Like many others out there, I grew up with many of the classic Disney cartoons on my television. Disney, to some extent, taught us how to grow up. But how do these movies look today, revisited with a more mature eye (and hopefully brain)? How did they look to our parents watching them over our shoulders? One thing is undeniable: Disney undoubtedly has its faults (racism). On the other hand, however, it's hard to deny the extraordinary amount of talent that went into making the early Disney animations, both in terms of aesthetics and thematics. With that in mind, I rewatched several of what I remembered as my favorite of the original Disney feature length cartoons (as opposed to the modern classics of the 90's renaissance) and reevaluated them. So, here are my Top 5 classic Disney animated features. Also I grabbed all the amazing title screens for your enjoyment.
Number Five: Alice in Wonderland (1951)
As a somewhat recent college graduate, it's as hard for me to imagine a list of Disney classics without Alice in Wonderland as it is to understand the Mad Hatter's unbirthday parties as anything but excuses for alcoholism (yes, I understand, mercury poisoning and all that). But on a serious note, Disney definitely did a fairly good job adapting Lewis Carrol's classic children's story considering the running time they had to work with (Alice clocks in at barely 75 minutes). It's pretty easy to understand that they couldn't include everything, and I think the most important elements make the cut. Then again, I watched this version of the story long before I ever read the book itself, so it feels somewhat disingenuous to claim I have an unbiased opinion on the matter.
The reason Alice is at the bottom (top?) of the list is that its narrative tension is somewhat lacking. While it accurately portrays the progression and even the mood of the book, due to its length and subject matter (daydreaming), the movie feels a bit pointless in ways that the book doesn't. Where Alice's Adventures in Wonderland felt like a story despite the "and then she woke up" ending, Alice in Wonderland doesn't succeed in escaping that trap quite so well.
Number Four: Bambi (1942)
Originally, Bambi was not on my list of movies to rewatch, and not because I remembered it as a bad movie. You probably know why. It was because, even as a fledgling film theorist, I knew what was going on when my mom would fast-forward through the end of the winter scenes. This movie traumatized me as a child. It was one of very few movies that had the ability to make me cry until I was in high school, and, let's be honest, it's still difficult to watch. But that's not why Bambi's down here at number four instead of higher up. The ability to get your human audience to feel so strongly for an animal that even as a (mostly) grown man I'm still hesitant to turn it on is just good emotional conveyance (if perhaps a moor strategy economically). And along with having some of the most beautiful animation from these early films, Bambi is nothing if not emotionally compelling.
My one gripe with the movie is that even at under 70 minutes running time it dwells unnecessarily long on scenery and the animals' adorable antics. Whether this is to showcase the animators' talents or push the film's environmentalist agenda, it's unnecessary. The way the film's art style changes based on the tone of the scene accomplishes the former, and the fact that Bambi's mom is killed by a hunter hammers home the latter.
Number Three: Peter Pan (1953)
This is where the competition starts to get fierce. I have to say that while I basically knew which movie would come in first, deciding second and third place was a very close battle. First of all, Peter Pan's animation is stunning. Watching Pan fly especially when he wrestles with his shadow is truly excellent. More than anything else though, the comedy really stands the test of time. I laughed harder at this movie than any of the others that I screened for the purpose of this article. Smee and Hook are undeniably hilarious (fun fact: Hook & Mr. Darling are voiced by the same guy). The characters in general are all so incredibly memorable, from Wendy to Tinkerbell to the unnamed lost boys.
So what's the problem? Why couldn't Peter Pan quite make the silver medal? My answer here is simple, and maybe this is a bit of a scapegoat, but the racist native American scenes are a little hard to watch. The misogyny appropriated to native American culture especially feels a bit ironic coming from such an ideological establishment as Disney.
Number Two: 101 Dalmatians (1961)
As the most recent of the movies I'm reviewing today, it might not come as a surprise that I think 101 Dalmatians has by far the best animation of the movies I screened. The thing is, 101 Dalmatians might have the most iconic art style of any Disney movie, including the more recent greats like Aladdin or The Lion King. The opening credits are fantastic and there's something about the style of the backgrounds throughout the movie that I just fell in love with. Like Peter Pan, the characters are also quite unforgettable and the humors carries over across large age gaps (I had forgotten the story was narrated from the dogs' perspective with the owners as the pets). And who could forget the perfect combination of fear and hatred for Cruella, imbued both by her actions and the amazing job the animators did creating her.
So do I have any complaints about 101 Dalmatians? I don't know, it has a tiny bit of the Bambi thing going on where there will be entire scenes dedicated to basically watching small animals be cute which don't move the story along or develop any of its themes, but it's still a great movie.
Number One: Pinocchio (1940)
So, there you have it. I've laid all my cards on the table. I could write an entire article on the greatness that is Pinocchio. While it may not have the most memorable animation style and at its core it's a story about growing up like almost every other Disney movie, Pinocchio has some of the best characters, deepest emotions, and well developed themes of any children's movie.
I remembered Pinocchio most vividly because of the nightmarish quality to Pleasure Island. As a child, there's something truly terrifying about getting the freedom you crave all at once and turning into an ass (literally). And I think the way they executed Pinocchio's escape is crucial. Because Pinocchio has no idea what he's doing, his transformation doesn't feel like punishment. Instead it's a story about growing, about how we all need to make an ass of ourselves so long as we don't get stuck that way. Pinocchio's mentality and method of escape also influence what it's like to see this movie as an adult. Gepetto's concerns for Pinocchio being on his own after just entering the world are understandable and not overprotective. In this way I think Pinocchio tells one of the strongest tales about what it's like to grow up for both the child(ren) and the parent(s).
Pinocchio also has some pretty strong metatheatrical overtones, something I had never thought of until recently. The story of becoming a "real boy" aside, this movie is about bringing an inanimate object to life—it is quite literally about animation. Gepetto's struggle with his puppet's lack of a soul must have been mirrored in the heart of each of the film's animators.
Finally, and I can't really explain why, but there's something so charming about Jiminy Cricket, especially this most recent time through the film.