At the the start of 2013, I decided to embark on a (possibly insane) quest to watch every single feature-length official animated Disney film and to blog about it at my site, Dreampunk.me. You can find all the posts here.
And ever since then, I’ve been making quarterly progress reports here at Pornokitsch, and I am happy, kind of proud, and more than a little incredulous that I’ve...somehow...finally finished. Counting all Walt Disney Animation Studio animated films and the live-action/animated hybrids (Mary Poppins, Bedknobs & Broomsticks, etc.), that’s 62 posts on 62 films on my site, and--including this one--an additional 4 here. Jinkies!
So, for the last time, here we go with my very final Year of Disney post (*sniffles*)...
And these are the films that it covers:
48. The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
49. Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
50. Lilo & Stitch (2002)
51. Treasure Planet (2002)
52. Brother Bear (2003)
53. Home on the Range (2004)
54. Chicken Little (2005)
55. Meet the Robinsons (2007)
56. Enchanted (2007)
57. Bolt (2008)
58. The Princess and the Frog (2009)
59. Tangled (2010)
60. Winnie the Pooh (2011)
61. Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
62. Frozen (2013)
Best Film: Rather than launch right into my answer, I’m going to need to preamble for a moment. Of all of the slices of Disney history I’ve covered so far, this one is, in many ways, the most schizophrenic, as it encompasses both the very uneven period that arose after the Disney Renaissance ended, as well as the Disney Revival or New Renaissance that has emerged in the last 5 years. And even within the second “Dark Age” period, there are flashes of genius, as well as genres/plots that are so divergent from one another that it makes it very difficult to compare them to one another. In many respects, the “Disney formula” was thrown out the window for many of these films. It also has the curious distinction of being host to some of the worst films in the company’s nearly 80 years of cinematic entertainment, as well as some of the best it ever produced, and those “best” are all so fantastic that ranking them has proven very difficult.
And, so with all of that said, I’m going to cheat a bit and say that the best Disney film of the new millennium isn’t one film in particular, but four -Enchanted, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled and Frozen. Or in other words, The Disney Princess Film: Version 3.0, Version 1.0 being the “Someday My Prince Will Come” princesses of yore, Version 2.0 being the feisty Renaissance princesses most of whose stories may still have revolved around finding a man but who were drawn with a much more modern sense of self and purpose, and Version 3.0 being all princess films from Enchanted onwards, all of which finally found the right balance of presenting love stories that allow both princess and paramour to grow and change with one another, without losing themselves...and in the final case, the transformative, deepest love on screen isn’t romantic in nature but the unbreakable bond between two sisters.
I toyed with each of these four subversive Princess films as “Best” for a while, Enchanted for its seamless blend of pitch-perfect satire at the original Disney Princess formula (as well as the classic Disney animated/live-action hybrid musical) and complete sincerity regarding the magic that the early princesses represented; The Princess and the Frog for its Jazz-infused twist not only on a particular Brothers Grimm fairy tale but on, again, the Princess formula, with an African American princess and Indian prince, a 20th-century American South setting, and a central female protagonist who has not the slightest interest in wishing on a star for her dreams to come true but instead plans on doing so through hard work, the personal achievement being all the more satisfying that way; Tangled for its enormously entertaining, comedic, musical, action-adventure reinvention of another classic tale, complete with a strong Rapunzel who can take care of herself but whose confidence is undermined by her monstrous mother, with whom she has a fascinating and complex, albeit toxic relationship, and a suave, narcissistic thief, Flynn Ryder, in place of a prince, who has just as much to learn from her as she does from him; and Frozen, not only for being the most feminist film in Disney history with two rich, complex female protagonists, but also one of its most visually stunning, narratively surprising, musically soaring, and emotionally satisfying, as well.
But, in the end, I realized that what these four films accomplish as a whole - a complete revision of the Disney Princess narrative - might be the most impressive thing about them.
Worst Film: Home on the Range - This isn’t only the worst film of this period, but the hands-down worst film in the history of the Walt Disney Animation Studio. Almost completely incompetent on every level, with a dismally dumb script, forgettable music, interminable pacing (its 75 minutes seems like an eternity), and some of the shoddiest animation I’ve ever seen in a theatrically released animated film, this is sub-sub-sub-direct-to-DVD fare, and is such an embarrassing stain on the Disney name, I’m frankly surprised they even released it (given that there are other notable examples of films that were very far along in development that the company shelved and/or completely reworked before release). Only for people who have a perverse curiosity to see what it’s like when animated cows voiced by Roseanne Barr, Judi Tench, and Jennifer Tilly team up to take on an evil yodelling cattle rustler, but this isn’t even fun on a bad-good level. It’s just dreadful.
Favourite Film (tie): The Emperor’s New Groove, Wreck-It Ralph, The Disney Princess Film, Version 3.0 - This is another tough decision, because, again, just how vastly different a lot of the output during this Disney era is/was, which makes it very difficult to compare them. I didn’t want to repeat my “Best” Selection under the “Favourite” category, but The Disney Princess Film, Version 3.0 is actually that great.
But I also can’t forsake the freewheelingly hilarious The Emperor’s New Groove, which kind of feels like what would happen if Disney did a Looney Tunes version of the Buddy Road Film starring David Spade and John Goodman. But also with a hysterically, flamboyantly evil sorceress played by Eartha Kitt, complete with dimwitted sidekick by Patrick Warburton. Originally an entirely different film - a more traditionally Disney fairy tale musical - and then restructured into... whatever exactly it is now, this could have been an irredeemable mess but instead emerges as the funniest, lightest-on-its-feet animated Disney film ever with running gags and cartoonish mayhem galore. One of those films that almost accidentally and against all logic just *works* and brilliantly at that.
Meanwhile, Wreck-It Ralph seems fresh enough in peoples’ memories that I don’t think I need to discuss it in much detail, but I basically think of it as a video game answer to Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Video game villain Ralph isn’t bad. He’s just programmed that way. Delightful.
Honorable Mention: Meet the Robinsons, an extremely clever and bouncy time travel tale that joyfully smashes together various over-the-top 1950s B-movie sci-fi elements and unexpectedly weaves them together with a genuinely moving story of a lonely orphan who is also a scientific genius, desperate to find a family of people out there who can actually understand him and his particular brand of weirdness. It’s touching, goofy, and as endlessly imaginative as the best of Pixar, although it seems mostly forgotten today already. Oh, and did I mention the villain is a sentient, robotic bowler hat called Doris?
And Bolt is basically The Truman Show, if Truman were a superhero dog and the film started where Truman’s story ended, or rather began, with him escaping his television prison. Only in Bolt’s case, he goes out into the big, bad world not realising he is super-power-less. A meta, clever, tons of fun, CGI-animated action extravaganza that is also warm and sweet and hilarious and all that good stuff. Plus, as a bonus: Disney animation studios surreptitiously making a bold, pointed statement regarding their parent company’s insidious treatment of its child stars, which is rather fascinating, particularly given that Bolt’s owner, Penny, was voiced by Miley Cyrus, back when she was deep in the Disney tween machine.
Most Surprising (Positive): Lilo & Stitch, Brother Bear - Aaaaaand, we have another tie, both films from which I didn’t expect much but which surprised and delighted me. Lilo & Stitch is almost a fractured version of E.T., with a lonely, misunderstood, young girl becoming best friends with an alien, the difference being that this is an incredibly destructive creature who was literally created to lay waste to worlds. The film’s greatest trick is that it manages to tell an extremely affecting story, in which Lilo’s very emotionally realistic anger at her parents’ death (often lashing out at her well-meaning older sister, who has to raise her now) is paralleled in Stitch’s mischief - he was also abandoned by his creator - and the two come to soften each other’s rougher edges, without it ever feeling forced, manipulative, or saccharine.
Meanwhile, Brother Bear is the story of a young Inuit hunter in ancient times whose elder brother is killed by a bear and who hunts down and kills that bear, leading the spirit of his deceased brother to turn him into a bear, as well, in order to teach him compassion and to set him on his proper path. Which may sound overly formulaic or hoary but actually doesn’t play that way. The animation is gorgeous (and from a stylistic point of view, the aspect ratio actually gets wider and both the colors and characters lusher and more vibrant after the transformation), the story truly lovely - and all the more so because it’s done with a surprisingly light touch - and the climax emotionally honest, genuinely heartrending, and not at all what I’d expected.
Most Surprising (Negative): Home on the Range - I actually wasn’t particularly surprised that Home on the Range was bad. But just how brutally, soul-crushingly, mind-numbingly awful it was...that surprised me.
Most Beautiful: Frozen, Tangled, Treasure Planet - If I had to choose just one, it would be Frozen, for its breathtaking, wintry visuals, particularly during Elsa’s Ice Castle sequence, but Tangled also deserves a mention for its similarly lush fairy tale world and most of all for its equally breathtaking floating lantern sequence. And although narratively flawed, Treasure Planet deserves a nod for its steampunk-inspired design, with old-fashioned, golden ships gliding blissfully through a sea of stars and supernovas.
Most Boring: Home on the Range - Hate to kick this one when it’s down, but... Okay, who am I kidding? This one deserves ALL OF THE HATES.
Favourite Character(s): Frozen’s Anna for being the most delightfully goofy, go-gettery Disney princess ever; Frozen’s Elsa for her complex emotional arc and killer solo number (see below); Tangled’s Rapunzel and Flynn for being one of the awesomest and best-suited-for-each-other Disney couple of all time; Enchanted’s Giselle for being such a spot-on amalgamation and skewering of every classic Disney princess, while also developing into a more three-dimensional character over the course of her film; Meet the Robinsons' Lewis, for being the youngest and most touching mad inventor I’ve ever seen.
Least Favourite Character(s): Home on the Range - Everybody. Yup, it’s that bad. With the possible exception of Judi Dench’s character, but I’m still trying to figure out what she was doing in this film in the first place.
Best Song(s): “Let It Go,” Frozen - Could it be any other? This emotional powerhouse of a song isn’t only the musical and visual centerpiece to Disney’s arguably best film since the Renaissance but it works both as a cathartic, character-specific sung monologue for Elsa, who, after countless years of suppressing her powers has had enough (and, as in the best musicals, it is a crucial dramatic moment for the character that could not be excised without destroying her emotional arc), as well as an insanely catchy, gorgeous, sweeping pop power ballad that anyone could relate to.
Also, the entire score of Enchanted, particularly “That’s How You Know,” which is a perfect parody of classic Disney and a joyful, endlessly catchy song in its own right.
Worst Song: “(You Ain’t) Home on the Range,” “Yodel-Addle-Eedle-Idle-Oo,” “Anytime You Need a Friend” from Home on the Range - Take your pick!
Saddest Scene: “Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?” - A young, lonely Anna sings outside her sister’s door, begging her to play with her, not understanding why her former best friend has completely shut her out. It’s done with a light touch, so there’s still a lot of humor in it, which only seems to make the situation even sadder.
Happiest Scene(s): The final scene of Frozen; Rapunzel’s first moments of glory after escaping her tower in Tangled; the glorious Central Park production number of “How Do You Know” in Enchanted.
Scariest Scene(s): Home on the Range! No, just kidding. Sort of. To be honest, there isn’t a lot of pure scary in this batch of movies, however the shadowy spirits on the walls with which Doctor Facilier from The Princess and the Frog deals are deliciously eerie, and the end, where they drag him into the spirit world, leaving a gravestone behind with his name on it is wonderfully macabre.
And...there we have it! Thanks so much for joining me along on this crazy little journey of mine, and if you’re in the mood for more of a similar nature, I’m currently rewatching and blogging about the acclaimed 1980s children’s TV series, Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre over here.