Walt Disney Animation Studios is the premiere name in feature animation, and it’s not even close. While DreamWorks gave the House of Mouse a run for its money for a few years, there’s no other animation company that can match Disney’s consistent run of excellence or its longevity. Both Ryan and I are fairly big Disneyheads; some of our all-time favorite films are Disney movies, and being who we are there’s a whole catalogue of furry movies we grew up with. After the AFI Top 100 Films project, we decided that it would be a good idea to go through the entire Disney Animated Canon — from 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to 2016’s Moana. Since they’re pretty much the same company now, we included all 18 movies in the Pixar Animated Canon with the exception of Cars 3, because why would I watch that in theatres?
It took a minute, but the project is done at long last. We’ve seen all 56 official Disney full-length feature films and 17 of 18 Pixar films. Instead of Cars 3, we opted to slot in the controversial live-action/animation hybrid Song of the South to bring the total to 74. In honor of completing the list, I’d like to offer this definitive but highly-subjective ranking of the Disney/Pixar Animated Canon.
I used a fairly simple criteria to make this list; as with most simple units of measure, this introduces a number of problems. There might be a fairly strong recency bias in this list, where newer movies might be rated significantly higher than objectively better or historically significant older features. That’s fine, it’s my list! I ordered the films by how much I’d rather see one over the other — it’s a straightforward that yielded a surprising set of answers! So, without further ado, here’s the list.
Today we’ll tackle the worst of the worst — my 22 least-favorite Disney films of all time.
74. Chicken Little (2005)
What makes this the worst Disney film ever is the fact that it tries so hard to be something it’s not. In 2005 Disney had its darkest period; the studio decided to move away from traditional animation and play catch-up with CGI, but that’s not the half of it. Chicken Little also tried to copy the self-aware snark that was a hallmark of the rival DreamWorks studio, and it failed miserably. There are small signs of life here — the third-act plot twist is almost bonkers enough to work, but the execution killed its chances utterly. The unforgivable treatment of tomboy Foxy Loxy is what takes this film over the top, though; it strips her agency and perverts her into some kind of feel-good trophy girlfriend for one of Chicken Little’s sidekicks. It pushes the film from merely bad to anger-inducing awfulness.
73. Saludos Amigos (1942)
The first of the six Walt Disney “package films” made in the 1940s, Saludos Amigos also happens to be the weakest. When World War II got into full swing, the animation studio was fine with being a propaganda arm of the United States government as part of its patriotic duty. The package films were largely an attempt to improve relations with South American countries as part of the US “Good Neighbor” policy, and it even went so far as to create a totally original Disney character — Jose Carioca — to get the job done. Jose’s a pretty cool dude, but the four shorts that make up the run-time for Saludos Amigos are…forgettable at best. The introduction to South American culture didn’t age all that well, either.
72. Fun and Fancy Free (1947)
Fun fact: This was the last time Walt Disney himself provided the voice of Mickey Mouse before handing off the responsibility to Jimmy MacDonald! This is package film #4, with just two segments on tap: the little-known Bongo, about a circus bear who runs away to be wild and fall in love; and the classic Mickey and the Beanstalk, which finds the mouse doing battle with Willie the giant. Bongo is OK, but Mickey and the Beanstalk is the stand-out here, especially for its opening scenes. This is as close as we’ll ever come to seeing Donald Duck fulfill his destiny as an axe murderer, and it’s just as amazing as it sounds.
71. The Three Caballeros (1944)
Whoever made the decision to make Donald Duck a giant hornball in Disney’s second package film was hopefully fired, because boy howdy is it uncomfortable to watch. It’s like the ghost of a creepy uncle decided to inhabit Howard the Duck. Donald wolf-whistles his way through South America with his pal Jose Carioca and newcomer Panchito for his birthday (Friday the 13th, natch), though I’m pretty sure he was actually dosed with acid or something. This film is straight-up weird in a way that would be enjoyable if it weren’t for, you know, subjecting Brazilian culture through the Westernized gaze and a beloved Disney character objectifying women for 80 minutes straight. Still, the segments are pretty neat and the whole thing has this fever-dream vibe that I kind of dig.
70. Dinosaur (2000)
Fun fact: In Great Britain, this is not considered an official Disney animated feature; for some reason, it’s swapped out with The Wild instead. That’s fine to me, because in all honesty this just isn’t very good. It was Disney’s first full-length CGI animated feature, and it looks like most of the attention went to the character models; the story just doesn’t work very well, and the characters themselves might as well be made out of cardboard. After the amazing sequence detailing an asteroid impact, Dinosaur settles into a thin “outcast becomes leader” story that the writing just can’t make fresh or interesting. The animation isn’t great, either; once the apocalypse happens, everything’s the same shade of rust-red or slate-grey.
69. The Black Cauldron (1985)
First of all, props to Disney for trying something different! But this didn’t really work; the film is kind of infamous in the canon as being one of the very first animated films with a PG rating, and that was even after it was cut by 12 minutes to remove the most frightening and violent elements. The result is a movie that’s too dark for Disney but too Disneyfied for fans of the The Chronicles of Pyrdain that serve as the source material. I admire it more than I like it, especially since Gurgi — the cute furball that serves as comic relief — is incredibly annoying.
68. The Good Dinosaur (2015)
This is the lowest position on the list for a Pixar film, and it genuinely surprises me that The Good Dinosaur is this low. It’s not a bad film by any means — the animation is especially stunning, with backgrounds and natural vistas that feel almost photo-realistic — but the missteps here really sink the film. The curious choice to place such obviously cartoony dinosaurs in such a impressively-rendered setting makes it hard to reconcile the characters with the world, and Arlo especially suffers from that disconnect. The film is sweet in places, randomly weird in others, and just doesn’t come together the way you’d expect in a Pixar film. The Good Dinosaur is a failure, sure, but it’s an interesting one.
67. Cars (2006)
This might have been the first film to take a bit of shine off the Pixar brand, and it’s easy to see why. Cars takes place in a world filled with anthropomorphic vehicles, and champion racer Lightning McQueen is forced to spend some time in bucolic Radiator Springs to work off a speeding ticket. The story is handled with the typical Pixar care, but it’s tough to really get invested in the characters and the world raises so many questions it’s hard to suspend your disbelief for it. How does any of this work? I MUST KNOW.
66. The Aristocats (1970)
How many of you know the plot to The Aristocats? I don’t, and I’ve seen it; I had to look it up. This tells you everything you need to know about the story. Duchess and her three kittens are stranded in the countryside by the English butler of a French opera star after he discovers that all of the singer’s money will be left to the cats. They meet stray cat O’Malley (voiced by Baloo himself, Phil Harris) and have a series of adventures from there. Duchess is a rock star; she’s prim and proper, but game for anything O’Malley throws at her. The kids, though? SO TWEE. Your tolerance for cute kids may vary, but they made me root for the butler.
65. Winnie the Pooh (2011)
This modern update on classic Pooh is gentle and lovingly animated. The colors are bright and crisp, the animation is smooth and fluid, and the humor is an Easy Reader version of the wordplay we’ve gotten accustomed to. This is a movie that skews pretty young, and there’s nothing wrong with that; it introduces Winnie the Pooh to a whole new generation. But if you’re coming for a hit of nostalgia for the original 60s feature film or the excellent 80s Saturday morning series, you might be disappointed.
64. Melody Time (1948)
Towards the end of the 40s, Walt Disney Studios was itching to get back into the full-length feature game — but they had a couple more package films to get through first. Melody Time is one of the better ones, with seven segments set to then-contemporary pop and folk music. Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill, two American folk heroes, get their due here in the best bits, but there’s something really endearing about “Little Toot”, the segment about a tiny tugboat trying to follow in the wake of his dad. Sung by the Andrews Sisters, it’s cheesy but winsome despite that.
63. Make Mine Music (1945)
Disney’s third package film leaves South America behind for a hodgepodge of shorts. Not everything works, but the ones that do are crackling with energy and creativity — like the hilarious and bitter-sweet “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met”. “Peter and the Wolf,” “Casey at the Bat,” and “The Martins and the McCoys” are all really solid segments, too. This is a package film with more hits than misses, and the bits that miss never last too long.
62. Peter Pan (1953)
You know what? Maybe I’m just not that into Peter Pan. But for some reason it’s a story people go to again and again, and this treatment from Walt Disney is one of the most enduring. It’s fine for what it is, but almost every time you start to fall under its spell something happens to yank you right out of it. The worst of these is the sudden and shocking racism surrounding the Native Americans in Neverland. That whole sequence is exceedingly cringy, and the film never quite recovers for me. I know, I know, product of its time and all that, but still — there’s not enough else to recommend it beyond the crisp, wonderful animation and those stretches where the magic does start to take hold.
61. Cars 2 (2011)
It’s the Pixar sequel no one asked for! This time, country-bumpkin tow-truck Mater is promoted to a starring role in a bumbling accidental spy plot which actually doesn’t come off too badly. What makes this film so much better than its first is the way it stretches its world-building; the gags are much more inventive, but they raise so many more questions. Your tolerance for Mater and the baffling Cars universe will pretty much determine how much you like this one.
60. Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
The storytelling really failed this sci-fi pulp adventure, which is a shame because the characters really deserved better. The crew of the Ulysses is a fascinating international troupe that deserved the TV series and/or sequel Atlantis would have gotten if it did well, but alas — it wasn’t meant to be. The story hits a number of silly action beats with little logic behind them, so there’s never a clear line that allows the audience to orient themselves to what’s going on. And unfortunately, Milo — the big-handed, bespectacled explorer voiced by Michael J. Fox — isn’t interesting enough to power us through that.
59. Alice in Wonderland (1951)
The animation in this movie is awesome. The character designs are iconic, and the sequences are great, and the animators really work hard to capture the slightly-sinister strangeness of Caroll’s original novel. So why doesn’t this work as well as it should? Again, it comes down to the way the narrative falls; Alice is almost inert as a character so while the various scenes are amusing to watch it’s hard to actually connect with what’s happening. It’s fun while it lasts, but as soon as the film’s over the whole thing evaporates like a dream.
58. The Fox and the Hound (1981)
I’ll be completely honest here: this movie is kind of a bummer. It’s a quiet little movie for most of its run, but then a bear attack happens out of nowhere and it’s impressively intense. Before that, though, Tod and Copper (fox and hound, respectively) gradually shift from cubhood friends to bitter enemies, and it’s tough to watch; Tod being left out in the woods by the woman who had raised him was more of a gut-punch than I remembered, too. The message, about navigating the tension between who we’d like to be and who society demands we are, might get lost in the tragedy unfolding on screen. It’s one of those movies that just makes you slightly sad when you remember it.
57. A Bug’s Life (1998)
Pixar’s second film is pretty decent, though a lot of people prefer Antz in the battle of the bugs. I could see why, but A Bug’s Life is worth another look; the animation is likely better than you remember and the characters are well-drawn and nicely vibrant. The miniature world brought to life is wonderfully creative, and the story moves with tight, brisk, sure pacing. And weirdly, the voice talent is a who’s who of 90s sitcom talent, so if you’re into that it’s a huge plus, right?
Tomorrow: the worst film in the Disney Renaissance, my first contrarian ranking, and I talk about SO MANY BEARS.