In one way or another, all of us have been deeply affected by the legacy of Walt Disney. Maybe we fell in love with the magical animated features as kids or wound up visiting the mega-theme-parks in Florida or California or perhaps bought sparkly franchise trinkets to adorn our rooms. Maybe the historical adventures in the live-action feature films got us interested in our country’s past for the first time, and the enchantment of the Disney princesses prepared us to leap into the grown-up world of fantasy and mythology. Perhaps the songs inspired us to start singing ourselves; the artwork inspired us to draw, or the stories and characters enabled us to identify with them and rise to the challenges in our own world.
Perhaps, in some subtle way, these “childhood epics” truly defined who we would grow up to be. They have a very real magic about them. For all the faults that many of these productions may have (especially, I would say, the later ones, which occasionally muddy the moral waters), there is still some goodness about them that makes them many of them timeless. Indeed, Disney movies are often used as therapy for children with autism, Down’s syndrome, and other health challenges and have been able to help many express themselves and come out of their shells. The profound healing power of these simple little stories and songs truly makes them “a fragment of the true light” and a blessing in disguise.
The following is an assortment of some of my top personal favorites among the Disney animated and live-action feature film collection. While there are a slew of others worthy of mention—and I do not claim this an any sort of definitive list—I hope you will enjoy perusing and be inspired to look up some of the flicks you may not have seen and re-watch old favorites that you have seen many times before!
Robin Hood, the 1973 animated feature film, has undoubtedly been one of the most singularly influential movie in my life. As a little girl of 6 years old, I was instantly absorbed by the heroic story-line portraying different animals as the main characters in the classic tale. My first crush was on that clever, good-hearted, English-accented fox, and through him, my love of England sprouted and grew. The other characters were so memorable as well: Little John the Bear, Friar Tuck the Badger, Maid Marian the Vixen, Alan a Dale the Rooster, etc. etc. They were all wonderful friends brought to life through gorgeous animation, and forever associated with the many songs laced throughout, such as “Love Goes On and On”, “Robin Hood and Little John”, “A Pox on the Phony King of England”, etc. etc .! The fact that I have a shelf loaded down with Robin Hood memorabilia, including books, VHS and DVD movies, Disney puppets, lunchboxes, comic books, etc. is a testament to the life-long effect one little movie can have on a girl!
Sleeping Beauty, the 1959 animated feature film, was another life-changing film from my youth. Countless times as a child, I would get together with friends to put on plays and recite those wonderful, pseudo-Shakespearian lines from the film. In fact, if you asked me to do it now, I would put on my most villainous voice and quote Maleficent: “Forest of thorns shall be his tomb! Go through the skies with the plot of doom!” I would also quote the good fairy, Mistress Merryweather: “O Sword of Truth, fly swift and sure! Let evil die and good endure!” For me, it is the quintessential fairy-tale brought the screen. I mean the music is from Tchaikovsky, and the artwork is gloriously neo-gothic in feel. “Once Upon a Dream” is still a favorite in my show-tune repertoire. And the characters are delightful: Aurora, Prince Philip, Mistress Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, and the oh-so evilly elegant Maleficent. It really can’t be beat.
Pocahontas and Pocahontas II, from 1995 and 1998 respectively, are probably my favorite animated features from the Disney Renaissance. They may be historically inaccurate in many places, but I actually find them less offensive to my sensibilities than many period piece mini-series that purport to be telling the truth as it happened! At least they had the heart of the stories in the right place and tried to be fair to both the English and the Native Americans. Plus, the characters are attractive, and the side-kick characters are actually cute instead of being annoying! More than any other Disney animated production, this is a Broadway-style musical, complete with some beautiful songs such as “Just around the River Bend”, “Colors of the Wind”, and “Where Do I Go from Here?”. Plus, I must admit a liking for John Rolfe…he’s just superior to John Smith, and it was historically accurate that Pocahontas should wind up with him in the sequel…even though he didn’t really rescue her from the Tower of London! But, hey, it’s all in good fun!
Mulan, from 1998, was another unique exploration of a broadly historical theme and got me more than a little fascinated in Chinese culture (in addition to my previous love of Kung Fu and Sagwa!). Mulan is really the Joan of Arc of Ancient China, and her heroic decision to take her father’s place on the battlefield to drive back the invading Huns is based off of an ancient poetic saga that was just dying to be made into a motion picture. There are sections of the cartoon that are a tad crude and incongruent in mood, and the magic dragon side-kick can be a tad annoying. But still the overall storyline and animation (check out the 3-D charge sequence!) are excellent. Also, the rousing theme song “Be a Man” (“I’ll Make a Man out of You”) is always a catchy aside, both in English and Chinese as provided in the special features!
The Great Mouse Detective, from 1986, is an adorable, little-known gem that plays out a clever spoof on Sherlock Holmes…in mouse form! Olivia, a spirited Scottish mousling, sets out to find Basil Mouse, the greatest detective in London, in hopes of rescuing her toy-maker father who has been kidnapped by the evil Professor Ratigan and his scurrilous Cockney mouse minions! Along the way, she meets the bumbling Dr. Dawson, who teams up with Basil to uncover the kidnapping…and unmask a sinister plot against the Queen on her Diamond Jubilee! All the characters were delightful, and the humor managed to achieve a spoof on Sherlock without being cynical. The only problem I really had with it was the “dancing girl” sequence in the seedy tavern, which I thought might have been a bit too suggestive for little kids. Otherwise, this is a must-see.
The Jungle Book, from 1967, is an entertaining romp, which may not be Kipling…but it’s a lot more fun! In fact, I would go on to say that it is quite possibly one of the “bear necessities” of any Disney list! A classic growing up tale with another elegant villain, Shere Kahn, and a troupe of lovable sidekicks from panthers to bears to wolves to elephants, Mowgli finds the place where he really belongs among his own kind through the intervention of an adorable village girl. Musically, this is another film that cannot be beat for catchy tunes, most notably the beloved “Bear Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You!” This was the last animated feature to be made with Walt Disney’s personal touch as he died soon after release. Indeed, it was in many ways the end of a generation.
The Little Mermaid, from 1989, was the grand kick-off to the Disney Renaissance and sparkled with a charming story-line and lovable characters. While I have reservations about Ariel’s bikini, it must be admitted that Hans Christian Anderson’s original mermaid was depicted naked (check out the Mermaid of Copenhagen if you don’t believe me!), so technically Disney made an improvement! Besides, she’s not actually in a bikini the whole time…she winds up in a nice frilly dress on land, which fits her becomingly. King Trident, her long-suffering father, actually turns out to be a Christ-like figure who sacrifices himself for his daughter who sold her soul to the devil in the form of Ursula the sea-witch, all in pursuit of love with a human, Prince Eric. The loss of Ariel’s voice is also very symbolic of the loss of her soul and her self. The rescue could have been more allegorically profound than ramming into the evil witch with a boat, but at least Eric gets to do something to make himself useful after all the trouble he inadvertently causes over the course of the tale!
The Hunchback of Notre Dame, made in 1996, has a quality that surpasses most cartoons. It must have been a daunting task for the Disney team to try to recreate Victor Hugo’s classic saga of unrequited love, prejudice, and tragedy and give it a reasonably happy ending, but they managed to do it and do it fairly well! There are some beautiful 3-D visuals, especially during the crowd scenes (notably when Quasimodo whisks Esmeralda to safety and cries “Sanctuary!”) and the Cathedral shots (check out Esmeralda standing in the center of light being reflected from the rose window overhead). Also, while it certainly has its problems (some crude inferences, etc.), the plot was considerably improved by having Quasi be able to hear and speak, enabling him to emerge as a real and relatable character. His friendship with Esmeralda and Phoebus is touching and uplifting, and the music score underscores the theme of unconditional love, especially the beautiful solo for Esmeralda, “God Help the Outcasts”.
The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, which ran from 1988 to 1991, is an innovative and thoroughly delightful take on the original Pooh stories. As a little girl, it was one of my all-time favorite TV shows, and I still own much of the series to watch someday with my own children! Pooh and his pals become more Americanized in this version to better suit the audience, and the mood takes on a more comic tone as their adventures branch out in into an array of themes and story-lines, all light-hearted and warmly rendered. Whether the subject matter is the Wild West, wishing wells, super-sleuths, falling stars, house-warming parties, or cross-country racing, this series pretty much has it all! As a side-note, I would like to say that the series is *much* superior to the later “Pooh Movies” put out by Disney, which were far too dark and emotionally heavy, distorting the character interaction and the clean style of the animation. So, yeah, just stick with the series!
Mickey’s Christmas Carol, created in 1983, is a shorter feature that demonstrates how Disney’s magic touch can turn just about any classic tale into a new and delightful experience. This one, in the spirit of Robin Hood, recasts Scrooge and the others as animals, and not just any animals – but a roll-call of illustrious names including no less than Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, Jiminy Cricket, and friends! Of course we get to travel with Scrooge McDuck (yes, he’s a duck, and a hilariously Scottish one) to visit his Christmas ghosts and see just why he turned into a miserly wretch to begin with before giving him a chance to re-enter the human (or should I say fowl?) race before it’s too late! It’s a wonderful holiday classic, perfect for the kiddies and fun-loving adults still young at heart! Note: look out for some characters from Robin Hood, who make a debut in the backdrop!
Tangled, from 2010, is a gorgeously animated modern manifestation of the classic Rapunzel story. It’s all about an adorable blonde princess with magical glowing hair, which has the power to heal and restore youth. However, a miserly old lady named Mother Gothel wants to hoard her magic, so she kidnaps her and takes her to live in a tower where no one can find her. It is only through the intervention of Flynn Rider, an unlikely hero, that she is able to find her true place and emerge into the sunlight! Blending the best of old and new artistic techniques in a 3-D production, some have hailed it as the beginning of a “neo-Renaissance” for Disney. The floating lantern sequence is especially stunning. Among the most recent “princess” films, I would definitely say it has the most originality and style and the best plot construction.
Frozen, from 2013, may be the victim of an over-kill hype, but it is still a “cool” little Nordic-style frolic, in the spirit of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen” if not by the letter of the book! This feature film stands out for having two princesses instead of one and for having a unique twist on the meaning of “true love.” Elsa makes an elegant if paranoid accidental ice queen, and Anna her sister is an adorable heroine. Kristoff, Sven, and Olaf add to the fun in the supporting cast, and while Prince Hans winds up being a different type of character than we might have hoped for (I do my best to avoid spoilers here!), he, too, has an integral part to play in the plot to get the main message across. Magical animation and music score (love “Let It Go”), and the moral that true love really does win over all because, to quote Olaf, “some people are worth melting for.”
Brave, made in 2012, is a film with mixed reviews to its name. I must include it in this list for the glorious Scottish setting and magnificent art-work alone. Its story-line has interesting elements, involving a fiery red-haired Scottish-accented princess Merida, who refuses to be wed to a man against her will and competes in an archery contest to win her freedom. And yet the whole dynamic of having her mother turned into a bear (and back again!) kind of underwhelmed me and proved a bit confusing. Still, it had quite a few good messages to share, including the importance of understanding in a mother-daughter relationship, the value of unity and working together, and the necessity of balancing tradition with innovation and grace with strength. It also had a very Celtic take on mystery, magic, and destiny bound up with the land. This film also has a beautiful Celtic score, with the song “Touch the Sky” sung by Julie Fowler.
Tales of Robin Hood, from 1951, is the live action counterpart of the cartoon, starring Richard Todd as R.H. A lush and lively adaptation that primarily sticks to the traditional story-line with a few twists, we get to meet Robin and Marion as young lovers who were childhood sweet-hearts from the time before all the troubles started. In this adaptation, we also get to see Marion clad in Lincoln Green tights among the Merry Men, caring for a wounded (and cranky!) Robin in Sherwood just before King Richard returns to set everything to rights. Also loved the humorous portrayal of Friar Tuck and the scene where he carries Robin across a river. There are also memorable musical interludes from Alan a Dale, nice archery/fencing sequences, and good character development. As one friend pointed out, while Errol Flynn’s portrayal may be the quintessential one, Todd manages to capture more of the depth and complexity of moods as opposed to grinning all the time! Also, this version makes a point of having the Sheriff of Nottingham meet a unique doom on the draw-bridge (easy come, easy go…)
Old Yeller, from 1957, is one of Disney’s most beloved and simultaneously tear-jerking live-action features. It’s about a Texan Confederate family struggling to make ends meet in the aftermath of the Civil War. The two boys, Travis and Arles, find a stray “yeller” dog, who Arles takes into his heart. Although it takes Travis a longer time to warm up to their new family member, he eventually does and “Yeller” goes on to save both their lives. He will go on to be their beloved companion and protector until tragedy strikes, and Travis must perform the most difficult act of love. A powerful story of love, sacrifice, and what it means to become a man. Excellent acting of both humans and animals and just the right southern accents, I reckon!
Johnny Tremain, from 1957, is one of the few films set in the American Revolution which actually tries to be fair to both sides. In this way it keeps faith with the book of the same name by Esther Forbes even though it is largely condensed. The story follows Johnny, a silversmith’s apprentice in Boston, who finds himself drawn into the revolutionary fervor sweeping the colonies. He also learns about some long-buried secrets concerning his own identity as he struggles to rise above the difficulties of having a handicapped hand after an accident in the silversmith shop. I’m pleased to report that the redcoats were actually portrayed as human beings, including General Thomas Gage and Major John Pitcairn. The battle sequences are quite good as were the acting, plot, and costume design, plus the memorable song “Songs of Liberty.”
The Light in the Forest, from 1958, is a rare film set during the French and Indian War and deftly touches on the complexities of relationships between whites and Indians on the colonial frontier. The main character is a young white man, John Cameron Butler, who has been raised among the Lenelanape People from the time of his capture as a small boy. When the British agree to a peace with the natives only after they surrender their white captives, John is brought back to his white family against his will. Ultimately, he finds himself pitted against his sadistic uncle as he struggles to discover his true identity and a place to belong. This is a unique movie which, like Johnny Tremain, is admirably historically accurate. Great acting, complex characters, terrific costuming and scenery, and a great finale fight scene. Loved the Lenelanape language clips used as cues for fist-fighting!
The Parent Trap, from 1961, is a heart-warming tale of a full-scale “family reunion” when long-lost twin sisters Sharon and Susan rediscover each other at a summer camp and launch an ingenious plan to bring their divorced parents back together. But first they have to switch places – a mission easier said than done! While they may be identical in appearance, their personalities and habits are diametrically opposite! Meanwhile, the money-grubbing opportunist Vicky is making a pass at their father, and they launch a plan of defense to foil her schemes in the mountains of California! A terrific family film with a great cast and story-line with an important message that marriage matters. It’s a blast getting to watch a “double-header” of Hayley Mills playing both the girls and heralded by the memorable rock n’ roll song, “Let’s Get Together”.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, produced in 2005, does an admirable job of bringing C.S. Lewis’ classic fantasy story to life for whole new generations to fall in love with. Indeed, considering the painfully memorable BBC adaptation from the 80’s (“sock puppet city”), this could be called a bona fide epic! The story revolves around the four Pevensie children as they discover the magical realm of Narnia in the back of a wardrobe and proceed to fulfill an ancient prophecy involving the return of Aslan the Lion and defeat the evil White Witch. Through it all, a profound Christian allegory retells the story of Easter. The blend of live action and CGI effectively captures the fantastic nature of the film, and the music score is deliciously evocative of the setting, especially the theme for the colossal combat between the forces of good and evil called “The Battle”. All in all, it’s a heart-warming family film that also is shot through with powerful meaning.
Maleficent, made in 2014, is one of those controversial re-make films which I really expected to hate. After all, it was messing with my favorite Disney Princess film, Sleeping Beauty. However, I must admit that, taken on its own terms, this film has a an entertaining premise, a creative plot reworking, impressive acting, and some marvelous special effects and costume/set design work. Personally, I would have just preferred that they disassociated the film from the original movie altogether and made it a stand-alone film with a different title. Indeed, having it still connected the previous feature made it hard to swallow at times, especially when they messed up the three fairies (made them into dumbbells!) and King Stephen (made him into an incorrigible villain). But I did find Maleficent’s back-story to be intriguing and redemption to be moving. Having her portrayed as a powerful and fearsome Celtic-style fairy defending her people and terrifying their enemies fit her well, and I was quite satisfied with how the conclusion brought the story of Aurora full-circle.
That Disney has managed to capture the hearts of the public for so many generations is because they have never lost their willingness to be creative and color outside the box. They are always seeking new forms of expression and entertainment, and yet at the heart of it all, they also manage to tap into a certain level of depth and meaning that will continue to make their movies fall into the classics category. No matter their failings and the commercialism of their merchandise, they have enabled us to wish upon a star, once upon a dream. And I for one believe that is a priceless gift to be treasured. So…what are your favorite Disney movies to share?