The Definitive, Perfect Ranking of Modern Disney Animated Features (Part 2)

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20) Frozen II (2019)

Director: Chris Buck; Jennifer Lee

With songs by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Bobby Lopez

The attempt to expand the original film’s fairy tale simplicity into a high fantasy epic with a complex mythology and backstory results in a borderline incoherent mess that in some places appears to be missing entire chunks of movie. Without a strong villain or central threat, our protagonists spend the film wandering through a forest collecting exposition, which sometimes murders them for…like…no reason…until it’s time for the film to wrap up.

But, all that being said, the animation is casually miraculous, the songs composed by Anderson-Lopez and Lopez are superior to their work in the first film, specifically “Lost in the Woods” and “Show Yourself”, and Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, Sven, and Olaf remain a thoroughly enjoyable collection of characters to follow on an adventure.

My pet theory remains that there exists a cut of this movie that topped two hours before executives ordered it chopped to the bone. I’d like to see that version some day, but this weird truncated one goes down smooth enough when my nieces ask to watch it for the seven-thousandth time.

19) Big Hero 6 (2014)

Directed by Don Hall; Chris Williams

Big Hero 6 is probably the film that suffers the most from being watched in the compressed manner that I went through these films. Taken on its own, it’s a rock-solid piece of all-ages entertainment with a fun ensemble of characters and an affecting story of grief.

However, there’s a degree of anonymity that plagues the film, as if it is hitting all the necessary beats without finding any new notes to play. This feeling becomes all the more pervasive the more comic-booky the story gets, especially as Big Hero 6 fails to utilize the animated medium to offer a fresh take on superhero action like we saw in superior fare like The Incredibles movies or Into the Spider-Verse. There’s a frustrating by-the-numbers quality to the action, the humor, and even the emotional elements of the film.

Ultimately, Big Hero 6 does a better job of reminding you of great movies than being a great film itself.

18) Winnie the Pooh (2011)

Directed by Stephen Anderson; Don Hall

With songs by Kristen Anderson Lopez and Bobby Lopez

Loses a few points for giving Christopher Robin actual eyes and not just tiny black dots. Freaks me out, man.

The final hand drawn, 2D animated film that Disney might ever produce (sigh), Winnie the Pooh is a slight little number that rolls credits well before the one-hour mark.

That humble nature might be why it can’t rank much higher on this list, but it’s also the quality that most recommends the film. As gentle as a walk through the woods on a warm spring day, Winnie the Pooh makes great use of the iconic ensemble from A.A. Milne’s books, with Bud Luckey’s ever-mournful Eeyore and Craig Ferguson’s destructively-helpful Owl being special highlights.

Noteworthy for being not only the final hand drawn Disney film, but the very first to feature songs by the team of Anderson-Lopez and Lopez, a creative partnership that has enriched not only the animated features but also now projects from Pixar and Marvel as well. One era ends, another begins, and the house of mouse keeps rolling.

17) Mulan (1998)

Director: Barry Cook; Tony Bancroft

With songs by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel

Mulan suffers from many of the problems that doomed the Disney Renaissance, namely an imbalance of tone that whipsaws from rapid-fire pop-culture saturated silliness to down-the-middle earnest storytelling in a way that diminishes both. The comic relief sidekick characters have their own comic relief sidekicks, and Mulan struggles mightily to lace these pieces into its otherwise somber nature.

Even if this effort demonstrated that the formula was weakening, it’s still a strong formula. Mulan’s grand musical numbers and sweeping epic scope make up for a lot, and Mulan herself set a new template of warrior/princess that Disney would continue to refine and improve upon as culture began to demand more from female leads than damsels in distress.

16) Bolt (2008)

Director: Chris Williams; Byron Howard

The first fully successful film from Disney animation after a half-decade of failures and outright disgraces, Bolt doesn’t really ‘feel’ like a film from Disney animation.

With its “mismatched buddies on a road trip” storyline, its rigidly structured system of set-ups/payoffs, the designs of its human characters and world, and its “let’s just do the Buzz Lightyear story from Toy Story again except this time he’s a dog”-thing, Bolt is a Pixar film in every way except without the bouncy lamp right at the start.

And while Bolt would be middle-of-the-road fare during Pixar’s own golden run, it looks like a diamond-studded classic coming in the wake of radioactive dung heaps like Chicken Little. A sharp, spirited adventure with well-paced action and coherent emotional stakes feels downright revolutionary after some of that dreck.

Also the dog is just so cute. I mean look at that thing. What a pupper.

15) The Princess and the Frog (2009)

Director: Ron Clements; John Musker

With songs by Randy Newman

The Princess and the Frog was greeted with something of a shrug when it first hit in 2009. That was the year where Pixar unleashed Up, perhaps its most striking piece of emotional terrorism, and the more eclectic audiences went towards fare like Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox or Miyazaki’s Ponyo.

Traditional to a fault, The Princess and the Frog was easy to dismiss as a last gasp of a tired format.

But time has been kind to Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) and her team. As a final blowout extravaganza before Disney shut down hand drawn (sigh), Frog’s animation is explosively colorful and expressive. The film also features maybe the final great Disney villain (and great Disney villain song) with Keith David’s voodoo slinging Dr. Facilier and his booming “Friends on the Other Side”. If the music and adventure itself feel a bit too close to Disney’s glories past for comfort, the swamp scenery and voodoo inflected spirit changes things up enough to give Frog its own vibrant identity.

As always whenever Disney tries to dip its toes into greater representation, Frog achieves two steps forward and one step back. Yes, its lead characters are black, but they spend 80% of the film as green frogs. Yes, it tries to address historical racism, but in a hackneyed, sandblasted, simplistic manner. Despite these ongoing problems, Princess and the Frog is a lively last hoorah for a form of animation on its last legs, and Tiana herself continues to prove a vital character for Disney’s changing landscape.

14) The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

Director: Gary Trousdale; Kirk Wise

With songs by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz

The maddening almost-masterpiece of the Disney canon. A film that is so close to being in the pantheon of all-time great American animation but that cannot stop getting out of its own way to live up to its best qualities.

Alan Menken’s booming score is imbued with both the wrath and majesty of the divine (not for nothing is “Hellfire” the best Disney villain song). The operatic visuals combine 3D backgrounds with 2D characters for stunning camera movements that take the breakthrough of the ballroom scene in Beauty and the Beast and run with it. And even with Victor Hugo’s “fuck you, everyone dies” ending softened by roughly 5000%, Hunchback’s tale of religious mania and racial persecution still packs a powerful punch.

But there’s the gargoyles. And there’s the Goofy noises during action scenes. And there’s the gargoyles doing a whole stupid song. And there’s the goat hitting people in the nuts and they scream really loud. And there’s the gargoyles doing a Wizard of Oz joke. And there’s all the dumb slapstick. And there’s the FUCKING gargoyles.

And yet, even as we mourn the transcendent film that could not be, we can still appreciate the ecstatic moments of both horror and beauty throughout the film. Perhaps Hunchback should be consigned to the ‘ambitious failures’ category like other later-Renaissance films, but the successes it notches en route to that failure are too impressive to dismiss.

13) Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)

Director: Rich Moore; Phil Johnston

A deeply affecting movie about how the gig economy drives apart friendships and how the Internet exacerbates the worst tendencies of insecure men with disastrous results, Ralph Breaks the Internet is pretty damn ambitious for a sequel that could have gotten away with “I don’t know, they play Dance Dance Revolutions this time (is that still a thing? I’m fucking old, kids)” jokes.

Ralph Breaks the Internet gets lost at times in Disney crossover material (the infamous “Princesses Backstage” scene is a lot of fun and also twice as long as it needed to be and also having the princesses show up to save the day at the end makes my skin itch) but when it keeps its focus squarely on the characters of Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Venelope (Sarah Silverman) and the ways in which their friendship is both broken and strengthened by the onslaught of information and opportunity that the Internet represents, it enrichens what worked so well in the first movie and crafts a surprisingly lacerating look at how our lives are shaped by our WiFi connections.

12) Tarzan (1999)

Director: Kevin Lima; Chris Buck

With songs by Phil Collins

Disney has tried on a few different occasions to have the same kind of success with two-fisted pulp adventure as they do with princesses and fairy tales. I guess they think that boys’ dollars count for twice as much as girls’ money or something? Anyway, almost every time they’ve tried this it has ended in crushing failure (Atlantis, Treasure Planet, and on the live action side you got John Carter, Lone Ranger, the list goes on).

One of their only successes in this area is Tarzan, an unapologetic action movie with wild chases, brutal brawls, and a soundtrack featuring Phil Collins whaling on drums like his life depended on it (not a criticism).

The combination of 3D layouts with 2D characters results in mesmerizing sequences of Tarzan rocketing through the jungle and lends a dynamic, propulsive edge to the various action beats.

Tarzan does suffer a bit from the tonal whipsawing that marks so many Renaissance movies, but it’s less pronounced than in the likes of Mulan because Tarzan is such a silly character in the first place that even in the midst of a straight-faced adaptation it doesn’t hurt to tip a wink to the camera.

The less said about Rosie O’Donnell’s wisecracking gorilla sidekick and her doo-wop number, the better.

11) Zootopia (2016)

Director: Byron Howard; Rich Moore

Funny forgives a lot, and Zootopia is joke-for-joke one of the funniest movies Disney has ever put out (the absolute funniest is in the Top 10). A city populated with all manner of anthropomorphic animals provides endless fodder for puns and gags of the highest and lowest sort, stacking almost every moment of the film with killer laughs even before you get to throwaway jokes like the little baby fox-thing that speaks with the gravel-churning gravitas of Tiny Lister (RIP). Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) are two of the best leads of any Disney film, with off-the-charts chemistry between both characters and actors.

My only real hesitation with Zootopia remains the decision to make Zootopia a movie about racism. Which…look, it’s clear that everyone’s heart was in the right place and Zootopia at the very least makes a sincere effort to engage with the kind of coding and stereotyping that has always existed in animation (including sooooo much of Disney animation) and try to tell a thoughtful, weighty story about the subject.

But if the corporate self-homage in Ralph Breaks the Internet made me itch, the race stuff in Zootopia makes me break out in hives. It’s such loaded material, and there are places where the film faceplants hard into the same regrettable uses of stereotype and shorthand that it’s trying to decry. I wouldn’t mind a return trip to this world someday, but maybe next time the bunny and the fox can like try to stop a jewel heist or something?

And that’s all for today! Come back tomorrow for the Top 10!

Part 3 now available!

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