The (Not So) Definitive Ranking of Disney Animated Films: 50-41

Finishing up the first half of our countdown today. You can re-visit the 60-51 part of the countdown here, as well as find the links to the first two parts.

For those wondering, yes, this is painful. We’ve been in “beloved” territory for awhile now and I cannot believe I find myself ranking movies as low as I have (until I look at what is still ahead). It’s all relative and we have nearly a century of magic from two incredible studios!

50. Saludos Amigos (1942) [Saludos Amigos]

Saludos Amigos

As World War II breaks out across Europe, Disney loses a lot of staff to the war effort (especially after the US officially enters the conflict). It nearly bankrupted the studio, forcing them to cobble together shorter pieces into feature-length releases as we discussed previously on the list. Another means of money was propaganda, and a major highlight of the period for Disney was their goodwill mission with Central and South America.

This begins with Saludos Amigos in 1942. Lake Titicaca (Peru/Bolivia), Pedro (Chile), El Gaucho Goofy (Argentina), and Aquarela do Brasil (Brazil). Disney took a team of animators across South America and they capture the trip with a documentary-style video punctuated by these four animated shorts meant to capture the magic of the region and endear the locals (several of whose governments had close Nazi ties and were seen by the US as a potential threat) to the United States.

Is it perfect? Of course not. It’s a team of white Americans in the 1940s giving their take on other cultures. A prominent Chilean cartoonish, for example, did not like how Pedro portrayed the country and developed a popular character in response. Still, it’s a good effort within the context to capture the magic of different cultures and styles.

49. Cinderella (1950) [A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes – Ilene Woods]

Cinderella

A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes. The glass slippers. The pumpkin carriage. The animation of Cinderella’s dress transforming. There is a lot of iconic packed into the film Cinderella, and the film did a lot to re-announce Disney theatrical dominance to the world after the Wartime era.

One of the original princesses, Cinderella’s success helped to launch Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, and Sleeping Beauty. Disney himself reportedly regarded this among his favourites, with the transformation scene (pictured above) being his single favourite animation sequence. And of course we have Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom and Tokyo Disneyland entrances.

That iconic status pushes Cinderella further up the list. As we continue to climb and discuss the amazing things that various films brought to the animation table, it felt unreasonable to climb any higher.

48. Monsters University (2013) [Roar – Axwell & Sebastian Ingrosso]

Monsters University

The sequels are almost gone from the list already. Perhaps the list treats them a bit unfairly, but once again we treat a film within the context of existing within a specific established universe. Monsters, Inc. gave us Monstropolis and the basis for the key players, though Monsters University enjoys slightly more flexibility by serving as a prequel that allows the studio to rewind the clock and develop characters towards their starting point in the original movie rather than looking for ways to develop them further.

Still, it’s difficult to appreciate the artistic enhancements in this film because Monsters, Inc. was so well done (the detail still astounds) and the studios produced other films around this time that pushed the envelop with animation that overshadow the gains of this one.

47. Winnie the Pooh (2011) [Winnie the Pooh – Zooey Deschanel]

Winnie the Pooh

From one sequel to another, but this time we have the benefit of reversing the trend as we did with Rescuers (perhaps not surprisingly as Rescuers and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh hail from a similar time).

The Hundred Acre gang are back with a budget and one can easily see that in the crisp animation that retains the classic Disney styling of Milne’s characters. The original music, adorable. The choice to have Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward lend their sound to the music for this kind-of sequel, brilliant. I mean, Zooey seems like she would just be friends with Pooh and company. Why shouldn’t she be the one singing their theme?

The characters are back in a perfect marriage of Milne and Disney’s sentimentality and innocence. Still, we’re in the entertaining category and not quite at the reverberant level of entries still to come.

46. Oliver & Company (1988) [Why Should I Worry? – Billy Joel]

Oliver and Company

For some, this marks the end of the Bronze Age. I disagree. What makes the Renaissance the Renaissance is largely formulaic, and that formula has to do with the Broadway styling of the story structure. Disney movies up to this point (save The Black Cauldron) feature memorable music, but the Renaissance brings that straight to the forefront of the movie.

Some say that begins with The Little Mermaid, which is the beginning of the Alan Menken/Howard Ashman collaborative period. I say it begins when Billy Joel stopped the show with “Why Should I Worry?” through the streets of Manhattan in this movie. It’s the classic story of Dickens’ Oliver Twist with the introduction of the Broadway style.

They get some style points for the use of CGI in the film – the CAPS system. CGI was not new to Disney animation, but this is the first extended use of computers in the animation. While it does not hold up by modern standards, we would be remiss not to acknowledge the role it played in furthering animation.

45. Alice in Wonderland (1951) [Very Good Advice – Kathryn Beaumont]

Alice in Wonderland

Another personal candidate for favourite story of all-time (and landing in the bottom half of the list), Alice in Wonderland is another undisputed classic of the Disney canon. In particular, the clear influence of artist Mary Blair on the final product and full embrace of the absurdity of the source material makes for a wonderful theatre experience.

It falls at this spot on this list because in many respects it’s “just” another Disney classic like Peter Pan, Dumbo, and Bambi. The studio took a classic story and set it to Disney animation and their storytelling. Memorable, yes. Classic, yes. Iconic, arguably. But Disney and Pixar still have so much more to offer!

44. The Fox and the Hound (1981) [Best of Friends – Pearl Bailey]

Fox and the Hound

The Fox and the Hound gets a considerable boost from two elements: First, the story is fantastic. I have made arguments before about why classics like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty have solid messages, but The Fox and the Hound might be the first that I consider profound. I could (and probably should) write a piece about what the story has to say about societal expectation and pressures.

Second, coming the early 80s this film marks a milestone in the transition from Disney’s Nine Old Men to the next generation of animators. Among them, Don Bluth (who leaves with many key animators to form the competing studio responsible for Anastasia, An American Tail, Secret of NIMH, Land Before Time, and All Dogs Go to Heaven) and Tim Burton (who animated Vixey on this film and would later be fired by Disney before becoming the Burton we all know today).

43. The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) [My Funny Friend and Me – Sting]

THE EMPEROR'S NEW GROOVE, Emperor Kuzco, Kronk, Yzma, 2000,  Scan from Slide

The Emperor’s New Groove occurred at the crossroads of the Renaissance and post-Renaissance eras in the studio. From an animation perspective, we see more of what worked so well for Disney all through that period – vibrant, uniquely Disney animation with some regional influence. The music – great score by John Debney, but otherwise the music returns to the background.

The storytelling propels this one further up the list. Even at their wildest, Disney adhered to theatrical rules about what happened on screen. Emperor’s New Groove had a field day with them. Fourth wall breaks, Kronk’s conversations with an angel and devil only he can see, and the Indiana Jones-style map sequence make this film a blast.

42. Treasure Planet (2002) [I’m Still Here (Jim’s Theme) – John Rzeznik)

Treasure Planet

If we could somehow combine Treasure Planet with Emperor’s New Groove, we’d probably have a perfect film. The story is a classic – a re-telling of Treasure Island (incidentally proposed at the same meeting as Oliver & Company) – with an emo Jim Hawkins in the lead. The score is strong but not a focal point as Disney continued to steer away from the Broadway style.

What saves this movie from dropping down the list is the animation, which is gorgeous. Space, like undersea settings, offer unique challenges to art and animation – not to mention the ability to introduce alien elements to the scene. One does not see the cosmic backdrop of this story everyday and it makes for some breath-taking visuals. The use of CGI was definitely another step forward for the studio as well.

41. The Incredibles (2004) [The Glory Days – Michael Giacchino]

Incredibles

I kind of love this story. Former Simpsons writer who worked on the Iron Giant gets the green light to adapt his story to the screen with Pixar. The story is The Incredibles. I did not look forward to this movie at the time. Pixar’s previous effort was Finding Nemo, which everyone found amazing, and Disney’s last effort was Chicken Little, which we already covered. The Incredibles seemed destined for disappointment between Pixar’s high bar and Disney’s floundering.

Edna Mode? I think most people my age have at some point secretly (or not so secretly) wanted her as a life coach. We love Jack-Jack. The family dynamic is fun because they are a superhero team, but they are also parents raising children and siblings who bicker. It had a relatable villain in ends if not means.

As we cross into films closer to the top of the list, I will speak more towards specific details that elevate those movies. I alluded to it somewhat with the points about animating in space or underwater before. In this film, considering the distinct challenges of animating their various abilities: Frozone’s ice, Violet’s invisibility and force shield, Dash’s speed, Elastigirl’s…elasticity, and Dash-Dash’s pure chaos. Each of those elements contains unique challenges and the film executes them all beautifully. That is no small feat.

 

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