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.
In this second part, I’m looking at the 3 star films and the first couple of 3.5 star films. You can read the previous part in which I look at the very worst Disney films here. All entries contain spoilers.
50. MAKE MINE MUSIC
Disney’s third package film, Make Mine Music was the first of two films that were essentially the popular music version of Fantasia. Although Make Mine Music necessarily set its sights lower than Fantasia in terms of a prestige aesthetic, the mixture of styles it explores, both musical and visual, across its ten segments show how a reduced budget was never enough to kill the innovative spirit that drove the Disney studio. The major problem with Make Mine Music is that its pieces don’t always fit together convincingly. The ragbag collection of ideas that characterises the package films can be invigorating in the sheer amount of variety it provides but it can also result in a haphazard feel that prevents the satisfaction of a cohesive experience. Make Mine Music has its unifying theme but the way the shorts are assembled sometimes slows the momentum. For its opening six segments, the film establishes a pattern of an energetic, humorous short followed by a ponderous, slow one and it causes the early stages of the film to jar and lurch like a kangerooing car. The transition from the wildly fast-paced irreverence of the opener The Martins and the Coys into the languid, dull Fantasia offcut Blue Bayou is non-existent and the pattern repeats as the Jazz whirlwind of All the Cats Join In crashes headlong into the barely animate Without You. When this happens for a third time with the frantic Casey at the Bat into the chintzy yawn of Two Silhouettes, the viewer would be forgiven for losing patience.
If the second half of Make Mine Music does achieve a more consistent pace, its material is sometimes curiously lacking. The Peter and the Wolf section is perhaps the film’s most well-known, but aside from a slobbering, wild-eyed wolf so frightening that it is borderline horrendous, there’s not much of note here. In a rarity for Disney, the cartoonish character designs are a little unappealing and the storytelling a bit lacking. It also fudges a moment in which the wolf eats a duck. In Prokofiev’s original story, the duck is swallowed whole and can be heard quacking in the wolf’s belly, but it seems Disney didn’t have the heart to even let the duck be eaten alive. Instead, she is discovered hiding in a hollow tree at the end. While you may consider this a fair concession for the children in the audience, it’s worth noting that those of them who haven’t shit themselves into an early bedtime at the sight of the wolf will go on to see an anthropomorphic singing whale harpooned to death in the film’s finale, The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met. There’s an oddly mean-spirited, edgy feel to Make Mine Music which can be both fascinating and queasy. Casey at the Bat, by far my favourite segment, lays a braggart low with palpable smirking glee. The Martins and the Coys kills off 90% of its cast in a gun battle and then ends on a domestic violence gag which cynically undercuts the hope. All the Cats Join In observes the teenage mating ritual of a juke joint dance with a surprisingly heightened level of sexuality and a joke in which a female reveller implores the animator to erase her bum and draw it smaller, at which point she suddenly becomes attractive to a formerly uninterested suitor. And, of course, Willie the singing whale is murdered by an impresario who believes he has swallowed an opera singer. The latter absurdity is played in a wistful way in an attempt to make some vague philosophical point about mankind’s inability to contemplate miracles, but even as it rewards the deceased Willie with a Heavenly audience, the whole thing feels strangely misjudged.
Largely due to the comic gunplay of The Martins and the Coys, Make Mine Music has languished in comparative obscurity for many years. At the time of writing, it’s the only Disney animated feature not available on Disney+ and for years the available DVD and Blu-Ray versions had that opening segment chopped out altogether. A UK DVD was finally released uncut and oddly given a U certificate. Gunplay aside, that wolf warrants a PG at least! Those who eventually find their route to Make Mine Music should not go in expecting a lost classic but there is treasure to be mined here. All the Cats Join In, fleeting sexism aside, is an infectiously upbeat gem which sees Disney experimenting with the minimalist style of the burgeoning UPA animation studio. Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet is an agreeably sweet love story about two hats, which feels like a forerunner for Pixar’s The Blue Umbrella. Casey at the Bat recreates Ernest Thayer’s sardonic slice of Americana with comic ingenuity and a Warner Bros.-esque lack of restraint. (Interestingly, for a short that openly claims women don’t understand baseball, it was later followed by a sequel in which Casey fathers a team of female baseball players who outstrip him in terms of talent). And the brief After You’ve Gone sequence offers a charmingly loose boogie with a collection of faceless but anthropomorphic instruments. Unfortunately, the highlights are more than balanced out by missteps, with the more meditative shorts proving without exception to be bores. Two Silhouettes, with its rotoscoped ballet, is even a little bit ugly. The intended centrepiece and showstopping finale, Peter and the Wolf and The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met, are pedestrian and confused respectively. I’m loath to rate Make Mine Music below three stars as there’s enough here to make the viewing experience interesting and fitfully delightful, but overall, unlike its callously harpooned mammalian hero, it’s a difficult beast to love.
49. SLEEPING BEAUTY
Sleeping Beauty was meant to be Walt Disney’s masterpiece. During its long and troubled production, it was subject to several costly delays as Walt tried to ensure the end result wasn’t too similar to his previous princess stories, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella. But while he spent a lot of time fussing over the details of the film’s look and feel, Walt was also dealing with a plateful of other concerns, from the construction of Disneyland to the launch of several TV projects. While his desire to make groundbreaking, beautiful animation was still there at this point, he simply did not have the time to dedicate to overseeing the whole process anymore. At the time of its release, Sleeping Beauty was the most expensive animated film ever made and you can see a lot of that money, and the ambition that drove its expenditure, up there on the screen. Unfortunately, you can also see the production difficulties and lack of focused leadership which resulted in a visually interesting but narratively confused, tonally cold end product.
Sleeping Beauty does manage to differentiate itself from its predecessors. The tapestry-inspired look of the film is unusual, flitting between bold stylisation and moments of lush realism, which compliment and jar in equal measure. Maleficent is one of the best Disney baddies since Snow White’s Wicked Queen and she brings the threat of real evil to the few scenes in which she is sparingly used. But there are odd choices throughout Sleeping Beauty too, which keep preventing it from rising to the classic status envisaged for it. Those beautiful tapestry backdrops sometimes feel as lifeless and flat as their inanimate inspirations, Maleficent’s bizarre army of humanoid animal creatures feel completely out of place, Aurora and Prince Phillip are another in a growing collection of utterly bland romantic leads, and far too much weight is rested upon the shoulders of the three good fairies, who absolutely carry the film to the extent that they actually fight Prince Phillip’s final battle for him.
That final battle, built around an escape from Maleficent’s imposing castle and a sword fight against Maleficent in the form of a towering black dragon, is where Sleeping Beauty finally starts to come to life but it is far too late in the game to save a film that has been meandering aimlessly for close to an hour. The idea that after sixteen years of living incognito, the fairies would blow their cover in a petulant battle over the colour of a dress feels forced, even if that detail is moulded into a fairly effective running gag. By placing so much emphasis on the fairies, the film asks them to be both the heroic saviours and bumbling comic relief and it’s just too much for these characters to carry. There are some lovely bits of animation peppered throughout, from the fairies’ disastrous attempts to prepare a sixteenth birthday party for Aurora without using magic (“we’re not taking any chances”, says one of them, having just ushered Aurora out into the woods alone on the day her curse is set to be broken and told her “Don’t hurry back”) to a very Snow White-esque moment in which a group of woodland animals dress up as Aurora’s “dream prince” and dance with her. The problem here is that when the actual prince takes their place, you realise she had more chemistry with the animals.
While its often rich animation and striking climax prevent me from really disliking it, Sleeping Beauty can’t help but feel like a terrible disappointment in the face of the grand achievement it was meant to be. All the eye-catching designs and enjoyable villains in the world can’t compensate for its flavourless tone, with only the fairies and Maleficent registering as actual characters. For all its ambition and long years of production, Sleeping Beauty ends up feeling… well, tired!
48. TREASURE PLANET
Treasure Island in space had been an idea that directors John Musker and Ron Clements had long been interested in exploring but, despite their huge success with films like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, they couldn’t seem to get the idea past the top brass. Annoyed by the constant rejection, Musker and Clements approached Feature Animation chairman Roy E. Disney, who in turn approached CEO Michael Eisner with his support for the project. This was enough to finally get Treasure Planet greenlit. Perhaps the waiting period was a blessing, since it meant that Musker and Clements could more easily realise their ambitious notion of combining traditional and computer animation to enhance the Sci-fi ambience. Even with a few scenes that show their age, this is one of the things about Treasure Planet that does work. The film often looks terrific. Unfortunately, there’s a lot else that really doesn’t work. In common with many high concept films, especially ones with as simple a notion as “blank… but in space”, there are too many half-realised ideas thrown into the pot when a small handful of better worked-out ones would’ve been preferable. The design of the cyborg Long John Silver is like a microcosm for the whole film. There are interesting ideas there but the Swiss Army knife capabilities of his limbs and the insistence in having him constantly performing mechanical sleights of hand ultimately make the character more confusing than pleasurable to look at.
As a huge fan of Swashbucklers and Adventure films, I’ve always wanted to like Treasure Planet more than I actually do. I’ve watched it several times, each time thinking this’ll be when it clicks for me. This most recent rewatch is probably the one I enjoyed the most, and I still don’t really like it that much. For all the possibilities of a film that treats outer space like an ocean of delights, the surprises around each corner are disappointingly ill-conceived. A pointless floating shapeshifter. An alien crewmate who converses exclusively in farts. A malfunctioning robot permanently set to Annoying. A weird dogman who is like a result of the lost Frasier episode where Niles mated with Eddie. The wonders of the cosmos are consistently obscured by a clamour of crass creations sucking up the screentime.
There are things I like about Treasure Planet too. The cast is strong, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt proving to be a convincing teenage rebel rather than a dreary cliché, David Hyde Pierce making the canine-human hybrid Dr. Delbert Doppler as amusing as he is strange, and Emma Thompson imbuing the feline Captain Amelia with that charismatic authority she does so well. Guess what? The doggy Doc and kitty Cap end up falling in love in one of the least likely tacked on romances I’ve ever seen. It would’ve been far more effective to see a mutual professional respect blossom between this mismatched pair but as some level of romance was still de rigueur in early 00s animation we end up with interspecies quadruplets instead. It’s a disappointing end to a promisingly built relationship but the most compelling duo of the film are Gordon-Levitt’s Jim Hawkins and Brian Murray’s John Silver. Murray gives the best performance of the film, dripping with an oily ambiguity that keeps the audience guessing at when he is sincere and when he isn’t. The surrogate father-son thing that develops is often sensitively drawn. Silver could’ve been one of the great Disney characters but the space setting forced the writers to make him into a cyborg, which scuppers the effectiveness of an already complex creation by making him a little too out-there.
There are moments when I’m watching Treasure Planet when I almost settle into it but the film keeps putting a hat on a hat on a hat on a hat on a hat. Its bombardment feels endless and, by the time Martin Short turns up as the loud, erratic robot B.E.N., interminable. It’s frustrating how close to good it keeps getting but in the end it feels like seeing a chef lay out all the perfect ingredients for something delicious and then hit them repeatedly with an oar. There’s enough going on here to ensure Treasure Planet is never boring but too much going on for it to ever feel coherent. For such a long-gestating idea, Musker and Clements didn’t seem to know what to do with it once they finally got the backing.
Mulan is one of the beloved Disney Renaissance films with which I’ve just never clicked. It arrived in the year of my sixteenth birthday, a time that coincided with a temporary move away from interest in Disney, so there is no element of nostalgia for me to reckon with here. But the film has always seemed severely lacking in the character and storytelling stakes to me. Sitting down to watch it doesn’t feel like an experience I can lose myself in like The Lion King or even The Hunchback of Notre Dame. For a story set in ancient imperial China which features a big battle scene, ghostly ancestors, villainous Huns and a dragon guardian, there’s something distinctly unmagical and strangely small scale about Mulan. It has a positive, if occasionally fumbled, feminist message but the tone is off, with its broadly comedic flavour clashing awkwardly with its sparse plot.
I don’t delight in being disappointed by films that mean so much to so many and I was really hoping to like Mulan more this time round. The early scenes of Mulan failing to impress a tyrannical matchmaker have a deft comedy touch that made me optimistic but as soon as the main plot kicks in, in which she disguises herself as a man in order to take her father’s place in the Emperor’s army, Mulan falls into a rambunctious pattern of loud, abrasive and crass gags. This is also where Eddie Murphy’s dragon sidekick Mushu shows up, a peripheral annoyance who ensures the goof-factor remains high even as some level of narrative threat tries to break through. The fact that the final showdown between Mulan and Shan Yu is resolved by way of Mushu sitting on a big rocket is a good indication of just how detrimental this character is to the film’s credibility.
Some of the things for which Mulan is often criticised I didn’t actually mind. The superfluous cricket character Cri-Kee, reportedly a thorn in the side of the directors who would respond to the question “Where is the cricket during all this?” with a despairing “To hell with the cricket!”, is not all that distracting. He’s only as pointless as Mushu, who could be removed from the narrative just as easily, and has the good grace to be mute so we don’t have to hear endless wisecracks from him. Matthew Wilder and David Zippel’s songs, often described as forgettable, are actually pretty good, addressing the film’s gender themes with a satirical glee, particularly in the playful Honour to Us All and the film’s one powerhouse anthem, I’ll Make a Man Out of You, which is memorably belted out by Donny Osmond. What hurts the film more is its lack of decent characters. Despite the empowering journey on which she goes, there’s really not that much more to Mulan than there is to the more passive Disney princesses. I like that she has a level of relatable vulnerability but it isn’t quite explored enough to make a compelling character. Still, compared to her one-note army buddies, Mulan is well developed. The film attempts to incorporate this bland-of-brothers into the actual plot but they simply aren’t anything approaching real characters so their eleventh hour conversion to more progressive thinkers feels tacked on, while their Captain Li Shang’s main function seems to be to fulfil a romantic subplot which is not only unnecessary but in this case detrimental. There’s no reason that Mulan shouldn’t have a romance but the way it is positioned at the climax makes it seem conspicuously like it is there to ensure even those characters pushing hard for patriarchal dominance get their happy ending. “Great, she brings back a sword”, says an elderly relative about Mulan’s symbolic gift from the Emperor, “If you ask me, she should’ve brought home a man.” Instantly, a man turns up, because we have to keep Granny happy too, right? Suddenly the satirical bite of Honour to Us All feels severely blunted.
Although that late-in-the-game compromise did annoy me, my problems with Mulan aren’t primarily ideological. Sure, Disney’s Hollywood Bowl premiere featuring Chinese lanterns and fortune cookies doesn’t exactly suggest they went in with a light cultural touch but generally Mulan feels more half-hearted than offensive, give or take a monstrously portrayed Hun whose demonic yellow eyes make him look like he’s sorely in need of a dialysis machine. Rather, my main issue with Mulan is that it just isn’t very good. Its gently humorous tone and positive message make it a hard film to hate but it feels a long way behind most of the other Disney Renaissance films and feels to me like the beginning of that celebrated era petering out.
46. THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG
The Princess and the Frog was a big deal for several reasons. Under the supervision of new Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter, it saw the return of traditional animation at Disney, something that had officially bowed out half a decade earlier with Home on the Range. Lasseter also brought back Disney legends Ron Clements and John Musker, who had resigned from the studio under previous leadership, to direct the project. Announcing that The Princess and the Frog would see a return to the blockbuster style of the Disney Renaissance films, the great Randy Newman was installed to provide the big musical numbers. And, of course, perhaps the biggest news was that the film’s protagonist, Tiana (renamed after her original name, Maddy, was criticised for being too close to “Mammy”) was to be Disney’s first black princess. In a world where, at the time of writing, people flail desperately in an attempt to invoke logic to back up their passionate argument that mermaids can’t be black, films like The Princess and the Frog are important. However, I must admit that when first watching the film at the cinema, I was a little disappointed that Disney’s first black princess spent the majority of the runtime being green.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only thing that disappointed me about The Princess and the Frog. As a devotee of traditional animation, I’ve always thought I should like this film more than I do and I was very much hoping to reverse my position with this rewatch. But as the mechanics of the plot were set in motion, I watched a promising introduction begin to fall apart before my eyes. There were things I liked about The Princess and the Frog immediately. I liked the 1920s New Orleans setting and, while the film came under fire for historical negationism for not depicting the racial segregation of the Jim Crow era, I liked that it had a focus on the class divide and at least acknowledged a racial component in that respect. The depiction of Louisiana Voodoo was also controversial, both for its Horror-inflected scariness and its reduction of Voodoo to “bad magic”, but Dr. Facilier is an effective villain in the Disney tradition, a smarmily charismatic trickster in league with dark spirits who ultimately becomes a victim of his own nefarious dealings. The animation is beautiful and a debt to the Disney Renaissance era is immediately apparent in the lively songs by Newman, especially in the opener Down in New Orleans which has the feeling of a classic Disney scene-setter. Tiana is instantly likeable and her dream of opening the restaurant her late father always dreamed of owning is easy to root for. In the opening twenty minutes or so, everything seems set up for a new Disney classic. But then the flippin’ Prince arrives!
It’s not fair to lay the blame entirely at the feet, webbed or otherwise, of the Prince character but his arrival does set in motion the plot that derails the film for much of its runtime. Musker, Clements and their team have done such a great job of setting up a vivid and appealing, if historically questionable, New Orleans backdrop with relatable, layered human characters that it is jarring and disappointing to suddenly find ourselves in a bayou with a trumpet-playing alligator and a firefly who is in love with a star. While all these threads eventually come together for a pretty good last act, the story suffers because it has got so sidetracked with minor characters that they have overwhelmed the plot. There’s not nearly enough time to sell Prince Naveen’s transformation from entitled playboy to responsible adult, let alone convince us that Tiana would fall in love with him. The flaccid romance at the centre of The Princess and the Frog is frustrating because it feels like an unnecessary addition for a character who already has a more compelling motivation set up for her. When Tiana’s mother Eudora (a cameoing Oprah Winfrey) tells her that all she wants for her is to meet her Prince Charming and live happily ever after, it’s an annoyingly retrograde moment. That love is more important than material possessions is a message you can apply effectively but having a mother respond to her daughter’s desperate desire to realise a lifelong dream of becoming a restaurateur by essentially saying “Well, I don’t care as long as you meet a man” is not the greatest example. No wonder Disney began to move away from romance as a prerequisite at around this time.
As has sometimes been the case with Disney in the past (the final act of The Rescuers being an example that springs instantly to mind), The Princess and the Frog is so excited to introduce us to a barrage of fun characters that it doesn’t stop to consider whether they enhance the story or not. I’m not convinced anthropomorphic animals have any place in this story, given that the concept of two humans turned into talking frogs is funnier if the other animals don’t speak as well. Louis the gator is particularly overwhelming, playing like someone put a hastily grabbed selection of The Jungle Book’s characters into a cocktail shaker and didn’t seal the lid properly. Ray is a little more effective, although his romance with Evangeline the star is a trifle too maudlin and gets worse the longer it goes on. Randy Newman keeps the catchy songs coming and they definitely become a lifeline during the tedious trek through the bayou, although none are as memorable as Down in New Orleans or the terrific Almost There, which unfortunately appear almost back-to-back at the very start of the film, giving the impression of diminishing returns. Sadly, the strong characterisation of Tiana gets a little bit lost amidst all the jokes about frogs tongues and mucus, which means the bottom falls out of the film at an early stage, and the fact that we don’t even get to know the Prince before he is amphibianised rather robs his transformation of its impact. The crucial human side of The Princess and the Frog gets lost amongst its eagerness to prioritise its (the cynic in me says more marketable) animal characters.
It’s a shame The Princess and the Frog has such a soggy middle because it is quite good at either end. In particular, the character of Lottie, Tiana’s best friend, is brilliantly realised. A rich débutante, Lottie is spoiled but not unlikeable. Her boundless enthusiasm blinds her to the economic divide but she is always willing to set aside her own concerns when she sees her friend needs her. It would’ve been so easy to make this character into a snotty, entitled brat but instead she is humanised. Her childlike naïvety and self-obsession are regarded with a critical but forgiving eye, and her underlying kindness is given equal prominence. She is a gift to the animators, who bring her to life with breathless vitality, and Jennifer Cody absolutely nails the voice work, winning a well-deserved Annie Award for her trouble. Keith David is also wonderful as the voice of Dr. Facilier, his ominous rumble of a voice underscoring the wilder animation and visual concepts that accompany the character’s intermittent appearances. It is whenever The Princess and the Frog cuts back to these characters that it comes alive again, with the success of their scenes unfortunately highlighting the weakness of the bayou ones.
There’s a lot to like in The Princess and the Frog but ultimately it just doesn’t come together as a coherent whole. There is probably a lengthy discussion to be had about the things the film gets wrong ideologically but, to be honest, there was so much wrong with it conceptually and structurally that I didn’t even get round to considering that side of things, which is unusual for a woke snowflake like me. I do think that the film was an important, if belated, step forward in terms of representation which justifies its existence alone, but its minimal success was sadly not enough to rejuvenate the traditional animation unit at Disney, which was folded up after the new Winnie the Pooh film a year and a half later. Still, The Princess and the Frog did at least bring Musker and Clements back to the studio, who subsequently hit it out of the park again with their next film, Moana.
45. THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER
The problem with trying to respond to fleeting trends when you’re working in animation is that animated films take a long time to make. In the mid-80s, The Rescuers was Disney’s most successful recent property and, with the downturn in fortunes following the box office flop of The Black Cauldron, reviving some tried and tested characters probably seemed like a solid plan. With the blockbuster success of Crocodile Dundee kicking off an interest in all things Australian, setting the new film down under probably also felt like a good idea. But with the lengthy production process bridging the gap between pitch and release, by the time The Rescuers Down Under arrived Australia was no longer the in thing, The Little Mermaid had changed the Disney landscape and the studio were stuck with a Christmas release featuring overshadowed characters against a sweltering Outback setting. The Rescuers Down Under is technically the second film of the Disney Renaissance era but it doesn’t fit the narrative. In terms of tone and style, it clearly belongs with the Disney output of the 80s. With the studio’s new pledge, in the wake of Oliver and Company’s success, to release an animated feature every year, The Rescuers Down Under is the inevitable straggler that was already too far into production when The Little Mermaid illuminated a more commercially viable way forward. With Under the Sea still ringing in people’s ears, the disappointment of Disney’s follow-up featuring no songs at all and a darker atmosphere quickly condemned The Rescuers Down Under to cult status rather than that of modern classic. This wasn’t helped by Jeffrey Katzenberg’s decision in the face of a disappointing opening to recall all the film’s TV advertising. Although this is often said to be the thing that killed The Rescuers Down Under’s chances, there has also been speculation that pushing ahead with a release schedule that pitted the film against Home Alone suggests the studio were setting The Rescuers Down Under up to fail. Could it be that this film just didn’t fit the image Disney had in mind for their long-term future?
Whatever the reason for Disney’s lukewarm attitude to their own property, it wasn’t like they had an absolute turkey (or albatross) on their hands. The Rescuers Down Under is a perfectly adequate adventure with a few great scenes. It was somewhat disappointing to see Disney resorting to a sequel for the first time after decades of avoiding them but as sequels go it’s pretty standard stuff, in that it brings back the main characters, ups the ante in terms of narrative scope and stylistic choices, but ultimately fails to capture the charm of the original. The film was something of a testing ground for the Computer Animation Production System (CAPS) developed for Disney by Pixar, which allowed for the digital colourisation of scanned elements, making The Rescuers Down Under the first fully digital feature film. CAPS also allowed for more complex camera movements and intricate, multiplane backgrounds, which is certainly visible in the impressive visuals of its more ambitious sequences. But the use of CAPS at this stage sometimes gives the character animation a sterile, round-edged feel that is probably exacerbated by the fact that the original Rescuers was one of Disney’s most charmingly scrappy creations, alive with traces of the animator’s pencils. Still, it sometimes feels like a price worth paying for scenes like the opening flight of a majestic eagle who lifts a young boy aloft above the breathtaking Outback landscapes. And the smaller-scale Disney magic is still alive in scenes like the frantic chase between a hysterical frill-necked lizard called Frank and a wily goanna named Joanna.
It is significant that the highlights I’ve listed above are all scenes that do not feature Bernard and Miss Bianca, the titular Rescuers themselves. The most disappointing thing about The Rescuers Down Under is its seeming disinterest in its nominal main characters and its inability to recapture what made them work as characters in the original. Voice actors Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor are back but something seems off about Bernard and Bianca, not least the fact that they feel marginalised for a lot of the runtime. The Rescuers had the pair working together with the captive Penny to free her from the clutches of her kidnappers. It was a satisfying and equal relationship, with the brave Bianca and the cautious Bernard bringing out the best in each other. But The Rescuers Down Under begins with a scene in which Bernard attempts to propose to Bianca but fails after he drops the ring. He then encounters a romantic rival in their cocky Aussie guide Jake. This sets up Bianca, joint hero of the first film, as a mere prize to be battled for in this one, an impression that is confirmed when she and Jake are captured in the final act, leaving Bernard to essentially complete the mission and rescue Bianca on his own. Given that they were drawing on classic fairy tales, traditional gender roles played a part in many Disney films of this era but it’s disappointing to see them creep into the more modern-minded Rescuers franchise, especially since The Rescuers Down Under’s 70s predecessor neatly avoided this trap. There were other, more progressive intentions for The Rescuers Down Under that were scuppered in the production stages. One of the film’s writers, Joe Ranft, pushed for the central kidnapped child to be an Aboriginal Australian character voiced by an appropriate actor. Katzenberg instead cast Adam Ryen, a white, blonde child whose features were then transferred to the character of the boy, Cody.
If the casting and plotting are a little misjudged in places, there are also tonal problems that hamper The Rescuers Down Under. Its world feels confused, with some of the animals being anthropomorphic and others more realistic. It’s fair to say that the golden eagle Marahute would’ve had her majestic gravitas undercut if she’d started deploying wisecracks, but it still feels strange to see Cody communicate with her in a gravely mute exchange of gestures when only minutes before a kangaroo had been speaking English to him. But the main tonal issue that irked most critics was the assertion that George C. Scott’s villain, Percival C. McLeach, was too brutal. I was initially sceptical of this claim as I think a darker villain can work extremely well (see Oliver and Company’s Sykes for an example) but after this rewatch I agree with the critics. In an overeager attempt to put across The Rescuers Down Under’s laudable environmentalist message, McLeach has been depicted as irredeemably cruel to the extent that he brutalises his own pet. Joanna the Goanna is one of The Rescuers Down Under’s triumphs, a fantastic villainous sidekick whose non-anthropomorphic noises are provided by industry legend Frank Welker. But the very first time we see her she is punished for a mild indiscretion by a kick in the stomach from McLeach. She holds her belly and looks hurt, the moment played not for laughs but rather to establish McLeach’s evilness immediately. Unfortunately, it also sets too unpleasant a precedent for the relationship between Joanna and McLeach, so that during later comic exchanges the stakes feel too high to achieve the desired laughs. There’s a beautifully animated routine in which Joanna repeatedly steals eggs from a box that McLeach keeps moving out of her reach. It’s one of my favourite moments in the film but it was soured by my apprehension over what McLeach would do if he caught Joanna in the act. Ultimately, the repercussions are minimal but that kick in the stomach had resonated too thoroughly for me to easily enjoy the lighthearted antics.
If McLeach is too visceral a villain, Wilbur the albatross is too annoying as comic relief. After Jim Jordan, the voice of Orville the albatross from the original Rescuers, sadly passed away before production began, Disney had the ingenious idea to cast John Candy as his brother, named after the other Wright brother, Wilbur. It seems like a great workaround with a cracking piece of casting but unfortunately the material written for Wilbur is almost exclusively dreadful. He spends a couple of curiously morbid scenes being medically tortured by well-meaning but intimidatingly insistent mice and his conversation with some hatching eagle eggs, delivered from afar in voiceover, results in one of the most anticlimactic endings to any Disney film. Much better comic relief is provided by a group of captive animals held by McLeach, including a cruelly cynical Koala who has seemingly given up hope and wants everyone to follow suit, and the jittery Frank, the aforementioned lizard whose desperate escape attempts lead to the film’s best scene. Again, it involves Joanna, who is even more effective when freed from the ominous presence of McLeach. The moment when her head appears unexpectedly though a door-flap and half fills the screen is a brilliant combination of a jump scare and a laugh.
For all its flaws, The Rescuers Down Under keeps up a good pace and has some exciting moments, as well as some beautiful animation. Its inconvenient release right at the beginning of the Disney Renaissance has probably retrospectively contributed to it being mentioned only in passing as an anomalous blip but l think it’s an interesting and entertaining enough film to warrant more consideration, even if it clearly belongs to the 80s Disney aesthetic rather than sandwiched between The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Still it’s hard not to view a Rescuers film that so marginalises the Rescuers themselves as at least a partial failure.
So… Frozen. Not only the most popular latter day Disney film but one of the most popular of all time. It’s hard to not really like Frozen and convince people you’re not just being a curmudgeonly contrarian. God knows, after saturation coverage and Let It Go blasting out of every radio and TV for months on end, there was at least an element of that in my initial reaction to the film. Rewatching it after several years, I’ve realised that it isn’t as bad as I initially thought. I’ve also realised that my dislike of it was not just a kneejerk rejection of a widespread phenomenon. From Star Wars to Lord of the Rings, I’ve found myself indifferent to enough of those to be genuinely delighted when I get to be part of one. But Frozen never quite worked for me and this was exacerbated by my petulant reaction to persistent claims that this was the greatest Disney film since the 90s Renaissance, a declaration which casually dismissed an armful of inspired hidden gems. This is called hyperbole, sure, but it’s also called opinion, and I no longer uncharitably doubt that the elevation of Frozen comes from anything but a heartfelt love of the film itself, which is worthy of celebration even if, once more, I’m the cold-hearted popsicle squinting in through the frosted glass.
Frozen was the culmination of an intermittent attempt across seventy years to create an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. A difficult tale to bring to the screen, the variation on The Snow Queen that Disney finally came up with has much to admire. Its primary focus on the relationship between two sisters above a central romance was unprecedented (unless you count Lilo & Stitch) and its reinstatement of big musical numbers was seen by many as long overdue (unless you count The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, but hey, this is Frozen, so slam down that big history-rewriting boot on all its 21st century predecessors, eh? I’m sorry, it’s my problem, I’ll deal with it!). The story is well worked out, as you’d hope after seventy years of development (stop it!) and the emotional payoff is earned, something that writer/director Jennifer Lee cannily recognised as absolutely crucial to the film’s success. You have to sell that love between the two sisters, which Frozen does, certainly better than it sells the concessionary romance. If they’d dispensed with that, both the plot twist about Anna’s fiancé and the accentuation of sisterly love would’ve been more powerful. It’s a shame the film ends up compromising that focus, especially when it so awkwardly soft-pedals the death of the sisters’ parents in order to achieve it.
There’s no point putting off talking about the music any longer since it is such an integral part of Frozen’s success. That said, the songs by husband and wife team Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez are a real mixed bag. The ubiquitous Let It Go is virtually inarguable, although it works much better in the film version sung by Idina Menzel as Elsa than in the unnecessarily zhuzhed-up chart version by Demi Lovato that plays over the end credits. The song works best for me when accompanied by the invigorating sequence of Elsa finally letting all the power she has held back flow out of her, although the easily identified metaphorical value makes it delightful to imagine all the empowered youngsters belting it out in their bedrooms. Elsewhere, the opening Frozen Heart, sung by a team of hard-working icemen, is pleasingly reminiscent of Dumbo’s Song of the Roustabouts, For the First Time in Forever serves its purpose well as a sort of musical backbone (although I find its melody a bit drippy), Do You Want to Build a Snowman? perfectly captures the sadness in Anna’s isolation from her beloved sister, and In Summer is a refreshing little comedic interlude for Olaf the snowman. This tonal shift works once but when it’s attempted again with the Rock Trolls’ utterly abysmal Fixer Upper, it nearly brings the whole film crashing down in a similar way that the Gargoyles’ song A Guy Like You did in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Though Fixer Upper easily claims the title of worst song of the film (and one of the worst Disney songs ever), I also can’t stand the hugely popular Love is an Open Door, the choruses of which all end on a horrible upwards inflection that makes it sound like one of Elsa’s icy outbursts has inadvertently struck a cat’s bumhole.
Although I find it a bit tediously paced in places, Frozen undeniably has a story from which you can tell the flab has been trimmed. It consistently shows rather than tells, with an admirable subtlety present even when the characters are singing their emotions. I suppose my main problem with the plot is that it necessarily keeps Anna and Elsa apart for so much of the runtime. While this is crucial, their relationship is undoubtedly the most interesting and their estrangement means we spend a disappointing amount of time with the rather tiresome Kristoff, who has an instantly irritating quirk of speaking on behalf of his reindeer Sven, in a goofy, cutesy reindeer voice (if such a thing exists). It’s one of those ideas that is interesting on paper but increasingly excruciating on screen. Kristoff is another in a line of encouragingly progressive male Disney leads who are nevertheless a bit dull. While I approve of this latter day move away from princely penchants for kissing sleeping women, Kristoff is still a bit bland and his romance with Anna underdeveloped and unnecessary. In terms of the comic relief, Josh Gad is rather delightful as Olaf and his link to Anna and Elsa’s backstory is nice, even if his significance is a tad downplayed. There are scenes in which Olaf just sort of wanders about being cute and everyone else seems to forget about him. Still, with its icy aesthetic and hefty familial issues, Frozen is a film in much need of the warmth this snowman brings.
I’m pleased that I’ve warmed to Frozen to some extent this time round but it didn’t melt me as it seems to so consistently do to others. With its snowy scenery, singalong songs and themes of family, Frozen is tailor made for Christmas viewing and those who saw it first in cinemas during the holiday season, especially those of a certain age, will no doubt carry that with them for life and feel a glow every time they revisit the film. Me, I hired it from the library in the middle of Spring and the sparks failed to ignite. Watching it last night, wrapped in a blanket against the extremely bitter encroaching Autumn, I could see a little more clearly how Frozen can work its magic. But ultimately this will always be a disappointingly intermittent pleasure for me.
43. BIG HERO SIX
Big Hero 6 is loosely based on a Marvel comics superhero team created by Man of Action. The idea for the film came about after Disney’s acquisition of Marvel Entertainment, when CEO Bob Iger encouraged staff to dip into Marvel’s vast library of properties for ideas. Director Don Hall was drawn to this obscure title and his pitch struck a chord with studio bosses, with Bolt director Chris Williams coming on board as co-director. Williams had shown an understanding, albeit a satirical one, of superhero narratives in Bolt’s broad spoofing of the genre but it was after the release of Bolt that Superhero movies went stratospheric with the inception of the MCU. As such, it was a very different climate into which Big Hero 6 emerged. Bolt had seen superhero tropes as the fodder of predictable small screen serials, but by 2014 Superhero movies were completely dominant at the box office. They were being taken increasingly seriously, receiving healthier critical notices and audiences weren’t yet starting to flag from over-saturation. My experience with the MCU was a bumpy one. Having never been a fan of comics or Superhero films in particular, I was won over for several years by the whole phenomenon and did look forward to watching the next instalment. However, the more I saw of them, the more apparent their repetitive structures became. I used to argue against the notion that Marvel produced “cookie cutter” films because I thought they were more inventive than that, but ultimately I came to realise that this is the perfect description. To stretch the metaphor, the dough is frequently made from inventive ingredients but it is ultimately cut into broadly the same shape every time. This is fine for a while when that shape is sufficiently entertaining but it becomes painfully clear, and painfully dull, when you’re being served the same thing three times a year in cinemas, with side orders of the TV dinner equivalents. In the end the whole thing just became as dishearteningly unwieldy as… well, this metaphor.
It took me a while longer to extricate myself from the Marvel Stockholm Syndrome but it was around the time of Big Hero 6’s release, which was soon after the execrable Guardians of the Galaxy, that I first started to sour on the experience. With Superhero films becoming a chore rather than a pleasure, I wasn’t especially delighted to see their influence seeping into the Disney canon too. Fortunately, Big Hero 6 is a very different kind of Superhero film from the average Marvel fare. It acknowledges the link with a post-credits Stan Lee cameo that was added at the last minute but it’s a moment that feels oddly misjudged in a film that does a decent job of distinguishing itself in a flooded market. It does eventually drift towards the standard third act crashy-bangy to an extent but there’s a different feel to the heart and humour that feels more Disney, with a sprinkling of Pixar, than it does Marvel. Curiously, it also feels a bit Hanna-Barbera and this is where Big Hero 6 most falls down for me. The team it eventually assembles is such an irritating sub-Scooby Gang that it derails a strong build up and the main plot also pays homage to Scooby Doo in that it is about a masked evildoer who is exactly who you expect when they remove their mask. The predictability isn’t too great an issue but when the plot feels like a flimsy distraction from more interesting themes then it’s hard not to feel some level of disappointment.
More so than the Marvel films, Big Hero 6 got lumped in with other animated Superhero films by many reviewers. The Incredibles, Megamind and Despicable Me were all mentioned but, in fairness, these are all quite different beasts despite their superficially shared genre. Big Hero 6 does not go the satirical route of these films, opting instead for an earnest exploration of grief, family and friendship. This is where the film is at its best, with a well-paced prologue setting up a central tragedy that resonates through the film, and the breakout star Baymax the medical robot epitomising a theme of the importance of self care and a support network. Baymax is a wonderful creation, gently amusing and lovable but just weird enough to feel wholly original. Scott Adsit’s floaty-light voice work captures the character’s passivity and tentative humanism perfectly. Only once, in a very bad scene which supposes that Baymax acts drunk when running low on battery, does the writing feel forced and reaching beyond credibility for the sake of cheap laughs. Elsewhere, the relationship between boy-genius Hiro and the robot created by his deceased brother is sensitively explored and manages to be moving and funny simultaneously.
Unfortunately, Big Hero 6’s other characters are too thinly drawn to capitalise on its emotionally-convincing heart. They are peripheral corpuscles, drifting by with their one defining characteristic apiece. They are supposed to enhance the moving sentiment but they are window dressing improbably promoted to the main event. Any one of them could be picked off in the background of a fight scene and you’d barely bat an eyelid. The attempt at a triumphant “WE ARE BIG HERO 6!” style ending falls thoroughly flat when you look at the superhero team racing across the screen and realise you only really know who two of them are (maybe three, if being persistently annoyed by someone to the point of familiarity counts as getting to know them, in which case T.J. Miller’s Fred qualifies). Having enjoyed Big Hero 6 to an extent on previous viewings, I was expecting to rank it a little higher than I have but this time round its flaws were more readily apparent and as I realised it was boring me more just when it was supposed to be ramping up the excitement, I concluded that this film, though different in some ways from the average Superhero film, had still become a victim of my growing impatience with a repetitive phenomenon.
42. MEET THE ROBINSONS
Meet the Robinsons is a film in which the main villain ultimately turns out to be a robotic bowler hat called Doris. This was Disney in the 00s.
Although I love the Disney classics as much as anyone else, I’ve always had a soft spot for the studio’s commercial lulls during which they struggled to find their identity and regain popularity. While sometimes the films from these eras are uncelebrated for a reason, in most cases there is something interesting to be found amongst the desperate gambits and ill-advised avenues. So is the case with Meet the Robinsons, a time-travelling adventure with a screwy sense of humour that often completely goes for broke in its weirdness but hits approximately as many targets as it misses in the process. If it fails to coalesce as a coherent whole, there is still an awful lot of fun to be had as it attempts to find its groove. In sharp contrast with the Broadway Musical style adaptations of classic stories that had resurrected Disney’s fortunes in the 90s, the studio’s output in the 00s had switched to a more contemporary flavour with a modernist sense of humour, no songs and a greater reliance on original stories. On the few occasions that classic stories were the basis of these films they were given a Sci-fi spin, with Treasure Island becoming Treasure Planet and Chicken Little becoming utterly bizarre. The Emperor’s New Groove appropriated the name of a Danish folktale then changed the last word of the title and every single other thing about it.
This see-what-sticks attitude has a certain invigorating freedom about it but, commercially speaking, Disney were finding their ideas to be distinctly non-adhesive. In terms of both critical plaudits and box office receipts they were getting trounced by Pixar, something they addressed by acquiring the company at the same time Meet the Robinsons was in production. As such, Meet the Robinsons was the first Disney film to boast the name John Lasseter as executive producer, back when he was still known for his Midas touch rather than his inappropriate ones. Under Lasseter’s advice, around 60% of the finished film was scrapped and major changes were implemented. Ironically for a man who’s enthusiasm for computer animation was what originally got him fired from his job at Disney in the 80s, one thing Lasseter couldn’t fix about Meet the Robinsons was its rather strange CGI look. There’s a slight stiffness to the characters here that prevents them from really coming to life in the manner the energetic script demands of them. Though not the nightmarish abominations of Robert Zemeckis’s motion capture films, there’s an occasional glassy-eyed look or lifeless gesture that you just didn’t see in Pixar by this stage. Ultimately though, the good-natured cartoonish designs in Meet the Robinsons start to break through that initial visual alienation, with stylisation proving to be the key that could’ve potentially thawed The Polar Express.
Meet the Robinsons is based on the William Joyce picture book A Day with Wilbur Robinson but the majority of the story was newly developed. Only the central premise of a large, eccentric family was retained and, while it works as a picture book with a different family member making an appearance on each page, the attempt to translate this quickfire approach to the screen results in an overload of information and a barrage of gags which sees the film temporarily go off the rails. Director Stephen Anderson has attempted to embrace this frantic style and make it a quirky asset but it’s more annoying than anything. Still, amidst this flurry of half-baked ideas lay a few great jokes. For instance, a mealtime sequence turns into a weak spoof of Kung Fu movies that jars the viewer out of the story, but amidst the messy aftermath of the family’s food fight, their baffled guest asks “Is dinner like this every night?” to which he receives the answer “No, yesterday we had meatloaf.” I mean, that’s actually hilarious! It is this smart sense of humour that is Meet the Robinsons main asset. It overreaches too often, filling the screen with bewildering gangster frogs and octopus butlers in the vain hope that non-sequiturs will be sufficient to entertain, but often it has these desperate surrealist creations say genuinely funny things. A scene in which one of the frogs is put under the power of the villainous Bowler Hat Guy is very wittily scripted and suddenly characters that aren’t that effective in and of themselves come to life by transcending their overly-insistent randomness.
Around the bare bones of William Joyce’s picture book, the writers of Meet the Robinsons have assembled a fun little time travel plot that works well as a way to flesh out the premise. In particular, it introduces an excellent bad guy simply known as Bowler Hat Guy, a moustachioed cliché of villainy who’s booming voice and imposing intensity are offset by his ineffectual attempts to fulfil a lifelong vendetta. Voiced by director Stephen Anderson, Bowler Hat Guy is a hilarious creation and Meet the Robinsons comes fully to life whenever he is on screen. Even the animation improves with his arrival, with his gangly frame allowing the animators to let loose with some crazier fluid motions. Witness his spidery gallop across a board room table, for example. Elsewhere, Meet the Robinsons has a reasonably starry cast in fairly minor supporting roles, including Angela Bassett as the kindly head of an orphanage, Adam West as a superhero pizza delivery man, Laurie Metcalf as a permanently buzzed scientist and Tom Selleck who, in the pursuit of a meta joke’s logical conclusion, voices one of the least Tom Sellecky characters imaginable. As the two central protagonists Lewis and Wilbur, Jordan Fry and Wesley Singerman are fine in that boyish Disney hero way but perhaps the boldness of the multitude of supporting screwballs does expose the relative blandness of this archetype.
Meet the Robinsons is at its best when its lively sense of humour is holding the reins so it’s no surprise that when it tries to deal in messages and sentiment the wheels slightly come off the wagon. Orphan Lewis’s quest to find his real mother is too marginalised by antics to really register that strongly, while one scene about a small, Droopy-esque orphan being beaten up by his baseball teammates played as mildly horrifying to me, especially since in service of the film’s vaguely defined moral to “Keep moving forward”, it is strongly suggested that he should just let the whole thing go. Deal with the feelings, sure, and address the problem, but surely there should be some kind of consequences for the bigger boys who’ve just beaten the snot out of you. When that same “Keep moving forward” caption appears at the end of the film as part of an inspirational quote from Walt Disney himself, the moment doesn’t land because the concept has been poorly explored. The fact that Meet the Robinsons is one of the least Disney-like films the studio ever released also scuppers the gravitas, although given its putrid box office take perhaps the film could be seen as a cyclical pep talk to its creators. Still, I greatly admire Meet the Robinsons independent spirit, its attempt at something different and its frequent moments of genuine chucklesomeness. As generally occurs once we get enough distance from a Disney film to identify a group of young adults who grew up with it, Meet the Robinsons’ stock has risen slightly since its disappointing original release, and its general strangeness and rejection by the mainstream give it equal heft as a burgeoning cult artefact.
41. RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON
Raya and the Last Dragon is known for being the big Disney film completed in lockdown, with the filmmakers working from home and communicating via Zoom. I think the first time I watched it, the all-too-recent insular experience of lockdown still loomed large in my psyche and my knowledge of its relation to this film made me somehow perceive it as a work that felt claustrophobic and small. Not only did I like Raya and the Last Dragon much more the second time round but my perspective had shifted considerably. Suddenly, the vast subcontinent of Kumandra with its five distinct chiefdoms seemed like a huge, vividly realised world across which I could venture myself. Was the problem that a year of being confined to my own domicile had temporarily quelled the adventurer in me? I would’ve expected the opportunity to vicariously go on a quest across a distant land to have appealed to my fresh-air-starved mind but could it be that a sense of adventure is something that needs to be relearned if you close your heart to those possibilities to too great an extent? Or perhaps as I witnessed Raya’s father turned to stone by a creeping, faceless force, the fact that my own Dad had been taken out in comparable circumstances the previous year had a similarly solidifying, albeit temporary, effect on my heart.
Although it initially gave me a jaundiced view of Raya and the Last Dragon, the pandemic may have subsequently imbued a fairly straightforward Disney adventure with unintended but fascinating contexts that actually elevate it. It has been noted that the Druun, purple, fog-like spirits that literally petrify everything in their path, could be seen as analogous to the coronavirus, with the stony fate of its victims either suggesting death or the frozen-in-time experience of being trapped in isolation, unable to see friends and loved ones. But the actual intention of the filmmakers feels even more poignant given the divisions that the pandemic, which ought to have brought us together, actually caused. The Druun are described as a “plague born of human discord.” While there has never been a time in human history when this quote couldn’t have easily been assigned to some atrocity or other, it was all too easy for audiences to imagine it referred to maskless contrarians deliberately coughing in people’s faces or unthinking tweeters accusing desperate parents queuing for nappies at 6am of being disgusting hoarders. And the way to defeat the Druun? Ask the shopkeepers who gave out free hand sanitiser when their rival business owners were marking it up by 80%.
While the context of the world situation surrounding the release of Raya and the Last Dragon undoubtedly makes it a more interesting film, the fact that none of it was actually intended to comment directly on the COVID pandemic means that it is somewhat unfair to take that into consideration when ranking the film. What is significant though is the fact that the message of Raya and the Last Dragon applies to the events of 2020-2021 so readily because it is a universal and important moral that remains topical whenever it is applied. Those who prefer a more tangible villain who can easily fall to their death from a great height at the film’s climax will likely find Raya and the Last Dragon’s focus on the importance of unity a little touchy-feely, but the fact that it birthed such an effective and terrifying villain as the Druun as its antithesis is ample evidence of how badly we need to teach this message, and not just, perhaps not even chiefly, to children. It’s significant that another of the most frightening Disney villains with which the Druun are comparable is “man”, Bambi’s unseen but unprecedentedly destructive contraction of humankind.
But beyond its message, Raya and the Last Dragon stands up as a solidly entertaining, if occasionally overly routine, Disney adventure. Its lore, initially mapped out through the time-honoured tradition of an introductory exposition dump, is intricate without being overly complex and its world is beautifully realised, with the five chiefdoms providing a strong structural spine for Raya’s quest. The often ravishing backgrounds are slightly offset by the characters in front of them, with the humans in particular sometimes feeling a little mechanical in their expressions and movements, which can feel detrimental for such a human story. The design of the non-human characters is a little more appealing (Sisu, the titular last dragon, looks significantly better while moving about than she did on the poster) but their characterisations are a little lacking. Sisu is so significant to the story that it feels a little underwhelming that the writers and directors have leaned so heavily into the fact she is voiced by Awkwafina, just making her a little bit sassy, a little bit goofy, generally good-natured but utterly elusive when it comes to a unique personality. Ultimately, she becomes more of a symbol than anything. Tuk Tuk, Raya’s pill bug/armadillo hybrid best friend, meanwhile, is so blandly cutesy in that mute Disney sidekick way that it seems rather a waste to have brought back the brilliant Alan Tudyk, so memorable as Moana’s Heihei to provide his various noises.
Raya and the Last Dragon unspools in predictable but enjoyable fashion. With the lowered expectations of a second watch, I was able to enjoy it more easily but this remains middle tier Disney. That’s a step up from the bottom tier bore I initially had it down as. There are plenty of nicely choreographed fights, a ragbag of likeable, if underdeveloped, characters and that beautifully rendered world to keep the viewer interested, and if the message can seem heavy-handed that’s a small price to pay if the result is that it becomes embedded in the hearts and minds of the generation who are sure to grow up loving this film. Maybe then they can explain the message to their parents.