A wooden puppet yearns to be a real boy; he must prove himself worthy.
Directors: Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Norman Ferguson, Jack Kinney, Wilfred Jackson and T. Hee
Best quote: “Always let your conscience be your guide.”
Defining moment: Playing pool, drinking beers, smoking cigars: Who knew it could transform kids into jackasses? (Literally.)
And so we reach the top of our list—we’d be lying if we didn’t say it was by a nose. Pinocchio is the most magical of animated movies, a high point of cinematic invention. Its influence on fantasy is massive: Steven Spielberg quotes the soaring ballad “When You Wish Upon a Star” in his dream project Close Encounters of the Third Kind (and remade the whole picture with his aching robot-boy adventure, A.I.). Disney’s second feature—originally a box-office bomb—begins with a sweetly singing cricket, yet plunges into scenes from a nightmare: in front of a jeering audience on a carnival stage; into the belly of a monstrous whale; beyond all human recognition. (Pinocchio’s extending schnoz is animation’s most sinister and profound metaphor.) It’s staggering to think of this material as intended for children, but that’s the power here, a conduit to the churning undercurrent of formulating identity. The takeaway is hard to argue with: Don’t lie, to yourself or others. Cultural theorists have, for decades, discussed Pinocchio in psychosexual terms or as a guide to middle-class assimilation. But those readings are like cracking open a snow globe to see that it’s only water. A swirling adventure flecked with shame, rehabilitation, death and rebirth, the movie contains a universe of feelings. Pinocchio will remain immortal as long as we draw, paint, tell tall tales and wish upon stars.—Joshua Rothkopf
It ain’t easy being gray in one of Disney’s most simple, cute and memorable tales.
Directors: Ben Sharpsteen, Samuel Armstrong, Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts and John Elliotte
Best quote: “It ain’t nobody’s fault you got dem big ears.”
Defining moment: Dumbo visits his caged mom at night and cuddles up to her trunk as it extends through the bars—all to the sound of the lullaby “Baby Mine.”
Disney’s tender and moving fourth animated feature, Dumbo remains the company’s shortest. Its brevity and simplicity were born of necessity: Neither Pinocchio nor Fantasia had fared well at the box office, so the creators of Dumbo were tasked with keeping things short, sweet and cheap. Dumbo was based on a story line written for the prototype of a new toy—hardly the most poetic of origins—and tells of a baby elephant born to a single mother working in a traveling circus (the film’s early scenes of storks delivering baby animals did nothing for several generations of sex education). It has both energy—the building of the big top in the rain, the circus train chugging over the landscape—and heart: a piercingly sad story of a mother and child forcibly separated. The template is fairly straightforward, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for some memorable and inventive set pieces. The hallucinogenic, jazzy dance of the pink elephants when Dumbo accidentally gets drunk is a scene for the ages, while the climactic elephant pyramid, when little Dumbo becomes an unlikely hero, is both terrifying and triumphant.—Dave Calhoun
Not the first animated feature, but the start of the Disney empire.
Directors: David Hand, William Cottrell, Wilfred Jackson, Larry Morey, Perce Pearce and Ben Sharpsteen
Best quote: “Magic mirror on the wall…”
Defining moment: Snow White’s headlong dash through the moonlit forest is expressionistic, beautiful and terrifying.
They called it Disney’s folly. It took years and millions of dollars to produce Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and one huge question remained unanswered right up to the day of release: Would an audience really sit still for 83 minutes of cartoon antics? Of course, the movie was a huge hit, and kick-started Uncle Walt’s decades-long domination of the painted-cel scene. It may not have been the first feature-length animated film—that honor is held by Argentine animator Quirino Cristiani’s 1917 El Apóstol, though all copies have since been destroyed—but it was the first to receive a global release, and the first to wake up audiences (and producers) to the seemingly limitless potential of a brand-new medium.
What makes Snow White truly special is not its success, however, but its originality: Working without a rule book, Disney and his animators created—fully formed—an entirely new genre. Just look at last year’s Frozen and ask yourself how far mainstream animation has actually developed: Snow White has a dashing fairy-tale heroine, a hunky but slightly dull dude, lovable pratfalling sidekicks, important life lessons, groundbreaking and gorgeous animation, whistleable tunes and, perhaps most notably, the greatest femme fatale in film history. It just goes to show: You can’t improve on perfection.—Tom Huddleston
In Disney’s extravaganza, eight fantastical vignettes are scored to music by Bach, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky.
Director: No less than 11 directors slaved on individual sequences, many without credit.
Best quote: “Mr. Stokowski! Mr. Stokowski!”
Defining moment: Sorcerer’s apprentice Mickey Mouse finds himself on the wrong end of the broomsticks.
By the end of the 1930s, Mickey Mouse, the bedrock character of a growing empire, had declined in popularity. So Walt Disney commissioned the elaborate short “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Accompanied by the highly hummable Paul Dukas composition of the same name, it follows the red-robed rodent as he magically brings an army of broomsticks to life. While in postproduction on the short, Disney decided to surround it with similar vignettes scored to other classical compositions, and Fantasia was born. Aside from some interstitial material narrated by Deems Taylor (during which Mickey himself greets star conductor Leopold Stokowski), the music dictates Fantasia’s visual-aural flow. Abstract color patterns rise and fall to Bach, life-size mushrooms dance to Tchaikovksy, a hippo and an alligator do a slapstick Ponchielli ballet, and the devil himself summons dark spirits to Modest Mussorgsky’s churning Night on Bald Mountain. Silly and sublime in equal measure—as well as a film that served to introduce generations of kids to the joys of classical music—this is one of the Mouse House’s finest.—Keith Uhlich
Disney’s most stylish baddie concocts a devilish plan.
Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske and Wolfgang Reitherman
Best quote: “I live for furs. I worship furs! Is there a woman in all this wretched world who doesn’t?”
Defining moment: The puppies sneak past Cruella De Vil, covered in soot, disguised as black Labradors.
What is it with Disney villainesses? So much wrath and murderous rage with so little cause. A year after the evil fairy Maleficent put a curse on Sleeping Beauty for not being invited to her christening, dognapper Cruella De Vil arrived. Flicking ash on the carpet, her mwah-ha-ha plan is to turn 99 dalmatian pups into a fashion statement. With its modern London setting and jazzy score, 101 Dalmatians dragged Disney into the 20th century, leaving behind fairy tales, princesses and musical numbers. Oddly, it’s the earlier scenes, before the puppies arrive, that stick in the mind. Sick of the bachelor life, Pongo studies the lady dogs and their “pets” (owners) passing under his window. And the meet-cute in Regent’s Park is witty and utterly lovely. Later, the twilight bark—the doggie telegraph communicating news of the missing puppies—is Disney at its finest.—Cath Clarke
The film that makes little kids (and grown adults) cry.
Directors: James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, David Hand, Graham Heid, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield and Norman Wright
Best quote: “Faster! Faster, Bambi! Don’t look back! Keep running! Keep running!”
Defining moment: Bambi and his mother graze peacefully in a clearing. Her ears prick up. Something’s not right. A gunshot rings out. They run for their lives.
For lots of us, Bambi is so many firsts: the first time we cried in the theater, when…you know when; the first time we realized that really bad things happen to adorably cute deer. In 1942, Walt Disney described Bambi as “the best picture I have ever made, and the best ever to come out of Hollywood.” Today, it still has friends in high places. Toy Story director John Lasseter and the Pixar crew are huge fans, arguing that, from boy to buckhood, Bambi contains some of Disney’s most charming animation (Walt set up a small zoo at the studio for his team to study the animals). And in the roll call of Disney supporting actors, Thumper the rabbit is an all-time great. Despite its reputation for being sentimental, the film’s closing scene—Bambi abandons his mate and newborn twin fawns to join his father in the forest—is as un-Disney as it gets.—Cath Clarke
Disney gets with the ’60s.
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Best quote: “I’m the king of the swingers / The jungle VIP / I’ve reached the top and had to stop / And that’s what’s botherin’ me.”
Defining moment: King Louie of the Apes and Baloo the Bear’s scat-’n’-dance routine.
Blame the hippies. The Jungle Book is so loopy, hip and happening, you can’t help wondering if Disney’s animators were passing the bong as they worked. Just look at the vultures, with their mop tops and British accents (the Beatles were intended to do the voices but John Lennon refused). After rejecting an early draft of the script as too dark for a family film, Walt Disney instructed a second team to drop “the heavy stuff” from Rudyard Kipling’s stories of Mowgli. They created some of Disney’s most lovable characters: Baloo (the Bill Murray of bears) and smooth-as-silk Shere Khan the Tiger. The film is a high point for Disney musical numbers—“Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You” are pure joy. Walt himself died during production, and historians credit the huge box-office success of The Jungle Book with saving the studio’s animation department from closure.—Cath Clarke
Romance, music and comedy combine in a latter-day Disney milestone.
Directors: Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale
Best quote: “It’s no use. She’s so beautiful. And I’m…well, look at me!”
Defining moment: The camera sweeps through the ballroom as the couple hits the floor.
Disney had long been in the doldrums when The Little Mermaid showed it could entertain a new generation, but this adaptation of the classic fairy tale pushed the quality threshold to a new level, making it the first animated feature to be Oscar-nominated in the Best Picture category. The key was taking the emotional heart of the story entirely seriously, bolstered by a soaring, Broadway-on-steroids score from Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. So while there are jaunty high jinks from the anthropomorphic fixtures in the Beast’s imposing castle, they never overshadow the tale’s pent-up yearning, as the hairy protagonist must find true love before the petals fall from a rose or remain forever in bestial form. Crucially, the visuals convey enough heft and scale to wow the grown-up audiences who truly appreciate the story’s romantic spell.—Trevor Johnston
Who needs a caring stepmother when you’ve got glass slippers, an enchanted lifestyle and a hunky Prince Charming at the end of the day?
Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske
Best quote: “A dream is a wish your heart makes when you’re fast asleep.”
Defining moment: A pumpkin and some mice get a magical makeover.
Even today, when you watch a Disney film, the impact of Cinderella can be felt from the very first frame: That iconic castle, the studio’s logo, comes right from this picture. It was the make-or-break gamble that, had it failed, would have meant the end for Walt & Co. Instead, his film’s runaway success allowed him to finance the theme parks and cement his name forever. The elements of the story are bedrock components of the Disney formula: plucky, charming heroine, helpful sidekick animals, the promise of total transformation. Yet there was innovation here, too; musical numbers would, for the first time, be commissed out to Tin Pan Alley experts, while live-action footage was shot as a model for most scenes. When Disney’s own remake comes out in 2015, it will have a huge debt of charm to repay.—Joshua Rothkopf
The calypso-inflected Hans Christian Andersen adaptation that revived the Mouse House’s ailing fortunes.
Directors: John Musker and Ron Clements
Best quote: “Somebody’s got to nail that girl’s fins to the floor.”
Defining moment: In the infectious “Under the Sea,” Sebastian the crab attempts to convince wayward Ariel of the merits of ocean living.
Two years later, Beauty and the Beast received more acclaim, but it was this cheery musical adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s bleakly fatalistic fairy tale that redesigned the template of contemporary Disney animation and returned the studio to pop-culture prominence. The formula—take a story everyone knows with a plucky princess, then add a bunch of hip, catchy-as-chlamydia show tunes—still works, as the recent success of Frozen demonstrates. But alongside the witty, verbally intricate contributions of ingenious songsmiths Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, it’s the depth of yearning for other lives and other forms that gives this one emotional resonance and staying power. Well, that and the lasciviously tentacled, Mae West–and–Divine-inspired sea witch Ursula, surely among the greatest Disney villains.—Guy Lodge