Disney Renaissance films: my rankings

Written by Film

The Disney Renaissance features some of the most iconic animated films of all time; it was an amazing time for the studio. Critically and commercially, these films did brilliantly, and are still popular to this day. With the exception of The Rescuers Down Under (1990) because it’s a sequel (which I replaced with A Goofy Movie), I watched all of these movies over the past few months and ranked them, and in all but one case it was my first time seeing them. Going from my least favourite to my favourite, the ranking is in no way meant to be objective. I just went with what appealed to me the most on a personal level. Some just clicked with me more than others.

10. Beauty and the Beast (1991)

A controversial start I’m sure, but I really don’t think this is a bad film, it’s far from my least favourite. It just didn’t click with me as much as the other Renaissance films specifically. I spent most of its runtime surprised by how unlikeable the Beast was. He’s rude, angry and violent, arguably just as much as Gaston. And while he does change, it’s too little too late. The couple falling in love over what can’t be more than a few days seemed like too quick of a transformation, even by Disney’s standards. Even if you argue Belle had Stockholm syndrome or was grateful that he saved her, it just happens too suddenly for me. The soundtrack is alright, nothing spectacular in my eyes. Honestly, I’d say that the parody of ‘Be Our Guest’ in The Simpsons is better than the actual song. Gaston is a great villain, and so comically arrogant it’s satisfying when Belle dismisses him. To me, the best thing here was the side characters, especially the furniture. They were great, and the sequence where they’re fighting back against the villagers has some brilliant cartoony action.

9. Pocahontas (1995)

It’s safe to say that Disney was… creative when it comes to the history of Pocahontas. There’s also a “both-sides are equally wrong” argument when it comes to the native Americans and the colonisers, when obviously we know that the colonisers were very much the villains. That alone weighs the film down a lot. Historical inaccuracies aside, Pocahontas is to this day visually stunning, it’s a joy to look at. There’s some great musical numbers, some of which still pop into my head every now and then. Colours of the Wind illustrates both of these points, it’s a good song with some breathtaking animation. In terms of other weaknesses, Ratcliffe isn’t one of Disney’s best villains, but he’s so smarmy that you want to see him get his comeuppance. I feel like it’s much more flawed than Beauty and the Beast overall, but the high points are spectacular so that’s why I had to put it above.

8. The Lion King (1994)

I’m sure this is also placed lower than most people would. Make no mistake, Scar is a fantastic villain and by far my favourite part of the film, honestly I’d say he carries it. Despite this, I couldn’t really connect with most of the other characters the way I could in the films I’ve placed higher up. Simba goes from an obnoxious kid to a whiny adult until the last few minutes of the film where he does improve, and it took a while for the other characters to grow on me too. That’s what dragged it down for me. Some of the songs aren’t my favourites as well; as fantastic as ‘Be Prepared’ (my favourite villain song) and ‘The Circle of Life’ are, I’m not keen on ‘Hakuna Matata’ and ‘I Just Can’t Wait to Be King’. Even if I don’t like the some of the songs too much, the visuals are always impressive, with an amazing use of colour. There’s some truly spectacular scenes that make me forget about some of the other gripes.

7. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

It’s safe to say I was shocked to hear the word “hell” in a Disney film. This is definitely their darkest Renaissance film, though it has a great message at its heart about wanting acceptance despite of being different. It’s easy to sympathise with Quasimodo because he’s isolated on account of not looking like everyone else, and all he wants to do is be a part of the world he spectates from above. Esmerelda is a brilliant character, she stands up for herself and for others, with her selflessness contrasting greatly with Frollo’s hateful ignorance. He is absolutely the scariest Disney villain, his obsession with Esmerelda brings about not just a great villain song, but also some destructive and psychotic behaviour that make him really detestable. My main problem is the gargoyles (specifically Hugo), with the failed comedy creating a tonal dissonance with the rest of the events. Excluding that, this film gets a lot right, and it gets away with a lot of stuff a kids’ film today probably wouldn’t be allowed to.

6. A Goofy Movie (1995)

Considering Goofy’s usually just a goof, it’s interesting to see him a role where he’s more than just comic relief. He’s a single dad trying to do right by his son, Max. He’s still the clumsy oaf we all know he is, but tries laying down the law due to some outright horrible comments made by Max’s principal and the meddling of slimy Pete. Max is angsty like you’d expect a teenager to be, and especially one in the ‘90s. This is definitely a film of its time, but a great one nonetheless. For a film about a dog with a funny voice there’s a lot to learn about both being a dad and being a son. I’d honestly say it’s got one of the most realistic father-son dynamics I’ve seen in a film, which makes the emotional moments (and there are a few) hit stronger.

5. The Little Mermaid (1989)

This is the film that kicked off the Disney Renaissance, and for good reason. There’s a lot to love, from the soundtrack to the characters to the great animation highlighting the beauty of the sea. Ursula is one of Disney’s greatest villains, she’s callous, selfish and desperate for power, the makings of an iconic antagonist to be sure. She’s not the only standout character though, Sebastian the crab is a joy to watch, and frankly he’s an amazing wingman. Ariel herself is enamoured with the human world, so it’s hard to see her dad destroy her collection of human objects. Outside of that, she’s your standard rebellious teenager, and a bit crazy in love. She obsessed over Prince Eric, then wishes away her voice (and therefore the ability to see her family under the sea) so she can be with him in the human world. That aside, it’s a great film, and I can definitely see why it was such a massive success.

4. Hercules (1997)

Greek mythology has been such a strong influence in many stories over the years, so it’s honestly surprising it took Disney until 1997 to have a crack at it. That being said, with the usual liberties taken in order to make the film suitable for kids, they manage to yet again make a really enjoyable film. Not only is Hades a brilliant villain who’s both funny and terrifying, but there’s some interesting approaches to storytelling. Narration is surprisingly frequent compared to the other films, but it’s done in the form of gospel choir songs, and that really gives Hercules an identity all its own. Its soundtrack is absolutely outstanding, even if I don’t care for ‘Go The Distance’. A great cast of characters really puts this film up there as well, with Meg being one of my favourites from all these films. Throw in some phenomenal animation (especially during the hydra fight) and it all adds up to a really entertaining watch.

3. Aladdin (1992)

Something I never expected was how much Aladdin had in common with The Little Mermaid. Both the titular protagonists make wishes to impress somebody they fall in love with after encountering magical beings, only for them to find out that the person they were trying to impress loved them for who they were before their wishes were granted. It goes without saying that this is a great film, and the Genie is an absolute delight who brings a lot to the plot in ways the funny side characters normally don’t. Jafar’s an excellent villain as well, a smarmy schemer who just wants more power, but for this film something so simple works perfectly. To top it all off, Aladdin and Jasmine are a likeable couple that fall in love despite the social hierarchy working against them. And the magic carpet is somehow a character I’m emotionally invested in, so all of this points towards a cast that is easily one of Disney’s strongest. And don’t get me started on how wonderful ‘A Whole New World’ is.

2. Mulan (1998)

Mulan is the one Renaissance film that I’d watched before. I’d only seen it once, after my brother had an operation 16ish years ago. I’d forgotten almost everything about it, so I was in for a nice surprise when I rewatched it with my flatmates. Not only is ‘I’ll Make a Man Out of You’ one of my favourite Disney songs, but the use of music here is really effective; the second half doesn’t feature songs as things Mulan herself is a great protagonist; she’s a heroine who is in many ways more successful than her male peers and enemies, with her resourcefulness and wit repeatedly outmatching their brute strength. That must have been an inspirational message for kids to take home when the film came out. Even if the villain isn’t the standout part of this film like in some of the others, he’s ruthless and violent in a way that makes him incredibly threatening. There’s been debates in my flat as to the usefulness of Mushu considering he won’t be in the remake, but I stand by the fact he’s a pivotal character and was responsible for some important parts of Mulan’s journey.

1. Tarzan (1999)

Hands down, Tarzan has my favourite soundtrack of any of the Disney films I’ve watched, and possibly any film altogether. I’ll admit I’m biased as I’m a big Phil Collins fan, but you can’t deny that ‘Son of Man’ is a brilliant piece of music, it’s one of my all time favourite songs. The visuals accompanying that track are great as well, the montage of Tarzan growing up has some outstanding scenes. When he’s surfing on the vines is one of the best individual scenes of Disney’s animation it just looks stunning. Jane is also great in this adaptation, with some great lines that have become in-jokes amongst my friends after we watched it together. There’s some surprisingly dark scenes here too, from the fate of Tarzan’s parents to how the villain (who admittedly, isn’t the best) meets his end. My main gripe is Terk, her role is small so it’s not a major problem, but I just don’t find her funny, Tantor is much better. There’s a lot to love about this film both visually and musically, so that’s why it’s my favourite of the Renaissance films.

Last modified: 20th June 2020

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