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Heigh-ho! Heigh-ho! It’s off to the DVD shelf we go to find the five best animated movies from The Walt Disney Company.
The Walt Disney Company has a reputation for quality family films that are also animated. Some of them are based on classic fairy tales, others on books, and still others on cultural legends. They win awards. The songs stick in your head long after the credits roll. And they are vastly entertaining for both kids and their parents, even though some of the movies are 40, 50, and 60+ years old. Many of the movies on this list feature techniques that Disney’s animators and creative talent either pioneered or perfected like the multi-plane camera, xerography, and computer software programs. You can read more about that kind of thing from animation historians like John Canemaker and Michael Barrier. If you just want to watch, grab one of these… the first one should come as no surprise.
Best Disney Animated DVDs by Tom Mason
The Best You Can Get
When a magic mirror tells an evil Queen that her stepdaughter, Snow White, will soon be the fairest in the land, the Queen’s jealousy gets the better of her. She orders a huntsman to kill Snow White. But the would-be assassin has a change of heart: who could kill anyone so beautiful? Instead he abandons Snow White in the woods, telling her never to return to the castle.
With the help of friendly woodland animals, Snow discovers the cottage of the seven dwarfs: Dopey, Sleepy, Doc, Grumpy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Happy. She becomes their houseguest and surrogate mother, much to the delight of all except Grumpy. But the Queen soon discovers where Snow is and plots to kill her with a hideous disguise and a poisoned apple.
“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is widely regarded as one of the most important animated films of all time. It was Walt Disney’s first feature-length cartoon and its success gave Disney the financial boost to continue. The film was also awarded an honorary Oscar, is in the U.S. National Film Registry and the American Film Institute calls it one of the country’s Top 100 films of all time. Additionally, the film set the standard for both story and animation for all subsequent Disney films.
All that aside, and despite being over 70 years old, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is very much an enjoyable family film. There’s danger, intrigue, a classic evil villain, and seven little people whose names you could guess just by their body language and expression.
Based on the late nineteenth century book by Carlo Collodi, “Pinocchio” is the story of a wooden puppet who longs to be a real boy! The Blue Fairy agrees to help Pinocchio achieve that dream, provided he can prove himself worthy. She assigns a tiny umbrella-toting bug, Jiminy Cricket in his first appearance, to be the puppet-boy’s conscience. Forever innocent and always trying hard to help, Pinocchio is quickly tricked by a con man, travels to Pleasure Island, smokes a cigar, is befriended by a delinquent, and nearly turned into a donkey! It doesn’t help that his nose grows whenever he tells a lie, either. While searching for his wooden creation, the toy maker Geppetto is eaten by the giant whale Monstro. With the help of Jiminy, Pinocchio eventually pulls himself together and rescues his “father,” earning him real boy status, and making Geppetto’s dream come true as well.
“Pinocchio” is one of the great animated movies of all time. Heart-warming, funny, action-packed, and beautifully animated, it’s a deeply satisfying story. Some of the sequences are quite frightening for younger viewers and contemporary parents might be shocked to see the wooden boy smoking. Viewers who can get past that will be richly rewarded.
Many of the songs in the film are considered classics. The film won an Academy Award for “Best Song” for “When You Wish Upon A Star,” which has become a signature Disney tune.
A new baby elephant named Jumbo, Jr. makes his debut at the circus. Unfortunately, he’s cruelly ridiculed by almost everyone because of his enormous ears, and forced to perform humiliating feats in the ring. He also gets a name change: Dumbo. Aside from his mother, his only friend is a fast-talking mouse named Timothy. Once Dumbo leaves the circus and is on his own, the sad little elephant runs into a pack of comical crows that help him discover his true purpose. Once he learns how to control his ears, Dumbo becomes the world’s first and best flying elephant!
The idea that everyone has a special ability and the things that appear to be defects are actually useful and that different is better, all resonate in Dumbo, along with a mother’s never-ending love for her child and an unlikely friendship between a mouse and an elephant. “Dumbo” is a remarkable animated accomplishment.
It’s “Pooh x 3” in this collection of classic animated shorts. According to the documentary included, when Walt Disney acquired the rights to A.A. Milne’s classic books, he believed that no one in the U.S. would flock to a Pooh movie. So he made three shorts to release one at a time both to save money and build awareness. Once “Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree,” “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day” (1968) and “Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too!” (1974) were finished, the studio later released all three as one feature-length motion picture. The Disney Studio designs don’t match the classic illustrations by Ernest Shepard, but the three Poohs are gentle and fun classics. The voices are exceptional and the animation, which incorporates pages from the books, is inspired. The songs by Robert and Richard Sherman (who also wrote the songs for “Mary Poppins” and many other Disney films) fit naturally into the stories. The first short, “Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree,” is worth the price by itself. Each of these 30-minute shorts is a movie unto itself that can be watched over and over again.
If you have a litter of Dalmatian puppies and you don’t sell them to Cruella De Vil, then you’d better keep the dogs locked up! After Roger and Anita refuse to sell their fifteen newborn puppies, Cruella and her comically evil henchman steal them.
When the traditional human methods fail to turn up the missing pups, it’s up to the Dalmatians’ parents, Pongo and Perdita, to try. Using the “Twilight Bark” (kind of like a canine IM) they track them down through an underground network of dogs and other animals and discover that Ms. De Vil has collected a total of 99 puppies to turn into a (gasp) fur coat!
Many of Disney’s animated films reveal secret worlds co-existing with humans and the scenes with the dogs and animals are brilliantly staged, funny and imaginative. De Vil is broadly comical, but also very scary – you really believe she’d make a coat of many puppies. The stylized, sketchy look of the animation is packed with long-legged characters, sharp angles and great details of urban London and the English countryside. Based on the book by Dodie Smith, who also wrote “I Capture the Castle”. The Disney Studio remade this as a live-action movie in 1996, but the winner is still the animated version.
You will be happy with any of these
Under the streets and in the dark corners of Victorian England exists a parallel world of mice and rats, and the world’s smartest rodent detective, Basil of Baker Street. When Olivia Flaversham’s toymaker father is kidnapped, she enlists the aid of Basil and his new, and faithful, companion, Dr. Dawson. Basil is brilliant and observant, but he’s not always right, and he’s sometimes undone by his over-eagerness as he drags Dawson and Olivia from one clue to the next.
The trail leads to the criminal mastermind and Basil’s long-standing nemesis, Professor Ratigan, dripping with evil delight and voiced by Vincent Price. Ratigan is preparing a “crime that will live in infamy” and he needs Mr. Flaversham’s help. But what does an evil genius need with a toymaker? To build a robot duplicate of the Queen so that Ratigan can replace the real one and take over the world of mice.
The film is based on the book “Basil of Baker Street” by Eve Titus and Paul Galdone, which drew inspiration from the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Sherlock Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone as the great detective. “The Great Mouse Detective” is moody and atmospheric and filled with period detail amidst its antic fun. The action-packed finale takes place inside Big Ben, the giant British clock, during a thunderstorm and is heart-stoppingly animated. Two of the film’s four directors, John Musker and Ron Clements, would later go on to work on “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin.”
A little baby boy is discovered in the jungle by Bagheera the black panther. The baby is taken to a wolf and raised as one of her cubs. Ten years later, Shere Khan, the man-eating tiger returns to the jungle and Bagheera knows Mowgli must return to the man village for his own safety and be with his own kind. That’s the last place the jungle-loving boy wants to go and it takes the efforts of Bagheera, a free-spirited bear named Baloo, a jungle filled with animals and a pretty girl to keep Mowgli safe from Khan while they convince him to return to human civilization.
Based very loosely on the Mowgli stories by Rudyard Kipling, “The Jungle Book” is essentially a “road” movie of Mowgli’s journey through the jungle and its dangers until he reaches civilization. It’s a fun, and occasionally frightening, treat with lively animation, terrific characters that are well-voiced by veteran actors like Phil Harris, Sebastian Cabot, George Saunders and musician Louis Prima as King Louie.
The infectious songs are by Disney stalwarts Robert and Richard Sherman. The song “The Bare Necessities,” which was not written by them, was nominated for an Academy Award.
In the Pride Lands of Africa, the Lion King Mufasa and Queen Sarabi welcome their newborn cub, Simba. That’s bad news for the King’s conniving brother, Scar, who realizes that he will no longer inherit the throne. What’s an evil sibling to do? He plots to kill both his brother and his nephew.
Scar succeeds in killing Mufasa during a wild wildebeest stampede stirred up by his hyena henchman. Simba blames himself and Scar suggests he leaves the Pride. Scar assumes the leadership and proceeds to wallow in excess, even letting the hyenas have free reign.
Meanwhile, Simba is “adopted” by Timon, a fast-talking meerkat, and Pumbaa, a slow-thinking warthog. He falls in with their lackadaisical “Hakuna Matata” approach to life. It takes the love of a good lioness to lure Simba back to the Pride, confront his past, discover the truth about his father’s death and get rid of Uncle Scar. Only then can he claim what is rightfully his.
“The Lion King” is the king of all lion movies and one of the most successful animated films of all time. Sometimes heartbreaking and other times uplifting, this action-packed adventure is also a thoughtful meditation on responsibility. Simba must learn to be the leader that his father was and restore pride to the Pride.
The “Circle of Life” is the theme of the movie and the story never backs away from that. Animals are born, animals die and some animals kill and eat other animals. Some of the scenes may be too intense for younger children so parents might want to watch it first if that’s a concern.
Fa Mulan is several steps away from the traditional Disney princess. She’s not waiting for her prince to come, she doesn’t need rescuing, and she never sings about her lovesick heart. What she does is grab a weapon and try to smack down a Hun invasion. Of course, it helps that she also has a smart-aleck dragon sidekick named Mushu.
When China is invaded by the Huns, Mulan’s father is too old to fight and would surely die. Mulan disguises herself as a boy and takes his place in the army. She’s quickly in the thick of battle where her ingenuity and fast-action save the day, at least temporarily. When her identity is discovered and she’s sent home, Mulan is able to use her skills again to save the Emperor from the deceptive Huns.
Eddie Murphy plays the dragon Mushu who needs to redeem himself by helping Mulan, even if his antics are more often than not humorously inept. It’s the same sort of wacky sidekick he’d play in the “Shrek” movies and just as sidekicky as Robin Williams’ genie in “Aladdin.”
The animation is spectacular and the fight sequences, aided by computer animation, are thrilling. The film has just the right blend of action, humor, and history. With her actions, intelligence and strong will, Mulan is a positive role model for women in an ancient society and it’s a lesson that’s just as applicable today.
After Chicken Little was spectacularly wrong a year earlier when he claimed the sky was falling, who’s going to believe him the second time? No one. How about if one of his friends, Fish Out Of Water, is kidnapped by space aliens? Still no one! How about when the aliens attack the town of Oakey Oaks? Now Chicken Little has everyone’s attention, and they have to hope it’s not a case of too Little, too late.
In this “sequel” to the classic Chicken Little story the little Chicken with the big head must convince everyone that this time more than the sky is going to fall unless they pay attention. Even Chicken Little’s father has a hard time trusting his son again, but the father-son bond proves to be stronger than any alien.
“Chicken Little” doesn’t follow the typical “rescue the girl/fairy princess” structure of a lot of animated films – it’s a lot more sit-comish and jokey. There are quick edits, snappy dialogue, contemporary music, and action that never lets up once the aliens are revealed.
The computer animation is not as slick as that in the Pixar films, but it keeps the action flowing and the jokes flying. The movie was created by many of the same people who made Disney’s “The Emperor’s New Groove” and “Chicken Little” has a lot of that film’s wacky sensibilities.