It's hard to rank the Disney animated films, and not just because there are so many of them. These are films that mean so much to so many people, that are inherently linked to powerful memories of childhood and have informed what we so many adults consider magical. Ranking their respective strengths and weaknesses becomes as much an investigation of why you loved something as it is to their relative worth as a creative endeavor. (Divorcing yourself of those emotions is mightily challenging.) Still, I tried to do just that, and wanted to share stories from the making of the movies as well, so you know just what went into that film's success (or lack thereof). So, yes, this is a history lesson as much as it’s a critical appraisal. (My primary sources were Disney War by James B. Stewart, Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace, and "Walt Disney" by Neal Gabler, plus the fantastic documentary films Waking Sleeping Beauty and Walt and El Grupo. I heartily recommend them all.)
With today marking the 100th anniversary of Walt and Roy Disney starting the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, let's take a look at the company's 61 Disney animated classics released so far. And if you feel inspired to check some of these out on Disney+, here's a list of everything currently available to stream on that streaming service.
61. Chicken Little (2005)
The mid-2000's were an interesting time for Walt Disney Animation Studios; they had all but completely abandoned the traditional hand-drawn animation, with the satellite studios in Paris and Orlando quietly closing their doors as well (in 2002 and 2004 respectively). There was even an attempt to produce sequels to Pixar films without their involvement, thanks to a loophole in their original arrangement that Michael Eisner wanted to exploit (there was even an additional animation studio – Circle 7 – set up in Glendale to handle the sequels). And in this chaotic time, WDAS was trying to reinvent itself as the fresh, edgy, computer-generated studio of tomorrow. It was as messy and aimless as the animation studio had been since Walt died, and was marked with the same kind of creative and financial uncertainty. And into this Chicken Little was born. This is a movie that made no impact. You don't see plushes of the characters in Disney Stores and you don't see them walking around Disneyland or Walt Disney World shaking peoples' hands. It has all but evaporated from the public consciousness and for good reason: it's really pretty bad. Originally envisioned as a more unconventional story about a female Chicken Little and her relationship with her father, it transformed over the years into a kind of sci-fi comedy, with the "sky is falling" referring to an alien invasion. (Okay.) Mark Dindal, who had previously directed the deeply brilliant The Emperor's New Groove, feels lost with the extra dimensionality and the animators, learning an entirely new methodology, aren't exactly on their game. This is probably the ugliest-looking Disney movie ever.
60. The Fox and the Hound (1981)
Dear lord this movie is boring. It's somewhat historically important because it was the last movie to be worked on by some of Walt's legendary Nine Old Men, who then handed the animation duties off to a new generation of talented artists, many of whom would be responsible for shaping the next few generations of Disney animated features (among them: John Lasseter, Tim Burton, Ron Clements, John Musker, Mark Dindal and Brad Bird). Also of note was the fact that during production Don Bluth, one of the company's star animators and someone who many saw as the heir apparent to Walt Disney, staged a major defection with several other animators and left the studio, something that effectively waylaid the production (with 17% of the staff gone the release date was pushed from Christmas 1980 to summer 1981). Clearly, the creative tension between the old guard and the new crop of animators left its mark. You can feel a better movie trying to get out from under the cutesy, cloying façade of The Fox and the Hound, but sadly it never happens. (And just imagine if they had gone through with a sequence involving game show staple Charo as a crane singing a song called "Scoobie-Doobie Doobie Doo, Let Your Body Turn Goo." Actually, maybe that would have been incredible.) Sure, it's cute, but can you really remember anything besides the bear attack sequence and Pearl Bailey singing "Best of Friends?" Didn't think so.
59. Home on the Range (2004)
For a while it looked like Home on the Range would be the last traditionally animated movie Disney would ever release. And if that had been true it would have been a truly inglorious demise. Home on the Range, originally envisioned as an ambitious supernatural western called Sweating Bullets (it went into production shortly after Hercules), soon mutated into a dinky musical comedy featuring three female cows (Rosanne Barr, Judi Dench, and Jennifer Tilly) who attempt to stop a cattle rustler (played, in his waning days of sanity, by Randy Quaid). It is, no joke, a huge waste of time – humorless, slack, and featuring unimaginative character designs and backgrounds. The only highlight (and a relatively dim one at that) is the villain's big musical number, "Yodel-Adle-Eedle-Idle-Oo," which at least sees them channeling some early Disney weirdness. Thankfully there would be more traditionally animated movies released by Disney, so even its place in the historic Disney canon has been diluted.
58. Dinosaur (2000)
If it turns out Jon Favreau's The Lion King remake uses live action plates that the animators will then superimpose hyper-realistic characters upon (and I can't get confirmation that this has been completely ruled out), just know that there's a precedent for this kind of thing. And that it's awful. That was the conceit behind Dinosaur, a bold, ambitious, and utterly boring experiment that was a production handled by both Walt Disney Animation Studios and The Secret Lab, a hybrid effects and animation house that Disney had set up in a state-of-the-art facility near the Burbank airport. What began in 1988 as a stop-motion project, to be directed by Paul Verhoeven with animation overseen by the legendary Phil Tippett, soon became a rather cookie-cutter tale of family and survival rendered in thoroughly unconvincing and instantly dated computer animation. The first ten minutes of the movie, a wordless odyssey that followed an egg as it was about to be hatched, is magnificent but the rest … not so much. Everything about it is both absurd (so many lemurs) and banal; it's a movie that has the highest possible stakes (the end of the world) but can't muster much energy or emotional investment. The film, released a few weeks after the BBC special Walking with Dinosaurs (which employed literally the same live action plates and animated characters approach), felt like yesterday's news before it even came out. Extinction couldn't come soon enough.
57. Bolt (2008)
Walt Disney Animation at its most inoffensive, Bolt features a talented team behind the camera, including future Big Hero 6 director Chris Williams, the Tangled creative team of Byron Howard and Nathan Greno, and a script co-written by This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman, but lacks anything remotely interesting, either technically or storytelling-wise. The fact that it is coherent at all is something of a miracle, given that its production aligned closely with the contentious "Save Disney" campaign that would end with Michael Eisner being ousted and Bob Iger paying a hefty sum for Pixar and its creative principles to run all of Disney's animated output. Originally the film was called American Dog and was being written and directed by Chris Sanders, the prickly genius behind Lilo & Stitch and a longtime Disney story artist (his storyboards for The Lion King will make your jaw drop – and those were only storyboards). That film, had it seen the light of day, would have been heralded as an offbeat masterpiece, mark my words. But new boss John Lasseter, now finding himself in charge of Disney animation as well as Pixar, disliked Lilo & Stitch and thought American Dog's story was too problematic (he couldn't get over the idea that humans could understand animals when they were talking to them). Sanders was relieved, the new (extremely talented) team was installed, and the narrative became much simpler and less fussy. Bolt is workmanlike, for sure, and it's probably a good thing, for the overall health of the studio, that it went a more conventional route. But American Dog (along with a few others) remains a damnably tangible what-if that makes Bolt look like less of a film than it already is, for better or worse.
56. Oliver & Company (1988)
If you've ever wondered where the painfully "hip" DreamWorks Animation movies began, well, here's a good place to start. Originally pitched by animator Pete Young in one of Jeffrey Katzenberg's infamous "Gong Show" pitch meetings where animators would throw out ideas and bad ideas would be "gonged" out of the room (the pitch was simply "Oliver Twist with dogs"), it sparked to Katzenberg's desire to make a big budget movie out of Broadway standard Oliver! while at Paramount Pictures. Now he could do it! With dogs! While a modest hit at the box office, the movie is a creative disappointment (and many at Disney shared this opinion at the time). The grab bag of pop musicians and musical personalities wedged into the movie (among them: Billy Joel, Huey Lewis and Bette Midler, who was something of a Disney stalwart at the time) in a desperate bid for contemporary relevance made for a less cohesive vibe. It is worth noting that this is the first Disney animated feature to showcase the lyrical abilities of the legendary Howard Ashman, who along with Alan Menken would go on to become a key component of Disney's renewed popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was also the first film to ditch actual paint; the movie was largely colored instead by the CAPS system that was developed with the help of a struggling computer firm in Northern California named Pixar. (The Rescuers Down Under would be the first film to utilize the process completely.) While these are interesting asides they add nothing to the actual enjoyment of the film, which feels lame and disjointed.
55. The Black Cauldron (1985)
This movie is terrible but the stories that came out of it are beyond delicious. More than ten years in the making (the rights were first optioned in 1971 and Disney reacquired the rights last year), The Black Cauldron was the first Walt Disney animated film to feature computer-generated imagery, the first to have a Dolby Digital soundtrack, the first to be rated PG and the first to extensively use 70mm since Sleeping Beauty in 1979. It was the nadir of the post-Walt period; the production was wasteful, exorbitant, and creatively unfocused. And that was before Roy Disney, Walt's nephew and a key board member, saw a rough cut of the film and was horrified by what he saw as excessive violence. He suggested trimming bloody sequences but according to James Stewart's Disney War, confessed to producer Joe Hale, "I just don't understand the story." But that was nothing compared with the reaction it elicited in Jeffrey Katzenberg, the newly installed head of animation who had followed Michael Eisner from Paramount. "This has to be edited," he proclaimed. "Animated films can't be edited," Hale informed him. Katzenberg stormed into the editing room and had to be talked out by Eisner, who informed him that Roy could handle the situation. The movie was postponed a year, with more of the objectionable material taken out and additional dialogue recorded. When Roy appeared on The Today Show and was asked what the movie was, he couldn't say. When the film finally opened, it lost at the box office to The Care Bears Movie. The reign of Disney was officially over. They had hit bottom. And watching the movie now, it doesn't hold up any better. It's still ugly and muddled, with simplistic designs (and this is after they had coaxed Milt Kahl out of retirement to do additional conceptualization). John Hurt as The Horned King, though, is the stuff of nightmares and is easily one of the scariest (and most underutilized) Disney villains ever (there used to be a very creepy Audio Animatronic version of the character in Tokyo Disneyland – YouTube it). The Black Cauldron is a noble failure but that doesn't make it any more interesting or watchable.
54. Saludos Amigos (1942)
The first in a series of more economically manageable "package films" that could be produced utilizing the diminished resources of the studio during World War II (when the Burbank studio was occupied by military personnel and produced a number of educational films) and the first film inspired by Walt's government-sponsored goodwill tour of South America (more on that later), Saludos Amigos is more fascinating than lovable. The film is mostly notable for its colorful introduction of Jose Carioca (voiced by Jose Oliveira), the Brazilian, cigar-chomping, samba-loving parrot who served as Donald Duck's confederate. Of the film's segments, the most memorable is "Pedro," about an anthropomorphic plane delivering mail in Chile (he follows a similar path to the one Walt took). This sequence was so good, in fact, that it was released as a stand-alone short by Disney's then-distributor RKO.
53. Three Caballeros (1944)
The follow-up to Saludos Amigos and the second of Disney's World War II-era "package films" to be inspired by Walt's ambassadorship to South America. (Briefly: the State Department, desperate to drum up support in South America, sent Walt on a goodwill tour of the region. Walt, who brought along a small team of artists, saw it as a way to creatively recharge his batteries.) Three Caballeros is the more fun, energetic version of Saludos Amigos, and has another all-new character to join Jose and Donald: Panchito Pistoles (Joaquin Garay), who was meant to represent Mexican culture. It also introduced Aracuan Bird, a weird South American bird of indeterminate origin who would go on to make several more appearances alongside the more popular characters. Although considered one of Walt Disney Animation Studios' animated classics, the film features liberal use of live action footage, most of it featuring popular cultural figures from the time (Aurora Miranda, Dora Luz, etc.) This is a movie that is lively and weird, especially during the kaleidoscopic "Donald's Surreal Reverie" sequence which is trippier than anything the studio had done outside the "Pink Elephants on Parade" sequence from Dumbo and all of Fantasia. Three Caballeros has had a surprisingly long shadow, as well, thanks largely to their appearance (complete with the magic carpet from the "Mexico: Pátzcuaro, Veracruz and Acapulco" section of the movie) in Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros, the attraction at the heart of the Mexico Pavilion in Epcot Center's World Showcase at Walt Disney World. Ole!
52. Meet the Robinsons (2007)
This is an odd transitional feature in the company's history. During production, Disney had announced that it was acquiring Pixar and that John Lasseter, visionary filmmaker and Pixar bigwig, would be leading the charge on all animated features. When he saw Meet the Robinsons, he cornered director Stephen Anderson and told him how the movie could be improved. (The New York Times claims the meeting lasted six hours.) The movie ended up being pushed back, and the film heavily reworked (something like 60% of what had previously been done was thrown out). It's unclear if the earlier version of the film would have been much better, but the version of Meet the Robinsons that was released was fairly undercooked. There are some great things about this family comedy-cum-time travel tale, in particular Danny Elfman's score and some nifty shout-outs to the Tomorrowland section of the Disney Parks, but overall this feels like the pilot to a series we never get to watch. There are so many characters, each one of them thinly sketched, with very little in the way of resolution (or even a clear emotional throughline). It was the work of a studio on the precipice of renewed greatness but this one is … not great.
51. Make Mine Music (1946)
The third of the World War II-era "package films" designed to keep the studio afloat while the actual physical studio was being occupied by the US military and forced to churn out artful propaganda films, Make Mine Music has slightly more prestige (it was entered into the Cannes Film Festival) and a handful of memorable pieces, but like the other films in this series feels like what it is – a collection of unrefined ideas shoved next to one another and released theatrically. (There are ten segments and yet the movie barely cracks an hour runtime.) The more memorable sections of the film include "Blue Bayou" (beautiful and melancholic, it was originally planned for Fantasia and served as the inspiration for one of Disneyland's most famous restaurants), "Casey at the Bat" (based on the Ernest Thayer poem, recited here) and "Peter and the Wolf" (genuinely gorgeous, based on the Sergei Prokofiev composition with narration by Sterling Holloway). The film (originally titled Swing Street) was not one of Walt's favorites (the animators agreed, referring to it as a "remnant sale"), and critics usually effusive about anything with the Disney name attached to it were indifferent. Still, it made a profit so more films in the style were produced. The remnant sales continued.
50. Fun and Fancy Free (1947)
Instead of a plethora of shorter films, Fun and Fancy Free was sliced right down the middle (like one of Mickey's beans), featuring two tales that were originally developed as feature films before stalling. That meant that one half of the film was devoted to "Bongo," a story about a circus bear who finds himself back in nature (a storyline that would be recycled decades later in films like Bolt), narrated by Jiminy Cricket; and "Mickey and the Beanstalk," the far greater section of the film, which put Walt's most famous character in the classic fairy tale. (This had been an idea that had been proposed as early as 1940 as a feature entitled The Legend of Happy Valley.) "Mickey and the Beanstalk" was narrated by Edgar Bergen, who Disney biographer Neal Gabler noted as "one of the very few people" Walt socialized with. While the Mickey section of the film is superior, it also suffers a bit from casting Mickey as just another character (a similar fate befell the Muppets when they were being forced into classic literary adaptations), as Gabler also notes. Maybe it's telling that this was the first film where Walt didn't exclusively voice the character himself. Instead, he called sound effects man Jimmy Macdonald into his office and told him he didn't have the time anymore, although its been theorized that his voice, which took on a gravelly quality due to his chain-smoking filter-less cigarettes, probably had something to do with it. Macdonald would voice the character for the next 38 years. So while the Mickey in this film had drifted far away from the Mouse that was so beloved, it was the start of a version of the character that would last for the next several decades.
49. Melody Time (1948)
Maybe the most uneven of the "package films," there's also some lyrical beauty to be found in Melody Time, which, despite its ups and downs, makes it the best of the bunch – or at least the most interesting. Originally intended as an anthology of American folk heroes (only two are left in the final product), it serves as a kind of half-formed follow-up to Fantasia, which despite its commercial success was still seen as a creative north star. Of the seven short sections, most are at least entertaining and some are downright stunning. "Once Upon a Wintertime," with its bold, graphic aesthetic and wordless storytelling, is something of a Disney holiday classic; there's a kind of odd beauty to "Trees," due mostly to its use of "frosted" cells to convey its storybook origins; "Pecos Bill" is a rousing salute to American mythmaking; and "Blame it on the Samba" features our friends from Saludos Amigos, which is fun. Ultimately, Melody Time (like the other package films) sits awkwardly between an overlong "Silly Symphony" and the grand ambition of Fantasia. When the film was released it failed to recoup its hefty $2 million price tag, blamed (by Roy Disney, at least) on a polio scare that was keeping children away from movie theaters. The result was layoffs at the studio and a three-week Hawaiian cruise for Walt. He wanted to forget about work for a while. It's easy to understand why.
48. The Rescuers (1977)
Remembered now more for the single-frame splice of a pornographic film into the background than for anything in the actual movie, The Rescuers is intermittently charming but mostly flavorless and limp. Originally attempted years earlier with The Jungle Book favorite Louis Prima in a prominent musical role (he'd also play a singing bear), it was put on hold after the singer discovered he had a brain tumor. Instead, two other Margery Sharp stories were adapted and combined to form The Rescuers. The idea of a pair of animal detectives attempting to solve a crime in the human world is an ingenious idea (the original poster promised "mystery," "fun" and "intrigue"), and Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor are terrific performers, gamely suited for animation. (Just think about Newhart's flawless cameo eulogizing Krusty on The Simpsons or Gabor's superior performance in The Aristocats.) But the movie feels listless and the animation style (referred to as xerography due to the animator's lines being copied onto cels), which is charming in other films, feels cheap and unfinished here. The hairiness of the lines adds a seedy quality to the entire enterprise (which was fully pulled into the mucky depths by that animator splicing a shot from an adult film into the background of one of the scenes). The most memorable aspect of the film is probably Madame Medusa (Geraldine Page), a blustery villainess that was originally supposed to be Cruella de Vil and was eventually modeled on legendary animator Milt Kahl's ex-wife (seriously). The characters of Bernard and Bianca would be revisited years later in a superior (and still oddly overlooked) sequel, the first in the history of Walt Disney Animation Studios.
47. The Aristocats (1970)
This, of all things, was the last film approved by Walt Disney himself before his untimely death in 1966. Originally conceived as twin episodes of his prime-time television series, Walt liked the story (by Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color writers Tom McGowan and Tom Rowe) so much that he suggested it might work better as an animated feature. Even with more than two years of work put into refining the storyline, the movie often feels worn and like a lesser version of better Disney films (101 Dalmatians specifically). The vocal performances by Phil Harris and Eva Gabor are aces, as are the songs by the Sherman Brothers ("Everybody Wants to Be a Cat" and "Thomas O'Malley Cat" are certifiable classics). But even the songs have a kind of bittersweet quality to them; this was the last film that the Sherman Brothers would work on for the company, finding the professional atmosphere at the studio toxic following Walt's death. (They wouldn't return until The Tigger Movie in 2000.) This was a period of listlessness and creative uneasiness and in The Aristocats … it shows.
46. Robin Hood (1973)
Check your nostalgia: Robin Hood isn’t very good. It was born of many abandoned ideas and half-baked inclinations – Walt Disney wanted to do something with Reynard the fox, a medieval character that was initially to serve as animated vignettes to be incorporated into Treasure Island; an animated adaptation of the popular play Chantecler (the main character was a rooster) had been developed but floundered, and designer Ken Anderson had successfully rallied support for an all-animal version of Robin Hood set in the deep south (an idea that Song of the South had already soured). The resulting film is neither fish nor foul (nor fox), a loose collection of classic tropes, undeniably wonderful character designs by Anderson (although it always bothered me why Sir Hiss, a snake, was furry), and animated sequences that were literally recycled from earlier, far better animated features. (While some find it ugly, I'm a big fan of the look of the Xerox photography process, which gave the lines a kind of raggedness.) Robin Hood is painfully evocative of the films that were made in the aftermath of Walt's death, with creative principles too busy wondering what Disney would have done (or liked) that they never thought to innovate for themselves. It has its charms, and it was clearly an influence on last year's Oscar-winning Zootopia, but Robin Hood is far from a classic.
45. Pocahontas (1995)
Yes, Pocahontas is gorgeous, with its sharp graphical aesthetic that is reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty and "Once Upon a Wintertime." It's directed by two of Walt Disney Animation's very best, Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg. There are a couple of catchy tunes. But, and I apologize to your nostalgia-worshipping inner child when I say this, it's also pretty lousy and a sobering reminder that pedigree does not equal entertainment value. Gabriel's original pitch, utilizing an image of Tiger Lily from Peter Pan, supposedly received the quickest green light in the history of the studio. (This had to do with a number of factors, including the rapid-fire way that movies were pitched back in the day, the alluringness of the image Gabriel had created, and the studio's long held desire to make an animated version of Romeo & Juliet.) Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, for his part, thought it could be another Beauty and the Beast, while Disney chief Michael Eisner worried that it couldn't live up to the standards of the recent slate of hits and nitpicked details of the story and music.
Ultimately, Eisner was right. The film just doesn't work as well as it should. It's both too heavy and, at the same time, the attempts to alleviate the darkness just come off as tonally inconsistent and out-of-place. You can feel it strain to maintain its seriousness, even during sequences with talking trees or comedic pugs. It's puffed up by its own inflated sense of self. "Colors of the Wind" is a showstopper, for sure, but otherwise can you name another song from the movie (besides the incredibly questionable "Savages")? While the character has maintained a fair degree of popularity due to her inclusion in the Disney Princess consumer products line, the movie has largely faded from memory. (Not that it was a smash to begin with; compared with those earlier releases from the same timeframe, it underwhelmed critically and commercially, although a rousing Pocahontas-themed ride was planned for the eventually-defunct Disney's America theme park.) In every sequence of Pocahontas you can feel its good intentions but those same intentions are what makes it feel so safe and boring. Quite frankly it could have used a little savagery.
44. Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)
In many ways, Raya and the Last Dragon is a film about resurrecting the past and going back to what worked before, and this certainly feels like Disney sticking with tried and true formulas. For example, Raya’s story of a princess who must go out on her own to save her family and her home thematically feels a bit like Moana, while Awkwafina’s performance as Sisu the dragon can’t help but remind of the Genie from Aladdin. Despite the setting of a fascinating world and culture that isn’t explored nearly as much as it should be, much of Raya is just fine. It's never too exciting or funny, but always stays on the right side of amusing. Raya and the Last Dragon is decent, but it never does enough to separate itself from the rest of the Disney canon. — Ross Bonaime
43. Strange World (2022)
After Disney's not-so-successful attempts at more action-oriented animated films in the early 2000s, it's admirable that Disney returns to this style of film with Strange World. Taking inspiration from pulp novels and classic sci-fi tales, Strange World feels like the studio dipping its toes back into taking big swings with its animated films. Yet there are plenty of growing pains here, as Disney attempts something a bit less conventional for them, and while its ambition is admirable, Strange World just isn't as funny or exciting as it probably should be, and the earnest story of love within a family might be too much for some viewers. But Strange World’s charm, forward-thinking storytelling, and inventive world-building make its failures easy to ignore. Strange World feels like Disney’s attempt to try something new with their fairly conservative animated side of things, and even if it doesn’t all completely work, it’s exciting to once again see Disney at least take a shot and see what sticks. — Ross Bonaime
42. Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
I spoke to Mike Mignola, the creator of Hellboy, about Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise brought Mignola onto the project and tasked him with designing characters and dictating the movie's overall aesthetic. The filmmakers saw Atlantis: The Lost Empire as a badass, swashbuckling ode to old Ray Harryhausen monster movies. (To quote my dear friend and Disney historian Jim Hill, at one point, "this movie had balls.") Mignola loved the process and said that the production was so atypical that they had a story artist in one room whose job all day was to design booby traps that would creatively kill key characters. It's especially a shame since much of Mignola's design work and all of those booby traps never made it to the final film. (If you want to know how hard the movie once was, look up the unused Viking prologue to the film.) You can tell that Trousdale and Wise, who had made the classics Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame for the company, had wanted to spread their wings. The resulting movie features a charming "men on a mission" framework wherein a ragtag band of misfits uncovers the mystery of the lost city of Atlantis, but you can feel the creative concessions and cut corners everywhere, even after the release date was pushed back. (Michael Eisner once described the film as a "wonderful addition to the Disney animation legacy.")
What should have been a soaring return to form ultimately fell flat; while critics like the film, Atlantis had the grave misfortune of opening in the same summer as Shrek. Shrek, as spearheaded by former Disney bigwig Jeffrey Katzenberg, lampooned the classic Disney style, while Atlantis: The Lost Empire, did everything it could to embrace that legacy. There couldn't have been two more different animated features in the same space. Hopes were high for Atlantis, with an incredible theme park attraction planned and an animated series already in the works, but those extensions were quietly killed in the wake of its disappointing box office. There's something undeniably odd and inviting about Atlantis, from Mignola's designs to the swift, action movie pacing (the crew wore shirts that said "Fewer songs, more explosions"), which became even quicker when large chunks of the film were deemed too expensive to animate (the crew was going to encounter a bevy of mythical creatures on their journey; ultimately they just run into some steampunk fish). This really does feel like a live action epic, with its super wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio and 70 mm presentation (shades of both Sleeping Beauty and The Black Cauldron) and giant James Newton Howard score, and the film has developed a fiercely devoted cult following. Even after its balls were removed, Atlantis: The Lost Empire is unlike any other Disney animated feature and deserving of rediscovery, just like the titular city.
41. Fantasia 2000 (1999)
Walt had always wanted to do another Fantasia. Before it was released he hypothesized that it could have run for decades, with an occasional new segment being added to appease new audiences. While work on a follow-up was flirted with in the early 1980s, it wasn't until Fantasia was released on home video in 1990 and sold 15 million copies (!) that company head Michael Eisner gave the project a green light. (Jeffrey Katzenberg always hated it, and it remained a passion project of Roy E. Disney, Walt's nephew.) By all accounts, the production was a nightmare as Roy and his collaborators trudged through pieces of classical music and debated endlessly as to the style and direction the different segments should take. The fact that everything took so long makes the final decisions even more baffling ("Pomp and Circumstance" as a weird comic retelling of Noah's Ark with Donald Duck as Noah? Really?) but, while the general quality fails to reach the astronomical heights of the original, the sections that are good are really, really good. In particular, the jazzy "Rhapsody in Blue" section, animated by the great Eric Goldberg and based on the caricatured style of Al Hirschfeld, is a standout. As is "The Firebird," a sweeping, quasi-spiritual successor to the "Night on Bald Mountain" section of the original, this time with a gentler, more environmentally conscious message and even dreamier visuals (accomplished via a romantic combination of traditional animation and computerized effects), based on Igor Stravinsky's ballet of the same name. While Fantasia 2000 didn't make the same impact as the original Fantasia, there were a number of nifty exhibitions of the film, including a limited run that featured a full orchestra (each of these performances cost the company over $1 million) and a wider IMAX presentation.
What's even more surprising is that at least two sequels were in development following the film's release (that I know of); one was based on world music and had several segments go into production (when the project was scrapped these segments were released as short films) and the other based on a handful of ideas concocted by Goldberg himself. It's a shame that Fantasia 2000, which today plays like an instant time capsule thanks to its late-'90s-specific guest appearances (who invited Penn & Teller?) was the end of the line for the Fantasia brand. The original project was so innovative and it was clearly so close to Walt's heart that to have the franchise end this ingloriously, with an uneven feature that most people skipped, is a huge disappointment no matter how you slice it and what pretty music is playing in the background.
40. Treasure Planet (2002)
Director Ron Clements, who would go on to create some of the most unforgettable classics during the so-called Disney Renaissance, didn't have the same clout in 1985. Back then he found himself taking part in one of the "gong show" pitch sessions that Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg would conduct, wherein animators would quickly pitch several ideas that were either accepted or dismissed, right there on the spot. Two of Clements' ideas that day were rejected. One was for The Little Mermaid (dismissed because it was too similar to Disney's recent live-action hit Splash) and the other was something Clements described as "Treasure Island in space." (According to author James B. Stewart, Eisner gonged the idea, partially because he knew there was a Treasure Island-style Star Trek sequel in the works at Paramount.) When Disney was trying to get Hercules off the ground, after a failed development period on an Odyssey animated feature, they went to Clements and his directing partner John Musker and told them they could finally make their "Treasure Island in space" movie if they'd just get Hercules across the finish line. They agreed.
But by the time Treasure Planet (as it was eventually known) was in development, Atlantis: The Lost Empire had come out, a similarly themed (and more importantly, identically marketed) animated sci-fi film had come out and been ignored by audiences. The weekend after Treasure Planet opened to a lackluster box office tally, Disney brass announced a nearly $75 million write-down on the film, the largest in the history of animation. Still, the movie was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and there are some cool things about it. But as a whole, it doesn't work nearly as well as it should, feeling like any number of anonymous animated features from that same period (hello Titan A.E.!) The translation of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic tale to an intergalactic setting is surprisingly seamless (the script was worked on by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, Clements and Musker's collaborators on Aladdin and co-architects of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise), even if some of the ideas and character designs don't quite work (WTF is globular sidekick Morph about anyway?) Maybe most damnable is how little you see Clements and Musker in the work. These guys are classic filmmakers who know how to reinvent and subvert both audience expectations and the original source material, but here the storytelling feel stale and desperately striving for relevance (it's not enough that Jim Hawkins has a cool alt-rock haircut in this movie, but he is also a surfer). Still, this is a movie that is handsomely produced and has a number of wicked technological innovations, like John Silver's computer-generated mechanical arm. You just wish that it was a movie so spectacular that it would justify the decades of painful development. Maybe it was right to be gonged.
39. The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
Looking at Walt Disney Animation Studios' upcoming slate, it almost seems quaint that The Rescuers Down Under was the studio's first big-screen animated sequel. This follow-up to 1977's The Rescuers found Bernard and Miss Bianca (a returning Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor, in her last film role) traveling to Australia to assist in the rescue of a rare golden eagle, a fictitious species that I 100% believed was real after seeing the film. The film ditched the original's musical format, instead focusing on lean, action adventure storytelling, which was fitting considering the Australian setting. (Legendary story man Joe Ranft, who had a hand in everything from The Nightmare Before Christmas to Toy Story, was a driving force behind the movie's script, although he frequently butted heads with higher-ups, especially when he suggested the lead character be a native Aboriginal.) While not exactly a blockbuster, this is a film that is earnest and entertaining, which serviced a number of technological breakthroughs, including the first film to be completely colored by the CAPS system developed by Pixar, and featuring a number of stunning computer-animated sequences, like the unbelievable opening sequence scored by Bruce Broughton's great music. At 77 minutes it's one of the swiftest and most surgically thrilling animated features of that period and one that is very much underrated. This was a movie that vastly improved on the original film, updating the essential premise for a new audience but creating its own mood and feel, under the muscular direction of Mike Gabriel and Hendel Butoy.
38. The Sword in the Stone (1963)
Proof that, by the time The Sword in the Stone went into production, Walt had totally checked out (he approved the final script while on vacation in Florida): the animators, miffed that their glorious leader had abandoned them for things like World's Fairs and Disneyland, decided to get revenge by turning the lead character into a caricature of their studio head. And if you look at Merlin today – the shape of his nose, the way he's fidgety and creative (but also prone to explosive outbursts), you can see it; he is Walt Disney. Largely the brainchild of legendary animator Bill Peet, who pushed his project to the forefront when an adaptation of Chanticleer was sputtering, it was based in part on T.H. White's book of the same name, which Walt had purchased the rights to back in 1939. The movie is wildly imaginative, especially considering that during production (already utilizing the cheaper Xerography technique that gave the lines a scratchy quality) its budget was slashed to 40% of what 101 Dalmatians' was. (Ouch.) Still, you can't tell that it was so cheaply produced by looking at it; this is a movie full of magical transformations and flights of fancy and there's a surprising amount of Arthurian lore wedged between the gags (Peet made sure of it). While the movie was largely forgotten (the definitive Walt Disney biography by Neal Gabler only mentions it twice), it's still so much fun to watch, vibrant and colorful and hilarious. And not just because of Merlin's resemblance to Walt.
37. Frozen II
Frozen 2 had awfully big shoes to fill. Unlike Ralph Breaks the Internet, which had relatively low stakes given the modest success of the first film (and thus more creative latitude), Frozen 2 is the follow-up to one of the biggest animated films of all time, a zeitgeist-capturing behemoth the likes of which hadn't really been seen since the Eisner-overseen Disney Renaissance. And given the pressure, Frozen 2 is a lovely surprise. After two viewings, I can't place it higher than the original, but that might change in the years to come (and everytime there's a new Walt Disney Animation Studios film, I want to rearrange this list); there's a simplicity and straightforwardness that is downright admirable. For the sequel, all of your favorite characters return -- Anna, Elsa, Olaf, Kristoff and Sven -- only they're plunged into mortal danger by Elsa's quest to reunite with her past and figure out where she came from. It's a breathtaking journey, as the gang ventures from the familiar into the unknown and from the relative safety of storybook fairy tales into a grander, more mythological space.
Once again directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, and written by Lee, who in the years since the original Frozen would wind up in a leadership position at Walt Disney Animation Studios after the disgraced exit of John Lasseter, you can feel her grappling with her own power and responsibility, just as Elsa does here. And while the narrative might ultimately become a little bit gummier (it's unnecessarily complicated and little kids might be baffled), it's the commitment to the characters, to their ability to adapt, change, mature and evolve, that is really jaw-dropping. This is especially true given how most of the characters are nice to each other for the whole running time and there isn't a conventional bad guy. Every song in Frozen 2 is a show-stopper, and while none reach the earworm-y power of "Let It Go," one threatens to eclipse it: Kristtof's "Lost in the Woods," a reindeer sing-along rendered in the style of a Peter Cetera-era Chicago power ballad. (The singing reindeer also made me think of the Country Bear Jamboree.) Frozen 2 is a profound piece of work, gorgeous and staggering, its power lessened only by its thorny plot and the fact that, while it might be coming 6 years after the original Frozen, between the "Frozen Fever" short, Olaf's Frozen Adventure Christmas special and Anna and Elsa's appearance in Ralph Breaks the Internet, it feels like we haven't left Arendelle at all. Imagine the appetite if the girls had just been gone this whole time. It'd be even harder to let it go.
36. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
Disney's last "package film" for almost 30 years, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, instead of featuring a constellation of shorts, is cleaved down the middle – one half is The Wind in the Willows, an adaptation of the E.H. Shepard novel that also borrowed from Toad Hall, a stage adaptation by Winnie-the-Pooh author A.A. Milne, and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, based on the classic story by Washington Irving. Originally The Wind in the Willows was intended to be a stand-alone feature; Walt purchased the rights immediately following the success of Snow White. (Privately Walt once confessed to a fan that he didn't find the story "particularly well suited for cartoon material.") Production continued but slowed to a crawl after World War II erupted, and the studio was largely diminished and forced to work on government-mandated propaganda films. As early as 1943, with the film "slowly snaking its way through production" (according to biographer Neal Gabler), Walt had considered turning the film into half of one of these packages (at the time he considered it a good fit with the Mickey Mouse Jack in the Beanstalk story or his tortured, ultimately unrealized Roald Dahl collaboration Gremlins). Finally, it was combined with Ichabod Crane, as the film was sometimes known. By this time Walt was less interested in animated features; the war had drained him of much of his enthusiasm and his focus was now splintered in a dozen directions (including but not limited to live-action filmmaking, his True Life Adventure nature documentaries, and his dreams for a certain plot of land in Orange County…) Honestly, you can feel some of that listlessness in the two halves of the film; neither is much of a complete story and occasionally the animation feels hurried or unfinished.
Amazingly, both halves have lived longer than you'd ever have expected them to, thanks largely to their airing (individually, usually alongside other shorts) on television starting in 1955 and continuing until today. If there's ever a Halloween special feature Disney shorts, the Sleepy Hollow half will be there (with the Headless Horseman making an appearance at Halloween celebrations in the parks the world over). It's staggering to watch the Ichabod section again and to see how much director (and former Disney animator) Tim Burton lifted (directly) for his 1999 feature Sleepy Hollow. And while people might not be watching the Wind in the Willows animated segment all that often, they certainly know Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, the attraction located in the Fantasyland section of Disneyland that remains a fan favorite. It's downright dizzying.
35. Brother Bear (2003)
Inspired by both the success of The Lion King and the fact that there weren't any animal-centered movies in the pipeline, Disney chairman Michael Eisner, partially inspired by a painting by 19th-century artist Albert Bierstadt (he had something of an art fetish), decreed that they should make an animated film about animals set in America. In 1997 a series of ideas were developed; one was called Timber and another was an adaptation of King Lear but with a bear king and his three daughters. Eventually, an idea was settled upon wherein a selfish human hunter was transformed into a bear so that he could see what it was like to be something that he hunted. I remember walking through the Walt Disney Animation facility at what was then known as Disney-MGM Studios in Orlando, Florida, where the film was produced, and a simple placard that said: Bears. Eventually, it would become Brother Bear. This fun, unsophisticated film (the last animated at the Florida studio) has an incredibly simplistic moral lesson and is festooned with faux spiritual Phil Collins songs that aren't nearly as good or as catchy as the ones he did for Tarzan. Nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, Brother Bear has been largely forgotten in the years since its release, which is a shame given its handsomeness and soulfulness, perhaps overshadowed by Pixar's Brave, released years later but featuring a remarkably similar bear transformation story.
34. Tangled (2010)
Animated features are notoriously difficult to make, but how many of them can claim that the original director left because the stress of production caused him to have a heart attack? Because that's what happened on Tangled, which was initially meant to be the directorial debut of Glen Keane, the legendary animator behind Beast, Aladdin, Ariel, and Tarzan (amongst others). Keane's take featured a satiric angle (at least for a while). According to Walt Disney Animation Studios head Ed Catmull (in his book Creativity, Inc.), at one point "Michael Eisner had proposed updating the tale, calling it Rapunzel Unbraided, and setting it in modern-day San Francisco." This version would have had Rapunzel living in the real world but being transported into the fairy tale world. (It didn't work and the project was shuttered.) When Lasseter and Catmull were installed at Disney, they got the movie going again, encouraging Keane to continue, at least until he had a heart attack. Byron Howard and Nathan Greno, who had worked together on Bolt, took over, bringing in screenwriter Dan Fogelman and composer Alan Menken, and fashioning a classic fairy tale with modern sensibilities that never skewered too heavily to the ironic or sardonic. They also advanced a stylistic course that Keane had begun, creating rich backgrounds that looked like paintings (at one point digital brushstrokes were programmed into the artwork; it was later removed).
Of course, all of that production time meant that the budget ballooned to more than $260 million, making it the costliest animated film of all time and one of the most expensive movies ever. And there are people who love Tangled. To me, it's definitely the start of an exciting period for Disney animation (Catmull describes its success as "a healing moment for the studio") but lacked the adventurousness and verve of The Princess and the Frog, released the previous year and accomplished using good old-fashioned hand-drawn animation. There's no denying the movie's staying power; in addition to a theatrical short film that was attached to a 3D re-release of Beauty and the Beast, an animated series recently debuted (2D animated, interestingly enough) and characters from the film are all over the Disney Parks. This is one of those "mileage may vary" animated tales. For all its accomplishments, I just wish it was a better movie.
33. The Emperor's New Groove (2000)
The process of making an animated feature is an iterative one, especially at Walt Disney Animation Studios. But The Emperor's New Groove was literally an entirely different movie that was well into production – Kingdom of the Sun, a kind of Prince and the Pauper but set in the ancient Incan culture of South America. The project was deemed too dark and serious and even though it had already been cast and Sting had written eight (!) original songs for the production, and with 25% of the animation completed, the film was shut down. Animators departed (for things as varied as Lilo & Stitch and Fantasia 2000), the script was overhauled to accommodate a wackier Looney Tunes-esque sensibility, and it was almost completely recast (sorry, Owen Wilson, Harvey Fierstein and many secondary llama characters). Oh and most of Sting's songs were jettisoned. (If you can track it down and are so inclined, watch The Sweatbox, Trudie Styler's feature-length documentary about the making and unmaking of the original version of the movie.) The film, now titled The Emperor's New Groove, was finally released in December 2000, is charmingly anarchic and genuinely unlike any Disney animated film that came before (or since). This is a film that is proudly two-dimensional, both in terms of animation style and actual content; the life lessons are fairly pedestrian but the gags are killer (just think about Patrick Warburton's dim-witted Kronk and try not to laugh). If the original version of the film was defined by stately opulence then the eventual version is pure, manic energy. While Walt Disney Animated Studios would proudly trumpet its rich history of animated features, The Emperor's New Groove is very much a cartoon (and gloriously so).
32. Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
In development for more than 15 years before its release, under names like Reboot Ralph and Joe Jump, the code was finally cracked when Rich Moore, the super genius director behind the Emmy-winning "Roswell That Ends Well" episode of Futurama, suggested that the focus of the film shift from the hero of a cheery 8-bit videogame to the game's antagonist, a hulking brute that threw garbage at the hero. Thus, Wreck-It Ralph was born. Moore's sardonic wit and anarchic spirit course through the movie, which features a number of appearances of high-profile videogame characters. (The negotiations that Disney had to go through were maddeningly complex, as you can imagine, and paralleled what Pixar dealt with when trying to secure the rights for certain toys for the first Toy Story.) This was a movie that felt unlike anything else Disney had done in the modern era; all those attempts at cheekiness and irreverence earlier in the digital age (like Chicken Little) seemed even more dated and crass next to Ralph's elegant handling of pop culture-indebted humor and witty wordplay. This is a movie that features a villain self-help group and has a Rihanna song on the soundtrack – things that you would never think you'd see in a Disney animated film. But what makes Wreck-It Ralph work is that underneath all the cleverness is a deceptively human story, about desire, intent, and what makes us who we are, with John C. Reilly providing one of the all-time great Disney vocal performances as Ralph. I've already got my quarters ready for the sequel.
31. Alice in Wonderland (1951)
One of the feature-length projects that Walt toyed with before Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a live action/animated feature based on Alice in Wonderland that would have starred Mary Pickford. (He had made a series of shorts early in his career that combined Alice, animation, and live action.) Walt would pick up the idea for a feature length Alice in Wonderland project, this time fully animated, after the conclusion of World War II but abandoned many of the concepts he had been tinkering with before (like literal adaptations of Sir John Tenniel's illustrations, which Walt found too dark even though Roy had gone out of his way to secure the rights to the drawings). At one point Disney hired Brave New World author Aldous Huxley to pen the script, although their relationship was contentious; after finding himself virtually ignored in story meetings he quickly left the project. While the movie was in production, Walt proclaimed it "unusually good" (high praise, especially after his frank assessment of Cinderella). That might have been Walt's optimism talking, though, considering the original Lewis Carroll story was unusually difficult to crack from a narrative perspective, since it's filled with wordy flights of fancy and whirling tangents, with Alice a virtual non-character in a sea of colorful weirdos. (At one point Walt hired a psychiatrist to get a new angle on the material.) Walt wanted to scrap the movie but had spent too much on it and their next film wasn't ready yet.
Later, Walt would more honestly say it was a "terrible disappointment." And, he's not wrong. This could have been something spectacular. But by all accounts, nobody on the movie was particularly happy to be working on the project and directors of different sections of the movie were constantly trying to outdo the others, resulting in a kind of flamboyant blandness. When everything is crazy, nothing is. Still, its legacy is unusually long. The teacups in the Disney Parks are a fan favorite and a pair of big-budget live-action adaptations has introduced the world and characters to a new generation (even if they bear little resemblance to what Walt's artists had concocted). This movie is funny, colorful, and strange but oddly flavorless. Afterward, Walt bemoaned how hard it was, with Alice, to bring whimsy to the screen. He was right.
30. Big Hero 6 (2014)
Proof that modern Disney animated features can be anything. Loosely based on the Marvel comic of the same name, many in the production (including several key story artists) never even read the source material. Instead, directors Don Hall (coming off the gentle, wholly underappreciated Winnie the Pooh) and Chris Williams just used the basic concept and some of the archetypes to create a whole new adventure that is equal parts Marvel and Disney. (Marvel had very little input and Big Hero 6 is technically not a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.) The star of Big Hero 6 is, of course, Baymax, a "huggable" robot inspired by the animators' trip to an MIT robotics lab where they were experimenting with inflatable robots. (In the comic books the character is a scary monster.) Baymax serves as an invaluable companion to Hiro (Ryan Potter) after his brother dies; later he becomes an equally important part of a superhero team (full of scientifically-minded misfits) who seek to uncover a vast conspiracy. The look of Big Hero 6 is amazing and wholly unique, thanks to some cutting-edge software advancements during production that let the team render a fully alive city (with hundreds of unique citizens and all the architecture that goes along with it). Big Hero 6 is nothing like the film that came before it (Frozen) or the one before that (Wreck-It Ralph), a wholly Disney take on the superhero genre and proof that when it comes to Walt Disney Animation Studios the only thing that you can expect is the unexpected.
29. Tarzan (1999)
This gorgeous, oddly underrated marvel unofficially ended the Disney Renaissance, that golden age of creative and financial prosperity that began a decade earlier. Tarzan was the 49th big-screen adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs character and the first to be animated. Originally conceived as a smaller film to be outsourced to a Canadian studio, it was eventually reconceived as a musical adventure film, buoyed by effervescent original Phil Collins pop songs. Tarzan is muscular and streamlined, defined by sharp punches of violence, lovely romance and insightful family drama. It's also an overlooked technical trailblazer, largely due to the Deep Canvas system utilized for sequences where Tarzan (animated by the great Glen Keane) would go "surfing" through the vines, branches, and tree trunks of the jungle. Deep Canvas would allow for the camera to punch through a 3D computer-animated background that the traditionally animated character would traverse. It was a sophisticated extension of the multi-plane camera system that Walt effectively used on films like Pinocchio and, in practice, is absolutely stunning. (You can see Deep Canvas used, sparingly, in a few films that followed but the extensive and artful implementation of it is Tarzan is really impressive.) These technological innovations made the production complicated and all-encompassing (teams in Burbank, Orlando and Paris all contributed) and the result is something that you can tell was bled for. It is worth noting that the Broadway adaptation, originally intended as a "theater in the round" experience, is terrible.
28. Zootopia (2016)
In one of those happily serendipitous flukes, the most insightful, incisive look at the political landscape that would give way to the 2016 presidential meltdown would be an animated buddy cop movie set in a world of anthropomorphic mammals. Initially conceived as a harder-edged detective story, Zootopia eventually reconfigured as a story about systematic prejudices, moving on beyond your culturally prescribed place and the disillusionment that comes from exposing a knowingly corrupt government. And it made $1 billion. Directors Bryon Howard, showing a filmmaking maturity not seen in his previous work, and Rich Moore, adding his typical cutting humor and pop-cultural savvy, created a rich universe, full of geographic and cultural distinction, that worked as a grand-scale entertainment and an incredibly special and specific tale of inclusion and otherness. (Take a look at Twitter to see just how much this movie has genuinely touched people.) Also, it's totally hilarious. It will be interesting to see if the movie holds its punch as its references age and (with any luck) its political concerns fade. Even without the embroidery, this is one of those ageless Disney stories of two characters, diametrically opposed, that learn to work together to face a bigger concern. It's so snappily told and gorgeously designed (Cory Loftis, the development artist largely behind the look of the characters, is a true genius) that even if the message was heavy-handed, it'd still be a delight. Expect much more Zootopia material in the years to come; this is a world Disney is very interested in returning to again and again. You should be too.
27. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
This charming collection of shorter adventures featuring Winnie the Pooh featured three sections that had already been released theatrically, and a fourth was newly created for this program. Included here are arguably the most famous stories, including "Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree" and "Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day," and since these features had already been produced they boast a murderer's row of talent, including but not limited to animators and story men like Ken Anderson and X. Atencio and songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman. It's also heavily cited that technically this was the last film that Walt himself personally worked on, since he had a hand in both "Honey Tree" and "Blustery Day." The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is arguably the most iconic, classic representation of all of the Hundred Acre Wood pals and the vessel to which they were introduced to a huge global audience. (Eventually, the Disney company would outright own the character, purchasing it decades later from A.A. Milne's estate.) Ultimately, it's only undone by the start/stop nature of its structure and for being a package film made up of older, previously released material instead of one new, longer story. That would eventually happen, but many, many years later.
26. Hercules (1997)
After Ron Clements and John Musker completed Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, two of the foundational films in the so-called Disney Renaissance, they returned to executives and stressed how much they had wanted to make their Treasure Island-in-space idea (something pitched since before development began on The Little Mermaid). Finally, Disney brass said okay, but they had to do one more movie for the studio first: a big musical adaptation of Hercules. This project was a pivot after time spent working on an animated version of Homer's The Odyssey. When Musker and Clements took over the project, they injected their own unique sensibilities and obsessions, crafting a superhero origin tale that's also a scalpel-sharp takedown of '90s celebrity culture. At the time of its release Hercules struggled to find an audience; despite Disney's full-court marketing barrage moviegoers had seen Toy Story and were incrementally drifting away from traditional hand-drawn animation. (To borrow a character from one of Clements and Musker's earlier films, the genie was out of the bottle.) Hercules sometimes seems downright experimental in its execution, from its broadly comic sensibilities to its unique stylization (courtesy of Pink Floyd illustrator Gerald Scarfe). There are also some less polished elements, like the fact that it lacks a uniformed musical sensibility, jutting from faux gospel to Motown to traditional soaring ballad, and, while James Woods is a terrific Hades (his mile-a-minute line delivery secured him the role), Hercules would have been downright transcendent if the filmmakers had secured their first choice for the part: Jack Nicholson.
25. Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)
Development for a Wreck-It Ralph sequel began way back in 2014, before Zootopia became an all-hands-on-deck type situation that meant large swaths of the Wreck-It Ralph crew transitioned over to help out (this included directors Rich Moore and Phil Johnston, plus key personnel like brilliant story man Jim Reardon). After Zootopia was finished, work resumed on Ralph Breaks the Internet, not that things were anything less chaotic, with the narrative involving the Internet proving incredibly hard to pin down. (This is to say nothing of the release date jockeying with another Disney animated project, Gigantic, a musical Jack and the Beanstalk retelling that was ultimately shelved.) Still, Ralph Breaks the Internet found its way out, just as you find your way out of an endess Reddit thread or 14-minute YouTube video analyzing the history of Universal's Halloween Horror Nights (this is a totally hypothetical situation, obviously). Ralph Breaks the Internet, at least after a first viewing, feels both cluttered and quietly revolutionary. Subsequent viewings could reveal it to be a pop art masterpiece. Just know this: it's unlike Walt Disney Animation has ever done. Really. Ever.
In the supersized sequel to the modest, charming, warmly nostalgic Wreck-It Ralph, Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) travel outside their arcade and into the chaotic, hyper-stylized world of the Internet, ostensibly to obtain a replacement part for Vanellope's game, "Sugar Rush." Of course, from there, things go from bad to worse and the narrative actively clicks from one adventure to another. They travel to the dark web! Become viral sensations! Stumble into a hyper-violent, "Grand Theft Auto"-style racing game! And, most importantly, meet the Disney Princesses in a scene that will honestly make you giggle uncontrollably. What does one of these things have to do with the other? Honestly, not much. But the assurance with which the filmmakers tell the story and the unparalleled visual verve give the movie a freewheeling, cutting-edge feeling. (Seriously, the design work by unsung hero Cory Loftis is stunning; this movie has put him in the same league as Eyvind Earle and Mary Blair. His stuff is instantly recognizable and iconic.) Ralph Breaks the Internet doesn't feel like a big, important Disney animated movie. And you know what? That's okay. It doesn't make it any less dazzling.
24. Encanto (2021)
For the last decade or so, Disney's animated films have been playing with the audience's expectations of what a Disney animated film can be, but rarely has this felt as lively, beautiful, and charming as it does in Encanto. Directed by Byron Howard (Zootopia, Tangled) and Jared Bush, the majority of Encanto takes place in the home of the Madrigal family—far less expansive than other recent films like Frozen II and Ralph Breaks the Internet, but without sacrificing stakes because of this smaller scale. Encanto doesn't have a villain, there's no love interest, and one of the characters in the family is a very clear composite of previous Disney princesses. But maybe most importantly, Encanto is focused on the family as a unit, as opposed to focusing on one or two characters. With some of the best music in a modern Disney film, and a vibrant story that doesn't shy away from darker themes, Encanto feels like watching a new Disney classic. — Ross Bonaime
23. The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
The exact date that the so-called Disney Renaissance, a period of creative and commercial success that rivaled the initial batch of movies made by Walt Disney and his original animators, feels like it should be more of a debate than it actually is. Most would agree that the release of The Little Mermaid in 1989 but for my money, the Renaissance truly began with the release of The Great Mouse Detective in 1986. There are a number of reasons for this, chiefly the involvement of John Musker and Ron Clements, animators who had been cut from The Black Cauldron production staff and instead were tinkering with a story about mice living in Sherlock Holmes' London apartment (based on a book by Eve Titus and Paul Galdone). These are filmmakers that would revolutionize Walt Disney Animation Studios, time and time again, whether it was with The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Frog or Moana. This was also the first Disney animated project to fully utilize computer-generated imagery (for the Big Ben-set finale). And yet the project has been misunderstood and underappreciated almost from the beginning.
New Disney chief Michael Eisner was befuddled by the project, finding the structure confusing and suggesting that a song written by Henry Mancini could be replaced by a new pop tune by Michael Jackson (yes, seriously), he sent the project through production because, with its light and frothy tone, it was diametrically different from the brooding and problem-stricken Black Cauldron. Clements and Musker were teamed with Dave Michener and Disney Legend Burny Mattinson and tasked with completing the project, which they did, hiring Vincent Price to play the baddie (modeled after former Disney exec Ron Miller) and infusing a sprightly cleverness that was sorely missing from the studio's animated features at the time, which is sort of amazing considering the movie's budget was a measly $14 and animation hastily rushed (leaving some to criticize its look). But even after the film was completed, the studio seemed to undermine it, renaming it The Great Mouse Detective instead of the original Basil of Baker Street and barely marketed. (Animators were incensed and circulated an infamous memo suggesting other Disney classics be renamed in a more literal fashion.) Still, it seems ripe for rediscovery. At 74 minutes, the movie moves like a locomotive, and is full of humor and heart. This is the movie, bold and adventurous, both a technological and storytelling triumph, that would set the stage for the more widely recognized Disney Renaissance to come.
22. Frozen (2013)
First, know this: Disney had no idea what kind of smash Frozen was going to be. Walt himself had toyed with an adaptation of The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen more than 70 years before Frozen was eventually produced, and the eventual filmmakers would understand why even a master like Walt couldn't crack the story. There were so many iterations of Frozen, so many discarded ideas and story points, that ten films probably could have been made just from these scraps. Just look at the marketing of the film, which was shaped largely by the underperformance of The Princess and the Frog; ads obscured the fact that it was a capital-"M" musical and emphasized the talking snowman Olaf. And yet, it went on to become the highest-grossing film in the history of Walt Disney Animation Studios and has spawned a short film, multiple theme park attractions (the biggest and best is the Frozen Ever After ride at Epcot), a Broadway musical plus an upcoming special and official, feature-length sequel. But what of the movie? It's really good. It truly feels like a classic Disney animated feature, with all the warmth and unexpected thrills – plus the songs by Bobby and Kristen Lopez are great and insidiously catchy. It also felt truly modern, with strong feminist underpinnings (supplied largely by writer and co-director Jennifer Lee) that both upended the classic Disney Princess narrative without feeling disrespectful to the legacy that it was obviously treading in. Where the movie falls short is in its lack of characters (most of the movie is spent with three characters; think about the dozens that populate Beauty and the Beast), ice-thin score by Christophe Beck, and the lack of a truly compelling, mustache-twirling Disney villain. Still, it couldn't be a phenomenon without being phenomenal.
21. Lilo & Stitch (2002)
Produced largely in secret at the Walt Disney Animation Studios outpost in Orlando, Florida, Lilo & Stitch is truly one-of-a-kind. It's a buddy movie about an alien posing as a dog and his friendship with a young Hawaiian girl with anger issues. You know, that old story. Written and directed by the genius filmmaking team of Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, Lilo & Stitch is aggressively unusual, in the best possible way. The watercolor backdrops are sensational, the character work sublimely nuanced, and the narrative detours and character flourishes (like Stitch's unabashed love of Elvis Presley) elevate an already idiosyncratic film to the status of an oddball classic. (It was a pretty big hit, too, especially for being so modestly budgeted and produced; there were several television series and direct-to-video sequels made afterward.) By all accounts the production was pretty smooth, too, the only hiccup came when the film's climax, involving Stitch piloting a jumbo jet through populated Hawaiian cities, was re-animated after the imagery became too touchy after 9/11. Not that everyone was a fan of the film. Some found its rude humor (embodied brilliantly by a series of teaser trailers where Stitch would "break" earlier animated classics) off-putting. Michael Eisner shuttered the Orlando unit two years after Lilo & Stitch became a breakout smash and the Pixar crew, particularly John Lasseter, were equally befuddled by the film and let the filmmakers go after he became head of the creative side of the company. It's a shame that they can't see how special this movie really is, how charming and weird and deeply human it is. This is a movie as good as The Iron Giant or E.T. and just as strangely touching.
20. Mulan (1998)
Proof that not all Disney Princesses have to wait around on frilly pillows for their prince to come and save them, Mulan (based on an ancient Chinese folktale) sees our lead character dressing in drag to save her country from invading Hun forces. Take that Cinderella. Animated largely at the Orlando facility, Mulan went from being a slapstick screwball comedy to something much more muscular and truer to the original story (at the behest of lead story artist and future Lilo & Stitch director Chris Sanders). The approach turned out to be the right one, as the movie feels genuinely like the big-budget action movies it was competing against. What's fascinating is how Mulan incorporates storytelling elements from both the East (resembling classic samurai films and domestic dramas from Japan) and the West (its staging oftentimes calls back to American westerns and the score is like a big Hollywood musical), while never feeling like a hodgepodge of disparate elements. Thanks to the emotional throughline of a young woman who sacrifices her identity and goes off to war, for the love of her family and country, everything hangs together just so. It's also incredibly funny, with Eddie Murphy's dragon character Mushu his definitive animated creation (sorry Donkey). While Mulan was bracing and new when it was first released, upon reflection it's even more groundbreaking and progressive. The movie's queerness registered back then (hello, Harvey Fierstein is in the cast) but nowadays, the movie is celebrated as something of a trans trailblazer. (Read my dear friend Erin Oliver Whitney's wonderful assessment here.)
What's also striking, in a renewed age of dumbfounding whitewashing, is just how many Asian actors are actually in the cast. From Ming-Na Wen's sensitive portrait of Mulan down to George Takei as an ancestral spirit, the cast's diversity is a huge asset and lends sincerity and authenticity to the movie. Mulan looks quite unlike any other animated film Disney has ever released, too, with its sharp lines, calligraphic curves and graphic designs. Maybe the film was granted more leniency both from a design and storytelling standpoint, from being completed away from the main campus (and all those executives) in California. Most of the films made at the satellite studio feel emboldened by that distance and remain some of the Animation Studios' most unique creations. Mulan certainly falls into that category.
19. Cinderella (1950)
While it's canonized as a classic these days, at the time Cinderella was both a return to form and something of a drag. Disney was excited about the project and his animators were really ready to make another honest-to-goodness fairy tale picture. Keep in mind this was also the first fully animated feature, after a string of "package films," to be produced by the studio in nearly a decade. But by this point, an increasingly distracted Disney had become more cautious and less willing to take chances. (The entire movie was filmed in live action, not for reference purposes, but just to see if the film worked.) Entire sequences were animated and then abandoned, with huge pieces of the film reworked and refined. The final product is adequate. The animation is okay but largely unmemorable (probably because the animators, while initially enthusiastic, were largely indifferent to the project – even Walt found it disappointing) and Cinderella isn't a modern female character by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it's hard to describe any of her personal traits or inner workings beyond the fact that she wants a husband. Also, Cinderella is pretty boring. There is, of course, that undeniable Disney magic that couldn't be sanded away by endless development, and its success, both critically and commercially, insured that the studio would survive past Alice in Wonderland (the next film in development). Walt admitted at the time that if the movie had been a failure then the entire company would have gone under; that kind of back-against-the-wall mentality produced a hit but at the cost of the studio's formerly wondrous sense of experimentation. It says something that the animators wouldn't release another formal fairy adaptation for almost a decade.
18. Aladdin (1992)
While The Little Mermaid was a hit, nothing could prepare people for the crossover appeal of Aladdin. It was just so hip. Originally conceived before Beauty and the Beast, but postponed because Michael Eisner was nervous about making an animated movie set in the Middle East, Aladdin is the work of a studio firing on all cylinders and conceived by a number of the studios' best, including filmmakers Ron Clements and John Musker, superstar screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio and the musical team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (lyricist Tim Rice took over after Ashman tragically died from complications related to AIDS in early 1991). This film is bewilderingly entertaining, elegantly cast, swiftly told and beautifully animated. It's hard to find fault with any of Aladdin, really, beyond the suspicious similarities between it and Who Framed Roger Rabbit animator Richard Williams' ultimately unfinished The Thief and the Cobbler (similarities explored in the terrific indie documentary Persistence of Vision), an early version of a key song that suffered from acute cultural insensitivity and the rather unsavory relationship the studio had with Genie voice actor Robin Williams following the film's release. This was a movie that seemed destined to be a giant hit, and it was, spawning several direct-to-video sequels, a notoriously difficult videogame, a long-running television series, a Broadway musical, and an upcoming live-action adaptation. Truly, the sun has never set on Agrabah.
17. The Little Mermaid (1989)
Originally proposed during one of the infamous "gong show" pitch meetings at the studio, it was dismissed for being too similar to Splash, a recent live-action hit for Disney that also involved a mermaid. Filmmaker Ron Clements revisited the idea after his work on The Great Mouse Detective was completed and, with a fuller presentation that included elements absent from the original pitch, it was promptly green-lit. Soon Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, Broadway dynamos with a clear affection for all things Disney, were brought aboard both for music and to help shape the ungainly story, loosely adapted from the Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name. The resulting film was an instant classic that revived the Disney animated brand to an almost unfathomable degree. Suddenly, the company's animation unit was cool again, and with its broad cultural appeal, critical appraisal, and commercial success, The Little Mermaid was trumpeted as being as good as those original films that were personally overseen by Walt Disney himself. And it is classic Disney, in the sense that there are also some questionable tropes left over from those older films that feel somewhat out of place in a contemporary setting. Primarily Ariel, as a character, does little beyond hoarding human junk and long for a human man, which is so disappointing given her flinty determination, free-spirited nature, and inquisitiveness. Sure, she wants to be where the people are. And?
16. Lady and the Tramp (1955)
Initially developed as early as 1937 from an idea by Ward Greene, whose company distributed the popular Mickey Mouse cartoon strips, it was scrapped (like so many other projects) due to the studio's involvement in World War II and only placed back into production at Roy's request. The resulting film is charming and cozy, with fully defined characters and sumptuous widescreen animation that was specifically designed for Cinemascope exhibition. For a film meticulously animated and meant for a big screen, it's saddled with a surprisingly simple story, the tale of a posh dog that falls in love with a scrappy tramp. There are some nifty songs and some lovely moments (one of them, Lady coming out of a hatbox on Christmas morning, was inspired by a real moment from Walt's life, when he gifted his wife Lillian with a puppy in exactly the same way) that not even things like the wildly offensive Siamese cats can really drag Lady and the Tramp down.
15. 101 Dalmatians (1961)
With Walt stretched thin, both creatively and financially, the belt had to be tightened further on the animated features. For 101 Dalmatians, a project whose title practically screams "wild ambition," they found their answer in the process of xeroxgraphy, which saw the animators' lines copied onto the clear plastic animation cels directly. (It was the first time the animators had actually seen their lines on screen before, since they had always been painted over in the production process.) This allowed for, amongst other things, the animators to not have to paint dots on all the Dalmatians; they were just copied over from one frame to the next. (It also gave the animation a rougher, scratchier texture, which I quite enjoy, but others at the studio found inelegant and distracting.) While the storyline of 101 Dalmatians is largely forgettable (cooked up by the incomparable Bill Peet from a children's novel by Dodie Smith), its main character, Cruella de Vil, complete with her own theme song (one of only three tunes in the movie), is embossed into the memory of every child that sees her. She is one of the truest Disney villains, governed only by greed and vanity, with an iconic look (that cigarette holder!) suitable for Halloween parties and drag shows alike. It's Cruella de Vil, not the adorable spotted puppies, that makes 101 Dalmatians such a scream.
14. The Princess and the Frog (2009)
The most controversial Disney animated feature in decades is also one of the best. When The Princess and the Frog was initially announced, it was called The Frog Princess, the lead character was an African-American named Maddy, and instead of a budding restaurateur she was a chambermaid who worked for a spoiled white girl. The outcry was swift and vicious and Disney immediately started to course correct, steering away from the problematic, potentially charged issues that were brought up in countless op-ed pieces and blog posts, towards calmer, smoother waters. Honestly, it diluted some of the fun of the Ron Clements and John Musker movie (Charlotte was way more fun when she was one of the villains) but they still managed to eke out a new classic anyway, even if the first African-American Disney Princess is only a princess for about fifteen seconds before being turned into a frog.
Still, the film (the last traditionally animated fairy tale – so far) is so rich and rewarding, and lovable. Set in the Louisiana bayou, it practically oozes atmosphere, complete with spicy Cajun musical numbers by Randy Newman that are fierier than New Orleans Jambalaya and a cast of bewitching supporting characters, including a jazz-loving alligator (animated by Disney great Eric Goldberg) and lovesick firefly. It also has one of the greatest villain villains ever in the form of Dr. Facilier (Keith David), a smooth-talking witch doctor whose voodoo spells and incantations get the better of him. (He's become a staple of the yearly Halloween festivities at the Disney Parks.)
When I went to a press screening of the movie shortly before it was released, in a theater in Times Square, the audience burst into applause after every musical number. It was magical. What was more surprising than the suppleness of its musical numbers was the frankness and honesty that it treated subjects of race and American history. Disney has had problems in the past with race in its animated features, from questionable sections of Fantasia (later removed) to the crows in Dumbo (banned from any merchandise) to pretty much all of its animation/live-action hybrid Song of the South (locked away in the Disney vault). This felt like a huge course correction, not overtly politically correct, but sensitive and truthful. Clements and Musker are some of the best filmmakers working today, in animation or otherwise, and their light touch and assured direction makes all the difference. While the box office was softer than was expected (it made $267 million worldwide compared with the $1 billion earned by Frozen), Tiana has taken her place among the Disney Princesses (she's got more grit and determination than most of them) and one day The Princess and the Frog will be looked upon a stone-cold Disney animated classic.
13. Peter Pan (1953)
Following the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt's brother Roy went to Europe to secure international rights to several upcoming productions. Roy also returned with an agreement to adapt J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan as an animated feature. Still, production on the film would continue, in fits and starts, for more than a decade. Famously Walt had asked one of the directors to work on storyboards and, after being presented with what amounted to six months of work, Disney had retorted that instead, he had been thinking a lot about Cinderella. The entire movie was filmed with live action actors although, fascinatingly, he used the same actors that would ultimately provide the voices for the characters. Ultimately the movie was finished without much input from Walt, who had turned his attention to other ventures (live action films, some kind of themed entertainment complex in Anaheim), and was both a critical and financial success. In retrospect, this is the perfect Disney film, the story of a man unwilling or unable to mature, nestled in a fantasy world of his own invention and furiously trying to outwit a creature epitomized by a ticking clock. It's full of the kind of Disney magic that had been in short supply in the previous years but was returning to the company, and has taken its place among the very best work the studio ever did, perhaps in part because of nostalgia and the fond memories of the Disney Parks attraction of the same name. (The songs, mostly written by lyricist Sammy Cahn, help too.) Yes, there are some questionable characterizations that now seem like a gross oversight, but they aren't as distasteful as some of Disney's other racial or ethnic insensitivities. Perhaps that's because the world of Peter Pan is rendered with such pop-up book vibrancy. It's a place where a villain like Captain Hook can be both terrifying and twee, whereas characters like pixie Tinker Bell can be both hotheaded and cutesy. So in this space Native Americans can be caricatures and, somehow, fully realized characters. Or maybe it’s the Pixie Dust talking.
12. The Jungle Book (1967)
Taking the stories of Rudyard Kipling and turning them into a feature film was a risky proposition, and by all accounts, the production of The Jungle Book was incredibly difficult. Walt disliked the disjointed nature of the narrative, although taking its cue from an episodic series of stories would always yield that result, but appreciated the bold casting decisions (particularly Phil Harris' boozy, good-time interpretation of Baloo) and characterizations (these are often cited as some of the best animated characters in history). One of the most famous last-minute changes came when Walt, sure that the Beatles were only a passing fad but sold on the timelessness of barbershop quartet music, changed out the songs sung by the vultures. (If only he knew.) The resulting film, which utilized the Xerox technology employed for 101 Dalmatians, is charming and bright, featuring some of the very best Disney songs up until that point (penned by songwriters Terry Gilkyson and the team of Robert and Richard Sherman). It's unfortunate that the film's inherent sweetness sometimes robs it of a sensation of dangerousness; even the evil tiger is too lithe and baroque to be much of a threat.
11. Winnie the Pooh (2011)
If you want to know how you successfully kill an animated feature (and squash traditional animation production at the studio), take a page from former Disney exec Dick Cook, whose displeasure with Winnie the Pooh led him to schedule its domestic release against the insanely anticipated Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2. Yep. If you've never seen this film (or even heard of it), that's probably why. Originally intended as a throwback to the "package films" of old, with several preexisting Winnie the Pooh tales resting alongside new films, the scope was widened and the ambition increased. The final film is a brand-new feature, with hummable songs from songwriters Bobby and Kristen Lopez (before their breakthrough work on Frozen) and a story that involved Winnie the Pooh and the rest of the Hundred Acre Wood gang on the run from a fearsome imaginary beast called The Backson (complete with an adorably trippy musical sequence). Straight up, Winnie the Pooh is amazing. Part of this is because it featured delicate work by some of the studio's most talented remaining traditional animators (including Andreas Deja, Eric Goldberg and Mark Henn), who updated the designs and mannerisms but never betrayed what came before. And that's really the magic of the film – maintaining the legacy of both the characters and the previous animated iterations while feeling utterly contemporary and of the moment. It wasn't some stuffy throwback. It was vibrant and alive, fluid and inviting, both a culmination and an extension of one of the most beloved brands in the Disney stable. Since so many people missed it the first time, it's gratifying to hear when people discover it. Winnie the Pooh is something of a lost masterwork and, as the last traditionally animated feature film from the studio (so far), a fitting and bittersweet finale to a second act nobody saw coming.
10. Moana (2016)
While Zootopia cleaned up at the box office and took home the Best Animated Feature Oscar, Moana was quietly becoming a classic. (Ask anyone with a kid which movie their child watches more.) Ron Clements and John Musker's first wholly computer-animated film (with the help of Big Hero 6 filmmakers Don Hall and Chris Williams, who are credited as co-directors) is a breathtaking achievement. Set on a mythical island in the South Pacific, Moana tells the story of a young girl whose thirst for adventure clashes with her island elders (who also happen to be her parents). Soon she sets out on the open sea to rescue the shape-shifting demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson, perfect) and return a magical item to its rightful home and restore balance to the islands. She is selfless and heroic and the fact that she's a kid (and Maui is an immortal deity) means that the story never gets bogged down in the will-they-won't-they relationship dynamics. Instead, it's a straightforward seafaring adventure, featuring an action sequence that George Miller would find impressive, numerous creatures, and songs with lyrics co-written by Hamilton mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda. Clements and Musker, still smarting from their painful experience making The Princess and the Frog, took great pains to make sure that the film was culturally accurate. That sensitivity only enhances the story and never takes away from anything. Moana feels both timeless and breathlessly now, with some of the most stunning animation the studio has ever produced (the ocean effects, with its gentle characterization and personality, is enough to make your jaw hit the floor). While not as big of a hit as the studio was expecting, Moana is one of those movies that will eventually show itself as one of the glittery hallmarks of the entire film roster.
9. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Even today this seems risky: an animated gothic musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame that retains most of the religious imagery and sexual metaphors from the original while only lessening the violence slightly. And yet, it is one of the most beautiful and heart-wrenching Disney animated films ever, a triumph of oversized emotions and opulent visuals, directed with flair and panache by the Beauty and the Beast team of Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. Quasimodo (voiced by Tom Hulce) is an outcast in the traditional Disney mold but, thanks to his physical deformities, he's also something more desperate and strange. (It's unsurprising that Michael Eisner, the Disney chief who always felt unfairly prosecuted, identified with the hunchback.) The Hunchback of Notre Dame survived a difficult production period, marked by the acrimonious departure of animation head Jeffrey Katzenberg, although the animators didn't seem too upset by his exit – central character Phoebus has a goatee because Katzenberg had previously outlawed Disney characters with facial hair. In fact, the movie's more extreme elements (like the "Hellfire" musical sequence, dedicated exclusively to the wickedness of sexual lust) were probably due to the fact that the filmmakers weren't as heavily policed as they were during the Katzenberg regime. The resulting film takes a number of chances, both storytelling-wise (talking gargoyles!) and tonally (it oftentimes veers towards silliness even during moments of extreme tenderness), and should be seen side-by-side Beauty and the Beast as the big, beautiful, baroque animated extravaganzas.
8. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
This is the one that started it all. Up until this point, it was Walt's biggest gamble – a feature-length animated film, exhibited theatrically in full color. When Disney was making the film (based loosely on a Brothers Grimm fairy tale) naysayers referred to it as "Disney's Folly," due largely to its exorbitant cost and lengthy production schedule. But when the film was finally released in 1937 it was a sensation. No one had seen anything like it before but more importantly, no one had felt anything quite like it either. This is a movie stuffed with emotion, design, movement, color, and music. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is an animated feature, through and through. While the movie doesn't hold up quite as well today (Snow White herself is an undeniably passive character and the pace can be sluggish and meandering), it is still inherently lovable and amazing. When people call Walt Disney a visionary this is what they mean – that he was able to see something that nobody else could see and force that something into existence. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs shocked and delighted the entire world and every time there's a new canonical "Disney princess" film, it's measured against this.
7. The Lion King (1994)
Up until The Lion King, every Walt Disney Animation Studios feature had been based on some kind of preexisting material, which made the film truly unexplored territory. At the same time that the film went into production another, much more prestigious piece (Pocahontas) was gearing up. Animators had a choice as to what film they wanted to work on; unsurprisingly The Lion King crew was scrappier and more inexperienced. Some of the work was handed off to the Orlando satellite studio to help finish. And, as it turns out, The Lion King, more than 20 years later, was the little film that could. Taking the more realistic approach to animated animals that Bambi embodied decades earlier, leaning heavily on the broad dramatic strokes of a Shakespearean tragedy, and turning to a genuine pop star in the form of Elton John for the movie's songs, all feel like decisions that, on their own, are profound and new and together feel unpredictable and totally brilliant. Directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff created a grand mythic concoction that is also deeply relatable. This is a story about fathers and sons, about stepping into adulthood and assuming your place (even if that is on the throne) and allowing yourself the process of self-discovery that sets you apart from those that came before you. Originally envisioned as a darker story called King of the Jungle (helmed by Oliver & Company director George Scribner), the movie eventually developed into what it became, a highly emotional, deeply dynamic, and often hilarious epic that still stirs and excites as much as it did when it was first released. It might have been seen as an underdog production, but it soon became one of the most valuable and beloved franchises in the company's portfolio, spawning a $1 billion-grossing Broadway musical, several series, direct-to-video movies and an incalculable amount of plush animals. The Lion King showed that the studio could do all it could to engineer a hit, but that sometimes kings aren't made, they're born.
6. Dumbo (1941)
People complain about movies these days being based on building blocks or iPhone hieroglyphics, but Dumbo's source material was just as strange and commercially naked. It was based on a toy prototype called a "Roll-A-Book," where the story would literally unfurl as you turned it. While it didn't get off the ground, the story was packaged into a slim children's book, which Walt found appealing for both its straightforwardness (he thought that the production wouldn't get lost in iterative development) and its broadness (he described it as an "obvious straight cartoon"). This was good for two reasons: the production could advance without obvious obstacles and, more importantly, he could do it on the cheap. At only 64 minutes, Dumbo is shorter than most primetime dramas, but in that span, it packs a wallop. For such a simple film, made for such low cost, it's incredible how much emotionality Walt and his animators packed into every frame and how many chances the film takes, both tonally and aesthetically, in that brief running time. Think about the lump-in-your-throat moment with Dumbo's mother is sequestered, reaching her trunk through the bars, or the extreme suspense of the firefighting sequence. And of course, there's the "Pink Elephants on Parade" sequence, a kaleidoscopic nightmare that is also one of the greatest things that ever came out of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Part of the reason the movie is so fidgety and creative is that many of the more seasoned animators were on other projects like Bambi, which left the younger, more wild minds on Dumbo. (Another fun fact, Walt returned from his influential South America goodwill tour to attend the New York premiere for the film.) For such a no-fuss cartoon, Dumbo is thematically complex and emotionally devastating. There's even been an argument that the crows, who have uncomfortable racial overtones that the company has distanced itself from, are great allies for Dumbo because they are social outcasts themselves.
5. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Walt himself considered mounting an animated version of the classic fairytale but deemed the idea redundant after seeing the lyrical Jean Cocteau adaptation. Following the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Disney wanted animator Richard Williams to spearhead a new take on the material, with Williams declining and sending them instead sent them to his colleague, British animator Richard Purdum. The "Purdum version" (as it was known) was screened for animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg at the Orlando satellite studio and subsequently scrapped. Katzenberg instead assigned Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, who had recently done work for the company's Cranium Command attraction at EPCOT's Wonders of Life pavilion (now defunct) to take over and drafted Howard Ashman and Alan Menken to handle the movie's songs and provide additional story elements. (The production would often visit Ashman, who was slowly dying from AIDS, at his home in upstate New York.) If The Little Mermaid and Aladdin had established that this was a new golden era of Walt Disney feature animation, then Beauty and the Beast cemented it.
To borrow the phrase from another Disney classic, it's practically perfect in every way. The characterizations are deeply felt (and there are so many characters), with Belle as a headstrong ingénue and Beast as her emotionally imbalanced captor the perfect yin and yang that never feels creepy or absurd. The movie's art style is appropriately grand and ambitious; it was serious without ever coming across as grim. When a work-in-progress version of the film appeared at the New York Film Festival (something that was unheard of at the time), it received a standing ovation. It went on to become the first animated feature to ever be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar (the other two were only included once the field widened to more potential nominees), recognized by audiences and critics alike as something unmistakably special. In the years since, Beauty and the Beast has taken on a number of forms (smash Broadway musical, equally smash live-action remake) but the 1991 original remains its most artistically pure iteration.
4. Bambi (1942)
One of the films that could have been the studio's first animated feature, Bambi wound up being something that was put on the back burner for a few years because Walt was worried the animators weren't capable of capturing the story's naturalistic textures yet. By the time the movie was finally put into production, Walt was secure with the animator's talents, specifically signing some of his favorites to specific tasks, like background animation or special effects work. Walt was also greatly inspired by his own True-Life Adventures films (they basically invented the nature documentary), pushing for more and more realism. In the final film you can feel Walt push himself and his animators to new and uncomfortable positions, just as he did with Fantasia and as he would continue to do as long as the medium held interest to him (which honestly wasn't as long as you'd expect). That attentiveness that demanded the best out of every single detail can be felt within each frame of Bambi. Not only does it look amazing (Tyrus Wong, who died recently, was responsible for the impressionistic backdrops that favored emotion over specificity) but it also feels unlike anything else. The episodic nature of the source material was streamlined into seasons; the traumatic murder of Bambi's mother (much more gruesome and graphic in early versions of the story) takes place during the hushed snowfall of winter, Bambi encounters new friends with the blossoming of spring, etc. So much of the movie is conveyed visually, while the animals talk they're less anthropomorphic and more like outward expressions of real animals' personalities. And, thankfully, they don't wear clothes. While the film was a financial and critical disappointment, Walt was still proud of the strides his animators had made. It seems impossible that anyone could have ignored the craftsmanship, creativity and artistic adventurousness of Bambi. Hardly anybody does now.
3. Fantasia (1940)
Welcome to Walt Disney's head movie. As early as the "Silly Symphonies" shorts, Walt had dreamed of making something bigger and grander, something he referred to as The Concert Feature. In the summer of 1937, shortly before the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, he struck up a conversation with noted composer Leopold Stokowski, who he had maintained a casual friendship with. Initially, the idea was to do a musical short based on Paul Dukas's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," but they talked about doing The Concert Feature. By the time they were set to make the short, Disney had already decided it would be but one node in a larger, more ambitious project; Stokowski would conduct the feature and appear in it. This was a movie that Walt privately told animators would "change the history of motion pictures."
And it was unlike anything ever. Even more than Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, this was a cutting-edge experiment. Walt had been flustered by the development process on some of the earlier films and felt liberated that Fantasia (as it was finally known) would be virtually plotless. He developed an innovative and expensive sound system called Fantasound, which would take individually recorded elements of the score and present them through separate speakers, creating an immersive surround sound experience before such technology was commonplace. This was time-consuming and expensive. The resulting film is a masterpiece; from Mickey in the Sorcerer's hat in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" to the dancing mushrooms in "The Nutcracker Suite" to the demonic Chernabog in "Night on Bald Mountain," it is a collection of images and moments that, thanks to its raw combination of image and sound, are seared more succinctly into your brain.
Sadly the film underperformed commercially and the following year, while accepting the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award at the Oscars, Walt made a tearful apology: "Fantasia, in a way I feel like I should have a medal for bravery or something. We all make our mistakes, I know, but it was an honest mistake. But this, this is too much." He went on, saying that he'd "rededicate" himself to ideals and felt the award was honored for "past conscientious efforts, honest mistakes." (It's telling that the film wouldn't turn a profit until 1969's theatrical rerelease; by then the counter-culture had gotten hip to the groovier aspects of Fantasia.) Not only had Walt been obsessed with making Fantasia into a cutting-edge event, but he'd also hoped to continue the film every few years, with new animated segments being swapped in. We wouldn't get a follow-up until the uneven Fantasia 2000.
2. Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Consider this: Sleeping Beauty Castle, the centerpiece of Walt Disney's ambitious park, opened along with the rest of Disneyland in 1955. The castle was intended as a kind of oversized promotional stunt for Sleeping Beauty, an ambitious animated movie that would ultimately fall way behind schedule, and the walk-through exhibit within the castle, with guests stomping by dioramas that played off of key moments from narrative, would serve as a kind of living evolution of the animated film's story. Those that visited the castle in the years before the movie's 1959 release would see deleted scenes or abandoned sequences fully fleshed out. Next time you go to Disneyland, walk through Sleeping Beauty Castle and think of its living work-in-progress exhibition.
It is perfect, too, since Sleeping Beauty is such an aesthetic triumph. This is Walt Disney animation at its most beautiful and sprawling. The animated fairy tale film had been dormant for almost a decade (since the beautiful but thin Cinderella) and now it was back in a big way. Sleeping Beauty was photographed in anamorphic widescreen utilizing the 70mm film format, which meant that animators were drawing and painting on pieces of paper as big as bedsheets; Walt described it as "our most ambitious cartoon feature to date." All that opulence was meant to combat the emerging UPA animation style, which favored graphic modernization and simple line work to create striking, indelible works.
What makes Sleeping Beauty such a classic largely has to do with the work of Eyvind Earle, a painter who had worked on Peter Pan and whose angular paintings would serve as the film's guiding stylistic principle. This is the most beautiful Disney princess movie and the one that is the most visually distinct. It also has the all-time greatest Disney villain in the form of Maleficent who, before Angelina Jolie gave her a sympathetic makeover, would happily declare herself the "Mistress of Evil." Sleeping Beauty is a colossal achievement and should be applauded not just for its sleek stylization but for its narrative ambition as well; this is a film where the lead character falls into a coma for much of the movie. That's gutsy storytelling, as ambitious and mesmerizing as any of its visual flourishes.
1. Pinocchio (1940)
This is it: the alpha and the omega, not only of Walt Disney feature animation, but of animation in general. It's easy to take its greatness for granted but Pinocchio was only the second feature-length animated film ever. The artists and animators who we consider legendary talents were just starting out, experimenting endlessly with modes of animation and cutting-edge techniques (like the multi-plane camera system that gave the illusion of depth, like a prototypical 3D rig and the extensive use of effects animation). This movie was an incredible undertaking, with large chunks of the story and whole characters being drastically altered and redesigned (Freddy Moore had to soften the original Pinocchio design and make him less, er, creepy). When Pinocchio was released into theaters in 1940 it was warmly received by critics but bombed at the box office. (Another unforeseen wrinkle: World War II effectively cutting off lucrative markets in Europe and Asia.) Soon enough it made its money back and is largely regarded as the classic it is (it was the first animated feature to win competitive Oscars).
From a design standpoint the movie is unparalleled; just think about how many landscapes and locations we visit, from the Germanic town where Stromboli holds his puppet shows to the nightmarish phantasmagoria of Pleasure Island (and everything in between). Pinocchio is an animated feature that is utterly fantastic but features some moments of transcendent realism, both in terms of animation fluidity and emotional intensity. (Also, mercifully, it's more "adult" situations and themes never veer into uncomfortable areas of racial stereotypes.) Like the greatest fairy tales, it's relatively simple and moralistic but stays with you long after you hear the tale. There's a reason why "When You Wish Upon a Star" has become the unofficial theme song not just to Disney animation but to the company as a whole; it's that evocative and magical.