10. Tarzan (1999)
If you had claimed that a Phil Collins driven adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ famous vine-swinging man-ape would win Oscars, you’d probably have been scoffed at pre-release of this, traditionally seen as the finale of the Disney Renaissance. But what a confluence Tarzan turns out to be. “Two Worlds”, “Son Of Man”, “Strangers Like Me” and “You’ll Be In My Heart” are all top-tier Disney songs, and the decision to have them serve as a framing narration, instead of having the characters sing, was brilliant. But Tarzan is good enough of its own accord, a fantastic story of world’s colliding, fighting against prejudice, and protecting the environment. It has got a serious edge to it – a child is killed in the opening montage – but also manages to naturally inject some fun and frolics with the larger animal cast. The Tarzan/Jane love story doesn’t feel forced, BRIAN BLESS-ED is in good form as the villain, and the more praise focused on the film’s animation, the better. Tarzan captures the density and variety of the jungle in a really eye-catching way, and might have the best human models in the studio’s history. It was the last majorly successful gamble Disney Animation would make for over a decade.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Blessed is good enough as Clayton, at least partly cast because of his distinctive booming voice. So good was it that Blessed was also asked to provide the “Tarzan yell” that appears in the film, and no better man.
Worth Watching? – Sure, even if it is just to look at the jungle backgrounds.
Recommended Viewing – You know what, just because I might never get the chance to plug it otherwise, John Carter is an extremely under-rated adaptation of Burroughs’ other major work, and also happens to be on Disney+.
9. Zootropolis (2016)
I’m still somewhat in awe of Zootropolis and the message it presents, an allegory of race relations in urban areas told through anthropomorphised animals. Large parts of this film mean it really shouldn’t work, like some lacklustre VA (Jason Bateman sounds like he really isn’t all that bothered) and its exorbitant length (it was the longest film in the canon at time of release, and just keeps going and going). And yet, a well-constructed, almost noir-ish story, with the aforesaid racial allegory, does come together very nicely in the end. It helps that the script is as good as it is, or else that allegory would turn into an unpalatable lecture, but instead it is introduced piece by piece, before becoming a thunderous roar in the finale. And, of course, it looks simply stunning, an ode to the animal kingdom transposed to a multi-environment urban maze, that allows for plenty of visual humour on top of an endless stream of witty barbs. But it is the inner point of the film, a rallying cry against the toxicity of prejudice, personal or institutionalised, that really makes it stand out. Zootropolis wears that message proudly, and delivers it very well. It’s the kind of film that I think everyone should see.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Less than a year and a half before the release date, Zootropolis‘ story underwent a fairly radical change. Having initially planned to focus on Nick Wilde as the main character, with Judy as his sidekick, creators flipped it when they realised it worked better the other way. With Judy as the focus, the bias of Zootropolis could be introduced gradually for maximum effect, whereas this wasn’t possible originally.
Worth Watching? – Like so many others in the top tier, you could should watch this just for the plethora of background jokes you might have missed the first time around.
Recommended Viewing – Looking around for other big-issue animated films, I land on Pixar’s Inside Out. Now that’s a film, with the key message that it is both OK and necessary to feel sad at times during life, that every human being should have to watch.
8. The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
This film is fascinating enough for its lengthy and difficult production, as detailed in the interesting documentary The Sweatbox. Moving from a more serious, Sting-driven musical to the ridiculous slapstick comedy that it became was a dicey transformation, but The Emperor’s New Groove comes off superbly. David Spade and John Goodman do some of their best work ever here. The Mesoamerican setting is totally meaningless backdrop really, though many of the environments look stunning enough: this is all about crazy humour, from Tom Jones’ rousing “Perfect World” at the beginning (way better than Sting’s Oscar-bait credits song), to the squirrel with an inexplicable knack for animal balloons and all the way onto the finale that revolves around numerous animal transformations (cow’s excused). But it is the villain pair of Izma (Eartha Kitt) and Kronk (an amazing Patrick Warburton) that steal the show, a farcical duo who excel at generating flat-out belly laughs in me with their failing efforts to kill Kuzco, track down his llama form, or make the perfect spinach puff. Zany, breaking the fourth wall constantly and always more concerned with leaning into a joke than maintaining traditional structure (no hint of a romance plot), The Emperor’s New Groove is a very rare type of Disney Animation comedy, but is all the better for that.
Trivia Worth Repeating – The original plot of what was to be called Empire Of The Sun looks fairly pedestrian, but could have worked in the context of the Disney Renaissance. It would have seen the shiftless Kuzco swapping places with an identical peasant (voiced by Owen Wilson) to escape his boring palace life, only to be turned into a llama by a more traditionally evil Izma. The look-alikes would both find love – the peasant with Kuzco’s fiancee, the Emperor with a llama herder to be voiced by Laura Prepon – before coming together to stop Izma’s scheme. All of this would have been to the tune of six original Sting songs. For a variety of reasons too complicated to get into, most of this was changed.
Worth Watching? – I’ve seen this a bunch of times and it still makes me laugh, so yes.
Recommended Viewing – Aside from The Sweatbox – which never got an actual theatrical release, but can be found online – I have to go for Dreamworks’ The Road To El Dorado, which has a similar setting in parts and is also brilliantly funny (and very under-appreciated). A wonderful two-hander of Kenneth Branagh and Kevin Kline give a comedy twist to The Man Who Would Be King, in a film that’s one of my all-time animated favourites.
7. Tangled (2010)
The “Revival” was in full swing with Tangled, a really brilliant take on the Rapunzel legend, title controversy or no. Both Rapunzel and Flynn Ryder are some of the best characters that the studio had written in a long-time, and have a chemistry that’s exceedingly rare right from the off. That’s a suitable accompaniment to a sometimes dramatic, sometimes heart-warming, often funny and always engaging adventure. The villain is great too, a perfect encapsulation of an emotionally manipulative and abusive parent figure. The music is out of the park here, especially “When Will My Life Begin?”, the amazing “I Have A Dream” sequence, and the genuinely captivating “I See The Light”, with all being in perfect sync with the generally flawless animation. Tangled looks simply beautiful, with Disney finally nailing 3D CGI completely ten years after their first dreadful effort. I only really have a few problems with Tangled, mostly revolving around the ending, with the focus on Flynn as the guy who saves the day, and the way Rapunzel is fated to be happy ever after with the very first guy she ever meets. Those things upset the ending, especially as they were easily fixable, and with those fixes Tangled could have been competing at the very top of this list. Still, one of the most re-watchable films Disney ever made.
Trivia Worth Repeating – The initial script for what became Tangled, entitled Rapunzel Unbraided, was described by originating animator Glen Keane as a “Shrek-like” approach, so you can assume it would been a soulless recitation of pop-culture references. Thank God Disney veered away from that approach, perhaps burned by their relatively recent dalliance with “Shrek-like” story-telling in Chicken Little.
Worth Watching? – This is one I’ll probably be watching once a year for the rest of my life, so yeah.
Recommended Viewing – I’m not sure where else I would be able to fit this in, but it’s appropriate that I send some love the way of Don Bluth’s Anastasia, another film about an unknowing Princess who has to go on a journey to a place she barely remembers. While it can’t compete with Tangled on the animated front, its music is certainly as good, and it’s pretty good story to boot.
6. Moana (2016)
Disney takes no real risks with Moana, structurally speaking, with the film’s narrative being as predictable as it gets. An even bigger achievement then, the film being as good as it is, accomplished by having every element of its production stand-out majorly. A brilliant female (and POC) protagonist in Moana (Auli’i Cravalho is so infectiously endearing) is put alongside the wonderfully brash Maui (a stand-out show from Dwayne Johnson) for a joy-filled trek across the Pacific, driven on by the strength of its music (“How Far I’ll Go”, “You’re Welcome”, and “We Know The Way” are all amazing in their own ways). The film works as a tribute to the endevour of those Pacific Island sailors of a by-gone age, and is awash with colourful and well animated set-pieces, not least Jermaine Clement’s “Shiny” decapod, that carries Disney’s best villain song in years. There are some problems, such as how the film struggles to do justice to such a wide variety of myth to choose from, and an unfortunate focus on coconuts that smacks of stereotyping. But it is very hard not to be swept away by Moana when the title character sings of her desire to find out who she really is.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Moana gets some of its inspiration from what some scientists have dubbed “the long pause”: a period of around a thousand years when Polynesian sailors, having gotten as far as Samoa, appear to have ceased their expansion into the Pacific. The reasons why are not clear, and could be one, or a combination, of changing currents, winds or the necessity of creating double-hulled ships for longer voyages. I like Moana’s version!
Worth Watching? – There’s something for everyone here, be it the Mad Max-inspired set-piece, or the ridiculous comedy of the chicken.
Recommended Viewing – In the similar category of animated film’s from a non-western perspective, Kubo And The Two Strings is a brilliantly accomplished story of a young boy going on a journey to discover something intrinsic about himself. For Polynesian set films, I have to go with Next Goal Wins, which remains one of the few documentaries to make me teary-eyed.
5. Beauty And The Beast (1991)
The gone-too-soon Howard Ashman, in-combination with Alan Menken, struck gold for the second film running here, and I mention them upfront because it is their songs and score that send Beauty And The Beast soaring. Every tune is basically iconic in its own way: the amazing character-defining medley of “Belle”; the almost charming boorishness of “Gaston”; the animated invention of “Be Our Guest”; the operatic rom-comness of “Something There”; and, of course, the sweeping majesty of the title song. But the film is more than solid everywhere else, written with aplomb in terms of the heroine, the Beast and the scene-stealing villain who is practically a satire of the kind of heroes Disney often relied on in earlier eras. The second film to use the new CAPS animation style, Beauty And The Beast is quite the looker, from the colour and variety of Belle’s provincial life to the baroque grimness of the cursed castle. So well-paced and so nicely are the songs sprinkled around that I felt this film flew by, and I couldn’t describe any of it as in anyway forgettable or skippable. The only negative is really the problematic idea that Belle falls for her brutish kidnapper/gaoler so quickly, which is hard to overlook. Aside from that, this is a near flawless experience.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Howard Ashman did all of his work on Beauty And The Beast while his health deteriorated owing to being HIV/AIDS positive, which he had been diagnosed as while working on The Little Mermaid. By the end, Ashman had lost a huge amount of weight, his sight and most of his ability to speak, but lived long enough to be told that the film had been received very well at its first pre-screening. He died four day later. He holds the record for most posthumous Oscar nominations, at four, winning one of those for the title song of Beauty And The Beast.
Worth Watching? – There is a certain timelessness to this one that marks it out as imminently re-watchable.
Recommended Viewing – I had mixed feelings about the live-action remake, though the stuff with Gaston and LaFou is great. I’ll go instead with Enchanted, a different live-action Disney princess film, that serves as both an excellent homage to and occasionally vicious satire of that genre.
4. Cinderella (1951)
Disney were really back in business with this one, the first iconic entry in their canon for nearly a decade. It was worth the wait: a true animated classic, Cinderella was the new benchmark for the company, and more than anything else influenced the future wave of Princesses. The stuff with the titular character is good enough, a moral tale of maintaining positivity, politeness and faith in trying circumstances, where a suitably exalted paragon is placed opposite the dreaded step-family and their myriad cruelties. It would be easy for Cinderella to be dismissed as a doormat, but her kindness and compassion shine through enough that we can overlook this. There is a lot to enjoy elsewhere: the physical yuks between the mice and Lucifer the cat; the buffonish King and his long-suffering advisor; and the music, which is probably the best Disney had pulled together up to that time. It’s a shame that the Prince is a non-character – something that the live-action version improved upon – and one suspects the various cat/mouse shenanigans are an attempt to ape Tom and Jerry, but it’s hard to seriously fault Cinderella. This was the first truly great single narrative feature that Disney made.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Something that surprised me was the realisation that, excluding the prologue, the entirety of the film takes place over the course of just one day, with it beginning with Cinderella’s morning chores and ending with her fitting the glass slipper the following morning.
Worth Watching? – It would be wrong to call this a forgotten film, but it has lost a bit of its status so I would say most definitely.
Recommended Viewing – This is one occasion when I don’t have any qualms recommending the live-action remake, directed by Kenneth Branagh and with Lily James in the lead, which I actually think is an improvement.
3. The Lion King (1994)
This is a glorious spectacle from start to finish, a wonderful ode to the kaleidoscope of Africa, nature and the “Circle Of Life”. There were some risky choices made in production, not least hiring Elton John to do the music, but everything melded together so well. It’s a great story of growing up and staying true to yourself, interspersed with amazing tunes like “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?”, with a script that overflows with memorable lines (“Long live the King!”) and powerful moments (Mufasa’s death chief among them). The voice cast is simply stellar: no superlative is good enough for Jeremy Irons as Disney’s best-realised villain, or James Earl Jones as the imposingly paternal Mufasa or Nathan Lane’s delightful turn as Timon. It might be the best directed Disney Animation film ever, not just in terms of its animation, but some brilliantly inspired visual choices, like a young Simba stepping into his father’s footprint. There’s only a few things to give you pause, like the way that the film is front-heavy with its songs with a sense that the second-half drags just a bit, and some holes in the story that the stage musical filled in (see “The Madness Of King Scar”). It may not be the best, but it is still an incredible achievement.
Trivia Worth Repeating – Jeremy Irons threw out his voice performing “Be Prepared”, apparently on the line “…you won’t get a sniff without me!”. From there the recording is done by Jim Cummings, who was playing Ed in the movie. One of those weird things where I only noticed the shift in timbre after listening for it specifically.
Worth Watching? – Always. This is a pretty timeless story, and will never really get old.
Recommended Viewing – Would you believe that I constitute one of the few people on the planet who has still not seen the live-action remake? In lieu of any thoughts on that, allow me to give what some might consider a surprise recommend to the Madagascar franchise, that while a bit overly-commercialised are genuinely quite funny and engaging, especially the Penguins. “Ramirez!” “Dave” “Dave!”.
2. Aladdin (1992)
If Disney had found the perfect formula with The Little Mermaid, then perfected it with Beauty And The Beast, Aladdin must be considered close to the animation studio’s masterpiece (at the time). Everything about it is a rollicking good time. It looks great, with that unique Middle-Eastern style in architecture and dress, and in its mind-blowing set-pieces like the Cave of Wonders. It reads great: this might be the best scripted Disney film yet, with a bounce in its wordplay and characters that grow and change through the course of the story. It definitely has the best villain yet, in Jonathan Freeman’s cackling Jafar (that delivery of “Ecstatic…”). The animal buffoonery is perfectly balanced, and what a show from Gilbert Gottfried. It has a very good moral centre in its message that wish fulfillment and lying will get you nowhere. It sounds amazing, with the vaudeville-like “One Step”, the ingeniously animated “Friend Like Me” and the romantic high of “A Whole New World” (personal favourite, the villainous reprise of “Prince Ali”). And, of course, there is the ad-libbing tour-de-force performance from the late Robin Williams as the Genie, that truly pushes Aladdin to the top tier of animated film. It’s crazy to think he was paid so little for the part, when he makes so much of the movie. With him, and with that around him, Aladdin is an immense achievement.
Trivia Worth Repeating – You’ll recall Michael Eisner’s concern during the production of Pocahontas that Disney Animation film’s didn’t featuring enough maternal characters, which may have been influenced by the changing directions Aladdin took. In early versions of the story Aladdin’s mother was a central character, complete with a song, but Jeffrey Katzenberg did not like the impact she had, and allegedly ordered her to be “eighty-sixed” in notes to screenwriters. The stage musical version of the film would later include the axed song, “Proud Of Your Boy”, and elements of the mother character.
Worth Watching? – This is another once-a-year job for me, with Aladdin being endlessly enjoyable.
Recommended Viewing – The live-action version is seriously hit-and-miss, so instead hop over to Dreamworks to check out something from the same general source material (and Jeffrey Katzenberg) in the form of Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas, with Brad Pitt in the lead role. I think it’s better than its mixed critical reception, and certainly didn’t deserve its status as the bomb that almost killed the studio.
1. Frozen (2013)
Very little in the history of film or animation has straddled the line between cultural phenomenon and genuinely incredible artistically, but Frozen did it. Every time I watch this film I begin thinking it wasn’t as good as I remember, and finish it having found something else about it I loved (this time, it was the pacing: there isn’t a three minute spell in this film that isn’t pivotal or memorable in some way). It is a superb balance of some very heavy stuff lightened by musical work that may be the finest in the canon – sororal relationships under stress (“Do You Want To Build A Snowman?”), loneliness/desperation (“For The First Time In Forever”), the perils of PUA (“Love Is An Open Door”, the best villain song since “Hellfire”, but only when you realise it is the villain song) and coming out/being yourself (the astounding success that was “Let It Go”). The characters are so vivid here, and their relationships to each other so well-written. There is a brilliantly effective balance of drama to comedy (Olaf and the trolls’ “Fixer-Upper” are pitch-perfect). And I believe this to be the best voice cast in Disney Animation history, most notably Idina Menzel. Frozen did not become the globally recognisable thing it is for no reason: it was simply a smash-hit on every level.
Trivia Worth Repeating – If you want to be technical, Frozen might have the longest production history in Disney history. The studio first began work on an adaptation of The Snow Queen in 1937, to be an animated part of a Hans Christian Anderson biopic. Disney’s role in the film was shelved after the beginning of World War II, and when it was was released in 1952 they weren’t involved. They never let go of the story though, and the idea was fully resuscitated in the 1990’s. The rest is history.
Worth Watching? – You’ll never be able to get away from this one I am afraid. You’ll be watching until the Sun burns out.
Recommended Viewing – Since the villain probably gets some influence from The Snow Queen, fire up Disney+ to take in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. Someday we might get a Narnia saga on-screen to match The Lord Of The Rings, but the existing films aren’t bad at all.
And a more convenient list of my rankings for context:
- The Lion King
- Beauty And The Beast
- The Emperor’s New Groove
- Big Hero 6
- Treasure Planet
- The Little Mermaid
- The Hunchback Of Notre Dame
- Lady And The Tramp
- The Jungle Book
- Snow White
- The Great Mouse Detective
- Winnie The Pooh
- The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh
- The Aristocats
- The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad
- Atlantis: The Lost Empire
- Robin Hood
- The Fox And The Hound
- Lilo and Stitch
- Raya And The Last Dragon
- The Princess And The Frog
- Frozen 2
- Wreck-It Ralph
- Alice In Wonderland
- Oliver & Company
- Fantasia 2000
- Brother Bear
- Make Mine Music
- Sleeping Beauty
- 101 Dalmatians
- Ralph Breaks The Internet
- The Sword In The Stone
- Fun And Fancy Free
- Meet The Robinsons
- Home On The Range
- Peter Pan
- Melody Time
- The Rescuers
- The Three Caballeros
- The Rescuers Down Under
- Chicken Little
- Saludos Amigos
- The Black Cauldron
That’s it. Agree/Disagree? Let me know below.