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
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
This Lewis Carroll adaptation, from a brilliant Czech surrealist, is too wild and wonderful for kids.
Director: Jan Svankmajer
Best quote: “Alice thought to herself, Now you will see a film…made for children…perhaps.”
Defining moment: The Mad Hatter’s tea party: hilarious, anarchic and a fabulous example of Svankmajer’s ability to make the impossible seem absolutely real.
Jan Svankmajer’s first feature is a characteristically inventive but rigorous account of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, faithful in spirit to the original while remaining conspicuously true to his own highly distinctive brand of surrealism. Blending live action (Kristyna Kohoutová, who plays the heroine, is the only human in the film) with various forms of stop-motion animation, Svankmajer creates a wonderland notable for its bizarre dreamlike logic and its grotesque beauty: Skeletal creatures scuttle and steaks crawl while Alice, no stranger to thoughts of cruel whimsy, changes size and becomes her own doll. It’s brilliantly imaginative, bitingly witty and fittingly Freudian. This is no saccharine celebration of innocence, but a foray into the darker recesses of childhood fears and desires. And therefore, perhaps not a film for children.—Geoff Andrew
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
Handcrafted silhouettes captivate in the first-ever animated feature.
Director: Lotte Reiniger
Best quote: It’s silent, so you’ll have to provide your own dialogue.
Defining moment: The good witch takes on the evil sorcerer in a shape-shifting smackdown.
Given the immense visual sophistication of today’s computer-aided animation, is there still any point in watching a silent film where paper cutouts move across illuminated sheets of glass? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is a resounding yes, since this fairy-tale adventure from Germany’s Lotte Reiniger is no fusty historical artifact, but a mesmerizing viewing experience, precisely because (unlike modern animation) we can see the handiwork involved in creating the exquisite silhouettes peopling this classic Arabian Nights tale. There’s a flying horse, a dashing prince, an evil sorcerer, a damsel in serious distress, and even a special appearance by Aladdin and his “wunderlampe.” It’s all rendered in filigree detail that brings the time-honored story to life. There’s not quite the seamless movement we’ve come to expect these days, but when Reiniger fills the screen with spiky winged demons, the sheer craft on display is genuinely breathtaking.—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
A modern woman’s breakup is paralleled with a musical retelling of the Ramayana.
Director: Nina Paley
Best quote: “Assemble the monkey warriors!”
Defining moment: Sita wonders, “Whooooooooo’s that knockin’ at my door?” in an energetic battle-scene-cum-musical-number.
Fiction, somehow, helps us deal with fact: Reeling from a divorce, animator Nina Paley found solace in the Hindu epic the Ramayana, specifically the section dealing concerning Sita, a woman fought over by two of the tale’s male protagonists. For this eye-popping DIY feature, almost entirely animated by Paley herself, the symbolically pure and virtuous Sita becomes the narrative focus. Paley adheres to the basic outline of the Ramayana—with its multiheadeded gods, monkey armies and heroic warriors—adding her own distinctive touches. The most delightful of these is giving Sita the voice of Jazz Age singer Annette Hanshaw, whose cheery musical stylings (especially during the literally earth-shattering climax) add a defiant layer to a story normally defined by paternalism and machismo.—Keith Uhlich
No more little miss shy and retiring, this princess means business.
Directors: Nathan Greno and Byron Howard
Best quote: “I’m malicious, mean and scary/My face could curdle dairy.”
Defining moment: Escaping the tower, Rapunzel feels grass under her feet for the first time, and breaks into song (as you would).
The brothers Grimm’s “Rapunzel” must have presented modern Disney with a bit of a head-scratcher. Long gone are the days when a Disney princess would spend her hours mooning around a tower dreaming of a knight in shining armor to rescue her. So in this version (with Pixar’s John Lasseter executive-producing), gone is the handsome prince, replaced with an egotistical thief, Flynn Ryder. When he first smarms his way upstairs, Rapunzel thwacks him with a frying pan. This sparky princess will do her own escaping, thank you very much, twirling all that hair like a lasso. Tangled has energy and humor in spades. Best are the beasts: Maximus the army horse (on a mission to capture Flynn) and Pascal the chameleon.—Cath Clarke
Never has a party snub had such dire consequences.
Director: Clyde Geronimi
Best quote: “Now you shall deal with me, O prince, and all the powers of hell!”
Defining moment: Evil fairy Maleficent turns herself into a fire-breathing dragon and goes to battle.
In the Disney villainesses hall of fame, Maleficent ranks up there with Cruella De Vil. The self-proclaimed “mistress of all evil,” Maleficent is the badass fairy who casts a spell on Aurora at birth, causing the princess to prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die before her 16th birthday. Why? All because the king left her off the guest list at Aurora’s christening. After nearly a decade of preparation, Walt Disney wanted Sleeping Beauty to stand out from existing princess-led fairy tales Snow White and Cinderella, and so it does. Inspired by medieval art and tapestries, this is Disney as its most wow-worthy, best of all in the lurid scenes at Maleficent’s lair. Sleeping Beauty marked the end of an era—it was the final animation overseen directly by Walt himself, now busy building theme parks and making TV. That said, rebellious, feisty Aurora also harkens to the sparky princesses of Disney future, even if she’s muscled into a supporting-actress slot by a certain scene-stealing bad fairy.—Cath Clarke