(Welcome to The Greatest Shots in Disney Animation History, a limited series where Disney expert Josh Spiegel selects and ranks the defining moments in one of the greatest, most important, and most influential collections of films ever made.)
This part of the ongoing list covers entries 40 through 31.
40. Tangled: I see the light
Some folks will tell you that Tangled is one of the better modern Disney movies. (I am not among those folks. It’s fine, but not as good as The Princess and the Frog or the original Frozen.) What the 2010 film doesn’t quite have in terms of its storytelling or character development, though, it does have in some often pastoral, vividly colorful animation. The film’s centerpiece moment is the song “I See The Light”, where Rapunzel and the raffish Flynn Rider share a duet as they let loose a couple of lanterns at a yearly event at the kingdom where Rapunzel is unknowingly the long-lost princess. The shot of the hundreds upon hundreds of lanterns flooding the night sky is a kind of shot that feels intentionally dazzling — we’re meant to be wowed by this image. This one, as nakedly pretty as it is, does the job right.
39. Lady and the Tramp: A nighttime shot of the city
“Bella Notte” is the most well-known part of Lady and the Tramp, as two dogs culminate a romantic night out with a plate of spaghetti and meatballs behind the kitchen of Tony’s restaurant, with the owner and chef crooning the song to them. But it’s the shots after the one we all know, of Lady and the Tramp meeting in the middle of a shared strand of spaghetti, that really stand out. With a chorus continuing “Bella Notte” to its conclusion, we get the hazy conclusion to the evening, with the camera panning up through the laundry lines and apartment buildings in the city. It’s a beautiful, intoxicating effect that only serves to heighten the love growing between our two heroes.
38. Sleeping Beauty: A kingdom asleep
Sleeping Beauty is the most beautiful film that Walt Disney Animation Studios has ever made. So it’s hard to choose just a couple of the film’s best shots, either for their beauty, their terror, or a mix of the two. One of the very best comes in the back half of the picture, after the fairies Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather have enacted their last-ditch plan to keep the kingdom unaware of Aurora’s coma after falling victim to Maleficent’s spell. So they put a spell of their own on the assembled, putting them to sleep until Aurora is hopefully revived. One of the shots capturing the result of that spell, as the entire kingdom seems to hover on the edge of dusk, is genuinely gorgeous, the kind of shot that feels like a Middle Ages work of art. The artistry of the film is unparalleled, as shots like this prove.
37. Peter Pan: Angry/jealous Tinker Bell
Putting it lightly, Peter Pan does not have a great relationship with its female characters. Here’s a film in which, at one point, three mermaids attempt to drown and murder Wendy Darling for daring to be attracted to Peter Pan; Pan, who’s watching the whole thing go down, just laughing his head off. But the most memorable female character in the film, and arguably one of the most valuable symbols in the entirety of Disney’s history, is Tinker Bell. Her adoration of Peter, and concurrent envy at Wendy for striking his fancy, is a big part of her character development, but it’s first represented with a great bit that blends a visual gag with characterization. When Tink is inadvertently shoved into a drawer while trying to retrieve Peter’s shadow, and she realizes that Wendy’s getting close to Peter, she turns red with jealousy, literally. The character never speaks, but with moments like these, she never has to.
36. Aladdin: Group of Genies, led by the Ed Sullivan-style Genie
Everyone knows Aladdin as the film that introduced the world to the Genie. As voiced by Robin Williams, this animated character somehow embodies the irrepressible id of one of the most famous comedians of the 20th century. As much as Williams’ performance is a remarkable special effect of sorts, so too is the dexterous animation courtesy of supervising animator Eric Goldberg. One of many examples of how lively the animation of the Genie was comes courtesy of this shot, during the Genie’s introduction to Aladdin, in which he speeds through the steps of having a Genie with three wishes. Before he gets to the steps, he reveals that he’s a fabled character of myth, and naturally…turns into a caricature of Ed Sullivan, with a row of applauding Genies behind him. Try as it might, the live-action/CG remake from 2019 couldn’t help but come in second to singular animation like this.
35. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Happily ever after
Disney animated features often end very quickly, especially those of the earlier eras. To wit: it doesn’t take much time after the dwarves fend off the evil Queen in her haggardly form for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to wrap up. Snow White is woken up by her handsome prince (someone who goes unnamed, please note), and he takes her upon his horse into the great unknown. That exciting post-happily-ever-after world is visualized only as a gleaming, impossibly bright sunrise (or sunset) in the film’s final shot. Just as the film set a template for the fairy-tale stories that Disney would tell for decades, so too is the last shot a sign of what would come in later films.
34. Beauty and the Beast: Rows of utensils dancing
What is now the established template for modern Disney animation was truly defined in this 1991 classic. One of the most memorable parts of the story is one of its musical numbers, “Be Our Guest”, in which the exuberant human-turned-candelabra Lumiere invites Belle to…well, be the guest of the many other humans-turned-inanimate objects in the Beast’s Castle, all of whom are so lonely because they haven’t had visitors in ages. Depressing setup aside, the song, written by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, is a crowd-pleasing show-stopper. At one point, we see just how happy the kitchen staff is through a cascading shot of countless utensils dancing in rows, in rhythm. It’s a show-off moment for the animating team, and just delightful to watch.
33. Fantasia 2000: A destructive volcano
The 1999 film Fantasia 2000 is one of the finest, most underrated films in the Walt Disney Animation Studios canon. Its concluding segment, scored to Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite”, pays homage to the 1940 Fantasia in a number of ways: both films use Stravinsky pieces for key sequences about the natural world, and both films conclude with a sequence in which demonic forces attempt to destroy powers of good. In the end, evil fails where good triumphs, but in the “Firebird Suite” sequence, there’s a truly haunting image of the personification of the verdant forest being terrified and awestruck at the sight of the eponymous firebird decimating the forest surrounding a nearby volcano. Here is the power of hand-drawn animation at the period when it would begin to dwindle among Disney features. It’s a hell of a thing.
32. Dumbo: Pink elephants on parade
Dumbo was a famously low-budget affair, released merely months before the Disney Studios were brought into the WWII effort by the U.S. government and meant to recoup the lost costs sunk into Pinocchio and Fantasia. But a lower budget couldn’t stop the Disney animators from pushing themselves to bold new heights, as evinced in the “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence. That scene occurs when Dumbo and his loquacious friend Timothy Q. Mouse get wildly drunk on champagne and have a shared hallucination in which a long line of wild elephants dance in front of them. (Because, as you know, this is a children’s movie.) At one point, the pink elephants box themselves in, piling on top of each other in perfect framing with the shot itself, as if they’re aware of the camera filming them. Don’t ever let anyone tell you Disney Animation can’t get weird or wild. This scene is proof that they can.
31. Bambi: Taking a fall on the ice
Before Bambi grows up, both literally and metaphorically, he’s able to enjoy himself in the natural world. One of the most purely joyous moments, both in this 1942 classic and in all of Disney animation, comes when young Bambi and Thumper attempt to frolic and play on the snow and ice that have covered their home. The shot of them accidentally sailing across the ice is both very funny and genuinely quite pleasing — the older you get, the more enjoyable the scene becomes, if only because it arrives before either of these characters have to put away such childish jaunts. Add to that the fact that the dexterous animation of Bambi’s sticklike legs, each tripping over the other, is just very impressive to watch considering how much care had to go into each movement. It’s a beautiful image.
This series will continue tomorrow. Join us, won’t you?
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