The Disney Canon Project has come to an end, but that doesn’t mean that the fun is over. Actually, depending on your point of view, some of the most interesting stuff might be coming up. I’ve prepared a series of lists about my favorite elements of the Canon that will come out in the following weeks. This is the first of them, and it is one that I have been trying to make since I was a very young child, but I couldn’t, and hadn’t really been comfortable to make it until now that I have officially watched them, and all 53 movies in the Disney Canon stand fresh in my mind. So, without further ado, here’s a list of my ten favorite Disney Movies.
10. Cinderella (1950)
If you ask someone to picture the most conventional conception of what a Disney movie looks like, they’ll probably picture something fairly similar to Cinderella. And although it wasn’t until the studio’s renaissance period of the early nineties that it started to rely strongly on the musical princess (Disney only released three movies starring princesses before 1989), Cinderella, with its family-friendliness, classic ideas of femininity, cute sidekicks, and happy ending, may look very old-fashioned. But this doesn’t mean that it’s not a good film. Not only are the images and production values wonderful, but like I wrote on my review, there are aspects of the movie and the main character -especially the power dynamics in household between Cinderella, the Stepmother, and the animals- that speak very directly and effectively to the way children see the world. That might be a personal theory of mine, but believe me, I haven’t met a single small child who has seen it and hasn’t been captivated by this movie.
9. Tangled (2010)
I hope that by this point in time, after how miserably Disney failed at trying to be hip and copy studios that were more popular at the time (Dreamworks, Pixar) in the 2000s, there is no doubt in everyone’s mind that Disney is at its best when it embraces its legacy and doesn’t try to run and hide from it. It is fitting, then, that the best movie they have released in the last twenty years is a very classically structured fairy tale. Tangled is less ambitious than its contemporaries in what it is trying to say about the idea of the “Disney Princess” (and it is funny that, while being 3D, it ended up being a much more classical movie than the 2D Princess and the Frog), but it shows the most heart and detail of al of Disney’s recent releases. You just have to read my review to know what a fantastic pair of characters I find young Rapunzel and evil Mother Gothel to be.
8. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
I always have difficulties judging The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh alongside other Disney movies, because it has the particular distinction of being the only movie in the Canon to be composed exclusively out of pre-existing material. But even if the three shorts that make up the film were released on their own throughout the sixties and seventies, they are great, and since the movie is considered canon, they must be ranked according to their greatness. There are very little movies that manage to perfectly capture the mentality of a child. One of them is Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, and another is this Disney gem. There is a reason why characters like Pooh, Tigger, and Eeyore resonate with children up to this day, and they have never been better represented on film, or any other medium (yes, including the books), than in this movie.
7. The Little Mermaid (1989)
Many animated movies have had the distinction of “saving” Disney, but while Dumbo and Cinderella saved the company from financial bankruptcy, The Little Mermaid did a different kind of deed. It saved the studio from irrelevance. The fantastic story about Princess Ariel and her wish to know what live is like above water captivated critics and audiences, became the highest-grossing animated movie of all time, won two Oscars, and ushered the golden period known as the Disney Renaissance. All of these accomplishments are more than deserved, since The Little Mermaid is an absolutely great movie, featuring a quality of animation not seen in American cinema since the fifties, a wonderful heroine, one of the most memorable villains, and some of the very best songs in Disney’s filmography.
6. One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
The period in which Disney had to cut back on expenses, and started using the “xerography” process of animation isn’t regarded as the best moment for the studio, but it started out with a bang in One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which is perhaps the most lively and energetic of all Disney movies. I think I love practically everything about its design, and the version of the early sixties these characters live in. And I shouldn’t leave the content of the movie behind, since this is a thrilling adventure that holds up surprisingly well, and infinitely better than the live action remake starring Glenn Close. It’s perhaps the movie I was most delighted to rediscover during this project, as I got all curled up and invested in the idea of these puppies managing to escape the hands of heartless Cruella De Vil.
5. The Lion King (1994)
The most epic of Disney movies, and for a long time also the most successful (it was just unseated by Frozen a few months ago). The Lion King is the very first movie I saw in theaters, so it will always have a special place in my heart, but its very high ranking on this list is not base don sentimental reasons. It is a fantastic movie on its own right. For starters, it features some of the most beautiful animation in the Canon, including a handful of iconic images that even the most pretentious of filmgoers could recognize. The Lion King was a massive phenomenon, and it keeps resonating with audiences for a reason. It is the best example of what a powerhouse Disney managed to become during its Renaissance period.
4. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
The movie that started it all is undoubtedly a masterpiece of the genre. Disney spent a good part of the thirties just inventing and perfecting technology in order to make Snow White, and thus, he ended up creating a complete new genre. It was the first animated feature produced in the United States, and it was so successful that for virtually fifty years after its release, all animated movies would be made based on its image. Singing princesses, woodland critters, a set of funny sidekicks, and a luxurious, bigger-than-life villain are all animation traditions that started with this movie. The movie is a visual marvel, with wonderful watercolor backgrounds and flawless animation, it is one of the best movies of the thirties, and one of the most important moments in the history of cinema.
3. Dumbo (1941)
All great cinema, but Disney in particular, manages to achieve classic status by tapping precisely in the correct spot in the audience’s minds and hearts. Dumbo, which was made for cheap after Fantasia and Pinocchio failed to turn a profit, managed to hit right on the bullseye. It was a huge success that saved Disney’s finances, but in its simplicity (at 64 minutes, it is the shortest movie in the Canon)* it goes straight to the point and tells one of the most moving and effective stories of animation (and cinema) history. If you want to witness the living proof that movies don’t need to be long to be great, watching Dumbo will do the trick
*Correction: As friend of the blog ‘The Animation Commendation’ mentioned in the comments, Dumbo is not the shortest film in the Canon. That would be Saludos Amigos. It’s still very short though.
2. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The first animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture, and with good reason. Some of the animation is still a little uneven compared to what the studio would achieve in the following years, but in terms of marrying story and visuals, there’s no beating the masterpiece of the Disney Renaissance. The character development, the structure of the story, and the simply fantastic music by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman not only make Beauty and the Beast the masterpiece of the Disney Renaissance, they raised the bar of sophistication for all animated movies to come.
1. Pinocchio (1940)
The unexpectedly huge success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs gave way to Disney’s most ambitious period. For all the flaws you may or may not find in the work of Walt Disney, there is no denying that the man always worked on projects he felt passionate about. And he never seemed to have more passionate than when his gamble to make an animated feature-lenght film succeeded. Instead of trying to make another Snow White, he shot for the stars, and came up with two of his most impressive works ever. I have my problems with Fantasia, but Pinocchio, the studio’s second feature, is simply the best animated movie ever made. The shot that pans over Geppeto’s village towards the beginning of the film alone is outstanding, but then you have one of the best song scores of the Disney Canon, and some of the most effectively primal and psychological sequences too. The relationship between Pinocchio and Geppeto, the seamless proficiency of the animation, and the movie’s treatment of its darkest passages are all signs of the relentless genius Walt and his collaborators were determined to achieve in order to secure animation’s place in the sun.
Don’t worry. I know what you’re thinking. “A top ten is not enough, we need a full ranking!” Well, I figured as much. Now, ranking them was going to be a little too much for me, but here are all the other movies in the Canon in roughly my order of preference:
Other Really Good Movies:
Mulan, The Emperor’s New Groove, Sleeping Beauty, Peter Pan, Fantasia, Robin Hood
Frozen, Tarzan, Lilo & Stitch, Aladdin, The Jungle Book, Winnie the Pooh, Bambi, Lady and the Tramp, Hercules, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, The Three Caballeros, Fantasia 2000
The Sword in the Stone, Alice in Wonderland, The Great Mouse Detective, The Princess and the Frog, Pocahontas, Bolt, Wreck-It Ralph, Meet the Robinsons, Melody Time, Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free
The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Rescuers, The Rescuers Down Under, Oliver & Company, The Fox and the Hound, The Aristocats, Saludos Amigos, Home on the Range, The Black Cauldron, Brother Bear
The Bad Movies:
Trasure Planet, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Dinosaur
The Horrible Movies: