The (Not So) Definitive Ranking of Disney Animated Films: 10-1

You made it to the moment we’ve all been waiting for – the top ten. I’m sure the dedicated Disney fans out there have been keeping tabs in their heads to this point: which ten are missing? What order? Why is _______ already on this list?!

Before we get to it, here is a list of links to take you back to the countdown so far:

80-71

70-61

60-51

50-41

40-31

30-21

20-11

10. Up (2009) [Married Life – Michael Giacchino]

Up

I can’t imagine why you would be reading this list if you were not a Disney fan, and I cannot imagine you being a Disney fan who has not yet seen Up, but, if somehow you missed it, there is a 10-minute segment near the start of the film called “Married Life”. It’s a montage of Carl and Ellie’s life set to a musical score with zero dialogue, and it tells a better, more impactful story than most feature length movies, animated or otherwise.

Debates with friends have raged as to whether Up or WALL-E is the better Pixar film, but I think Married Life skews my perception of the overall movie. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that Up falls flat once the action moves to South America and Paradise Falls, but Married Life is such an incredible piece of storytelling that the rest of the movie does pale a bit to me. Honestly, if Married Life were a short I might still put it in the 10 spot.

The animation of South America is fantastic – to the point of being genuinely other-worldly. It’s exotic in a Neverland sort of way while retaining a distinct South American wilderness influence (and I feel again some Mary Blair influence, perhaps owing to her role in the Saludos Amigos and Three Caballeros trip so many years before).

9. Toy Story (1995) [You’ve Got a Friend in Me – Randy Newman]

Toy Story

Pixar’s folly. Is Toy Story the greatest computer animated film of all time? No. Is it the best Pixar film? No. Is it the best Toy Story? Again, probably not (I’d say that got progressively better over 2 and 3). And the humans in Toy Story are the definition of uncanny valley.

But something has to be said for being the OG. When people complain about CGI in general I like to say that people despise CGI in movies because one only notices bad CGI. Well done CGI blends into the film and works magic. Toy Story holds up 25 years later as new audiences revisit the first in the franchise.

While it lacks the crispness of later films, one can still see the incredible detail in fabrics and subtleties like reflections and background movements that would have been improbable to achieve with traditional animation. Pixar showed the world how computers could revolutionise animation with this entry, and the technology behind Toy Story has evolved down so many avenues in the two and a half decades since.

8. Brave (2012) [Into the Open Air – Julie Fowlis]

Brave

The princess movie that wasn’t Disney. While Disney became more robust and thoughtful with princess leads as time progressed, they remained more or less true to a Disney formula. Pixar embraces its own rules for storytelling and that included eschewing the Disney model for the princess with the entry of Merida.

Yes, they address a romantic angle in the movie by having suitors from other clans try to win Merida’s hand in marriage, but that was to establish Merida’s character as a rebellious spirit and get that element out of the way. By using and dismissing the romantic component early, it allows the film to focus on the mother-daughter relationship for the brunt of the runtime.

Set all of that against the mystical backdrop of an enchanted Scotland…

Featuring brilliant colouring and an ethereal use of light, Merida journeys between darkness and light in a characterisation of setting that would make the Brontë sisters proud.

Then there is the matter of the physics engine used to animate Merida’s iconic curly hair and the impact that would have on films to come. Fun fact: Elsa has more animated strands of hair than Merida – but that would not be possible without the work done on Brave.

7. Tangled (2010) [I See the Light – Mandy Moore & Zachary Levi]

Tangled

Of course, if we’re going to talk about hair…

Rapunzel is an interesting film because, technically, it’s a failure. The box office gross for the United States was $60 million less than the film’s budget, but that is only because of the film’s bloated $260 million budget.

We have covered in previous posts the post-Renaissance at Disney. With the introduction of Pixar in 1995 and artistic changes at Disney, the studio seemed to embrace that the future of animation was in full computer use but they did not know how to engage the medium to its fullest potential in a way that was distinctly Disney. The result was the experimental post-Renaissance period with Dinosaur, Home on the Range, Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons, Bolt, and others.

After Disney reverted back to traditional animation for The Princess and the Frog, they seemed to find the confidence, poise, and expertise necessary to make the jump and did that with 2010’s Tangled.

Finally we received a classically Disney piece of animation with all of the benefits that computer animation provides. Disney blends their traditional style with the computer so well that it’s almost hard to remember that they hadn’t really done it before this. Sure, they had computer animated films, but they have a very different feel than those of the Renaissance or Revival.

Tangled, in addition to being a fun story, launched Disney Animation into the computer age stratosphere.

6. WALL-E (2008) [Define Dancing – Thomas Newman]

WALL-E

With WALL-E, Pixar took us to a place that Disney/Pixar animation rarely went: space. As discussed with Treasure Planet, animation in space requires a specific approach (like the sea-based tales). Like other movies rated higher on this list (such as The Little Mermaid), it really feels like Pixar decided to move forward with WALL-E as much because of the artistic challenge the film would present as the strength of the story.

While providing a cautionary tale about the dangers of excessive capitalism, consumerism, and waste, WALL-E also provides a human tale (using robots) about love and relationships.

Starting in the apocalyptic trash heap that is Earth, Pixar paints a sprawling open world before transitioning the spectacle of deep space and the unique physics outside our atmosphere. The juxtaposition of the purity and scope of space with the clutter of the world plays an important role in the story.

5. Coco (2017) [Remember Me – Benjamin Bratt]

Coco

The crown for top Pixar movie gets usurped by 2017’s Coco though. In terms of story, I might give a slight edge to WALL-E, but the artistry of Coco blows away the competition. The colour, the light, the texture – unparalleled in animation. This is the also the most recent and highest ranked computer animated movie on the list, in a way representing a bar for animation moving forward.

It also deserves credit like Disney/Pixar films before (Pocahontas, Hercules, Brave) for embracing a cultural influence on the art. This could have been a distinctly Pixar film set in Mexico, but by coordinating with local artists and storytellers they were able to put a distinctly Mexican influence on the art.

The ability to retain such flexibility with the art while maintaining something that is Disney/Pixar at the core is critical to future films that attempt to set themselves apart while fitting into the thematic aesthetic of the studios.

4. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) [Out There – Tom Hulce & Tony Jay]

Hunchback

Surprised? You shouldn’t be, but I would not be surprised if you were. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is perhaps the most underappreciated Disney film in the canon, and possibly one of the most underappreciated films in general.

True, it gets a little intense for smaller children at times, what with Frollo’s bloodlust and constant talk of hellfire and damnation, but Hunchback is a Broadway-level production. I don’t mean the film embraces show-stopping musical numbers. The Renaissance long established that as a staple of new Disney films. I mean Hunchback could literally compete with Broadway productions in terms of scope.

Out There, Topsy Turvy, and…ah…God Help the Outcasts are musical masterpieces with Fantasia-levels of accompanying animation.

The film also a strong message about social consciousness, but not one where the storytellers insert modern sensibilities into an historical context. The sense of injustice makes perfect sense even within the context of the time, which makes the message more poignant and timeless when one considers how prevalent those themes remain today.

If you missed this Renaissance entry, go back and watch it tonight.

3. The Lion King (1994) [Circle of Life – Elton John]

Lion King

Another possible surprise? I did a democratic version of this ranking years ago using a tournament style elimination bracket. The Lion King routed its way to the finals and then had a bitter battle with this ranking’s champion before finally falling, and I expect a lot of readers might have predicted that at one or two.

Hamlet for Kids is a near-flawless film from the animation to the characters to the story to Hans Zimmer’s unforgettable score and Elton John’s lyrical masterpieces. Like Phil Collins years later, Elton’s contributions are so strong that he could have produced a successful album featuring the songs even without the film. They remained an expected feature in his live performances for years.

One of my favourite pieces of Disney trivia is that The Lion King was meant as a sort of B-side. While a production team worked on The Lion King, the studio was putting most of its attention and backing behind Pocahontas with the idea that this would be something successful to tide audiences over until the bigger release. Successful as Pocahontas was, The Lion King would go on to stake a claim as one of the greatest in the history of animation.

2. Lilo & Stitch (2002) [He Mele No Lilo – Kamehameha Schools Children’s Chorus & Mark Keali’i Ho’omalu]

Lilo and Stitch

Number two? Yes, number two. I know we all pretty much agree that Lilo & Stitch is amazing, but worthy of the number two spot? I think because of reputation we tend to think of The Lion King in terms of general greatness and Lilo & Stitch with only a vague sense of overall awesomeness.

But then we dig into the details.

Space, water, an exotic setting – this is Disney at the height of its traditional animation prowess. Stitch is a living wrecking ball who finds his equal in the similarly destructive Lilo – and with her traumatic background why shouldn’t she be? Her sister Nani, acting as a single mother, does a perfectly flawed job trying to keep it all together. She’s simultaneously the worst, fighting with Lilo, and the greatest older sister of all time.

Then there’s Nani’s beau David who I submit is the greatest Disney prince for the same reasons. He doesn’t do the big, grand gestures; he does the everyday little things that matter to others.

Lilo is stout and kind of clumsy. Nani has a little role around her tummy rather than the unrealistic, Barbie-thin waist typical of Disney princesses. Everything about the characters is messy, imperfect, and disastrous, but they are family and make it work which is the whole point of the film and delivered to perfection.

1. Beauty and the Beast (1991) [Beauty and the Beast – Angela Lansbury/Celine Dion]

Beauty and the Beast

Let me just start here: first animated feature ever nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Not Best Animated Feature – Best Picture. This animated picture went toe-to-toe with Silence of the Lambs, JFK, Bugsy, and The Prince of Tides.

Academy Award for Sound? Check

Academy Award for Best Original Song? Multiple checks. Not only did Beauty and the Beast win, Belle and Be Our Guest received nominations in the category.

Academy Award for Best Original Score? Check.

The ballroom scene (pictured) is iconic, but audiences might not appreciate the significance of the scene. Animation traditionally featured painted backgrounds and then animators would overlay characters onto them. Since 1937 Disney pioneered techniques of this sort with the multi-plane camera and such. When they introduced CAPS it changed the game again.

In the ballroom we see the traditional animation of Belle and Beast dancing, but the camera swoops and pans in a three-dimensional room. The scene is revolutionary.

If The Little Mermaid was the jab that opened things up, Beauty and the Beast was the knockout punch. Within the context of its moment in time, Beauty and the Beast is the all-time animation champion.

 

So that wraps up our (not so) definitive ranking. Nodding in agreement? Already working on your response list? Drop some of your thoughts about who is out of order here and have some fun conversation!

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