Ranking the Disney Renaissance Films

Now that I’ve reviewed all ten films from the Disney Renaissance, what more logical way to follow it up than by ranking them all in a top 10 list? If you’ve read my reviews for the ten films, you may already know where each one ranks based on their numerical score . If you haven’t read them, I’ve included links to said reviews within each entry, so you can get a more in-depth idea of my opinion of them.

Now, let’s roll back the clock to the 1990s. Here are the 10 Disney Renaissance films, ranked from least to greatest.

 

10: The Rescuers Down Under

Rescuers Down Under

While The Rescuers Down Under holds the distinction of being Disney’s first ‘true’ sequel, it also holds the dubious honor of being the weakest movie of the Disney Renaissance. The animation is great, but the story has a notable lack of direction, with the returning characters from The Rescuers feeling shoehorned into an unrelated story. Although there is some fun to be had, The Rescuers Down Under ultimately falls flat as both a sequel and as its own movie, as neither of its two halves can find unity. Read the full review.

9: Pocahontas

Pocahontas

Pocahontas boasts beautiful animation and a great soundtrack, and even some fun characters (that Wiggins!). But Pocahontas and John Smith can be a little on the bland side, the villain never lives up to his potential, and some story elements just feel a little clunky. Pocahontas is a better movie than it’s often made out to be, but it still has some notable flaws that prevent it from living up to the majority of Disney films from its time. Read the full review.

8: Aladdin

Aladdin

Most Disney fans would be ready to form a lynch mob and lay siege to my castle for only ranking Aladdin at number 8.

Aladdin is a fun movie, no doubt. But the majority of its characters and its story are a bit on the generic side. Thankfully, Robin Williams’ iconic Genie is one of the best of all Disney characters, and he, along with the great soundtrack, help liven things up. I might not put Aladdin on the same pedestal as most, but it would be impossible to not be delighted every time that Genie is on screen. Read the full review.

7: The Lion King

The Lion King

If putting Aladdin relatively low on this list would make me a target for mobs of Disney fans, than Lion King’s placement would turn things into a full-on townspeople versus Frankenstein monster ordeal.

The Lion King is one of Disney’s most beloved films, and one of the most popular animated movies of all time. But while The Lion King succeeds in a number of areas – including a great story and some memorable characters – it falls short in others. Some of the comedic characters clash with the movie’s otherwise serious tone, and the songs are a bit inconsistent, and don’t live up to some of the other soundtracks of the Disney Renaissance. A really good movie, but it’s not quite the king. Read the full review.

6: Hercules

Hercules

Hercules is one of the more underappreciated films from the Disney Renaissance era. It produces laugh-a-minute gags and combines them with colorful animation and a pretty good soundtrack. Best of all is its villain. Hades is one of Disney’s best bad guys, as he steals every scene he’s in and runs away with it. It is admittedly a bit formulaic, but Hercules was one of the most fun Disney movies of its time. Read the full review.

5: Tarzan

Tarzan

Another underrated gem, Tarzan ended the Disney Renaissance on a high note. Tarzan boasts exquisite animation that blended hand-drawn and digital visuals in groundbreaking ways. It also features strong characters and emotional moments. If it weren’t for the lackluster comic relief and inconsistencies in its songs, it might rank even higher. Read the full review.

4: The Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid is the film that launched Disney’s successful run known as the Disney Renaissance. That already gives it some brownie points. But the best part is that it remains one of Disney’s most entertaining movies even today. The animation is lovely, and the soundtrack is one of Disney’s best. Aside from Prince Eric being an incredibly bland character that undermines the whole love story at the center of the film, The Little Mermaid tells a charming tale and features Disney’s first truly memorable heroine with Ariel, and one of their best villains with Ursula. Read the full review.

3: Mulan

Mulan

Mulan has never been as renowned as the likes of The Lion King or The Little Mermaid, but it was one of the brightest stars of the Disney Renaissance. Mulan features strong storytelling, some good song work, great action sequences, and a unique and vibrant visual style. Best of all is Mulan herself, one of Disney’s best characters, and their strongest female lead until Frozen introduced us to Anna and Elsa. The only downside is the so-so villain. But Mulan remains one of Disney’s better films, carried by one of its strongest characters. Read the full review.

2: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Hunchback of Notre Dame

Yet another Disney movie that doesn’t get the credit it deserves, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was divisive in its day for its mature themes and dark subject matter. But those aspects are the very things that make The Hunchback of Notre Dame such an unique entry in the Disney canon. It boasts great animation and some of Disney’s most powerful songs. It also claims more fleshed out characters than most Disney fair, including one of the studio’s most sympathetic heroes in Quasimodo, and undoubtedly its darkest villain in Claude Frollo. Read the full review

1: Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast.

Few Disney films are as iconic as Beauty and the Beast, and it’s with good reason. Few Disney films are as good as Beauty and the Beast.

Beauty and the Beast remains a magical film, with a romantic, heartwarming story, beautiful animation, an absolutely stunning soundtrack, and one of Disney’s most memorable casts of characters. From Belle and the Beast to Lumiere and Cogsworth to Gaston and LeFou, Beauty and the Beast features a strong cast of characters so charming that they are synonymous with the Disney brand itself. It’s everything Disney does, done right. Read the full review.

Tarzan Review

Tarzan

When Tarzan was released in 1999 it marked the final chapter in the Disney Renaissance era. The critical and commercial success Disney attained with The Little Mermaid in 1989 that continued throughout the 90s would soon give way to the booming scene of Pixar, Dreamworks and CG animation. For the next decade Disney would enter another slump, only regaining their dominance in animation in recent years. So while Tarzan marked the end of an era, it can at least boast that it ended that era on a high note.

 

Tarzan’s story takes place in a rainforest on the coast of Africa, where a couple and their infant son have taken refuge after escaping a burning ship. The couple is eventually killed by a leopard called Sabor, but the infant is saved by a gorilla named Kala (Glenn Close), who raises the human infant as her own. Kala lost her own child to Sabor, and immediately becomes attached to the human child, who she names Tarzan.

Tarzan (Tony Goldwyn) grows up among the apes, accepting them as his own kind and adopting their behavior, even though the troop leader Kerchak refuses to accept him as one of their own. But Tarzan’s world is turned upside down when a trio of humans, including the beautiful Jane Porter (Minnie Driver) and plotting Clayton (Brian Blessed), make their way into the jungle.

The film tells a good, well-paced story that benefits greatly from its hero and his interactions with the two worlds that come into his life.

TarzanTarzan himself is one of Disney’s better male heroes, with his curiosity and interest about the world around him making him just as curious and interesting to viewers. His relationship with Jane feels more earnest than a lot of Disney romances, since it’s built more on their fascination with each other, instead of the usual ‘pretty girl meets pretty boy’ setup of Disney fare. But it’s the love Tarzan shares with his adoptive mother Kala that provides the film’s most moving moments.

Clayton is an underappreciated villain. He doesn’t always have the strongest presence, but the moments where he manipulates Tarzan’s naivety make him an effectively despicable member of the Disney villain canon. And the booming vocals of Brian Blessed help enrich his villainous personality.Tarzan

On the downside, Tarzan’s two sidekicks, a gorilla named Turk (Rosie O’Donnel) and an elephant named Tantor (Wayne Knight) feel a bit tacked on. The filmmakers seemingly added them since, well, that’s what Disney films do. But the movie could have done just fine without them.

Tarzan has a good soundtrack, even if it’s the only film from the Disney renaissance (besides The Rescuers Down Under) that doesn’t even attempt to be a musical. None of the songs are sung by the characters (with the exception of a single verse in its centerpiece number), instead being performed in the background by singer Phil Collins.

“You’ll Be in My Heart” is the film’s defining musical piece, and is a sweet lullaby that expresses Kala’s love for her son Tarzan. “Two Worlds” and “Strangers Like Me” are more upbeat and not quite as good, but follow the trend of briskly moving the story forward without distracting from it. “Trashin’ the Camp” on the other hand, is a bit of a mess, as it attempts to be the ‘fun’ song of the movie, but lacks any real lyrics or a catchy melody in order to live up to the rest of the tracks.

TarzanHowever, it’s the animation that might be Tarzan’s biggest highlight. By this point in Disney’s successful run, the studio was able to deliver their finest visuals. Tarzan is exquisitely animated, with complex, fluid character movements and backgrounds so lavishly detailed they come close to Studio Ghibli’s work.

Tarzan also proved something of a breakthrough for animation, as computers were used to enhance the hand-drawn visuals in such a way to give a greater interaction between characters and environment. The scenes with Tarzan surfing across trees are absolutely stunning in motion. In terms of its complexity and execution, Tarzan may rank as Disney’s best-looking hand-drawn animation.

When all is said and done, Tarzan was a fitting close to the Disney Renaissance, with only a few bumps in its soundtrack and sidekicks. But its story provides strong entertainment and emotion, complimented by some of the most captivating visuals Disney has ever conceived.

 

7

Mulan Review

Mulan

When Mulan was released in 1998, the Disney Renaissance was nearing its close. Pixar was on the rise to prominence, and Dreamworks had started to make a name for themselves in the animation scene. But the 90s Disney films still had some steam left, as is evidenced by Mulan. It was one of the best Disney films of its time, and it has aged gracefully.

 

Mulan tells a story that’s simple in structure, but epic in scope: An army of Huns – lead by the villainous Shan Yu (Miguel Ferrer) – have invaded China. In order to gain enough soldiers to fend off the invaders, the Emperor commands that one man from every family join the Chinese army.

In a quieter part of China, a young woman named Mulan (Ming-Na Wen) is trying to find her place in the world. After Mulan botches a meeting with a matchmaker, she is deemed unsuitable for marriage. But Mulan is simply too spirited for the confines that society has put on her, and is destined for greater things.

Mulan’s father is eventually called to join the ranks of China’s army, but he is aged and injured. Mulan, fearing for her father, disguises herself as a man to enlist in his stead. This being a Disney movie, she is joined on her journey a comedic dragon named Mushu (Eddie Murphy).

MulanThe movie works so well primarily because Mulan herself is so appealing. Most of the Disney heroines before her were either helpless damsels waiting for a noble hero to whisk them away, or relatively stronger characters whose romantic interests were nonetheless the focus of their quests. Mulan is instead a strong, independent character who still manages to have some funny moments. Yes, her commanding officer Shang (B.D. Wong) still catches her eye, but it’s not the center of the story. Mulan is all about its titular heroine, and its her strength and spunk that carries the story.

While the presence of Eddie Murphy can make Mushu feel like a simple star-vehicle, Mushu ultimately works, and becomes a humorous foil for Mulan. Mushu may not reach the comedic heights of Aladdin’s Genie, but his energy served as a fun precursor to Eddie Murphy’s role as Donkey in the Shrek series.Mulan

The downside is that Mulan’s villain, Shan Yu, is a rather forgettable foe. He looks intimidating enough, and certain scenes allude to just how evil his actions can be. But you could potentially swap him out for any of the other Hun characters around him and you may not know the difference. The Hun army as a whole has more of a villainous presence than Shan Yu himself.

Mulan features a short list of songs which, although consistently good, are too few and far between. “Reflection” is Mulan’s centerpiece number, and is one of the more underrated ‘princess songs’ in Disney lore. “Honor to Us All” is a fun opener, even if it can’t touch the likes of “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast. “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” is a lively piece with some touches of humor. “A Girl Worth Fighting For” is comedic and catchy, though it followed the “Hakuna Matata” tradition of the comedic song happening at the wrong time.Mulan

The songs in Mulan are all solid, but they are a smaller presence in the film. With the exception of Reflection, you can imagine Mulan working just as well without them.

The visuals of Mulan were a departure from its predecessors in the Disney Renaissance, but are just as lovely. Mulan utilizes simpler designs in its characters and backgrounds. It has a notable watercolor look about it, to mimic Chinese artwork with a dash of Japanese anime.

Mulan ranks highly among the Disney films of the 90s for its well-structured story and compelling heroine. The soundtrack might not match up to some of its peers, and its villain can’t hold a candle to Disney’s better bad guys. But Mulan gets bonus points for its terrific action scenes and unique art style. It borrows some familiar elements from past Disney films, but tweaks them in meaningful ways.

Mulan may not be the most iconic film from the Disney Renaissance, but it is, quietly, one of the era’s best.

8

Hercules Review

Hercules

Released in 1997, Hercules was another successful notch in Disney’s belt during their Renaissance era. Although not as iconic as Aladdin – with which it shares its directors and a similar tone – Hercules is every bit as fun as its predecessor. Though it lacks the sophistication that made The Hunchback of Notre Dame a standout Disney feature, Hercules remains an entertaining and humorous entry in the Disney canon.

With Hercules, Disney took the most basic elements and figures of Greek mythology, and used them as a backdrop for one of their most energetic comedies. Hades (James Woods), god of the Underworld, plans to overthrow Zeus and take over Mount Olympus by freeing the long-dormant Titans, whom Zeus trapped long ago. But there’s a wrinkle in Hades’ plan, as the Fates foresee his downfall should Zeus’ newborn son Hercules (Tate Donovan) grow up to become a great warrior.

Hades, hoping to ensure his future victory, sends his minions to kidnap the newborn Hercules, turn him mortal with a dark potion, and get rid of him before he can become a threat. Hades’ lackeys succeed in kidnapping the baby and turning him mortal, but are interrupted by some farmers. The interruption prevents Hercules from drinking a last, vital drop, and he retains his Godlike strength.

The farmers raise Hercules as their own child, and although Hercules has a good life with them, his substantial strength makes it difficult to adjust to life among mortals, who don’t take kindly to his differences. After Hercules accidentally destroys a small town, Hercules’ parents tell him how they found him, and he then seeks guidance from Zeus to find out where he truly belongs. Herc then learns that he must become a ‘true hero’ in order to return to Mount Olympus.

It’s a fun plot that combines Greek mythology with the Superman origin story, all wrapped up with Disney style and flair. But it’s the characters who are the real highlight.

HerculesHercules is a likable main character. He’s simple and good natured, with some added naivety and clumsiness to make him more humorous than most of Disney’s leading men. His mentor in heroism, Philoctetes (Danny DeVito) – otherwise known as Phil – is a grumpy satyr who serves as the Mickey to Herc’s Rocky. Hercules finds a love interest in the vivacious Megara (Susan Egan), who is more troubled than your average Disney heroine.

HerculesBut, like so many Disney movies before it, it’s the villain who steals the show. Hades ranks alongside Aladdin’s Genie as one of the great comedic Disney characters. Hades has the slick personality of a Hollywood agent with the fast talking of a used car salesman. James Woods – much like Robin Williams’ Genie – ad-libbed a good deal of his lines, which adds to Hades’ humor and villainous charisma.

There’s also a small assortment of sidekicks, with Hercules’ flying horse Pegasus and Hades’ minions Pain and Panic. Younger viewers might get a kick out of them, but they aren’t as memorable as the main characters in the film.

Hercules also boasts a fun soundtrack. “Gospel Truth” is sung in multiple verses by the narrating Muses, and serves to segue into different chapters of the story, with clever rhyme schemes strung throughout. A similar setup is used for the song “Zero to Hero.” Hercules gets his signature number with “Go the Distance,” which is uplifting and catchy, if maybe not one of the better character songs in Disney’s repertoire. “One Last Hope” works as a training montage for Phil and Herc, and provides some laughs. The best of the lot is “I Won’t Say (I’m in Love)” which is a unique spin on the Disney love song, in which Megara denies her romantic feelings.

It’s a solid assortment of songs, though they ultimately fall short of Disney’s better soundtracks. Some of the songs end up being a little repetitious (Zero to Hero may as well be another verse in Gospel Truth), and the lack of a villain song is a bit of a downer, given Hade’s exuberant personality.

The animation once again displays Disney at the top of their game. The character designs are fun, working as a sort of caricature of Greek artwork. Fun little details like the swirls at the ends of Megara’s hair or Hades’ flaming mane add to the film’s overall personality. It’s also among the most colorful films Disney has made, with characters and locations so full of colors that ever moment of the film is a joy to look at.

HerculesIn the end, Hercules is a very enjoyable movie, though it plays things safe. By this point in the Disney Renaissance, the structure of Disney films was teetering on formulaic. Whereas The Hunchback of Notre Dame took that structure in a new direction, Herculese – charming as it is – brought it all back. It’s soundtrack also sits somewhere lower on the Disney Renaissance shelf.

But Hercules is an entertaining and funny enough movie that you can largely forgive any shortcomings. It’s sense of humor and appealing characters help elevate it over some of the more popular Disney films of its era. It may not be the best film of the Disney Renaissance, but it does have what it takes to go the distance.

 

8

The Hunchback of Notre Dame Review

Hunchback of Notre Dame

Released in 1996, The Hunchback of Notre Dame marked a notable deviation from the rest of the Disney Renaissance films. Heavier, more dramatic, and considerably darker than its peers, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was one of the best Disney films of its era, and certainly the most underrated.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame tells the story of Quasimodo (Tom Hulce), who was born physically deformed. As a baby, his mother was murdered by Judge Claude Frollo (Tony Jay) on the steps of the Notre Dame cathedral. The cold-hearted Frollow, repulsed by the baby’s appearance, was ready to drown the child, until the church’s archdeacon warned Frollo of the eternal punishment for his actions. Frollo, in a rare moment of fear, decides to raise the child within the cathedral, in order to save his soul from damnation.Hunchback of Notre Dame

But Frollo is a cruel “master” to Quasimodo, reminding him regularly of his “ugliness” and that he is a “monster” that society can never accept. Quasimodo is nonetheless hopeful that one day, he can leave the walls and bells of Notre Dame and join the outside world, if even just for a day.

Quasimodo eventually decides to sneak out into the city of Paris in disguise, to celebrate the festivities of the Festival of Fools. But, after a fleeting moment of happiness, he is exposed, humiliated and beaten by a mob (under orders from Frollo), until he is saved by the beautiful gypsy Esmerelda, who befriends Quasimodo and ignites the ire, and lust, of Frollo.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame remains one of the more unique entries in the Disney canon, noteworthy for the story’s darker elements and themes. Like Beauty and the Beast before it, it’s also one of the few Disney films where the characters feel more fleshed out, instead of merely serving as a means to carry the plot from one point to the next.

Hunchback of Notre DameThe film’s core relationship – also unique for Disney – is that between its hero and villain, Quasimodo and Frollo. Quasimodo is a likable protagonist, kindhearted and sympathetic to the point that you kind of forget about his supposed ugliness. Meanwhile, Frollo is perhaps the darkest Disney villain, and certainly one of the more complex. He is a cruel, sadistic, bigoted man who believes his piety and religious standings absolve him of all wrongdoings.

There’s also the interesting dynamic between Esmerelda and how the other main characters interact with her: Quasimodo has an innocent affection for her, the heroic Captain Phoebus (Kevin Kline) loves her as an equal, while Frollo’s lust for her drives him to utter madness.Hunchback of Notre Dame

The characters and their relationships are a bit more fleshed out than in most Disney movies, though some comedic sidekicks, while effective in ways, can feel a tad cliche. Quasimodo’s three gargoyle friends (who may or may not simply be a part of Quasi’s imagination) Victor (Charles Kimbrough), Hugo (Jason Alexander) and Laverne (Mary Wickes), provide some fun humor at times, but at others the comedy feels a little bit out of place. Thankfully, their humor never drags the film to the extents that Hakuna Matata did in The Lion King. But given the rest of the film’s tone they can come off as a bit inappropriate.

The soundtrack remains one of the most underrated in Disney’s library. The film’s opener “The Bells of Notre Dame” is extravagant, and starts things off on a powerful note. “Out There” serves to properly introduce audiences to Quasimodo, and his relationship with Frollo It’s not the catchiest character introduction, but it’s nonetheless effective. “God Help the Outcasts” is one of Disney’s more earnestly beautiful pieces. “A Guy Like You” is sung by the gargoyles, and like the characters who sing it, is the odd-duck of the bunch. It’s funny by its own merits, but misplaced not only in the film, but the otherwise dramatic segment it takes place in. Meanwhile, “Heaven’s Light” is a gentle melody that expresses Quasimodo’s love for Esmerelda.

Hunchback of Notre DameUnique among Disney films, it’s the villain’s musical piece that serves as the film’s iconic song. “Hellfire” is one of Disney’s single greatest sequences, as it delves into Frollo’s psyche and madness as his lust for Esmerelda puts his “righteousness” into question. It’s unquestionably the darkest Disney song ever, and also one of their best.

The animation is also Grade A Disney, with the character designs and visuals being fittingly more realistic and grim than in the other Renaissance era Disney movies. The film looks more dramatic than its predecessors, but it’s still just as vividly animated.

To date, The Hunchback of Notre Dame remains one of Disney’s most standout films for its ambitious story and its daring to go places that Disney would normally shy away from (a segment such as ‘Hellfire’ has not been attempted from the studio since). Some of the comedic aspects do clash a bit with the otherwise serious story, holding the film back ever slightly. But its uniqueness and thematics have ensured that The Hunchback of Notre Dame has only gotten better with age, making it one of the highlights, and the unsung hero, of the Disney Renaissance.

 

8

Pocahontas Review

Pocahontas

When Pocahontas was released in 1995, it proved to be something of a turning point for the Disney Renaissance era. While Disney gave themselves a huge pat on the back for making their first film “inspired by historical figures and events,” it ended up being something of a black sheep to audiences and critics, who found it disappointing compared to its predecessors. Today, Disney seems to market the Pocahontas character more than the film itself, a possible sign that the film has even fallen out of favor with Disney themselves. Although many of the critiques are justified, Pocahontas is a better movie than it gets credit for.

Disney’s interpretation of Pocahontas sees the film’s namesake heroine (Irene Bedard), a young Powhatan “princess” who crosses paths with Englishman John Smith (Mel Gibson), as the English make their way into the new world.

PocahontasPocahontas and Smith form a friendship, and later romance, that leads Smith to reevaluate his beliefs of the native people. Meanwhile, tension between the Powhatans and the English is brewing, as the conniving Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers) – who is leading the English expedition – plans to ravage the new world of its riches by any means necessary.

Much has been said about the historical inaccuracies of the film (though the presence of a magic, talking tree probably indicates Disney wasn’t aiming for accuracy), but when taken for its own merits, it’s actually a pretty solid story, if maybe not a groundbreaking one.

Pocahontas herself, while maybe not the most unique heroine in terms of personality, is at least a strong enough main character to carry the story. John Smith is similarly unremarkable in personality, falling into Disney’s usual ‘Mr. Perfect’ archetype. But at least he learns a lesson or two before fully surrendering to the trope.

PocahontasRatcliffe is a fun, though terribly underutilized villain. He has a little more purpose for his evil deeds than most Disney villains (he’s described as a “failed social climber,” with his current expedition being his last chance to prove his qualities), but he never gets much time to interact with the heroes. It almost feels like Ratcliffe is part of a sidestory of the film, instead of its primary antagonist.

True to the Disney form, a group of comedic sidekicks are involved, to add a little more humor and personality to the film. Pocahontas is often joined by a raccoon named Miko and a hummingbird named Flit who, along with Ratcliffe’s dog Percy, provide some cartoonish antics, which can be fun, but feel a tad unnecessary this time around. But it’s Ratcliffe’s naive and well-meaning manservant Wiggins (also voiced by Stiers) who is probably the film’s funniest aspect.Pocahontas

The soundtrack to Pocahontas is probably the one piece of the film that even its harshest critics can appreciate to some degree. I would argue that the film’s centerpiece number “Colors of the Wind” is better than any one song from The Lion King, as it sums up the film’s message in one beautiful musical piece. “Just Around the River Bend” isn’t quite as good, but nonetheless catchy. “Mine, Mine, Mine” serves as Ratcliffe’s obligatory villain song, and it’s actually a pretty fun one, until John Smith strangely gets a verse in it and it loses some of its villainous charm. “Savages” serves as the film’s climactic musical number, and is effectively frightening in its lyrics.

PocahontasThe animation is another highlight. The characters in Pocahontas were animated to look a little more realistic than the other Disney film’s of the 90s (with the exceptions of the sidekicks and Ratcliffe, who retain a more cartoonish look to magnify their roles in the story). The characters have detailed facial expressions and a richness in their movements that give Pocahontas a distinct animation style among Disney films. It’s all the more eye-popping during the musical numbers (Colors of the Wind adopts a painting visual style, while Savages utilizes aggressive color schemes).

Despite the visual and musical heights, Pocahontas still has a few bumps in its story. Some elements, such as Pocahontas magically learning to speak English by “listening to her heart,” are a bit too convenient. The overall message, while certainly well intentioned, can be a little too loud for its own good. As previously stated, Pocahontas and John Smith aren’t particularly interesting, and Ratcliffe, while a fun villain, could have used more screen time.

Pocahontas may not quite live up to its revered siblings of the Disney Renaissance, but it still provides a good piece of Disney entertainment brought to life through lovely animation and songs.

 

6

The Lion King Review

The Lion King

When The Lion King first hit theaters in 1994, it became a cultural phenomenon. It surpassed Aladdin as the most successful animated film ever released at the time, and the success of its 2011 re-release proved its long-standing appeal. The Lion King remains one of the most popular animated films of all time, as well as one of Disney’s most epic features. Many Disney fans still hold its name in an almost spiritual reverence, such is The Lion King’s standing among the Disney faithful. But, despite its hefty status and grand scope, The Lion King does suffer from a few inconsistencies in its overall tone and song work.

The Lion King tells the story of Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas as a cub, Matthew Broderick as an adult), a lion ‘prince’ born under king Mufasa (James Earl Jones), who rules over the Pride Lands. All of the animals of the Pride Lands celebrate Simba’s birth, with the exception of his uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons). Scar has long been in the shadow of his brother Mufasa, and now that Simba is the heir to the throne, Scar’s chances of ruling the Pride Lands have all but dissolved. But Scar is an ambitious villain, and he, with the help of a band of hyenas, hatches a plan to murder his brother and nephew so that he can usurp the throne.

This setup leads to some powerful emotional moments, with the bond between Simba and Mufasa being one of the movie’s best aspects. Even though we all know what becomes of Mufasa by this point, the film does a great job at making him feel like an unbreakable force of good, which makes that most pivotal moment of the film all the more impactful and heartbreaking.

The Lion King hosts a large cast of characters, some of them deserving of their popular status in the Disney lineup, others not so much.

The Lion KingSimba is the core of the movie, of course. We see him grow up throughout the film, starting out as a carefree cub who can’t wait for the day when he rules the Pride Lands. But the tragedy of his father leads him to exile, and he grows up to be something of a careless oaf before finally taking up responsibility. Though it has to be said that once Simba becomes an adult, he’s a much less memorable character, with Mathew Broderick phoning in his lines with little enthusiasm.

Simba’s friend and romantic interest Nala (Moira Kelly) may knock some sense into the would-be king, but she really doesn’t provide much to the proceedings outside of being the token female character.

A host of comedic sidekicks are spread throughout the film, with Mufasa’s pompous hornbill advisor Zazu (Rowan Atkinson) providing some humor early on. There’s also Rafiki the mandril (Robert Guillaume) who combines his comedy with a good dose of wisdom, and even Scar gets some sidekicks with a trio of hyenas. The most fondly remembered comedic foil of The Lion King, however, are Timon the meerkat (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa the warthog (Ernie Sabella), who befriend Simba during his exile.

The Lion KingWhile the comedic characters do serve to ease some of the tension from the movie, I’m afraid they can be a bit hit or miss. Zazu and Rafiki mesh with the rest of the film well enough, but Timon and Pumbaa – despite being the most popular characters from the movie – rely too heavily on bathroom humor and gross-out gags. In another movie they might have worked better, but The Lion King can feel a tad dumbed down when the duo comes into play. The film goes from a kid crying over his father’s lifeless body to a warthog singing about his flatulence within a matter of minutes. They aren’t terrible characters when looked at in a vacuum, but they do feel misplaced in an otherwise pretty serious Disney movie.

The Lion KingIt’s Mufasa and Scar who stand out the most, as each gives a strong sense of presence that not many Disney characters can claim. Both were perfectly cast vocally, with Scar in particular being one of Disney’s most memorable villains. And Disney’s is a long line of memorable villains.

The animation in The Lion King proved a huge step up for the studio. Each animal character has a believability and a uniqueness in movement, proving that Disney did a great deal of research when creating this animal world. It’s still one of Disney’s most detailed hand-drawn films.

The Lion KingBut whereas the animation may be top-notch Disney, the song work is actually a big step down from Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. The opening number “Circle of Life” begins the movie on a beautiful note, with a distinctly African vibe to boot. But that opening number outshines the rest. “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” is bouncy and fun enough, but not particularly catchy. “Be Prepared” livens things up a bit as one of the more standout Disney villain songs, where Scar sings of his evil plot. “Hakuna Matata” is the weak link of the bunch, as its humor feels a bit shaky and out of place with the rest of the film. Songwriter Elton John, when writing Hakuna Matata, initially felt he had hit a career low. Although he has since backtracked that claim, I’m inclined to agree with his original sentiment. Finally, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is the film’s token love song, but it never hits the beauty or emotion of other romantic Disney numbers like “Beauty and the Beast” or “A Whole New World.”

On one hand, The Lion King remains one of Disney’s most ambitious and dramatic features. It’s a beautiful film to look at, and it provides a decent, Shakespearian story. The misplaced comedy and inconsistent songs have become far more noticeable with age, however. And despite all the acclaim and its standing within Disney’s fanbase, The Lion King simply isn’t as good as many other Disney features. But, in regards to scope, The Lion King remains kingly.

7

Aladdin Review

Aladdin

When Aladdin was released in 1992, it arrived at the height of the Disney Renaissance. Coming off the heels of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin was, for a time, the most successful animated film ever. And it remains one of Disney’s most popular movies. While Aladdin may have introduced audiences to one of Disney’s best characters, I’m afraid time has revealed the movie to be a bit of a one trick pony.

Aladdin sees its titular hero (Scott Weinger), a peasant of the streets of Agrabah, cross paths with Princess Jasmine (Linda Larkin), who has fled the palace for the day to avoid any more pompous suitors. Before their romance can blossom, they are separated by the forces of Agrabah’s corrupt Grand Vizier, Jafar (Jonathan Freeman).Aladdin

Jafar plans on taking over Agrabah, and seeks the aid of a magic lamp, with which he can summon a powerful genie to grant his wishes. The lamp is located in an ancient chamber known as the Cave of Wonders, which is cursed to all but the “Diamond in the Rough.” Naturally, it turns out Aladdin is this Diamond in the Rough. Aladdin finds the lamp and, hoping to reunite with Jasmine, frees the Genie (Robin Williams). And that’s when the fun begins.

AladdinThe Genie was a revelation of a character. He’s a non-stop barrage of visual gags and ad-libbed one-liners. Robin Williams’ performance was so full of energy that the animators must have had some trouble trying to create visuals that could keep up with it. But the end results couldn’t have been better. The Genie is still one of Disney’s best characters: his vocal performance is a thing of utter hilarity, and his supernatural qualities (as well as Williams’ improvisations) allowed for the character to break the fourth wall, impersonate celebrities, make references to (and even poke fun of) other Disney films, and provide a visual energy that Disney has rarely matched since.

It’s a shame then, that the rest of Aladdin simply can’t keep up. The movie does have good intentions, with a sweet message about being honest and true to yourself (Aladdin uses his first wish to become a prince, only for it to blow up in his face later), and the songs are memorable. But aside from that wonderful Genie, the rest of the characters are a bit bland and archetypal, and the story doesn’t match up to some of Disney’s better films.

AladdinAladdin himself is a cookie cutter hero. His character lacks any standout traits, and he more or less is just filling out the ‘main character’ position. Jasmine is equally uninteresting. She at least has a more standout character design, but her personality doesn’t differ much from any other princess character. The relationship between the two never comes off as anything more than your standard “poor guy meets rich girl” setup, with the exception of the film’s signature song. Even Jafar, who has since become one of the more iconic Disney villains, can kind of feel like a stand-in baddie. He’s just here because the movie needs a bad guy.

But about those songs. Aladdin features a pretty great soundtrack, even if it never quite matches up to Beauty and the Beast. The previously mentioned signature song, “A Whole New World” is one of Disney’s better duets, and provides a moment of beauty in a film that otherwise relies on the laughs. “One Jump Ahead” serves as a basic but catchy introductory song for Aladdin’s character. “Prince Ali” is sung primarily by Williams’ Genie, and is appropriately one of Disney’s liveliest songs. But it’s Genie’s iconic number “Friend Like Me” that truly brings the house down.

The movie is also a visual delight, as it well utilizes its Arabian setting to provide an Earthy color scheme, only for things to burst with a brighter array of colors every time Genie’s antics take place. The characters are all well animated, and showcase both Disney’s expertise with the craft as well as their production values.Aladdin

Aladdin is an entertaining movie thanks to the catchy soundtrack and, of course, the irreplaceable Genie, who keep the whole thing afloat. But whenever there’s a break in between songs and Genie isn’t providing the laughs, I’m afraid Aladdin can be more than a little bland. Genie may be one of the Disney brand’s greatest creations, but take him out of the equation and Aladdin would be pretty by-the-books.

 

7

Beauty and the Beast Review

Beauty and the Beast

Few Disney films are as beloved as Beauty and the Beast. Originally released in 1991, Beauty and the Beast polished the format laid down by The Little Mermaid to its peak, and it is often recognized as the best film from the Disney Renaissance era. In all the years since its release, Beauty and the Beast remains one of the studio’s finest achievements.

Beauty and the Beast tells the story of Belle (Paige O’Hara), a young woman known throughout the village for her beauty, as well as her “peculiar” behavior (such as her fascination with books and fairy tales). After her father is kidnapped by the titular Beast (Robby Benson), she takes her father’s place as a prisoner in the Beast’s castle in exchange for her father’s freedom. But what starts off as a noble sacrifice becomes the story of romance and transformation.

The Beast was not always so beastly, at least not in physical appearance. He was once a handsome prince, but he and his castle were cursed by a mysterious enchantress as punishment for the prince’s unkindness and selfishness. He became the Beast, and the staff of his castle were changed as well (though into more charming forms), the only hope of breaking the curse is for the Beast to learn to love another, and to earn their love in return.

It’s one of Disney’s best stories, and one of the few from the studio that emphasizes character as well as plot. The relationship between Belle and the Beast is a far more fleshed out romance than most of those found in Disney features. The movie takes the time to develop the main characters, so the film’s core relationship – despite being a fairy tale romance – feels believable (though there are those who understandably question the premise of a woman falling in love with her captor, I think the film does a good job at fleshing out the two main characters in such a way that, within its fairy tale context, doesn’t come across as Stockholm syndrome).Beauty and the Beast

Belle is one of Disney’s stronger heroines, displaying a sense of independence that outshines any of her predecessors, while the Beast is far more interesting than any Prince Charming for being a tormented, and often antagonistic character.

They are joined by a parade of some of Disney’s most endearing sidekick characters: Lumiere the candlestick (Jerry Orbach) is romantic and rebellious, Cogsworth the clock (David Ogden Stiers) is pretentious and uptight, and Mrs. Potts the teapot (Angela Lansbury) is kindhearted and nurturing. There’s also Chip (Bradley Pierce) a teacup and Mrs. Potts’ son, as well as Belle’s father Maurice (Rex Everhart), a cooky and eccentric inventor.Beauty and the Beast

Along with the memorable heroes is an equally memorable villain in the form of Gaston (Richard White), a man from Belle’s village who is beloved by the townspeople for his good looks, despite his ugly personality. Gaston is one of the more underrated Disney villains, showing a greater range of character than most of the baddies in the Disney canon. Gaston starts off as little more than a buffoonish oaf and a nuisance, trying to win Belle’s hand in marriage simply for her beauty, but by the third act, vanity and jealousy turn him into a monster.

Beauty and the BeastBeauty and the Beast boasts one of Disney’s best casts of characters. Belle and the Beast have a bit more to them than most Disney heroes, the sidekicks are all funny and charming (not to mention they actually have a role in the plot, and are never distracting from it by hogging the spotlight as many animated sidekicks do), and its villain proves to be just as entertaining. Of course, it’s the songs that bring out the best of Beauty and the Beast’s story and characters.

The soundtrack to Beauty and the Beast has long-since become iconic. Its self-titled theme song – sung by Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Potts – being hauntingly beautiful. “Be Our Guest” is among the most fun and smile-inducing Disney songs. “Belle” serves as one of the best ‘introductory songs’ in the studio’s history. And few Disney songs come close to the hilarity of “Gaston,” in which its titular villain and his sycophants sing of his obscenely masculine accomplishments.

The animation, while maybe not quite matching up to the later Disney Renaissance films, remains colorful and full of detail. This is especially true during the aforementioned musical numbers, which gave a whole new life to Disney features. There are some small instances during close-up shots where the animation isn’t always so consistent, but on the whole Beauty and the Beast is still a lovely film.

The character designs are still some of Disney’s best. Belle is an appropriate beauty, while the Beast couldn’t look more beastly if he were live-action or rendered through a computer (a factoid that Disney themselves would later prove in 2017). The supporting cast all boast simple, charming designs, while Gaston is a walking parody of manliness. Beauty and the Beast

The Little Mermaid began the Broadway musical-style of Disney songs and storytelling, but with Beauty and the Beast, Disney perfected their craft. It would remain unmatched in the Disney canon until Frozen was released over two decades later. Beauty and the Beast was, and is, one of Disney’s most entertaining, romantic and magical animated features.

 

9

The Rescuers Down Under Review

Rescuers Down Under

The Rescuers Down Under is often seen as the ‘forgotten’ film of the Disney Renaissance era. Released in between fan favorites The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, The Rescuers Down Under had the unfortunate honor of being the bridge from one beloved classic to another. While The Rescuers Down Under does have some merits to boast, its status of being in the shadow of its predecessor and successor isn’t entirely unfair. In the end, it’s just not as memorable as Disney’s other offerings of the time.

The Rescuers Down Under does have the distinction of being the first ‘true’ Disney sequel, and one of the select few sequels that are considered part of Disney’s official canon of animated films, being a sequel to the 1977 film The Rescuers. At the time of Down Under’s production, The Rescuers was the last hit Disney had made, so a sequel was seen as a means to get the studio back on track. The fact that it also took advantage of American pop culture’s short-lived infatuation with all things Australian of the late 1980s is also something of an obvious attempt to bring back audiences of the time.

Little did Disney know that The Little Mermaid – which was in production at the same time as Down Under – would be the movie that revitalized the Disney brand. The Rescuers Down Under ended up being an honest effort, but a misdirected one.

The story revolves around an Australian boy named Cody (Adam Ryan), who befriends a rare golden eagle named Marahute, after saving the bird from a poacher’s trap. Said poacher – who goes by the name McLeach (George C. Scott) – then kidnaps the boy as to find out the eagle’s whereabouts.Rescuers Down Under

The animals of the outback then send a message to the Rescue Aid Society (the organization of international mice from the first film), who recruit returning heroes Bernard (Bob Newhart) and Miss Bianca (Eva Gabor) for the rescue mission to save Cody. Along the way, Bernard continuously tries to work up the courage to propose to Miss Bianca.

It’s a simple enough setup, but the stories never quite mesh together. The Rescuers themselves aren’t even introduced until after a good chunk of the movie has passed, and when they do show up, they don’t seem nearly as important as Cody or any of his animal friends. It almost feels like the Rescuers were shoehorned into an entirely different movie, forcing an otherwise unrelated film to become a sequel.

Just the same, the storylines involving the Rescuers seem underdeveloped as they get lost to the bigger story. Bernard and Bianca’s relationship never gets the attention it needs. A kangaroo mouse named Jake (Tristan Rogers) even joins the duo in the outback, seemingly setting up a possible rival for Bernard over Bianca’s affections, but nothing really comes of it.

There is one charming sidekick character in Wilbur the Albatross (John Candy), who serves as the Rescuers’ transport to Australia, but he gets stuck in an unnecessary subplot involving a back injury that only serves to further distract the story. This is a great shame, since a Disney character voiced by John Candy could have been gold if used properly.Rescuers Down Under

There are additional sidekicks with the various animals McLeach has kidnapped, who also try to help Cody escape, but they lack the humor and charm needed to make them memorable. This is echoed by the movie itself, as these animal characters seem forgotten by the plot as quickly as they’re introduced. Literally, their fates go unresolved.

Cody may not be the most memorable character either, but he’s capable enough to not detract from the film. McLeach is also a pretty forgettable villain, which is all the greater of an offense when you realize he’s one of the few Disney villains who can be described as such. Disney usually excels at creating bad guys you love to hate, but McLeach is the kind of mustache-twirler you boo solely on principle. He’s neither evil or entertaining enough to give him any real sense of presence.

By now this all seems largely dismissive, but The Rescuers Down Under does have its qualities. The animation is a delight, boasting a richness in detail and motion that proudly displays Disney’s production values. The action sequences are also well executed, with the flying scenes with Cody and Marahute in particular holding up to those of today’s animated films, which always seem to be trying to ‘out-flying sequence’ each other.Rescuers Down Under

As a whole, The Rescuers Down Under is one of Disney’s lesser animated features, and certainly the weakest of the Disney Renaissance era. Its animation may be top notch, and its action scenes well paced, but its characters lack the endearing qualities we associate with the Disney brand, and its story is never quite sure what to do with itself. It includes bits and pieces of a sequel that are seemingly forcing themselves into another movie, which only hurts both of its halves.

As a sequel to The Rescuers and as its own movie, The Rescuers Down Under is too unfocused to soar alongside Marahute.

 

5