Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Rank 'Em: The Walt Disney Animation Studios Films

After 2016 saw the release of both "Zootopia" and "Moana," we won't be getting another Disney animated feature until 2018 when "Wreck-it-Ralph 2" and "Gigantic" are due. That means it's a good time to look back at the recent films and take stock. I waffled a little about which films I wanted to include, but the cutoff point turned out to be pretty obvious: 2006 is when Walt Disney Feature Animation was renamed Walt Disney Animation Studios, and John Lasseter and Ed Catmull were brought onboard. The resulting resurgence has been fantastic to see, though not without drama and controversy along the way. So here are the ten films from the most recent era of Disney animation, ranked from best to least.

Zootopia - I'm surprised that this is in the top spot too, but the more I think about "Zootopia," the more I like it. What really sealed it for me was the willingness of the filmmakers to really grapple with some difficult real world issues, even if it was through a fantasy lens. I also love the worldbuilding here, that it takes the time to show us how a city for animals would really operate, and the way everyone would interact with each other. There are a lot of similar animal fable films out there, but nothing quite like "Zootopia."

Tangled - I knew that Disney had truly found their way out of the wilderness when I saw "Tangled." It was their first feature to successfully capture the spirit and humor of the classical Disney fairy-tale adaptations through CGI animation. I also liked the way that it departed from formula, with a much stronger leading man, and a princess with a very distinct personality. All those years stuck in development hell and waiting out the studio's difficult transitions were definitely worth the wait. The title is still regrettable though.

Wreck-it Ralph - This is my pick for the best video game themed film ever made. It's so earnest about celebrating older video games and video gaming culture, while creating all these fantastic new worlds within worlds to explore. This one also had a remarkably solid story that really worked for me, and unusual characters that were a little different from the Disney norm. However there were still one or two awkward moments and an embarrassment of product placement that dampen my enthusiasm for the movie, just a bit.

Moana - A little derivative and bare bones in the plotting, but the filmmakers did such a fantastic job of creating this beautiful Polynesian universe, and finding ways to have fun with it. The Rock playing an ego-centric demigod is just perfect, and Moana is one of the better modern Disney heroines. Some story and pacing issues keep this out of the top tier, but they're easy to forgive in the moment. This is exactly the kind of movie that no other big animation studio could pull off, and exactly what we need to see more of.

The Princess and the Frog - A fine little fairy tale made in the tradition of the Renaissance era classics, but I never thought that it captured the same creative spark. Maybe it was the Randy Newman songs or maybe it was Disney trying so hard to avoid offending anyone, but I came away pretty ambivalent about the story and design choices. That said, I love most of the characters, especially sidekicks Charlotte and Ray and the villain Dr. Facilier. Traditionally animated Disney features could have done a lot worse for a last hurrah.

Frozen - The film that I've seen the most often from this list, thanks to various younger relatives. I admire the thoughtfulness of the film's messages, and it has some knockout sequences, but this is such a slapdash affair. The film seems to forget it's a musical halfway through, Elsa doesn't really get a proper character arc, and the goofy troll song may be the worst number Disney has ever been responsible for. I'm actually glad this one is getting a sequel because there are a ton of issues that still need to be addressed.

Winnie the Pooh - Barely more than an hour in length, and understandably a bust at the box office, the film doesn't get enough credit for being an absolutely lovely continuation of Disney's "Winnie the Pooh" series. All the right people were involved, and they did everything right. I heasitate to put it higher up in the rankings because it is so slight, but I'd have loved to see more Pooh done in the same vein. Sadly, it turned out that this was the franchise's song swan. Disney hasn't released any new Pooh media in any format since.

Big Hero 6 - Now, if the film had only been about Hiro and Baymax, the boy hero and his robot pal, I think it would have placed much higher. Unfortunately, there's that pesky quartet of extra characters mucking up the narrative who really shouldn't be there. As a result, "Big Hero 6" is constantly losing its focus, and feels more like a television pilot than a feature, and not a good one. I love a lot of the concepts and characters, but there are some remarkably lousy ones too. I cringe every time Gogo yells "Woman up!"

Meet the Robinsons - This one kills me because its heart was so clearly in the right place, and it had really wonderful things to say to kids. However, the plotting was messy and the big twist just didn't work because it wasn't set up well. I feel like this one could have been a much better film if it had been kicked around the studio for a few more years. I hate to put it so low of this list, but there was very little that I found impressive or memorable beyond a few minor gags. Disney and retro-futurism just seem to be a bad match.

Bolt - I didn't like "Bolt" for the simple reason that I didn't like the story. It relies on the elaborate duping of the protagonist, spends way too much time taking jabs at Hollywood culture, and doesn't do any particularly notable worldbuilding. Most of the other contemporary Disney features like "Lilo & Stich" and "Oliver & Co." at least manage some memorable characters and a strong sense of place. "Bolt" was utterly generic, and the only character I particularly enjoyed watching was the hamster stuck in his ball.


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