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 fourth part, I’m looking at the last 3.5 star film and the first batch of 4 star films. You can read the previous parts here:
All entries contain spoilers.
30. PETER PAN
J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play Peter Pan felt like a natural fit for Disney, so much so that Walt originally intended it to be his second full-length feature. But issues with acquiring the rights and the subsequent onset of war ended up delaying the project by over a decade. When it finally arrived in 1953, it felt to some extent like a confirmation of Disney’s creative resurgence. I’ve always been a big fan of the package films of the 40s but there’s a lack of satisfying narrative continuity to a patchwork job like Fun and Fancy Free which is never a problem in a big, sprawling adventure like Peter Pan. This film absolutely nails the sense of magic, the swashbuckling panache and the wild, slapstick comedy, with moments throughout that could be included in any compilation of Disney greatest hits: the children learning to fly, the terrific swordfight in the cave, Smee trying to shave Captain Hook and accidentally defeathering a seagull instead, and absolutely every frantic battle between Hook and the crocodile that follows him everywhere. Unfortunately, there are things that also knock the film off balance. While Hook is a great villain and Tinker Bell a surprisingly morally ambiguous and beautifully animated icon, the rest of the characters lack depth and warmth. Pan himself, unfortunately, is completely unmemorable, with his smug narcissism never really challenged and his bland heroism giving the audience little to root for. The children are the animated equivalents of the sort of upper class poppets Disney would later cast as working class orphans in their live action films, rubbing a bit of soot around their cheeks and assuming the illusion compete.
If only the thin characterisations were the sole issue with Peter Pan but unfortunately it is also perhaps the most problematic Disney film to remain fully available in uncut form. The main offender here is the infamous musical number What Made the Red Man Red? Performed by a group of Native American characters who refer to themselves as “Injuns” and many of whom are grotesquely designed to look completely inhuman, the song is based around three questions asked about Native Americans by the audience of white children: “What made the red man red?”, “When did he first say ‘Ugh’?” and “Why does he ask you ‘How?'” In case you’re interested in the answers, the red skin colour is attributed to blushing after one of their ancestors kissed a woman, the use of “How” is claimed to be a way of acquiring knowledge, and the first of the group to say “Ugh” did so on initially beholding his new mother-in-law. While I’m glad this footage has been kept and disclaimered rather than removed completely, it is impossible to look at it as anything other than a hideous cautionary tale on prejudice. The “Ugh” verse also displays a hint of the sexism that blights other parts of Peter Pan. There are a lot of female Disney villains throughout the whole filmography who are motivated by their envy of another woman’s youth and beauty. From a purely ideological point of view, it’s something of a relief when one of them just wants to skin a load of puppies. But in Peter Pan, this jealousy isn’t reserved for villains. It seems every female character, from Tinker Bell to Wendy to the mermaids, are driven to distraction by their rage at Peter showing any attention at all to another woman. Tink and the mermaids even become alarmingly murderous over this issue, with one of the mermaids defending an attack on Wendy by saying “We were only trying to drown her!” Later on, Captain Hook claims “A jealous woman can be tricked into anything.” Such words in the mouth of a villain wouldn’t be problematic if the film itself didn’t so blatantly agree with them.
For all Peter Pan gets wrong (and, to be fair, much of it is founded in the stereotypes of Barrie’s original play), it also gets a lot right. Never Land is realised with a restrained sense of magic that never gilds the lily but doesn’t skimp on rousing adventurousness either. The scenes of Edwardian London are equally evocative, with the moment Peter teaches the children to fly and leads them over the city lingering long in the memory. Captain Hook, brilliantly voiced by Hans Conried, is an exemplary villain in the way he balances foppish ridiculousness and genuine menace, and every time he is on screen (which, thankfully, is a lot) Peter’s boyish facelessness seems to matter less. There’s plenty of swordplay to satisfy Swashbuckler fans like myself and these battles usually culminate in even better slapstick routines involving the crocodile. Hook’s desperate attempts to escape its snapping jaws showcase some of the best animation in the whole film. The music is slight but agreeably unobtrusive. The film rarely loses momentum by stopping for a big number (that one aforementioned abomination aside). Instead, songs like You Can Fly and Following the Leader are little snatches of ditties that enhance the action they accompany. Although the memorable Never Smile at a Crocodile was cut from the film in its vocal version, it is far more effective as an instrumental leitmotif that accompanies every ominous appearance of the titular beast.
If Peter Pan doesn’t quite match the heights of the Disney Golden Age or the later Renaissance era, it is one of the better films of the so-called Silver Age, outclassing the likes of Sleeping Beauty, Lady and the Tramp and One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Its problems are too various and prominent for it to ascend to the level of a true Disney classic in my book but there’s plenty here to entertain and a few choice moments to pluck out for your Best of Disney compilation.
Hercules is something of an anomaly amongst the films of the Disney Renaissance. With its prominent sense of humour, cartoonish designs, frantic pacing and finger-snapping, Gospel-influenced score, there’s a breezy lack of gravitas that is often more reminiscent of the experimental 00s era of Disney. The fourth film helmed by John Musker and Ron Clements, the directorial team who’s work on The Little Mermaid and Aladdin had been instrumental in the studio’s rejuvenation, Hercules continued their run of excellence but did so with a wilder spirit that felt like a refreshing shrug after the rigid-shouldered Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It’s easy to mistake Hercules’s looser approach for corner-cutting slapdashery. I certainly did the last time I watched it, when I found the animation to be disappointing and the tone to be desperate. I must have been having an off day then because this time round, right from the start I loved Hercules’s spirit, humour, bold style and lively, infectious energy. Some felt that the brightly coloured designs, based on submissions by British cartoonist Gerald Scarfe (famous for his caricatures over the opening credits of sitcom Yes Minister. Look out for telltale pointy noses and sunken features) failed to capture the monumental implications of Olympus and Hades, but in a film where Hercules’s earthly fame inspires a brand of sandal called Air Herc, to set such light-hearted creations against austerely ornate backdrops would’ve badly compromised the intended tone. Clements and Musker picked a lane and stuck with it and, for those willing to go with the flow, it works.
Hercules puts its best foot forward with the immediate arrival of the Muses, the Greek chorus who reside on the side of an urn and tell the story through rousingly ecstatic Gospel songs. The Muses make it clear that Hercules is partially about sweeping aside that air of stuffy prestige that was creeping into Disney productions, literally wresting control of the narrative from a pompous narrator (a cameoing Charlton Heston) whose reverent introduction they commandingly cut short. Though the exceptional vocal performances of Lillias White, Cheryl Freeman, LaChanze, Roz Ryan and Vaneese Thomas are key in bringing the Muses to life, the animation of them is so gloriously fluid and free that it recalls the invigorating spirit of independent animation. Supervising animator Michael Show, previously the overseer of characters like Cogsworth, Abu and Timon, imbues the Muses with the euphoria of rapturous Gospel churchgoers, as they weave in and out of each other’s paths in a fashion that convinces as improvisatory, bursting into psychedelic close-ups and incorporating slapstick asides. As a celebratory tone-setter, the Muses could hardly be better and it is a delight to discover that their Gospel numbers are a throughline rather than just a showy introduction. They enliven the film every time they pop up.
The critical reaction to Hercules was mixed but one thing critics were unanimously positive about was the performance of James Woods as villain Hades. Woods brings the sardonic air of a 90s stand-up to the role and while his performance was frequently compared to Robin Williams’ Genie from Aladdin, Woods is laidback where Williams was hyperactive, casually throwing lines away where Williams amped them up. Woods is especially great in the scene in which he makes a deal with Hercules to take away his strength. He brings an observationally conversational feel to the sequence, lacing the dialogue with asides that feel like improvised afterthoughts and undercutting the importance of the events we’re seeing with the sleazy charisma of a travelling salesman. Although the praise for Woods overshadowed the rest of the cast, there are other strong performances to enjoy. If Danny DeVito and Bobcat Goldthwait coast by on how recognisable their personas are, this is entirely appropriate in roles that were written with them in mind. DeVito’s satyr Philoctetes (known as Phil) provides an earthy counterpoint to Hercules’s naïve idealism and their relationship plays like a toned-down version of the one between Rocky Balboa and his trainer Mickey. Tate Donovan provides the right level of optimistic innocence in the title role, but the film’s other real star is Broadway actress Susan Egan as Megara (known as Meg). Hercules was influenced by classic Hollywood Screwball Comedies, with Hercules’s good-natured innocence based on a young Jimmy Stewart and Meg’s cool detachment based on Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve and Meet John Doe. As a massive fan of both actors and the Screwball genre, this was always going to appeal to me and Meg’s character is where the influence is most evident. The way she is drawn, animated and voiced absolutely captures that spirit and brings a new dimension to a gallery of Disney heroines who, even by this late stage, could be somewhat faceless.
The music of Hercules is a bit of a mixed bag. As already mentioned, the songs by the Muses are all great, if a little samey, and provide the film with regular bursts of vitality. The Muses also show up to sing with Meg in her big number I Won’t Say (I’m in Love). Meg was supposed to have a big love ballad but it was correctly deemed inappropriate for the character, so she is instead given something more lively and cynical. The soaring epic is saved for Hercules and, while it is in keeping with his optimism, Go the Distance does feel like a concession to Disney formula in a film that is at its best when trying to break from it. Predictably, it was this track that was submitted and ultimately nominated for an Academy Award. Despite this, the film seems vaguely embarrassed of it, breaking it up with long chunks of dialogue so that it only appears in a couple of broken snatches. Still, it’s better than One Last Hope, the song given to Phil, which is half-heartedly croaked out by DeVito as it searches for and fails to locate a memorable melody. Though I’d be sad to lose Meg’s song, I do think it might’ve been better had they just made the decision to let the Muses carry the musical side of things entirely.
Adapting the grizzly and explicit world of Greek mythology into a family-friendly animation obviously poses some problems and, for reasons of taste, Disney made the decision to not mention the fact that Hercules was the result of Zeus’s adulterous affair. It was wise to take this out but they might’ve thought twice about making Phil an incorrigible lech as well. This is obviously in reference to the nature of satyrs in Greek mythology but the scenes of Phil relentlessly pursuing clearly unwilling nymphs play as awkwardly predatory in a less toxic age than the 90s. They could’ve at least depicted the relationship between Phil and the nymphs as more coyly playful, rather than give the pursued females a look of abject terror. There are a couple more lapses of taste in Hercules but they are more typical of the toilet humour that crept into most 90s animations. Though it has been widely memed, I’m not sure I can think of a worse line in a Disney film than Phil’s declaration “I’ve got a fur wedgie!” Other jokes don’t quite land simply because they are too desperate to play on the anachronistic approach to stop and check if they’re actually funny. An endangered boy calling out “somebody call IX-I-I” is a particularly unwieldy example.
Fortunately, for the most part Hercules’s sassy humour works well with its unfussy animation style which plays like an unusually high quality Saturday morning cartoon (a medium in which Disney had frequently put out high quality offerings anyway). One exception to this is the Hydra battle which uses computer animation to make the regenerating beast into an especially imposing creation. A lot of hand drawn animations around this time were attempting to supplement their artwork with computerised showstoppers but the likes of Quest for Camelot’s ogre and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas’ sea monster stuck out like sore thumbs and looked worse with the passage of time. By contrast, Hercules’s Hydra works rather well, the computer animation highlighting its frightening otherness while the character design keeps it consistent with the film’s look. Disney’s experiments with computer animation would be hit and miss across the next decade but this sequence proved their potential, even as they quickly shifted into the shadow of the fast emerging Pixar.
If Hercules is often seen as a minor film of the Disney Renaissance, it’s also one of the most fun and unpretentious features the studio ever put out. Though there are bumps in the road, the pacing is so brisk that we fly over them rather than ending up in the ditch.
28. THE RESCUERS
Based on the series of books by Margery Sharp, The Rescuers is seen as a fairly modest Disney film these days but at the time of release it was a big hit and cited by many critics as the best film Disney had put out in a decade. Significant in the way its production combined the work of both the Disney old guard and a handful of younger newcomers, including future stalwarts Glen Keane and Ron Clements, The Rescuers also benefited from the work of Don Bluth who had worked his way up to Directing Animator after having returned to Disney in the early 70s. Bluth’s touch is all over The Rescuers, a fact likely to ensure the enjoyment of 80s and 90s children like myself who grew up on his subsequent films. But if The Rescuers gains much charm from Bluth’s cartoonish but classical style, it also shows signs of his sometimes awkward storytelling that scuppered even the best of Bluth’s post-Disney work to some extent. This is likely not the fault of Bluth in the case of The Rescuers, and rather the end result of a lengthy development process that saw several different, in some cases slightly bizarre, plots considered for the film. The original book was about an unfairly imprisoned poet but a treatment written as early as 1963 was shelved by Walt Disney himself, who disliked the political content. Another treatment written five years later transplanted the characters to the Middle Ages to rescue Richard the Lionheart, after which several variations on a plot about a polar bear tricked into a show business career by a conniving penguin were toyed with.
Ultimately, it was director Wolfgang Reitherman who decided the plot should be kept simple, leading to a much more manageable story about an orphan kidnapped by treasure hunters in order to retrieve a legendary diamond from an inaccessible pirates’ cave. This resulted in a film that is, for the most part, an agreeably straightforward adventure, but its Saturday morning cartoonish tone occasionally gives way to an overabundance of detail, with a sudden barrage of new characters deployed at the eleventh hour and a silly, frantic finale in which the villain waterskis on the back of two alligators and crashes into a tin chimney. As Gene Siskel noted in his review, such wanton daftness did not bear comparison with the stately Disney films of old. Then again, another line in Siskel’s review unwittingly identifies what does work about The Rescuers: “It’s mostly an adventure story”, Siskel observes, and in this respect The Rescuers is actually rather wonderful. It may let go of the reins occasionally but Reitherman’s canny suggestion that the film be simplified resulted in a sleek, enjoyable and surprisingly atmospheric film. If its more lightweight approach did not sit well with those craving the gems of the Golden Age, for those of us who grew up on the Saturday morning cartoons that clearly took inspiration from The Rescuers, it’s easier to look back on it as the progenitor of simple weekend pleasures rather than a detrimental downturn in quality.
One thing I’ve always absolutely loved about The Rescuers is its gloomy aesthetic. For the most part it is set in a dingy Louisiana swamp, overlooked by wintery skies and angular, parched vegetation. But even in the earlier scenes in New York, the skyline remains ominous and rainy, as if the kidnapping of Penny the orphan has swathed the world in melancholia. By contrast, the characters have a lively, sketchy look with the artists pencil lines prominently and charmingly evident. This is animation that feels invigoratingly alive in a manner that the bland perfectionist may perceive as an error but which lovers of the medium in all its forms will likely embrace with enthusiasm. There are a couple of odd animation quirks that don’t quite work. An early scene at the UN depicts delegates using the then-popular but rarely attractive technique of rotoscoping. At first this sterile, realistic representation of humans seems like a smart way to differentiate them from the mouse characters who make up the Rescue Aid Society also located in the UN building, but as the film progresses and we meet the stylised Penny, Madame Medusa and Mr. Snoops, it’s hard not to wonder just who those faceless automatons who populate the UN are (insert political satire here).
There are those who claim that the characters in The Rescuers are dull but I’ve always found them to be not only charming but subversive in an expectation defying fashion. Bernard the janitor, for instance, is a reluctant adventurer but his timidity gives way to an innate bravery when others are in danger. He doesn’t have to learn this selflessness or prove himself in some grand finale as a traditional narrative might insist upon, which sends the positive message that cautiousness and fear are not automatically a sign of outright cowardice. Miss Bianca subverts the notion of the female sidekick by very much taking the lead as the naturally adventurous one. The fact that she takes a long time overpacking her bag and refuses to wear a seatbelt in case it crumples her dress may sound like eye-rolling “women, huh?” style jokes but unlike, say, Willie from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, this traditional depiction of femininity is not delivered at the expense of Bianca’s bravery or effectiveness as a rescuer. The threat of breaking a nail would not prevent her from getting her hands dirty, even if her penchant for perfume does occasionally give her away while hiding. But perhaps most surprising of all is the character of Penny. With her tearful early scene as the cute orphan longing to be adopted, not to mention her adorably misspelled message in a bottle which the mice intercept, Penny seems to be set up as the doe-eyed victim whose utter vulnerability sets the stakes high. But as soon as she is kidnapped, Penny proves her mettle immediately by standing up to her captors, refusing to follow their orders, staging numerous escape attempts and generally making life difficult for the villains. Even when Bernard and Bianca show up, Penny plays as big a part in her own salvation as they do. Despite our expectations of juvenile helplessness, she is clearly one of the titular Rescuers herself.
In terms of the villains, The Rescuers is often criticised for featuring a blatant Cruella de Vil rip off in the flame-haired, histrionic Madame Medusa. Disney didn’t really try to hide this connection, with the initial plan being to actually use Cruella herself in the role. But legendary animator Milt Kahl, who was bowing out with The Rescuers, wanted to end his career with the opportunity to animate an original character and so he threw himself into making Medusa as memorable as possible. While visions of Cruella can’t help but hover in the wings, I think Kahl and the writers did an excellent job of distinguishing Medusa as a very good villain. She is actually like a cross between de Vil and The Sword in the Stone’s Mad Madame Mim, combining a preening arrogance and matter of fact bluntness with an obsessive hysteria and loathsome cruelty that make her delightful to despise. Medusa’s two pet alligators, Brutus and Nero, are effectively imposing creations who get one great scene involving a pipe organ. Mr. Snoops, Medusa’s gullible business partner, is a serviceable creation but his presence perhaps betrays The Rescuers’ weakness for including too many superfluous characters. There are plenty of great cameoing creatures whose scenes work, from Orville the albatross to Evinrude the dragonfly (both characters who double up as modes of transport) but I could do without Ellie Mae and Luke, two tedious muskrats, and the arrival of an influx of local animals very late in the game is just confusing, especially since one of them is clearly Archimedes from The Sword in the Stone masquerading as a Louisiana owl.
The Rescuers is often criticised for its lacklustre music, with insipid songs performed by Shelby Flint overlaid during natural lulls. But the choice not to give songs to the characters themselves is a good one, in that it prevents the action from being slowed down artificially to accommodate show tunes. This is crucial as one of the main things The Rescuers has going for it is its persistent forward motion, as befits an adventure film. There’s a real sense of peril throughout which makes The Rescuers as exciting as it is fun, with that lingering melancholia lending the film an extra layer. Though it is not widely considered a classic anymore, I have a great fondness for The Rescuers. It captures the strengths of the great Disney animators of yesteryear and the modern up-and-comers and if this combination would ultimately cause some friction in coming years, The Rescuers proved that the baton could be passed successfully with a little faith.
27. ALICE IN WONDERLAND
Lewis Carroll’s Alice books had been on Walt Disney’s radar since his childhood and it had been his intention to make a feature length film based on them since as early as 1933. Watching Alice in Wonderland, which ultimately became Disney’s thirteenth animated feature, it’s easy to see why Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs proved to be a more appealing choice for a debut feature. Though they are packed with fantastical creations and imaginative scenarios, Carroll’s books are more sinister than they are whimsical and, despite suggestions to the contrary from the staunchest Carroll fans, it is a tone that Disney preserves rather well. Wonderland isn’t the sort of place you’d want to visit. Its inhabitants are all genuinely mad to some degree and a constant sense of danger hangs over Alice’s adventures there. It’s a place where you can very easily lose your way, your identity and eventually your head, in a quite literal sense. There are no little helpers or friendly guides. Every character seems to be there to impede, confuse and threaten and there are no moral lessons to sweeten the deal. Carroll’s brand of literate absurdity works well on the page but it is a devilishly tricky thing to adapt for the screen, especially into a feature-length film. Lacking a prominent throughline or theme and devoid of emotional attachments, Alice in Wonderland becomes reliant on the strength of its individual moments, like an overinflated sketch show trying to settle into a narrative structure.
Fortunately, most of the individual scenes work very well, with the inventiveness of the animation enhancing Carroll’s often ingenious concepts. Sometimes there are ideas wrapped in ideas, such as when an encounter with Tweedledum and Tweedledee segues into a recitation of The Walrus and the Carpenter. This is the sort of self-conscious diversion that could derail the average film but Alice in Wonderland’s lack of a conventional framework allows Disney to get away with it. This is generally quite refreshing, although it can occasionally become a tad irritating as surreal interlude follows surreal interlude and the film becomes an unwieldy stack of ideas easily toppled by just one poorly executed episode. This almost happens whenever anyone breaks into song for an extended period, with snatches of ditties like The Unbirthday Song working much better than Alice’s more extended performances or the tedious singing flowers sequence. There is also sometimes a sense of the film trying to cram too much into its 75 minutes. While some famous characters like the Mock Turtle, the Gryphon and the Duchess were ultimately cut, scenes like the Caucus Race feel rushed and ill-served, while the Cheshire Cat’s constant recitation of the Jabberwocky poem feels like a hat on a hat, a sufficiently strange and engaging character being made to act as a receptacle for an unnecessary further reference.
But if Alice in Wonderland’s peculiar style makes for a vaguely bumpy, disjointed experience, it also makes it stand out as a totally unique and vibrantly fascinating anomaly in the Disney canon. Disney’s subsequent determination to sell itself as “The Magic Kingdom” relied heavily on the positive connotations of the term “magic” but what we see in Alice in Wonderland is malevolent magic, with a shape-shifting world designed to be unwelcoming to visitors who can’t comprehend its complete lack of rules. This is made clear early on when, after Alice drinks a potion to make her small enough to fit through a tiny door, the key to open the door appears on a table she is no longer tall enough to reach. It wasn’t there all along, it only appears once it knows it can’t be accessed. Wonderland is like a realisation of those days when you irrationally feel like the world is against you. This edgier tone allows for more visceral threats and crueller punchlines, so a family of very cute oysters is wiped out single-handedly by a hungry walrus, a reluctant lizard is fired out of a chimney towards an uncertain fate, and the heroine herself ends up on the run from practically everyone as she desperately tries to avoid the threat of decapitation. Even the seemingly less threatening characters like the Mad Hatter and the March Hare have temperaments that turn on a dime and a tendency towards anarchy that is unstoppable once it picks up a head of steam. The Cheshire Cat occasionally seems to be helping Alice, only to later relish the predicaments into which he has ushered her.
Alice in Wonderland received mixed reviews at the time of its release but it would become popular later down the line when its proto-psychedelic imagery and surreal sense of humour began to chime with the counterculture. It wouldn’t have worked as an opening salvo for Disney as it would’ve set far too bizarre a precedent, but as the studio’s thirteenth film it boasts a bold and invigorating tendency towards experimentalism that boded well as a sign that the Disney animated feature was not about to go stale any time soon.
26. THE FOX AND THE HOUND
The Fox and the Hound is known for being one of Disney’s most emotional films and it is blessed with a pretty great premise in this respect: a fox cub called Tod and a hound puppy called Copper meet and become best friends but, as the hound is being trained to be a hunting dog, their friendship becomes more difficult. After a winter spent apart, Tod goes looking for Copper but, with both now grown, the hound tells the fox they can no longer be friends. Copper has been fully trained as a hunting dog under his mentor, the older hunting dog Chief. Inevitably, Chief and Copper end up pursuing Tod one day and, after Copper lets his cornered friend go, Tod’s desperate bid for freedom leads Chief into the path of an oncoming train. With his mentor dead, Copper swears revenge on his former friend and the stage is set for an emotionally heightened finale. Pretty great story, huh? Or it would be, but for one fact: the Disney old guard refused to kill Chief.
There are two minor comedic bird characters in The Fox and the Hound called Dinky and Boomer. If those names sound like insults two different generations would hurl at each other on Twitter then that is an apt metaphor for The Fox and the Hound’s production process. Like its predecessor The Rescuers, The Fox and the Hound was a collaboration between Disney veterans and the up-and-coming new talent. Just take a look at the credits for character animation and you’ll see names like Brad Bird, John Lasseter, Jerry Rees and Glen Keane, while uncredited work was done by Tim Burton and Don Bluth. This was the film during which Bluth staged his infamous walkout, taking a chunk of the animation staff with him to set up his own studio and delaying The Fox and the Hound’s release date by half a year. This was an indication of the unworkable atmosphere that developed between the younger animators and some of the more rigid veterans, whose experience was not always matched by the canniest instincts but came with the sway to back up their decisions. Chief among these bones of contention was, well, Chief! Director Art Stevens put his foot down that the pivotal emotional crux of the film, Chief’s death, could not be allowed to happen. Despite the younger staff’s persistent protests, Stevens received backing to change Chief’s death to a broken leg… you know, the kind you usually sustain when a speeding locomotive knocks you off a bridge onto some rocks.
The unlikelihood of Chief’s survival is not so relevant as how detrimental it is to the story. The younger staff recognised this and strongly protested the change but Stevens was firm in his contention that Disney didn’t kill off their characters and they weren’t going to start now… well, y’know, except for Bambi’s mum but that was a one-off exception… apart from that pheasant that also gets shot out of the sky in Bambi, but they were a very minor character… a bit like those playing cards that get dragged off to be executed in Alice in Wonderland but that happens offscreen… like all those baby oysters who get eaten by a walrus in the same film… or Ichabod Crane in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, but that depends how literally you take that story… a bit like the harpooning of Willie the whale in Make Mine Music, but that was just one segment in an anthology, right… a bit like that stegosaurus that gets shaken to death in Fantasia, but the dinosaurs were going extinct anyway… and the Wicked Queen in Snow White and Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty? Well, they were baddies, they had it coming. The point stands, there’s no way The Fox and the Hound was going to feature any character deaths… well, apart from Tod’s mother who’s offscreen death by gunshot is the first thing that happens in the film. Of course, with this weight of evidence behind him, it was Stevens who received backing from the higher-ups.
OK, so I’m fudging the facts slightly with that diatribe. What Stevens actually said was “Geez, we never killed a MAIN character in a Disney film and we’re not starting now!” But while that term “main character” precludes a lot of those I listed, if Chief can be considered a main character then Bambi’s mum surely can’t be discounted as such either and, as the young Ron Clements, soon to be a major player in the Disney Renaissance, observed, “Chief has to die. The picture doesn’t work if he just breaks his leg. Copper doesn’t have motivation to hate the fox.” Disney films would soon up their death quotient considerably, especially after Mufasa’s death in The Lion King played so effectively, but for now the frustrated animators were stuck with an incredibly powerful death scene which had been rendered stupid when Stevens added eyes that repeatedly flickered open to what was originally supposed to be Chief’s corpse, as Copper stands over it and pleads “No, no, I will avenge my clearly still conscious, temporarily hobbled mentor.”
If The Fox and the Hound’s other emotional scenes manage to salvage it as a very good film, it’s infuriating just how easily it could’ve been a great one. Bambi was a great film partly because it didn’t shy away from brutal realities in its depiction of a life cycle. That said, Bambi’s version of nature completely eradicated the issue of predation, with humans being the only threat to the forest dwellers. The Fox and the Hound acknowledges both human influence and natural instincts in an effective take on the nature/nurture debate. Interestingly, a seemingly superfluous comedy subplot involving two birds, the aforementioned Dinky and Boomer, chasing an elusive caterpillar actually ties in with the film’s themes, contrasting the instinctual and survivalist antics of the birds with the artificial ones bred into the hunting dogs. Of course, there’s a whole unexplored layer of how gentleness may be bred into domesticated animals at the expense of their killer instincts, but inclusion of this would overcomplicate The Fox and the Hound’s allegory for societal expectations and their effect on our personalities, beliefs and relationships. It’s a hefty theme to deal with as it is, and The Fox and the Hound has a more nuanced approach than Bambi’s full-on anti-human assault that could’ve made it more effective with a clearer approach and no narrative bet-hedging. Though I enjoy the classic touch the veteran animators brought to The Fox and the Hound, it really could’ve benefited from letting the talented new animators run the show.
Though The Fox and the Hound is sometimes berated for not taking any chances, I think this is to severely undersell its significant achievements in tone, character and animation. It’s easy to get caught up in the fact that it has a detrimentally compromised story and some of the most undernourished songs in the Disney canon, but there are flashes of greatness throughout The Fox and the Hound that repeatedly bolster its achievements. This is true right from the off, as the film opens with the most unprecedentedly bleak, subtle introduction ever seen in a Disney film. There are no florid fanfares or avuncular narrators, just a slow pan through a misty, autumnal forest, accompanied by almost total silence until an ominous score is gradually perceptible emerging through the distant, intermittent sounds of nature. Again, Bambi is the film that springs to mind, with its opening pan through a multiplane forest, but even that aspirationally realistic film featured music over its introduction. The Fox and the Hound’s intro is even more arresting and, with a glorious pan through a glistening spider’s web, it leads into an instantly tense and wrenching moment in which a mother fox races to get her cub to safety before being shot, offscreen, by hunters (as with Bambi’s mother, an audible gunshot tells us all we need to know). It’s one of the greatest openings to a Disney film ever and if only The Fox and the Hound could’ve kept up that level of emotional resonance, it would’ve been one of the true classics. Its emotional blows still land but often with the feel of a tentatively pulled-punch that slows the momentum before the tremendous finale.
That finale is a big part of The Fox and the Hound’s legend, with a tense and vicious fight between the protagonists spilling over into a standoff between Tod and an enormous bear. Animated by Glen Keane with exceptional attention to detail and edited with the thrilling rhythm of an Action movie, the bear sequence received plaudits in the animation world even as the film as a whole was slightly underrated. The scene immediately after the bear fight, in which Copper acknowledges Tod’s heroism by putting himself between his former friend and his master’s gun, is realised with equal effectiveness and gets at the emotional heart that is the film’s major strength. Its warmth even extends to Amos Slade, the central hunter character who some might call the film’s villain. But Slade is more nuanced than that, a multi-layered character in keeping with The Fox and the Hound’s greater moral complexity. His humanism is powerfully located in the silent communication between him and his beloved dog as he backs down from shooting Tod. The healing friendship between Tod and Copper is also communicated through a wordless smile, although the melancholy final image places Tod at one remove from the other characters. Again, Bambi is evoked as Tod looks on at the former life now unavailable to him from the elevated viewpoint of a hillside, but the arrival of his mate Vixey at his side suggests a warmer message of the value of love and companionship in comparison with Bambi’s image of stoic, solitary masculinity.
The ultimate message of The Fox and the Hound is agreeably vague, leaving the door open for interpretation. There are no real heroes and villains so much as symbols and signifiers, and I’ve seen people take away messages as diverse as “Society cannot dictate who you are” and “Stick with your own kind and don’t challenge the natural order”. While I highly doubt the extreme negativity of that latter message was intended (although some of the Disney veterans may have approved of it in the face of daily challenges to their authority), The Fox and the Hound’s lighter moral touch actively encourages discussion and there’s every chance its fascinating approach might be more widely discussed if only the crucial central plot point hadn’t been fumbled. I guess the main unintended message I take away from The Fox and the Hound is this: if the narrative’s integrity hinges on the dog dying, kill the damn dog!
25. WINNIE THE POOH
Winnie the Pooh arrived just as Disney was pulling itself out of its 2000s slump and into another Renaissance era. Sandwiched between the hits Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph, this hand-drawn throwback was like the Revival era’s equivalent of The Rescuers Down Under, another largely forgotten sequel that emerged between megahits and threw off the neatness of the accepted narrative. In the case of The Rescuers Down Under however, that was a film that clearly fit with the pre-Renaissance 80s films. Winnie the Pooh feels more like a standalone that, but for its slightly more polished animation and flashes of an indicative 21st century sense of humour, could’ve come out at any time in the studio’s history. The film does an excellent job of picking up the perennially popular Winnie the Pooh franchise in a way that honours its gentle charms without feeling old-fashioned. The screenplay interweaves a series of short scenarios to create a compellingly leisurely story that reaches a natural conclusion after less than an hour’s runtime. Though some critics were disappointed by the film’s length, Winnie the Pooh feels exactly as long as it needs to be. One critic complained that it “left (them) wanting more”, as if that were a bad thing. In an era when so many franchises seem determined to overstuff us by stretching the material, the light meal of Winnie the Pooh feels totally refreshing.
At first, the casting of John Cleese as the narrator seems like a disruptive mistake, trading the avuncular warmth of Sebastian Cabot’s original narrator for a more impatient, schoolmasterly tone. But as the new Winnie the Pooh unfolds, it becomes clear that Cleese’s edgier presence fits with the slightly more arch tone. The featherlight whimsy of the original Pooh shorts has been replaced by an absurdist wit that draws on old vaudeville routines and a hint of modern self-awareness to create an approach that, while slightly less cosy, is considerably funnier. There are laugh-out-loud moments here for those with whom the tone strikes a chord. A lengthy bit of wordplay involving knots plays itself out to absurd extremes while the whimsical misunderstanding at the centre of the plot combines the earlier film’s gentle malapropisms with an underlying satire on misinformation and mob hysteria for those who want to look for that sort of thing. This version of Winnie the Pooh also makes better use of all the characters instead of leaning too heavily on Pooh, Piglet, Tigger and Rabbit at the expense of their marginalised pals. Everyone gets something to do here, with my personal favourite Owl particularly shining as a stuffy cautionary tale of an alarmist ringleader.
If it is perhaps a tad too slight to stand among the highest tier classics, Winnie the Pooh is close to perfect at achieving the small goals it sets for itself. It brings a modern touch to an old franchise without disrupting the characteristics that have made it consistently popular but also without resting on laurels that would make it largely pointless. On an evening when you fancy a more modest entertainment that will still leave you feeling wholly satisfied, this terrific little film is a hidden gem.
24. THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME
When The Hunchback of Notre Dame came out in 1996, there was a sense that Disney had let the acclaim of their Renaissance period go to their heads a little. The films they were putting out at this stage were starting to feel self-consciously serious, with Pocahontas’s straight-faced Oscar aspirations followed immediately by The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s ambitious intensity. But there’s nothing wrong with trying something different and, in the case of Hunchback, I wish Disney had pushed a little harder on the tonal solemnity because that’s the part of this film that works the best. The look of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is ornate and intimidatingly monumental, with the looming, stony cathedral providing an impressive setting. The central humans are all compelling, with Quasimodo’s kindness and Esmeralda’s headstrong humanism creating a strong emotional heart and Phoebus’s good-humoured righteousness providing a conventional hero who is interestingly explored in relation to Quasimodo’s more unusual lead. Best of all is Judge Frollo, one of the greatest Disney villains of all time. His evil is not leavened with humour as is often the case with Disney villains. Instead, he has a psychological complexity that floats the suggestion that he believes what he is doing is right, with the unforgettable musical number Hellfire examining the mental backflips he has to perform to maintain this governing delusion.
The major problem with The Hunchback of Notre Dame is that, amongst all this intensity, complexity and sombre religious iconography, singing gargoyles just don’t work. Given that I began this review wondering if Disney were getting a bit self-serious at this point, it’s completely understandable that they chose to give Quasimodo a trio of wisecracking stone confidantes in order to offset such suggestions. There is room for humour in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and effective relief comes in the form of more subtle buddy comedy between Phoebus and Quasimodo, or the exuberant showmanship of de facto narrator Clopin. But the gargoyles, neither funny nor charming, really test the film’s credibility when they sing an upbeat song about inner beauty while Paris literally burns around them. I don’t want to be too unforgiving about this concession to the younger kids in the audience (a snarky line about Burger King tie-ins has been redrafted into snob’s oblivion) but the notion of talking gargoyles seems frustratingly workable if there’d just been a bit more effort put into the tonal balance. Instead, they seem to be ripped from another film and the contrast is too chasmic when set against the intensity of the barely repressed lust and Catholic guilt happening elsewhere.
Though they do knock the film off balance considerably every time they appear, it’s testament to the quality of The Hunchback of Notre Dame that the gargoyles don’t damage it more than they do. They cause an eye-roll whenever they turn up but only the excruciating musical number A Guy Like You (which features the only real moment of awkward ableism, with the rhyme “We all have gaped at some Adonis… you’re shaped like a croissant is”) absolutely stops the show in the worst way. Fortunately, the gargoyles are confined to the bell tower so when the film moves away from that location there’s no fear of them popping up to spoil the flow. And The Hunchback of Notre Dame does have a particularly strong tonal continuity elsewhere. The other musical numbers, while not as memorable as those from previous Disney Renaissance films, all serve the plot in an agreeable Broadway style, with The Bells of Notre Dame setting the mood, as well as folding in a healthy chunk of exposition, beautifully. The best songs go to Frollo and Quasimodo though, with Out There being infinitely open to parody (check out the South Park film’s Up There for proof) but dramatically powerful nonetheless, and the Heaven’s Light/Hellfire sequence being both a musical and dramatic highlight.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame thrives on a real sense of time and place, which is why the cheap anachronisms in A Guy Like You are so regrettable. This is not a world where the fourth wall feels remotely shatterable, with the solidity and cruelty of the cathedral’s cold stone seeping into everything from the villain’s self-serving fundamentalism to the easily provoked sadism of a crowd of revellers. Relief is found in Quasimodo’s inherent kindness, Esmeralda’s determination and resilience and Phoebus’s natural inclination towards what’s right, while Frollo’s deep-rooted psychological damage is imbued with both a realistic vulnerability and a powerhouse intensity that suggests it could easily overwhelm the combined forces of good by way of its delusional rigidity alone. His aspirations to destroy the Romani population of Paris is also impossible not to link with real world genocides in a way that is more terrifyingly convincing than The Lion King’s goose-stepping hyenas were in that respect. It’s a shame the damaging power of prejudice is so flimsily explored when it comes to Quasimodo, whose upbringing by Frollo would likely have made his anti-Romani sentiments more difficult to overcome than they prove to be in the one short conversation with Esmeralda that addresses them. Still, some form of shorthand is undoubtedly required here and in a film with a built-in child demographic, portraying prejudice as the barefaced stupidity it is could be a more productive route than digging into potentially confusing nuances of how it is passed down.
While The Hunchback of Notre Dame is rarely counted amongst most children’s favourite Disney films, it is one that continues to play well as they get older. Certainly, I find a lot more to enjoy here than I did as a teenager, although the gargoyles perhaps seemed less annoying back then. This is one of Disney’s darkest and most serious films but that’s not to say it isn’t also fun. There’s a pleasing sense of adventure in the cobwebby cathedral setting which is comparable to that of an old dark house or medieval castle, while Quasimodo’s high-swinging manoeuvres, Esmeralda’s gymnastic self-defence techniques and Phoebus’s sword-wielding gallantry imbue the film with swashbuckling characteristics that balance its grim thematic concerns. Literary sticklers may have bemoaned the film’s deviation from the Victor Hugo novel but, gargoyles aside, Tab Murphy’s story and Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise’s direction do a fine job of recreating the tale in a family friendly manner that doesn’t completely drain away the original gravitas. The result is a flawed but elegant and richly entertaining piece of work.
Though the Disney Renaissance period is usually characterised as spanning the entirety of the 90s, it’s always been those first four films (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King) that are considered The Big Four, before Pocahontas revealed a conspicuous chink in the armour. Of that celebrated quartet, I’ve always considered Aladdin to be the runt of the litter. Though bright, funny and beautifully animated, there was always something that seemed comparatively trivial about this film. Perhaps this impression has been exacerbated by our society’s ingrained prejudicial attitudes towards comedy, since Aladdin certainly places more prominence on the comedic, but watching the film now I think the issue is more a failure to properly reconcile the emotional side of the story with the in-your-face gags that costs Aladdin a higher place on my winner’s podium. I had a lot of fun watching this film again but I honestly never felt emotionally involved in the story, held at arm’s length by that gigantic blue hand attached to constantly morphing celebrity anachronisms.
There are other off-putting things about Aladdin that were less apparent when watching it as a child amidst the toxic milieu of the 90s. Although it is set in a fictional city called Agrabah in an attempt to align it with a fantastical storytelling tradition above a real world depiction of the Middle East, the film was originally set in Baghdad which means that this concessionary alteration doesn’t so much erase the racism as sweep it under the carpet. Unfortunately for Disney, in Agrabah carpets have a habit of moving about on their own. So the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee were quick to pick up on the shocking lyrics of the opening number Arabian Nights. Describing Agrabah (not Baghdad, of course. Sweep, sweep) as a place “where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face”, the song was subsequently edited to replace that line with “where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense”, although nobody thought to remove the subsequent, even worse line “It’s barbaric but, hey, it’s home.” I recall the controversy at the time to some extent but the fact it has taken me until this viewing to genuinely feel uncomfortable with Aladdin’s numerous questionable moments suggests I may not have had the right to laugh quite so smugly at that 2015 Public Policy Polling poll in which 30% of Republican primary voters said they supported bombing Aladdin’s fictional city of Agrabah. Such displays of blatant ignorance and startlingly murderous racism are, after all, nurtured by the casual shrugs of mass audiences passively accepting dialogue like “It begins on a dark night, where a dark man waits… with a dark purpose.”
Another ideological objection to Aladdin was that its heroes were all conspicuously Americanised, while the sparingly used Arabic accent was a signifier of avaricious market traders and villainous undesirables. In truth, it is not only the heroes who are Americanised but the entire main cast. Neither Jafar nor his sidekick Iago have anything close to an Arabic accent, which suggests Disney weren’t so much trying to demonise Arabs as they were deeming them unworthy of the spotlight unless their appearances or demeanours could be homogenised for a homegrown audience. This wasn’t anything new as far as Disney were concerned. I don’t recall hearing a single French accent as Phil Harris Baloo-ed his way through The Aristocats’ Paris, for instance. Still, all these elements have quite rightly led to Aladdin being one of the most recent films on Disney Plus to be slapped with an Offensive Content disclaimer and it’s important to know that when watching Aladdin with your kids in the 21st century, the magically-transformed-Abu will not be the only elephant in the room.
For all its retrospectively-apparent indelicacy, Aladdin aims for, and to a large extent achieves, the same kind of classic Hollywood exoticism that made films like The Thief of Bagdad and Arabian Nights so alluring and delightful. If there is legitimate concern that the grotesque depiction of characters of a certain race could lead to real life prejudice (and, in 30% of cases, the desire to deploy an explosive device), Aladdin’s treasure-filled caves, flying rugs and all-powerful genies are clearly the stuff of glorious storybook excess, to be enjoyed largely guilt-free. You can have gags about sword swallowers and levitating rope tricks on every street corner as long as you establish this divide between reality and fiction effectively, and it’s a line Aladdin just about walks for the most part. The storytelling is a bit baggy in places. For instance, an unnamed peddler introduces us to the story at the beginning of the film but this narrator never returns. The original intention was to have him bookend the film and be revealed as the Genie in disguise but this was removed in favour of a rather frantic rush through a reprise of A Whole New World and a gag in which the Genie appears as the face of the moon before lifting up the corner of the celluloid itself and smirking “Made ya look” at the audience. This climactic fourth-wall-break is just one of several moments that feel ripped from Richard Williams’ unfinished masterpiece The Thief and the Cobbler, in which the titular thief ends the film by stealing the celluloid image itself and scurrying off into a white void. Williams’ film had been in production for decades before it was taken out of his hands by Warner Bros., hastily cut, re-edited and redubbed, and released to lukewarm reactions. Though Aladdin was clearly influenced in some part by Williams’ masterful work, it was a bastardised version of the same which would ultimately be widely mistaken as being a rip-off of Disney’s film.
It is in its wild flourishes, visual handstands and boisterous energy that Aladdin most asserts its brilliance. Though he takes over a third of the film to show up, Robin Williams’ Genie is undoubtedly the showstopper in this regard. Exceptionally animated by Eric Goldberg, the Genie’s supernatural abilities and Williams’ skill for impersonations allow him to make anachronistic references left, right and centre. Disney films had featured celebrity star turns in the past but never one this bold and all-consuming. Williams’ seemingly endless well of improvisations left Goldberg with hours of voice recordings to sort through, choosing which flights of fancy to animate and which to leave on the cutting room floor. Goldberg is astute in his choices, with reference points that most kids would miss being placed in the necessary context to enjoy them regardless. So a parent-pleasing visual and vocal reference to Ed Sullivan will be appreciated by children as a generic variety show host thanks to the demeanour with which Goldberg imbues him and the audience of applauding Genie replicas with which he surrounds him.
Williams’ winning showmanship extends to the musical numbers, with the explosively joyous Friend Like Me emerging as one of the greatest Disney songs of all time. The superb music of Alan Menken and lyrics of Howard Ashman provide Williams with the plum composition and he fills it to bursting with whirlwind vitality and shapeshifting hilarity. The whole sequence is a bravura display of Disney at its very best. Williams also performs the lesser-known but infectious Prince Ali, which I’ve been whistling relentlessly since this rewatch. Ashman’s tragic premature death meant Tim Rice, soon to write the lyrics for The Lion King, stepped in to finish the Aladdin soundtrack. His contributions include the lively One Jump Ahead, a great introductory number for Aladdin’s character, and the romantic ballad A Whole New World. Although it was the big breakout hit of the film, winning the Oscar for Best Original Song, I can’t stand A Whole New World. From When You Wish Upon a Star to Beauty and the Beast and Can You Feel the Love Tonight, I’m a fan of the great Disney ballads but A Whole New World is the kitschiest, most nauseating dose of saccharine imaginable. Paired with the dewey-eyed magic carpet ride sequence, it brings Aladdin to a ploddingly sentimental halt. There’s no way it should’ve beaten Friend Like Me to the Oscar!
Although Williams’ turn as the Genie is Aladdin’s undoubted highlight, it is also the thing that most keeps me from emotionally engaging with the film. The performance is such a wham-bam avalanche of gags and references that when it comes time to try and establish a friendship between Aladdin and his magical pal, it feels unconvincing. The endless wisecracks and impersonations haven’t left enough room for a relationship to be forged, and it doesn’t help that Williams undercut the key line “I’m getting kind of fond of you, kid” with the ad lib “Not that I want to pick out curtains or anything.” Apparently Disney consulted more gay people about this issue than they did Arab people about racial sensitivity… that is to say, one. Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg asked gay producer Thomas Schumacher if he was insulted by the line or Williams’ routine as a camp clothier, but Schumacher said it was all in good fun. The latter feels permissible, given that the Genie communicates in broad characterisations and comic stereotypes, but the curtains line feels uncomfortably like the Disney equivalent of a “no homo” moment. Either way, the Genie’s inability to stop spouting contemporary twentieth-century miscellany makes him a difficult character for whom to forge an emotional payoff. Another great piece of casting, the brash squawk of Gilbert Gottfried as Jafar’s parrot Iago, also demonstrates Aladdin’s difficulty in reconciling its rowdy comedy and its dedication to the central storyline. Gottfried is hilarious but also disruptive, his deafening screech bringing everything around him to a grinding halt every time he opens his beak.
If Aladdin’s classical storyline and riotous delivery don’t always gel that smoothly, the film is a blast to watch nonetheless. For all its regrettable ideological missteps and overly-insistent celebrity limelight hoggers, Aladdin is one of Disney’s most likably lively and energetic creations. If it falls a little short of the classics that surround it, it’s still ample evidence of the studio’s early 90s rejuvenation as a confident force with which to be reckoned.
Following soon after a couple of Disney sequels that, though reasonably well-received, began to give the impression of dwindling inspiration, Encanto confirmed that imagination and magic were still very much alive at Disney, quickly becoming a phenomenon in the process. An ambitious original story, Encanto is a family saga filled with memorable characters and showstopping musical numbers, following the fortunes of the family Madrigal living in a magical sentient house in an enchanted mountainous realm called Encanto. Protected by the magic of a constantly burning candle, the house bestows different magical powers or “gifts” on each Madrigal descendant when they reach the age of five, but fifteen year old Mirabel was mysteriously denied a gift, making her something of an outcast in the eyes of her Abuela Alma. While the notion of different powers is hardly a new concept, especially in an age dominated by Superhero films, Encanto neatly avoids feeling like an X-Men adjacent endeavour by placing a much heavier emphasis on the family dynamics and making its hero the one apparently powerless character. Unlike the subsequent Strange World, which attempted to place family relationships at the centre of its story but fluffed the execution, Encanto is as emotionally resonant as it is transportively fantastical, thanks to strong writing, cleverly realised characters and evocative animation.
It’s hard to talk about Encanto without immediately focusing on the music. The songs by prolific Musical go-to-guy Lin-Manuel Miranda are so brilliant that on my initial watch they somewhat overshadowed the rest of the film, which I believe I slightly underrated. On this second watch, the songs seemed to blend in and become a crucial part of the storytelling process, rather than act as mere sideshows. Although most of the songs here could be called showstoppers, they are more like show-furtherers. In particular, right from the outset, opening number The Family Madrigal does a lot of heavy lifting in introducing Encanto’s huge cast of characters. Miranda, having expected pushback from Disney regarding such a potentially unwieldy concept, wrote The Family Madrigal as proof that it was possible to introduce everyone with sufficient depth. The song does an amazing job, not only detailing the relationships and special gifts of each family member but also hinting at the dynamics between them through little looks, phrases and gags. The song lays out the information and then reiterates it all through the naturally repetitious structure of the song, ingeniously disguising a hefty bit of telling beneath the animation’s exquisite job of showing.
It’s easy to get swept up in the euphoria of Encanto’s soundtrack and end up doing a disservice to the rest of the film. When the songs became breakout, chart-dominating viral hits, they were more frequently heard removed from their narrative context but that adds an extra dimension that makes them even better. Charise Castro Smith and Jared Bush’s screenplay smoothly works in conjunction with Miranda’s soundtrack to move through various family members, each of whom gets their own song that fleshes out their narrative function. The ensemble performance of We Don’t Talk About Bruno, which fills in the details, albeit unreliable ones, about the mysterious absent family member, became the most widely beloved song but it is the powerful, witty Surface Pressure, beautifully belted out by Jessica Darrow as older sister Luisa, that is the real gem. Surface Pressure became a big chart hit too and, unlike the very plot-entwined We Don’t Talk About Bruno, it works very well as a standalone ode to overwhelming stress caused by people’s presumptuous over-reliance. It was also embraced by big sisters everywhere as a moment of empowering recognition. Up until the song arrives, Luisa has essentially been a visual gag, a super-strong woman carrying large items in background. But this glimpse below the surface at the expectations such strength carries with it immediately makes Luisa the most sympathetic, resonant character in the film. It’s a great example of how Encanto manages to quickly but convincingly flesh out its characters through good writing and terrific music working in conjunction with each other rather than trying to outdo one another. It’s a strong metaphor for the film’s own central themes.
Encanto is an ensemble piece at heart but it benefits from a strong lead in Mirabel. Down to earth, good-humoured, relatably insecure but generally level-headed, Mirabel benefits from lively animation and the impeccable comic timing of Stephanie Beatriz who voices her exceptionally well, retaining all her character quirks even when belting out her musical numbers. Attempts to impress with perfectly hit notes never once overwhelm her dedication to character first. Her early scenes with five year old cousin Antonio are genuinely touching and lay a strong foundation for her subsequent adventure, allowing us to easily recognise and forgive her fallibilities as part of a rounded, good-hearted character. She stands out as one of my favourite Disney heroines but she never overwhelms the centrality of the family to the narrative, with the dramatic focus on her relationship with Alma enhanced by the gradual unfolding of how Mirabel fits into the family dynamic as a whole. Equally important is how the characters relate to their environment, the sentient house itself, with fractured relationships mirrored by cracks appearing in the building. As a setting, the house sidesteps potential insularity by virtue of its numerous secret cubbies and passageways, as well as its transformative capabilities. It’s quite refreshing to see a story in which, rather than going on a physical journey, the characters remain largely in one location which instead aids their emotional journey.
If Encanto has a failing it is its inability to quite do its story justice in a 90 minute runtime. Mirabel and Alma’s ruction and reconciliation occur within too compressed a timeframe and Alma’s tragic backstory, loaded with potential emotional resonance, is slightly robbed of impact by being sidelined in a hurried introduction and a late-game musical interlude that doesn’t quite achieve the impact it requires. It doesn’t help that it is set to the one vaguely dull song, Dos Oruguitas, a maudlin Spanish language caterpillar metaphor which, in what is now acknowledged as a massive oversight on Disney’s part, was the only Encanto song submitted for Oscar consideration. The It’s a Wonderful Life style conclusion also seems a bit rushed, resulting in a slight sense of disappointment as the credits role, which you’d never see coming earlier in the film. I think this unfortunate inability to stick the landing was what initially made me underrate Encanto but on a second watch I appreciated its considerable strengths a whole lot more and accepted the conclusion as adequate, even if a greater climactic flourish would’ve helped immensely. Still, having been served up such a dazzling platter of vibrant animation and intoxicating song, to demand more seems a little ungrateful, as if I’m pushing Luisa to hoist yet another boulder on her already overloaded back. I’m just delighted to find I have a lot of love for Encanto and I’m sure this universal tale of family will age well and become a beloved classic for the children who are lucky enough to be growing up with it.
When it comes to defining its place in the Disney canon, Bolt is an interesting case. Look it up online and you’ll find people arguing about whether it belongs at the end of the Post-Renaissance era or at the beginning of the Revival era. Of course, there are arguments to be made for both positions and these blurrily defined labels are rarely consistent (case in point: from a chronological standpoint The Rescuers Down Under is technically part of the Disney Renaissance). You could point to Bolt’s strong storytelling and financial success as evidence that it established a new era at Disney, but then the bizarre, critically-reviled Chicken Little had also been a commercial hit a few years earlier, while the subsequent The Princess and the Frog, regularly cited as the actual starting point of the Revival era, was a bit of a mess when it came to plot. Ultimately, I’ve come to the conclusion that Bolt doesn’t really belong to any era. It is a standalone anomaly in the Disney filmography and that is part of its considerable charm. It’s odd that it seems to have fallen out of favour with viewers since its initially warm reception but the fact that its vocal supporters are a small cult rather than an entire generation does give Bolt-lovers like myself a feeling of gleeful outsider solidarity when we encounter each other.
Another reason people often criticise Bolt is that they find it derivative of both The Truman Show and Toy Story. The notion of a TV star dog duped by an overzealous producer into believing he actually has superpowers has similar elements to the former film’s premise, while Bolt’s delusional belief that he can use these powers when he finds himself out in the real world also has shades of Buzz Lightyear about it. But the execution is so different here that I genuinely doubt either film was really an influence, bearing in mind that neither The Truman Show nor Toy Story were the originators of these tropes either. And while Toy Story is the superior film, Bolt’s delusional existence is explored with a lot fewer plot holes than Buzz Lightyear’s often tenuous backstory. Sometimes there’s just no getting out from under the long shadows that other films have cast but one need only dig out a copy Megamind from amongst the avalanche of Despicable Me merchandise to discover why sometimes it’s well worth the effort.
Bolt, then, becomes a sort of hybrid film that is exceptionally effective in combining satirical scenes of an Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi TV show with a folksy talking animal quest about looking for a home. There’s also some fairly savage, if not especially original, takedowns of TV execs and agents. Bolt manages to be very funny while also hitting all of its emotional beats with precision. Crucial here is the exceptional character work, something that had often become subservient to wild ideas in Disney’s 00s films. Bolt was the first film made after Disney’s acquisition of Pixar and the installation of John Lasseter and Ed Catmull in key creative roles seems to have saved Bolt from becoming another Chicken Little. Sometimes out-there ideas pay off, such as in Lilo & Stitch but, according to Catmull, when he first came to Bolt its plot had somehow come to include a radioactive Girl Scout serial killer zombie. Their response was to remove Chris Sanders, former Lilo & Stitch director and originator of the Bolt concept, from the project and replace him with Chris Williams and Byron Howard. Williams also wrote the screenplay along with Dan Fogelman. The resulting film managed to maintain an air of invention but present it in a more palatable way. There’s a fascination to the 00s Disney films that play more like a splurge of ideas than a developed story, but after the wacky double whammy of Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons it was surely time to try something a bit more grounded, lest bonkers become the new normal.
At the time of Bolt’s release much was made of its 3D presentation, which perhaps exacerbated how underrated it became in retrospect. Visually, the film still looks great but the main appeal comes from its characters. The trio of Bolt, Mittens the cynical cat and Rhino the effusive hamster makes for a strong centre but the smaller roles are what I always enjoy most, with the standouts being a group of jittery, streetwise New York pigeons and a pair of cruelly antagonistic cats who deliberately play on Bolt’s delusions. There is star power provided by John Travolta in the title role, Miley Cyrus as his co-star and would-be owner and Malcolm McDowell as pretend villain Dr. Calico, but the show is stolen by Susie Essman as Mittens, Mark Walton as Rhino, Diedrich Bader as the veteran TV cat and Lino DiSalvo, Todd Cummings and Tim Mertens as the pigeons whose shtick is highly reminiscent of Animaniacs’ Goodfeathers. Perhaps the dominance of its co-stars is reflective of why Bolt has never been quite the smash hit that subsequent Revival era films became. It is a film of small moments, gags and cameos, with its fairly standard journey narrative enhanced by these frequent pops of colour. There aren’t any big showstopping musical numbers, although Cyrus does inevitably provide a song for the soundtrack in I Thought I Lost You (a duet with Travolta, no less), and Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis provides the toe-tapping Barking at the Moon. Both have that pleasantly middle-of-the-road rootsiness that makes you feel like you’ve briefly tuned into the mainstream Country station, and they are well used as background numbers in a narrative whose theme of the blurred line between fantasy and reality would have been impossibly muddied by the characters themselves suddenly bursting into song.
Though it gave Disney a much needed shot in the arm commercially and creatively, Bolt was quickly overshadowed by films that went back to the studio’s roots with fairy tale sources and musical numbers. Nevertheless, it seems like a crucial film in helping Disney regain the ability to tell a charmingly quirky story without completely losing their grip on coherence. Bolt remains one of the great underrated Disney films, usurped in prominence by the likes of Tangled and Frozen, whose modern approach was still draped in palatably traditional garb to some extent. While kids across the land dressed as Elsa and belted out Let It Go, the little delusional white dog was forgotten. But somewhere out there are the weird kids whose corner of the playground is full of super barks and energy-sapping packing peanuts, and I emphatically salute them.