It may surprise some of you that not only have I given non-Disney movies a chance, but I have also watched some of these films with the same dedication I paid to Aladdin and The Little Mermaid. Giving capitalism a pat on the back, healthy competition creates better products and Walt Disney’s flourishing studio has caused many others to dig deep for worthwhile creations. Today, I want to share a list of non-Disney films that I feel warrant at least one (if not multiple) viewings. Said list is living proof that Disney isn’t the only company with the gift of storytelling.
- Cats Don’t Dance
This Warner Brothers Animation Film from the early 90s features a cast of animals who want to “make it big” in Hollywood. Unfortunately, they are often relegated to demeaning roles by their human counterparts. The optimistic newcomer, a tabby cat named Danny, strolls into town confident that he can break the glass ceiling for himself and his new friends. Along the way, he learns resiliency in spite of the brutally competitive performing arts world. Throw in a ridiculously catchy score by Randy Newman, charming side characters, and choreography by Gene Kelly, and it’s a wonder that this film didn’t gather a larger cult-following. This movie was created for all of those musical theater nerds in your life.
- The Lorax
Truthfully, I ended up seeing this film by default in theaters, but it turned out to be quite the pleasant surprise. Starring Danny DeVito as “The Lorax”, this film embellishes on the beloved Dr. Seuss tale. Specifically, the audience receives more of a backstory for the “Onceler” and his downward spiral while mass-producing his Thneeds. Forwarding to the present day, the movie centers on a new character, Ted, who must defy his community and plant the last remaining Truffula tree seed before it is too late. In traditional Dr. Seuss fashion, the setting is colorful and silly, the characters are expressive, and the animals are unbelievably cute. On top of this, the film features a handful of original songs that stand on their own as solid tunes. Unfortunately, the film falls a bit flat when it comes to its runtime (it may have just a little too much padding.) Despite this, I’d recommend “The Lorax” to anyone who even has a passing interest in the story.
- The Prince of Egypt
In the late 90s, Dreamworks Animation took a risk when producing a musical cartoon version of “The Ten Commandments”. The risk paid off. This film is a masterpiece, and this isn’t only due to the stunning animation. “The Prince of Egypt” is highly respectful to the source material while still managing to appeal to a variety of demographics. In this interpretation, the audience receives particular insight into Moses’ struggle with defying his stepbrother (the Pharaoh), in order to follow God’s will to free the Jewish nation. In addition to a star-studded voice cast, the score by Hans Zimmer and songs by Stephen Schwartz aren’t just good, they are positively haunting. If this film doesn’t strengthen your faith in a power greater than yourself, I don’t know what will.
- Kung-Fu Panda
By all reasonable accounts, this film should’ve been a box office bomb. (I mean c’mon … Jack Black as karate-chopping, noodle-slurping panda??) In reality, this film spawned not only 1, but 2 well-plotted and highly enjoyable sequels. The first installment, follows the first adventure of Po (a rare likeable role for Mr. Black). Po dreams of becoming a kung fu master, but spends more time reaching into refrigerators than hitting the gym. Through a strange series of events, a new evil threatens his home, and a respected elder, Master Oogway, declares that the panda is destined to be their savior. So, Po starts to officially train with a class of experienced fighters who are somewhat… resistant of their classmate and the prophecy. In the end, Po learns the value of embracing his natural gifts, as opposed to conforming to the norm. So, what makes this film so great? The characters are well-developed. The battle sequences are creative. The script is full of inspirational one-liners that should be engraved on coffee mugs. This movie is everything I thought it couldn’t possibly be, and perhaps that this the greatest accomplishment of all.
- Scooby Doo on Zombie Island
No, I am not referring to any of the horrendous live action Scooby Doo movies. Those can burn. I am referring to the animated film that features the characters finally encountering supernatural forces. In this flick, the gang goes their separate ways in adulthood, but reunite later and end up being called on to investigate a pirate ghost who is supposedly haunting a New Orleans bayou. This movie wasn’t only a game changer because the monsters/zombies turn out to be real, but because the plot is genuinely disturbing and (in my opinion) would’ve been a great basis for an actual horror movie. Now that film isn’t perfect. Only one original cast member returned and the overall tone of the story is so eerie, it may be unrecognizable to those who appreciated the campiness of the TV series. All that aside, the voice actors do a fine job, the animation is greatly improved, and the story is fleshed out. This is certainly worth watching for those who like to play with fire, but don’t have the desire to watch a Stephen King creation.
- Despicable Me
This is another film that had a lot of potential to disappoint (even if you completely ignored the minions). Again, I was caught by surprise. The film features a professional super villain, Gru, who has lost his evil mojo, and has to pull off the heist of the century in order to win back the respect of his colleagues. While enacting his plan, he adopts three orphan girls to act as his pawns. Surprisingly, he ends up not only becoming attached to them, but ends up loving them as if he were their father. Again, why would a childless adult watch this flick? The script is family-friendly, but funny. The human characters are extreme, but still lovable. The premise is ridiculous enough to grab your attention, but speaks to the universal fear of never reaching one’s full potential. Clichés aside, it really is a film for all ages.
- Shrek 2
Yes, I am actually recommending a sequel. Most of the Shrek sequels/spinoffs are passable at best and I personally think the first movie is vastly overrated. Despite this, the second movie hits it out of the park (maybe out of the universe). Part 2 of the Shrek series features the ogre and his bride as they visit her parents in their trendy kingdom, “Far Far Away”. (Obviously, his new in-laws are less than approving upon their arrival.) It is also revealed that Princess Fiona’s fairy Godmother is a wicked, manipulative shrew who is all too eager to get Shrek out of the picture… regardless of the method. Every second of this movie is pure entertainment. The story is daring and bold, the soundtrack is perfect, and I find it to be even edgier than the original film. For anyone else who has been turned off by the other Shrek films, strongly consider the second installment.
Anastasia is often confused for a Disney film, and for good reason. This 20th Century Fox movie, directed by Don Bluth, has all of the elements required for an animated musical spectacular. Assuming that the youngest Romanov daughter survived the Russian Revolution, this movie follows the story of Anastasia as she struggles to remember her identity and find any surviving family members. For an animated feature based on a real-life tragedy, the story is adapted with grace. The characters and scenery are drawn beautifully. The heroine is sassy and likeable (voicedby Meg Ryan). Lastly, the songs, written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, ring of Alan Menken-quality and depth. I am not suggesting that the movie is flawless. The drama comes across as very genuine, but may be a little too bleak at times for its target audience. If the darker undertones don’t chase you away, “Anastasia” is a delectable piece.
- How to Train Your Dragon
How can I possibly give this film enough praise? Similar to Dreamwork’s Kung Fu Panda, this movie also features an unlikely hero who must embrace his unorthodox methods to save the day. The main character, Hiccup (voiced by the adorkable Jay Baruchel) lives in a feudal Viking town that must routinely slay and fight off dragons. Unfortunately for Hiccup, he’s small, skinny, and severely lacks battle skills. This causes his father (the embodiment of testosterone) much disdain. When Hiccup finally manages to “down” a dragon, his compassionate nature chooses to spare the beast. He then forms a “master + pet” relationship with the creature, while trying to figure out how he can overcome the prejudices of his community. Overall, the film is just spectacular. The story is paced well, the flying sequences are breathtaking, and John Powell’s score is without compare. Also, the main dragon, Toothless, is animated with enough heart to touch the soul of any pet owner in the audience. This is not one to ignore. (And neither is its sequel…)
- Spirited Away
I know that Disney bought the rights to distribute the English dub of this film (and all Miyazaki movies), so this entry technically shouldn’t count, blah blah blah. Well, I say it does. “Spirited Away” is not a Disney movie. It is the most perfect anime film of all time. When it comes to the plot, think of this movie as “Alice in Wonderland with a point”. A young girl, Chihiro, has to help her parents escape a magical realm that they happen upon. Not only does Chihiro have to navigate a strange world on her own, but she has to tremendously grow as a person in order to rescue her family. Again, my blurb can’t do the movie enough justice. “Spirited Away” features typical realistic Studio Ghibli animation, an extremely inventive setting, and a score that takes background instrumentals to the next level. The film is a must-see for children, as it features a noble, child heroine and frankly, it’s a must-see for the rest of the world. “Spirited Away” reignited my passion for anime as a genre, and I’m sure it could do the same for many others viewers.
All of this being said, I can only hope that this list will encourage someone (hopefully everyone) to seek out any of these movies they haven’t seen. Take it from a Disney enthusiast, these films all give the mouse a run for his money.
Other Films Worth Mentioning: All Other Studio Ghibli Films, The Lego Movie, The Lego Batman Movie, All Dogs Go To Heaven, MegaMind