Photo: Walt Disney Animation
The question here is which is the best Disney movie? If you were like me growing up, you had to see a Disney movie the second it came out. Well, if you’re like me now, you have to see a Disney movie the second it comes out, only now, you do so wearing Mickey Ears and a Goofy shirt to embarrass your teenage sister. We are currently living in a great time for Disney movies.
Disney movies are broken up by Disney historians (people who have the best job in the world) into 4 different major eras of filmmaking: The Golden Age (Snow White (1937) to The Aristocats (1970)), the Dark Age (Robin hood (1973) to The Great Mouse Detective (1986)), the Renaissance (The Little Mermaid (1989) to Tarzan (1999)), and finally the Modern Age (also known as the Second Renaissance). The Modern Age of Disney is defined differently by different historians but I consider it to have started with The Princess and the Frog (2009) and it continues on today. It is my personal favorite era of Disney movies.
Every Disney era has its tropes and traits that define it. Normally, in order to be a Disney princess, you need to meet a few qualifications. You need to wish upon stars, you need to be sweet and, in most cases, naïve, and you need to be able to hit a high F (I’m still working on my article about Disney’s discrimination against altos.) The Modern Age flips all these tropes on their head and instead introduces us to princesses with diverse backgrounds who are all bad-asses in their own unique ways. The Modern Age is also defined by sensitivity to the cultures the movies present, power ballads (usually sung by the female lead), and frowning upon the more traditional Disney romances we saw in eras past.
But the question remains, which Modern Age movie reigns supreme? To answer this question, I will be looking at the four fairytale-based Disney movies that have come out since 2009: The Princess and the Frog (2009), Tangled (2010), Frozen (2013) and Moana (2016). I will be avoiding Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars and other Disney properties because then this article would be the length of a novel. I will also not be including shorts or sequels for simplification purposes.
There will be 4 grading criteria I will examine these movies through the lens of:
1. Music | 2. Visual aesthetics | 3. Is this princess someone little girls should look up to? | 4. Are the animals in the movie someone my pet should look up to how awesome are the animal side-kicks? Remember, this judgment is my personal opinion. There’s no need to get too worked up about it. This is just from the perspective of one Disney fan.
Rundown of the competing movies for the ‘Best Disney Movie’ trophy
- Princess and the Frog is loosely based on the classic fairytale of the same name. It takes place in 1920s New Orleans and is about a young black woman who dreams of owning her own restaurant. Her plans are derailed when she kisses a frog and turns into one and must go on a journey to become human again.
Notable features: Disney’s first black princess, first definitively American set movie, final Disney movie with 2D animation
- Tangled is loosely based on the fairytale Rapunzel. Its setting is undefined. It is about a young woman who is freed from her imprisonment in a tower by an outlaw named Flynn Rider and goes on a journey to see the floating lanterns that appear on her birthday every year.
Notable features- spent 14 years in development, first non-Pixar Disney movie with 3D animation.
- Frozen is VERY loosely based on the fairytale The Snow Queen. It takes place in the fictional land of Arendale presumably in the Nordic region. It is about a newly coronated queen who desperately tries to hide her ice powers and isolates herself from the kingdom. Her younger sister tries to bring her back.
Notable features- Frozen and its sequel are some of the highest-grossing animated films of all time. Oscar wins- Best animated feature, best song (“Let it Go”)
- Moana is an original story. It takes place in Polynesia. It follows the story of the daughter of a tribal chief who goes on an adventure to save her people.
Notable features- first Polynesian princess. Oscar wins: Best animated feature
Video Version of this Article
Round 1- Music- which song is the most epic of the modern Disney movies? Best Disney Movie category
I know I need to tread lightly when I say “the best Disney music.” Disney is a powerhouse when it comes to producing great music. Disney music has taken home the Oscar for best song 14 times. But I’d argue that the music in the Modern Age includes some of the best Disney songs to date. I know the Renaissance had some incredibly beautiful music (“Can You Feel the Love”, “A Whole New World”, “Beauty and the Beast” etc).
But the modern age was defined by a different type of music. For brevity’s sake, I will only be looking at the most memorable song in each movie which is all coincidentally sang by the princesses (okay, one queen and one daughter of a tribal leader are in the mix) at the moment she and the audience sees her unfulfilled potential. Huh, there might be a trend in these movies. The songs I will be considering are Almost There in Princess and the Frog, When Will My Life Begin in Tangled, Let It Go in Frozen, How Far I’ll Go in Moana.
Almost There is notably the one jazz song on the list probably because it’s sung in the height of the jazz age at its epicenter. It’s a very dance-worthy song if you’re into the Charleston and all those fun 1920’s dance moves which obviously everyone breaks out in the clubs. But it doesn’t fit with our times. Though the message of self-empowerment and hard work is timeless, kids in the theater, unfortunately, won’t connect with jazz as much as they would with some of the other songs on the list.
When Will My Life Begin is just an all-around fun song. I’ve been known to belt it out in the shower. It’s definitely more in touch with modern times but it’s probably the least memorable of the memorable songs on the list. How Far I’ll Go is a fantastic ballad and another contender for my favorite Disney sing in the shower song. But it’s been called a rip off of our #1 song. Yes, Let It Go is overplayed, but remember that first time you heard it in a theater. I have friends who said at that moment they heard it for the first time, they immediately knew how special it was. Its lyrics are poetic. Its music is rousing.
Round 1 result: Frozen wins in the song category
Round 2- Girl Power: Should little girls look up to the female protagonist? Which is the best Disney movie for that?
Disney feminism started in the Renaissance with Mulan and Beauty and the Beast. But it was truly solidified in the Modern Age. Princesses in the modern age are strong, funny, and can do things for themselves. And as opposed to Mulan and Belle, they are all self-motivated. Mulan only joined the army because her father was sick and Belle only went to Beast’s castle to save her dad as well. They just stumbled upon their dreams along the way. In contrast, Tiana went on her adventure to fulfill her dream of owning a restaurant, Rapunzel left her tower to fulfill her dream of seeing the lanterns on her birthday, and Moana set sail to fulfill her dream of adventure.
The difference here is that for some reason, it wasn’t okay in the past for Disney girls to have their own dreams. Instead, their dreams were determined after they committed selfless acts or it’s just to find and in Princess Jasmine’s case, have the ability to stay with, the right man. Like all the best companies, Disney evolved with the times and now it understands that girls have dreams of their own.
Frozen is very special in its own way because it’s the first Disney movie in which two women get along and work together to accomplish a goal. Think back, can you name another Disney movie with two human woman friends who love each other throughout the movie? The only other movie this is seen in is The Princess and The Frog which is going to win here because Tiana is self-motivated does everything on her own and has a positive relationship with her best friend Charlotte.
The Princess and the Frog checks off all the feminist boxes. Plus, magic only serves as a setback to her achieving her goal. Other Disney movies have insisted that magic will save the day. Moana wouldn’t have gone on her adventure if she didn’t have water power supporting her. And in Tangled, Rapunzel wouldn’t have had the courage to leave her tower without Flynn Rider. Ultimately, Disney’s first Modern Age princess, Tiana, is clearly the strongest role model for little girls.
Round 2 result: The Princess and the Frog wins in the positively inspiring female protagonist
Round 3: Visual Aesthetics: which modern Disney movie blows the audience away visually
One thing that sets the Modern Age apart is the diversity of settings. Most Disney movies of yesteryear take place in a forest or jungle or some far off kingdom. This leads to a lot of movies that look similar. The Modern Age movies take place in a variety of different settings which lead to a more diverse aesthetic. Also, all modern Age movies since Tangled have used 3D animation. This leads to a more bubbly and modern aesthetic. The one Modern Age movie that didn’t have this was The Princess and the Frog. Though it doesn’t have the realism granted to 3D animated movies, The Princess and the Frog has some utterly beautiful frames. Just look at the animation in the songs Gonna Take You There and Dig a Little Deeper. The Princess and the Frog is up there with Mulan and Atlantis in terms of stunning visual effects.
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But is it as good as the other modern age movies? Tangled has an aesthetic that screams adventure which is very fitting for its plot. But the setting of Tangled is reminiscent of the aforementioned Disney movies which is a bit tired at this point even if 3D animated. Frozen has an epic appearance fitting of an epic tale. The wintry setting gives way to some amazing visuals such as in Let it Go. And Moana has beautiful aquatic imagery. It doesn’t sound like much but the water effects in Moana were revolutionary. Remember how it blew your mind when baby Moana stepped into the fold the water had created for her to retrieve a seashell. Absolutely beautiful. It’s really a toss of the coin on this one that depends on your preference in aesthetics.
Round 3 result: 3-way tie between The Princess and the Frog, Frozen, and Moana for most beautiful visuals
Round 4: Animal Sidekicks: whose pet makes the best adventure companion
Animal sidekicks are the hallmark of any great Disney movie. Where would Ariel be without Flounder? And Cinderella would be far worse without the adorable Jack and Gus. Tiana has the firefly Ray and the trumpet playing crocodile Louis, Rapunzel has her chameleon Pascal, Anna and Elsa have the snowman Olaf and Kristoff has the Reindeer Sven, and Moana has (sigh) the rooster Hey-Hey.
I’m just gonna kick Hey-Hey off immediately. He’s annoying, he doesn’t seem to be there for any discernable reason, and he’s really the worst part of the whole movie. Moana’s pig Pua is far cuter than Hey-Hey and don’t even get me started on how much better a sidekick he would have been. But alas, Pua was barely in the movie, and Hey-Hey took the spotlight. Now that we’ve got my unbridled rage at an animated rooster out of the way, let’s talk about the good animal sidekicks.
Just the words “a trumpet-playing crocodile” should bring a smile to your face unless you are devoid of a soul (in which case, you probably think Hey-Hey deserves to win.) And Louis’ personality makes him even better. He’s adorably naïve and he has some of the funniest dialogue in the whole movie. He’s balanced out by Ray who is a wise firefly who is in love with a star which he affectionately named Evangeline. His storyline leading up to his eventual union with Evangeline is one of the sweetest in any Disney movie.
Pascal the chameleon is just a living ball of sass. He is sassy despite not having any dialogue and at times more clever than his human counterparts. He provides some great physical comedy and is drop-dead adorable. Olaf is naïve and adorable. He’s obsessed with the idea of summer and of course, warm hugs. Sven is another nondialogue character who is incredibly loyal and who has stuck with Kristoff since Kristoff was a kid and Sven was a mooseling. At least that’s how I assume one says baby moose.
All of these characters are fantastic and lovable and twice the animals Hey-Hey will ever be. Ultimately, animal sidekicks are there for comic relief. I honestly think Louie has the biggest laughs of all these not-so furry friends. Also, Ray has the most unique and nuanced personality and backstory of all of them. So, I have to give this one to The Princess and the Frog.
Round 4 result: The Princess and the Frog for the best sidekick
And the ultimate winner with 3 out of 4 wins is:
The Princess and the Frog
By Carrie Fishbane
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Carrie Fishbane is obsessed with all things comedy and loves to reflect on the impact of comedy on the world. Having spent thousands of hours studying literature, she also writes about the political impact of entertainment and the power movies and TV have to create social change. Hollywood Insider promotes ethics and substance in entertainment, which is exactly in line with Carrie’s perspective. Carrie’s favorite movies include Jojo Rabbit, Deadpool, and Inception and her favorite shows are Rick and Morty, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and The Office.