John’s Disney Movie Countdown: Part 3

We come now to the third and final part of John’s Disney Movie Countdown. Previously I counted down from dinosaurs and lemurs at #54 to an awesome superhero squad at #31 in Part 1, while Part 2 took us from #30 to #13, beginning with a mouse tale in The Rescuers and ending with the dogs of Lady and the Tramp.

The final dozen films has plenty of animals, its fair share of beautiful princesses, as well as cuddly friends and some of the most menacing villains ever animated. What we have left are what I believe to be the finest twelve animated feature length films the Disney Canon has to offer. With these twelve films, we are now entering ‘deserted island’ territory.

(Side note: If you read the first two parts of the countdown and wondered if I’ve caught the Hollywood bug of splitting things up unnecessarily – a la Hobbit and Hunger Games – I’m sorry about that. But I figured this piece would be better broken down into more digestible portions, because let’s be honest, in our internet browsing age, after writing or reading a 1000+ word essay, people start to get antsy.)

So here they are: my Top 12 Disney animated classics.

Group #5: The Best of the Best: Ten True Consensus Masterpieces, and a Couple that Should Be Soon

This group was exceedingly difficult to order from 1 through 12. I mean, even 18 films of the previous group were basically 10 out of 10, 4-star efforts. So when you have ten masterpieces (and a couple that should be soon) and are trying to position them against each other, it makes for tough work, especially with #2-#7, which are almost interchangeable rank-wise. But, like I said before in part 1, I believe I pulled it off, and I am satisfied with where everything shakes out. 

12. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)

The film (okay, films) that made Pooh Bear popular in the U.S. is as charming as they come. Pooh is an engrained part of our culture now, and I’m convinced that the world is better for it. It is a great film for little ones, yet it has some sharp wit and enough humor for adults to be pleased with repeat viewings as well.

T-I-Doubleguh-er

11. Tarzan (1999)

Alright, if I had things my way, Tarzan would be classified as a true masterpiece as the closing bookend of the Disney Renaissance, and Disney would be giving it a Diamond Edition release and then throwing it in the vault like the other top-tier canon films. Apparently the rest of the world isn’t in agreement with that notion just yet. But I love this film and cannot think of any flaws to mention. I loved it in 1999, and I loved it just as much, if not more, when I watched it during my project. Tarzan has incredible animation, incredible action, excellent characters, and more. I’m hoping it eventually gets this status generally, but that doesn’t stop it from cracking my personal top tier of Disney animation.Tarzan meets Jane

10. Tangled (2010)

Disney’s 50th feature film also claims a spot in the top 10. Unlike with Tarzan, which I can only hope will achieve true “masterpiece” status, I’m pretty sure that in a few more years from now, Tangled will be making the Disney vault/release/vault rounds. Tangled is terrific fun.

Tangled meaningful music

9. Dumbo (1941) 

Dumbo may be a short film, clocking in at only 64 minutes, but it packs one of the strongest emotional punches of any Disney canon film. It also has one of the best Disney mice not named Mickey.

photo(17)

8. The Little Mermaid (1989)

I was a bit surprised when I finalized my list and The Little Mermaid cracked the top ten. But the more I think about it, the more I agree with my placement. The music is fantastic, the animation (in and out of the water) is excellent, and the characters are all great. Additionally, The Little Mermaid stands as a very important film for Disney. It is the one that truly brought Disney back. It brought back the Princess, it brought back the fairy tale, and brought back the magic. It is really a magical piece of work.

Ariel

7. Bambi (1942)

I think I said it best in my original post for Bambi: 

“Bambi offers a little of everything: drama, suspense, character growth, romance, and even a little action. Above all, it is a tale about life, and particularly learning how to deal with the curve balls life can throw at you.”

Bambi is a triumph of storytelling, art, and animation. It expertly teaches one of the most basic and important life’s lessons as well. So much so, that basically, if you tell me you don’t like Bambi, then I will start to question A) whether you have actually seen it, or B) whether you actually have a soul.

photo(24)

Do not be deceived, there is much, MUCH more to Bambi than cute and cuddly animals.

6. Cinderella (1950)

It’s Cinderella, for crying out loud. Your grandparents loved it, your mother and father loved it, and you most likely love it too. This film began the Silver Age of the 1950’s, helped fund Disneyland, and deserves every bit of praise it has garnered throughout the past three generations. This is an easy top-10 choice.

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5. Pinocchio (1940) 

I’m not sure any other film in the Disney Canon is quite as effective at letting the viewer delve into the mind of three main characters like Pinocchio does. Be it the titular marionette, his conscience  Jiminy Cricket, or Geppetto, we know what they are going through, and we know how they feel.

I also don’t know if there is any other Disney film out there that so effectively teaches good, true morals like Pinocchio does. Pinocchio is a standard-bearer in more ways than one.

Pinocchio and Fairy

4. Fantasia (1940) 

They call it the Golden Age of Disney animation for a reason. Four out of the first five Disney Canon films have a place in my top 10, and the fifth isn’t far behind. Fantasia is my favorite of the bunch, and is one of the most unique viewing experiences a person is going to have. While it does require the viewer to forget about traditional 3-act storytelling that he or she is so used to and to delve a little into more abstract and artistic planes, this small sacrifice is well worth it on the other end. As I said in my original post about Fantasia, it is like having your favorite song and favorite painting blended into one synergistic, triumphant whole.

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3. Sleeping Beauty (1959)

“Number 3? Really? No! It has to be number 2! But number 2 should be number 2, too! But what about Sleeping Beauty?”

That’s kind of what goes on in my head with my #2 and #3 favorite Disney films. The debate rages on, and switches depending on which film I saw most recently. I love the Tchaikovsky music in Sleeping Beauty. I love the color. The stunning detail of the backgrounds. The Fairies. Maleficent. The Dragon fight at the end. The overall feel of the film. It is all incredible.

photo9

2. The Lion King (1994)

Even if The Lion King was just 89 minutes of black screen accompanied by its score and songs, it would still probably be in my top 10. I just get the bonus of having a brilliantly animated, powerful and moving tale of responsibility and redemption as well. And to think this was accomplished by Disney’s “B-team” at the time of its creation! I’d say they earned their paycheck on this one.

Hakuna Matata

1. Beauty and the Beast (1991)

I know I’m not alone in saying that Beauty and the Beast is my favorite animated film. I also know I’m not alone in saying that Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorite movies, period. This film hits all the right notes and is a supreme accomplishment by the team that created it. It may have been very difficult to order the rest of the top 12, but even though the other 11 come close, making Beauty and the Beast my #1 film was not that hard of a decision at all. Quite simply, it is that good.

Dance

Kiss

Well, that’s a wrap! I hope you enjoyed reading this countdown as much as I have enjoyed creating it. And, as always, your comments are welcome. I’d love to hear what your top Disney film is, as well. Thanks for reading!

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Week 37: Tarzan

It’ll Be in My Heart (Always)

Tarzan meets Jane

Originally Released: 1999

I have heard varying opinions about Tarzan. Some like it, some love it, and others can’t stand it. But to me, Tarzan will always be special. It is filled with fast-moving and exhilarating sequences, which were a technical marvel at the time of release and still hold up extremely well today. It has a great soundtrack and score. The film is gorgeous to look at with its lush jungle greens. The animation is top-notch. There are equal measures of action, comedy, and romance in the movie. But beyond all that, there is just something about it that reaches deep into the heart. Tarzan has real substance to it, and it manages to connect on an emotional level (with me, at least).

Kala

Take, for instance, the scene where a young Tarzan runs off and covers himself in mud to try to cover up his differences. What follows is a tender moment where Kala, his adopted mother, comes to the rescue and helps Tarzan realize that he is loved, even despite his differences. But even more importantly, she shows him that deep inside, they’re not that different at all. It is a great showcase of the great influence a caring mother can have. Somehow, they always figure out a way to make their children feel better about themselves and about life. Like many real-life mothers, Kala helps Tarzan discover the direction to go in order to reach his true potential.

Sabor vs. Tarzan

Which is exactly what he does. Tarzan learns to use his uniqueness and his mental capabilities to his advantage, and thus more fully adapt to the jungle. He swings on vines and surfs through the trees. He becomes friends with many different types of creatures. Eventually, he uses his intellect and prowess to save Kerchak, the leader of the family, and prove his worth among the gorillas. In this and other action-packed scenes, Tarzan took animation to a whole new level with its “Deep Canvas” technology. It was amazing to see in 1999 and was something that earlier animated films could only dream of accomplishing. It is still impressive today.

Romance in the vines

While on the topic of animated feats, no commentary would be complete without mentioning yet another incredible job by animator Glen Keane, who was responsible for bringing the adult Tarzan to life. I have already mentioned Keane in past posts (he did Ariel, Beast, and the golden eagle Marahute, among others), but he deserves mention yet again. Pretty much everything from Tarzan’s ape-walk and his skateboarding/surfing on the vines and trees, to the more subtle facial expressions, such as his piercing gaze into Jane’s eyes or the look of awe and curiosity when he learns about the whole new world of humans, is, in my opinion, worthy of admiration. If Keane hadn’t already established his legacy in the animator’s hall of fame by this point, his role in Tarzan would further cement his place among the profession’s greatest.

Kerchak

But Tarzan isn’t the only character in the film. Truth is, I like almost all of the characters in this film. Kerchak is a hulking beast who only wants what’s best for his family. Kala is a strong mother figure, as already mentioned. Minnie Driver gives a very funny performance as the quirky-but-lovable Jane. The only character I didn’t care too much for was Rosie O’Donnell’s Terk (…yes, this was back when Rosie was very popular and good friends with Elmo…no, I didn’t care for Terk even back then).

Tarzan Tantor Terk

Musically, the team at Disney ventured intentionally in a new direction. It decided that for Tarzan, it would move away from the Broadway-style musical that had got them through the 1990’s, and instead they opted for a bit of a hybrid style where the songs were still relevant to the plot and pushed the story forward, but were not sung by the characters on-screen. In the case of Tarzan, this strategy worked quite well. To accomplish this, Disney enlisted the talents of pop great Phil Collins. His musical contributions the film netted both Oscar and Golden Globe awards for the original song “You’ll be in My Heart.” He also won a Grammy for best soundtrack album (I purchased the soundtrack back in this time and really enjoyed it – and to this day, if I happen across “You’ll be in My Heart” on the radio, it totally makes my day; I’m a big fan of that song).

I know that some people didn’t appreciate Disney breaking from formula with the music, but I applaud their decision in this particular case. Because, frankly, it just wouldn’t capture the right spirit of the film to have Tarzan burst into song at any given moment. If that were done, it would have been a completely different film, and I think the creators realized that. So ultimately, I’d say they chose wisely.

Jane

You know how people ask “who is your favorite Disney princess?” I can only lament that Jane can’t be part of that discussion.

In the end, Tarzan was a film that captured my imagination, fed my appetite for awesome animation, and worked its way into my heart with its themes. It was a feast to my eyes and also to my ears. Finally, it also had a picture-perfect ending with Tarzan, Jane and all his friends swinging through the jungle happily ever after. In short, Tarzan is my kind of movie.

Tarzan Parents

Clayton

perfect ending

I haven’t put a ton of thought into this, but I would totally put this film on the short list of “Best Final 30 Seconds of a Film Ever.”

Week 32: The Lion King

A King of a Film

Simba looks to heaven

Originally Released: 1994

Looking back, I think the three most-watched movies for me growing up were Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. These are three movies that I basically had memorized back then, and today, they are three films that I can go back to at any time and still really enjoy.

Thinking about it, I was really lucky to be a child during the time of this Disney renaissance, and with this trio of films in particular. Each of the three is a masterpiece and can claim to be the best Disney has to offer in some way. While Beauty and the Beast is the most spellbinding, heart-warming and inspiring film, and Aladdin is the funniest escape to a far away place, I find The Lion King to be the most powerful and moving animated film in the entire Disney canon.

I still get goosebumps when this appears on the screen and Lebo M. starts his African chant. It is just an incredible film opening.

I still get goosebumps when this appears on the screen and Lebo M. starts his African chant. It is just an incredible film opening.

I said in my post for Beauty and the Beast that it was my favorite of all the Disney films. I stand by that statement, but to me, The Lion King comes in a close second. A VERY close second. From the very first seconds of the film with the rising sun and the African chant, it becomes clear that The Lion King is something special. As incredible as the opening scene and song are, the film amazingly doesn’t let up after that. We meet a superb cast of characters who tell a deeply moving and emotional tale, all the while being accompanied by a marvelous score, beautiful and bold art, and brilliant animation.

The Lion King is loaded with fun, smart, and memorable characters. This collection of characters is every bit as memorable and strong as the cast I praised in AladdinThe Lion King is a great example of how to make each character important to the story and to the film, regardless of whether they are the protagonist, evil henchman, or comic relief sidekick. It helps that the characters are voiced by what was the most star-studded cast of any Disney feature up to that point. Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Nathan Lane, Cheech Marin, Whoopi Goldberg, and all the others do a fantastic job. Particular mention needs to be given to Jeremy Irons, though. After the string of villains in Ursula, Gaston, and Jafar, Irons had a lot to live up to in his voicing of Scar. But he really delivered and continued the streak of making the villain stand out.

Jeremy Irons (and Andreas Deja and his animation team) knocked this one out of the park. This is another great villain.

Jeremy Irons (and Andreas Deja and his animation team) knocked this one out of the park. This is another great villain.

Speaking of standing out, where do I begin with the music? At the time, the score for The Lion King was unlike anything ever heard in a Disney film. The now-legendary Hans Zimmer, who composed the score, turned in what I believe to be the very best work of his career with his blending of African instruments and choruses with a sweeping cinema style. It is no surprise that it won the Oscar for Best Score in 1995 (that had to be the easiest decision ever for the academy). To me this is easily the best score of any Disney film. It is one of my favorite movie scores of all time, and if Disney ever released the complete score, I would snatch it up in a second. Beyond the score, the songs are also great. The combination of Zimmer, Lebo M., Tim Rice, and Elton John proved to be a winning combination.

Color swap

Another great aspect of the film is the art and color used throughout. The Lion King is beautiful to look at. It has lush green in the plants, brilliant blues in the day and nighttime skies, and many other bright and bold colors (just look at the collection of screenshots to see what I mean). It has some incredible backdrops of fields, cliffs, trees, and other landscapes that are artistically enhanced in a wonderful way. Pride Rock and the jungle home of Timon and Pumbaa are full of life and color, while the Elephant graveyard and Post-Scar Pride Rock serve as effective contrasts and capture the bleakness and dire situation the characters are in at those times and places.

Another Disney film, another groundbreaking implementation of animation technology.

Another Disney film, another groundbreaking implementation of animation technology.

In addition to the art, the animation is also a high mark of the film. Interestingly, when Aladdin was completed, the Animation department broke into two groups: one team would work on Pocahontas and the other would do The Lion KingPocahontas was pitched as the superior film, as an automatic home run. And so everybody wanted to work on it and most of the top talent ended up moving to that project (Andreas Deja was the exception because his dream was to work on an animal picture like The Jungle Book). This left The Lion King to the “B-team,” and it was considered more of the  “B-movie” project, with no one really having high expectations for it. The directors practically had to beg to get people to come work on the project. But this so-called “B-team” rose up to the challenge, and in the process really advanced the craft of animating animals to a whole new level. The movements of the characters on the screen had the most believable mixture of human and real animal ever seen in animation at the time of its release in 1994. And in addition to character animation, the team continued the trend of giving scenes an extra “wow factor” with the help of 3d computer animation.

Mufasa appears

But perhaps the strongest part of The Lion King to me is its emotional story of family and its powerful message of personal responsibility. Somehow, The Lion King manages to go beyond most films that merely entertain, and it penetrates deep down to the soul, both emotionally and spiritually. Despite being about wild animals, this movie addresses some of the most basic and important human issues. Things like loving and honoring family (from both a child and parent perspective), respecting all other life, the importance of embracing responsibilities and doing the right thing, and the possibility of redemption all ring true and loud and clear in this film.

There are some definite "burning bush" inspirations here. And I am really glad this is the case.

There are some definite “burning bush” inspirations here. And I am really glad this is the case.

My favorite scene is when Mufasa’s spirit comes back to remind Simba of himself. It was said that during production, the filmmakers looked to stories like Joseph in Egypt and Moses at the burning bush for inspiration in the movie. No doubt this part of the movie benefits from the stories. The result of this is a scene that is not only key to the film, but a scene with spiritual parallels that really resonate with me. Mufasa tells Simba, “You have forgotten who you are, and so have forgotten me. Look inside yourself, Simba. You are more than what you have become.” In real life, perhaps we can feel at times that we forget who we are and we lose sight of who we can become. We just need to but remember who we are as a son or daughter of our Father. And like Simba, we may be tempted to say “How can I go back? I’m not who I used to be.” We all make mistakes, but we can walk that path back and make things right – no matter how difficult the path may be – if we remember who we really are and who we come from. It is a strong, strong message, and a brilliantly done scene.

So with all these things, it is no wonder that The Lion King took the world by storm. To date, it is the highest-grossing traditionally animated film of all time, and if you include 3D animation, the 2nd highest, right behind Toy Story 3. The Lion King firmly cemented animation as a legitimate mainstream form of entertainment, art, and money-making power. Most importantly, though, it completed the triple play of Disney’s amazing renaissance which took kids to an enchanted castle, an Arabian cave of wonders, and a lush African safari. Long live The Lion King.

Circle of Life

Scar and Simba

Hakuna Matata

Week 29: The Rescuers Down Under

The Forgotten Piece of the Disney Renaissance

Rescuers

Originally Released: 1990

As the story goes, Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg pulled the plug on opening weekend. Disney’s 29th animated feature film debuted at #4, earning less than $4 million at the U.S. box office. So the decision was made to immediately stop all marketing and advertising activities for The Rescuers Down Under, and Disney would start over and focus its energy on the next release.

When I first learned about this, it explained somewhat how The Rescuers Down Under could have possibly fallen so far into obscurity, especially considering that it is book-ended chronologically by The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Not having any marketing will definitely decrease the amount of people watching it. But I wondered why Katzenberg was so quick to give up on the film. Surely it could still be profitable with a little more work, right? This and other incidents (removing “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid is a prime example) caused me to begin to question his decision-making skills.

No, Frank, as annoying as you are, you are not the reason for your film's failure at the box office.

No, Frank, as annoying as you are, you are not the reason for your film’s failure at the box office.

However, I decided to dig a little deeper into the issue. I looked at the data to see which films bested The Rescuers Down Under that fateful weekend in November 1990. The Rescuers did manage beat out Ghost, which had been in the top five for 19 consecutive weeks by this time in 1990. However, Disney’s film was out-grossed by Child’s Play 2, which in its second weekend claimed the #3 spot; and at #2 was Rocky V, making its theatrical debut.

Already, this was quite a bit of competition to deal with (ok, maybe not in hindsight. But at the time both were popular franchises). But what was the #1 movie that defeated all these popular contenders? The champion, in its debut weekend, was none other than…Home Alone Home Alone was a big deal, folks. Not only was it the biggest smash hit of 1990, the movie was so big that it became a pop-culture phenomenon (most of us should remember putting our hands on our cheeks and screaming “AAAHHHH!”). It was so popular, it stayed at #1 in the box office for 12 weeks in a row, from November all the way into February of 1991. By the time Home Alone finally ran out of steam, it had raked in over $285 million domestically and $470 million worldwide! That could explain Disney’s decision. Maybe Katzenberg knew what he was doing, after all. Quite simply, there was no challenging the juggernaut that was Home Alone.

fly

It is somewhat unfortunate, though, because in reality The Rescuers Down Under is a significant film for Disney. It was Disney’s first sequel (although this may be a bad thing, considering the stream of crappy sequels Disney produced after this). More significantly, though, it was the first of Disney’s animated films to fully utilize computers to produce the film. No longer did Disney have to rely on hand inking and painting of cells. Rather, the artists would scan the animation drawing into a computer and digitally fill in the colors and shading. In fact, it would be the first 100% digital film ever to be released.

The technology was called the CAPS process, or Computer Animation Production System. This technology represents the early stages of Disney’s partnership with PIXAR, who helped developed much of the system. The results are actually quite astounding, and it was a great leap in animation. The shading, color, and environments enabled by CAPS is far above what was previously imaginable by the old processes.

The only problem was that the artists at Disney didn’t know how to use the darn system. This led to many long hours and much fretting about whether the film could be finished on time. But even though this was the source of much stress to the filmmakers, we don’t really notice because the end result is still very impressive. The Rescuers Down Under is beautiful, even to this day.

climb

Along with the leap in looks, another part I am extremely impressed with is the animation of the golden eagle, Marahute. Animator Glen Keane really did his research on birds, and it shows. The jerky movements of her head and body, her soaring through the air, and the flapping of her wings are all rather remarkable to see in motion throughout this film.

Down Under

These things help make up for the less noteworthy story. While it is the first true sequel Disney would release to theaters, to me it seemed like the main characters Bernard and Bianca are relegated to supporting character roles. Neither Bernard nor Bianca have much of an impact in this story, except at the very end of the film.

Apparently Disney really wanted to make a sequel to The Rescuers. Oliver & Company was originally intended to be a sequel to The Rescuers, but they ended up scrapping the idea because the connection wasn’t really there after some progress into that film. After that happened, I suppose the team must have thought that they could capitalize on America’s infatuation with the Land Down Under during the late 80’s and work The Rescuers into a Crocodile Dundee-type setting. But it seems to me like the connection to the first Rescuers film doesn’t work as well as it could have. Its true that it involves the same characters and a rescue of sorts, but to me it feels like something is still missing to cement that connection to the first film.

That’s not to say that The Rescuers Down Under isn’t worth watching. I liked it, despite its issues. It has some amazing flying scenes involving the eagle, Wilbur the Albatross, and even fireflies. Also, the film is just plain good-looking. For the most part, I do like the Australian setting and characters. Oh, and the lizard Joanna is a pretty funny evil sidekick. Even if it can’t match up to the greatness of its Disney Renaissance brethren or couldn’t beat this at the time of its release, The Rescuers Down Under remains a worthwhile entry in the Disney Canon.

villians

Mine?

Mine?