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 sixth and final part, I’m looking at my top 10 favourite Disney films. You can read the previous parts here:
All entries contain spoilers.
10. WRECK-IT RALPH
Wreck-It Ralph was one of the key films in cementing the rise of the Disney revival era. Although not as traditionally Disney-esque as Tangled or Frozen, which updated the Disney Renaissance formula for the 21st century, Wreck-It Ralph proved that the studio could effectively alternate between fairy tale fare and contemporary narratives without songs and with modern settings. Though they had been experimenting with this sort of film for over a decade, Disney had experienced mixed success and oddities like Chicken Little and Treasure Planet seemed determined to try and keep one foot in each camp. If the excellent Bolt had proved Disney’s ability to get these modern non-musical pictures right, it was Wreck-It Ralph that became their first major success in this regard and established that special ability of the Revival era to pinball between films like Frozen and Encanto and ones like Zootopia and Big Hero 6, while still feeling of apiece in tone and quality. While Wreck-It Ralph was a big hit and even received the sequel treatment six years down the line, I’ve always felt that it’s still a bit underrated. Most critics acknowledge that it’s a good film, comparing its exploration of video game characters to what Roger Rabbit did with classic animation and what Toy Story did with vintage toys, but I think it’s a great film that deserves to be considered alongside those classics rather than deemed a lesser cousin. Admittedly, the fact that it doesn’t boast the technical innovations of those predecessors does put it ever so slightly behind them, but the fact that I’ve ranked Wreck-It Ralph above some truly groundbreaking Disney classics should give some indication on how firmly it nails the entertainment value for me.
Just as the films of the Disney Renaissance get a biased boost in my ranking by virtue of having come out during my childhood, so Wreck-It Ralph’s appeal is heightened by the fact that many of its references are to arcade games and consoles I played on as a kid. I’m not a gamer these days but the richness and diversity of the medium, as brilliantly celebrated in Wreck-It Ralph, puts paid to the snotty notion that games are something you grow out of. I could easily imagine having become an avid adult gamer had I not dedicated my passion instead to film (and, crucially, if I was any good at games) and I’m still fascinated by the history and continued innovations of the gaming industry, even if I have no inclination to play the games myself. Wreck-It Ralph understands that mindset, aiming for a broad audience appeal for gamers and non-gamers but correctly pitching its extra layers and Easter eggs squarely at the gaming community. With its references to retro video games and home consoles, it’s tempting to think that Wreck-It Ralph will go over the heads of 21st century kids but that’s to underestimate both the kids and the filmmakers. If you understand the concept of video games, you don’t need to know who Q-Bert is to connect with the nature of the joke and while some moments are enhanced by specificity of knowledge, there aren’t any in which the humour can’t be gleaned from context to a sufficient extent. Some references like Mario have remained relevant for decades, to the extent that director Rich Moore opted to only have the Italian plumber mentioned rather that make a cameo, as his fame would’ve made it difficult to wrest the film back. Perhaps the smartest decision was to ensure that none of Wreck-It Ralph’s main action takes place in a real video game and that no established icons appear in anything more than cameos. Ralph’s game, Fix-It Felix, has numerous similarities to Donkey Kong but it’s a comparison that classic game fans can enjoy yet others need not even register.
Wreck-It Ralph is a brilliantly structured film, spending the opening half hour setting up the main character’s motivation and building its world by flooding the screen with jokes and references relating to arcade games, all of which arise in service of the plot rather than as cheap throwaways. Wreck-It Ralph shares classic themes with Dumbo (outsiders) and The Fox and the Hound (societally dictated roles), two of Disney’s most emotional films, and while it has a lighter air than either of those reference points, that is not at the expense of emotionality. The relationship that develops between Ralph and Vanellope is one of Disney’s most heartwarming and the scene where Ralph demolishes her go-kart as she begs him to stop is absolutely devastating. These beats are helped no end by one of the best voice casts Disney has ever assembled, with John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman having real chemistry in the lead roles. The comedy draws smartly on their situational similarities contrasted with their physical differences, while the subplot involving the folksy Fix-It Felix and the tough-as-nails Sergeant Calhoun offers a juxtaposition in which complete opposites attract. Jack McBrayer and Jane Lynch offer perfectly mismatched performances that nevertheless cohere into a convincing union across the film. Given that Wreck-It Ralph goes out of its way to establish new characters and settings rather than using already established creations, it’s a slightly odd choice to have the villain King Candy be so blatantly based on the Mad Hatter from Disney’s classic Alice in Wonderland. Still, Alan Tudyk’s Ed Wynn impersonation is so spot on that this seemingly arbitrary choice ends up working quite nicely.
Wreck-It Ralph starts out as a loving tribute to video games before becoming a sincere tale about friendship and the power of solidarity, filled with tips of the hat to outcasts and the disenfranchised and enhanced by elements of Sports movies and Mysteries. There’s a lot thrown into the mix but it is spread perfectly across the 100 minute runtime, with nary a lull in the action nor a downturn in the quality of jokes (some of it is properly hilarious, like Calhoun’s tragic backstory and the story of how Turbo “went Turbo”). I’ve been backwards and forwards over where to place Wreck-It Ralph in my ranking but I eventually asked myself how much I enjoyed it in comparison to the other films I’ve watched and ultimately it rose above some historical linchpins of animation to my number 10 spot. I absolutely love this film.
9. THE LITTLE MERMAID
Although it was the crucial instigator of the 90s Disney Renaissance, The Little Mermaid was actually released at the tail end of the 80s and it feels very much like an 80s film. It has all the ingredients that would come to characterise most of Disney’s animated output over the next decade but it also has a hint of that scrappy charm of 80s Disney and their contemporaries. The characters often have a more rounded, cartoonish look and move with a looser vitality, and there are even little lapses in animation and design quality here and there. Watch for the scene in which Ariel has just saved Prince Eric, in which she looks curiously off-model and moves with the thick-lined awkwardness of a budget Disney competitor. But if you think these things make The Little Mermaid any less magnificent, think again. If anything, the rough edges create a compelling sense of energy that was conspicuously missing from some of the more fussily polished works that followed in its wake. This is the bridge, the route out of the uncertain experiments of the 80s to bask in the balm of Broadway bonanzas for several years to come. For those of us who also have a soft spot for those uncertain experiments, The Little Mermaid, unlike the unsure-footed hybrid its heroine becomes, revels in the best of both worlds.
The Little Mermaid is often accused of being an anti-feminist film about how women should give up their voices in order to bag themselves a man. I’m no apologist for problematic Disney content but this seems totally off the mark to me. Yes, Ariel gives up her voice to go and find Prince Eric but it’s part of an ill-advised, impetuous deal with a sea-witch. At no point is it suggested that this is a positive move that girls should emulate. When searching for plot elements that are meant to serve as templates for life, let ‘instigated-by-a-sea-witch’ be a signifier to the contrary. Ariel’s lack of a voice consistently stands in the way of her getting the man and only when her voice is returned to her at to end does the relationship become possible. It’s quite possible that there may have been no metaphorical intention here at all but if there was I struggle to cast it in a negative light. This story is clearly no more a suggestion that women should sacrifice their voices for love than Sleeping Beauty is advocating for lie-ins.
One of The Little Mermaid’s major achievements was reinstating great music to Disney films. Before this, there hadn’t really been a truly memorable song in a Disney film since 1973’s Robin Hood or a truly iconic one since 1967’s The Jungle Book. By bringing Alan Menken and Howard Ashman on board, Disney ensured a full slate of classic hits that kicked off a resurgence for the Disney musical as a cinematic staple. There isn’t a dud among Ashman and Menken’s offerings. Sure, Les Poissons is a throwaway gilding for a comedy set-piece and Part of Your World is a thinly-veiled rewrite of Menken and Ashman’s Little Shop of Horror’s song Somewhere That’s Green (to the extent that they apparently jokingly referred to it as Somewhere That’s Wet) but both serve their purposes nicely. Poor Unfortunate Souls, sung by Pat Carroll’s splendidly lascivious villain Ursula, is the underrated Burlesque gem, but the best and ultimately most famous material was given to Samuel E. Wright as Sebastian the Crab. Originally conceived as a British butler, the decision to turn Sebastian into a Jamaican court composer helped guide the soundtrack towards its underlying Calypso theme. Wright is terrific in the role and Sebastian became the breakout character, thanks in large part to the songs Under the Sea and Kiss the Girl. Both are wonderful, as are the sequences that accompany them (although Under the Sea does contain some racially-loaded depictions of a blackfish and a fluke, which took me by surprise given there is not currently a Disney+ disclaimer at the top of The Little Mermaid) and the former song won the Oscar for Best Original Song, the first Disney film to do so since Mary Poppins in 1964. It opened a floodgate, with every Disney film between 1991 and 1995 also winning the award.
While films like The Black Cauldron and Oliver and Company had sometimes struggled with their storytelling credentials, The Little Mermaid reinstated a sense of confidence in this respect. The plot barrels forward here, with great scene following great scene and little to no flab. When the film does break off for a comedic tangent in Sebastian’s run-in with cleaver-wielding chef Louis, it weaves it beautifully into the narrative as a lively runner. While she fulfils all the requirements of a classic Disney heroine, it’s refreshing to see that Aeriel is also allowed to participate in some of the comedy bits. Sebastian’s battle with Louis leads to a lovely bit of pantomime business between Sebastian and Aeriel at Prince Eric’s dinner table, while moments like Aeriel combing her hair with a fork have that same literal fish-out-of-water charm as Disney’s live action Splash.
The direction of Ron Clements and John Musker is essential to the vibrancy of The Little Mermaid. Having proved themselves with their successful debut The Great Mouse Detective, Clements and Musker up their game here, applying the lessons they learned on that film to make The Little Mermaid something special. In particular, The Great Mouse Detective had a terrific finale that improved upon some of the anticlimactic endings of then-recent Disney films, and The Little Mermaid doubles down on this with a visually impressive final showdown in which an immense Ursula evokes memories of Sleeping Beauty’s magnificent Maleficent dragon. While that film had been a concerted effort to make a masterpiece, The Little Mermaid sidesteps the self-consciousness that dogged Sleeping Beauty by apparently arriving at a winning formula organically. It feels completely natural in how it assembles its collection of excellent ideas into a winning whole and, while Disney successfully replicated this formula several times, they were never able to fully recapture the loose-spirited joie de vivre that so enhances this groundbreaking creation. A landmark Disney gem.
8. ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE
Atlantis: The Lost Empire was Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise’s final feature for Disney. Having achieved major critical and commercial recognition with Beauty and the Beast and reasonably positive results with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Trousdale and Wise decided to try something a bit different this time. Setting their sights on creating an epic, gritty Adventure story, the crew working on the film reportedly wore T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Atlantis: Fewer Songs, More Explosions.” With an art style influenced by the work of comic book artist and production designer Mike Mignola, Atlantis: The Lost Empire distinguished itself as a different kind of Disney film from the get-go. But some critics found it too different, with many of the same people who had previously complained that the Disney musical formula was getting tired now bemoaning the lack of musical numbers and cuddly sidekicks. Others found the plot too convoluted or complained of a lack of character development to support the impressive visuals.
I’ve never had any of these problems with Atlantis: The Lost Empire. I loved this film from the first time I saw it, which was admittedly a lot later down the line thanks to a lamentably ingrained habit of listening to critical consensus. Going in with the lowest of expectations, I found myself repeatedly checking back on this film’s reputation to make sure I’d read it right. As a lover of Adventure films, I might be predisposed to respond positively to Atlantis’s Indiana Jones leanings, but when this stuff is done badly it also has an increased capacity to disappoint when it deflates my adventure-primed puppy-dog anticipation. Atlantis grabbed me immediately with its expertly incorporated opening exposition as protagonist Milo Thatch rehearses his presentation on finding the titular lost city in front of an ersatz audience. The character animation is at once terrific, infused with energy and humour, and this crucial component remains as an anchoring force as we leave Milo’s dank boiler room and the settings quickly grow bigger, more imposing and finally breathtaking. Often when taking a self-conscious stab at prestige, as with Sleeping Beauty or Pocahontas, Disney get so wrapped up in the visuals that the characters become bland ciphers. That is far from the case here. Atlantis is teeming with characters as Milo becomes part of a rough-around-the-edges crew of explorers, and every one of them is given a defined personality through efficient writing and evocative character animation. Many critics complained of limited character development here but, given that there’s so much plot to pack in, Atlantis does an amazing job of introducing a cast of central characters that runs into double figures and making them all memorable.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire definitely plays as a film for slightly older kids and adults with an unsuppressed inner child. The ragbag team at its centre are far more amoral than the average Disney creations, and even when some of them undergo an ethical rebirth there’s still an underlying darkness in their backstories. This down-to-earth humanity allows the film to slip in a few edgier gags more seamlessly, as well as some scatalogical kid-pleasers. An early moment in which an overly graphic vomit gag is immediately followed by a poo joke seems like a cause for concern but the film settles down and finds a more restrained earthiness. Atlantis does a fantastic job of establishing a group dynamic across its first act in which the team make their way through underground caves. From being picked on and excluded, Milo gradually earns the sympathy and respect of his cohorts and there’s an excellent scene in which the characters share more about themselves as they hunker down for the night. This is as appealing a group of mercenaries as you could hope for, from the tough but kind Dr. Sweet to the deadpan explosives expert Vincenzo, the teenage mechanic Audrey, who subverts gender roles without becoming a drably flawless audience lesson, and the feral, sleazy Mole, whose backstory we are denied because it is apparently too unpleasant. Florence Stanley is a scene stealer as the crotchety, chain-smoking radio operator Packard, a role I just automatically assumed would be voiced by Tress MacNeille!
Alongside the comical rogues, Atlantis: The Lost Empire has strong lead performances to bring the dramatic weight alongside the laughs. James Garner is ruggedly authoritative as the bulky Commander Rourke and Claudia Christian is sultry in an instantly deadly-sounding way as Helga, a character who looks like she’s walked in from a Ralph Bakshi film. Cree Summer and Leonard Nimoy have ample gravitas as inhabitants of the lost kingdom, but it is Michael J. Fox’s Milo who ties it all together with his well-established charisma and ability to switch between the comedic and the dramatic at a moment’s notice. Atlantis does this often, with smart dialogue punctuating large blocks of information with wisecracks and well-observed character beats, all topped off with regular bursts of action. There are plenty of great explosions, fights and chases to keep the average Adventure fan happy and it all culminates in a fantastic airborne battle in which backs are stabbed, allegiances switch and at least one character gets to join that Hall of Fame of Disney villains who fell to their death. It’s a finale worthy of the greatest Action movies and delivered more coherently than many of its blurrily in-your-face contemporaries.
As they come from the same era and both trade in epic Adventure narratives, many people conflate Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet. While I feel that Atlantis is far more creatively successful than Treasure Planet, it’s a shame that at least one of them wasn’t more successful as their joint commercial failures seem to have shut down the notion of the big Sci-fi Adventure as a commercially viable route for Disney, with the recent Strange World perhaps being the belated final nail. Then again, maybe it’s better that Atlantis stand as a glorious anomaly, ripe for reclamation as a cult item and guaranteed to delight and surprise a certain type of cinema lover with the curiosity to dig it out. For me, it comfortably sits amongst Disney’s greatest films.
7. ROBIN HOOD
As a child I always loved the story of Robin Hood and his Merry Men and this is something I’ve carried with me into adulthood. There’s something so breezily invigorating about this tale of a rebellious outlaw, from its rousingly beautiful outdoor settings to its capacity for fast-paced action and its abundance of good humour. Naturally then, Disney’s animated version of the legend was going to be one of my childhood favourites. I watched this film again and again as a kid and would have sworn blind that it was a beloved Disney classic. It was only in adulthood when I became aware of the studio’s history and critical responses to its films that I realised that Robin Hood is considered a bit of a turkey. Criticised for a baggy structure, cheaper-looking animation and bland characters, Robin Hood is actually considered among Disney’s worst films by many critics.
My childhood love for this film will always colour how I see it now at least slightly, but there are plenty of films I loved as a kid that I now see as weak and Robin Hood sure ain’t one of them. The would-be animation historian in me can see why the medium’s enthusiasts often put it down. Due to time constraints, corners were cut and sharp-eyed Disney fans will easily spot bits of re-used footage from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Jungle Book and The Aristocats. Little John, portrayed as a large bear and voiced by The Jungle Book‘s Phil Harris, is practically just Baloo painted brown and transplanted to Sherwood Forest. And, as is often a problem in any screen adaptation of Robin Hood, the Nottingham accents range from plummy English to Wild West era American!
But I can forgive these obvious shortcomings because Robin Hood is a fast-paced, upbeat, brilliantly colourful and very funny film that I still count among my favourite Disney films. The American accents don’t bother me a bit when it means we get charismatic performances from showbiz veterans like Phil Harris and Pat Buttram and the recycled animation only appears in small bursts and has been smoothly incorporated beyond the detection of all but the nerdiest of animation fans. One criticism I take issue with is that aimed at the film’s structure. The Robin Hood legend is made up of a series of episodic encounters and Disney have, in my opinion, done a great job of giving us an approximation of this storybook quality. From the robbery of the Royal procession through the archery contest and the climactic jailbreak, we’re provided with a barrage of action set-pieces that keep things moving along at an enthusiastic lick.
And then there’s the notion that Robin Hood is populated by bland, one-dimensional characters. For me, this is one of the great Disney casts, with Robin made likably wily by British theatre actor Brian Bedford, Little John superbly witty by Phil Harris and Maid Marian’s lady-in-waiting Lady Kluck played with scene-stealing brio by a game Carole Shelley. The film is emphatically stolen by its villains though, a British comedy dream-team of Peter Ustinov and Terry-Thomas as the scraggly, cowardly mummy’s-boy Prince John and his companion Sir Hiss. Every one of the pair’s many interactions is treasurable.
One aspect of Robin Hood that is often overlooked in the clamour to find fault with it is the film’s amazing soundtrack. In a canny piece of casting, American singer-songwriter Roger Miller (of King of the Road fame) is cast as Alan-a-Dale, who here serves as narrator. This also allowed Disney to tap Miller for a handful of songs including the catchy instrumental Whistle Stop, the lively Oo-De-Lally and the mournful Not in Nottingham, the latter being one of the great, forgotten Disney ballads. But the film’s big show-stopper is The Phony King of England, written by Moon River co-writer Johnny Mercer and performed with the liveliness you’d expect from the great Phil Harris. A witty, mocking song about the tyrannical Prince John, the sequence in which the oppressed inhabitants of Nottingham celebrate and dance to its performance has the uplifting effect of attending a Billy Bragg gig during the reign of a Tory government. A shame, then, that the comparatively insipid Love was the song chosen for Oscar consideration.
Robin Hood was the first Disney film to be released on Home Video. This was reportedly because Disney were concerned about making their classics so readily available when they still periodically gave them cinematic re-releases, but felt that Robin Hood was one of their least valuable assets and so were happy to test the Home Video market with this unprized effort. Perhaps this is the reason that Robin Hood is beloved of a certain generation who were able to get their mitts on a home copy when other Disney films remained elusive. Me and my brothers almost wore out a rental copy we took out of the local newsagents, watching it several times in one night. But while that nostalgic element has undoubtedly played a part in my continued love of Robin Hood, I still feel that it stems from more than just that. This is a great film with strong characters, good storytelling, brilliant voice work and a superb soundtrack. It may not stand out artistically from more carefully crafted Disney classics but the emphasis here is on creating a good time for everyone, which has made it one of my most frequently rewatched Disney films.
6. THE LION KING
From a purely critical point of view, we often decry nostalgia as nothing more than a corrupting force, a clouder of views and a muddier of waters. Sometimes we set aside childhood favourites from serious consideration because we fear our inability to be objective about them. Given the rush of pleasure that a positive nostalgic experience gives us, there’s an air of masochistic snobbery to the way we deny ourselves that validation. What did we know?, we scoff, we were just kids at the time. But nostalgia can be a good deal more complicated than that. Sometimes we connect with things from our past due to more than just a Proustian rush and a midlife crisis. The Lion King is a film that transcends simple memories for me. They no doubt enhance it, since this was the Disney film released during my childhood with which I most connected and the experience was truly magical in a way that teenage cynicism took from me for far too long a time, but The Lion King embedded itself in the culture to that phenomenal extent for a reason. It’s still a magnificent piece of work overflowing with joyful animation, music and storytelling, and if an adult eye does reveal its thematic shortcomings more readily, it also enhances the appreciation of the exquisite work that has gone into creating the film. These days, I tend to find that the stronger nostalgic feelings I experience are evoked by old adverts, TV theme tunes or film trailers: things that are over quickly and for which the weight of artistic expectations is lower. The Lion King is one of the few childhood pleasures that can sustain those same feelings for a full 90 minutes, which means the question of unfair nostalgic bolstering can largely be dispensed with in this first paragraph. After all, I don’t get that feeling back rewatching Rover Dangerfield.
If you’re looking to The Lion King as a rich source of life lessons then chances are you might be disappointed. The breathtaking opening in which the animals gather to bow down to their new prince wouldn’t sit well with my anti-monarchist views if I were to apply it rigidly to real life, while Mufasa’s explanation of the Circle of Life essentially boils down to “animals eat other animals” but with a contrived twist that seeks to mask how blatantly the whole philosophy benefits lions above any other creatures. With this self-deluding addition, it becomes a handier metaphor for unacknowledged inherited privilege than a justification of predation. Mufasa tells his son Simba that he must respect all creatures and explains that, though lions eat antelope, when lions die their bodies “become the grass” and the antelope eat the grass so they are all connected in the great Circle of Life, a mantra which conveniently ignores the fact that when you’re already dead, you don’t have nerve endings to contend with when someone takes a big mouthful out of you. And then there are the hyenas. Literally seconds after Mufasa has passed on his skewed wisdom on the Circle of Life, Zazu arrives to frantically inform him that there are hyenas in the Pride Lands. You see, hyenas aren’t allowed in the Pride Lands, they have to live in a barren, shadowy elephant graveyard instead because… you know… hyenas… Circle of Life… grass… don’t ask any more questions! It’s clear to me that the hyenas in The Lion King are a startlingly oppressed underclass, not only ignored but actively kept down by a prejudicial state. It’s bound to happen in a society that fetishises privilege and operates under such an outdated institution as a monarchy. Thank God this is only the movies, eh?
It’s clear from that rant that The Lion King can be ideologically unpicked very easily if you want to go that way. But rather than being a classist call for royal sovereignty as the way forward, The Lion King merely establishes a world and its governing philosophies in which an age old story (equal parts Hamlet and Kimba the White Lion, although Disney’s lawyers would only admit to one of those influences) can play out. As a vegan, I’ve had to shield myself from half-chewed bits of chicken leg emanating from the mouths of people bellowing the entirety of Circle of Life at me, but that’s no reason to suggest everyone took The Lion King so literally. It’s more of a classic story of good vs. evil and if an adult perspective reveals that the good is not quite as infallible as we might’ve first thought then that only lends the film a more intriguing complexity. I must admit though that even as a child, watching Timon and Pumbaa standing triumphantly atop Pride Rock at the climax, I did wonder what sort of hypocritical amendments would need to be made to the Circle of Life legislation to prevent them being picked off at Simba and Nala’s next cocktail party.
Taken for the simple story it is, The Lion King is a classic of superb storytelling and stunning animation. The star-stacked voice cast features inspired choices such as Rowan Atkinson as the stuffy bird Zazu, Nathan Lane as the cocky meerkat Timon and Robert Guillaume as the wise but wily mandrill Rafiki. Matthew Broderick and Jonathan Taylor Thomas both do well as the adult and child Simba respectively but the heart of The Lion King is in the tragic relationship between Mufasa and his traitorous brother Scar, voiced to perfection by a suitably commanding James Earl Jones and a hilarious but terrifying Jeremy Irons. Irons and the animators make Scar into one of the great Disney villains, a cross between an evil dictator and a pantomime dame. Outside the main cast, The Lion King cannily switches between how it portrays the supporting creatures, with anthropomorphism avoided in the case of those who serve as prey or other deadly plot points. Some may see this as a cop out but I think the filmmakers made the wisest choices given the tricky world they had to navigate. You can’t have wildebeest wisecracking to camera as they trample a lead character to death, after all.
About that death… this was the boldest character death in a Disney film since Bambi’s mum. Your can’t have The Lion King without it but just over a decade before, studio bigwigs had vetoed the death of Chief in The Fox and the Hound and completely undermined the emotional core of their story. It was heartening to see death be acknowledged as something that could be substantially tackled in a Disney film again and The Lion King’s mega-success set up a future where the studio would no longer shy away from the subject. As a result, The Lion King remains one of the most emotional Disney films. Roger Ebert felt that the tone was too serious and ranked The Lion King lower than earlier films of the Disney Renaissance, but I’ve always felt the heightened stakes make the film even better and that the comedy and musical numbers provide a perfect balance.
And oh, those musical numbers! As thoroughly embedded in the hearts and minds of my generation as any of the chart songs we grew up with, these five compositions are magnificent and provide a hit of pure nostalgia for the majority of 90s kids. After the tragic death of Howard Ashman, who’s compositions with Alan Menken were linchpins of the previous Disney Renaissance films, Tim Rice was given the job of lyricist for The Lion King (having previously stepped in to finish the work Ashman started with Menken on Aladdin). Rice insisted on the condition that he choose his writing partner for the new film and made the inspired choice of Elton John. While the songs the pair came up with lack none of the power and wit of Ashman and Menken’s work, they also give The Lion King a flavour of its own which is slightly removed from the Broadway feel of their predecessors. Elton was interested in writing “Ultra-Pop” songs and the results were instantly classic and phenomenally successful. You can’t hear I Just Can’t Wait to Be King or Hakuna Matata without being instantly transported to the mid-90s, while those opening vocals from Circle of Life make you see that rising sun whether you’re watching the film at the time or not. Can You Feel the Love Tonight took home the Oscar in a category that included three songs from the film. An evocative score by Hans Zimmer completes one of the most vibrant Disney musical experiences.
It’s probably quite apparent from the growing enthusiasm of this review that I adore The Lion King. Writing about it has made me want to watch it all over again immediately. It’s true that nostalgia plays a part here but I saw other Disney films at this age too and most didn’t register half as strongly as The Lion King did. What people forget when they talk in a derogatory manner about the influence of nostalgia is that kids aren’t completely undiscerning and often the childhood favourites achieve that honour because they have something special about them. The Lion King certainly fulfils that criteria and if it relied on nothing but wistful memories of ageing children-at-heart then it likely wouldn’t still be held in such high regard decades down the line. It has been kept alive by stage adaptations, spin-offs, reissues and (yuuuck!) photorealistic remakes but mostly it has been kept alive by the enduring love of its fans both old and new.
5. THE ADVENTURES OF ICHABOD AND MR. TOAD
While Disney’s package films of the 40s were often created by linking together shorts that were not conceived to accompany each other, for the most part they are seamlessly parcelled up in a way that feels like it was always the intention. This is especially the case with the brilliant The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, the final package film which brought together adaptations of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows and Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Disney seemed to subsequently doubt the wisdom of this pairing, more often showing the two sections as separate featurettes or combining them with different shorts that they felt more appropriate, such as The Wind in the Willows’ later billing alongside the animated section of The Reluctant Dragon, another Kenneth Grahame story. But, even though I first saw The Wind in the Willows as a standalone on Christmas TV, these two shorts have never seemed more effective as when they are put together as contrasting but complimentary examples of international folksiness. Assigning the very British Basil Rathbone as the narrator of The Wind in the Willows and the perfectly American Bing Crosby as the narrator of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow sets up The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad as a sort of friendly competition over who can tell the better story. The sense of national identity is strong in both cases but there is no hint of xenophobic exceptionalism. Rather, the charming linking device in which the different tomes are taken from amongst a vast, enticing library shelf acknowledges the value of the wide range of stories that are out there, even if we only explore two English-speaking countries here.
The Wind in the Willows segment of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad may not please fans of the more poetic, bucolic side of Grahame’s novel. With the focus of this film being very much on the power of each narrative’s central character, Disney’s take on The Wind in the Willows leans heavily into Toad’s manic antics rather than the establishment of a riverbank idyll. By contrast, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow manages to maintain the mysterious ambiguity of Irving’s story and combine it with a rural charm and a delightful Rom-Com air in which every participant has a surprisingly cynical edge. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad acknowledges that great characters aren’t always necessarily virtuous, with its titular heroes being an irresponsible, entitled obsessive and an opportunistic, avaricious oddball. This unsentimental edge makes both stories refreshingly unpredictable and each one ends with a comparatively downbeat conclusion, with Toad still very much a victim of his obsessions and Ichabod either in a fearful self-imposed exile, suffering from superstitious madness, or a prisoner of the spirit realm, depending on how literally you take the story’s spooky conclusion.
By upping the energy levels to something akin to the mania of its protagonist, The Wind in the Willows segment carves out its own unique take on British identity. Rathbone’s droll narration is dryly witty (“There was only one thing wrong with Ratty’s cure for motor mania. It didn’t work.”) and Fred & Ginger regular Eric Blore is a splendid piece of casting as Toad. It’s probably fair to question the wisdom of making Badger Scottish and then casting the Californian Campbell Grant whose stab at a Highland brogue makes Groundskeeper Willie sound authentic, but controversially Badger, Rat and Mole are somewhat marginalised for long stretches, thoroughly outshone by an original creation called Cyril Proudbottom, a cheery horse based on George Formby in both looks and voice. J. Pat O’Malley does a wonderful job of conjuring Formby’s particular brand of Lancashire charisma, especially in a courtroom testimony delivered in verse. After a lively escape sequence, The Wind in the Willows reunites the book’s four main characters for a distinctly unGrahame-esque slapstick action sequence as they reclaim Toad Hall from weasels. It’s surprising that The Wind in the Willows didn’t receive the same garment-rendingly nationalistic reaction that Disney’s Winnie the Pooh adaptation did several years later, but then the characters here aren’t Americanised. Instead, we get an American’s-eye-view of British eccentricity which results in a uniquely different version of a beloved tale which actually takes the time to fix some problems in the original narrative. It’s always bothered me that in Grahame’s version Toad is actually guilty of stealing a motor car and his eventual escape seems to leave him a fugitive from justice, with his only recourse being to buy his way out of trouble with his inherited wealth. Disney’s take on the tale formulates a cunning double cross which makes Toad an innocent party and the climactic reclamation of Toad Hall a much more triumphant experience.
The midpoint switch in narrators from Rathbone to Crosby smoothly navigates the join, with the latter’s acknowledgment of the former’s closing narration increasing that sense of good-natured competition. With its pleasant rural settings and morally compromised protagonist, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is perfectly matched with The Wind in the Willows, while the completely different approach to storytelling also makes it a nice juxtaposition. Crosby’s narrator, assisted by The Rhythmaires, provides all the voices, with the rare occasions when the characters speak or sing all finding them simply adopting the narrator’s honeyed tones. It gives the whole piece the cosy feel of having a story read to you, with Crosby responding perfectly to the requirements of the tale with the subtlest of tonal shifts in his delivery. Crosby sings three songs: the toe-tapping Ichabod Crane, the swooning ballad Katrina and the infectiously ghoulish The Headless Horseman. They are sprinkled perfectly throughout the narrative in order to keep the energy up, while the animation of Ichabod’s integration into the sleepy village is filled with witty visual gags and beautiful character animation of the birdlike schoolmaster. Enraging the local bully Brom Bones, whose brutish masculinity is surprisingly portrayed as both dunderheaded and heroic, Ichabod enters into a love triangle over Katrina van Tassel, the daughter of a wealthy family. By making each member of the triangle reprehensible to some degree (Brom is violently possessive, Ichabod is greedily opportunistic and Katrina is mischievously manipulative), The Legend of Sleepy Hollow allows us to just watch the fun without a particular allegiance. So the scenes of warring courtships are splendidly amoral and alive with terrific sight gags.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow ultimately builds to one of the greatest sequences Disney ever produced. Ichabod’s encounter with the Headless Horseman is a textbook example of how to combine humour and horror, with a frenzied slapstick vitality offset by some genuinely scary animation of Ichabod and his horse galloping for their lives. The slow build to the reveal of the Headless Horseman is edge-of-the-seat atmospheric and his arrival is absolutely spine-chilling. The subsequent chase is frightening, funny and exciting, and culminates in a faithful rendering of the story’s horrific denouement. Having dropped out of the narration duties to allow the largely visual climactic sequence to play out, Crosby returns to put a perfectly pitched ambiguous twist on what we’ve just seen, ending the film on a playfully shiversome Halloween-appropriate note.
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad generally gets folded into the lukewarm reception given to the underrated Disney package films but it’s always been one of my absolute favourites. The two stories compliment each other beautifully and are told with an unexpected air of gleeful moral ambiguity. The animation and voice work are fantastic, the music is delightful and the brief runtime maintains its fleet charm throughout. It may never have carved out a place amongst the more legendary Disney productions but for me this is top tier stuff.
4. THE THREE CABALLEROS
As we arrive at The Three Caballeros, I realise that the high position I have awarded this film may expose a certain hypocrisy on my part. I have justified the ranking of many films much lower down the list by calling them incoherent and unfocused. Yet here we have what is likely Disney’s most bizarre, oddly structured splatter of ideas and it’s at the top end of the list. What gives?! Well, for one thing, the incoherence of a film like Chicken Little or Home on the Range seems to me to be the result of the films having let go of their narrative reins. The strange places they go to feel like the result of developmental errors in judgment or hasty reactions to scripts that no-one has any idea where to take next. By contrast, The Three Caballeros is a wild and invigorating example of gay abandon. It’s an explosive, surreal, boisterously unrestrained street party of a film which appears to have always been planned as such, so while it doesn’t have a strong narrative base, its waywardness feels anchored by wilful defiance rather than driven by panicked desperation. Its build-up to the completely off-the-hook finale is the result of a growing boldness rather than a sweat-drenched meltdown.
The Three Caballeros isn’t the sort of film I’d recommend to everyone. It’s a film for those who are fascinated by animation as a medium, rather than just charmed by how it can be used to tell a story. For the most part there isn’t a story here. It’s more of a celebration of Latin American culture, with Donald Duck, José Carioca and a Mexican rooster called Panchito Pistoles taking tours of Bahia, Pátzcuaro, Veracruz and Acapulco and appreciating the music, the scenery and… the women. That latter feature is likely to raise eyebrows even in those who enjoy the film. The Three Caballeros is an astonishingly horny film with a particularly Stone Age attitude to sex, and the worst caveman of all is Donald Duck himself. He spends at least a third of the picture aggressively lusting after women, chasing them around beaches and attempting to despatch romantic rivals by way of a conk on the head with a mallet. While blindfolded, Donald catches what he thinks is one of the women but is actually José, and the kisses with which he smothers him before realising his mistake leave no doubt about his predatory intentions. This may seem shocking, even tasteless, in an animated film but it’s illustrative of the fact that animation wasn’t always widely considered a children’s medium (an attitude that is still irritating reductive now but is at least partially justified by films that pointedly single out that demographic). The Three Caballeros is definitely one of Disney’s more adult creations, comparable to the sexualised visual reveries of Busby Berkeley pictures or the enthusiastic Technicolor explosions of Arthur Freed musicals. Although Walt Disney famously compared the films of this era to “mashed potatoes and gravy” in comparison with the “caviar” of his Golden Age films, I find The Three Caballeros far more beautiful and exciting than the stuffed-shirt that is Fantasia.
Interestingly, The Three Caballeros is a film that comes with its own built-in supporting shorts. It opens with Donald celebrating his birthday with a box full of presents. The first one he unwraps contains a film projector and Donald is relegated from protagonist to spectator for the next twenty minutes as he watches a series of cartoons: a story about a penguin attempting to leave the South Pole for warmer climes, a short educational piece about South American birds, and the story of a Uruguayan boy and his winged donkey. This trio of shorts serves as a nice, comparatively placid opening act, easing the viewer in before all hell breaks loose. At this stage, The Three Caballeros feels much like its predecessor Saludos Amigos, divided into distinct acts in the manner also followed by the subsequent package films. But after its opening twenty minutes, The Three Caballeros becomes more of a flowing experience, its numerous adventures melting into each other to create an ongoing travelogue punctuated by surrealist asides and visual flourishes.
Enjoyable as the introductory shorts undoubtedly are, it is the subsequent adventures of Donald and his pals that make The Three Caballeros so unforgettably unique. As soon as José arrives and starts waxing lyrical about Bahia, the visuals become more striking and adventurous. We get a beautiful, wistful set of images of Bahia itself, followed by a strange, repetitive discussion between Donald and José in which chant-like repetition causes José to multiply into various smaller versions of himself. Donald and José then enter the pages of a book and board a stylised illustration of a train which takes them to the live-action streets of Bahia where they join a street party in which two cavorting alpha males morph into silhouette animations of fighting cocks and Donald successfully woos Aurora Miranda. There are so many inventive, ambitious techniques on display here that the comparative aimlessness of the narrative is a blessing, allowing us to drink in the animation without distraction. There is the odd dated moment, such as the combination of animation and live action in which Donald and José become slightly blurry back projections. But the kinetic joy in the way the street undulates around them trumps the technical shortcomings and then the characters move into the foreground and everything becomes sharper-looking and more effectively integrated. Given what an early example this was of live-action and animation combined, it is smoothly rendered and has that invigorating edge of innovation.
There are numerous other delights to come. When Panchito first arrives, the trio sing the title song in a fantastic slapstick number which begins with a jocular sense of camaraderie and ends with José and Donald trying to put a stop to Panchito’s endlessly held high note by coming at him with an axe and a cannon. After a trip through Mexico on a flying carpet, the film culminates in a jaw-droppingly wild dream sequence in which Donald falls in love with the floating head of Dora Luz as she croons the song You Belong to My Heart. Psychedelic washes of colour, floating flowers and highly suggestive throbbing cacti all feature, but Donald’s bliss keeps getting punctured by interjections from José and Panchito, who spoil the mood with evermore raucous renditions of the title theme. The whole thing reaches an overwhelming level of visual stimulation, ending with fireworks exploding in the colours of the Mexican, Brazilian and US flags in case anyone has quite understandably forgotten that this whole thing began as a celebration of unity before it became an exercise in unbelievable animated exuberance. Disney would never make another film quite like The Three Caballeros and that’s understandable. It isn’t exactly popular among viewers who seek a strong plot or any sense of narrative logic, but for animation obsessives who revel in technique, stylisation, invention and uniqueness this is a singular experience that remains extraordinary no matter how many times you watch it.
Bambi was once widely considered one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, Disney films of all. While this opinion generally persists amongst professional critics, check the average review site and you’ll find the little fawn’s numbers have gradually fallen like autumn leaves. There are a couple of obvious reasons for this. For one, people often tend to favour the Disney films with which they grew up, so currently we’re seeing Treasure Planet’s and Meet the Robinsons’ stock rise a little as the children of their era reach their early 20s. I’m not immune to this phenomenon, with 80s and 90s Disney films holding a special nostalgic place in my heart, along with Robin Hood and The Sword in the Stone, not coincidentally the two films we had taped off TV on an old, battered VHS cassette that went wobbly through overuse. But as an obsessive fan of the art of animation, the classic Disney originators from the Golden Age are clear works of genius to me where some find them boring. Their reputation was kept up when I was a kid by frequent re-releases (I remember seeing Pinocchio at the cinema) and shows like Disney Time which played clips from them every school holiday, but now almost every Disney film is accessible through one streaming service, whole generations perhaps don’t gravitate to these early masterpieces as readily as they do the later films or those dreadful photorealistic remakes.
It doesn’t take long to realise that Bambi is a very different type of film from what we expect of mainstream animation nowadays. There is very little plot, with the film opting instead to present us with a cyclical approximation of life by way of a deceptively idyllic but sumptuous recreation of nature. Even by the standards of later films, some of the animal characters are desperately cloying, shamelessly courting our “awwwwws” in a manner that has achieved the improbable task of making us associate the name Thumper with cuteness rather than with the brutal mob enforcer for whom it clearly should’ve been destined. In contrast with the original novel by Felix Salten (an avid hunter, no less) which depicted the animal kingdom as the vicious, dangerous world it is, Bambi depicts life in the woods as a threat-free, blissful experience sullied only by the intervention of man. Therefore, starvation and predation are removed from the equation entirely, so a large owl stands over a chipmunk with schoolmasterly authority but never once entertains the idea of ripping its throat out. Nevertheless, with its small handful of animal deaths, including one which has traumatised whole generations, Bambi is owed a debt by every subsequent animation that dared to depict furry mortality, from Watership Down and Ringing Bell of Chirin to The Animals of Farthing Wood and Disney’s own The Lion King. Bambi’s suggestion that man is the only danger to wild animals may seem dishonest to some (particularly the hunters who predictably took issue with the film, ostensibly because it depicted out-of-season hunting but transparently because it depicted as sentient that which they deemed mere target practice) but its eradication of the other dangers of the natural world allows the film to powerfully, if simplistically, depict the harmful intervention of humankind on the environment in a boldly confrontational manner designed to challenge audiences rather than placate them. With only a 70 minute runtime to work with, the decision to depict nature as kind and man as cruel seems like a fair shorthand for the difference between animals killing out of necessity and humans killing for their own selfish entertainment.
With its simpering baby animals and intervals of cute physical comedy, Bambi is sometimes seen as a film aimed at very young children but this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, Bambi is one of the most adult of Disney’s animated features. Likewise, the notion that Bambi’s slow pace equates to it being a film about nothing misses the fact that it is actually a film about everything. Bambi is a life cycle, touching on the big themes of birth, death, love and responsibility, not to mention good and evil. It works for very young children, who will be captivated by the appropriately childlike protagonists but learn about bigger concepts as they follow their adventures, but it also works for adults who have already lived through the joys and tragedies being depicted. As a parent myself, I was deeply moved by its assertion that it was my wife’s duty to teach and protect our child and then get shot, while I stood by stoically on a mountainside as far away from my family as possible. OK, so that’s me being glibly sarcastic, but there is a certain outdated traditionalism about Bambi’s trajectory from joyous, frolicking fawn to look-at-my-massive-antlers detached masculinity. It’s to be expected in a film from 1942 and Disney manages to make it feel like a positive depiction of a wise, gently guiding presence rather than the Ayn Rand-esque abdication of collective responsibility in favour of individualism found in Salten’s novel.
I did something I very rarely do after watching Bambi. I watched it again immediately the following night. After starting this Disney rewatch with five films from the 21st century and one from the 90s, there was a certain level of recalibration required in order to get into the mindset of the Golden Age. My initial reaction to the almost aggressively sweet early scenes of Bambi was one of cynical reluctance and I wondered if the 5 star rating I had originally given it was an overreaction to the peer pressure of critical consensus. But as Bambi unfolded and I got into its rhythm I was reminded just how impressive these early Disney films are. By the end of that first watch I was fully satisfied by Bambi’s greatness but I still downgraded it half a star. But having thought about it for the majority of the next day, I experienced something akin to a craving to watch it again and this time I adored every minute of it, upgrading it once more to full marks. Even the saccharine charms of Thumper and Flower broke through my skepticism. Say what you will about Thumper’s cutesiness but he is a magnificently realised character, his personality captured in his little glances and movements. Walt opted to use real children rather than adult impersonators in the roles of the baby animals and in doing so he brilliantly provided an instant way in for the youngest members of the audience. OK, so the bashful Flower is perhaps slightly underdeveloped but Thumper is the perfect approximation of the precocious older kid who prematurely assumes a sort of parental role towards their younger peers. Bambi, meanwhile, reminds us of the burgeoning curiosity of those earliest years, his repeated attempts to awkwardly find his feet serving as an apt metaphor.
The music of Bambi is not especially well remembered but it is subtly layered in, sung by Donald Novis and the Disney Studio Chorus rather than placed in the mouths of the characters. Given Bambi’s heightened level of realism, the decision to not have its characters burst into song was a wise one but Frank Churchill and Larry Morey’s lovely songs keep that Golden Age Disney spirit alive. The opening number Love is a Song was nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar and its gentle lilt bleeds beautifully into Churchill’s also Oscar-nominated score. The songs rise out of this gorgeous musical groundwork like time-lapse flowers, with the sparkling Little April Shower remaining one of my favourite pieces of Disney music, its self-described “gay little roundelay” perfectly paired with one of Bambi’s most memorable interludes of ravishingly animated natural beauty. Tragically, Bambi was the first film to feature one of Churchill’s posthumous scores as, in a chilling piece of thematic synchronicity, he shot himself dead at his piano a few months before its release. Although he is not often mentioned during the average discussion of Disney films, Churchill’s heartening songs and scores are vital to that special atmosphere of the celebrated Golden Age animated features.
It was the intention of Walt and his artists to make Bambi a more realistic work and they succeeded handsomely. It was not for want of hard work though, with Walt setting up a small zoo in the studio so that animators could study the movement of the real life creatures they were drawing. It may seem somewhat hypocritical of me to complain about the joylessness of the recent photorealistic and live action remakes of Disney classics when I prize Bambi’s attempts at heightened realism so highly. But unlike the remakes which seem to regard their animated forerunners as some sort of mistake for not being close enough to real life, Bambi was an experiment in recreating reality within the parameters of the animated art. It uses all the glorious techniques of stylisation to enhance its storytelling and atmosphere. Just look at the bold colours used in the fight between Bambi and another stag, or the wild motions of Friend Owl spinning round and round on a branch. You can have a world that is both sumptuously realistic and incorporates jokes like when Flower turns rigid and pink after being kissed by a female skunk (yes, Bambi has an erection joke in it). Bambi is a celebration of animation’s capabilities. The latter day remakes just feel like an attempt to wring out every drop of imagination for the sake of bland, joyless facsimiles.
Another part of Bambi’s increased realism is its refusal to shy away from difficult subjects. Of course, there is the murder of Bambi’s mother, which, if I was feeling particularly off-colour, I might call one of the most famous shots in cinema history. The joke doesn’t quite work as a double meaning because, despite the tricks a million minds have played on themselves, we never see the bullet hit. Instead we see Bambi and his mother running through the snow, we hear the shot, we see Bambi continue to run and then the camera holds on where Bambi’s mum would be but is not. It is obvious that something is wrong and not long afterwards Bambi’s father finally comes down from his mountain of solitude to deliver the news. The words “Your mother can’t be with you anymore” have rung in cinemagoers heads for decades. Though many, including Disney’s own niece, vehemently protested that Bambi’s mum needn’t have died, this is a pivotal event in the narrative and Disney delivered the shock with restraint and taste. Planned scenes of the mother’s murder happening onscreen and Bambi returning to the bleeding corpse were wisely cut, leaving behind a more impressionistic representation of loss. It allows the film to cut from scenes of tragic snowy bereavement to merry springtime reverie without missing a beat but crucially also without trivialising or disregarding the continued grief Bambi experiences. A sense of melancholy never leaves the film afterwards, even when on the surface it temporarily becomes a broad comedy about “twitterpation.”
Bambi could’ve been even more hard-hitting than it was. Though everyone remembers Bambi’s mum dying, few recall the moment towards the film’s climax when a panicking pheasant attempts an ill-advised airborne escape and is shot out of the sky. This lifeless corpse we actually do see, falling to the ground with a sickening thud. It’s the only other death the film shows though, which is notable considering that Salten’s novel saw scores of creatures killed by humans and each other. One scene in the book even had Bambi reaching the important conclusion that man is not all-powerful when he is shown the body of a human hunter accidentally shot by another of his party. Walt apparently intended to include this scene but thought better of it later down the line. This was probably a wise decision. While there are those who feel that Bambi fails as an adaptation by shying away from its source novel’s brutality, it actually picks a far more suitable path for a family film and its focus on the extreme ups and downs of life allow Disney’s version of man to be read in any number of symbolic ways, something of which the human corpse scene may well have robbed the film. Salten’s novel was praised for its unflinching but respectful depiction of nature, so brutal that many interpreted it as an allegory for the treatment of the Jewish people in Europe (including the Nazis, who burned the book). In the hands of Disney, we get a far more idealised vision of nature, but one which allows Bambi to become both a microcosm of life itself and a pointedly critical exploration of man’s abuse of nature which, in making humans the only enemy, is as necessarily emphatic as its subject matter demands. A masterpiece.
2. THE SWORD IN THE STONE
Disney’s take on T. H. White’s Arthurian legend The Sword in the Stone has got a bit lost over the years and is rarely cited among the studio’s best work. Though it was a modest box office success, critical reviews were mixed with many criticising the thin plot, moments of below-par animation, forgettable songs and broad characters. Also coming in for much stick was the fact that, due to the onset of puberty, the character of Arthur (aka Wart) is voiced by three different actors, his voice changing noticeably from scene to scene or sometimes even within the same scene. That all three voices had a clear American accent also didn’t sit well with some purists. That The Sword in the Stone can overcome such problems at all is impressive. That it remains one of the best and most underrated Disney films of all is testament to how Disney at its very best can easily paper over cracks to create a masterpiece. That said, I do take issues with some of the criticisms levelled at The Sword in the Stone. For one, it does not have a weak plot, merely a different kind of structure. The film is about growing up and the accumulation of the necessary wisdom to make the transition for childhood to adulthood. Therefore, it employs an episodic structure in which the young Arthur is taught various life lessons by his adoptive mentor Merlin. The result is a narrative that knowingly forsakes the driving forward momentum of Disney’s simpler stories in favour of greater philosophical import. Some of the lessons Arthur learns are appropriately unforgiving, such as the climax to the slapstick romance of the squirrel sequence in which a small, innocent woodland creature is left eternally heartbroken when her chosen mate turns out to be a magically-transformed human boy. The cold, grey image of the bereft squirrel staring off into the distance is one of Disney’s saddest moments.
The soundtrack of The Sword in the Stone, though it does lack any real showstoppers, is carefully composed by the legendary Sherman Brothers to mirror its structure. Songs liker That’s What Makes the World Go Round and A Most Beffudling Thing are barely snatches of melodies, like little whistled tunes designed to underline the lessons without upstaging them. Higitus Figitus is presented as an increasingly frantic magic spell filled with nonsense words which Merlin uses in order to pack an entire room full of objects into a small bag, while Mad Madam Mim is a joyously self-aggrandising theme song for a baddie that ensures she lingers long in the mind even when she spends comparatively little time onscreen.
While The Sword in the Stone‘s supporting cast is largely made up of booming British lunkheads and shrieking, toothless washerwomen, the central trio of Arthur, Merlin and Archimedes the educated owl are terrifically realised creations. While Arthur’s good-natured curiosity gives the viewer a way in to the plot, Merlin’s combination of impish amusement at his ward’s naivety and bad-tempered blustering at his own occasional bungling makes for one of the most memorable Disney leads ever. Actor Karl Swenson provides the perfect voice and his transferal from his intended role of Archimedes allowed Junius Matthews to step into that role and consequently steal every scene in which he appears. Irritable, pompous but basically good hearted, Archimedes is a terrific comic foil and the subtle way in which the film depicts his veiled affection for Arthur is deeply touching. The character is also animated beautifully. Those who criticised The Sword in the Stone‘s occasional lapses in animation quality should look to the scene in which Archimedes has a hysterical laughing fit at one of Merlin’s failures. It’s an astounding piece of character animation and there are plenty of comparable moments throughout. Look at the palpable depiction of exhaustion in the wolf who pursues Arthur and Merlin up a hill, or the way in which a sugar bowl is turned into a memorable character without the use of facial features or a voice. Modest though it may appear to some, I truly think The Sword in the Stone is one of Disney’s most beautiful looking films.
While we’re on the subject of the film’s animation, we must mention the Wizard’s Duel sequence. The Sword in the Stone creates an excellent atmosphere throughout with its crumbling castles and forbidding woodlands but a sequence towards the ending of the film provides viewers with a true tour de force and one of Disney’s most spellbinding humorous set pieces. This is the Wizard’s Duel between Merlin and his old adversary Madam Mim, in which the pair attempt to destroy each other by transforming into a range of different creatures. It’s a fast-paced, devilishly clever sequence in which Mim’s loose interpretation of the rules eventually comes back to bite her. The sequence sets up Arthur and Archimedes as spectators to comment on the action and cheer on Merlin, thereby providing us once again with a way into the action without overselling it. Filled with humour, superb animal designs and an edge of genuine threat, the Wizard’s Duel is Disney magic at its most mesmerising.
Why exactly The Sword in the Stone became so buried I’m not sure. Though it has an enthusiastic cult following, you rarely hear it mentioned when Disney is discussed and even when it does come up it is usually shrugged off as a minor work. Perhaps the film’s preference for focusing on big themes instead of simple storytelling, its experimentation with structure, its marginalising of musical numbers and its refusal to appoint a central villain make it too different for those in love with the more recognised classic Disney style to stomach. But, as this list hopefully demonstrates, Disney have always been a studio that are bolder and more experimental than the latter-day pejorative use of the phrase ‘Disneyfication’ allows for. If Disney to you means nothing more than sloppy sentiment, fairy tale simplicity, doe-eyed anthropomorphic critters and niggling upbeat ditties then I’m sorry, but you clearly haven’t be watching properly!
Dumbo has long been my very favourite Disney film of all. I didn’t go into this rewatch expecting that to change and I was correct in my assumption. But there were other things that had changed, not about the film itself but about my perception of it. In preparation for this rewatch I found a review I wrote of Dumbo from over a decade ago. Towards the end of the review I’d addressed the issue of the controversial crows scene and, amidst a couple of small concessions, I essentially pooh-poohed the idea of the rest of the scene being problematic. Since the writing of that review a lot has happened including the Black Lives Matter movement and, like many people, while I immediately supported BLM it also brought into sharp focus the shortcomings of what I had always perceived as my own fiercely antiracist attitudes. Here, for instance, was an article where I was presumptuous enough to assume that I got to say what was offensive and what was not regarding depictions of race. And, though I had qualified it in a perfunctory manner, I had decided that the crows in Dumbo were not. Watching Dumbo in light of evolving attitudes, I found myself looking at the crows scene a little differently. I still have various opinions on Dumbo’s depiction of race but crucially I now try to look at them from a more enlightened standpoint, without the privileged entitlement of a “Hey, lay off my cartoon!” attitude. This time round, we will be unpacking the crows as well as other questionable parts of Dumbo, but I will state upfront that the opinions I have landed on for now are my own, that they are the result of positive evolution rather than fear of offence and that, for what they’re worth, they are the opinions of a white man on scenes deemed by many as offensive to black audiences. Please take these comments for what they are: more fuel for the debate from someone who is in no position to actually light the fire.
There’s an insulting inclination, when reviewing films that require an element of ideological wrestling, to open the second paragraph with a “Well, now we’ve got the disclaimer out of the way…” attitude. It’s a tool for disabusing oneself of the notion that a film’s more problematic elements are part of its overall character, rather than a detachable supplement to be read separately. For me, an ethical vegan, Dumbo also has the issue of what could be seen as pro-circus propaganda in its depiction of contented caged animals. I see it as a little more complex than that. While I don’t believe for a minute that a 1940s Disney film set out to defame the American institution of the circus coming to town, Dumbo does at least give us some light and shade with its cruel ringmaster (officially considered a Disney villain, if the Disney’s Villains Revenge video game is to be believed), underpaid staff, insufferably rude gawkers and the brutal treatment of Mrs. Jumbo. But no part of me can deny that Dumbo’s supposedly happy ending features smiling animals, still in captivity, celebrating the fact that Dumbo has become the star attraction. I have spoken with other vegans who simply cannot get past this part of Dumbo, and yet they loved The Greatest Showman, a film that celebrates a real life exploiter of animals but largely ignores the presence of the subjugated beasts. In both my case and their’s, our love of what we first perceived the film to be had complicated matters once moral considerations came knocking. Having seen Dumbo first as a child, I had no idea about the cruelty of circuses and the crows seemed to represent nothing more than a group of lovably sassy birds. In their case, they’d fallen in love with the inspirational message and full-blooded musical numbers of The Greatest Showman before its “Sure, there are mistreated animals over there but we don’t need to get into that” approach had even registered.
Watching the crows sequence now, it frustrates me just how close it comes to being what I would deem acceptable. Critic Leonard Maltin observed that the crows aren’t so much black stereotypes as just black characters, and sympathetic ones at that. Their song, the fantastic When I See an Elephant Fly, is filled with smart wordplay and performed with the sort of colloquial camaraderie that was typical of records of the era by Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong. In this respect the crows are an affectionate tribute to black culture and artistry that could’ve been remarkable for all the right reasons… had Disney not cast Cliff Edwards in the role of their leader. The white voice actor behind Jiminy Cricket provides the voice of Jim Crow, an insensitive name for the character but one which is never actually mentioned in the film and on which Disney back-pedalled in the 50s, changing it to Dandy Crow instead. This change at least shows a willingness to address mistakes and the fact that the rest of the crows were voiced by black actors and musicians, including Hall Johnson and James Baskett (the latter becoming famous as Uncle Remus in the even more controversial Song of the South five years later), makes the crows scene feel almost progressive. The studio even hired African American dancers to provide visual references for the animators. But that miscasting of the lead crow unfortunately aligns the scene with blackface and minstrelsy and it feels significant that Disney refused to cast a black voice artist in a leading role, even one that only lasts a matter of minutes. The desire to bring back the popular Edwards in some capacity probably played a large part in the casting decision too and there’s a definite impression that Disney were trying to pay homage in the same clumsy way that Fred Astaire’s Bojangles of Harlem routine in Swing Time was born of deep admiration but mired in grotesque racial stereotypes. Floyd Norman, Disney’s first long-term African American employee, observed in a blog post “The world has changed and the culture has changed. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that. However, it is totally wrong to revise history simply because it makes you uncomfortable.” He then went and unhelpfully titled that blog post Black Crows and Other PC Nonsense. There’s room for debate that doesn’t go to the extremes of impunity or embargo here and the fact that Dumbo currently appears on Disney+ with a caption about outdated attitudes at the top seems to me a step in the right direction. But as someone who has had to stop myself absent-mindedly bursting out in song about how I “be done seen about anything” in the last few days, I feel that contextualisation and an educational approach when watching with children is key.
Alongside the crows, there’s another racially contentious moment in Dumbo that is much less frequently discussed: Song of the Roustabouts. This is the scene in which a team of exclusively black labourers work hard to erect the circus Big Top. The lyrics of this song very pointedly allude to slavery and some critics have found the combination of lines like “We slave until we’re almost dead” with the refrain “We’re happy-hearted roustabouts” to be as offensive as Song of the South’s depiction of contented Southern American slaves. Lines like “We never learned to read or write” and “We don’t know when we get our pay, and when we do we throw our pay away” have been interpreted as depicting African Americans as uneducated and irresponsible. While there’s undoubtedly a discussion to be had here, especially given the somewhat indelicate evocation of slavery, I’ve always thought there’s more going on in Song of the Roustabouts than mere racist stereotyping. The song the roustabouts sing explicitly mirrors the style of a chain gang chant used to keep the spirits up in the face of adversity, hence their happy-heartedness is a defiant gesture towards their terrible working conditions, rather than an acceptance of it. Dumbo’s central theme is that of social outcasts, and both the crows and the roustabouts represent elements of race and class in this respect. The roustabouts are uneducated due to lack of opportunity rather than inclination, with the blowing of their pay packets to make life bearable being a working class stereotype rather than a racial one. That the roustabouts pull together to get the tent up, and that Dumbo and the crows work together to get Dumbo himself up, is a celebration of solidarity amongst the bullied, abused and disenfranchised.
I’ve thought a lot about Dumbo over the years as it slowly became, and remained, one of my favourite films of all time. Its handful of admittedly egregious missteps have placed it under considerable scrutiny and though in my book it is right that it be disclaimered, I think it provides a powerful and valuable glimpse into attitudes of its era that can help educate even as they still entertain. And if it’s entertainment you’re after, Dumbo is surely the most purely enjoyable of the Golden Age Disney features. After the disastrous financial losses made by Pinocchio and Fantasia and with the in-production Bambi proving complex and costly, Dumbo was conceived as an inexpensive, smaller picture with less ambitious aims but a potentially wider appeal. From these modest intentions arose, in my opinion, the most beautiful Disney film of all. Dumbo may not have Wow-moments to quite match Fantasia at its best, but it has a consistent cartoonish elegance and vibrant colour palette that is as or more successful in evoking an immersive atmosphere. The structure of the film is gloriously episodic, aligning it with the Silly Symphony shorts in which the animators perfected their art. Dumbo is famous for being a flying elephant but that plot wrinkle doesn’t occur until the very end of the film. Dumbo’s mistreatment and his desire to reunite with his imprisoned mother provides a thoroughline in which the film hangs vignettes about, among other things, a stork delivering babies, a circus train arriving in town, a disastrous elephant act, a nightmarish drunken hallucination and a triumphant transformation of an affliction into an asset. All this is packed into one of Disney’s shortest runtimes, at just over an hour. It’s a blissfully concise, visually stunning, emotionally engaging and narratively satisfying experience.
The soundtrack of Dumbo is one of my favourites, mostly eschewing showstopping songs for little snatches of ditties that accompany and further the action. Only the aforementioned When I See an Elephant Fly is performed by characters in the film, with the rest of the songs performed by vocal groups The Sportsmen and The King’s Men. Rousing numbers like Casey Junior (one of my favourite pieces of Disney music) match the breeziness of the images they accompany, while the carnivalesque Pink Elephants on Parade makes a suitably disturbing soundtrack for one of Dumbo’s boldest flights of fancy, a champagne-induced hallucination featuring the titular pachyderms which matches anything in Fantasia in terms of invention and arresting visuals. The one song not sung by a vocal group is the ballad Baby Mine, performed by Betty Noyes (who would later dub Debbie Reynolds’ singing voice in Singin’ in the Rain). Despite being nominated for an Oscar, it’s the weakest song in the film and doesn’t quite manage to match the timeless melody of its predecessor When You Wish Upon a Star, but it does accompany the film’s most emotionally affecting sequence in which Dumbo visits his caged mother and she cradles him in her trunk through the bars. What could have been an emotionally-manipulative overreach is achieved with such sincere tenderness that it never fails to move even the hardest-hearted viewer.
One thing Dumbo really has going for it is two fantastic central characters. Dumbo, beautifully brought to life by animator Bill Tytla, is a triumph of character animation. From the moment his ears spring out like a badly-packed pop-up tent, a star is born. There have been silent characters in other Disney films, with Dopey, Gideon and the majority of the cast of Fantasia already having made mute appearances by the time of Dumbo’s release, but never had a protagonist been asked to carry a film while remaining speechless. Without a voice artists’ work to fall back on, the character’s expressiveness rests entirely on the animator’s shoulders and Dumbo inspired awwws, chuckles and tears without a single word. By contrast, Timothy the mouse is a very chatty character but, unlike Jiminy Cricket before him, he doesn’t break the fourth wall or feel the need to offer endless folsky aphorisms. While Jiminy Cricket became the bigger star, I’ve always thought Timothy is an infinitely better character. Jiminy was a surprisingly ineffectual companion, frequently getting the wrong end of the stick and giving up way too easily. By contrast, Timothy is a more proactive protector, spurred into action by the injustice being done to Dumbo and always ready to stand up for the little guy. He scares elephants, manipulates a ringmaster, berates crows and constantly seeks to inspire and elevate his downtrodden friend. His Brooklyn accent and scrappy demeanour make for a harder-edged take on the little-helper archetype to which Disney would return again and again, and which they arguably perfected right here.
I used to think of Dumbo as a rare example of a perfect film. I’m not sure I can justify that description in good conscience now, largely based on the miscasting of Cliff Edwards but also because of that nagging guilt I have about children being sold the lie of happy circus animals. But when I look at it purely from an artistic standpoint, I’m unable to resist that vibrant animation, those rousing songs, those lovable characters, that strong central message or that warm, emotional heart. Dumbo may not be perfect but, in shedding the more highfalutin notions of the Disney films that surrounded it but retaining the same level of unparalleled artistry, Disney created a masterpiece that seemed to appeal across the board and became the financial miracle that played a big part in saving the troubled studio.