DrDoom Presents: The Top Five Non-Disney Animated Films That Beat Disney At Their Own Game
Would you believe that DrDoom is actually a big fan of children's animated movies? You better! While he enjoys plenty of Disney's Animated Classics line, they are not infallible. Here, he presents his favourite non-Disney animated movies that managed to beat out offerings from the House of Mouse.
Whether you want to admit it or not, Walt Disney Pictures has held a monopoly on children's entertainment for the better part of the last century, molding the childhood memories of millions around the globe. While not all of their movies focus on princesses of the like shown above, they still have managed to create some of the most popular and enduring cinematic icons and franchises of all time.
It all began with the revolutionary achievement that was 1937's landmark release, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Being the first feature length animated theatrical film, it helped to define what the Disney brand would be over the following seventy-five years. While the story itself is nothing special anymore, the movie did set in place the tropes that would become part of the Disney style; colourful and vibrant animation, imaginative characters in fantasy worlds, and classic music, all of which would become staples of Disney's family entertainment.
As of the time of this writing, there have been fifty-three films in the Disney Animated Classics line, with the fifty-fourth, Big Hero 6, scheduled for release near the end of 2014. Not all of them are as instantly recognizable as others, with some, such as The Black Cauldron with Princess Eilonwy, being considered 'unworthy' of acknowledgement in later franchise entertainment. Regardless of the company's opinion on its own work, there are some of their films which are much more pervasive in popular culture than others.
This idea brings us to the topic at hand: the competition that Disney has faced at the box office. While there is little doubt that on average, Disney's animated films have triumphed over all other companies striving to put out children's films, there have been times where competitors have released films that, while not necessarily more successful, were of higher quality than the ones that Disney put out based on the same ideas or themes. As such, I will here be noting my top five non-Disney animated films that beat Disney at their own game, in chronological order.
The Secret of NIMH (1982)
Possibly more than any other film on this list, Don Bluth's theatrical debut, The Secret of NIMH, proves that the argument that 'children's entertainment is for children' as an excuse for poor quality to be false. Yes, animated films tend to be aimed at a youthful demographic, but this is no reason to subject children to poorer quality storytelling or characters. The Secret of NIMH is a special movie because it manages to tell a compelling, philosophical and heartwarming family tale that doesn't shy away from big ideas; rather, it relishes in them, neither insulting the intelligence of its audience or pandering to children who may not understand all of its subtleties and subtext.
The plot revolves around a mouse named Mrs. Brisby (played brilliantly by Elizabeth Hartman, in her last film role before her suicide due to chronic depression), a single mother of four who tries desperately to keep her children safe amidst the changing landscape of the animal kingdom, both physically and metaphorically. In her quest to save the life of her ill son Timothy, she comes across an advanced society of rats who have been intellectually augmented by laboratory experimentation. The rats are involved in a philosophical debate over how to move forward as a species given their newfound knowledge, and this provides the crux of the conflict.
The film deals with many complex ideas and themes, such as the responsibilty of a superior intelligence, how the foundations of a society influence its morals, and how much families will struggle through adversity in order to stay together. It never speaks down to its audience or uses euphemisms; it is fairly clear multiple times during the story that the characters are in mortal danger, and that the decisions that they make will have severe consequences for both themselves and the people around them. This level of respect for the audience is both refreshing and stimulating, because the movie is never inappropriate for children, but also never sugar coats its ideas. This is a world like ours; with happiness and families, yes, but also with cruelty and death, and it is through the balance of these spectrums that we find the truth in our own lives. After it all, the film ends with a phenomenal song named 'Flying Dreams', performed by the immortal Paul H. Williams, which perfectly captures everything the movie is about.
The 'mouse-driven adventure' Disney movie that it beat out:
The Rescuers (1977)
When this movie was released, it was actually Disney's most financially successful film at the time, and held that record until The Little Mermaid was released in 1989. Despite crushing the box office, it has remained a somewhat forgotten affair, likely due to the fact that it is a relatively bland film in comparison to some of Disney's later installments. While the characters of Bernard and Miss Bianca are very well voiced by Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor, respectively, the story is dull and the animation unremarkable, with an instantly forgettable villain in Madame Medusa, who wants to steal a diamond and kidnap an annoying little girl named Penny. Nothing in the movie outside of the two main characters inspires any kind of emotional response, and its ideas are ordinary and rote. However, this movie isn't a complete write-off, because it did inspire a sequel in The Rescuers Down Under, which is a wildly entertaining and infinitely superior film.
The Land Before Time (1988)
While the Land Before Time franchise has become known for being an endless string of direct-to-DVD musical fodder, the original (and still only theatrically released) film remains one of the most well-known and beloved animated films not produced by Disney. Unlike Secret of NIMH, the movie was a smash hit at the box office, recuperating its budget more than five times over.
Stretching to just barely seventy minutes long, The Land Before Time manages to tell a more emotionally engaging and complete story than many films that are a full two hours in length. The movie follows the story of Littlefoot, a juvenile 'Long Neck' (Apatosaurus) who loses his mother in a battle with a 'Sharp Tooth' (Tyrannosaurus Rex). With her dying breaths, she charges Littlefoot with finishing their journey to find the 'Great Valley'; a utopia for herbivores.
The circumstances that Littlefoot has to deal with at such a young age could be considered heavily traumatizing; he sees his own mother die in front of him, and is essentially left alone with little sense of direction. Despite all this, Littlefoot manages to regain a positive attitude and brings together a group of friends in other young dinosaurs, all united in their goal to find the Great Valley. Having so much responsibility and agency shoved on children before they are ready for it is a recurring theme in real life, and the movie shows that, despite initially daunted by the challenges that life may have unfairly thrust upon Littlefoot and his friends, they are capable of rising up to them and forging their own destinies.
The 'dinosaur coming-of-age story' Disney movie that it beat out:
Being the most expensive film of the year 2000, you would expect that Disney would have pooled all of their resources into making a compelling and engaging feature film. Unfortunately, it seems that all of the money in its budget was poured into the visuals rather than the script and actors. While yes, the film is incredible in a visual sense, all of the wondrous computer generated scenery means very little once the dinosaurs start speaking. With low quality voice acting and a generic, unfocused script, Dinosaur became another 'successful but then forgotten' film in Disney's archive.
Funnily enough, because of the fact that Anastasia is a musical animated movie about a princess, it is the film on this list most frequently mistaken to be a Disney creation. Indeed, even to this day, many people don't realize that this was actually released by Fox Animation Studios, not Disney. While the parallels between Disney's own animated princess features and this movie are apparent, Anastasia still manages to break the mold in several ways, and actually ends up being a better movie than several of Disney's own princess features, as well as a personal favourite of mine.
What's so special about this movie, unlike The Secret of NIMH, may not be readily apparent on a first viewing. The story is highly romanticized, it has almost zero historical accuracy, has a love story, and it features, yes, a princess and musical numbers. However, closer inspection reveals hidden layers that provide Anastasia with some serious ammunition in its attempts to rival Disney's classics. First of all, the main character herself, Anastasia, has a character arc that is completely removed from any male influence. While she does have a love interest in Dimitri, he only helps to kick-start the plot; aside from that, Anastasia's main goal, to learn the truth about herself and to find her real family, has nothing to do with him and their budding romance, which is exactly what it should be: a subplot, and not the main focus. Even in some of Disney's most popular and enduring films, such as The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast, the female protagonists receive their goals and story arcs in terms of their relationships to their male love interests, whereas with Anastasia, it is the complete opposite.
As well, the movie features a much more realistic take in terms of its characters. No one in the movie is perfect, and each character is shown to have visible flaws that make them out of be three-dimensional characters. Anastasia's spunky and hot-tempered nature fleshes her out and gives her edge, rather than having her fawning over everything, and the fact that her love interest is a deceitful con man and criminal with a hidden connection to her past, despite never falling into the 'bad boy' cliche, rather than a one-note prince is another check in its favour. While the reimagining of Rasputin as an evil sorcerer is a bit odd, the voice acting provided by Christopher Lloyd sells it completely. The movie is topped off by a stunning musical score, with the crown jewel of the piece being 'Journey to the Past', sung by the remarkable Liz Callaway.
The 'alternate history princess' Disney movie that it beat out:
I'm not going to continue to beat down the idea of Pocahontas as historically or culturally inaccurate. Numerous people have spoken about it, and I have nothing new to add to the conversation. However, I do not necessarily believe that inaccuracy in itself is a fault; Anastasia is just as inaccurate as Pocahontas. The difference is whether the changes made help to tell a more compelling story. Pocahontas instead makes changes so that it can tell a more marketable story that fits into the tropes required by Disney canon, rather than taking the opportunity to evolve and use the unique qualities of its source material (in this case, real life) to make a new experience for its audience. While Pocahontas does have some good songs and competent if unremarkable animation, the movie's characters are simple stereotypes, and the story takes no chances at all. Luckily, Disney learned its lesson by the time of their next princess movie, releasing the much better Mulan.
The Prince of Egypt (1998)
This one is an interesting choice for me, given that it is a retelling of a Biblical story and I am a staunch Atheist. If nothing else, Prince of Egypt proves that quality storytelling can elevate any source material, regardless of the personal, cultural or political biases that may be inherent to its creation. Rather than spend its time trying to be a preachy, didactic diatribe, it takes the better route and resolves to tell a good story with interesting characters that are inspired by the material, but not bound to it because of a misguided attempt at forcing a moral lesson or recruitment message down the throat of its audience.
What's fascinating about the movie is how it manages to rework a Biblical story into a fantasy epic. It, luckily, recasts the ideas of godhood and faith as more mystical and otherworldly than as moral imperitives, and aside from a couple of slipups during the songs, maintains the idea that the moral dilemmas of the characters are for them to resolve, rather than through blind devotion to a higher power that acts as a deus ex machina.
The personal journey that Moses undertakes hits many notes of real life maturation, making him both relateable and more realistic. Even when he is charged by God to liberate the Hebrews from enslavement by the Egyptians, it is a personal goal for him because of the fact that he was raised as a brother to the Pharaoh, Rameses. The sibling rivalry that eventually turns them into archenemies is a common trope in storytelling, but it receives a new layer in this movie due to the fact that it was entirely unavoidable and neither of them are necessarily at fault; Moses was adopted by the old Pharaoh's wife when he was an infant, unaware of his true heritage until adulthood, and Rameses has known nothing aside from being told that he is to be the next great leader of Egypt. For both Moses and Rameses, they are doing nothing aside from what they are supposed to do according to their own knowledge, and while Rameses eventually folds into true villainy near the end, the fact that he still harbors brotherly love for Moses even after he deserts him is a testament (hah) to the complexity that the writers have provided these characters. The voice acting is great all around, and how can you say no to this song?
The 'religious mythology epic' Disney movie that it beat out:
Now here is a movie that truly agitates me. While my irritation with this movie may be heightened by personal bias due to having actually studied Greek mythology in university, I feel that I cannot overlook the glaring deviations from the source material in this movie. Once again, the inaccuracy in itself is not the real issue, but rather how the filmmakers took fascinating and three-dimensional characters from mythology and completely neutered them so that they would fit into the pre-determined roles that the scriptwriters needed them to match. Especially egregious is the portrayal of Hades, which I'm pretty sure is largely responsible for the North American conceptualization of the character being an analogue for Satan, when he is anything but in the original myths. Aside from one good song (I Won't Say I'm In Love, performed by Susan Egan), Hercules is largely a waste of time and resources that is more a parody of the source material than an adaptation of it.
How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
This last one is more of a victory over Pixar than Disney, but given that Pixar is owned by Disney, I will use it all the same. Ever since starting in 1995 with Toy Story, Pixar has had one of the best reputations in the industry amongst film studios, which wasn't really tarnished until the launch of the Cars franchise. All other competitors in the field of CGI animated children's films consistently came up short in quality to the average Pixar film, that is, until DreamWorks Studios launched How to Train Your Dragon.
The quality of this film needs to be seen to be believed. There is no greater non-Pixar example of how a film can have both eye-pleasing visuals with computer generated effects and an involving, emotionally charged story with a well rounded cast of characters. Hiccup's personal journey as a young Viking who feels that he was born in a society that he is opposed to, a victim of 'wrong planet' syndrome, is frequently expressed by children who cannot fathom their place in the world.
The development of Hiccup's character in both the family drama of trying but being unable to please his father, and the progression of his bonding with the wounded Night Fury known as Toothless provide a heavily layered and intriguing story that is serviced by the fantasy world it inhabits, rather than existing in spite of it. As well, Hiccup's personal journey proves that he was not born on the 'wrong planet', but that instead he has the insight that will change his entire society, setting it on the path to the next stage of its cultural evolution. This empowerment of a child, and the championing of intelligence, learning and problem solving over physical strength, amongst the film's other themes, has helped to make it the pervasive property that it is today.
The 'bonding with a magical animal' Disney movie that it beat out:
Brother Bear (2003)
Commonly regarded as one of the worst films in the Disney Animated Classics line, Brother Bear is the sort of film that would rather talk down to its audience with blatant, didactic moral teachings rather than provide a story driven by interesting characters that would cause viewers to come to those lessons on their own. Brother Bear takes the easy route at any turn, with eye-rolling dialogue and a by-the-numbers story that has no respect for the intelligence of its audience. Definitely one to avoid.
So, there you have it. Do you agree with my choices? Is there a particular non-Disney animated movie that you would prefer be up here? Let me know in the comments section, and thanks for reading.
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