A few years back on this very website, I posted an article (since deleted) in which I attempted to rank every Walt Disney Animation Studios feature film from worst to best. I pieced my list together from memory, attempting to allocate places based on half-baked remembrances of films I’d not seen in a long time. Looking back on this article recently, I decided it simply wasn’t good enough and the only way to accurately rank these films was to rewatch them all, which is exactly what I’ve been doing for the past three months or so. I can now present a full list in which I am more confident, with more extensive reviews to back up the rankings.
Before we launch into part one, I should be clear about which films are included on this list. I’m working from the official list of Walt Disney Animation Studios productions, what are sometimes known as the Disney Animated Canon or the Disney Classics. That means I won’t be including outliers like The Reluctant Dragon and Victory Through Air Power, live action hybrids like Mary Poppins or Who Framed Roger Rabbit, or Disney Movietoons releases like DuckTales the Movie or A Goofy Movie. We won’t be delving into those direct-to-video sequels like The Return of Jafar or Simba’s Pride, and since this is a Disney list, no Pixar! I’ve been called a pedant for my insistence on the difference between Disney and Pixar but I will always point it out like a jerk whenever someone says their favourite Disney film is Finding Nemo. Someone once debated me after they called The Good Dinosaur a Disney film and I pointed out it was Pixar. “Yes, and who owns Pixar?!” they snorted, to which I replied that I own a toaster but that doesn’t mean I AM a toaster. Invite me to your next dinner party, I’m a lot of fun.
In this first part, I’m looking at the bottom eleven films, all of which I’ve rated 2.5 stars or lower. All entries contain spoilers.
It’s a very different experience watching Dinosaur, once a strange anomaly in the Disney catalogue, in an environment in which lifeless, charmless, photorealistic remakes of Disney’s animated classics seem to be gumming up the box office every week. Given that Dinosaur was, at the time of its original release, an innovative gamble, I feel far more well-disposed towards it than I do towards fun-drained versions of The Lion King and Pinocchio, but it is still, by my reckoning, the worst film in Disney’s official animated canon. Dinosaur was originally conceived as a more brutal, realistic look at prehistoric life but, at the insistence of CEO Michael Eisner, the characters were given voices. It’s strange to watch these CG beasts, whom artists have clearly striven to make as realistic as possible, spout lines like “That, children, is what’s known as a jerkosaurus.” If the recent Disney remakes seem to be labouring under the misapprehension that the elimination of stylisation makes animation better, Dinosaur was a victim of a reversal of that thought process: A film designed to impress with its visuals which has had sassy anthropomorphism thrust upon it.
Unlike the sullying of Disney classics that continues unabated, I don’t really mourn for the film Dinosaur could’ve been. It is one of those films that necessarily appear during technical innovations, showcasing the height of sophistication at the time in a way that inevitably grows less appealing as the technology improves. Much was made of the film’s visuals upon release but they always felt cold and ugly to me, with the celebrated beauty of Dinosaur’s opening sequence being largely down to the live action backgrounds on which the animated characters are superimposed. The plot, which becomes a standard journey narrative following the devastating effects of a meteor, quickly eliminates even this pleasure as the backdrop for the story becomes bland, rocky devastation that is as samey to look at as the sometimes indistinguishable characters.
There’s not an awful lot else to say about Dinosaur. Its plot is weak and predictable (though also a little weird. A dinosaur raised by lemurs?!) and its visuals are a bland, cold attempt to recreate something as realistically as possible, something I generally find makes for a boring experience given the limitless possibilities of animation. Even at a relatively brief 82 minutes, I found the film to be a lumbering slog. It’s rare that a film leaves me longing for an ice age or, perhaps even more drastically, an Ice Age! Still, after ten minutes of watching faceless leviathans plod towards anticlimax, I’d have gladly traded this in to watch a squirrel-rat chase an acorn through outer space.
60. STRANGE WORLD
Although it subsequently became reasonably popular on Disney’s streaming service, Strange World was a huge box office bomb during its theatrical run. Following on the heels of the phenomenally successful Encanto, Strange World lost Disney between an estimated $100 – 197 million. Numerous sources were targeted for blame, from the film’s hefty budget to lukewarm critical reaction and lowered cinema attendance in general, but the major culprit behind Strange World’s commercial failure seems to have been its artistic failure. The huge potential in the idea of a Disney feature inspired by classic pulp Sci-fi magazines and Adventure movies is wasted on a disastrous vaguely defined story and predictable dynamics between underdeveloped characters. The film was notable for featuring Disney’s first LGBTQ+ lead character, as well as a timely environmental message. But the former is cursory at best while the latter is so heavy-handed that it risks inspiring eye rolls about a subject that we can’t afford to be dealing with cynically.
One thing that Strange World gets right is the LGBTQ+ content with the gay main character Ethan. While some may say that the small part Ethan’s crush on Diazo plays in the story is a sign of tentativeness on Disney’s part, the fact that it is not made a central cause of conflict is crucial in allowing kids who are discovering their sexualities to see something other than heteronormative values being portrayed onscreen without them being a source of controversy. In a film weighted down by a considerable amount of intergenerational melodrama, it would’ve been easy to make Ethan’s sexuality a bone of contention in his relationship with his father or grandfather but it never is. This isn’t so much a denial of the anti-LGBTQ+ prejudice we unfortunately still see everywhere, rather than a pointed decision that such bigots are not wanted as characters in this story. It’s a show of solidarity, an acknowledgment that we don’t always have to see gay characters through the lens of their detractors and, given that Strange World has a futuristic setting, it’s not unreasonable to imagine this is a world in which people are no longer dickheads about who anyone else sleeps with.
But if Strange World is right on about sexuality, its delivery of a worthy environmental message is fumbled. Environmental themes are very hard to put across, especially in films aimed at children, without it feeling like a patronising finger wag and Strange World doesn’t avoid that trap. It does seem to acknowledge that the more enlightened attitudes of the next generation are our greatest hope for the future but in its roundabout, symbolic delivery of its themes it doesn’t feel like the sort of film that will either make the already environmentally aware audience members feel respected nor win over the sceptics, while those who know little about the climate crisis may find its metaphors impenetrable. It’s the sort of film that requires some discussion after viewing but the best of those types of film do so by inspiring questions and the only question Strange World is really likely to inspire is “Why is this so dull?”
For many, the saving grace of Strange World was its artwork but I was actually quite disappointed with the rounded, dayglo style. It made me pine for the more evocative oddities of Rene Laloux’s films. Sure, it’d be naïve to expect something quite that out there from Disney but they’re a studio who have been quite adept at absorbing influences and subtly incorporating them into the house style. But the look of Strange World is actually a bit predictable and lifeless, with its flora and fauna failing to stimulate the imagination. Perhaps this might not have been the case had the film focused more on the Adventure side but, after a promising setup, it becomes mostly a film about family, its strongest focus being on father/son relationships. As a father myself, I’m an easy mark for emotional responses to this kind of material so the fact that Strange World managed to wring exactly zero salty droplets from me was a problem. Its observations about abandonment, erroneous expectations and overbearing parenting are so hackneyed that I imagine even fairly young audience members will have encountered them elsewhere before.
In placing Strange World in my rankings, I weighed it against Pocahontas, a film I ultimately felt got the message egregiously wrong. By contrast, Strange World has laudable messages driving it but it can’t find any remotely interesting ways of putting them across. Pocahontas at least had the good grace to run out of steam after 75 minutes. Strange World meanders on for 102 and I was already flagging before the first hour was up. It’s encouraging that Disney are making films that embrace progressive values and aim to tackle important subjects. But with storytelling this bland and little in the way of character, visuals or music to make up for that, I can’t put Strange World anywhere else but at the bottom of the pile.
59. HOME ON THE RANGE
Home On the Range opens with a brown screen in place of where Disney films normally have a blue backdrop with their castle logo. Suddenly a red hot branding iron appears in frame and imprints the Disney logo on the screen with a sickening sizzle. The brown background, we realise, is a cow’s behind. This is quickly followed up by a voiceover from a cow called Maggie who says of her prominently displayed udders “Yes, they’re real. Quit staring.” Between these two moments, we get a slapstick intro involving a peg-legged rabbit running from various dangers. The pacing is overly-frantic, seemingly aspiring to a Looney Tunes style but overshooting spectacularly. All this sets the tone for the rest of Home on the Range, one of the most witlessly tedious animated features Disney ever put out.
Fans of Home on the Range often cite the joys of Disney not taking itself too seriously. This certainly can be a joy but it can go one of two ways. On a good day, you get The Emperor’s New Groove or Lilo & Stitch. On a bad day, you get Chicken Little or Home on the Range, films that seem to have taken their production processes as unseriously as their screenplays. It’s not true, of course. Animation is an insanely intricate medium and few animated films are undertaken lightly. The problem at this stage in Disney’s history seemed to be that the development stage kept getting away from them. Most Disney films change massively from conception to release and at this time in the mid-00s there seemed to be a strange notion that audiences wanted something outlandish and glib. The tone started to drift towards sassy detachment and surreal non-sequitur and the films started struggling to engage on an emotional level. So here we get an utterly bizarre plot about a cattle rustler who hypnotises cows with his yodelling. The basic premise of three cows going on a quest to save their owner’s dairy farm (because cows love being used in this way, obviously) has a solid enough basis in classic journey narratives but their various encounters are either too wild, silly or mundane to amount to anything other than a boring 75 minutes, despite how in-your-face the film remains throughout.
The cast of Home on the Range is mismatched in a tonally-grating way rather than the lovable ragbag way for which it aims. Roseanne Barr and Judi Dench are hardly the dream combo we’ve all been waiting to see on a marquee, although Jennifer Tilly is fun as the third cow in their trio. Disney films had been largely male-led since Mulan so it is good to see all the leads being female but the attempt to incorporate Rosanne’s personality into the character is unfortunate for non-fans (I loved her sitcom but I was very much there for Laurie Metcalf and John Goodman) and the script struggles to bring any heart to her abrasive character. The rest of the cast features plenty of recognisable voices, from Randy Quaid and Steve Buscemi to Estelle Harris and G.W. Bailey. Besides Tilly, standouts are Cuba Gooding Jr. as a macho, overeager horse and Joe Flaherty as a curmudgeonly goat, but there are no classic or even particularly memorable characters here.
You can see how the basic idea of Disney doing a Western started out as a promising concept and then slowly got mangled into this coldly arch mess of a film. There are many who name Home on the Range as the worst Disney film but it is saved from that fate by a few inventive bits of animation (the yodelling scene becomes a moment of psychedelic madness) and an irreverent tone which makes it slightly preferable to the flat-out bores of Strange World and Dinosaur. But there’s a part of me while watching Home on the Range that can’t quite believe it was released to cinemas. It feels so much like a misjudged, straight-to-DVD oddity.
58. CHICKEN LITTLE
It’s hard to imagine that a film as utterly bizarre as Chicken Little was a hit but I suppose a cute little chicken in glasses on a poster will draw audiences in. There’s no way to tell from that image that the film itself is going to be a complete mess of awkwardly stitched together plot elements that eventually collapse unexpectedly into a half-baked Sci-fi spoof. Disney played the Sci-fi card a surprising amount in the 00s, from Treasure Planet’s classic narrative transplanted to outer space and Lilo & Stitch’s titular extraterrestrial to Meet the Robinsons’ convoluted time travel, but the appearance of spaceships and aliens in Chicken Little is the most unexpected left field development. Director Mark Dindal had brought a fresh, funny perspective to his previous film The Emperor’s New Groove and Chicken Little seems to aim for similar irreverent humour by throwing the storytelling rulebook out the window completely. This is made overt in an opening string of gags that reject the standard introductory tropes of “Once upon a time…” and onscreen storybooks. But alongside these rejections, the film seems to veto coherence too. For a while in feature animation there was a trend for trying to tell the wildest, most off-the-wall story possible but aspirations of originality all too often crumbled into the tedium of poorly strung-together non-sequiturs. Chicken Little is one of this breed. There are good gags peppered throughout the film but, without a narrative foothold in sight, the laughter rings hollow.
It seems that the original plans for Chicken Little were less outlandish and interference from higher-ups resulted in drastic changes. A much more grounded idea about a battle with a nefarious summer camp counsellor was rewritten at the behest of new Disney president David Stainton, while Disney CEO Michael Eisner squashed months of work with Holly Hunter in the title role by insisting the protagonist be gender switched. Though the official reasoning originally given was that diminutive boys get picked on more so it would make sense for the story, Dindal would later confirm that he was told “’Girls will go see a movie with a boy protagonist but boys won’t see a movie with a girl protagonist.’” So on the basis of this flimsy, soon to be Frozen-obliterated “wisdom”, Chicken Little was upended and began its journey towards incomprehensibility. To be fair, there is a thematic throughline about parental support which does eventually link the disparate events together but you have to pull waaaaaaaay back to see it and when it becomes apparent it’s less a satisfying revelation than the exposure of a strangulated narrative structure.
The look of Chicken Little is fairly primitive and this isn’t just a case of charming early CGI, since Pixar’s contemporary films were streets ahead of the awkward creations we see here. The film is ugly, with characters like Turkey Lurkey looking conspicuously grotesque and even central characters like Chicken Little and his Dad Buck Cluck seeming more akin to something you’d find in a low-budget homemade YouTube animation. The world never seems to come alive, a fact not helped by voice acting that feels perfunctory at best. There are a lot of famous actors involved and you’ll probably recognise them all because few are doing anything that different from their actual voices. In an attempt to keep the energy up, Chicken Little is positively slathered with Pop songs from a decent but awkwardly inserted original composition by Barenaked Ladies to snippets of R.E.M. and the Spice Girls, and a re-recorded but scarcely different version of Patti LaBelle’s Stir It Up featuring Joss Stone, that seems to be there to go “Hey, remember Beverley Hills Cop?” Unfortunately, evoking a great film doesn’t result in associative acclaim so much as an overwhelming desire to put that on instead. The whole thing ends in that 21st century cliché of animation: the full cast dance-off, a seemingly obligatory post-Shrekism deployed by films that lack their own organically achieved charm (although better films like Zootopia have also gone to this well).
Chicken Little was a financial success at the time of its release so there are pockets of fans out there to whom this film means something. But the critical savaging it received, coupled with the rapid dating of visuals that already seemed dated when it was new, has seen it slip into comparative obscurity. Those curious enough to dig it out will discover something fascinatingly, though not appealingly, weird. Disney’s acquisition of Pixar a couple of years later brought in staff members who saved the subsequent Bolt from a plethora of planned surreal non-sequiturs and got the studio back on track with their storytelling strengths. Dindal, meanwhile, was left to ponder exactly what his film could’ve been if he’d been left to follow his instincts. The sometimes genuinely funny gags (I laughed out loud at the introduction of Morkubine Porcupine) suggest that Chicken Little could’ve been another Dindal gem instead of a film battling its own out-of-control narrative.
In the early 90s, between the ages of 9 and 13, I would make an annual trip to the cinema with my Mum to see the new Disney film. I was fortunate that my childhood coincided with the widely acclaimed Disney Renaissance period, which meant we saw great films like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, but I assumed the excitement of the trips out would enhance whatever film we went to watch. As it turned out, that wasn’t quite true. You see, before puberty temporarily displaced my interest in animated films, the last Disney film we went to see was Pocahontas. I remember having been in two minds about whether I wanted to go and see Pocahontas because the advertising for the film had not appealed to me at all. It looked dull, self-serious and joyless. I remember searching the promotional images in the cinema foyer for something with a vaguely cartoony appeal that I could latch onto. I was slightly reassured by a window sticker featuring the minor character of Wiggins, whose humorous design was very different from the blandly realistic human leads who surrounded him. He had a fake arrow through his head like Steve Martin, the potentially racially-loaded implications of which I was not yet aware. There was also a raccoon, a hummingbird and a dog, but somehow, perhaps due to a burgeoning teenage cynicism, I could tell that these characters were mere concessionary gestures. I went into Pocahontas pinning most of my hopes on Wiggins. He has a total of 2:39 screentime. I liked those bits.
After Beauty and the Beast became the first animated feature to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg pushed for Pocahontas to match that achievement. Ignoring the fact that the humorous talking furniture blatantly stole the show in Beauty and the Beast, Katzenberg focused instead on the romance angle, to the intensity of which he attributed the former film’s success. So director Mike Gabriel’s original pitch, which presented the heroine as a pre-teen in keeping with the historical records surrounding John Smith’s arrival in Virginia, was quickly altered to make Pocahontas older and, in Katzenberg’s creepy words, “the most idealized and finest woman ever made.” John Smith, reportedly not a very sympathetic character in reality, was changed into a clean cut, easily won over, blonde-haired, blue eyed hunk of beef. The animal characters, originally intended to be anthropomorphic, were rendered mute at Katzenberg’s request. Under Katzenberg’s guidance, most of the top animators at Disney chose to work on Pocahontas, built up as a prestige classic in waiting, rather than on an experimental oddity called The Lion King. Seemingly oblivious to the fact that the charm of stylisation played a huge role in Beauty and the Beast’s critical success, Katzenberg’s plan seemed to be to create an animated film that almost strove to hide its medium. Of course, Katzenberg can’t be held totally responsible for all of Pocahontas’s failings. The appropriation of a real woman’s life story, especially one so filled with tragedy, as the basis for a Disney animation was a problematic notion before it even got mangled beyond recognition. Few things kill a film’s shot at greatness more than a concerted effort to win an Oscar and what emerged from Pocahontas’s jumbled intentions was one of the most woefully misjudged attempts ever at a progressive message film combined with a cynical glory grab that misunderstood what makes Disney films appealing.
I’m not generally one to be overly prescriptive about films and Disney’s experimentation has generally rendered results that were at least interesting and often helped the studio to progress rather than stagnate. Perhaps my harsher comments in that second paragraph were a little presumptuous in reducing the Disney studio’s work to a mere matter of charm. Were the makers of Pocahontas really any more remiss in their pursuit of heightened realism than the makers of Bambi? I feel differently about the two films largely because Bambi’s aspirations were driven by artistic passion, whereas Pocahontas’s were not only a calculated shot at Oscar glory but a stampede over sensitive material in the attempt. This is not to necessarily say there was no passion poured into this project. After all, Pocahontas often looks beautiful thanks to the sterling work of its animators, but the motivation driving the project mixed with the mishandling of the historical source material ultimately removed the heart. Even in the comparatively unenlightened 90s, Pocahontas raised eyebrows with its fact fudging, tonal imbalance and indelicate storytelling. It’s hard to have too much sympathy when the studio reportedly refused an offer of help from the Powhatan Nation in making a more culturally and historically sensitive film. Working with appropriate consultants in order to respect the culture they were depicting was something Disney would eventually embrace on films like Moana and Raya and the Last Dragon. Perhaps, if nothing else, the mistakes made on Pocahontas were a stepping stone to this positive change.
I wish I was building to something about how, despite all of its egregious ideological errors, I can’t help enjoying Pocahontas but sadly I’m not. It’s a desperately boring piece of filmmaking that emerges as cold, anticlimactic and, for all its attempts at greater realism, lifeless. The comedy relief of the animal characters in the background, while hungrily sought by my teenage self, is impossible to reconcile with the stiff, marionette-like humans in the foreground. This stiffness is not helped by the flat voice work of Mel Gibson who, between Pocahontas and Braveheart, seems to have pledged to spend 1995 pissing on as much history as possible. The rest of the voice cast are adequate, with David Ogden Stiers being the most valuable player. Though his Governor Ratcliffe is a weak villain, Ogden Stiers also voices his comic sidekick Wiggins, which is novel given that the pair share most of their scenes, and we all know how I feel about Wiggins (best thing in the film. Does that technically make him a white saviour?). Native American actor Irene Bedard is an appropriate choice to voice Pocahontas but it is notable that when she sings the film’s big number, Colours of the Wind, through which Pocahontas teaches John Smith a lesson about Native American culture, the voice actor switches to white New Yorker Judy Kuhn. Kuhn has a beautiful voice but it’s hard to think of a more inopportune thematic moment to make this substitution. Colours of the Wind is often seen as one of Pocahontas’s saving graces and it won the Best Original Song Oscar, even as Katzenberg’s coveted Best Picture award remained well out of his grasp. There’s an uncomfortable sense of stereotyping given that the lyrics were written by New York theatre veteran Stephen Schwartz but I must admit the song has a strong melody and makes me emotional, although this is almost entirely due to the fact that my Mum loves it and it instantly puts me in mind of her and those childhood cinema trips. The film’s other songs are a little less memorable, although I really like the modestly soaring Just Around the Riverbend, precisely because it seems to fall endearingly short of its own epic aspirations. But it is with one infamous song that Pocahontas really comes unstuck. Savages is a final act flourish that is not only musically weak but also startlingly offensive. The intention of the song is at least good, aiming to depict the full hideousness of racism in order to decry it, but given how unflinchingly Schwartz’s lyrics lean into this theme, it quickly becomes incongruous to examine such bigotry through a musical number, to be packaged and sold as part of a soundtrack that plucks it out from amidst its crucial context. Kids aren’t stupid, they’ll get that the line “They’re not like you and me, which means they must be evil” is ironic, but even so, do you want them singing along to this in their rooms?:
“What can you expect from filthy little heathens?
Their whole disgusting race is like a curse
Their skin’s a hellish red
They’re only good when dead
They’re vermin, as I said, and worse
They’re savages, savages
Barely even human”
Try segueing into The Bare Necessities from that.
There’s another problem with the Savages number that is even more disturbing. After that first verse, sung by the colonists, we then cut to the Native Americans for their own verse:
“This is what we feared
The paleface is a demon
The only thing they feel at all is greed
Beneath that milky hide
There’s emptiness inside
I wonder if they even bleed”
With this moment, the film is setting up a false equivalence between the colonists’ racism and the Native Americans’ response to oppression, echoing that Trumpian mantra about there being bad people on both sides. With this twist, Pocahontas drops an irredeemable clanger. Its well-meaning but terribly naïve point is further underlined by a real head-in-hands moment at the film’s end in which Pocahontas’s raccoon friend and the Governor’s dog have dressed in the clothes of each other’s cultures and become friends. This is clearly a stab at an Atticus Finch style message of understanding, about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, but it oversimplifies the issue to a depressing degree. If we’re to really engage with themes of racism then we must reckon with the fact that white people can never truly know the experience of oppressed minorities. Allyship is the ideal but that’s not best conveyed by a pug in redface.
56. BROTHER BEAR
In the wake of The Lion King’s blockbuster success, Disney CEO Michael Eisner pushed for more animal-based animated features. Just as The Lion King drew on Shakespearean influences, so the original proposal for what ultimately became Brother Bear was based on King Lear. But Brother Bear spent too long in development to really capitalise on The Lion King’s momentum, eventually arriving nearly a decade after that film, by which time the Shakespearean angle had been dropped in favour of a simpler tale of an Alaskan native boy called Kenai who, when he kills a bear that he blames for his brother’s death, is turned into a bear himself by the Great Spirits. He also finds himself being hunted down by his other brother who erroneously believes Kenai was killed by the bear he has actually become. In order to be transformed back into a human, Kenai must travel to where the Northern Lights touch the earth, but the journey is really an opportunity for him to atone for his actions as he meets and befriends a young bear cub named Koda.
Brother Bear’s setup sounds rife with possibilities for an exciting epic adventure but it actually emerges as a tonal nightmare. There’s an interesting visual approach in which the film switches aspect ratios from widescreen 1.75:1 to anamorphic 2.35:1 in order to differentiate between when Kenai is a human and when he is a bear. It’s an ingenious notion but unfortunately there are other ways in with the human and bear portions of the film are differentiated and they are significantly jarring. For starters, the 25 minute opening sequence is told in a deadly serious manner. At first I found it detrimentally humourless but ultimately it makes for a fairly effective way to bring narrative weight to the film’s premise. Unfortunately this gravitas is sacrificed the moment the transformation takes place, with the standard Disney funny animal shtick in its most generic form abruptly taking centre stage. By the time Rutt and Tuke, a couple of desperately unfunny Canadian moose voiced by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, arrived I was pining for that straightfaced approach from earlier in the film. The awkward tonal segue is underlined by a change in animation style. Brother Bear was one of the last Disney films to be traditionally animated and at times it is quite handsome, with the craggy North American backdrops looking gorgeous and the human characters retaining a stylisation that prevents them falling into that awful later trend that assumed animation’s only goal was to look as much like the real thing it was portraying as possible. But once the animal characters become foregrounded, the animation takes on a cheapness more akin to Disney’s TV projects. The sudden shift in both what we are seeing and hearing quickly derails the film and it takes a long time for it to get back on track. The arrival of Koda, voiced in the traditional cute-kid Disney manner by Jason Suarez, makes things start to feel terribly familiar and Brother Bear starts to feel like the studio is playing the hits on a worn-out vinyl. The relationship between Kenai and Koda is slightly reminiscent of Shrek and Donkey, which I suppose gives Brother Bear a less crusty air in its willingness to incorporate more modern influences (although ask the creators of Kimba the White Lion about how willing Disney are to admit to these influences) but the whole thing is underwritten, with their development from mismatched travelling companions to loving friends superficially explored through the medium of unconvincing Phil Collins montage. For the emotional punch that’s on its way to really hit hard, better groundwork than this is required.
About that Phil Collins soundtrack: Collins had previously provided music for Disney’s late 20th century film Tarzan but, rather than give the characters songs to sing themselves, Collins own versions were simply overlaid on the animation while the action continued unimpeded by dance routines. Though I never thought this worked very well in Tarzan, its apparent success led Disney to try the same trick again with the same artist and, some have suggested, pretty much the same soundtrack. Sung by both Collins and guest stars including Tina Turner and the Blind Boys of Alabama, the songs themselves range from adequate (On My Way) to absolutely terrible (Welcome), while No Way Out (Theme from Brother Bear) sounds so Phil Collins that it feels like he’s forgotten he’s supposed to be writing about bears at all and slipped into more maudlin meditations on his broken marriage.
If Brother Bear has all sorts of tonal problems, when it finds its groove it threatens to become quite compelling. As soon as Koda starts talking about the mother he has become separated from, it will be apparent to most adults that this must be the bear Kenai killed earlier in the film, but for the children in the audience that is a hell of a gut-punch and briefly takes Brother Bear to a whole different level. The scene in which Koda is telling the story of how he became separated from his mother and Kenai realises who he is talking about is executed brilliantly, with Kenai’s full-blown panic attack evocatively animated in a way that almost triggered the same reaction in me. The scene in which Kenai breaks the news to Koda is also realised with great emotional heft. But ultimately the rift caused by one character having killed another’s mother is too vast to convincingly heal and the fact that Brother Bear tries to do it by way of a comedic interlude involving those damn moose is inexcusable. The ending, in which Kenai opts to remain a bear in order to take care of Koda (because who better for that job than his mother’s murderer?) is actually quite a bold narrative choice but it is immediately undermined by a series of goofy scenes played over the credits. Most of them involve Rutt and Tuke but the last one is a truly bizarre sight gag involving a funhouse mirror reflection in a glacier and a deformed bear. The idea is actually quite a funny one but it has no place in Brother Bear, especially as the final beat which ultimately leaves the viewer with a very odd impression of what they’ve just watched. The decision to leave this clashing gag in the final cut, even as an afterthought in the credits, speaks of the major problems with Brother Bear, which are poor quality control and an inability to define a consistent tone that works. The result is a film that was never going to rank among the Disney classics, even if it inevitably means something more to those who grew up with it.
Tarzan is generally considered the final film of the Disney Renaissance but it’s not as simple as this being the end of a Golden Age followed by a period of comparative mediocrity. The films of the Disney Renaissance had not only changed quite considerably in style across a decade, they had also dipped in quality. There are bright spots like Hercules and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but even those don’t measure up to the vibrant, enormously entertaining films that kicked off the studio’s critical and commercial uptick (this statement also requires a small rewrite of history, since The Rescuers Down Under came out between the first two Renaissance era films but clearly belonged alongside the previous decade’s output). After the blockbuster success of The Lion King, the charmless prestige-grab of Pocahontas had established a clinical malaise to many of the subsequent 90s films and Tarzan is the culmination of that more lifeless period. Although its combination of traditional and computer animation was initially celebrated for the lush jungle backgrounds and kinetic fluidity it allowed in Tarzan’s exploration of those treetop pixels, in retrospect there’s a stiff, maquette-like quality to these over-polished characters and a terrible sterility in the way they are awkwardly accompanied by an all-Phil-Collins soundtrack which is lazily layered on top of the images.
Tarzan does have its moments. The rescue of the infant Tarzan by surrogate gorilla mother Kala from a vicious leopard is brutal, exciting and emotionally engaging, while Tarzan’s rescue of Jane from hordes of monkeys effectively filters that same excitement through a slapstick lens. The character of Jane is one of Disney’s more charismatic females, with both Minnie Driver’s voice work and the lively animation tapping into a British eccentricity that is overplayed in the character of her father but perfectly pitched in Jane, who avoids the pitfalls of Disney’s more blandly humourless female leads. But elsewhere Tarzan is almost painfully dreary. Those dense jungle backdrops quickly become samey to look at in their overwhelming greenness, Rosie O’Donnell and Wayne Knight’s comedy sidekicks barely register as characters, with O’Donnell’s young gorilla Terk never developed beyond a series of played-out, narcissistic wisecracks. Brian Blessed’s villain is too one-note, with his evil intentions never in doubt from his first gun-wielding appearance, while the pivotal relationship between Tarzan and the disapproving gorilla patriarch Kerchak doesn’t find the emotional oomph it so clearly needs. The predictable, repetitive feel of the film is neatly represented in Phil Collins’ soundtrack, which leans heavily into that drab balladry that is the first sound that comes into your head when Collins name is mentioned. There’s no Sussudio here to break things up.
Admittedly, the point where I feel the Disney Renaissance took a downturn exactly coincides with me reaching my teenage years. Most of us have that period where we temporarily set Disney aside and it’s possible that I’d like Tarzan or Mulan a lot more if I’d been born a few years later. Having said that, there are plenty of Disney films I missed, went back for and loved, so I think it’s fair to say that Tarzan just doesn’t play to my tastes. Although it is supposedly the final chapter in a great Disney era, I find much more of interest in the underrated 2000-2002 films that are seen by many as a downturn for the studio. By contrast with the likes of The Emperor’s New Groove, Lilo & Stitch, Atlantis: The Lost Empire and even a failed experiment like Treasure Planet, Tarzan feels so bereft of original ideas or charisma.
54. THE BLACK CAULDRON
At the time of its release The Black Cauldron was the most expensive animated film ever made. The more positive reviews talked excitedly about a return to the classic Disney aesthetic of old, while even the negative ones spoke of how they wished the story and characters lived up to the visuals. It’s hard to imagine now because The Black Cauldron is a patchy affair in terms of its look. At times, it captures a dark, foreboding atmosphere with striking levels of immersion, while at others it looks slapdash and awkwardly televisual. Though not the worst Disney film as many claim, it is one of the least Disney-esque films the studio ever released and animation novices could easily be convinced this was the work of a smaller operation like Don Bluth Entertainment or Rankin/Bass, both of whom put out better fantasy films in this era. There are even a couple of bawdy moments that could be mistaken for the work of Ralph Bakshi, particularly the appearance of an exaggeratedly buxom serving wench and the predatory antics of an over-amorous witch. The latter even involves her unwilling object of desire being transformed into a frog and becoming trapped in her cleavage.
The Black Cauldron is based on the first two books of Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, a five volume fantasy saga published in the 1960s. Alexander himself said he enjoyed Disney’s film but found virtually no resemblance between it and his novels, which he characterised as having greater depth and emotional power. Certainly, there’s a sense that the adaptation process has bowlderised the original story to the point of bland simplicity. There are elements remaining that hint at something more complex, such as the oracular pig or the concept of the “cauldron born” but they are underexplained to the point of being mere window dressing for a series of chases and encounters that clash in their too drastically varied levels of whimsy and peril. Like Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings film, which struggled to explain Tolkien’s complex concepts in its truncated runtime (I refer to it as Lord of the Rings: The Two Hours), The Black Cauldron just seems to give up on filling out its world at an early stage, focusing instead on serving up more fleetingly utilised characters that just muddy the waters when it comes to narrative clarity.
Another big problem with The Black Cauldron is the voice acting. John Hurt is perfectly cast as The Horned King and Freddie Jones does good work in the short time his character, Dallben, is allotted. Nigel Hawthorne is suitably dithery as the bard Fflewddur Fflam and John Byner is remarkably Gollum-esque as the furry coward Gurgi, to the point that many have cried plagiarism on the part of Andy Serkis (given the similar speech patterns of the characters as originally written, I’d say the similarities could easily be the result of mere coincidence). The major problem is the casting of the supposed leads, Taran and Princess Eilonwy, played by Grant Bardsley and Susan Sheridan. Bardsley in particular sounds as if he is at a table read, seeing the script for the first time and announcing the words with utter detachment. It takes the viewer completely out of the adventure, although to be fair to Bardsley and Sheridan the dialogue they are given is singularly unconvincing. Words are spoken but no apparent relationships are formed, so the characters end up appearing like dead-eyed counters on the board of a game for which the instruction manual has long been lost.
It’s kind of heartbreaking that so little about the narrative of The Black Cauldron works because when the visuals are good, they are really good and the idea of a darker, more mature young adult Fantasy Epic from Disney is an enticing prospect. The notion had been in development for many years and was the cause of great excitement for some animators, but the bold gamble that pulling off such an ambitious project would require was something for which Disney just did not have the wherewithal at the time. The Black Cauldron really needed to be at least forty minutes longer, written with closer attention to detail, voiced with a greater dedication to character and marketed towards an older audience. While all these things could’ve resulted in a masterpiece, they don’t exactly scream commercial potential and newly appointed Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, with one eye on the children in the audience, despised The Black Cauldron from the outset. After a test screening that sent many kids running from the screening room in fear, Katzenberg even seized the film from producer Joe Hale and began an unauthorised edit of his own. Hale reported the incident to CEO Michael Eisner but though he convinced Katzenberg to stop with his rash chopping, Katzenberg held firm on his conviction that the film needed cutting down. Ultimately, twelve minutes were edited out, with some scenes rewritten and animated for continuity and other conspicuous gaps simply left in the final cut. Even with these changes, parts of The Black Cauldron are still extremely scary. The Horned King’s demise as he is sucked into the cauldron is an excellent, disturbing piece of animation that epitomises just how magnificent the film could’ve been given the right set of circumstances. Given the financial pressures on Disney at the time though, it’s hard to claim that Katzenberg made the wrong call from a commercial standpoint. It’s one thing to produce an unsatisfying commercial bomb and quite another to traumatise a whole generation. The Black Cauldron came close to ending the existence of Disney’s animation department. Without the cuts, it may well have followed-through on that.
53. THE ARISTOCATS
The Aristocats is like a combination of the class-boundaries Romance of Lady and the Tramp and the animals-find-their-way-home Crime Adventure of One Hundred and One Dalmatians but it falls short of both these influences, emerging as a cheap-looking, undernourished blur of a film. The wild final minutes descend into a bewildering free-for-all in which flashing lights and music engulf a flood of characters who are hurled haphazardly at the screen. It’s like the film in microcosm. There are good ideas peppering The Aristocats but they aren’t pulled together into a coherent narrative. The film never once feels like it knows where it’s going next and, when in doubt, it introduces another superfluous character. Here’s a charming elderly lawyer who we’re never going to see again. Here’s a drunken goose for no reason. Here’s a Chinese cat who sounds like racist Tigger. The Aristocats’ villain, the opportunistic butler Edgar, acts as both antagonist and bumbling slapstick buffoon, which significantly lowers the already minimal stakes. He has two extended comedy set-pieces with a pair of farm dogs called Lafayette and Napoleon which are both the best parts of the film and the most tangentially distracting. They are typical of how The Aristocats chases after any little idea that flickers across the screen, whether it serves the plot or not. Amidst this jumble of activity, the heart gets lost.
The Aristocats’ plot is simple: an ageing Opera singer intends to leave her vast fortune to her cat Duchess and her three kittens, after which it will be passed on to her loyal butler, Edgar. Hearing of her intentions and fearing that he will not outlive the cats himself, Edgar drugs them, drives them into the remote countryside and ditches them. Here, the cats meet a streetwise alley cat named Thomas O’Malley who helps them find their way home while also introducing them to the Parisian nightlife and his rough-around-the-edges pals. There’s a classic road trip/romance narrative here ready to be taken advantage of but The Aristocats leans into comic and musical skits instead, spending way too much time on characters who have no narrative bearing and neglecting to fill out the development of the relationship between Duchess and O’Malley which ought to be the heart of the piece. They have one well-written scene on a Paris rooftop but it isn’t earned, playing like the culmination of a relationship arc which hasn’t been properly explored because we had to spend time setting up some completely irrelevant British geese characters instead.
One thing The Aristocats does have going for it is the music. Thomas O’Malley Cat and Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat are both memorable compositions, while the title theme was strong enough to lure Maurice Chevalier out of retirement to sing it. It sets up a wonderfully authentic Parisian atmosphere that the film then completely fails to capitalise upon. Apparently the French setting was influenced by how well One Hundred and One Dalmatians had utilised its London setting, but in that case they followed through with a largely British cast and appropriate accents. In The Aristocats, there’s barely a hint of a French accent anywhere. Eva Gabor manages to bring a nice air of feline sophistication to Duchess nonetheless but Phil Harris, so effective as Baloo in The Jungle Book, feels miscast as Thomas O’Malley. Harris has a great big cuddly bear of a voice that just sounds wrong emanating from a cat and I often wonder why Disney didn’t offer Maurice Chevalier the role instead, giving us at least one authentic French accent in the mix. Instead, the cast is overwhelmingly American or English, with the only other accents belonging to Scat Cat’s gang which includes a Chinese, Russian, Italian and British cat but oddly not a French one. I suppose with all the supposedly French characters talking with American accents, an actual French accent in the mix would’ve been too conspicuous, but The Aristocats’ refusal to follow through on its Parisian setting is one of its major flaws, feeling like a cowardly concession to underestimated American audiences.
Though fondly remembered by some, The Aristocats is one of Disney’s least impressive features. Its scrappy look fails to capitalise on economy as One Hundred and One Dalmatians had, while the jazz-tinged soundtrack that worked so well in The Jungle Book is oversold here with garish sub-psychedelic visuals that feel desperate rather than natural. There are moments to enjoy in The Aristocats, such as the well-timed comic scene of Edgar trying to retrieve his hat and umbrella from the dogs, but ultimately watching the film feels more like thumbing through a notebook of ideas than experiencing a finished narrative.
52. FROZEN II
I’ve never been a big fan of the original Frozen but when I watched it back recently I was impressed by the economy of storytelling. The relationship between the two sisters is painted with a subtle show-not-tell approach and the emotions are gradually drawn out of us rather than handed to us on a plate. Frozen II, by contrast, begins with a huge exposition dump about an enchanted forest and a war with a neighbouring tribe. After a leisurely reintroduction to the characters from the first film, now living a cosy and peaceful life together, an incident involving a distant voice and some reawakened elemental spirits plunges us headlong into Frozen II’s overly-fussy plot, from which we will not emerge for over an hour. It’s fair to say that if you loved the first Frozen, you’ll probably get something out of its sequel. Even I quite enjoyed the early scenes of Frozen II, catching up with the characters and watching them enjoy each other’s company. But the film makes the same mistake as many sequels, assuming that making everything bigger will also make it better. So the plot starts out unwieldy and gets more convoluted from there. There are a few more basic subplots to anchor things a bit, such as Kristoff’s abortive attempts to propose to Anna and Olaf’s experience with supposedly growing more mature, but unlike its predecessor’s handle on classic storytelling, Frozen II just constantly feels like it’s trying too hard. The more epic it tries to be, the less successful it gets.
After the mega-success of Frozen’s soundtrack, one of the biggest challenges for the sequel was always going up be attempting not to disappoint fans of Let It Go and (*shudder*) Love is an Open Door. Frozen II manages to avoid embarrassing itself in this regard, with a solid enough collection of songs and nothing as terrible as Fixer Upper from the first film, but there was always going to be that one inevitable attempt to replicate the Let It Go experience and it arrives early on in the shape of Into the Unknown, a decent song spoiled by how hard you can hear it straining to recapture Let It Go’s rousing qualities. Olaf’s song When I Am Older is another rinky-dinky facsimile of its earlier equivalent, In Summer, but I actually like this one a little better than its template. The closest we come to excruciating is the early number Some Things Never Change, which is a bit too cloying but basically passable. Perhaps the most notable song here is Lost in the Woods, sung by Jonathan Groff’s Kristoff. Fans of Groff had been disappointed that his only musical contribution in the first film was a sub-one-minute ditty called Reindeers are Better Than People (which is also reprised here) so Frozen II goes out of its way to give him a big moment. At first Lost in the Woods, with its pounding 80s Rock Ballad style, sounds ludicrous, then the overwrought emotional visuals of an anguished Kristoff’s face appearing from multiple angles makes it even more so, and finally a chorus of reindeer heads appears to harmonise in the background and you realise that Lost in the Woods is indeed fully taking the piss out of itself. It’s a bold gambit but it pays off, emerging as the most memorable part of the film.
Another set piece that sticks in the mind is a meta-moment in which Olaf re-enacts the entirety of the first film for a puzzled crowd of newcomers. Josh Gad is hilarious here and the animation, which sees Olaf zip between poses and costumes, is excellent, but the laughs are purchased at the price of credibility. Olaf is acting out all these traumas in front of everyone who was involved in them and you have to wonder how Elsa and Anna, off camera the whole time, are reacting to that glib reference to their parents’ deaths. Speaking of which, Frozen II attempts to repair a problem with the first film’s completely negligible treatment of the parents’ demise but it ends up overcomplicating things. Frozen marginalised this plot strand in order to focus more on the sisters, which felt hurried but correct. Having the parents back in the mix here is just another layer on an already teetering and overly-rich cake.
Given that I wasn’t that keen on Frozen, Frozen II was unlikely to be a favourite of mine (although stranger things have happened. I’m a big advocate for Pixar’s Cars 3, for instance) but I do admire how it managed to deliver a roster of serviceable songs and upped the ante in the animation stakes, looking significantly more beautiful than its predecessor. Unfortunately, its attempts to raise its game in other ways results in an overloaded film that trades in the original’s simpler charms for a lorry-load of plot contrivances and baffling backstory. I’m sure the fans enjoyed revisiting this world but I definitely would’ve left (just about) well enough alone in this case.
51. RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET
As a big fan of the original Wreck-It Ralph, I approached the sequel Ralph Breaks the Internet with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. While I loved the characters and looked forward to spending more time with them, I had the niggling feeling that their story was already told and that to add any more would be to detract from a rather perfect ending. I needn’t have worried… but only because I realised I’d grown up enough to not care that much about bad sequels. The original is always still there, you can always watch it again as a standalone, and does it really matter if someone has made an inferior follow-up and declared it canon? These are fictional creations after all. As viewers, we have almost as much power as the storyteller because we can just end the narrative wherever we want by just choosing to stop listening. Having revisited Ralph Breaks the Internet, I choose to stop listening just before it starts.
Ralph Breaks the Internet isn’t a terrible film or anything. I don’t begrudge it its existence and there’s clearly been an effort to bring a similar level of emotional resonance to the character beats. Unfortunately, those emotions are drowned in a tidal wave of comedy skits. The original Wreck-It Ralph was filled with references to classic arcade games but they were seamlessly woven into the narrative. For example, when Ralph was blue and needed a drink, he went to Tapper. That was the reference for video game fans to enjoy but it didn’t dictate the content of the scene. Instead, we got the continuation of the narrative as Ralph poured his heart out to the barman. With Ralph Breaks the Internet, every time we visit a new location we get a whole sketch about search engines or eBay, with the characters made subservient to the gags rather than the gags serving the narrative. As such, Ralph Breaks the Internet becomes a quickly tiresome pile of observational comedy routines. Some of them are funny but stacked end-to-end they create a lurching forward motion that makes the film, the second longest Disney animation after Fantasia, drag considerably.
There’s an extended bit in the middle of Ralph Breaks the Internet that tends to either delight or infuriate people, when Vanellope is sent to the official Disney blog site Oh My Disney! This is where the film takes the opportunity to gently rib its own studio, especially in a lengthy sequence in which all the Disney princesses gather together to give Vanellope advice based on the age old formula their respective narratives have followed. It’s an undeniably funny and smart scene but it feels odd to have such a self-consciously meta sequence right there in a Disney film itself. It would undoubtedly have worked better as a standalone short. There’s also a sense that Disney are mixing self-mockery with self-aggrandisement here. When Vanellope first arrives at Oh My Disney, there’s an overawed pan across all the properties than now sit under the Disney umbrella. It feels like the equivalent of inserting a banner that says ‘Disney: We own EVERYTHING!” We then get a string of cameos from Disney, Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars characters that are almost immediately wearing in their “Hey look, it’s…” enthusiasm. The Disney Princesses scene does help to move the story along as it encourages Vanellope to discover what her dream is but it does so in such an arch manner that it is clear the references have superseded the narrative and the story has been hammered into a shape that fits their guideline.
It’s a shame Ralph Breaks the Internet is so strongly governed by its allusions because in the muffled central plot about friendship dynamics there is still more than a flicker of the heart that was so prominent in the first film. Ralph and Vanellope are a compelling duo and you still root for their moving friendship to overcome the bumps it hits. But when that storyline attempts to take centre stage for the emotional denouement, the film is so thoroughly smothered in internet references that it transmogrifies into a very strange King Kong parody involving a virus and a giant Ralph made out of smaller Ralphs. It’s all a bit too weird to allow the emotions to breathe and ultimately it feels symptomatic of the way so many sequels try to make everything bigger and better but only succeed at the former.