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 more 4 star films and the first of the 4.5 star classics. You can read the previous parts here:
All entries contain spoilers.
I remember when Zootopia (Zootropolis in my country, but let’s stick with its better original title) was first announced and, based on the basic concept and promotional stills alone, I instantly thought I wasn’t going to like it. “A load of talking animals in a city”, I declared, drawing on all my most sophisticated critical faculties and least judgemental tendencies, “That’s not very original is it?” I don’t know why I took such an instant disliking to the images of Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde, because it took all of about ten minutes for me to love the characters when I saw them in action. It’s probably fair to say that there is a lot about Zootopia that isn’t massively original, given that it is deliberately drawing on tropes from Police Procedural movies and Mismatched Buddy Comedies. If you can do this stuff well, as Zootopia generally does, then originality needn’t be too great a concern. But one thing Zootopia certainly is is hugely ambitious. It came out in 2016 during a time of great political and social unrest (if you can imagine such a thing) and rather that act as an escape from these nightmarish divides, Zootopia opted to tackle them head on. The film’s social conscience isn’t a sideshow either, its allegory for prejudice and corruption is front and centre and it aims to educate its younger audience members in some unpleasant areas with which they might not yet be familiar.
A lot of Zootopia’s appeal rests on how well you think its allegory works. There were many who took issue with its simplified view of systemic racism but, in a film for which the primary audience is going to be children, it seems rather small-minded not to expect some level of simplification. Then again, it could be argued that this requirement is sufficient reason not to even attempt a sassy talking-animal film about very real atrocities. And, especially in light of George Floyd’s murder several years later, a film whose happy ending involves a coded oppressed minority joining the police force might seem dated already. For my part, I think such assessments come down too hard on Zootopia. I’d say rather than providing a dangerous oversimplification, it offers an effective jumping-off point which is sufficiently palatable as an introduction to bias and prejudice without completely pulling its punches either. It may imply that police corruption is only one exposed-hoax away from being eradicated but at least it acknowledges the possibility of such corruption in the first place. It’s the sort of film that can inspire a healthy level of caution in children, rather than the counterproductive despair and cynicism that would doubtless result from hitting them with unadulterated reality all in one go.
It’s hard to dissociate Zootopia’s storytelling from its moralistic allegory because it is at the very heart of what drives the whole thing forward but, from the point of view of its other notable attributes, the film is very funny, moving and well paced, with excellent characters and strongly drawn relationships between them. The plot is well designed to deliver clever mystery elements alongside its socially conscious observations, and does so in a way that is involving without becoming convoluted. The voice cast, especially Ginnifer Goodwin as Judy and Jason Bateman as Nick, are great and the animation, in particular a train ride through Zootropolis’s various districts, is breathtakingly immersive. The world has been created with such care and attention that the film’s spin-offs and news of an upcoming sequel feel more like a necessity than a dilution. Perhaps the one element that feels a tad stale is a Godfather parody, a reference point that is exhaustingly played out, but given Zootopia’s Chinatown-esque Noir undercurrent, Coppola’s masterpiece at least feels like an era-appropriate allusion.
There’s a key point in Zootopia about how if you treat someone in line with negative stereotypes about them, they may eventually feel like there’s no point in trying to be anything other than what they are erroneously depicted as being. This is exactly why smart, relevant films aimed at children are necessary and why Zootopia’s billion dollar success is so encouraging. The film refuses to talk down to its audience, working hard to create a coherent and unpatronising metaphorical ideology and largely succeeding. If you try to map every element of Zootopia’s allegory onto its real life equivalent, you’ll find some problematic and ill-fitting comparisons (minority groups being equated with predators was the most widely criticised example) but then that was never the point of the film. Its metaphors are comparable rather than precise, providing an overview of some of the ways prejudice works without every part of the story having to be a proxy for something specific. The notion that tackling such topics in an animated film constitutes an implicit trivialisation of important issues speaks more of the critic’s own reductive prejudices against the animated medium. Those who would scoff at the idea of Zootopia as anything more profound than a talking-animal film would probably see nothing more than anthropomorphic whimsy in Animal Farm too. It seems far truer to say the fact that the horrors of societal rot have crept into children’s content is an acknowledgement of those horrors being taken deadly seriously, to the extent that nipping them in the bud seems like a far more plausible solution than tending the putrid blooms that have already outstunk the fertiliser from which they emerged.
By the time Moana came out in 2016, Disney was back on track critically and commercially. Just ten years previously they had been struggling to find a voice, with numerous experiments, ranging from interesting to weak, failing to make a lasting mark. At the time Disney was getting trounced by Pixar, something they addressed by acquiring the company. This smart move certainly seemed to rejuvenate the flagging Disney, who went on to have a string of reliably popular successes, while by the middle of the 2010s Pixar, give or take an Inside Out here and there, seemed to have degenerated into a mediocre mess of sequels, prequels and underperformers. It was as if Disney and Pixar had merged and somehow respectively fed off the best and worst of each others extremes. Moana was the fifth film in an incredible run of hits for Disney which included the blockbuster global success of Frozen. Disney releases now seemed split into two types: the heavily Pixar-influenced narratives like Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6 and Zootopia, which eschewed the fairy tale classicism and musical numbers of old, and big, shiny Disney hits like Tangled and Frozen which fully leaned into the classic Disney Renaissance bombast but with a 21st century edge. Moana belongs to that latter camp and its release just eight months after Zootopia marked a banner year for Disney, who you’d never have guessed were on the cusp of tumbling into a run of sequels and lesser efforts themselves, albeit it billion dollar ones in the case of Frozen II.
Moana was directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, two of the studio’s most interesting directors who’s work had been instrumental in the first Disney Renaissance of the late 80s and early 90s, while the screenplay was by Jared Bush who had recently had success co-writing and co-directing Zootopia and would go on to write subsequent hit Encanto. Although it hits plenty of generic Disney beats, Moana feels fresh and alive thanks to the beautiful computer animation, a great voice cast and a superb set of songs by Mark Mancina, Opetaia Foa’i and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Although it didn’t quite become as iconic as the Frozen soundtrack, I’ve always found Moana’s songs to be far superior, with Frozen’s musical reputation resting heavily on the ubiquitous Let It Go. Moana has its own equivalent rousing heroine number in the great How Far I’ll Go, which somehow lost the Oscar to La La Land’s insipid City of Stars, although personally I’d have put forward the jaunty, witty You’re Welcome for consideration instead. Still, the tonal shifts are judged perfectly, from the cosy folksiness of Where You Are through the inspirational skyrocket of How Far I’ll Go, the showy comedic narcissism of You’re Welcome and the tongue-in-cheek strangeness of Shiny. That latter number is sung by Jermaine Clement, whose performance as the preening, villainous crab Tamatoa comprehensively steals the whole film in one short scene. This is no mean feat given the brilliance of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who’s multi-faceted turn as demigod Maui is probably his best screen performance, and special mention must be made of Auli’i Cravalho upon who’s good-natured charisma the film’s success rests. Just fourteen and a newcomer to acting, she defies expectations by imbuing Moana with an innate lovability without even a sniff of the precociousness with which Disney once insisted upon in all their child characters.
Every now and then I come across that ludicrous opinion that animated films should never exceed 90 minutes in length, with some even arguing that that’s too long. Why animation is given such short shrift by these critics I have no idea, other than the well-worn, erroneous prejudice that it is entirely a children’s medium, but Moana is another of many strong cases against such nonsense. At close to two hours, Moana is never spinning its wheels, instead using the runtime to flesh out the characters and ensure that the Polynesian culture it depicts is treated with respect. Musker and Clements had fallen foul of accusations of cultural insensitivity on Aladdin, so they put in place an Oceanic Story Trust of South Pacific experts to advise on accuracy and sensitivity. This was somewhat undermined by the Disney merchandisers’ decision to create a Maui skin suit for swimming, but the product was quickly withdrawn and an apology made, which acknowledged the filmmakers’ efforts to avoid such clangers themselves. The result of this due care is that Moana largely avoided the accusations of racism that dogged previous Disney films like Pocahontas. There was talk of oversimplification in some quarters but with a family audience to accommodate, the film was largely given a pass. The extended length of Moana is crucial in allowing the complex Polynesian culture at its centre to be explored to an adequate degree, but it is also essential in allowing the story to be sufficiently set up and paid off, something with which the 71 minute runtimes of old sometimes struggled. Moana doesn’t set out on her big adventure for over half an hour, by which time we know exactly who she is and why she needs to do this, which is necessary to allow the film’s themes of identity to register as effectively as possible.
If Moana works from a fairly standard journey-of-self-discovery template, it is often more experimental in the smaller details. The episodes that punctuate her quest are quite unusual, with bling-hoarding crabs and coconut-wearing pirates being far from predictable adversaries, and if you’d been asked to lay a bet on which animal companion Moana would take with her on her adventure, I’m pretty sure 90% of people would’ve expected it to be the highly merchandisable cute piglet rather than the anarchically fucked-up chicken. Partially personifying the ocean itself is a bold and effective idea, even if the execution is occasionally reminiscent of Aladdin’s magic carpet. Maui’s anthropomorphic tattoos, beautifully traditionally animated by the legendary Eric Goldberg, are one of Moana’s most ingenious wrinkles. If there isn’t quite enough time to fully sell Maui’s transformation from essentially-murderous narcissist to self-aware good guy (it’s done through a fairly hackneyed moment of emotional revelation. Spoiler: his parents didn’t love him), the route taken is in keeping with the established themes, and Maui himself remains an interesting character. If only there’d been more time to explore his motivations more deeply, but then Moana is a long film already and the filmmakers rightly opted to keep Moana as the primary focus, which is part of the reason why Pua the piglet’s camera-hogging role was significantly reduced.
In many ways Moana feels like the culmination of the Disney Revival era. Though at the time of writing no-one has declared the Revival era dead, the uncharacteristic recycling of Ralph Breaks the Internet and Frozen II and the box office bomb of Strange World certainly seem to indicate downturns in several areas. But Moana endures as a crowdpleaser for both the generation of kids whose childhoods it will help shape and the adults who are delighted to have something of quality to watch with their offspring or, for those who correctly see animation as the underrated art form that it is, on their own. When Disney released their 2021 film Raya and the Last Dragon, it ended up being named as the third most streamed film of the year. The first was Pixar’s 2021 release Luca, and the second, just above Raya and half a decade after its initial release, was Moana. That ought to tell us something.
18. SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs comes with a lot of intimidating baggage. As the first of Disney’s feature-length animations (though not quite the first animated feature. Check out The Adventures of Prince Achmed by Lotte Reiniger for the oldest surviving example of that) it holds a very important place in the canon. It is a film that shocked the world in the best way, with derisive members of the industry who dubbed it “Disney’s Folly” being silenced by its universal critical and commercial success. It is also very clearly a work of great beauty and intricacy. You might think an animated film from 1937 would be showing signs of age by now but, as a labour of love into which Walt Disney clearly poured his heart, it remains one of the most sumptuous visual experiences in the whole Disney catalogue. A viewing of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs comes with the weight of history behind it, which enhances the experience further for those who can put themselves in the shoes of the era’s audiences. It is even more interesting for animation enthusiasts like myself who have watched the Silly Symphony shorts that had clearly been building towards something bigger, with seven-minute masterpieces like The Old Mill used as testing grounds for the ambitious techniques that would contribute to Snow White’s innovative style.
When it comes to ranking Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs though, I’ve found myself in a bit of a quandary. For all its visual glory and its groundbreaking, influential splendour, the film itself is so light on plot that it becomes a little bit wearing across an 83 minute runtime. There’s always another fantastic sequence around the corner but sometimes the distance between those corners feels exhaustingly lengthy. This de-emphasis on plot is not uncommon in some of the early Disney films but with Bambi the studio achieved a balance with strong themes and heightened realism, whereas Snow White leans very heavily on light whimsy for its appeal. The fact that all of this gentle comedy focuses exclusively on the domestic antics of the dwarfs means there’s a forty minute stretch in the middle in the film that alternately delights and bores. Disney would move towards a greater variety in their subsequent films, with Pinocchio and Dumbo’s adventures moving at a much greater clip through a variety of tones and settings. While watching Snow White I grew tired of being stuck in and around the dwarfs’ cottage and, while every sequence showcases an amazing attention to detail in its small gags and impeccable character beats, the sugary sweet vignettes about hand-washing and goodbye kisses are far more effective when taken separately than when they are stacked end-to-end. It gets so that the brief interjections from the Wicked Queen become a blessed relief.
But when Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is working, it’s really working. The slower pacing gives the better sequences a real sense of breathing space and when the film offers more variety it’s an absolute joy. Two of Larry Morey and Frank Churchill’s most effective songs, Whistle While You Work and Heigh-Ho, arrive back-to-back and the contrast between the former’s cute scenes of woodland animals doing chores and the latter’s more gag-based, though no less visually ravishing, scenes of the dwarfs heading home from work makes for one of the film’s most enjoyable stretches. Other ingenious sequences abound early in the film, from Snow White duetting with herself using a wishing well’s echo, to her nightmarish escape through a darkened forest. Walt Disney’s love of German Expressionist Horror films The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu is evident in their influence on this scene and other Horror-inflected moments, with the justly legendary animation of the Queen’s transformation into an old crone also drawing from Rouben Mamoulian’s classic 1931 film version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Moments like this one and the Dwarfs frenzied climactic rush to rescue Snow White keep the energy up but they are too infrequent to fully excuse that long stretch in the film’s middle, which has all the forward drive of a national lockdown. During these scenes, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs feels like its heroine in her transparent coffin: a thing of beauty under glass that is easy to admire but more difficult to connect with.
For all its extended lulls though, the magic of that pioneering mastery of the artform never goes away. If you can tune into the craft rather than search vainly for a plot, the scenes of the Dwarfs adjusting to Snow White’s presence and gradually falling in love with her never falter in their minute attention to detail and genuine affection for the characters. The naming of the dwarfs ultimately played a big part in defining their individual personalities and some of them register more strongly than others. Sleepy, for instance, doesn’t have that great a character hook and his semi-somnambulistic antics barely justify the use of that descriptor. Sneezy is livelier but has a one-note gimmick where his personality should be. Fortunately, Doc, Dopey and Grumpy are more than well-realised enough to carry the whole septet and, while Dopey became the breakout success, it is Grumpy who stands out for me. His scepticism over allowing Snow White to stay makes his journey towards adoration more compelling than that of his easily-won-over companions. Pinto Colvig absolutely nails the voice characterisation too. Colvig was best known as the voice of Goofy, although interestingly he is now also credited with making what is currently thought to be the earliest feature length animated film, the lost Creation from 1915.
The voice work for the non-dwarf characters in Snow White is a mixed bag. Though some felt that Lucille La Verne sounded too old to voice the Wicked Queen, she strikes the perfect note of stately cold-bloodedness, with the added bonus that her advanced age allowed her to remove her false teeth when she was portraying the old crone. Harry Stockwell (father of Dean) struggles to bring any discernible personality to what is probably Disney’s blandest Prince. But the main bone of contention is Adriana Caselotti as Snow White. Walt apparently wanted the character to have an otherworldly quality and so cast the shrill-toned Caselotti but her undeniably odd voice is sometimes a chore to listen to, especially when she’s singing. I find With a Smile and a Song painful to listen to, with Caselotti’s tremulous trilling sounding like a pensioner undergoing torture. Whistle While You Work has a strong enough melody to overcome this problem but otherwise Caselotti’s singing proves to be another unavoidable pitfall that slightly detracts from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ once bulletproof reputation.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs monumental place in the canon of both Disney and animation in general makes it worthy of the continued attention it receives but the lukewarm reception it gets from those more used to Disney’s later, pacier offerings is neither surprising nor incorrect. The film’s place at the top end of lists of the most important animated films ever made is inarguable but given that cinema itself was still in its infancy when the film originally came out, changes in audience expectations are inevitable. For all my complaints though, it’s amazing just how well Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has weathered the storm. It still belongs in that upper tier of Disney classics but it is a film that perhaps works best for animation enthusiasts and very young children, two demographics which, at heart, have a glorious sense of spiritual overlap.
Cinderella was a very important film for Disney. After eight years of producing episodic “package films”, it was to be the first Disney animated feature since Bambi based around a single storyline across its entire runtime. After the war caused a loss of connections to European markets, Disney had been propped up by government-commissioned propoganda and the cheaper package features which he famously compared to “mashed potatoes and gravy” rather than the “caviar” of the Golden Age films. But a return to artistic prestige wasn’t the only driving force behind Disney’s decision to put more ambitious narratives back into production. The losses of big budget films like Pinocchio and Bambi had left the Disney studio on the brink of bankruptcy and Walt had convinced his debtors that a return to full-length narrative features was his only recourse. With Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan all already at the development stage, Disney wisely felt that Cinderella, with its superficial similarities to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was the best bet for the mega-hit he needed, placing his top tier animators on the project. While production of Alice in Wonderland ran concurrently, Walt’s instincts proved to be correct. That film’s cold surreality would prove divisive with critics and audiences, making an initial million dollar loss, whereas Cinderella’s comfortingly familiar fairy tale classicism immediately resulted in the box office gold that was required. This 75 minute film essentially saved the Disney studio, allowing the production of a whole slate of films, both animated and live action, to begin, not to mention a move into TV and the construction of Disneyland to get underway.
For such a phenomenally important film, Cinderella has a fairly modest place in the Disney canon. It is seen as the instigator of what became known as Disney’s Silver Age, a name that acknowledges quality while backhandedly suggesting that the films involved are implicitly inferior to those first five Golden Age classics. Of course, the likes of Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp were not as groundbreaking as Snow White and Fantasia, but it is important to remember that it was Disney who broke that ground in the first place, and that there is arguably as much value in finding a way to harness that newly-established excellence within a medium into something sustainable but no less lovingly crafted. Cinderella, then, is not as visually breathtaking as Snow White, but in terms of storytelling and pacing I think it is the better film. If this process of ranking the Disney classics, in which I have rated The Emperor’s New Groove higher than Pinocchio and Fantasia lower than Oliver and Company, has taught me anything, it’s that entertainment value in animated films counts for at least as much as visual artistry. Fortunately, Cinderella displays a mastery of both, with its aspirations to greatness combining with the necessity for economy to create a nimble, charming and concise concoction.
Modern audiences returning to Cinderella may find its structure rather curious. This already comparatively short film spends a lot of its early stages focusing more on the rivalry between an evil cat named Lucifer and the mice living in Cinderella’s family chateaux and those familiar with the basics of the source fairy tale may wonder why it takes the Fairy Godmother a full forty-five minutes to show up. But this apparent Act One wheel-spinning ultimately proves to be an ingenious method of setting up Cinderella’s domestic misery, with the feline oppression of her mouse pals acting as a microcosmic metaphor for how Cinders herself is bullied and suppressed by the wicked stepmother and stepsisters at whose mercy her father’s death has left her. The connection between Cinderella and the mice is highlighted by the way in which they aid each other’s existence and this eventually becomes a crucial factor in the plot, although always kept subtextual and presented as purely entertaining cat-and-mouse slapstick. The two main mice, Jaq and Gus, are wonderful creations, communicating in a high-pitched, broken English which is easily understandable but has a hint of a toddler’s early steps towards mastery of language. Their battles with Lucifer keep the momentum of the early scenes high, as the gloomy details of Cinderella’s domestic captivity are subtly sprinkled between the chases.
If Cinderella’s setup is artful, its main story is played out with a few more bumps in the road. Its songs, including the Oscar-nominated trifle Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo, are unmemorable, with A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes feeling like the nauseating result of an unsuccessful attempt to write something as captivating as When You Wish Upon a Star. This ends up benefiting the film to some degree, as the songs are casually tossed off in a way that rarely causes the action to grind to a halt. Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo and The Work Song serve as effective facilitators of delightful scenes, while the repetitive Oh, Sing Sweet Nightingale is merely a backdrop for one of the film’s most impressive visual moments, an idly hummed melody accompanying tedious work as Cinderella’s scrubbing sees her drifting away in the refraction of multiple bubbles. Less easy to excuse is the complete blandness of the Prince. Bland is actually a kind word for this character, and character is probably a misnomer. We barely see him throughout the film and on the few occasions we do he is either a complete nonentity or actually a bit of a jerk. Though officially known as Prince Charming, he fails to live up to this title by openly yawning in the faces of women in whom he has no romantic interest (and therefore, it seems, no interest whatsoever). It makes it hard to root for the negligible romance as anything but a potential escape route from Cinderella’s domestic shackles, although there’s a horrible sense that there are more waiting to be applied by this entitled Royal Nothingness. Cinderella is also peppered with a few bits of dubious humour. There’s a very definite implication at one point that the sweet and kind Cinders is about to batter hell out of the cat with a broomstick. It’s something of a shock when that same cat later becomes another in the long list of Disney baddies to fall to their deaths. The King, who tasks the Grand Duke with ensuring the Prince proposes to Cinderella, spends an entire scene trying to kill him with a sword when he fails in that task. While Cinderella’s stepmother is punished with humiliation for the imprisonment of her stepchild, the King’s murderous endeavours are rewarded with a kiss on the forehead from his new daughter-in-law and, presumably, the grandchildren he so desperately longs for but should clearly not be allowed anywhere near.
For all its flaws though, Cinderella is a film free from flab. What initially appear to be time-filling tangents ultimately pay off as emotional groundwork, with a fantastic final act hinging on the relationship between Cinderella and the mice. Their desperate drive to free Cinders from a locked attic room is peppered with twists and turns that enhance the original story and create a race against the clock with as many tense obstacles as that final Back to the Future set-piece. It is during this frantic finish that you realise just how well Cinderella has set up its players and their roles. The Prince, tellingly, is absent completely but the Grand Duke asserts himself as one of the film’s best characters, his pomposity, balanced by the ignominy of toiling under a tyrannical authority figure, beautifully captured in Milt Kahl’s exemplary character animation. I’d like to see the cut where Cinderella marries him instead. I mean, the Prince does literally nothing to find his supposed lost-love except issue a decree and wait. Even better, let’s see the version where Cinderella doesn’t marry anyone. After all, the poster’s promise that this is a love story is only verifiable in the love between Cinderella and her mice friends. Still, that’s not how these old Fairy Tales work and within those parameters Cinderella is a great retelling of the story with superb additions from Disney, efficiently wrapped up in 75 minutes to the immense satisfaction of most audience members. As a kick-off for the Silver Age, Cinderella was a promising sign of a rejuvenated, focused studio at something close to their best.
16. THE JUNGLE BOOK
The Jungle Book has long been enshrined in my head as one of the great Disney classics and in many respects it deserves that title. The beautiful, painterly jungle backgrounds, the evocative character animation, vivid voicework by an excellent cast and a set of the most memorable songs ever to grace a Disney film are all arguments in its favour. So I was surprised to find on this rewatch that there is also something curiously unsatisfying about the film. It is far more episodic than I recalled and while each scene generally has something to recommend it, they’re not threaded together with anything like a strong enough thematic throughline. The main thrust of the story is the panther Bagheera’s attempts to return the “man cub” Mowgli to the “Man village”, ostensibly because of the threat posed by the return of the tiger Shere Khan to the jungle. However, during their journey it becomes clear that Bagheera also feels Mowgli belongs “with his own kind”, a hard message to translate into a real world equivalent without running into problematic connotations. In trying to explain it to Baloo the bear, Bagheera says “You wouldn’t marry a panther”, although their chummy boogie off into the horizon together suggests it’s fine for him to be best mates with one. Mowgli doesn’t really learn anything on his journey, his return to the Man village ultimately facilitated by his irresistible fascination with a young girl he sees there. So what’s the moral? Playas gon’ play? I think it’s best to avoid looking for a relevant life lesson in The Jungle Book and just take it for the series of often very entertaining vignettes that it is. Yet the fact that the film itself seems keen to impart some wisdom but unsure exactly what that wisdom is ultimately leaves a frustrating hole where the heart should be.
But who needs heart when you’ve got rhythm, eh? Come on, let’s get with the beat! The Jungle Book’s major trump card is its music, with six great songs providing a strong musical drive throughout that had, in truth, been lacking in Disney films since the early 40s. The Jungle Book’s swinging modern soundtrack was mostly the work of the legendary Sherman Brothers, who wrote five of the six songs, but the highlight is the Oscar-nominated The Bare Necessities which was written by Terry Gilkyson. This clever, upbeat, infectious number is among Disney’s most beloved songs and it is given an extra leg-up by the performance of Phil Harris who barely puts a paw wrong in his performance as the avuncular Baloo, whether he’s singing or not. Almost as well-loved is I Wanna Be Like You, a song sung by the ape King Louie who became controversial when it was suggested he and other monkeys were racist stereotypes. I’ve never really considered this the case and reportedly Disney scrapped the idea of casting Louis Armstrong when they became worried about just such an unintended implication. Instead, Louis Prima took the role and does a magnificent job. But I’ve always put I Wanna Be Like You lower down the list of The Jungle Book’s greatest songs, preferring the eerily malevolent lullaby of Trust in Me and the Merseybeat Barbershop of That’s What Friends Are For.
If the music stands out, there are plenty of other things to recommend The Jungle Book. If the plotting is a bit haphazard and the story thin, the film is kept afloat by its strong characters. Only the man cub Mowgli is comparatively bland but he is consistently paired with various mentors and predators who keep things lively: the stuffy but well-meaning Bagheera, the laidback party animal Baloo, the militaristic pachyderm Colonel Hathi, the slimily manipulative snake Kaa, the ferocious but droll tiger Shere Khan. Only the vultures, based on The Beatles but voiced by an assortment of British actors as well as Chad Stuart from the fleetingly successful Pop duo Chad & Jeremy, emerge as a bit annoying (and they get a great song to make up for that). The character work is so strong that The Jungle Book’s highlights are the moments where the action slows down to allow them to interact. My favourite scene of the film is a nighttime heart-to-heart in which Bagheera convinces Baloo that Mowgli needs to leave the jungle. It is gently intense but unsentimental, animated with acutely effective attention to detail, and it fleshes out both characters in the immediate aftermath of a frenzied slapstick sequence, providing a perfect contrast. Another excellent one-on-one comes by way of Kaa’s run in with Shere Khan. It’s a witty, beautifully realised scene which plays complex games with audience expectations. Here are two villains, both of whom want to kill Mowgli, and we are forced into the position of siding with one of them by virtue of the other’s slightly greater evil. In both scenes the voice actors thrive: Sebastian Cabot and Phil Harris in their bruised humanism and George Sanders and Sterling Holloway in their edgy deceptions. Holloway in particular is an inspired piece of casting. It might’ve seemed like an odd choice to pick the whimsical voice of Winnie the Pooh for Kaa but it emerges as his finest role, increasing both the comedy and the air of disturbing incongruity.
Coming as it does from an era when Disney were using several cost-cutting techniques, there are moments in The Jungle Book that look a tad less polished than I remembered. I generally don’t mind the Xeroxography style originated in One Hundred and One Dalmatians but eagle-eyed Disney lovers will also no doubt spot instances of reused animation cycles, such as the monkey scene’s appropriation of moments from The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Some of the gags in this scene come off as awkwardly timed, perhaps exacerbated by the incorporation of rhythm-breaking pre-existing material. Still, for all its shortcomings The Jungle Book largely looks splendid and there are moments of real invention, like Kaa’s slowed-down slither after his body is contorted, accompanied by a wheezing accordion sound. With small, ingenious moments like this abounding, a plethora of memorable characters constantly onscreen and a killer musical number never far around the corner, The Jungle Book evades the negative influence of its rather inconsequential narrative to emerge as a wonderfully enjoyable, light-hearted feature that more than warrants a mention alongside the Disney classics.
15. LILO & STITCH
Lilo & Stitch was first conceived in 1997 during a creative retreat for Disney executives. Executive Vice President Thomas Schumacher wanted to make a film he described as “Dumbo for our generation”, by which he meant a more modest, charmingly small-scale creation to offset the big budget films in which Disney were currently specialising. Storyboard artist Chris Sanders was favoured as the creative force for the new project and, digging back into his pre-Disney archives, Sanders recalled a creature he’d invented for a potential children’s book. The book didn’t ultimately come together but the little alien, Stitch, had never quite left Sanders’ mind. Nobody gets left behind or forgotten!
By the time Lilo & Stitch came to fruition, Disney’s big budget hits were starting to falter at the box office and more unusual fare like The Emperor’s New Groove, Brother Bear and Home on the Range was starting to become the norm. The advertising campaign for Lilo & Stitch deliberately set it up as a sort of attic-bound stepchild in the Disney canon, with classic characters like Ariel, Belle and the Beast reacting to Stitch with revulsion in the ingenious teaser trailers. Ironically then, Lilo & Stitch became one of the biggest Disney hits of the period, its oddness setting the tone for the forthcoming decade rather than making it stand out as a modest anomaly. The key to Lilo & Stitch’s success was that it took a strange story and told it with considerable heart and strong, focused storytelling. By contrast, Disney’s big budget hope of the time, Treasure Planet, took a tried and tested classic narrative and mangled it through a half-baked Sci-fi lens. Lilo & Stitch was a pre-mangled Sci-fi mess punched into shape through a smart production process. It may have inspired Disney to wrongly think that outlandish ideas, rather than skilful execution, was the way forward, but Lilo & Stitch was proof of what a unique little gem you could end up with if you had both.
The story of a genetic aberration created by an amoral alien scientist with no other purpose than to cause destruction and disruption, Lilo & Stitch begins with a fast and funny, ten minute Sci-fi prologue in which Stitch (or Experiment 626, as he is initially known) escapes his captors and heads for Hawaii in a stolen spaceship. Given that Earth is being used by the aliens as a protected wildlife preserve to rebuild the endangered mosquito population, destruction of the planet is out of the question. Instead, the Galactic Federation offers Stitch’s imprisoned creator, Jumba, his freedom if he can bring back his rogue creation. Having set up one of Disney’s most unusual storylines, Lilo & Stitch then shelves it for the following ten minutes in order to set up its more grounded plot about two sisters, Nani and Lilo, trying to get by as a family in the aftermath of their parents’ deaths. Nani struggles to hold down a job and keep track of her wayward sister, an oddball outcast who longs for a friend who understands her. They are under constant surveillance by Cobra Bubbles, the intimidatingly Men-in-Black-esque Social Worker in charge of their case. Though mired in tragedy and driven by a high stakes threat to a charmingly dysfunctional family unit, this second prologue of sorts is told with just as much energy and humour as its space-based predecessor. These two disparate strands are then pulled together expertly by way of the film’s themes of outcasts and family, allowing for both hijinks and pathos to shine without a hint of trivialisation or manipulation.
If Lilo & Stitch benefits from great storytelling, it also thrives on brilliant character work. The ugly-but-still-somehow-cute Stitch was understandably foregrounded in advertising, but it quickly becomes apparent that Lilo and Nani are just as compellingly drawn and their relationship even more captivating than that of the titular pairing. Frozen would later be celebrated for focusing primarily on the relationship between two sisters but here is an earlier and arguably more effective example of that. Comic duo Jumba and Pleakley are a little more broadly drawn, although this is a necessary concession which prevents them encroaching too heavily on the narrative until their required climactic intervention. Only David, the blandly nice-guy boyfriend material for Nani, comes across as largely deletable, especially after his response to Nani saying she owes him one for helping her get a job is “You can just date me and we’ll call it even.” David, dude! Even as a joke, not cool!
The voice work all round is excellent, with Chris Sanders himself instantly iconic as Stitch, Daveigh Chase adorable but never cloying as Lilo, Tia Carrerre showing a deft ability to switch between comic and dramatic beats at a moment’s notice and Zoe Caldwell deliciously despairing as the alien Grand Councilwoman. The film’s secret weapon is Ving Rhames as the ex-CIA Social Worker Cobra Bubbles. A very different part was originally conceived for Jeff Goldblum but when he was unavailable and Rhames stepped in, the part was retooled to fit the actor and it ended up resulting in an inspired creation. Rhames is hilariously deadpan, intimidating and ultimately sweet. He serves as an interesting antagonist, in that his concern for Lilo based on the chaos he is always inopportunely there to witness is not unwarranted and his attempts to come between the family are all born of a genuine desire to protect the child. This cleverly conflicting function is perfectly reflected in the character’s numerous contradictions, from his imposing stature and tender intentions to a name which juxtaposes threatening and whimsical imagery.
Setting Lilo & Stitch in Hawaii is an ingenious move, allowing for events of incredible intergalactic magnitude to play out in comparative isolation, leaving the rest of the world none the wiser. It also means that the film is lovely to look at, with Sanders and co-director Dean DeBlois opting to use the old fashioned technique of painted watercolour backgrounds in order to capture the island’s bright, hazy allure. A pleasing nostalgia is also introduced through a soundtrack of Elvis Presley hits, with Lilo’s love of The King being a delightfully quirky character wrinkle and the toe-tapping Rock ‘n’ Roll energy perfectly suiting the film’s vibrant forward drive. All these bold decisions paid off, with Lilo & Stitch becoming a hit and the source of numerous spin-off films and series. If its influence also seemed to result in half a decade’s worth of peculiar Disney films attempting to out-quirk it with critically and creatively unsuccessful results, Lilo & Stitch still stands as one of Disney’s great triumphs of the 00s.
14. THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE
Off the back of the financial disaster of The Black Cauldron, which put the future of Disney’s animation department in serious jeopardy, the studio fortunately scored a hit in the shape of The Great Mouse Detective, a delightful adaptation of Eve Titus’s series of Basil of Baker Street novels. The debut directorial work of key Disney Renaissance players Ron Clements and John Musker, The Great Mouse Detective is an excellent take on Sherlock Holmes by way of the mouse sleuth who lives in the walls of Sherlock’s house. Basil is named after Basil Rathbone, who famously played Holmes in a series of films for 20th Century Fox and Universal. Through the magic of previous voice recordings, Rathbone also cameos as Holmes here, nineteen years after his death. Unfortunately, while Basil retained his name above the title in the UK, Disney CEO Michael Eisner was spooked by the box office failure of Paramount’s underrated Young Sherlock Holmes and felt that it sounded too British, changing the original title Basil of Baker Street to the blunter The Great Mouse Detective. The new title was the subject of much mockery by Disney staff, with animator Ed Gombert coming up with a memo renaming Disney classics in the same bland manner. Seven Little Men Help a Girl, The Little Deer Who Grew Up and Two Dogs Fall in Love are my particular favourites.
But if Eisner’s repackaging of Basil made it sound less appealing, fortunately audiences were drawn in by the film’s winsome concept, attractive visual style and magnetic charm that was clear from trailers, or even posters, alone. Although a movie about crime-fighting mice would seem to invite comparisons with The Rescuers, the film’s London setting more readily evokes One Hundred and One Dalmatians. While that film’s stylised contemporary capital is quite different from The Great Mouse Detective’s Noirish, rain-soaked Victorian equivalent, both films are greatly enhanced by that sense of place and atmosphere. The Great Mouse Detective’s pre-credits sequence sets up its dark-side brilliantly, with a terrifying jump scare in which the villainous, peg-legged bat Fidget bursts through some shutters and his scowling face fills the entire screen. Fidget, a brilliant combination of a frightening and comedic villain, pops up twice more in this fashion throughout the film, keeping the audience entertainingly on edge. He is voiced by industry legend Candy Candido, in his final and what was said to be his favourite role. But Candido is upstaged by The Great Mouse Detective’s main villain, Professor Ratigan, which is no slur on Candido given that Ratigan is voiced by Vincent Price. When Price is involved, generally the best thing to do is to let him have the stage, and his instantly recognisable voice makes the preening, narcissistic Ratigan a constant joy to watch. The film pulls no punches when it comes to his villainy. His theme song, The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind, references the fact he has drowned widows and orphans, and the song is put temporarily on hold when he punishes a cute, red-nosed little mouse henchman by summoning an enormous cat to eat him.
Aside from The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind, there are very few songs in The Great Mouse Detective. The surprisingly raunchy Let Me Be Good to You and the forgettable Goodbye So Soon both occur as part of the narrative and are not really given centre stage. This is for the best however, since The Great Mouse Detective has very particular pacing which mirrors the methodical investigation of a Holmes mystery. Some viewers may find the action somewhat slow, given that the rhythm is set by the eccentric but fastidious Basil, but lovers of Sherlock Holmes will no doubt appreciate the deliberate tension and immersive atmosphere. Barrie Ingham is perfect as Basil, infusing an impetuous nature with just a hint of the narcissism of his nemesis, balanced by the good natured stuffiness of Val Bettin’s Dawson. The investigation does build to a few dramatic peaks, with a great scene in which Basil and Dawson must try and escape a multi-faceted mousetrap, and an unforgettable finale in which Basil and Ratigan battle it out amongst the cogs of Big Ben. The giant revolving gears were rendered using the first significant example of CGI in a Disney film and they still look great to this day.
If The Great Mouse Detective has a flaw, it is the rather weak premise for its central mystery: Professor Ratigan’s kidnapping of a toy maker to create a robotic replica of the Queen that he can then control, having kidnapped the real monarch. Given what an effective air of ominous dread the film builds up, this storyline feels just a bit too silly, especially given the rickety phoniness of the royal replica. There are a couple of nice little moments of clue-solving here and there but The Great Mouse Detective would’ve surely benefited from a stronger central mystery to supplement its triumphs of mood and intermittent adventurous flourishes. Still, the film is never less than entertaining, is often gripping and manages to combine the prestige air of classic Disney with the lively scrappiness of the wonderful animated TV shows they were making at around this same time and which I grew up watching. The Great Mouse Detective is comparatively overlooked these days but after the Black Cauldron debacle it was instrumental in reinstating confidence in Disney animation, something on which its directors Musker and Clements would soon capitalise when their next film, The Little Mermaid, took the studio stratospheric.
Pinocchio was Disney’s second animated feature, arriving approximately two years after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had taken the world by storm. The film was received warmly by critics, most of whom said it was even better than its predecessor, but the fact that World War II had cut off European and Asian markets meant Pinocchio struggled to recoup its costs, contributing to the dire straits in which the Disney studio would soon find itself. But this gloomy start to Pinocchio’s story does not do justice to what an important, beloved classic the film eventually became. Not only did Pinocchio knock up the ambition of Disney’s storytelling a notch, it introduced levels of peril that are testament to the fact that it was intended for family audiences rather than just children, a common misconception regarding these early animated films from before the specifically child-focused demographic really existed. The audacity of attempting something as complex as the water effects that dominate the film’s final act is incredible for 1940, especially since the gamble paid off and the sequence still looks exceptional to this day. After Snow White’s sparse plot, Pinocchio is packed with event, with the little puppet and his cricket conscience flitting from adventure to adventure, with no less that five different villains to make their journey an arduous one. Some have suggested that Pinocchio is overstuffed but the way it builds its vignettes into an overarching life lesson makes for a cohesively structured and unforgettable experience.
Despite the fact that it packs so much into 90 minutes, in places Pinocchio still has that agreeable leisurely pace of Golden Age Disney that sometimes takes fans of the more recent films off guard. Drifting in on the laidback strains of When You Wish Upon a Star (a classic Disney ballad which I’ve always greatly preferred to those similar, celebrated but dreary standards Over the Rainbow and White Christmas from around the same time), Pinocchio begins with a beautifully atmospheric sequence in Geppetto’s workshop in which the elderly wood-carver makes that fateful wish that his newly-created puppet were a real boy. There’s a lovely, late-night cosiness to these scenes, as everyone beds down for the night and the magic begins to work around them. It may surprise some to discover that, in a film that picks up such considerable pace, these gentle introductory scenes last a full third of the runtime. But far from becoming insufferable, they are perfectly placed and timed to establish the warmth of the central characters and the idyll of their insular life, before the corrupting effects of the big, bad world make this peaceful existence seem almost impossible to recapture. From the moment he first walks out of the door to the time he eventually makes it home, Pinocchio is in constant peril, and prefacing those disturbing adventures with the sweetly languorous workshop scenes creates an essential juxtaposition.
The many dangers of the world are encapsulated by Pinocchio’s rogues gallery of villains, who range from comedic to genuinely terrifying. But even the comic villains Honest John and Gideon, an opportunistic Fox and Cat, are at heart terrifying. For all Honest John’s amusing patter and Gideon’s mute antics, they are a classic example of groomers, with Honest John using his charisma and persuasiveness to repeatedly trap Pinocchio in cycles of abuse. Walter Catlett does a superb job of keeping all this subtextual by emphasising the comedy inherent in John’s gift of the gab. Gideon was originally a speaking character and industry legend Mel Blanc, responsible for the majority of the Looney Tunes voices, actually recorded all the dialogue for him. Ultimately it was decided that Gideon would be a silent character, a wise move given the need to balance out the verbosity of Honest John, allowing for visual gags to offset what would otherwise have been very dialogue heavy scenes. All that remains of Blanc’s performance in the finished film is a solitary hiccup.
Honest John and Gideon ultimately pass off Pinocchio to two other, more overtly threatening baddies: Stromboli, who imprisons Pinocchio in a cage and threatens to chop him into firewood when he ceases to be useful, and the Coachman who runs an operation that leads impressionable boys astray and then traffics them as beasts of burden. The fact that both villains’ treatments of Pinocchio are implicitly linked to the experiences of animals at the hands of human masters preempts the humane attitudes of Bambi by way of a surprisingly cynical attitude to humans that would find its clearest exemplifier in that film’s unseen villain “Man.” But, by contrast, Pinocchio’s final and most effective villain is not human at all. Monstro the whale is a gargantuan, imposing force of nature whose survivalist instincts would not be entertained in the creation of Bambi’s hunters. If Pinocchio’s run-ins with the worst of humanity (or anthropomorphic animal equivalents) suggest a world filled with dangerous people, the desperate bid to escape the confines of Monstro’s belly make an equally forceful case about the dangers of nature which, again, would not be entertained in Bambi’s idealistic woodland. The fact that none of Pinocchio’s villains receive any comeuppance is unusual for a Disney film (or any film of this era under the oppressive Hays Code) but it means that the film’s uncompromising worldview hits even harder.
For a film with such a dark underbelly, the music of Pinocchio may seem disproportionately merry. Aside from the iconic When You Wish Upon a Star, a thing of loveliness destined to become the iconic theme tune of the Disney brand, there’s the happy-go-lucky Give a Little Whistle, the boisterous jocularity of Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee and the sprightly show tune I’ve Got No Strings. But again, scratch the surface of these compositions and you’ll see the darkness underneath. Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee is the deceptive tune that Honest John uses to tempt vulnerable children, Pied-Piper-like, off the path of righteousness, while the themes of freedom in I’ve Got No Strings become instantly ironic when Pinocchio is subsequently thrown into a cage and told he’ll only be let out intermittently to perform that very number. Whether you take them at face value or appreciate their darker undertones, the songs from Pinocchio are wonderful compositions and the film became the first animated feature to win a competitive Academy Award, with Oscars going to both its score by Leigh Harline, Paul Smith and Ned Washington, and to Washington and Harline’s When You Wish Upon a Star, which continues to charm audiences to this day.
Whatever else you might say about Pinocchio (and I do have a few issues which I’ll get to), it’s hard to imagine anyone faulting its terrific animation. Like all the Golden Age Disney films, Pinocchio is sumptuous to look at, with its alternate atmospheres of cosy domesticity and terrifying threat captured to perfection. While both are crucial to the film’s appeal, it is the latter that tends to stay with most viewers. Scenes like the transformation into a donkey of the wayward Lampwick are unforgettably frightening, using Horror conventions like shadows or sudden bursts of movement and sound to completely sell the chills. The fact that we never return to the fate of the boys transformed into donkeys has troubled many over the years but, despite the Coachman’s profit on their misfortune, the implication that they make jackasses of themselves is crucial to the metaphor in a way that the mere overthrow of their exploiter could not turn around. The donkey scene is a tough act to follow but the film manages it with the extraordinary sequences set at sea. Monstro the whale is an indelible creation in that he looks like no other Disney creation, not only by dint of his massiveness but also in his strange, caricatured sneer. Terry Gilliam has long been a vocal fan of Pinocchio and Monstro looks for all the world like one of Gilliam’s own disturbing animated creations transplanted into a classic Disney setting, a butt-ugly cutout in an opulently realised world. It’s not just the scary scenes that are effective though. The beautiful, ethereal effects used to realise the Blue Fairy are superb and totally sell the magic of the character the moment she appears.
I was fully expecting to rate Pinocchio the full 5 stars and there’s still a large part of me that thinks it probably deserves that. But there were parts of the film that ultimately prevented me from doing so. There are corner-cutting conveniences in the storytelling, such as granting Jiminy Cricket the ability to breathe underwater just so he can appear in a scene set under the sea, or the ludicrous suggestion that Geppetto took not only his cat but his goldfish along on his quest to find Pinocchio. I suppose the implication is he had no-one who could look after them and didn’t know how long he’d be away, but the idea of him stumbling around with a bowl under his arm stretches credibility and when Pinocchio finds the three of them inside Monstro, the overwhelming impression is that Disney knew the characters of Figaro and Cleo would be popular with audiences and wanted to cram them into as many scenes as possible, whether plausible or not. These are, of course, nitpicks that I could easily overlook in the face of Pinocchio’s visual magnificence, but there are a couple of issues of character that just prevent the film from getting full marks from me. Pinocchio himself, in the original story by Carlo Collodi, is a rude and ungrateful brat who murders the cricket character with a mallet and it was felt that remaining true to this version of the character would result in too unlikeable a protagonist. But in sweetening Pinocchio, Disney went too far in the other direction. The lessons the story attempts to teach hinge on Pinocchio making bad choices and learning from his mistakes but Disney’s version of the character is so malleable that he has no agency at all. The scenes of his manipulation by Honest John just show him being railroaded in a way that gives him no option to choose an alternate path. His extreme naïvety allows for no decision making on his part. Jiminy Cricket was introduced to tackle this flaw to some extent but he gives up far too easily, mostly just standing on the sidelines making folksy interjections.
Which brings me to my other, more controversial problem with Pinocchio… I’m not the biggest Jiminy Cricket fan. This character was enormously popular, to the extent that he was brought back numerous times in future productions like Fun and Fancy Free and Mickey’s Christmas Carol. Cliff Edward’s voice work certainly brings an appealing charm to Jiminy and he has some wonderful lines (“What does an actor want with a conscience anyway?”) but there are times when it seems every event in any given scene has to be followed by a cutaway to the cricket’s reaction, to the extent that it starts to slow the film down. Too much emphasis is placed on the character, so that the pivotal dramatic conclusion of Pinocchio becoming a real boy feels almost overshadowed by Jiminy being rewarded with a gold badge, which is the actual beat on which the film ends. Disney got very good at these little-helper characters and Jiminy Cricket is often considered the quintessential example, but as both a travelling companion and a fourth-wall breaker he is given too much sway over the dominant tone. I much prefer his grittier Bronx variation, Timothy the Mouse, from the subsequent Dumbo.
They may have cost it half a star in my rating but Pinocchio’s flaws are almost negligible in the face of its achievements. Were it not for some of the even better Disney productions out there, I’d almost certainly have overlooked them completely. But given that I’ve tasked myself with ranking the Disney films I’m going to be strict and deem Pinocchio a 4.5 star classic: perhaps not the level of perfection I was expecting but top tier Disney for sure.
12. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
At the tail end of the 80s, The Little Mermaid revived the notion of the Disney film as showstopping success and, the anomalous blip of The Rescuers Down Under aside, 90s Disney would be defined by Broadway style blockbusters that penetrated the culture more than any Disney film had done in decades. Beauty and the Beast was the second of these new Disney titans, originally intended to be a serious, dramatic update of the 16th century French fairy tale but retooled as a lavish musical in the face of The Little Mermaid’s success. While a minority of critics rolled their eyes at how closely Beauty and the Beast followed The Little Mermaid’s lead, it was undeniably a shrewd move to pursue such a winning formula. Rehiring composer and lyricist Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, creators of The Little Mermaid’s, and subsequently Aladdin’s, soundtracks felt less like a retread than the establishment of an era-defining style. The songs have that unifying Broadway pizzazz but they are all distinct gems rather than rehashes of former glories, and Beauty and the Beast’s overall approach has a darker feel than The Little Mermaid. The cynicism of critics who suggested mere recycling was at play was counteracted by the undeniable whiff of quality that lingered around rejuvenated Disney. Ultimately, Beauty and the Beast would become the first fully-animated film to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, an honour the self-serious Academy had danced around bestowing on an animation since it fobbed Walt Disney off with a novelty-tat honorary Oscar for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
In its decision to start tackling classic stories in a more traditional manner (rather than Sherlock Holmes as a mouse or Oliver Twist as a kitten), the Disney studio also set itself up for plenty of criticism regarding the not-so-progressive elements retained in faithful adaptations. While it is unfair to suggest that these old-fashioned values originated with Disney, it is entirely fair to hold filmmakers to account for the manner in which they adapt these details for a modern audience, even if some critics seemed more inclined to approach the process like attack dogs than balanced analysts. Adapting the classics can sometimes be unavoidably thorny and Beauty and the Beast is virtually impossible to recreate as anything but the story of a female prisoner who falls in love with her male captor. The central message is one about inner beauty and the fact that the Beast eventually frees Belle to his own detriment does impart a good message about the possibility for positive change but there’s no getting around the fact that Belle falls in love with the Beast while he is still very much holding her against her will. The key to Disney’s approach to these concerns is in creating a world that is sufficiently magical that, rather than excusing the behaviours, it differentiates them from real life comparisons. Most kids are smarter than we sometimes credit them with being and are capable of realising that good storytelling can create a world where Stockholm Syndrome doesn’t exist without eradicating its real world counterpart. Honestly, I’d no more worry about my 3 year old son thinking Beauty and the Beast sold a notion that wrongful imprisonment was acceptable than I would that he would come away thinking candles could talk. I might want to initiate a discussion over Lumiere’s assertion that “Life is so unnerving for a servant who’s not serving, He’s not whole without a soul to wait upon” but we can cover that during our nightly bedtime chapter of Das Kapital.
Though it comes by way of an enchantress whose own moral code must be called into question (did she really need to turn a bunch of innocent young kids into teacups to teach a selfish prince a lesson?), Beauty and the Beast does a good job in foregrounding its message of inner beauty. That’s lucky, considering that from a purely aesthetic perspective the Beast himself is far more handsome before he turns back into a human. This character is one of the film’s triumphs, with his monstrous appearance balanced by the dashing figure he cuts in his swishing cape and fluidly animated expressiveness. Robby Benson provides him with a suitably booming voice that swings between terrifyingly dominant and devastatingly vulnerable. By contrast, Belle was criticised by many for being a blank slate of a heroine but I’ve always found her not only instantly likeable but inspiring in her bravery, her intelligence and her agency. This is key in preventing her growing affection for the Beast from seeming like something into which she is tricked or coerced. Belle isn’t the sort of heroine who would sing Someday My Prince Will Come and, while the townsfolk regard her as strange because of this, it is crucial in establishing the fact that her love is the product of the good she both sees and inspires in the Beast, rather than some girlish fantasy she is seeking to fulfil at any cost.
Beauty and the Beast also has one of my favourite Disney villains in the preening, entitled bully Gaston. Hilariously voiced by Richard White, he strikes the perfect balance between comedic and threatening. His musical number is Beauty and the Beast’s most underrated song and includes my favourite line in the film (“I use antlers in all of my decorating”) and his rainswept battle with the Beast makes for a terrific finale. But Beauty and the Beast undoubtedly belongs to the enchanted furniture that populates the Beast’s castle, formerly human servants trapped by the curse of a morally-confused enchantress. Though Jerry Orbach may not be the first go-to for the role of French candlestick these days, he undeniably nails the role of Lumiere, stopping the show in spectacular style with the brilliant Be Our Guest sequence. It remains a source of great relief that the role of the stuffy clock Cogsworth ultimately went to the more subtle David Ogden Stiers rather that the originally intended John Cleese, who by this point was drifting into a late-career tendency towards spotlight-hogging muggery. But perhaps the linchpin of Beauty and the Beast is Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts. Her grandmotherly tones bring an all-encompassing warmth that makes the viewer feel like they’re experiencing a bedtime story while tucked up in bed, surely the holy grail of sensations for a Disney fairy tale. Her time to really shine comes when she gets to sing the iconic title song. Though she apparently had doubts that her voice could do the song justice, she was asked to perform just one take in whatever way she pleased and subsequently reduced everyone present at the recording to tears. This first take magic is what appears in the final film, and what ultimately won the Oscar for Best Original Song. It is testament to the importance of strong casting that the version of the song that plays over the end credits, performed by Céline Dion and Peabo Bryson, renders a beautiful song rather bland. Although this version was an international hit, my emotional requirements demand the song be sung by one specific piece of crockery.
In terms of animation, Beauty and the Beast vacillates between a stately grandeur and a bouncier cartoonishness that occasionally clashes but generally charms. There’s one bold flourish with the inclusion of a computer generated ballroom against which the titular characters are projected as they dance their famous dance. The scene was created using CAPS (Computer Animation Production System) developed for Disney by Pixar. Thankfully, this bold gambit pays off, with the illusion of a dollying camera spinning round the waltzing couple giving the scene a three-dimensional magnificence. While this moment may have played a part in getting Beauty and the Beast nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, I definitely think there was more to it than that. After The Little Mermaid whetted (and wetted) appetites, Beauty and the Beast acted as a confirmation that it wasn’t a one-off fluke (or flounder) and that the classic powerhouse Disney so many had been craving was indeed back. Though there were more modern classics to come, the subsequent Aladdin and The Lion King, with their contemporary references and 90s fart gags, had a sassy modernism that never once troubles Beauty and the Beast’s elegant classicism, which probably also helped in grabbing and keeping the attentions of the Academy’s stuffier inclinations.
Before this rewatch, I was under the impression that Beauty and the Beast was one of the weaker films of the Disney Renaissance but this time round I connected with it to the extent that I’ve ranked it above Pinocchio, a film that has better animation but weaker storytelling. With Beauty and the Beast, Disney really seized the reins convincingly when it came to spinning a yarn, with the film’s relatively simple tale being enhanced with fantastic animation and superb songs that always drive the narrative forward rather than distracting from it. This expertly told fairy tale is classic Disney.
11. THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE
The Emperor’s New Groove ends with a curiously ill-fitting song over its closing credits. The film itself is such a whirlwind of comedic exuberance that when it collapses into a sentimental ballad by Sting called My Funny Friend and Me, audiences would be forgiven for wondering what the hell is going on. What we’re seeing here is one of the last remnants of Kingdom of the Sun, an epic Adventure film conceived as director Roger Allers’ triumphant follow-up to The Lion King. Sting was hired as songwriter in an attempt to emulate the crossover success of Elton John’s songs for The Lion King and work began on creating another dazzling masterpiece. However, during the making of Kingdom of the Sun there were a few changes at the studio. Spurred on by their reacceptance by critics, Disney seemed to forget that fun was a large part of their winning formula, forsaking the effervescence of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin for darker, more serious films like Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. When these big budget prestige-grabs returned comparatively disappointing box office, a tonal juggling act began which saw the Renaissance era slowly segueing into Disney’s troubled 00s period. In the process, Kingdom of the Sun was retooled as a much more modest, comedic film and the paring down of the plot meant the majority of the pre-written songs were no longer relevant, leaving the furious Sting to watch his work being largely removed from the production. My Funny Friend and Me is one of the few remaining scraps of Sting’s labour and seems to be there equally as an appeaser and a shrug of the shoulders over a film Disney no longer seemed to care much about. It didn’t fit but hey, they had it lying there so throw it in the pot and claim the obligatory Best Original Song nomination.
Ironically, Disney’s aborted attempts to create a masterpiece managed to result in their best film since The Lion King. The Emperor’s New Groove is refreshingly natural in its humorous approach, without the sweat stains you can practically see moistening each frame of Disney’s mid-90s output as it strains for prestige. The Emperor’s New Groove wasn’t the first film to break the rapidly congealing pattern, with Hercules standing out as another example of a more broadly comical and cartoonish film. But The Emperor’s New Groove was funny in a different way, a way that actually made viewers laugh out loud rather than just noiselessly smile at the charm offensive. Its style would go on to inform several more comedy-focused Disney releases, although it arguably found a more effective outlet in the studio’s animated TV series like Gravity Falls and Phineas and Ferb. There’s a perception among many that too much comedy undermines a film’s gravitas in a way that ultimately makes it feel televisual but such a po-faced attitude leads to… well, Pocahontas. For my money, The Emperor’s New Groove doesn’t lack cinematic impact, it just opts for a different aesthetic that leans into caricature above realism in a way that allows it to get away with arch gags and absurd situations without compromising its well established world.
It’s unclear how much of the original Kingdom of the Sun animation made it into The Emperor’s New Groove but the film is often beautiful. Just look at the opening scene of Kuzco in llama form slipping around in the rain. The character animation is fantastic and it completely sells what could’ve been too strange a creation to work. Certainly, the llama design feels more suited to a knockabout Comedy than an epic Adventure/Romance. The llama plot was reportedly part of Kingdom of the Sun however and perhaps its inherent ridiculousness inspired the shift into all-out absurdity. While the majority of Sting’s soundtrack, various characters and numerous plotpoints all hit the cutting room floor, The Emperor’s New Groove retained key cast members David Spade and Eartha Kitt, although the tone of their material changed significantly. Spade has enormous fun as the entitled, cruel emperor Kuzco who plans to destroy the home of a poor family in order to build himself a water park, while Kitt is an absolutely brilliant piece of casting as Yzma, the vain advisor who seeks to steal Kuzco’s throne through a murderous plot. John Goodman brings some much needed warmth as the gentle, good-hearted villager Pacha but the film is thoroughly stolen by Patrick Warburton as the naive, boyish Kronk. Kronk is described in various sources as Yzma’s henchman, helper and sidekick but a sly piece of dialogue between Kuzco and Yzma suggests that he is actually the latest in a long line of Yzma’s toy-boys, kept around more for his physical attributes than his brain power. It’s a nice touch that Kronk ultimately proves himself as a multitalented chef and linguist, his ineffectuality as a bad guy being more due to how unsuited he is to evil. Kronk became the film’s breakout character, even getting his own direct to video sequel, Kronk’s New Groove.
If the comic tone of The Emperor’s New Groove ultimately makes it into more of a series of comedy bits than a flowing narrative, there is nonetheless a strong throughline about people’s capacity for change, cleverly mirrored in the physical changes several of the characters undergo. The finale, in which a plethora of identical potions transform Kuzco and Yzma into various animals, recalls the classic Wizard’s Duel sequence of The Sword in the Stone but filtered through a Looney Tunes influence. Director Mark Dindal, who replaced Allers, had recently directed the cult animation Cats Don’t Dance and he brought much of that film’s wild energy to his Disney directorial debut. So a scene involving a restaurant and a revolving door is staged with the comedic flair of an old vaudeville routine and Dindal can convincingly save his characters from peril by way of the residual momentum of a flurry of bats with an unsullied credibility that a more reserved director would’ve struggled to retain. Dindal struggles a little more with the emotional moments, although this is probably because there are so few of them. There are strong themes and an undercurrent of moral decency implied through depiction of its opposite, but it is notable that the heartwarming group hug finale that most Disney films dwell upon is here immediately undercut by a quick cutaway to an absurd punchline. For The Emperor’s New Groove’s distinct personality, this approach is totally appropriate and is far preferable to the counter-productive cynicism of the original finale, in which Kuzco spared Pacha’s home by relocating his water park to the site of a rainforest which he destroyed instead. This ending was vetoed by Sting himself, who the filmmakers at this point appeared to be going out of their way to piss off!
I have a real soft spot for the underdog periods of Disney’s history and the studio’s wayward 00s are far more interesting to me than the majority of the post-Lion King Renaissance-era films. The Emperor’s New Groove feels like a real turning point, establishing a more prominent and modern sense of humour that informed fascinating oddities like Lilo & Stitch and Meet the Robinsons, as well as Dindal’s own follow-up, the slightly too bizarre Chicken Little. The Emperor’s New Groove remains the most tonally successful Disney film of its decade, an endlessly quotable and invigoratingly unabashed Comedy gem that finds its own distinctive storytelling groove without forsaking the heart it came perilously close to forfeiting in the name of cheap cynicism. For a film with such a lengthy and troubled production, The Emperor’s New Groove emerged as a bold, enduring cult classic and a film I return to again and again. Its scrappy charm and comedic invention have led me to place it above several of the acknowledged major classics.