Friday, December 2, 2016

The Top Ten Disney Animation Studios Films.

We've finally made it. It's been 9 months since I officially unveiled this retrospective, and I've examined every square inch of all 56 (57, unofficially) of Disney Animation Studios' films. And to put it in simple terms, theirs is the perfect catalog to make a retrospective of.
Love them, hate them, or be indifferent to them, there's no denying that their set of films are among some of the most unique, eclectic, and ambitious films in all of animation, venturing through various exotic settings, classic folklore and fairy tales, moving through varying peaks and dips in quality throughout their run, and always ready to rejuvenate and redefine their own medium in both style and presentation. From their music, to their characters, to their art design, to their iconic craft and techniques that fans of animation continue to copy to this day, they still continue to place viewers under their enchanting and whimsical spells to this very day. In fact, with such a vast and high quality batch of films to pick from, it makes forming a top ten list a fascinating experience, as no two lists are exactly alike. To say that a number of their films are the best would be no faint praise since they're chock full of great successes.

And so, as a way to bring this series to a close, I now give you my picks for The Top Ten Best Animated Disney Films. As such, this means that the only rule is that the selections must come exclusively from Disney's in-house animation studio, so Pixar films or other such animated Disney films (like Tim Burton's stop-motion flicks) do not count.

But because you know me, I'm not going to get into the top ten right away, so here are my top five honorable mentions (in descending order of number 11 to number 15). Just barely missing out was Lady and the Tramp, an interesting diversion from Disney's usual musical or fairy tale mold, that made great leaps and bounds in animation for animal characters, and showcased a believable, naturally budding romance from two socially opposite individuals. Sleeping Beauty remains one of the greatest achievements of Disney's animation staff, gorgeously and obsessively detailed and lush in both art-direction and character design, and featuring one of the greatest Disney villains of all time. Zootopia has proven to be one of the most rewatchable and rewarding Disney films, a clever and hilarious send-up of buddy cop comedies building a stellar world, as well as making for a layered and deeply mature examination of casual and hurtful prejudice and racism. The writing of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs may be dated and one-dimensional by today's standards, but still earns every praise that comes its way for its important innovations to cinema, and for setting up the classic mold of Disney as we know it. However, The Little Mermaid also deserves props for reinventing and rejuvenating that mold, setting the high standards of the animation studio's storytelling with great and memorable characters, and featured unforgettable songs by longtime collaborator Alan Menken.

It's time to wish upon a star, and spin a tale as old as time. I give you my top ten favorite animated Disney films.

Number 10
While Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs may have pioneered the lofty standards of Disney's animation, Walt's follow-up Pinocchio is ultimately the one that defined the studio's artistic voice. Deeper in theme and darker in presentation than its predecessor, the film did well to make audiences relate to the emotions and the experiences of the main character, who while the least interesting character in his own film, still felt like (for lack of a better word) a real boy, never overly saintly or completely innocent, but still observant about walking the balance between right and wrong. Such a dynamic also helps when surrounded by plenty of memorable characters of varying moral compasses, from the tenderness of Gepetto and Jiminy, to the nastiness of Honest John and Stromboli. But most impressive was the craft of the film, not only acing the signature animation they would come to be noted for, but perfecting the mutliplane camera movements that would become a staple of hand-drawn animation for decades. Many others would place it among the very top of their lists, and for good reason, as the film still remains a marvel over seventy years since its release.

Number 9
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
 Often regarded as one of the darkest Disney films, its controversial treatment of Victor Hugo's story may not have gone unnoticed, but for my money is the most underrated of the Disney films. While softening up Hugo's original story in several ways, with the three gargoyles being the most irritating of them all (and let's not speak about them again), it largely remains very faithful to his original atmosphere and weighty themes, including those of acceptance and prejudice, the abuse of power in the name of god and the law, and the contemplation of what makes one man or woman more worthy of salvation over another. The tone of the film is darker than your typical Disney adventure, rarely talking down to the viewer in regards to its complex issues, including the characterization of Judge Claude Frollo, a mad and genocidal zealot - driven by mindless lust and pride - who truly believes that no matter how vile his methods, that the ends justify the means. Filled with other memorable characters, beautifully animated and designed, and featuring an epic soundtrack, it may be flawed, but it's still a powerful work. Between this and Les Miserables, musicals are proving to be the ideal format for Hugo's stories.

Number 8
Alice in Wonderland
Many would have considered Lewis Caroll's original Alice stories to be unfilmable, but leave it to Walt to somehow take a story with no real pace or escalation, and make it a cinematic reality. One of the most insane movies ever put to the screen, no other adaptation has better captured or encapsulated the madness and the contradictory logic of its titular world. Wonderland is often built with a very topsy-turvy and uncertain fashion, being a place where even the pleasant and the enticing can have something more sinister underneath, even being further accentuated by its bright and whimsical colors being offset by black backgrounds. You can never be certain if characters will happily greet you, menacingly lunge at you, or cower away in fear, allowing the viewer to experience the emotional ups and downs that Alice experiences in the trippy world surrounding her. And when I say trippy, I mean it, as every creature and location within Wonderland is something out of a fever dream brought to life on an easel. It's without doubt one of the studio's most ambitious efforts, and makes Tim Burton's future live-action reiteration look even shallower than it already is.

Number 7
 While Disney tried their hands at recreating the success of the Renaissance with The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, this 2013 musical was their finest attempt at that formula since The Lion King. An attempt to pay homage to the original customs of Disney's animated features, what made Frozen such a clever film was its ability to subvert and rectify some of the mixed messages that they had once perpetuated. Key in this is the examination of true love, something that main character Anna often naively equates to romance, but the film acknowledges as something much greater than such simple definitions, brought superbly to life through the tested, but empathetic sisterly relationship between Anna and Elsa. Frozen has a number of great and memorable characters, none more scene stealing than the lovably oblivious and fearlessly loyal snowman Olaf. Both children and adults can have a blast with the absolutely addicting songs by Kristen-Anderson and Robert Lopez, with a clever playfulness to their lyrics and their music. Just as enjoyable is the magnificent animation on display, obviously animated by computer, but possessing the tremendous expressiveness of hand-drawn. It may be ubiquitous, but even so, I'm still not sick of it.

Number 6
Lilo & Stitch
 It was often very rare for Disney to tackle a project based on one of their original concepts, but in 2002, one such diamond in the rough managed to shine through with Lilo & Stitch. A testament to Disney's lean efficiency at storytelling, the movie is at its finest when developing the central friendship of its protagonists, with one always off-setting the other as a perfect contrast and anchor, and taking great care to acknowledge and flesh out the flaws and oddities that make them unique. The two characters are both the products of broken families, Lilo clinging to the simplicity of the past, indulging in eccentric quirks and lashing out as her personal venting mechanism, and Stitch desperate to experience a past with a family that never existed, not knowing any better than to destroy and cause mischief, and attempting to move past whatever sinister intentions his creator defined as his purpose. While certainly hilarious and featuring some snappy writing, it was that mature and sensitive subject matter that truly made Lilo & Stitch stand out. In fact, it was such a successful mold that the film's directors, Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, would latter attempt to recreate it (quite fantastically, at that) with How to Train Your Dragon.

Number 5
 One of the best coming of age stories within Disney's lineup, Bambi may be mostly remembered for its now traumatizing main plot twist midway through, but that alone isn't what makes Bambi such a beloved film. Moving forward without any real story or three act structure, Bambi is less interested in setting up any big plot developments or big set-pieces, and more concerned with capturing in as accurate detail as possible the noble birth, and transition to adulthood of an innocent fawn. As the film moves through season after season, year after year, viewers can easily be able to empathize with the choices and the new experiences of our young hero, surrounded by colorful and entertaining characters to help guide him. But yes, that aforementioned twist is still a very powerful one even to this day, as the real heartbreak of the film is not about what terrible thing happened, but that it was merely a cruel, but fair game of chance with no one to really blame. That experiences like this are nobody's fault, and yet it's still important to confront those unpleasant memories and take strength from them. Bambi does a much better job at explaining this theme than any of the other cheap, lesser cash-ins that attempted to make man into an easy villain for decades to come.

Number 4
An ambitious and surreal cinematic experience, Fantasia remains perhaps the most experimental effort that Walt ever personally had a hand in. A symbiotic marriage between the pencil strokes of the Disney animators, and the collection of legendary symphonic pieces conducted by Leopold Stokowski, Fantasia is a film largely based around in the moment emotional responses. Whether they be told with a narrative, a loose but forward moving story, or have nothing resembling a plot that exists solely for epic eye candy, the ever changing moods and styles of the film weave the individual pieces into an abstract, but harmonious flurry of imagination and creativity, often requiring a great deal of personal interpretation from the viewer, almost like looking into a swirling kaleidoscope at times. While the presence of Disney icon Mickey Mouse does entail some great entertainment for younger viewers, the film largely takes more adult-centric risks, pushing the boundaries of creativity and darkness to their utmost extreme, reaching a heated boil during the frightful Night on Bald Mountain segment. Disney would make other package films inspired by this movie's own format, but never did any of those films come close to nailing the majesty and inspiration of this one.

Number 3
 Its arrival may have raised some eyebrows following the smashing success of Beauty and the Beast, but with the duo of Musker and Clements returning for their follow-up to The Little Mermaid, the two made what I can quickly declare is the funniest film in Disney's animation lineup. Existing in a very anachronistic and stylized universe, the characters and dialogue in Aladdin are of a typically modern nature, often intentionally flying in the face of the older-aged Arabian setting. However, rather than this stylistic deviation play out as alienating or ill-advised, it instead comes to represent a great charm of the film, free to play fast and loose when it comes to the bizarre and over the top comedy, but most importantly allowing the film to retain its sincerity in spite of the satirical elements. The film also comes equipped with colorful and alluring animation, more great songs by the duo of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, a well-defined central romance, and a scene stealing villain with Jafar. But what really makes the movie is Robin Williams' scene stealing Genie, as the world of animation proves to be the best encapsulation of Williams' talents, moving through rapid fire animations as his stream of consciousness improvisation and antics grow more wild and stitch inducing, but also letting his warm and unmistakable presence allow him to be a voice of reason to the title character. As much of a good outing as Musker/Clements' recent film Moana was, the duo have yet to make another film to match the strength of this one.

Number 2
Beauty and the Beast
 Often regarded as the studio's magnum opus, having taken the entire world by storm in its original release, while The Little Mermaid may have been the one to introduce Disney's modern formula, it was this one that managed to refine it to the utmost perfection. It's a film that's very faithful to the romanticized roots of its fairy tale mold, but presents the story in more of a mature and grounded fashion, even managing to rectify and subvert the older customs that Disney has been known for, as well as provide depth to many of the more one-dimensional archetypes within the company's history. Beauty and the Beast has a hefty umber of terrific qualities to its credit, including innovative CAPS technology blending seamlessly with the always impressive hand-drawn characters, a rock solid supporting cast of memorable faces, a great villain in the form of the arrogant and progressively ruthless Gaston, and the best batch of songs that Alan Menken and Howard Ashman have ever contributed to Disney. But what truly makes the film is the central romance between its two flawlessly built characters, Belle being a radiant and candid misfit disinterested in the vapid gossip and crowd mentality of her village, and more desiring of adventure and her own self-discovery, and the Beast growing from a spoiled and explosive monster, to gaining more humility and empathy. Through several strong development points, and a perfectly paced story, the romance between the two is very naturally progressed and fleshed out, and its thanks to that that the film earns its happy ending. Disney intends to reintroduce the film to a whole new generation with Bill Condon's upcoming live-action remake, but though it could turn out great, I doubt it will be able to totally recapture the pure enchantment and power of this one.

Number 1
The Lion King
 When I decided to form this list, I knew it was going to be tough to rank these films against one another. However, as hard as it was to put the list together, I knew from the very beginning that there was only one film that was going to top the list. It's actually funny how far this little film has come, often seen at the time as a B-product compared to the more prestigious Pocahontas (which was produced at the same time). Little did everyone involved with both movies know that the expectations would actually be switched, with The Lion King on its way to becoming one of the most gargantuan entries under Disney's Animated Classics banner.

After opening on such a larger than life note with the bravura "Circle of Life" sequence, it's something of a miracle that the film held up its hurtling momentum for as long as it does. Taking direct influence from Shakespeare's Hamlet, The Lion King often walks a very tightly focused, but sincerely orchestrated tightrope between moments of humor and drama. The saddest of all the emotional triggers is best embodied in the midway twist to the film, similar to that of Bambi's, but all the more heartbreaking for the pure sense of denial and shock present in the aftermath, and the moral choices that come with it; to confront those unpleasant feelings and take strength from them, or to ignore and repress them and pretend that those problems don't exist, even that surface value joy and lack of concern can only last so long. But the movie is not entirely grim or dark, generally easing the viewer back graciously into the lighter touches and comedic elements, with the latter making smart use of Scar's hyena henchmen, and the oh so enjoyable duo of Timon and Pumbaa. Other supporting players such as Mufasa (the booming voice of James Earl Jones), Nala, and Zazu also provide terrific support.

But the true standout character comes in the form of the film's villain, Scar voiced by wicked and sardonic Jeremy Irons, an absolute scene stealer for his calculated and conniving methodology, coyly pulling strings behind the scenes with a touch of venomous yet calm sophistication, and often preferring not to get his own paws dirty. The Lion King is also a film built on epic, magnificent scale, showcasing the African Savannah in all of its lush and untamed glory, and nailing even most the minute details in the movement of each animal, captured most terrifyingly in the heart-pounding wildebeest stampede. But of course, it's the music of the film that becomes its most valuable asset. Elton John's and Tim Rice's instantly hummable and gigantic songs are an impressive achievement all their own, with the duo crafting what I consider the finest soundtrack of any animated Disney film, but just as strong is Hans Zimmer's orchestral score, the magnum opus of his entire career, capturing in his own terrific vision the majesty of Africa's wildlife and terrain.

As far as I'm concerned, The Lion King is the peak of Disney's animation studios history, to their animation department what Mary Poppins is to their live-action branch. Not only my favorite of their Animated Classics banner, but one of my top twenty favorite films ever made, and no matter how many times I watch it, I'm always left entranced. Entranced by its scale, by its heart, by its gracefulness, by its laughs, by its memorable faces, and by its amazing melodies. It's a film whose storytelling and its spectacle are equally amazing, going hand in hand, and creating an unforgettable experience that the studio has yet to replicate.

Also, in the time that I've been doing this retrospective, a live-action remake of the film has been officially announced. If you're wondering what my thoughts are; in short, I really don't want it to happen. Yes, after The Jungle Book, I know the film could look absolutely mind-blowing, and the music could surely be standout quality, but on the whole, I just find it to be a pointless exercise. It would be a tall order to match the grandeur of the original film, and as simple a nit-pick as it is, there's just no fixing what was already perfect to begin with.

And... I'm... Done! I've watched the films, reviewed them all, talked about my favorites, and had enough exposure to the word Disney to last a lifetime. It's often been tiresome or tough to keep up with considering my own personal life, but I've always had fun leaving my thoughts down, and sharing them with anyone who will read them.

And yet... I'm still not *quite* done. The future of Disney still has so much more in store, and there's still so much left I have yet to say about them, so join me back on December 4th when we finally bring an end to this long series.

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