D-Day is here. Will you remember where you were when Disney launched its very own streaming service and utterly annihilated the rest of the entertainment on planet Earth?
Disney is currently making a killing off our childhoods, churning out charmless live action remakes of our faves. Beloved titles such as The Lion King, Aladdin, and Beauty And The Beast have already been butchered, with countless more grave robberies on the way. These lifeless zombies look and sound like the real thing, but they are not.
They are rotten and soulless. Run from them.
And today, Disney is trotting out Disney+, a streaming platform that can deliver more shambling corpses of films, like its debut offering — a live-action update of 1955’s Lady And The Tramp that looks truly dogawful. Helpfully, Disney+ will also stream the originals, so we can do side-by-side comparisons of the good versions and the awful ones. Maybe this will help bring all the people who paid 1.68 billion dollars to see the remake of The Lion King in theaters back to their senses. (I doubt it, though.)
Disney’s output has rarely been shoddier than what they’ve produced these past few years, so I suppose it’s a good time to harken back to a better era — the 20th century, when a man named Walt Disney was still alive — and his studio was still making original movies.
The following is a ranking of every Walt Disney Animated Studios feature from the 20th century. The year 2000 was an easy place to stop, because I didn’t see many Disney animated features after that. In 1995, Disney handed the baton to Pixar, and computer animation began to dominate the medium. Disney’s traditionally animated features took a notable dip in quality before disappearing altogether. The Walt Disney Animated Studios films of the 21st century — including Home On The Range, Bolt, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Meet The Robinsons, Brother Bear, and so on — are an entirely different animal from the classics of the 20th. They definitely don’t make ’em like they used to (in more ways than one).
I revisited every single one of these films while compiling this list. I enjoyed that more than I expected, as an adult who did not, prior to this year, revisit these movies at all. My opinions on several of these movies were genuinely surprising… and a few were not.
Released July 26, 1985
The Black Cauldron was the first Disney animated feature to earn a PG rating, and the most expensive animated film ever made at the time. Following the adventures of a pig-keeper named Taran and his quest to stop the Horned King from world domination, the film is heavy on plot and light on humor, without any original songs. It made less than half its budget back at the box office and is probably the least-known film on this list.
I was all ready to defend the weirdo dark unpopular Disney animated feature, because I like that sort of thing. I’m also a big fan of sorcery-heavy Disney films like Sleeping Beauty and Sword In The Stone, so I was hoping this might be my jam.
But then I watched it. The Black Cauldron isn’t all that dark or weird… or entertaining. From moment one, something feels “off” with the story and animation. I’d sooner believe that this is one of the Disney knock-offs Don Bluth produced later in his career than a bona fide Disney film.
The 70s and 80s were largely an “off” period for Disney, but at least the Disney stamp is somewhere to be found on the rest of those titles. The Black Cauldron in no way looks or feels like a Disney movie. It’s been all but expunged from Disney’s record, for good reason. A couple months after watching it, I can barely remember a thing.
Released June 16, 1999
Technically, this may be Disney’s most sophisticated animation of the 20th century — but twenty years later, all that showing off just distracts from the storytelling.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. An orphaned baby abandoned in the jungle is raised by animals, and as he becomes a man, finds himself torn between the world of man and the call of the wild. Disney echoes itself often across its library, but Tarzan in particular feels like an unnecessary retread of The Jungle Book, with a pale imitation of The Lion King‘s comedic sensibilities sprinkled in. Phil Collins’ songs are ineptly placed — is a fiery shipwreck really the best time for an up-tempo opening number? The song pauses just long enough for Tarzan’s parents to be eaten by a leopard, then kicks up again. It’s awkward.
The Tarzan character is a strangely unappealing lead, looking more like a 90s porn star than a Disney protagonist. (Is it just me, or is the size of his feet really distracting?) The voice talents of Rosie O’Donnell jarringly date this film more than any celebrity performer in a Disney film up to this point, signaling an unfortunate trend in family films toward voice actors whose real-life personas overshadow the character work. By 1999, Disney was a bit too calculating in its ticking off of boxes — after the girl power of 1998’s Mulan, Tarzan was clearly meant to be “one for the boys.”
Earning near a half a billion dollars worldwide, Tarzan was a financial success — but it was also the death knell of the Disney Renaissance. The following year would bring Dinosaur, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ first computer-animated film, as well as The Emperor’s New Groove, a decidedly less ambitious animated feature than anything Disney produced in the 90s. After its unprecedented success in the 90s, the studio’s most dismal decade laid ahead. That may be an unfair burden to lay at Tarzan‘s bafflingly oversized feet, but if any one film demonstrates how the Disney magic had run out of juice by the end of the 20th century, it’s Tarzan.
30. THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE
Released July 2, 1986
Perfectly watchable and entirely forgettable, The Great Mouse Detective is the clearest example of how awkwardly behind the curve Disney was in the 80s, both in its character design and storytelling.
Released the same year as the strangely similar An American Tail, The Great Mouse Detective pales in comparison in every way. The story is hokey, the music is lackluster, and the character design is passable at best. Disney had already done a “little mouse world that exists within the larger human world” movie with The Rescuers, and that was only semi-charming the first time around. Mice again, Disney? Really?
The Great Mouse Detective can’t be accused of ripping off Don Bluth’s An American Tail, but it’s also similar to Bluth’s earlier The Secret Of N.I.M.H., another mouse-centric tale with a more compelling story. And who ever asked for a mouse version of Sherlock Holmes, anyway? The Great Mouse Detective does have Vincent Price as the nasty Professor Ratigan – the only memorable character you’ll find here — but even he is no match for American Tail’s sinister (and similar) Warren T. Rat.
Aside from a moderately exhilarating climactic chase inside Big Ben, there’s nothing to see here, folks. But The Great Mouse Detective is a completely inoffensive diversion, and might be fun for younger kids.
29. PETER PAN
Released February 5, 1953
Peter Pan is a true classic, one of Disney’s most iconic efforts. And it is terrible in so many ways.
I want to like Peter Pan, with its fantastic score and charming visuals and quintessential realizations of J.M. Barrie’s characters. I even love the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland. But take away a few lovely moments, like the Darling children’s first flight, and you’re left with an inert story and a whole lot of Disney’s trademark racism and sexism.
Where to start? Every female denizen of Neverland is defined by lusty jealousy. The mermaids and Tinkerbell attempt homicide, driven by their horniness for a pubescent boy who looks much younger than these seemingly adult women. (How old is Peter Pan, anyway? Twelve? Fifteen? Whatever — he’s not old enough!) Who’s the real villain here? Forget Captain Hook — Tinkerbell is more conniving, and more successful in her dastardly plots. (So it’s pretty weird that she became the Disney mascot, a more integral part of the Disney canon for many than even Mickey Mouse.) Tinkerbell, Wendy, Tiger Lilly, and the mermaids all fawn over Peter. They do little else. And Wendy is such a doormat, giving in to Peter and the charmless Lost Boys’ sexist demands. What comes across as child-like and naive in Barrie’s book feels somehow sinister in this movie.
Even worse is the film’s depiction of Native Americans, which is every bit as reductive as Disney’s more infamous racial stereotyping in Dumbo or Lady And The Tramp, but isn’t even filtered through anthropomorphized animal characters. (It goes on for a lot longer than you probably remember.)
And even if you want to give Peter Pan a pass for being made in 1953, the story itself is episodic and unmotivated, absent of anything you could call a character arc. Captain Hook’s antics are tiresome and oddly cartoonish — they’d be more at home in a Looney Tunes sketch than a full-length Disney feature. Peter Pan is wonderful in its broadest strokes, but the details leave something to be desired. In my estimation, it’s aged the poorest of any of these films.
Released June 23, 1995
On the subject of films that haven’t aged well…
Like Peter Pan, Pocahontas has commendable elements. It’s a much better depiction of Native Americans, for one. (Still problematic, but for different reasons.) The film makes real efforts to integrate Native American culture into the story and visuals. Pocahontas is also the first non-white Disney princess who is also a protagonist — the film is clearly a conscious effort to evolve. The setting lends itself well to Disney’s animation, which is gorgeous, and the music is strong, too — if not quite up to the level of the previous four Disney animated musicals. (A high bar, for sure.)
It’s just that the very concept of this film is a misfire on every level.
Despite speaking different languages, Pocahontas and John Smith learn to communicate with each other in about 30 seconds, and fall in love nearly as fast. That can work in a fairy tale, but in one that’s so rooted in real history and actual conflict, it’s harder to buy. Watching Pocahontas, you might think that every beef between Native Americans and white settlers was solved in the early 1600s, after only a couple of casualties.
Lots of historical dramas fudge some details. Pocahontas not only elides several hundred years of racist oppression, but also completely invents the romance between Pocahontas and John Smith. If it had happened this way, he would’ve been 28, and she would be 11. Another conveniently skipped detail — Pocahontas was later abducted and held for ransom by Jamestown settlers. She died tragically young.
Mel Gibson is not, in retrospect, a great casting choice as a Disney hero whose arc is all about bridging a racial divide. He’s also not a terribly good choice for this role in general, speaking in an Australian-tinged American accent instead of an English one. Pocahontas really strains to wedge in some animal sidekicks for levity, but they’re more distracting than amusing amidst all the life-or-death drama. Beat by beat, this story would play fine if it were fictional — but we know it’s based on real people and real events, even though very little of this really happened. The subtext is just too loaded to ignore.
The attempt to depict a different culture than we usually see in Disney films up to this point is admirable. With Pocahontas, Disney finally nodded toward diversity and truly considered a non-white point of view. But once cultural differences become a major plot point, Pocahontas is too didactic to be entertaining, too problematic to be romantic, and too Disney to be at all credible. The studio took so many liberties to make this an upbeat, family-friendly story, it’s basically just a fairy tale wearing real people’s faces. The failure to truly grapple with what white settlers did to Native Americans strikes a glaringly false note in 2019, despite the good intentions it was made with at the time.
27. THE RESCUERS
Released June 22, 1977
After a brief interruption from problematic Native American stereotypes, we are back to mediocre mice!
The Rescuers is quite possibly the most uneven Disney feature. Even the lamer ones tend to be consistently lame, but The Rescuers has some jarring tonal shifts, largely due to the mawkish music, which is very, very 70s — and not in a good way.
The plot of The Rescuers is strangely dark, revolving around kidnapping and child labor. It’s a shade too real for a kids’ movie. Disney loves a cute kid in peril, but The Rescuers‘ Penny takes the cake. The six-year-old orphan’s eyes well up with big, fat tears, and the music is so sad… it’s all very maudlin and manipulative.
What saves this film are the Rescuers themselves. Bernard and Bianca are voiced by Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor, with an adorable will-they-or-won’t-they workplace romance. Sure, you can question the logic of the Rescuers operation — how, exactly, is sending two small mice to rescue a human the best course of action? Don’t they have bigger animals? But if you can go with that, spending time with Bernard and Bianca is enjoyable enough, and there are a couple of memorable sidekicks, too — especially the albatross Orville and dragonfly Evinrule. Madame Medusa is also one of Disney’s best forgotten villains, both fabulous and frumpy, with too much mascara, big turquoise earrings, and a shock of red hair. (She’s a real bitch, too.) She’s a Cruella De Vil knockoff, but she holds the screen. The Rescuers isn’t a great film by any means, but it has a handful of charming moments.
26. THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER
Released November 16, 1990
Released the year after The Little Mermaid, and a year before Beauty And The Beast, The Rescuers Down Under is by far the most offbeat entry in the Disney Renaissance era. There are no songs, no princes or princesses. There’s no relatable central hero who is “yearning for more.” The Rescuers Down Under is more of a swashbuckling adventure tale than the epic coming-of-age story we see in Disney stories elsewhere during in this decade. (Obviously, it was underway long before The Little Mermaid‘s creative and commercial success completely redefined “Disney movie” for the next decade.)
The Rescuers Down Under is also the first Disney animated feature sequel; indeed, the Rescuers themselves are shoehorned into a story that could easily exist without them. These charming mice, voiced once again by Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor, fit the 70s perfectly but are rather anachronistic in the 90s, which is why we get a macho kangaroo mouse hero named Jake, too, plus a supporting cast of wacky animals — the most memorable being Frank, a neurotic lizard. John Candy lends his voice to Wilbur, the kooky albatross brother of the first film’s Orville. A little of him goes a long way.
The Rescuers Down Under is a prime example of how far Disney’s animation evolved after its 70s slump. The Rescuers of 1977 is cute but sketchily animated by Disney standards. However, there’s some breathtaking imagery in The Rescuers Down Under. This sequel is marginally more engaging than the first Rescuers, though it obviously pales in comparison to the films that bookend its release — The Little Mermaid and Beauty And The Beast. Still, it deserves a little more remembrance than it gets.
25. FANTASIA 2000
Released January 1, 2000
Chronologically the last movie on this list, Fantasia 2000 screened at Carnegie Hall in December 1999 before opening wide on New Year’s Day 2000, officially closing the book on Disney in the 20th century.
Walt Disney originally envisioned Fantasia as an ever-evolving extravaganza, with new segments rotated in for each new installment. It only took 60 years for his successors to get around to realizing that vision, populating Fantasia 2000 with all-new animated shorts — and a reprise of the 1940 film’s most famous segment, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” The format is faithful, with eight dialogue-free animated shorts scored by well-known classical pieces from the likes of Beethoven and Stravinsky, plus brief live-action interludes that explain classical music to dunce moviegoers in the audience. Fantasia 2000‘s interstitials are delivered by familiar faces like Steve Martin and Bette Midler, who are much jokier than Deems Taylor’s dry delivery from the first Fantasia. It’s breezier, but undercuts the air of prestige accompanying the original film.
Fantasia 2000 is 50 minutes shorter than the original, with segments starring airborne humpback whales, a flock of flamingoes, and Donald Duck as the biblical Noah. It’s solid stuff, but the outlier is a cleverly animated rendition of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” taking place in bustling New York City. While most of the other pieces feel safe and predictable, this one suggests the more eclectic, stylized approach that could have been. The other segments, while lovely, are very Disney. “Rhapsody in Blue” is something new, as Fantasia was meant to be.
Oh well… maybe we’ll get a third chapter in 2060?
24. LADY AND THE TRAMP
Released June 22, 1955
One of only two Disney animated features to take advantage of widescreen format, the original Lady And The Tramp‘s Italian date night scene is rightfully ranked amongst Disney’s best moments — and as one of the most romantic scenes in all of cinema. These few minutes alone have single-handedly rendered Lady And The Tramp a classic. Unfortunately, the story that surrounds it is only so-so.
Cleverly, cocker spaniel Lady’s owners are named “Jim Dear” and “Darling” — because of course, she’d know them by their pet names for one another. Lady’s domestic life is bliss until the beloved pooch is displaced by a new baby; the situation gets worse when Jim Dear and Darling go on an uexplained vacation, putting the unpleasant Aunt Sarah in charge of the household while they’re away. (It’s pretty strange for first-time parents to leave a newborn behind and go off on vacation, no?) After a series of misunderstandings, Lady escapes Sarah’s clutches (and muzzle) and meets the appropriately named Tramp. Tramp woos Lady with pasta, but then she learns he’s had his way with a number of other bitches. (What a dog!) A Pekingese named Peg sings about what a heartbreaker Tramp is. For a family-friendly cartoon from the 50s, there’s a distinct undercurrent of horniness running through Lady And The Tramp.
This is all fine, but a few strong moments don’t carry the film. The big climax revolves around a rat sneaking into the baby’s room — awfully low stakes, if you ask me. And I have a sneaking suspicion Tramp will step out on Lady and the kids five minutes after the film ends. (Tramp And Peg is the movie I wanted.)
I’d probably rate Lady And The Tramp a tad higher if one infamous moment weren’t so cringeworthy. You know the one. As with Peter Pan, it’s awfully hard to ignore blatant racism when there’s an entire musical number built around it. “The Siamese Cat Song” is as catchy as can be, but no — in 2019, we don’t please.
Released June 19, 1998
It’s tempting to dismiss Mulan as a middling entry in the decidedly weaker latter half of the Disney Renaissance. You can feel Disney overcorrecting the blinding whiteness of its heroines, as well as the overwhelming helplessness of its female protagonists up to this point. (Even in stories centered on women, men always end up coming to the rescue.)
Mulan is leaps and bounds a better representation of a non-white culture than either Aladdin or Pocahontas. Its heroine emerges as a genuine ass-kicker who saves the day her own damn self. The film lands a couple of solid emotional beats, prompts a chuckle or two, features an undersung hunky love interest, and has a rousing action climax. Yes, it’s awkward to hear the voice of Eddie Murphy coming out of a Chinese dragon sidekick… but more often than not, it works.
On the other hand, the music here is noticeably weaker than any previous Disney Renaissance film, which prevents this from being a bona fide classic. This may be a pivotal stepping stone on Disney’s pathway to inclusivity, and it’s all the more admirable for it. But that respectability gets in the way of the sense of fun we get from Disney’s best. The action and drama are surprisingly solid — but is that what we want from Disney? Not even Eddie Murphy can ward off a certain heavy-handedness that prevents this from being as engaging and rewatchable as many other Disney films. Mulan is almost trying too hard to get its feminism and cultural representation right… so it does, and that’s it.
22. ROBIN HOOD
Released November 8, 1973
Robin Hood stands out in the Disney canon for its indecision about whether its characters are people or animals. In most Disney films, the animals are animal-like — even when they’re wearing clothes, they’re at least sized properly. Robin Hood‘s anthropomorphized critters throw nature out the window entirely — they’re basically just furry people that vaguely resemble wolves and rabbits and badgers and such. This isn’t uncommon in animation, but feels more Hanna Barbera than Walt Disney.
Despite the potential of its source material, which has inspired plenty of action-packed adaptations, Disney’s Robin Hood is a mere trifle of a film. There’s no sense of menace — Robin Hood is just a rollicking buddy comedy, playing like a watered-down, kid-oriented Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. It’s all very 70s, from the folksy music to the shrug of a plot. Here, Prince John is too wimpy to even properly be called a Disney villain. The jokes at the expense of his fey, thumb-sucking lion king feel mean-spirited by 2019’s less binary standards, and undermine the intent of the legend, which paints thieves as heroes because they steal from a corrupt establishment to give to those in need. There’s some lip service to that, but this Robin Hood isn’t really invested in those ideas. Or any ideas, really. But how much gritty realism can you expect from a film narrated by a rooster?
Robin Hood also essentially steals Baloo the bear from The Jungle Book and repurposes him as Little John. Same look, same voice. (Phil Harris voice work as Baloo is fantastic, and Little John is nearly as good, but still.) This is Disney’s lazy stoner movie, which is fine, but it’s easy to imagine a more rousing, more emotionally satisfying take on Robin Hood coming from Disney in another era. Can you imagine Disney doing Robin Hood in the 90s? It’s a totally different film — and probably a better one.
21. OLIVER & COMPANY
Released November 18, 1988
Immediately preceding The Little Mermaid, Disney’s furry take on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist looks awfully shoddy in comparison to the films that followed. (It’s also shockingly similar to Don Bluth’s All Dogs Go To Heaven, released one year later.)
Thus Oliver & Company, like The Rescuers Down Under, suffers in our memory — to the extent that it is remembered at all. But taken at face value, it’s an engaging enough romp through New York City with a cat’s eye-view. Oliver, voiced by Joey Lawrence, gets tough love lessons in survival from Dodger, played by Billy Joel. Dodger introduces Oliver to Fagin, a poor schmo human who runs a petty crime ring of animals. Fagin is voiced by Dom DeLuise, “borrowed” from Bluth’s animation. He worked with Bluth in The Secret Of N.I.M.H. and An American Tail before Disney plucked him for this one, showing once again how Disney was trailing Bluth throughout the 80s. DeLuise returned to Bluth’s operation for All Dogs Go To Heaven in 1989.
Oliver is soon adopted by rich girl Jenny, but squares off against the prissy poodle Georgette (aptly and perfectly voiced by Bette Midler). This gang squares off against the sinister loan shark Sykes (Robert Loggia), who comes to a gruesome end when he drives his car into an oncoming subway train — a strong, undersung Disney villain death in an overall rousing finale.
Oliver & Company is often used as the grimace-inducing “before” example, in contrast to the ravishing beauty of the movie that came “after,” The Little Mermaid. But it’s not the low point of Disney’s 80s output, immensely more enjoyable than The Great Mouse Detective or The Black Cauldron. It may borrow liberally from Lady And The Tramp and The Rescuers, but with an 80s cool that’s rather infectious. I saw Oliver & Company when I was five, and at the time, there was absolutely nothing cooler than a dog in sunglasses strutting down the streets of New York City with a string of sausages around his neck. I wanted to be that dog. In fact, I still do.
20. THE FOX AND THE HOUND
Released July 10, 1981
There are a ton of wonderful romantic moments in Disney films, often accompanied by a great song. But there aren’t nearly as many devoted to friendship. The Fox And The Hound briefly nods to romance between Tod and Vixey, but the driving force of the story is the Romeo & Juliet of furry friendship between a fox and the foxhound who is bound by duty (and breed) to hunt him. Early on, the sassy but still wise owl Big Mama croons “Best Of Friends” as young Tod and Copper roughhouse in the forest, blissfully ignorant of the strain their friendship will endure as they mature. It’s one of the most genuinely touching and heartfelt moments in any Disney animated movie.
Granted, I have an outsized fondness for this film because I won a VHS copy of it in a coloring contest at my local video store when I was a kid. As an adult, I also appreciate its down-to-earth matter-of-factness. There’s no artificial conflict here — barely even a plot, really. Amos Slade isn’t a villain, he’s just a hunter, and we get to see a more playful side of the gruff old man as he spars with Tod’s owner, the amusing Widow Tweed. Plus, we get an unlikely alliance of voice talents from Corey Feldman, Mickey Rooney, Pearl Bailey, Sandy Duncan, and Kurt Russell.
The Fox And The Hound is far from Disney’s most essential or exciting release, but it is practically bursting with heart the whole way through, never hitting a false note — it’s the closest Disney ever got to pulling off another Bambi. Heart strings will be tugged!
Released November 25, 1992
Nineties kids, sharpen your knives! I know you’ll be coming at me for ranking Aladdin so low on this list.
Well, bring it. Aladdin is extremely engaging — how could it not be, with Robin Williams’ mile-a-minute delivery of Genie jokes? The music is top notch — “A Whole New World” is peak Disney goo-goo eyes ballad, “Friend Like Me” is irrepressibly fun, and “Prince Ali” is whip-smart and wacky in the best way. Aladdin himself is a lovable scamp, with a surprising amount of wholesome sex appeal for a cartoon character. He’s both the boy next door and a “street rat” with a dash of danger. He’s not exactly a bad boy, but he nods in that direction, which is more than you can say for most Disney prince types.
But the digger you deep into Aladdin, the more rough you find around the diamond. The film is a bit too flip about Middle Eastern culture, conflating Arabic and Indian influences willy-nilly. (I suppose that’s just what you get in Disney’s first attempt at a non-Caucasian protagonist.) Despite an outward feistiness, Jasmine can’t really escape the damsel in distress cliche — she’s yet another princess rebelling against arranged marriage, but we only learn what she doesn’t want, not what she does. And Jafar isn’t a bad villain, exactly, but he’s somewhat second-rate coming on the heels of Ursula and Gaston, both of whom had a lot more personality. Jafar is just power-mad and greedy, evil for evil’s sake.
Ultimately, of course, the film’s success rests on Williams — and your tolerance for his manic comedy. (Mileage may vary.) He both makes the movie and hijacks it. There are endless anachronistic pop culture references, most of which played better to our parents than they did to us; they’re funny, but they don’t advance this story at all. Close your eyes, and you could just as easily be watching Mrs. Doubtfire.
Thanks to Williams, Aladdin is highly entertaining but, ultimately, exhausting — and more stuck in a 90s sensibility than other Disney Renaissance films.
18. ALICE IN WONDERLAND
Released September 14, 1951
Alice In Wonderland is the only film on this list that gives Aladdin a run for its money in zany energy. Our heroine chases the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole, and from there, it’s nonstop enchantment, as Alice shrinks and balloons into a giant and meets an endless stream of kooky characters — the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Walrus and the Carpenter, the Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, a garden full of bitchy flowers, and, finally, the Queen of Hearts.
Befitting Lewis Carroll’s source material, this is essentially just one nonsensical interlude after another. There are no rules in Wonderland, and very little logic. Anything can happen, and most of it does — but since it’s all so whimsical, nothing is really at stake. Alice is never in any real danger — especially since it all turns out to be a dream in the end.
Alice In Wonderland is often compared to The Wizard Of Oz, as both feature young girls whisked off to improbable fantasy worlds, but Carroll’s version is stitched together with British silliness rather than L. Frank Baum’s American heart. It’s fun and all, but it lacks the sense that Alice is journeying toward something — the Disney version doesn’t add anything approaching a real plot. Alice In Wonderland is fun to watch but empty at its core. It’s the only Disney animated feature that doesn’t even attempt a genuine heartfelt moment, which makes it something of a curiosity in the studio’s lineup.
17. THE ARISTOCATS
Released December 24, 1970
One of Disney’s most forgotten films, The Aristocats is basically a feline reworking of Lady And The Tramp, with a healthy dose of One Hundred And One Dalmatians thrown in for good measure. As with The Fox And The Hound, I have an outsized fondness for The Aristocats because of a random childhood memory. When I was four, I somehow obtained a giant movie theater standee of this film that resided in my family’s rec room. I never saw the film again until my rewatch for this list, but my fondness for that random gift from a movie theater employee stayed with me through the years. I was happy to rediscover as an adult that it’s a total delight.
The Aristocats takes place in Paris, following prim, proper (and very Lady-like) Duchess and her three artistic kittens after an attempted murder by their wealthy owner’s greedy butler. They meet the Tramp-esque alley cat Thomas O’Malley, voiced by Phil Harris — better known for his Disney bear roles as Little John in Robin Hood and Baloo in The Jungle Book. Thurl Ravenscroft, Sterling Holloway, and Scatman Crothers lend voices to supporting characters. The film’s highlight is all these cool cats jamming to jazz music — which works better than it probably should.
One other thing The Aristocats has in common with Lady And the Tramp — crude caricatures of Asian people in feline form. The cat musicians are all ethnic stereotypes — there’s a Russian cat, an Italian cat, a Chinese cat — but it’s still not quite as offensive as “The Siamese Cat Song.” While nothing here is nearly as iconic as the spaghetti noodle kiss from Lady And the Tramp, the film as a whole is markedly more consistent and amusing. It’s actually pretty cool, in a kitschy 1970 kind of way.
16. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
Released November 22, 1991
Heresy! Here I am claiming that the beloved Beauty And The Beast is not even amongst the Top 15 Disney animated features. Disneyphiles will be coming at me with pitchforks now, and I don’t even have anthropomorphized castle furnishings to help stave them off.
Oh well. The only traditionally animated Disney film to be nominated for Best Picture, Beauty And The Beast certainly deserved that honor in 1991. In many ways, it takes what The Little Mermaid did so exquisitely and capitalizes on it, rightfully dubbing itself a “tale as old as time.”
But that’s a double-edged sword, as it turns out, because this story does feel old, and not all of it has aged well. After one of Disney’s all-time best character introductions (the sensational opening number “Belle”), the screenplay forgets its heroine’s trademark brains and lets the men drive the story. Beauty And The Beast never establishes a compelling reason why Belle feels obligated to stay with the Beast, and it’s sort of creepy that her newfound furniture friends and eventual love interest manipulate her emotions for their own agenda. Only Belle’s love for the Beast can save them from their curse… so they lock her up and trick her into falling for him? Belle just goes along with it, never reasserting her independence on the way to that inevitable happy ending.
Yeah — I know, it’s a fairy tale. But the more questions you ask about the logic of this story, the more it unravels.
Still, let’s sing the praises where we should. Beauty And The Beast has a couple of show-stopping musical numbers, solid comic relief, and Disney’s typically delightful animation. Best of all, it twists the logic we normally ascribe to the good and bad guys. Usually, hideous monsters are villains, and beefcakes are heroes. Here, of course, the hunky Gaston is the one who turns out to be a boor. It’s just too bad Belle becomes such a helpless damsel in the latter half of the movie. For all the craft Beauty And The Beast is made with, it can’t escape the original fairy tale’s gendered trappings.
15. THE MANY ADVENTURES OF WINNIE-THE-POOH
Released March 11, 1977
The 70s were Disney’s weakest overall decade. In an era when every Disney film felt slight, The Many Adventures Of Winnie-The-Pooh is by far the slightest — it literally takes place inside a children’s storybook. But it is also the best.
Slavishly faithful to the original stories by A.A. Milne, the Disney versions of these characters are the ones that have come to define Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger, and the all the rest, and it’s great fun to see them come together in their first feature outing. (Even if that feature is really just a collection of short films.)
The Many Adventures Of Winnie-The-Pooh is comprised of three previously released shorts, following Pooh as he contends with a blustery day, hoists himself in the air via balloon in a honey-snatching scheme, and pals around with a depressed Tigger. Of course, none of this is particularly harrowing or complex, but it so perfectly captures the canny simplicity of Milne’s books. These characters are all unforgettable, but Piglet in particular is one of the most pleasurable children’s book characters in creation, and he is so sublimely brought to life here, and so lovingly voiced by John Fiedler.
Any amount of time spent in the Hundred Acre Woods is a good time indeed. The Many Adventures Of Winnie-The-Pooh is pure, unadulterated delight from start to finish.
14. THE SWORD IN THE STONE
Released December 25, 1963
A childhood favorite of mine, The Sword In The Stone is a playful adventure, meandering through a surprisingly low-key plot despite the high stakes of the King Arthur legend.
The young squire Arthur — known in these days as “Wart” — becomes the pupil of eccentric old wizard Merlin and his cranky owl companion, Archimedes. Eventually, he’ll pull the titular sword out of the stone and become King of England, but for the majority of the running time, the plot falls by the wayside. Merlin and Arthur spend most of The Sword In The Stone transforming themselves into various animals, at which point they are inevitably pursued by predators. (Merlin never learns to put a safeguard in place to prevent this.) It’s all very light and episodic, until the weirdly heartbreaking moment when a female squirrel falls for Arthur in squirrel form. She’s ready to mate with Squirrel Arthur for life, and when it’s revealed that he’s not a squirrel at all, she’s devastated. No joke — it might be the saddest in Disney’s entire canon. It’s not a tear-jerker like Mufasa’s death, but a truly uncomfortable, completely unresolved heartbreak for a side character. Unnamed female squirrel character, my heart goes out to you!
The Sword In The Stone might be otherwise forgettable if not for mad Madame Mim. She appears only briefly, but establishes herself as one of the most underrated Disney villains. She’s silly rather scary, so maybe it’s best that we only get a small dose of her here, but her shape-shifting sequence is one of my favorites in any Disney classic. This story is too slight to make it a true masterpiece, but The Sword In The Stone‘s charms still win me over in the end.
13. SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS
Released February 4, 1938
It’s unfair to criticize the very first animated feature film of all time for… well, anything. A milestone in moviemaking, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs was a runaway success creatively and commercially. It’s rightfully remembered as a visionary triumph and a bona fide classic.
But we’re grading on a curve here.
The character design is top notch, with the seven dwarfs remaining some of Disney’s funniest and most lovable screwballs, while the Evil Queen (including her apple-toting hag alter ego) still hovers near the top of the Disney villain pantheon, even after all these years. Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs has dead parents, animal sidekicks, comic relief characters, catchy songs, and a grand villain death. So much of what makes Disney Disney was right here, right from the very beginning.
But the story is uneven, spending too much time on wacky dwarf hijinks and too little on the relationship between our heroine and her nemesis. We never actually see Snow White and the Evil Queen together until the hag shows up with a poison apple — there’s no first act to this story. As a result, Snow White is the blandest Disney princess. We’re not as emotionally invested in her plight as we are with every Disney protagonist going forward. She has no agency. How do you even describe Snow White as a character? She’s just… nice.
Like Beauty And The Beast, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs inherits a whole bunch of problematic fairy tale elements. The Queen’s only motive is that she wants to be the prettiest; Snow White is perfectly happy cooking and cleaning for unruly slob dwarfs; a couple centuries ago, kissing a girl in a coma was sexy, I guess, but now it’s sexual assault. It’s not shocking to find a Disney love story that’s underdeveloped, but this one is especially so. Snow White riding off into the sunset with her prince in the end isn’t romantic — it’s a betrayal of the dwarfs, who are far more engaging than her nameless Prince. The happy ending isn’t earned.
The dwarfs are Snow White’s true soul mates. They deserve better. Justice for the Seven Dwarfs!
Released June 27, 1997
Sandwiched in the very middle of Disney’s post-Lion King slump — after Pocahontas and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, before Mulan and Tarzan — Hercules gets lumped in with the “other” late Renaissance movies, which inevitably failed to hit the high notes of the early 90s.
But on its own merits, Hercules is mighty entertaining — a much stronger film than it gets credit for. It’s the breeziest of the Renaissance titles, tonally lighter than even Aladdin, with James Woods’ motor-mouthed Hades standing in for Robin Williams’ Genie in a way that’s not quite so distracting to the movie as a whole.
Taking cues from Greek mythology instead of European fairy tales or classic literature is an inspired choice, allowing Disney to revisit some of its fantastic Fantasia imagery, and permitting a vibrant use of color. The story is told by a Greek chorus of boisterous black women, who also sing most of the music. Using African American gospel as a backdrop for an ancient Greek tale of dueling gods is an offbeat choice — Disney tends to pair its music and visuals more literally, like the African singing in The Lion King or the Native American drums that scores Pocahontas — but this mismatch totally works.
Best of all is Hercules’ love interest, Megara. Disney princesses got progressively feistier throughout the 90s, but Meg truly steals the show, verbally sparring with Hercules in a romance worthy of a 30s screwball comedy. Turns out, she’s bait sent by Hades to woo our hero — and of course, she finds her true feelings for the half-god hunk getting in the way. No other Disney princess has this many layers. Meg is Disney’s most feminist heroine of the 20th century, especially during her catchy, reluctant love song, “I Won’t Say I’m In Love.” Controversial as it may be to say, Jasmine and Belle can’t hold a candle to Meg.
11. ONE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS
Released January 25, 1961
A lot of Disney movies concern domestic animals who have misadventure-filled quests away from home. (See also: Lady And The Tramp, The Aristocats, The Fox And The Hound, and Oliver And Company.) One Hundred And One Dalmatians is the best of these, in large part because it’s the only one with a villain who measures up to Disney’s most dastardly baddies. That, of course, is Cruella De Vil, one of the all-time greats.
Cruella’s plot to skin a hundred adorable puppies just to attain her fashion goals is super cold, even by Disney villain standards. Her voice, her look, her motivations — everything about her is deliciously wicked. You can practically smell the smoke wafting off of her.
But the film is full of rich characters, both animal and human, so it never suffers even when Cruella is offscreen. Pongo and Perdita’s relationship may not be as hot as Lady and the Tramp’s, but it’s much more practical (and seems built to last). Their owners are fully fleshed out, too — especially Roger, a composer whose lampooning of Cruella is hilarious and spot on (especially in her iconic theme song, which he thinks up on the spot). From Roger and Anita’s courtship to the “Twilight Bark” to the joyful reunion at the end, there’s never a dull moment in One Hundred And One Dalmatians. It’s positively overflowing with puppies — and what could be wrong with that?
Released November 13, 1940
Comparing the mid-range Disney films is somewhat arbitrary — they all have strengths and weaknesses, and it’s hard to clarify why, exactly, The Aristocats is just a little better than The Fox And The Hound, when both are intermittently charming but clearly not Disney’s all-time best.
But at a certain point, ordering this list becomes easy, and this is that point.
Fantasia is the biggest outlier in Disney’s canon of animated features — the only film pitched squarely at adults. It’s too scary, too sexy, and too slow to appeal to most kids. Only the Mickey Mouse-starring “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” piece and balletic animals of “Dance Of The Hours” aim to appeal to a younger crowd.
Walt Disney released only two animated features before this one shook things up. Fantasia is an anthology film set to beloved pieces of classical music by Beethoven, Bach, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, and a handful of others. It’s an exquisite blend of cinema and symphony, an early prototype for the music video. The disparate pieces let Disney show off different styles of animation all in one movie, and different storytelling tones. “The Pastoral Symphony” segment, with the mating rituals of centaurs on display, feels a little naughty; “Night On Bald Mountain” conjures up hellish imagery that would be too oppressive in a full-length family feature. “Rite Of Spring” even depicts a global extinction — that’s something you won’t find in Sleeping Beauty.
Fantasia not only stretches our notion of what a Disney movie can be, it expands the very idea of what the cinematic medium can do. With Fantasia, Disney brought the high class experience of going to the symphony to the masses, and made it a little more kid-friendly. Unfortunately, the film’s release coincided with World War II, which cut off the European market and made it a financial flop. We can only imagine what other formal experiments Disney might have tried if Fantasia had been more successful out of the gate. Unfortunately, the studio has been pretty risk-averse ever since. Fantasia is a classy, one-of-a-kind cinematic experience to be cherished.
Released March 4, 1950
This is, perhaps, the quintessential Disney animated feature, with magic, romance, music, and mouse hijinks galore. It also inspired the castle from the Disney logo, and features a prince whose actual name is Prince Charming. When I think of the template for the classic Disney film, Cinderella is the one automatically conjured in my mind.
Cinderella also has a reputation for being outdated, old-fashioned, and a little boring. Okay, fair point. I wasn’t expecting much out of Cinderella as a male adult. But Cinderella‘s simplicity lends it a Bambi-like elegance, making it clear that this is a fairy tale brought to life. Cinderella is a dreamer in a dreary life. Unlike most Disney heroes and heroines, her problems are perfectly mundane — too many chores! (Same, girl.) The villain is ordinary, too — Lady Tremaine, also known as the Wicked Stepmother, almost single-handedly gives remarriages a bad name, and her only superpower is that she’s a total bitch. It’s extraordinary that she can feel as menacing as Maleficent or Ursula just by glaring at us.
Cinderella pads a lot of its running time with literal cat-and-mouse shenanigans between Lucifer, Lady Tremaine’s truly heinous feline, and Cinderella’s chipper rodent pals. It’s not the most riveting stuff, playing at times more like a Tom & Jerry cartoon than a Disney feature. But when Cinderella’s awful family tears the dress her animal sidekicks so lovingly made for her to shreds, it’s a relatable, human-scale tragedy that feels nearly as big as a parental loss in Bambi or The Lion King. It all pays off, which makes the arrival of the Fairy Godmother totally satisfying (though admittedly narratively convenient).
That deus ex machina is one of several ways in which Cinderella fully leans in to its fairy tale roots. The story gets a bad wrap now for fast-tracking Cinderella and Prince Charming’s romance, but the lack of dialogue or meaningful interaction between them adds to the dreamy, meant-to-be inevitability of a story like this. Don’t we all wish a long day of hard work for ungrateful masters could end like this? Cinderella ends in a delicious Disney “fuck you” to the stepmother and stepsisters, with our girl riding toward a castle with her prince in a gorgeous carriage. This is the ultimate wish fulfillment revenge fantasy, and on that level, it works sublimely, if you can cast your modern day cynicism aside for seventy-odd minutes.
8. THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME
Released June 21, 1996
Following the disappointing Pocahontas, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame is unfairly maligned for not replicating The Lion King‘s lightning-in-a-bottle success — and so is every other Disney movie from the late 90s. To be sure, it’s much less of a four-quadrant crowd pleaser — but it’s clear that Disney wasn’t really going for that this time around.
Instead, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame is a natural progression from Beauty And The Beast, centered on a physically ugly character with a beautiful soul who pals around with inanimate objects. (It takes place in France, too, of course.) But while that film ultimately reinforced standard-of-beauty cliches by having the Beast transform into a hunky prince in the end, this film is more practical — the foxy gypsy Esmeralda ends up with handsome Captain Phoebus, leaving Quasimodo as single as ever. It’s not often we get a harsh dose of reality from a Disney movie, but there it is.
In other ways, too, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame is Walt Disney’ Animation Studios’ most thematically mature feature. Like 1998’s Babe: Pig In The City, you can seriously question whether it was even intended for kids. (Parts may be too dark for very young viewers.) Aside from some yuks provided by Jason Alexander as one in a trio of wisecracking gargoyles, the film is light on broad humor, cuddly sidekicks, and other Happy Meal-friendly fare. What it has instead is a horny priest attempting to burn innocent families alive. Not exactly the “fun for all ages” you expect from Disney.
The sinister priest Frollo is Disney’s most believable and complex villain. He can’t reconcile his lusty feelings for Esmeralda with his faith, so he torches Paris in an exaggerated “if I can’t have her, no one will” act of male dominance. This is one Disney animated feature that would work just as well as live action (which of course, Disney will deliver). It’s as epic as can be. I honestly don’t know what Disney was thinking, allowing a villain song called “Hellfire” in a children’s movie, but I’m awfully glad it happened. From Tom Hulce’s touching voice work as Quasimodo to our nutty narrator Clopin to Esmeralda’s surprisingly moving “God Help The Outcasts,” The Hunchback Of Notre Dame is tremendously entertaining and deeply moving, as daring as Disney’s ever been.
Released October 31, 1941
Dumbo is a rare jewel of a movie, full of unique, unforgettable moments that set it apart from anything Disney did before or since. First and foremost, Dumbo was Disney’s first heartbreaker. While Bambi, released one year later, has the most infamous parental tragedy in the Disney canon, Dumbo gets close to those tragic heights, and no one even dies. Instead, a mother is locked behind bars for protecting her son. If you’re not bawling when an incarcerated Jumbo rocks Dumbo in her trunk to the tune of “Baby Mine,” you’re hopeless.
At 64 minutes, Dumbo is the shortest Disney feature, but far from the slightest. It packs more than one emotional wallop and finds time for plenty of humor and an alcohol-fueled fantasy sequence. “Pink Elephants On Parade” is truly the most off-the-wall, feverish touch in any Disney movie, made even stranger by the fact that our elephant child protagonist is wasted during it. But it’s also bizarrely brilliant, one of few truly experimental moments from Disney, recalling the dazzling creativity of Fantasia.
Dumbo is deceptively dark elsewhere, too. The “Song Of The Roustabouts” pays due to the illiterate, poorly compensated black men who “slave until we’re almost dead,” pitching circus tents during a storm. The number almost feels out of place, but Dumbo has an uncharacteristically pessimistic view of humankind overall. The circus patrons mock and jeer at Dumbo, the employees drunkenly debate workplace politics, and the performing animals are clearly miserable as slaves to their human masters. You’d expect a Disney movie set in the circus to be light and fun — but it’s actually pretty fucked up.
In retrospect, it was a poor choice to name the leader of Dumbo’s feathered friends “Jim Crow,” given the characters’ obvious African-American inspiration. (Jim Crow is voiced by Cliff Edwards, who is white; the other crows were voiced by black men.) But by the time we get there, it’s just a relief that someone’s being nice to Dumbo for a change, and their funny banter is welcome (if a bit racially charged these days). Our tortured elephant hero is so abused throughout Dumbo that it’s a true joy to see him take to the skies in the end.
Interestingly, Dumbo is also the only Disney protagonist who doesn’t speak — and Jumbo herself only speaks once. There’s plenty of chatter from Timothy Q. Mouse, the mean girl elephants, and the quintet of crows, but it’s still amazing how Disney is able to establish such a strong mother-and-child bond without dialogue, and such an emotional tale overall.
Released June 15, 1994
The Lion King was Disney’s first fully original feature story — though, as usual, it borrowed heavily from its own past to find the right formula. It’s essentially a mash-up of Bambi and The Jungle Book — a young male tragically loses a parent, meets new pals who preach a worry-free lifestyle, and grows into a “man” over the course of the story. Mufasa’s devastating demise is clearly modeled on Bambi‘s gut-punch offing of Bambi’s mom, “Hakuna Matata” is a barely-concealed remake of “Bare Necessities,” and Scar and Shere Khan could easily be long-lost cross-species twins.
It’s impressive, then, that The Lion King is so fresh and full of pep. It is riotously entertaining from start to finish, from the attention-grabbing opening (“Nants ingonyama!”) to the iconic final shot. Not a single moment drags. The comedy works like gangbusters, the emotional beats hit hard, the action is exhilarating, and the music is masterful. Truly, The Lion King is family entertainment firing on all cylinders. Disney’s canon is full of crowd pleasers, but has any animated film pleased ’em quite like this?
As a story, The Lion King is almost too slick for its epic scope — one can easily imagine the film expanded half an hour to flesh out its story beats. (Disney’s 2019 live action remake did run 30 minutes longer, and added virtually nothing, but I stand by my point.) Simba’s years-long friendship with Timon and Pumbaa unfolds entirely within the space of a montage. Ditto his rekindled romance with Nala. (It’s a testament to how strong the accompanying songs are that this works as well as it does.)
Scar’s takeover of Pride Rock also feels slightly truncated, and adult Simba’s story arc doesn’t quite land, his dialogue a little too on-the-nose. But these minor quibbles don’t detract from the pure pleasure of enjoying The Lion King. It’s no wonder that this was the highest grossing Walt Disney Animation Studios film of the 20th century.
5. THE JUNGLE BOOK
Released October 18, 1967
Aside from some superficial trappings, Disney animated features tend to stand apart from the eras they were made in. You have to dig pretty deep to declare that One Hundred And One Dalmatians is a distinct product of the early 60s, or that Alice In Wonderland has anything particular to say about the state of the world in 1951. We can assume that 1955’s Lady And The Tramp would not be a radically different film whether it was made in the 40s or 60s. Disney animated features are not the place to find cutting edge social commentary.
That’s not quite the case for The Jungle Book, which, despite its origins from Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 book, echoes the social upheaval of late 1960s counterculture. Mowgli, the “man cub,” is raised by wolves, but his true father figure is the panther, Bagheera, a “tough love” type who believes Mowgli should rejoin the world of men and become a respectable adult. Then Mowgli meets Baloo, a carefree hippie bear, who preaches a simple life in adherence to the “Bare Necessities,” singing, “Forget about your worries and your strife.” (The song is the clear prototype for “Hakuna Matata.”) Though Disney doesn’t make this explicit, Baloo is clearly a free-lovin’ stoner type, speaking in Phil Harris’ perfect surfer dude bass. His jaunty ideals clash with Bagheera’s buttoned-up buzzkill, and of course, Mowgli sides with problem-free Baloo… until the lazy lifestyle gets him kidnapped by King Louie and his army of apes, who want Mowgli to teach them to make fire so they can be more human.
You don’t have to squint too hard to see the reckless King Louie and his gang as an allegory for falling into drugs, a cult, or the hippie movement overall. These are temptations many kids did face in the late 60s. There’s a quartet of singing mop-topped vultures with Liverpool accents (originally intended to be voiced by The Beatles themselves). Louie’s desire for firepower even feels like Vietnam War dread creeping in at the edges. I’m not exactly saying that The Jungle Book is Disney’s The Deer Hunter… but I’m not not saying it. It goes farther than any other Disney film in commenting on current events — in its own way, it’s as much a document of 1967 cinema as In The Heat Of The Night or The Graduate.
This being a Disney movie, Mowgli does end up choosing the path of responsibility, of course — though he is led there by come-hither gaze of a fetching young lady. It’s a clever finale that tells us we can’t fight the natural order of things. Boys will grow into men.
The coming-of-age story arc could hardly be stronger, but The Jungle Book is also just great fun throughout, with the fearsome but oh-so-proper Shere Khan, the goofily menacing Kaa, and a handful of other jungle creatures adding color along the way. Come for the animal hijinks, stay for the potent sociopolitical commentary.
4. SLEEPING BEAUTY
Released January 29, 1959
A lot of my rankings come from the heart. This one is brought to you straight from my eyes. Every frame of Sleeping Beauty is worth hanging on your wall. If I had an entire castle to decorate, I’d cover it almost exclusively with stills from this film.
Sleeping Beauty is based on a not-so-feminist fairy tale about a princess who literally sleeps through the climax of her own story. It’s the ultimate damsel-in-distress tale, and in its broadest strokes, Sleeping Beauty can be held up alongside Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella to make an argument that Disney’s depiction of women in the 20th century left something to be desired.
I wouldn’t argue against that overall point. Princess Aurora, the titular beauty, is far from Disney’s most compelling heroine. She’s sweet, she’s gorgeous, she has a hell of a singing voice… and that’s about it. Her romance with the dashing Prince Phillip is cute but not so deeply felt, given that they barely know each other. (It’s a fun twist that they were actually betrothed at birth and don’t know it, but fall for each other anyway.)
Aurora isn’t really our protagonist, though. Powerful women, on the sides of both bad and good, drive the story. On the malevolent side, of course, is Maleficent. Disney does evil women so well, it’s hard to declare any one as their supreme villainess, but examine the evidence. Maleficent feels slighted by the king and queen, dooming their infant daughter to die on her sixteenth birthday. She follows through (though Aurora ends up in a coma, rather than death), then hunts down the girl’s paramour to extinguish any chance that true love’s kiss can save the day. When he escapes, she turns into a giant dragon to fight him. She’s cunning, cruel, and has the magical prowess to back up her wicked ways. In other words, she’s a total badass.
Prince Phillip is dashing and heroic, but Sleeping Beauty truly belongs to a trio of middle-aged women — Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, the three kindly fairies who take Aurora under their wing and then use their enchantments to fight off Maleficent and save the day. Phillip may be the one who strikes a killing blow to Dragon Maleficent, but he’s only able to do so with the intervention of Aurora’s guardian angels. These women also carry the burden of comic relief in the film, hilariously battling over whether their princess’ birthday gown should be pink or blue. Despite what the title and original story might suggest, Sleeping Beauty actually ends up being the most feminist Disney animated feature until at least the Disney Renaissance, driven entirely by crafty women of a certain age.
And that’s great — but let’s go back to talking about how it looks. Following 1955’s Lady And The Tramp, Sleeping Beauty is the second and final of these films to use anamorphic widescreen, and does a lot more with that scope than Lady And The Tramp attempted. The backgrounds are strikingly angular — even the forest looks architectural. More than any other Disney animated feature, Sleeping Beauty looks and feels like a storybook brought to life. The colors are to die for — so much so that color is a major plot point in the wand battles between Merryweather and Flora. This is Disney’s most resplendent film to behold.
Released August 21, 1942
These top three films are almost painful to rank, because each of them is perfect. I could easily make a case for Bambi as Disney’s absolute best… which is exactly what I’m about to do, even though I ultimately had to rank it at #3 for reasons I’ll get into shortly.
Bambi is a masterpiece — not just as a Disney animated feature, but as a film. It’s one of the most beautiful motion pictures ever made. And even though I just said that Sleeping Beauty is Disney’s most visually splendid offering, it was a very tight race against Bambi‘s gorgeous, impressionistic forest backgrounds, courtesy of Chinese animator Tyrus Wong.
Bambi is also one of the most economical screen stories ever told, conveying so much while overtly saying very little. It’s a coming-of-age tale, a story about the circle of life (Bambi beat The Lion King to the punch there, too); it’s both very specific to these forest creatures while also feeling universally, recognizably human. Disney’s attention to detail in the way animals move — which is almost always very good — has never been better.
This is the only Disney story that could really happen; there’s no magic, nothing fantastical. The story beats adhere to everyday life in the forest — seasonal changes, the cycle of life and death that is so much a part of the natural world. Bambi, Thumper, and Flower are childhood friends who eventually reach adolescence — one by one, they develop an interest in sex, as creatures do. Yet this moment when the friends abandon each other for the opposite sex also feels remarkably human — like these animals, we tend to pair off, placing less importance in friendships and more in mates.
Bambi‘s most infamous moment is still a shocker. There’s an early, foreboding tease before Bambi’s mother is fatally shot by an unseen hunter. The loss is heavy, but the film itself moves on startlingly quickly. This is the natural order of things. More than any individual character, Bambi is about life itself.
In many ways, the unseen hunter is Disney’s most ominous villain. He’s an anonymous man with a gun, with no backstory, no motivation. (It’s more relevant now than ever.) A scene in which a frightened pheasant makes a fatal mistake is tense and heartbreaking; the words “man is in the forest” can chill to the bone. The climactic forest fire is harrowing but magnificently animated.
See? I’ve practically talked myself into moving this up to #1. Perhaps the reason I don’t is that Bambi is so distinct in the Disney canon. Even when Disney repurposed many of these beats for The Lion King, it didn’t accomplish quite so much with quite so little. Subtlety isn’t Disney’s strong suit; the studio excels at sweeping, imaginative crowd-pleasers. Quiet, profound, and full of grace, this is the very opposite of everything Disney does best. Bambi is an art film through-and-through. I’m twitterpated.
2. THE LITTLE MERMAID
Released November 17, 1989
For a solid five years, Disney churned out unbelievably successful films beloved by critics, parents, children — and Disney itself, thanks to the killing these films made at the box office. The Little Mermaid kicked off Disney’s unbeatable streak in the early 90s, reinventing animated family films as Broadway-style musicals.
Disney films had music before, of course — even the first, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, has a couple of classic ditties. But before 1989, this was inconsistent — some Disney movies had songs sung by the characters, some had non-diagetic music, some barely no musical qualities at all. The Little Mermaid established a clear, winning soundtrack formula that would be replicated by most other successful animated family films for years to come — a Disney movie includes a funny song, a yearning ballad, the villain’s piece, and a romantic number, and everybody goes home happy. Disney’s best films from 1989 on follow this formula to the letter.
But none did it quite so deftly as The Little Mermaid. Here, we get the quintessential “I want…” song in “Part Of Your World”; the hilarious, lyrically playful “Under The Sea”; Disney’s sexiest love song, “Kiss The Girl”; and its all-time best villain number in Ursula’s decadently wicked “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” The strongest Disney movies have the best villains, and Ursula is my very favorite, from her bodacious body language to her raspy, witchy delivery of every fiendish line. Her evil plot is one of Disney’s most intricate and diabolical — taking Ariel’s signature voice in exchange for a pair of legs, then using that voice to seduce the very prince Ariel became human for. It’s ice cold! Ursula also has the best Disney minions in Flotsam and Jetsam, whose echoing, hissy voices still make me shudder.
The Little Mermaid tells a universally relatable story about a teenage girl fighting a controlling parent for independence. Disney princesses are justly criticized for throwing themselves at men, but Ariel is fascinated by the human world before she meets Eric. She’s not really fighting for him — she’s fighting for her right to choose her own life. King Triton’s torching of Ariel’s treasure trove is one of the most shocking, mortifying acts of violence in the Disney canon. We hate him in that moment. It’s a strong enough motivator for us to buy that Ariel would make the deal she does with the sea witch. (In fact, we’re kind of rooting for it.)
Like nearly every other Disney princess, Ariel does eventually become a damsel in distress — but it’s distress of her own making, which is far more compelling than any deus ex machina. She chooses a deal with the devil — everything that happens after is a consequence. The Little Mermaid also boasts a couple of all-time great comic characters — Scuttle is a lovable doofus, and Sebastian the anxiety-addled crab is a delight. In many ways, The Little Mermaid is his story. He takes on a father figure role when charged with Ariel’s safety, and in the end, both he and Triton must learn to let her go her own way.
One could easily argue that The Little Mermaid‘s success holds more historical significance than any Disney film aside from Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. After an iffy period in the 70s and 80s, The Little Mermaid revived the Disney brand at the box office and renewed the public’s appetite for sweeping, heartfelt movie musicals. It gets so much right out of the gate, it’s astonishing. There isn’t a single moment that doesn’t work. You’d have to steal my voice to get me to stop singing The Little Mermaid‘s praises.
Released February 23, 1940
With films as classic as these, it’s hard to pick a champion. The Little Mermaid may have been a flawless revival of the Disney formula, but Pinocchio is the film that set that formula nearly 50 years earlier — way back in 1940.
In fact, many elements of The Little Mermaid originated right here — a single dad, a battle with monstrous sea creature, a fish sidekick, and the yearning to be made fully human (granted via a magic transformation that comes with a catch). Jiminy Cricket is the clear prototype for The Little Mermaid‘s Sebastian — both are tasked with the safety of our protagonists, their wisdom consistently ignored.
Like all the Disney greats, Pinocchio‘s story is universal. Our wooden hero is constantly forced to choose between what he should do and what he wants to do. He screws up again and again. His heart is in the right place, but then his id interferes. Who can’t relate? Most Disney protagonists have bad things happen to them, but like Ariel, Pinocchio is his own agent of chaos. We all know what it’s like to give in to temptation, even when our conscience nags at us to make a better choice. It’s a morality tale that resonates equally well with the youngest of children and the oldest of adults.
Of course, no Disney film could be #1 without a strong villain. Pinocchio introduces a whole rogues gallery of antagonists within the same movie, each more menacing than the last. First, Honest John and Gideon lure Pinocchio away from school with the fame and fortune of an actor’s life. Then the brutish Stromboli gives Pinocchio a starring role in his show — locking him in a cage between performances. The Blue Fairy helps him escape, and Pinocchio vows to be good from now on — then promptly breaks the promise and follows the sinister Coachman to Pleasure Island. In the climax, Pinocchio must rescue poor Gepetto from the belly of Monstro the fearsome whale.
The episodic nature of these setbacks make Pinocchio feel more true-to-life than most family films, despite the magical trappings. These villains aren’t driven by diabolical plans for world domination, but by pure greed. Scariest of all is the Coachman, who seduces wayward young boys into his hedonistic paradise, letting them drink and smoke and demolish all they want — until they turn into donkeys. The Pleasure Island sequence is easily the darkest Disney’s ever gotten, a perfect allegory for what can happen when our ids are overindulged. Most unsettling of all? None of these villains are vanquished in the end. Pinocchio escapes, but others won’t. How’s that for a life lesson?
Pinocchio is practically bursting with plot, introducing us to new characters and settings every few minutes. In that way, it’s the anti-Bambi, but it remains focused on a simple emotional core, anchored by a lonely old man’s love for his son. Gepetto is practically a mascot for loving father figures, one of the all-time greatest dads in all of cinema. Pinocchio represents the anxiety of being a parent, of letting your progeny step out into the big, bad world. The child must navigate a cruel, calculating world full of greed and deceit. Gepetto can’t save him. Only following his innate goodness will get Pinocchio through unscathed.
Pinocchio‘s Oscar-winning “When You Wish Upon A Star” went on to become Disney’s theme. It still is, almost 80 years later. While Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs established many elements that would come to define the Disney brand, that film fell short on character development. There’s no lesson to be gleaned. It’s not really about anything.
Amazingly, it only took one more feature for Disney to get everything right. Before Pinocchio, we knew that animation could be amusing or visually dazzling, but we didn’t know it could make us feel. Then Pinocchio fulfilled the potential of what an animated film could be. The story, the music, the animation, the voice work, and the heart — it’s all here in Pinocchio, and it’s all perfect.