The Five Most Under-appreciated Disney Animated Features

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Since Disney movies pretty much wallpaper the memories of our childhood, we sometimes forget to take them seriously as adults. Personally, I’m a massive fan of pretty much every animated feature made by Walt Disney himself, as well as several that have been made since his death.

Even though I’m sure we could all rattle off a list of cherished Disney movies, and there are obviously some undisputed classics, the House of Mouse has a backlog big enough to mean not every film gets its due. This could be because they don’t fit the typical “Disney image,” or simply because good movies sometimes get overshadowed by great ones.

Whatever the reason, here are five Disney animated features that don’t get enough love these days.

Treasure Planet

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There aren’t enough good old-fashioned adventure movies, but that’s not the fault of Treasure Planet. From what I understand, a lot of people prefer Atlantis, but that movie’s never quite worked for me (despite nerd-cred gained by names like Mike Mignola and Leonard Nimoy). Though both share a love of exploration and imagination, Atlantis simply doesn’t have any terribly memorable characters.

Treasure Planet, on the other hand, has its take on Long John Silver. Silver’s one of the great Disney villains the 2000’s; due to both the extremely cool design and animation of the character and a tremendous vocal performance from Brian Murray. Silver’s a great character, warm and conniving, sweet and scary. Take the super-cool sci-fi backdrop provided by the designers and animators (that spaceport!), and drop it in behind him? Now we’re cooking.

Yeah, the movie’s occasionally light on the drama, and sometimes feels a bit thin where the supporting cast and general plot are concerned. But darnit, Treasure Planet offers up earnest escapism, and that’s not something to take for granted.

The Rescuers

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The Rescuers began a slightly strange ten-year period for Disney animation; a period marked by interesting filmmaking attempts that ultimately didn’t quite pan out into the classics they must have been imagined to be.*

This time period in general is where Disney’s process was a bit shoddy — you’ve likely seen the way they were reusing animation, plus there’s that whole sketchy look that came from “streamlining” the process. Nestled among all that, though, are a couple of gems defined by a willingness to simply keep their stories small. This movie is one of those.

It’s also really a strange little story. In comparison to 95% of Disney’s other output, it’s dark, quiet, and oddly somber. This despite a plot involving a couple of mice who fly in to rescue an orphan girl from a truly evil woman who owns two alligators.

The Rescuers underplays just about everything, from its emotional register to its sound design. This admittedly sounds terrible on paper — hey kids, wanna watch Disney’s most reserved feature film — but winds up working quite well in practice. It’s the very definition of good counter-programming.

Bambi

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Okay, I know it looks strange to call a movie this well-regarded “underrated.” But truthfully, I think every animated movie Walt Disney ever touched  was and remains underrated by general audiences to some degree (possible exception:  Snow White). In its way, the man’s vision simply eclipses anything that’s been done by an American filmmaker ever since, and yet his movies are constantly reduced to simple flights of fancy and/or wish fulfillment.

For instance, it seems that the two things people associate with Bambi are a) a completely harmless, relentlessly quaint depiction of pastoral beauty and b) one of the most devastating death scenes ever put in a children’s movie. And yes, both of those are present in the movie to some degree.

But jeez, folks, Bambi’s way more than a soft walk through nature. It’s a movie about the process of growing up. About losing guardians, finding love, facing danger and taking responsibility. Carrying the torch to the next generation. Its simplicity makes it an allegory, not a shallow lark.

Walt Disney packs the circle of life into just over an hour, taking a somewhat abstract tone that honestly feels more reminiscent of a super-long deleted scene from Fantasia than anything else.

Bambi may very well be my favorite coming-of-age film ever made.

Alice in Wonderland

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This one’s admittedly less a case of not enough people liking a movie, than it is a case of not enough people really appreciating how smart the movie actually is. Fun fact: This is the only adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic book that actually works as an adaptation of that book. Despite the preposterous number of attempts we’ve seen lately to capture the novel’s whimsical magic, nobody else comes close to articulating what actually makes the book a masterpiece of the English language.

Disney’s stroke of genius was to take the animation medium and twist it around in the same way Carroll twisted the written word. Where the book Alice is packed with all kinds of weird wordplay and typography tricks (e.g. writing a “tale” in the shape of a “tail”), the movie version subs in visual puns. Cue the bird shaped like a birdcage, or the knot that comes out of the Caterpillar’s mouth when he says “not.”

With this genius approach, Disney retains the profundity of the source text. Sadly, like Bambi, Alice has found itself horribly reduced to some sort of vague, trippy ride through a world where nonsense is the order of the day. While the story is obviously bizarre, the entire point of Carroll’s writing is that it does make a weird kind of sense. Carroll was satirizing logic, not throwing it out completely.

The story of Alice’s adventure wreaks havoc with the very fabric of storytelling itself, but it does so with a supreme degree of purpose (and that purpose isn’t just to screw with its audience). Disney stands alone on the hill of people who managed to capture Carroll’s methodical madness onscreen.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

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It crushes me to think how poorly this movie did. For one, the failure of this piece seems to be a large part of the timeline leading Disney to produce the shallower, less insightful fare they put out for the ten/fifteen years following its release.

But two, and more importantly, it’s freakin’ GOOD. Not like, “oh, this movie is a fun diversion” good, but “all-time favorites” good. The tepid reception of this movie means that the mainstream essentially rejected one of the most thoughtful, complex evaluations of morality that I’ve ever seen from Disney. Its villains and heroes aren’t over-the-top caricatures like the Genie or Ursula. In fact, Frollo is terrifying in large part because he actually has a motive beyond evil or simple greed for his actions.

While we’re on THAT subject, Hunchback should also get a medal for actually managing to address religion and piety in a way that’s both fair and honest; it remembers that corruption is a trait found wherever humanity is. The way people missed the nuance here, along with the “Quasimodo didn’t get the girl!” complaint, are two of the most frustrating misreads of a movie that I can remember.

Surprisingly thoughtful story aside, this movie is GORGEOUS. You have the great voice acting, stunning animation, and Disney superstar Alan Menken at the top of his game; every song (almost**) is incredible. The Hunchback of Notre Dame isn’t just a great movie, it’s a high-watermark of Disney filmmaking.***

What about you? Know of a Disney movie that needs some love? Give it some in the comments.

FOOTNOTES:

*Though The Fox & the Hound ain’t too shabby.

** “A Guy Like You” is a bit “Disney,” if you know what I mean.

*** Accompanied by Fantasia, and possibly Alice in Wonderland.

 


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