Are Disney films wise, funny and visually stunning—perfect for the entire family? Or are they sappy and sentimental, brainwashing kids with antiquated values? Everyone has an opinion of the 53 animations released over the years by the Walt Disney Company, beginning in 1937 with Snow White and hitting new heights with last year’s box-office bonanza Frozen. What cannot be denied is how loved these films are in every corner of the globe. But which Disney movies deserve a place on your DVD shelf, and which are best forgotten? We count down the best and worst Disney animated movies.
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Boy turns into bear. Learns lessons. Audience groans.
This magical-mystical-mumbo-jumbo fantasy tells the story of an Inuit boy bent on revenge against the bear who killed his brother. But during the hunt, he’s transformed into a bear himself. The film’s uninspired animation and treacly sentiment make it one of the most forgettable Disney features.—Keith UhlichRead more
Disney goes West in a fruitless hunt for inspiration.
Everything about Home on the Range is tired, from the poster’s tag line ("Bust a moo") to the dull story line. In the early 2000s, this was exactly the kind of mediocrity that served to push Disney’s classics into the past (and bear in mind this was the summer that Pixar’s The Incredibles smashed the box office). It’s hard to hate Roseanne Barr, but watching this feels like being encased in dirt. The film bombed; heads rolled.—Joshua RothkopfRead more
Love in the New World. Yawns in the cinema.
The so-called Disney Renaissance—a blessed run of gold mines including Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994)—had to end sometime. Pocahontas was the first Disney animation to be based on a real-life historical character. What a shame the studio opens itself up to legitimate charges of stereotyping Native Americans.—Joshua RothkopfRead more
Still riding off the fumes of Fantasia, Disney goes pop.
This anthology of shorts is largely (and understandably) forgotten. It lacks the sweep and classical grandeur of Fantasia, and these seven tales—about American pioneer Johnny Appleseed and cowboy Pecos Bill, among others—have lost their cultural cachet.—Joshua RothkopfRead more
One film to disappoint them all
Disney’s second attempt—after The Sword in the Stone—to adapt a mystical British fantasy novel goes off the rails, thanks to a nonexistent plot and tiresome sub-Tolkien characters (including outrageous Gollum knockoff Gurgi). It’s a shame, because there are flashes of real magic here—the John Hurt–voiced Horned King is genuinely creepy.—Tom HuddlestonRead more
Disney enters the brave new world of computer animation.
Possibly Chicken Little will be remembered as Disney’s first tiptoe into computer animation. Everything else about it is pretty forgettable: charmless, laugh-free and as frantic as a hyperactive five-year-old. The story is lifted from the traditional tale about the chick who believes the end is nigh when an acorn falls on his head (giving us the phrase "the sky is falling").—Cath ClarkeRead more
Guess who’s Bach?
Disney attempted to recapture the magic of Fantasia with a second compilation of animated shorts set to classical music. Yet this seems like a cash-grab, with bored celebrity narrators (Bette Midler, Penn & Teller!) and a recycled feel to many of the segments (the slapstick flamingo ballet isn’t a patch on the original’s crocodiles and hippos).—Keith UhlichRead more
Disney gets that sinking feeling with a Verne-inspired adventure.
Disney’s attempt at an original, nonmusical take on the legend of the lost underwater civilization was seen as a flop on release—the critics weren’t kind, and the box office wasn’t spectacular. Sure, this isn’t the studio’s finest hour, but it’s a sparky, likable enough tale, reminiscent of a feature-length episode of a Saturday morning cartoon.—Tom HuddlestonRead more
England’s finest folk hero gets the Disney treatment.
Diverting wildly from TH White’s wistful, witty, very English source novel, The Sword in the Stone presents the boyhood of King Arthur as a cozy, colorful, slightly crass all-American adventure. It’s enjoyably goofy and little ones love it, but the songs are rotten and the plot paper-thin.—Tom HuddlestonRead more
What do you call a pirate in space? An arrrrr-stronaut.
The idea of repurposing Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island as a sci-fi adventure isn’t a terrible one. But this peculiar hybrid can’t quite make sense of itself—the great floating space galleons look more ridiculous than awe-inspiring. It’s a good yarn passably told, but Treasure Planet feels like an opportunity wasted.—Tom HuddlestonRead more
Disney raids its back catalog for a mousy sequel.
This is the odd film out in the Disney Renaissance that began with 1989’s The Little Mermaid. A perfectly acceptable sequel to 1977’s The Rescuers, it finds mouse heroes Bernard and Miss Bianca traveling to Australia to battle a villainous poacher. Although mostly a time-passer, it does boast some compelling early CGI animation.—Keith UhlichRead more
Disney and dinosaurs—what could go wrong? Um…
In the wake of 1993’s colossal Jurassic Park, no studio could be blamed for wanting to get in on the prehistoric act. Dinosaur goes for realism with its richly textured lizard skins and humid, swampy vistas—making it, at the time, one of the most expensive films ever. What a shame Disney didn’t put as much effort into the story line.—Joshua RothkopfRead more
Disney goes back to the future.
Meet the Robinsons is likable and has a few aces up its sleeve, but it's hardly inspiring stuff. Every character is an archetype—from the lonely science whiz kid to the nerve-racked robot—and the script merely supplies jovial quips where there should be jokes. The film was made just as Disney merged with Pixar, and suffers by comparison with the latter studio's catalog. Still, the time-traveling plot has enough twists and neat gags to charm the kids.—Alex Dudok de WitRead more
The jazz Fantasia
Created over several years after most of the Disney staff had been drafted to fight in Word War II, Make Mine Music is a compilation consisting of ten shorts set to music by popular artists of the day. It’s inevitably a mixed bag, but the highlights—including controversially violent "The Martins and the Coys" and experimental freakout "All the Cats Join In"—are terrific.—Tom HuddlestonRead more
Oliver with a kitten twist. No catastrophe.
Oliver & Company was the last film made before the Disney Renaissance, a decade of solid-gold winners that began with The Little Mermaid. And it shows. This is Disney still believing that a dog in sunglasses is cool. The retelling of Charles Dickens’s tale of little orphan Oliver Twist stars a stray kitten in 1980s New York.—Cath ClarkeRead more
The end of an era
Fun fact: Fun & Fancy Free was the last time Uncle Walt himself voiced Mickey. Two short segments make up this enjoyable film: "Bongo," the tale of a circus bear who wants to roam free, and "Mickey and the Beanstalk," in which everyone’s favorite mouse stars in a riff on the classic boy-versus-giant fairy tale.—Keith UhlichRead more
Wacky shenanigans in pre-Columbian America
Some of the plotting feels a little strained—Incan royals and slapstick aren’t natural bedfellows—but this tale of llamas and landgrabs has a unique vibe that eventually settles into something close to fun. The production was troubled; it’s enough that Disney got a coherent movie out of it (if not a smash). And—whisper it—Sting’s musical number, "My Funny Friend and Me," isn’t half bad.—Joshua RothkopfRead more
A CGI adventure nipping at Pixar’s heels
It must have been frustrating for Disney when their junior partners at Pixar (not to mention those upstarts at DreamWorks and Blue Sky) began to surpass them at the box office. The response was Bolt, a witty, enjoyable but ever-so-slightly trying-too-hard digital adventure about a movie-star dog. Still, the geeky hamster, Rhino, is an absolute treat.—Tom HuddlestonRead more
Tricks and a treat from a 1940s double bill
WWII put the brakes on Walt Disney’s plan for a full-length The Wind in the Willows. A short version, Mr. Toad, was eventually released as a double bill with another short—an adaptation of Washington Irving’s spooky "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Mr. Toad is a treat, trotting along at a breakneck pace. The final scene of Ichabod, as horsemen terrorize the lanky schoolmaster, is a master class in family-friendly scares.—Cath ClarkeRead more
Disney rifles through yet another beloved British kids’ novel (Basil of Baker Street by Eve Titus) for this tale of a mouse who resides in the cellar of 221B Baker Street. It’s not quite up to classic standards, but the characters are lively, the vocal talent (including Vincent Price) is well chosen, and the film’s representation of foggy Victorian London is surprisingly atmospheric.—Tom HuddlestonRead more
We’re all the same beneath our fur, man.
This is a sweet, sometimes moving tale of the friendship between a young fox and a hunting dog who live next door as kids but meet later as enemies in the forest. It has enough to say about prejudice and the innocence of youth to not be dismissed as minor. In the history of Disney animation, it’s notable for the arguments and splits during production between Disney founding animators and a new guard coming up through the ranks.—Dave CalhounRead more
Disney swaps a mischievous mouse for a noble bear
The last Disney feature in which Walt was involved isn’t actually a feature so much as a portmanteau film composed of three previously released shorts from the late ’60s plus one new one. Visually rather static, Winnie the Pooh relies on the charms of A.A. Milne’s original characters for its kicks—though the conceit of a voiceover narrator who flips through the pages of the story yields some nice animated gags. Eeyore would steal the show if he had more screen time.—Alex Dudok de WitRead more
Disney raids the Looney Tunes back catalog.
Closer to a Tasmanian Devil cartoon than a traditional Disney feature, Lilo & Stitch is a rare blast of chaotic fun amid all the fairy tales and morals. The tale of a sweet Hawaiian girl and her insane, ravenous, Elvis-obsessed extraterrestrial pal, this is nonstop mayhem in the best possible sense.—Tom HuddlestonRead more
Race, rioting, religion and raunch—Disney gets dark!
Those who expected Disney to transform Victor Hugo’s famously gritty and complex anti-religious novel into a jolly, kid-friendly romp were only half right. This is without doubt the darkest Disney flick to date, tackling themes of sexual obsession, religious hypocrisy and rampant materialism. Sure, everyone lives happily ever after, but it’s a grim and gripping ride to get there.—Tom HuddlestonRead more
Portly yellow bear can’t kick his honey addiction.
This delightfully digressive feature follows Pooh and his friends (Eeyore, Tigger et al.) as they go in search of the sweet golden treasure, even sailing on a sea of honey in one especially gorgeous sequence. It’s a keeper.—Keith UhlichRead more
They don’t call it the Mouse House for nothing.
If you happened to be the right age (raises hand), this mouse-terpiece was exactly the thrilling, swirling adventure advertised. The story of an the all-mouse Rescue Aid Society who go to the help of an orphan girl being held captive, The Rescuers represents one of Disney's many comebacks: a solid critical and commercial success after years of duds.—Joshua RothkopfRead more
He’s Tarzan, you’ll be drained.
Tarzan is the last film in the decade-long Disney Renaissance, and while not quite a classic like The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast, there’s still a lot to love here. The aerial animation as Tarzan swings through the jungle is spectacular, and there are some funny gags ("Is it a sub species of elephant?" ponders a gorilla looking at the little human cub). Tarzan’s sense of not belonging—to his gorilla family or mankind—is heart-touching and surprisingly moving.—Cath ClarkeRead more
Not purr-fect but catchy songs go a long way
The first film made after Walt Disney’s death follows an aristocratic feline and her kittens as they try to reclaim their stolen fortune with the help of a back-alley stray. It’s a charming adventure, with plenty of fun musical numbers—like the jazzy "Everybody Wants to be a Cat"—thrown in for good, toe-tapping measure.—Keith UhlichRead more
Seventy years on, we finally have a black Disney heroine.
Retro was the order of the day when Disney embarked on their first hand-drawn film in several years. The result feels at once classic and modern, with its creaky fairy-tale narrative transplanted to New Orleans and buoyed up by Randy Newman’s memorable oompah soundtrack and some lively voice casting. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, too.—Tom HuddlestonRead more
A gift from the animation gods
Some find the smart-ass wisecracking in Hercules irritating, but they’re wrong. Disney might have mangled ancient Greek myth with their reimagining of Hercules as a none-too-bright but lovable lunkhead. But this film is a winner, infectiously funny and chock-full of gags. Best of all is the deliciously droll, adult-friendly villain Hades, with his hapless sidekicks Pain and Panic.—Cath ClarkeRead more
It won’t shiver your timbers but it’s a giggle.
Steering clear of the darkness, Disney amped up the comedy of JM Barrie’s play. Blustery Captain Hook is a lovable bad guy, hotly pursued by an ever-ravenous crocodile. The knockabout action, meanwhile, suggests that the Disney team had one eye on Warner Bros’ Looney Tunes cartoons. The best adaptation of Barrie’s play.—Trevor JohnstonRead more
Walt weirds out with a whimsical tale.
For years Walt Disney had wanted to animate Lewis Carroll’s surreal children’s novel, and when he finally got round to it in the early 1950s, he stuck pretty close to the original. Faithful to the John Tenniel illustrations (with added Disney cuteness), this is a love letter to Carroll’s visual imagination and playful language. A shame then, that it doesn’t quite manage to turn schoolgirl Alice’s odyssey into a satisfying story. —Trevor JohnstonRead more
Hippie-era outlaw cool comes to Sherwood Forest.
The Jungle Book director Wolfgang Reitherman’s decision to transplant hokey cowboy tropes to Merrie England should have been awful. But Robin Hood is so sweet-natured that it’s impossible to complain. The tiny budget meant that all the characters were lifted from earlier hits (check out Little John, the brown Baloo), and yet somehow this only adds to the film’s shaggy-dog charm. —Tom HuddlestonRead more
The circle of life puts Disney back on top.
Everyone (and that includes everyone at Disney, whose animators all wanted to work on Pocahontas) was stunned when The Lion King smashed the box office in 1994. But it’s not hard to see why. The heroes are lovable and relatable, while Scar is one of the best Disney villains ever, equal measures bored and devilish. The soundtrack by Tim Rice and Elton John is exceedingly hummable and the animation is gorgeous.—Cath ClarkeRead more
A new animated age began here.
Aladdin heralded the modern era of animation. The Cave of Wonders sequence saw a major Disney feature employing computer animation for the first time, while the appearance of Robin Williams was a landmark in the use of celebrity voices. Most importantly, the film’s success proved that people were again ready to hand over their cash to a cartoon spectacular.—Tom HuddlestonRead more
Back to basics with a sparky fairy tale
Here’s a throwback to Disney’s classic era, with tongue firmly in cheek and belting out show tunes (the stage musical cannot be far behind). The shiny veneer may mask traditional ideals, but there’s no denying the ridiculously high entertainment value: Frozen is beautifully animated, breathlessly paced and winningly goofy.—Tom HuddlestonRead more
The evil fairy steals the show
They don’t call her the Mistress of Evil for nothing. Maleficent might just be the most villainous of Disney’s villainesses, cursing the newborn princess Aurora to prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die before her 16th birthday. Why? All because she wasn’t invited to the little princess’s christening. Talk about bearing a grudge.—Cath ClarkeRead more
Puppy love gets literal.
It’s famous for that spaghetti kiss—a legendary scene that Walt Disney almost cut out. But Lady and the Tramp has many other charming moments: The script evolved out of years of personal pet stories shared by the studio's animal-loving writers and executives. A true labor of love.—Joshua RothkopfRead more
No more Mr. Nasty Guy
At night in an empty arcade, Donkey Kong–ish video-game villain Ralph (John C. Reilly, inspired) wants a career change badly. While loaded with eight-bit nostalgia, Wreck-It Ralph somehow feels fresh: a sincere tale of finding your own identity.—Joshua RothkopfRead more
A thoroughly modern Disney villainess
The Rapunzel fairy tale gets a Disney overhaul, with a sparky princess who doesn’t need a Prince Charming to help her escape. Filled with energy and humor, this is near-vintage Disney. Best of all is the villainess, Mother Gothel, who looks like Cher and behaves like a hip mom on a bad trip. This manipulative madam has no special powers, so must rely on her acid tongue to keep Rapunzel in check.—Cath ClarkeRead more
Disney gets its mojo back.
This cheery adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale set a new template for Disney animation. That formula—take a story everyone knows, preferably featuring a plucky princess, then add a bunch of catchy-as-chlamydia show tunes—still works. But The Little Mermaid also has emotional resonance and staying power…plus sea witch Ursula is surely among the greatest Disney villains.—Guy LodgeRead more
The start of something beautiful
The elements of the story are now bedrock components of the Disney formula: plucky heroine, gang of animal sidekicks, the promise of total transformation. But this hit was, by no estimates, a sure thing. Fortunately, the charm offensive proved overwhelming. If you love the brand’s theme parks (and doesn’t that castle look familiar?), here’s the movie that allowed them to happen.—Joshua RothkopfRead more
The magic comes together for a Disney classic.
Witty and charming, sunnily confident and filled with cockle-warming innocence, Beauty and the Beast harks back to the Disney glory days. But it also took the studio to a new level—becoming the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. What works? The emotional heart of the story plus a soaring, Broadway-on-steroids score. Not to mention the adorable talking objects in the castle.—Trevor JohnstonRead more
The hippies are taking over the studio.
Were the Disney animators passing the bong around when they made The Jungle Book? Just look at the vultures (who bear more than a passing resemblance to The Beatles). Hippy-ish 1960s vibe aside, The Jungle Book stars some of Disney’s best-loved characters, including Baloo (the Bill Murray of bears) and the devilish Shere Khan. And its musical numbers have never been beaten: "Bare Necessities" and "I Wanna Be Like You" are pure heaven.—Cath ClarkeRead more
Walt Disney’s favorite movie (if he did say so himself)
In medieval times, they tested for witchcraft by dunking suspects in water. Perhaps they could test for serial killers today with the scene of Bambi’s mother dying. Walt Disney called Bambi "the best picture I have ever made, and the best ever to come out of Hollywood." And he might have a point. At any rate, Thumper really should have won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.—Cath ClarkeRead more
I got 99 problems…
She is perhaps the most villainous of Disney villainesses. Where you see an adorable puppy, Cruella De Vil sees a fashion statement. Her evil plan is to turn 99 adorable dogs into a coat. With its London setting, 101 Dalmatians pulls Disney into the modern age, casting off fairy godmothers and princesses. And the twilight bark is Disney at its best.—Cath ClarkeRead more
Classical kitsch of the highest order
While in postproduction on Mickey Mouse comeback "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice," Walt Disney decided to surround the short with similar classical-music-scored vignettes. Fantasia was born. Silly and sublime, in which a hippo and an alligator do a slapstick ballet and even the devil himself appears, it’s one of the studio’s finest.—Keith UhlichRead more
Disney’s feature-length debut is still effortlessly charming.
It may not have been the first animated feature, but with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney and his animators created an entirely new genre. Just look at Frozen and ask how far mainstream animation has really advanced: Snow White has brave heroines, hunky but slightly dumb dudes, slapstick sidekicks, gorgeous animation, unforgettable tunes and the greatest femme fatale in film history.—Tom HuddlestonRead more
Ain’t nobody’s fault he’s got them big ears
Unromantically, the idea for Dumbo came from the prototype of a new toy. But this tale of a baby elephant born into a traveling circus is tender, moving and packed with energy. At its heart is a piercingly sad story of a mother separated from her child. That’s pretty straightforward, but Disney finds room for inventive set pieces. The jazzy dance of the pink elephants when Dumbo mistakenly gets drunk is a scene for the ages.—Dave CalhounRead more
The best animated movie ever?
The high point of Disney’s invention comes with its second feature—still the studio's most magical. The film begins with a sweetly singing cricket, yet plunges into scenes from a nightmare: Pinocchio’s extending schnozz is animation’s most sinister and profound metaphor. Containing a universe of anxiety and wonder, this movie is nothing short of immortal.—Joshua RothkopfRead more