I was watching a preview release of the Dumbo: Big Top Edition DVD that comes out June 6th (the overall package underwhelms, but more on that later). While marveling at the sheer inventiveness of “Pink Elephants on Parade” I started thinking about what are the best scenes in all of Disney animation. Not just the best movies or best songs (although great songs can and do make for great scenes), but the best individual moments that stand out from the great (and not so great) Disney movies they’re in.
To keep this list under control (whittling it down to only ten seems a little cruel, doesn’t it?), I made a few ground rules: First, only one best scene per movie (otherwise Fantasia would make up five of my top ten). Second, the scenes must be from feature films (way too many shorts to choose from—and I love Goofy’s The Art of Skiing). Third, the scenes must be completely animated, no human interaction (good bye “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and “Jolly Holiday”). Fourth and finally, Disney only, no Pixar (see ya Monsters, Inc. door vault chase).
So, here they are, Disneytim’s Top 10 All-Disney, All-Animated, All-Feature Length Scenes. Let the arguing begin!
10. “Rhapsody in Blue” (Fantasia 2000) – The only new segment of the ill-conceived follow-up to Fantasia that Disney animators got right—and boy did they ever. At once a tribute to composer George Gershwin and cartoonist Al Hirschfeld, “Rhapsody” intertwines the hopes and aspirations of four Depression-era New Yorkers: a restless construction worker dreaming of playing drums in The Cotton Club; a down-on-his-luck mope in need of a job; a little girl, hustled by her governess from piano lesson to music lesson to swimming lesson, who only wants to spend time with her mom and dad; and a carefree husband stifled by his overbearing wife. Stylish, funny, poignant and joyful, “Rhapsody” captures the optimistic spirit of daydreamers everywhere.
9. The Wildebeest Stampede (The Lion King) – Brilliant animation and sound editing create a scene that’s as exhilarating as it is disturbing. Young Simba’s uncle Scar lures him into the gorge where the hyenas start a stampede. As Simba’s father Mufasa struggles to rescue his son from the thundering wildebeests, Scar bides his time. When the moment comes to strike, Scar delivers a Shakespearean coup de gras that will make you gasp (voiced by Jeremy Irons, Scar’s “Long live the King” still chills). Seen mostly from Simba’s point of view, you’re not just looking at the stampede, you’re surrounded by it—and the end game is devastating.
8. “Bella Notte” (Lady and the Tramp) – Who knew a mangy mutt nudging a meatball with his nose could be so romantic? Free-spirit Tramp takes refined Lady out for a night on the town his way. A stop at Tony’s Italian restaurant leads to the most heartwarming spaghetti dinner ever. Tony and his cook Joe serenade the canine couple as they eat and share that now famous strand of spaghetti. The evening ends as Lady and the Tramp take a moonlight stroll in the park surrounded by other loving couples and families. Sigh.
7. Aladdin Meets the Genie of the Lamp (Aladdin) – The greatest entrance ever by a Disney character (“10,000 years will give you such a crick in the neck”). The Disney animators match Robin Williams’s rapid fire mind thought-by-frenetic-thought as he channels Ed Sullivan, Robert DeNiro, William F. Buckley, Jr., and countless other personalities into the magical blue Genie. The musical number “Friend Like Me” must be seen more than once just to catch everything that’s on screen. This scene inspired dozens of pop-culture heavy animated films like Shrek, Madagascar and Chicken Little—and no movie since Aladdin has done it as well.
6. “Under the Sea” (The Little Mermaid) – Sung with tropical glee by Samuel E. Wright, this Menken/Ashman showstopper put Disney animation back on the map in the 1980’s and 90’s. As Sebastian the crab explains to Ariel the joys of ocean life, the screen fills with all manner of sea creatures singing and playing improvised musical instruments. The colors are vivid and the details exquisite down to the tiniest bubble. A joyous tour de force with Disney at the top of its game. “Under the Sea” won the Oscar for Best Original Song of 1989.
5. “Pink Elephants on Parade” (Dumbo) – Dumbo gets a case of the hiccups and takes a drink from a water bucket laced with the circus clowns’ champagne. His buddy Timothy Mouse joins him and thus begins one of the most inventive animation segments ever created by Disney. In drunken revelry, Dumbo and Timothy see hallucinations of the titular elephants—and they’re not just pink. Some are spotted, some are striped. They play their trunks like trumpets. They step on and over each other. They march around the perimeter of the screen. They samba and dance a pas de deux. Fascinating to watch and even a little creepy, with a catchy tune you won’t be able to get out of your head.
4. Ichabod Crane Meets the Headless Horseman (The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad) – Clip. Clop. Clip. Clop. Cautiously, schoolmaster Ichabod Crane makes his way on horseback through the moonlit darkness of Sleepy Hollow. He’s heard the tale of the Headless Horseman, spun by Brom Bones, but it’s just a story, right? No evil apparition with a sword is going to cut off his head . . . . right? When Ichabod, tall, skinny, all arms and legs with a nose like a hawk, finally encounters the Headless Horseman, all terror and menace with a flowing crimson cape and that flaming jack-o-lantern, it’s one of the great chase scenes in movie history—but will we ever know what really happened to “Old Icky”?
3. Jiminy Cricket Wishes on a Star (Pinocchio) – Is there a song in the Disney musical canon that brings as many chills as Cliff Edwards singing “When You Wish Upon a Star”? Heard over the opening credits, it segues into the first scene of an old Pinocchio storybook in spotlight. The spotlight moves up to highlight Jiminy Cricket sitting on a shelf, singing the final strains of the song. He hops down to open the storybook to the image of a starlit village. The camera zooms in and pans through the streets of the village before literally “hopping on over” to Geppetto’s shop. A scene of exquisite detail and depth never before seen in animation thanks to Disney’s revolutionary multiplane camera. And, oh, that song.
2. Beauty and the Beast go Ballroom (Beauty and the Beast) – “When You Wish Upon a Star’s” emotional equivalent in Disney animation’s second golden age. A smitten Belle takes the tentative Beast onto the dance floor for a romantic and charming waltz. The camera sweeps from floor to ceiling and back again (how about that chandelier?) as the mismatched couple glides around the room. Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson had the hit single, but can anyone sing “Beauty and the Beast” like Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts? A serendipitous meeting of animation art, technical prowess and classic storytelling.
1. “Night on Bald Mountain”/”Ave Maria” (Fantasia) – Walt Disney’s greatest animated masterpiece concludes with its greatest scene, a sublime juxtaposition of two entirely different pieces of music, Modest Moussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” and Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” Depicting “a struggle between the profane and the sacred,” the segment begins on Walpurgis Night, the Slavic equivalent to our Halloween. Chernobog, the god of evil and death, rises from the rocks atop Bald Mountain beckoning damned souls to gather and worship him. Vivid image after vivid image ensues: skeletal ghosts and ethereal witches drift from unconsecrated graves; winged harpies dart in and out; enflamed demons dance for Chernabog’s evil pleasure before he casts them into the eternal flames of Hell. Only as church bells toll with the coming of dawn is Chernobog driven back inside his rocky perch. Then, as the gentle strains of “Ave Maria” begin, we see a fog shrouded candlelight procession. Pilgrims are on their way to worship as sunrise through the trees takes on the appearance of a stained glass church window. The spirit of light has triumphed over the forces of evil.
Best. Scene. Ever. Powerful and dramatic with stunning imagery and compelling music, "Night on Bald Mountain"/"Ave Maria" is the most profound piece of animation ever created--Disney's greatest moment.