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Ranking the Disney Canon

A few years ago, Rachel and I watched the whole Disney canon (that is, full-length Disney animated films that received a theatrical release) as it existed at the time. I believe there were 46 or 47 movies at that point. In the years since then, we have always gone to see each new release as it joined an animation tradition that stretches back almost 75 years. A lot of these films, of course, I grew up watching (some dozens and dozens of times). Others I had never seen at all. It was a fun and very interesting experience to observe the evolution of Disney animation across decades of development, and then discuss between ourselves which ones were the true classics, and which were the stinkers.

That being the case, as soon as I saw the ranked list of Disney’s 50 animated features on “Rotten Tomatoes,” I knew I would have to make my own. My longtime readers know how much of a sucker I am for lists. I love reading through collections of films (and other things) that have been brought together within some category (whether it be genre, year of release, director, quality, etc.), and then ordered by personal preference. The best film lists are always put together by an individual or group with a real passion for films in general, and a genuine excitement about their selections.

So, while “Rotten Tomatoes” occasionally puts out some interesting lists, the way they go about it (via broad-based critical “consensus” and using an elaborate formula) is rarely satisfying. This list is no exception. After all, what living, breathing human being would rank a rollicking fun-fest like Robin Hood so near the bottom of the list, beneath even the truly dismal Home on the Range? And who would stick the deeply mediocre Bolt just shy of the top ten, even above The Little Mermaid, the film that kicked off the Disney animation renaissance?

Ranking the films myself wasn’t quite as easy as I expected, and what I came up with probably isn’t that far off of the RT list, but the differences are significant to me. And the list is mine. Here it is:

50. Home on the Range (2004)

Announced as the final Disney film to rely on traditional animation, there is certainly something funereal about the awfulness of this movie. Forgettable characters, juvenile humor, shallow plotting, and a cliche-ridden visual style combine to make this the worst Disney animated film of all time. As it is more of a death-knell than a fitting end to the form, we all rejoiced when John Lasseter brought 2D animation back just a few years later. Incidentally, is that not also the worst-ever tagline? “Bust a Moo” . . . Bleck.

49. Chicken Little (2005)

While not quite as painful as Home on the Range, the release of Chicken Little at a key point in the negotiations with Pixar Animation Studios definitively proved that Disney was not ready for 3D animation. Its entry into computer animation proved to be as lackluster as its departure from traditional animation. Here, perhaps even more than with Home on the Range, there is a failure of story on every level that makes this movie basically unwatchable.

48. The Aristocats (1970)

Not even being a cat lover can make up for the fact that this is a cheap, cat-themed rehash of One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Short on plot, and even shorter on strong characters, Aristocats also features one of the most irritating songs in the Disney collection. I’ve probably dropped this much lower than most people would, but something about this movie just gets under my skin, and 40 years on, it has not aged well.

47. Pocahontas (1995)

If Pocahontas has one thing going for it, its that fantastic, Oscar-nominated soundtrack by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. Unfortunately, their talent is rather wasted on a self-righteous, preachy tale that plays absurdly fast and loose with well-known historical fact. The result is pretty bland stuff.

46. Dinosaur (2000)

The original plan for Dinosaur was to make it without any dialogue, a bold and innovative idea that was apparently not marketable enough for nervous Disney executives. The film opens with a stunning sequence that seamlessly combines gorgeous live-action backdrops with computer-generated dinosaur characters set to a pulse-pounding orchestral score. Then the characters start talking and the magic abruptly departs, replaced with a predictable plot and a distinct lack of thrills.

45. Oliver & Company (1988)

For the life of me I can’t explain why this film just doesn’t work. It has lively characters, a fun soundtrack, and a solid premise: retelling Dickens’ classic Oliver Twist with an all-animal cast in 20th-century New York City. Somehow, though, the elements fail to gel, and cheap, lifeless animation and an excess of sentimentality don’t help, either.

44. The Fox and the Hound (1981)

At times reminiscent of Bambi in its depiction of animals and their environment, Fox and the Hound is crippled by a thin story stretched over an interminable 83 minutes, and (like Oliver & Company) it is overly-saccharine even by Disney standards.

43. Melody Time (1948)

Probably the worst of the low-budget Disney “package” films of the 1940s, Melody Time doesn’t feature any shorts that truly stand the test of time. A few are mildly entertaining, but most are entirely forgettable, and there is a randomness to the selection of seven shorts that keeps the film from holding together in any meaningful way. This is the very definition of disposable entertainment.

42. Brother Bear (2003)

While it manages to manufacture some genuine emotion, Brother Bear feels agenda-laden. Phil Collins reliably delivers a quality soundtrack, and there is plenty of gorgeous scenery, but the story plays out in a most distressingly-predictable fashion.

41. Bolt (2008)

Studiously inoffensive, Bolt swiped most of its best story ideas off of Pixar films (among other sources), but at least it steals from the best. The movie wants desperately to be enjoyed, and it succeeds at delivering the entertainment it seems to be aiming for (if very little else). You won’t think any deep thoughts, but you’ll probably have a good time watching.

40. The Princess and the Frog (2009)

Poised to usher in a glorious rebirth for traditional animation and introduce Disney’s first African American princess (*gasp*), this movie arrived with more of a whimper than a bang. The painfully obvious attempt at pandering managed to backfire, too, as the heroine spends the overwhelming majority of the film as an amphibian. Ultimately, the movie is just trying too hard. A few charming songs aside (I particularly like “Gonna Take You There” for some reason), this one is largely a pass.

39. Meet the Robinsons (2007)

Loosely adapted from a largely-plotless children’s book, Meet the Robinsons is a bizarre little tale with quirky silliness coming out of its ears. And, while the filmmakers appear to have thrown every random idea they had at the screen to see what would stick, its hard not to enjoy the sheer zaniness on display, as well as the involvement of what is surely the oddest Disney villain of them all. Long on laughs, short on substance.

38. The Sword in the Stone (1963)

Probably the worst thing that I can say about The Sword in the Stone is that it completely fails to do justice to T.H. White’s magnificent book. Other than that, there’s just not a lot to it. Much of the humor, which tries too hard to be hip and contemporary, has become badly dated, but an awesome wizard duel provides one of the film’s highlights.

37. Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

Atlantis is pure action, and succeeds rather well on that level, but never slows down enough for the audience to get its bearings, or get to know the colorful cast of characters. Loads of amazing sights and sounds fly by in an exhilarating blur, never satisfying the desire to stop and get a good look at some of them.

36. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

Adaptations of two classic stories stitched clumsily together (even the title is clunky) make up this package film. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the two segments apart from their extreme brevity. Bizarrely, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is narrated by upbeat crooner Bing Crosby, while Wind in the Willows is narrated by the brooding Basil Rathbone, when the reverse should obviously be the case. This fact still bothers me.

35. One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)

This movie is particularly notable for its terrifying and memorable villain, Cruella De Vil, and the signature song composed for her by the heroes’ owner. Aside from that, the story has always struck me as very insubstantial, particularly by comparison with Dodie Smith’s amazing original novel. One Hundred and One Dalmatians was also the first film to depart from the lush, rich Disney animation of previous years, ushering in a decade of undeniably uglier animation thanks to a new, cheaper production process.

34. Alice in Wonderland (1951)

It is fitting that a movie as weird and whimsical as Disney’s Alice in Wonderland should have such a strange, slapdash history as well. A pet project of Disney’s for many years before it was realized, Alice did not do well when it was first released, but hit it big at the height of the drug culture in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Fortunately, you don’t need to know any of that to appreciate this imaginative romp based on Lewis Carroll’s classic (just don’t expect much by comparison to the source).

33. Hercules (1997)

Hercules is easy to like, but difficult to love. What ought to be a large-scale epic is defined by wise-cracking silliness, and the major action sequences are mostly reduced to a stylized montage set to an (undeniably) catchy song. Sly references to pop culture and contemporary life fly thick and fast, and rather overwhelm whatever else this movie is trying to do (if anything). A decidedly mediocre effort.

32. Treasure Planet (2002)

An incredibly cool concept that doesn’t quite get there in the execution, but it’s still a lot of fun. More action-packed sci-fi following Atlantis, this has more interesting characters and doesn’t forget to occasionally stop and marvel at its surroundings.

31. Fun and Fancy Free (1947)

Another awkward pairing of unrelated stories has the redeeming quality of one of them being exceptionally good (and the other being entirely forgettable). The package opens with Bongo, a rather dull story about an escaped circus bear cub, but then moves onto the beloved Mickey and the Beanstalk, featuring the classic fairy tale recast with the beloved Disney trio of Mickey, Donald, and Goofy. It’s so good, you won’t even remember that you had to sit through Bongo to get to it (then again, with DVD, you don’t have to).

30. The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

Sherlock Holmes has always been a favorite character of mine, and by extension I really loved this movie when I was a kid. Later viewings have revealed it to be a bit maudlin, and the animation looks decidedly cheap in spots, but it still holds up tolerably well on the story level. And it’s hard to understate the awesomeness of Vincent Price as the voice of the villain.

29. The Three Caballeros (1945)

This was the second of two animated features that resulted from the goodwill tour of South America undertaken by Walt Disney and several of his animators, commissioned as part of FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy immediately prior to World War II. If that sentence bored you, steer clear of this movie. The segments are decidedly inferior to those of the previous South America feature, and its primary interest is historical (which, if you’re into that, is considerable).

28. The Rescuers Down Under (1990)

The first ever Disney sequel (and one of the better ones, judged by the standards of the others) The Rescuers Down Under rather fails to distinguish itself amidst the brilliant films that the studio was putting out at the time. Still, with a solid voice cast and exotic setting, this is an exciting ride. It is also the first Disney movie to feature a new computerized animation process that delivers the incredible vistas of the Australian Outback.

27. Saludos Amigos (1943)

The first of the South American features mentioned above, this one is also better, if still rather fragmented. It is also the shortest Disney feature, clocking in at a mere 42 minutes. Which means that there’s not a whole lot more that one can say about it (cf. historical interest mentioned above).

26. Lady and the Tramp (1955)

I’m not a dog person (I love “The Siamese Cat Song”), but this is a genuine classic. The characterization is top-notch, with some of the most successful anthropomorphism of any Disney film, but the animals never lose their essential dogness, making them lovable and memorable. A general cuteness pervades the whole movie, but doesn’t overwhelm it.

25. The Black Cauldron (1985)

Family entertainment was so dark in the 1980s, wasn’t it? Even Disney took a turn for the deeply terrifying with The Black Cauldron, its first animated film to be rated PG. Unfortunately for Disney, families weren’t quite ready for the studio they grew up with to traumatize their children, and the movie bombed hard. Still, even though it isn’t really for kids, there’s a lot to like about this movie, starting with some pretty striking visuals.

24. The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

There is quite a bit more of “Looney Tunes” about the manic Emperor’s New Groove than one would typically associate with a Disney feature, but laughs are laughs, and they never let up here. David Spade is perfectly cast as the whiny, sarcastic Emperor Kuzco, and the non-stop slapstick hilarity is positively inspired in spots. So much so, in fact, that one can almost forgive it from pushing Disney animation away from musicals for the next several years.

23. The Rescuers (1977)

At times rather frightening (but nothing like as frightening as The Black Cauldron), The Rescuers was nevertheless Disney’s last bona-fide hit before bottoming out over the next decade and change. I’d attribute this success to plenty of thrills and a solid source (Margery Sharp’s terrific book series). Likable and memorable.

22. Fantasia 2000 (2000)

While obviously less innovative than its 1940 predecessor, Fantasia 2000 is every bit as thrilling in its display of imagination and artistry, with a genuinely excellent selection of short animated sequences set to classical pieces. Stand-out bits include a bit with flying whales set to the majestic “The Pines of Rome” and a Depression-era story of life in the big city inspired by Gershwin’s iconic “Rhapsody in Blue.”

21. The Lion King (1994)

Although it is still the biggest box-office success of Disney Animation Studios, I confess to not really getting the hype that surrounds this movie. It’s not that it’s bad by any stretch of the imagination, but neither is it as fantastically good as the near-universal acclaim seems to indicate. The tone is too uneven and jarring missteps come too frequently to be ignored. This may just sound like I’m bucking the consensus, but I bear the movie no ill-will. It just kind of leaves me feeling cold and indifferent.

20. Tarzan (1999)

On top of being the best take on the “Tarzan” story to appear since the 1930s, this movie is just a lot of fun. Its innovative use of computer animation to mimic lush painted backgrounds is gorgeous to look at, and it sports a stirring, hit soundtrack by Phil Collins. Tarzan is the final film of the Disney “renaissance,” and (probably not coincidentally) the last musical Disney put out for several years.

19. Bambi (1942)

I find Bambi largely enjoyable, but positively dull in spots. However, there is no denying that this film set the gold-standard for Disney’s glorious depictions of the natural world. Although a bit thin on story, the artistry is well-nigh unmatched. This is probably the closest anyone has ever gotten to animating a nature documentary.

18. Make Mine Music (1946)

Often overlooked, this is the best of the “package” films of the 1940s: basically Fantasia with a focus on contemporary music and singers of the time. Make Mine Music features several delightful and innovative segments, ranging from abstract experimentation to charming storytelling. Some of the best include “All the Cats Join In,” “Peter and the Wolf,” and “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met.”

17. Tangled (2010)

This may be a premature assessment, but to me, Tangled is a great return to form for a studio that has wandered pretty far afield for most of the last decade. With memorable characters, catchy music, stunning animation, and a fun story, it’s not hard to peg it as an instant-classic. Here’s hoping it really is a revival of tradition and not just an anomaly.

16. The Jungle Book (1967)

The Jungle Book may have a rather flat central character, but that makes him all the more accessible as an audience surrogate while we enjoy the revelry of the star-voiced gallery of unforgettable animal characters: George Sanders as Shere Khan, Sterling Holloway as Kaa, Louis Prima as King Louie, J. Pat O’Malley as Colonel Hathi, and (of course) Phil Harris as Baloo. Add plenty of slapstick hilarity and toe-tapping tunes, and everyone is guaranteed a great time.

15. Lilo & Stitch (2002)

This movie is an absolute laugh riot, bringing together an unlikely combination of aliens, space battles, Hawaii, and surfing for a surprisingly coherent story about a girl and her dog (“dog”). Stitch is an all-around awesome character, and his antics are pure entertainment. And yet, despite its essentially comedic nature, there is something substantive about this movie that puts it head and shoulders above anything else the studio was putting out at the time.

14. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)

This is technically a “package” film, composed of 3 previously-released segments all featuring A.A. Milne’s beloved characters, but it all hangs together so naturally that one would never really think of it that way. Certainly none of the package films of the ’40s have anything resembling the charm of Pooh, Piglet, Rabbit, Eeyore, Owl, Tigger, and the rest. If this movie has a flaw, it’s in being too short, and watching it is very much like curling up under a fuzzy blanket.

13. Mulan (1998)

How often does a Disney princess get to be an action hero? Well, at least once. Mulan swipes her father’s old sword and uniform and heads out to take his place in the Imperial Army of China’s fight against the invading Huns. Epic battles, great songs, and plenty of laughs (courtesy of Mulan’s tiny dragon companion, Mushu) ensue.

12. Fantasia (1940)

What can one say about such a bold, unprecedented experiment in animation . . . no, in filmmaking? It’s hard to imagine something so recklessly avant-garde emerging from a major studio today, let alone leaving such an indelible impression on moviegoers everywhere. It’s not surprising that the film was something of a failure when it was first released, but it’s even less surprising that it is now considered a classic of animation and cinema art.

11. Cinderella (1950)

I know so many women and girls who count this as their favorite Disney movie. Well, it isn’t mine, but it’s pretty good. I like the mice (and their chipmunk-y voices), and the deliciously obnoxious step-sisters, and all of the other colorful supporting characters. The two leads are a bit flat by comparison, to be honest, but that doesn’t seem to have affected my enjoyment of the movie a great deal, either then or now.

10. Robin Hood (1973)

My childhood may be showing here, because there’s no denying the rampant recycling of previous animation that appears throughout Robin Hood. However, while that may make it look cheap within the larger context of the Disney canon, there’s nothing cheap about the thrills this movie offers. Featuring another all-star cast voicing a menagerie of colorful animal characters, Robin Hood one-ups The Jungle Book with more action and more comedy (though, it must be said, inferior songs). I could watch it over and over and over again. In fact, I have.

9. Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Sleeping Beauty is a fascinating, though costly at the time, departure for Disney, who opted for a totally new visual style inspired by medieval artwork in bringing this fairy tale to life. The public’s failure to embrace this artistic choice ushered in the xeroxing era of One Hundred and One Dalmatians and following, but we’re still left with the rewarding artistry of this lone gem sandwiched between two distinct eras of Disney animation.

8. Pinocchio (1940)

So many sequences in Pinocchio are deeply frightening that, rewatching it for the first time in many, many years, I recalled why I didn’t care for it a great deal as a child (though I know I saw it a number of times). I think what kept pulling me back as a youngster was the lush animation and rich characterization that brings the story to life, and that’s certainly what I appreciate now. This is a classic in ever sense of the word.

7. The Little Mermaid (1989)

There’s a reason why The Little Mermaid heralded an era of renewed creativity for Disney animation. Everything about it exudes new life and new energy, from the detailed wonders of Ariel’s undersea home to the Jamaican-inspired show-stoppers that give it the feel of a hit Broadway musical. Maybe the most incredible thing about it is that, despite the great entertainment it offers, it was just the beginning of a meteoric rise to ever-greater heights.

6. Peter Pan (1953)

This movie has everything: pirates, Indian stereotypes, mermaids, fairies, swashbuckling, flight, and kids who enjoy a perpetual youth without authority figures. And, although its treatment of the original source is perhaps the essence of “Disneyfication,” no one really seems to mind in this case. This was my favorite Disney film for many, many years, and I still feel like I’m guaranteed a good time whenever I watch it.

5. Aladdin (1992)

Aladdin is so good, I almost have to forgive it for igniting the celebrity voice actor trend and the Disney direct-to-video sequel trend. Robin Williams embodies his character too perfectly to wish for another star, and it’s really no wonder Disney wanted to milk this franchise in light of its richly-deserved success. Aladdin’s greatest strengths, among many, are its ability to create and sustain such an exotic atmosphere and its zany, nonstop sense of humor (provided mostly, but not entirely, by Williams).

4. Dumbo (1941)

This is the shortest Disney feature that tells a single story, a simple but incredibly emotional tale about a flying elephant. Dumbo is another great example of early experimentation by the studio, with a lovable main character who never utters a single word, an especially organic blend of storytelling and score, and the truly bizarre (but awesomely surreal) “pink elephants” sequence. And, just as an aside, I think “When I See an Elephant Fly,” toe-tapping wordplay, might just be my favorite Disney song.

3. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

A decidedly weird choice of stories to turn into an animated Disney musical, if there’s one thing wrong with The Hunchback of Notre Dame (debatable), it’s that it is decidedly not a movie for children. Though not as dark as the Victor Hugo novel, it is plenty dark, and wrestles with mature themes that you just don’t expect to run into in a cartoon. Everything about this movie is a pleasant surprise, and the incredible musical numbers raise it to a level worthy of Broadway.

2. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

I never saw this as a kid, and when I finally got around to it, I realized that the movie that launched an industry so many decades ago turns out to be pretty flipping fantastic in its own right. Snow White accomplishes something that is virtually unprecedented in cinema history: it did something completely and totally new and transformative, and it accomplished it so flawlessly on the first try that the result is still a masterpiece, even by modern standards.

1. Beauty and the Beast (1991)

I could go back and forth between Beauty and the Beast and Snow White for the top pick, but I would hate to suggest that Disney has never managed to improve on its very first effort (which I suppose might beg the question of whether one can improve on perfection). In any case, a scant few years after animation was considered a dying art form, Beauty and the Beast came bursting out of the animation ghetto to score a Best Picture nomination. Its excellence could not be contained, and it set a new standard for animated musicals that we are still enjoying.

And that’s it . . . 73 years, 50 films, lots of great storytelling, lots of great memories. What are your favorites, and why? What did I overrate, or underrate? While you’re thinking about it, enjoy this charming montage of moments from all of these films and let it jog your memory a bit. Happy reminiscing.

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~ by Jared on February 4, 2011.

5 Responses to “Ranking the Disney Canon”

  1. Hey, guys! Can you please check out my list of all 51 Disney films. This is my first video ever, so if you have time do it. I will really appreciate it. And feel free to comment. Name of the video is Ranking the Disney Canon part 1.

  2. Your list is very………interesting, and is pretty different from mine, but it is interesting and very valid. Good job

  3. Ranking lion king so low is a publicity stunt.

  4. “Publicity stunt” . . . That’s my laugh of the day. I wish I could get publicity that easily. This is a small blog. I post about once a month, and I average less than 30 hits a day. And I do it for free and for fun. I have no motivation to look for publicity.

    I know (in fact, I acknowledged in my comments about the film) that I’m in the minority on “The Lion King.” I just really don’t like it that much, despite recognizing where the acclaim comes from. If you’re interested, I revisited my Disney canon ranking on Letterboxd a few months ago with this list: http://letterboxd.com/moviegoings/list/ranking-the-disney-canon/ . . . I’m happier with the new ranking for various reasons, and it allowed me to incorporate the few new movies that have come out since I made this list.

    I bumped “Lion King” up a couple of spots, so it’s in my top 20 now, but I’d be hard-pressed to move it any higher. There are at most 3 or 4 ranked higher that I could understand an argument against, but there’s no way I’d put it in a top 10.

  5. […] This one ranks through Tangled. […]

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