If external (and internal) competition has marred their golden mouse ears in recent years, Disney’s reputation argues they will emerge from their ashes soon enough. Over the long haul, few companies can match Disney for number of revolutionary films, or joy brought to yet-unsullied minds.
For several generations now Disney has been the premier name in family animation, and their archly conservative reputation also belies the more subtle ways in which they have altered film history forever. Specifically, little attention is given to the complicated and nuanced ways in which they reform animation styles depending on the needs of the film, and how they’ve subtly reformed their narrative inclinations over time while also melding form and content in ways few companies strive for.
If Disney will never reclaim the sheer filmic invention of its first five films, there are worse crosses to bear. Perhaps more than any other film production company, the Disney narrative has become very much one of expectation – it carries with it hopes and dreams too numerous to count. To this extent, it sometimes becomes old hat to fail to explore the differences which underlie and challenge the Disney name.
More simply, sometimes we forget that what we love is actually something more than manipulative emotion-baiting: genuinely good-filmmaking. And reminding ourselves is of utmost import. To this extent, here are the twenty five best Disney animated feature releases.
1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Technically, the German release The Adventures of Prince Achmed has Snow White beat by about eleven years for title of “first full length animated release”, but with a film this good, its revolutionary status is of less import. The first of Disney’s “princess” storylines, it is notable more for how it deviates from this norm.
For starters, the film’s main character is as much its titular septuplet of wondrous comic figures as it is the rather dull princess whose name opens the film’s title. They are its most compelling characters, lovingly embraced constructions of pure fairy tale childhood storytelling logic whose names bear out their deconstructed understanding of character identification.
And then we have the film’s animation, which is stunning, particularly in the character department. Combining impressionism, cartoonish simplicity, and realism, the look of the film holds to no one true style and instead reflects a sort of melding of minds that would soon become distilled in particular films.
For instance, the Queen/ the Witch, the first in a long line of classic Disney villainesses, is all the more notable for being, visually, two characters in one. The former, the Queen, is a wonderfully empty, non-detailed, and deeply hazy depiction of imposing, regal form that blinds to the point of sapping any human features from her face whatsoever.
Her other form, the Witch, is a crumpled, overly-lined, anguished mass of hunched-over expressionist form. The two portrayals capture with great care the nuances in the character’s performative nature, making her out to be a figure who goes between different styles of appearance so as to never reveal a truly human core.
With a female and male lead who are less than truly interesting, Snow White is perhaps Disney’s greatest argument for the power of its own magical, transformative storytelling to fill in a simple outline with love and care. More than anything, this is the essence of the Disney aesthetic, and if for no other reason their first film is the most important in the canon.
2. Pinocchio (1940)
The adage goes that no company could make an animated film like Pinocchio today. Whether this is true is up for debate, but it is most certainly the case that Pinocchio is a feat, something as radical and out-of-touch with the world now as it was in 1940.
First, there’s the narrative, which is the first of Disney’s quasi-episodic features and which accomplishes the indomitable feat of building up two-thirds of a narrative that mostly details a wooden boy exploring the world, and then radically changing gears for its final third by quite literally just introducing a whale of a problem out of nowhere.
Monstro, the whale, is not really a whale though, but a reflection of Pinocchio’s lack of care for the only person that truly loves him, his maker Geppetto. The character abandons any sense of realistic logic to reintroduce and reflect on the central moral question of the dangers of humanity that center the narrative – it is a film of emotional logic more than anything else. Fittingly, Monstro is visually almost penciled into the frame, not as a “realistic” creation, but a distilled impression of reality returned to haunt us.
Elsewhere, the narrative non-logic of the film is one with its form, which more-so than in any Disney feature blends that which is pointedly amateurish and that which is clearly, cleanly processed to stunningly dissonant results. The holdovers from early expressionist cinema are in full effect when Pinocchio is taken to a monstrosity of a garish, oppressive carnival of horrors where children are transformed into donkeys.
When a boy is transformed, we’re subjected to some of the most haunting and uncomfortable shadow-work to be found in any film, animated or not– it’s the kind of image, and the kind of film, we don’t so much watch with a logical eye as have happen to us with the pure effect of a ton of bricks barreling into our unconscious and permeating our dreams and nightmares.
3. Fantasia (1940)
Disney is not normally associated with anything resembling “radical”, but Fantasia is one of the most radical American films ever released. Lacking any narrative other than “here are images matched to sounds”, it plays out less like a cohesive film than an attempt to break down what film itself is. It is first and foremost “an experience”, and what an experience it is.
At the core of Fantasia are seven short films matched to pieces of classical music. To explore some of the better ones is like a study in contrasts. Rather defiantly the most painterly sequence in the film, “The Nutcracker Suite” captures the pure, unbridled spirit of the musical piece it is paired to even as it transforms the whole affair to an expressive tribute to nature and the change of seasons.
“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, resoundingly charming and magical, is matched to some perfect pomp and circumstance. Yet such a reading does a profound disservice to the rather stunningly explicit expressionist imagery on display throughout (the shadow work, especially the sinister color-coded violence of Mickey wielding an ax, is awe-inspiring).
Not to be outdone, “Night on Bald Mountain” is ungodly. In particular, the stuttery, obviously static animation, which has de-saturated figures pulled across the screen like cardboard cutouts in still motion, is completely perpendicular to the graceful fluidity of the other segments. The effect is impossibly disconcerting – it does not feel of this world.
These may be separate segments, but linking them is something very explicit: live footage of the musicians performing the pieces and bridging the act of “performance” with the diegetic narrative of the film. Disney was not only interested in the experience, but in reflecting on how experiences do not simply exist but are made. In doing so, they also happened to completely fly in the face of the central tenants of Hollywood continuity-editing logic and smash it to little bits. No big deal.
4. Dumbo (1941)
For two reasons, Dumbo is among the most influential of all animated films: first, as the first unabashed “children’s” film among Disney’s oeuvre, it in many ways formed the basis of the “Disney style”, and secondly, it saved Disney animation from financial obliteration.
With Dumbo, Walt Disney finally had his second whopping financial success (after Snow White), in part due to the fact that the film is somewhat less radical than the previous two Disney films. Which isn’t to say it’s generic or safe – if anything, it’s almost total lack of narrative cemented it as another in a long-line of Disney films that strived more for impressionist dream than reality.
This story of a baby elephant in a circus is more a collage of images than anything – it’s deeply manipulative as well, but then Disney was always a premier manipulative studio and wasn’t ashamed to revel in overt sentimentalism. The narrative is cheerily lackadaisical and low-key, and for a company that would become known for its grandness, creating a film that hints but doesn’t demand is a joy indeed.
Besides, if it’s weepy, it also has “Pink Elephants on Parade”, perhaps the scariest, most unnervingly expressionist descent into angular, non-representational madness in any Disney film.
5. Bambi (1942)
If Fantasia was the grand experiment, Bambi was the slightly less grand one in disguise – a return to art film-making after the grand cartoonisms of Dumbo. The story of a deer and other forest animals rendered with all manner of rampant, vicious, soul-sucking cuteness, the film is undeniably sweet, but beneath the surface it is no less radical than any previous Disney film, even if it’s radical in more subtle ways.
Let’s start with the deeply impressionist narrative -we do not so much follow Bambi’s trajectory as much as we peer into his life at distinct moments, picking up the blanks along the way.
Then there’s the whole humanity-as-the-villain thing, and how the film pointedly sacrifices a specific character as “villain” in favor of rendering the distant human monster the enemy. For 1942, with the US smack-dab in the middle of World War II, the implication of categorical human destruction, put this bluntly and directly, is quite radical indeed.
Last but not least: the animation, which is beyond comparison for the company. In particular, the film opts to render animals at their most life-like, rather than say the open-faced cartoonish-ness of their previous feature Dumbo.
But it in no way sacrifices aesthetic either, with rather lovely impressionist backgrounds married to, for once, impressionist sound as well, where we hear certain noises subdued to the point of silence. And married to one of the finest slice-of-life dramas to be found, it’s one of Disney’s most nuanced and textured slices of pure emotion.
6. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is often known today for being Disney’s last package film (a film of smaller short stories matched together), but it’s also a triumph of storytelling. The second story, “Sleepy Hollow”, in particular, is an exploration of mystery and unreliable storytelling, playing like a campfire story of ghostly proportions (fittingly, it has no character voices and instead opts for constant narration from Bing Crosby).
Beyond this, it also scores points for actually having a mean-spirited main character it openly mocks. More important is the simply stunning animation – Ichabod Crane’s famed late-night ride to his own doom is done-up with some of Disney’s finest expressionist, autumnal, dreaded horror imagery and ghoulish, cackling eeriness.
“The Wind in the Willows” is a more curious beast. In a sense, its greatest weakness is its lack of time to develop it’s satire of British social mores and class relations. Yet, it’s short length leads to a quick-witted slap-dash fervor and manic energy, the film’s greatest strength – not for at least a decade would Disney again make a film that feels so caught up in it’s very in-the-moment slapstick chaos (everything seems just on the verge, like Mr. Toad himself, of self-destructing).
Like “Sleepy Hollow”, it is also notable for how Mr. Toad, the main character, gets himself in trouble largely due to his own personal greed – he is essentially an aristocrat who assumes that because he has a good family name he has the right to do whatever he wants without consequence. Let’s just say he learns a thing or two.
7. Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Many claim Alice in Wonderland is Disney’s most radical film – this is not necessarily true, but it is the company’s most explicitly radical film. It rather proudly states that it is a radical construct of non-reality in fact, largely by opening the film with some rather painterly, realistic images of the “real world” juxtaposed against the somewhat alien looking Alice.
Wonderland, the non-location where she spends most of the film, meanwhile, is drawn with big, broad colors and an intentional lack of detail like she is. She is at one with the other characters – particularly the very full-bodied (in the sense that she uses her entire body almost like a messy jumble of human parts uneasily strung together with dental floss) Queen and the deliriously creepy cognitive dissonance of the Cheshire Cat, defined the contrast between his arch-roundness and his angular, teethy grin.
Alice in Wonderland is more a triumph of design than animation though – the characters work better as concepts than as living, breathing entities. Which brings us to the central reality of the film – it is rather intentionally anti-emotional. As a descent into madness, it is not the least bit interested in getting us in the mind of Alice or anyone– it is a depiction of madness boxed off for us to watch from a distance, rather than a madness we are dragged screaming into.
This is grapeshot film-making, meaning the successes are met with acceptable losses. But, if the film amounts to much less than the sum of its parts, but the parts speak for themselves.
8. Lady and the Tramp (1955)
Possibly Disney’s most romantic movie ever, Lady and the Tramp is the spirit of effervescent filmic love rolled up into an impossibly cute and cuddly ball for all to get lost in. More than anything, it is cinematic comfort food. The story of a lower class male dog and upper class female dog who fall in love indulges in some dangerous romantic simplicity, but it firmly fulfills Werner Herzog’s notion of “ecstatic truth”, the idea that in film emotional truth, or emotional affect, matters more than realism.
The animation fits the bill here too, being fairly realistic but never full-on attempting “realism” as it is usually defined. The backgrounds have a slightly hazy quality about them, and the characters are fairly cartoonish in their simplistic color schemes.
The closest thing it approximates is a longing for the past, or a dream-like hazy memory which has all the broad strokes down pat and the subtler details filled in with loving embellishment. The characters (mostly wonderful examples of cartoonish, endearing simplicity that approximate caricatured Scottish, American, English, Russian, and other nationalities) are perfectly in sync with the animation and the “feel” of the film.