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Fab 5: Animated Films

I’m sure I’ve said this before (and I will say this again) but choosing top five of anything Disney related is what I would imagine choosing a favorite child is like. In the process of figuring out my own favorite animated films, I asked a few friends if they could compile their own lists and was surprised to hear just how different their choices were! (Not to mention, all of them needed a good amount of time before they could choose JUST five.) It all depends on what movies you owned as a child, your movie watching experiences, maybe even your age. The factors are endless, not to mention the luxury of having so many great movies to choose from. In the end, I realized that my top 5 had to include films connected to very specific memories, as well as movies I can watch over and over again. So after much deliberation, here they are:

1. The Little Mermaid (1989) – I still remember the first time I saw this movie. Amazingly fitting, it was the summer when my mom brought home the VHS. At five years old, I was wearing a bathing suit and eyeing the pool but the spell of the movie took me over completely, as it still does today. The songs were catchy, the characters were cute and comical, and Ariel was so pretty. When the movie ended, my mom came downstairs to find me bawling hysterically as Ariel and King Triton embraced for one final time. Every then, I was overcome by the tragedy of Ariel having to give up her life in the sea to have the man of her dreams. Couldn’t she have both?

These days, I’m still impressed with Ariel’s independent thinking, her curiosity, and her willingness to find adventure. Her idealism is astounding – she sacrificed her voice for a prince and never doubted she would have him in the end. How many girls put themselves out there for guys – “the one” – and have it work out? Not a lot but it is a fairy tale so I’ll take it. Twenty-one years later, I hope Eric and Ariel are off exploring a rain forest, riding camels in a desert, and laughing about that time she combed her hair with a dinglehopper.

The first in a string of animated films dubbed the “Disney Renaissance”, I actually thought The Little Mermaid took quite a risk featuring a character who is mute most of the time. The movie relies on the animation of facial expressions and (as Ursula says, don’t underestimate the importance of) body language and also the strength of the sidekicks. All in all, they prevailed and as a bonus, Alan Menken/Howard Ashman, a music/lyrics dream team, created a musical masterpiece.

2. Cinderella (1950): For the longest time, I had not seen Cinderella sing “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” without snow appearing on our TV screen and Cindy’s voice speeding up a bit. Yes, our tape was defective and even though my mom said she would exchange it, we never gave it up. It started to feel like it was part of the movie.

For me, Cinderella is just a classic. Even though I love so many of the melody-filled films from my childhood, I appreciate the stillness and silence of this fairy tale. (I especially like how it opens up with the huge storybook – it added something regal and important to what we were about to see.)

Despite its release in 1950, Cinderella still holds many of the elements used in animated films today – a love story, memorable songs, a villain, a bit of comedy, and those little sidekicks. The only difference here is that those details fall together effortlessly. Cinderella never shows off and the film gracefully moves at its own pace.

Twenty or so years since I first saw it, Lady Tremain still scares the shit out of me. I think she is probably one of the most terrifying villains in Disney history. I would not want her to lock me in a basement (not that I would want to be locked in a basement at all). And those two miserable stepsisters – my heart always broke when they tore up Cindy’s dress before the ball. I hope they ended up doing laundry in the palace after all they put Cindy through (although Cindy seems to be a bit more forgiving than I).

As for the music, it’s crazy to believe that songs from a 61-year old film still live on today throughout most of the Disney parks, parades, and even commercials. I bet they are some of the most recognizable, and in this way, Cinderella manages to fill even the largest generational gaps – making it, indeed, timeless.

3. Hercules (1997): I know this is a modern choice, but it always held a special place in my heart. Just the look of it – with its neon color palette – makes me smile. It’s fun to see Disney’s twist on a Greek tale for once and the movie managed to be funny, inspiring, and moving at the same time. It might be a corny message but I think a good job was done presenting a character who had such physical strength but failed to have much confidence in himself. Megara — a frequently forgotten leading lady — was also a unique character. Tough, spunky, and guarded, she was probably the most human of the Disney ladies until Mulan made her first appearance a year later.

The music is also catchy and fun (I love the Greek chorus); I remember listening to the CD on the beach constantly as a kid, and today it is still one of my favorites. Call me cheesy, but I pretty much love to belt out Michael Bolton’s version of “Go the Distance” (when I am alone, of course) and even used the lyrics for an inspiration poster in Calculus once (believe me, I needed it).

All in all, it was nice to have a character like Hercules set off on this journey with one purpose in mind and come out of it with a better understanding of himself and what he wanted from life. I think when I first saw this, I was at the age where I was a bit too jaded for a glass slipper and handsome prince to move me. Plus it was one of those movies pleasing to both sexes (which is probably the reason I ended up watching it with so many boyfriends).

4. Tarzan (1999): I struggled with this choice, but I couldn’t stop thinking that it belonged on my list. It follows all my “favorite” qualifications, and I can’t shake how connected I felt to this film as soon as it began in the movie theater. It was the first time that a singer (Phil Collins) and not a character sang the music of an opening sequence. I cried throughout the whole thing. Nothing had even happened yet, and I was thoroughly affected. I know I was just an emotional teenager but I related to it for some reason — one I may not be able to put into words even now. (It could very well be that we listened to a lot of Phil in my house as a childhood, and it was pure nostalgia. I’m not sure.)

You all know the story – baby taken in by gorilla when his parents are killed by a leopard, the same leopard that killed this gorilla’s child. Almost as soon as the movie begins, we are bombarded with the connection between man and animal. Tarzan grows up in the rain forest, pretty much as a gorilla, and that remains “normal” until a ship of explorers (including adorable Jane) infiltrate their home to hunt for gorillas. He bumps into Jane, who – duh – knows he is a man, and he, for the first time, sees someone LIKE him. Immediately, they are taken with each other and Tarzan is utterly FASCINATED by everything human. “Strangers Like Me” is one of my favorite scenes. (Plus it has a similar Aladdin/”do you trust me” vibe when he & Jane swing through the forest and she quite literally lets her hair down.) Similar to Hercules, Tarzan is suddenly in conflict with himself and his allegiance to the family who has cared for him, and the man he was meant to be.

Being in my prime teenage years when I first saw this movie, and totally overcome with insecurity issues, I think Tarzan’s need to fit in with the other animals of the forest as well as his own gorilla family hit home with me. Most importantly, I understood Tarzan’s frustration caused by his desire to please Kerchak. Who doesn’t want to make their parents happy? Like any significant character, you certainly find yourself rooting for Tarzan throughout the film, no matter which path he decides to take.

Most importantly, Tarzan may have been the first movie where I started to wonder about “where animation came from”. I remember watching one of those behind-the-scenes clips on the Disney Channel. They explained the animators were inspired by snowboarders and skateboarders when creating Tarzan’s swift and expert moves along the tree tops of the jungle. Hey, I was pretty impressed.

And who knew Phil Collins would add such genius, humanity, and emotion to a film? I love so much of the Disney music associated with the animated films, but this one touches me in a different way. It could be the constant drums. I have no idea, but I remember coming home from one WDW road trip, and it was just pouring out. How depressing is that? As if returning from vacation wasn’t sad enough, the sky was black and it was gross out. Popping in that Tarzan soundtrack certainly brought me some comfort that day. I like how Disney broke the rules here — Glenn Close and Phil Collins are the only two people who sing throughout the movie. And it just worked.

5. Tangled (2010): My sister thinks it’s too early to call this film a favorite, but I think she’s wrong. Our new post-Thanksgiving tradition the past couple of years has been to go see a movie together as a family, and last year, Tangled was the flick of choice. You know it’s a good movie when your dad and husband like it just as much as you do (plus my dad said he shed a few tears; I don’t know if he was kidding or not but I’d like to say it’s a true story!).

The first thing that stands out to me about Tangled is that you could easily focus on Rapunzel’s or Flynn Ryder’s story and find equal entertainment. This is not a film aimed toward girls or boys, but both. The second is how Rapunzel has interests and hobbies – so many of them. Like Ariel, she is a curious person but she goes a step farther than just collecting pieces of a life she longs to have. Instead she paints her dreams (and her past), can play the guitar, and knit! She accomplishes much more in the morning than I do in an entire day! This makes her so human and modern to me. How many of us can say we only have one hobby or interest, right?

There is too much to love about this movie: the comedy (crazy sidekicks), the adventure (ALL OF IT), and the romance (how sweet is that lantern scene? I cried much more than I should have) were all right on. And the music! Alan Menken returns with his incredible genius shining through in every single musical moment. It felt like an animated Broadway show; Donna Murphy as Mother Gothel helps, of course, but the songs were completely show stopping and energetic. (In fact, I listen to them at the gym.) Not to mention, It’s also such a pretty movie. I love the bright, vivid color palette. There was such life in every inch of the film.

Favorite scene: Hands down, Kingdom Dance. Love how her flowing tresses transform into that compact braid.

Two questions left unanswered: what shampoo did she use & how long did it take her to dry her hair each morning?

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Okay, now it’s your turn. What movies are in your top 5?

Picture sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

About Estelle Hallick


Estelle is a Disney enthusiast with a soft spot for Muppets, theatre, and small details. She thinks Animal Kingdom is a full day park, the BoardWalk feels like home, and nothing is better than watching Illuminations. When she's not writing about Disney, she's taking out a record number of books from the library and reviewing fiction at Rather Be Reading Blog.

AnthonyOctober 27, 2011 - 7:42 pm

Oh, girl. We're gonna have to agree to disagree on Tarzan, but great choices otherwise! I have no idea how I would choose my top 5. It would take hours of endless listmaking, hemming and hawing. Lilo & Stitch will always be my number one. After that it just gets too difficult for my teeny tiny brain.

Ariel SnowOctober 27, 2011 - 7:44 pm

1. The Little Mermaid 2. Lady and the Tramp 3. The Black Cauldron 4. The Sword and the Stone 5. Aladdin …number 3 was the first movie I had ever seen in the theaters..it was 1985 and I was 5!:)

DragynAllyOctober 28, 2011 - 1:47 am

1. Beauty and the Beast 2. Hercules 3. Lion King 4. Aladdin 5. Little Mermaid (Although my FAVORITE movie of all time is A Goofy Movie but I don't add it to my Disney lists.)

BethOctober 28, 2011 - 4:10 pm

Tough choices for sure. Here are mine I think!

1. The Little Mermaid – right there with you on this one, I used to be able to act out the entire movie with my dolls!
2. Beauty and the the Beast
3. The Lion King
4. Sleeping Beauty
5. Fantasia/Fantasia 2000 – Love them both. I imagine they aren't popular choices, but I really love them, especially as a music buff!

hemborgwifeOctober 28, 2011 - 4:26 pm

1. Cinderella
2. Sleeping Beauty
3. Peter Pan
4. A Mickey Christmas Carol (not the same category of feature film but I love it)
5. A Hundred and One Dalmatians

I loved old school Disney even as a kid!

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