Greetings, Glancers. Today I list my top 10 favourite Disney movies. Animated movies that is, as most of their non-animated stuff is muck. For almost a hundred years, Disney has been synonymous with animation and they have crafted some of the world’s most imaginative movies with stunning visuals, timeless stories, wicked villains, tireless heroes and heroines, and a multitude of memorable side characters and songs which have become cultural touchstones – there simply isn’t another company like it. While I have yet to see all of their central animated movies and hardly any of the many many straight to DVD sequels and spin offs, my Top Ten represents a fairly wide array of choices to represent just what made, and continues to make them so special.
10. The Sword In The Stone
One of the lesser known and most unusual Disney movies, this tale based on Arthurian Legend doesn’t feature a princess in need of rescue or any overly memorable songs, but it does have cutesy animal characters, quirky humour, and a host of slapstick action and ideas. The animation has a similarly bland feel to 101 Dalmations but a variety of colour schemes and transformation scenes which are magical in my childhood and were likely all the more impressive at the time of release. Arthur is an unusual hero, a bumbling but well-meaning idiot, surrounded by brash masculine figures, a crabbidy old owl, and a wizened old wizard. Madam Mim makes for a unique villain, a crazed witch who doesn’t really have a goal in the overall film’s plot, but her scenes are a lot of fun and make you wish she played a bigger part. The plot of the story is fairly bizarre too, as it simply chronicles a short stage in Arthur’s life as he moves from weak little squire to England’s rightful ruler – but it features some early meta-humour and enough oddities to make it charming for a viewer like me.
I almost was not going to include this monstrosity, but I have seen it so many times that it is not only a huge pop culture phenomenon, but something which my family has watched together numerous times. If you’re a parent of young children then you’re probably in the same boat – Let it Go will haunt your waking hours without warning, your house is adorned with Frozen memorabilia, clothes, toys, and you know the characters, dialogue, and story by heart. It’s difficult to be cynical when the film is so good at wrapping up the kids in its wonder, and its’ very easy for an older viewer to get pulled in again. It’s classic Disney stuff, with many tropes twisted on their heads, clever one-liners, great characters, and a message which values true love in any form over blind faith.
8. The Lion King
Like Frozen I almost feel obliged to include The Lion King in my Top Ten. I know it’s going to many people’s favourite, especially people of my age who think it’s ever so clever to announce at the top of their voices that it’s based on Hamlet. There are quiet a few films not included on this list that I enjoy more than The Lion King, but where it succeeds over those is in the quality of animation, music, performances, and humour. The cast of The Lion King is superb and breath life into even the most minor character, and with a list including Simba, Mufassa, Scar, Timone, Pumba, the hyenas, and many more, there is so much to love. Throw Elton John, Hans Zimmer, and Tim Rice’s music and lyrics into the mix and you have one of the most successful movies ever made. The subtle use of CG merged with gorgeous traditional animation serves up a sprawling view of Africa – bright, mammoth, and deadly, but brimming with life and wonder.
I saw Pocahontas quite late, after generally seeing the 90s Disney output shortly after release. I remember only watching part of it after its VHS release, and then only watching it fully some years later on TV. It continues the gorgeous art work of the 90s Disney features before the CG began taking over, and features a very strong female lead in the title character, continuing the company’s trend which started with The Little Mermaid. The story of the cultured white man coming to the new world and staking his claim may get criticized for being simplistic, but along with the general environmental message this is a story with heart and meaning – aimed at children. I have no doubt that the messages sink in to younger minds and hopefully once watched a bunch of more tolerant people come out the other end.
We have a dastardly villain who may not be the most memorable in the Disney canon but still is eminently slappable, a strogn male lead in John Smith, a few decent side kick characters, and of course Pocahontas herself. It isn’t a joke heavy movie, but there are a few funny moments, strewn between some effective action scenes and of course a load of great music – it’s the music which raises the movie well above average and reminds us of the message.
Disney struck gold again after the modest financial and critical success of their previous two movies with Mulan. I don’t remember this getting much praise upon release and it seems like the movie’s popularity has grown with time. Mulan is a divisive character, getting both praise and sharp criticism from feminists, but in my mind she is another progressive Disney woman who controls her own destiny. I also would rank Mulan as one of the most beautiful looking Disney films -the oriental art style and the setting being unique and one I wish the company would return to. Shan Yu is one of the most vicious and evil Disney bad guys, although he is perhaps not memorable due to his lack of comic moments. The voice cast is superb, with Ming na Wen, BD Wong, and James Hong all giving terrific performances, but Eddie Murphy steals the show as the dragon Mushu. The battle scenes are epic and exciting, the songs are wonderful, there are plenty of visual and slapstick gags, the hero’s journey is hopeful and poignant, and we even get an excellent montage, Rocky style.
Moving on from the Girl Power Disney Princesses of the 90s, the Noughties Disney girls retained their strength while still being girly – never more obviously shown than with Rapunzel. I’ve always loved the story of Rapunzel and was excited when Disney said they would be tackling it. It’s one of the fastest paced, most fun Disney movies with gloriously bright visuals and a fairly sad plot. Rapunzel is an extremely lovable character, somehow always upbeat even though she was kidnapped at birth an locked in a tower for her whole life, while Flynn Rider is an affectionate rogue in the Han Solo mould. Mother Gothel is one of the most interesting villains in Disney history – ambiguous enough that we think she does sort of love Rapunzel, but clearly wicked and self-interested. It must have been a difficult task for the writers to turn the witch of the original story into someone as wily and engaging as Gothel, and Donna Murphy gives her rambunctious diva breath. While the songs may not be as monumental as those in other movies on this list, they are a hell of a lot of fun and performed in a light, bouncing spirit.
What always disturbed me about most versions of the original story was how the first half focused on these loving, poor parents who have a child, and in the second half it’s all about Rapunzel, the Witch, and the Prince – the parents apparently never find out what happened to their baby; Tangled changes this for the better. It’s maybe cynical that her parents are King and Queen, but who cares – it’s magic!
4. The Nightmare Before Christmas
Okay, I’m cheating a little with this one as it isn’t really a classic Disney feature, but it’s still a product of them – current animators, ex-animators, and it spices up the list giving something with a little bit of flavour. It is a fantastic story, imaginative, dark, and filled with cheeky charm. The stop motion still looks as good today as when I saw it in the cinema, and Jack Skellington is a legend. An unusual love story like several of Tim Burton’s others, this is a tale for kids who are perhaps that little bit lonelier than others or who simply appreciate the darker things in life or maybe see the world through a rim of shadow that a ray of light – but who still dream and hope.
Another one I saw in the Cinema upon release, Aladdin must rank among the most entertaining, funny, and action packed Disney movies and has possibly the best single performance in any animated movie – Robin Williams as The Genie. Disney has a record of employing iconic comedians for their movies, but never before or since has someone as loved as Williams provided so much of their own style , personality, and energy into a character.
With all the anti-Muslim fearmongering and hatred in the world at the moment I’m surprised Aladdin is still as beloved as it is. Hopefully that shows that a good film will always be a good film no matter how culture changes and how many fools decide to show their true colours. At its heart though, this is classic Disney – dreams of better days, love and romance, freedom and desire, all offset against wicked, ruthless, and selfish ambition. Like many Disney classics of old we get a roster of classic characters – Aladdin the adventurous street rat, Jasmine the lonely Princess who wants true love and a real life of possibility, Jafar the insidious cheat and power-hungry magician, The Genie and more. The movie builds upon the CG experiment unveiled in Beauty And The Beast to provide dazzling thrills and timeless set pieces – the escape from the Cave Of Wonders, Jafar’s last stand, and of course a little sequence involving a song called ‘A Whole New World’. Disney truly expanded its horizons in the 90s and Aladdin was a key component of that expansion – it remains as effervescent and amusing and enjoyable to new viewers new as it was to oldies like me.
2. The Jungle Book
In some ways I’m surprised this one is so high up my list – when I was young it was the Disney movie I probably saw most and at times I got annoyed about this because I wanted to check out other Disney movies but the only thing being shown was The Jungle Book. It got quickly to the point that I knew the dialogue and lyrics off by heart, meaning I would unleash impromptu King Louie performances upon unsuspecting school friends (I never could manage to skip over my own arms though). The Jungle Book is maybe the central ‘Boy’s Disney Movie’ as it skips many of the traditional Disney tropes – Princesses, romance, some typical bad guy to overcome, and instead it’s basically an adventure, a journey through the jungle with a bunch of friends getting into various scrapes. There is of course Shere Khan, voiced deliciously by George Sanders who acts in the antagonist role, but rather than being a constant stalking presence, he’s only there so we have a greater sense of threat and conflict. It’s about leaving home, finding your place in life, finding friends, and making your own home, family, and future. There’s also a lot of singing and scratching your arse against trees.
The Jungle Book has some of Disney’s finest songs and funniest scenes. In Baloo the bear we have the perfect madcap folly to the straight-laced Bagheera, in Mowgli we have the innocent wide-eyed man-cub who is easily influence by the world and characters around him a la Pinocchio, and there’s a host of supporting characters from Primate mobsters, Scouse vultures, and marching elephants. If you don’t laugh at Baloo shouting in Bagheera’s face, or if you don’t dance, sing, and woo-bee-doo at this, you have no soul.
- Beauty And The Beast
It couldn’t really be anything else, could it? You can rank Snow White as the most important, Pinocchio as the archetype, The Little Mermaid as the first return to form for the Company, but for me Beauty And The Beast trumps everything else – in those categories and more. Arguably the first animated movie in 50 years to be taken as a serious piece of art*, it was the first animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, it breathed new life into an old story and completely rejuvenated a Company that many would have claimed to be past their best. It brilliantly utilizes the state of the art CG which was just creeping into the industry, seamlessly blending with traditional artwork to create a sweeping re-imagining of a tale as old as time, with classic characters, timeless music, and a story everyone will enjoy.
Belle is one of the finest Disney heroines – containing all the Princess tropes of beauty and kindness, but possessing an inner and outer strength, a huge imagination, and a dream of there simply being more to life than her quiet provincial existence. Thrust into a nightmare, it is her inner strength which turns her fears to fantasy and her fantasy to reality as she sacrifices her future for her father’s safety and embarks upon an adventure where beast can be more human than man and love can be the only thing to save us. The Beast is a fantastic creation – terrifying when he needs to be, and scary when he doesn’t, dumb, shy, proud, funny, lonely, regretful, but at his heart he learns to be heroic and to also understand a selfish sacrificial act. We have Gaston as the worst of humanity – a pinnacle of manhood – masculinity for masculinity’s sake, a man who believes the world should obey his puerile whims, and someone who is cruel, calculating, and will let nothing sway him from the pursuit and completion of his goals. Then there are the side characters of Lumiere, Mrs Potts, Coggsworth, Chip, Belle’s father and many more who each are important in their own right and each make the movie that bit more special. It is rare for any movie, let alone an animated one, to have such fully formed and interesting characters in such a vibrant world.
I can’t leave without commenting on the music – not only do we have a fantastic array of songs, but the incidental music is superb too – just listen to the opening track played over the prologue which blossoms into ‘Belle’. The music meant multiple Oscar nominations and two wins for Best Original Score and Best Original Song, but lyrically they are excellent too – funny, poignant, and imaginative – getting right to the core of the character or struggle. Howard Ashman wrote most of the lyrics for the soundtrack on his deathbed, adding another layer of tragedy and something bittersweet – he never got to see the final product, but there could surely be no finer passing gift.
So there you have it, my personal favourite Disney movies. A polarizing company with many polarizing works – but if you’re reading this I’m sure you have your own favourites. Why not share them and your reasons in the comments below!
*Grave Of The Fireflies might have something to say about that.