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
Miyazaki proves he has the heart of a child, the eye of a painter and the soul of a poet.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Best quote: “Trees and people used to be good friends.”
Defining moment: The first appearance of the roving cat-bus will have viewers of all ages gasping in delight.
Some filmmakers build their great artworks with blood, sweat and toil. Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki seems to sprout his from seeds, planting them in good earth and patiently watering them until they burst into bloom. My Neighbor Totoro is the gentlest, most unassuming film on this list, a tale of inquisitive children, mischievous dust fairies, magical trees and shy sylvan creatures. But in its own quietly remarkable way, it’s also one of the richest and most overwhelming.
This is a story whose roots go deep: into Japanese tradition and culture, into its creator’s personal past, into a collective childhood filled with tales of mystery and a love of all things that grow. There is darkness at the film’s heart—the fear of losing a parent, the loneliness and frustration of childhood—but its touch is gossamer-light, delighting in simple pleasures like raindrops on an umbrella, dust motes drifting in the sun and midnight dances in the garden. The visual style is unmistakably Japanese (unadorned and artful) and the theme song is so sugary-chirrupy-sweet that it’s impossible to dislodge once heard. But the cumulative effect is unique and utterly all-encompassing, returning us to a world we have all, at one time, lived in—and perhaps will again.—Tom Huddleston
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
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
Pixar’s beloved shaggy-fish story hooked the box office.
Director: Andrew Stanton
Best quote: “Just keep swimming.”
Defining moment: Those toothy, Aussie “vegetarian” sharks really are terrifying.
Nowadays we take it as a given that half of the year’s biggest moneymakers are going to be cartoons: Even inferior animated sequels draw the kind of audiences once reserved for Schwarzenegger and Spielberg. Finding Nemo may not have managed to crack the top slot at the box office—it was up against The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King—but its success both at the multiplex and on home video (it’s the biggest seller of all time, apparently) heralded a new age of animated blockbusters. And it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving film, the warmest, most universal of all the Pixar home-run hitters. Particularly notable: Finding Nemo eschews a big-name voice cast in favor of talented character actors like Albert Brooks and Allison Janney, a lesson that too many recent animated films have failed to learn.—Tom Huddleston
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
How the Vikings learned to stop warring and love dragons.
Directors: Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders
Best quote: “It’s only fun if you get a scar out of it.”
Defining moment: Pint-size Viking Hiccup meets Toothless, the not-so-scary Night Fury dragon.
Odin almighty! Here’s a kids’ animated film with wit, charm and one-liners. The story is as old as a Nordic longboat: a coming-of-age yarn about a boy with daddy issues. Our hero is Viking pipsqueak Hiccup, raised in a proud nation of dragon slayers. All Hiccup wants is to please his warrior father, Stoick the Vast (who sums up the macho Viking philosophy nicely: “When I was a kid, my dad told me to bang my head against a rock—and I did it”). Hiccup’s trouble is that he is the geekiest, weediest Viking in the tribe. But (pay attention, kids) since the brain is mightier than brawn, he learns the ways of the dragons. The film climaxes with a spectacular aerial battle sequence. Meanwhile, Hiccup’s little dragon buddy Toothless is the cutest kitten-bat-lizard crossbreed you’re likely ever to see onscreen.—Cath Clarke
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