May 2012: I was looking for ways to diversify the blog’s content, as well as cross off a few personal challenges of my own. I immediately went to Disney for my first weekly feature; one of my favorite things in the entire world. While perusing the list of Disney animated films – at least the ones Disney acknowledges as canon – I realized how many I’d never seen. The mix of classic and contemporary worked for the blog at the time; I was still reviewing modern movies then. Since then, the Journeys in the Disney Vault series has been my longest-running challenge, both personally and professionally. With the final Disney animated film out at the moment, I feel it’s a fitting time to put this series to bed. But before all that, let’s look at the trajectory of Disney animation, and highlight some highs and lows.
The fundamental changes explored throughout this series is animation styles. The 1930s-1980s saw predominately hand-drawn, hand-painted cell drawings leading to a level of detail which remains unparalleled. The Disney Renaissance of the early-90s is the only time Disney had consistent hits, and there wasn’t a moment in their history before where they were guaranteed a success. In fact, changes in animation styles were generally a direct result of failing box office. The Xerography process of the early-1960s was hoped to be a cheaper alternative to hand-drawn animation but, really, it just made the movies backgrounds appear sloppy and unfinished. Fantasia and a few other movies of the 1940s-1950s saw the use of hand-painted watercolor backgrounds, which I miss even though the movies which employed them (Bambi especially) aren’t my favorites.
The CAPS system of the 1980s made animation easier and was the studios first leap into technology through computers. It’s probably not a coincidence its conception dovetailed with the Disney Renaissance, where animation was considered a serious contender in making movies for adults, as well as kids. This culminated with Beauty and the Beast getting a nomination for Best Picture in 1991, a feat remaining unrivaled until PIXAR came around.
PIXAR’s inception in 1995, and subsequent pairing with Disney to distribute Toy Story, had to have frightened the company, who always believed they were the de facto studio for quality animation. Disney had several contentious fights with PIXAR, while watching them rake in the dough as Disney’s animated films of the late ’90s-early 2000’s saw failing box office. PIXAR’s break with the studio in 2004 was a chaotic time for the studio, coupled with Disney’s stockholders failing belief in their CEO at the time, Michael Eisner and a hostile takeover spearheaded by the late Roy E. Disney. PIXAR would eventually be bought by Disney, and they’ve had a fruitful relationship ever since. However, Disney’s own animation arm was struggling to find their footing in a landscape where technology reigned supreme. The movies of the first ten years of the new millennium are very hit or miss; a battle between technology versus story and creativity. After the release, and failure, of Home on the Range, the studio decided to close their hand-drawn animation unit, receiving untold ire from fans and animators who felt they were ungraciously cast aside in favor of computers. The documentaries Waking Sleeping Beauty and Dream On, Silly Dreamer were created in response to the closure and its aftermath.
In 2009, Disney revived the 2D unit, while still continuing to capitalize on CGI animation, to create The Princess and the Frog. The Princess and the Frog not only profited – and received some much needed goodwill – on the love for hand-drawn animation, but reinvigorated the Disney princess brand with Tiana, the first (and as of now, only) African-American princess. The movie was a success, but Disney had no interest in pursuing anything further with hand-drawn animation. In April of this year, the final hand-drawn animators were laid off and the remaining hand-drawn animated film studio was shuttered. Effectively, Disney is no longer in the business of hand-drawn animation, which is a shame if you look at the exquisite work and changes that went into hand-drawn animation.
From a personal standpoint, I’m happy to have watched all 53 animated classics. You might be wondering why I didn’t include this film or that film. I originally intended to review any and all theatrical releases, but eventually settled on the 53 movies Disney considers part of their Walt Disney Studios line; the “classics,” so to speak. There are countless theatrical sequels and offshoot movies created via DisneyToon Studios. I was tempted to segue into a new series looking at the live-action movies, but with Disney’s increased output that’s not possible. To wrap this up, I’ll look at the ten movies I loved, the ten I hated, and the five I revised my opinions on (either for good or ill). Clickable links in the title will take you to my original reviews.
Top 10 Best Disney Animated Movies
10. Lilo & Stitch
8. Peter Pan
3. The Rescuers
Top 10 Worst Disney Animated Movies
10. Robin Hood
7. Brother Bear
The Five Disney Movies I Revised My Opinion On
5. Hercules – I remember loving this as a kid, but as an adult it’s blatant commercialism and cartoonish animation is subpar
4. The Jungle Book – I could never get past the first forty minutes, and in rewatching it I really enjoyed its jungle effervescence
2. The Aristocats – I ended up buying this movie because I thoroughly enjoyed it!
1. The Rescuers Down Under – Boy, is this a stinker and it used to be my favorite movie as a kid!
Don’t think I’m done with Disney movies forever. I certainly will review Disney movies if I find one worth reviewing, but in terms of weekly reviews it’s time to say goodbye. I’ve certainly crossed off a massive accomplishment, and this series has given me a grander appreciation and knowledge about the Disney company, furthering my love for animation and their work.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.