1. Fantasia (1940)

I won’t pretend this is an easy film to sit through, but I believe it is the Disney film in which the concept is the most audacious, the staging is the most inspired and the animation is the most accomplished. It is a celebration of honest imagination without any predetermined notion of its audience. It is what it is, and you can either like it or not. In my book, it could very well be the best animated feature of them all.

2. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Snow White is proof that clichés can only be born when something is good enough to imitate. Disney and other studios have tried repeatedly to duplicate the Snow White formula, but none succeed as well as the original. The characters are richly envisioned, the world is expertly realized and the story is proficiently told. America’s very first animated film is everything an animated film should be.

3. Dumbo (1941)

Almost Disney’s shortest feature, this movie makes up for its conciseness just by being funny, tender and beautifully simple. I consider this movie a fantastical parable for the worth of the disabled. Dumbo’s large ears resemble a birth defect, and his late delivery from the stork may suggest a post-term pregnancy. People ridicule him for his disability, but then he puts that same blemish to effect in an absurdly satisfying “Take that!” moment. Dumbo shows that the handicapped have feelings and are capable of great things. (Consequently, the fact that Dumbo has never been a Special Olympics mascot disappoints me.)

4. Bambi (1942)

This is a movie where I feel the art and animation could not have been improved upon. It relies almost entirely on visuals to tell its story, something that few color and sound movies try to do for their majority. (Not even WALL-E and the "Recobbled Cut" of The Thief and the Cobbler maintain it for too long.) The minimal amount of dialogue and the astounding animation help Bambi achieve its mesmerizing blend of realism and fantasy.

5. Beauty and the Beast (1991)

The romance could have benefitted from a few extra minutes of screen time, but it’s hard to fault the first animated film nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award. It combines a chilly atmosphere with a musical comedy structure that entertains to no end. It popularized the use of computers to paint the characters and to build the environments, creating a new breed of hand-drawn splendor. Its breakthroughs and accolades make Beauty one of animation’s most important movies, and its script and score make it deserving of that status.

6. Pinocchio (1940)

The dark elements in this movie make it acts a little unpleasant, but Pinocchio must still be recognized for its boundless strengths. It is by far the least bothersome of Disney's episodic narratives. The episodes add up to a finale, unlike in tediously periodic features like Robin Hood. The comedy relief provides plum hilarity in the right doses, and the artistry is just priceless. Pinocchio features some of the most marvelous effects animation and multiplane photography animation fans will ever see.

7. One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)

In a sense, Dalmatians initiated a decline for Disney animation. The film’s reliance on humor and its use of Xerox machines for inking character cels were both misused in films like The Sword in the Stone and The Aristocats. Nevertheless, this is my pick for Disney's best animated comedy. It has a fine balance of verbal humor and visual gags tied into a clever story, and its characters are among Disney’s funniest, especially Cruella de Vil, her witless henchmen and the bumbling Colonel. This one never fails to make me smile.

8. Sleeping Beauty (1959)

This movie is clearly the least personal of Walt’s three fairy tales. The characters are not as engaging as those in Snow White and Cinderella, despite those delightful fairies and that marvelous Maleficent. However, neither of those other two films have the grandeur Sleeping Beauty has. The “moving illustration” look the artists created is splendiferous beyond description. Aside from Fantasia, it is the Disney classic I would most like to see in a theater.

9. The Little Mermaid (1989)

My generation is indebted to this movie. It's arguable that Who Framed Roger Rabbit was the true harbinger for the Disney Renaissance, but Mermaid is the direct precedent for Beauty and the Beast and other animated musicals. The music (both the songs and the underscore) is spotless, the animation is bright and fluid, and, remarkably, I don’t know if I would change anything about these characters. This is a wonderful movie that continues to impress me.

10. Lady and the Tramp (1955)

Even against the frights in Pinocchio and the religious overtones in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Lady and the Tramp would rank near the top of Disney's most adult narrative films. Children can enjoy characters like the Tramp and the neighbor dogs, but much of the dialogue covers topics only adults would recognize, such as Darling’s appetite during her pregnancy and the implied intimacy of Lady and the Tramp’s date. But none of these elements are crude or grotesque, like the adult jokes in today’s animated films. Lady is palpable proof that animated films can tastefully appeal to all audiences (and its animation is top-notch, too).

Five More Disney Favorites:
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
Cinderella (1950)
The Emperor's New Groove (2000)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
The Rescuers (1977)


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