With the release of Moana, which I still have yet to see, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit my favorite animated features from the House of Mouse. Disney has had its ups and downs over the years, from the dark ages of the ‘70s (which still put out some pretty good films, like Robin Hood) to the 21st-century slump during Pixar’s heyday. Then again, few can rival Disney when their filmmakers are on their games, whether it be the Golden Era classics that Walt Disney himself directed or the Renaissance of the ‘90s that catered to my childhood. Lately, Disney is back on their game with CGI classics rivaling Pixar, and I can only hope they’ll keep up the consistent quality entertainment of recent years.
One thing I notice about my personal favorites is that some of them are among the less regarded films in Disney’s canon, but Disney films are so varied and appeal to us all so early in our lives that everyone probably has preferences all their own, depending on what they grew up watching. Thus, here are my top beloved Disney cartoons thus far. Do you agree? What are your favorites? Feel free to let me know in the comments and geek out about your favorites too.
- Zootopia (2016)
It may seem premature to rank such a recent film this highly, but I’ve seen Zootopia twice and loved it both times, a couple quibbles notwithstanding. Strong likable characters, a well-realized and Pixar-esque world, stunningly detailed animation, and some thought-provoking themes about being who you want to be rather than how others see you make this the most likely candidate for Best Animated Feature this year, in my book anyway.
- Tangled (2010)
I wasn’t too impressed with The Princess and the Frog a year before, but Tangled proved that Disney could still pull off the princess format that made them so successful. After Bolt, it also confirmed that they could be just as at home with CGI animation as the hand-drawn style of the past, and the radiant animation and Alan Menken songs (his last for a Disney cartoon, as of this writing) are pure delight.
- Cinderella (1950)
My favorite of Walt’s original fairy tale adaptations, Cinderella is as charming today as it was in 1950. Not quite as saccharine as Snow White, it is the definitive version of the Cinderella story in my house and was a particular favorite of my mom’s when she was a kid. Heredity?
- The Little Mermaid (1989)
As the beginning of the Disney Renaissance, The Little Mermaid revolutionized the House of Mouse with Broadway quality tunes and a new high point in animation quality. The colorful marine setting and catchy Menken/Ashman tunes breathed new life into the animation studio and made princess fairy tales all the rage again.
- Big Hero 6 (2014)
While we all know Disney is pulling the strings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it was nice to see them incorporate some superhero magic into their animation department. As with The Incredibles and Batman: Under the Red Hood, it’s always a thrill to see a great superhero cartoon. Poignant, action-packed, and all-around awesome, the origin story of Big Hero 6 is my favorite of Disney’s current CGI era.
- Brother Bear (2003)
I really don’t understand all the hate for Brother Bear. Released during the waning years of the Disney Renaissance, it’s still a funny and heartbreaking journey with a beautifully drawn Arctic setting and some great background songs. I remember crying as a 10-year-old in the theater, and any film that brings me to tears holds a special place in my heart.
- Fantasia (1940)
As entertaining as the vast majority of Disney films are, Fantasia is something different, a true work of art, blending classical music with animation at its most imaginative. It’s a shame that its poor commercial showing made Walt Disney initially regret making it because it has since become one of his most highly regarded classics. Yes, it’s a perfect film to fall asleep to, but that has more to do with the sometimes soothing music than what’s on the screen.
- Aladdin (1992)
Buoyed by the brilliantly frenetic voice performance of Robin Williams as the Genie, Aladdin may be the funniest member of the Disney canon. This adaptation of the 1001 Nights continued the winning animation and music that made the Renaissance so special.
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
I’m a much bigger fan of Hunchback than most, viewing its darker storyline and lack of a typical happy ending as a risk for Disney that paid off in magnificent fashion. Without a doubt, this is Alan Menken’s masterpiece score, not just catchy and hummable but truly, goosebumpily glorious.
- The Lion King (1994)
Speaking of goosebumps, the beginning of The Lion King is Fantasia-level art, while the rest is an entertaining piece of Shakespeare lite, complete with one of the saddest Disney deaths and one of the best Disney villains. From the thrilling wildebeest stampede to the carefree song “Hakuna Matata,” The Lion King has something for everyone.
- Tarzan (1999)
Another favorite I find hugely underrated is Tarzan, with its lushly gorgeous jungle setting and outstanding Phil Collins soundtrack. Not only is it my VC’s favorite Disney cartoon, it’s one of the first films I actually remember watching in the theater (and yes, I cried at the end), and I recall playing “Trashing the Camp” with my cousin over and over and over on video. Good times….
- Beauty and the Beast (1991)
I personally consider Beauty and the Beast the most perfect fairy tale adaptation in all of Disney’s canon. It’s funny, tragic, enchanting, melodious, elegant, and all-around entertaining. It’s everything that Disney does best and thus feels timeless. I have my doubts about the live-action version next year, but at least we’ll always have the immortal original.
With the exception of Chicken Little and Home on the Range (the only one I haven’t actually seen), I enjoy all Disney movies to some extent, so I thought I’d continue my ranking below with the rest of the animated features on my Top 365 list (not including mixed animations like Enchanted or those only released by Disney, like the Studio Ghibli films). What would your ranking look like?
- Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
- Pocahontas (1995)
- Mulan (1998)
- Treasure Planet (2002)
- Frozen (2013)
- Peter Pan (1953)
- Pinocchio (1940)
- Lady and the Tramp (1955)
- The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
- Hercules (1997)
- Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
- Bambi (1942)
- The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
- Meet the Robinsons (2007)
- The Jungle Book (1967)
- Dinosaur (2000)
- One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
- The Sword in the Stone (1963)