10. “Lilo & Stitch” (2002)
An unexpectedly delightful, gently subversive, surprisingly progressive film from directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois (the “How To Train Your Dragon” movies), “Lilo & Stitch” passed many of us by back in the day, but is now a firm favorite. Even the character design is unusual, with the largely non-white human cast of Hawaiian islander grown-ups beautifully rendered as strong and athletic rather than the more willowy princess-y silhouettes we’re used to, while the kids, led by Lilo (Daveigh Chase) are pudgily adorable and the aliens, especially cute/ugly Stitch, are appropriately weird and diverse. The bonkers story is of Stitch (Sanders is on voice duty too), aka Experiment 626, a ferocious creature genetically engineered for invulnerability and destructive capability whose spaceship crashes in Hawaii. There, he is adopted as a “dog” by a lonely little Elvis fan Lilo, who lives with her loving but overstretched sister Nani (Tia Carrere) since the death of their parents. With an overbearing social worker (Ving Rhames) ready to separate the sisters, Stitch’s anarchic impulses do not help, while half the galaxy is on his tail. The lessons about family may be predictable, but it’s such an atypical family (the relationship between Nani and Lilo is so wittily drawn) that the Pacific quantities of tear water it might provoke are anything but.
9. “Beauty And The Beast” (1991)
The remake hits theaters on Friday, and it’s widely expected to make virtually unprecedented amounts of money due to nostalgia for the original. It was the first animated film to be a Best Picture nominee. But we can’t quite bring ourselves to love “Beauty And The Beast” quite as much as some do. It’s undeniably a perfection of the formula first developed in “The Little Mermaid,” and has plenty of stand-out sequences, particularly the Alan Menken and Howard Ashman songs, probably the best a Disney film had had since “The Jungle Book” up to that point. “Be Our Guest,” “Gaston,” the Angela Lansbury-sung title track in that ballroom — all instant icons in pop culture. It’s made with a level of polish not really seen before with Disney, and has one of the great Disney princesses in Belle (Paige O’Hara), the woman who tames her animalistic captor and frees him from the curse he, and his household, has been under for years. And yet, to us, it’s not quite as stylish or funny as “Aladdin,” or emotionally resonant as “The Lion King,” or as wonderfully progressive (indeed, it’s often the opposite) as “Moana.” A classic, then, but not quite the most classic of classics in our eyes.
8. “Moana” (2016)
You can keep your “Tangled” and your “Frozen” — for us, last fall’s “Moana” was the most successful encapsulation of the fairy tale/Disney princess formula since the 1990s heyday. Marking the triumphant return of “Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin” duo Ron Clements and John Musker, the film goes from the icy setting of “Frozen” to the watery one of the South Pacific, as young Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) teams up with brash, self-centered demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) to reclaim the heart of island goddess Te Fiti. In some ways, the formula and even design doesn’t stray that far from “Tangled” and “Frozen,” but more so than those, the story structure is rock-solid, the buddy pairing more effective, and the world more compelling and beautiful to look at. The music, partly penned by “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, is wonderful too, far more memorable and innovative than “Frozen” and adding up to the best Disney soundtrack since “The Lion King.” Maybe our biggest criticism is that it creates one of the cutest animals in Disney history with pig Pua, then barely uses him, but beyond that, it’s a shame that this did significantly less box office than some of its recent studio-mates (half of what “Frozen” took).
7. “Aladdin” (1992)
These days, every A-list star at some point gets the phone call to voice an animated character (or, if you’re Seth Rogen, you get 12 phone calls). It wasn’t entirely new at the time —think of classic Disney’s use of Peggy Lee or Louis Prima, among others — but most of it can be traced back to Robin Williams’ movie-stealing turn in “Aladdin,” which helped to make the movie a far bigger hit than “Beauty And The Beast” and “The Little Mermaid,” the two earlier movies in the Disney renaissance. Reteaming the “Little Mermaid” duo of John Musker and Ron Clements, the film’s based on the classic Arabian Nights tale of the title character (Scott Weinger), a street kid tricked into retrieving a magic lamp and who finds his fortunes transformed as a result of the genie residing therein. The script (co-written by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio) is one of the tightest the studio had, the songs (featuring the late Howard Ashman’s final contributions) are some of their catchiest, and there’s some absolutely stunning animation throughout. Not everybody loved Williams’ tour-de-force comic turn, but we’d argue that his brilliance comes not just in the impressions and voices, but in the pathos he’s able to give the character. He comes close to unbalancing the film, but given that lead duo Aladdin and Jasmine are such 90210-ish dullards, that unbalance was probably necessary.
6. “Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs” (1937)
The first Walt Disney animation, and the one from which all others spring. ‘Snow White’ isn’t just the first Disney film — it is the first full-length animated feature, full stop. The best part of a century, a cottage industry and several dire would-be-gritty remakes later, it remains a towering titan of the form. More faithful than many of the films that would come after to its source material (frankly, the narrative is a little thin for its 83-minute running time), it’s also noticeably darker: what would become the Disney formula is still in flux, and the film goes to some rather terrifying places that the studio would shy away from in later years. Its willingness to go there as such helps to make up for deficiencies in the narrative elsewhere — being the first attempt at feature-length animation, it’s simple perhaps to a fault, with the heroine in particular being something of a blank canvas. Yet, probably because it’s been lovingly restored, as a crown jewel in the Disney canon, it still looks stunning. The rotoscoped animation (where live-action footage is painted over) gives proceedings a realism that’s rarely been returned to since, though its finest moments are when it departs from human characters with the utterly charming dwarfs or the woodland creatures. It’s easy to take ‘Snow White’ for granted, but after nearly 80 years, it remains a miracle.
5. “Dumbo” (1941)
Made in only a few months at a minimal budget in order to make a quick buck after the financial disaster of “Fantasia,” “Dumbo” is a modest, sweet little affair that easily outshines some of Disney’s more lavish spectacles. Curiously based on a story for a Roll-A-Book novelty toy written by Helen Aberson, it sees a stork delivering to Mrs. Jumbo a new baby elephant boy, the titular Dumbo, whose long ears see him mocked by his circus colleagues. He’s so badly bullied that his mother steps in, only to be locked away when the authorities believe her crazy. But with the help of Timothy Q. Mouse (Edward Brophy), Dumbo becomes a flying circus clown and a national celebrity. Clocking in at just 65 minutes, the film feels like a product of its times more than some of its contemporaries, sometimes positively (the charming music, the mouse, the design), sometimes not so much (the questionable stereotyped crows). But its problems are wildly overshadowed by the lo-fi inventiveness, the personality invested in the animation (Dumbo never says a word, yet you feel for him more than any one of the thousands of animals in “Zootopia”), and the soaring, deeply moving finale.
4. “Bambi” (1942)
You could probably say that millions of characters have died in movies since the medium’s arrival (even if you limited the number to named characters rather than planetary extinctions, or whatever). But few have had the impact of the death of Bambi’s mom, who is shot by a hunter when the title character is just a fawn. The kid-traumatizing demise of the character, forcibly dragging millions of children into an adult reality, is still the film’s biggest talking point 70-odd years on, but the merits of “Bambi” go far beyond that. Based on a book by Austrian novelist Felix Salten, it’s a coming-of-age story of sorts, as we see the title character progress from doe-eyed, gangly-limbed innocent to embracing his destiny as the Prince of the Forest. It’s almost experimentally episodic in its narrative (even “The Jungle Book” feels like it has a stronger throughline), clearly building on the success of “Pinocchio” and “Dumbo” before it, but with an even greater sense of humanity — which is ironic, given the villainous role that “man” plays throughout. Quiet, beautiful and pastoral, it’s close to becoming something like “Disney as arthouse movie,” while still appealing utterly to children throughout.
3. “Pinocchio” (1940)
The term “Disneyfication” evokes a reliance on formula, an essentially conservative approach to gender values, a simplistic storyline in which moral blacks and whites are clearly delineated, and everything resolves neatly for the happily-ever-after. And yet, the studio’s second animated feature “Pinocchio,” which is so firmly embedded in the Disney DNA that its gorgeous song “When You Wish Upon a Star” remains the company jingle to this day, is way, way weirder than that. Without a princess in sight, we get an epic head trip about a wooden puppet who wants to be a real boy, and whose nose grows longer when he tells a lie going on a sprawling odyssey of self-discovery, mortal peril and grand high adventure. Narrated by Jiminy Cricket, Pinocchio’s official “conscience,” the film has a million moving parts: even after being seduced into the circus, Pinocchio goes on a drunken, vandalizing debauch with some other boys; is partially turned into a donkey; narrowly avoids being sold into slavery and then returns home to his father/maker Geppetto only to have to rescue him from the belly of an irascible whale. Then he dies. Some suggest the same year’s “Fantasia” is the greatest achievement from classic-era Disney era, but “Pinocchio” has just as spectacular an imagination, while being infinitely more thrilling and moving.
2. “The Jungle Book” (1967)
If we’re very quick to point out the times when remaking a classic yields substandard, cynical results, we should also be happy when one beats the odds as well as Jon Favreau’s very good live-action 2016 reworking of this beloved and brilliant ’60s film. Even so, it couldn’t quite match up to one the very finest of the classic Disney animations, and with good reason: the character and voice work is among their best ever (particularly George Sanders‘ suave, chocolate-voiced Shere Khan, Phil Harris’ “shiftless jungle bum” Baloo, Louis Prima as fire-coveting King Louie, J. Pat O’Malley as Colonel Hathi and Sebastian Cabot as Kaa, not to mention those fabulously Beatles-esque vultures), the animation is artful but also rooted in reality (Mowgli kicking at stones like a disaffected kid would) and the songs — well, they’re simply the best ever. “The Bare Necessities,” “I Wanna Be Like You,” “That’s What Friends Are For” and even the sappy but sweet “My Own Home” all have the wonderful quality, lost in many later animated musical numbers, of reinforcing character, furthering the story and being damn catchy all at once. Its brilliance is such that not even subsequent revisionist takes which have critiqued its racist and conservative overtones can truly tarnish its legacy.
1. “The Lion King” (1994)
Still the highest-grossing Disney animation domestically at $422m (though “Finding Dory” took the animated crown last year), “The Lion King,” from directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, represented the box-office pinnacle of the Disney renaissance of the 1990s. But it’s also a creative highlight, the exceptionally well-structured story of lion cub Simba (among the most adorable of Disney protagonists, superbly voiced by Matthew Broderick) who is tricked by his cunning fratricidal uncle Scar (who but Jeremy Irons?) into believing he has caused the death of his noble father, King Mufasa (James Earl Jones as the Platonic ideal of fatherhood). Fleeing the kingdom, Simba hooks up with Disney’s best-ever sidekicks, meerkat Timon and warthog Pumba (Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella, respectively) while evading the clutches of the trio of hyena henchmen (Whoopi Goldberg, Jim Cummings and Cheech Marin) who serve Scar. Growing up in carefree exile with the catchy philosophy of “Hakuna Matata,” he eventually meets and falls for childhood friend Nala (Moira Kelly), who persuades him to return to the Pride Lands that Scar’s rule has decimated and to reclaim his rightful Kingship. The (Circle of) Life Lessons that “The Lion King” teaches may not be exactly groundbreaking, but seeing them executed with such sincerity and deep feeling, and with unparalleled craft in terms of the animation and design of every single character and every single background, is purest, unalloyed Disney magic.
Agree? Disagree? Argue your case in the comments.