I love Disney movies – really, I do. And yet, I recently re-watched Disney adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame for the first time as an adult, and it forced me to accept that the House of Mouse occasionally releases a flick so flat-out bonkers, it makes you wonder what exactly everyone involved was thinking. The next thing you know, I was sifting through 78 years of Walt Disney Animation Studios history to weed out the entries that missed the mark, and I’ve rounded-up my top five picks below.
I know – sacrilege, right? But while Fantasia is certainly a fine example of the craftsmanship present during the Golden Age of Animation, as an actual film, it’s always left me a little cold.
On the one hand, you’ve got to give ol’ Walt props for trying something different – and you don’t get more different than a 2-hour series of animated vignettes set to classical music. But as a child I struggled to make it all the way through (although I was always enthralled by the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence), and even as an adult, parts of the movie still drag, despite all the visual panache on display.
As a kid and as a grown-up, my main complaint is the same: I don’t really connect to films without any real plot or characters. It’s why I always jump up in my seat when “The Magician’s Apprentice” segment rolls around, because it stars an actual protagonist – Mickey – facing a clearly defined problem framed by a (basic) narrative. So, ultimately, Fantasia is proof that the visual artistry and technical craft that makes Disney animation so legendary is nothing without the well-developed stories and characters that earmark the studio’s best offerings.
A lot of people tend to forget about Hercules. Back in 1997, Disney took the epic and pathos-laden story of everyone’s favourite strongman and turned it into a mash-up of Superman: The Movie and Greco-Roman mythology. Along the way, they layered in commentary about heroism and celebrity, and handed the narration duties over to a sassy gospel singing troupe.
Admittedly, that sounds pretty awesome, and overall, Hercules works pretty well. There are some decent songs – “Go The Distance” is a great power ballad – and the monster battle set pieces are thrillingly realised. What’s more, James Woods (as the wisecracking Hades) and Danny DeVito (as gruff satyr Phil) are both a lot of fun.
But it all feels like a bit of a missed opportunity to do something grander, in the vein of The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast. Instead, we’re left with a solidly entertaining flick that you’ll be forgiven for forgetting about almost the moment after you’ve seen it.
By all accounts, Pocahontas was developed with the well-intentioned idea of preaching racial harmony and condemning social and environmental exploitation. Even so, re-casting the historical meeting between the Powhatan tribe and British settlers as an inspiring love story really doesn’t fly, for obvious reasons.
No matter how respectfully the Pocahontas team tried to be towards Native American culture, giving it a Disney spin it was always going cause problems (way to rob them of one more thing, guys). As well as any cultural offence caused, the whole thing also feels a little pretentious; the Disney staff all thought this would be the studio’s next big prestige picture, and that self-importance shows.
On the plus side, the visuals are up there with the studio’s best work, and the soundtrack has an absolute barnstormer in “Colours of the Wind”. But it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the whole enterprise was a bit misjudged, and would’ve been handled very differently today.
2. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
“We’ve got our work cut out for us gang.” This is how I picture the head of Disney’s marketing team reacted to the news that the studio’s next feature was going to be an animated adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo’s decidedly adult gothic tragedy.
Honestly, I do not know what the logic behind this flick was. Taking a story filled with sexual overtones and dark insights into human nature and behaviour, and making it into a bright children’s film – complete with chatty stone gargoyles and a happy ending – is frankly baffling.
Unsurprisingly, the result is a wildly uneven story that includes more than one unsettling scene – hunchback Quasimodo’s torment on the wheel is especially harrowing – and features the lead villain about lust and eternal damnation. Just to be clear: this is something that actually happened in a Disney movie targeted at kids.
True, the sweep of the visuals in The Hunchback of Notre Dame is unquestionably breathtaking, and the songs are generally hummable. Yet despite the movie’s strong central theme of looking past appearances, The Hunchback of Notre Dame really is the definition of “missing the mark”.
1. Song of the South
Hoo-boy, Song of the South…
This one will immediately make sense to anyone familiar with the film – which isn’t a large group, since Song of the South has never been officially released on home video in the United States. So, for those of you who don’t know, Song of the South is set in Reconstruction-Era Georgia, and centres around the animated folktales told by former slave Uncle Remus.
Much like with Pochahontas, it’s another example of Disney trying to tell a race-relations story with (presumably) the best of intentions, and proving that intent and outcome are rarely the same thing. Consensus on Song of the South is that its heart is probably in the right place, but that it paints a dangerously simplistic – even idyllic – portrait of the era which is filed with offensive stereotypes.
When Song of the South was released in 1946, many African-American rights groups were justifiably outraged, with some even organising picketing at cinemas. At the same time, several groups, including the NAACP, acknowledged the artistic merit of the film and the lack of malice on the part of the filmmakers.
Certainly, the animation is as exceptional as you’d expect from the original Disney masters, Oscar-winning song “Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah” has a certain charm, and James Baskett is great as Uncle Remus, a role which landed him an honorary Academy Award (making him the first black performer to receive an Oscar). Despite all this, however, Song of the South is largely a strong case for taking what you can from “problematic” art and moving on.