Song of the South free. I promise.
There is no other company with the marketing power of the Walt Disney Company. Coca-Cola probably comes the closest in terms of packaging “stuff” and selling it to us as happiness, but you don’t see many babies with Coke cans hanging from their mobiles in their crib.
Disney touts their animated library as though it’s flawless, timeless, and owning every title will bring you happiness; they do this to the extent that it becomes taken for granted that all their movies are incredible. But some of the films that are touted as legends (and that come in and out of “the vault” so that you’d BETTER buy it when it’s released) are, in my opinion, not particularly good. Meanwhile there’s some really good stuff flying under the radar (which is shaped like mouse ears) that doesn’t get the push it deserves.
I put together this little list of five Disney animated films that I just don’t hear anyone talking about -- particularly Disney themselves. I think these five movies are underappreciated and underrated. When Disney goes out of their way to promote direct-to-video sequels like Return to Neverland and The Little Mermaid II (Underwater Boogaloo) as “must-haves,” I want to raise my hand politely…and then slap somebody with it.
5) The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
You remember when David Spade was funny? I mean…it’s been a while. In fact, when the unfortunately-titled The Emperor’s New Groove debuted in 2000 he had pretty much already peaked. The movie is essentially a buddy comedy featuring Spade as an Incan emperor and John Goodman as a peasant and also features Eartha Kitt as a witch and Disney stalwart Patrick Warburton as her assistant. The plot has Spade (spoiled and selfish) and Goodman (humble and kind) thrown into a perilous situation together and essentially trying to survive the South American wilderness, learning a little bit about each other…and a lot about life. It’s cheesy, yes. But it’s also funny and different. At least I’ve always thought so.
The Emperor’s New Groove has a storied history. It was originally intended to be Kingdom of the Sun -- the same, traditional feel-good cartoon that Disney has made dozens of times -- but production and a lack of direction slowed things down and even stopped production for a few months. Sting, that dude from The Police who would prefer that you don’t stand so close to him, wrote a soundtrack full of songs for the movie, most of which were dropped (thank God) when the film was reworked into a buddy comedy. He wasn’t happy. He angrily played his lute for weeks.
The film eventually went on to be a modest financial success. It was followed by a direct-to-DVD sequel (of course it was) and even a Saturday morning television series. Yet, it seems to have fallen off the radar almost completely. It’s out on a double-feature Blu-ray with the aforementioned sequel but it seems that, for the most part, the House of Mouse would like to make what money there is to be made from it and then forget that it ever happened.
4) Tarzan (1999)
Tarzan was the last Disney film for a decade that attempted to follow the traditional formula of taking a familiar story from myth or literature and injecting it with heart (and songs). It featured music by Phil Collins and had Rosie O’Donnell as a gorilla. Here’s the thing: I pretty much hate Phil Collins, can’t stand Rosie O’Donnell and have never had even a passing interest in Tarzan stories. Yet I really like Disney’s Tarzan. So that’s good, right?
Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. The films had grown progressively less profitable and artistically successful as the ‘90s drew to a close, culminating with Tarzan, which was very successful commercially but seems to have had little lasting legacy. With the dawn of the new millennium, Disney switched their focus away from traditional cel animation and looked to CGI and unconventional storytelling as the future. Like Treasure Island, but IN SPACE! And called Treasure PLANET! So cutting edge. It would be a decade before they tried another hand-drawn animated film in the classic Disney style (2009’s The Princess and the Frog).
3) Make Mine Music (1946)
This classic entry is here for my street cred. Disney Animation was running on a skeleton crew during World War II because most of the animators were overseas in the conflict. Classic Disney took a break between 1942 (Bambi) and 1950 (Cinderella) and for eight years cranked out anthology cartoons featuring shorts that were united by a theme (such as music). I think the two I like the best out of these was Make Mine Music (1946) and Melody Time (1947), but I give the edge to the former.
When I was growing up in the ‘80s, a lot of the segments from these anthologies were being chopped up and released separately. I didn’t see Make Mine Music until I was at least 20, but I had somehow seen several of the segments growing up, probably on The Disney Channel when we got a free preview weekend.
“The Martins and the Coys” was a comedic and musical re-telling of the Hatfields and McCoys story that featured animated violence which is apparently so upsetting for Americans (pie-eating prudes) that it’s been completely removed from all Region 1 DVD releases. Even with that edit, Make Mine Music is a classic that rises far above the limitations from which it was created and deserves a lot more attention.
2) Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers (2004)
This film was an attempt to bring the spirit of the early Disney shorts to a full-length movie, and if I’m not incorrect I believe this is the ONLY full-length movie to star Mickey, Donald, and Goofy. The only other film I can think of that had these guys in it was 1947’s Fun and Fancy Free which had the “Mickey and the Beanstalk” segment, but that movie also featured other segments without those guys.
I’m not sure who the audience for this was. I imagine it was aimed at two core Disney markets: 1) young kids (the goal being to introduce them the classic Disney characters which had been under-utilized), and 2) adult animation buffs who had nostalgia for the characters from their own childhood.
I’m not sure what happened, though, because the film wasn’t given a theatrical release and came to DVD with little fanfare. In the decade since it first plopped onto shelves there has been no Blu-ray release and I have neither seen nor heard any mention of its existence since. It’s as if it never was, which is a shame: I think it’s one of the best things to come out of Disney in a long time. It’s only recently in the last year or so that Disney has once again begun promoting Mickey Mouse as a flagship character. You’d think the company was made on princesses alone. Luckily this film is still being manufactured and you can find it online easily and cheaply.
1) Hercules (1997)
Hercules was the movie that got me back into Disney animation after I thought I’d outgrown it. I distinctly remember the conversation I had with a friend that year. I was working at a grocery store, stocking milk and dairy, when one of my co-workers was talking about how much he loved The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I couldn’t believe what he was talking about. We were ADULTS, man! We were out in the world, earning our pay and forging a path for ourselves in a brave new world after high school. What was he doing watching cartoons?
My affection for Hercules surely must be informed by the circumstances surrounding it, but I also think it’s a genuinely great movie. By taking the traditional story of the mythological hero and adding a healthy dose of real-world cynicism (but not too much) thanks to the casting of James Woods -- plus a love interest who’s more femme fatale than damsel in distress -- Disney subverted their own formula and gave us something truly different.
Hercules is another film that Disney seems to have forgotten it made because it apparently isn’t particularly marketable (though I’d argue that point, given today’s hunger for all things superhero). There’s a Blu-ray scheduled for release this summer, almost 17 years after its initial theatrical run. Here’s hoping that with that release comes a push to introduce the characters to a whole new generation. It deserves it. And so do all of these underrated films that have been pushed out of the spotlight to make room for more of the same.