The Definitive, Perfect Ranking of Modern Disney Animation Features (Part 1)

When the terrific movie podcast Blank Check with Griffin and David announced that they were doing a miniseries on the films of Ron Clements and John Musker, leading voices in the ‘Disney Renaissance’ that sprang up in the late ’80s, I was excited to spend some time revisiting a number of movies that I hadn’t seen since childhood.

And then I thought, why stop at just the Clements and Musker joints? Why not do the entire run of modern, theatrically-produced (so stuff like Return to Neverland doesn’t count), Disney animated features, starting with the studio’s return from the creative dead and carrying through to the death of the so-called Disney Renaissance in the late ’90s through to the modern resurgence when the company has once again become a consistent deliverer of quality animated feature films.

So I did. I watched all of ’em, starting with Great Mouse Detective and ending with last year’s Frozen II. And then I decided to report my findings by ranking them all and writing a bunch about each of them, spread out over a couple days. So I did. And now it’s done. And you’re reading it. And that’s…that’s all the preamble I’m going to do.

Let’s start this thing!

Addition to preamble: The following ranking is inarguable. To so much as quibble with a single placement or line of justification is to expose oneself as a knave of the highest order. A charlatan! Dare one even say it, a heretic! These rankings are the byproduct of strident scientific measurement and mathematical calculations. There were numbers involved, even. What numbers, you ask? Look, don’t worry about it, OK? The numbers were great, the best numbers, really. I’d let you see the numbers, but my girlfriend took them with her to Canada after summer break. So there.

More preamble: Raya and the Last Dragon is not included in this ranking, as I believe the film needs time to be digested by the culture and by this viewer before final placement can be determined. But I would note that after one viewing, I feel confident saying it will eventually rank very, very high.

Still more preamble though this is it I swear: I didn’t include Dinosaur or Fantasia 2000 in this because I didn’t watch them because I didn’t want to. The numbers told me it was OK to skip. I would show you the numbers but my dog ate them.

31) Chicken Little (2005)

Director: Mark Dindal

For the studio’s first ever all-CGI feature, then-chief Michael Eisner wanted to prove that Disney could produce computer animated hits just like Pixar and pop culture savvy comedies just like Dreamworks. In trying to be everything, Chicken Little ends up being nothing. The designs and animation are hideous, the story is gibberish, and the attempts at emotionality fall flat because every character is either repulsive or annoying or both.

Only the always silent, endlessly chipper character of Fish-Out-of-Water comes even close to hitting the mark that the film is aiming for. Despite game performances from Zach Braff, Joan Cusack, and the rest of the ensemble, Chicken Little is mostly a slog, one that that feels twice as long as its short runtime.

30) Home on the Range (2004)

Director: Will Finn; John Sanford

With songs by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater

Everything said about Chicken Little applies here as well. The story is flat, the winking pop culture references and ‘adult’ humor are excruciating, and both Roseanne Barr and Cuba Gooding Jr. deliver frantic, braying performances that only serve to make their obnoxious characters even more obnoxious. Roseanne’s character is introduced assuring the audience that her massive udders are real (get it, like boobs) while Gooding Jr. screams every line he thinks is supposed to be funny and also all the other lines too. Range seems to be trying to capture the manic comic energy of Emperor’s New Groove, but when you go for that sort of non-stop joke pace and almost every single joke is a dud, all you’re left with is a punishing experience.

The only reason this isn’t dead last is because the candy-colored 2D animation is lush and lovely to look at, and Alan Menken’s score and songs are largely above reproach, give or take a yodel number.

29) Meet the Robinsons (2007)

Director: Stephen Anderson

A perfectly charming little sci-fi number mortally hobbled by its own animation. I’m sure there are people of my generation, or of later ones, who can look at the CG-animation of the mid-Aughts purveyed by the non-Pixars with affection, but I am not one of those. Whatever charms Robinsons could/should have possessed are lost given how stilted and ugly everything looks.

This is another Disney film that mistakes LOUD NOISES for actual humor, making the central family more off-putting and aggravating than they are inviting. The very sweet and sincere handling of material relating to adoption and found family is lovely, but you can’t help but wish the movie around that thematic material provided stronger support.

28) Pocahontas (1995)

Director: Mike Gabriel; Eric Goldberg

With songs by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz

This might be the very first movie I ever saw in movie theaters! Admittedly, it depends on which unreliable narrator you want to believe. The movie itself? A mistake. The animation is otherworldly, particularly in the use of watercolors during the ‘Colors of the Wind’ number, but Disney was in no way prepared to properly handle this subject matter. With modern eyes, we can acknowledge that depicting Pocahontas’s relationship with John Smith as a consensual romantic one between two adults is…let’s say a bad idea and leave it at that. But even tabling that matter for a larger discussion and treating Pocahontas as pure fiction, the film would still be a beautiful, dull failure with thoroughly bland characters, a non-starter of a story, and mismanaged tone (a recurring problem for the Renaissance-era films) that keeps throwing wacky animal shenanigans at the screen even as the rest of the film demands to be taken seriously.

But when you factor in the film’s attempts at meaningful representation, the failure is all the more noble and all the more crushing. The film earnestly tries to portray the bloodshed resulting from the incursion of European settlers onto the lands of indigenous people as a regrettable misunderstanding fueled by individual bad actors, with an overarching attitude of ‘Well, really weren’t both sides to blame?’

Even if we can recognize that Disney has come a long way from the repulsive likes of ‘What Makes the Redman Red?’, that’s still no excuse for just how wildly off the mark this one proves to be.

27) Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

Director: Gary Trousdale; Kirk Wise

The tone? Crackling two-fisted pulp adventure.

The look? Heavily influenced by the iconic style of Hellboy mastermind Mike Mignola.

The story? A heady mix of steampunk and sci-fi fantasy that recalls the classics of Hayao Miyazaki and other anime classics (to a potentially actionable extent).

What could go wrong?

Atlantis sprints through spectacle and story without doing any of the diligence to make either the spectacle or the story really resonate. The ensemble of various ethnic stereotypes fail to register as memorable supporting characters, and at a certain point the degree to which the film blows through plot feels less like breathless action storytelling and more like the studio is trying to cram in as many opportunities for toys as it can. There are beauties and wonders in Atlantis, but the final film is a failed experiment in expanding the scope of what a Disney film could be.

26) Oliver and Company (1988)

Director: George Scriber

With songs by various artists

Oliver and Company is noteworthy for its celebrity stunt casting at a time when that wasn’t really a thing in animation yet (both Billy Joel and Bette Midler acquit themselves nicely with their respective performances and musical numbers) and for the grimy, seedy look of the film which feels closer to the flavor of animation that Don Bluth concocted in direct competition to Disney at a time when the studio was flailing. The premiere of The Little Mermaid after this film put an end to Disney chasing after any other studio’s coattails.

As a snapshot of a studio in the midst of an identity crisis, a road not taken, Oliver and Company is an interesting little object. As a film, it goes down easy but is largely unmemorable save for those seedy atmospherics and scattered moments of shock (the villains in this film, human and animal, die hard).

Oliver and Company also marks the first time Howard Ashman contributed to a Disney film, so attention must be paid. Momentous things are brewing here, even if the recipe isn’t quite right just yet.

25) Brother Bear (2003)

Director: Aaron Blaise; Robert Walker

With songs by Phil Collins

Perfectly pleasant, perfectly forgettable. A mishmash of proven story elements that still work at this late date but no longer sing quite as well as they once did. Speaking of singing: Even Phil Collins’s contributions to the film feel borderline anonymous.

That said, the animation is as casually stunning as you could ever want, an asset that has only become more pronounced now that this format is essentially dead in American feature animation (fucking sigh).

24) Hercules (1997)

Director: Ron Clements; John Musker

With songs by Alan Menken and David Zippel

Another unfortunate example of the studio trying to force a film into being everything and ending up with a movie that is…not ‘nothing’, not this time, but considerably less than the sum of its parts.

Parts like the terrific, angular art-style unlike any other film in the canon, or great characters and performances like Susan Egan as the world-weary Meg and James Woods as a wheeling/dealing Hades (Woods is a gross turd of a human, but the man knows his fast-talking wise-guy schtick). And the gospel-inflected musical numbers featuring a chorus of muses are strong enough to bump this up a few slots.

Yet these elements are dressings that can’t make up for a bland hero and a script that tries to slam together story tropes that don’t combine well.

It is established fact that Clements and Musker only did this film as a means to finally get Disney to approve of their dream project, Treasure Planet. That lack of passion is evident, even if the two men are too consummate of professionals not to turn out handsome product. There are moments where Hercules really soars, but in the end, the mortal weaknesses really add up.

23) The Rescuers Down Under (1990)

Director: Hendel Butoy; Mike Gabriel

For decades the only theatrically-produced Disney sequel (the likes of Return to Neverland or Jungle Book 2 were produced as straight-to-video films but ended up getting theatrical releases), The Rescuers Down Under can’t help but feel slight in comparison to the grand projects immediately before and immediately after it. That being said, the hidden world of child-rescuing mice remains a delightful place to visit, and Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor (in her final film) are a wonderful match once again as the nervous but stalwart Bernard and the fabulous Ms. Bianca, respectively. And the Australian outback proves to be a terrific playground for the duo to bounce around before confronting George C. Scott’s villainous McLeach.

Rescuers Down Under skips ahead a few slots solely on the strength of its opening flying sequence, a set-piece that, had it appeared in any other film besides The Rescuers Down Under, would be rightly hailed as one of the most stunning moments in Disney animation to that point. The majesty of Marahute’s flight remains undiminished even thirty years later.

22) Treasure Planet (2002)

Director: Ron Clements; John Musker

With (a couple) songs by John Rzeznik

There are choices made at the very foundation of Treasure Planet that almost sink the entire film.

Number one with a bullet: “Let’s do a faithful adaptation of Treasure Island, but in space” is just…kind of silly. Remixing classic adventures into science fiction is a tried and true trope (hell, the first cyberpunk novel, The Stars My Destination, is a blatant riff on Count of Monte Cristo) but the sci-fi element adds so little to either the story or aesthetics that you wonder why they didn’t just do a straight-riff on Treasure Island. Especially given that 90% of the alien species depicted in the film are just the usual anthropomorphic ‘animal people’ that Disney has used so-often in the past, the space-faring trappings feel half-baked and unnecessary.

But even more grievous is the decision to age Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) up from a wide-eyed boy on an adventure and into a sullen teenager with a bad attitude, a shitty haircut, and a Goo Goo Dolls song for an anthem (the song is a ripper, but that’s not the point right now). Because Jim seems bored and disinterested in his own adventure, the feeling quickly becomes mutual.

And yet, Clements and Musker’s command of an adventure movie is so strong that Treasure Planet ends up engrossing even with allthese elements stacked against it. And upping the sympathetic nature of Long John Silver (Brian Murray) and playing into the father/son dynamic between him and Jim provides the film an emotional heft that other Disney films of this era can’t quite manage. If Hercules was a movie with a shoddy center but strong supporting elements, Treasure Planet is a movie with a rock-solid spine but faltering supporting features.

Bonus points for being stunning to look at.

21) The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

Director: Ron Clements; John Musker; Dave Michener; Burny Mattinson

With (a couple) songs by Ellen Fitzhugh, Larry Grossman, Henry Mancini, and one by Melissa Manchester

For such a modest little effort, The Great Mouse Detective might be the most pivotal movie on this entire list. It is 1) the first movie credited to Musker and Clements as (co)directors.

2) The first Disney movie to extensively utilize CGI.

And third and most importantly, Great Mouse Detective was produced at a time when Michael Eisner was eyeing the animation studio as an expensive liability he could cut. The film performed (just) well enough that Eisner kept the lights on, and the next wave of features came along and changed the animation game forever.

Setting aside the weight of all that pop culture history how does Detective hold up as a film? Pretty good! Quite charming! A visibly low-budget affair, Detective nonetheless has an energetic pep in its step missing from prior Disney snoozers like Fox and the Hound or Black Cauldron (a movie that is profoundly boring in between the sporadic outbursts of gruesome imagery). Vincent Price’s Professor Ratigan set a new gold standard for colorful villainy, and the film’s Castle of Cagliostro-inspired, CG-assisted climax inside Big Ben remains a terrific showstopper.

How does the saying go? “Big things have small beginnings”? Well, once again, decades of Disney’s (and culture’s) fortunes all started with a mouse.

And that’s all for today! Join us tomorrow for spirits, robots, and hellfire!

Part 2 now available!

And Part 3 is available!

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