From the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 until the forthcoming release of The Frog Princess, Disney has been renowned for producing blockbuster animated films. However, over the years several films have fallen by the wayside and not achieved the fame of their more successful counterparts. Spanning almost the entirety of the Disney canon, these films nevertheless deserve just as much critical acclaim (if not more) than the blockbuster films.
Released in 1941, Dumbo features not only some of the most nuanced animal animation in the Disney canon, but also features incredibly touching scenes between the title character and his mother. The film deals with several important themes: parental sacrifice, child loyalty, and loyalty to and faith in oneself. Although some moments in the film might be troubling to small children, a little encouragement and explanation from parents will make sure that this film deserves a place on every family’s bookshelf.
As one of Disney’s more literary creations, The Sword in the Stone stands as one of the best film interpretations of the Arthurian legend ever made. Although it makes several changes to T.H. White’s original book, the film retains the essential messages inherent in the base material. Furthermore, the duel between the wizard Merlin and the sorceress Madam Mim is one of the best in the Disney canon, as the duelers maintain their essential facial features throughout their transformation into several different animals. This combination of education and enjoyment make this film worthy of accolade.
Although it is one of Disney’s lesser-known features–it was made when Walt Disney himself no longer had direct involvement in the making of his films*–The Aristocats deserves more respect that it commonly receives. In this case, the combination of delightful animation (especially the main character Duchess, voiced by Eva Gabor,) with the distinctive sounds of American jazz, set against the backdrop of Paris, make this a delight for both the eyes and the ears.
Although much more lighthearted than many of its predecessors, the classic Robin Hood not only features an all-star voice cast (including the inimitable Sir Peter Ustinov) but also a clever twist on the old story of Robin Hood. The entire cast, from the dastardly Prince John to the plucky Robin, are played by animals, each chosen to especially represent the appropriate character from the legend. Furthermore, the tinge of sadness and despondence that moves beneath the surface of the second half of the film make it an joy for adults able to appreciate its emotional depth.
One of Disney’s most somber creations, The Rescuers nevertheless deserves appreciation for its willingness to show children a darker side of adults than can normally be found in animated films. The film’s primary villain, the terrible Madame Medusa, is incredibly cruel to the orphan Penny and this, accompanied by the achingly sad music throughout much of the film, gives it a dark tinge that is a refreshing change from the sugar-coated facade shown by many other animated features.
The 1980s saw several Disney films that failed to gain a major following, though each had its strengths. The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron, and The Great Mouse Detective were not major successes when compared to some of Disney’s other work. However, it is important to note the successes of each. The Fox and the Hound, for example, was exemplary in that it did not have a typical happy ending, thus showing audiences that not every story, no matter how cute at the beginning, can have a happy ending. The Black Cauldron, meanwhile, showed audiences that Disney was capable of producing a film darker than anything they had done before; although the risk ultimately did not pay off, the film is nevertheless a testament to Disney’s ingenuity. Finally, The Great Mouse Detective was slightly more intellectual than some of its predecessors; this, coupled with the stunning evil represented by the villain Ratigan (voiced by Vincent Price) make it well worth watching.
Although the 1990s were a golden period for Disney animation (hence the term “Disney Renaissance,”) there were two black sheep that did not receive the press of their companion pieces. The first, The Rescuers Down Under,may seem at first glance seem to be merely an exercise in flashy animation. Beneath that, however, there is legitimate emotional depth, as Cody must struggle with the malicious McCleach, whose cruelty to animals is only exceeded by his cruelty to humans. Finally there is The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which showcases some of Disney’s finest animation and music. Furthermore, it also deals with the very adult themes of lust, anger and death, once more showing audiences the darker side of adult life.
Although not every film produced by Walt Disney Feature Animation was a resounding success, even those that have been shunted into the closet deserve respect, even admiration. Often, they show the troubled parts of the human condition that are not typical fare for the audience seeking family, thought-free entertainment. However, if one is seeking stimulation of the kind not usually offered by animated feature films, the answer can be found in these “black sheep”of Disney. Watching them can open up a whole new window into the world of Disney, and into our own.
*Prior to Disney’s death, I use Disney to represent the man himself. After, I use it to refer to the Walt Disney Feature Animation Division, which produces full-length animated features.
**Information regarding years of release, reception, etc. can be found in the at www.wikipedia.org.