20. Snow White And The Seven Dwarves (1937)
The progenitor is an interesting little film. It’s easy to forget how much of a Hail Mary pass it represented for Walt Disney, now that it has lodged itself so firmly in popular remembrance as the feature that redefined what animation was capable of. With that in mind you might be surprised at some of the aspects of this, a near 80-year-old production, that haven’t permeated the popular remembrance. I speak of the title character’s very squeaky singing voice, the immensely creepy introduction to Prince Charming and the somewhat laboured sequences of animal dancing that litter the whole thing. And yet, it cannot be denied that the film has oodles of charm, most especially with the dwarves, who turn the whole thing into a physical comedy riot in every scene they are in. But the real scene-stealer is, of course, the Wicked Stepmother, whose cackling evil and terrifying animation will still easily see her lodged in children’s nightmares even today. It’s perhaps a bit too cumbersome – it takes the dwarves a very long time to uncover Snow White’s identity for example – and, really, Snow White’s singing has not aged well, but the animation, score and general feel of this is still really good.
Trivia Worth Repeating – In 1934, Walt Disney spent several hours acting out the story on a stage in front of his animators as a motivational exercise, in a one-man show that I’m sure people would love to see if there was any footage. Disney bet the farm on Snow White, so his dedication isn’t surprising.
Worth Watching? – Even if it has aged a little, Snow White remains as possibly Disney’s most iconic production, and is well worth a look even today.
Recommended Viewing – The Snow White fairytale is one of the most adapted stories ever made, so finding one thing is hard. For variety’s sake, the grimdark version of the tale that is Snow White And The Huntsman is interesting viewing, even if Kristin Stewart is awful in the lead role.
19. The Jungle Book (1967)
Walt Disney’s final proper contribution to the canon is a worthy one: a visually interesting, fantastically performed dramedy, that continued an animal trend in Disney that would keep going for a while yet. It’s strange to note, but the best remembered parts of The Jungle Book all happen in the first half: the hypnotic machinations of Kaa, the laissez-faire exposition of Baloo in “The Bare Necessities” and King Louis’s upbeat ode to the benefits of humanity in “I Wanna Be Like You”. All of those sequences are great, aided in no small part by the best music and songs Disney had made thus far. But the second half is an under-rated thing also, featuring the deliciously evil Shere-Khan, the Beatles-esque Vultures and “the Girl” that rounds things off. This might be the best voice cast yet as well, between the tranquilo tones of Phil Harris’ Baloo, Sterling Holloway’s raspy “s’s”and George Sanders’ imperiousness as the film’s villain. It is, perhaps a little bit too episodic for its own good and one feels that there is a lack of thread in the morals it is trying to get across, but from its animation to its voice work, the rest of The Jungle Book is top-notch.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Walt Disney could be a strange guy. He took a keen interest in The Jungle Book, and was unhappy with numerous early versions of the story as they were presented to him, he thinking that they were too close to the source material as they were too dark in tone. Bringing on Larry Clemons as a new writer with a mandate to come up with a lighter character-driven approach, Disney presented him with a copy of Kipling’s book, then told him “The first thing I want you to do is not to read it.”
Worth Watching? – Provided you haven’t heard enough of its songs, I would say so.
Recommended Viewing – Disney made a live-action version a few years ago, and there are numerous other takes on Kipling’s story, but if you haven’t seen the little remembered 1994 live-action film Disney made of the property, with Jason Scott Lee in the lead role and a young Lena Headey as his love interest, you’re missing out on a rollicking adventure version. Its death scenes – yes, plural – are so dark in tone that Walt Disney would presumably have been disgusted if he had been able to see it.
18. Lady And The Tramp (1955)
I suppose it won’t take much for this to make an impression: you pretty much just have to be a dog person, and you’re bound to fall in love. Essentially an old-school Hollywood screwball rom-com, you can imagine human versions of the cast playing off each other: it’s hard not to think of a Leigh/Gable-esque casting. It’s the first Disney film where the romantic plot-line is front and centre for almost the whole affair, and it’s fun to see that relationship evolve. And forget the spaghetti scene, that’s been re-played and parodied to death, there is a lot else to enjoy here: Jock and Trusty’s awkward courting of Lady; the dog howl orchestra backing Peg’s amazing “He’s A Tramp”; Tramp conning his way into the dog park; and the surprisingly brutal finale where the titular dogs confront a strangely murderous rat. There are some problems: the Siamese cats that cross that “problematic” line when it comes to racial stereotypes and the sense that Lady is a bystander in her own story. But the dogs are animated and voiced so wonderfully, the music is great and the whole thing flies by, filled with fun and whimsy. Critics hated this in ’55 apparently, but it must just have been a year for cats.
Trivia Worth Repeating – The film was largely the brainchild of animator Joe Grant, who made sketches and ideas based on his own English Springer Spaniel Lady, later including the main character of Ward Greene’s short story “Happy Dan, the Cynical Dog”. Grant left Disney before he could see his vision finally realised, but Greene was more involved, penning a novelisation of Lady And The Tramp that was released two years before the film, so audiences could be familiar with the story, or so Walt Disney insisted.
Worth Watching? – Don’t get too tripped up by the dinner scene, there is a lot elsewhere in this that is worth a look.
Recommended Viewing – The live-action remake is only OK, so I, will have to go with Up, where, among so many other things, the character of Doug is often cruelly over-looked because of that opening sequence. Squirrel!
17. The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1996)
Even nearly a quarter of a century on, it still strange to look back at The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and how incredibly dark the film is. It has room for whimsy and comedy – the only reason the gargoyle characters exist for sure – but even most of its humour is of the macabre sort, exemplified by the Clopin character, one of whose songs is about summarily executing people. And that’s just scratching the surface of the film’s weighty themes and subject matter: murder, atrocity, infanticide, violent fundamentalist dogma, the plight of the differently-abled, unhinged lust, etc. Frollo remains Disney’s most unsettling villain, the very poster boy for religious hypocrisy, given a song, “Hellfire”, that is sung and animated with such dark intent that it’s a wonder it actually made it into the final cut (though, it must be said, the film largely pulls its punches with the church). Once you get past all of this – and that can be hard to do – you find a sometimes heart-warming, sometimes terrifying, but always emotionally engaging story of a young man trying to join the various facets of society. Quasimodo’s “Out There” is an uplifting ode to that idea, and his various trials and tribulations keep you hooked enough that the rest of the film won’t scare you off.
Trivia Worth Repeating – The three directors of the film have stated ambivalence on the oft offered theory that the three gargoyle characters exist only in Quasimodo’s mind. Pretty much any part of their time on-screen could conceivably be fictional, even the finale where they appear to be helping defend Notre Dame, but which could just be Quasimodo projecting at the end of the day.
Worth Watching? – If you haven’t for a while, it will be good to be reminded of how dark this one was.
Recommended Viewing – Looking around for darkly-themed animated films that still retain some light charm, and I fall on Ireland’s own Song Of The Sea, a film about silkes, fairies and all manner of otherworld stuff, but retains a beating heart of grief and repression.
16. Fantasia (1940)
This anthology picture opens with the promise that is going to be a whole new form of entertainment and, if it can say one thing, it is certainly unique. Fantasia is a spectacle of music and animation, and more than anything produced in that first major decade of Walt Disney’s filmography, points the way towards the kind of inventiveness he wanted to showcase. Everyone remembers Mickey Mouse’s contribution with “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, and rightfully so, it being a fun, yet slightly unnerving, glimpse of magic and its dark side. But Fantasia is awash with other things worth noting: the imaginative representation of music in “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”; a look at a pre-history of the Earth with a lot of The Lost World flavour in “Rite Of Spring”; and the terrifying visage of the winged demon in “Night on Bald Mountain”. Fantasia errs in other ways, with some of its segments, like “The Pastoral Symphony” being too long, and others, like “The Nutcracker Suite” showcasing some racist imagery. But the overall concept is top notch, and, unlike some later anthologies, the execution nearly flawless. More than any of that, Fantasia is simply interesting, in a way some subsequent productions just weren’t.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Of all of his films, this was Walt Disney’s passion project, and he micro-managed to a fault with its presentation, right down to hiring specially trained staff to show people to their seats in theatres. It was his intention to release the film every few years with one of the segments swapped out for a new one, so the audience would always be viewing a different film. Fantasia’s poor returns, thanks largely to the impossibility of showing it in a war-torn Europe, nixed that idea.
Worth Watching? – Absolutely. There’s far more than Micky Mouse here, and the invention of it deserves consideration.
Recommended Viewing – Perhaps check out Warner Brothers’ cheeky riposte to Fantasia, “A Corny Concerto”, released in 1943, with Elmer Fudd, complete with uncooperative shirtfront, in the Deems Taylor role. And in that line, there’s also “What’s Opera, Doc?”, Chuck Jones’ masterpiece.
15. The Little Mermaid (1989)
The renaissance began in earnest with this Hans Christian Anderson adaptation, and boy was it a home run. Just about everything about The Little Mermaid works, and works well. The animation is a joy above and under the sea, exhibiting a crispness in execution and a variety in detail that came from the experience of the not-so-good previous few films. The characters are so vivid in a plot that is simple enough, but brilliant in the way that simplicity translates into a narrative that grabs a hold of you. It’s remarkably funny when it wants to be, and the few action sequences are great, even if the finale is a tad rushed. And then there is the music. The decision to transition into a form that was synonymous with a Broadway musical – with songs for every key plot point or character moment – and then put the Ashman/Menken duo on that side of things, was inspired, and gifted us gems like “Part Of Your World”, “Under The Sea” and, my favourite, “Kiss The Girl”. The only reason this isn’t higher might be the somewhat unpleasant undercurrent of 16-year-old Ariel’s quest, to change herself completely for the love of a random guy she’s just met, but other than that this is a timeless gem.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Sebastian was originally Clarence, and was an English-accented butler, probably not unlike Rowan Atkinson’s character in the later The Lion King. It was Howard Ashman who suggested the change to a Jamaican accent, that would allow for the calypso style of music employed in “Under The Sea”. An inspired decision as it turned out, with the song winning an Oscar that year (and Sebastian’s other song being nominated).
Worth Watching? – Yeah, and worth re-watching too if you have already seen it.
Recommended Viewing – I may not be the studio’s biggest fan, but Ghibli’s Ponyo is a very interesting take on the same idea, and visually quite stunning.
14. Treasure Planet (2002)
Disney Animation’s last tilt at action-adventure was, regrettably, a financial bomb, a real shame as lessons had been learnt from Atlantis: The Lost Empire (not least that such tales need a bit of levity in them). Treasure Planet is a delight all round, with the “70:30” rule of book-appropriate influence to sci-fi addition the perfect ratio to present this solar-sailor world. Following Treasure Island surprisingly closely in terms of characters and general narrative, Treasure Planet tells a really captivating story of a young man out on his first adventure, and the ersatz father-figure along to influence him. Both Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Jim and Brian Murray as Long John Silver give great performances, anchoring the fantastical universe in a grounded character/relationship arc for the two. And the film looks simply superb, reverential of the source material while being inventive for the general details. I talk of the crescent moon space-port, the idea of a tropical storm being replaced by a supernova/black hole and the variety of alien life (not to mention Silver’s character model, where I was still finding new things to stare at late-on). It actually could have done with a few musical numbers and flatulence humour will always grate, but this is an increasingly forgotten gem.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Treasure Planet remains the most expensive traditionally animated film ever made, with a budget that clocked in at 140 million US dollars, and that was just for production. You can see where the money was spent, but of course it made the box-office mountain just too hard to climb. A sequel, with Willem DaFoe cast as a cyborg villain, was already in pre-production, but was cancelled soon after the opening weekend.
Worth Watching? – Much like Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet is in danger of being totally forgotten eventually, so please do give it a watch, or a re-watch.
Recommended Viewing – It just so happens that there is a musical version of this story of course, and it is the excellent Muppet’s Treasure Island, featuring a scenery-chewing Tim Curry as Long John Silver. “Cabin fever, yeah!”
13. Hercules (1997)
The Ancient Classic undergraduate in me feels like pointing out every instance of this that is counter to the traditional narrative, but just about every other part really enjoys Hercules. There were a bunch of creative decisions that could have backfired here, but didn’t: presenting Hades, through the wonderfully insufferable James Woods, as a sleazy malcontent with an anger problem; a love sub-plot not contingent on the “at first sight” trope; framing the narration through a gospel choir, replete with “Amen’s”; and a certain PG whitewashing of the actual legends (Phil the satyr’s lusting after nymphs comes to mind). But the end product is a very absorbing and richly entertaining effort, essentially flipping the paradigm and presenting Hercules’ tale as a Superman-esque origin story of finding your place in a world you are nominally above. The song’s are toe-tapping and memorable, most notably “Zero To Hero”, placed as it is in a pitch-perfect montage sequence. Aside from Woods, everyone is pulling their weight with the VA, with Danny DeVito especially having a ball. The finale is a little cluttered – the last confrontation with Hades feels very tacked on – and it takes a little while to really get going, but it’s hard to hear “Go The Distance” and not feel a little carried off.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Hades took a very long-time to cast, and a number of well-known names came and went in the audition process. They included Phil Hartman, Ron Silver, James Coburn, Kevin Spacey, Michael Ironside and Martin Landau. Jack Nicholson was offered the part, and how amazing would that have been, but the studio balked at his enormous wage demands. John Lithgow spent nine months in studio before it was agreed he wasn’t right. James Woods was hired because of a performance, later translated into the actual character model, allegedly based on Jeffrey Katzenberg.
Worth Watching? – It’s one of those films where you will always find something new that you missed, so yeah.
Recommended Viewing – There are so many Heracles/Hercules stories out there, including a veritable boatload of 60/70’s Italian ones that are unintentionally hilarious. If pushed, the 2014 version with Dwayne Johnson in the role is entertaining fare, that actually gives the character a nice PR-influenced twist.
12. Big Hero 6 (2014)
Disney Animation’s take on the superhero genre, Big Hero 6 is a big, beautiful delight of an origin story, slotting in above many of the other 50 million comic book adaptations that are such a cinema staple nowadays. Grounding its fantastical tale with a story about shared grief and living up to the memories of those passed, it lives and dies on the relationship between young Hiro and Baymax, the stand-out presence of the film. Their back-and-forth is a really great example of human/robot interaction, allowing for a nice mix of drama, tragedy and comedy (“It is just an expression”), while the larger team also gets enough time without dragging on the main narrative. But on the superhero front, Big Hero 6 is awash with great superpowered set-pieces, like a spectacular flight through the brilliantly blended “San Fransokyo” or any of the mini-bot fights with “Mr Kabuki”. The film perhaps goes slightly off the rails in its finale, where an aversion to using death as a plot-point severely dilutes the larger idea of buried grief being very unhealthy, and a murderous turn by the protagonist is very lightly looked past at the same time. But Big Hero 6 is a great, colourful super-powered story, that deserves serious kudos.
Trivia Worth Repeating – While it is never enunciated in the film properly, Big Hero 6 doesn’t take place in an alternate world where San Fransokyo exists, it’s actually meant to be an alternative history where San Francisco, levelled after the 1906 earthquake, has been largely re-built by Japanese immigrants. Would have been nice if they found a way to actually put that in clearly, it would have only made the film resonate more.
Worth Watching? – More inventive than too many superhero films nowadays, so yes.
Recommended Viewing – You can throw a dart in a random direction and land on a comic book franchise nowadays. Because I feel that it is in danger of being forgotten because of the saturated modern market, take the time to watch a few episodes of the Bruce Timm’s Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, the crowning achievement of the “DCAU”.
11. Mulan (1998)
There is a debate to be had about how feminist a movie Mulan really is. There are not illegitimate arguments that it wearing a bit of a facade on that score, with the title character still needing to masquerade as a man in order to achieve anything. But, for me, I feel like such criticism is a bit overblown. This is still a film where a woman proves she can do everything that male characters can do, and better in many instances, in a society where she is expected to be a docile breeder. It is not a pro-female masterpiece, but for Disney Animation it certainly reaches highest towards that peak to this point, with much of the film, from the hyper-masculine villain to the brilliantly ironic “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You” bent towards that goal. This remains Ming Na-Wen’s finest role in my opinion, and she is backed up ably by the manic energy of Eddie Murphy, whose Mushu provides the comic relief the film would otherwise struggle to insert (resorting to lazier cross-dressing jokes in the finale for example). The villain is a bit lame and it kind of starts to lose your attention in the last 15 minutes, but as a bit of a different women-orientated animated musical, I think Mulan shines pretty bright.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Despite a three-week trip to the country for research purposes and an altering of the initial plot from a rom-com to something more like the original legend, Mulan flopped pretty bad in China, where people complained about the westernised look of Mulan and the variations from the Ballad of Hua Mulan. It was also permitted only to be released after Chinese New Year when schools had re-opened, arguably because the Chinese authorities were still feeling prickly after the making of Disney’s Kundun, a biopic of the Dalai Lama where China is not portrayed in a favourable manner.
Worth Watching? – This is one where there is bound to be something you might have missed or forgotten, so yes. I wouldn’t blame you for being tired of “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You” though.
Recommended Viewing – Recent Dreamworks film Abominable is a pretty decent CGI-animation based in a more modern China, even if it chooses to back the PRC up on a few things. But if you want Chinese set-films with significant gender-role themes, then there is only one clear stand-out, and that’s Ang Lee’s ever-impressive Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Just avoid that awful sequel!
Top ten up next.