In 2016, I began attending film school at Chapman University in Orange County, California. I wanted to be a writer, and though film wasn’t my first choice necessarily, it seemed like a more lucrative way to follow my passion than just getting an English degree. Going away to school and actually being on my own for the first time was an interesting transition. It wasn’t particularly traumatic, but it certainly wasn’t easy. Living with new people, navigating a new social scene, actually finding out what going to film school really means, all of it made for an exciting but challenging first semester.
Film schools often host guest speakers from the industry, especially those close to Los Angeles. One event that was fairly early in the year but immediately grabbed my attention was a pre-release event for that year’s new Disney animated film, Moana with the film’s screenwriter, Jared Bush.
Now, like many kids growing up in the United States, Disney was a huge part of my childhood. I grew up in the early 2000s with a decent collection of VHS tapes and later DVDs of both classic and more modern Disney films. My little sister helped extend my Disney Channel-watching days well into middle school, and, growing up in California, there were, of course, family vacations to Disneyland. I’m not saying I chose Chapman as my college because it’s a ten-minute drive from Anaheim, but I will say that that fact didn’t hurt. The music, the colors, the story of Disney films enchanted me as it did many others, firing the imagination for my games of make-believe.
Disney helped spark my interest in filmmaking. After seeing one of the films we owned enough times, I’d start digging into filmmaker commentaries and behind-the-scenes features. I distinctly remember the special edition DVD of Aladdin that had hours of content on that movie, looking at every angle of the making of the film from beginning to end, interviewing cast members, animators, producers, songwriters, pretty much everyone imaginable involved with the film in some way. In middle school and high school, as the Internet became a bigger part of my media diet, I discovered film critics on YouTube. At first, it was people cracking jokes about bad movies I hadn’t seen. They led me to creators who looked at movies more in depth, talking about what worked and what didn’t, people who weren’t afraid to really dive into something they were passionate about, even if it wasn’t considered “worthy” of study. Of course, a fair amount of this was about Disney, but it was the insights that helped me see film as something more than just something you watched because it looked cool.
So there I was, a fresh-faced youngster, going to learn about this new movie I’d heard a lot about. It was from Disney, a company who I was a fan of. It had music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, one of my favorite musicians. And it was tackling Polynesian culture and mythology, a topic I was really excited to see explored. Needless to say, I was pumped for the presentation.
I sat with a bunch of other people in one of the smaller screening rooms and the screenwriter began speaking. He was funny and kept us all engaged as he told us jokes that got cut from the final drafts and all their research to the South Pacific to make the movie as true to the culture as possible. He showed us clips, first of the song “We Know the Way,” which had dropped by the time of the event, and then the first few minutes of the movie, where we learn the backstory of Te Fiti and see baby Moana first meet the ocean.
It was that day, sitting in a dark screening room and getting a sneak peek at a movie I’d already made plans to see with family, that the first idea of this project really began. It may have been the first time I was really able to put my knowledge of filmmaking to use in appreciating the beauty of what I was seeing. It’s where I was able to articulate why that song and those visuals made me fight back tears, even though it wasn’t sad.
Almost exactly a year after Moana released, in my sophomore year, I wrote the introduction to this long-running series where I would watch the every Disney animated movie and provide my thoughts as well as historical and cultural context. And now, here we are, a whole year and fifty-eight movies later. So, what have I learned from doing all of this?
I learned a lot. I learned how styles have changed over the years, in animation, in storytelling, and in music. I learned how to adapt to adversity, whether it was Walt and his team struggling to make ends meet during the Wartime Era or me struggling to watch movies and keep a deadline. I learned how to talk about movies to people who might not have the same experience with them that I have. I learned how to condense research and write facts in an entertaining way. I learned to always be ready for a surprise and that you’re never too good for something you thought you wouldn’t like. I learned how to extract the joy even in things that aren’t the most pleasant. And I learned how to appreciate the little moments that take your breath away and make you whisper “Wow.”
This has been a fun ride, folks. I’ve watched over seventy hours of movies from the 1930s to 2018. There have been some real highs and some real lows, but overall, it’s been an enjoyable time. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend replicating this experiment, but I would encourage you to take some time this holiday season and catch up with some of your favorite movies. They can be Disney, but they don’t have to be. Get cozy with some snacks and relive an old childhood favorite or catch up with something you haven’t come back to in a while. Try to look at them with a more analytical eye. See if you can figure out what makes them work, what makes those special moments so special. See if you can find out why you keep remembering that film. Maybe you remember it because it was the only tape you had as a kid and so it’s burned into your brain, regardless of its actual merits. That’s totally fine, not every movie can win an Oscar. But maybe you’ll find something really special, something you hadn’t even realized when you were just sitting back and enjoying it. And, hopefully, you’ll be like me, watching films and really enjoying the act of watching them, laughing at the stupid moments and treasuring those moments that feel, dare I say it, magical.
I want to thank you all so much for going on this journey with me. Your comments and support have meant the world to me. This has really been a labor of love and it wouldn’t have been possible without your support. This has easily been one of the longest projects I’ve ever done, and it feels bittersweet to be done with it. Before we move onto the next big thing, let me leave you with a parting gift. Just once more, let’s get a good list in.
Now, I’m not going to rank all fifty-eight movies here, that would be ridiculous. If you want more of my thoughts on them, you can find them in previous posts in this series. I’m going to restrict myself to my top and bottom five overall, as well as the five most surprising movies for me. Without further ado, let’s get started.
My least favorite Disney movies:
5. Sword in the Stone – The legend of King Arthur has been interpreted in countless different ways over the years. Dull film that takes out all the interesting bits would not have been my first choice for an adaptation, but it certainly was Disney’s. This is the epitome of mediocre movies made to appeal to kids, which has never been Disney’s ethos. This subject matter deserves a second pass at it to really get the Disney spirit on it.
4. Dinosaur – I honestly can’t tell you much about this film, and I didn’t watch it that long ago. It does nothing to really try to draw you in and there’s nothing even noteworthy about it, beyond it being definitely the worst-looking Disney film. I wish I had stronger feelings towards this movie, but honestly, if you can’t remember anything about a film you saw a month ago, that says more than any review could.
3. Fun and Fancy Free – This movie is just baffling to me. Two completely unrelated shorts, neither of them strong enough to support their own movie, slammed together and forced onto the viewing public. It’s somewhat enjoyable in a “so bad, it’s good” way, but even that enjoyment wears thin after a while.
2. Song of the South – Now, when you have a boring narrative and you need to spice it up, I wouldn’t suggest going for awkward racial tensions. This movie is just a hot mess. The parts that aren’t boring are just uncomfortable to watch. Some of the animated segments are charming, though none of Disney’s best, and James Baskett does a fine job with the script he’s given. Still, this isn’t a movie I’m too keen on trying to defend.
1. Chicken Little – Every other movie on this list has at least one thing about it that makes it a little tolerable to watch. Even Song of the South has “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” Chicken Little has nothing to recommend about it. A movie that hates its characters, is poorly animated, and is just altogether unpleasant to watch. This will be ninety minutes of your life you will never get back.
My most surprising Disney movies:
5. Bolt – My criteria for a “surprising” movie is one that I watched for the first time or first time in a while and was surprised at its quality. I hadn’t seen Bolt since it came out a decade ago and was really pleasantly surprised at how wonderful it was. The buddy dynamic of the two mains makes for a very enjoyable journey and the Hollywood in-jokes are funnier to me now that I have some more knowledge about the industry.
4. Bambi – Bambi was the big surprise of the Golden Age for me, another movie I hadn’t seen in years. Doing this rewatch, I was better able to appreciate the stillness of it, the quiet beauty of its setting. The backgrounds really make you feel as though you’re in a cool, misty forest somewhere, observing animals in their natural habitat. I recommend this movie to anyone who just needs to slow down a bit in their life and enjoy some pretty scenery.
3. The Great Mouse Detective – A really surprisingly strong comedy based entirely on the performances of the hero and villain. Basil is an engaging a hero as the best of his Sherlock Holmes predecessors, but the real star is Vincent Price as Ratigan, one of the most fun Disney villains ever put to film. It’s an engaging ride that builds to a spectacular climax. If any movie deserves a revisit with a modern update, it’s this one.
2. Lady & the Tramp – Another movie that, like Bambi, is more beautiful style and scenery than intense plot and action. It’s in the grand romantic comedy tradition where I feel like I should be mad that there isn’t really much plot, but the characters are so engaging that I enjoy it regardless. It also takes full advantage of the medium of animation for beautifully composed shots and scenes that would be difficult to capture in live action.
1. Treasure Planet – Disney is really good a telling a pirate story, what can I say? This retelling of arguably the most famous pirate story blasts it off into an inventive sci-fi setting with a dash of 90s coolness that thankfully feels charming today. The relationship between Jim and Silver is really this movie’s heart and it’s very sweet. This is my most surprising movie as I just kept being surprised at how much I liked it and kept liking it as the movie progressed. This is my recommendation if you’re looking for a more underrated Disney gem.
My favorite Disney movies:
5. The Jungle Book – The best of the pre-Renaissance films in my opinion. Every story beat and song flow into each other and build up to a strong climax and poignant resolution. Walt’s last film was truly his best, and while later works would innovate on the groundwork he set, they truly are standing on the shoulders of giants like this film.
4. Aladdin – A perfectly-timed comedy that runs like clockwork from the moment you press “Play.” With classic characters, unforgettable songs, and some of the most breathtaking moments in animation, this movie has remained a classic for generations for good reason.
3. Zootopia – A timely message about discrimination and personal biases wrapped up in a buddy cop movie about talking animals sounds ridiculous, but it’s one of the smartest movies I’ve ever seen. A well-executed script with enjoyable characters makes Zootopia a thought-provoking watch, while the beautiful visuals and inventive design make it more than just a glorified after-school special.
2. Lilo & Stitch – Animation doesn’t have to be bombastic to be effective. Lilo & Stitch shines in the quiet moments, the moments of friends surfing and playing on the beach or of sisters saying a tearful goodbye. The sci-fi action and space battles are fun, but they work because they serve the greater narrative, not because they interfere with it.
1. Beauty and the Beast – Every time I watch this movie, my love for it only grows stronger. This is Disney’s crowning artistic achievement as a studio, a tour de force of animation, music, writing, acting, everything. Everything synergizes to create something truly magical. Disney’s entire business model post-1991 has been to recapture the critical success of this movie. They’ve come really close, but nothing has topped it yet, and maybe it never will. I certainly enjoy watching them try though.