50. Peter Pan (1953)
This was one I actually hadn’t seen before, and I’m thinking that I haven’t missed too much. It’s an undeniably interesting concept, of children traveling to a land where time ceases to exist, clinging to innocence with a desperate abandon. And especially interesting in the context of a young girl on the verge of entering maturity (and having to put up with a charming, yet misogynistic, lead), but a Disney animation is not really the best way of exploring the idea. Leaving that aside, Peter Pan can be an entertaining diversion at times, largely made by the slapstick antics of Captain Hook and his ridiculous crew. The VA is generally great here as well, and the film looks fantastic from beginning to end, especially the ship-based finale and its iconic ticking crocodile. Oh, but the “Injuns”. To say that the film’s treatment of Native Americans is problematic would be a wild dangerous understatement, and even being a product of its time its truly cringe-worthy to have to sit through “What Makes The Red Man Red?” and the other examples of blatantly racist stereotyping going on. It’s a serious black mark on any modern assessment, which might explain why I rate Pan as lowly as I do.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Peter Pan went through numerous directors, visions and re-writes since the property was first obtained in 1939. Jack Kinney, a long-time Disney animator and short director, was tasked with bringing Peter Pan to life during the World War Two years, with Walt Disney asking him to do a full story-board and present it in its totality. After an intense period of completing this task, Kinney gave a two and a half hour walkthrough. At the end of this, Disney’s only comment was, according to Kinney, “You know, I’ve been thinking about Cinderella.” Kinney responded by leaving the room and having “a couple of belts”.
Worth Watching? – The Indian stuff is so nakedly repugnant, it’s hard to recommend. The opening in London is worth a look I suppose.
Recommended Viewing – I’ve never really been one for the adaptations of J.M. Barrie’s most famous work, but the somewhat fantastical Finding Neverland is a very well-made biopic of the man, and the way that he came to create Pan.
49. Home On The Range (2004)
Disney Animation were firmly back in the trend of anthropomorphised animals at this point, with Home On The Range just the next in a series of forgettable 00’s offerings trying to re-capture some of that Renaissance magic, and mostly failing. I mean, it’s OK: there is some wry amusement to be gotten from a Wild West cowboys and rustlers tale told from the perspective of the cows (and horses, and rabbits, and bison). It’s animated fairly well too, and it can be funny on the odd occasion. But in many other ways Home On The Range is trying too hard: with its VA cast that are frankly rather irritating by the end, especially Rosanne Barr, or an uncaring Judi Dench; with its often puerile or swing-and-a-miss humour; with its unexceptional songs and score; and with its off pacing, with the seeming finale occurring, before the film just keeps going for another twenty minutes. More than that, Home On The Range is just a bit of a bore if I am being honest, a film that feels longer than it is, thinks it’s funnier than it is, and cannot escape the sense that it’s a bit of a throwaway transitional project.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Though it’s standard now, Home On The Range was only the sixth Disney Animated film to get a “PG” rating. This was apparently due to Maggie’s line, in reference to her udders, “Yeah, they’re real, quit staring”, which was one of the few that actually got a laugh from me.
Worth Watching? – No. Plenty of potential, but is mostly wasted. There is no part of this I would really advocate for.
Recommended Viewing – It’s hard to find a western film with an alternative perspective that isn’t a grim affair, so allow me to recommend the slightly connected First Cow from 2019, a story about two men trying to make their fortune on the frontier with a prized cow they don’t actually own. For animal based western animation, there is also Rango I suppose, which I preferred to Home On The Range certainly, but which isn’t really all that either, or maybe Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron for something a bit more serious.
48. Meet The Robinsons (2007)
I got the distinct feeling watching this one that at least some of the people involved wanted to make it a a sciencey The Emperor’s New Groove. Just a total slapstick comedy that refused to take its plot in any way seriously. It’s the only way I can explain the greatness of “Bowler Hat Guy” and his robotic headwear sidekick, easily the best thing about Meet The Robinsons. The rest of the film, with its crazy inventions, weird family members and bizarre set-pieces – it features a fight where a UFO shoots pizza dough at a mind-controlled T-Rex – is crying out for that kind of tone. But, instead, it layers itself unnecessarily with some heavy material, namely Lewis’ quest to find his birth-mother, and a whole bunch of time-travel shenanigans. The 3D animation here isn’t great, with the spindly character models off-putting and only working for the villain. It’s also hard not to think that this was made as something that would match up to The Incredibles, a task at which it fails miserably. The antagonist moves it up a few rungs, but nothing else about Meet The Robinsons really stands out: it isn’t funny enough, it isn’t dramatic enough, it isn’t VA’d well enough, it isn’t scored good enough, it isn’t animated properly enough. It isn’t good enough.
Trivia Worth Repeating – A twist of fate for Jim Carrey involves the film: in 2007 he allegedly had to choose between voicing Bowler Hat Guy or taking the lead in thriller The Number 23, eventually going with the latter. As bad as I think Meet The Robinsons is, it’s a masterpiece next to the confusing drek of The Number 23. Carrey would have been well-suited to Bowler Hat Guy too.
Worth Watching? – Look up a highlights video of Bowler Hat Guy on Youtube, and forget the rest.
Recommended Viewing – Hmm, an animated film about a child genius who invents things? That’s funnier, more distinctly animated and pushes the envelope in a way that interesting instead of faux-edgy? There can only be Dexter’s Laboratory, one of the best animations of its era.
47. Fun And Fancy Free (1947)
With the war in the dust, Disney was on the way back to normalcy at this stage, but Fun And Fancy Free remains a cobbled together production of two very unequal parts, barely held together by the random inclusion of Jiminy Cricket as a narrator. The first, “Bongo”, is a rather dull affair even for the more negative sides of the package films, with the titular bear escaping the circus only to stumble into an unappealing love plot. Not even the fantastical idea that bears express affection by beating each other around the head can really save this one, that only has a few half-decent tunes to save it, with little in the way of eye-catching animation. “Mickey And The Beanstalk” is much better, even if it could do without the MSK-esque interjections of narrator Edgar Bergen and his insufferable dummies. It has a few stand-out animation moments, like the delight of the three farmers when they discover the Giant’s table full of over-sized food, and some Donald zaniness to keep you interested (the opening where he goes on a rampage due to hunger is darkly humorous). Taking a well-worn story and adding some Mickey Mouse humour – be it pratfalls or verbal trickery – works much better than a slapped-together animal love story, and makes Fun And Fancy Free stand-out.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Back to Walt Disney’s changeable moods for this one. When the idea of Mickey Mouse (whom he voiced) being inserted into an adaptation of “Jack And The Beanstalk” was pitched to him in 1940, he was so tickled he allegedly cried tears of laughter, only to also tell the people pitching it the idea would never get made because they “murdered [his] characters”. Disney came round to the idea eventually.
Worth Watching? – Fast forward to the halfway point and try to ignore Bergen. “Bongo” is best forgotten.
Recommended Viewing – You know what, as much as I have, on numerous occasions, criticised Shrek and the way it popularised vapid reference-humour, its spin-off Puss In Boots is a legitimately funny take on the Beanstalk story, turning it into a Wild West heist tale with a frequently dark sense of comedy. “Do you have any idea what they do to eggs in San Ricardo’s prison? I’ll tell you this, my friend: it ain’t over easy!”
46. The Sword In The Stone (1963)
This take on the Arthurian myth, an adaptation of the T.H. White novel, feels a bit like an unwanted child in a way, in production for years and then finally made at a time when Walt Disney was considering ditching animation altogether. And it sort of shows, in what is a fairly mediocre and altogether forgettable contribution from the studio. Perhaps its main flaw is that it is so lacking in plot, amounting to a series of episodic lessons imparted by Merlin and his owl to a long-suffering “Wart”. Said lessons all involve animal transformation and sort of tie together, but can’t prop up the larger film, that suffers from serious pacing issues. It lacks a clear antagonist – Kay and his father drift in and out of the film, while evil witch Mim shows up on the hour mark – relies too much on wacky Merlin to fill scenes, and you can’t help but feel that it all ends, with the removal of the titular blade, at a plot-point that should be in the middle. Leaving aside a few decent animated moments – like the moat escape from a larger fish – and a few bits of effective comedy – like the poor starved wolf who just can’t catch a break – The Sword In The Stone ranks at an inoffensive middling level at best.
Trivia Worth Repeating – For reasons that few could understand afterwards, Wart is voiced by three different actors, Rickie Sorensen, and the Reitherman brothers, Richard and Robert, the later two being sons of the film’s director, Wolfgang Reitherman. Aside from the changes in tone and pitch that occur, sometimes mid-scene, all three actors were American, and that is how Wart is voiced. He stands out in the mostly-English voice cast, and not in a good way.
Worth Watching? – No, this film is too much of a bore to recommend, though if pressed I’d say stick to the final twenty or so minutes for the Merlin/Mim fight and the titular sword.
Recommended Viewing – They are taking their time on an adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles, my favourite take on Arthurian legend. So, maybe give Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur a look if you haven’t already, or another if you have: while it was part a glut of post-LOTR sword-and-shield “epics”, I always thought it a bit under-rated.
45. Ralph Breaks The Internet (2018)
Bar Fantasia this is the canon’s longest film, and boy does it feel it. A real production of two halves here, with the first being an astonishing disaster: needlessly slow (why are the Felix and Calhoun even in this one?), weighed under with copious, garish product placement, dependent on lame reference humour, praising the commercialism of the internet and dating itself with every reference to memes already relatively ancient. Right around the time that the Disney princesses show up for their famous scene – and, yes, their involvement is spectacular – the film takes a turn for the better, leaning in to an examination of toxic friendship, criticism of the darker parts of the internet and even a few well-earned shots at Disney Animation itself (like Alan Menken’s latest, and most unlikely, song “A Place Called Slaughter Race”). The VA is fine and, once you get past the puke-worthy veneration of so many brand names, the depiction of the internet is gloriously colourful and inventive. But the film is (waaaay) too long, too lazy in its approach to humour (whatever happened to set-up/payoff?), and is never able to right itself after that first hour or so. Wreck-It Ralph, as we’ll see, had its problems but managed parody of its basis so much better than this.
Trivia Worth Repeating – The writers wanted to include a scene where Kylo Ren would be either referenced or included, and would be painted as a spoiled child by Venelope. They went to Lucasfilm who told them to drop it, not wanting to undermine Star Wars‘ current big bad. An example of Disney’s corporate synergy undermining their creative teams’ ability to tell jokes, and points to how “by committee” this film was.
Worth Watching? – One film with Ralph and these characters was enough, and it was better, but if you must, fast forward to the princesses and take it from there.
Recommended Viewing – Still waiting for someone to make a movie or TV show out of the doubtlessly influential Snow Crash from Neal Stephenson, so instead go for a much better Disney property that is bluntly referenced in Ralph Blames The Internet: Tron, and even its perfectly acceptable sequel Tron: Legacy. Both are visually interesting depictions of a virtual world, and engaging examinations of video games as a setting.
44. Pocahontas (1995)
On the face of it, this is a fairly middling production. It has a smalshy romantic plot that is at times bearable, at other times too saccharine. It has some stellar songs, like “Colours Of The Wind”, some pretty risible ones, like “Savages”. Some sequences are well-animated, others aspects are very humdrum (like the expressionless face of the main character). It has animal hi-jinks as comedy filler, but perhaps a too serious, bleak tone for much of the rest (but how could it not?). A good voice cast, but some not so great characters: Pocahontas is largely a spectator to her own story, and the film’s villain is a steep step-down from the then recent Disney Renaissance entries. I might have ranked this a bit higher, but it’s impossible to ignore the way that Pocahontas strays so far from the historical record, turning the grim story of the early Jamestown colony and the Anglo-Powhatan War a more palatable, homogenised tale of star-crossed lovers. Such things do a dis-service to the real Matoaka and the plight of the larger population of America in early-colonial times. Reading some of the Native American reaction to the film is an eye-opening experience, most notably production advisors who no longer wanted their name attached. Pocahontas is most easily categorised as an Oscar-bait misstep.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Then CEO Michael Eisner pushed for Pocahontas’ mother to be inserted, reasoning that the studio was always “getting fried” for a lack of maternal characters. The production team informed him that the Powhatan were a polygamous society where adopted children were often used as means to fulfill/create dynastic alliances. Eisner’s accepting response was “I guess that means we’re toasted”.
Worth Watching? – It’s hard to ignore it in the context of the Disney Renaissance, so it might be worth a look to remind yourself that even Disney Animation’s height was not flawless.
Recommended Viewing – Hard to look beyond The New World, Terence Malick’s attempt to tell the same narrative in live-action form. It presents the same fiction that Pocahontas and Smith were lovers, but is generally a much more accurate and palatable adaptation of the story. It’s a genuinely great film that absolutely tanked financially, and deserves better remembrance.
43. 101 Dalmatians (1961)
Maybe it is because it came so soon after the superior Lady And The Tramp, that perhaps wins out because of its sole focus on the dog characters, but 101 Dalmatians is a film that’s a few different things at once and never rightly excelling in any of them: a human/dog rom-com complete with meet cute; a strange The Great Escape-esque thing through the “Colonel” and his unit; and a screwball comedy in basically everything involving Cruella de Vil. She’s something else: perhaps the most outwardly evil villain thus far, whose entire character is based around a desire to skin puppies for a coat, and whose model looks like a leering skull. Even Maleficent was more subtle. The animation is also a bit blocky for lack of a better term, with the moving parts sometimes not looking great next to the backgrounds, and many of the principals are drawn to a simplistic extent. Still, there is an undeniable charm to 101 Dalmatians – I suppose filling your movie with dogs, and more importantly puppies, will have that effect – and I won’t deny that it can be rather funny when it wants to be. But I could never really get into it like I did with other movies of that era.
Trivia Worth Repeating – The scene where Roger and Anita are married, with Pongo and Perdita essentially doing the same nearby, had to be re-worked a bit to make it past the censors board, who though people would be outraged at the idea of of dogs exchanging wedding vows. The final version was less overtly-religious and attempted to a draw (ha!) a line between the humans and the dogs with clothing choices.
Worth Watching? – There are better dog-based animations from Disney, as we’ll see, but this won’t rot your brain or anything.
Recommended Viewing – The live-action remake of 101 Dalmations is actually better than this in my opinion, thanks largely to Glenn Close (though avoid the sequel). Other than that, gotta go with Wes Anderson’s ode to canines in his Isle Of Dogs from 2018, one of my favourites of that year.
42. Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Taking nearly a decade to make and a troubled production in many ways, Sleeping Beauty has all of the ingredients that should make another classic, but fails to really make its mark in my opinion. Really, it feels a bit all over the place in a lot of ways. It is way too long, taking nearly two-thirds of its running time for the plot promised in the title to actually happen. Jumping pellmell between the fairy frolics, the romance plot, the two King’s bouncing off of each other and Maleficent’s scheming leaves everything feeling under-done. The villain is easily Sleeping Beauty’s best element, yet isn’t adequately explored (enacting her curse for no good reason). Aurora has some of the least amounts of agency of any Disney heroine ever. It lacks the fun of Snow White, the polish of Cinderella or the imagination of Alice In Wonderland. About the only thing, apart from the villain, that I liked about Sleeping Beauty is the animation, which delights in a strange mixture of medieval and art deco in its backgrounds, and heavily stylised figures in its actual cast. The final battle between Philip and Maleficent is a treat to look at too admittedly. But Sleeping Beauty has little else to really redeem it.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Large sections of the film’s production were filled with disputes between animators, and a good portion of it was done and re-done because Disney wasn’t happy with it. This feeling makes its way into the film, with the faeries’ argument over what colour Aurora’s dress should be mimicking one of an infinite number of design disputes in the studio.
Worth Watching? – I suppose it’s iconic, but the film is such a slog for much of its running time that I can’t really say yes.
Recommended Viewing – Not Maleficent, those films are trash. For lack of any other adaption of the Sleeping Beauty story, something in the same line but a bit inventive: The 10th Kingdom, a mini-series from 2000 that was a bit like Fables before there was Fables. It was an interesting take on the old fairy tale canon, whose effects and production may have aged a bit, but the story is still decent.
41. Make Mine Music (1946)
As Disney emerged from World War Two they had a lot of half-formed ideas lying around and not a lot of money, so Make Mine Music continued the trend of animated anthologies. This was the best of the lot so far, with a wide variety of segments and some great animation. “The Martins and the Coys” is a slapstick approach to the Hatfield/McCoy feud, with surprising amounts of gun violence, “All The Cats Join In” is a cleverly presented ode to 1940’s teen rambunctiousness (complete with some risque shots of a teen girls naked back), “Casey At The Bat” is a funny satire of baseball myth (and ties in nicely to “Homer At The Bat”, or vice-versa), and “Peter And The Wolf” is an excellent set-piece re-telling of the famous Prokofiev composition. Where Make Mine Music falls down is in some of its other numbers, that range from the dull (“Blue Bayou”, “Without You”, “Two Silhouettes”) to the saccharine (“Johnny Fedora and Alice Blue Bonnet”) to the sort of thrown together (“After You’ve Gone”). It ends on an unappealingly bummer note too with “The Whale Who Wanted To Sing At The Met”. The whole thing needs more of an underlying structure to pull it all together, and its better moments could all be enjoyed on an individual basis, but this is a decent effort.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Make Mine Music was very much a product of its time. The female form shots of “All The Cats Join In” are reflective of new risque art-styles popular during the war and the suggestive animation exemplified by Tex Avery. Meanwhile “Peter And The Wolf”, with its explicitly Soviet background (Peter is a Soviet Pioneer in the original composition), would probably not have been made after 1946, when nascent tensions between the superpowers became more acute.
Worth Watching? – You can watch the better ones and skip the others, that is if you can find them: Make Mine Music is the only film in the canon that never got a proper worldwide release. But its content is all up on Youtube if you search around.
Recommended Watching – Aside from “Homer At The Bat”? For animated anthologies, I have to point towards The Animatrix, which contains great shorts and bad shorts, but, like pretty much everything the Wachowski’s have made, is rarely boring.
Coming next, 40-31.