Best Disney/Pixar Movie?

You can guess which movie partly inspired this post, but the other part of the inspiration came from two of my favorite reviews: a commentary on the social message, and a review from a very smart author and film critic. You’ll notice a common type of comment in both of them:

“And though Zootopia doesn’t have the emotional heft of the finest of [Disney films], it has a gutsiness that’s impressive, awkward beats and all.”

Zootopia isn’t quite as brilliant a movie as Inside Out or even Wreck-It Ralph, but it has twists are [sic] are just as clever as the ones in those movies.”

Otherwise, the reviews are fairly glowing. It’s almost as if the reviewers felt the need to correct for recency bias by saying, “Okay, I know I’ve been raving about it, but these other movies are better.” Another friend of mine said after seeing it, “I wouldn’t put it in the top three Pixar movies or even top three Disney movies.”

I haven’t really gone back and checked thoroughly, but I skimmed a few old reviews of Frozen and Tangled. Didn’t find comments like this. I found comments about how Tangled harkens back to the golden age of Disney with updated characters; I found comments about how Frozen‘s plot and characters weren’t great but Olaf was terrific. I decided to check and see what people thought the best Disney and Pixar movies were, and let me tell you, that is a rabbit hole.

There are as many lists of Pixar’s sixteen full-length movies as there are people who have seen them. The same ones generally gravitate to the top (Toy Story movies, Up, WALL-E). Disney lists vary even more. I found one list clearly by someone who grew up in the early 90s that put five of the Little Mermaid – Hunchback run of films (leaving out The Rescuers Down Under and Pocahontas) as the top five. Of all time.

Beauty and the Beast tends to find its way to the top of lots of Disney lists, of course; The Little Mermaid and The Lion King also get high regard. Some people love the old films that Disney himself helmed; some people like the recent run under Lasseter.

The point of all this is that there are so many ways to judge films that making any kind of list is at some point going to be subjective. You can say broadly that Up is a better movie than Cars, that Beauty and the Beast is better than Home on the Range. But when you get to the top stratum of Really Good Movies, you’re pretty much left relying on subjective measurements. “Doesn’t have the emotional heft” means “it didn’t affect me as much.” As I said in a previous post, Disney’s The Fox and the Hound affected me more than Beauty and the Beast–me personally. I doubt you would find a lot of people who feel the same. “Isn’t as brilliant as” means “I wasn’t as impressed with its vision.” Now, me personally, I thought Inside Out was a neat concept, but I wasn’t as impressed with the concept of that movie as maybe some other people were (maybe too many flashbacks to Herman’s Head, or maybe just not enough experience writing psychological stories, or maybe not enough experience around teen girls).

What I think these comments are also saying is that while it’s too soon to place Zootopia in the hierarchy of Disney and Pixar*, it is firmly in the conversation with the best films of those studios. You wouldn’t need a disclaimer separating it from the ones that were your favorites otherwise. But I look forward in the coming years to seeing reviews say of the new Disney/Pixar releases: “It doesn’t have the ambition/sharp writing/worldbuilding of, say, Zootopia, but…”

(* I saw one review that said “it’s the best movie Disney’s made in the last twenty years,” a clear reference to Beauty and the Beast/The Lion King, and another that said, “people saying it’s the best movie in the last twenty years need to calm down.”)

Personally, my top five Pixar movies are The Incredibles, Up, Ratatouille, Toy Story, and Toy Story 2, in some order. My favorite Disney movies of their first fifty-four are probably The Lion King, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Bolt, The Fox and the Hound, and The Emperor’s New Groove, again in some order (and I don’t fool myself that four of those five are probably not making anyone else’s top ten even).

Where will Zootopia fit on that list? Well, the last film I saw in theaters more than twice was (I think) The Lion King. The last film I saw more than four times? Let’s just say there were lightsabers and a guy in a black mask involved (no, it was not Spaceballs). I’ve gone to see Zootopia so far every weekend it’s been out. Sure, a lot of this is subjective, and the fact that I’ve spent the last twenty-five or so years imagining worlds full of talking animals (most frequently foxes) has something to do with it. But so what? Every list of someone’s favorite Disney or Pixar movies is to some extent subjective. As I said, once you get up into the Really Good Movies stratum, you can make arguments for a whole bunch of the movies. And if you’ve been reading this blog, you already know a bunch of the arguments I’ve been making for the Really Good Movie Zootopia. So I’m pretty sure that the next time I make a list like the ones above, you’ll see this one on it.

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5 Responses to Best Disney/Pixar Movie?

  1. Klyvert says:

    The Incredibles at #1? Damn! That’s a bold statement.

    Personally I think the riffs on the superhero genre and dialogue between Mr. and Mrs. Incredible are brilliant but the movie kind of loses me with its politics of The Naturally Superior People Who Are Shackled By Horrible Bureaucracy.

    My top five would include Inside Out and Wall-E (speaking of politics, although there are loads of other reasons to love it), and please don’t make me choose between the Toy Story trilogy, Monsters Inc., and Ratatouille for the rest of the list.

    As for Disney, I would say Bambi, Fantasia, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King…Zootopia? Fox and the Hound might be up there as well. Also my opinion will probably change by the time this gets posted.

  2. Lennon says:

    I also agree with you about The fox and the hound. And it’s also at the top of my list of favorites. My others would have to be Robinhood, and perhaps some of the Disney classics. I’ve personally never been a fan of The lion king or pretty much anything that came out of the 90’s area. Zootopia I’d have to rate at #1 though.

    As for Pixar many will disagree with me but I find many of Pixar films to be highly over rated! WALL-E is by far a movie I loathe! And still to this day I can not understand the mass apeal of it! Sure WALL-E was cute but it just went WAY down hill for me when it turned into a love story and let’s not even speak of the fat lazy humans… Given the choice I’ll watch Bolt any day, I found it much more charming, relatable, and heartwarming than WALL-E. As for the current films all I hear about is what a masterpiec Inside out was. Again I don’t get it. Interesting concepts on how emotions “work” sure, a nice coming of age film sure, something amazing? Personally I just don’t see the apeal other than it being from Pixar=it’s going to be good, everyone must go watch it. Well until The Good Dinosaur, but that’s another story.

  3. Ridgestead says:

    I always have trouble doing specific rankings, but my five favorite Disney/Pixar movies in no particular order are Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Fox and the Hound, Robin Hood, Hercules, and Up.

    I have no further comments to add but I will respond to further conversation.

  4. sofawolf-one says:

    It’s very hard to do this as I think they have stronger or weaker placement based on different criteria. And then there is the subjectivity, like you mention.

    I like your list of Pixar movies, though I would drop Toy Story (but keep Toy Story 2) in favor of maybe… gah… I dunno… WALL-E? Brave? Even Cars (not a popular choice) would make my Top 10 and I am not even a NASCAR fan. (Has more to do with the forgotten small town angle for me.)

    Disney is impossible, as you get mucked up in “X was great / socially important for the time period” or “Y probably doesn’t do as much for me because it was not written for my generation”. If you, I guess, took JUST the Pixar era then it would be easier — but then you miss a lot of very arguably good stuff.

    I suppose The Lion King, Emperor’s New Groove, Lilo & Stitch, 101 Dalmatians, and Bolt — but that is as lacking as the Top 5 of Pixar is…

    More interestingly, is it this hard to choose top films from any other studio? And do non-animated films even have an analog to this, since they are a mishmash of producers, directors, and sub-companies?

    I do think Zootopia will end up being regarded as significant for a lot of reasons, ultimately. But time will tell…

    • Kyell says:

      Argh, Lilo and Stitch! Yeah, that would have to go up in place of, uh. Hunchback? Fox and the Hound?

      You make a good point about picking top films from studios. I think the analogue in the non-animated world is probably directors–I remember Rob Reiner’s string of movies to start his directing career (When Harry Met Sally, Stand By Me, A Few Good Men); Darren Aronofsky has an impressive string of films; Guillermo del Toro has a distinct style; James Cameron and Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and John Hughes all have libraries where people argue about the best of their movies. Very occasionally you get a writer like Charlie Kaufman, or an actor like Daniel Day-Lewis, whose body of work is distinctive enough to stand apart as its own thing.