Saturday, January 29, 2011

"Rob Gordon's All-Time Top 5": Wilde.Dash's 10 Favorite Disney Animated Features

As I write this, Rotten Tomatoes is highlighting a ranked list that purports to count down Disney's official 50 animated features from worst to best using a weighted ranking system that takes into account the Tomato meter rankings, number of reviews, etc. etc.  The results are....well, let's just say I don't agree with them.  The Disney animated canon is a prickly, highly subjective space for debate for obvious reasons.  Namely: a good chunk of the films exist as some sort of universal dictionary definition for children's cinema, and as such are consumed (in excess) when we are children.  We bond with them, love them, and have our own allegiances to them.  A definitive ranking system?  Well, that's not going to cut it.  As we age, it gets harder to divorce newer Disney movies with our perception of what Disney was when we were younger.   Or, we build up intolerances for that movie our younger sibling ran on repeat, though we loved it before they were around.  So, what I'm saying is, I guess, that critical rankings don't really count here, and while I can agree that Home on the Range was a piece of crap, I get downright indignant when Rotten Tomatoes tells me Robin Hood wasn't worth my time.  What does all this reflection mean?  A personal list, of course.  With a huge nod to the fact that this is 100% subjective, I present my top 10 favorite Disney animated features (using the official list, of which it should be noted Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and all Pixar collaborations are not a part of):

10. Three Caballeros (1944):  The Three Caballeros is less a feature film, more the oddest travelogue you will ever see.  Donald Duck does South America; introducing us to the birds, the culture, and the ladies before a psychedelic finale of dancing cacti, blossoming star flowers, and fireworks.  It's a minor work in the Disney canon, and suffers from continuity and 1940's cultural consumption problems galore.  However, the sibling always loved it, and I grew to love it too.  Three Caballeros is like jumping into a vintage travel poster.  It's idealized/romanticized, frequently just wrong, varnished with a bit of touristy glimmer, and representative of something that just doesn't exist.   

9. Robin Hood (1973): Robin Hood is a product of its times, and as such, it occasionally feels less like a Disney venture, and more like the tongue-in-cheek hipster whimsy of an outside filmmaker.  Wes Anderson used Robin Hood references and musical cues in his Fantastic Mr. Fox, and indeed, there's something 'different' about this movie.  I've always loved Robin Hood not because of the animation, but because of the characters.  Apart from being well, adorably designed, this version of Robin Hood's ensemble group has personality to spare.  There's an attitude and a camaraderie in this gang of merry animals, and even the smallest rabbit has its character fully fleshed out.

8. Cinderella (1950) / Aladdin (1992):  These two got thrown on the list because in a way, I'm a little tired of both of them.  So, depending on what point I happen to be at in life, I might choose one over the other.  In first grade, I was crazy for Aladdin.  I must have seen it a million times between repeat screenings at home and all those viewings in carpool vans and in the living rooms of friends.  It was gorgeous and glamorous and filled with sparkly objects and humor.  Thus, I've OD'd on it.  Cinderella, on the other hand, is a luminescent fairy tale with memorable supporting characters and a quiet grace.  My sister loves it, which naturally means I've seen it another million times, and there's something about the story between the floating bubbles and talking mice that can become taxing.

7. 101 Dalmatians (1961): This film has got style, plain and simple.  Angular character design, draftsmanship, a slightly rougher (but artistically unique) look that feels made from heavy lead pencils and blobs of color so different than all of those fairy tales that had come before.  The opening sequences chronicling the meeting of Roger and Anita/Pongo and Perdita  are classic:  identical pets and owners strolling down London streets, the spidery arrival of Cruella De Vil,  the frantic rubbing of that half dead puppy back to life...even before the dogs get voices of their own, the film works.

6. Lady and the Tramp (1955):  When I was about 4 or 5, I loved this movie. I had lifesize plushes of Lady and Tramp, you know, the whole nine yards.  A few years ago now, I watched Lady and the Tramp after an extended hiatus and fell in love with it for completely different reasons.  It was no longer a cute little animated romance with dogs, it was now a beautiful, intricate film that not only managed to adequately anthropomorphize household pets and sweep them into an epic love story, but also to fully engage the senses.  So much of Lady and the Tramp is tactile or plays, discreetly, with canine sensory overload and adapts it into something visually poetic.  The cobblestones and puddles in the final chase scene are unbelievably rendered, the way Jock and Trusty sniff at them (the way Trusty sniffs at anything) brings you there too.  The light that refracts through the glass bottles, the satiny elements that come along in the nursery, the dankness of the pound, the way the Siamese cats claw at the table runner, it's all done so well it's actually tangible. 

5. Fantasia (1940):  Again, I feel I'm having a bit of the deja vu...

4. The Jungle Book (1967):  For me, The Jungle Book is about the perfect marriage of image and sound.  It's from Disney's scratchy and sketchy design period, and the aesthetic matches the jazzy soundtrack beautifully.  The Jungle Book has atmosphere in spades.  Putting it on is like listening to a worn out record that crackles and pops in that way the remastered version doesn't.  There are few things that feel like this film.  Also, I was always really upset that I couldn't have a panther for a guardian too. 

3. Peter Pan (1953):  It may be one of the biggest offenders in terms of political correctness, but I'm an absolute sucker for all things Peter Pan and will admit that the various adaptations and appropriations of the story are around 80% guaranteed to make me come really close to crying.  I just don't want to grow up, is the thing, guys.  I've always loved Peter Pan, though.  The story includes all the right magical elements; pirates, pixies, mermaids, flying, jungles, 'Indians', islands, crocodiles, London, tribal bands of roving would-be friends.  It's bittersweet, but comforting.  Though Disney's version isn't totally faithful to the Barrie play, it's dilution is charming, and leaves a mark after a life time of returns to Neverland.

2. Alice in Wonderland (1951): I've gone off on tangents about this in the past, most recently in December.

1. Sleeping Beauty (1959):  The very first time I saw Sleeping Beauty, when I was very small, it terrified me.  I've always been a tad embarrassed about admitting this, as I grew into a relatively fearless cinemaphile, but it's true.  Maleficent was one villain who made me a shrieky mess of spittle, and remember running into the other room to beg my aunt to turn off the movie.  Of course, I got over that pretty fast, and for me Sleeping Beauty became the quintessential example of not only Disney's fairy tale retellings, but of the brilliance of their animation in general.  It's an exceptionally beautiful film that demonstrates an attention to detail, a use of light and dark and color so extraordinary that it verges on painstaking.  Everything is hand-inked, and it famously made use of the largest spectrum of paint shades of any Disney work.  It's a work of art in every respect, and renders an otherwise shallow story into a magical, utterly transportive bit of imagination.  Sleeping Beauty is a dream in which the princess may be the least important part.  Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, Maleficent, the epic battle of good vs. evil told in swirling galaxies of color and positively acidic greens, the powerful use of Tchaikovsky's ballet score, the delicious perfection of that toppling unbaked birthday cake; it's perfect.  That's all there is to it.

Honorable mention:  While the movie itself got edged out by the older fare, I have a soft spot for Lilo and Stitch and feel it's worth noting that Stitch is pretty much my favorite Disney character in the canon.   He's a charmer, that one...

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