Hey, Disney+ had to be good for something.
Presented below is my rankings of all 59 (at time of writing) films in the Disney Animation canon, as listed here. I understand there is a small bit of discussion over what constitutes inclusion on this list, with Dinosaur being outed for 2006’s The Wild in some areas, but I’m going to stick with this list of films that are attributed by the Disney behemoth to Walt Disney Animation Studios, and not any of its various smaller hangers-on. I’ll update it as new film’s are added, but the next, Raya And The Last Dragon, isn’t due out until March 2021.
While going through the films I read up on them and their production, which amounted to an erstwhile history of Disney Animation. To spice things up a bit, I thought I might include the best bit of trivia I found on each film, along with a recommendation on whether it is worth watching, and some additional viewing that people can either enjoy instead of or enjoy after.
Without further ado:
59. The Black Cauldron (1985)
Infamously described as Disney Animation’s “rock bottom” and the film that almost killed the studio, this is a dreadful addition to the canon from start to finish. It’s so morbid, grim and dark in tone and look, and you could argue that this could make it fresh and unique in the larger context of the other films in this list. But it instead comes off as rather dreary and plodding, when it isn’t being strangely unnerving, such as with the infamous, and sloppily-edited, “cauldron-born” sequence. The kind of fantasy universe being depicted is crying out for a bit of humour and brightness, but The Black Cauldron could have been made by Zack Snyder for all that it cares about that. The characters are paper-thin – what is the bard even doing in this? – inhabiting a shallow world and stumbling through a predictable plot, with voice actors who sound very not bothered, even the great Nigel Hawthorne. The animation isn’t terrible, most of the time, but there are bizarre errors in continuity and lip-syncing that distract terribly. John Hurt’s performance as the Horned King is the only saving grace, but even that is marred by his ridiculous goblin sidekick. It’s easy to see why this was a financial disaster for the studio, but it was darkest before the dawn.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Then newly appointed studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg apparently cut-up parts of the film himself when producers refused his requests, until Disney CEO Michael Eisner called him up in the booth and convinced him to stop. It’s claimed that this can explain some very shoddy editing in certain scenes, such as musical cues stopping dead.
Worth Watching? – Actually yes, if only to understand how low things had gotten for the studio in the mid-80’s.
Recommended Viewing – Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord Of The Rings, which has a similar style, a similar cast (like John Hurt, who voices Aragorn), and similar flaws, but is just vastly more interesting in the modern context of Middle-Earth movies.
58. Dinosaur (2000)
This one was a long-time in the making, but by the time of its release Disney were so far behind on 3D animated features that it comes off as a rush job. The first ten or so minutes suggest something great, an almost Exodus-like story told like a nature documentary, and Dinosaur would have been better off if its characters never talked. Once they start, the film loses any mystique it might have, and everything goes downhill. The plot is a formulaic bore with little in the way of surprises. The voice cast just can’t get into it, especially the lead, dealing with a hum-drum script that focuses way too much on a lemur PUA. And the animation has aged quite badly, especially any shot where moving feet are visible, almost melding into their environment. Even for 2000 this was poor work, with a budget twice that of the then seven-year-old, and much better looking, Jurassic Park. The film’s conclusion is one of the worst in the Disney Animation canon, asking an audience to imagine a happy ending for a post-Cretaceous extinction event group of dinosaurs, delivered with a flavourless closing narration that makes no sense. It would be five years before Disney committed to this level of animation again, and that tracks with how bad Dinosaur was.
Trivia Worth Repeating – The genesis of the film was partly Paul Verhoeven of all people, who, while filming RoboCop, started to envision a story that ended with the Cretaceous extinction killing everyone but the lemurs. It got as far as a treatment and budget discussions with Disney. After he dropped out and a decade in development hell, the story he helped make was re-worked into Dinosaur.
Worth Watching? – Nope. There is very little in the way of redeeming features here.
Recommended Viewing – Aside from Jurassic Park, BBC’s documentary series Walking With Dinosaurs, from 1999, might not look much better than Dinosaur and has some questionable representations (Liopleurodon was not 25 metres long), but is much more entertaining.
57. Saludos Amigos (1942)
It seems quite strange to include this 42 minute feature with the rest. The first in a series of cost-cutting anthologies designed to offset both the effects of strikes and the studio’s government-mandated activities during World War Two, Saludos Amigos is almost more interesting for its background than its actual content. It’s a by-product of a government policy to encourage better relations between North and Latin America, which manifests itself as an animated tourist information video. Four basic enough shorts designed to showcase the society and geography of Peru/Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Brazil are the meat and bones of the film, or at least kind of. It’s all fairly basic stuff, with Donald Duck and Goofy making their feature bow in slapstick comedy set-up’s that can be wryly amusing at times. It’s only the last short, “Aquerela do Brasil” that really stands out to me, with its colourful animation and introduction to Jose Carioca, whose (to Donald) incomprehensible language and dancing seems like the best use of the animators/writers time. You wouldn’t get away with the cigar anymore though. Other than that, Saludos Amigos seems like the payment a bunch of animators had to make for a state-sponsored holiday to South America, and bares little consideration otherwise.
Trivia Worth Repeating: “Condorito”, a Chilean comic-book condor that is a well-known part of South American pop-culture today, was created directly as a result of how artist Rene “Pepo” Rios Boettiger reacted to Saludos Amigos. He felt anthropomorphised plane “Pedro”, the film’s effort to showcase Chile, wasn’t good enough, and created Condorito in part to make an animated national representation to match Donald and Goofy.
Worth Watching? – In terms of any investigation into the larger historical/cultural context of the “Good Neighbour Policy” it’s probably indispensable, but other than that, no, not really.
Recommended Viewing – Maybe check out Walt & El Grupo, an easy-going but interesting documentary produced by Disney about the Latin America trip.
56. Chicken Little (2005)
If the 00’s were a bad period for Disney Animation on a lot of levels, Chicken Little might be the lowest point. It’s a really poor effort in most respects, which is especially disastrous as it was the studio’s first fully 3D film. Obviously the writers wanted to generate something like that done by Shrek over at Dreamworks, with the huge amount of pop-culture reference humour, but it falls utterly flat. The choice to have the soundtrack be entirely nostalgia hits, a really bad move for a studio with Disney’s legacy, also smells a little bit like what Dreamworks was doing with its ogre. The animation itself is only OK, even for the time period (the much better looking The Incredibles came out a year earlier: Disney was still playing catch-up, and being in that role did not suit them). And the story is all over the place with a first act that is pretty much a self-contained narrative, complete with a finale, that could have ended the movie. But after there is the sudden interjection of murderous aliens; the actual last act is a manic invasion of the town; and a really stretched father/son troubles narrative permeates everything, and not effectively. The voice cast is at sea here, the score is forgettable and what larger moral the film wants to get out of the old fable is pretty much just lost in the shuffle.
Trivia Worth Repeating – This was the second Disney adaptation of the fable: the first was an 1943 propaganda short, that showcased a Hitler-inspired fox using the power of mass hysteria to trick a bunch of birds into his cave, where he devours them all. You could make that film right now with some small changes. Also worth noting because I find it so funny (and telling for the film’s VA quality): Garry Marshall, who voices Chicken Little’s dad, was fired from The Emperor’s New Groove for sounding too “New York”, and agreed to take the “Buck Cluck” role on the condition he did not have to do anything different with his voice.
Worth Watching? – No way. Bury your head instead.
Recommended Viewing – If you can find them online, Aesop’s Sound Fables were animated adaptations of Aesop’s stories made in the 1920’s. They pioneered early cinematic techniques – “Dinner Time” was the first publically released animated film with a synchronised soundtrack – and animator Paul Terry was a significant inspiration for a young Walt Disney.
55. The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
Remember that brief period in the late eighties when the States had an obsession for a romanticised-version of Australia? I don’t because I was only two, but the legacy remains in films like this. Disney Animation would probably sooner forget that time, with their belated contribution to the craze being their first ever sequel (the direct-to-video market only kicked into gear in ’94). If The Rescuers was a bit dull and under-whelming (wait and see), then the second installment is more so. Its opening half-hour features both the best – the well-animated sequence of a young man flying on the back of a golden eagle – and the worst – the way that it takes nearly 20 minutes for the titular characters to show-up – aspects of itself. From there The Rescuers Down Under turns into a a bit of a messy affair, caught between numerous unsatisfying strands: a very ineffective bit of romantic drama involving returnees Bob Newhart, Eva Gabor, and newcomer Tristan Rodgers (a Crocodile Dundee stand-in); George C. Scott’s homicidal villain whose motivations and goals make no sense; and a pro-environment message, that was surprisingly rare for Disney. With a limp second act and a finale that feels longer than it is, its a poorly paced and edited feature. It would take twenty-six years for Disney to theatrically release another true sequel, and it’s not hard to see why.
Trivia Worth Repeating – One of the reasons that the film’s best element, the golden eagle Marahuté, features so little – roughly seven minutes of screen-time – is because of the level of detail employed in her creation. This included 200 individually animated feathers, that were tagged with employee names to keep track, including one for Jeffrey Katzenberg. A three-second shot of Marahuté puffing her feathers took three days to animate, so it could include accurate “nictitating membranes”. That kind of work deserved a better movie.
Worth Watching? – No. This concept struggled with one film, let alone a sequel.
Recommended Viewing – I’m struggling to find a film I would recommend about golden eagles, the Australian Outback or that brief craze. So I’m just going to go for the lazy option and say “Bart vs Australia” of The Simpsons, that includes, in a general send-up of the country, a great skewering of that brief Australian obsession: “As I’m sure you remember, in the late 1980s the US experienced a short-lived infatuation with Australian culture. For some bizarre reason, the Aussies thought this would be a permanent thing. Of course, it wasn’t.”
54. Dumbo (1940)
Coming in at barely over an hour – the studio was trying to recoup losses from Fantasia on the cheap – Dumbo only just about merits inclusion on this list in terms of being a feature, and I really do find it one of the weaker releases from the studio during those early years. Leaving aside a few stand-out sequences – the attempted circus routine that goes awry with the other elephants, the drunken hallucinations and, of course, the crows near the conclusion – there is little to really note about Dumbo, which is otherwise a by-the-numbers story of a strange young boy finding his place in the world. The film is infused with unhealthy doses of really manipulative sentimentality – like the famous trunk through the bars sequence, which fell really flat for me this time around – and with its limited running time suffers some awkward pacing issues, from the sudden intro nearly halfway through of seemingly pivotal character Timothy, to the bizarre way everything is wrapped up in two minutes flat at the end. Accusations of racism with the crows are a bit heavy-handed so the film deserves little criticism from that quarter, but it has only a few stand-out moments of animation, almost separate to the main plot, to really put front and centre in its defence.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Disney’s distributor, RKO Radio Pictures, actually asked that the film length be increased, by even ten minutes, reasoning 64 minutes was too short for a feature theatrical release. Disney refused, stating a belief that the film would suffer creatively from an increased length – nonsense, in my opinion – before admitting that the studio just couldn’t afford to do it anyway.
Worth Watching? – I suppose it’s the first film on my ranking you could consider iconic, but honestly, no. I find this very over-rated.
Recommended Viewing – I have a bit of a soft-spot for elephant-centric Operation Dumbo Drop, which was actually distributed by Disney. The entire film is bonkers, and attempts to make an American triumph out of the Vietnam War, but is a good bit of mindless entertainment. It’s at least a more complete film than Dumbo.
53. The Three Caballeros (1944)
A certain sub-genre of fan-fiction writer must obsess over this one, a Disney animation that features lengthy segments where-in Donald Duck aggressively lusts after a succession of beautiful Latin women. Once you have gotten to the point where he is literally chasing them around a Mexican beach, you’ll begin to wonder what’s going on. But The Three Caballeros is thankfully a little bit more than this. Essentially a sequel to Saludos Amigos it’s an occasionally charming anthology of shorts and follies featuring Donald, the returning Jose Carioca and Mexican debutante Panchito Pistoles (you’ll have to try and ignore parts of this gun-toting, poncho-wearing representation). This is one of Disney’s earliest efforts to mix live-action film-making with animation and it doesn’t always work (a late-on mix of human faces with flowers is more eerie than entrancing), but it can be a bit fun when it does, like in an extended song-and-dance number right at the very end. There are a few things worth noting elsewhere, like the genuinely endearing and humourously narrated tale of “The Flying Gauchito”, but it’s also fair to say that The Three Caballeros wears out its welcome a bit, with many of its segments, like “Baia” crossing the line from entrancing to wearying. A real half-decent watch, but like Saludos Amigos, it feels like the payment for a holiday south of the equator.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Despite his stereotyped traits, Panchito was created in time to serve as a mascot on some of the planes of 201st Fighter Squadron, a Mexican aviation unit that fought in the liberation of the Philippines in the later stages of World War Two.
Worth Watching? – While better than Saludos Amigos, this still feels a bit too throwaway to be considered essential.
Recommended Viewing – Well, for a more memorable animated experience based on Mexican culture, there’s always The Book Of Life or, even better (and also on Disney+), Coco.
52. The Rescuers (1977)
I’m not sure just what tipped me over the edge on this one, but I just could not get into The Rescuers. Maybe it’s the strange ode to the UN that the set-up represents, that feels a bit strange, and nakedly political, coming from a Disney film. Maybe it’s the lacklustre voice acting, with Eva Gabor less intriguing than she was in The Aristocats and Bob Newhart under-stated to a fault. Maybe it’s the way that the villain is essentially just Cruella de Vil with a different dress and name. Maybe it’s because the songs are so terrible. Maybe it’s because the animation is frequently wretched, a really sub-par effort considering how great the department did on the other release of that year (The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh). Maybe it’s all of these things, and more. The semblance of a decent action-adventure is present in The Rescuers, but it never really clicks into gear the way it needs to, and the relationship between the two central mice simply doesn’t pop. The odd bit of half-decent humour isn’t enough to save it. As crude as it may be to say, putting a naked woman into the background of this film is about the only thing that could have drawn more eyes to it.
Trivia Worth Repeating – That Cruella de Vil comparison is apropos, as the creators did think about just making her the villain. They even worked up some interesting sketches of her in a crocodile skin coat to match the swamp setting. Medusa really isn’t that far off. Also worth noting: Don Bluth describes orders from on high to not bother colouring in the whites of characters’ eyes for financial reasons as the last straw for the well-regarded animator, who quit Disney in 1978, and founded the competing Don Bluth Productions in 1979.
Worth Watching? – I can’t bring myself to say so. There is precious little to get excited about in The Rescuers.
Recommended Viewing – Follow Don Bluth’s career, while sticking with animated mice, and check out An American Tail and its assorted sequels.
51. Melody Time (1948)
Disney were really scraping the bottom of the barrel at this point of the “package” era, still recovering from the war and trying to finance a return to single-narrative productions. Hence a popular music version of Fantasia, but more like the earlier Make Mine Music, with Melody Time’s seven segments distinctly divided with no common theme. “Once Upon A Wintertime” is feelgood but forgettable, with basic animation and unexceptional music. “Bumble Boogie” is an interestingly surreal bit of animation, but too short to really warrant much consideration. “The Legend Of Johnny Appleseed” is well put-together and features some great musical choices, but is too long and clunky to be a “short”. “Little Toot” is fun, calling back to some of Disney’s earlier shorts. “Trees”, like “Bumble Boogie”, suffers from being very brief, but has some good representations of nature art. “Blame It On The Samba” is just a re-hash of one of the segments from Saludos Amigos. And with “Pecos Bill” Melody Time leaves its best for last, with an entertaining recitation of a Texan myth with some Loony Tunes-esque animation. There is little tying all of them together, and the whole presentation thus feels a but slapdash, but there are a few pieces here that are worth seeing nonetheless.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Ken Darby’s score for “The Legend Of Johnny Appleseed” arose the ire of Walt Disney, who described it contemptuously as “New Deal music”. I’m not even sure what that means, but Darby bit back enough on Disney’s criticism that his relationship with the studio was soured, and he left shortly after. It was Disney’s loss, with Darby going on to win the Best Score award at the Oscars on three occasions.
Worth Watching? – This is the worst of the package films, so there is plenty elsewhere in that era if you are so inclined. If really interested, check out the two longest shorts, they being “The Legend Of Johnny Appleseed” and “Pecos Bill”.
Recommended Viewing – I’ll take the opportunity with the package films to recommend some other animated anthologies, and will start with Disney’s own The Reluctant Dragon of 1941, which had animated shorts held together by the narrative of a fictionalised tour of Disney Animation’s studios. Presenting a rosy picture at the height of the Disney animators strike, it’s little remembered, but an interesting bit of studio promotion.
Next week, 50-41.