18. Mulan (1998)
Much has been written about Mulan’s gender politics, varying from pro-feminist to resolutely traditional interpretations. There are certainly strains of both, but they mostly cancel each other out. If Mulan herself is a tough, active female, she also acts mostly under the influence of her father, and her validity is defined by being unlike most women, thereby implicitly valuating maleness over femaleness in more sinister, false-progressive ways.
Beyond this, the film’s attitude toward Chinese culture is more an orientalist depiction from the white gaze than a genuine reflection of that world.
Nonetheless, the film is something more an adult film than typical Disney fare, superficially because it deals with death in fairly certain terms and more deeply because it addresses, paradoxically, those two things which must be unstated in all of Disney: human biology and gender constructs.
In Disney, men and women were different because…they just were, and because Disney has money invested in their staying different. But as the story of a female dressing as a man and “out-manning” those around her, if the film comes away confused about its view, it at least gets points for addressing the question in the first place.
A word about the formal elements of the film: while mid-90’s Disney films were grand and filled with big, bold colors, Mulan is very much a soft, cartoony, round, film. It maintains the cartoony style of previous-film Hercules, but in a completely perpendicular way; while that film was highly angular and geometric, this one is all about free-flowing lines which seem to extend forever and gently, calmly weave in and out of each other.
19. Tarzan (1999)
Phil Collins. Why must you be so over-produced? You’re this close to ruining an otherwise pretty strong and underappreciated Disney film. Of all of Disney’s Renaissance films this is almost categorically the best “technical” achievement. And, at the risk of being hyperbolic, it is almost wholly for one reason: Deep-Canvas, a new technique by which Disney could render 3-D space, finally, with the fluidity of a hand-painted image.
It’s also worth noting that the technique was perfected for a very specific and fitting film: Tarzan is a film all about 3-D visual chaos and the pure ecstatic thrill of the movement of an unchained, perspective-shifting camera, gliding just fast enough to give us a sense of doubt and just slow enough to keep from giving us whiplash. In other words, not only did Disney perfect Deep Canvas, but they knew how to utilize it.
Essentially, Tarzan is a suitable adventure narrative well-realized, and nothing more, except for that one important feature, probably the most important in any Disney film, the animation. And anyone who says valuating Disney on the quality of its animation over its “narrative” is too easy – well, they don’t much understand the nature of story-telling and how Disney tells its stories through animation, now do they?
20. The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
If Aladdin saw Disney experimenting with zany, off-the-wall cartoonisms and melding them to the Disney formula, The Emperor’s New Groove was the realization of that madcap, self-consciously non-committal spirit. With no romance to speak of, little in the way of grandiose despair or sentimentalism, and, pointedly, very little of substance, it is instead a fairly straightforward classic screwball comedy about a pair of mismatched heroes trying to get from one place to another and avoid all manner of pitfalls along the way.
It is light and off-the-cuff to a fault, but it thrives on the undeniable spirit of its snarky yet genial blend of “Road to” adventure films and Looney-Tunes esque (the bears an unmistakable link to Chuck Jones) cheeky, zany, vaguely anarchic nice-but-naughty humor long-gone from today’s world.
The absolute highlight of the film is the relationship between the feline, haughty, shrill Yzma (Eartha Kitt), who is animated like a parody of other Disney villains with purple and black uneasily melded and a tall, lanky figure as if her skin has been stretched over a broom and left in place, and her assistant Kronk (Patrick Warburton), a doofy, entirely good-natured hulk of a man who has no idea what’s going on around him and wanders aloud about the morality of his actions. Warburton’s vocal delivery is tremendous in its geniality, and the non-chalant character he creates out of almost-absurdist lines never fails to endear.
21. The Princess and the Frog (2009)
The Princess and the Frog is at once a loving tribute to Disney’s classical style and a rather serious reworking of it. For starters, even more-so than Belle, Tiana is uninterested in romance or love – while Belle defines her life through a man (albeit through pitying him), Tiana quite literally wants nothing to do with them.
Instead, she’s a hard-working, self-strong woman struggling to make ends meet as a waitress in New Orleans during the 1920’s. She may fall in love on the side, but her star shines specifically for her restaurant. That she happens to get turned into a frog and must become human again to accomplish her goal is merely one more stepping stone on an arduous path of race, class, and gender discrimination.
Elsewhere, the animation boasts a simplicity befitting classic Disney, but it’s loaded with depth and movement, capturing everything from the chaos of a New Orleans trapped in between Old South architecture and modernization, to the murky, sinewy bayous which hide amazement around every corner.
Meanwhile, the songs blend classic Disney with the flavor and spirit of jazz improvisation and New Orleans spunk, with “Friends on the Other Side” losing itself in its sheer cavernous carnival of slithering, serpentine villainy. “Almost There” is just about the film at its peppiest, and it boasts a rather loving tribute to the wonderfully flat, opaque, caricatured style of 1920’s Art Deco, all hopped up on raw geometry and its relationship to both natural and artificial form.
More than most other Disney films, this one has a flavor about it that makes it a cohesive whole on its own, even as it exists within and is very much conscious of the larger Disney canon.
22. Tangled (2010)
At this point, Disney had firmly committed to 3D animation (although technically Winnie the Pooh was still a year away), and they’d showed it here by doing the last thing we expected: using 3D technology to create a film firmly indebted to the simple expressiveness of 2D cartoons.
In spirit, aesthetics, and technicality, Tangled, a reinterpretation of Rapunzel, is slight almost to a fault – its strength, in this regard, is also a slight weakness. It owes more to 30’s slapstick comedy than anything else, with characters often in motion and moving every-which way around and through each other and leads who almost, but not quite, capture the spirit of Howard Hawks anxious screwball-comedy manifested in the pure act of people shouting all over each other.
Animation-wise, the film doesn’t hit it out of the park with texture or nuance, and that seems more intentional than anything else – this is very much a “cartoon’s” cartoon, and it’s quite happy to be one and have all manner of fun with it at that.
23. Winnie the Pooh (2011)
2011’s Winnie the Pooh is just about the best case scenario for a Disney throwback released in 2011, being as it is so cheerily and joyously caught up in its own un-cool nature and it’s rather off-the-cuff lightness. Perhaps more than any of the Disney princess films, this one feels just purely happy to exist, and caught up in its own in-the-moment joy. Winnie the Pooh is a cinematic summer’s day.
Unlike in the 1977 film, Pooh is the main character here. While many people may prefer Tigger or Eeyore (who is a particular highlight thanks to his dour, relentlessly pragmatic nihilism), Pooh is really the most compelling character to spend a full film with.
He’s the every-child, that boundless mix of whimsy and curiosity struggling to keep track of the boundless world around them, not to mention the emotionally distilled reflections of human personality bouncing off of each other seemingly everywhere he looks. The other characters are reflections of Pooh, not the whole thing.
In addition, the film avoids the “modern” hipness of so many newer Disney films in favor of the post-modern. Throughout the film, the characters regularly interact with both the text of the storybook they appear in the most artfully clever of ways, and a dry, stuffy narrator played by John Cleese ushers them along with no small push-back . All of this combines to create a film very much aware of the give and take between the timelessness of moments of pure emotion and curiosity, and their inevitable move into the future.
24. Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
Wreck-it-Ralph’s first half is dynamite entertainment, a perfect blend of Disney sentiment and meta-textual zaniness. The story of a video game villain (voiced with the right mix of dumpy lonerism and weary affection by John C. Reilly) who leaves his game to make a name for himself elsewhere, the film is at its best when it commits to its genre-crossing, anarchic spirit.
The only substantial issue is that it fails to follow-through – it races to first and then starts to sputter midway through when it becomes more interested in being a Disney film than is exploring the nature of a Disney film, or in exploring the nature of video-game storytelling logic, or in just having a time with its loopy spirit and jazz-like improvisation. At some point it realizes that its relationship to “Disney” is its limits and not it’s potential, and the latter (most of the film) is much more rewarding indeed.
25. Frozen (2013)
2013’s Frozen, an extremely loose adaptation of the Snow Queen – now about a sister’s struggle to free her older sister Elsa from her own self-imposed icy isolation -was not only a monster hit at the box office but a surprisingly complex, beautiful family-drama. Not only does it feature some of Disney’s most expressive, nuanced characters yet but the snow-covered spirit of the film manages to bridge the dour with the undeniable wonder of the power of precipitation like little else.
And on top of the film’s physical beauty, there rests the fullest realization yet of Disney’s begrudgingly belated trend of moving away from classical male-female romance . Here, not only do we have a strong, female character who is conflicted about something entirely unrelated to romantic partnership, but we have two, and they happen to be conflicted about each other (Disney films have always been not only averse to positive female relationships, but actively against them in their rendering of women as villains).
The only real issue with the film is that Elsa is by far the most interesting character, and she is not the one the film chooses to spend much of its time with. Still, this is the difference between a great and a very good film, and Frozen is most certainly a very good film.
Author Bio: Jake Walters is a recent graduate of Amherst College and an aspiring film-writer/ist. He shares his thoughts on film at his website, thelongtake.net and is particularly interested in film in relation to society, race, class, and gender, He writes frequently on horror films and looks to Werner Herzog, Michel Foucault, and John Shaft for life advice. You can find him on Twitter@long_take.