The 10 Greatest Animated Movie Musicals of the Past 30 Years

The 10 Greatest Animated Movie Musicals of the Past 30 Years

Chris Peterson

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I've heard from many a theatre person that one of the big influences on them becoming passionate about musical theatre, was watching animated musicals throughout their youth. It's no secret that given the quality of some of these movies, it's inspired an entire generation of performers.  

So when it comes to animated musicals, does Disney reign supreme? Do comedies or more dramatic musicals work better in animated form? Do they all have to be rated G?

Now to preface this list, there were a couple criteria and some things you need to know. 

1. This list is based off my opinion, so feel free to disagree as much as you want.

2. I consider a musical by its definition, "movie in which singing and dancing play an essential part." So every movie musical on this list has more than one song in its score.

Let's dig into the 10 Greatest Animated Movie Musicals in the past 30 years. Why just 30 years? Since Disney kick started the Renaissance of the animated movie musical in the late 90's, that's a perfect place to start. I promise you that someday I will rank an all-time list. 

Here is what I, along with a lot of other people had to say about them.  

10. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut

It's not as obvious now as it was in 1999, for example, why the film is a musical: because in the wake of the Disney Renaissance, that's what animated movies were. A decade and change of Pixar and DreamWorks have obscured that fact, though the greater idea that American cartoons "ought" to be family pictures (a lazy notion that South Park gleefully expoldes in every frame, though it never feels obliged to call specific attention to it) remains as firmly entrenched now as in the '90s.

It's with that idea in mind that the South Park musical came to be; a travesty of specific moments from Disney's Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, host to what remains the single-best parody of Les Misérables ever conceived, and in all ways a self-delighted mocking of the structural concerns of Broadway musicals in general; a bouncy collection of endlessly hummable show tunes that almost all have the word "f*ck" puckishly jammed in someplace, just to spite the idea that musicals are what you take your kids to see - and incidentally the songs, by Parker and Marc Shaiman, are far better than they had any need to be; possibly the single most subversive fact about South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is that all else being equal, it's one of the best original movie musicals in a generation.

9. The Hunchback of Notre Dame

When I first heard about the project, I wondered if “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” could possibly work as a Disney animated feature--if the fearsome features and fate of its sad hero Quasimodo would hold audiences at arm's length. When I saw the preview trailers for the film, with its songs about “Quasi,” I feared Disney had gone too far in an attempt to popularize and neutralize the material. I was wrong to doubt, and wrong to fear: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is the best Disney animated feature since “Beauty and the Beast”--a whirling, uplifting, thrilling story with a heart-touching message that emerges from the comedy and song.

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, is a high point in the renaissance of Disney animation that began in 1989 with “The Little Mermaid.” It blends Menken's songs, glorious animation, boundless energy and the real substance of the story into a movie of heart andjoy. More than “Aladdin” or “The Lion King,” certainly more than “Pocahontas,” it is as good for its story and message as for its animation.

It reminds us, as all good animation does, that somehow these cartoons of lines and colors and movements can create a kind of life that is more archetypal, more liberating, than images that are weighed down by human bodies and the gravity that traps them. - Roger Ebert

8. Frozen 

There are three things classic Disney animations are supposed to have. One: belting showtunes. Two: a bit of danger and darkness amid all the schmaltz. And three: a conservative message wrapped up in a traditional feelgood happy ending. Loosely inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s story ‘The Snow Queen’, ‘Frozen’ initially promises to deliver on all three. We open with two tiny princesses playing together in their parents’ palace. 

It’s as ‘Frozen’ unfolds that the film kicks up a notch. The standout song, ‘Let It Go’, feels like Disney’s most inspired coming-out anthem yet (‘Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know. Well, now they know’). It’s also now that we meet the irresistible comic relief, Olaf the Snowman (Josh Gad), and encounter the danger essential to a satisfying Disney experience.

So ‘Frozen’ has tunes and darkness. But most satisfying is a formula-defying finale that subverts fairytale status quo. More of this please, Disney. - Catherine Bray

7. The Nightmare Before Christmas 

Danny Elfman is a major presence in "Nightmare Before Christmas," a heavy contributor to its weird delights. He has composed 10 songs and the scary-funny-lyrical underscore, he sings for Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon does Jack's speaking voice) and he also does Barrel, part of a dubbing trio with Catherine O'Hara (also Sally's voice) and Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman.

Elfman has scored Burton's movies since 1985's "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," and this is his showcase, packed with catchy tunes and patter songs that carry the story as much as Caroline ("Edward Scissorshands") Thompson's dialogue.

The film has another director: Henry Selick, a stop-motion whiz known for his work on "Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions" and the Pillsbury Doughboy TV commercials. But it's still clearly Burton's baby: his story, his designs, and the people (like Thompson and Elfman) he usually works with.

Stop-motion puppetry, in which the puppets are shot a few frames at a time, is one of the most difficult of all movie forms. But it's an ideal style for sophisticated children's fantasy. Here, Burton has spectacular resources at his disposal, and his crew responds with staggeringly elaborate results. "Nightmare Before Christmas" is crammed with the daffy, childlike joy and witty effervescence that marked the first, and probably best, picture of Burton's career. - Michael Wilmington

6. Anastasia 

"Anastasia" is pleasing to the eye. Its epic scope is frequently spellbinding, with its rich colors, deep shadings and exquisite details. Early scenes in the Romanov palace in St. Petersburg are a feast of elegant architecture and grand costumes, an enchanted, glittering world of aristocracy.

When the Romanovs, heady with 300 years of rule, are crushed by revolution, the film's depictions of chaos and desperation, in blues and grays, are rendered in bold realism.

The army of artists that created "Anastasia" made realism a priority -- St. Petersburg of 1916 is depicted in sumptuous detail, and Paris of the 1920s looks so remarkably like a real place, even down to its street cobbles and Seine bridges, that it's transporting. But none undermines the film's glow of romance.

In the now-familiar movie musical formula for animated films, "Anastasia" is wired with a lush score, in this case written by veteran David Newman. The pretty theme ballad, "Once Upon a December," is a good candidate for pop standard. The songs were created by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (Broadway's "Ragtime"). - Peter Stack

5. Aladdin 

If they gave out Oscars for purely vocal virtuosity, Williams would have no competition. In a breakneck millisecond he has metamorphosed from Ed Sullivan to Robert De Niro as the deranged Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. This will surely fly over the kids' heads, but Williams' injection of comic genius into the genie will expose happy grown-ups to a new movie syndrome - pop-cultural whiplash.

The set-piece, show-stopping musical number is a new tradition at Disney, and Williams' genie obliges with "Friend like Me" (the words were written by the late and brilliant lyricist Howard Ashman, and they are a fitting valedictory from a man who truly was a friend to children.)

The animators keep up with Williams' dizzying changes of pace and face and the exuberant results are dazzling - right up there with "Under the Sea" in The Little Mermaid and the incomparable "Be Our Guest" in Beauty and the Beast. Forget about the lamp. Aladdin is all anyone could wish for. - Desmond Ryan

4. The Little Mermaid 

 "The Little Mermaid" contains some of the best Disney music since the glory days. My favorite song is a laid-back reggae number named "Under the Sea," sung by Samuel E. Wright in such a splendid blend of animation and music that I recommend it to the cable music channels. The movie was written and directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, who made the entertaining "The Great Mouse Detective" (1986), and the songs are by Alan Menken and the co-producer, Howard Ashman.

Something seems to have broken free inside all of these men, and the animating directors they worked with: Here at last, once again, is the kind of liberating, original, joyful Disney animation that we all remember from "Snow White," "Pinocchio" and the other first-generation classics.

There has been a notion in recent years that animated films are only for kids. But why? The artistry of animation has a clarity and a force that can appeal to everyone, if only it isn't shackled to a dim-witted story.

"The Little Mermaid" has music and laughter and visual delight for everyone. - Roger Ebert 

3. The Prince of Egypt 

Unapologetically non-Disney, this retelling of the story of Moses sets itself far apart from the Mouse House with its opening scene showing the horrors of slavery in ancient Egypt. The opening song, "Deliver Us", sets the tone for what's to come. With Hans Zimmer's thunderous orchastra, some of Stephen Schwartz' best work and the incredible vocal artistry of Ofra Haza, it's one of the powerful opening sequences you'll see in an animated movie. 

The rest of the score is a bit inconsistent, but when it hits("When You Believe" and "Through Heaven's Eyes"), it really hits hard. 

And as long as you can get past the cringe-worthy white-washed voice casting, animated Jeff Goldblum stammering and Sandra Bullock trying to speak Hebrew, you'll really enjoy this film. - Chris Peterson 

2. The Lion King 

The Lion King continues the winning streak in Disney animation begun with The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. It's a movie of exhilarating surprises, not the least of which is its eagerness, revolutionary in the cash-cow business, to break with custom. Nobility rears it head — as it must with Disney — but there's also vulgar, violent life. For every cuddly creature there's an animal who'd like to bite his warm and fuzzy head off. Unlike its predecessors, The Lion King has no human characters, no Alan Mencken score (Elton John does the honors this time) and no familiar fairy tale as a source. If the original script borrows from anything, it's Hamlet.

Simba, voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas as a cub and Matthew Broderick as a grown-up, is the lion of the melancholy mane. He thinks he's at fault in the death of his dad, King Mufasa (James Earl Jones), until the real culprit, Mufasa's brother, Scar (Jeremy Irons), forces him into action. Forget any lust between Scar and Simba's mom, Sarabi (Madge Sinclair). But Simba and his lioness Ophelia, Nala (Moira Kelly), do fool around in the fauna to a lush ballad, "Can You Feel the Love Tonight."

Except for a few indigestible Tim Rice lyrics about the "circle of life," this Lion is more snappy than sappy. It's a hugely entertaining blend of music, fun and eye-popping thrills, though it doesn't lack for heart. The father-son relationship is movingly rendered. And John's songs, enhanced with African choral arrangements by Hans Zimmer, are a touch of terrific, especially "Hakuna Matata" (it's Swahili for no worries), sung by Nathan Lane as a sly meerkat and Ernie Sabella as a flatulent wart hog, and "Be Prepared," gleefully screeched by the unlikely likes of Irons with Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin as part of Scar's hyena posse. - Peter Travers 

1. Beauty & the Beast 

I'm always a bit surprised when this isn't regarded as a unanimous selection by most musical fans. While I agree that The Little Mermaid kicked off the Disney animated musical renaissance of the early 1990's, Beauty & the Beast perfected it. 

Beyond that it was simply just a great movie, it follows the musical theatre formula to a tee which is why it was so easy to adapt for the Broadway stage and has become a local and educational theatre staple for years now. 

It also features a flawless score, far and away the best overall work Menken & Ashman ever composed. Its songs are the standard for every type needed in an animated movie, from a strong opening number to the perfect villain song to the most perfect love song ever in an animated movie. The ballroom dance scene is still one of the most iconic moments in modern cinema. 

While Disney has tried to match the quality of Beauty & the Beast, let's be honest, they haven't come close.  - Chris Peterson

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