9. Sleeping Beauty (1959)
The first thing of note in Sleeping Beauty is undoubtedly the stunning animation. The character animation, particularly on the bag-of-angles Maleficent (who moves less like a human and more like an expression of a demon with stuttered movement serving only to get her to the scariest possible static positions) is stunning.
But the real highlight is the background animation, which varies between arch-expressionism (anything associated with main villain Maleficent) and arch-impressionism (the gorgeous, patchwork exterior backgrounds of forest designed by non-Disney wunder-painter Eyvind Earle which play less like reality than a Sunday dream on the Grand Jetee).
Elsewhere, the film very much understands it’s own mythic simplicity. It opens with a rather gloriously old looking book in real-life, which is opened to reveal this story proper, making the film’s diegetic narrative actually that of “reading a story”. And indeed, we have a rather over-eager narrator in the film as well, a figure who constantly interrupts the story-within-a-story to remind how this, and all Disney, is very much an act of mythic “storytelling”.
And then we have the more traditional plotline, which nonetheless subtly reinvents classic Disney by making the main character of this tale of princess and prince the three fairy godmothers who care to the point of self-sacrifice for the more heralded princess.
Not only is this conceptually subversive, but the three godmothers (well at least the one in Red, who is almost authoritarian, and the feisty, fumey Blue, easily the best of the three) are much better defined in their expressive existential crisis (to protect the Princess they can’t use magic for almost two decades, forming the narrative backbone of the film) than the quintessentially boring Disney princess Aurora.
10. One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
The whiplash financial difficulties of Disney’s career are never more clear than in comparing 1961’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians with Sleeping Beauty, released only two years beforehand. While that film was a painterly, visually thoughtful explosion of pure craft, One Hundred and One Dalmatians looks like a barely moving pencil sketch. And in fact, it is a happy not-so-accident that One Hundred and One Dalmatians is not only successful in spite of its animation, but because of it.
Disney uses the film’s style – unfinished animation with tapered lines and etchy scrawl all over the place – not as an afterthought, but as a means to define the limits of the film’s characters. This is never more-so true than with villainess Cruella De Ville, who lashes about like a mass of distorted lines and angles. Her stop-start emotions are matched to her flimsy, skeleton-sketch form, oppressively covered up by a giant heaving mass of a rounded fur-coat that is chaotically at odds with her bone-thin, line-based appearance.
But she is merely the highlight of a film that is astoundingly cohesive. The story, about a pair of Dalmatians searching for their stolen children, the narrative itself is light and “sketchy”. If anything, it approximates snarky, loose-limbed comedy, with a few wonderful jabs at then-modern pop culture (a commercial for dog food is hilariously nonsensical and over-sold and a gameshow called “What’s My Crime?” is just about the most caustic humor in any Disney film).
This is Disney at its jazzy, improvisational best, it’s proudly non-nuanced animation capturing like nothing else a narrative that lives off of its own energy. It is completely free of Disney’s at-times difficult self-serious grandness and principled professionalism. It is no less than Disney’s finest “rock n’ roll” film, eternally fitting for the pop anarchism of its own time period.
11. The Jungle Book (1967)
The Jungle Book is a mighty confused movie. At its core, it is open about its storybook falsity, and it bears out in the film’s almost episodic lackadaisical nature. It essentially amounts to “watch these jungle characters do things”, which is a non-narrative of mighty potential indeed, assuming the characters work. But The Jungle Book is a mixed bag – the main character, Mowgli, in particular is something of a bore.
On the other hand, the absolute highlights of the film are the villains Kaa (the sublime Sterling Holloway, the voice of Winnie the Pooh) and Shere Khan (the booming, theatrical George Sanders). The two are arch-opposites, with Kaa so pitiful he must try incredulously hard to be scary, and Shere-Khan one of Disney’s finest “bored-menacing” villains, so caught up on his own power he barely has to try to do anything.
And then we come to the animation, where it all just becomes a mass of jangled nerves. The character animation is quite poor, or at least very openly “animated”. At the same time, the background animation is quite more conventionally strong and not the least bit openly “hand-drawn”.
The effect is strange and at once sublimely intriguing and messily disjointed. All of this combines for a film that is extremely slight, filled with charms aplenty, and quite amusing, but something less than the sum of its parts. It succeeds even as it fails.
12. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh bears many links to The Jungle Book, except it reads that 1967 feature past itself to realize its full potential with assurance rather than confusion. Both films are intentionally, lazily loopy, both are resolutely episodic with stories that amount to “watching forest/jungle animals go about their days”, and both feature a plethora of world-views-as-characters uneasily pitted against each other.
But while The Jungle Book appears confused about how to stick to its free spirited lightness, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh does it with ease. The film, befitting its origins in picture books, is both endearingly scraggly in animation quality and wonderfully post-structural, with characters who speak with a cheery, judgmental narrator, the text of the storybook forming part of the diegetic narrative of the characters, and a picture book as part of the landscape.
And perhaps better than any Disney film, it captures the emotional spit-fire of childhood, the way uninhibited emotions must come to terms with one another in the body they inhabit. All of this is curious considering the film’s troubled production – it languished in development hell for years, and came out right in the middle of the Dark Days.
By all accounts Disney was a terrible place to work during this period – but that stuttering, scrappy, wildly madcap, and anxious way the film was produced by a bunch of nervous wrecks was the perfect fit for this impression of childhood chaos and barren emotions rendered as low-key madness.
13. The Little Mermaid (1989)
The Little Mermaid was Disney’s proud return to both their quintessential story, the “fairy princess” story, and box office gold. Ariel, a mermaid who desires to be human and fall in love on land, isn’t Disney’s finest heroine, but she is aided rather consummately by some simply superb character animation that manages to capture nuances in feeling and simultaneous emotions. She is undone only by the fact that she is a Disney Princess and must push against the limits of this character type.
Thankfully, the film has too much going for it to write off as just another Disney film. For starters, it has among Disney’s greatest batch of songs ever. In particular, the cavorting “Under the Sea” and the impossibly romantic and deeply impressionist “Kiss the Girl” are all backed up by some of the film’s finest animation, both effervescently chaotic and masterfully restrained. Elsewhere, we’re given all sorts of broad, simple colors that capture the cool chill of calming blue and the fiery violence of crimson red.
And then we have Ursula, a Divine-inspired heaving mass of greed, suffocatingly raspy Gargantua-gluttony, and deliciously conniving un-containability, who also reinterprets the Disney villain physically by being anything other than the classical expressionist mixture of angular pointed edges and triangles.
All of this combines to remind that, with Disney, it’s very much the filmic construction that breathes life into the narrative – the arc of this film’s story, so to speak, is resolutely classical and not terribly compelling in and of itself. But it’s done up with supreme skill so enticing it can’t be passed up. If the film’s story is less than stellar, its storytelling is anything but.
14. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The cream of the crop of Disney’s Second Golden Age, Beauty and the Beast is not only notable for its sublimely classic romanticism but its subtle subversion of the Disney formula.
On one hand, we have the quite notable fact that the film lacks a real villain. More than anything, this lets the more character-based drama, of the titular Belle discovering the Beast, a man trapped in the body of a much larger, hairier creature and entombed alone in a castle of his own, take center stage. Secondly, we have the fact that Belle, from beginning to near the end, really has little to no interest in love or romance, and neither does the Beast for that matter. Their relationship is more one of shared loneliness.
Of course, none of this is necessary to appreciate the more straightforward ethereal beauty of a film that is almost impossibly, achingly romantic. The songs are an all-time highlight for a Disney film.
The undeniable highlight is the smorgasbord of decadent, delicious wonder that is “Be Our Guest” “Beauty and the Beast” is by far the greatest romantic song from the Second Golden Age, “The Mob Song” has all manner of violent, garish, sturm und drang that soon enough approximates less song than oppressive, abstract noises battling for voice (just like a mob, at that). Meanwhile, “Belle” is a delirious opening song that manages to perfectly define a main character, a central town, a mood, and just about everything you can think of – all without breaking a sweat too.
And if all this isn’t enough, we have some truly stunning animation helped by some of Disney’s most involving character framing, as well as some superior camera angles and exquisite design. That the film also manages to re-read/ critique “love at first sight” while still being positively, gushingly romantic – well, that’s Disney for you.
15. Aladdin (1992)
After Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, Disney clearly sought to capture the young male demographic, and out of their genies’ lamp came Aladdin. To this extent, Aladdin is more adventurous, comical, and free-form in its less substantive attitude toward romance and human interaction – the narrative technically centers a romance about a peasant boy’s attempts to woo a royal female, but it treats it with much less import than many other Disney films.
Perhaps for this reason, if the film has a flaw, it’s that the main character is less than enthralling. Around him however we have a smorgasbord of evocative animation, clever fourth-wall breaking, and consistently entertaining side characters.
But the real highlight is, of course, Robin Williams’ genie, a whirlwind of deconstructed performance that owes less to a scriptwriter’s sense of logic and more to a comedian’s sense of rubber-mouthed free association. Furthermore, the character – by virtue of having to perform the role of servant for Aladdin -– lightly reflects on the nature of playing “roles” in everyday life.
The genie also has the benefit of being the center of two of the film’s three best songs, the rapid spit-fire showmanship Broadway of “Friend like Me” and the grandstanding, swinging “Prince Ali” (the third song is the smoky, silky “Arabian Nights”). If Aladdin is Disney’s first modern “Warner Bros” film, the genie is the company at their most indebted to that distinctly Looney Tunes brand of chaos.
16. The Lion King (1994)
The central issue with The Lion King is that the main character, the lion Simba struggling to reclaim his throne from his Uncle Scar, is by far the film’s least interesting one. In fact, Simba is a bore – as a child (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) he’s twee, and as an adult (Matthew Broderick) he’s self-righteous. Far more interesting is Scar (Jeremy Irons).
Even if he’s sort-of Shere Khan from The Jungle Book, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And the philosophy of a villain so imposing that they’re bored with their very power certainly ain’t broke. Jeremy Irons’ booming baritone and the film’s best character animation (all slinky and serpentine) combines with his ample screen-time to create by far the film’s greatest success. Plus, his song “Be Prepared” is one of the only moments where the animation goes from merely technically gorgeous to aesthetically inspired in its sickly green hues.
Which brings us to the other undeniable strength of the film – the animation is, for all its self-imposed grandeur, ear-poppingly gorgeous in a technical sense. Few films match the very specific technical prowess of the animation, even if a large number of Disney films use their animation to construct more artistically inventive constructions. If the film is somewhat overrated, it is beautiful, and that’s worth a mighty something indeed.
17. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Arriving on the heels of the big-drag that was Pocahontas, Disney thankfully went for something a little darker with Hunchback, as well as more legitimately existential – while many other Disney films tip-toed around crises of identity, The Hunchback of Notre Dame delves right into them with a passionate, fiery-red fervor as we explore the titular Quasimodo’s attempts to belong in society despite his physical deformity.
For those who argue that The Hunchback is a largely misunderstood Disney modern classic with deeper, more adult nuance than any other modern Disney film, the categorical lynchpin of the argument is Frollo’s mentally self-immolating, revealingly grandiose descent into his own personal demons, “Hellfire”.
The song is just about the best use of the modern Disney choir married here to a fire-and-brimstone hellscape of personified, Expressionist crimson lust that lashes out at him as he struggles to not condemn himself for his religious guilt (toward the end of the song, it is less reality than a melding of pure geometric colors battling for control of the screen).
But this is merely one highlight of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, not a great Disney film, but an undeniably strong one, and one well worth revisiting almost twenty years after its release.