggest hit in a decade and securing the backing of both critics and audiences. The success of the Disney/Amblin part-animated Who Framed Roger Rabbit had inspired Disney to expand its animated output and The Little Mermaid was blessed with a bigger budget but crucially the project was led by Ron Clements and John Musker, the directors who had debuted with the excellent The Great Mouse Detective which stood head-and-shoulders above the rest of Disney’s previous 80s efforts. Clements and Musker created a film in the classic Disney mould, returning to fairy tales as a source for the first time since 1959’s Sleeping Beauty and reinstating big, pouting musical numbers as a focal point when they had more recently been either marginalised or omitted altogether.
By hiring Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (of Little Shop of Horrors fame) to write the songs for The Little Mermaid, Disney brought a Broadway lustre to the animated film which became extraordinarily inspirational, not least on Disney’s own subsequent output. Of all its contributions to the animated feature, The Little Mermaid will perhaps always be best remembered for ‘Under the Sea’, an absolutely joyous number about the pleasures of underwater living sung by the ultra-charismatic Samuel E. Wright in his role as Sebastian the crab, instantly one of Disney’s most memorable little-helper characters. Sebastian gets another great number in ‘Kiss the Girl’, which is allied to one of the film’s most endearing and impressive sequences of animation. Both songs were nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar, with ‘Under the Sea’ taking the honour, along with Menken’s score which bagged Best Original Score. Although it was not nominated in any other categories other than the musical ones, The Little Mermaid’s strong critical and commercial performance was instrumental in shaping the Disney template for the next half a decade which ultimately led to Beauty and the Beast becoming the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture. With its superb music, classic fairy tale structure, strong characters (including, for the first time in years, a really memorable villain) and markedly improved animation, The Little Mermaid was a refreshing return to form at the time and, in retrospect, was amongst the most important films Disney ever produced.
As Disney faltered commercially and creatively during their transition into the 21st century, it became roundly accepted that Pixar had taken their crown, with a run of hits like Monsters Inc., The Incredibles and Ratatouille easily outshining weak Disney fare like Brother Bear, Treasure Planet and Meet the Robinsons. Then, like a bolt from the blue came… Bolt. OK, so it wasn’t quite that dramatic. Though Bolt was received well by critics and did reasonable box office business, everyone was too busy fawning over Pixar’s Wall-E to really notice what a brilliant film Bolt was. It follows the inventive story of an unwitting method-actor dog whose success in the starring role of a TV series about a superhero canine is, its director believes, dependent on the dog believing everything is for real. After a cliffhanger episode and a couple of meddlesome cats lead Bolt to believe his beloved human co-star Penny has been kidnapped by arch-enemy the Green-eyed Man, Bolt escapes from his trailer and accidentally gets himself shipped to New York where he finds his powers are no longer working, something he attributes to the Kryptonite-like effect of foam packing peanuts. Enlisting the help of a cynical street cat and an enthusiastic Bolt-superfan hamster, Bolt sets about making his way back to Hollywood while simultaneously coming to terms with the fact that he might not be the dog he thought he was.
Gorgeously computer-animated and with a hilarious script by Crazy, Stupid, Love writer Dan Fogelman, Bolt zips along at a cracking pace and includes a barrage of terrific set-pieces and characters, my favourite being a group of jittery pigeons who know they recognise Bolt but just can’t quite place him. Recent Disney films of this era had felt stale because they were striving so hard to be fresh, throwing too much into the pot and somehow not realising that grafting sci-fi elements onto the stories of Treasure Island and Chicken Little was a really crap idea. Bolt succeeds by channelling these inventive impulses into a brand new story and set of characters, thereby allowing the complexities of the plot to be worked out without any constraints imposed by adherence to source material. Bolt was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature which it inevitably lost to Wall-E but I still think that Bolt is the better film. Where Wall-E seemed just a little too pleased with its silent film tributes and (whisper it) slightly hackneyed environmental theme, Bolt just gets on with entertaining the hell out of us, its sweet (and, OK, I’ll give you this one, also hackneyed) themes of finding a place you can truly call home neatly folded into the abundant action and laughter.
13. ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE
It’s still a mystery to me why Disney’s 2001 Action/Adventure film Atlantis: The Lost Empire was such a critical and commercial flop. Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, who had previously collaborated on Disney success stories Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Atlantis: The Lost Empire was an attempt to do something a bit different. Opting for an uninterrupted fast pace rather than including intrusive musical numbers, the film also adopted a more stylised visual approach with its characters blending the Disney house style with the work of comic book artist Mike Mignola (Hellboy). The Indiana Jones films are a clear and acknowledged influence, especially in the first 40 minutes as a rag-tag gang of explorers make their way through a series of underground caverns guided by Milo, an awkward but incisive and resourceful cartographer and linguist who has exclusive information in his father’s old journal.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire is a clear attempt to appeal to a slightly older audience and unfortunately, in a film industry which continually underestimates and wrongly pigeonholes animation, this did not sit well with critics. The same reviewers who would likely criticise more conventional Disney films for resting on their laurels with the inclusion of anthropomorphic animals and song-and-dance routines this time bemoaned the lack of them, while the fact that Atlantis: The Lost Empire was not aimed squarely at a younger audience was treated as if it was some kind of betrayal. To suggest younger viewers are excluded by its more complex, if by no means incoherent (as some apparently rather dim reviewers suggested), plot is also misleading as there is plenty for audiences of all ages here, from the broad comic antics of the roguish crew to the sumptuous visuals that combine traditional and computer animation to dazzling effect, creating a lush paradise of the titular kingdom which is a joy to experience after the film’s lengthy build up in dank underground caves. Atlantis: The Lost Empire also ends with a fantastic extended action sequence featuring airborne battles, magic crystals and edge-of-the-seat stakes. Anyone who went in expecting something more typically Disney-esque and who was not won over by what they got instead probably needs to check their conservative expectations at the door next time.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire‘s critical drubbing spread to its commercial performance. Despite being ideal Summer blockbuster fodder, its disappointing box office led to the cancellation of a planned Disneyland underwater attraction and a tie-in Saturday morning TV series. With the first three episodes of this series already produced, they were grafted together and released as a straight-to-video sequel which unfortunately had the effect of making people judge it as a below-par Disney film instead of an above-average TV series. Its continuation of Atlantis: The Lost Empire‘s adventurous, good-humoured spirit is the stuff my cosy Saturday mornings as a child were once made of. If lost treasures, both fictional and real, are what float your boat then Atlantis: The Lost Empire is a film you should unearth immediately.
When the first trailers for 2016’s Zootropolis (the film went by the wittier name Zootopia in most regions but was changed in some, including the UK, for trademarking reasons) emerged, it looked for all the world like another unremarkable talking animals film and I wasn’t expecting anything that special. But as rave reviews filtered in and box office receipts went through the roof, Zootropolis revealed itself to be one of Disney’s smartest, most subversive and politically relevant films, working as both a lesson for younger viewers and a knowing satire for older ones (although, as the film observes, many of the older viewers would have done well to take it as a lesson as well). Following the story of Judy Hopps, Zootropolis’s first rabbit police officer, and her investigation into a missing otter which sees her cross paths with the small-time con artist fox Nick, Zootropolis manages to tell an absorbing, cleverly-plotted story while embroidering it with genuinely effective commentary on prejudice which is clearly (and controversially, for some viewers) a reaction to the atrocities of the political climate in which the film came out. Those who chose to delve deeper into Zootropolis’s analogy, or who rejected its call for unity in the face of widespread xenophobia, picked holes in its approach, called it “on the nose” or scoffed at the idea of a children’s animation having any relevance. But behind such small-minded responses lurked the very fears that Zootropolis examines in its indictment of the manipulative politics of hatred. It is a timely film which sadly is unlikely to date in terms of its message but which is commendably effective in its ability to instil an open-mindedness and aversion to prejudice in viewers without ever talking down, preaching or stopping the fun to crowbar in the message.
In a perfect world, Moana would have been the monster hit that the weaker Frozen became. With its big Broadway style musical numbers and lush, atmospheric animation, Moana undoubtedly owes a debt to Frozen but it manages to be significantly better in several ways. Moana is absolutely crammed with unusual ideas that it strings artfully on a recognisable quest throughline, allowing inventiveness to shine without causing the plot to become incoherent. So we get a personified ocean, moving tattoos, a magpie-like giant crab, coconut pirates and a brain-damaged chicken sidekick whose promotion to main animal character over the more obvious choice of a saccharine piglet further demonstrates Moana’s dedication to the unexpected. Veteran directors Ron Clements and John Musker do not seem remotely phased by working on their first 100% computer-animated film and the result is visually breathtaking. The songs, too, are a vast improvement on Frozen’s songbook, with the rousing ‘How Far I’ll Go’ taking its cue from ‘Let It Go’ as the film’s epic anthem and ‘You’re Welcome’ and ‘Shiny’ standing out as humorous showstoppers. Moana is also very well cast, with Auliʻi Cravalho making a strong acting debut as the titular character, Dwayne Johnson gamely narcissistic and tuneful as arrogant demi-God Maui and Jermaine Clement effortlessly stealing the show as Tamatoa the villainous, flamboyant crab. While it didn’t begin to reach the levels of success that Frozen enjoyed, Moana was an instant hit and slid easily into the ever-growing list of Disney classics but it still seems like a comparatively underappreciated film. It was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar in one of the strongest years for the category but lost to another Disney production, Zootropolis. The fact that these two films were released in the same year shows what an astonishing year for Disney 2016 was. The fact that neither film was the strongest nominee in the category shows what an incredible time it is for animation in general.
10. WRECK-IT RALPH
Directed by Simpsons and Futurama veteran Rich Moore, Wreck-It Ralph is one of Disney’s most elaborate and consistently rewarding films of the 21st century. It is also a film that has grown in stature over the years, to the point where it was given an official theatrical sequel, the first Disney film to be awarded such an honour since Fantasia 2000. When Wreck-It Ralph first came out in 2012 it was generally praised but damned with lukewarm comparisons to Toy Story. With its tale of what arcade game characters get up to during closing hours, Wreck-It Ralph does bear some comparison with the Pixar film but it differentiates itself completely beyond that superficial conceptual similarity, emerging as perhaps more comparable to Who Framed Roger Rabbit but with computer sprites replacing legendary Hollywood cartoon characters. The idea for Wreck-It Ralph was first conceived in the 80s when gaming was still in its infancy but by allowing the industry to grow and mature, the concept of the film became significantly richer with a more diverse range of reference points to draw on and a cast of pixilated background characters who had become every bit as recognisable as the Hollywood icons of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Though Wreck-It Ralph is crammed with references to delight gamers of all generations, Moore and his team were careful not to alienate non-gamers with over-complex allusions, allowing the characters from the fictional games Fix-It Felix Jr. and Sugar Rush to take centre stage. One of Wreck-It Ralph’s masterstrokes is focusing on the former game’s villain as its central character and examining how the role he has been assigned affects his social standing outside of the game. Brilliantly voiced by John C. Reilly, who heads up a terrific voice-cast which includes Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer and Jane Lynch, Ralph is a fascinating central figure whose struggle to be accepted in both the eyes of himself and others leads him into a genuinely moving big-brother style relationship with Vanellope von Schweetz, a young girl sprite who suffers similar discrimination for her persistent glitching. Rich in visual detail, emotional nuance and strong storytelling, Wreck-It Ralph cemented notions that Disney was entering into another renaissance period.
9. ROBIN HOOD
As a child I always loved the story of Robin Hood and his Merry Men and this is something I’ve carried with me into adulthood. There’s something so breezily invigorating about this tale of a rebellious outlaw, from its rousingly beautiful outdoor settings to its capacity for fast-paced action and its abundance of good humour. Naturally then, Disney’s animated version of the legend was going to be one of my childhood favourites. I watched this film again and again as a kid and would have sworn blind that it was a beloved Disney classic. It was only in adulthood when I became aware of the studio’s history and critical responses to its films that I realised that Robin Hood is considered a bit of a turkey. Criticised for a baggy structure, cheaper-looking animation and bland characters, Robin Hood is actually considered among Disney’s worst films by many critics.
My childhood love for this film will always colour how I see it now at least slightly, but there are plenty of films I loved as a kid that I now see as weak and Robin Hood sure ain’t one of them. The would-be animation historian in me can see why the medium’s enthusiasts often put it down. Due to time constraints, corners were cut and sharp-eyed Disney fans will easily spot bits of re-used footage from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Jungle Book and The Aristocats. Little John, portrayed as a large bear and voiced by The Jungle Book‘s Phil Harris, is practically just Baloo painted brown and transplanted to Sherwood Forest. And, as is often a problem in any screen adaptation of Robin Hood, the Nottingham accents range from plummy English to Wild West era American!
But I can forgive these obvious shortcomings because Robin Hood is a fast-paced, upbeat, brilliantly colourful and very funny film that I still count among my favourite Disney films. The American accents don’t bother me a bit when it means we get charismatic performances from showbiz veterans like Phil Harris and Pat Buttram and the recycled animation only appears in small bursts and has been smoothly incorporated beyond the detection of all but the nerdiest of animation fans. One criticism I take issue with is that aimed at the film’s structure. The Robin Hood legend is made up of a series of episodic encounters and Disney have, in my opinion, done a great job of giving us an approximation of this storybook quality. From the robbery of the Royal procession through the archery contest and the climactic jailbreak, we’re provided with a barrage of action set-pieces that keep things moving along at an enthusiastic lick.
And then there’s the notion that Robin Hood is populated by bland, one-dimensional characters. For me, this is one of the great Disney casts, with Robin made likably wily by British theatre actor Brian Bedford, Little John superbly witty by Phil Harris and Maid Marian’s lady-in-waiting Lady Kluck played with scene-stealing brio by a game Carole Shelley. The film is emphatically stolen by its villains though, a British comedy dream-team of Peter Ustinov and Terry-Thomas as the scraggly, cowardly mummy’s-boy Prince John and his companion Sir Hiss. Every one of the pair’s many interactions is treasurable.
One aspect of Robin Hood that is often overlooked in the clamour to find fault with it is the film’s amazing soundtrack. In a canny piece of casting, American singer-songwriter Roger Miller (of ‘King of the Road’ fame) is cast as Alan-a-Dale, who here serves as narrator. This also allowed Disney to tap Miller for a handful of songs including the catchy instrumental ‘Whistle Stop’, the lively ‘Oo-De-Lally’ and the mournful ‘Not in Nottingham’, the latter being one of the great, forgotten Disney songs. But the film’s big show-stopper is ‘The Phony King of England’, written by ‘Moon River’ co-writer Johnny Mercer and performed with the liveliness you’d expect from the great Phil Harris. A witty, mocking song about the tyrannical Prince John, the sequence in which the oppressed inhabitants of Nottingham celebrate and dance to its performance has the uplifting effect of attending a Billy Bragg gig during the reign of a Tory government.
Robin Hood was the first Disney film to be released on Home Video. This was reportedly because Disney were concerned about making their classics so readily available when they still periodically gave them cinematic re-releases, but felt that Robin Hood was one of their least valuable assets and so were happy to test the Home Video market with this unprized effort. Perhaps this is the reason that Robin Hood is beloved of a certain generation who were able to get their mitts on a home copy when other Disney films remained elusive. Me and my brothers almost wore out a rental copy we took out of the local newsagents, watching it several times in one night. But while that nostalgic element has undoubtedly played a part in my continued love of Robin Hood, I still feel that it stems from more than just that. This is a great film with strong characters, good storytelling, brilliant voice work and a superb soundtrack. It may not stand out artistically from more carefully crafted Disney classics but the emphasis here is on creating a good time for everyone, which has made it one of my most frequently rewatched Disney films.
8. THE LION KING
The Lion King was the biggest hit of Disney’s second golden age and for a long time it seemed to be everyone’s favourite Disney film. From the opening moments as the animals gather at Pride Rock to witness the arrival of their new king, The Lion King is a feast for the eyes and ears. The animation and artwork is stunning, from the realistic animals at the beginning to the psychedelic exaggerations of the ‘I Just Can’t Wait to Be King’ sequence and from the magisterial paradise of the Pride Lands to the dank, dark corners where the hyenas dwell. The music by Tim Rice and Elton John features some of Disney’s most memorable latter day hits (‘Circle of Life’, ‘Hakuna Matata’, ‘I Just Can’t Wait to Be King’ and ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’ are all here) and the characters give a starry voice cast the chance to excel, with Rowan Atkinson, Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella having great fun as the comedy sidekicks, Robert Guillame balancing wit and wisdom as the spiritual guide Rafiki, James Earl Jones bringing the necessary gravitas to Simba’s father Mufasa and Jeremy Irons striking just the right note between chilling villain and pantomime dame as the evil Scar. The extent of the enduring love for this film was evident recently in fans’ responses to the photorealistic remake which many felt drained all the fun and invention out of the story and characters. The film also has other problems, including its undeniable similarities to Osamu Tezuka’s manga series Kimba the White Lion and the arrogant way in which the Disney studio handled that controversy, not to mention that you don’t have to dig too deeply into its central themes of the “circle of life” to reveal it as utter twaddle. But taken on its other merits alone, The Lion King is undeniably impressive and moving and it still means a lot to a certain generation of animation fans, of which I am a part. Would it be lower down this list if I hadn’t got fond memories of sitting in the cinema as a twelve year old boy with my mum and staring awestruck at the screen? Perhaps, but when I watch it today and feel those feelings come flooding back, I know that the film has undeniably done its job.
7. 101 DALMANTIONS
Disney began the 60s with one of their most artistically bold creations, 101 Dalmatians. This loose adaptation of the Dodie Smith novel had a significantly different look from previous Disney films, with a modernist flavour that was born of budgetary concerns and became an asset that many critics lauded as one of its strongest features. Walt Disney apparently hated the new style and swore never to make another film like 101 Dalmatians again, but his concerns that the less realistic rendering was draining away the magic associated with Disney films was completely unfounded. 101 Dalmatians was an instant hit with critics and audiences, its brisk caper movie pace and barrage of memorable characters winning over adults and children alike. In Cruella De Vil, Disney have one of their greatest villains of all, but 101 Dalmatians also features one of my favourite supporting characters in a Disney film; Sgt. Tibbs , the tabby cat who plays an instrumental part in the puppies’ rescue is one of the studio’s coolest creations.
Throughout the first Disney Golden Age, Bambi was a pet project that was always intended to be a masterwork that raised the bar in realistic animal animation. Walt Disney even went as far as setting up a small zoo at Disney Studios so that his animators could study the creatures’ movements. Bambi was clearly intended to be an adult animated feature from the start and the result succeeded beautifully in this aspiration where Fantasia had often stumbled awkwardly. In his quest for animated perfection Walt comes pretty damn close, creating an astonishingly immersive forest setting in which the animals’ struggle for survival moves to the rhythm of the changing seasons. In adapting the original book by Felix Salten, Disney pulled no punches and the resulting moment when Bambi’s mother is killed by hunters turned out, in animation terms, to be the shot that was heard around the world. Tastefully, beautifully and evocatively handled, the death of Bambi’s mother was Disney’s first brush with uncompromising realism and critics and audiences at the time reacted badly. The film, unbelievably, was a critical and commercial failure and proved to be the last film of Disney’s first Golden Age, as the studio knuckled down to wartime duties and the underrated but undoubtedly stylistically inferior package films. It wasn’t until Bambi was re-released and reappraised that it came to be seen for the classic it is, with the death of Bambi’s mother coming to be regarded as one of the defining moments of cinema in any medium, animated or not.
5. THE JUNGLE BOOK
The last Disney film to be overseen by Walt himself, who died during its production, The Jungle Book is one of the most beloved Disney classics and it’s not hard to see why. Straying from the darker tone of its source material, The Jungle Book opts instead for a bright, colourful and loud approach with the emphasis on upbeat comedy. As well as terrific animation, this tale of young boy Mowgli and his journey from the jungle in which he was raised back to the human village where he belongs, features one of Disney’s best soundtracks, with the songs by the legendary Sherman Brothers proving to be among the studio’s most memorable (not only the famous songs ‘The Bare Necessities’ and ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ but also the terrific lesser known ‘Trust in Me’ and ‘That’s What Friends Are For’).
Equally crucial to the film’s success is one of the best voice casts ever put together. Phil Harris, who became something of a Disney regular, was never so perfectly cast as he was in the role of Baloo, the carefree but irresponsible bear; Sebastian Cabot is wonderfully stuffy but honourable as Bagheera the Panther (he later leant his warm tones to the narration of the Winnie the Pooh shorts); George Sanders is marvellously regal and sarcastically sinister as the indelible villain Shere Khan; Louis Prima is perfectly wild as the anarchic King Louis; but arguably the most ingenious casting of all is that of Disney legend Sterling Holloway. A favourite of Walt’s, Holloway was generally cast as warm, folksy characters like Winnie the Pooh or Dumbo‘s Mr. Stork, but here he lends his unmistakable voice to the snake Kaa. It was an unlikely piece of casting which works beautifully. Holloway was never better than he is in the role of the villainous snake with sinus trouble and he steals the show in every scene he appears, even the unforgettable one he shares with George Sanders’ Shere Khan.
4. THE SWORD IN THE STONE
The 1960s were a very interesting time for Disney animation. Having created some of the most iconic animated films ever made during the 50s, 1961’s excellent 101 Dalmatians played with bold new stylistic changes which Walt Disney apparently hated but which felt like a rejuvenating and encouragingly modern move after the conservatively backwards-looking Sleeping Beauty. Later in the decade, Disney put out one of their most enduring and beloved classics The Jungle Book, the final film Disney himself worked on before his death in 1966. In the midst of all these monumental changes, 1963’s take on the Arthurian legend The Sword in the Stone got a bit lost. Though it was a modest box office success, critical reviews were mixed with many criticising the thin plot, moments of below-par animation, forgettable songs and broad characters. Also coming in for much stick was the fact that, due to the onset of puberty, the character of Arthur (aka Wart) is voiced by three different actors, his voice changing noticeably from scene to scene or sometimes even within the same scene. That all three voices had a clear American accent also didn’t sit well with some purists.
That The Sword in the Stone can overcome such problems at all is impressive. That it remains for many, myself included, one of the best and most underrated Disney films of all is testament to how Disney at its very best can easily paper over cracks to create a masterpiece. That said, I do take issues with some of the criticisms levelled at The Sword in the Stone. For one, it does not have a weak plot, merely a different kind of structure. The film is about growing up and the accumulation of the necessary wisdom to make the transition for childhood to adulthood. Therefore, it employs an episodic structure in which the young Arthur is taught various life lessons by his adoptive mentor Merlin. The result is a narrative that knowingly forsakes the driving forward momentum of Disney’s simpler stories in favour of greater philosophical import. Some of the lessons Arthur learns are appropriately unforgiving, such as the climax to the slapstick romance of the squirrel sequence in which a small, innocent woodland creature is left eternally heartbroken when her chosen mate turns out to be a magically-transformed human boy. The cold, grey image of the bereft squirrel staring off into the distance is one of Disney’s saddest moments.
The soundtrack of The Sword in the Stone, though it does lack any real showstoppers, is carefully composed by the legendary Sherman Brothers to mirror its structure. Songs liker ‘That’s What Makes the World Go Round’ and ‘A Most Beffudling Thing’ are barely snatches of melodies, like little whistled tunes designed to underline the lessons without upstaging them. ‘Higitus Figitus’ is presented as an increasingly frantic magic spell filled with nonsense words which Merlin uses in order to pack an entire room full of objects into a small bag, while ‘Mad Madam Mim’ is a joyously self-aggrandising theme song for a baddie that ensures she lingers long in the mind even when she spends comparatively little time onscreen.
While The Sword in the Stone‘s supporting cast is largely made up of booming British lunkheads and shrieking, toothless washerwomen, the central trio of Arthur, Merlin and Archimedes the educated owl are terrifically realised creations. While Arthur’s good-natured curiosity gives the viewer a way in to the plot, Merlin’s combination of impish amusement at his ward’s naivety and bad-tempered blustering at his own occasional bungling makes for one of the most memorable Disney characters ever. Actor Karl Swenson provides the perfect voice and his transferral from the original role of Archimedes allowed Junius Matthews to step into that role and consequently steal every scene in which he appears. Irritable, pompous but basically good hearted, Archimedes is a terrific comic foil and the subtle way in which the film depicts his veiled affection for Arthur is deeply touching. The character is also animated beautifully. Those who criticised The Sword in the Stone‘s occasional lapses in animation quality should look to the scene in which Archimedes has a hysterical laughing fit at one of Merlin’s failures. It’s an astounding piece of character animation.
While we’re on the subject of the film’s animation, we must mention the Wizard’s Duel sequence. The Sword in the Stone creates an excellent atmosphere throughout with its crumbling castles and forbidding woodlands but a sequence towards the ending of the film provides viewers with a true tour de force and one of Disney’s greatest and most underrated set pieces. This is the Wizard’s Duel between Merlin and his old adversary Madam Mim, in which the pair attempt to destroy each other by transforming into a range of different creatures. It’s a fast-paced, devilishly clever sequence in which Mim’s loose interpretation of the rules eventually comes back to bite her. The sequence sets up Arthur and Archimedes as spectators to comment on the action and cheer on Merlin, thereby providing us once again with a way into the action without overselling it. Filled with humour, superb animal designs and an edge of genuine threat, the Wizard’s Duel is Disney magic at its most mesmerising.
Why exactly The Sword in the Stone became so buried I’m not sure. Though it has an enthusiastic cult following, you rarely hear it mentioned when Disney is discussed and even when it does come up it is usually shrugged off as a minor work. Perhaps the film’s preference for focusing on big themes instead of simple storytelling, its experimentation with structure, its marginalising of musical numbers and its refusal to appoint a central villain make it too different for those in love with the more recognised classic Disney style to stomach. But, as this list hopefully demonstrates, Disney have always been a studio that are bolder and more experimental than the latter-day pejorative use of the phrase ‘Disneyfication’ allows for. If Disney to you means nothing more than sloppy sentiment, fairy tale simplicity, doe-eyed anthropomorphic critters and niggling upbeat ditties then I’m sorry, but you clearly haven’t be watching properly!
Although it was not a success on its original release, Disney’s second film Pinocchio has come to be seen as one of the crown jewels of animation and it’s still a marvel to behold, filled with warmth, wonder, magic and genuinely troubling dark moments. More and more animation critics are listing Pinocchio as the greatest animated feature of all time and it’s not hard to see why. Faced with the seemingly impossible task of following up Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney upped the ante by throwing everything into Pinocchio: an event-packed plot (some would say too packed but the wandering of the narrative is more than compensated for by everything else); iconic songs including ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ which would become the Disney theme song; the most popular of Disney’s little helper characters in the shape of the folksily charming Jiminy Cricket; and no less than five villains, one of whom is a gigantic whale! All this combined with some of the most intricate animation ever created and a dark, uncomprimising heart (check out that scene where Lampwick turns into a donkey or the moment the Coachman’s face contorts into a screen-filling demonic countenance) make Pinocchio an enduring classic.
2. SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS
It may not have been the first full-length animated feature film as is so often misreported (it was beaten to the screen by Ladislas Starevich’s The Tale of the Fox, the Diehl Brothers’ The Seven Ravens, Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed and several lost films by Quirino Cristiani) but Walt Disney’s first full length animated feature remains the most important and influential film of feature animation’s infancy. But historical importance is not enough alone to make a film so enduringly beloved by audiences of all ages. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs remains at the top end of every list of greatest animations because it is simply one of the most breathtaking cinematic experiences ever. For all the technological advancements of the subsequent decades, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs still looks more sumptuous and impressive than any of its successors. Although years of hard work were put into making it this way, the film’s trump card is in making it all seem effortless. In Bambi you can practically see the animator’s sweat on the drawings as they strive to make the most realistic creations possible but Snow White‘s characters just seem to already exist on screen, as if they’ve always been there awaiting our arrival.
Character animation has always been a Disney strength and it is crucial here in differentiating the various dwarfs, all of whom are named for a particular character trait. In particular, Grumpy and Dopey stand out, the former going through the film’s most convincing and beautifully drawn emotional journey. But if Grumpy’s emotional transformation gives the film it’s heart, more column inches have been dedicated to that other transformation, the extraordinary physical metamorphosis of the wicked Queen from attractive young woman to hideous, apple-wielding hag. This scene is the film’s strongest and most memorable showpiece and has endured as a high watermark of animation. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs‘ ability to switch from heartwarming frivolity to dark and troubling nightmares is remarkable and this trick would become synonymous with Disney films throughout the ages. This is the film that set the standard for every subsequent Disney feature, a standard that is frequently lived-up-to but very rarely surpassed.
The commercial failure of the very expensive Pinocchio and Fantasia left Disney in bad need of a hit. The admirable artistic ambition was kept alive by the continual development of Bambi but, in the meantime, another Disney unit was given the go-ahead to begin working on an adaptation of a little known children’s story by Helen Aberson about a big-eared elephant. In contrast with the studios previous productions, Dumbo was envisioned as a simple and inexpensive project that would eschew the intricacies of Fantasia et al. The result of this was the welcome return of the warm, caricatured style of the most charming Silly Symphonies, a “back to basics” approach that was welcomed by both critics and audiences alike. Less emphasis on groundbreaking artwork allowed animators to focus more closely on storytelling and character development, which instills a glorious warmth in Dumbo which is less evident in the films that surround it.
Dumbo may have been a cheaper, less visually-intricate work but that does not mean it is by any means less gorgeous than its predecessors. The film is a feast of uplifting, bright colours, busy, energetic sequences and surreal experimentalism that are delivered in bitesize chunks which gel effortlessly into one glorious whole. One of the major achievements for which Dumbo is celebrated is the character animation. The crowning glory in this respect is Dumbo himself, who is the only Disney protagonist who remains silent for the entirety of their starring role. Consequently, much needs to be communicated through Dumbo’s expressions and actions in order to ensure he is a fully fledged character rather than just a prop. This is achieved with aplomb, so that Dumbo’s initial “awwwww” inspiring appearance quickly melts into an expressive, empathetic, fully-rounded personality. Dumbo’s mother is similarly silent (she speaks once and then forever holds her peace) but the relationship between her and her offspring is all the more touching and palpable for it. The famous scene in which she cradles her son in her trunk through the bars of her cage is at once more heart-rending than a million murdered Bambi-mothers or trampled Simba-fathers!
Of the five films that make up Disney’s critical golden age, Dumbo is perhaps the most influential on the style of the studio’s subsequent output. Although a high level of artistry was maintained, humour and character would ultimately become more important in later productions than the perfectionist realism that peaked with Bambi. By the time of his death, Walt Disney himself was emphasising the importance of entertainment, storytelling and character over anything else and, tellingly, his final achievement with this triptych as his mantra was The Jungle Book, another personal favourite of mine. Dumbo‘s ability to please both demanding critics and audiences craving entertainment and escapism speaks of its place as one of the great filmic works of art of the 20th century. Sandwiched between two of Disney’s most ambitious and highfalutin productions, Dumbo is the little cartoon that could. Every one of its 64 minutes is a delight to behold.