Disney/Pixar Rankings: 40-36

The landing page, with rationale and links to other posts in this series, can be found here.

#40
Atlantis: The Lost Empire

2001, directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise

The first Trousdale and Wise movie to hit the list—their other efforts are The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Beauty and the Beast, so you may need to wait a sec to see them here again—is most of the way to a spectacular movie. The same technology that powered the hybrid look of Tarzan before it and Treasure Planet after it is on display in Atlantis, which uses Deep Canvas much better than its siblings. It’s not quite seamless, but something about the vaguely steampunk aesthetics of Atlantis works better than the boats-in-space thing going on in Treasure Planet or the slightly too vibrant jungles of Tarzan. At its best Atlantis is the story of an academic forced into the role of explorer while the world is preparing to consume itself in war; in short, Atlantis does the reverse Raiders of the Lost Ark, and like Indy, Milo Thatch is forced to put down the academic in favor of the practical if he’s going to save the day. Unlike Indy, Milo has no charisma to speak of. Enthusiastic, squeaky, and naive, Milo essentially acts as a tour guide for the team sent to discover the lost city, which is either militaristic or deeply weird. The supporting characters of Atlantis are an engaging bunch. I’ve come to appreciate James Garner’s vocal performance as Rourke, the commander of the expedition; the guy from The Americanization of Emily and The Great Escape is a clean fit in this picture as another cynical soldier. Tag yourself with the rest of the oddball crew: demolitions man Santorini, engineer Ramirez, geologist Mole, cook Cookie, communications officer Packard, doctor Sweet, etc. All of them reflect the general ethos of the eccentric gazillionaire who funds the project to find Atlantis: highly competent, deeply weird. Even though Milo is much too innocent and frightened to fit in with this crowd, the competence and the weirdness he’s already projecting help him fit right in at Happiness Hotel. Watching him do it aboard the Ulysses, an ultra hi-tech submarine, is a joy. There are long stretches of the movie which are every little boy’s dream on screen. The submarine scatters its underwater fighters to fight an enormous mechanical monster guarding the entrance to Atlantis; torpedoes are fired; explosions roar; redshirts never see daylight again. These action sci-fi sequences haven’t been achieved before or since in a Disney movie, and I doubt that they’ll ever be attempted again.

The sci-fi elements once they actually get to Atlantis take more buy-in, mostly because they lean far more towards fantasy, and not all of them resonate on a gut level. The movie returns again and again to the queen of Atlantis merging with a giant crystal to protect the city from imminent harm, such as the great tidal wave which hides the city in the movie’s prologue, and then once more when a volcano threatens to obliterate it at the end of the picture. This is the technology which is indistinguishable from magic, and while the look of this final rescue is really a magnificent one—giant stone automatons create a protective forcefield around the city while stones with turquoise veins swirl around a translucently blue Kida in midair and the lava comes ever nearer—it is very far away from 1914. This is sort of the point, but all in all it’s sort of a hodgepodge of story elements we’d seen done in sci-fi and fantasy stories within the previous five years. The organic forcefields are reminiscent of the Gungan technology in The Phantom Menace, the mighty mechanical protectors like The Iron Giant, the aghast scantily clad natives similar to the ones populating The Road to El Dorado. (I’m not qualified to get into the ways that Atlantis bears a few too many similarities to the Japanese Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water.) The submarine in the depths of the ocean and the survivors making a lonely, dangerous trek to the mere hope of a destination is reminiscent of the best of Jules Verne. What happens once they reach Atlantis feels less fresh and less indebted to the classics of the genre, and it bogs the movie down just a little too much.

#39
Moana

2016, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker

The second Clements and Musker movie to hit the list—Treasure Planet came in at 56, and there are another five to come after Moana—is a thing of beauty throughout. Nothing is harder to animate than water, and this movie takes on the challenge and wins. At a young age Moana makes friends with the ocean, who is a playful and funny sort. The look of that anthropomorphic water glob is stunning, and then they do it over and over again throughout the movie. Everything from drips to puddles to ocean vistas look absolutely wonderful. (I’m fond of the way the ocean drops Moana back on her boat in a watery capsule whenever Maui tries to get rid of her.) The shot above I chose almost at random; there must be twenty others in the movie that . The gradient from aquamarine to cerulean to the pale blue of the sky tinged with the pink that shows up over and over again in this movie is almost unbearably lovely. No wonder Moana has been staring at the edge of the water as long as she can remember. (Sorry.) When she sings, “And no one knows/How far it goes,” it’s the feeling that any of us who have ever stood on the shoreline and felt the water lap at our feet and seen the unbelievable vastness of the ocean know. Moana is hearing that same “sweet sound” from “The Rainbow Connection,” and she finds it as irresistible as the other “young sailors.” When the movie embraces the ocean not just as a way to get from Point Kakamora to Point Lalotai but as a living being, it taps into something effervescent and gorgeous and, alas, timely.

I’ll be quick about this because I’ve expressed my annoyance in the post I link to, but the greatest flaw in Moana is its refusal to take itself seriously. I’m not calling for Moana to be some Oscarbait bildungsroman, but I would like it if it had enough confidence in its content not to make cracks about princesses with animal sidekicks. Merida is the first full-blooded Disney princess (which excepts Merida) who gets away with not having a future husband plot, and Moana is plenty good enough without it. Anna finds out that her man is a bad ‘un, and Merida proves that she should be able to choose a man when the right time comes. Moana just doesn’t have one, and, go figure, she is plenty interesting without Mystery Dude. There are some wonderful roads to an ecocritical look at Moana, the story of a concerned citizen who finds that her ecosystem is dying and knows that she has to force the powerful man who put it on the path to destruction to help her make things right. The movie is less interested in that than it is, ultimately, in finding ways to envelop its title character into the brand that she’ll belong to for the next few decades.

#38
Monsters University

2013, directed by Dan Scanlon

Here’s a movie that’s not quite sure how to end its story, which is why everything that happens after Oozma Kappa unpredictably wins the Scare Games feels uncomfortably edged in, like someone peeing at the urinal next to you or taking the seat by yours on the bus. What Monsters University really wants to be is a television show. It would be very easy to imagine this movie running in about thirteen episodes instead. Mike’s stubborn insistence that he can be a good Scarer, down to a desire to get into the human world to prove it, just feels like an extra jolt that the movie never needed, and it makes a story which had been fairly breezy fall flat. It’s not even that the sequence where Mike and Sulley orchestrate enough scream power to open a deactivated door doesn’t work, because it does. If we didn’t know what was happening, it would be at least a little creepy, and it showcases the qualities that Monsters University and its original IP have built into Mike and Sulley. Sulley is the easygoing muscle who has learned to appreciate Mike’s worrisome intelligence, while Mike needs Sulley to accomplish the things he’s always dreamed of. It feels like an add-on to get the movie to 105 minutes from 85, and that it really is tacked on makes it feel all the more unimportant.

What I find distressing about all that is the way that this foray into the human world doesn’t add much to one of Pixar’s better character studies, after the movie has been so careful to build Mike Wazowski through vignette after vignette. In Monsters, Inc., Mike shows a fidelity to upholding the Way Things Are for an awfully long time, even after he and Sulley have been banished to the human world to make infinite snow cones. In Monsters University, we find out why. From a very young age, Mike has idolized the Scarers and dreamed of becoming one himself, patterning his technique after the best of them the way that kids try to copy Bryce Harper’s swing or Steph Curry’s jump shot. When he goes to university, he enrolls in the Scaring program despite the fact that he is simply not frightening. After getting kicked out of said program because all of his knowledge can’t help him look different, he joins a frat and makes a deal with the dean which puts his enrollment itself on the line. Mike was a literal goofball in Monsters, Inc., but in Monsters University we see how intensely driven he is and how it has blinded him to what everyone else already knows to be true. Mike believes that he can work harder than everyone else to achieve his goal, and that delusion is apparent to everyone else from the word go. It’s a little sad, and Monsters University doesn’t go the route of most of Pixar’s other really wonderful character studies. In Ratatouille, the rat can become a great chef. In Toy Story, Woody realizes that change is not inherently threatening. In The Incredibles, Bob puts down his self-obsession to become a hero to the people who should matter most to him. Mike can’t change who he is! This is the real reason that that scene at the summer camp is unnecessary, even if it’s not a bad one. We’ve already watched Mike realize his inadequacy; he believed that he’d won the respect of Sulley, the Ken Griffey, Jr. of collegiate Scarers, but it turns out that Sulley had to fix the competition to make Mike scary enough to win it. That is a deeper cut than anything that could happen out in the human world, and Monsters University does itself a disservice when it stops itself short of becoming a story about failure.

#37
Winnie the Pooh

2011, directed by Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall

Little kids love it when they understand something clearly and someone else doesn’t. It’s an opportunity for them to be in a position of some kind of power, although preschoolers in particular have never learned how to be condescending or sanctimonious about this knowledge: they just like to explain, and know that they know. That’s why it’s clear that some of the sequences in this movie, especially the ones with poor, benighted Rabbit, were designed with little people in mind. Rabbit is a little exasperated that Piglet has cut a rope into six pieces—after all, there are six of them trapped in this pit they designed to trap a mysterious, Heffalumpish beast called a Backson—but he is more exasperated about this interchange:

Rabbit: Good grief. Tie them together, Piglet! Can you tie a knot?

Piglet: I cannot.

Rabbit: Ah, so you can knot.

Piglet: No, I cannot knot.

Rabbit: Not knot?

Pooh: Who’s there?

I can hear the four-year-olds giggling from here, although it’s a little mixed up with my own giggles. It’s silly. Rabbit looks like he’s about to have the heart attack he’s been threatening to have since the late ’70s, bless him, and everyone else is as serenely unaffected as ever. They may be in a hole of their own making, created because none of the animals of the Hundred Acre Wood are all the way literate, and they’ve interpreted “back soon” as “Backson.” Their imaginations run rather far ahead of their ABCs. But there’s no stress in this moment, even though Piglet has mutilated their tools for escape and somewhere a stuffed Derrida is high-fiving a stuffed Wittgenstein, snickering at the mutability of intended meanings. Surely the kids aren’t worried that Pooh and his friends will be stuck in this pit forever, and of course it’s not long before they come up with a clever way of getting themselves out of this pickle they’ve gotten into. Maybe I’m a prude, but I think there’s room for a movie this gentle and earnest, especially for our little people. Rabbit may look like he’d love to commit some act of physical violence, but he restricts his frustrations to eyes bugging out of his head and a mouth so agape it nearly reaches the bottom of the pit. Everyone learns a lesson about not letting their imaginations run away with them, and nobody holds a grudge. I think that this movie, the shortest Disney effort since the ’40s, could have been longer, but then again maybe I just enjoyed living in this breezy world. It’s sweet as honey, but it’s never treacly.

Even if the movie is simple enough for the three- and four-year-olds in the audience, it’s not shy about animating in inventive ways. True enough, most of the movie is in a friendly style that doesn’t overcomplicate some of Disney’s most popular characters, but there are some fun scenes in there. The song about the Backson comes about when Roo suggests that Owl, who claims to be an expert on Backsons and who is sort of inexpertly pulling its traits out of his tail feathers, should draw out what he knows about the beast. He does so on a chalkboard—art doesn’t just run through his family, he says, it “stampedes” through it—and so the song plays out in chalky designs like what one sees on blackboards and sidewalks. It gives the animators a way to imagine funny little images, like the denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood bouncing around like billiard balls and then popping their heads out of the holes in the table, or watching the Backson harass them in a series of microaggressions (jumbling up Christmas tree decorations, waking up babies in the middle of the night, etc.) which, because they are in this simple style, are never going to scare the audience. (For those most powerfully influenced children, there’s a scene after the credits where a very real Backson comes out and proves to be something of a guileless, polite klutz.) It’s an exercise in fun, and it’s a way to suggest to the audience that they could go home to their driveways or parking lots or whatever and sketch out their own monsters if they so chose.

#36
Coco

2017, directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina

Coco takes a long time to launch, which is not necessarily a flaw even a movie made for children, but it spends so much time in exposition in the beginning of the movie that we delay reaching the Land of the Dead. Frankly, I can’t wait to get there. It’s dazzling, beautiful, luminous. The towers of the Land of the Dead remind me of the walls filled with Riley’s memories in Inside Out; they twinkle in much the same way, but there is no ethereal glow in Riley’s brain the way there is in this city filled with people who have lived, died, lived again, and are at risk of dying again if no one puts a picture of them up on the ofrenda. A person who is forgotten for good disappears in an orange smoke into this blue world, an orange not unlike the marigold petals of the bridge that connects the worlds of the living and the dead. (Dante, Miguel’s derpy dog, rolls around in the bridge and lights some of them up in a color I can only describe as unctuous.) I love the underbelly of this city, watery and darker than the rest of it but still not so far from the jewel-toned bulbs that outline the city. When Hector plays Chicharron off, they have only a small lantern to give them light, but far in the distance we can see a tower, shrouded in fog, glinting in bright colors that are not at all similar to the spot where Chicharron will die his second death. It’s not far to those lights and the bustle of this afterlife, but it’s too far for him. Those lights and the yearning they create are a solemn image indeed from a distance; certainly the proles of Blade Runner must have looked at those aerial advertisements for Coca-Cola and the colonies and felt a similar grand hopelessness.

Like the face paint that Miguel wears to pass as one of the dead, the gorgeous backdrops of Coco are covering up something that’s not quite right. If it takes too long to get to the Land of the Dead, it certainly takes too long to get to the movie’s final reveal that is just as easy to see coming as the twists of Zootopia and Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6. Almost from the start it’s clear that Hector is Miguel’s actual great-great-great grandfather, not Ernesto—and even if he were, why spend so much time with Hector?—and the movie drags too often in taking the prerequisite steps to getting to the reveal. Any road trip requires actual driving, but there’s a reason that when they turn those road trips into movies they’re cut just to show the interesting moments in detail and the rest are turned into montage. When Coco isn’t beautiful or pensive about the fragile persistence of memory, it’s not doing much else. “Remember Me” will live on, I expect, as the first original Pixar song to really hit home since “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” (with the obvious exception of “Put That Thing Back Where It Came From or So Help Me”), and Coco is more often than not respectful of the Mexican culture it’s playing off of. But when I think of great Pixar protagonists, Miguel and Hector just don’t have the stuff to rise up that list.

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