Two Worlds, One Family

Tarzan is the first ever animated film starring the iconic King of the Apes. As well as the final film released in the massively successful Disney Renaissance. Walt Disney animation’s biggest winning streak to date. After the success of Mulan, Tarzan sealed off the 90’s as the studios thirty-seventh production overall. I always liked the fact that the Disney Renaissance is made up of 10 films over a perfect 10 year period. Tarzan is one of the most universally recognized wild men in all of literature. Created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan first appeared in Tarzan of the Apes as far back as 1912. For decades, Tarzan has appeared in a grand total of 24 official novels, several live-action films, radio programs, stage productions, video games, etc.

So it is surprising to know animation hadn’t been attempted before. It’s the very reason Disney decided to tackle the story. Inspiration came from both the original book and the pioneering 1932 movie Tarzan the Ape Man. The novel portrays Tarzan as more well spoken, while the film’s portrayal popularized the trademark yell and “Me Tarzan, You Jane” speech pattern. The story of a white man raised in the jungle by gorillas was unchanged, but Disney had to remove the uncomfortable depiction of African natives. Tarzan’s later years as the more civilized British Lord Greystoke were also unused. No matter how many times Tarzan is adapted, Disney’s 1999 animated adventure will always be my definitive version…

59. Tarzan

Tarzan finishes swinging

Tarzan has had a profound effect on me growing up. Since I loved to crawl and swing around like Tarzan when I was younger. 1999 was filled with hits, but Tarzan remained a favorite of my brother and me. My 4 year old memory of seeing it in theaters is a lot clearer than Hercules and Mulan. Together the last three Disney Renaissance movies make up a sort of trilogy that’s especially dear to my heart. We watched Tarzan on VHS many times without knowing its full impact. As the last of its impactful era, Tarzan is like a culmination of everything that came before. While at the same time paving the way for the future. Tarzan opens in the 1800’s where an English couple manage to survive a devastating shipwreck along with the cutest Disney baby ever. The couple wash up near the African rainforest where they work together to build an impressive treehouse.

Mirroring their lives is a couple of gorillas who have an infant son of their own. The unfortunate connection is the savage leopard Sabor. The first major antagonist until the true Disney villain shows up. Sabor eats the baby gorilla and kills the babies parents in a surprisingly graphic fashion. Kala is the mother gorilla who raises the baby she finds alone in the treehouse. Something mother gorilla’s have been known to do in real life. Glenn Close is a topnotch talent who brings out all the best qualities of a loving mother. Disney doesn’t always explore mother’s, but Kala is easily one of their very best. She names him Tarzan, but her mate/alpha gorilla Kerchak doesn’t want anything to do with him. In the book, Kerchak is responsible for the fate of Tarzan’s parents, but in the movie he’s just standoffish. Something Lance Henriksen is good at portraying.

Rather than just the simple adventures of an ape man, Disney increases the emotional weight of Tarzan’s journey towards discovering his place in the world. As a boy, Tarzan is just trying to fit in. A less unlikeable Rosie O’Donnell voices tomboy gorilla Terk. Tarzan’s adoptive cousin, closest friend, and a funny enough Disney sidekick. While playing, Tarzan accidentally causes a stampede of elephants. In the process meeting a paranoid little elephant named Tantor. Woody Allen was supposed to voice the neurotic elephant, but I can only see the humorous Wayne Knight in the role. Though I’ve always wondered why it seems like Tantor abandoned his family to live with the gorillas?

You can really feel Tarzan’s struggle as the only human in a group of gorillas, but Kala’s heartfelt encouragement is everything he needs. So Tarzan learns to use his personal strengths to build tools, swing on vines, and surf on tree branches until he grows into the wild man we all know and love. Like Simba & Hercules, Tarzan is first seen as a baby and a kid, until a quick musical montage ages him to maturity. Tarzan may be a simple half naked man in a loincloth with dreadlocks and a pointy chin, but his entire muscle structure had to be perfected. Along with his ape-like movements. More close to the book, Tony Goldwyn is a well spoken Tarzan. He gets a chance to prove himself to Kerchak after an intense final confrontation with Sabor. Finally perfecting his trademark yell.

As that chapter closes, another one opens when Tarzan for the first times sees people who look like him. He first sees Clayton. A sauve British guide with little similarity to his namesake. This Calyton is actually a cruel hunter looking to imprison and sell the gorillas. Brian Blessed does a lot to perfect both the Disney villain and Tarzan yell. He next sees the comically eccentric Professor Porter whose goal is to study the gorillas. Voiced by the late Nigel Hawthorne in his final voice role. But it’s Jane Porter that Tarzan falls in love with. Minnie Driver does a lot to show Jane’s intelligence, eccentricities, chattiness, and creativity. A lot of her funniest lines were improvised. Jane is also seriously underrated as a Disney heroine. She’s one the prettiest and her freedom from structured society is represented by how many articles of clothing she loses. Going from a posh yellow dress to a more revealing midriff by the end.

Since Tarzan & Jane are one of the most iconic couples in fiction, their relationship had to reflect that. Tarzan rescues Jane from baboons, learns to speak like her, and compares her hand with his. Their romance is a lot like Hercules & Meg in how it’s crucial, but doesn’t happen until later in the film. Kerchak warns the gorillas to stay away, except Tarzan is too curious, and learns everything there is to know about being a man. He finally agrees to show them the gorillas, but it all goes wrong and Tarzan is lost between two worlds. So Kala tells him the truth about his parents in a manner that adoptive parents will be touched by. It seems like Tarzan will explore his Greystoke roots in London, but Clayton betrays everyone when he shows his true colors. Terk & Tantor help him escape the boat and Tarzan realises his ape family is where he truly belongs. Clayton fatally shoots Kerchak before an atmospheric final confrontation against Tarzan in the trees.

In one of the most chilling Disney villain deaths, Clayton angrily chops through all the vines but the one around his neck. That would be dark enough, except you can see his hanging body in the shadow of the thunder. Kerchak sadly dies not long after accepting Tarzan as his son. Making Tarzan the new alpha. Although it seems like Jane and her father will leave forever, they decide to stay, and Jane is accepted by the gorillas with an “Ooo-ooh-ee-ah-ooo.” The Disney Renaissance ends in the most satisfying way as Tarzan & Jane swing through the trees and Tarzan lets out an incredible chest pounding yell. Tarzan was a major animation achievement that showed just how far the studio came in 10 years. Computer animation was used in the most extensive way at the time. A technique was created called Deep Canvas that allowed digital backgrounds to resemble traditional 2D paintings. The jungles of Africa are absolutely breathtaking.

As are the exhilarating swinging and surfing sequences. Which are obviously meant to resemble the totally radical extreme sports of the 90’s. Something only animation can turn into a spectacle. The medium is a far better fit for a story with talking gorillas who are just as stylized as other Disney animals, but the studio still studied the great apes closely. Humans are in no particular style apart from maybe the illustrations of some books. Music is always important to Disney, but Tarzan isn’t a traditional musical. Frankly I agree that breaking into song wouldn’t work for the story. Like Elton John, famous contemporary artist Phil Collins elevates the soundtrack with several amazing original songs. Ending the Disney Renaissance with a whopping 11 Oscars before Best Animated Feature was even created. The Oscar winning “You’ll Be in My Heart” is a beautiful lullaby for mother’s everywhere. “Son of Man” is an inspirational coming of age tune. “Strangers Like Me” is an exciting journey of discovery. While “Trashin’ the Camp” is a catchy Stomp inspired smash. But it’s the opening and closing song “Two Worlds” that really stays with you. Tarzan goes to show that families come in many forms.

60. Tarzan

Me Tarzan, you Jane

Preceded by: Tarzan II & Followed by: Tarzan & Jane

I’ll Make a Man Out of You

Mulan brought great honor to Disney heroines everywhere. By creating the bravest Disney Princess the studio has ever seen. The increasing success of the Disney Renaissance meant a Florida branch of Walt Disney animation needed to make their own independent production. After exploring Greek mythology in Hercules, the thirty-sixth animated project chose to explore Chinese legend. The Ballad of Mulan is an ancient Chinese tale that served as inspiration. Where Hua Mulan is a Chinese woman who serves as a soldier in her father’s place. The primary difference is the 12 year period of the war and the fact that she’s never found out.

Although there were definitely women who fought battles disguised as men, Mulan is not based on a real person. Her story had been retold a number of times, but people are more likely to remember Disney’s interpretation. Although Mulan nearly ended up a rom-com in the vein of Tootsie, Disney thankfully honored its source material. Making it the most respectful Asian portrayal the studio has ever done. The mostly Asian cast, attention to Chinese culture, and watercolor animation all helped to round out the depiction. While at the same time staying true to certain Disney traditions. Despite being labeled a musical, Mulan actually features a surprisingly limited amount of songs. So as to not distract from its heavy themes of war…

57. Mulan

Mulan is ready for battle

Mulan is very high on my list of all time favorite Disney movies. I have fond memories of seeing it in theaters when I was just 3 years old. Too young to remember McDonald’s Szechuan sauce promotion. My brother and I fell in love with Mulan the more we watched it on VHS. It’s even a rare Disney movie that I watched in school. Mulan is easily my favorite “girl power” movie. It’s impossible not to cheer for Mulan in her journey towards heroism. Taking place during the Han Dynasty, Mulan opens on an invasion at the Great Wall of China. The intense atmospheric set up is notable for featuring no musical opening. The invading army are the Huns led by their ruthless cold hearted leader Shan Yu. An all too serious Disney villain with monstrous yellow eyes, fangs, and falcon to match. Shan Yu’s only goal is to conquer China and overthrow the Emperor. And he’s willing to kill innocent messengers and entire villages just to accomplish it.

So the Emperor calls for one male member of every family to fight in the Chinese army. The late Pat Morita is a perfectly dignified ruler, but his pompous misogynistic assistant Chi-Fu is the biggest a-hole in Disney history. Voiced by the legendary James Hong. Fa Mulan is one of my absolute favorite Disney Princesses. Despite having no royal designation. I’m sure the fact that she’s the first heroine of Asian decent is the main reason for her inclusion. The always welcome Ming-Na Wen helped turn Mulan into a dynamic role model whose path isn’t defined by romance. Of course a little romance doesn’t hurt. Mulan is as beautiful as a porcelain doll, but she’s also very smart, caring, and thinks outside the box. Something that clashes with the role she’s supposed to play in society.

Mulan notably has a living mother, father, little brother (that’s actually a dog), and a feisty grandmother who all expect her to bring honor to the family. Her animal sidekicks are her faithful Chinese black horse Khan and not so lucky cricket Cri-Kee. Who’s cute, but doesn’t serve much story purpose. After a botched visit to a matchmaker, Mulan longs for a chance to be herself. An opportunity she gets when her enfeebled father Fa Zhou is forced to fight in the war. Followed by the exceptionally atmospheric image of Mulan crying in the rain under the great stone dragon. Nothing beats the dramatic weight of Mulan bravely taking her father’s place by flawlessly cutting her hair and riding off to battle. Mulan wears at least two Chinese dresses, but her armor is far more recognizable.

Only her bickering ancestors can help her now. As well as the willing miniature red dragon ex-guardian Mushu. Eddie Murphy’s comedic timing is always hilarious, so it was about time he voiced a wacky Disney sidekick. What Mushu lacks in size or intimidation, he makes up for in helping Mulan pass as a man. Like all great crossdressing movies, Ping is comedy gold. But it doesn’t initially go over well with her fellow brothers in arms. Harvey Fierstein, Gedde Watanabe, and Jerry Tondo voice a fun trio of soldiers who grow to value Ping/Mulan over time. There’s the hot-headed Yao, cocky Ling, and gentle giant Chien-Po. Their company is overseen by the Captain’s son Li Shang. A physically fit warrior Disney Prince with the voice of BD Wong who’s eager to make his father proud. Shang snaps his men into shape with a series of exercises that teach strength & discipline. Mulan falls behind at first, but I cheer every time she becomes the first one to retrieve the arrow from the top of the post.

The guys warm up to Ping in a hilariously risque bathing scene, but it’s the mutual respect of Shang that she values more. Shang & Mulan have a unique Disney relationship to say the least. Shang’s value of Ping as a soldier only becomes love when he finds out who she really is. Which was probably confusing for him. Mushfu helps the army see some action and it leads to the aftermath of the Hun’s scorched village. Disney doesn’t sugarcoat the devastating implications of the war. It leads to a last stand at a snowy mountain pass that Ping/Mulan wins by cleverly launching a canon that causes an avalanche. She rakes up a serious body count that takes out almost the entire Hun army. Unfortunately her wound reveals her identity.

Mulan discovers Shan Yu’s siege on the Forbidden City and it’s only by thinking like a strong woman that she’s able to rescue the Emperor. Mulan using her fan against Shan Yu makes her the ultimate Disney badass. That’s all the more satisfying when Mushu finishes him off with a devastating fireworks explosion. Making Mulan the first Disney Princess to inadvertently cause the death of her villain. I bow in appreciation every time Mulan is honored for the hero she is. It’s just as emotional to see her father love her for who she is. Since proving herself was always most important, Mulan & Shang don’t kiss, but decide to take their blossoming romance slow. Mulan does however kiss Mushu after he’s reinstated as a guardian. Mulan is like an ancient Chinese painting brought to life. With all the soft character designs that you’d expect. The beauty of its setting is only enhanced by seamless computer animated sequences. The avalanche and Chinese palace are enormous, but the massive crowds are even more impressive. A whole new crowd simulation software had to be created just to achieve it.

Despite the limited use of original songs, Mulan still makes perfect use of its soundtrack. No Oscars were won, but you don’t find music like this every dynasty. Only 4 songs are sung in the movie unless you count the credits pop song “True to Your Heart.” “Honor to Us All” is an exaggerated number about a woman’s role in Ancient society. It’s almost the mirror version of the more stereotypical male war chant “A Girl Worth Fight For.” A catchy song about the men’s ideal woman that takes a sharp turn at the end. “Reflection” is another one of my favorite longing songs by a Disney Princess. It’s deeply personal and the perfect makeup removal is oddly satisfying. We have the pop version to thank for making Christina Aguilera a star. There are so many amazing Disney songs, but I actually consider the Donny Osmond sung “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” to be my favorite. Has there ever been a more manly fist pumping training montage. Topped off by a satisfying “Heyaw!” Mulan reflects only the best Disney has to offer.

58. Mulan

Mulan meets Mushu

Followed by: Mulan II

Zero to Hero

Hercules finally gave Disney animation a story of mythical proportions. Greek mythology is full of great stories. So it made sense for the studio to want to adapt one of them. The first story pitch was for The Odyssey, but that’s way to long and complicated. Hercules was chosen instead due to its potential as a superhero type film. After the far more serious The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules went back to the light hearted comedy of Disney Renaissance films like Aladdin. Specifically old fashioned screwball comedy. The thirty-fifth Walt Disney animation production also took chances with more pop culture references, stylized animation, and a gospel choir.

I was way too young to know Greek mythology, but everyone knows it’s the farthest thing from kid friendly. Zeus was a womanizing sleazeball who married his sister Hera and fathered Hercules with the mortal woman Alcmene. Hera was spiteful against Hercules and tired to have him killed multiple times. At the same time, Hercules was a bit of a blowhard. Although most people are unaware that the name Hercules is actually from Roman mythology. The less iconic Heracles is really the Greek name. Obviously several things needed to be Disneyfied. A paragon of masculinity like Hercules had been adapted numerous times starring many famous muscular actors. My parents have their favorite versions, but for me, the 1997 Hercules is the definitive take on the hero…

55. Hercules

Hercules goes from zero to hero

Hercules is the very first Disney animated movie I saw in theaters. At the wee age of 2 years old. I was way too young to remember the experience, but it helped make Hercules a personal favorite of mine. My brother and I watched our VHS copy so many times growing up. The male centric battle of the gods was seriously cool and tons of fun. Hercules just gets better the more you know about Greek mythology. With so many references to Greek figures that went over my head as a kid. But the almost parody-like modern 90’s jokes in Ancient Greece work surprisingly well. Hercules is very much the Disney equivalent of Superman. Many of his famous trademarks can be seen in their portrayal of the demigod.

Hercules opens like a traditional Greek tragedy with appropriate Charlton Heston narration, but the tone is better set by the Gospel choir of Muses. They tell a far more upbeat retelling of how Zeus, king of the gods, hurled his mighty thunderbolts at the Titans of the past. Locking them in a prison that could only be opened when the planets aligned. Hercules is an adorably buff baby god born on Mount Olympus. Which is depicted as a heavenly paradise in the clouds. Zeus and Hera are a loving couple who care deeply for their newborn son. The rest of the gods are colorful and easy to identify if you know your mythology. Rip Torn is a softer, far more fatherly Zeus who gifts his son with a baby Pegasus.

Hades, lord of the dead, makes sense as the main Disney villain. The ruler of the Underworld is like the devil mixed with a used car salesman. James Woods was pitch perfect casting as the scene stealing Hades. His fast talking ad libs are just as hilarious as his explosive outbursts. Hades sharpe design and flame hair was a genius idea. Bobcat Goldthwait & Matt Frewer are just as fun as his dimwitted demon henchmen Pain & Panic. Hades’ evil plan for world domination comes when the all seeing eye of the Fates foretell the reemergence of the Titans. The only catch is Hercules. Like Krypton, baby Herc is separated from his home among the gods. Pain & Panic remove his godhood with a potion that fails to fully depower him. Like Ma & Pa Kent, Herc is found by a loving farm couple who raise him as their own. Except his godly strength is impossible to hide. It starts with a recreation of the baby strangling snakes.

Like Smallville, a teenage Herc tries to fit in with his small Greek community, but his powers label him a freak. So his parents tell him the truth about his Olympian parenthood. Like the Fortress of Solitude, Herc visits the Temple of Zeus. There his father reveals the truth and explains that proving himself a hero will restore his godhood. Pegasus returns as his funny bird brained horse sidekick. They travel to see trainer of heroes Philoctetes. Phil is a nymph crazy, sarcastic, hot headed satyr that only Danny DeVito could do justice. Just never google what a satyr is. Phil is a weary trainer who’s trained everyone from Jason to Achilles. Although reluctant at first, Phil trains Hercules until he bulks up to the hero that we all know and love.

Like Superman, Hercules has just as much heart as brawn. Tate Donovan helped make Hercules a likable shy farm boy with all the strength of a god. His superhero-like cape and Greek armor helps as well. An encounter with the Centaur Nessus gives him an opportunity to rescue a damsel. Like Lois Lane, Megara is unlike any other Disney heroine. Meg has a cynical sense of humor, sassy quips, and a ton of relatability. She’s criminally underrated. Although her design might be too much for some, I can still find the beauty in her enchanting looks and ponytail. Meg is also different because she’s stuck working with Hades due to a deal she made to save someone she loved. Like Lois & Clark, Meg & Wonder Boy’s opposites attract relationship is sweet and complicated. Like Metropolis, the big city of Thebes is in desperate need of a hero.

That call is answered in an epic battle against the Hydra orchestrated by an enraged Hades. An awesome montage pays homage to the 12 labors of Hercules as he beats every beast Hades sends his way (the Nemean lion looks suspiciously like Scar from The Lion King). At the same time Herc becomes a celebrity with his own fan club and merchandise. Which isn’t enough to be a true hero. Unfortunately, Hades uses Meg as Hercules’ weakness in order to remove his powers. Giving him the time to unleash the Titans on Mount Olympus. Without Phil or Pegasus at his side, Herc is nearly killed by the bumbling Cyclops. Meg unites them, but it’s at the tragic expense of her life. Which restores Herc’s power long enough to defeat the Titans of lava, ice, stone, and tornados. Then riding Cerberus into the Underworld in order to face Hades. Herc’s last heroic effort is rescuing Meg from the river Styx.

I’m in awe every time Hercules proves himself a true hero and it’s always satisfying to see Herc punch Hades into the river of souls. I have mixed feelings about the decision, but it’s heartwarming to see Hercules give up his godhood for the woman he loves. I tear up the moment the gods fulfill Phil’s dream to finally have one of his heroes appear in the stars. Hercules is one of the funniest Disney comedies, but it does have many sincere moments like that. You can’t help but feel the power of Hercules in all his epic fights. The animation helps to increase the god-like strength of the action. The biggest computer animated sequence is between Herc and the Hydra. The Hydra is an intimidating CGI creation that only gets bigger when its heads multiple with every head slice. The very stylized rounded Greek character looks are different, but I never found them distracting.

The songs are some of my personal favorites in any Disney musical. It made perfect sense for the story of a god to have an all black Gospel choir. The much needed soul is full of infectious energy. First seen in the spirited introduction “The Gospel Truth.” Then at the end with the triumphant “A Star is Born.” The Oscar nominated “Go the Distance” is a unique and inspiring male longing song by Hercules. While Susan Egan reinvents the Disney love song with Meg’s in character “I Won’t Say I’m in Love.” Phil’s comedic “One Last Hope” is an action packed training montage, but my favorite montage will always be “Zero to Hero.” Bless my soul, I get pumped the second I hear the insanely catchy rising fame song. Hercules is Disney’s mightiest hero’s journey.

56. Hercules

Hercules saves Meg

Topsy-Turvy Day

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of the darkest Disney animated movies ever made. Even darker than The Black Caldron in my opinion. How it managed to receive a G rating is baffling. The MPAA have given film’s PG ratings for far less than this. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a rare animated kid’s film that deals with religious themes. As uncharacteristic as it is for the studio, I have to admire Disney’s willingness to tackle such subject matter. Especially after Pocahontas didn’t win everyone over with its heavier material. The thirty-fourth Walt Disney animated feature is notably based on the 1831 novel of the same name by Victor Hugo. Which had been adapted a number of times in black & white.

The gothic story is so dark that I still can’t believe it was greenlit. In the book, the Hunchback is half blind, deaf, and more likely to be violent. A 16 year old Esmeralda is hanged and Quasimodo holds her lifeless body until he starves. This obviously had to be changed, but Disneyfication can only change so much. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is surprisingly faithful to the book in every other regard that maintains a kid friendly rating. I haven’t seen the classic Lon Chaney version or any others, but I can’t image a more sophisticated take than this surprisingly mature interpretation of the Disney Renaissance…

53. The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Quasimodo longs for freedom

The Hunchback of Notre Dame was not something my brother and I watched frequently as children. Although we owned it on VHS, I definitely had to be in the mood for its intense, often upsetting material. Which was more difficult to watch as a Christian. That being said, I still loved The Hunchback of Notre Dame for respectfully handling faith, its spirit lifting music, and well placed light hearted moments. As I got older, I grew to see it as an underrated classic. Especially after what happened to the real life Notre Dame cathedral. The story takes place in 1400’s Paris, France. Since it’s the second French story in the Disney Renaissance after Beauty and the Beast, Belle can be seen reading in the background. Jester dressed Gypsy storyteller Clopin tells the dark tale of the mysterious bell ringer of Notre Dame.

Born to a Gypsy family, the ruthless Judge Claude Frollo hunts down the mother until he causes her death on the steps of the cathedral. Then he attempts to murder the deformed baby before the archdeacon condemns his soul with damnation (a Disney movie). Frollo is easily one of the most irredeemably evil Disney villains ever created. Made worse with Tony Jay’s sinister voice work. There’s nothing more sinful than a “man of faith” twisting the Lord’s word in order to commit heinous crimes. Frollo reluctantly raises Quasimodo to believe he’s a monster that people will never accept. Yet Quasimodo ends up a gentle soul with the angelic voice of Tom Hulce. Disney was able to honor the book’s description of the Hunchback without going too overboard. Rather than become deaf, years of ringing the bells have made Quasimodo very strong and acrobatic. While years of isolation have given him an opportunity to carve a perfect miniature replica of the city and its inhabitants.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame would be the most serious Disney movie if not for those darn gargoyles. Of course you can’t expect Disney to abandon their formula entirely. Charles Kimbrough, Jason Alexander, and the late Mary Wickes are a trio of gargoyles that come to life as Quasimodo’s only friends. The cultured Victor, goofball Hugo, and motherly Laverne have their occasional funny moments, but sometimes their antics are too tonally jarring. Quasimodo disobeys his master by attending the Festival of Fools. An absurd celebration where he meets Esmeralda and her faithful goat Djali. Esmeralda is a gorgeous Gypsy with a kind heart who dances far more seductively than other Disney heroines. Although she’s meant to be Romani due to her green eyes, I sometimes confused her for black. Which was more confusing when I learned Demi Moore voiced her. Rounding out the high profile talent is Kevin Kline as the far more heroic Captain Phoebus. Who first works as Frollo’s Captain of the Guard before turning against him.

Quasimodo’s appearance earns him admiration as the King of Fools, but the celebration takes a dark turn when he’s tied up and humiliated. One of the most difficult moments to watch in any Disney movie. The only person to show Quasimodo kindness is Esmeralda. He falls for her when she receives sanctuary in Notre Dame. Although it’s just what Quasimodo needs to feel good about himself, his heart breaks when she chooses Phoebus over him. Esmeralda & Phoebus are another interracial Disney couple that I adore. As if it wasn’t already pushing enough boundaries, Frollo is also lustfully attracted to Esmeralda. And he’s willing to burn down all of Paris just to have her. Quasimodo & Phoebus set aside their differences long enough to track down the “Court of Miracles” Gypsy refuge. Frollo’s war on the Gypsies comes to a head when he follows them there.

Esmeralda is sentenced to burn at the stake, while Quasimodo is chained up. It’s always satisfying to see Quasimodo break free from his chains and rescue Esmeralda yelling “Sanctuary!” The book’s ending is hinted at when Quasimodo thinks Esmeralda has died, but she lives long enough for them to faceoff against Frollo. The final fight in Notre Dame is intense with fire blazing all around them. Frollo’s wickedness is judged when a statue takes demonic form and he’s cast into a symbolic Hell (a Disney movie). Quasimodo accepts Phoebus & Esmeralda’s love and I get emotional every time citizens accept him for who he is. Although some might find it uncomfortable, it’s not too much for kids to understand. The animation brings out the beauty in Paris and the Catholic church. CGI sequences around Notre Dame are especially impressive. Whether Quasimodo is escaping with Esmeralda or freeing her from the crowd in a sweeping shot. Luckily computer animation hadn’t completely overshadowed the accomplishment.

The large assortment of music is sophisticated to the point of resembling an opera. No Oscars were won, but this is a soundtrack worth appreciating. “Out There” is a spirited longing song for Quasimodo. “Topsy-Turvy” is the closest thing to a fun catchy number. While “God Help the Outcasts” is a deeply sincere pray by Esmeralda, asking God to help the less fortunate. “Heaven’s Light” is a beautiful song in sharp contrast to “Hellfire.” A seriously dark, lustful, and powerful Disney villain song by Frollo that I can’t believe Disney approved. Immediately followed by the goofy comic relief gargoyle song “A Guy Like You.” “The Court of Miracles” at least balances those tonal shifts. For me, the most fitting and triumphant musical composition will always be “The Bells of Notre Dame.” The Hunchback of Notre Dame preaches an important message by taking as many risks as possible.

54. The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Esmeralda sees Quasimodo

Followed by: The Hunchback of Notre Dame II

Colors of the Wind

Pocahontas is one of the most historically inaccurate movies ever made. Which is why its been unfairly labeled the weakest addition in the Disney Renaissance. Despite being just as good in terms of memorable characters, beautiful animation, and the best original songs Hollywood had to offer. The biggest difference was Disney’s choice to adapat a real life historical figure for the first (and only) time in Walt Disney animation. The idea came at Thanksgiving when it’s director wanted to make a historical western. The life of Pocahontas was chosen instead for its potential as another Best Picture candidate. The thirty-third Disney project Pocahontas was given a more serious tone and animators seriously thought it would be superior to The Lion King.

Pocahontas is far from a proper history lesson. The real Pocahontas was at least 10 years old when she first met the grown up John Smith. So there was clearly never a Romeo and Juliet romance going on between them. Further Disneyfied omissions included ignoring Pocahontas’ later capture by colonists, marriage to John Rolfe, and immigration into English society. Yet, Disney still made an effort to cast and collaborate with Native Americans for the sake of authenticity. That’s why it’s better to appreciate Pocahontas as a simple lesson in the acceptance of other cultures (that just happens to use the names of real life people)…

51. Pocahontas

Pocahontas listens to her heart

Pocahontas was released 15 days after I was born in 1995. Making it the first Disney movie released in my lifetime. It’s why I’ve always felt a personal attachment to Pocahontas. Of course it helps to be part Native American. My brother and I watched Pocahontas a fair number of times on VHS. It’s lesser emphasis on comedy was definitely different. That’s why there are no wacky talking animals or over-the-top sidekicks. Any humor is subtle by comparison. Pocahontas accurately opens in 1607 London, England. We follow the fictionalized sea voyage of the Virginia Company on their way to colonize the New World. John Smith is portrayed as more of a dashing, if misinformed adventurer with long blonde hair and rugged good looks. Rather than a harsh authoritarian, this Disney Prince version is suited for Mel Gibson.

Most of the settlers are interchangeable except for Thomas. A young settler who looks up to John that I was shocked to learn was voiced by Christian Bale. The real Captain of the the Susan Constant was Christopher Newport, but he was changed to Governor Ratcliffe. A different colonist Captain with a hand in Jamestown. His harsher sounding name is why he was chosen as villain. Governor Ratcliffe’s greed for gold, bigotry against natives, and hate-mongering make him a particularly despicable Disney villain. Disney mainstay David Ogden Stiers does double duty as the radically different Ratcliffe and his effeminate manservant Wiggins. As the settlers begin taking the land and mining for gold, we experience the vastly different culture of the Powhatan tribe.

Then we say “Wingapo” to Pocahontas. The very first “woman of color” to headline a Disney animated movie. Since Jasmine was only a supporting player in Aladdin. Pocahontas is the Native American daughter of Chief Powhatan. So that qualifies her as a Disney Princess. Unlike her real life counterpart, Pocahontas is made to look like a gorgeous supermodel. Complete with long flowing hair, tribal tattoo, her mother’s necklace, and traditional native garment. This older version of Pocahontas is a free spirited risk taker who loves her culture and goes where the wind takes her. Irene Bedard is a genuine Native American who breathes refreshing life into Pocahontas, but her singing voice Judy Kuhn shouldn’t be understated. The more realistic animal sidekicks are hungry raccoon Meeko and stubborn hummingbird Flit. As well as pampered pug Percy who belongs to Ratcliffe and fights with Meeko before redeeming himself. The antics don’t add much, but they’re fun distractions.

Pocahontas is a rare Disney Princess who has human friends. There’s her best friend Nakoma. As well as proud warrior Kocoum as her intended husband. Kekata is the shaman and Chief Powhatan is the tribe’s wise leader. He’s a caring father who just wants his daughter to choose a steady course. Except a dream seems to be spinning her in a different direction. The only fantastical element in Pocahontas is Grandmother Willow. A wise weeping willow voiced by Linda Hunt who leads Pocahontas to her destiny. Everything changes when Pocahontas & John Smith have their powerful first encounter. The winds help them to understand each other and they each learn about their respective cultures. Their conflicting ideologies clash at first, but Pocahontas helps John to better respect nature, the land, and people who are different from him.

John & Pocahontas hold a special place in my heart for being the first interracial Disney couple. Their romance is mature and sincere. It’s the only thing that can unite the warring colonists and natives. Which sadly falls apart when Thomas unintentionally shoots Kocoum. Radcliffe encourages hatred by going to war and Powhatan sees no other option himself. John is taken by the tribe where he is sentenced to death. The powerful image of Pocahontas bravely laying her body on John is recreated when she runs to stop the fighting. Ever the hatemonger, Radcliffe is arrested for taking a shot that John jumps in front of.

Unlike most Disney endings, Pocahontas proclaims her love for the wounded John, but they sadly part ways in the most hopeful way possible. Pocahontas deserves credit for tackling such grown up themes. However inaccurate it may be, the themes of peace over conflict and ending intolerance are things all kids should know. The harsh terms used by the colonists are necessary to get the message across. While the far less stylized character designs fit the realistic approach. The rest of the animation is just as mesmerizing as everything from its era. Still, the best reason to revisit Pocahontas is the music. Even in a polarizing production, everyone agrees the soundtrack is topnotch. It’s practically a non-stop musical throughout.

“The Virginia Company” and “Steady as the Beating Drum” are fine introductory songs for each side. “Mine Mine Mine” works well as an energetic Disney villain song about gold that gives John Smith a power solo. I just wish the tender love song “If I Never Knew You” was kept in. Grandmother Willow’s “Listen with Your Heart” is a quick song that helps at least. I know “Savages” is a controversial hate song, but neither side is right in their prejudice. Plus the beat is too infectious to right off completely. “Just Around the Riverbed” is a perfect “I want” song for Pocahontas that made her all the more inspirational. But the Oscar winning “Colors of the Wind” truly encapsulates everything Pocahontas stands for. I know all the words to the beautiful power ballad and appreciate nature all the more because of it. Pocahontas is an influential indigenous Disney portrayal that should be judged on its own merit.

52. Pocahontas

Pocahontas teaches John Smith to paint with all the colors of the wind

Followed by: Pocahontas: Journey to a New World

Circle of Life

The Lion King is Disney animation royalty. As well as one of the greatest movies Walt Disney animation studios has ever made. To me, The Lion King is the peak of traditional hand drawn animation in the Disney Renaissance. It’s hard to compete with such a grand majestic scale. So it’s truly difficult to believe barely anyone at the studio believed in the project. The Lion King was actually seen as a risk at the time, because it was the first original Disney movie. Before their thirty-second animated feature, every single film was based on some kind of existing work. From fairy tales to children’s books. Although everyone should know by now that The Lion King is basically William Shakespeare’s Hamlet with lions.

Further inspiration came from Biblical figures like Joseph and Moses. Disney also “borrowed” ideas from a certain Anime by the name of Kimba the White Lion. But The Lion King was still primarily original. The idea was simply to make a National Geographic type film set in Africa. Which grew into a musical originally titled King of the Jungle. Like Bambi, animators studied real animals at the zoo in order to be as authentic as possible. The Lion King was then given an unprecedented all-star cast, commercially successful artist Elton John, and boundary pushing animation. The Lion King beat the record set by Aladdin to become the highest grossing animated movie of all time. An honor it still holds in 2D animation…

49. The Lion King

Simba reigns over Pride Rock

The Lion King is practically a right of passage for all 90’s kids. Of course it helps that lions are my favorite animal. When I was a cub, my brother and I watched our VHS copy a countless number of times. I only wish I was born at a time when I could experience The Lion King on the big screen. 1994 was a great year for film, but it was a mistake not nominating the movie for Best Picture. Fortunately it was the second animated movie to win the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy (after Beauty and the Beast). The Lion King is definitely the most beloved animal starring film in the Disney brand. The opening is the greatest in animation history. If not one of the best cinematic openings of all time. It all starts with a breathtaking sunrise that slowly reveals all the animals that make up the great circle of life. We’re then taken to the iconic Pride Rock where the lion king and queen welcome an adorable cub into their family. Equally iconic is shaman mandrill Rafiki presenting the cub to a bowing herd of elephants, giraffes, and zebra. The sudden boom of the title gets me everytime.

The African savannah is full of animals that Disney hasn’t attempted before. Although barely anyone speaks in an African accent, the cast is one of the most impressive ever assembled for a Disney movie. You can’t beat James Earl Jones as powerful lion king Mufasa. Casting Mage Sinclair as the Queen Sarabi was a genius Coming to America connection. Unlike Jones’ other great cinematic fathers, Mufasa has a comforting approach that makes him the best Disney dad. His brother Scar on the other hand, is the most evil Disney villain ever made. There’s nothing worse than plotting to kill your own brother and nephew to become king. Obviously a sinister looking lion with a black mane doesn’t exist in nature and his scar raises a lot of questions. Jeremy Irons was an inspired choice to voice Scar. He’s both classy, ambiguously flamboyant, and sardonic.

Robert Guillaume brings a lot of fun pep to Rafiki in his guidance of Simba and Rowan Atkinson is particularly funny as hornbill advisor Zazu. I’m not sure how someone with such African parents would end up with a cub voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas, but he makes a fine young Simba. Simba just can’t wait to be king and his father teaches him everything he knows about ruling. We learn about everything the light touches, the delicate balance of life, and the great kings of the past. Scar leads Simba to the forbidden shadowy place. A spooky elephant graveyard that he sneaks to with his spunky best friend Nala. It’s there they encounter a trio of cackling hyenas. The sassy Shenzi, short-fused Bonzai, and brainless Ed are the funniest secondary antagonists in any Disney movie. Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings (to a degree) play off each other well. Scar commands the Nazi-esque hyenas to be prepared to overthrow the kingdom. While I don’t agree with their methods, the hyenas are only evil because they’re hungry.

The gorge stampede of wildebeests is the single most heartstopping sequence Disney has ever done. Mufasa bravely rescues Simba, but Scar unforgivably sends his brother to his death with four chilling words, “Long live the king.” It’s impossible not to cry the moment Simba finds his father’s body and cries out for help. As if he wasn’t evil enough, Scar manipulates his nephew into thinking he’s responsible, then orders his hyenas to kill him. Simba survives, but Scar assumes the throne and does such a horrible job that everything dies. This would be the perfect time for comic relief. Timon & Pumbaa are a hilarious bug eating meerkat & warthog double act that were so good they hijacked the entire franchise. Nathan Lane is a quipping gem and Ernie Sabella keeps up with his naive charm. They help Simba get through his problems with the no worries philosophy of “Hakuna Matata.”

A quick dance against the moon ages Simba into the mighty lion we all know and love. Matthew Broderick was always a strange choice, but he makes sense as a more laid back future king. A grown up lioness Nala returns, hunting for food, and her pounce reunites her with Simba. Nala may not be a Disney Princess, but Moira Kelly makes her a proud and far more noble heroine. You can feel the love tonight, because Simba & Nala’s childhood friends turned romantic mates progression is true love. Simba still rejects his past, but Rafiki knocks some sense into him. In one of the most iconic moments, Mufasa appears in the clouds to help his son remember his destiny. Simba, Nala, Timon & Pumbaa return to Pride Rock where the latter make a brilliant distraction and Simba confronts his uncle.

Scar reveals the dark truth in time for a mood setting lightning strike. The lionesses fight the hyenas, Rafiki goes ape, and Timon & Pumbaa add some levity to the dramatic climax. Simba and Scar’s firy slow motion standoff only ends when Scar is thrown off Pride Rock. In one of the most gruesome Disney villain deaths, Scar is deservedly eaten off-screen by the hyenas he’s betrayed. Rain finally arrives to wash away his rule and Simba assumes his rightful place with a cheerworthy roar. The circle of life is at last complete when Simba and Nala bring their own cub into the world. Ending with another satisfying boom.

The Lion King does everything right with the winning Disney formula. It’s not exactly a fairy tale, but the royal characters, comic sidekicks, and larger than life villain are all there. The comedy is at least 50% animal puns. Along with some fun pop culture jokes or songs like “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “It’s a Small World Afterall.” Really it’s the animation and music that’s the biggest draw. The Lion King makes excellent use of computer animated CAPS backgrounds. Making the African savannah feel enormous with subtle details in its ecosystem. The stampede alone was a visual feat that included hundreds of digitally rendered wildebeests. While the traditional animation gives life to all sorts of expressive animals. The non-anthropomorphic approach feels all the more natural.

All five songs in The Lion King are Oscar worthy, but only three could get nominated. Not since The Jungle Book has an animal story had such catchy hits. Elton John elevates the Broadway caliber soundtrack into one of the best in Disney history. “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” is an upbeat childhood jam that Simba & Nala taunt Zazu with. The colors and animal involvement make it extra enjoyable. “Be Prepared” is the Disney villain song all villain songs aspire to. Scar’s dastardly delivery is only supported by the green hue and edgy Third Reich imagery. “Hakuna Matata” is the carefree Timon & Pumbaa motto that kids like me couldn’t get outta their heads. Even with the fart jokes. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is the Oscar winning love theme that works just as well on its own. Although it’s great, I would argue it isn’t the greatest song in the movie. Easily the best song is “Circle of Life.” I don’t understand Swahili, but I don’t have to understand to appreciate, get pumped, and feel emotional every single time I hear it. The Lion King is an African masterpiece.

50. The Lion King

Simba, Timon, and Pumba have no worries

Followd by: The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride

A Whole New World

Aladdin took us to a whole new world of Disney animation. At this point, Disney had the exact formula they needed to make hit after hit. The Oscar nominated success of Beauty and the Beast encouraged the studio to continue making Musical fairy tales. In fact, the thirty-first Walt Disney animation studios film was pitched by one of their chief lyricists. Before his untimely death, Howard Ashman was a key song writer in the Disney Renaissance. It was his idea to make a musical version of Aladdin. “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp” is one third of the often retold 1700’s Middle-Eastern story One Thousand and One Nights (aka Arabian Nights). Other famous stories include “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and “The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor.”

Although these stories have been told many times in movies like The Thief of Bagdad, I still wouldn’t consider Aladdin to have been widely known until Disney came around. Elements of the original Arabian Nights were kept including, the impoverished Aladdin, his search for a magic lamp, a wish granting Genie, an evil sorcerer, and beautiful Princess. Names were changed, the tone was made more comedic, and Aladdin’s mother was removed. Even though it meant the removal of the relatable song “Proud of Your Boy.” Aladdin unsurprisingly became the highest grossing animated film at the time. Making it the first Disney movie to spark a franchise…

47. Aladdin

Aladdin and Jasmine take a magic carpet ride

Aladdin is one of my all time favorite Disney movies. I can’t tell you how many times my brother and I watched it on VHS when we were kids. Along with being one of the funniest animated projects the studio has done, we were drawn to its more male centric action & adventure. While still being won over by its Princess theme and exceptional songs. Aladdin was released one month after my brother was born in 1992. I always thought he resembled Aladdin, which was easy considering this was the first Disney movie with entirely ethnic characters. Sure the voice cast isn’t Arabian, but that doesn’t make Aladdin any less genuine to its culture. We enter the fictional Arabian kingdom of Agrabah. The story is told by an eccentric Merchant with a very interesting design.

Once upon a time there was an oil lamp sought after by the mysterious Jafar. An evil sorcerer that I would easily call the greatest male human Disney villain ever made. Jafar’s pointy red & black design and snake staff are just so iconic. Jonathan Freeman helped to make him a calm menacing figure with a deadpan sense of humor. His unassuming parrot Iago is just as hilarious. Gilbert Gottfried brought a sarcastic wit to one of many bird’s he’s voiced. Together Jafar & Iago make the best villainous comedic duo. Jafar’s goal is to find the magic lamp in the Cave of Wonders. Except the cave is only interested in a “Diamond in the rough.” Which happens to be Aladdin. A street smart thief with a heart of gold who’s unfairly labeled a street rat. Aladdin is the very first lead Disney Prince and my personal favorite. He’s Arabian, but his charismatic voice actor Scott Weinger and appearance was made to resemble Calvin Klein models. Hence the fit (nippless) body that goes with his trademark vest, fez and puffy pants.

Aladdin shows his heart when he willingly gives starving children his loaf of bread. His closest friend is his thieving monkey Abu. They make a great team, but they’re continually pushed around. That’s why Aladdin dreams of a better life in the palace. Princess Jasmine is the first supporting Disney Princess, but that doesn’t make her any less important. She was groundbreaking for diversifying the Disney Princess line up. Jasmine is a kind, far more rebellious Arabian princess. Linda Larkin proves Jasmine is no pushover. All she wants is to be free from her royal responsibilities. Jasmine is incredibly beautiful with long dark hair and signature blue belly dancer outfit. Her closest friend is her pet Bengal tiger Raja. While her biggest problems are the suitors that her father arranges for her. The Sulton is much more childish than most kings, but it makes sense for him to fall under the spell of his clearly evil royal vizier Jafar.

Jasmine decides to run away where she bumps into Aladdin in the marketplace. It’s a charming meet cute that helps make Aladdin & Jasmine a genuinely believable Disney couple. They bound over their respective dreams and are just so adorable together. Jafar orders the palace guards to capture Aladdin and he cruelly tells Jasmine he was killed. As the “Diamond in the rough,” Aladdin helps a disguised Jafar find the magic lamp as long as he doesn’t touch anything. It’s there we meet the much needed Magic Carpet. Who has a surprising amount of personality for a carpet. In true Disney fashion, Aladdin finds the lamp, but Abu foolishly touches the forbidden treasure. Leading to an exciting roller coaster ride on the Carpet that ends in Jafar’s betrayal. Luckily, Abu swipes the lamp.

A single rub brings out the greatest Disney sidekick ever created. The big blue Genie is a hilarious, endlessly quotable, powerful cosmic being that only Robin Williams could pull off. He’s the reason Celebrity voice acting became so big in animation. Williams’ random celebrity impressions, over-the-top body transformations, and fast paced presentation make Genie the breakout character we all patiently wait for. Genie only grants 3 wishes, can’t kill anyone, make people fall in love, or bring people back from the dead. Wish one turns Aladdin into the fabulous Prince Ali. Complete with wealth, servants, and an elephant Abu. Although Jasmine rebuffs his advances at first, Aladdin offers her a ride on his Magic Carpet. It’s a magical romantic ride around the world that ends in a cute kiss. Jasmine learns the truth, but Aladdin continues to lie about who he really is. Although I’m still confused about how he’s not really a Prince.

Wish two rescues Aladdin from Jafar’s watery grave. His staff is broken, but Jafar takes revenge when he gets hold of the lamp. Since Genie must obey his master, Jafar becomes more evil by becoming Sultan, then an all powerful sorcerer that banishes Aladdin and forces the Sultan & Jasmine to serve him. In the thrilling climax, Aladdin flies to the rescue. His pun filled sword fight against Jafar is one of my all time favorites. Jasmine helps by uncomfortably kissing Jafar, but ends up locked in an hourglass. Like Maleficent, Jafar grows into a terrifying giant snake. In the end, the only way to defeat Jafar is by cleverly outsmarting him into wishing to becoming a Genie. Forever trapping him and Iago in their own magic lamp prison.

Wish three is when Aladdin honors his heartfelt promise to free the Genie. Aladdin & Jasmine are finally able to be together when the Sultan easily overturns the law about royal marriage. They ride off on their Magic Carpet, living happily ever after. Along with being a sincere lesson about being yourself, Aladdin was unique for its improvised comedy and pop culture references. Aladdin would have still been successful, but Robin Williams truly elevates it. I imagine the Genie’s manic animation was particularly difficult. The rest of the traditional CAPS animation was just as spellbinding. Computer animation can be seen a lot more in the tiger faced cave and carpet flying sequences. The Arabian architecture is just as well animated. While characters are their usual semi-stylized design.

Aladdin might be the only Disney soundtrack that I know all the words to. The Oscar winning music is just so much fun to sing. “Arabian Nights” is a spirited way to enter the deserts of Agrabah. As long as it’s the version that isn’t insensitive. “One Jump Ahead” is a high energy introduction to Aladdin’s life as a thief and the (Reprise) makes him likeable. “Friend Like Me” is a serious showstopper with bright colors and magic tricks. You’ll definitely wanna be Genie’s friend after this fast paced number. Same with the equally off the wall hype song “Prince Ali.” Jafar’s brief villainous (Reprise) of it is just as fun. But it’s the Oscar winning “A Whole New World” love duet between Aladdin & Jasmine on their breathtaking Magic Carpet ride that’ll always be closest to my heart. Aladdin is truly a wish come true.

48. Aladdin

Prince Ali deceives Jafar

Followed by: The Return of Jafar

Tale as Old as Time

Beauty and the Beast is the first ever animated film nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. An impressive feat that it absolutely deserved. As Beauty and the Beast is one of the greatest Disney animated movies ever made. Although it didn’t win the Oscar, it was the first to win a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. After The Little Mermaid became an instant hit that sparked the Disney Renaissance, the studio decided to continue adapting classic fairy tales. At least they did when The Rescuers Down Under failed to make a significant impact. The only carryover was the impressive use of CAPS animation.

The thirtieth Disney animated film is based on the 1756 French fairy tale as old as time. Beauty and the Beast is a fairly simple story about true love and inner beauty. The book has been adapted many times in the past, but it still wasn’t incredibly well known in its original form. Walt Disney wanted to tell the story as early as 1937. It was shelved for many years until the Disney Princess format was successful again. Although its original director thought it should be a serious non-musical French retelling, Beauty and the Beast wouldn’t feel right without music. Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman returned to write such Broadway caliber music that the animated film became the first adapted for Broadway…

45. Beauty and the Beast

Belle dances with the Beast

Beauty and the Beast is likely the first Best Picture nominated film I saw. My brother and I watched it numerous times on VHS when we were very young. It was the last Disney movie to come out before either of us were born, but our parents still saw it due to all the attention it was getting. I fell in love with the unconventional romance, enchanting songs, multilayered characters, and gorgeous animation. Beauty and the Beast is Disney at their storytelling best. We open on stain glass instead of the usual book. Once upon a time, there was a Prince that lived in a magnificent French castle. The nameless Prince was so selfish that he didn’t accept a haggard beggars rose in exchange for shelter. She transformed into a beautiful enchantress and cursed the young Prince with a beastly appearance. Although his age doesn’t make much sense, his struggle to find love before the age of 21 is a tragedy. “For who could ever learn to love a Beast.”

Belle was the most modern Disney Princess the studio made at the time. Ariel was a pleasant revival, but she was a bit young to make the decisions she did. Belle is a smart, more independent woman with a deep love of books. Stage actress Paige O’Hara helped bring a strong-willed sarcastic wit that hadn’t been seen before in Disney heroines. Like her titular description, Belle is a true beauty. Something that her modest French dress and sensible ponytail can’t hide. Belle is also the first brunette Disney Princess and the only one in her village to wear blue. Which better represents the odd reputation her provincial village has given her. That’s why Belle longs for adventure with someone who understands her.

Her beauty gains the unwanted attention of Gaston. A sexist blowhard hunter who only wants Belle for her looks. Unlike every single Disney villain that preceded him, Gaston is both handsome and physically fit. It’s a clever contrast that better represents inner beauty over outward appearance. His bumbling sidekick Lefou is his hype man that makes them a fun comic duo before Gaston becomes more sinister. Another reason for Belle’s reputation is her kooky inventor father Maurice. He takes their horse Philippe to a fair, but they get lost in the woods. Maurice seeks shelter from the wolves in the mysterious castle surrounded by an endless winter.

One of the best changes made from the book was the addition of enchanted inanimate objects. I’m not sure what the Prince’s servants did to deserve it, but they do add much needed levity to the story. Lumière is a true romantic candelabra (who’s strangely the only character with a thick French accent). His rebellious attitude is in hilarious contrast to the straight-laced pendulum clock Cogsworth. Rounding out the staff is motherly teapot Mrs. Potts and her chipped cup son Chip. Angela Lansbury is a Disney veteran who brings a genuine warmth to Mrs. Potts. It’s hard to say exactly how many servants are enchanted objects, but other notable characters include Lumière’s beloved feather duster, a caring wardrobe, and canine footstool. Maurice’s presence brings out the Beast, who angrily locks him in his dungeon. Belle goes to rescue her father and bravely takes his place in the castle.

As the title suggests, this is the most depth a Disney Prince has ever had. The Beast is a nice amalgamation of animals that isn’t too monstrous for children. His temper is understandable considering how long he’s lived with his appearance. Sure Belle and the Beast argue at first, but things change when he bravely rescues her from wolves. Belle is the only one who stands up to him and is able to bring out his inner humanity. Their relationship progression is one of the best in Disney history. The Beast gives Belle his grand library, they spend time in the snow, and he learns to be more refined. The most genuinely romantic act is the dance they share. While dressed in their now iconic yellow frilly dress and French blue suit. Beast truly shows his love when he lets Belle go when she sees her father in his enchanted mirror. It’s not enough to break the spell and Beast falls back into despair.

When Belle returns, Gaston reveals his despicable plan to institutionalize her father if she doesn’t marry him. When she refuses, Gaston starts an angry mob that plans to raid the castle and kill the Beast. The rough fight against the enchanted objects is fun, but Gaston vs. the Beast is all too serious. The Beast shows his true colors by sparing the villain. Then the cowardly Gaston shows his true colors by stabbing the Beast in the back before falling to his much deserved death. I get emotional every time the Beast dies in Belle’s arms, but I cry tears of joy when she finally proclaims her love before the last petal falls. Belle and the now human Prince (Adam?) kiss and break the spell at last. Returning beauty to the castle, making the enchanted objects human again, and giving Beauty and the Beast a chance to live happily ever after.

No matter what anyone says, I’ll never consider their romance to be stockholm syndrome. It’s far more complex than that. Beauty and the Beast was released in 1991, but its animation still astounds me today. The traditional animation shines through in each character and French environment. I’m glad a hand drawn film received the Best Picture nod before computer animation took over. One of the most beautiful animated sequences in Disney history is the ballroom dance. The CGI background and simulated crane shot brings unprecedented life to the medium. In ways live-action simply can’t achieve. Although their final dance had to be recycled from Sleeping Beauty.

Every single song in Beauty and the Beast is a winner. Three of which got Oscar attention. Same with the Oscar winning score. “Belle” is a delightfully French bonjour to Belle’s life in the village that doesn’t understand her. “Belle” (Reprise) is the perfect Sound of Music longing song for Belle. “Gaston” is one of my personal favorite Disney villain songs. It’s just so ridiculously manly and fittingly boastful. Gaston’s “Mob Song” is way more villainous. “Be Our Guest” is a high energy number with impressive spectacle and showmanship from Lumière as he presents Belle’s dinner. “Something There” is brief, but a sweet way to develop the blossoming romance. “Human Again” is fine, if a little unnecessary in the final cut. Of course it’s the title song “Beauty and the Beast” sung by the comforting Mrs. Potts that truly deserved the Oscar win. I tear up anytime I hear the awe-inspiring love song. Beauty and the Beast is a beautiful masterpiece inside and out.

46. Beauty and the Beast

Belle encounters Gaston

Followed by: Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas

The Great Golden Eagle

The Rescuers Down Under is the very first Walt Disney animation sequel. Despite the success of so many other Disney films, the studio had always stuck with happily ever after. The Rescuers was one of a few movies that made sense to have a sequel. As it seemed like the Rescue Aid Society could have many adventures. The Rescuers Down Under is the twenty-ninth animated Disney movie and the first released in the 90’s. It’s wildly underrated to the point people forget it’s part of the Disney Renaissance. Personally, I wish The Little Mermaid came out after, because The Rescuers Down Under feels so out of place compared to the more memorable musicals of its era. Not that I don’t have some fond memories of seeing the sequel when I was a kid.

The Rescuers Down Under takes all the action to the Australian outback. The new child in need of rescue is a boy with an American accent named Cody. He helps out his fellow animal mates including a fictitious giant golden eagle Marahuté. Unfortunately, Cody’s connection with the mother eagle gets him kidnapped by poacher Percival C. McLeach. An eccentric Disney villain that George C. Scott helps fit in with the rest of the villains in his era. I still wouldn’t consider him one of the all time greats though. He tears down the forest with his monstrous truck and pet Goanna Joanna by his side. Of course the location meant the use of several Australian animal sidekicks. There’s Kangaroos, Koalas, and a particularly annoying frill-necked lizard. It’s really Bernard and Miss Bianca that I want to see. Bob Newhart is just as nervous as ever with Bernard’s frequent attempts to ask Miss Bianca to marry him. It’s a satisfying arc that makes him the hero in the end. This was sadly the final film role for Eva Gabor, but her class will be remembered. They accept the mission and end up taking another Albatross. Since the voice actor behind Orville passed away, John Candy replaces him with the more comical Wilbur (a clever nod to the Wright brothers).

While there, they meet an adventurous kangaroo mouse named Jake who helps them find Cody. It’s a desperate situation, but Cody is rescued and the mighty mother eagle is safe. Giving Bernard the right moment to propose. Although it’s strange that this was the movie that did it, The Rescuers Down Under is the very first digital feature film. All the traditional animation and coloring was done on the computer using CAPS. Turning Australia into a sweeping landscape with magnificent flying sequences. The heavier emphasis on action & adventure means there are no original songs in the movie. That, along with being an average continuation to a forgotten movie is probably why it wasn’t a major success. But the groundbreaking animation and unexpected effort help make The Rescuers Down Under a worthy addition in its era.

44. The Rescuers Down Under

Cody flies on the back of a golden eagle

Preceded by: The Rescuers

Under the Sea

The Little Mermaid is the magical underwater fairy tale that got Disney animation back on track. Ushering in a veritable Disney Renaissance. An era of Disney that will always be closest to my heart. The 70’s and 80’s were a dark time for the studio. Most projects were generally well received, but nowhere close to the classics of old. However, things started to look up with the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Their twenty-eighth animated production The Little Mermaid was the perfect opportunity to get back to the Princess themed fairy tales that Disney always excelled at. It was actually one of many stories Walt Disney considered adapting in his early days.

The Little Mermaid is based on the far more tragic Danish tale of a little mermaid longing to be on land. The tragedy is that she’s more concerned with having a human soul and experiences horrible pain in the process. She doesn’t get her Prince, turns to seafoam, but there’s hope that she’ll go to Heaven some day. Obviously a Hans Christian Andersen story like this needed major Disneyfication. Along with the best directing duo, best composers, and best animation that the studio has seen in a long time. Although the studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg foolishly thought it would perform less than Oliver & Company, The Little Mermaid instead became the first Disney blockbuster…

42. The Little Mermaid

Ariel swims under the sea

The Little Mermaid is a fish tale that I’ve loved since I was really little. Despite its release at the tail end of 1989, most of the movie’s success was found in the 90’s. Which is why my brother and I watched The Little Mermaid frequently on VHS. Thanks to our parents who introduced it to us at such a young age. Katzenberg was crazy to think a “girls movie” like this wouldn’t appeal to everyone. I absolutely adore the romance, colorful songs, and undersea action. The Little Mermaid was a welcome return to Disney traditions. Once upon a time, there lived the magical mermaid & merman kingdom of Atlantica. Very different and more controversially phallic than Atlantis. The musical underwater palace is also populated by sea creatures of all shapes and sizes.

Ariel is one of my all time favorite Disney Princesses. She was the first true Disney Princess since Aurora in 1959. Unlike the classic Princesses, Ariel has a more defined personality and genuine aspirations. Ariel is a mermaid with gorgeous red hair, a green fish tail, and seashell bikini. Her voice and appearance make her the most beautiful Disney Princess in my opinion. She’s notably modeled after Alyssa Milano. Her trademark hair color was chosen to avoid comparisons to Splash. Voice actress Jodi Benson deserves all the credit for bringing a wide eyed wonder to Ariel. She dreams of going on land and is infectiously amazed by even the simplest gadgets, gizmos, whozits, and whatzits.

Although they’re more important in the book, Ariel notably has 6 sisters. Since her adventure is under the sea, Ariel’s animal sidekicks are all water based. Tropical fish Flounder is her panicky best friend. He’s mostly around for the underwater parts like outswimming a shark and giving Ariel a gift. Seagull Scuttle is her hilarious, but dimwitted land expert. I’ve definitely brushed my hair with a dinglehopper because of him. But Jamaican conductor crab Sebastian will always be my personal favorite. He can both answer to King Triton in the water and keep an eye on Ariel on land. While at the same time avoiding a crazy chef. King Triton is the hard headed ruler of the sea. Although Ariel’s 16 year old dreams seem narrow minded, there’s no denying Triton goes too far with his hatred of humans.

Ariel falls in love with Prince Eric. The most defined Disney Prince at the time. Again thanks to the voice actor Christopher Daniel Barnes. He’s a carefree, sea loving Prince with his own memorable supporting cast. Notably his dog Max, valet Grimsby, and maid. Ariel bravely saves Eric from a shipwreck, but she can’t be with him unless she has legs. Her father takes drastic measures by sternly destroying a statue of Eric in one of the more difficult scenes to watch. Despite it being a terrible decision, Ariel is swayed towards going to Ursula for help. One of the great devious Disney villains who is infamously modeled after drag queen Divine. Ursula is an evil power hungry half-octopus cecaelia sea witch who stands out for her sassy personality. As well as her electric eel henchmen Flotsam & Jetsam. Ariel makes a deal with Ursula that will give her legs in exchange for her voice. Which will return provided Eric kisses her within 3 days. Or else lose her soul to Ursula.

Ariel and Eric develop a sweet relationship in more time than most Disney couples of the past. Unbeknownst to Eric that her voice is the one he fell in love with. They have dinner (with a dinglehopper), explore the beachfront kingdom, and share a romantic boat ride. It’s enough for Ursula to disguise herself using Ariel’s voice and hypnotize Eric into marrying her. All the creatures come together to help, but Ariel is too late. The climax is a dark combination of land & sea. Ursula gains the power of Triton’s triton in exchange for Ariel and she becomes the first Princess to stand up to her villain. Resulting in the death of her eels. An angry Ursula commands the sea by growing to enormous size, but is brutally defeated when Eric rams a sunken ship into her body. I’m filled with joy every time Triton accepts his daughter by granting her legs (and a sparkly dress). Ariel marries Eric on land, says a heartfelt goodbye to her undersea friends & family, and lives happily ever after.

Ariel longed for the surface long before she met Eric. So she isn’t just leaving her life for the Prince she fell in love with. Ariel is still modern and not just for showing more skin. She still wears a lovely pink dress, blue sundress, and wedding dress, but The Little Mermaid is definitely more provocative than most Disney animated films. The animation is truly breathtaking (no pun intended). It’s hard to believe this was the last use of traditional hand painted cel animation. The underwater effect, bubbles, and swimming is impressive. Computer animation was extensively used to improve locations, but xerography was brought back to finally refine characters the way Sleeping Beauty used to. Humans & mermaids are mostly realistic with big eyes, while animals & fish are more stylized.

The broadway caliber music in The Little Mermaid was so good that it helped the film win 2 Academy Awards. The songs are some of the best in any Disney movie. Even the sea shanty “Fathoms Below” and traumatizing fish butchering French song “Les Poissons” are memorable. “Part of Your World” is my favorite Princess longing song. I surprisingly know all the words and Ariel finishing the song on a rock is iconic. “Poor Unfortunate Soul” is a deliciously devious Disney villain song for Ursula. “Kiss the Girl” is incredibly romantic and worthy of a nomination. But it’s Sabastian’s extremely catchy underwater Caribbean jam “Under the Sea” that deserved the Oscar. The Little Mermaid brightens Disney’s future with an aquatic fantasy that will be beloved for generations.

43. The Little Mermaid

Ariel meets Ursula

Preceded by: The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning & Followed by: The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea