The (Not So) Definitive Ranking of Disney Animated Films: 20-11

You’ve made it to the top 20 – the elites. We are getting into the Who’s Who of Disney and Pixar animated classics now. For those who need to reverse gears, the 30-21 instalment may be found here.

20. Mulan (1998) [Reflection – Lea Salonga]

Mulan

Plus: like Pocahontas, Hercules, and a few others, Disney did a nice job adapting the traditional Disney style to cultural specifics. There is a distinctly Chinese influence on the artistry of the film, as there ought to be in a telling of Mulan.

Minus: they did not work with Chinese artists as much as they should (as seen with, say, Coco), so at times it does feel like appropriation. I don’t find it problematic, but it feels like they could have done more with more cultural support.

In that vein, there’s a wonderful blend of femininity and masculinity in the artistry of the film to go along with the plot. Everything feels quite balanced and flowing.

The 1998 story about a woman defying gendered expectations also seems precocious in light of current social events (though not in terms of gender equality of course). Having a protagonist battling the expectations of family and society while competing with gender prejudice gives the film staying power.

19. Toy Story 3 (2010)

Toy Story 3

The gang heading towards certain doom in the incinerator? Whoa. I don’t just mean the emotional power of the moment, which I think hit a lot of Toy Story 1 fans right in the gut because 15 years later they were all at a transition point in their lives and watching Andy’s literally go into an incinerator. I mean the gorgeous animation of the flames and light, especially reflected in the faces of the characters.

Arguably the best in the franchise with a rather intense (dare I say genocidal?) plot, it feels like part of the inspiration for this film was Pixar’s lack of satisfaction with the execution of Toy Story 2. They came back with a plan, full creative control, and the resources to tell a new Toy Story adventure their way and it shows.

18. Moana (2016) [How Far I’ll Go – Auli’i Cravalho]

Moana

Just – the water. It’s beautiful. One will rarely see actual water this stunning. It’s clear and sparkling in the sun, and Disney delivered on animation that portrays real water. In several sequences it doesn’t even feel like watching animation; it’s like they filmed water and did animation alongside it.

The other environmental animation is equally gorgeous – from the wind blowing through the trees to the fire of Te Ka (and Tamatoa, of course!), a truly unreal engine powers the new generation of computer animation.

Always a fan of more realistic portrayals of characters (Moana and Maui) and the musical stylings of Lin-Manuel Miranda, too. Along with Frozen, these newer princess tales harken back to what was great about the Renaissance with all the modern advances.

17. Finding Nemo (2003) [Beyond the Sea – Michael Buble]

Finding Nemo

More water! This is not part of some Moana franchise, but the same sort of rule applies here. Not only is Finding Nemo going to stay in front of Finding Dory, it also leaps Moana because it took so a big step forward in water animation. I think it’s reasonable to say that light and water are among two of the hardest things to animate, and the combination of the two, which is so prevalent in this movie, could be quite distracting if done poorly.

Nearly 20 years later and the Finding Nemo animation still, ahem, holds water. It doesn’t have the realism seen in Moana, but just eight years into feature computer animation and Pixar knocked this one out of the park. Remember how hard a generation clamoured for a sequel to this?

16. Zootopia (2016) [Try Everything – Shakira]

Zootopia

The computer power at Disney/Pixar has grown so significantly that we get projects like Zootopia now, projects where Disney will embrace “throw away” scenes like some of the early travelling where they animate demanding and diverse things.

As we travel from habitat to habitat in Zootopia, the Disney team animates urban settings (complete with light and reflective surfaces), snowy settings (with the hazards of ice mentioned previously), and a stunning rain forest. I refer back to the superhero films and discussion of the specific needs for each type of animation. These elements behave differently and effect other things in the environment. Dedicating a team to doing one of them well is impressive, but switching among them was a bold move on which they delivered.

Now, pair all of that with the social consciousness of the movie’s theme and you have a winner.

15. Inside Out (2015) [Bundle of Joy – Michael Giacchino]

Inside Out

****ing Bing Bong. I know it’s the thought that counts, but the fact that Pixar got us to cry about Bing Bong might be rivalled only by Tom Hanks making us ugly cry about a volleyball.

At the risk of sounding repetitive, one of the first features here is the diversity of the animation. Look at the memory marbles in the screenshot – they aren’t just there, they are alive. They captured the way the light hits each one and the flurry of activity inside. We have the emotions with their various elemental considerations, like Anger’s fire and Joy’s radiance.

The story is brilliant as well. Professionals use Inside Out as a demonstrative tool to help people, especially children, with emotions because of the way they articulate emotional health. (Not so) Little details like a single emotion acting as a chief of staff and the reflection of this in Riley (child, run by Joy), the father (run by a more reserved Anger), and a mother (run by a mature Sadness) all have something to say about our emotional complexity.

14. Fantasia (1940) [The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – Leopold Stokowski & The Philadelphia Orchestra]

Fantasia

Hey, if you want to dismiss Disney and Pixar animation as “kids’ movies” or “just cartoons” then I probably cannot change your mind. Even the staunchest “Disney is not for adults” viewer should recognise the artistry that is Fantasia.

I have the benefit of hindsight, but I think Fantasia was a bolder move by Disney than Snow White. Sure, a lot of people thought Disney could not execute a feature length animated film, but Fantasia was so much more abstract than that. Granted, Merrie Melodies and even Disney had produced animation-based-on-music projects already, but nothing to this scale.

None of the music in Fantasia belonged to Disney – these are all classical compositions that pre-date Fantasia and have nothing to do with the company. That in and of itself is a deviation from much of the canon where Disney used its music to tell their story. Here they took someone else’s music and someone else’s story and set animation to it. The end result is a deeper appreciation of both Disney animation and music itself. It serves to visualise the elements of musical composition in a way that benefits both, and this film should forever go down as fine art because of it.

Also, how disturbing was Night on Bald Mountain as a child?

13. Frozen (2013) [Let It Go – Idina Menzel]

Frozen

This is worse than the sequel, right? I feel like one camp is thinking, “Ugh, why does everyone overrate this film?” and another is thinking, “How dare you keep my beloved from the top ten!”

The biggest achievement here (and that is saying something) is the animation. Disney maintained and improved on its existing animation with character rendering, hair, and backgrounds, with a substantial jump in how they tackled the elementals. Frozen delivers the ice and snow with a magical quality, especially during the Let It Go sequence. The physics engine for the film used in conjunction with Elsa’s powers was another breakthrough that will be apparent in more and more animation.

The story and music are superb, but I agree with the “it’s overrated!” crowd that I’m not sure it warrants the top ten. The sisterly love story was a refreshing deviation from the prince charming approach – especially given the meta humour in the film about that very point – but it also feels like a re-tread of themes seen in Brother Bear and two films still to come on this list.

12. The Little Mermaid (1989) [Part of Your World – Jodi Benson]

Little Mermaid

Three words: hand drawn bubbles. The film that many considered the inauguration of the Disney Renaissance with its boldness and show-stopping music also took on a major animation hurdle: under the sea. We referenced several times just in this instalment how difficult water animation can be and that really was not seen prior to The Little Mermaid.

One of the ways Disney achieved that was to outsource the drawing of millions of bubbles. Remember, they aren’t static features of the background – every one of them is animated to capture specific movement and lighting.

Then we have features like Ariel’s hair. I don’t mean the way she can live in the ocean and have perfect hair the moment she emerges from the water, but the way animators captured her hair’s movement while underwater. It took quite a bit of care to keep swimming characters from looking like characters floating in a vacuum.

And while some find the story of a woman surrendering her voice just to impress a man she barely knows problematic, I personally have always viewed it as a story teaching young people, girls especially, about the importance of having a voice.

11. The Princess and the Frog (2009) [Almost There – Anika Noni Rose]

Princess and the Frog

From the beginning of one era to another, The Princess and the Frog marked the end of Disney’s post-Renaissance era and shift into the Revival. Having experimented with animation techniques for years with varying degrees of success, Disney rallied behind the idea of returning to traditional animation and a strong musical component.

When looking at the suite of Disney films in the Revival and post-Revival, it’s impossible not the then look at this film and realise it was when Disney re-asserted its confidence as the animation leader. Yes, they went back to a lot of what worked previously rather than forging ahead some more, but they did it with confidence, precision, and near-flawless execution.

They did it so well that it completely paved the way for the Revival and one of our top ten films.

It was also a refreshing take on the Disney princess. Tiana is a working woman rather than royalty herself, and the story keeps the focus squarely on her restaurant ambitions and growing, Austen-esque romance with Naveen rather than a desire to find a prince charming. Disney balances her strong work ethic with Naveen’s personality and I think delivers a nice message to audiences about finding balance somewhere in between the two of them.

 

Almost there – only 10 films to go. THE ten. At this point all you would need to do is review the list of 80 films released by the two studios to see which ten remain if you haven’t kept track in your head…but in what order will they appear?

 

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2 Comments

  1. As a reader of yours for some time now, I know already that this series is a labor of love for you, and it shows! While I have not seen all of these films, I am enjoying the sequences more and more as you dive into those I have enjoyed, both where I agree with your take (for obvious reasons) and where not so much (for perspective). Looking forward to your Top Ten, and the order thereof! 8^)

    Liked by 1 person

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