The (Not So) Definitive Ranking of Disney Animated Films: 30-21

Welcome to the top 30! The competition will surely heat up a bit as even less seasoned Disney fans should recognise all of the entries at this point. Newer generations might have been unfamiliar enough with some of the older titles to get away with previous rankings, but the higher we climb the more we start to relegate personal favourites to places less than number one.

The previous list may be found here.

Still 30 places away from number 1 and these are incredible movies.

30. One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) [Cruella de Vil – Bill Lee]

101 Dalmatians

It starts with the opening credits, which had themselves become an artistic medium in 60s cinema. Add to that the slightly rough finishes discussed with some other films from the era and the sheer task of animating so many Dalmatians. I mean, look at the screenshot. They did not shy away from including dozens of animated puppies in frame.

We also got Cruella de Vil, one of the most vaudevillian and melodramatic villains from the pre-Renaissance era. She’s big, bold, and we love to hate her in her despicable aim to hurt our furry friends.

I love that they portray them as actual puppies rather than as anthropomorphic (like they did with Lady and the Tramp), but also portray them as actors within a human world (unlike Lady the Tramp, which treated most of the humans as faceless background figures). It gives the story a fun dynamic where the humans are equals but we still see the world through the pets’ eyes.

29. Hercules (1997) [Zero to Hero – Lillias White, Cheryl Freeman, LaChanze, Roz Ryan, Vaneese Thomas & Tawatha Agee]

Hercules

 

28. Monsters, Inc. (2001) [If I Didn’t Have You – Billy Crystal & John Goodman]

Monsters, Inc

After all of our sequel talk earlier in the list, we also get to venture into more and more of the originals now. Monsters University is an entertaining, vibrant film, but we could not have enjoyed that if Pixar failed to bring the goods with Monsters, Inc.

Right off the bat, the concept of monsters in the closet and under the bed performing a social utility service is fun, especially seeing the inexperienced ones terrified by children (and having to deal with the increasing de-sensitisation of children in general).

Then there is the animation. I didn’t think much of it at the time; while walking through a department store electronic section one day, I saw Monsters, Inc. playing on a huge, high definition television. The detail in Sulley’s hairs is amazing for 2001. I thought the resolution of the television might reveal how poorly the CGI aged by that time, but it instead revealed the extent to which Pixar was already focused on detail.

27. Ratatouille (2007) [Le Festin]

Ratatouille

Ratatouille, to me, was a bold movie because it focused so much on cuisine. While food has a strong visual component to it, obviously taste and smell are critical. Pixar presented the culinary features of the film with enough detail that one could enjoy the tastes and smells of Remy’s cooking.

Then there are the added details of an immersive Paris backdrop and excellent use of music to support the story, making the setting a character like all good stories do.

Pair all of the sensory enjoyment with the parallel stories of Remy and Linguini, and of their friendship, and one has an instant classic. Certainly looking forward to the Ratatouille addition at EPCOT.

26. Big Hero 6 (2014) [Immortals – Fall Out Boy]

Big Hero 6

Recall the discussion surrounding The Incredibles. Here we have a similar artistic phenomenon: a collection of super heroes with distinct abilities, each requiring a distinct artistic approach to capture the animation well. It gets the edge over its Incredibles counterparts because it did take steps forward in the animation and, unlike Incredibles 2, we can appreciate those advances because the characters are new.

Another edge here was that the story possesses a similar family dynamic, but takes a less traditional route by incorporating their friends and, of course, Baymax in that structure. While the family relations of The Incredibles is fun, it gains a complexity in Big Hero 6 that seems to say a lot more with a lot less.

25. Pocahontas (1995) [Colors of the Wind – Judy Kuhn (also Vanessa Williams]

Pocahontas

Yes, the story itself is somewhat problematic given the actual history of Pocahontas. Not just the Disney version – most versions of this story are imperfect. Look at Avatar (which I kept describing to my fellow cinema-goer as, “So this Pocahontas in space”). In fact, the Disney version handles elements of it better than some other versions. I love that she saves John rather than the white guy (who is part of the invading group) being the one to save the day; and I love that he leaves at the end of the film but Pocahontas stays.

All of this is somewhat secondary to the artistry though. The watercolour and even design of Pocahontas remain distinctly Disney while also eschewing the traditional look of a Disney film that makes Pocahontas stand out among other Renaissance films. I sense a strong Mary Blair influence as well, and that is never a bad thing.

There’s a slightly odd history to this movie as Disney put a lot of focus on their 1995 project while letting another group of animators work on a B-side project. When that one came out in 1994 it stunned audiences as one of the greatest ever and stole some focus away from Pocahontas and the important themes of the film.

24. Aladdin (1992) [A Whole New World – Lea Salonga & Brad Kane]

Aladdin

Amazing film with amazing music. The animation of Aladdin, Abu, and Carpet attempting to escape the Cave of Wonders is one of the all-time great sequences in animated film. However, sandwiched among the likes of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast (1989 and 1991) and then The Lion King and Pocahontas (1994 and 1995), I don’t know that these things warrant specific celebration so much as they were simply the next story in the Disney momentum machine.

Stylistically this is not far off from Beauty and the Beast. The CGI of the Cave of Wonders escape is impressive, but I don’t know (could be wrong) that it’s a progression. Beauty and the Beast gave us the ballroom sequence whose sweeping use of a CGI background broke ground in the industry.

One of the biggest wins for Aladdin: Robin Williams. Without his efforts as Genie (and the impressive animation feat of keeping up with his improvisation), I don’t know that we get future performances like Eddie Murphy (Mushu in Mulan), Billy Crystal (Mike in Monsters, Inc.), or Martin Short (B.E.N. in Treasure Planet). I think he showed a lot of comedians the opportunity that was animation to showcase their talents.

23. Tarzan (1999) [You’ll Be in My Heart – Phil Collins]

Tarzan

Tarzan wound up here for similar reasons. I think the animation was another step in advancing the industry, especially while tracking Tarzan and his skateboarding tactics through the jungle canopy. The film is artistically stunning and one of the last instalments of the Renaissance before Disney began to pursue full computer animation in its experimental phase.

We get a brilliant soundtrack from Phil Collins that works almost as well as a Phil Collins CD as it does the soundtrack to a film. By that I mean, I think Collins could have produced the songs used in this film without them ever making Tarzan and still found success with it.

Plus, the story often gets overlooked in the flurry of incredible activity that was the Renaissance. Tarzan, caught between two worlds (I see what you did, Phil), struggles for acceptance and belonging in both.

In the words of Tracy Jordan and Jack Donaghy, “Do you like Phil Collins, Jackie D?”

Jack: “I have two ears and a heart, don’t I?”

22. Wreck-It Ralph (2012) [Shut Up and Drive – Rihanna]

Wreck-It Ralph

Firstly, I think we owe John C. Reilly some attention. Yes, he is the goofball from the screwball comedies with Will Ferrell – and he lampooned the way critics often overlook comedies in a brilliant musical number with him. He also did Boogie Nights, Chicago, Gangs of New York, The Perfect Storm, The Aviator, The Hours, The Thin Red Line, Hoffa…

Wreck-It Ralph might be the highlight of his career because I think it walked the line between his comedic and dramatic sensibilities perfectly, while also showing us a dramatic side of Sarah Silverman (she is brilliant, but most audiences know her only by her stand-up comedy persona).

The concept of the film, taking place within a video game and then the Internet in the sequel, offered chances for meta humour and some nostalgia trips, but crossing video game worlds is the animation genius of this movie. They transition from the 8-bit reality of Fix-It Felix’s game (and show us the non-8-bit reality of the characters while they aren’t actively working) alongside the gorgeously gooey scenery of Sugar Rush and desolation of Calhoun’s game.

21. Brother Bear (2003) [No Way Out – Phil Collins]

Brother BEar

Putting aside films that came out recently (and were therefore unavailable to see any sooner), Brother Bear is the last Disney film I saw. In 2020. The movie came out while I was in high school and too cool for this sort of thing, especially with Home on the Range news already coming out that seemed to herald the end of the Renaissance. It didn’t help that the animation studio in Orlando closed almost right after the release of the film so Disney could focus on computer animation.

While I still think I was right to be concerned about what would happen next (as evidenced by the rankings), I was premature in taking my step back because Brother Bear is a sweet film with some wonderful animation and a heartfelt story.

Is it higher than it should be because I just saw it for the first time? Possibly. Then again, this is the definitive list, so no.

Only 20 films left. The best stories, best music, and most innovative animation awaits! Okay, some of the best music. I can feel the Aladdin fans getting upset by that one.

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