Disney's Five Best Heroes

1. Beast, Beauty and the Beast (1991)

The first male lead in Disney’s fairy tales to have a character arc, the Beast is not an easy person to like at first. It’s only when gentility subdues his angry despair that we care for him. Both Robby Benson’s performance and Glen Keane’s animation make him one of the most versatile characters in all of Disney, and likely all of animation. He can be monstrous in one sequence and endearing in the next. My only major quibble is I don't think we really see the point where he knows he loves Belle. It feels too sudden for me, but that’s more a story problem than a character problem. It does not diminish what a lovable brute this fellow is.

2. Quasimodo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

Quasimodo also has a physical issue to overcome, but his personality is the polar opposite of the Beast. He has a boyish disposition and an imagination (depending on how you read the presence of those gargoyles), which is astonishing since he was raised by a man as cruel as Frollo. The question of man vs. monster takes on a deeper level in this story than just the outward appearance. Both Quasimodo and Frollo are denied Esmeralda’s romantic affection, and Quasimodo provides the loving and understanding response to counter Frollo’s maniacal obsession. His origin fills us with sympathy and his actions fill us with respect, proving yet again that the inside is what matters.

3. Tramp, Lady and the Tramp (1955)

To viewers of any age, the Tramp is a funny and dashing mutt despite, or perhaps because of, his untamed nature. However, it wasn’t until I grew up that I noticed how much his heroism contradicts his nature. Take the sequence where he saves Lady from alley dogs. A child may think they are chasing her because she’s an intruder, but an adult may realize it’s because Lady is in heat (as evidenced by those puppies at the end). That dimension makes us admire the Tramp even more. Instead of joining the other dogs in the chase, he fights them off in her defense. His nobility is strong enough to overcome his animal instinct (at least until night falls, nudge, nudge).

4. Basil, The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

The detective has always been a fascinating character type for me, and Basil was one of the first detectives I ever watched. Based more off of Henry Higgins than Sherlock Holmes, Basil is the type of character that is supremely intelligent yet socially inept. I’ve seen that type in various pieces of animation, but Basil is a more pleasant version of it than, say, Jimmy Neutron or Dexter from Dexter's Laboratory. He doesn’t forget his duty to vanquish criminals, though he is prone to overacting when he is outwitted and to becoming crazily happy when he can repel his enemy. His ego amuses us and frustrates the characters, but he still has the mind of a gentleman and the heart of a champion.

5. Bernard, The Rescuers (1977) and The Rescuers Down Under (1990)

In both Rescuers movies, Bernard shows that the meekest possible creature can be a great big hero. Much of that is due to Bob Newhart’s charming performance. Hearing Newhart’s hesitations and underplaying make Bernard’s fretting and attempts to sound brave funnier and more affable. The voice is a perfect contrast to Bernard’s burgeoning leadership, a development that pays off handsomely in The Rescuers Down Under. He may be a hapless little guy, but his rescues show he makes up in courage what he lacks in size.

Just Missed the Cut: Aladdin, Flynn Rider, Prince Naveen

Disney's Five Best Heroines

1. Mulan, Mulan (1998)

Skip to 5:14 of this video

Aside from maybe Esmeralda, Mulan is the only Disney heroine who can legitimately kick butt. (For all their flair, Kida and Rapunzel don’t hurt anybody.) Like Bernard, she saves the day almost inadvertently. Her original motives for her masquerade were boosting her self-worth and saving her father, not serving her country. She pulls off her disguise for a while and performs great feats all by herself, rarely needing help from the supporting characters. (In fact, she’s probably the heroine who needs the least amount of help from the sidekicks.) Hers may be the most impossible odds stacked against a Disney heroine, and she overcomes them with style and intelligence.

2. Belle, Beauty and the Beast (1991)

An inevitable choice, yes, but a deserved one. Beauty and the Beast wouldn’t quite be the same without Belle’s sharp and discerning mind. From the beginning, she takes nothing at face value. For not one second does she consider Gaston attractive, and only once does she show any fear at the Beast’s physical strength. Instead, she treats him like the spoiled brat he is, human or monster. Of course, she helps him uncover the good heart within him, and she even falls in love with him without knowing he would turn human. Belle’s insight is based on souls instead of appearances, certainly making her Disney’s deepest and most thoughtful princess.

3. Tiana, The Princess and the Frog (2009)

In addition to being one of Disney’s two most gorgeous princesses (for the scarce twenty minutes we get of her as a human), Tiana is a rather well-measured character. She proudly asserts her hard-working attitude in our faces, but she shows enough vulnerability to avoid being robotic. Her work ethic is portrayed as both a positive trait (her nest egg isn’t bad for a 19-year-old) and a negative trait (she’s so overconfident in her plans that she completely shuts down whenever something goes wrong). It’s a decent personal flaw as well as a humorous converse to the apathetic Prince Naveen. Add in her humor, her sweetness and Anika Noni Rose’s sparkling performance and you’ve got a girl deserving of attention.

4. Cinderella, Cinderella (1950)

Of the heroines from Walt’s films, Cinderella was a step toward the active girls we’ve seen over the last twenty years. She admittedly is not developed enough to carry the movie herself, but she still shows enough personality to earn our support. She admirably tries to stay positive through her ordeal, and I love how she strives to keep her stepfamily from getting the utmost satisfaction out of her humiliation. It is only after Lady Tremaine’s two cruelest measures that we ever see Cinderella cry. The rest of the time, or at least whenever she does not have the Fairy Godmother’s help, she shows a patience and levelheadedness that already befits royalty.

5. Jasmine, Aladdin (1992)

Jasmine is the other most gorgeous princess I mentioned earlier. She really seems to share traits with Aladdin, making their pairing one of the more natural of Disney’s romantic couples. She is just as improvisational as Aladdin, leading to some very funny results when they meet and when they face Jafar at the end. Plus, she has an innate knack for knowing real worth when she sees it. The fact that Aladdin is devoid of any social status never crosses her mind as she falls in love with him (not to mention she clearly keeps her pet tiger around for his friendliness, not for his exotic species). To Aladdin, her beauty, wit and perception make her both a catch and an equal.

Just Missed the Cut: Ariel, Esmeralda, Rapunzel

All screencaps are from Magical Screencaps.


PJ said...

Good first list, although I don't think Basil and Tiana deserve to be so high. In my opinion Aladdin replaces Basil and Tiana doesn't make the top 5.

Anonymous said...

Okay, the first two heroes were obvious choices, but I love that you included the Tramp. Especially since I feel that The Lady and The Tramp doesn't get as much attention as it deserves. I am disappointed that Robin Hood didn't even make it into the runner ups. His arrogance is so palpable and yet so lovable at the same time.

I agree that Tiana wouldn't make my top 5, I would definitely place her after Ariel and Rapunzel. Tiana just felt too forced to me, but that may come in part from my general underwhelmed feelings toward Princess and the Frog. I like Ariel because I feel that her materialism makes her incredibly relatable, and she also shows appealing gumption and stubbornness.

I really hope that top villains and side kicks both appear this week.

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