(Welcome to The Greatest Shots in Disney Animation History, a limited series where Disney expert Josh Spiegel selects and ranks the defining moments in one of the greatest, most important, and most influential collection of films ever made.)
This final part of the ongoing list covers entries 10 through 1.
10. The Little Mermaid: Woozy with love
“Kiss the Girl” is a lovely song courtesy of the late Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, in which the talking crab Sebastian tries his best to get the well-meaning Prince Eric to…well, just read the name of the song. Kissing Ariel will free her from the spell of the sea witch Ursula, and so Sebastian does his best to set the mood. Though the song is suitably romantic, Eric doesn’t seal the deal. Before he fails to, though, the song hits its climax as the camera swoops through the Mediterranean bayou, panning upwards above the water to level out and focus again on our lovers. The camera movement is what makes this shot so special, emulating a live handheld camera to imply that just as Ariel’s woozy with love, so too is the filmmaking technique.
9. The Lion King: Dolly zoom of Simba with the wildebeest
The key event in the life of young Simba isn’t his birth or even when he first learns of the principle of the circle of life that binds all the animals in the Pride Lands. It’s when a stampede of wildebeests end up murdering his father (accidentally) and leaving him stranded with no emotional grounding. The moment in which Simba realizes that there’s a surprise “simply to die for”, in the words of his nefarious uncle Scar, comes with this thrilling dolly-zoom as the camera moves in close while he watches the stampede make their way down the very same gorge he’s standing in. The Lion King is relatively action-packed, but it’s shots like this that bring home the suspense of any setpieces.
8. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Turning into a hag
Body horror may not seem like the dominion of the Walt Disney Company, but a lot of its earliest feature films include moments of such disquieting physical metamorphosis that it’s quite bracing to watch in the modern era. The first full-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, features such a moment, as the evil Queen, overcome by jealousy at the youthful beauty of our eponymous heroine, decides to enact a plan in which she’ll kill Snow White by turning into an old crone and poisoning her with an apple. As the Queen imbibes the potion that will turn her good looks into the exact opposite, the camera spins around her. It’s not just that her body is changing, but her entire worldview is, communicated through the phantasmagorical shot with creepily colorful backgrounds placed behind the Queen’s writhing body. Even now, it’s quite disturbing.
7. Beauty and the Beast: Tale as old as time
Beauty and the Beast is an old-fashioned romance in many ways. The title song, performed masterfully by Angela Lansbury, is all about embracing how the story of a beautiful woman and a less-than-beautiful prince is the kind of romance we’ve all fallen for time and again. But some of the film’s best animation is a balance between the old and the new. In the dance that accompanies the song, Belle and the Beast waltz their way through the ballroom of the castle where the Beast has grown up. The computer-generated animation of the ballroom itself is mixed with the hand-drawn animation of the lead characters, as the camera descends from the high end of the ballroom to the floor, swooping upwards to a mural of cherubs watching down on the young lovers. It’s a heavenly sequence met well by the groundbreaking animation.
6. Pinocchio: A whale of a tale
Pinocchio is a remarkably intense film. The basic character arc is simple enough — a wooden boy becomes real — but the ways in which Pinocchio has to learn about how to be a real boy are pretty brutal for a Disney film. Don’t want to go to school? Well, you’ll wind up in a cage beholden to a brute who wants to use you to sell tickets. Or you’ll turn into a literal jackass for playing around. Want to save your creator from being eaten by a whale? OK, but you’re going to have to sacrifice your own life to do it, as represented in this stunning, bleak shot. Yes, of course, Pinocchio does become a real boy after this sacrifice, but it’s very harrowing to see Jiminy Cricket call out our hero’s name only to gasp in shock at the grim sight of his good friend face-down in water, presumably dead.
5. Bambi: An empty forest
What makes this shot so unforgettable isn’t because of what it shows us. Instead, the shot stands out because of what is not depicted. In the same vein as the brutal drug-transfusion scene in Pulp Fiction, the death of Bambi’s mother isn’t actually shown in the 1942 classic. We know what’s happened, and eventually, so does Bambi, because his previously-in-the-shadows father curtly tells him that his mother “can’t be with you anymore”. But after Bambi, following his mother’s desperate plea to run, dives through the forest, his mom follows and jumps over a hill. And then, we hear the fateful gunshot and see, simply, the forest she left behind in more ways than one. The emptiness of this shot is what’s so gutting. Bambi’s mother has gone for good.
4. Pinocchio: Lampwick makes a jackass of himself
Body horror is the earliest bailiwick of Disney animation. After the evil Queen transformed herself into a hag in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, there was no reason to shy away from that kind of effect in the studio’s follow-up. As Pinocchio continues to shirk his duties as a schoolboy, he’s lured to Pleasure Island and its uncouth ways. It’s only in this key scene that he learns the dark secret of Pleasure Island: its denizens, as a nefarious Coachman says, “never come back as boys”. Pinocchio watches his new friend Lampwick turn into a braying donkey in front of his eyes, and the animation of his transformation is legitimately horrifying to behold. Few future Disney films would ever get this terrifying.
3. Dumbo: Baby Mine
Is there a sadder image in the Disney Animation filmography than this one? Mrs. Jumbo has been locked up, presumed to be a deranged elephant simply because she wanted to protect her son, Jumbo, Jr. (One day, we should talk about how twisted it is that this movie is named after the cruel nickname Jumbo, Jr. is given. We all call him Dumbo, but that’s the rude way to refer to him!) At his lowest moment, Jumbo, Jr. goes to her cage for comfort, and she holds him in her long trunk, rocking him back and forth as “Baby Mine”, a form of aural emotional terrorism, plays on the soundtrack. The sight of Mrs. Jumbo rocking her baby back and forth is one of those images that’s like wine — it gets more powerful with age.
2. Sleeping Beauty: Maleficent turning into a dragon
“Now you will deal with me…and all the powers of Hell!” With that, Maleficent leaves the pantheon of great Disney villains, and enters the realm of just truly goddamn scary movie characters, period. How many children’s minds were permanently etched with terror when Maleficent transforms herself into a dragon without batting an eyelash? The ease with which her transformation occurs is a testament to the power of Disney’s animators. As visualized in CinemaScope, Maleficent’s heel turn into being a dragon who Prince Philip can only barely defeat is one of the most remarkable moments in any Disney animated film. It’s, plain and simple, one of the best villain moments in all movie history.
1. Fantasia: Mickey controlling the stars
Fantasia has only become one of Disney’s most beloved films over time. When it was released in 1940, the entire film wasn’t a massive hit, though the section featuring Mickey Mouse, scored to “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, may well have hit with audiences from the start. In the sequence, Mickey takes over for his absent master to comical results. After doffing the sorcerer’s hat, he falls asleep and has a dream during which he envisions himself literally controlling the stars (which begins in the video above at 0:25). The shot here of Mickey sending shooting stars around him as he stands confidently atop a mountain is thrilling, funny, and one of the most iconic visual moments in Disney’s century-long history.
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