I've been thinking of Disney so much lately, that I'm going to take a moment to list the best of Disney's animated, feature length films--and explain why I consider these the best. I'm putting them in the order they were released rather than ranking them.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) - Walt Disney felt like the studio would never again be able to do what it did with Snow White, and in a way, he was right. This, however, isn't to say that Disney would never again make great movies--it's just an immense compliment to what they did do with this film. This film is pretty much perfect, and remains so nearly 80 years later. Something of the 1930's film style permeates it, emphasizing the fairy tale darkness and softening out the romance (by which I refer to the style of romance, rather than specifically love romance) into something swirly, thematic, and poetic. Memorable characters, great songs, beautiful animation, and well-crafted sequences and pacing make this film a true classic.
Fantasia (1940) - The film that threatened to ruin Disney animation because its costs ran so ridiculously high, Fantasia became something unique and incredible, a true piece of art--to some of us. I realize that it's one of those movies that not everyone can sit through, but I find it the most fascinating combination of visual and auditory art. The details of how everything is woven together just amaze me.
Beauty and the Beast (1991) - Basically I consider Snow White the best Disney animated film from back when and Beauty and the Beast the best one from today--but that shows my age because Beauty and the Beast is no longer a new film. Still, it's in the top five of most people's lists and I often hear it named as number one, as well. Once again, great pacing, characters and songs. As far as animation goes, the style falls between the muddy look of 1980's animation and the clearer coloration of the 90's (which ended up leading to the weird look of early computer animation). So you sometimes have less defined, more obscured backgrounds with clear and crisp characters--and that creates a recognizable visual style. Like Snow White, this is a love story that isn't really a love story when you think about it (I think I'll do another post later on to describe with I mean with that).
The Lion King (1994) - Ah, here I go showing my age again by including two 90's movies. The thing is, I never knew for sure how much I liked The Lion King until recently. It was just a Disney movie, part of a collective. Lately, though, I've been noticing so much about it. First of all, it's one of the more successful attempts at a leading male character (Aladdin was also successful, I suppose, but Tarzan and Quasimodo and others not so much) in Disney animated films. Second, it shows us something different that still feels familiar. Third, I really appreciate the content and themes referencing nature and respect and respect for nature and the natural order of things. Fourth, that theme is wonderful (I'm not the only one to compare this story to Hamlet): the need to step up to responsibility and to face what you know you need to do, whatever else is going on. And yes, good songs, distinctive animation style, wonderful voice acting, good pacing.
Shouldn't this this be a top five list, rather than only top four? I tried to come up with five films, but the trouble was that these four came quickly and easily to mind, while I had to try and consider what the last one would be. I'm tempted to give it to Sleeping Beauty because I'm rather fond of that movie for the music and the Good vs. Evil theme--but it does have some weak spots. Many people like Peter Pan but that movie was never my favorite. 101 Dalmatians and Lady and the Tramp and Bambi are good but are they top five good? I like The Rescuers and The Black Cauldron because they're dark but do I think they're great instead of just good? The Little Mermaid is a good movie but it doesn't reach the high thematic levels that I've come to expect from Disney movies. I would put Mulan on the list except that I don't like all the comedic bits with the ancestors and Mushu. The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and Frozen likewise have some good material accompanied by some weak points. So I'm going to stick with my top four as the best overall of Disney animation.