Now, on to the top 10!
10) Tangled (2010)
Director: Nathan Greno; Byron Howard
With songs by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater
Maybe the single prettiest movie on this entire list, Tangled is an eye-popping wonder of luminous imagery suffused with shimmering lights and glorious golds and greens. Every frame of the thing is just a mind-melting feat of design and execution, and thankfully the zippy rendition of the Rapunzel story works wonderfully in conjunction with this style.
Voiced by Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi, Rapunzel and Flynn Rider (real name: Eugene Fitzherbert) are maybe the most appealing combo of princess/love interest of any Disney princess film, with a genuinely endearing relationship that works wonders to make the classic fairy tale/musical format feel fresh.
And if you think this is ranked too high, I got one word for you: Maximus. That horse freaking rules.
9) The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
Director: Mark Dindal
As I said in the Zootopia entry, funny forgives a lot.
And in the case of The Emperor’s New Groove, when you’re this funny, you’re forgiven anything. Originally planned as an opulent fantasy epic set in South America, titled Empire of the Sun, from Lion King co-director Roger Allers, Disney executives junked the entire film (and a soundtrack of songs composed by Sting, the process of which was captured in the documentary The Sweatbox) and left it to Mark Dindal to reimagine the story from the ground up as a go-for-broke comedy.
The results are absolutely hysterical, with a feel closer to the pure chaos of classic Looney Tunes than to anything else in the Disney line-up. Every single actor has the exact right comic energy, from Eartha Kitt as the ‘so evil it’s funny’ Yzma to Patrick Warburton as soft-hearted hard-headed himbo Kronk, all the way to sentient snark streak David Spade as our protagonist.
Because it wasn’t stuck trying to live up to the grandeur of its forebearers, Groove is allowed to follow its own…uh…groove and be as manic and iconoclastic as needs be. By the time you get to the third act, in which the characters are actively breaking the fourth wall to point out all the ways in which the film no longer makes any sense, Groove has achieved gonzo liftoff and there’s no coming back down.
8) The Lion King (1994)
Director: Roger Allers; Rob Minkoff
With songs by Tim Rice and Elton John
Maybe my hottest take of this entire list is that The Lion King is somewhat overrated in the appraisal of the Disney Renaissance films. It has scenes and moments that are terrific, but they’re incorporated into a story that simply does not put in the work it should be doing. Instead, the filmmakers seem to trust that the songs and visuals are strong enough that audiences won’t care as they simply skip past the parts of the movie they don’t feel like making, or notice that the plot is so flimsy that a single line of dialogue would bring the whole thing crashing down.
And, fair play, they clearly bet right! The songs and the big operatic flourishes of emotion (like Mufasa’s (you know who voices Mufasa) death, or his visit to Simba (Matthew Broderick) from the clouds) proved to be more than enough to keep audiences on the hook throughout.
And the truth is, even with the problems that I have with it, The Lion King does achieve a kind of mythical grandeur that overwhelms the logic portion of the brain. Even if it doesn’t hang together completely as a film, in those sequences where music and image swirl together into a chorus of life and death, exuberance and sorrow, fate and nature, in those moments there is simply no arguing with The Lion King.
7) Frozen (2013)
The animation is janky. The score is wildly imbalanced (there are seven songs in the first 40 minutes and a grand total of two [and really more like one and a half] in the last 50). The story is a mishmash of people going up a hill and then down a hill. We’ve all had enough of the fucking snowman by now.
And yet, Frozen has been field tested by the fires of a young audience’s insatiable appetite. And after seeing the movie, let’s be conservative and say 700,000 times, because when a bunch of adults and a three-year-old are trying to pick a movie to watch, the three-year-old is winning every time, there is something in Frozen that still just fundamentally works. After all that time, the songs still get the toes tapping. The jokes still land. And the grand emotional climax which reveals this to be a true love story about the bonds of sisterhood rather than romantic love still gets the cold dead embers of the heart lit up once more.
Why does Frozen work so well? Why did it hit so much harder than other princess-related fare? Maybe it’s as simple as the fact that Elsa is as much a X-Man as she is a princess, and that combo of the superheroic with the fairy tale-ic (go with it) arrived at the exact moment when culture would be most receptive to it. Maybe it’s as simple as “Let It Go” being just that goddamn catchy.
Whatever the reason, Frozen has proven to be the kind of film that can survive being watched over and over and over again, so you have to give it credit where credit is due.
6) Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
Director: Rich Moore
Sold as video game culture’s answer to Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Wreck-It Ralph instead quickly leapfrogs from just being a fun riff on 8-bit arcade games (although that material is bountiful, and absolutely hilarious). “Bad guy tries to be seen as a good guy” is a fun enough starting place, but Wreck-It Ralph uses this high concept as a means to interrogate questions of self-image and self-worth, without sacrificing its joke-a-second pacing.
All of this introspective malarkey is baked into a gleeful literally-candy-colored romp featuring John C. Reilly at his most endearingly hangdog, Sarah Silverman at her most spritely acerbic, and Alan Tudyk giving maybe the most bizarre of his many performances for modern Disney Animation. Ralph is so successful as a rambunctious comedy that you almost don’t realize how effectively it has captured your heart until it breaks it, then puts it back together just as quickly.
5) Aladdin (1992)
Director: John Musker; Ron Clements
With songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, and by Menken and Tim Rice
Aladdin begat a lot of terrible trends for not only Disney but for animation in general. The siren song of Robin Williams’s performance as the Genie has lured many a film towards some sharp goddamn rocks, a trend that was only exacerbated by Shrek, which didn’t so much as copy Aladdin’s playbook as it did bury Aladdin alive and make off with the playbook like that one part of The Prestige where Hugh Jackman does exactly what I just described.
Anyway. Inferior imitations aside, the original Aladdin remains a crackling comedy-adventure that blends a bunch of wildly disparate elements together in a way that is both baffling and somehow seamless. For as iconic as Williams’s work as the Genie is (and I’ll go on record here and declare it the single best fusion of performer and animated performance that I’ve ever seen) the movie is very careful with how and when to use him. The Genie doesn’t appear until almost 40 minutes into the film, just about midway through, and even after Williams has bundled up the movie and sauntered away with it, Clements and Musker are still deliberate with when they rein Williams in, and when they set his manic energy loose.
But the sneaky genius of Aladdin is that even without Williams’s masterful performance, it would still be a rip-roaring classical adventure story with dashing heroes, nefarious villains, and a whole buncha terrific songs, including Howard Ashman’s final contributions to Disney. Aladdin is in many ways the platonic ideal of all-ages entertainment, combining opposing energies so delicately that no one’s ever fully cracked how to replicate it, not even the same creative team.
4) The Little Mermaid (1989)
Director: John Musker; Ron Clements
With songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken
The movie that allowed the existence of almost every other movie on this list. Arguably one of the most seismically important films in all of modern popular culture, as it was the euphoric reception to this film that led to the Disney Renaissance and the Disney Renaissance is the asteroid hitting the earth that set off so many of the ripple effects in entertainment evolution that we are still experiencing. You might argue (I might argue, I suppose) that the only Disney movie more important to the company than this one is the one with the little dudes and the pasty girl who eats apples from strangers, though the title of that one escapes me at the moment.
And the really wild part is that for having been endlessly duplicated, parodied, analyzed and broken down into its every component parts, for all of that, The Little Mermaid still works as a movie. Mega-genius Howard Ashman’s determination to approach a classic fairy tale as a bombastic Broadway musical and to tie the titular petite aquatic creature’s longing for the surface world into an elemental form of teenage yearning for something, anything, beyond the world we have always known continues to work just as powerfully as they did when the film first arrived.
Has all of it aged especially gracefully? Nope. But even if we can acknowledge that in places the movie has been surpassed by later efforts, The Little Mermaid remains a luminous and enchanting film, beyond whatever bolstering nostalgia might provide.
3) Moana (2016)
Director: John Musker; Ron Clements
With songs by Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina, and Lin-Manuel Miranda
Moana is the ultimate fusion of the classical and the contemporary. It’s a throwback “princess adventure” story like so many films from Disney’s history, complete with cute animal sidekicks, but with lush computer animation and a zippy modern pace, blended with an entirely new setting and mythology that allows Moana to feel of a piece with what has come before while forging an entirely new voice of its own.
In many ways, this final film from Clements and Musker is the one they built to throughout their whole careers. It’s the earnest fairy tale of Little Mermaid combined with the crackling comedic-adventure yarn of Aladdin, and with its seafaring quest and demigods grappling with what it means to be a ‘hero’, you can see the directors repurposing the aesthetic/thematic materials from misfires like Hercules and Treasure Planet but this time achieving wild success.
The songs by Hamilton mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda and his collaborators are wall-to-wall triumphs without a single weak link. “How Far I’ll Go” is a perfect ‘I Want’ song, while “You’re Welcome” is an earworm for the ages. And it’s more or less impossible to get through “We Know the Way” without joining in and belting out the soaring lyrics alongside the movie. And Moana is a musical throughout, accomplishing what so few Disney films have done and incorporating songs into the third act and achieving an ecstatic emotionality that is as affective on the hundredth viewing as it is on the first.
2) Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Director: Gary Trousdale; Kirk Wise
With songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken
A perfect object. You can quibble over plot details, you can make your snarky comments about Stockholm Syndrome or whatever you like. Nevertheless, Beauty and the Beast is the perfect Disney fairy tale, elevated to an entirely new plane of quality by being the final masterwork of once-in-a-generation genius Howard Ashman before he was stolen from us by the AIDS pandemic. Those lilting opening notes of Alan Menken’s score embody the very sound of magic and mystery, while Ashman’s lyrics accomplish so much in terms of story, comedy, and emotion as the film races from show-stopping number to show-stopping number.
Beauty and the Beast’s quality is all the more remarkable given its difficult creative birth. By all accounts a film that was simply not working at all, the decision to bring in Menken and Ashman after the success of The Little Mermaid was a Hail Mary play to try and achieve something at least salvage from a mess.
By the strange alchemy that is all art, but especially cinema, these diffuse talents working together on this story achieved something that is, simply, undeniable. The tale as old as time becomes new again because the telling is just that persuasive. Returning to Beauty and the Beast is like settling down with a favorite book, where it doesn’t matter if you have every line of the thing memorized already, the pleasure is in feeling those words and images wrap around you and remind you of who are.
Magic. That’s the only word for it.
1) Lilo & Stich (2002)
Director: Chris Sanders; Dean DeBlois
With a whole buncha songs by Elvis and a couple from Alan Silvestri and Mark Kealiʻi Hoʻomalu and the Kamehameha Schools Children’s Chorus
You know where I said in the Beauty and the Beast entry about movies being alchemy? It was one entry ago, so I’m gonna judge the hell out of you if you’ve forgotten. Unless you got a nail in your head like in Happy Gilmore and that’s messing with your memory. If that is what happened to you then I’m sorry and I forgive you for not remembering what I said one entry ago. But if for literally any other reason you’ve forgotten, then I’m judging the hell out of you.
Anyway, movies are alchemy but so to are our reactions to them. Why is Lilo and Stitch the best of all Disney feature animated films? Look, the truth is that I could spend any number of words elucidating the various aspects of its quality. Like the soothing curvature of its world and art style, or the vibrancy of its animation that blends madcap space action with bright Hawaiian ocean life. Or I could go on about how Lilo (Daveigh Chase), with her belly and her sadness and her anger and her love of the strange is a singular character in not only Disney animation but children’s entertainment in general, tapping into the not only the magic of childhood (which Hollywood loves) but also the loneliness and frustration of that age (which Hollywood doesn’t like to touch). Or I could wax rhapsodic about the shaggy, plot-lite shape of its story that moseys from incident to incident in a way that closer recalls the naturalistic progression of films from Studio Ghibli than it does the rigid formality of most other Disney films in the surrounding eras. And I could talk a blue streak about the naughty, mischievous energy running through the entire film, an energy that was so palpable that it was the basis of the film’s marketing campaign, in which Stitch repeatedly crashed into previous Disney classics to the consternation of the more austere characters therein.
All of the above are true things, and I could waste a few thousand words on each and every one of them and still feel like I was only scratching the surface of why Lilo and Stich is just so special to me. It’s the movie I needed when I was 11 years old, and it’s a movie that moves me intensely at age 30. It’s far-flung cartoon cast of aliens and misfits are the most human of any Disney creations, and by rejecting or ignoring every trope and trick that Disney had popularized and formatted, it better honors the spirit of imagination and the dream of love that the company was founded on.
Ohana means family, and I will ever forget.