To celebrate the House of Mouse, THN is taking a look back at the greatest Disney films of all time. To appease the purists, we have omitted any joint productions with Pixar (we need to give the others a fighting chance, after all). Whether you prefer singing dwarves, flying elephants, dancing broomsticks or saucy mermaids, check out our favourites.
Let’s do this. Oo-da-lally, bitches!
10. DUMBO (1941)
The earliest (and shortest) film on our list, DUMBO is a sure-fire crowd pleaser. The feel-good story of a baby elephant, who is mocked for his over-sized ears but learns to fly with the help of a talking mouse. Something we can all relate to. Although the feature is famous for being about a flying elephant, it is remembered for three key musical numbers;
‘Pink Elephants On Parade’ – The trippy hallucinations of a drunken mouse and a sozzled pachyderm have woven their way into popular culture and the nightmares of children for over seventy years. The haunting music, the menacing faces, this scene is to alcohol what YELLOW SUBMARINE is to marijuana. But, y’know. For kids.
‘When I See An Elephant Fly – The catchy number that celebrates word play and troubling black stereotypes. Are the crows r’acist? Well they are depicted as uneducated and poor, but are also free spirits and help Dumbo achieve his goal of flight. Either way, its catchy.
‘Baby of Mine’ – Probably the saddest scene in any Disney movie. As Dumbo visits his mother in her cell, she is unable to see him through the partition, so she reaches over and cradles her child as he weeps. We see other animals holding their babes as the song plays, and as she waves him goodbye, there’s not a dry eye in the house. Mesmerising.
9. HERCULES (1997)
Bless my soul, Herc was on a role. Never before has a Disney provided such an un-engaging eponymous character yet such a glorious film. It tells the story of the mythical Greek hero Hercules, the son Zeus who is made mortal by Hades, God of the Underworld. Forced to grow up on Earth, he is a social outcast due to his God-like strength. He soon meets the beautiful and mysterious Meg as well as Phil, a satyr and trainer of heroes. So the mighty Hercules sets about fulfilling his destiny, to become a true hero.
What makes Hercules stand up as one of the best would be the supporting characters, the musical numbers and the postmodern humour. It has some wonderful parallels with the notion of celebrity culture and some cracking gags about merchandise, which seems to be Disney eating itself, and it’s hilarious. The songs are terrific, with the standout number being ‘Zero to Hero,’ a whirlwind gospel extravaganza over a montage of Herc’s rise to glory. There is so much in there, the editing is lightning quick and the song itself would have the statue of Venus swinging her hips. It’s breathtaking. The other notable song is Meg’s ‘I Won’t Say (I’m In Love)’ a 50s style doo-wop piece which should be counted among the great Disney tunes. The action sequences are great fun, particularly Herc’s first big challenge, a battle with the Hydra. As inventive as it is thrilling.
The supporting cast are terrific, Danny De Vito’s Phil and Susan Egan’s Meg give our slightly dull hero some emotional substance, and Rip Torn has a blast as Zeus. But special recognition goes to James Woods for his work as Hades. One of the funniest characters Disney have ever produced, Woods plays the God of the Underworld like a used car salesmen and throws in some Yiddish for the Hell of it. He apparently improvised much of his dialogue and almost steals the film. Hercules the character maybe pretty dull, but Hercules the film is a funny and exciting adventure.
8. MARY POPPINS (1964)
The only live action film on the list (sorry Bedknobs & Broomsticks fans), its the tale of a seemingly stern nanny (Julie Andrews) who is hired to care for the rambunctious children of the Banks family. Their parents (the exquisite David Tomlinson and Glynis Johns) are too self-involved to give a toss, and so the great Mary Poppins swoops in to force-feed them sugar and medicine while buffing the bannister with her practically perfect posterior. The Banks family learn, love, hug, fly kites and all with the help of Poppins and her chum Bert (a hyper Dick Van Dyke). Rumour has it that original Poppins author PL Travers HATED the adaptation, particularly the animated sequence. She maybe in the minority though, as the supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is beloved by young and old. Although if you read the original books, you can see why Travers disliked it so. Imagine if during DR NO, Bond started tap-dancing with a cartoon llama. Fleming’s reaction would be PRETTY similar to how Travers felt. Even she must have liked Van Dyke’s uber-cockney Bert, though, right? His performance single-handedly changed the world’s view of Londoners. For the better, I might add. I have always pronounced the word ‘Governor’ as ‘Gove-nah!’ because of this.
Mary Poppins is aesthetically wondrous, the mis en scene capturing the magic of our heroine with some charming visual effects and some beautifully composed shots, particularly during the rooftop scenes. The choreography for ‘Step In Time’ is probably the most staggering Disney have ever produced, and if it caused even one little girl to cry ‘Votes for women!’ then Disney’s feminist credentials will have skyrocketed.
7. TANGLED (2010)
As the most recent entry, it could be argued that TANGLED is too new to be considered a classic. But there’s no denying, it is relentless fun throughout. It is the latest in Disney’s retellings of classic fairytails, in this case, Rapunzel. But unlike SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959) and CINDERELLA (1950), our princess isn’t some docile creature waiting to be rescued. Well, she sort of is at the start. But when she gets out of her tower, she quickly grows into the heroine Disney deserves, as well as the one it needs.
By far and away the best non-Pixar CG film the studio has produced, it pays homage to the look and feel of its cell-animated classic predecessors, as well as laying the groundwork for what will follow. Sure, it’s formulaic (boy meets girl, they dislike each other then learn to love each other, a distrust of step-families, wacky and slightly unnecessary animal sidekick) but this is all forgiven because it is just so enjoyable. The songs are fantastic (particularly bar-room singalong ‘I Have A Dream’), the lead performances are better than those in recent live action rom-coms, and it is straight up hilarious. The dialogue is naturalistic and snappy, the visual gags are a treat and Maximus the Horse is the funniest and most expressive animated character since Gromit. TANGLED is a visually sumptuous film, the look of which is somewhat inspired by The Swing, a late Baroque era painting by Jean Honore Fragonard. It also features one of the most creative and ambitious chase/fight sequences seen in a Disney film, during which our hero Flynn is using a frying pan to sword fight a horse and says ‘You should know this is the strangest thing I’ve ever done!’ Side-splitting, exciting, romantic, TANGLED is an instant classic.
6. THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE (2000)
Something of an oddity in the Disney canon, THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE is the only balls-to-the-wall comedy, featuring no musical numbers and no love interest. It concerns Incan emperor Kuzco, whose great wealth is matched only by his selfishness. So horrid is he that he informs lovely local peasant Pacha that he will destroy his village to build a new pleasure palace. On a whim, he fires his life-long advisor Yzma who vows revenge. Her simple but good natured man-servant Kronk bungles a poisoning attempt and accidentally turns Kuzco into a llama. And… it gets sillier from there.
It is actually a sweet buddy movie about trust, friendship and discovering what is really important. But don’t let that put you off, it’s a laugh a minute. The voice cast are top drawer, with the ever reliable John Goodman as Pacha, Patrick Warburton channeling his character from Seinfeld as Kronk, David Spade doing his trademark douche as Kuzco and the legendary Ertha Kitt vamping it up as the evil Yzma. THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE isn’t for everyone, it maybe a bit aware of how wacky it is, but it sure does make with the mirth. It takes the time to stop the narrative and focus on what would otherwise be throwaway gags, occasionally using the Brechtian technique of ‘distancing’ the audience in order to stop us from getting too emotionally involved and focus on the funny. A bold move, and even off-putting for some. The film revels in subverting our expectations, such as when Kuzco abuses a squirrel for being drawn too traditionally ‘Disney-esque’, or during the finale in which the villain transforms into a harmless looking kitten, as opposed to the giant beasts we’ve come to anticipate, such as in ALADDIN (1992) or SLEEPING BEAUTY. But despite its lack of commercial success, the film has become something of a cult classic, is eminently quotable and is, pound for pound, the most chucklesome Disney movie. If you want something brisk, light and guaranteed to elicit a guffaw, this is the movie for you.
Come back soon for the Top 5. But don’t go expecting any jailbait mermaids to be there, as it ain’t a great film for feminists. ‘Okay, girls. Do you want boys to like you? Well, keep quiet. He doesn’t care what you have to say, as long as you crinkle your nose from time to time and be very, VERY childlike with your demeanour, that older rich guy is bound to want to marry you, despite you only being 16. Also, when he does, you’ll have to choose. A life of devotion to your new man, or seeing your friends and family, because apparently you can’t do both. Good luck, girls. Also, hoard. For the love of God, HOARD!!’ So, yeah. THE LITTLE MERMAID is somewhat troubling.
Still would though.
For Part Two click here