The 2010s have been a transformative period for Walt Disney Animation Studios. Experiencing what many consider to be a neo-Renaissance, the house that Walt built has been cranking out critical and financial hits year after year. But course, some movies are better than others.
With 2020 starting up, I’m closing off the year 2019 with a retrospective and ranking of this decade’s Disney animation films. I’ll be covering every film from Tangled to Frozen 2 and seeing what worked, what didn’t, and which are the best of the best.
9. Ralph Breaks the Internet
Ralph Breaks the Internet outdoes its predecessor in two areas: the comedy, and the animation. Other than that, this movie was a massive downgrade. Vanellope’s goals are so shallow and selfish that I couldn’t sympathize with her at all. Ralph doesn’t fare much better, with his stupidity being so heightened that it strips him of any dignity.
We meet a lot of new faces, and with the exception of Alan Tudyk’s Knowsmore, they’re all forgettable. Yesss and Shank are nothing more than plot devices, while Spamley is so pointless, his voice actor wasn’t even credited. The Internet feels equally uninspired as a setting, as does Henry Jackman’s score. What‘s confusing is that Ralph Breaks the Internet was headed by the same creative team as the original, so what went wrong? I’m not sure, but I do know this is one to skip.
8. Winnie the Pooh
Winnie the Pooh exudes charm. It features gorgeous 2D animation, the writing is hilarious, and the severely underrated songs are some of the catchiest of Disney’s recent musicals. My only gripe is that—unlike its predecessor—Winnie the Pooh lacks any real depth. In The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, we get an epilogue that sees Christopher Robin coping with the reality of growing up and having to someday leave Pooh behind. It’s a short scene, but it enriches an otherwise simple tale. That such a thing is lacking in the 2011 sequel keeps it from achieving “classic” status in my opinion. It doesn’t help that the movie is a touch too short. One or two additional segments—maybe taking place in different seasons—would have fleshed things out a bit more.
7. Big Hero 6
I LOVE Big Hero 6…. for the most part. When the movie deals with the topic of loss, and Hiro and Baymax’s relationship, it’s brilliant. Fortunately, that’s the bulk of the movie, hence “for the most part.” What disappoints me are the side characters. Honey Lemon, GoGo, Wasabi, and Fred feel underdeveloped, as they aren’t allowed to be more than their archetypes. They’re entertaining to watch, which mediates the problem, but a scene where Hiro learns of their individual backgrounds ala Atlantis: The Lost Empire would have made them feel more alive.
Far more problematic is the villain. Yokai has an awesome design, but his backstory is too generic and underdeveloped to garner any emotional response from me. Same with San Fransokyo, as there’s no time dedicated to fleshing out the world in a way that separates it from other fictional cities.
Frozen feels like a throwback to the Disney Renaissance. Like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, it subverts fairytale tropes without sacrificing the sincerity of its story and characters.
Both Anna and Elsa are very well-written leads. Their relationship is the heart of the movie, but their personalities are so strong that they work just as well individually. Olaf, meanwhile, is a great addition to the pantheon of “Disney sidekicks.” While his plot relevance doesn’t match Pinocchio’s Jiminy Cricket, his innocently smart-mouthed remarks are peak comedy.
Musically, not every song (“Fixer Upper”) is a masterpiece, but the ones that work, work incredibly well. Special shoutout to “For the First Time in Forever (Reprise)” for being one of my favorite Disney songs. “Let It Go”—though I’ve never been obsessed with this song—is one of the finest sequences I’ve seen from Disney.
For all its strengths, Frozen falters in some of its story execution. Hans’s villainy was revealed so late in the movie, and with such minimal foreshadowing, that it felt shoehorned. The “Fixer Upper” scene is also problematic due to its poor placement, but I honestly wouldn’t care as much if the song was better. There are also times where the emotion doesn’t hit as hard as it should. For example, while I enjoyed Anna and Kristoff’s dynamic, I couldn’t buy their romance. And while I liked the ending okay, its rushed pacing prevented it from getting the response it aimed for.
I’m not in love with Moana, but I do believe it to be a well-crafted piece of filmmaking. And I’ll say it, Moana has the best soundtrack of any Disney movie. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music is sharply-written, perfectly fits the setting of the film, and establishes the characters even better than the dialogue sequences (which is the point of a musical).
3D gets a lot of flack for lacking the expressiveness of 2D, but Moana’s character animation is awash with nuance and emotion. Furthermore, the environments are vibrant and rich with detail, which makes the world feel alive. The Ocean is a testament to both, blending environmental realism and personality animation.
Moana’s story is nothing original, but I’ve never cared because the characters are so much fun to watch. They’re all archetypes that we’ve seen a million times before (the starry-eyed heroine, the eccentric old mentor, the flamboyant villain, etc.), yet they still feel fresh thanks to the superb animation and strong vocal performances.
I wasn’t a fan of Tangled when it first came out. I thought the voice acting, music, and villain were all subpar. “A serious downgrade from The Princess and the Frog,” I’d say to myself. Nine years later, and my opinions couldn’t be more different (though I’m still partial to The Princess and the Frog).
Tangled is a smaller-scale movie compared to most on this list, but that’s to its benefit. It knows the story it wants to tell, and never strays too far from its path. That path, of course, is Rapunzel and Eugene (or Flynn Rider, depending on who you are). Their relationship is so well-developed that I’d dare say its the best love story Disney has delivered yet. And part of what makes their romance so charming is that the characters, themselves, are fantastic. Rapunzel’s plucky innocence is instantly endearing, and Eugene is hilariously confident but with enough vulnerability to not feel like a caricature. Credit to Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi for perfectly conveying these qualities.
This isn’t Alan Menken’s best work, but the music of Tangled is still infectious. It has a modern edge that gives the movie its own unique identity apart from other Disney musicals. Though I have to say, while the songs are all great fun, it’s the score that really shines here.
3. Frozen 2
As a fan of fairytales and adventure stories, I adored Frozen 2. I found Elsa’s journey to the Enchanted Forest equal parts intense and engrossing. Everything that worked in the original is amplified here—perhaps most strikingly in the animation department. Technological improvements aren’t surprising, but the work here goes beyond that. Whether a scene is funny or dramatic, the emotion was elevated by the animators’ performances. “Show Yourself”, alone, is such visual tour de force that I got emotional just from seeing Elsa get emotional.
Keeping with the visuals, this movie is a marvel. The filmmakers seem intent on consistently blowing the audience away with grand set pieces, and it worked to great effect. Elsa’s battle with the Nokk was particularly breathtaking, as were the Earth Giants. Other details like the lighting and colors do a lot to make the movie pop.
I’d be remiss not to mention the soundtrack. It’s phenomenal. The songs span a range of genres, from vaudeville to 80’s ballads, and they all work spectacularly—both as standalone tunes, and as character studies. There isn’t a single weak link on this track list.
I don’t disregard anyone that has trouble following the story. There’s a lot going on here, with significant amounts of screen time being dedicated to each character arc. As for me, myself, personally, I was into it the whole way through. The added lore involving the spirits and the late king and queen gave me a deeper appreciation for this world. That I loved all the old and new characters (shoutout to Lieutenant Mattias) certainly added to my investment.
2. Wreck-It Ralph
Wreck-It Ralph presents an imaginative premise, and takes full advantage of it—power-ups, “game overs,” cheat codes, boss battles, platformers, shooters, kart racing, its all here. Fun as these elements may be, they work because they are solely used to service the story, which never gets lost in the shuffle of easter-eggs.
The tale of Ralph—a Donkey Kong-inspired hulk who faces abuse and neglect on account of being the “bad-guy”—is emotionally gripping. My sympathy for the character kept me invested, as I wanted to see a happy ending just as much as Ralph did. The heartstrings were tugged even harder with Vanellope’s introduction, who becomes something of a daughter figure to Ralph. Disney has no shortage of heartwarming relationships, but none have resonated with me on the scale of Ralph and Vanellope.
Enriching the movie further are fantastic supporting characters. Felix and Calhoun both play crucial roles in the story but are allowed to undergo development of their own. King Candy, meanwhile, is my absolute favorite Disney villain. He’s equal parts entertaining and terrifying, with a backstory that fits perfectly into Ralph and Vanellope’s arcs.
With Henry Jackman’s powerful score and immersive visuals, everything ties together in Wreck-It Ralph to create one of the best animated films of recent years.
Zootopia caught me off guard. I had zero interest in a movie about anthropomorphic animals, much less a buddy cop movie about anthropomorphic animals. It just sounded like a dumb B-movie. And yet, Zootopia is a masterclass in filmmaking, with profound themes and a sophistication to its storytelling.
Where to begin with a movie this rich? The premise—about an all-animal world where species relationships reflects the polarized climate of our society—is topical and timeless. What I most respect is that the movie never talks down to the audience. The filmmakers chose to tackle a serious subject, and it’s dealt with in a manner that feels raw—though with animals in place of humans, which is what makes Zootopia such an inspired piece of art.
Zootopia itself is a beautifully realized world. As we explore the bustling city streets, lush rainforests, and snowy tundras, there’s an overwhelming sense of history to this setting that perfectly exemplifies how to make the fantastical feel believable.
More important than the setting are the characters that inhabit it. Judy Hopps, Nick Wilde, and the rest are so layered that I continuously find new things to love about them with every rewatch. Judy may be the hero, but she herself is unconsciously biased. Bogo is openly biased, but he’s not a heartless villain either. Even the minor characters like Mr. Big and Mayor Lionheart are written with nuance that makes them three-dimensional.
I do have some quibbles; the villain is a laughably non-threatening presence, and Michael Giacchino‘s score is among the weakest on this list. On the whole, though, neither issue ruins my enjoyment of what is otherwise a modern masterpiece.
Which is your favorite Disney Animation from the 2010s? Comment below!
Edited by: Kelly Conley