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(List) A Definitive But Thoroughly Subjective Ranking of the Disney Animated Canon, #20 – #1

Disney Animation

Over its 93-year history, Walt Disney Animation Studios has produced 56 feature-length animated films. Its partner, Pixar Animation, has produced another 18 for a grand total of 74; that’s a lot of movies! However, out of all those wonderful films only 20 of them can be the 20 greatest films in all of the Disney/Pixar Animated Canon! Which ones are they? Well, let me tell you!

A couple of caveats first. This is a full ranking of all 74 movies released by Disney and Pixar except for Cars 3 and with the addition of the live-action/animation hybrid Song of the South (not considered part of the Canon officially). Also, this is a totally subjective list; these aren’t actually the greatest Disney and Pixar films of all time — they’re just my favorite. Feel free to register your agreement or disapproval in the comments, or tell me which movies are your personal favorites!

If you’d like to know where all of the other movies landed, no worries; I’ve got you covered! The other 54 films are all here:

Day One: #74 – #57
Day Two: #56 – #38
Day Three: #37 – #21

Now, my favorite 20!

#20. Big Hero 6 (2014)
People seem to have cooled on this movie since its premiere a few years ago, and I could see why in the age of Superhero Fatigue. Still, this tale of a boy and his helper robot is one I love quite a bit; it manages to combine an examination of grief and loss with a straightforward superhero team origin story. Baymax is such a wonderful character, a robot unlike any other in all of Hollywood. The best feature of Big Hero 6, however, is its mash-up setting of San Fransokyo. Seeing distinctly San Franciscan neighborhoods infused with Japanese aesthetic is a delight and perfectly reflects Hiro’s own comfortable Asian-American background. The other members of the team are aching to have their stories told, so it’s a good thing we’ll be getting a follow-up series soon.

#19. Ratatouille (2007)
Wait, this movie is ten years old? Where does the time go! Brad Bird’s second feature for Pixar takes a high concept (a rat who wants to be a chef) and fuses it with another (said rat can control a friendly human by pulling his hair) to create something weird and wonderful. Bird’s consistent themes — of frustrated genius, self-discovery, and a hostile, unapproving world — combine here for a beautiful, funny, and ultimately satisfying film. Remy, the rat at the heart of the film, is a little snobbish but his earnest passion makes him a protagonist to root for.

Up

This bird is too ridiculous for this old man

#18. Up (2009)
The second of Pete Docter’s Pixar films is a true wonder — and not just for the eight-minute prologue that the rest of the story tries to live up to. Carl Fredricksen is that perfect blend of lovable and caustic, and Russell — the Wilderness Scout who stows away with him on his one-way trip — is the perfect companion to get him to come back to the world. Kevin, a giant exotic bird, and Dug, the dim but loyal talking dog, round out the troupe as they get way more adventure than they bargain for. Carl’s quest is as much internal as it is globe-trotting, and seeing him learn to re-engage with a world he left behind is heartwarming.

#17. Moana (2016)
Disney’s latest film also happens to be one of its best. The team of Musker and Clements strike gold again with this story based on Pacific Islander folktales through crisp and beautiful animation, a brilliant heroine, and one of the catchiest soundtracks ever. While the studio continues to balance commercial demands with its desire to serve the cultures it mines for its stories, Moana gets a lot more right than it gets wrong — its spirit of adventure and sense of heart make it a truly excellent movie.

#16. Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Pete Docter’s first of three films for Pixar is technically brilliant and emotionally stirring, with a perfect sense of comedic timing and cracking dialogue. John Goodman and Billy Crystal star as Sulley (swoon!) and Mike, an all-star monster team that end up turning their world upside-down just by trying to do the right thing. The climactic chase in and out of the closet doors of children’s rooms leaves me breathless, and that final shot of Sulley reuniting with Boo is enough to bring tears to my eyes. Docter is a master of carefully constructing truly emotional moments.

#15. Finding Nemo (2003)
Finding Nemo had a seven-year run as the highest-grossing animated film of all-time, which is just bonkers to think about; but it’s a truly excellent movie that deserves the wild success it received. Marlin is the ultimate helicopter parent, but his quest to get his son back after Nemo is taken by divers teaches him just how capable he is — and how almost everyone in this big, scary world finds a way to not just survive, but thrive despite their own issues. Technically, the movie is astonishing when you think about where Pixar was just eight years prior in Toy Story. The design of a bewildering array of sea life is impressive in its own right, but the aquatic environments are simply masterful. This movie is beautiful, in just about every sense of the word.

#14. Inside Out (2015)
Pete Docter’s latest film is his best; fourteen years after Monsters, Inc., he constructs a meta exploration of our inner lives, the painful process of growing up, and the difficulty of honoring our most difficult emotions. Amy Poelher is an inspired choice to play Joy, especially as the film gradually leads us to an appreciation of Sadness and how the pursuit of happiness above all else can actually stunt out emotional growth. Still, watching Riley’s personality anchors crumble, one by one, is hard to watch — and the representation of depression as it spreads through the central console is truly terrifying. But it’s all in service to a roller-coaster ride that presents a mature and sympathetic look at just how hard it is to deal with change. Not only entertaining, but elevating as well.

Pinocchio Cricket

Hey Jiminy, nice spats!

#13. Pinocchio (1940)
This is Disney’s best film out of his Golden Age, hands down. The animation pushed the boundaries of what people believed possible at the time, and the scene with Monstro the whale is particularly intense and impressive. I think this also established the time-honored Disney tradition of retooling a fairy tale or story to soften the roughest edges and add touches to make it more commercially palatable. It’s hard to argue with the results here — Pinocchio is strange and sublime, a true masterpiece in the craft of storytelling.

#12. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The first animated film to ever be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, Beauty and the Beast deserves its place as a crown jewel in the Canon. The songs of the Disney Renaissance are some of the best in movie history, and the songs here are some of the best in the Renaissance. What I love most about the movie, obviously, is Beast — he’s one of the most crush-worthy animated characters ever made, but his arc is also a revelation and rehabilitation of the fairy tale. Belle serves more as the catalyst for his internal transformation, a beacon that brings him back to the highest of human ideals, love and compassion. Gaston, the selfish and egotistical brute that he is, highlights how self-love can be just as destructive as self-hatred.

#11. Toy Story 3 (2010)
A perfect cap to the trilogy, Toy Story 3 takes Woody, Buzz and the gang through a kind of death and rebirth. I love how the film never shies away from the difficulty of moving through the end of a relationship but also cautions against letting that loss harden your heart. Lots-O-Huggin’ Bear is underrated as one of the most evil villains ever, in my opinion; I think the comeuppance he got didn’t even go far enough. The scene at the junkyard stopped my heart, and when the gang reaches for each other to accept their fate it gets me every time. The payoff of that scene — fourteen years in the making — is one of the most delightful examples of emotional whiplash ever. It’s just too bad they milked the ending a little too hard; it breaks the spell the rest of the story weaved so well.

lilo-stitch

Ohana.

#10. Lilo & Stitch (2002)
I didn’t realize how many of my favorite movies deal with struggling through loss and tragedy, but here’s another one. Lilo & Stitch is one of the absolute best films about the act of emotional kintsukoroi ever made — the titular pair find each other when they need something to help heal them so badly. Another Disney film that’s quietly revolutionary, Lilo & Stitch features native Hawaiians, a broken home, and emotional trauma without feeling exploitative of any of it. The character design is so distinctive and wonderful, and all of the character and comedic beats land with assured precision. Also, Captain Gantu? Whew. WHEW.

#9. Tangled (2010)
Released the same year as Toy Story 3, Tangled gets buried a bit under the avalanche of Frozen. But it’s so much better than the later film; Rapunzel is an exceptional heroine, her spirit irrepressible under the manipulative thumb of Mother Gothel. Gothel is a terrifying villain, not because of any external power, but because of the precise method of emotional control she uses to keep her ward in check. The romantic journey between Rapunzel and Flynn is expertly crafted, with standout song “I See The Light” bringing the plot and personal arcs together in one sublime moment. Also, I’m not sure I’ve seen another film that makes such tremendous use of each and every side character. Maximus the horse is the best Disney horse, and you can fight me on that.

#8. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Quasimodo is one of my favorite Disney heroes ever: I have a true soft spot for people who remain hopeful and upbeat despite difficult circumstances, and the hunchback is one of the purest souls ever. There are so many scenes in this movie that function like emotional body-blows, from the opening song “The Bells of Notre Dame” to Frollo’s shocking “Hellfire” to Esmerelda’s bitter, plaintive “God Help The Outcasts”. The lyrics to the musical numbers of this film are some of the absolute best, and it might be one of Disney’s most nakedly-political movies ever. I understand how fans of Victor Hugo’s novel might dismiss it, but I think this is the most underrated entry in all of the Disney canon.

#7. The Little Mermaid (1989)
The Little Mermaid has the most killer soundtrack of all the Disney Renaissance films, with that tiny little crab Sebastian doing most of the heavy lifting with “Under The Sea” and “Kiss The Girl”. Still, “Le Poisson” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” are genuine five-star classics, and Ursula is a delightfully fierce villain — modeled after Divine, the muse of John Waters. The music is enough to overlook the truly problematic implications of Ariel’s romantic choices, though an argument could be made that she really gave up her voice to be part of a world she had dreamed about for so long.

#6. The Incredibles (2004)
I’m a sucker for superheroes, and this Brad Bird-directed homage to Golden Age capes is just about pitch-perfect. Imagining a world where litigation actually spelled the end of costumed vigilantism, The Incredibles makes a pretty strong case for the idea of people being far more capable than most would give them credit for. The relationship of the Incredible family is the glue that keeps the story so tight, and Helen is an unsung hero for her quick thinking, incredible patience, and wise counsel to her children in life-threatening circumstances. Honestly, I think she steals the show.

Dory Wilderness

Alone with thoughts

#5. Finding Dory (2016)
A lot of people give Pixar flak for its shifting stance on sequels, but if the animation studio can keep producing follow-ups of this quality I’m all for it. Finding Dory is the rare continuation that not only justifies its own existence but elevates what came before it, reinforcing and deepening the themes of Finding Nemo. This might be one of the most insightful and sensitive stories about disability I’ve ever seen, showing us how much even small gestures of support or criticism can be the difference between someone’s success or failure. Hilarious, uplifting, instructive, and thoughtful — all of things that make a Pixar film so special.

Lion King

Best cast ever.

#4. The Lion King (1994)
There are an awful lot of folks who are sick to death of The Lion King, and I kind of get it. Among furries, it’s been lauded so much that even the most die-hard fans are at risk of burnout. But have you seen it recently? Because it is the best movie to come out of the Renaissance period. The animation is just stunning, the songs are great, and each character is just about perfectly cast. The pacing and tone are almost exactly where it needs to be at any given moment. It really is one of those movies where everything comes together. I almost hate to say it, but The Lion King lives up to the hype. It’s the real deal.

toy story 2

The full set!

#3. Toy Story 2 (1999)
This is Pixar’s best sequel — a film that reinforces and deepens the world it created in its first entry. Woody has to choose between his ego, which will see him shipped off to a museum where he’ll be forever separated from anyone close to him, and the difficult but more rewarding prospect of living amongst the toys in Andy’s room. The choice between alienation and appeasement is an interesting one, and what’s best is that the story makes a compelling case for both of them before making its choice. “When She Loved Me”, though, is forever one of those songs that reduces me to a blubbering mess.

zootopia streets

Can I live here for a minute?

#2. Zootopia (2016)
I know that this is really, really high for a relatively brand-new cartoon, but come ON. Judy Hopps is literally my spirit animal, a little grey rabbit whose enthusiasm for making the world a better place knows no bounds. She makes a perfect partner for the street hustler Nick Wilde, a fox who gave up on the world because the world gave up on him. Zootopia is perhaps the best-realized furry universe ever created, with an astonishing variety of wildlife all doing their best to live together harmoniously. There’s no skirting around how difficult that is; even Judy herself makes a mistake with terrible consequences. But ultimately the film asserts that we must continue to try, and that doing our best is always going to be the right thing to do. The character designs are amazing, the world on the screen is unique and immersive, and the social consciousness of its story is perfectly topical and timeless as well. Zootopia is everything I hoped it would be and that much more. I can’t stop gushing about it, but I’ll have to because…

walle

Beauty everywhere you look

#1. WALL-E (2008)
I know, I’m surprised too. But WALL-E is perhaps the most ambitious and beautiful animated film of all time. The first sequence, which establishes the ruined Earth our robotagonist is tasked with fixing, is haunting, melancholy, and almost wistful in the way it gives WALL-E a powerful longing for the culture that designed him. When EVE arrives and they head off to the generation ship Axiom, the disruption is enough to shake humanity out of its helpless torpor. WALL-E can’t help but change everyone he comes into contact with. His interest and willingness to engage and help triggers a cascade effect and brings people back to more immediate engagement. It is such a beautiful thing to watch; WALL-E is such a pure and earnest character, and the way he helps humanity find its way back to its home is incredibly inspiring. I love it, wholeheartedly, unabashedly. This is my absolute favorite Disney/Pixar film, even though the only other animal in it is a cockroach.

 
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Posted by on August 11, 2017 in DisneyFest, Furries, Movies, Reviews

 

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(List) The Definitive But Thoroughly Subjective Ranking of the Disney Animated Canon, #37 – #21

Disney Animation

Walt Disney Animation Studios is a venerable institution that still produces amazing feature-length animated films even to this day. It’s amazing that a movie studio can be so dominant for so long — since their first release in 1937, they’ve been the standard bearer for animation. Along with Pixar Animation, they’ve produced 74 traditionally-animated and CGI films, and since I’ve seen just about every single one (excepting for Cars 3, of course) I thought it would be fun to present a definitive and subjective ranking! Welcome to day three!

The criteria for my ranking is fairly simple; which movie would I rather see? I did that with every release until I had the full list of films from most to least watchable. Chicken Little is at the bottom of the list, but what’s at the top? All will be revealed on Friday! For now, here are the movies that are better than average but still just outside of the top 20.

If you’d like to see which movies are ranked in the bottom half of the Canon, follow these links here:

Day One: #74 – #57
Day Two: #56 – #38

Rescuers DU Jake

Hiiiii Jake ❤

#37. The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
This is the only animated Disney film set in Australia, and the entire Canon is poorer for it. Jake is just the bee’s knees, all smooth and confident and action-adventury! He makes a great foil for Bernard, who after years of pining after his sophisticated partner Bianca is ready to make a move. The subplot plays out while they’re rescuing a human child and giant eagle from the clutches of an evil poacher, and it ties together rather nicely. Jake doesn’t even mind losing out on Bianca’s affections! What a champ. The production values and character designs are wonderful, and the animators really make the most of the setting. It’s a shame the film underperformed as badly as it did; I think the Rescuers would make a nifty film or TV series.

#36. The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
One of the things that I’ve learned through this project is which names to pay attention to in the director’s credits. John Musker and Ron Clements have been consistently excellent, and that’s no exception here. Based on a book series I’m upset I didn’t know about before, The Great Mouse Detective shrinks a Sherlock Holmes story down to mouse size and gives him an outsized foil in Ratigan, a mouse on steroids who hates being called a rat. The film is more actiony than a typical Holmes caper, but that’s all right. The characters are engaging, and the world of murine London is simply entrancing. The climactic battle within the gears of Big Ben is surprisingly intense, especially considering how young the movie skewed up until then.

#35. The Rescuers (1977)
Even though the sequel has Jake, I have to give the edge to the original recipe Rescuers; the world-building is that much more delightful and the peril it places its human child in is that much darker. Penny is a precocious child who ends up in a terrible situation, and it’s impressive that no punches are pulled to get across the dire nature of her predicament. As great as it was to be down under, there’s something about the understated warmth of this version of the hidden world of mice that I love that much more.

#34. The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Disney’s first feature with a black Princess is a solid addition to its Canon, though it has a few story problems that are too persistent to ignore. Tiana’s problem — that she focuses on work too much at the expense of forming the relationships to make it worthwhile — is not the issue; it’s the social forces that push her into thinking that way and how they’re ignored. Still, this love letter to the music and culture of New Orleans is pretty great and Doctor Facilier is such a wonderful villain; Mama Odie makes an excellent foil for him, too. And even though he’s dead-stupid, Ray’s ballad to his Evangeline is unexpectedly sweet.

Headless Horseman

Well this is terrifying

#33. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
Disney’s last package film is its best — possibly because it’s less a scattershot of shorts and more two great stories not quite long enough to be feature-length. I’m a die-hard fan of The Wind in the Willows, and while it’s slightly disappointing that Disney chose to focus on Mr. Toad instead of, say, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”, the adventure of Toad and his motorcar is really fun. The tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman is a standout though; Ichabod is a character I’ll never get tired of watching as he tries to woo ladies and gets lost in the woods. The animation has such spirit and distinctive personality. It really is a joy to watch.

#32. One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
Cruella De Vil is an all-time great villain, but there’s so much more about this movie to love. I’m a sucker for “shadow world” stories, magical realities that exist just inside the peripheries of our own, and Disney has a lot of them around this time in their history. One Hundred and One Dalmatians is a bit darker than I expected, with the puppies all spirited away and forced to hike the English countryside in the dead of winter to make their way back home. But the characters take the edge off with sparkling, lively personalities — the trio of Colonel (a sheepdog), Captain (a horse) and Sergeant Tibbs (a housecat) are great helpers. Overall, it’s a really fun movie whose stakes give it an unexpected weight.

#31. Aladdin (1992)
Credit where its due: the animation, character design, and music of Aladdin is all excellent. Jafar and Iago are a dynamite villainous duo, and Jasmine is actually a really great Princess with agency and a distinctive personality. But man, Robin Williams almost single-handedly tanks this film. Every time some genuine emotion is about to sink in, his Genie comes in and chases it away with anachronistic mania. What’s frustrating is that Genie isn’t a bad character — he works well when he’s acting as Aladdin’s big blue Jiminy Cricket. But I really wish he had been reined in a little more. There’s WAY too much pepper in the soup.

#30. Fantasia (1940)
Walt Disney had high ideas for Fantasia, and it’s a shame they were never realized. I really love the idea of releasing a “concert film” every so often that marries beautiful music with boundary-pushing animation. Most of the vignettes are really enjoyable, with standouts being (of course) “Night on Bald Mountain” and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. However, the less said about the rather uncomfortable history of “The Pastoral Symphony”, the better.

Robin and John

Just two bros hanging out in the woods with no pants

#29. Robin Hood (1973)
Ooh de lally, what an enjoyable mess this movie is! The fact that this movie is so low doesn’t mean I don’t love it; like most of you, I grew up fascinated with the vulpine Robin of Loxley and his ursine companion Little John. I even have a special place in my heart for those tiny church mice who help Friar Tuck! But there’s denying the thinness of the story and the shoddy animation; while I love the warmth and imperfection in the lines, there are so many mistakes and obviously cut corners that you can’t help but notice them. This isn’t a good movie, but I love it just the same.

#28. Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
Fun fact: this is the movie I always bring up when trying to relate what psychological triggers really are. Calhoun is tough-as-nails but emotionally traumatized, and the way her small subplot is handled is a slice of perfection. The rest of the movie is great, too, with countless background gags stuffing a wonderful story about carving out your own self-image when the rest of the world refuses to see you for who you really are. The voice talent is so good, the characters are funny, the setting is inventive, and this might be the first real artistic commentary on video games for a mass audience. This is a gem of a film, and I can’t wait for the sequel.

#27. Dumbo (1941)
Timothy Q. Mouse was one of my first crushes, with his smart little uniform and his willingness to help an orphan elephant in dire straits. Dumbo was made to recover from the failure of Fantasia, made on the cheap but with Disney’s trademark emotional punch. The cruelty of the world almost breaks this little guy again and again, but he’s lifted up with support from the most unlikely places — like a tiny mouse and a troupe of jive-talking crows. It’s a heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful story, the perfect mix of bittersweet. My heart feels full every time I think about it.

#26. Tarzan (1999)
This is the film that marked the end of the Disney Renaissance, and I think people sleep on it a little bit for that. But the action scenes are some of the absolute best in all of the Canon, with Tarzan swinging and surfing through a fully-rendered jungle that’s breathtaking to behold. His position between the world of his youth and the world he “belongs to” drives his personal arc, and it’s something I sympathize with a lot. Jane is awesome as his guide back towards human contact, and the ultimate resolution is great. His triumphant trademark yell feels earned right at the end.

#25. Fantasia 2000 (1999)
Sixty years after the original, Roy Disney tried again to fulfill Walt’s vision. Unfortunately, this one was a commercial failure, too. Still, it’s a creative improvement! “Rhapsody in Blue” alone justifies the existence of the sequence, and “Pomp and Circumstance” (which casts Donald Duck as one of Noah’s helpers aboard the ark) takes it over the top. Disney’s animators used a variety of techniques in various sequences, playing around with computer animation to get a better feel for the tech. There’s only one or two vignettes that don’t quite work, but for the most part this concert film is killer.

#24. Sleeping Beauty (1959)
It’s weird to learn that this film didn’t do very well at the box office, pushing the animation studio away from fairy tale adaptations for 30 years — the next one would be 1989’s The Little Mermaid. But the sheer style of this film is awesome in and of itself; the character design is a mixture of early Disney models and touches of Medieval and Renaissance art, encouraged by the distinctive background art of Eyvind Earle. Maleficent is a gorgeous villain, and it’s hard not to appreciate just how goofy and heroic Prince Phillip is.

#23. Toy Story (1995)
Pixar’s first feature holds up well even after twenty years of technological advancement, and that’s all due to the wonderful characters that were created in Toy Story. Woody and Buzz Lightyear are a mismatched buddy duo for the ages, and Andy’s room is populated with a whole gaggle of iconic and engaging characters. What I appreciate more now that I’m older is just how creepy this movie can be — both intentionally and not — and how Sid’s toys influence the sequels both in theme and design. What’s off-putting initially isn’t necessarily bad; it really is worth getting to know people you might find scary or awful at first sometimes.

#22. Mulan (1998)
I have a confession to make: I’m not that big a fan of Eddie Murphy. He’s done good work, though, and his talents are used well in Mulan. The story itself is based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, and I love that Disney took great pains to serve the culture in which it’s based. There are so many things in this movie that are quietly progressive, and I think that Mulan herself tends to be overlooked as a great role model in the Disney canon. Her motivation is at once dutiful and personal, and the fact that the film takes great pains to show the work involved in her success is something I really appreciate. Also, the romantic subplot — if you can even call it that — is such a slow burn that it only becomes a possibility at the end of the film.

Jim_and_Silver

Almost perfect

#21. Treasure Planet (2002)
I cannot tell you how much I love this movie. The world building is truly special, with its mixture of storybook warmth and sci-fi elements that make it unlike almost anything else I’ve seen. Having an old-school schooner as a spaceship makes for an entrancing visual, and the wide range of aliens — with touches of recognizably animal traits — allows even the background characters to be distinctive and engrossing. But it’s the bond formed between young Jim Hawkins and the cyborg Long John Silver that makes this film so special; the montage of Jim learning how to be a sailor, set to “I’m Still Here” by the Goo Goo Dolls, is one of my favorite sequences ever. So…why is this film so low? B.E.N., the ‘zany’ robot played by Martin Short, single-handedly keeps this film out of the top 20. He is THAT annoying, and there is legitimately no reason for him to be included in the story. He serves no purpose beyond making everything worse. It’s so frustrating, because if it weren’t for him, I’m fairly sure Treasure Planet would have made my top five.

Tomorrow: the top 20 Disney movies of all time! The best film of Disney’s Golden Age! The best film of the Renaissance! The best of Pixar!! And the best films in the Disney Revival era! All leading up to my absolute favorite! Woo!!

 
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Posted by on August 10, 2017 in DisneyFest, Furries, Movies, Reviews

 

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(Reviews) DisneyFest: Zootopia, Finding Dory, Moana

Entertainment 1502016 was the best year for Disney animation in a very long time, and it pleases me to no end that I’m able to say that. Walt Disney Animation began the year giving furries their new generation-defining obsession in Zootopia, which was also an all-around excellent film; in June, Pixar Animation rebounded with their best sequel since Toy Story 2; and in November Walt Disney dropped Moana, a celebration of Pacific Island culture loaded with an infectious soundtrack of great songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda. After losing their way a little bit with the ascendancy of Pixar, Walt Disney is in a great state of creative flow right now; their current brain trust has proven that the studio is in excellent hands.

Zootopia (2016)

zootopia

Good lord, SO furry

When I write about the things I really love I have a tendency to gush; I’ll try not to do that too much here, but seriously you guys Zootopia is one of my absolute favorite movies in the last 15 years or so. It hits just about every sweet spot I can think of: there’s an adorable, inspiring rabbit protagonist; the theme of the story tackles issues of prejudice both inherent and hidden directly and responsibly; the world-building is so strong it’s incredibly easy to fall in love with what’s presented and imagine what life is like outside of the story; and the size difference is baked into the setting in ways that are just incredible. It’s the total package, and joins Robin Hood (1973) and The Lion King (1994) as the Disney film that serves as an entry point for a whole generation of folks in the fandom.

What Zootopia has over the previous two, however, is a story that bakes in the themes of tolerance and community building right from the jump. Judy Hopps, our intrepid heroine, dreams of living in Zootopia — where anyone can be anything — and joining the police force. Being a police officer is a fairly dangerous job, and it’s typically reserved for the largest animals, but Judy is determined to be the first rabbit officer in the city’s history. She works incredibly hard, and makes the force! However, that victory is short-lived; she’s given parking duty even though she knows she’s capable of so much more.

Judy takes on the case of missing otter Emmitt Otterton against the wishes of her superior officer, Chief Bogo, and her line of questioning pairs her up with Nick Wilde, a street-hustling fox who can navigate the many different strata the city encompasses. Both Nick and Judy need to solve the mystery to prevent their lives from being turned upside down; if Judy doesn’t do so, she’ll lose her job, and Nick will be reported to the Zootopian equivalent of the IRS if he doesn’t help her. Over time, of course, they learn to appreciate and support one another, even though it’s an incredibly rough road to get there.

What makes Zootopia so exciting is that it’s a perfect marriage of plot, character, and setting. You could not tell the story the same way if the setting were different, or without Judy and Nick specifically. Judy Hopps is one of the all-time-great Disney protagonists; she’s Leslie Knope as a purple-eyed rabbit. Nick Wilde is a character I personally identify with — carnivores are a minority in this world, and foxes in particular aren’t well-trusted due to the stereotype. His early dream of being a Cub Scout was dashed by a heartbreaking encounter with bullies, and his idealism was beaten out of him right then and there. Where Judy learned to persevere against the social forces pushing against her, Nick shrugged and fell into the box society pushed him into. While you’d think that Nick would have the bigger arc of learning to believe in himself and make good, Judy’s upbringing as an herbivore gives her blind spots that she has to confront and overcome as well.

How Judy handles her mistake and its consequences is what really elevates the character and the story of Zootopia, and provides one of its most inspiring moments. In fact, there are numerous instances where characters are checked for social faux pas; both the way they’re alerted to the transgression and their responses are wonderful examples of how these interactions should go in an ideal world. Zootopia isn’t perfect, but most of the animals genuinely try to get along. In both their successes and failures, there are real-world parallels that we can readily recognize.

The movie, of course, is simply gorgeous. The world of Zootopia is one of the best-realized furry societies ever created, with a wide variety of animals living in a number of different biomes and in buildings designed for a dizzying array of sizes — from mice and shrews just a few inches tall to giant multi-ton elephants and 20-foot giraffes. What’s interesting is how natural the society seems, even when they’re playing with the distinctive problems that would arise with such vast size differences. Each species feels unique but part of a cohesive whole.

The plot, ultimately, hinges on the warring impulses within each of us to accept and celebrate our differences or give in to fear and alienation. Both Nick and Judy want to be the heroes in their own story, and both of them are faced with a society that doesn’t want to let them do that for various reasons. Judy, not just through her beliefs, but through her actions, convinces everyone around her to try to be better. It’s such a simple, yet difficult, thing, but she proves that it’s a worthwhile endeavor.

Zootopia is an incredibly furry movie, but it’s also not a shallow one. The presentation of a furry society is a near-perfect modern fable that we can apply to our own lives and social realities, and the fact that the character design and world-building are both incredibly appealing doesn’t hurt either. This is a quintessential Disney movie, a perfect example of what the House of Mouse can do when it’s at its best.

Finding Dory (2016)
I was fairly ambivalent about Finding Dory when it was first announced. Pixar had been dipping into the sequel well fairly often by that time, and a bit of the shine had come off the company. While Monsters University was decent, it wasn’t essential; going back to the world of Finding Nemo could retroactively tarnish the legacy of the first film. When Finding Dory was finally released in the summer of 2016, it was received really well; to this date, it’s got a 94% certified fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and boasts the biggest opening and highest gross ever for a Pixar film. Andrew Stanton was very gunshy about a sequel; he wanted to be sure he had the perfect story before moving ahead. Finding Dory was well worth the wait.

The movie takes place one year after the events of Finding Nemo, and while life on the reef is more or less back to normal there are a few issues that need to be worked out. Marlin still struggles to deal with Dory, though Nemo has a much better rapport with her. During a school field trip, Dory has a flashback that reminds her she has parents; desperate to find them, she enlists the help of Marlin and Nemo to travel across the sea to California. They manage to make it all the way to their destination before they’re separated; Dory has to find her way back to her family on her own, while Marlin and Nemo have to find her.

Finding Dory handles interactions with people with disabilities the same way Zootopia handles interactions between people of different backgrounds. Dory’s parents are unfailingly patient and supportive, though they worry about how Dory is going to fare out in the world without them. Marlin’s neurotic need for safety and certainty proves to be a hindrance, not just for Dory but for Nemo as well; watching his father’s reaction to Dory makes him think his dad feels the same way about his limitations. The lesson, as difficult as it can be to learn, is that people with disabilities — even mental ones — navigate the world in a different way. While that can cause difficulties, it’s not impossible to manage. It just takes careful attention and sustained effort to learn how to interact in a way that works for everyone.

Dory meets a host of characters who have disabilities or ailments that makes the world feel like a hard place to succeed in. There’s an octopus whose introversion has curdled into misanthropy; a near-sighted whale shark who keeps bumping into things; a beluga whale who believes his sonar is broken; and a very special bird you’re never quite sure is capable of understanding what you’re saying. Each of them learns how to deal with themselves through Dory’s influence; Dory herself has to trust in herself (and the lessons she can remember) in order to find her way back to anything familiar.

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The animation for Finding Dory is simply beautiful; it’s astonishing to think how far Pixar has come with water, fur, wet and dry textures, even lighting effects in such a short time. All that technical wizardry is in service to the story, which provides an incredible visual theme to reflect the mental state of the characters. Open water as a metaphor for their internal life comes back again and again, and each appearance is more powerful.

The writing in the film is breathtaking; dialogue is sharp and witty, but also resonant. Everything said influences the characters who hear them, and lines are weighted with double and triple meanings. What we take from Finding Dory is that what we say to one another matters more than we might ever understand; a kind word or off-handed put-down can lodge in someone’s brain, ready to be recalled in moments of crisis. Our encouragement or dismissal can be the thing that tips someone towards success or failure.

It underscores the necessity of kindness, of considerate speech, of encouragement and support — especially for those of us who have disabilities or illnesses. Finding Dory is a movie that could actually change the mindset of the young audience who views it, teaching them empathy and the consequences of cruelty in a way very few children’s films even attempt. Dory’s adventure, and the lessons everyone involved learn along the way, elevates both this film and its prequel. That’s an exceedingly rare thing.

It’s possible that of the three movies Pixar and Disney released last year, Finding Dory might end up being the one that’s overlooked. But I hope not. This is one of the best Pixar films to date, period; even though the decade of dominance looks to be over, they’ve still got it.

Moana (2016)
Hats off to Ron Clements and John Musker for creating such a wonderful film that highlights the culture of Pacific Islanders without exploiting them. Well, for the most part. Moana is a wonderful film that features Pacific Island mythology, talent, language and culture. The voice talent is loaded with Pacific Islanders, the songs are written in English, Samoan and Tokelauan, and Taika Waititi (a Maori New Zealander) wrote the first draft of the screenplay. Even as Clements and Musker took over story duties (the writing credit eventually went to Jared Bush), they took care to run almost every decision through an Oceanic Story Trust to make sure they were being sensitive. The result is a great movie that is truly unique in animation, a popular entertainment that features only people of color.

Moana is the headstrong princess of an island nation; her father is grooming her for rulership of her people, but there’s something about the open ocean that keeps calling to her. When a blight threatens the food supply for the island, she disobeys her father’s forbiddance and takes a ship to find Maui the demi-god so she can force him to restore the heart of Te Fiti and cure the damage he caused. Maui, being the trickster he is, would much rather steal Moana’s boat to escape the island where he’s been exiled. Forces align to push them together, however, so off they go!

The music for Moana is incredibly catchy, inspiring and beautiful — no surprise, when it was written and arranged in part by the great Lin-Manuel Miranda. The soundtrack peaked at number 2 on the Billboard 200, which doesn’t happen that often for movies these days. “How Far I’ll Go” is such an excellent song for Moana, full of longing, hope and determination; those themes ripple through the rest of the movie, underpinning her entire character arc. Music propels much of the action, providing characters with truly memorable introductions and anchoring set pieces amazingly well. The soundtrack really is Moana‘s secret weapon; it allows us to connect to the action on the screen with ease.

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The story itself is a mythic hero’s journey with Pacific Island trappings, told with sure-footed pacing and a joyous, colorful style. What’s impressive is that Moana and Maui must battle their own worst impulses as much as the monsters and gods that seek their failure; the internal struggle is every bit as important as the outsized beings they run up against. Again, themes of self-respect and support are essential to these characters, but they take on a heightened poignancy thanks to today’s political climate. There is almost no popular fiction celebrating women of color or providing them a role model to emulate, so the fact that Moana drives so much of the journey through sheer will is quietly revolutionary.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson kills it as Maui, of course, and now that I’m thinking about the voice talent there isn’t a false note anywhere. Jermaine Clement makes a memorable turn as a giant crab, and The Rock can belt out a tune when called upon to do so. It’s the best surprise, and I’ll always cheer loudly when people of color are allowed to show just how excellent they can be when given the platform to do so.

I’ve talked a lot about how important Moana is for its cultural context, but honestly it’s just a fantastic movie — Moana belongs in the Princess pantheon right alongside Belle, Elsa and Tiana. Disney’s focus on proactive, inspiring women in their stories is a very welcome trend, and Moana is the latest example of how telling great tales with diverse casts should be done.

 

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(Reviews) DisneyFest: Big Hero 6, Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur

2014 was a bit light for Walt Disney Animation and Pixar Studios. Between the two of them, they released only Big Hero 6, which turned out to be enough — it was that year’s highest-grossing animated film and won the Best Animated Feature Oscar. It also just so happened to be an excellent movie. Pixar followed up in 2015 with two features, the Oscar-winning Inside Out and the truly strange, less well-received The Good Dinosaur. While the studio proved it could still tell surprising, complex, highly-emotional stories, it also proved that not every high concept would come together the way it needs to.

Big Hero 6 (2014)
This movie is loosely based on the Marvel Comics limited series created by Man of Action (the same brain trust that spawned Ben 10 and Generator Rex), but essentially takes the character templates and little else. While the comic is sort of an Avengers of Japan, Disney decided to set the story in San Fransokyo, a wonderful mash-up of East and West. Hiro Hamada, the 14-year-old prodigy who helps develop Baymax, is the leader right from the jump, while just about every other member of the fledgling superhero team is really different. Fred isn’t an Inu person who can create a kaiju “aura” to fight with; he’s a total fanboy with surprisingly unlimited wealth. Baymax isn’t a dragon-transforming robot with the brain waves of Hiro’s slain father; he’s a “soft” robot designed to provide instant health care to anyone nearby.

I’ve never read the comic, I’ll admit that right now, so I don’t have any attachments that would make me judge Big Hero 6 against its source material. But the movie we get is a wonder, a love letter to superhero origin stories, Eastern sci-fi, and Asian influences on American pop culture. Hiro is one of those quietly revolutionary protagonists, a true, honest-to-goodness Asian-American who isn’t shoehorned into a stereotype or forced to carry the cultural weight of his ancestry — he’s allowed to be a kid figuring out hard lessons on his own.

Hiro’s brother Tadashi is a student at the research lab of San Fransokyo Tech, a cutting-edge facility that pushes the boundaries of applied robotics. Tadashi wants Hiro to do something worthwhile with his genius for automation instead of making robots to fight in…underground battlebot arenas, so he introduces his little brother to the other students and his crowning achievement: Baymax. Meeting Baymax and the other students totally works. Inspired, Hiro works hard to develop a revolutionary microbot technology. His ticket into the university is assured.

However, a fire at the research lab takes the life of Hiro’s brother and the head of the robotics research lab in one fell swoop. Depressed, Hiro shuts himself away from the world and Tadashi’s friends until Baymax is activated, forcing Hiro into action once they discover that one of his microbots is being called to a specific location. That opens the door to a mystery that tests Hiro’s innermost desires, forces him to confront his loss and brings together San Fransokyo’s resident super-hero team, Big Hero 6!

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The film looks totally unique thanks to the design of both San Fransokyo and Baymax. The environments and background are undoubtedly San Francisco, but with Japanese influences that make the city pop that much more. Eucalyptus trees are replaced with cherry blossoms; downtown is a hyper-dense cluster of futuristic skyscrapers; the iconic Golden Gate Bridge features torii gates over its span. The city is effortlessly diverse, a number of different people from all kind of backgrounds coming together to live and work. It’s really, really awesome.

The characters are stone-cold awesome, too; Baymax is a robot for the ages, while Hiro is sympathetic, a little smug, and believably brash all at once. They make an excellent pair, with Baymax serving as the observant, considerate brake to Hiro’s tightly-focused drive. Hiro, like most of us, has trouble seeing the world outside of himself. It’s Baymax, who was programmed only to help others as his primary concern, who teaches him what made Tadashi so special and how he can live up to his brother’s legacy.

The other team members who round out the cast — bubbly geek girl Honey Lemon, big scaredy-cat Wasabi, tough speedster GoGo, and slacker fan-boy Fred — are pretty great in the limited roles they have. Mostly this is Hiro’s story, so they support his narrative arc without getting much of one on their own. The inevitable sequel, and the upcoming TV series, should dive into their lives quite a bit more. Honestly, I’m super-excited to visit San Fransokyo again and learn more about all of these characters. Maybe Fred will actually get kaiju powers somewhere along the way!

Big Hero 6 is Walt Disney really embracing the storytelling aesthetic of Pixar while forging ahead to create their own identity for the 21st century. I know how weird it is to say that when it’s an adaptation of a comic from a company they’ve only recently come to own, but it’s also true. Disney has developed a real knack for taking stories that might be half-baked or problematic and smoothing out the rough edges until it shines, and this movie is the best proof of why that’s a good thing.

Inside Out (2015)
Folks joke that Inside Out is peak Pixar, the logical extreme of the “What if x had emotions?” byline that underpins so many of their movies. And OK, fair cop. But if this is where that kind of storytelling leads, I’m totally fine with them running that concept into the ground. Inside Out gives the coming-of-age story an insightful twist by wrapping it around the mismatched-buddy road-trip tale that takes place entirely inside a teenager’s mind.

Young Riley is a girl with a loving mom and dad, a great group of friends, and hobbies that excite and engage her. That’s all upended when her father moves them all in a (let’s be charitable) fixer-upper rowhouse in San Francisco. Losing her friends to distance, her parents to stress, and her hobbies taxes her ability to cope, forcing severe and irrevocable changes that usher in a new stage of her life.

Inside Riley’s head, Joy tries very hard to help Riley make the best of it with her fellow emotions at the controls — Anger, Disgust, Fear, and Sadness. When Sadness, the one emotion Joy can’t figure out a reason for, begins to color Riley’s memories it sparks a chain of events that takes both of them out of “Central Control”, and into the labyrinthine landscape of Riley’s brain. They have to work together to find their way back before Fear, Anger and Disgust cause a complete shutdown.

Inside Out
Inside Out is most impressive in the way it spins a story from the complicated process of a little girl battling the depression that comes with an intensely difficult life change. Using these simple concepts as actual characters, we get a frame of reference for what it’s like when joy has left the building and what happens to us when we grow up. Riley’s entire internal landscape changes, and that upheaval is traumatic and frightening and awful; in that vacuum where we try to rebuild ourselves, it’s all too easy to fall into despair over the losses that accumulate through those experiences.

It’s here that we see the magic of Sadness and the value of allowing ourselves to mourn the things we lose. The ability to empathize with the pain of other people, to share that burden and let them know they’re not alone, is tremendous. It allows us to mark the end of an experience, then move on to the next one. It also allows us to realize that we can hold more than one emotion at a time; it’s rare that something we experience is only one thing or another, and sometimes we can even remember a situation as both sad AND joyful.

Each one of the set pieces through the film teach us something new about how our brain works and how we process our emotions. While it might look like Joy is the only “positive” emotion in the bunch, we come to appreciate the utility of Disgust, Fear, Anger and even Sadness as we move through Riley’s journey. Every scene ends with another change to Riley’s internal psyche, and because we’ve each had experiences like hers we can feel the impact of those changes right along with her.

It’s a beautiful movie with writing that works with incredible precision on multiple layers. The film was co-written and directed by Pete Docter, the same guy who directed Monsters, Inc. and Up — two of Pixar’s most emotionally-earnest stories. Docter’s ability to take a concept and ground it strong, universal experiences is a particularly strong gift of his, and out of all the folks in the Pixar Brain Trust I think it’s his stories that I love best.

Inside Out is absolutely one of the best Pixar movies ever. Even though it was universally-beloved when it was released, won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and was the second-highest-grossing animated film of 2015 (behind Minions), it feels like one of those films that could easily be overlooked for some reason. I’ll gladly be an evangelist for it, though; it’s far too great a film to not be a part of “best animated films of all-time” conversation.

The Good Dinosaur (2015)
The Good Dinosaur isn’t a bad movie, but it could have been so much better. A story set in an alternate world where an asteroid never smashed into the planet, allowing those huge and terrible thunder-lizards to evolve into sapient, tool-using creatures is one rich with possibility, but The Good Dinosaur doesn’t do very much with it beyond its central twist. It feels like the film is reaching for a throwback to those frontier coming-of-age stories featuring a boy and his dog leaving innocence behind over a summer, only with the dinosaur as the boy and the human as his dog. It doesn’t quite get there, mainly because it feels like the movie really doesn’t have a single vision.

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Arlo is the runt of his litter in a family of apatosaurs, who grow crops of corn to make sure they have enough to eat through the harsh winter. Nobby-kneed and clumsy, he frustrates his huge older brother Nash and confounds his patient and exasperated parents Henry and Ida. An accident plunges Arlo into a river at the edge of the property, where he’s swept by a raging current that takes him far from home. Out in the wilderness, Arlo befriends a little human corn thief he names “Spot”; together, they traverse the frontier as Arlo tries to make his way back home.

The environments are absolutely breathtaking, I have to say. An astonishing variety of landscapes are presented with loving, careful detail — mountain peaks, dense forests, wide-open plains, the modest cultivated plot of a farmstead. It’s odd, then, that this technical wizardry doesn’t extend to Arlo and the other dinosaurs we meet along the way; he is distractingly cartoonish, such an odd collection of shapes that don’t quite fit together we can’t ever really buy him as a living, breathing creature.

That visual contradiction extends to the story as well. At its heart, The Good Dinosaur is a gentle fable about what to do with fear and how Arlo learns to be brave and resourceful on his way back home. But the episodic nature of the film doesn’t let us see Arlo developing much; scenes revolve around strange characters or intense experiences that are amusing or impressive, but we never get a sense of narrative momentum. Arlo and Spot grow closer as a pair and the way each changes through that relationship is sweet, but it’s a different thing entirely from Arlo’s central arc. Most of the time, this results in a feeling that the stakes aren’t clearly set; there’s a vague understanding that things will be bad if Arlo fails, but there’s not enough emotional clarity for things to really land.

A lot of the set pieces are pretty neat, though; Arlo meets a really strange Styracosaurus who provides a home of sort for various forest mammals, gets a hold of some fermented berries that leads to a truly weird drunken interlude, and helps a family of cattle-rustling Tyrannosaurs recover their longhorns. These scenes are too short to have a lot of impact, though, and just by the time they’ve piqued our interest it’s time for Arlo and Spot to move on.

The end of the film doesn’t land the way it needs to, either. The resolution of Arlo and Spot’s relationship doesn’t feel true to either character, and it would have been nice to provide the young Apatosaur with a situation that allows him to coalesce his newfound knowledge into concrete action that proves he’s worthy of the reward he’s wanted all along. Things just…end, with almost everything that had been upended at the beginning of the film set right.

Bob Peterson, who co-directed Up for Pixar previously, was famously removed from the project due to the usual “creative differences”. According to executives at the studio, the story just wasn’t where it needed to be and Peterson couldn’t get it there. So they brought in Peter Sohn, another animator, for his first directing credit. From there the story was changed fairly drastically, and it shows; it feels like Pixar could have used a lot more time to let the elements they were using settle, but at that point they were locked into a release date that had already been pushed back once. The result? Something half-baked, but with the faint whiff of greatness it could have had if it had been allowed to cook a little longer.

I don’t know if The Good Dinosaur is Pixar’s worst movie, but it might the most disappointing one. The story is OK and the animation is amazing, but I still couldn’t recommend it for anyone except Pixar completionists. Still, it’s streets ahead of most Ice Age movies, that’s for sure.

 
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Posted by on July 5, 2017 in DisneyFest, Movies, Reviews

 

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