Like all parents of small children, my wife and I are now up to Ph.D. level in our understanding and appreciation of the Disney animated canon. Only when you have seen The Aristocats roughly 75 times can you begin to understand why it is such a terrible film. The essence of Disney is awe and wonder and swords and old-fashioned morality, not minor domestic crises. At their best though, Disney films, like The Canterbury Tales and Shakespearean drama, effortlessly straddle the supposed gap between high and low culture, the sublime and beautiful and the merely goofy. This is why even more so than Star Wars or Peanuts, they are the closest thing we have to truly common cultural properties and why they will be remembered and appreciated long after everyone has forgotten about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Taxi Driver.
Not all of them, of course. The Whig historiography of Disney is false. The best films were made under the personal supervision of Walt himself; the period between his death and the so-called "Renaissance" of the 1990s, which gave us empty Oscar-bait with thin plots and glitzy animation and Boomer rock scores, is full of unfairly maligned masterpieces. Here are the 20 best Disney films and the single most overrated.
Dishonorable mention: The Lion King
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Contra many critics, this is not a beautiful retelling of Hamlet set in the animal kingdom. It is actually a lazily drawn — notice how the backgrounds disappear entirely in songs like "I Just Can't Wait to Be King"? — parable about the supposed virtues of the post-1989 neoliberal order, something I only realized after conferring with another dad-scholar of the Mouse. Mufasa's speech to the bewildered Simba about how the antelope who exist for the sole purpose of being eaten are actually getting a great deal from the lions could be Larry Summers explaining the benefits of free trade to wide-eyed young Harvard MBAs. The land beyond "where the light touches" is the middle America of the opioid epidemic; the hyenas are deplorables, and Scar is the Trumpian huckster who manipulates their righteous anger for his own political benefit. "Hakuna Matata" as explained by Timon and Pumba is basically a Tom Friedman column or the sort of gibberish you might hear at a TED talk. The only sympathetic character in the film is Zazu, a kind of Eugene McCarthy progressive equally skeptical of Obamania and the neo-populist response.
20. The Nightmare Before Christmas
In the vanished era of plastic clamshell cases, this film enjoyed the rare distinction of being something your mom would put on at any point between Oct. 1 and New Year's Day. This is amusing because the film is most effective as a criticism of our secularized and commodified holidays; it's the day after Halloween that Jack and Sally are yearning for as much as the Nativity, I think. The stop-motion is beautifully done, but the credit belongs just as much to Henry Selick, who later directed the vastly superior Coraline, and to Danny Elfman's charming songs, as it does to Tim Burton, who conceived these characters as a teenager.
19. The Rescuers Down Under
The only successful Disney sequel with the possible exception of The Return of Jafar, which has bad art and functions more as a meta-ethical commentary on the nature of Disney villaindom than as a standalone film. Chronologically speaking, Down Under is technically the second "Renaissance" film, but the grit and B-movie plotting belong to the '80s-era Mouse canon. McLeach and Joanna the Goanna hardly exist in the same universe as whoever the bad guy is in 1999's Tarzan.
18. One Hundred and One Dalmatians
This one didn't do much for me as a child and still doesn't now, but I defer to public opinion and dog owners while assigning extra points for Roger's fashion sense and smoking habit.
17. The Rescuers
The hallmark of most post-Walt, pre-Renaissance Disney films is a brooding, gloomy sort of aesthetic on full display here. There is occasional goofing off, but really this is a dark story about Penny, an orphan who must fend for herself without the aid of magical powers or the plot-armor of some kind of heroic destiny. The mice might even be the product of her own imagination. Do yourself a favor and watch it on VHS: the color "correction" on the high-definition releases makes things look too bright.
16. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
The animation is so excellent and Bing Crosby's narration of the first segment so charming that it is almost possible to forgive the somewhat shoddy handling of Kenneth Grahame's Arcadian idyll. As a child I liked the guns and swords and I still do.
This is the only one of the Renaissance-era Disney films that holds up, largely because of Robin Williams' hilarious Genie and clever writing throughout. It is possible to imagine it being even better if the high romantic tone of the credits sequence and the first scene with Jafar and the Cave of Wonders had been maintained throughout.
14. The Jungle Book
The last Disney film to be made entirely under the supervision of the grand old man himself, it is also one of the last to succeed as a musical. The only misstep was not bothering to ask Satchmo to voice and sing the part of King Louis, something that was considered earlier in the production.
13. Peter Pan
Hearing "You Can Fly" stirs up something indescribable in me even after all these years and Peter's imitation of Captain Hook still seems incontainably funny.
12. The Black Cauldron
Easily the most underrated film in the Disney canon. John Hurt's Horned King is a master course in voice acting. This is the classic that animator Don Bluth never quite managed to make after striking out on his own, in part because his imagination was too lurid, in part because he lacked the budgets.
11. Alice in Wonderland
Like all the best Walt-era adaptations, this film succeeds in capturing the essence of its source material (the madness that undergirds the supposed logic of modernity) and is full of clever visual sequences and beautifully scored. Also: The cookies are essentially the Platonic ideal of what treats should look like.
10. The Great Mouse Detective
Is there a more charming villain in Disney than Vincent Price's delightfully evil Professor Rattigan? The sparing use of computers for the Big Ben chase sequence shows us what the Renaissance films could have been if the new technology had been embraced as a tool like any other rather than as the raison d'être that it became in Beauty and the Beast.
I now find the voices of the mice grating in a way that I never did as a child, but it is impossible to argue with the songs, the jokes, and the glittering rococo images. What a shame it is that this wonderfully realized character has been subsumed over the years into the garish marketing campaign that is "Disney Princesses."
8. The Sword in the Stone
This film needs to be appreciated on its own terms rather than as an adaptation of T.H. White's source novel. It does manage, however, to capture the essential goodness of Wart, whose rebuke to Sir Ector ("He's not an old evil. He's good and his magic is good too. Just because you can't understand something, it doesn't mean it's wrong!") has taught millions of children the rudiments of justice and decency.
7. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
The gentle melancholy, sly humor, and above all the attention to the beauty of the changing seasons make it appear even more wistful and romantic than Milne's source novel. In that sense it is almost an apology for the amusing but tone-deaf adaptation of The Wind and the Willows that formed the second part of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. This is my older daughter's favorite and, if it weren't for Gopher (whose existence, I should add, she has never acknowledged) it would be mine too.
6. Robin Hood
This is not only the last great Disney musical. It is also the most recklessly inventive film in the Disney canon. The inspired anachronism of envisioning medieval England as a kind of Wild West, of hiring Roger Miller to sing and narrate and old Western movie and TV hands like Andy Devine to voice act, was a masterstroke that would not have been attempted under Walt. The often shabby, patchwork quality of the animation only heightens the effect.
Knowing that the great composer Frank Churchill shot himself in the head at his piano shortly after completing the beautiful songs for this film will change the way you watch and hear it. Its essence seems to be a kind of fatalistic melancholy that comes through in "Love is a Song" ("Hope may die…") and the famous death scene. Only occasionally something joyous and transcendent is allowed to shine through the gloom, those scenes in which all the beasts of the forests in their multitudinous order and array make manifest the glory of creation in its perfect hierarchy. The "Let's Sing A Gay Little Spring Song" sequence is almost worthy of Chaucer's "Smale foweles maken melodye, / That slepen al the nyght with open ye" or any of the great medieval carols. Also: The fight between Bambi and Ronno puts the animators of The Lion King to shame.
This film led a 4-year-old to beg his mother to track down a copy of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (aka "the dinosaur song") on cassette. I can't imagine a better argument on its behalf, and no one who has seen that sequence and the one accompanying Night on Bald Mountain will need one.
If you want to see where Hayao Miyazaki, whose best work is finer than anything Disney produced, learned his art, study the scene in which Lampwick is transformed into a donkey and the terrifying entrance of Monstro.
2. Sleeping Beauty
This is the most attractive looking of all the films. The artistry and attention to detail visible in every frame of this pre-Raphaelite masterpiece of cardboard high medievalism are unlike anything that has ever been attempted in cinema. That Maleficent is the greatest of Disney villains is also beyond argument: Her invocation of "all the fires of hell" still gives me chills.
1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
There is a lushness and a simplicity and a visual inventiveness here that would never be equaled, and far and away the best score. "Some Day My Prince Will Come" is not only the best song ever composed for a Disney film but one of the finest popular musical compositions of the last century. The life of Adriana Caselotti, the talented young Italian-American singer who voiced the princess and was never allowed to sing publicly again (except in an uncredited cameo in It's a Wonderful Life) for fear of ruining "the illusion of Snow White," is a reminder that beneath the surface of extraordinary beauty in the films was the hard cruelty of Disney himself, a man with loathsome politics and an aesthetic imagination that seems at times disconcertingly in step with the trite Teutonic romanticism in favor across the Atlantic during the period in which the film was produced. Recognizing its merits anyway — indeed, having to reckon with such questions at all — is what reminds us that Snow White and the rest of these films are art rather than marketing campaigns for toys or theme parks.
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