Disney’s Animated Science Fiction Movies Ranked
When we think of the history of Disney animation, we think of fairy tales, princesses, musicals, animals, fantasy, and adventure -- and for the most part, that is accurate. Disney and even Pixar, to some extent, have their lane and usually try to stay within it.
In the 21st century, however, Disney has tried to do some branching out with a smattering of science fiction films. One thing the company always seems to have an existential crisis about is getting boys excited for its animated films, and action and sci-fi are seen as a way to do that (even though boys have been perfectly happy with the other genres as well). Disney and Pixar want to corner that market so badly that they have decided to spin their beloved series "Toy Story" into the realm of science-fiction with "Lightyear," which hits theaters this week.
As science fiction has not been Disney's bread and butter for decades, the results are ... mixed. The company has a far better track record when it looks to the past than when it looks to the future, reinterpreting the stories of old (like Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen" becoming "Frozen") rather than blazing new trails. I am not saying that as a pejorative. What they do well they do very well. With all that being said, let's look into all 14 science-fiction movies made by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar (along with one other odd and forgotten film), and see how they stack up against each other. More importantly, we'll see how many of them are actually any good.
14. Chicken Little
The creative nadir of Walt Disney Animation Studios came in 2005. In the early 2000s, Dreamworks and Fox were trouncing Disney at the box office with massive hits like "Shrek," "Ice Age," and "Shark Tale." What do all those films have in common? Well, they were computer animated and looked to appeal to a snarkier sensibility rather than the earnestness Disney had been know for. Wanting to chase a trend, the company abandoned hand drawn animation and attempted to cash in on that wave. The first player to step up to the bat: "Chicken Little."
This is a joyless film, utterly devoid of anything to recommend. It isn't funny. It isn't thrilling. It isn't emotional. It looks like absolute garbage. Scrolling through the film to get an image for this piece only brought back memories of pain. "Chicken Little" ended up succeeding in trying to accomplish what Dreamworks and Fox were doing, in the sense that those films are grating as well. All Disney had to do was sink down to their level, and frankly, it sunk so low that it ended up deeper in the dreck than anyone could have imagine.
If you are someone smart who has either not seen or completely blocked out "Chicken Little" from your memory, this is an alien invasion film. The sky that is falling in this version of the story are panels of an alien spacecraft falling off and crashing to the earth -- and of course, only this meek, annoying, Zach Braff-voiced bird can save the day. This is a movie that does everything wrong for the wrong reasons.
13. Mars Needs Moms
Robert Zemeckis loves his motion capture, even though all of his mo-cap films look as though every character is played by a cursed hell demon. He was all ready to turn his production company ImageMovers into a hub to make motion capture movies and set up a deal with Disney to do so. That relationship ended almost as quickly as it began thanks to the absolutely abysmal box office bomb that was "Mars Needs Moms."
Zemeckis handed the directorial reins to Simon Wells, someone who had spent a lot of time in animation directing features like "Balto" and "The Prince of Egypt." He'd made a transition to live-action in 2002 with the highly-disliked "The Time Machine" starring Guy Pearce. "Mars Needs Moms" was going to be his big success that was going to send him to the next level, but this story about a young boy whose mother is abducted by aliens could not have faceplanted harder.
"Mars Needs Moms" comes out in 2011. "Avatar" has already happened. This film looks like its motion capture technology even predates "The Polar Express." The main character especially sinks to the bottom of the uncanny valley. But at least a compelling story is there to save it, right? Wrong. This is about as basic of an A to B quest movie as you could possibly imagine, and at 80 minutes (when you discount the credits), there is no room for introspection, character, or anything that makes the stakes feel tangible. It's all incident. Boring, poorly rendered incident. It doesn't make me as angry as "Chicken Little," considering the expectations going into it, but it is almost as worthless.
12. Meet The Robinsons
"Meet the Robinsons" suffers from a lot of the same things that befall "Chicken Little." I mean, the character design of the main character Lewis is even, "What if Chicken Little was a human being?" The animation still suffers from technological limitations that were not troubling Walt Disney Animation Studios' sister company, Pixar. This was released the same year as "Ratatouille" and looks like it was made over a decade earlier. It still isn't all that funny, thrilling, or emotional. Where "Meet the Robinsons" has the edge is that it doesn't try to pretend to be a "cool" movie. It's pretty earnest.
I get the sense that the filmmakers behind "Meet the Robinsons," which was directed by Stephen Anderson (who would go on to direct the wonderful 2011 "Winnie the Pooh"), actually cared about the characters and what they were making. They made a concerted effort to tell this story about technological innovation and time travel as a means to connect better to your family. Of course, even films made with the best of intentions still can turn out to be pretty miserable experiences, and such is the case with "Meet the Robinsons."
No matter how earnest the film wants to be, it can only get by so far on poor animation, a lack of wit, and masking its threadbare emotional core. I know there are some folks around my age who have some nostalgic attachment to "Meet the Robinsons," as it seemed like a Disney animated movie aimed at a slightly older audience. But go back and watch it. It's a really tough sit.
11. Ralph Breaks The Internet
For as franchise-driven moviemaking has become, Walt Disney Animation Studios has produced a surprisingly few amount of sequels. Yes, there have been countless direct-to-video movies and television shows, but the premiere animation studio has only made four sequels over the course its existence dating back to the 1930s. There is a reason for that. They aren't exactly great at making them. With the exception of "The Rescuers Down Under," all three of the others pale in comparison to their predecessors. Such is the case with "Ralph Breaks the Internet."
As Disney's "Tron" did with the computer, the two "Ralph" pictures both visualize the inner workings of video game systems, and as you can tell by the film's title, the sequel takes the titular Ralph (John C. Reilly) and his pal Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) into the Internet. Where the film starts to fall apart is with the very premise itself. The two need to go online in order to purchase a new steering wheel for Vanellope's arcade game before it gets decommissioned, and the way they can pay for it is by having Ralph memes go viral? Like, they are able to trade goods and services in the real world through this?
You had an opportunity with these old school arcade characters to examine the ever-evolving landscape of gaming, nostalgia, and online toxicity, and this is what the filmmakers decided to do. Making matters worse, they have injected a needless amount of highly annoying, self-referential Disney stuff that almost feels like its entire intent is to make people feel bad about liking Disney movies. I can't knock "Ralph Breaks the Internet" visually in any way, as Disney's 3D animation work was excelling by this point, but I can't get behind the film's story or themes.
10. Big Hero 6
This is one I know I will catch some guff for putting this low, as "Big Hero 6" has plenty of fans out there, but this is a film that just does not really work for me. Yes, the cuddly, inflatable robot Baymax is truly delightful, and Scott Adsit's vocal performance for it is spectacular. I would very much like to have my own personal Baymax. Who wouldn't? Like "Meet the Robinsons," I also admire that "Big Hero 6" has an open heart -- but also like "Meet the Robinsons," I find the emotional core of this movie, where Hiro Hamada comes to terms with the death of his older brother, to be pretty standard, uninspired material. It sets you up for a gut punch that doesn't really occur.
Plus, I just have a major issue with the twist of this movie. (Spoilers ahead, for those who haven't seen "Big Hero 6.") I honestly cannot believe that there is a movie out there where the reveal is that the tech billionaire is actually not the true villain of the story, but it is instead a university professor. That plot development checks me out of the film completely every single time I have seen it. In what universe is the billionaire actually the misunderstood one? It doesn't exist. It lets the people who actually take advantage of people in real life off the hook in a major way and villainizes ... a teacher. That's going to be a big "nope" from me on that subject.
9. Atlantis: The Lost Empire
Gary Trousadale and Kirk Wise are a pair of fascinating directors within the Disney landscape. Their first film together, "Beauty and the Beast," becomes the first animated feature to ever be nominated for best picture at the Oscars. They follow that up with often glorious yet tonally disjointed "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," which aimed to push the Disney format about as dark as it could possibly go (which I love it for). They then turn their attention to "Atlantis: The Lost Empire," looking to inject the Disney canon with some Jules Verne-inspired adventure.
This was Walt Disney Animation Studios' first foray into science fiction, and the result is a mixed bag. When it aims to be a straightforward, throwback serial adventure film, "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" is actually a lot of fun and features some pretty wonderful animation, blending both hand-drawn and computer-generated styles. When it tries to be a comedy, a thoughtful sci-fi movie, a romance, or basically anything else outside of that adventure film lane, it is pretty clunky. Clearly, everyone involved was really jazzed about making a movie that fell outside of what the studio usually did, and those elements it whiffs on are the parts that seem mandated to be there in order to fit better within the landscape. In that way, it is similar to "Tarzan," which soars during the kinetic, complicated action scenes and stumbles everywhere else.
"Atlantis" arrived right after the renaissance has ended, and Disney was throwing anything at the wall for boy audiences to see what stuck. It underwhelmed at the box office, and was the first sign that maybe trying to court another audience at the expense of the one you've already built was not a great idea.
8. Treasure Planet
Outside of Alan Menken, John Musker and Ron Clements are, in many ways, the faces of the Disney Renaissance. They are the directors who brought us "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," and "Hercules." But their real passion project that whole time was a sci-fi steampunk retelling of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson novel "Treasure Island," which also served as the basis for Disney's first entirely live-action film. After making the studio a boatload of cash, Musker and Clements were finally allowed to make "Treasure Planet," which almost plays like the flip side to "Atlantis: The Lost Empire." Once again, we have a boy-aimed sci-fi adventure that blends hand drawn and computer animation. I would say it is a small, though significant improvement on the previous film, balancing the adventure material with the traditional Disney tropes more adeptly. It still isn't a great movie by any means, but it's functional.
People had been burned on "Atlantis," though, and were not ready to burned again by another film that looked quite similar. And now we are in a post-"Shrek" world. Animated family movies needed to be a specific thing now, and "Treasure Planet" was not it. It tanked at the box office hard, and I see it as the starting point for Disney to completely rethink the way they should be making movies, including the use of traditional animation. There is a vocal group of people compelled to overly defend this movie, as every mediocre movie of the past now seems to need defending, but really, "Treasure Planet" is fine. It is not bad enough that it should serve as a symbol for the death of 2D animation and not good enough that it needs to be reclaimed as a secret masterpiece.
The opening title cards of "Lightyear" say that the movie you are about to watch was Andy's favorite movie in 1995, hence why he so happy to get a Buzz Lightyear action figure in the first "Toy Story" movie. If that is indeed the case, Andy could not have had a more basic taste in movies when he was a kid. The movie "Lightyear" could be the poster child for the word "competent." This is an incredibly straightforward action film about a crystal MacGuffin, teamwork, and blowing up the big, scary bad guy. It lacks much of the heart and ingenuity that has made Pixar the beloved studio it is today.
But "competent" does have its fair share of positive qualities as well. Pixar continues to grow technologically and display a greater quality of detail in its animation. The action scenes are all well staged, and when they make use of the full IMAX frame, it can be quite dazzling to see. The story may not be inventive or thoughtful, but it gets you from point A to point B with decent momentum. It sets out to be a no frills, meat and potatoes style action film and achieves it. It would be like if Andy was a kid now and his favorite movie was "Black Widow."
However, if this was actually Andy's favorite movie as a kid, he would have 1000% also wanted a Sox toy, because that robot cat is the true star of the picture. And if he didn't want one, his sister Molly definitely would have. What I'm saying is that there is no way that family could go Sox-less, so this being Andy's favorite movie makes no sense.
6. The Incredibles
For a lot of people, "The Incredibles" is their favorite Pixar film. For me, it is not. I find it to be decently fun, but I always ended up wanting something more emotionally satisfying after finishing it. What I cannot say a bad word about is the action set pieces. You see a movie like this and wonder why they would ever make a live-action superhero film. You are not bound by the limitations of a camera, photorealistic visual effects, or the bodies of your actors. The characters can have whatever powers you can think of, and you can render them exactly how you want them to look in your head without the worry that people won't believe what they are seeing on screen. Brad Bird has always thrived as a visual innovator, and "The Incredibles" is no exception. Plus, he has this absolutely killer Michael Giacchino score elevating it all.
I just find the main conflict of the film with sidekick-turned-villain Syndrome to be a little boring. Even when you set aside the Ayn Rand of it all, I find the motivations for why he develops all this technology and becomes a supervillain to be pretty weak. Quite frankly, I find none of the technology he develops as cool or interesting as the suits that superhero fashion designer Edna Mode creates. To me, "The Incredibles" is a style over substance film, but the style is so exciting that it makes up for a lot of those holes.
5. Wreck-It Ralph
The way I feel about "Wreck-It Ralph" basically flips how I feel about "The Incredibles" the other way around. The greatest success of this film lays with the relationship between its two central characters. The budding friendship between Ralph and Vanellope is so well realized and honest. It is things like this that Walt Disney Animation Studios does so well. When they are emotionally open and earnest, you are always bound to connect more to the movie on a personal level than just relying on the zip bang of spectacle. I also enjoy the world building of this power brick essentially acting as Grand Central Station for a bunch of video game arcade consoles.
While I am glad that they prioritize the emotional components of the movie, I still would have liked to have some inventive, fun visual set pieces. I mean, there are car chases through a candy world, and I am left wanting. That shouldn't happen. I find these sections to be functional but unimpressive. I could say the same about the film's comedic sensibilities, which lean a little to heavily on reference-based humor that never particularly works for me. "Wreck-It Ralph" has been a movie that has risen in my estimation every time I have seen it, as I continue to find more resonance in that central friendship, but I never do end up fining it to be funnier. It should be noted that I am also not a big video game guy, so maybe the humor works better for people looking to have the tropes of games commented on. Regardless of the gags, the emotional core could be more rewarding.
4. Incredibles 2
I know this is heresy to a lot of people, but I greatly prefer "Incredibles 2" to its predecessor. I find it does everything I love about the first film just as well (if not better) and also includes an emotional core and villain plot that I can get invested in. For me, Screenslaver is everything I wanted Syndrome to be, in terms of motivation, technology, and master plan. Plus, the character just looks cool. There is a genuine menace and danger present in "Incredibles 2" I find missing in the first one as well. The scene where Screenslaver repeatedly tases Elastigirl, rendering her stretching powers temporarily useless, contains some genuinely upsetting body animation, and I am sure younger viewers would find it even scarier.
As an action film, the computer technology has improved so much in the 14 years separating the two films that now Bird can really let loose. Who out there cannot love Elastigirl's motorcycle that separates in the middle, which allows her to stretch and then launch herself into the air, not to be one of the coolest things ever seen in a superhero movie? As a comedy, it constantly delivers, whether it be Jack-Jack fighting with a raccoon or Mr. Incredible doing a "Mr. Mom" riff. Also, let's not forget one of the funniest gags in the last ten years where Violet shoots water out of her nose out of sheer embarrassment. "Incredibles 2" came so long after the first one that I think people got their expectations completely out of whack that they couldn't appreciate the film they ended up getting. For my money, it is actually the better film.
3. Monsters, Inc.
We take a giant leap in quality here into the top three, which I believe are all five-star, A+ masterpieces. Honestly, you could switch up the order on any of them, and I would not argue about it at all. In fact, ask me tomorrow, and I might have a different order myself. Pete Docter's directorial debut "Monsters, Inc." is the platonic ideal of a Pixar movie: a buddy picture set in a thoroughly realized, unique world that is both hilarious and will make you cry. Sully and Mike, voiced by John Goodman and Billy Crystal respectively, are two of the richest characters in the history of the company, and their relationship with the little girl Boo, who enters the world of the monsters, makes you want to take better care of the people in your own life.
As an exercise in world building, this is a massive triumph. The notion that monsters have developed a technology to use bedroom closet doors as portals into the human world in order to harness their terrified screams for energy could not be a more exciting sci-fi premise. Docter loves creating intricate worlds of systems and rules like this, be it in the mind in "Inside Out" or the afterlife in "Soul," and "Monsters, Inc." is probably the most innovative. He is one of my favorite working filmmakers and has yet to make a film that is not stellar. "Soul" is the only one of his works I would not consider to be a masterpiece, and I would still say that one's pretty great. "Monsters, Inc." was released in 2001, the same year as "Shrek," and how I wish people came out of that year wanting to make more movies like this and not the Dreamworks one.
2. Lilo & Stitch
In 2002, Walt Disney Animation Studios released two films. The one everyone at the company put their chips on was "Treasure Planet." It had the huge budget, technological innovations, and aimed to be the cool, awesome movie for boys. Earlier in the year, however, the released a movie with about half the budget that made over three times as much as "Treasure Planet" at the box office. That film was "Lilo & Stitch," the story about an anarchic blue alien becoming friends with a little girl from Hawai'i.
Obviously, "Lilo & Stitch" is a riff on the "E.T." template, but it does it almost as well as Steven Spielberg's 1982 classic to the point where you are not even about comparisons to that film after only a few minutes. The best way I can describe the feeling of watching this film is tender. Even though there's laser guns and spaceships, this is an incredibly tender picture. Watching Lilo -- this stubborn, sometimes emotionally volatile girl -- break down her barriers to love Stitch and find a further connection with her older sister and guardian Nani just opens your heart so much that Disney is allowed to do anything it wants to it.
I do think Disney took a bit of the wrong lesson from its success, thinking it was all about the craziness of Stitch, but the real reason so many people of all ages could connect to the movie was because of that access to everyone's hearts. Stitch's antics are very funny, but they need to be balanced out with that raw emotion. You need a line like, "But if you want to leave, you can. I'll remember you though. I remember everyone that leaves," to give substance to the wackiness. "Lilo & Stitch" perfectly nails everything it wants to do.
Really, there was only one film that could top a list entitled "Disney's Animated Science Fiction Movies Ranked." I consider "WALL-E" to be the top of not just this list, but of every Pixar film in general. This is the most daring, lyrical piece they have ever created. Not all big swings end up being home runs, but this one hit it into the parking lot. Making a mainstream film aimed at children where the first third basically has no dialogue is, frankly, unheard of in this day and age. By doing that, we get a chance to settle into this apocalyptic world of trash that the titular robot has to contend with on a day-to-day basis, but we also get to see how he approaches everyday with optimism and curiosity, something each and every one of us should do.
The love story between WALL-E and EVE is utterly charming and features a dance in space that will make you tear up just out of the sheer visual beauty of it. The message about taking care of our environment and our fellow human beings remains as vital and poignant as ever. The use of the music of "Hello, Dolly!" alongside a great Thomas Newman score creates the proper bed of emotions to fall onto. Using animation as a medium to show how humanity has transformed over time is rather ingenious. There is not a frame out of place in "WALL-E." I hope director Andrew Stanton knows that he was behind something truly special here and cherishes that fact. I know I will continue to cherish "WALL-E" for decades to come.
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