40. Brother Bear (2003)
The first in a new era of talking animal movies that largely define the 00’s for Disney Animation, Brother Bear feels like a film that takes all of its risks early on, before it spins off into being a very different, much more safe, production. The first act, that includes themes and plot points of death, bloody revenge quests and a fresh, new environment for Disney, is easily the film’s best (bar the dreadful “Great Spirits” number by Tina Turner). But once the promise of the premise is enacted, with Joaquin Phoenix’s Kenai turned into a bear, things go downhill, with Brother Bear settling into a predictable stroll: learning to get along with a surrogate younger brother, comedy supporting players to break up the monotony, a shocking twist that isn’t that shocking, etc, etc. Only at the salmon run sequence does Brother Bear stand-out again, it being a wonderfully animated set-piece, but we just don’t stay there long enough. Phil Collins’ involvement is a case of lightning striking somewhere else the second time, and the ending, where Kenai decides to stay as a bear permanently, feels a bit strange. The pro-environment, pro-tolerance message is fine, but Brother Bear is imminently forgettable really, excepting that first 30 minutes and the salmon run.
Trivia Worth Repeating – The film underwent a load of re-writes and re-imaginings after its initial approval. At first it was a King Lear inspired story about an old blind bear and his three daughters. Then it was a father/son story where the son turns into a bear. Then it was about a guy who turns into a bear and is taken in by an older bear (voiced by Michael Clarke Duncan, who ended up in the finished product in a tweaked part). Finally, it was re-worked into its final form of a man turned into a bear who takes in a younger bear. Sounds to me like the film was meddled to death.
Worth Watching? – Check out that first half hour and the salmon run, but the rest is a wash.
Recommended Viewing – The canon is awash with “People turned into animals” movies, and Pixar has the somewhat similar Brave, though I wasn’t a huge fan. One invariably thinks of Nanook Of The North, a very warped film in a lot of ways, but one worth watching for its status as one of the first real documentaries, and as a context for how the Inuit people were inaccurately portrayed in the early 20’s and beyond.
39. Bambi (1942)
I think the biggest question that Bambi needs to answer about itself is how much of its content, outside of “Bambi’s Mom getting shot” is truly memorable. And the answer is, not very much. This is a (very short) film that contains one singularly powerful moment that was a daring enough story-telling choice at the time (one wonders how audiences, in the same week that the Battle for Guadalcanal began, reacted to the premiere). But the film is very poorly structured otherwise, slowing to a crawl in the opening stages, cutting out Bambi’s upbringing under his father entirely, and not really bringing things to a close acceptably with the unseen villain of “Man” (perhaps intentional, but narrative-wise the film suffers), who gets subbed by a sudden pack of wild dogs at the conclusion, and then a fire. A sequence where Bambi and his male comrades all fall in love one by one is amusing, there is some great animal animation here, and the forest fire finale is suitably epic. But so much else, from the music to the threadbare characters, is disappointing. Still, looking back it remains a gut-punch surprise to realise that they actually killed a child’s mother, even off-screen, and Bambi deserves a bit of its iconic stature for that.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Walt Disney got it from all sides over the decision to kill-off Bambi’s mom, even, allegedly, from his nine-year-old daughter Diane, who complained about it in tears after a screening. When Walt attempted to explain that he was just following the source material, little Diane was having none of it, pointing out that her father had veered away from source material before for his movies, and that since he was in charge he could do whatever he wanted anyway. Tough crowd.
Worth Watching? – There’s enough in this one to merit a viewing certainly, if only for the pursuit of eliminating rose-tinted memories.
Recommended Viewing – In terms of a frequently dark story of animals trying to make it in man’s world, you can’t look much further than 1978’s Watership Down, which remains the best adaptation of that story.
38. Fantasia 2000 (2000)
The Fantasia concept feels like something that a few people at Disney care a great deal about, but they over-estimate how much the audience does. I just couldn’t properly settle in to this one, and having seen the first Fantasia and then a glut of package films, the anthology format is no longer as eye-catching or interesting as it once was. “Symphony No. 5” has a minimalist approach to a nature battle that was a good start. “Pines of Rome” felt rather lengthy for what it was. “Rhapsody In Blue” was probably the best of the eight shorts, capturing the essence of New York City through its story and music. “Piano Concerto No. 2” is a decent accompaniment/adaptation of “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” but not terribly exceptional either. “The Carnival of the Animals” is just a bit too short to deserve much consideration. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is as good as it was, but is a re-run. “Pomp and Circumstance” certainly goes in an unexpected direction, and is an enjoyably satirical take on the Genesis story. “The Firebird” starts well but then becomes a bit dull in its conclusion. A commercial disappointment, a mediocre presentation, and an idea no longer suited to the times, Fantasia 2000 is likely to be the end of this franchise.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Fantasia 2000 was the pet project of Roy E. Disney, Walt’s nephew and a board member, who pushed hard for the project to be green-lit against the concerns and objections of people like Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. The disastrous box-office returns soured a previously constructive relationship between Disney and Eisner, the latter of whom described Fantasia 2000 as Roy Disney’s “folly”. The whole affair would contribute to the rancourous “Save Disney” campaign of 2003-2005, that culminated in Eisner’s ousting from the company.
Worth Watching? – Check out “Rhapsody In Blue” and “Pomp And Circumstance”, but forget the rest.
Recommended Viewing – Looking around for animated anthologies, and the only one I have left really is Batman: Gotham Knight, which contains a bunch of great shorts about the titular superhero, most notably the first, “Have I Got A Story For You”, a Rashomon-style depiction of several children’s supposed encounters with Batman.
37. Oliver & Company (1988)
The last gasp before the renaissance kicked off in earnest, Oliver & Company can be easily summed up as being a transitional movie. New people were in charge of Disney, new animators were operating after the departure of the old guard, but things hadn’t been ironed out. Hence the middling nature of this quasi-Dickens adaptation, that never really threatens to lay a claim to being an animated classic. There are some odd choices throughout: the strange, almost experimental, approach to some of the animation, like early crowd shots and the subway finale; the way that the film’s narrative grinds to a halt for much of the second act as a whole new bunch of characters have to be introduced; the dissonance one feels with the awkward shift from dialogue to song (most of which are actually quite good); and the unusual levels of violence, especially the final fate of “Mr Sykes”. The film works best as an ode to New York City, has a decent voice cast (Billy Joel being the stand-out over Bette Midler) and excels in its opening and closing. But, considering how things turned for the studio within twelve months, Oliver & Company is essentially a a mildly-enjoyable, and forgettable, stepping stone to better things.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Marlon Brando was allegedly offered the part of Sykes, with Michael Eisner seeking to make the character as memorable as possible. Brando wasn’t interested, fearing from the description that the film would bomb. Oliver & Company did just fine, but Brando’s next film, after a nine year hiatus, was A Dry White Season in 1989, which did, indeed, bomb.
Worth Watching? – Yeah, this is a fun-enough one, though you can pretty much skip the middle half-hour.
Recommended Viewing – In terms of Oliver Twist nothing beats 1968’s Oliver!, with Ron Moody’s amazing Fagan. If looking for other odes to New York City, then it’s hard to look beyond Ghostbusters, the film which more than any other planted the idea of what NYC was in my precocious mind.
36. Alice In Wonderland (1951)
Your appreciation for this one will be based largely on your tolerance for nonsense, which I don’t mean in an insulting way: it’s just simply what Alice In Wonderland is. The package movie era might have been over, but this film is essentially an anthology as well, having little in the way of plot, other than Alice chasing after the White Rabbit for no other reason than her curiosity. The audience is treated to an episodic feature that is more inspired by Lewis Carroll’s works than an adaptation of them, and suffers from an undeniable sense of having too many cooks, with three directors and a dozen credited writers. There are some marvellous sequences to enjoy of course, such as the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party or the Red Queen’s self-serving efforts at playing croquet, but it’s hard to be engaged with either the absurdist material – wherein there seems to be little in the way of narrative structure or stakes – or the titular character, who largely lacks character. Alice is merely a witness to the imaginative, yet fleeting, things that she encounters, so she doesn’t stick in your head the way other leading ladies of Disney would do. Still, the animation is a step-up generally here, and certain sequences, that serve as odes to childlike imagination I suppose, are worthy of being considered iconic.
Trivia Worth Repeating – In 1923 Walt Disney helped make a short film, Alice’s Wonderland, based off of the books, for a studio that went broke before it could be released. Disney shopped the film around to other distributors, and after signing a deal with New York based Margaret J. Winkler, was able to open Disney Brothers with Roy O. Disney, which later became the Walt Disney Company. He never let go of the property, and what became Alice In Wonderland was itself in various phases of production for nearly twenty years.
Worth Watching? – It’s weird and trippy enough that you could jump into it at any point and find something interesting, at least visually, so yeah.
Recommended Viewing – Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland is a really good live-action take, maybe the best of that modern sub-genre, importing a structure that the animation sorely lacks, and with fine performances from a really great ensemble cast. But best to avoid the terrible sequel.
35. Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
I have come around a little bit on Wreck-It Ralph, a film I initially somewhat derided owing to what I still think is an unpleasant inner message of “Know Your Place” and “Accept The Status-Quo”. That message remains on a second viewing, and really undercuts the film’s last act, but Wreck-It Ralph is at least a fun journey to that point, a vibrantly colourful ode to various types of video games. Whether it is the pixelated basicness of Ralph’s own game, the grimdark “psybug” fest of Hero’s Duty, or the inventive candyland of Sugar Rush, Wreck-It Ralph looks genuinely amazing. It’s funny too, most especially Jane Lynch and Jack McBrayer as the world’s most unlikely romantic sub-plot, and even Sarah Silverman’s Venelope doesn’t grate as much as I remember. But the film still has that inherent problem with what it is espousing, with its conclusion seeing Ralph back where he started, pigeon-holed into a role where, like Moana says in a song meant to be a facade, he “should find happiness right where you are”. It also falls back a bit too much on reference-humour and, shock horror, product placement, for you to overlook its faults. A long time in the making, Wreck-It Ralph just can’t make good on its best elements.
Trivia Worth Repeating – The film at one point was set to include a sequence in Extremely Easy Living 2, a sort-of open world Sims game, where Ralph would go to wallow in his depression. The creators couldn’t find a way to insert it into the second half of the film naturally, so it was dropped. A shame, as it sounds like an interesting take on such games, and how their perceived simplicity can be an attraction to a certain mindset.
Worth Watching? – Turn it off after 90 minutes and spare yourself the unnerving ending.
Recommended Viewing – Damn, I’ve already recommended Tron. How about something pretty similar in many respects, The Last Starfighter from 1984? That’s proper 80’s schlock and no mistake, but still quite entertaining.
34. Frozen 2 (2019)
The latest (at time of writing) release from Disney Animation was its third true sequel, and a film with the unenviable task of following up on a top-tier offering. It mostly fails at that task, suffering from an undeniable sense of ten ideas being thrown at the wall to see what would stick: Elsa’s powers, Anna’s fretting, Kristoff’s proposal, Olaf’s existential crisis, a commentary on abuse of the Sami, nature vs technology, sins of the father, and I could keep going. Frozen 2 simply has too much going on between all of its characters, all of their problems and the larger geo-political status of Arendelle (seriously) to really rise above, even if its songs, especially the powerful “Into The Unknown”, do stand-out. The excellent pacing of the first, its genius understanding of mixing drama and comedy, are not replicated, with the sequel frequently feeling like a bit of a slog towards an inevitable conclusion. It might have benefited with the focal point of an antagonist character, and with a stricter focus on fewer plot-points and sub-narratives. Of course it still looks great, an ode to the art and architecture of the Sami people, and there is enough presented for these characters that another adventure would be enticing.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Apparently they had to actually re-model Elsa’s feet from scratch for the second one, because they never designed toes for her in the first, seeing as how she was shoed the whole time. Hands up if you noticed Elsa’s feet in this film?
Worth Watching – Can’t really say so. Put the soundtrack on and listen to that instead.
Recommended Viewing – For another winter-based animation with some significant Sami influences, Netflix’s Klaus of last year was a surprisingly poignant offering that is well worth a stream.
33. The Princess And The Frog (2009)
The last great gasp of Disney’s 2D animation side, The Princess And The Frog should slot in nicely with the 90’s period, being another Broadway-style musical with heavy romantic undertones (while also being yet another 00’s talking animal movie). The music is probably the film’s best selling point, being a nice summation of the auditory style of “Nawlins” and a love-letter to the power of jazz and associated genres. The actual plot falls a bit behind the instruments and the singing, being a fairly roundabout thing, that doesn’t really do enough with the background and race of its main character (the latter is only ever brought up once, and obliquely). The film’s lengthy second act grinds the narrative to a bit of a halt as Tiana and Naveen jump around the swamp with new found animal friends, while Keith David’s sinister villain struggles to keep any kind of momentum going with only a vengeful butler to bounce off of. Sorry to say that it is the first twenty minutes, most notably the Art Deco-inspired sequence for “Almost There”, that is the film’s best, and while the rest is gorgeously animated, you sort of didn’t sign up to watch Tiana be a frog for the whole film.
Trivia Worth Repeating – The film got it all from all angles on the grounds of racial insensitivity when early details were released: the original title, “The Frog Princess” was seen as dehumanising for a black character; the non-black Prince was called out; Tiana’s original name, Maddy, was changed since it was claimed to be too close to “mammy”; originally a maid, Tiana’s occupation was changed to the less inflammatory waitress; and the New Orleans setting was criticised in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, where POC were not exactly treated well. This may explain why the creators are so hesitant to call attention to Tiana’s race.
Worth Watching? – It’s unfortunately a bit slow for that middle hour, but there is a lot to see elsewhere.
Recommended Viewing – For achingly emotional representations of New Orleans, there can only be David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s TB series Treme. For black characters in animation, the very first thing that springs to mind is the excellent (if maybe just slightly over-rated) Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse.
32. Raya And The Last Dragon (2021)
Raya And The Last Dragon is a diverse, beautiful affair, that unfortunately doesn’t come close to making the most of its potential. An enormous amount of writers have clearly committee’d the film to death, taking what should be an interesting quest-narrative mixed with a grudge match with an ex-best friend through a palatable south-east Asian medley of cultures, and weighed it down with needless side-characters, a sameyness in its chase for a MacGuffin and a feeling that it’s trying very hard to take the best parts of several other films from the canon. Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina do fine in the leads and like I said the film is animated in a gorgeous manner, but it takes very little risks. A recurring throughline of different cultures needing to trust one another if they are going to save the world is not a bad thing to depict, but the manner in which the film turns this into an “Trust instantly solves all problems” crutch to conclude the story is frankly a bit laughable. It may be a bit of a tired observation, but it strikes me as the kind of Disney film that needs some songs to really stand-out, something more than James Newton Howard’s rather lacklustre score. Depending on how streaming goes we might well see another one of these, but it isn’t something I am waiting on tenterhooks for.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Tran performed her dialogue with the Namarri character (Gemma Chan) as if the two shared a romantic connection, but it wasn’t something Disney were willing to actually make canon. Maybe that could have given the film the jumpstart it seemed to constantly need.
Worth Watching? – I think purely for the film’s look it probably is, there’s been a lot of work put into locations, creatures, etc. I just wish that same level of labour had been put into the plot.
Recommended Viewing – Something that came to mind pretty quickly watching this one was Avatar: The Last Airbender, just because of the Asian inspiration and the divided Kingdom. TLA is one of the greatest animated series’ ever made, and does a better job of marrying its characters to an impressively created world.
31. Lilo And Stitch (2002)
You’d be forgiven for wondering what is going on after viewing the first few minutes of this film, that seems to promise some kind of Treasure Planet-esque intergalactic adventure, before you’re suddenly brought down to Earth, with a literal bang. Lilo And Stitch is a film that can quite rightfully be called a mess: an awkward pastiche of different ideas that were all thrown together to see what would stick, with the end result being only somewhat palatable. It’s the only way to explain the changing villain, the Elvis Presley soundtrack that has no wider context, the jump between serious family drama and the lowest kind of physical comedy, the social worker who turns out to be an ex-CIA agent, the thrown-together last 15 minutes and the titular alien, who goes from genocidal evil to adorable quasi-dog in the course of a short montage. Lilo And Stitch saves itself by being, at times, genuinely quite funny (Stitch and his creator playing hot potato with a bomb being my favourite: “Happy Hanukkah”!) and by tackling some difficult ideas, namely parental death and sibling guardianship issues, but is just too all over the place to be considered worthy of a higher place, no matter how many Direct-To-Video/DVD sequels or TV shows it inspired.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Look into the production of Lilo And Stitch, and you’ll see the words “test audiences” a fair bit. Scenes were deleted, changed around, re-written, because it was felt they tested poorly, along with other changes like the finale spaceship initially being a airplane (9/11 put the kibosh on that). Testing has always been a tricky science, and I’ve never had much respect for it. As outlined by some creators, its often a worthless exercise, that encourages dumbing down. Lilo And Stitch strikes me as a film that took data from test audiences and come to the conclusion that they needed to be too many things at once to satisfy everyone.
Worth Watching? – Yeah, it’s fine, even good at points, but you could actually turn it off after an hour or so and not miss anything worthwhile.
Recommended Viewing – There’s so many good films set in Hawaii worth mentioning, but I’ll limit myself to Forgetting Sarah Marshall that contains some good jokes at the expense of white people trying to ingratiate into the local culture. For the kind of plot that Lilo And Stitch has, you really can’t look much further than E.T., or the even better Mac And Me.
Next up #30-21.