30. Pinocchio (1940)
Walt’s follow-up to his opening gambit was a significant chance, but no less lacking in the “becoming part of the popular consciousness” stakes. On the face of it there is an awful lot to like about Pinocchio. The story is a fairly simple but resonant one, of learning to distinguish between good and evil, and understanding that the core of your character comes from your moral choices. The cipher for these things is rather clever, through Jiminy Cricket as the title character’s conscience and the extension of the nose as a representation of lies, that grow and grow until they become undeniable. Perhaps less well-remembered, but no less effective, are the darker parts of the tale, like the horrors of “Pleasure Island”, and the tension-filled finale involving the terrifying “Monstro”. However, there are other parts that are a tad unpalatable, like a certain elitist sentiment that pervades, with the film undoubtedly looking down on the working-class and working-class forms of entertainment. Jiminy isn’t much of a character either for the importance that the film gives him, and the central theme of lying being a major no-no never gets any resolution. Great animation though, decent music: Pinocchio is a weaker contribution than the first in 1937, but not in any way a bad film.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Jiminy was a relatively late addition to the story as a pivotal character. The early role of the “Talking Cricket” was just to get stomped by Pinocchio, as a lesson in how actions have consequences.
Worth Watching? – Sure, for the animation if nothing else (and there is plenty else).
Recommended Viewing – For a great modern take on a similar idea, Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence is the way to go.
29. Robin Hood (1973)
Though much of this is mined from The Jungle Book – Little John is essentially Baloo, Sir Hiss is Kaa, and the animation style is markedly similar – Robin Hood thumbs its nose at the idea that the 70’s was a time when Disney animation was in decline. It’s a rather fun romp that establishes a charming rogue in the main character and seasons itself with liberal doses of slapstick buffoonery whenever needed, most notably with Prince John, a cowardly lion who is a sort-of proto-Scar, just with ever more comical weasellyness. In that regard Peter Ustinov is great, and the voice cast generally is fantastic here, even if the multitude of American southern voices makes you wonder if Boss Hogg is going to show up looking for dem Duke boys. Where Robin Hood falls down are the songs, which are dreadful – “Love” is the most insipid thing to come out of the studio to this point – and a certain aimlessness in its general plot, like the creators weren’t really sure what they wanted to do. The 70’s inspired score makes up for it though, and one can’t say enough good things about the breathless finale where Robin has to dodge guards, arrows and fire-filled towers to escape John’s clutches, strangely little-remembered next to the less-thrilling archery contest.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Ken Anderson, one of the chief writers, was constantly getting his ideas shot down for this one, at least partially. He wanted the story set in the American South – which goes a long way to explaining the accents – and further thought the film could recapture some of the spirit of 1946’s Song Of The South. And if that just made you go “Yikes”, Disney execs had the same reaction. Song Of The South was already a taboo film by the 70’s, and Robin Hood stayed firmly in his native England.
Worth Watching? – Yeah, this one is pretty good for the era, but mute the TV when people start singing.
Recommended Viewing – There are so many Robin Hood adaptations out there, there’s something for everyone. You want a realistic take? Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood. Comedy? Cary Elwes’ Men In Tights. Swashbucking? Errol Flynn and his shadow in The Adventures Of Robin Hood. Terrible? Taron Edgerton’s game attempt in 2018. And just good? Kevin Costner’s Prince Of Thieves remains the perfect encapsulation of the 90’s idea of action-adventure.
28. Encanto (2021)
A few years after the combination of Disney Animation and Lin-Manuel Miranda hit paydirt in the form of Moana, they tried again, only with less stellar results. It’s hard to think too badly of Encanto, a film that really leans in hard to the influences that form it: its visuals, its cast, its music, its background even in the hints that make their way in that speak to internal displacement. It’s embrace of diversity and Latino musical styles and characters is really eye-catching, and will sweep you up from the moment you hear the opening strains of “The Family Madrigal”. It progresses nicely for the first hour as we go through the various magical family members, and the one non-magical one in the form of Stephanie Beatriz’ Mirabel who is out to prove herself to a stern, unfeeling grandmother. But it falls down hard in the third act as it struggles to frame a resolution to its unfortunately less-than-impactful crisis without the presence of an antagonist character or force, instead relying on a succession of reconciliations that happen too fast to be satisfying, and which cross the border from emotionally engaging to trite. It’s still a very important step in the history of the studio, and even if they fail to include a stand-out hit Miranda’s contribution of songs will be enough to get you to watch. But this is a production that needed a bit of polish, and may serve more in the memory as a decent stepping stone to better things from the studio.
Trivia Worth Repeating – 60 entries into the canon, and we’ve seen breakthroughs in gender, race, maybe even sexual orientation if we are to take certain songs from recent films at face value. But Encanto breaks its own glass ceiling: Mirabel is the first female protagonist of a Disney Animation to wear glasses.
Worth Watching – This is a real one-and-done type film I feel, but that one viewing will get the music into your ears, so for that reason yes.
Recommended Viewing – It can only be Coco, Pixar’s brilliant evocation of a similar sort of culture, and similar themes in the nature of family relationships under strain through the generations. Oh, and it is just a brilliant, brilliant film.
27. Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
This was a rapid change in direction from the musical-driven 90’s, and while Atlantis: The Lost Empire is a bold, innovative affair in many ways, it just isn’t polished enough to rank higher than this. The multitude of named characters just means there is a certain amount of dilution in their development, the villain is weak and much of the narrative is pretty predictable when it isn’t outright boring, especially a very slow second act. Yet one can’t help but be impressed by the artistry in the film’s music, language and presentation, with its character models and Atlantean backdrop among the best that Disney Animation ever made. The influences are very clear, be they Jules Verne, steampunk, Stargate or Japanese animes that will not be named, but I do think that The Lost Empire is able to stand out as its own thing, especially in its commitment to inventing an entire language for its titular city. The main character of Milo is a different kind of Disney protagonist as well, one emphasising intelligence over brawn or cunning, something to be appreciated. This was a big action-adventure idea that just didn’t come together as well as it could have, but is at least a visually interesting and ambitious testament to the near 2’500-year-old idea of Atlantis.
Trivia Worth Repeating – The Lost Empire was designed to be a major shift for Disney Animation, moving beyond the Broadway-style efforts of the Renaissance and into something much more in the action-adventure line. The crew took this to heart, and often wore custom shirts during production that read “ATLANTIS – Fewer songs, more explosions”.
Worth Watching? – Yeah, whatever its deficiencies are, this one will have something to interest you.
Recommended Viewing – I don’t really have much in the way of Atlantis media to recommend, as it’s actually quite a tired concept. 10’000 BC, a film I otherwise don’t have a lot of time for, did have an interesting perspective I suppose, and there’s always the gone-too-soon Stargate: Atlantis.
26. The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad (1949)
The end of the Disney “package film” era, and they saved the best for last it would seem. Consisting of two adaptations of famous novels/stories, this anthology jumps off with a truncated version of The Wind In The Willows. Basil Rathbone is in fine form as the narrator, and this is the first Disney film in my re-watch where the voice cast really stood out, with all of them, but especially Eric Blore as Mr Toad, doing great work. It is a funny, whimsical tale with some great music and a ridiculous fracas of a finale as Toad and friends battle against the villainous weasels. And the follow-up is arguably better, an enjoyable adaptation of The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow. Leaving aside some fat-shaming humour and a certain sense that the wrong guy wins out in the end, it’s a suitably entertaining examination of the rivalry between the weedy, yet smart Ichabod Crane and his more traditionally masculine rival Brom over the hand of the beautiful, yet manipulative, Katrina. Bing Crosby is in typical form as the narrator, and the short abounds with ribald and physical humour. The ending chase is a nice cap to the whole affair. Both shorts are a good length, and while there is little in the way of a connection between them, they are still perfectly enjoyable.
Trivia Worth Repeating – It should probably come as no surprise that the character of Brom Bones had a bit of influence on a much later Disney film. In many ways the more memorable Gaston from Beauty And The Beast takes after Brom, but works better as an outright villain.
Worth Watching? – For sure. The package films are hit and miss with their shorts, but these two are great.
Recommended Viewing – For Headless Horseman fans, I always thought Tim Burton’s take in 1999’s Sleepy Hollow was the best, turning it into a noir-horror. For Grahame aficionados, the 1980’s stop-motion series of The Wind In The Willows, with the excellent David Jason as Toad, is a must-see.
25. Bolt (2008)
Disney Animation finally started to emerge from the 00’s malaise on this one, with incoming Pixar people making their first major mark on the studio. Bolt takes a few cues from the Buzz Lightyear arc of Toy Story with its narrative of a TV dog who thinks he’s a real superhero, but it’s easy to overlook because of the strength of the material. John Travolta is surprisingly good in the lead role, and there is a good comic back and forth with Susie Essman’s cat and Mark Walton’s hamster, in what amounts to an unorthodox road trip movie. I also feel like this is the first talking animal Disney movie that actually captures something real and engaging about animals in ages, maybe as far back The Lion King in 1994. The 3D is really starting to work at this stage, with the opening action scene sequence especially great looking, and the film takes some well-earned, but well-intentioned, shots at the entertainment industry. If Bolt falls down, it’s in its inherent predictability, and in its running time, which is just ten minutes too long. Those two things in concert bring Bolt down, but it is an otherwise good addition to the canon, that set the studio back on the right path.
Trivia Worth Repeating – With Pixar people like John Lasseter coming in mid-production, Bolt’s creative process became a bit fractious, with original director Chris Sanders booted from the project, and numerous changes made. Among them was replacing Chloe Grace Moretz with Miley Cyrus, despite the fact that Moretz had already recorded all her lines, and was retained as the voice of young Penny. Also, the film had to be re-titled as “Volt” in Russia, because “bolt” can be used as a slang word for penis in Russian.
Worth Watching? – Yeah, this is a good one, and up there as best of that decade.
Recommended Viewing – Aside from Buzz Lightyear, the premise obviously makes one think of The Truman Show, that remains one of the best feature-length foreshadowing of society ever made. But in terms of cats and dogs, well, there’s Cats And Dogs, a surprisingly funny action-comedy from 2001, featuring the amazing villainy of “Mr Tinkles” who requests an underling stay behind in a burning room: “Why?” “Because I hate you” (it’s all in the delivery).
24. The Aristocats (1970)
The Aristocats is good fun, continuing the animal obsession that was consuming Disney in the 60’s/70’s, but making a better swing at it than a few earlier entries. It helps that it has a clear idea of what it wants to be, namely a romantic comedy between an uptown girl and a downtown boy, with Phil Harris doing great work as said boy, and Eva Gabor mewing daintily as said girl. In many ways it’s the cat version of Lady And The Tramp and thus has a sense of been there, done that, but stands out in a number of ways. There is the strangely sympathetic villain Edgar (one wonders if that’s a nod to King Lear, famous for its own sympathetic villain, the brother of Edgar) who doesn’t want to spend his twilight years looking after a bunch of cats, the absolutely fantastic jazz band led by Scatman Crothers and the Napoleon/Lafayette duo who inject some good comedy into the narrative when needed. But it is the love-plot where The Aristocats shines the brightest, overcoming a somewhat dull opening half-hour with a charming back-and-forth in the remainder between the Gable-esque O’Mally and the Colbert-esque Duchess. Yup, it’s It Happened One Night in cat form, and it’s pretty decent too.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Louis Armstrong was the original choice for “Scat Cat”, with it claimed by some that the character model is based off the famous jazz musician, though I don’t see it. Armstrong was suffering repeated bouts of coronary ill-health at the time time though, that would kill him in 1971. Unable to record the part, Crothers was brought in instead, and allegedly told to do a Louis Armstrong impression.
Worth Watching? – Most definitely. While not forgotten, I feel like The Aristocats is good enough to be worthy of the kind of status Lady And The Tramp has.
Recommended Viewing – In among the avalanche of talking animal movies, I can’t find one worthy of placement here, so why not check out that unlikely influence It Happened One Night? It’s pretty much the best example of the “screwball” comedy going.
23. The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh (1977)
The word “charm” might be overused when it comes to the Disney canon, but it’s pretty much impossible not to apply it to the first feature-length collection of A.A. Milne adaptations. The stories brought to life here just practically radiate the sentiment. The Hundred Acre Wood is just the perfect place to relax into, with its cast of non-threatening gems, all voiced to perfection. Sterling Holloway, by then a Disney mainstay, is the pick of the bunch as Pooh, with his delivery of “Oh, bother!” iconic the moment it left his mouth. Save room for Paul Winchell’s annoyingly exuberant Tigger too, who gets the anthology’s best song. The messages of friendship, sharing and caring for each other abound, giving every short a common thread. And lest you think this is just a feature for very small kids, The Many Adventures… also turns everything on its head with the slightly terrifying but very inventive “Heffalumps and Woozles” sequence. Ultimately it’s a strangely nostalgic feature even if you’ve never really seen it before, one that lets you imagine a simpler childhood time and feel a bit rocked when Christoper Robin goes off to school and it all comes to an end. It’s a window into an imagined past then, one well worth checking out.
Trivia Worth Repeating – This was the last film from the studio to have any input from Walt Disney, with one of its shorts released during his life-time, and another partly produced by him. It was Disney’s idea to release shorts instead of a feature, but he never got to see the full-length anthology.
Worth Watching? – But of course. There’s few bad moods that could not be soothed by this.
Recommended Viewing – If you can, you have to check out Welcome To Pooh Corner, a live-action/animatronic version of the story that aired on the Disney Channel in the 80’s. It’s positively haunting.
22. Winnie The Pooh (2011)
Hey, it sort of fit to put them together, with the Hundred Acre Wood stories so different to the rest of the canon as to deserve such special treatment. This is another splendid effort to bring those stories to life, with some ridiculously good 2D animation, the last, as of 2020, that the studio has done. The story bubbles along nicely, revolving around the great hunt for the imaginary “Bacson”, a creature whose invention. and subsequent fear of, forms an amazing allegory of mass panic caused by misinformation. You have to get beyond the sense that every denizen of the Wood is a bad person in their own way – Tigger’s ignorance, Rabbit’s temper, Owl’s exaggeration, Eyeore’s perpetual misery and Pooh’s stomach leading his head – but that’s easy enough to do in this well-scripted, nicely-narrated, finely-acted production, that also features some great songs from the duo that would take the world by storm a few years later with Frozen. It’s a very short film, clocking in at little more than an hour, but that is all it needs really. I would have both Pooh stories higher, but they perhaps lack the punch of other films: they are instead remarkably safe, warm and somewhat unambitious films, very enjoyable and worthy of praise but never to be considered among the truly great.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Despite a tonne of critical praise, this Pooh movie bombed really badly on release, taking in only 50 million on a 30 million production (using standard Hollywood financial rules, double the production budget, at least, to get the real budget). This was largely due to the boneheaded decision to release it opposite the surefire behemoth that was the final Harry Potter film, that hoovered up the box-office for weeks around its release.
Worth Watching? – You can watch the two Pooh films back-to-back and you’d have a nice afternoon.
Recommended Viewing – You can type “Winnie the Pooh” into the Disney+ search bar and find a large number of offerings outside of these two (they’re the only ones released under Disney Animation’s banner), and you’re bound to have a good time however you choose.
21. The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
It feels a bit odd to call this a forgotten gem, but it sort of is. Despite reversing the fortunes of Disney Animation after The Black Cauldron debacle, and paving the way for the “Renaissance”, The Great Mouse Detective is curiously under-remembered compared to others from the period. It’s a shame, because this is a great romp of a film, part-ode to, part-satire of the Sherlock Holmes canon. The pacing is pretty much perfect as the mouse versions of Holmes and Watson race around a series of delightful set-pieces, filled with warm character building and healthy doses of humour. The voice-cast is absolutely amazing here, from Barrie Ingham’s rapid-fire Basil to Val Bettin’s kind yet gruff Dawson. It really is Vincent Price who steals the show as Ratigan though, with his pitch-perfect megalomania and scenery-chewing, whether he is trail-blazing the soon to be routine villain song requirement or calling for taxes on the elderly and children. The animation is splendid, almost a last hurrah for that kind of style, even if the brief glimpse of a 3D future is awkwardly inserted into the finale. I’m surprised we never got any kind of continuation of this property: The Great Mouse Detective deserves a higher place in history than it has.
Trivia Worth Repeating – One of my favourite bits of in-studio bickering: originally entitled Basil Of Baker Street after the source material, Michael Eisner decided to re-title the film to the more explanatory The Great Mouse Detective after the poor box-office returns of the contemporary Young Sherlock Holmes. One of the animators, Ed Gombert, was so put off he circulated a fake memo from a department chief announcing re-titling of other properties, including Seven Little Men Help A Girl, Two Dogs Fall In Love, and, my favourite, The Girl Who Seemed To Die. The memo caused enough of a stir that said chief had to appear before management. Still funny though.
Worth Watching? – Most definitely. This is a rare top-notch offering from that decade.
Recommended Viewing – Jeez, there’s so much Sherlock Holmes stuff out there, there’s bound to be something for anyone. My personal recommendation is always for the 1984 ITV series, with Jeremy Brett as Holmes and David Burke/Edward Hardwicke as Watson, that basically goes through nearly all of Conan Doyle’s stories. Brett remains, for me, the quintessential Holmes.
Up next, into the top 20.