Top 10: Disney Animated Films (10-6)

If you grew up in Britain in the 1990s, you can be forgiven if Disney forms a large part of your childhood. The Disney renaissance, recapturing the glory that had fallen away in the 70s and 80s, began in 1989, which also happens to be the year I was born. Everyone has ther favourites (whether they’ll admit it or not), and regardless of a changing perspective – adulthood and hindsight will raise the issues you missed as a kid – they remain stapled to your heart forever. An entire generation can measure their lives by Disney, and many an argument has begun with the question what’s the best Disney film? With their official 50th animated release Tangled, which came out in 2010, perhaps now is the best time to answer that.

#10—ROBIN HOOD (1973)
It’s rooster minstrel Alan-a-Dale who hooks you in to 1973′s Robin Hood with his laconic, jail-based narration. Disney are no strangers to anthropomorphised animals, and Robin Hood is a delightful mixture of creatures that aren’t even found on the same continent. The 1970s marked the beginning of a downward spiral for Disney after its initial success in the decades before, but Robin Hood‘s amusing take on the legend is one of the highlights from a beleaguered decade of Disney filmmaking. Perhaps its the familiar voice of Phil Davis – variously reincarnated throughout the Disney franchise as Thomas O’Malley (The Aristocats), Baloo (The Jungle Book), and here as Little John – and the sheer likability of Robin & co that makes up for the slightly sub-par songs and rough animation. With times tight at Disney the animators were reusing rotoscoping from earlier films so that entire sequences bore striking similarities to ones that had come before (most notably during the song “Phoney King of England”, which features animation identical to  Snow WhiteThe Jungle Book, and The Aristocats). Despite the smaller budget, Disney produced a well-loved film that delivered an Oscar-nominated song and a chance for Disney to continue on – and it gave us an ‘interesting’ take on English folklore.

Another approximation of English legend featuring an incongruous American accent, like Robin Hood the The Sword in the Stone features a rougher style of animation than earlier (and later) classics – but here the style is far more purposeful and gives the film a handsome fluidity. The opening sequence is dream-like, moving from illuminated manuscript to crafted stills with minimal animation, setting up the legend of the sword. It’s grandiose and beautiful, but the real fun begins when Wart (the future King Arthur) has been plucked from obscurity by Merlin and his talking owl Archimedes, and various hijinks ensue (Merlin and Wart are transformed into fish, squirrels and birds). But along with the magic and legend, the film is funny. Disney have a gift for humour, of course, but The Sword In The Stone is one of the few laughs-a-minute in the oeuvre. Though balanced with darker sections (the terrifying Madam Mim, Wart’s underwater encounter with a pike), the comic relief provided by their misadventures and by Archimedes give you real belly-laugh moments (particular praise goes to the sugar pot and to Merlin’s beard). One of the most successful films of 1963, it’s a highlight of the older Disney classics.

#8—MULAN (1998)
Based on the ancient Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, this 1998 film forms part of the journey of the Disney Princess from Snow White to Rapunzel, as Fa Mulan disguises herself as a boy and takes her ageing father’s place in the army. It’s not perfect—negative critical response called its depiction of Chinese culture “soulless”, and some feminist readings lamented that Disney had to disguise its heroine as a boy in order for her to really do anything—but Mulan is undeniably a step forward. It’s Mulan’s own sense of right, wrong, honour and bravery that propels her forward, the qualities that really captured the imagination of a generation of viewers, and combined with an enjoyable score (though unexceptional save for I’ll Make A Man Out of You) and delightful animation, Mulan is a solid and high-quality effort from Disney.

#7—POCAHONTAS (1995)
An adaptation lifted from the history books (though not necessarily in the most accurate way), Pocahontas focuses on the eponymous heroine, one of the most recognisable in Disney’s history. The film skirts around the issues of British colonisation, assembling them into villain Governor Ratcliffe without enough power to educate younger viewers, and though it cast Native American parts with Native American actors (an unfortunately rare move) it garnered criticism for omitting most of the negative treatment of the real tribe. But the film remains high on Disney’s list of critical successes and at the very least provided a generation with a thread they could follow to the real history. The soundtrack won Alan Menken another Oscar for Best Original Song (after The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin) for Colors of the Wind, which also provides one of the film’s best sequences. The look throughout is just this side of stylised, incorporating vivid colours and brimming with motion, and it follows the step away from more traditional animation that had begun with Aladdin. Pocahontas follows in the footsteps of the renaissance princesses by disobeying the path set down for her, and goes one step further than her predecessors by eschewing marriage altogether. She’s a serious, brave and intelligent heroine for whom marriage means the end, not the beginning, and she’s never better than when she’s following her own course in Just Around The Riverbend.

If you take personal taste out of it, Beauty and the Beast must be considered one of – if not the – best animated Disney film of all time. The first animation ever to be nominated for an Academy Award For Best Picture, it won Oscars for Best Original Song and Original Score, as well as Golden Globes, BAFTAs, and Grammys, and has earned in excess of £260m. But there’s a reason behind all of that success – Beauty and the Beast represents a combination of some of the best writing, composing, and animation in Disney’s history. Putting personal taste back in, the characters are a delight, from heroine Belle down to tiny teacup Chip. As a lead Belle signalled the beginning of something new for Disney – her introductory song focuses on her love of books and the townspeople’s bewildered attitude to it, and her strength of will is a theme that runs throughout. Belle isn’t content with the fate that satisfied her predecessors, and her story is one of the first not to end in marriage simply because it should. We are treated throughout to a growing love story, with moral dilemmas and danger aplenty. Supporting characters in the form of anthropomorphised objects give comic relief to the film’s darker tones, and villain Gaston is all the more terrifying for being nothing more than a cruel man. The score moves from strength to strength throughout, with title song Beauty and the Beast picking up the Oscar. The film also won praise for its use of computer-generated imagery during the Beast and Belle’s waltz, a sequence which convinced the studio to invest further in computer animation. But it’s the traditional animation that is most beautiful, providing sequences that stick to the memory like glue.

To be continued in Top 10: Disney Animated Films (5-1)