Tropes are an interesting thing. In some cases, the revelation of a trope’s existence is all that’s required to destroy its efficacy—if people become aware of that unit of storytelling (and that’s what a trope is) it sometimes graduates immediately into the realm of ascended trope, which is cliche. And often, that’s all it takes for the cliche to fade away.
In other cases, though, even widespread understanding or disdain for a trope or cliche seems to have absolutely no effect on its usage or ubiquity—it’s simply immune. Bulletproof. If anything, it gains strength.
That’s the “dance party ending,” as far as animated feature films are concerned.
I don’t need to go into great depth explaining what the dance party ending is, for exactly the reason invoked above—they’re literally everywhere, and they’ve been particularly universal since the game-changer that was the first Shrek in 2001, which was copied incessantly by the entire industry in the years that followed. They’ve become a well-understood phenomenon, and there have been excellent pieces written on why the basic concept/execution is so inherently irritating, even to viewers who otherwise enjoy animated musical numbers. These endings simply push the buttons of the more savvy film fans in an audience with the inherent cynicism they represent—treacly pop songs (rather than original music, in most cases) slathered in fourth wall-breaking mirth-making. Hey, is that the villain dancing with the heroes? Isn’t it kooky? Wheeee!
So if it’s safe to say we know what they are, there’s only one question left to answer: Which of these terrible scenes is worst? I mean sure, in doing so we’ll also determine which of the scenes is best, technically, but it’s the WORST here that is so much more interesting. And given that almost all of them are terrible, it’s also a hell of a challenge to put together.
In doing my due diligence, I’ve tracked down no fewer than 30 of these endings that have been part of major, theatrically released animated features in the last 20 years. I’m sure there are even more that I’m missing, and I can’t even imagine how many terrible ones there are in the land of cheapo direct-to-DVD/VOD, but for our purposes I’m keeping this to theatrical features from real studios. Some are terrible for their laziness; some for their opulence; many for their incredibly cynical or contrived attitudes. But which is the worst of the worst?
Let’s get into it, starting with the best first, and then descending into the worst of the worst.
30. Rio (2011)
Good original songs make all the difference when it comes to the dance party ending, and although this one takes place in the air (they’re all birds, after all), it still qualifies. “Real in Rio” is a toe-tapper, and so much more pleasant to listen to than a forced pop standard from this summer’s radio airplay. The animation is beautiful, the characters all get their own little moments to shine, and it’s in and out before it ever has a chance to get schmaltzy. As far as dance party endings go, it’s easily top of the class.
29. Toy Story 2 (1999)
Pixar is one of the few major animated feature producers who haven’t been enamored with the dance party ending—which is just one reason among many why their production has often been deemed next-level, at least until the last few years. They only make a couple of appearances on this list, and they’re both tame and inoffensive. Toy Story 2 predates Shrek, which means that a lot of the dance party ending tropes haven’t quite been codified yet. This ending, with squeaky toy penguin Wheezy singing the series theme “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” actually feels earned, considering that it pays off one of the major themes of the film—the toys’ fear of their own mortality/being “broken,” offering a hopeful affirmation that it’s possible to come back from the abyss and find new purpose. That, and it’s short.
28. The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Yes, even Wes Anderson once gave us a dance party ending; can you believe it? And yes, it’s more or less symmetrical. This bit is simply a small celebration at the end of Fantastic Mr. Fox, as the gang revels in their new safety and food source. The choice of song is The Bobby Fuller Four’s “Let Her Dance,” which is the kind of tasteful departure from modern pop music you’d likely expect from Anderson. It’s short and sweet, and there’s really nothing bad you can say about it. You have to give this kind of ending credit for at least serving as a comment on the director’s taste, rather than a way to shoehorn in a promotional music tie-in with a modern band.
27. The Book of Life (2014)
The rare occasion of a non-original song that works pretty well for the dance party ending, The Book of Life ends with a sweet but not overly saccharine duet between its two romantic leads, set to the tune of then-indie folk pop couple Us the Duo. This one is the first on this list that could be considered a good example of the “typical” dance party ending, which involves pretty much the entire cast each taking turns and wrapping everything up in a neat little package, but it simply doesn’t come off half as labored as almost all the others.
26. Puss in Boots (2011)
It’s funny to consider that although the first Shrek film codified many of the traits of the dance party ending, it was easily surpassed in execution by its own spin-off, Puss in Boots. Like all of the best entries on this list it features original music and eye-popping animation. It’s also pretty funny, playing off both the character portrayed by Antonio Banderas and the cat meme obsession of the internet itself. The bit with the cats rhythmically chasing spots of light reflecting off the disco ball is an inspired combination of dance and cat joke.
25. Toy Story 3 (2010)
This one is a little cheesy, but it’s also realistically modest, in the same vein as Toy Story 2 was. It’s not the all-out dance party spectacular that you see in most of the Shrek-style Dreamworks films; it’s more of a one-on-one between Buzz Lightyear and Jessie the cowgirl. Using “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” yields somewhat diminishing returns at this point, as you would expect in a second sequel, but I can give credit for the way it plays off Buzz’s Hispanic alter ego in the film by being performed in Spanish. It’s a little obvious, but it’s still sincere enough when all is said and done to not raise my blood pressure.
24. Despicable Me (2010)
I haven’t seen Despicable Me 3, considering that it’s only been in theaters for about a week making insane cash, but after the first and second installments of this prodigiously successful Universal series, it’s probably safe to say that it also features a dance party ending. The first and best entry is a little bit literal, but “literal” is better in dance party endings than the alternative. Supervillain Gru is roped into dancing in a ballet recital with his trio of little adoptee girls, to the tune of the Bee Gee’s “You Should Be Dancing,” which isn’t a bad choice. It at least is consistent to the character—Gru tries to avoid being made to go up and dance, but then once forced into it commits a little too hard. His manic dancing actually reminds me humorously of David Brent’s extremely uncomfortable dancing on the British version of The Office, which has “You Should Be Dancing” earlier in the same scene. Makes you wonder …
23. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted (2013)
As much as I hate the idea of offering some kind of faint praise to the third film in the Madagascar series, as well as the idea of a dance party ending that is set to Katy Perry’s “Firework,” I simply can’t ignore how visually spectacular this one is. Less a “dance party” and more a triumphantly choreographed circus performance, it’s a phantasmagorial display of color and motion that is beautiful to behold. It’s almost more pleasant to watch with the sound off, but it earns a decent place on this list for just being so visually dazzling.
22. Zootopia (2016)
A lot of dance party endings are integrated with the end credits, but Zootopia pulls it off a bit more stylishly than some of the others. The laziest of this substyle literally just have the credits scrolling past on a black screen while the characters dance and cavort—Zootopia at least sets the proceedings at a concert given by Gazelle, who is of course voiced by Shakira, who performs the original song “Try Everything.” It’s pretty standard fare, but the song isn’t bad and it’s more colorful and visually engaging than most, which is a plus in much the same way as it was for Madagascar 3. That’s pretty much the most positive thing I can say for it, as we’re now reaching the portion of this ranking where the quality level begins to deteriorate rapidly.
21. Hotel Transylvania (2012)
Say what you will of this patently stupid Adam Sandler vehicle, but at least the film’s writers (Sandler included) chipped in on the closing dance party ending song rather than simply poaching one off the radio waves. It’s not nearly as sweetly sincere as something like the song from Rio, but the lyrics are deft and fast-moving. Dracula’s rap solo, ably performed by Sandler, is probably the highlight. The sequel doesn’t fare nearly as well, as you’ll see soon enough. This one is typical, but it could certainly be worse.
20. Robots (2005)
This Blue Sky Studios feature didn’t make nearly the splash of Ice Age or Rio, but it’s an unassuming, generally entertaining feature for kids and adults, and its dance party ending is much the same. I give them points for using James Brown’s “Get Up Offa That Thing,” as it’s simply not the kind of pop standard you typically associate with the trope. Everything else is more or less standard—all the characters dance; there are individual moments paying off the little quirks of the characters established throughout, and we hit the credits. Nothing to see here.
19. Shrek (2001)
Shrek wasn’t the first animated feature to end with what we would recognize as a “dance party ending”—go as far back as Pinocchio and there are at least elements of it—but it was the film that crystallized the format in a way that has remained almost unchanged at its heart for 16 years now. Is that not hilarious to consider now? Arguably the most influential and oft-copied musical segment in an animated film in the last two decades is Eddie Murphy singing a Smashmouth cover of a Neil Diamond song. Run that through your mind. If this dance party ending came out today, you’d call it “standard,” but as the trope generator it at least should get some kind of credit for being quasi-fresh at the time. With that said, the choice of song, which became a theme for the entire Shrek series, will always make it feel incredibly dated on any re-watch. Still, it beats out the dance party endings in the more calculated, soulless sequels, Puss in Boots excluded.
18. Megamind (2010)
This dance party ending plays like a focus group got together and simply slapped the elements together that were calculated to be the most blandly acceptable. License an expensive Michael Jackson song with a title that is guilelessly on the nose? Check. Revisit every character in various locations, all of whom are a-movin’ and a-groovin’? Check. Completely drop any semblance of comedy or characterization for a saccharine ending? Check. It’s just a minute of pointless fluff at the end of an otherwise fine kids movie.
17. Shrek Forever After (2010)
Okay, now we’re really getting into the dreck portion of the list. When simply doing a reprise of “I’m a Believer” is actually better than the second and third entries in this series, you know that things have officially bottomed out in Shrekland. There’s literally nothing else to say about this one—it’s simply a less inspired rework of the first film’s dance party ending, albeit with animation that has improved considerably over a nine-year span.
16. Despicable Me 2 (2013)
The first Despicable Me was something of a surprise smash hit, but its biggest contribution from a marketing standpoint was that it gave birth to the Minions, rather than its ostensible protagonist Gru. You can see this immediately by the time the sequel rolls around—we’re still a couple of years before the Minions spin-off film, but they’ve already come to completely dominate the series, and the dance party ending reflects that with a faux-dramatic performance of “I Swear”—the All-4-One version. But wait, we’re not done! We then immediately segue into the shitty wedding staple that will never, ever die, “YMCA.” It’s two minion-driven dance parties for the cost of one; and what a painful bargain it is.
15. Madagascar (2005)
I suppose that on some level we should give credit to the creators of Madagascar for dredging up a mostly forgotten 1994 dance track by Reel 2 Real when they decided to put “I Like to Move It” in this series, but the song is simultaneously so repetitive and irritating that it precludes any other judgement one might render. It’s as if the song was purposely conceived to worm its way into the ear of a 7-year-old, to be repeated back for hours at a time until you want to drill a hole in your head to escape from the encroaching insanity it represents.
14. Shrek The Third (2007)
This is the point in the Shrek series where the dance party endings just stopped giving a shit and got lazy. They were by this point required by the series’ own conventions, but it seems like none of the animators wanted to take on the extra work involved in a fully animated scene, so instead we just get Donkey, Puss in Boots and Shrek’s ogre progeny dancing over the black-backgrounded credits, to the tune of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falletin Me Be Mice Elf Again).” This is something you’re going to see a lot more in the “top” 10—lazy dance party endings that just feature the characters of various films dancing in a black void while the credits scroll past. The sin here is simple laziness.
13. Trolls (2016)
It’s not often that a dance party ending feels like the reason for the entire film to exist in the first place, but that’s basically the case with Trolls. It features the song “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” which was written by cast member Justin Timberlake for the movie, so in that sense you’re literally spending the entire feature film just building to the dance party ending that is the justification for why you’re sitting in the theater in the first place. It’s a big load of saccharine goo—everyone can be happy if they just give it a try! Well, except the clinically depressed and all. Poppy bubblegum daydreams for the masses, brought to you by a room of wealthy old men looking at bar charts that denote consumer interest in pop musicians.
12. Minions (2015)
Is there any clearer way to communicate to the audience “We have a ridiculous amount of money to throw around” than to just license a Beatles song such as “Revolution” for your dance party ending, even if the lyrics are entirely performed in Minion jibberish? I submit that there is not. This one, which actually comes after the closing credits, is just a product of soaring budgets and bloated excess. It serves no purpose and has nothing to do with the plot of the film that preceded it, being simply tacked on to the end at exorbitant cost because damn it, dance parties are how these movies end! My god, man! You can’t make an animated feature without a dance party ending? Are you mad???
11. Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009)
Ice Age movies don’t always close with a dance party ending, but when they do, you can be certain that they’ll be putting in as little effort as possible into making them interesting. Both the third and fourth installments end with characters dancing over a black screen while the credits go by, with the third, Dawn of the Dinosaurs being marginally less terrible for the fact that it uses 1987’s “Walk the Dinosaur,” which at least makes good thematic sense and isn’t the kind of song you still hear on the radio on a daily basis. This is all more than you can say for Ice Age 4. It’s also like saying “drowning is far more pleasant than burning to death.”
10. Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012)
Oh hey, and speaking of Ice Age 4, look at this steaming pile. The format is repeated exactly from the previous film, save for the addition of little word boxes showing us the faces of some of the vocal cast members performing their roles—which is actually sort of neat—but god, the song is terrible. Gratingly poppy, the R&B/dance-inflected “We Are Family” is not the Sister Sledge song (that would have been horrendously trite as well) but rather an original number that is somehow even worse. It includes the phrase “We are … ham and cheese!” as a truly gut-busting substitution. Brilliant, folks.
9. Chicken Little (2005)
Annoying characters? Check. Irritating pop song? Check. Dancing in front of a featureless black void? Check. Looks like we have all the necessary elements of a terrible dance party ending, doesn’t it? It’s in the spirit of the Ice Age credit sequences, except, you know … more aggressively irritating, like the tender embrace of sandpaper to your face.
8. Shark Tale (2004)
In the 2004 animated feature Shark Tale, Will Smith’s fish character Oscar works at an underwater cleaning service, washing whale tongues. How do you close a movie about a character with said occupation? Why, with “Car Wash” of course. But not the original Rose Royce version, no! That would have been merely obvious. Instead, you go ultra tacky by putting together a Christina Aguilera cover version, featuring Missy Elliot, with said characters rendered as racially suggestive jellyfish and big-lipped black fish, respectively! Yeah, that’s the ticket! Ain’t nothin’ questionable about that.
7. Shrek 2 (2004)
For the sequel to the dance party ending that spawned a thousand imitators, Shrek 2 knew it was either go big or go home … and they really should have chosen the latter. Cramming Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca” into this thing, primarily performed by Eddie Murphy, five years after it was a hit song in the United States, is among the laziest and most uninspired choices on this entire list. Everything about this ending screams “these decisions are being made by a focus group of people in a Midwestern mall being paid $15 to participate in a short survey.” It is almost perfectly soulless and empty.
6. Hotel Transylvania 2 (2015)
Remember how high up this list I had the first Hotel Transylvania movie? Well, here comes the rebound. This dance party ending plays like a bunch of guys in a board room simply concluded “Well, the last ending worked out fine, anyone have a problem with doing the exact same thing a second time? No? Good.” Hell, it even appears to be happening in the same freaking room as the first ending. Remember how the first ending had an original song written by Sandler and Co.? This time we get a pop song written by the band Fifth Harmony to co-promote themselves along with the film. Even the individual bits of animation look the exact same—you could swap any piece of dancing here into the first film and vice versa, and you would never know which of the two films they originated from.
5. Angry Birds (2016)
Using a universally recognized hit song from the ’70s in your dance party ending is beginner level tackiness. Using a cover of that same song by a modern pop star? Next level cynical tackiness. What else would you expect from the animated feature film adaptation of a mobile game that doesn’t even have a story beyond “there are birds; they are angry; they launch themselves at pigs”? All the dance party ending cliches are here—they even get the villains in on the dancing, because that’s what dance party endings do. Hooray, our homes were all destroyed! Parrrrtttyyyyy! See you for the sequel!
4. Horton Hears a Who (2008)
Of all the criticisms I’ve leveled at many of these dance party endings, you really haven’t heard me slagging the vocal performances themselves. That changes now, because the Horton Hears a Who ending song/dance party is staggeringly, agonizingly horrible. Every single voice singing in an affected accent (and a key or two above where they should be) is more grating than the last. Visually, there’s really not anything to get pissed off about, but if I have to actually hear the vocals on this track one more time, I’m going to leap off the roof of the Paste office. It feels to my ears like the dance party ending equivalent of a dog whistle, with some high-pitched tone that only I can hear, rapidly driving me insane.
3. Gnomeo & Juliet (2011)
The most soullessly bland entry on this list, the dance party ending in Gnomeo & Juliet is as contextless as it is irritating. It starts with the song: If there’s such a thing as a musical prison, then Nelly Furtado absolutely needs to serve time there for the crimes she committed against “Crocodile Rock” in this film. The rest is pure bubblegum inanity—this song and sequence of animation couldn’t possibly appeal to anyone over the age of four or five, if that. I would like to think that a four-year-old version of me would have soiled himself, if that meant getting out of the room or theater rather than seeing the rest of this dance party ending. It looks like something rejected by Toon Disney for quality control concerns.
2. Norm of the North (2016)
The greatest unsolved cinema mystery of 2016 is how Norm of the North, clearly intended for the DVD bargain bin, somehow got a wide release in more than 2,000 U.S. theaters. It’s an abominably bad animated feature, the kind of thing you would understandably assume simply couldn’t get a wide release in 2016. It looks like a film that would have bombed badly (and looked shoddy doing it) in 1999. For the love of god, your titular lead is Rob Schneider. How, how, how did this movie get into theaters? It has multiple song and dance sequences that are mind-blowingly bad, but the official “dance party ending” of the film is Rob Schneider’s polar bear twerking in front of an assembled audience of indestructible groundhogs. That’s it. A polar bear twerking. If you love your children, never allow them to see this shit. If they do at an impressionable age, they may never stand a chance of possessing good taste for the rest of their natural lives.
1. The Nut Job (2014)
You’ve got to be asking yourself at this point, “What could possibly be worse as a dance party ending than a twerking Rob Schneider polar bear?” If you asked me that earlier this week, I would have said “nothing.” And then I saw The Nut Job’s ending.
Two words: “Gangnam Style.” As in, South Korean “pop sensation” Psy, “Gangnam Style.” That’s the entire structure of this dance party ending, in a film that is otherwise about squirrels stealing nuts. It’s completely apropos of nothing. It unfolds against a black, featureless void while the credits are playing. And it features a dancing, animated Psy, who otherwise has nothing to do with the feature film in question. The only tenuous connection is that the film was actually a U.S./Canada/South Korean co-production, for reasons unknown.
This is multinational cliche shilling, right here. They tried to entice an entire East Asian nation to come out to the theaters to see a Brendan Fraser film, just because it had a two-year-old pop song playing over the ending credits. Nothing else on this list can touch that in terms of sheer patheticness.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer who severely underestimated how annoying this piece would be to write. You can follow him on Twitter.