3. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
A deformed bell ringer falls for a gypsy street performer and attempts to escape the clutches of his guardian, an amoral judge.
The darkest story in the Disney Renaissance by quite a way. It’s laudable just how much of Hugo’s story remains intact, and much like with Batman Returns, it’s understandable that the marketers and merchandisers sold it under false pretenses.
It might be on the nose to sing the story’s main theme “Who is the monster and who is the man?” out loud, but the themes are layered and surprisingly rich. Judge Frollo is also the most evil bastard Disney ever invented (he tries to drown a baby in the opening scene and only plunges to further depravity after that), with an answer ready for every accusation of dogmatic hypocrisy, violence and cruelty to hide his every weakness.
Animation game-changer: Further reliance on digital animation programmes, including the creation of the “Crowd” software allowing large gatherings of background characters to move.
Magical moment: Frollo’s main song “Hellfire” where he confesses his many sins and absolves himself of them all as “the devil is stronger than man”, all set to hellish hallucinatory imagery.
2. The Lion King (1994)
The son of the lion king of the pride lands is banished after the sudden death of his father.
A close-to-perfection demonstration of visual storytelling. You only need look at the remake to see just how right they got this and how wrong it could have gone. It’s not about animating realistic animals, it’s about summing up the essences of real creatures and letting their characters shine through – just look at the “Circle of Life” opening and how Mufasa turns from proud, implacable monarch to a warm and approachable friend as Zazu lands in front of him.
The Lion King also offers the best Disney music of the modern era by quite some margin – Tim Rice and Elton John’s memorable songs, plus Hans Zimmer’s rich and diverse score with invaluable contributions from Carmen Twillie and Lebo M.
Animation game-changer: Disney’s first original story, though it takes influence from many sources, Shakespeare tragedies onwards. This also continued to push the studio’s use of computer animation, particularly during the stampede sequence, which digitally multiplied wilderbeast characters, gave them randomised movements and simulated the tracking shots over their path of destruction.
Magical moment: The opening “Circle of Life” extravaganza that never fails to cause a gasp of wonder. The remake couldn’t touch this, mostly because they just did it again shot-for-shot in a different animation style.
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1. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
A bookish dreamer agrees to being imprisoned in the cursed castle of a beast in exchange for the freedom of her father.
So many animated movies, and plenty of Disney movies, have tried to be Beauty and the Beast.
The live-action remake most of all was trying to bring the same magic and vivid characterisation to the screen, and it just about got away with it by upping the ante on the full-blown musical front. But there’s no way the original could ever have been surpassed.
Nothing can match the expressiveness and dynamism of the characters here, and the all-encompassing atmosphere of this dark fairy tale. The Beast himself is one of the most stunningly realised characters in the Disney canon, turning on a dime from bestial and terrifying to insecure and awkward, he (voiced by a vulnerable Robbie Benson) is perfectly matched by an inquisitive, kind but no nonsense Belle (Paige O’Hara).
Animation game-changer: The first animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. Disney greatly advanced the illusion of depth in animation, particularly noticeable in the spellbinding ballroom scene as Belle and the Beast twirl around the dance floor.
Magical moment: The Beast’s servants, led by Lumière, welcome Belle in spectacular fashion with the ever-memorable number “Be Our Guest”. Parodied so memorably by Harry Shearer as Mr Burns in “The Simpsons”, this is among Disney’s finest and most hummable songs.
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What do you think? Would you have ordered things differently? Let us know in the comments below or tweet us directly.