The obvious flip side of last week’s blog is an examination of the best that Disney animation has to offer. As difficult as it was to find consensus last week on the worst of the Disney catalog there is even more discrepancy to find the best. Objectively, there is no question that animation techniques have improved dramatically, which leads to a natural bias towards newer films. But there are many other biases at play. Some reviewers obviously prefer musicals, others dislike CGI. There are also more than a few who are convinced that the movies of their childhood are objectively the best. This last one, at least, I am free from. The animated features of the 1970’s were lackluster at best. I don’t think there is a single one of the four films that were released when I was a child that I would go to bat for as a contender for best Disney film ever. So I consider myself at least a little bit objective.
Just a quick reminder from last week, for my purposes, I have limited the list to feature films, created by Disney Animation studios, and released in theaters. Including other studios in the list again skews the results dramatically. For example on Rotten tomatoes, 6 of the 10 top rated Disney movies are Pixar films. I have also stopped the list at four films instead of five. While there is general agreement in these four, rankings very quickly diverge. So without further ado, here are Disney Animation’s best movies.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: Critics 100% — Audience 75%
It is interesting to me that this is listed on almost every list at or near the top. “Pinocchio” was never one of my favorites. The Princess watched it once, cried so hard she missed the end, and then refused to watch it again. However, my personal experience aside, more than one critic has called it ‘perfect’. It is held up as an example of strong storytelling tied to beautifully crafted animation. While it does feel a little heavy handed to contemporary audiences as well as a little dark for young children (The Princess isn’t the only weeper), it is a powerful film that has held up for almost 80 years.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: Critics 96% — Audience 83%
Interestingly, the second film on the list was released in the same year as “Pinocchio”. 1940 was a good year for Disney Animation. “Fantasia” was a unique project that featured, rather than one coherent whole, a compilation of different animation styles, stories, and musical soundtracks. It was an experimental piece designed to be taken apart and put back together with new and different pieces periodically. It was so beloved that it never happened. In fact, the image of Mickey Mouse in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” became a Disney icon. Instead of taking it apart, eventually animators created an entirely different project to continue the work Walt Disney initially envisioned. It is still considered innovative and beautiful today.
# 3 Lion King
Rotten Tomatoes Score: Critics 93% — Audience 93%
The next two often fight it out for the top spot. They have a lot in common. Both are considered part of the Disney Renaissance of the 90’s, both have successful stage productions, and soon both with have live action remakes. “The Lion King” barely sneaks into the higher spot often because of the story itself. “The Lion King” rather than relying on fairy tale tropes feels much more Shakespearean in nature. The drama level is higher and the African Savannah makes a much grander backdrop for regicide and revenge. All of this underscored with a soundtrack that takes many influences from traditional African influences. It was unique in animated films at the time and continues to resonate with audiences. As the film has been adapted to the stage and now to a live action film, Disney has increased the African influences in the music, costuming, and characters which has only made the piece that much stronger.
#4 Beauty and the Beast
Rotten Tomatoes Score: Critics 94% — Audience 92%
Finally, there is “Beauty and the Beast”. This is the last film entirely scored by Howard Ashman before his death and the film is dedicated to his memory. In my opinion it is the music, rather than the plot that drives this film consistently to the top of the ‘Best of’ lists. The fairy tale is fairly predictable and straightforward. It is the music that connects us. It makes us love the household staff, feel sorry for the Beast, root for the heroine, and even enjoy the villain. More than the very singable numbers performed by the cast, the background music sets a scene that is at once both sad and hopeful. The four opening notes of the main theme will pull me into the world of Belle and the Beast immediately. In fact, that was all it took to let me know what was coming when I saw the live action previews. I could have literally seen a black screen and those four notes and I would have needed nothing else. Add to that stunning animation that resembles Italian Renaissance painting and it is no wonder that this film remains a classic.
Honorable Mention: Frozen
Rotten Tomatoes Score: Critics 90% — Audience 85%
Do NOT yell at me about this one. I know that “Frozen” is not one of the best Disney movies ever made. It is very good, but doesn’t even break most top 10 lists. I include it here for another reason. This is the film that shifted our culture’s concept of what an animated feature could be. It featured two strong, but imperfect women who drove the action and pulled the men along in their wake. It was created and conceived by women. It broke records. It won awards. It made an absurd amount of money and continues to be a force in our popular culture five years later. All of this from a ‘Princess’ movie aimed at little girls. This movie raised the bar for the genre and is the standard by which other movies will be judged. And I will fight you on this one.
So there is my list. What do you think? Have I missed the best Disney movie ever? Let me know in the comments.