In spite of having grown up as a part of the Disney “VHS Generation”, one of the first groups of children to have the privilege and opportunity to enjoy nearly every Disney classic in the comfort of my home on demand, I don’t have much nostalgia for my childhood favourites. They still have a special place in my heart because they undeniably have a hand in the person I have become, but they have since been replaced by other Disney films I didn’t necessarily appreciate as a child.
I have my qualms with Disney, none of which I plan on getting into right here, but I can appreciate many of their films for their artistry and heartfelt sentiment. This list does not reflect the tastes and impulses of my childhood self, but the obsessions and preferences of my young adulthood. That isn’t to say there isn’t any nostalgia involved, but it is hardly the essential criteria in forming this list. This list reflects what I see as being the most stirring artistic creations of the Disney animated canon, and sentiment is very much a part of that. At its Disney evokes the passions of our dream worlds, and these are the five films that best exemplify their strongest asset.
Honourable mentions: The Jungle Book, Robin Hood & Beauty and the Beast
5. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise, 1996)
Perhaps one of the most underrated films in the Disney canon, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not only accessible to a young audience, but has some of the most ambitiously dark moments in any Disney film. That being said, this does make for an occasionally inconsistent film, but the sheer majesty of the Notre Dame Cathedral and the strength of Frollo’s dark compulsions make for a remarkable achievement. Quasimoto is also one of the most sympathetic heroes, and the film does not necessarily sugar-coat the apparent tragedy and loneliness of his existence, and though the film ends on a happy note, Quasimoto remains ultimately doomed.
The film is worth seeing for two incredible sequences. The first is the frightening opening chase. Frollo’s apparent bigotry forces a young Gypsy mother to an early grave, and he is more than willing to kill a young child without any apparent ethical ramifications. It is only when confronted with the cold judging eyes of the saints that are engraved in the Cathedral that Frollo fears for his eternal soul, and decides to care for the child instead of murdering it. Later in the film, hell is once against evoked as Frollo sings about his very obvious sexual desire for Esmeralda in “Hellfire.” Though initially dismayed by his own feelings, he later comes to the conclusion that he is innocent and that Esmeralda is an evil temptress and must be destroyed. It is one of the very best songs in any Disney films, and is very obviously aided by Tony Jay’s voice work, some of the best character personification in any Disney film.
4. Fantasia (Various, 1940)
Might have been ranked higher if it were not for a few duds, most notably “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” which was inexplicably reprised in the film’s “sequel.” Fantasia 2000. This is a minor gripe, however, especially considering the consistency of so many of the musical sequences. Financially, the project was not particularly successful, but as a test of artistry and imagination, Fantasia remains one of the most powerful Disney features. At best, the individual musical scenes bring to life worlds imagined from listening to familiar and great works of classical music. The diversity in mood, style and subject is exciting and yet, the film feels part of a cohesive and natural flow of ideas and emotions.
My favourite scene is the chapter that brings to life Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.” Though very obviously inspired by F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926) this is an asset, not a fault. The animated style compliments completely the original sequence by creating something that (at least at the time), was completely impossible for live-action cinema. It evokes a living nightmare, not only with its demons and ghosts, but the transformative power darkness has on this world. When the light disappears, it’s not a simple matter of the surroundings being changed; they transform into something new. Buildings become more crooked, skewed and uninhabitable. When hell itself opens up, though falling to their doom, the fiery demons dance to the music, music that was never meant to be danced to. This eerie combination of life and death, happiness and sadness is completely disturbing.
I highlighted one sequence that I find particularly moving, but there are so many great ones. Though I didn’t include it, I think Fantasia 2000 has some incredible sequences as well, it’s just weighed down with more expendable ones. If you are really interested in this film, I also recommend reading up on some of the proposed musical scenes that never made it to the screen. Most notably, Salvador Dali had wanted to make an ode to baseball, which was created from his sketches in the early 2000s as a short called Destino.
3. The Little Mermaid (Ron Clements & John Musker, 1989)
The best entry in the “golden age” that began in the late 80s and persisted into the mid 1990s, The Little Mermaid brings to life the undersea world. Though European filmmakers have already attempted to bring to life The Little Mermaid, this is the first mainstream American attempt to bring this beloved story to the screen. Gone is much of the fatalism on display in Hans Christian Anderson’s original fairy tale, but the film successfully places its characters at the edge of doom. They are not only at the mercy of being literally destroyed, but robbed of their identity and personality. This is explored in different and enchanting ways, as Ariel gives away most of her freedoms in order to achieve arguably misguided ambitions.
It is really the music of this film that makes it so easy to love. Some of the best songs in any Disney film appear here, including my personal favourite “Kiss the Girl.” It is at once incredibly childish, appealing and adorable, and yet enchantingly romantic. Something about it evokes a wonderful nervous, innocent energy. At the same time it is also pretty funny; the music is often contrasted with some of the goings on in the scene. It occasionally treads a line of incredible over-production that plagues other Disney films of this era, and those of recent years, but manages to be perfectly balanced and charming.
Also, whoever doesn’t feel a slight touch of longing and sadness when they listen to “Part of your World” is probably soulless.
2. Bambi (Various, 1942)
For Bambi, Disney adopted a more realistic way to represent animals than in previous efforts. When Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released, though a resounding success, some critics pointed out the unrealistic and anatomically absurd rendering of the forest animals. With Bambi, the animators used animal models in order to best capture the movements and personality nuances of their creations. Obviously serving the film on a purely artistic level, it also aided in personifying their characters with qualities that were true to their animal form, while also being humanized. This matched with the often bare watercolour backdrops creates one of the more fantastic visual achievements in their long history and the film, certainly in sequences like “April Showers” and the Forest Fire are marvels of creative imagination.
For many, this film has a major point of contention: the death scene. Quite obviously, this is very upsetting for many children (and adults), but I think that only speaks for the quality of the film. Death is all around us, and to ignore its ramifications and the feelings it evokes is not healthy. The very guttural sense of loss this sequence inspires, especially as Bambi wanders the muted landscape calling for his mother, is a moment of extremely potent and effecting emotion one rarely gets from any children’s film. I’d argue that it is quite possibly the most emotionally genuine moment in any Disney feature, a moment that feels so ultimate and empty, that it feels like a huge weight is sinking your heart right to your feet.
Bambi is Disney’s most terrifying film, and also their most “real”. Though I praise Disney, above all else, for their ability to evoke the power of dreams, Bambi is notable for best expressing real-life nightmares.
1. Sleeping Beauty (Clyde Geronimi, 1959)
In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, one of the characters describes with eerie precision why young girls dream of being princesses: they believe themselves to be important orphans that have been robbed away from their real lives and their real parents, and that “this” life is a fraud. Sleeping Beauty is appealing in this way, because Aurora (though for her own safety) was robbed away from her life as a real princess and made to believe she was an ordinary girl. She dreamed of being a princess who falls in love with a prince without the knowledge that it was part of her destiny. Though Aurora is not necessarily the most charismatic Disney princess, she is the best mirror for our own desires to be whisked away. Her anonymity is an asset, one that children can project their forlorn fantasies of escape onto.
Aside from being a great exemplification of our collective desire to escape domestic monotony, Sleeping Beauty is exceptional for being the most artistically rich Disney film. Highly ambitious, the animated process took nearly 8 years to complete and it is the last Disney film to use hand-inked cells. Compared to predeceasing features based in the medieval era, like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the style in both character and background design is far more stylized, evoking far more clearly the medieval tableau’s and tapestry’s that served as primary inspiration for its design. Furthermore, the use of Super Technirama 70 allowed for more detail than ever before. Even today Sleeping Beauty has the most audacious character design in all of Disney’s history, with the headliner being Maleficent, who stands out as a half-woman half-animal villain whose physical realization seems to inspire some ancient nightmare. The final battle sequence coloured in mostly black, green and purple is the most inspiring moment in the Disney canon.
A creative tour-de-force, Sleeping Beauty exemplifies the ability art has to evoke dreams through its ability to mystify and awe. Fifty-odd years later, Sleeping Beauty remains a unique film that is able to offer to its viewers new and exciting images, while similarly enchanting them with a simple narrative that is totally on pulse with childhood fears and desires.