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Alice in Wonderland
1951, directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske
If Alice is here for a reason, it’s sheer trippiness. Sure, it’s not Jodorowsky, but it’s pretty good for a Disney movie produced in the same year as A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire. The film knows that what has made the story of Alice exciting for generations of readers is the unpredictability of the story, in which the only thing predictable about it is how strange the next turn will be. It does not shy away from lurid colors, slippery customers, and true weirdness. I’ll always appreciate the way that the animation makes things possible that would be obviously wrong otherwise, like that time when half a cup of tea is poured. Of course, it’s not a normal mug filled halfway, but a teacup sliced in half which manages to hold the tea through some magic. The movie’s characters all join in on that same ethos, like that part of our atmosphere which is filled with argon has been replaced with amphetamines. The boundless exuberance with which the tea party celebrates an unbirthday is almost frightening. The Queen of Hearts, announced with a psychedelic sequence of arranging playing cards, shifts from aggressive elation to murderous anger in an instant. While we’re talking about drugs, the White Rabbit could use a Prozac drip worse than anyone else in Wonderland. There are some dull zones in the movie that no adaptation of Alice that I’ve ever seen is quite able to negotiate—the part where Alice gets stuck in a house because of her accidental gigantism is never all that interesting—but for the most part this is a movie that is so energetic that it can’t help but drag you along.
Alice in Wonderland is exciting, too, because of the sense that it belongs in this larger Disney universe but shifted a few degrees. By 1951 Disney already had maybe its two most iconic princesses in Show White and Cinderella; Alice is a young woman, like them, but certainly not royalty. Snow White gets happy little furry animals when she goes into the woods, and Cinderella has an army of mice who speak psycho English but who are otherwise pretty amusing. Alice goes into the Tulgey Wood and runs across a perverse bird whose body is a birdcage chasing down two little songbirds, eating them, and then trapping them in the birdcage. Other birdlike creatures include the hammerheaded and pencilheaded creatures she meets, who have panache but are even less real than those raccoons I love making fun of from Snow White. Snow White and Cinderella have to escape the clutches of older women who would have them killed or imprisoned for the sake of their own ambitions. Alice is never really in any danger from the Queen of Hearts, who has a Jacobin’s love of decapitation and a Girodin’s control over the political system; or, maybe, the right answer is her stern, disapproving sister who will no doubt make a lady of this bright-eyed dreamer. In any event, it’s imagination which propels Alice in Wonderland at its best, and that’s as it should be.
2009, directed by Pete Docter
I suppose we’ll have to hear about Carl and Ellie’s silent romance until we’re as old as they are, but every mention of that early sequence which doesn’t also mention a later scene is doing it wrong. It’s fairly late in the movie. Carl has met his childhood hero, Charles Muntz, and now knows that Muntz has been made mostly insane in his quest to restore his sullied reputation. He’s allowed Kevin to be taken captive by Muntz, knowing that Kevin’s babies will be motherless. He’s lost Russell, a child whose conscience cannot allow him to simply go back to the house and know he didn’t try to save his avian friend. He goes back into his house. It’s a wreck. It’s been through flight and a storm and a rough landing and now the fire which he just saved it from. Now he sits in that chair of his, next to the empty one which belonged to his wife. He picks up the scrapbook that his wife has been putting together since they were children, and it’s only by chance that he realizes that there’s more to the book than he thought.
It’s even quieter than the love story from the beginning of the movie, and it’s far more moving. It’s unfathomably difficult, even for the people who have experienced it, to know what it’s like to lose the most important person in your life, the one who gave it direction and meaning. But it’s equally difficult to realize how little you knew that person. Carl looks through that book and for the first time realizes that his wife had the adventure of a lifetime. It’s incredible to me that he doesn’t lay down and die when he sees that note about having an adventure of his own. His failure to understand Ellie until he sees the proof in front of him is painful, but Carl does something better than wallow in shame. He cleans house, as it were, including those two iconic chairs, and he goes back to do the right thing. Ultimately, doing the right thing is fighting another incredibly old man on top of a zeppelin while talking dogs in planes fly around. It’s a lot of fun, but Up manages to get a lot closer to something resembling profundity in its best moments. I’ve argued with Matt about this at some length, and I accept that there’s room for two men with a combined age of like, 170 to fight with all the old people fixins after Carl has an epiphany. I just wish that Up would have lingered longer on its most moving moments; I want the devastation of this moment to linger longer than the movie is comfortable allowing it to sit.
The Jungle Book
1967, directed by Wolfgang Reitherman
The Jungle Book, the story of a kid who wanders around India and runs into a whole bunch of talking animals while he does it, is about as good as this genus of Disney movie gets. It is that meandering story made of episodes, and I mean it when I say that this is the best of them. (Of the movies yet to come, sixteen have a fairly tight plot and one is Fantasia.) What makes The Jungle Book special among this group is the unflinching quality of the supporting characters, and thus of the vignettes that they anchor. Most of them get a song, which gives them a real advantage in memorability about the supporting characters of The Aristocats or One Hundred and One Dalmatians. The elephants get “Colonel Hathi’s March,” the vultures get “That’s What Friends Are For,” Kaa gets “Trust in Me,” and so on. The music works as a way to flesh out these characters a little bit, which keeps them from being fodder for one-liners and nothing more. (This is part of what sets this movie apart from, say, The Aristocats, which is visually similar but lacks the joy of the music.) Colonel Hathi and his command, a word I use very loosely given their general disinterest in their “pompous old windbag” of a leader, are as close as we get to a statement on the Raj; part of the reason they’re so memorable is that blisteringly catchy marching tune they sing. “That’s What Friends Are For” is not proper Beatles (ever since I figured out who Daniel Day-Lewis was I thought he bore an incredible resemblance to that vulture on Mowgli’s direct left) but it is a pleasant subversion of what we expect these presumably glum birds to do when an exceptionally sad Mowgli trundles across their path. “C’mon, kid, we need a tenor,” the bald one says, and before you know it we see that the Carrion Crew are more trustworthy fellows than the majority of the animals in the jungle. Even Baloo, as lovable a character as has ever popped up in a Disney movie, gets a song in the same way that much less important folks do; his just happens to be “The Bare Necessities,” which is tricky and funny and hypnotically boisterous. Same goes for Shere Khan, in a way, who gets the last word in “That’s What Friends Are For” with a note I have envied and fruitlessly attempted to recreate since age four or so.
I’ve got this movie as Disney’s best of the 1960s by a pretty substantial margin (although if Mary Poppins counted for this list it wouldn’t have that spot), and I have “I Wanna Be Like You” as Disney’s best sequence of the decade as well. It’s not the animation which does it, for there are plenty of more beautiful moments in Dalmatians that would wipe the floor with this fairly staid set. But as Baloo makes clear to us every time he dances to the music, this is four minutes of pure infectious joy. Louis Prima sings and scats marvelously, and Louie gets into a mouth-trumpet battle with a little monkey with a shock of white hair and the kind of confidence that convinces people like Eric Swalwell that they should run for president. When Prima’s not doing his part to birth an earworm, the omnipresent Phil Harris is reacting hilariously: “I’m gone, man, solid gone!” Bagheera does his best to keep Baloo focused, but Baloo can’t stop the beat and finds himself shaking to the beat as much as the rest of us. Including Bagheera as a straight man, somehow undeterred by the rhythm, is a brilliant choice. It will take cleverness to extract Mowgli from King Louie, he says, and for all the good it does he may as well be spitting into the wind. Baloo wanders off in search of a trumpet solo and a bad disguise. If I ever fail to laugh at Bagheera’s horrified “Not yet, Baloo!” then just put me out of my misery.
The Great Mouse Detective
1986, directed by Ron Clements, John Musker, Burny Mattinson, and Dave Michener
Where you place Basil of Baker Street among the protagonists of other Disney movies will dictate where you place The Great Mouse Detective among other Disney movies. For those who find our miniature Sherlock Holmes just another iteration of the character merely fine, this will seem awfully high. I think Basil’s moody brilliance is great, and thus this seems like a pretty good place for it. Few Disney movies put themselves so completely in the hands of a single character, preferring instead to rely on a villain’s malfeasance or a giant supporting cast. Basil is so many people in one that the movie still works well. From the first time we see him, there’s some level of mystery about him. “I shall have him!” a voice cries. A door bangs open. Lightning flashes. The same voice, more disturbed by the physical impediment of outsiders than curious about their presence, shouts, “Out of my way, out of my way!” A hat flies onto Dawson’s head and sticks there. Basil rips off his false head, deflates his costume, and immediately bounces into that Sherlockian energy that I suppose even the nerds who read the stories will recall. Nothing is beyond his notice and yet everything is just a little beneath his interest. He tells fortunes about Dawson’s profession and recent past; he fires a bullet into some cushions; he screams with disappointment when his evidence and his bullet do not match precisely. A violin. It’s all entirely characteristic, and it’s the same mixture of glee and despair that shows him in his best moments. When it appears that all hope is lost and that he has been caught and will be killed several different ways by his nemesis, Ratigan, Basil fairly gives up. Dawson already believes in his brilliant friend to save them, but if he refuses to do so, he says, “we may as well set the trap off now and be done with it.” Basil repeats the words, and then he starts to laugh. There’s a zoom his face, a cut back to Dawson, and then Basil’s wild eyes stare directly into the camera. “Yes! We’ll set the trap off now!” After a tense few moments, all is well; Basil has not even forgotten that this supposedly grisly moment is meant to be documented. Holding Olivia and holding up Dawson, he implores them to smile. He does. They don’t.
Ratigan’s greatest plan—to replace the queen with an animatronic doppelganger—is not awfully thrilling, although it does give the movie a credible engine. I’m sure the beginning of the movie, where Flavisham is kidnapped by Fidget, is probably only a decent little jump scare. I wouldn’t know, as I haven’t watched it since the first time I watched the movie; some things are better left alone, I’d say. But the movie’s final standoff between Basil and Ratigan really is something, even beyond the chase sequence featuring Ratigan’s pedal-powered dirigible and Basil’s awkward but effective balloon-powered balloon. What happens inside Big Ben is fairly low on contrast whenever we’re between lightning strikes, using various shades of brown for the shadows and the great cogs which nearly crush Olivia. The yellow glow of the clock face is a triumph, especially given the difference between that sunlike glow and the pale blue-gray of the thunderstorm. The two brilliant adversaries devolve into a brutal and physical game of hide-and-seek, a game that Ratigan, now fully a rat and no more playacting the mouse, loses. As weak as Basil appears when he’s being pummeled, it turns out that this physical contest was never entirely physical. When the clock strikes, Ratigan has no defense for its vibrations, but Basil has one last marvelous trick up his sleeve.
1992, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker
I keep saying things about people being “perfectly cast” for these voice acting roles, and that’s a mistake. There have been perfect fits, I suppose, but there is a chasm between Robin Williams voicing the Genie and everyone else voicing everyone else. When Aladdin accidentally summons him, what follows is a hurricane of dialogue that floors the audience and Aladdin both. The Genie decides that “Aladdin” is a little long. “Al” and “Din” are proposed and disposed in favor of “Laddie,” for which the Genie transforms from his bulbous blue self to a Scotsman and then a dog. “I must have hit my head harder than I thought,” Aladdin says, and it’s hard not to feel like that ourselves. “Friend Like Me” is a fabulous introduction, rife with rapid cuts that match a song performed just shy of 200 beats per minute. Only the famously manic Williams could string together Howard Ashman’s words with such adroitness, and that little neon sign flashing “Applause” at the end of the number is perfectly apt. Williams, who by 1992 had picked up three of his four Oscar nominations for increasingly serious parts, also manages to bring that side to the Genie. You can hear anyone talk about how great it is to be your own boss on Shark Tank, but Williams makes Genie’s plight awfully real and totally sympathetic. The freedom that even a street rat like Aladdin has is superior to the near-infinite power that he possesses as a slave, and when he laments his situation we feel for him. Since this is Robin Williams, this short monologue ends with Genie imploring himself to “wake up and smell the hummus,” but the point stands, and when he does get that freedom with Aladdin’s third wish at the end of the movie, it’s easily the most rewarding moment in Aladdin. From where I’m sitting, this is the best vocal performance in an animated movie, the only one I can imagine being nominated at an award ceremony like the Oscars. Genie doesn’t need to impersonate William F. Buckley and Peter Lorre in the space of about thirty seconds any more than he needs to become Rodney Dangerfield to express his dismay at “losing to a rug” at chess, but it’s the difference between a very decent movie (with some casual racism that I hope wouldn’t make it into such a film today) and a really good one (ditto).
I’m on the record in multiple places saying that “A Whole New World” is Disney’s best song, which is somehow not the boldest statement I’ve made in the last 450 words. The whole soundtrack is arguably the best of Disney’s best musical decade, and it benefits from getting both Howard Ashman and Tim Rice to work with Alan Menken. The circumstances of that broad collaboration are deeply sad, as Ashman died from AIDS-related complications a year and a half before Aladdin was released. His contributions (“Friend Like Me,” “Prince Ali,” and “Arabian Nights”) are heavier on patter and catchy lyrics; it’s also worth noting that some of his original lyrics for that last were purged for future iterations of the song for being obviously racist in 1992. The ones which aren’t offensive are creative and exciting. Rice does his best to keep up with “One Jump Ahead,” which is not quite the marvel of either of Ashman’s pieces, but he also has “A Whole New World” in his back pocket. Admittedly, this song misses the longing of “Part of Your World” or the soulfulness of the title song from Beauty and the Beast. But “A Whole New World” benefits from having two good voices, and the song is at its best when it puts Brad Kane and Lea Salonga’s harmony in opposing lyrics which still fit together beautifully. For Aladdin, the song expresses the thrill of discovery; for Jasmine, it’s about the relief of escape; for both, it’s all entwined in the pure and still unsullied romance of the moment. In less than three minutes it’s all over, but it’s music that is somehow more memorable and lovely than a transcontinental magic carpet ride.