The Great Disney Countdown – Part One (#57-#40)

Disney Animation Studios

Wreck It Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet is one of the most anticipated movies of the fall – and not just because of the Disney Princess team-up segment that has sent the fanbase into overdrive. It’s also the 57th feature film released by Walt Disney Animation Studios, the latest in an eighty-year streak of quality – mostly.

I’ve considered myself a Disney superfan for a long time, and so this anniversary made me think the time was right to look back at this history and come up with a comprehensive ranking of their body of work. Here at Wanderings and Woolgathering, this article launches a week-long series ranking the Disney Animation Studios films from worst to first. Then come back here after the series concludes for a review of Wreck-It Ralph 2, to see where it ranks among the greats!

This list only includes the films officially produced and released by Walt Disney Animation Studios. No Pixar films (although you can see my current ranking of those here) and it also doesn’t include the cheaper DisneyToon films like A Goofy Movie, or the oddball Touchstone musicals like The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Of course, every bottom-to-top list has to start at the bottom, so in this installment we’ll look at the Disney films that didn’t quite work. Only a few of these are absolute duds, while the others are ambitious experiments that fell flat due to a number of factors. Not even Disney is exempt from misfires.

Not Ranked:

57-53. Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros, Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, Melody Time (1942-1948)

These World War 20-era package films were cobbled together from assorted animation shorts, a way to keep the film studio going during wartime shortages. A few of these segments have stood the test of time, like the title story from The Three Caballeros (featuring Donald Duck’s Mexican band) or Mickey’s adaptation of Jack and the Beanstalk from Make Mine Music. Overall, most of these films are forgotten hodgepodges of clever animation. The same can’t be said for the studio’s other package films, which were much more cohesive films and will appear later on the list.

The List:

52. Chicken Little (2005)

This bizarre adaptation of the classic children’s fable misses the point in ways I didn’t think were possible. Transforming the cautionary tale of not listening to rumors into a sci-fi tale of a bullied nerd chicken fighting off an alien invasion, its ugly animation and juvenile humor make it feel more like a subpar Redbox animated film than a Disney classic. And that’s not getting into the twisted gender politics of the villain’s creepy fate.

51. Dinosaur (2000)

Disney’s first computer-generated film stunned everyone with its photorealistic animation in 2000, but unfortunately the movie it was made for fell completely flat. Essentially a grittier remake of The Land Before Time, it’s a story of the battle to survive in the aftermath of a meteor strike. With the villain essentially being social darwinism, it’s a movie with a lot on its mind. While it’s not as bad as the movie before it or even some of the ones after, it commits an unforgivable sin – it’s drab and boring.

50. Brother Bear (2003)

The early 2000s were not a good time for Disney’s feature film output, and this musical transformation adventure was no exception. The story of an arrogant young Native hunter who is transformed into a bear after he seeks revenge for a family tragedy, it has gorgeous animation and a few catchy songs. But the movie is cobbled together from a bunch of better films and lacks compelling characters.

49. Home on the Range (2004)

Many people consider this wild-west action-comedy the worst Disney movie ever made, and watching Roseanne, Judi Dench, and Jennifer Tilly mug as dairy cows makes a good case. It has something the three movies before it on the list don’t, though – an anarchic comic energy that never lets you get bored. It’s the closest Disney has ever made to a Looney Tunes cartoon. But a bizarre fever dream of a musical number by the yodeling cattle rustler villain aside, it’s still an overly broad dud of a film.

48. The Black Cauldron (1985)

An ambitious attempt to adapt the classic The Chronicles of Prydian fantasy series, this is one of Disney’s highest-profile failures ever. The source material is darker than Disney’s usual fare, and as such what emerged was a bowdlerized mess. The terrifying villain, The Horned King, likely scared off many kids while adults were annoyed by the antics of the gluttonous sidekick. Disney is currently exploring a live-action adaptation, which will likely be a much better fit.

47. The Rescuers Down Under (1990)

The C-C-C-Combo Breaker in Disney’s Renaissance resurgence, this largely forgotten sequel is actually the only official sequel released by Walt Disney Animation Studios until next week. It’s a by-the-numbers funny-animal adventure pitting talking mice against George C. Scott’s evil poacher right out of central casting. A classic example of “They liked that? Give them more of the same!”, it’s easy to see why Disney decided to leave the sequels to a side studio for a while.

46. Fantasia 2000 (2000)

An attempt to recreate the magic of Disney’s stunning 1940 experimental anthology, it largely falls flat due to the lack of a segment as memorable as Night on Bald Mountain or The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (which is repeated here). A segment based on a Hans Christian Andersen tale and one involving Donald Duck helping to load Noah’s Ark liven things up a little, but overall this mostly silent film starts to feel like a beautifully animated screensaver.

45. The Rescuers (1977)

There really isn’t much difference between this and the sequel in quality. Both feature Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor as adventurous mice rescuing a kidnapped little kid from a dastardly villain. This one gets the edge for coming first and having a slightly more memorable villain, although Madame Medusa is a pretty blatant copy-paste from Cruella De Vil.

44. Pocahontas (1995)

Not all the Disney Renaissance films aged well, and few aged worse than Pocahontas. Its Oscar-winning soundtrack endures to this day, of course, but beyond that you’re left-with a cringe-worthy relic of a less-aware time. It’s hard to get past the fact that this is a heavily doctored version of a real and tragic story, but more than that the film’s biggest problem is its wooden characters. Both the title heroine and Mel Gibson’s bland love interest are easily the weakest leads of Disney’s best era, and the mugging villain lacks any real menace.

43. The Fox and the Hound (1981)

A poignant but overall forgettable story of forbidden friendship, this is one of many 1980s Disney films that just didn’t stand the test of time. Based on a much harsher novel, its tale of a hunting dog and a young fox who befriend each other until a cruel hunter comes between them, the movie has a lot of characters reminiscent of other, better movies. Its bittersweet ending takes it up a notch, but many better Disney movies have explored similar themes.

42. Treasure Planet (2002)

Disney got very high-concept in the early 2000s, and this reinvention of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure novel is a good example of taking that too far. It couples stunning space adventure visuals with a decent boy’s coming of age story, but its version of Long John Silver lacks any real malice and the short runtime doesn’t have the opportunity to develop its overly elaborate world. But hey, it’s better to fail for too much ambition than too little, right?

41. Dumbo (1941)

Easily the least of Disney’s original five that launched the studio before the WW2 break, Dumbo is a sweet, slight story about a baby elephant who can fly and his quest to escape a cruel ringmaster and be reunited with his beloved mother. While “Baby Mine” remains one of the great tear-jerkers in Disney history, it’s impossible to get past the film’s cringeworthy parade of racial caricatures.

40. The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

Now we’re in the era of flawed-but-worthwhile movies, as Disney’s overall quality level over 80 years is shockingly high. The Emperor’s New Groove is a broadly comic tale of an arrogant Incan emperor who gets transformed into a llama by his treacherous advisor, and has to team up with a distrustful peasant father to get turned back. It’s more of a Looney Tunes cartoon than a classic Disney movie, but the subtle anti-greed message and the hilarious antics of the sorceress Yzma and her genial henchman Kronk keep things lively.

Stay tuned in the coming days for the rest of the list, as we count down to the #1 Disney movie of all time!

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