The Lion King (1994)
This gradually became one of my favorite Disney movies as I got older. I never used to consider it one of the core faves (which include The Little Mermaid, Beauty & the Beast, and Aladdin), but I have a new appreciation for it now. It was one of the few films that did sequels effectively—Simba’s Pride is pretty solid with a couple goosebump-inducing tunes. I’d have to say it has some of the most breath-taking animation of the Disney world, from the dazzling African landscapes to the herds of wild animals. And what a powerful message! I’m 27 years old and I still cannot make it through Mufasa’s death scene without shedding at least one rolling tear. (I mean, come on, can ANYONE watch that scene?) What has propelled my affection for it over the past couple years is my experience seeing the live theater adaptation on Broadway in the summer of 2012. I love stage shows, but this one knocked everything I’ve ever seen (and there have been MANY) straight out of the park. You don’t think they can orchestrate a stampede on a small stage? Oh, but they can. It was phenomenal. And the music was just amplified; I had so many chills for the entire three hours. It was infused with tribal influences and had some truly wonderful voices bringing the words to life. If you ever get the chance, go see it!
Animal movies nearly always make me cry, which is why two of my favorites were already written about in my top tearjerkers. But following close on the heels of Free Willy and Homeward Bound is the tail—er, tale—of the massive St. Bernard that wins over the Newton family and the veterinarian who’s plotting to use him in sadistic experiments. You know, good family fun. I always tear up when Charles takes Beethoven away and all the kids are crying and Emily calls him a dog killer. Because really, if my father ever did something like that, I’d disown him. (But then I cry again when he later comes to the rescue.) This is way up there on the list of disturbing kids’ movies, starting with the woman who brags that you can make any dog mean and is looking for a pit bull at the pet shop, to the entire dog-napping experimentation plotline. But I guess anything is justified as long as it has a happy ending?
Wild America (1997)
Loosely based on a true story, three hunky brothers set out on an epic road trip in the summer of 1967 to capture film footage of America’s most dangerous wildlife in its natural habitat. Starring three of the ’90s hottest heartthrobs, the movie was a straight-up adventure from start to finish, with each animal they encountered presenting new challenges and death-defying feats just to get that perfect shot. The cinematography was beautiful, but the best part was the unexpected comedy. My sister and I still quote this movie mercilessly when the situation calls for it—which is more often than you might think! Watching it now, I can’t help but wonder why anyone would ever want to view wild animals behind bars when they can instead seek out incredible opportunities to witness them where they belong. I’ve had that opportunity only a handful of times, but each one has been life-changing.
Bambi is one of the sweetest Disney movies in the bunch. It’s so simplistic and charming. I love the understated music. My favorite scene is Bambi’s first experience with rain—and thunder—where we see all the little forest animals scurrying to stay dry. For all the technology and CGI we have now, which naturally still yields some incredible storytelling where Disney (and Pixar) are concerned, Bambi proves that classic animation was still the golden age of Disney movies. It was the early 1940s and the best they could do for storm sounds was some clashing cymbals. But it worked. As always, it injected some underlying messages that were both meaningful and resonated, hopefully with most kids but definitely with me, about hunting and the dangers of wildfire. (Just as Dumbo does for circus animals and The Rescuers Down Under does for poaching. Walt was truly brilliant.) How any kid could watch that scene and not be scarred for life is beyond me. (Seriously Walt, what’s up with all these dead parents?) I mean, Mufasa died because his brother was an a–hole, but Bambi’s mom was straight up SHOT. By HUMANS. I think I’ve been anti-hunting ever since.
The Adventures of Milo and Otis (1986)
I’m resisting the urge to write about another Disney movie (like The Fox and the Hound or Lady and the Tramp), because really, all of them are fantastic. So instead, let me explain this oddball movie to you. No, it’s not really a favorite because I would never watch it again today, but I’m fairly certain I wore out the VHS when I was a kid. Thinking about it now, I’m mildly terrified as to how they obtained the footage used and a quick peek at the IMDb trivia all but confirms those fears. If it had been done correctly, it could’ve been a plucky little film about a dog and cat experiencing new things. They used an awfully disturbing narrator and the plot is a mess, but hey, kids will watch anything.