(A NOTE: For the purposes of this list, the “Renaissance” begins with Little Mermaid in 1989 and ends with Home on the Range in 2004, when Disney first shut down their 2D animation unit. This means that the “proto-Renaissance” films (The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver and Company) are not included. Also not included is Dinosaur, the first non-Pixar 3D film, since that is not properly part of the Renaissance era’s hand-drawn animation line. Also not included are Pixar films, because they obviously don’t count.)
17. Pocahontas. I actually watched Pocahontas all the way through for the first time this past Saturday and good lord is it awful. On Twitter it was pointed out that Pocahontas was put into development following the Best Picture nomination for Beauty and the Beast and that Jeff Katzenberg decided to turn Disney animated films into Prestige Events, but this isn’t just a bad Disney animated movie, it’s a terrible prestige event as well. The film’s visual style is reminscent of Don Bluth’s preferred animation style, but without any of Bluth’s signature energy; the visual staging is boring as sin (a total lack of immediacy or visual excitement in most shots). The pacing is terrible, the wacky cartoon animals are hatefully bad, the songs are range from average (“Just Around The Riverbend”) to amusingly bad failures (“Savages”) to “fuck this song forever it is the worst” (“Colours of the Wind,” the preachiest, most insipid song to ever be obviously written to win a Best Song award and still do it, because the Oscars are often bullshit in this way). The dialogue goes beyond trite to being redundant. Mel Gibson keeps forgetting to speak with an English accent. And having David Ogden Stiers voice the villain only two years after he voiced Cogsworth in Beauty was perhaps not the best choice even if Stiers is great, because all that happens is you’re reminded of a better movie. A much, much better movie. Pocahontas killed Disney’s animated momentum almost all by itself and the Disney Renaissance never really recovered. It is also the only movie on this list that is simply bad, plain and simple.
16. Atlantis: The Lost Empire. An attempt to turn the Disney animated powerhouse into a very pulpy boys’ adventure movie and it doesn’t really work. The Mike Mignola-influenced visual design is gorgeous to look at, certainly, and the action is spectacular, but the plot is basically paper-thin in the “you’ve seen a Star Wars, right, okay you can follow this” way and the voice acting talent is mostly wasted: Michael J. Fox’s Milo is the standout, but he gets most of the lines so that is to be expected, while the likes of Leonard Nimoy, James Garner and Claudia Christian are just sorta there. Atlantis is slight in so many ways that the spectacle it provides in mass amounts are nothing more than empty calories, an explosion of bombast and sound and fury signifying nothing.
15. Home on the Range. Fun fact: you probably don’t remember this exists. There’s a reason for that: the last Disney animated feature until the hand-drawn animated department was shut down is very forgettable. It’s competent, certainly, a perfectly adequate funny animal story (Judi Dench is in particular a treat), but it is somehow appropriate that the final “traditional” cartoon feature from Disney would be such a meaningless bit of fluff that it is barely remembered.
14. Fantasia 2000. Here’s the thing: F2K is certainly lushly animated and has a few good comedy bits (my favorite is when Donald does a double-take at the pair of normal ducks walking past during the Donald’s Ark sequence). But the problem with F2K is the music selection. Here are the songs selected for F2K:
Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, first movement
Pines of Rome by Respighi
Rhapsody in Blue by Gershwin
Piano Concerto no. 2, first movement, by Shostakovich
The Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saens
Pomp and Circumstance by Elgar
Firebird Suite by Stravinsky
That’s a lot of very familiar classical music, isn’t it? With the exception of Pines it’s all very My First Classical Album. A not-too-challenging bit from a Beethoven symphony, George Gershwin, Igor “probably most important composer of the 20th century” Stravinsky and Pomp and fucking Circumstance, which gets played at every single high school graduation ever? I mean, the original Fantasia had Night on Bald Mountain as its closer – that’s out of left field. And “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was definitely a daring choice in 1940. And the animation matchups are predictable too: an animal march for Pomp, scenes from New York for Rhapsody, dancing animals for Carnival, an actual firebird for Firebird. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not bad, it’s Fantasia, and the core concept is always going to be strong (come on, don’t you want a new Fantasia?) but F2K definitely undershoots the mark.
13. The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This one gets a lot of flak because it was next in the pipeline after Pocahontas and people don’t remember it fondly. It’s honestly not that bad. Overly serious in tone, perhaps, as compared to most Disney flicks – the comedy bits with the gargoyles are definitely a little tacked-on as compared to Disney’s more organic efforts to integrate funny-animal comedy into a larger narrative, and the Esmerelda/Phoebus romance is predictable and bland. But the movie doesn’t shy away from its darker-than-average tone and Judge Frollo is a terrific villain. The songs are mostly bad, though (or at least mediocre as all get out) and at this point a Disney film with bad songs was in trouble from the get go, even though the score is comparatively pretty good. Hunchback suffers a lot from guilt-by-association with Pocahontas; if it had come between, say, Lion King and Hercules I think it would be better remembered. But it didn’t.
12. The Rescuers Down Under. This gets included in the Renaissance almost by default, as the film in between Mermaid and Beauty. It is perfectly acceptable franchise entertainment with some gorgeous visuals – Disney was definitely using the film as a testing ground for the CGI/hand-drawn art combination they would master in their later films, and the visual direction and staging of scenes is very skilled – but it’s nothing more than that, unfortunately.
11. Brother Bear. Disney’s last major 2D animated effort until The Princess and the Frog (I don’t count Home on the Range as “major”) has a nice story and good voice acting, but the animation is, let us be honest, second-tier: Disney cut back on the CGI elements it had been using with hand-drawn animation successfully in its previous features to cut costs, and the result is evident on the screen (and the choice of colour palette for the film veers sharply between drab and garish). Which is not to say the animation is bad, by any means, but it’s definitely simpler than many modern Disney features. And Phil Collins’ score is simply not as good as his excellent work on Tarzan. Brother Bear is fine, a decent little movie that transcends its limitations to an extent, but only an extent.
10. Treasure Planet. It flopped at the box office, but Planet is the delivery of what Atlantis promised: a great adventure story, told with amazing visuals. Planet has a more full plot, better realized characters (and better voice acting: I mean, Emma Thompson and David Hyde Pierce in the same movie?), more heart (the Jim/Long John Silver relationship really works beautifully) and the visuals go beyond the impressive stuff in Atlantis to some truly next-level stuff. The 3D backgrounds and 2D characters do clash at times (okay, more than a few times, probably about a third of the movie), but when they work it is seamless. It’s kind of a shame it bombed, because Treasure Planet was essentially a prototype for a new model of 2D animated film, something that shows like Justice League would later use as a template in many ways.
9. Hercules. It’s entertaining as all get out, one of the funnier “traditional-style” Disney flicks (James Woods in particular enjoys the hell out of himself), and wiser than me have pointed out previously that, when you get right down to it, Hercules is basically a Superman story in Greek drag. Which is great! So why isn’t it higher up? Mostly because Hercules tries too hard and aims to do too much. The R&B/gospel score is an interesting and exciting musical choice, but it is almost always cranked up to eleven – “Zero to Hero” in particular is so fast that you either miss half the lyrics or half the visual gags – and the rest of the movie is so, so fast that rewatches reveal literally hundreds of details, and I know we’re all supposed to say rewatches are great but there’s a difference between “going back and catching new layers” and “going back and rewatching because you were not physically capable of watching the entire thing in the first go.” And the whole movie is like this! (Also, let’s be honest, the Greek Gods are basically all pricks and that kind of detracts from Hercules’ quest.) But at this point we’re in the “differing levels of excellent,” anyway, so…
8. Aladdin. Aladdin has not aged as well as some Disney flicks, and the reason it is this far down is simple: the movie in large part lives and dies by Robin Williams’ Genie, and the Genie gets more and more dated with every year as Williams’ references get older and older. Of course, Aladdin still has much to recommend it: the last few songs of the Alan Menken/Howard Ashman team (and Menken never hit the musical heights he did with Ashman with his other collaborators), Jonathan Freeman reminding everybody why dedicated voice actors are important with his Jafar, Gilbert Gottfried’s great performance as Iago, the great animation work on the Carpet and Abu, and the “do ya trust me?” line that honestly just makes the flick. But yeah, it’s not what it was in 1993.
7. Lilo and Stitch. I’ll admit that this movie is one that I never liked quite as much as other people did. I mean, I like it, don’t get me wrong, but Lilo and Stitch fans are, well, awfully fanatical about their fandom and I’m not at that level. It’s obviously a well-made movie, brilliant in many ways, and Stitch is funny, and the film manages to be sentimental without being maudlin (I defy anybody to hear Lilo explain how her parents died without getting at least a little catch, just because she does it so plainly and without drama, and that’s how kids talk about dead loved ones), and it manages to be sentimental while providing a ridiculous amount of slapstick. Out of all the movies in this list, this is the only one I really had trouble placing. I can see the argument for moving it up a notch or moving it down one. It, like Emperor’s New Groove, is very atypical in how it is a Disney movie, and that makes it harder to analyze.
6. The Little Mermaid. Another surprisingly low ranking to some people since Mermaid is what began the whole Renaissance in the first place, but I never thought Mermaid had the strongest story or the most engaging characters. It also doesn’t quite have what later Disney films mastered, which is the art of describing sexual tension between two animated characters, and that matters a great deal given the premise of the film. It does, however, have the best overall musical set-pieces in Disney history: “Under the Sea” is a deserved classic, of course, as is “Part of Your World,” but I actually think “Kiss the Girl” is the best (and most understated, underrated) song from the movie. And it has a good villain in Ursula, and an exciting ending. But I can’t get past Ariel’s overall lack of agency throughout the flick.
5. Tarzan. It still amazes me that Phil Collins – Phil “Do We Have A Horns Section In This Song? Maybe We Should Add A Horns Section” Collins – could put together a score and soundtrack as strong as the one he did for Tarzan. But he did, and that is far from the movie’s only wondrous surprise. Tarzan works astonishingly well, with two excellent villains, a willingness to engage in non-Disney-levels of violence (but sparsely, to maximize their effectiveness), near-perfect integration of wacky sidekick moments into the main plot, real emotional heft throughout the story and probably one of the loveliest endings of any Disney film ever, combined with absolutely gorgeous integration of CGI into a 2D world. Superb work.
4. The Emperor’s New Groove. This one is wildly atypical for Disney; a tailor-made Disney Epic called Kingdom of the Sun which was converted halfway through into a zany comedy, and normally that formula would spell disaster but Groove is a magnificent triumph, so good that I am quite certain Kingdom of the Sun would have been an immense Pocahontas-level disaster. Groove works because it doesn’t work the romance angle like practically every other Disney flick (this is the first non-sequel of the Renaissance era to have no princess in it!), it doesn’t have any big musical set-pieces at all, it basically jumps up and down on the Disney Formula until said formula is dead and bleeding, and that is what makes it truly great: it commits to laughs right from the beginning and never lets up, even during the moments of pathos that the story demands. And Patrick Warburton’s performance as Kronk is one of the all-time great voice acting triumphs.
3. The Lion King. This is generally the point where somebody snarky says “you mean Kimba the White Lion” but that line has always been mostly crap, based on a similarity between names and a couple of shots that look sort of the same. The Lion King draws its power not from those minor similarities, but from its riffing-on-Hamlet plot, probably one of the best voice casts in Disney history, certainly Disney’s single best villain in Jeremy Irons’ Scar, and songs that are… okay, “Circle of Life” and “Hakuna Matata” are probably top-10 Disney songs of all time, at least, and “Be Prepared” is top 20, and the rest are… not that. (Seriously, “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” is so goddamn annoying. SO ANNOYING.) To sum up: Kimba was also kind of bad and Lion King is not.
2. Beauty and the Beast. The purest fairytale of any of the Disney films by far. Easily the best overall soundtrack – the Ashman/Menken team hit their peak with this and has never been surpassed, and frankly Beauty‘s soundtrack is so strong it deserves ranking among top musicals of all time, not just Disney cartoons. The setpiece for “Be Our Guest” is an all-time classic in film history. Remarkable vocal performances throughout. The gags are perfectly written into the script, but more important the romance that is the core of the story is completely real and believable on every level, which ultimately leads to what can only be described as the sexiest kiss Disney ever animated, as part of the best ending they ever wrote. There’s a reason this one got the Best Picture nod. (Even if the fairy that cursed the Beast was really a total dick.)
1. Mulan. Mulan is unique in that she is the only Disney “princess” whose agency is her own throughout the story. Belle is a prisoner, Ariel a pawn, Jasmine and Megara and Esmerelda are all tokens to be won for the most part, but not Mulan. Hell, Mulan has more agency than most of the male Disney protagonists, who mostly react heroically. Mulan, though, goes out and proactively self-sacrifices, first for her family and then for her country. The fact that Mulan the film has a strong soundtrack, excellent voice acting, a solid and entertaining plot and good visuals are almost besides the point, because the reason Mulan is the best Disney Renaissance film is simple: Mulan isn’t a Disney Princess, no matter how much they want to make her one. She’s a Disney hero, and that makes all the difference.