Ryan and I are holding a weekly film festival where we watch the entire Disney animated canon in chronological order, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs all the way to Zootopia. Currently, we’re up to the latter half of the studio’s first Renaissance. Here are my reviews of the latest batch of movies!
The Lion King (1994)
I held a poll on my Twitter account a little earlier this spring about which movie people considered to be the best in the Disney Renaissance, and this one won by a landslide. At first, I thought the results were slightly skewed because so many of my followers are furries, but then I watched this movie again and HOLY CRAP YOU GUYS THIS IS THE BEST MOVIE OF THE DISNEY RENAISSANCE.
Little Simba is the prince of his pride; his father Mufasa and mother Nala serve as King and Queen of the Pridelands. Before his father can teach him everything there is to know about being royalty, Simba is framed for the murder of Mufasa by his scheming uncle Scar and runs away to avoid the punishment. Even though he’s embraced a more carefree and irresponsible way of life, destiny comes calling to right the wrongs of his people. Can he heed the call?
Even now, more than 20 years later, the ambition and imagination of this movie is staggering. The opening alone, featuring a newborn Simba being presented to the beasts of the Pridelands for the first time, still gives me goosebumps when I watch it. The prologue sequence makes a statement about the scope and ambition of this movie, and they do their best to deliver with just about every song, every action scene, every introduction of a new character.
I was continually surprised by the musical numbers. Remember the fascist overtones of Scar’s “Be Prepared”? I’ve seen this movie a dozen times, and it almost always shocks me whenever I see it. The playful inventiveness of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” is enough for me to forgive it for being a relatively weak song; and “Hakuna Matata” is one of those songs that’s fun, catchy and sneaks the pivot of Simba’s plot from exiled youth to carefree young adult effortlessly.
The movie is exquisitely choreographed and tightly plotted. Scenes move with a Swiss-watch precision, forming a new link in a chain that depends on what’s come before. When it’s job is done, it’s time to move on. The Lion King also bounces between the kid-friendly broad humor of Timon and Puumba and the surprisingly dark scenes with Scar and his hyenas really well. It’s ability to juggle so many disparate characters is perhaps its most impressive feat.
This is a prominent gem in the crown that marks Disney as the king of American animation studios. When they’re at the top of their game, there’s simply no one better.
Pocahontas is smack-dab in the middle of the Renaissance; it’s the last Disney movie before Pixar burst onto the scene with Toy Story (more on that later), and signals a pivot away from the really traditional fairy-tale adventure that marked the first half of their resurgence. In a lot of ways, it feels like the studio went back to the riskier stuff that didn’t work out so well in the 70s and 80s; this time, however, the studio is a lot more confident in its vision and far more proficient at pushing itself to new feats of movie-making.
The reputation of Pocahontas is a curious one; most Disney fans don’t talk so much about it, and critics largely sniffed on its release. Fair enough — when Disney is coming off the run that it had in the last six years, expectations for its next film had to be monstrous.
But with the passage of time, it’s easier to see Pocahontas as an ambitious movie in its own way. The story alone is a bit of a hard sell. A young Native American woman is at a crossroads in her life; she’s come to the age where she has to stop seeking an adventurous future and accept her place among her people. This means marrying one of her tribe’s strongest hunters and upholding the traditions and expectations of her culture. However, when she meets a European who comes to this strange “new world” for riches (and partly to kill any Native Americans who cause trouble), she falls head over heels for him. Their relationship makes both of their positions complicated, especially as the natives and Europeans circle ever closer to war.
The environments and settings are the real stars of this movie; they’re simply wonderful, expansive and gorgeous. It really stings when John Smith and his crew — headed by the villainous Governor Ratcliffe — cut down the trees to build a fort and dig up the land in the hopes of finding gold. Pocahontas and her tribe are clearly people of the land, and the movie does such a great job of framing her within that context; everywhere she goes, she blends into the trees, the hills, the rivers. By contrast, the Europeans are frequently the focus of their scenes; nature only exists as far as it’s useful.
What’s impressive about Pocahontas is the clear care that the storytellers used to present the native way of life before America had been settled by the Europeans. It would have been really easy for Disney to fall into the noble savage trope, or to give in to the mystic othering of Native Americans. For the most part, though, they keep it grounded; the supernatural touches within the film are mostly low-key. The one botch is the idea of allowing their heroine to learn English simply by listening to her heart or some such thing. It’s a narrative shortcut that felt lazy, but at the same time I can’t think of a more elegant solution to the problem of getting Pocahontas and John Smith into a dialogue sooner rather than later.
Other than that, the movie mostly sticks the landing. Pocahontas is a wonderful character with a rich inner life; she stands up for herself when she feels disrespected; she sticks her neck out for the the things she believes in. It might not be as loud as The Lion King or as spellbinding as Beauty and the Beast, but Pocahontas is a worthy film that belongs with the rest from this period.
Toy Story (1995)
The cultural impact of this movie is huge — it almost single-handedly killed traditional animation in movie theatres. That’s not something you could fault Pixar for, of course, but man, it really blew the roof off the industry when it dropped this.
Not only is Toy Story the first feature-length animated film rendered entirely in CGI, it’s also a surprisingly good tale. While the visuals haven’t aged that well in the two decades since the film’s release, the strength of the writing, inventive character design and wonderful vocal performance keep the movie from being one of those culturally-important films that really isn’t that enjoyable.
Woody is Andy’s favorite toy, and that makes him the leader of all the playthings in Andy’s room. He runs a tight ship, but he’s a benevolent dictator — as long as his authority is recognized, things go well. That’s a good thing; Andy’s family is moving to another house very soon, and Woody is in charge of making sure no toy gets left behind.
However, all that gets upended when Andy is gifted a Buzz Lightyear toy for his birthday. Woody is cast aside in that way all kids discard their old toys for the latest and greatest; what’s worse, the other toys have taken to Buzz as well. Woody’s jealousy sparks a chain of events that finds him and Buzz forced out of Andy’s home, desperate to make their way back before he leaves forever. Can they make it?
Tom Hanks and Tim Allen are the voices of Woody and Buzz, respectively; their chemistry carries the entire film. The world of Toy Story is really strange, unlike anything anyone had seen up to that point; hard green Army men move out on reconnaissance missions, able to see through solid plastic binoculars; Mr. Potato Head lives a nightmare existence where his facial features and body parts are just one jostle away from flying off; an Etch-A-Sketch communicates solely by drawing pictures. The setting is incredibly inventive, but it needs its protagonists to ground the action to something relatable. That’s what the two stars do here wonderfully.
Even though the animation is showing its age, the cinematography is actually really impressive. The opening credits offer a toy’s-eye-view of playtime, and at their scale an ordinary house is this tremendous, varied environment. The next door neighbor’s house is practically a world away, and I think it really captures how the world feels to young children. The visual storytelling is subtle but really impressive.
What’s scary to think about is that for all of its strengths, this is actually one of the weaker films in Pixar’s catalogue. Toy Story 2 and 3 are both streets ahead of this one, even though it’s a solid movie that just so happens to feature game-changing animation. When they could have hung their hat on their technology, Pixar stepped up to do so much more. And that’s why they’ve pretty much conquered animation in the years since.