This week, a new generation will join in on a tradition as American as apple pie, because with the opening of Moana, some lucky kids just discovered their new favorite Disney movie.
For nearly eighty years, children and adults alike have been discovering the magic of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ movies, and no matter who you ask, chances are, their favorite Disney movies will be very different than yours. Even between the two authors of this list, we were surprised at some of the movies that the other was fond of, but that just goes to show the longevity and quality behind most of the studios’ releases. Every Disney movie was someone’s first, or has a special place in someone’s heart, so we tried to meld the perspectives of our respective generations in our rankings.
So now, after giving you the bottom half our list yesterday, we are returning to give you the rest of our ranking of every single theatrical release from the revered Walt Disney Animation Studios. Who made the top of the list? Read on to find out what we found to be the best of the House of Mouse, and let us know what your favorites are in the comments. And remember: it's all just our opinion!
And if you’re heading to the theater this Thanksgiving weekend to catch Moana — which is already receiving stellar reviews — please come back and tell us where it ranks for you, or for any younger viewers you may have brought with you.
#27 ARISTOCATS (1970)
Let's get this out of the way right now... I am not a cat fancier, but I won't let that detract me from my job of introducing the first entry in the second half of our ultimate Disney animated movie ranking. Aristocats does have a lot going for it, including a rousing roster of toe-tapping tunes, cuddly kittens and a distinctly Parisian flair. This was last final film officially green-lit by Walt Disney before his death. Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, one of Disney's legendary Nine Old Men, it was released on Christmas Eve and may have single-handedly spawned Baby Boomers' cat-crazed obsessions with sharing images of felines on the internet decades later. Cat-tastic? Sorta.
#26 THE FOX AND THE HOUND (1981)
After Bambi, I don’t think there’s any movie on this list more guaranteed to break my heart than The Fox and the Hound. It’s impossible not to be charmed by Tod and Copper as they struggle to remain friends even as their circumstances try to force them into a decidedly-unfriendly relationship. This movie is one Disney’s darkest, as it deals more in shades of grey than they tend to. It’s particularly impressive how understandable the pain of the hunter Amos is, especially compared to most Disney villains. A beautiful, if overly-somber film.
#25 FANTASIA 2000 (2000)
Released in IMAX on New Years Day in 2000, this might have been Disney's final animated feature had the dreaded Millennium Bug wiped out the world's electrical grid. Thankfully that didn't occur and this sequel to Fantasia, the experimental pairing of animation and classical music, was an ambitious hand-drawn/CGI undertaking that falls far short of the 1940 original yet has its own distinctive merits, especially the stunning "Pines of Rome" sequence depicting a family of humpback whales who dream of flying. Also contains a repeat of Mickey in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" showcased in the first Fantasia, with this new version introduced by twisted illusionists Penn and Teller.
#24 THE BLACK CAULDRON (1985)
I'm here to wrench this underrated experiment into the darker realms of animation from the basement of many Disney movie lists. Yes, it's a slap-dash $40 million adaptation of the Chronicles of Prydain series of childrens fantasy books by Lloyd Alexander and at times the pacing and storytelling goes off the trail but I believe it to be ahead of its time, with some striking animation and more mature themes. It failed miserably at the box office and was almost responsible for shuttering the entire animation department, but except for that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play? Disney is currently diving back into the Prydain novels for a new live-action adaptation hoping to redeem itself.
#23 TREASURE PLANET (2002)
Treasure Planet is one title I am pleased to place in the Top 25 of our comprehensive list and upon repeat viewing, it holds up well as an entertaining and imaginative steampunk sci-fi retelling of the Robert Louis Stevenson adventure classic, Treasure Island. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the duo who delivered the newest Disney animated feature, Moana, Treasure Planet is a solid intergalactic treasure hunt that deserves to get bumped up a bit on everyone's mental ranking of Disney's best. The film's cyborg Long John Silver was based on Wallace Beery, the robust actor who played the character in the 1934 live-action Treasure Island.
#22 THE ADVENTURES OF ICHABOD AND MR. TOAD (1949)
This was Disney's final package film of the 1940s and one of my personal favorites due to a spirited "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" segment portraying the frightening Headless Horseman running down Ichabod Crane with a flaming pumpkin and narrated by the immortal Bing Crosby. Also includes the animated short that inspired the Mr. Toad's Wild Ride attraction at Disneyland, "The Wind in the Willows" by Kenneth Grahame. These two animated shorts comprise the entire 66-minute film and were later separated and marketed individually as cartoons seen on TV's The Wonderful World of Disney and in VHS compilations.
#21 ALADDIN (1992)
After kicking off the Disney Renaissance with The Little Mermaid a few years earlier, co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker returned to create another modern classic in Aladdin. This movie is absolutely bursting with energy, thanks in large part to the uncontainable Robin Williams as the bombastic Genie, and to the impossibly catchy musical numbers. “One Jump Ahead,” “Friend Like Me,” “Prince Ali,” and of course, “A Whole New World,” are among some of the greatest showstopping tunes in Disney, all with fantastically colorful and clever animation sequences to go with them. Aladdin is a magic carpet ride you never want to end.
#20 ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1951)
Whenever Disney gets their hands on a classic story or fairy tale, their version usually ends up being one of the most recognizable and enduring, but there are few others on this list that truly became the definitive version in the way Alice in Wonderland did. In much the same way that it would be impossible for many people to read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz without imagining Judy Garland, most people’s mental image of Alice and her colorful cast is that of the Disney version. Disney nailed the hallucinatory aesthetic of Lewis Carroll’s tale, and didn’t shy away from some of the darker themes and characters, making this one Disney classic that wasn’t late — but rather ahead of its time.
#19 LILO & STITCH (2002)
Almost certainly one of the most original concepts in the Disney catalog, Lilo & Stitch, is basically a “boy and his dog” story, but instead it’s a little Hawaiian girl and her genetically-engineered weapon of alien origin. It’s impossible for this pair of lonely weirdos not to steal your heart, whether it’s by Lilo explaining why she can’t feed Pudge the fish a tuna sandwich, or it’s Stitch doing his best Elvis impersonation on the beach. Rounded out by a beautiful setting, a groovy Elvis-driven soundtrack, and a stellar voice cast that includes multiple-Tony winner Zoe Caldwell, Wayne’s World’s Tia Carrere, and Marsellus Wallace himself, Ving Rhames, Lilo & Stitch will leave even the most stony-hearted viewer dying to be part of the ohana.
#18 MULAN (1998)
In my opinion, Mulan is far and away the most admirable of any of the Disney Princesses — though that could be because she isn’t technically a princess. Nonetheless, she’s a compelling and heroic protagonist who battles both the invading Huns and the sexism of her Chinese culture with grace and unwavering determination. This film also has some of the most epic action sequences of any film on this list, with the battle in the mountain pass and the final fight to save the Emperor both being standouts. The cherry on top? A movie-stealing role for Eddie Murphy as Mushu the Dragon. Mulan is easily the most underrated movie of Disney’s Renaissance.
#17 DUMBO (1941)
This ultimate tribute to a mother's love will make the most cold-hearted human weep like a pink-cheeked baby. Dumbo is a pre-war masterpiece containing all the heart, pathos and elation you've come to expect from the Disney brand operating with a full staff right before Pearl Harbor sent America into the nightmares of World War II. It was adapted from a backstory written by Helen Aberson for a children's toy prototype, Dumbo, The Flylng Elephant, and produced to help rebuild the Disney bank accounts after the disappointing box office of Fantasia. Rock-solid storytelling, memorable characters and an emotional core all wrapped up in a 62 minute circus-themed gem that will still have people crying one hundred years from now.
#16 JUNGLE BOOK (1967)
The final film produced by Walt Disney himself, The Jungle Book is a jazz-fueled tour-de-force. Some of Disney’s most colorful and fluid animation to date is played against one of the studio’s grooviest scores to create a rollicking adventure that you can’t help but swing along to. Nearly every character in this movie became a Disney icon, especially Baloo, who has had his character design re-used multiple times since, such as in Robin Hood (where he was still voiced by the smooth crooning of Phil Harris) and in the animated series TaleSpin. While perhaps not Disney’s most moving or artistically triumphant movie, The Jungle Book is certainly one of the most fun, and a perfect exclamation point to punctuate the end of an era.
#15 THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1996)
One of the most underrated of our Disney bunch and also one with a dark, sinful heart that distinguished itself far beyond some of the more lightweight titles of the '90s era like Pocahontas and Hercules. One reason for this minor masterpiece examining the shadowed regions of the human soul? The excellent directorial team of Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise who previously championed another French fairy tale in their presentation of Beauty and the Beast, which you'll see in our Top 5! There are some truly inspired moments in this semi-forgotten title and I highly recommend a repeat veiwing if it's been a while since you visited Quasimodo and Esmeralda's world.
#14 FROZEN (2013)
Okay, I know the whole avalanche of hype that descended on this loose animated adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen," but just let it go! Taken in its pre-hype infancy, Frozen boasts some jaw-dropping sequences (think of the beautiful ice harvesting scenes in the opening), the best snow monster since Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a stable of instantly-classic sidekick characters and songs that will stick in your head like a musical icicle to the brain. We wanted to bump this up a bit but didn't want to let the over-saturation or fact it made a mountain of money ($1.3 billion) cloud our judgement. A sequel is on the way so get ready for another blizzard of over-exploitation!
#13 BIG HERO 6 (2014)
I don’t think child-me would ever have guessed that Disney would eventually make a superhero movie, let alone one directly inspired by a Marvel comic book, but that’s part of what makes this movie great. Big Hero 6 proves that the legendary studio still is willing to think way outside the box and try completely new genres and concepts, and more importantly, can do them well. Big Hero 6 is an impressively executed superhero film that has more heart and heroism packed in than the majority of its live-action contemporaries. Baymax, Hiro, and the whole gang are endlessly lovable and inspiring, each in their own unique way, and the explosive high-flying adventure they find themselves caught up in is smart and genuinely surprising. Big Hero 6 will leave all but the most stony-hearted of Disney fans satisfied with their care.
#12 LADY AND THE TRAMP (1955)
Disney was really ramping up their slate of animated features following the lean years during and immediately after World War II and this tale of a maverick mutt and a pampered pooch is a pure delight, and being a dog lover, one of my favorites in the Disney vault. Based on "Happy Dan, The Whistling Dog," a 1924 short story by Ward Greene, this two-hanky classic has stood the test of time and has many admirers who love a great love story. And come on, it's got the immortal spaghetti and meatballs scene! Dig in!
#11 THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989)
Being the film that kicked off what we now recognize as the Disney Renaissance, it’s hard to imagine how much different this list would look if it weren’t for The Little Mermaid. This was the first bona fide hit from co-director/writer/producers John Musker and Ron Clements, who’d cut their teeth on The Great Mouse Detective, and who would remain a driving force behind the Renaissance with Aladdin and Hercules. In fact, the period of less than stellar films from Disney Animation from about 2002-2008 only occurred when they took a break after Treasure Planet and ended with their return on The Princess and the Frog. The Little Mermaid is a truly beautiful presentation of a classic fairy tale, with some memorable musical numbers, but its true significance is in the massive impact it had on the studio’s output since.
#10 WRECK-IT RALPH (2012)
I’m expecting lots of internet tomatoes thrown our way for this movie ranking so high, but I am convinced that it deserves it, thanks to its whimsical and clever worldbuilding, stunning animation, and most of all its nuanced, intelligent writing. Wreck-It Ralph quite simply has more to say than most Disney films. It’s a passionate love letter to an entirely different artistic medium — video games — that adopts its visuals and tropes in a way that doesn’t come across as pandering or clichéd, making a case for the greatness of games, from the elegant simplicity of classic arcade games to the controlled chaos of modern kart racers. And in one of Disney’s smartest narrative moves, the protagonist is a video game villain, which allows the film to ask surprisingly powerful questions about nature versus nurture, as well as giving audiences insight into a pile of pixels they may have previously taken for granted. Wreck-It Ralph is a triumph of modern Disney that is 200% deserving of its 2018 sequel, the next on the studio’s slate.
#9 PETER PAN
Being a middle-aged geek who never wants to grow up, I can totally identify with Disney's titular hero. It's one of the best post-war Disney movies with everlasting songs and an indelible resonance with viewers of all ages. Still the finest adaptations of J.M. Barrie's soaring tale of the boy who could fly, capturing the timeless notions of childhood and hope. This was the final Disney animated movie conjured by Disney's legendary Nine Old Men and was also one of Walt's personal favorites before Sleeping Beauty was finished. It was Michael Jackson's favorite Disney movie as well, being the inspiration for his personal themepark, Neverland Ranch. And who doesn't love a story quoted by Captain Kirk in Star Trek VI, as he gazes out into the cosmos and directs the Enterprise to the "Second star to the right, and straight on 'til morning."
#8 THE LION KING (1994)
I have to be upfront here. The Lion King was the first film I ever saw in theaters, so I may have a bit of a nostalgic bias toward it. But I’m confident in calling this as one of the most culturally impactful Disney movies ever. With two sequels, two animated series, a recently-announced live-action version, and a play that has been on Broadway for nearly twenty years, The Lion King has obviously left its mark on moviegoers’ collective consciousness. A big part of the success is thanks to Elton John and Hans Zimmer who created one of the most iconic soundtracks and scores not just in Disney’s canon, but in all of film history. Add to that the unforgettable cast of characters, tragic and heartfelt story and lush, engaging animation, and you have the rare box-office juggernaut that truly deserved every ticket it sold.
#7 THE EMPEROR'S NEW GROOVE (2000)
It’s not surprising that the movie with David Spade, John Goodman and Patrick Warburton among its voice cast is one of the absolute funniest Disney features. For the now-grown kids of a certain generation (mine) this is by far one of the most quotable and beloved Disney movies there is. Like many Disney classics, it’s about the main character learning humility and compassion, a story that’s told with nuance and intelligence, and an Oscar-nominated song by Sting doesn’t hurt either. Emperor’s New Groove is one of the last truly great traditionally animated Disney films.
#6 SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959)
Sleeping Beauty was the last animated feature personally supervised from start to finish by Walt Disney and it was one of his personal favorites... so naturally it's one of ours! A grand tapestry of animation art, it contains the best dragon battle ever filmed with Prince Phillip facing off with Maleficent's fire-breathing form. Sorry, Game of Thrones' Drogon! I was fortunate enough to meet the great Eyvind Earle at a Melrose Avenue book signing event for his 80th birthday in 1996 and shook hands with the man who painted all the beautiful modern-styled background art for the film.
#5 FANTASIA (1940)
Walt Disney's grand experiment meshing cutting-edge animation from the storied ranks of Disney's Nine Old Men with some of the most stirring pieces of classic music ever written, all conducted by the great Leopold Stokowski, Fantasia consists of eight animated segments matched with timeless musical compositions by Bach, Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Schubert and more. It deserves this Top 5 placement based on its epic scope and ambition despite being a certified loser at the box office. Particularly effective are the "Sorcerer's Apprentice," "Night on Bald Mountain" and "Rite of Spring" chapters, filled with dark terror and enlightened life lessons. A true Disney classic for the ages.
#4 BAMBI (1942)
Forget the whole anti-hunting element in this jaw-droppingly gorgeous story of an orphaned deer who learns life lessons from a host of huggably cute characters including Thumper, Flower and Faline, Bambi's adorable love interest. This fifth Disney animated feature showcases and builds upon the animation techniques explored and mastered in Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia and Dumbo. One of the most challenging aspects of filming Felix Salten's novel Bambi, A Life in the Woods was animating the deer and considerable time and effort went into the mastering of the effects. For my dime, holds the most beautiful art and deepest emotional current of any Disney film.
#3 SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937)
Snow White's influence cannot be overstated as it was the world's first animated feature film and kicked off the entire Disney cartoon movie catalog and legacy of 55 animated titles that came afterwards. A colossal undertaking that took Disney four years to complete at a cost of a then-astounding $1.5 million, the film was monumentally successful when it premiered at Christmastime in 1937. The old gal has gone on to rake in over $185 million since that acclaimed debut nearly eighty years ago. It doesn't age as well as other Disney movies of the same period with its frail heroine warbling about princes and wishes, but the iconic Seven Dwarfs are still endearing. The best sequences are the evil Queen's transformation into the old hag in her witch's dungeon, genuinely scary for little kids of a more sensitive nature.
#2 BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991)
While The Little Mermaid kicked off the Disney Renaissance, it was Beauty and the Beast that cemented the studio’s return to quality, by building upon and transcending the Broadway musical formula that made its predecessor successful. Beauty and the Beast is the rare Disney princess movie that gives meaningful character development to both the protagonist and her love interest, making it a much more satisfying viewing experience — and the extremely polished animation doesn’t hurt either. Beauty and the Beast was such a monumental achievement that it became the first animated film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, a feat that has only been matched by Up and Toy Story 3 since. The soundtrack won an Academy Award, thanks to the sultry invitation to party that is “Be Our Guest,” the hilarious faux-machismo of “Gaston,” the swelling intensity of “The Mob Song,” and of course the soaring romance of the film’s titular song, which won Best Song. Beauty and the Beast is everything you could possibly want in an animated Disney movie.
#1 PINOCCHIO (1940)
Okay, let's top this tree of Disney treasures right now! Pinocchio represents the zenith of Disney animation with stunning watercolor backgrounds, a remarkably modern coming-of-age tale, catchy songs that will shine in your heart forever and the greatest single character ever conceived by the House of Mouse after Mickey, the incomparable Jiminy Cricket. Many technical achievements in the art of animation were born in this triumphant gem about Collodi's wooden boy who wanted to become real, including the extensive use of the multiplane camera. It's crammed with a rainbow of colorful characters and story locations like Pleasure Island, Stromboli's marionette theater and Geppetto's toy shop. The undersea sequences with Monstro are breathtaking and overall the story is well-balanced and still resonates 76 years after its release. A monumental effort from Disney's legendary Nine Old Men, the core group of animators in Walt's prolific stable. Best ever? Believe it!