30. The Jungle Book: The last shot
Mowgli’s journey in The Jungle Book has a definitive end point: he’s to be brought back to the man-village because it’s not safe for a human in the jungle. (Of course, the only reason why it’s really unsafe for Mowgli within the confines of the film is that the bloodthirsty tiger Shere Khan wants to eat him, and once that bad guy is defeated, you’d think that it’d be all clear for Mowgli again. But I digress.) Once Baloo the bear and Bagheera the jaguar have done their duty and deposited Mowgli to the man-village, a task made easier once Mowgli meets a girl and is impossibly attracted to her, they head off into the sunset, singing “The Bare Necessities” once more. The image of heroes heading off into the horizon is one of the most familiar in all of Western literature, and it’s rendered to gorgeous effect as the camera pulls back, with the Xerographic technology allowing Baloo and Bagheera to grow smaller in the image with the Indian sunset and jungle engulfing them. It’s a beautiful end to a beautiful-looking movie.
29. Cinderella: A private dance
Cinderella has a rough go of things for a long time in the 1950 adaptation of the same name. So once her fairy godmother has turned her spirits and her fortunes around, if only for one night, it makes perfect sense that the accompanying sequence would look the part. Cinderella’s time at the royal ball climaxes when Prince Charming approaches her and asks to dance. The ensuing song, “So This Is Love”, is one of the most underrated in Disney’s discography and is accompanied by this lovely shot, as Cinderella and Prince Charming are able to find a private part of the castle, dancing their way into each other’s hearts. The lyrics do enough to make sure we know these two are fated for each other, but the animation swoons just as much.
28. Moana: The Kaka Mora
In 2015, George Miller unleashed Mad Max: Fury Road upon the world, with its jaw-dropping action sequences, visceral car chases, and impressive costumes, makeup, and production design. It’s only been a few years, but the film’s influence is easily spotted, even in the films of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Take this shot from Moana, the 2016 story about the young would-be leader of an island community who has to team up with a demigod to save her people. At one point, Moana and Maui run afoul of the Kaka Mora, a coconut-y group of tiny little fellows who very badly want the Heart of Te’Fiti, which Maui has and Moana needs. They’re on the run from the combined Kaka Mora, in a chase that feels like a watery and family-friendly take on the first-act chase scene in Fury Road. It’s not quite as intense, but still a mix of humor and palpable tension.
27. Frozen II: Elsa jumping through the glacier
The most recent Walt Disney Animation Studios title is their most financially successful, Frozen II. Though the story of the sequel has its ups and downs, the film is visually one of the most striking in the studio’s history. Where the 2013 film Frozen felt a bit hemmed in by a color palette inspired by ice and snow — so, you know, white, gray, and silver — the 2019 sequel is more open and focused on forest-derived colors. In one of the key moments, ironically, the colors aren’t quite as on display as Queen Elsa of Arendelle goes on a journey of the soul and sings “Show Yourself”. In doing so, she discovers a long-thought-hidden glacial island and explores its inner workings. This shot, as Elsa hops from one icicle to another in profile, is striking and epic in its design. Elsa’s discovery is maybe not quite up to snuff with the visuals, yet they paint an unforgettable picture.
26. The Little Mermaid: Something big starting right now
Ariel, the eponymous sea creature of this 1989 classic, is a romantic at heart. She loves the human world because of how forbidden and unknowable it is; that makes her all the more willing to fall head over fin for the handsome Prince Eric. The morning after a fateful storm, in which she rescues him from being killed, Ariel is as able to sense the importance of their encounter as anyone in the audience is. As Ariel, gifted with Jodi Benson’s wonderful singing voice, delivers a brief reprise of “Part of Your World”, with waves cresting behind her, it’s hard not to get chills. Yes, the song is incredible, but the animation of this highly charged emotional moment amplifies the excitement Ariel is feeling.
25. The Lion King: Simba takes his place on Pride Rock
As was the case in Bambi, The Lion King tracks the progression of a young animal from its birth all the way until it becomes the leader of its natural domain. The conclusion of the 1994 smash hit, before we get a brief repeat of the “Circle of Life” sequence, depicts Simba literally taking his place atop Pride Rock in front of the assembled throng of animals, all willing to bow a knee and swear fealty to him. (It’s more than a little weird that the climax of this movie is lots of animals bowing to our hero, but let’s leave that for now.) The slow-motion animation of Simba, in the middle of a torrential downpour, stepping up to Pride Rock is the stuff that the word “epic” is made for. Here, the pomp and bombast of The Lion King is matched by chill-inducing animation.
24. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The opening shot
Sometimes, the best shots are the simplest. One of the most important technological breakthroughs in the history of the Walt Disney Company is the multiplane camera, which was invented so hand-drawn animation could communicate depth the same way that live-action cameras could. Instead of animators having to feverishly keep up with moving characters, they could create multiple animation cels, place them on top of each other, and have a specialized camera manipulated by hand crank pan and move through a given shot. Thus, we have the opening shot of Snow White, which seems pretty simple: a camera zooms through a forest to alight upon the towers of a castle. That’s all that occurs here, but the steps forward in technology are what make the shot both so important and so remarkable to watch even now.
23. Fantasia: The conclusion
The final two segments of Fantasia tie together quite nicely. “Night on Bald Mountain” transitions with no hesitation into “Ave Maria” as the demons of the night are fought back by the heavenly choir that leads the film to its conclusion. “Ave Maria” is a deceptively simple segment, as we see a seemingly never-ending line of hooded monks walking plaintively and calmly in a lengthy closing shot, of a dark forest making way to depict a beautiful, pastoral forest at peace. The entirety of “Ave Maria” appears to be building to this last image, an unknowable destination whose arrival is one of satisfaction and triumph. It’s a daring closer, in part because there’s no wrap-up from the film’s emcee, no title cards, and no end credits. It’s both abrupt and gorgeous.
22. Sleeping Beauty: Demons dancing around
Before Maleficent unleashes “all the powers of Hell” upon Prince Philip, we get an idea of exactly how hellish her lifestyle is. The three good fairies in the story, Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather, head to Maleficent’s castle to free the handsome prince. Once they arrive, however, they peer in to see what Maleficent and her minions are up to. In doing so, they see the demons in this shot, dancing around a fire as if they’re demons straight from the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in Fantasia. It’s not that the animators needed to make Maleficent more terrifying, but this demonic roundelay is plenty of proof that she’s someone not to be trifled with.
21. Zootopia: The tropical paradise
Zootopia is one of the most intricately detailed films Disney Animation has ever made. It’s also one of their most tightly written films, establishing a whole world within the confines of the eponymous metropolis, comprised of 12 different ecosystems that different animals call home. Our heroine is Judy Hopps, who travels to Zootopia after graduating from the police academy. On her journey into the city, she’s blasting the Gazelle song “Try Everything” (performed by Shakira), and looking around in awe at the natural beauty of Zootopia. This shot is just one of many that’s rich with tiny visual touches that help build out a world as believable as anything the animators have ever designed. This thing looks better than the real ecosystem being referenced.