Disney's new Polynesian saga, Moana, opened yesterday as the 56th animated feature film delivered by the greatest animation factory on the planet. Animated films have become huge cash chests for studios over the last two decades, and the medium is enjoying a renaissance of stop-motion, CGI and traditional cel animated features galore. Uncle Walt founded Walt Disney Animation Studios in 1923 and brought the medium to mass audiences with a trademark charm, heart and intelligence. It's startling to imagine the innocent instances of wonder when the first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was projected at the Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles on Dec. 21, 1937. With Pixar in its back pocket, Disney still rules the roost after 80 years.
In compiling and selecting these movies several factors were considered, not simply our personal opinions, with initial story impressions, public reception, box-office figures, musical contributions, cinematography, technical prowess and pioneering effects aiding in the advancement of the art of animation all duly noted. This mega-list encompasses the 55 animated feature films produced only by Walt Disney Animation Studios between the years 1937-2016, so please no comments about why we excluded Toy Story or The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Without further ado, and heralding the arrival of Moana, Disney's 56th, here's our definitive dive into the colorful treasure of Disney animated movies, divided into two parts to fully absorb and argue over each and every hit or miss. Come back for Part Two on Friday, confidently counting down to the number one choice and let us know in the comments which ones you strongly agree or disagree with. Be gentle and have a Disney Day!
#55 BOLT (2008)
Well, somebody had to land on the grenade and hit the bottom rung of our ladder and for my taste, it's Bolt. A Thanksgiving season offering that felt flat, cliche and uninspired about a stunt dog (voiced by John Travolta) who believes his powers and abilities are real. This was made while Disney was enamored of CGI and feels like flabby filler until better intellectual property fell into their orbit. The first 3D CGI feature under the full guidance of newly-named president John Lasseter's command is strictly for kiddies. Or Miley Cyrus fans!
#54 SALUDOS AMIGOS (1943)
Disney's first package film was spawned out of Walt Disney's goodwill tour of Latin America sponsored by the US Department of State prior to our involvement in World War II. There’s an uncomfortably colonialist attitude to the way the film fantasizes and other-izes the people of the South American countries its animators visit, and the whole thing is painfully over-narrated. But it features a cool tour of the Walt Disney Studios by Uncle Walt himself and a series of four shorts showcasing Donald Duck, Goofy, Pedro the postal cargo plane and a cigar-chomping parrot named Jose Carioca. Hardly a feature film at 42 minutes long but once Pearl Harbor happened, I'm sure people's attention spans were greatly diminished to swiftly absorb this lame-but-lively collection of Latin-flavored toons.
#53 DINOSAUR (2000)
This DOA dino tale lumbers around on screen for an interminably long 82 minutes. This was Disney's first computer-generated feature (with live-action backgrounds) and the most pricey film of the year at a budget of $127 million. The bloated story of Aladar, an orphaned iguanodon dinosaur raised by a pack of lemurs and hunting for a new home after a meteor strike, is nothing more than a brief and boring natural history lesson in the dark. The cinematic equivalent of primeval wallpaper.
#52 BROTHER BEAR (2003)
Maybe it’s because I grew up in a family of hunters, but Brother Bear always came across as incredibly heavy-handed to me. The movie goes out of its way to paint its main character Kenai as a jerk, but at the end of the day, the bear still came into their human camp, stole their food and was at least partially responsible for the death of Kenai’s brother, so was he really that wrong to go hunting for said bear? Even aside from that, this movie is crazy boring and by-the-numbers. If you want a movie about people seeing things through a bear’s eyes, go watch Brave instead.
#51 MEET THE ROBINSONS (2006)
This movie felt like Disney trying to find an answer to Nickolodeon’s Jimmy Neutron, just several years too late. Meet the Robinsons is one of the worst offenders of Disney’s painful transition into computer animation, complete with a cliché-ridden plot and lazy jokes. Before re-watching, the only thing that stood out in my memory about this movie was the “T-Rex has tiny arms” joke that was in every commercial and trailer, and that’s still all I think I’ll remember it for. Best to forget we ever met.
#50 THE RESCUERS (1977)
Bernard and Bianca are among the most unique and proactive of animated Disney protagonists, but The Rescuers as a whole hasn’t aged as well as other films in the slate. But it’s hard to not get swept up in the delightfully optimistic spirit of cooperation and friendship promoted through the Rescue Aid Society of heroic mice that operate out of the United Nations building. The Rescuers isn’t the greatest movie, but it is a fun, high-flying adventure with some great animation that everyone should see at least once.
#49 HOME ON THE RANGE (2004)
I’m fairly sure I saw this when it came out, but I’d completely forgotten it existed until now. And for good reason. There’s nothing offensively bad about Home on the Range, but there’s definitely nothing special either. One of Disney’s most forgettable releases, especially since Barnyard did the whole “farm animal cartoon” so much more successfully a few years later.
#48 HERCULES (1997)
Hercules is sort of an odd duck existing in our bottom ten at a strange time for theatrical toons. Many angered animation fans of a certain age will grow enraged at its inclusion in the basement but they haven't watched it lately. Here, Disney tackles the Hercules myth with a few great gags and a genuinely inspired James Woods as Hades, but the story is all over the map and feels like it's trying to be too cool for its own good. Delivered by the all-star directing team of Ron Clements and John Musker, the dynamic duo that brought us The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, Hercules' pop-culture references, unmemorable tunes and hard-line Greek-style animation can't compete with titles of a greater nature.
#47 THE THREE CABALLEROS (1945)
Essentially a sequel to Saludos Amigos, this package film is a continuation of the Disney valentine to the people and culture of South America. The unifying theme here is executed as a series of shorts instigated by Donald Duck opening birthday gifts from his South of the Border friends. Includes live-action segments with period stars Aurora Miranda and Carmen Molina joined by the colorful avian characters of Panchito Pistoles and José Carioca representing Mexico and Brazil. Contains some slight sexism and mild racism consistent with the period but remains mainly harmless.
#46 THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE (1986)
Another of the pre-Eisner approved Disney releases in the lean years of the mid-eighties that was whisked into theaters a year earlier than planned. Michael Eisner assumed the CEO throne in 1984 and greatly reduced the budget of this tale of a Sherlock Holmes-inspired mouse in 1897 London and tweaked the original title, Basil of Baker Street. Vincent Price voices the villainous Professor Ratigan and the great Henry Mancini wrote the musical score, so it does score points in those directions but overall is a mildly-entertaining romp clocking in at a brisk 73 minutes.
#45 OLIVER & COMPANY (1988)
As a child of the early nineties (yeah, it was released in 1988, but I was watching it from a very young age) I remember there being a ridiculous number of cat and dog movies, and Oliver & Company did little to separate itself from the pack. Adding to that, there’s no movie on this list that looks less like a Disney movie to me than Oliver & Company and despite Billy Joel being in the cast, it has some of the worst music in the Disney lineup. Being neither the best dog movie nor the best cat movie in Disney’s lineup, Oliver was the final gasp of mediocrity from one of Disney's roughest eras.
#44 POCAHONTAS (1995)
Disney heads into the history books for this retelling of the Pocahontas legend, marking the first time the life of a real person was used in a Disney animated feature. Misleading and stretching the truth to portray Pocahontas as an adult instead of a ten-year-old child, this mid-nineties Disney effort has its fans amid the flurry of yearly titles of the time like Aladdin, The Lion King, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mulan. Mel Gibson voiced the explorer hero Captain John Smith. The evocative animation and score by acclaimed Disney tunesman Alan Menken are well above average and I still kinda dig the "Colors of the Wind" musical number. Good but far from great.
#43 CHICKEN LITTLE (2005)
I'm sure I am trampling some kids' elated moments watching this unfunny, barely watchable cartoon calamity but life is unfair and I will march on unaffected. Based on the Henny Penny folk tale about a poor little hatchling who runs around believing the sky is falling, this cute chick fends off an alien invasion and simultaneously alienates millions of audience members from seeing "family films" for years. This was Disney's first total-CGI animated film and is more of a tedious experiment away from hand-drawn projects. With a budget of $150 million, this is one barnyard sci-fi flick that should never have hatched. The final Disney animated feature before the Pixar purchase and John Lasseter's rise to power.
#42 THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER (1990)
The 1990 sequel to The Rescuers has two things going against it. First, it’s a sequel from a studio who notably doesn’t make them, to one of their movies that probably least warranted it. And second, it released between Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. There’s no being rescued from that kind of overshadowing. But despite that, it's probably better regarded than the original, improving on it with cleaner and crisper modern animation, a more coherent plot, and a more interesting Australian setting, not to mention adding John Candy to the cast as Wilbur the albatross. It won't stand out against its Renaissance contemporaries, but a solid film in its own right.
#41 MELODY TIME (1948)
Another of Disney's mediocre package films comprised of several cartoons.tossed together and biiled as a "gay, sparkling, delightful new musical comedy." This offering served up "The Legend of Johnny Appleseed," "Bumble Boogie," "Little Toot," "Pecos Bill" and one of our family's annual holiday favorites, "Once Upon A Wintertime." Sure, it's lightweight and overhyped but the toons are sufficiently entertaining and the lofty songs pretty dang catchy. Come on, everybody sing "The Apple Song" as we steadily stride down our list!
#40 CINDERELLA (1950)
Cinderella may be placed lower than the bulk of the Disney Princess movies, but it’s still the quintessential princess movie. In hindsight, this movie seems very predictable and unambitious, but that’s only because it set the benchmark for every princess movie after it. In a lot of ways Cinderella feels like it’s what every princess movie after it was either consciously trying not to repeat, or in some way riffing on, and so it can seem a little unexciting at first. But Cinderella was full of great musical numbers, beautiful animation, and it subtly started the rebellious and independent streak found in many subsequent princesses.
#39 ROBIN HOOD (1973)
This 1973 re-telling of the well-known English legend is decently entertaining, with a charming hero and plenty of action, but it’s impossible to ignore how recycled it feels. Not only are there animation sequences lifted wholesale from previous films, but I noted character designs re-used or slightly-altered from The Jungle Book, Fantasia, and Bambi, and I’m sure I missed a few. Robin Hood is tolerable but ultimately uninspired.
#38 WINNIE THE POOH (2011)
I hadn’t seen this movie before this list, but I was quite surprised at both with how crisp and captivating the animation is, and at how laugh-out-loud funny this 2011 version of A. A. Milne’s beloved bear was. There’s a gentle but clever wit about the movie that makes it a genuinely charming movie regardless of your age. Everyone’s favorite forest-dwelling stuffed-animal gang is back and they’re all given time to shine. Piglet is adorable, Eeyore is clinically depressed, Rabbit is cunning, Owl proves the importance of basic literacy, Tigger is the only one, and Pooh makes as strong of a case as ever that he really needs to go to honey rehab. A worthy big-screen return for Christopher Robin and friends.
#37 THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG (2009)
The most recent of the traditionally-animated Disney Princess films, The Princess and the Frog was a bright ray of false hope that DIsney Animation might bring back the seemingly dead style. But, despite not helming the second-coming of hand-drawn animation, the movie was the spark for a newly rejuvenated sense of quality from Disney that paved the way for movies like Tangled and Frozen. And it's no surprise, with the co-directors of Little Mermaid and Aladdin at the helm, and multiple Oscar, Grammy and Emmy-winner Randy Newman providing music. While Tiana may not be as fondly remembered as Elsa or Rapunzel, she's just as good, if not better, and they may not be here without her.
#36 THE SWORD IN THE STONE (1963)
Disney's deft dip into the legend of King Arthur is a totally acceptable adaptation of the timeless elements of Arthurian lore. This title moved up and down a little in our list, but feels right here near the top of the bottom third, a film teetering on greatness but without enough standout sequences or sublime artistry to ascend to the next tier. Released on Christmas Day in 1963, this was the final Disney animated film delivered before Walt Disney's sad death in 1966. A live-action Sword in the Stone was announced last year by Disney, written by Games of Thrones producer Bryan Cogman.
#35 TANGLED (2010)
I'm not really sure if anyone was thrilled to learn Disney was adapting the Grimm's fairy tale of Rapunzel back in 2004, but the studio pulled it off with some modern sheen, sophisticated strands of humor and a thick pile of cash. It's still a bit puzzling why this mediocre CGI-animated movie was so successful when it was released and there are no standout moments to applaud or tunes to recall as you exited the theater. What's more shocking though is its massive $260 million budget which ranks as the most expensive Disney animated movie ever made, caused by six years of development and research to make the CGI work look more like hand-drawn animation.
#34 101 DALMATIANS (1961)
Is there any more loathsome villain in all of the Disney Animation canon than petulant and terrifying Cruella de Vil? That awful woman wants to make a coat out of puppies! 101 Dalmatians is undoubtedly a classic, with some of the most stylish animation to ever come out of the studio. Admittedly, the movie is a bit light on plot, instead leaning on how cute the puppies are or how breathtaking the London backdrops, but it’s still a joy to watch. Just don’t forget to eat your Kanine Krunchies while you do.
#33 TARZAN (1999)
Considered the last film to come out of Disney’s nineties renaissance, Tarzan is not just a solid Disney movie, it’s also one of the better adaptations of the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs character. The animation in this film is stunning, placing two-dimensional animation over lush computer-generated jungle backgrounds that meshed far more seamlessly than the majority of animated films at the time. Add to that a great soundtrack by Phil Collins (with some help from NSYNC, because it was the nineties) that you can’t help but swing along to, and you’ve got one of the most fun Disney films of the era.
#32 THE MANY ADVENTURES OF WINNIE THE POOH (1977)
A HUGE part of my childhood that still has the power to make a grown geek weep. Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman with John Lousbery with much love and respect for the beloved source storybooks by A.A. Milne. Reitherman was Disney's go-to guy in the 1960s and 1970s, helming or co-helming many of the studio's classic films like 101 Dalmatians, The Jungle Book, Sword in the Stone, Aristocats and Robin Hood. This is the definitive adaptation of the Pooh tales for my money with the whole heartwarming gang of Pooh, Piglet, Owl, Tigger, Eeyore, Owl, Rabbit and Christopher Robin with narration by the velvet-voiced Sebastian Cabot.
#31 MAKE MINE MUSIC (1946)
Yet another of the cheaply-produced package films released during the war-time years while many of Disney's finest artists and filmmakers were fighting for their country overseas or in other capacities This pleasant film with a terrible title patches together ten short toons set to music, most notably the "Peter and the Wolf" and "The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at The Met, " "Casey at the Bat" and "Blue Bayou" shorts that have stood the test of time independently. These cartoons don't get nearly enough attention since they don't feature the familiar roster of classic Disney characters but do contain a certain charm all their own.
#30 ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE (2001)
One of Disney’s most unique animated features, Atlantis: The Lost Empire was the first of a brief dive into science-fiction that Disney made at the turn of the twenty-first century, being followed by both Lilo & Stitch and Treasure Planet the following year. It’s a rollicking pulp adventure into the depths of the ocean that takes inspiration from H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Indiana Jones in equal measure and blends them together to create an original adventure all its own. Atlantis also has one of the most distinctive animation styles of any Disney movie, inspired by the angular, shadowy art of one of its production designers—and Hellboy creator—Mike Mignola. A love letter to classic adventure stories and one of Disney’s most under-rated modern films.
#29 ZOOTOPIA (2016)
Zootopia has one of the most star-studded voice casts of any Disney animated film, featuring Shakira, J.K. Simmons, Idris Elba, Bonnie Hunt, Jason Bateman, and Once Upon a Time’s Ginnifer Goodwin in the lead role as Officer Judy Hopps. Surprisingly, the big names don’t distract from telling a surprisingly smart and relevant story that delivered a poignant message of inclusion and fairness to audiences. Zootopia also has some of the most impressive world-building on this list, leaving viewers wanting to explore all of the animal metropolis’ many exotic neighborhoods in more depth. Very funny, very smart, and beautifully animated, Zootopia points to a promising future for Disney Animation.
#28 FUN AND FANCY FREE (1947)
The fourth of Disney's wartime compilations, this was simply a matter of two extended shorts, "Bongo" and "Mickey and the Beanstalk." Notably, it marked the final time Walt Disney voiced Mickey himself before passing the vocal baton to sound engineer Jimmy MacDonald. It's all framed by a rather bizarre return from Jiminy Cricket, who joins famed ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and a little girl to tell the second story, for some reason. Another cost-saving feature from the creatively-lean war years that ranks for historical value and the charming retelling of the Jack and the Beanstalk story.