I guess I'm princess-phobic? I don't care about royalty in real life or on the screen, and that goes double for animated movies.
As "Ratatouille" and "The Incredibles" filmmaker Brad Bird often points out, animation is a medium, not a genre, and it can be used to tell almost any story. But my favorites among Disney's many classics tend not to tell stories about princesses who end up marrying boring princes because they kissed them or put a shoe on them or whatever. I'll give those women points for not being born into splendor — Disney princesses tend to marry into their titles — but if falling in love with some dude is the whole point of a movie, it's a "no" for me, dawg.
The good news is Disney has long since moved away from the dated Grimms' Fairy Tales playbook that dominated the studio's early efforts, and the results have often been wonderful (to be fair, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and "Cinderella" are fine movies, even if they're not my faves). Disney has done science fiction ("The Black Cauldron"), mystery ("The Great Mouse Detective"), adventure ("Robin Hood," "Alice in Wonderland") and, since "Beauty and the Beast" revitalized the animation studio in 1991, Broadway-style musicals. (I've written about Pixar previously, but that Disney affiliate also has expanded what animation can do.)
Led by "imagineer" Walt Disney, the studio made the first Technicolor feature ("Snow White"), trailblazers such as the music-themed "Fantasia," and pioneered combining live action with animation in such movies as the currently unavailable "Song of the South." With its eye on the box office, Disney may not be on the cutting edge of animation anymore — it took smaller studios to innovate with "Flee," an animated documentary coming later this year, and the Polish "Loving Vincent," created so that the entire film looks like a Vincent van Gogh painting in motion.
But even with increased competition, Disney always has attracted talented animators. They continue to do top-notch work on films such as this spring's "Raya and the Last Dragon," an adventure billed as being about Disney's first Southeast Asian princess. That may be but, more important, she was a warrior fighting to free her people. Which is to say that Raya, like the characters in my favorite Disney classics, had a lot more on her mind than getting kissed by some himbo.
"One Hundred and One Dalmatians" (1961): "She's gonna make coats out of us," announces one of the sweetest of the Dalmatians, spelling out how different things were when this London-set charmer hit theaters. Last month's "Cruella" thought we were too sensitive to deal with the potential for poochicide but, 60 years ago, kids' stories were more attuned to their interest in dark themes ("Where the Wild Things Are" was just a couple of years away). As funny and good-natured as most of "Dalmatians" is, there's no getting around the fact that Cruella De Vil is a nasty piece of work who sees the hides of cute puppies and thinks, "Cape."
"The Lion King" (1994): I no longer remember what movie junket brought me to Los Angeles in early 1994 (maybe "D2: The Mighty Ducks"?). All I remember is a side trip to Disney for a sneak peek at an upcoming film I had barely heard of. Executives and actors talked about the project before showing the "Circle of Life" number, four minutes of jaw-dropping perfection that may be the best sequence in all of Disney's work. Six months later, "The Lion King" was on its way to becoming the year's highest-grossing movie.
"Beauty and the Beast" (1991): At a time when American musical theater was overwhelmed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Disney came to the rescue, with an assist from songwriters Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. And, if you're going to make a story about a woman who falls for a bland (and mean) prince, what a great idea to disguise it with memorable supporting characters such as Mrs. Potts (voiced by Angela Lansbury) and Lumiere (Jerry Orbach).
"Meet the Robinsons" (2007): It doesn't get mentioned in the same breath with "Dumbo" and "Pinocchio," but the witty outer space adventure deserves to be. Inspired by the distinctive illustrations of children's book writer William Joyce, "Robinsons" is about an orphan who travels the galaxy in search of his family. Departing from the musical-theater format, "Robinsons" coasts instead on contemporary hits by folks such as Rufus Wainwright and the All-American Rejects.
"The Princess and the Frog" (2009): The trailer, which spends its first 40 seconds name-checking previous hits, reveals how nervous Disney was about its first princess of color. It shouldn't have been. The wisecracking woodland creatures and destiny-altering curses place "Princess" in the same company as "Snow White" and "Cinderella," but with updates. Heroine Tiana has a job (she's a chef). The setting, on the streets of New Orleans and in nearby bayous, flavors the story. And the liveliest character is a voodoo priestess named Mama Odie, spectacularly performed by Jenifer Lewis, whose "Dig a Little Deeper" is every bit as iconic as "Be Our Guest" or "When You Wish Upon a Star."
"The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" (1977): It's not just how beautifully the film, a collection of three featurettes (one of which, "Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day," won an Oscar), captures the painterly quality of illustrations in A.A. Milne's beloved tales. It's also how the movie conveys the kindness of the residents of the Hundred Acre Wood and how ideally cast it is, to the extent that anyone who made subsequent "Pooh" films had no choice but to ape Sterling Holloway's tender Pooh, Paul Winchell's bouncy Tigger and John Fiedler's timid Piglet.
"Fantasia" (1940): Raise your hand if your intro to classical music was this trailblazer, just the third Disney feature. That's how Walt Disney hoped it would work, as an introduction to tunes that kids could learn more about, and even play, for the rest of their lives. You could argue there's a downside — those hippos in the "Dance of the Hours" seem to be making fun of the music rather than celebrating it, and a racist image had to be deleted from Beethoven's otherwise lovely "Pastoral Symphony." But all is forgiven in the innovative "Nutcracker," "Night on Bald Mountain" and "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" sequences.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367