Disney is a behemoth in the entertainment industry. They produce films, television, music, books, games and toys. They operate multiple world-renowned theme parks, have their own cruise line, and have most recently and most noticeably been acquiring brands like Marvel comics and Lucasfilm – owner of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, among others. But at the heart of it all is the Disney cartoon, the bread-and-butter the company was founded on.
Walt Disney’s first big hit was Steamboat Willie, known to many as the short that introduced Mickey Mouse to the world. It wouldn’t be for another year, however, that he would release the first of what would eventually be known as the “Walt Disney Animated Classics,” Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. People made fun of Disney for wanting to create a feature length cartoon (something that still happens regularly to visionaries), but the result of his work was one of the most profitable films in history.
Their success in animation led them to build the entertainment empire that exists today. Despite their reach and diversity, they still continue to create celebrated animated features. The release of Frozen marked the 53rd film in the Animated Classics line (“classics” is not a reference to age, but to the studio that created and distributed the work — Walt Disney Animation Studios), with many more slated for arrival. They include movies featuring princesses, Poohs, and a gaseous warthog; movies full of magic and music; and for the most part they’re all pretty good. Many are even great. Here’s a look at my favorites. Full disclosure – I haven’t seen Frozen yet. My bad.
There was a time in my life that I could quote most of this movie. That’s partially a testament to how good it is, but it’s also partially because it was one of the few VHS tapes I owned for a period, and I would pop it in when I got bored with Pump Up the Volume or Dream a Little Dream. Regardless, Aladdin came out in the middle of the Disney Renaissance, a period where the artists working on these films were most consistently strong.
Robin Williams’ role as the genie of the lamp, combined with an Oscar-winning Alan Menken score, made this film an instant classic. Aladdin reinvigorated the market for Middle Eastern mythos thanks to a charismatic and adventurous street rat that took swashbuckling classes from the best of them. Although they may not be directly inspired by the film, shortly after Aladdin hit theaters there was a surge of Sinbad stuff, Magic: The Gathering released its first expansion (Arabian Nights), and a Middle Eastern themed fantasy setting (Al-Qadim) was released by TSR – the people that produce Dungeons & Dragons.
Jafar and Iago made deliciously evil villains, and the animal sidekicks were as fun as ever, but the anthropomorphic carpet ends up being an unexpected standout, thanks in no small part to CGI developed for the Beauty and the Beast ballroom scene. Unfortunately, the one character that’s noticeably underdeveloped is Jasmine, who has a strong personality but lacks much to do beyond be a prize for the boys. I’m a boy, though, so that probably has something to do with my attraction to Disney films with a male POV. It’s a trend that continues with…
4. The Jungle Book
I don’t know if The Jungle Book is the first movie I ever saw in a theater, but I’m sure it’s the first movie I remember seeing in a theater. Although it was originally released almost a decade before I was born, my hometown has a fantastic second-run theater that ran it when I was four or five, and my uncle took me to see it. I’m pretty sure I just sat there and stared at the screen until it was over.
The Jungle Book is an interesting movie because it’s able to translate many of the themes from the source material, without sticking to the story told by Kipling. The music was fun, but it was used to advance the story rather than interrupt it, with numbers like The Bare Necessities and I Wan’na Be Like You exploring character motivations as they got people to sing along. I could never get my Army platoon to sing Colonel Hathi’s March (aka Elephant’s On Patrol), though. Jerks.
What really stands out in The Jungle Book is the character animation. The animals had sharper edges than previous films, with more expressive movement. This technique would be used more regularly, with whole pieces of animation being recycled when Disney released Robin Hood. And Saturday morning cartoons would be better off for this classic when many of the characters were used for Tail Spin, an exploration adventure that helped usher in the 90s.
The Jungle Book was the last film Walt Disney would personally work on. He didn’t live to see its theatrical release, but he most certainly would be proud of its legacy.