My top 5 Disney Films
There is a memory engrained in my mind, it was winter and my bedroom was dark, it felt really late but it was probably not much after four in the afternoon.
I was about five or six and sick with the cold, tucked in bed drinking lots of fluids in order to get better, when an idea struck me.
I crawled out of bed and crossed by bedroom, opening the door to the large cupboard that used to hold a large set of shelves dedicated to housing boxes of my toys.
I rummaged around for a few minutes before finding what I was searching for and dragging them out. The items in question were three or so briefcase shaped boxes, each with a carry handle and a catch on the front. Opening the catch caused the top of the box to swing open releasing their treasure.
Each one held a number of VHS tapes, my Disney videos.
And I was going to watch every one of them.
I still remember that night, I didn’t get through them all but I did manage a fair few, sitting snugly in bed, roasting softly in my pyjamas and housecoat, wiping my runny nose on my sleeve and humming along to my favourite films.
I’m telling you this story because chances are you have one similar too it, some golden memory of childhood scored by the singing of a choir of mice or a fairy godmother. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t carry at least a small flame for the films produced by the house of mouse, a love of Disney films is one thing we all have in common.
I have loved these films my whole life, and have wanted to write about them for some time now, so here is my top five, it’s not a list of Disney’s best, most significant or most important films, just the films that I keep coming back to again and again.
For the sake of ease, I’m deliberately limiting my countdown to the films included in the animated feature canon of 52 theatrically released films, I won’t be including the likes of Goofy movie, The brave little toaster or Who Framed Roger Rabbit? As these films are not included in the canon, they do deserve a mention however.
5: Fantasia (1940)
Fantasia was Disney’s third theatrical release and one of Walt’s most personal projects, the film doesn’t have much in the way of a story, instead it, acts as a showcase of both the immense talent of the Disney animators and of the power of animation as a medium.
The film is essentially eight music videos for pieces of classical music, linked together by short clips of composer Deems Taylor who gives a brief introduction to the coming piece of music.
It was originally intended to be a continuous release with segments being swapped regularly for new animations, later releases could then choose to include older segments (sort of like a greatest hits) meaning every time you went to the movies to see fantasia it would be a different film.
The films darts through a variety of animation styles, from the beautiful abstract pieces that accompany Tocatta and fugue in D minor, to semi realistic depictions of dinosaurs presented with Rite of Spring and classic Disney talking animals dancing the ballet to Dance of the hours.
The whole film culminates in the terrifying image of a gargantuan Satan reeking demonic havoc to the sounds of Night on bald mountain in a piece so remarkably un-disney-like that you can’t imagine they’d ever try something like it again.
The most famous scene of course is the Sorcerer’s apprentice, a great piece (later released as a stand alone cartoon) starring Mickey Mouse, the image of Mickey in oversized red cloak and blue wizards hat become so iconic it was eventually used as the hologram used to denote an authentic Disney video release, they even encorporated the hat when building the new Disney animation studios.
It’s a staggeringly beautiful film even today, watching it you can’t help but marvel over the image of people sitting at desks, creating each frame by hand.
Yet despite all of it’s majesty Fantasia proved to be somewhat of a failure.
Upon its release many criticised the film, music critics made the ridiculous assumption that setting classical music to cartoons would damage the music’s integrity, while film critics were more concerned that the film was really more suitable for adults than children and feared kids would be bored.
As a result the film failed to profit and in the end the idea of the continuous release and adaptations became unfeasible.
A sequel Fantasia 2000 was later released which tried to make use of the idea (it even included the original Sorcerer’s apprentice segment) though sadly, this too failed to make much of a splash.
4: The three caballeros (1944)
The three caballeros is perhaps the Disney film closest to my heart, it’s one I have many fond memories of, though it’s one few others have heard of.
It stars Donald Duck (it was made in that often forgotten period of Disney history when Donald was a higher drawing character than Mickey was), as he opens up his birthday presents from his cousins from Latin America, a film projector, a book and a piñata.
It’s a flimsy narrative used to bind together a bunch of short cartoons, mostly set in Latin America but some elsewhere, like the story of a penguin who is too cold in the north pole and sets sale for warmer climates.
Along the way Donald makes friends with Jose Carioca, the cigar smoking parrot and Panchito Pistoles, a rooster, who take him on adventures where we are able to learn some basic information about the Brazillian and Mexican cultures (though how useful this information may be is debateable, the people in these segments seem awfully stereotypical).
Three caballeros is basically an excuse to watch a bunch of enjoyable, funny cartoons and listen to some strangely catchy songs. The whole piece culminates in a surreal nightmarish clash of bizarre visuals that juxtaposes greatly to the serene hapy tone of the rest of the film, clearly in the 40’s Disney had a habit of ending their movies in the most messed up way possible.
3: Tangled (2010)
As much as I loved Disney as a kid, a lot of the films they released around my childhood were pretty alienating, this was the time of the little mermaid, Pocahontas, Aladdin’s Jasmine, Mulan, characters and films designed mainly with girls in mind, the boys had films like Hercules and Tarzan but as weall knowm Disney is all about the princesses.
I still loved these films as a child but the fact that they were played so much to girls has stopped them becoming the classics to me, which they are to so many others.
Tangled’s Rapunzel is the newest addition to the princess canon, again she’s obviously modelled to appeal to girls and there’s the typical prince charming type character set to steal her heart but Tangled does it with a fresh take, a modern sense of humour and a visual palette so stunning that it needs to be seen to be believed.
Since getting Tangled on DVD I’ve watched it every couple of months and it just doesn’t get old, having recently updated to a HDTV I was able finally to watch it on blu-ray and fell in love with it all over again, noticing tiny details in the background that I hadn’t previously noticed.
In terms of visuals it’s the closest to a Pixar beater that Disney is ever likely to get and while the actual storyline isn’t particularly deep it’s definitely the best of the princess stories. It also features “at last I see the light” which is probably about as perfect a Disney song as you could ever dream for.
Apparently the idea for a Rapunzel film had been kicking around the Disney studios since the original days of Walt and the nine old men, usually whenever I hear things like that (for example, the little mermaid was also in pre-production while walt was still alive) I always wish I could have seen Walt’s actual vision realised, but with Tangled I’m almost glad it never happened.
In terms of what you think when you think of a typical “Disney” movie, Tangled delivers more than any to have come before it.
2: The Lion king (1994)
As I grow older, what impresses me about Disney is less the visuals and cute characters and more the stories. While most would claim films like Cinderella and Snow white are Disney at its best, the stories in these films are fairly dull affairs.
The Lion King is a very different beast; it hangs together on drama rather than cutesy songs (though of course, they’re there too) and in general gives off a much darker tone than previous films.
Disney characters have always famously been parentless but few have seen their parents murdered before their eyes. Even Bambi had his back turned, emerging orphaned into the snow, Simba is forced to watch, he is made to think his death is his fault.
Darkness aside, the lighter moments of the Lion king are also spectacular, the songs brilliant and the characters engaging.
A couple of years ago I got the chance to see it on the big screen again as it was re-released in 3D, and as the sun rose over the pride lands and the opening chant on Circle of life blasted through the speakers I felt the hairs on my arm raise with an anticipation that never faded, I was worried that, having not seen it in years I would be disappointed, I was not.
I must mention the Kimba controversy, though I won’t go into much detail.
In the early stages of development, Disney were seeking the rights to adapt the Japanese manga Kimba: the white lion, Disney were not granted the license and the lion king was the end result.
Despite an effort on Disney’s part to deny links to Kimba, there are early concept designs for simba which show him with white fur and Matthew Broderick has mentioned in interviews that he initially thought he was auditioning for a kimba remake.
I won’t go into the similarities between the two but they are numerous, if you’re interested you can read about them here.
Despite this undesirable set of circumstances, I love the lion king, and I always bloody will!
1: The hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Speaking of dark stories, they don’t come much darker than this. The hunchback of Notre Dame features themes of racism, caste prejudice, murder, control, fear of the unknown, infanticide and sexual desire vs religious faith.
Pretty heavy stuff for a film that features talking, singing gargoyles.
Hunchback gave us many things, a brilliant cast of characters, wonderful songs and some great moments but it gave us one thing for which we should be eternally grateful.
Judge Claude Frollo is easily my favourite Disney villain of all time, most Disney baddies are dealt with a fair deal of humour but Frollo is evil to the core, I can’t think of a single moment where Frollo is handled with any lightness, instead his character comes from the few fleeting moments where he shows moments of uncertainty and fear.
The opening sees Frollo about to murder the infant Quasimodo before showing fear as he stares into the eyes of the statues of saints adorning Notre Dame, we see a man who lives in constant fear of a god who he feels he must serve by doing terrible things.
He’s a wonderfully dense character, one you could analyse in depth for pages and pages.
There’s also a lot of depth to the other characters too, Phoebas is the battle hardened soldier who gradually rebels against Frollo’s authority, likewise with Quasimodo who must rebel against his father figure to gain his freedom.
Speaking of Quasimodo, during the film we are treated to two different musical numbers describing how the beautiful Esmerelda will see the beauty inside of Quasimodo and love him despite his looks…..and then…..she doesn’t…..instead she ends up with Phoebas, the handsome muscular soldier…that’s pretty messed up.
I’m making the film sound horrid on purpose of course, if you’re young it’s a wonderful film and one that I enjoyed immensely. I have memories of bounding around my garden singing Out there and wearing my VHS copy down until it was nearly unplayable.
It’s just that it’s a film that can be appreciated for different reasons as you grow older, a compliment that can be paid to few of the Disney films.
It’s a film that walks the delicate line between what’s enjoyable for children and adults.
I can’t gush praise for this film enough, if you haven’t seen it them you must watch it and if you have you must watch it again. You won’t regret it.
If you need anymore convincing then watch this. It’s Frollo’s song, in my opinion the greatest Disney song of all time, it’s just phenomenal.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this list, like I said this is just my personal take, feel free to leave your favourites in the comments.
Thanks for reading.