[27 September 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In keeping with the controversial (the wounds from last week’s trilogy piece are still stinging), let’s now turn our sights to one of the most misunderstood—and uneven—oeuvres in all of modern moviemaking: The Disney Full Length Animated “Classic”. Considering the amount of unconditional love these House of Mouse favorites tend to generate, it would be foolhardy to try and pick 20, let alone an even tougher 10. But the truth is a bit more measured. Not everything that came out of Walt’s World, either before or after his death, wasn’t an apple of painted cell gold. Instead, just like any accomplished creator, he and his company had their good days and bad, their One Hundred and One Dalmatians and their Fun and Fancy Free, so to speak.
So, we are ready to hear the horrific cries of those who want any number of the following found below: Bambi, Dumbo, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, The Jungle Book, The Sword in the Stone, Aladdin and/or The Emperor’s New Groove. We get it, we are out of touch and wouldn’t know good cartooning if it jumped up and bit us in the pen and inks. This is particularly true of the more contemporary titles, since determining artistic longevity is more than just a sense of appreciation. However, we can literally defend every choice here, from the inclusion of one of the company’s most unusual efforts (a Greek God comedy???) to the obvious universally adored efforts. Still, you might find a few surprises along the way, especially when it comes to placement (as in a certain revered royalty that’s currently burning up the box office).
In the end, you can argue over the order or inclusion/exclusion, but you cannot deny the impact Disney has had on the artform. Animation would never be the same without the mammoth that Mickey built—even the oddball pick in tenth place:
Many might wonder how we came up with this choice, considering the above-mentioned list it bettered. The answer, oddly enough, is in the actual film itself. This is a spry, satiric epic, a brilliant deconstruction of the conqueror ideal with as much smarts and stunt casting. The inclusion of a pre-Family Guy James Woods as the villain is just one of this hilarious effort’s many genius moves. The Cliff’s Notes version of mythology is also incredible. In the end, this is the movie Aladdin wanted to be, if it wasn’t so busy catering to an over the top Robin Williams. Sans the stand-up motor mouth, Hercules is truly heroic.
While many point to The Little Mermaid as the beginning of Disney’s post-‘70s renaissance, this is actually the title that lifted the company’s sagging creative spirits. Sure, we had to suffer through Oliver and Company (and suffer we did) and a reasonable decent Rescuers Down Under before the House of Mouse truly rediscovered its footing, but in this likable amalgamation of cartoon and caper, we get the basics that would blossom into incontrovertible brilliance. As usual, the company deserves kudos for its casting choices. Vincent Price was never better as the voice of the evil Ratigan, providing a level of legitimacy that would linger.
What? Why not higher? Why not somewhere in the rarified air of the Top Three, if not Numero Uno itself? Well, the answer is a bit obvious. Have you seen The Lion King lately? Though it deals with anthropomorphized animals in a native African setting, this uplifting story of father and son bonding is a bit… dated. Indeed, it just feels like Disney circa the early ‘90s. It’s a bit aloof, a tad too full of itself, and the Elton John/Tim Rice songs have not aged well. Come on—who can hear “Hakuna Matata” today and not throw up a little bit in their mouth?
This earns its place on the countdown for one reason and one reason only: the appropriately named Maleficent. There has never been a more modern, malevolent baddie in all of old school Disney. She out shrews Cruella De Ville an out-evils any wicked witch you can mention. When facing down Prince Phillip with her magic and her dragon, she’s everything a movie villain needs to be… and then some. Today, she might be an unusual icon for many (fan and fetishist alike) but her aura continues to carry over to every female fiend the company has ever created.
In the universe of I Can Haz Cheezeburgers and Cute Overload, something seemingly antiquated like Lady and the Tramp really does take the “awwwww” cake. Even more interesting is the fact that this film was in “development” since the late ‘30s, when an animator at the company came to Walk with sketches of his Springer Spaniel. As with most movies the company made, the process became almost as time consuming as the final production. The results, though, are so beloved and iconic that you can’t watch two “anything” eating off a single plate of spaghetti and not reference this adorable masterwork.
As a seismic shock to the studio’s system, this adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fable is flawless. It introduced Broadway level value to the musical side of the storyboarding and argued that character and circumstances were just as important as detailed backdrops and carefully crafted frames. Indeed, all the lessons learned here would eventually be poured into Disney’s definitive fairytale film, a movie made even more memorable by its eventual inclusion as a potential Oscar winner for Best Picture. This movie is just as magnificent, a true testament to everyone at the company who took a chance… and changed the face of modern animation.
After the stunning success of Disney’s first full length animated feature (don’t worry, it’s coming), the House of Mouse decide to take everything it learned from that tedious production process and double it, turning their adaptation of the famed Italian story into a stunning over the top epic. From the opening comic relief to the last act showdown with the massive whale Monstro, everything was meticulously measured out for maximum impact. Like a collection of Old World European canvases come to life, everything was set for success. Only something as severe as World War II could countermand this important pen and ink primer.
No one ever said that Walt Disney was sensible. With the continuing success of his Silly Symphony short subjects, the inventor of all things Mickey wanted to see how far he could push the medium. Borrowing heavily from the baroque designs of woodcarvings and ancient editions of recognizable fairytales, he argued for a long form family entertainment. The result was a risk, a possible folly that could have sunk his fledgling studio forever. Instead, it became the benchmark for decades of determined hand drawn delights. Without Disney’s chutzpah, we wouldn’t have the lasting legacy of greatness that exists today—or this flawless first masterpiece.
When a movie can make you cry, every single time, even after years of rereleases and revisits, you know it contains something powerful. In the case of this latter day delight, the moment Angela Landsbury’s trite teapot steps up to sing the title song, all dry eye bets are off. This is a remarkable accomplishment, a bunch of paint on plastic cells that actually has more humor and heart than hundreds of likeminded missteps. When you consider that this animated effort matches the memorable French take from 1946 by Jean Cocteau, grace note for grace note, there’s no argument over its possible placement.
If accolades were based on ambition only, this 1940 ‘failure’ from the House of Mouse would surpass Citizen Kane as the greatest film of all time. After a successful one-two punch with Snow White and Pinocchio, Disney decided to go ‘all in’ on this experimental expansion of everything animation stood for. From the abstract interpretation of “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” to the stunning finale featuring “Night on Bald Mountain” and “Ave Maria”, this is a true movie masterwork, an example of vision so outsized and imposing that it could never be approached today—not that anyone exists who could match Disney’s desire… or determination.