The Walt Disney Company has been producing animated features for 80 years now. In that time, the company has released 55 films with a 56th on the way later this year and others in development. I’m only talking about the animated ones, because if you add in live-action and all of the films released by Pixar or under the Marvel or Star Wars banner then you’ll easily eclipse 100 films. Disney’s bread and butter has been the animated feature though, beginning in 1937 with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Over the years they’ve had ups and downs and had to keep up with changes in technology and film production techniques. It’s a very interesting history, and likely numerous rankings exist around the internet listing out the films in order of best to worst, or vice versa.
For this post, I wanted to do something different. I wanted to look more at the eras of the films produced. At first I thought about just going in 5 year chunks, but that made things unbalanced as Disney has had periods where they churn out a bunch of films and periods where they don’t. Instead, I felt it would be more interesting to just divide the films up into groups, and with there being 55 total films as of this writing, it made sense to go with groups of five. These groups seem to work well as they tend to span around 7 or 8 years and result in some fun pairings. At first, I listed them out and then just did a totally subjective ranking. I was fine with the end result, but just for some added fun I added a score to each film on a scale of one to five with five being the best and then ranked them by total score and I ended up with almost the exact same list. Since that ranking felt a little more interesting, I’ll keep it and include my totally subjective score for each film as we go along while also linking to any films I may have reviewed here, so let’s get to it.
Saludos Amigos (1942)
1942 -1949 – 10 points
Well, this isn’t surprising. By going with groups of five I inadvertently grouped basically all of the package films together in one grouping. These were the films produced during World Word II when Disney was cut-off from overseas revenue streams on its films. As a result, the company had to settle for cheaper releases. None of these films are particularly good, though each also has its moments which is why they all scored a 2 across the board (you have to be pretty bad to score less than 2, and really great to score a 5 from me). Saludos Amigos is basically a propaganda film aiming to improve opinions of South America as Disney was not opposed to making such crap. At least it has Donald Duck in it though. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad definitely has its fans too, but I personally don’t enjoy that picture very much. Basically anyone doing a ranking like this one is going to start with this quintet.
Lilo & Stitch (2002)
2002 – 2005 – 11.5 Points
- Lilo & Stitch – 5
- Treasure Planet – 2.5
- Brother Bear – 2
- Home on the Range – 1
- Chicken Little – 1
Also not surprising for Disney fans, this era captures Disney’s struggle to stay relevant in the field of 2D animation while also exploring CGi. Treasure Planet is a hybrid picture that at least looks good, but doesn’t offer much else. Brother Bear is okay, but feels outdated and like a picture that’s struggling to match some of the old Disney classics. The latter two are just plain awful and probably the two worst Disney animated features. Home on the Range has the fun distinction of essentially being the film that killed 2D animation at Disney – thanks! Propping this group up and keeping it from a dismal finish behind even the package film era is Lilo & Stitch, a supremely wonderful picture about two sisters trying to cope and understand each other following the loss of their parents. It basically explores depression in adolescents, but kind of hides it by also injecting the incredibly fun Stitch to the mix and it’s also gorgeous to boot. It’s really on my short list of the best films put out by Disney.
The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
1999 – 2001 – 12.5 Points
- Tarzan – 3
- Fantasia 2000 – 2
- Dinosaur – 2
- The Emperor’s New Groove – 3.5
- Atlantis – 2
This era represents the winding down of the New Renaissance era started in the late 1980s. You basically have two perfectly good Disney films in Tarzan and Emperor’s New Groove together with two forgettable ones and one sequel that really didn’t impress. Emperor’s New Groove might be on the studio’s most underrated films as it’s a really fun story with some great animation. Tarzan is the more popular due to its legendary character and for some reason the Phil Collins soundtrack was really popular. It’s one of those films that I think looks better than it is, but it’s fine. Dinosaur is pretty bad, it’s earnest so I won’t drop it to the dismal rankings but it just doesn’t work and has aged poorly. Atlantis, like Treasure Planet, is visually interesting and little else. And Fantasia 2000 was about as big a flop as the original. While the original benefits from being unique when it was released, and for containing the iconic Sorceror’s Apprentice (re-including that in 2000 doesn’t really count for as much) while the 2000 version just looks better and doesn’t introduce really anything noteworthy.
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
1977 – 1986 – 14.5 Points
- The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh – 3.5
- The Rescuers – 3
- The Fox and the Hound – 3
- The Black Cauldron – 2
- The Great Mouse Detective – 3
Commercially, this era of films is looked on rather badly. This is when critics were sounding the bells of doom for Disney wondering if the studio could turn it around. The Black Cauldron was one of the biggest flops the company ever endured, costing a boatload of money to produce while failing to connect with critics and audiences. Because of that status it might be lumped in with a few others as being among Disney’s worst, but it’s really not that bad. It at least contains a really memorable, and frightening, villain in The Horned King and brings back some of that old scary fairy tale vibe. It has its fans, like noted critic Roger Ebert. As for the rest, they’re all pretty good films just none are able to really rise above the cream of the crop. The Pooh shorts collected in The Many Adventures are pretty much considered classics by now while The Great Mouse Detective gets the credit for turning the studio around. It’s a fun adventure and one I’m a little surprised didn’t get a sequel. The Rescuers will get that honor a few years later, but the first outing for Bernard and Miss Bianca is the superior one. And then there’s The Fox and the Hound, a nice little buddy movie that aims big, but doesn’t quite deliver as impactful a story as it wants to. It’s still a nice little picture though.
2007 – 2011 – 15 Points
If this era had a title it would probably be The Great Turn-Around. After bottoming out with the pair of Home on the Range and Chicken Little, Disney really needed to reassert itself as a leading producer of quality animated features. Pixar had eclipsed them and this group of films marks the moment when things finally started to get going in the right direction, though they still needed to take a couple more lumps. It’s also, sadly, the last of the 2D animation and marks the full commitment to CG pictures going forward. Meet the Robinsons and Bolt were another duo of clumsily animated CG pictures. Bolt is the better of the two, and I considered going with a 2.5 score, but in the end it’s also really not a film I care to watch again. The Princess and the Frog is gorgeous, and Winnie the Pooh is a delightful continuation of The Many Adventures that should please most children. Tangled is the clear star though and it’s the first CG film Disney made that is on par with Pixar in terms of visuals and it’s also a modern princess film that works. It helped lay what is a new foundation for that sub-genre of films and it kind of gets overlooked because of the success of another princess movie still to come, but I actually prefer it to all of the CG princess tales.
The Lion King (1994)
1994 – 1998 – 15.5 Points
- The Lion King – 4
- Pocahontas – 2
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame – 3
- Hercules – 3
- Mulan – 3.5
The coasting years. Hot off the success of early 90s films like Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast, Disney settled into a nice groove of pretty films with big songs and good enough stories. The Lion King is probably the studio’s last hallmark offering of the 90s. It’s a film some might give a higher score, but I think it’s definitely not as good as the group of films that preceded it. Meanwhile, the only dud of the group is Pocahontas, a film that has its heart in the right place, but plays too loose with actual history and is hampered by the G rating from telling the story it probably wants. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, on the other hand, found a way to tell a more mature story under the restraints placed upon it by the studio. Hercules is a fun film, nothing more and nothing less, while Mulan is a greater triumph than all but The Lion King. It tells its own Joan of Arc tale through the eyes of a strong, young Chinese woman. I wish it had a little better of a climax, which is the only thing keeping it from being among Disney’s best, but at the time it was a much needed film as it took the lead woman out of the damsel in distress role. All of these films follow the broadway format, which was getting tiresome by this stage, but all of them also look and sound fantastic. If we were ranking just by visual fidelity, then this group would probably place near the top.
One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
1961 – 1973 – 16 Points
The Xerox era. Finding animation was too costly, Disney turned to a new technique that utilized Xerox to copy cels and thus reduce the load on the animators. The studio basically gives credit to this process for even allowing them to create One Hundred and One Dalmatians as animating all of those puppies the old-fashioned way would have just been too daunting. As a group of films, that gives them a pretty distinct look as the earliest films done this way have a very rough, sketch quality to them. It has its own charm, though I prefer the old days. This is a solid, almost spectacular, grouping though. You have The Sword in the Stone and Robin Hood, both fun little tales that can please a gathering of all ages. And then you have One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Jungle Book, two pretty big releases for the Disney company. Dalmatians, in particular, is one of the studio’s best and it’s a fun caper set in a modern setting that doesn’t beat you over the head with songs. The Jungle Book is just a good buddy comedy of sorts, and Mowgli is a relatable and sympathetic character throughout while the shadow of Shere Khan adds intrigue along the way. It also features some of the best work of the renowned Sherman Brothers. Lastly, there’s The Aristocats. If Dalmatians hadn’t come before it I wonder if I’d look upon it more fondly as it basically feels like a retread of that picture, but with cats instead. It has one pretty good song though, so at least there’s that.
Lady and the Tramp (1955)
1950 – 1959 – 17 Points
Perhaps the most divisive grouping. This is a group of films lots of people grew up with, so they pack a lot of nostalgic value. They’re also a bit divisive as well since you have some old-fashioned princess tales where a kind, submissive woman is rescued by a dashing prince. There’s the racial imagery in Peter Pan, also not a high point for Disney, and then just the manic atmosphere of Alice in Wonderland that you either like or don’t like. As you can tell by my score, I’m among those who do not particularly care for Alice in Wonderland. I think it starts off fine, but then just gets too bogged down in being “wacky” and I struggle to remain invested whenever I watch it. Sleeping Beauty was another huge flop for the studio, but it seems like over time it’s become much more beloved. I don’t particularly enjoy the very angular features of the characters and the flatness of the visuals, plus the story is kind of the studio’s low point as far as making interesting leading women. It’s saved by the iconic Maleficent from being truly dreadful. At the other end of the spectrum is Cinderella, which tells the tale of a victim of circumstance who finds a way to be a decent person throughout it all and is rewarded in the end. By itself, it’s a nice film and I don’t find fault with the film’s message. It’s only when lumped in with other “princess” movies that it starts to feel problematic. Peter Pan is merely fine. I think it’s weak in terms of song and as an adventure it’s ho-hum. It’s more of a kid’s fantasy film, than anything. The best though is Lady and the Tramp, a really fun “dog movie” with interesting characters, a simple but effective premise, and the best visuals of any Disney movie. This one is beautiful and I get a little sad every time I watch it because Disney just doesn’t make movies that look like this anymore and maybe never will. It also doesn’t feature a ton of songs, which is a plus in my book. I understand those who may find it boring or slow, but for me it’s almost perfectly paced and just too visually stimulating for me to lose interest at any point.
1937 – 1942 – 17 Points
The group that started it all. It’s actually tied with the group preceding this one at 17 points a piece. My tiebreaker was simply to pick the best film of the bunch and go with that group, and if you’ve read my reviews for some of these films then you would know that Pinocchio is my all-time favorite Disney picture. It’s a great story that’s captivating, warm, scary, suspenseful and is pushed along by wonderful visuals and timeless songs. It’s the best example of Disney’s old way of creating an animated movie which wasn’t as reliant on song-breaks like the films of the late 80s and 90s. Joining Pinocchio is, of course, the one that started it all – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I recently reviewed this one in light of the fact that it recently turned 80(!) and it seemed like a good time to revisit it. It’s breath-takingly beautiful, even by today’s standards, which helps to cover-up a sometimes slow moving plot. It may have scored a half-point for nostalgic reasons now that I think about it, but I’m sticking with the 3.5 since it feels like it should be elevated about the likes of Dumbo and Bambi, which round out this list. Both are adorably sweet films that also have moments of fear and sadness to balance them out. Dumbo is the simpler of the two, while Bambi is the more visually impressive. Fantasia was basically Walt’s pet project and something that I think was made to appeal to him first and foremost, which makes it rather interesting. It’s not really for me, but I recognize that it has value and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment is pretty wonderful. It also has the distinction of being one of the only Disney movies to never be aired on free television.
Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
2012 – 2016 (Present) – 18 Points
You may think this one is up this high because of recency bias, but let me assure that is not the case. This is the first, and only, grouping of all CG films and it just so happens all of them are pretty damn good. While none managed a 5 rating from me, none also fell below a 3 which is also a first on our list. Let’s start with my pick of the worst, which is Big Hero 6. It’s a great visual film, but it suffers because it just feels too derivative of other Disney films in its turning points. It also is a victim of being essentially a super hero film and there’s certainly some fatigue associated with that genre these days. If you’re a younger person who is only familiar with Disney’s modern output then it might be more appealing to you since its tragic elements feel less repetitive, but for me it’s just okay. Moana is slightly better. It’s a pretty solid adventure with a fun pairing between its heroine and Maui, a god, that would probably be better if it was a bit shorter and knocked out a song or two. Zootopia is ambitiously serious and it’s a pretty fantastic one-time viewing experience. Its lack of “fun” and reliance on mystery and plot twists cause it to not hold up as well on repeated viewings, but just judged by itself it’s actually pretty great. Frozen is the most popular film on this list, though I think it’s visually the worst. It had a whole bunch of problems during production, originally starting off as a hand-drawn picture, so it’s not really surprising to see it doesn’t look its best, but it makes up for it in charm. This is a likable cast that puts a nice twist on the princess formula. I think, musically, it’s a bit overrated. Not “Let It Go,” that song is fantastic, but other than “Do You Want to Build A Snowman?” I could do without the rest. Wreck-It Ralph is the star for me, and not because it’s a video game movie, but because it best combines characters, heart, plot, and visuals into a total package. In looking at my ratings, I’m actually thinking maybe I should bump it up a half-point to separate it from the rest, but I’ll stick with what I’ve got. It’s only real failing is that it doesn’t really take advantage of the cameos from video games, outside of the therapy session, and it does feel a bit on the long side. Still, a great movie and one I tend to get sucked into whenever it’s on television (which is a lot, it seems).
1988 – 1993 – 19 Points
At last, we’ve come to our top spot and perhaps not surprisingly it captures the peek of Disney’s New Renaissance. This is a three-headed monster of films that really changed the game on what an animated feature could deliver, including the first one to be nominated for an Academy Award for best picture. It’s also a gauntlet of pictures as each one was released in a different year – five pictures for five years. The amusing part is it also contains two films that are certainly not beloved. Oliver & Company holds some nostalgic value for me because it’s the first film I can recall seeing in a movie theater. As such, I probably like it a bit more than the 2 rating I gave it, but I can see it’s faults as a film. It does deserve credit for establishing the new format that our big three would adopt. The Rescuers Down Under has the distinction of being the only theatrically released direct sequel of any animated Disney feature, a distinction that will end later this year when the Wreck-It Ralph sequel is released. By itself, it’s fine and Bernard and Miss Bianca are actually interesting enough to justify another feature, even if no one was really begging for it. Hardly Disney’s worst, but possibly its most forgettable considering the film that preceded it and the ones to follow. This group is defined by the three big ones: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. Some dislike The Little Mermaid for being another princess tale, with Ariel needing to be rescued from the likes of her father, King Triton, and her love interest Eric – the dashing prince. I see it more as a tale of adolescence with Ariel embodying the personality of many 16 year olds I’ve come across. She has passion, a rebel spirit, and is perhaps too quick to identify what she wants. Perhaps an ending where she decides that Eric isn’t all that great would have turned things on its head and been more interesting, but it’s not as if Eric is a bad person. He actually is pretty great, so maybe happily ever after isn’t so bad? It’s also Disney’s best film when judging it strictly on the merits of its soundtrack thanks to the triumvirate of “Under the Sea,” “Part of Your World,” and “Kiss the Girl.” With Beauty and the Beast we’re treated to a heroine that’s a bit more realistic and willing to take charge of her situation. She sacrifices herself to The Beast to free her father, a noble gesture for sure even though it’s not what any father would want for their daughter. The film is hurt slightly by the fact that they need to gloss over the warming-up of The Beast and Belle, but that’ what happens with 90 minute features. Lavishly animated and wonderfully scored, it’s not a surprise why so many think it’s the best the studio has produced to date. And lastly, there’s Aladdin – Disney’s greatest tale of adventure. It’s almost surprising it took the studio this long to tackle the story of Aladdin as it fits in with a lot of the adventure pieces from both the animation department and the live-action one from the decades before, but Aladdin benefits greatly from being made in the 90s because it looks incredible and packs an iconic performance from the late Robin Williams as The Genie. This is a supremely entertaining film that might be my favorite of the bunch, but really on any given day I could make a case for why any of those three are the best.