10. Sleeping Beauty
The film may be called Sleeping Beauty, but the character of Aurora is the least involved of the Disney princesses. The important characters are those who would be secondary in most stories. First are the fairies (Flora, Fauna and Meriwether) who take care of Aurora. Then there’s Prince Philip, by far the most developed prince up to this point in Disney animation. Most magnificently, though, is the film’s villain, Maleficent. To this day, no villain is quite as striking as Maleficent. The film is aided by the most striking animation ever used in a Disney film.
Disney brings their past and present together with Moana. While it comes from the same creative team behind The Little Mermaid and Aladdin (among others), Moana also contributes to the growing range of viewpoints that have been on display in the current Disney era. With the infusion of new talent, most notably through Tony winner Lin-Manuel Miranda’s contribution to the songs, Moana shows how Disney can update what’s worked in the past for a new generation.
8. Beauty and the Beast
And now, we enter the hardest part of the rankings. As one of the pinnacles of Disney’s Renaissance, Beauty and the Beast holds up because it’s both timeless and timely. Belle’s intelligence? That’s not something audiences saw in previous princesses, who all may have been smart, but never really took a stand for thinking the way Belle does. The Beast is truly terrifying in his early scenes, while his transformation upon Belle’s arrival is handled with enough care to make it wholly believable. And the music cements what would become a Disney standard for years – Broadway-styled hits.
7. Lilo & Stitch
A rare high point in Disney’s post-Renaissance era. Lilo & Stitch combines an anarchic sense of humor with some of the most heartbreaking lines from any Disney character. Seeing how Lilo and Stitch are able to bring a relative sense of calm to each other makes for one of the best showcases of bonding among any set of Disney characters. Plus, the fim’s art (which combines traditional character animation with watercolored backgrounds) remains some of Disney’s most distinctive work. I also have to mention the film’s approach to drawing women – Lilo and Nani are among the few female leads in Disney films not to be portrayed as sticks, which is refreshing.
6. Lady and the Tramp
There are films that work best when viewed as a child, and films that work best when viewed as an adult. For me, Lady and the Tramp falls into the latter designation. Beginning with Lady’s first day with her owners, Jim Dear and Darling (their pet names for each other, which Lady takes to be their actual names), the film goes through Lady’s growth into an adult while her surroundings change. What stood out to me was, regardless of how sheltered Lady is during the majority of the film, she’s able to assert her own worth when it’s most necessary: after her brief impoundment, when Tramp comes by and tries to shrug the incident off. In all, from start to finish, Lady and the Tramp is one of the strongest features to come from the studio, with something for all ages.
While Disney’s animated output over the past decade has returned the studio towards the heights of the Disney Renaissance, they have yet to actually hit those heights in the way sister studio Pixar has over the past few decades. Well, make that had. Zootopia takes one of the hallmarks of its animated output – anthropomorphic animals – and uses it to go beyond a “believe in yourself!” message to tackle racism, prejudice and police profiling. Seriously. It’s an unusually timely film, made all the more surprising because of the lengthy production time on animated features and because it’s a Disney animated film. Beyond the subjects the film touches on, though, Zootopia is an all-around great film. The humor is brilliant, the voice cast is perfectly selected, and the detailed animation surpasses even Big Hero 6. Or, to put it another way: Zootopia is Pixar-level good.
Before I started my marathon of the Disney canon, I went ahead and tried to rank the films based on my impressions of the films from when I’d watched them in the past, even though for many, it had been 15+ years since I’d seen them. While my appreciation for some grew and dwindled for others, Pinocchio was easily the most surprising revelation for me. It’s a dark film, with a group of villains who ultimately don’t get much (if any) sort of comeuppance. The things that happen to Pinocchio are truly horrific, and they’re the result of both his ignorance and Jiminy Cricket’s fickle nature. As a child, I hated it, but as an adult, it worked. It’s different. It’s also true to the nature of a child, I think. Pinocchio keeps making mistakes, and while he’s able to recover from them in some form, a part of each mistake sticks with him, and he learns from it. I was also struck by the intricate nature of the old-school animation. Pinocchio builds on the techniques used in Snow White, resulting in an absolutely gorgeous film. It’s a tragedy that this animation style was not used in a feature-length narrative after this film, due to budget cuts.
3. The Little Mermaid
Imagine it: 1989. Not the new Taylor Swift album, but the actual year. Though the Disney name had been synonymous with animated films since Snow White‘s release, decades of underwhelming features were taking their toll on the studio. And then, The Little Mermaid hit. Easily the best feature Disney had produced in decades, The Little Mermaid was – and is – incredibly fresh and vibrant. Ariel reestablishes the idea of princesses as strong characters for Disney, while establishing more personality than any of her predecessors. Eric, meanwhile, is the first Disney prince to have a legitimate personality, and it’s a winning one at that. Then there’s the villain: Ursula, the first truly outstanding villain Disney had produced since Maleficent thirty years earlier. On top of the characters, who were interesting beyond the three mentioned, the animation here is a serious upgrade over what had been seen for the previous three decades. It’s lush and gorgeous, whether under the sea or up on the shore above. And the music – oh, the music. Alan Menkin and Howard Ashman bring Broadway-styled musical numbers to Disney features, setting up a formula that would be used for the next decade of Disney features (and periodically beyond). This film was a game-changer for Disney animation, and 25 years later, it’s still easy to see why it worked.
2. The Lion King
For decades, the death of Bambi’s mother stood as a symbol of lost innocence provided by an animated film. For newer generations, though, Mufasa’s death scene in The Lion King easily overtakes Bambi’s mother. It’s more devastating not just because we get a better sense of the relationship between Simba and Mufasa, but because we see Mufasa’s attempt to survive, and see his hope dashed as Scar throws him to his death. Mufasa’s death is vital to the film, since that and Scar’s insistence to young Simba that he’s responsible for his father’s death, drive the story of Simba’s departure from – and eventual return to – the Pride Lands. The Lion King is certainly not lacking in humorous moments, whether they’re provided by Timon and Pumbaa or the hyenas, and the music (with Elton John and Tim Rice taking over musical duties here) enlivens the film with a wide range of styles. But experiencing and overcoming tragedy are what push The Lion King to its heightened status in the Disney canon.
Disney’s hottest animated feature is Aladdin. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker have done it again. Hidden in the Arabian peninsula in the city of Agrabah, this film answers the question: can a Disney movie have it all? Enter the Cave of Wonders, and you’ll see just about everything: a dashing hero, a woman who can put up a fight, and the most animated vocal performance ever in a Disney film.
Okay, my attempt at a Stefon-styled writeup on Aladdin ends here. Seriously, though, Aladdin is easily the best representative of the Disney animated canon. It’s an example of the peak of the Disney Renaissance that balances the musical stylings of predecessors The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast with a full-fledged adventure, a story type that’s never worked for Disney nearly as well as it has here. There’s romance, drama, mystery, action and comedy, all rolled into one feature. So many elements of the film work, but enough can’t be said about Robin Williams’ contribution as the Genie. Williams was a hyperactive comic genius, and marrying that talent to a genie who can turn into pretty much anything gives Aladdin a comic edge that has yet to be duplicated. There are plenty of worthy contenders for the best Disney animated feature, and I even attempted to make arguments for several of the films ranked just below this one. But it’s hard for me to argue with this choice.