Disney's Experimental Era films: my rankings

Joseph Caddick revisits the Experimental Era of Disney's animated films.

Joseph Caddick
23rd June 2020
It was inevitable that the Disney Renaissance wasn’t going to last forever, and with the turn of the millennium, there came a turn in attitude towards Disney films. They were no longer the financial juggernauts they were in the previous decade, and so the company needed to rock the boat to keep audiences interested. This led to some interesting films, for better and worse, and these attempts to try something new led some people to call this period the ‘Experimental Era’ of Disney animation.

As with the Renaissance films, I watched all of these and ranked them. Again, this was mostly for the first time (all except Bolt). Fantasia 2000 is absent as it’s a sequel to an older film, but everything else was fair game. And like last time, these rankings are not at all objective, merely my opinions on which films connected with me the most. From my least to most favourite, here is my ranking of the Disney Experimental Era films.

10. Chicken Little (2005)

When this came out I remember seeing advertisements everywhere, I even got a toy for one of the aliens out of a Kinder Egg. I really wanted to see it but never got around to it, but after watching it for the first time I can say I didn’t miss much. This is the only film I’d describe as bad out of this bunch, and it’s by far my least favourite. The first third (maybe even half) of the film is so mean-spirited, unfunny and downright miserable. The characters are unlikeable, the jokes don’t land and I’m not a fan of the aesthetic, it looks like a cheap PS3 game. Most of these problems persist until the film is nearly over. In fact, the last few minutes with the aliens talking things out with the main characters are alright, and the exaggerated movie too. That first section just left such a bad taste in my mouth that there wasn’t a lot to enjoy, however.

9. Dinosaur (2000)

Painfully average would be the words I’d use to describe this one. It’s just not memorable, which is strange considering this was Disney’s first fully CGI film. Weirdly enough, despite not seeing it when I was younger I got its tie in PS1 game, which I still own to this day and also have no memories of. Tangent aside, the story’s alright, nothing too revolutionary but nothing too ridiculous either. Unfortunately, the characters are bland and forgettable, spouting generic lines you’ve heard a million times before in better films. I particularly didn’t care for the ‘comical’ lemur who was just loud and annoying. Compare that with the first few minutes (the best part of the film) which had no dialogue and stunning visuals and you can see why a version without dialogue was the original pitch.

8. Home on the Range (2004)

This film came immediately before Chicken Little, so it’s obvious that I’m not too keen on the films from this period. I will say that although not terrible, Home on the Range is far from Disney’s best. Like a lot of Disney films the villain is a high point, though I’m not too big a fan of his villain song. The art’s really good as you’d expect, with some nice colours and interesting settings that we don’t usually see in films of this type. Some characters are obnoxious though, Maggie and Buck, with most of their ‘jokes’ coming from speaking loudly and behaving brashly. Thankfully, the rest of the cast are less annoying and can muster up a chuckle or two. So as mediocre as this film is, it was definitely still enjoyable.

7. Meet the Robinsons (2007)

When I was watching this film, the first thing that stood out to me was the animation style. I’m still not quite sure what it was, but something seemed... off. Its visuals haven’t aged too well in my opinion, especially when compared to Pixar’s Ratatouille which came out in the same year. The humour also fell flat for me in a lot of cases, though there are a handful of great jokes in there. A lot of these came from the villain, who I believe to be the best part of the film (surprise, surprise). There’s a twist regarding his identity, and it’s foreshadowed, though maybe a bit heavy-handed. This works in comparison to other villain twists because it’s not a random person who just turns evil for the hell of it in the climax. Outside of him though, I don’t much care for the characters. Wilbur’s really annoying, and in a lot of other cases it seems like they make the characters weird just for the sake of making them weird, they don’t really do anything outside of being wacky for a scene or two. The story’s alright – nothing that hasn’t been done before regarding time travel and alternate futures – but it’s a nice film with a lot of heart, especially towards the end.

6. Bolt (2008)

Visually, Bolt is clearly a massive step up from the film that came before it. 12 years later and it doesn’t look all that dated. It’s a decent film too; the story’s nothing groundbreaking, it’s your standard road trip between two characters who initially don’t get along until they do. I feel like the framing of Bolt coming to terms with the fact that he’s not a superdog like he is on TV is a nice spin. There’s a couple of moments that remind me of Toy Story and its sequel, only with pets in place of toys, especially when it comes to talking about abandonment or characters realising they’re not how they appear on TV. Toy Story did these story beats better, but they’re not bad in Bolt. Rhino, however, is bad. Very bad. He’s not funny. At all. For one of the less discussed Disney films though, I feel like Bolt is pretty good, if a bit forgettable.

5. Brother Bear (2003)

There’s an interesting bit of cinematography in this film, it starts in a smaller aspect ratio with a darker colour scheme, but after a pivotal plot point the screen opens up and the colours become brighter. After that point we meet the talking animals like Koda, who is absolutely adorable and definitely my favourite character here. Kenai (the protagonist) is less likeable for the first half, and it’s the brotherly bond between those two that brings out the best in him, and the best in the film, with some emotional scenes that hit hard. The humour’s not the best, however, a few of the jokes fall a bit flat or drag on for too long. There’s no real villain either, just people dealing differently with grief. I found that refreshing, especially for Disney during this time. Where the film really shines, for me is its soundtrack. There’s some great songs in there that add power to their scenes, but again I’m admittedly biased towards Phil Collins’ music. 'On My Way; is a standout Disney song for sure.

4. Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

Certainly not one of the most well known films, Atlantis offers a darker story, with visuals to match. There’s less vibrant colours than in other Disney films, which makes Atlantis feel different and stand out. As an English Language student, it’s hard not to relate to Milo, who’s a nerdy linguist. The side characters aren’t the most fleshed out (thankfully in Mole’s case), but the journey is an engaging one that kept me interested throughout. Kida, her father and Preston are all enjoyable characters too, but they’re not around for the whole journey to Atlantis. That being said, the film also had some stunning visual sequences from mixing 2D animation with CGI, and the final battle was brilliant. Rourke was another predictable villain revealed in a twist, but after this he becomes way more interesting and psychotic. As little as this film is talked about, I very much enjoyed it.

3. Treasure Planet (2002)

As someone who’s barely familiar with Treasure Island, it was interesting to see Disney’s inventive take on it. Some of the scenery – particularly the cities – looked fantastic and unlike anything I’ve seen in a film before, more like a video game. Narratively, there’s a lot of likeable characters, and a strong bond between Jim and John Silver that makes this a really enjoyable watch. Silver’s constant change of allegiances until the end makes him a compelling character and a unique villain. The side characters were brilliant too, I found the cast in this film was incredibly solid. Again the animation was great, featuring that perfect blend of 2D and 3D, which I think looked phenomenal here. This is one of the films that got the strongest responses when I put up that I was watching it on my social media a good few of my friends messaged me to say how much they loved it. After watching it, I can absolutely see why.

2. The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

One of the more eccentric entries in the Disney canon, The Emperor’s New Groove focuses mainly on comedy, and it succeeds on that premise. Yzma and Kronk – one of my favourite villain/sidekick duos ever – are absolutely hilarious, and to me they’re the highlights of this film. Kuzco himself is funny too, though he (deliberately) starts off as an obnoxious brat. It’s the journey to making him less bratty where the film finds its heart, and those wholesome moments are packed nicely between the great jokes. I was laughing pretty much from the start to the end, and honestly wished the film was longer it was that good. We were robbed of Yzma’s villain song, which is genuinely up there with 'Be Prepared' and the other great Disney villain songs (it’s up on YouTube if you’re curious). Admittedly I had watched the TV series based on this film years ago, but honestly the movie completely outdoes it – and I realised a lot of the show’s jokes were recycled from its source material.

1. Lilo & Stitch (2002)

Like The Emperor’s New Groove, I’d watched the TV show based on Lilo and Stitch when I was growing up, though I barely remember it. That said, I wasn’t expecting the film to be so good. It had some great laughs (mostly from Pleakley, who’s absolutely hilarious) and superb animation, but to top it all off the heart was there too. This is a film about a family that’s struggling to cope after going through some hard times, including pressure from social services to sort things out quickly. There’s so many emotional moments in the film that are easy to relate to, from Nani struggling to find a job to Lilo wanting to fit in with her classmates. All of the cast have their own problems and it’s so easy to empathise with them. Honestly I had a smile on my face for most of the film because I was in awe of how good it was, with the emotional bits making me shed a tear (or twelve). This has to be my favourite Disney film.

All in all, this was a polarising time for Disney, with the quality of films being a mixed bag. This period actually features my two favourite and my least favourite of the films I watched, that’s how inconsistent I believe the quality of these films was. That being said, most of them are incredibly enjoyable, and that includes some of the more obscure or less financially successful entries in the Disney canon.

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