Walt Disney Animation Studios is a venerable institution that still produces amazing feature-length animated films even to this day. It’s amazing that a movie studio can be so dominant for so long — since their first release in 1937, they’ve been the standard bearer for animation. Along with Pixar Animation, they’ve produced 74 traditionally-animated and CGI films, and since I’ve seen just about every single one (excepting for Cars 3, of course) I thought it would be fun to present a definitive and subjective ranking! Welcome to day three!
The criteria for my ranking is fairly simple; which movie would I rather see? I did that with every release until I had the full list of films from most to least watchable. Chicken Little is at the bottom of the list, but what’s at the top? All will be revealed on Friday! For now, here are the movies that are better than average but still just outside of the top 20.
If you’d like to see which movies are ranked in the bottom half of the Canon, follow these links here:
#37. The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
This is the only animated Disney film set in Australia, and the entire Canon is poorer for it. Jake is just the bee’s knees, all smooth and confident and action-adventury! He makes a great foil for Bernard, who after years of pining after his sophisticated partner Bianca is ready to make a move. The subplot plays out while they’re rescuing a human child and giant eagle from the clutches of an evil poacher, and it ties together rather nicely. Jake doesn’t even mind losing out on Bianca’s affections! What a champ. The production values and character designs are wonderful, and the animators really make the most of the setting. It’s a shame the film underperformed as badly as it did; I think the Rescuers would make a nifty film or TV series.
#36. The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
One of the things that I’ve learned through this project is which names to pay attention to in the director’s credits. John Musker and Ron Clements have been consistently excellent, and that’s no exception here. Based on a book series I’m upset I didn’t know about before, The Great Mouse Detective shrinks a Sherlock Holmes story down to mouse size and gives him an outsized foil in Ratigan, a mouse on steroids who hates being called a rat. The film is more actiony than a typical Holmes caper, but that’s all right. The characters are engaging, and the world of murine London is simply entrancing. The climactic battle within the gears of Big Ben is surprisingly intense, especially considering how young the movie skewed up until then.
#35. The Rescuers (1977)
Even though the sequel has Jake, I have to give the edge to the original recipe Rescuers; the world-building is that much more delightful and the peril it places its human child in is that much darker. Penny is a precocious child who ends up in a terrible situation, and it’s impressive that no punches are pulled to get across the dire nature of her predicament. As great as it was to be down under, there’s something about the understated warmth of this version of the hidden world of mice that I love that much more.
#34. The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Disney’s first feature with a black Princess is a solid addition to its Canon, though it has a few story problems that are too persistent to ignore. Tiana’s problem — that she focuses on work too much at the expense of forming the relationships to make it worthwhile — is not the issue; it’s the social forces that push her into thinking that way and how they’re ignored. Still, this love letter to the music and culture of New Orleans is pretty great and Doctor Facilier is such a wonderful villain; Mama Odie makes an excellent foil for him, too. And even though he’s dead-stupid, Ray’s ballad to his Evangeline is unexpectedly sweet.
#33. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
Disney’s last package film is its best — possibly because it’s less a scattershot of shorts and more two great stories not quite long enough to be feature-length. I’m a die-hard fan of The Wind in the Willows, and while it’s slightly disappointing that Disney chose to focus on Mr. Toad instead of, say, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”, the adventure of Toad and his motorcar is really fun. The tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman is a standout though; Ichabod is a character I’ll never get tired of watching as he tries to woo ladies and gets lost in the woods. The animation has such spirit and distinctive personality. It really is a joy to watch.
#32. One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
Cruella De Vil is an all-time great villain, but there’s so much more about this movie to love. I’m a sucker for “shadow world” stories, magical realities that exist just inside the peripheries of our own, and Disney has a lot of them around this time in their history. One Hundred and One Dalmatians is a bit darker than I expected, with the puppies all spirited away and forced to hike the English countryside in the dead of winter to make their way back home. But the characters take the edge off with sparkling, lively personalities — the trio of Colonel (a sheepdog), Captain (a horse) and Sergeant Tibbs (a housecat) are great helpers. Overall, it’s a really fun movie whose stakes give it an unexpected weight.
#31. Aladdin (1992)
Credit where its due: the animation, character design, and music of Aladdin is all excellent. Jafar and Iago are a dynamite villainous duo, and Jasmine is actually a really great Princess with agency and a distinctive personality. But man, Robin Williams almost single-handedly tanks this film. Every time some genuine emotion is about to sink in, his Genie comes in and chases it away with anachronistic mania. What’s frustrating is that Genie isn’t a bad character — he works well when he’s acting as Aladdin’s big blue Jiminy Cricket. But I really wish he had been reined in a little more. There’s WAY too much pepper in the soup.
#30. Fantasia (1940)
Walt Disney had high ideas for Fantasia, and it’s a shame they were never realized. I really love the idea of releasing a “concert film” every so often that marries beautiful music with boundary-pushing animation. Most of the vignettes are really enjoyable, with standouts being (of course) “Night on Bald Mountain” and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. However, the less said about the rather uncomfortable history of “The Pastoral Symphony”, the better.
#29. Robin Hood (1973)
Ooh de lally, what an enjoyable mess this movie is! The fact that this movie is so low doesn’t mean I don’t love it; like most of you, I grew up fascinated with the vulpine Robin of Loxley and his ursine companion Little John. I even have a special place in my heart for those tiny church mice who help Friar Tuck! But there’s denying the thinness of the story and the shoddy animation; while I love the warmth and imperfection in the lines, there are so many mistakes and obviously cut corners that you can’t help but notice them. This isn’t a good movie, but I love it just the same.
#28. Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
Fun fact: this is the movie I always bring up when trying to relate what psychological triggers really are. Calhoun is tough-as-nails but emotionally traumatized, and the way her small subplot is handled is a slice of perfection. The rest of the movie is great, too, with countless background gags stuffing a wonderful story about carving out your own self-image when the rest of the world refuses to see you for who you really are. The voice talent is so good, the characters are funny, the setting is inventive, and this might be the first real artistic commentary on video games for a mass audience. This is a gem of a film, and I can’t wait for the sequel.
#27. Dumbo (1941)
Timothy Q. Mouse was one of my first crushes, with his smart little uniform and his willingness to help an orphan elephant in dire straits. Dumbo was made to recover from the failure of Fantasia, made on the cheap but with Disney’s trademark emotional punch. The cruelty of the world almost breaks this little guy again and again, but he’s lifted up with support from the most unlikely places — like a tiny mouse and a troupe of jive-talking crows. It’s a heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful story, the perfect mix of bittersweet. My heart feels full every time I think about it.
#26. Tarzan (1999)
This is the film that marked the end of the Disney Renaissance, and I think people sleep on it a little bit for that. But the action scenes are some of the absolute best in all of the Canon, with Tarzan swinging and surfing through a fully-rendered jungle that’s breathtaking to behold. His position between the world of his youth and the world he “belongs to” drives his personal arc, and it’s something I sympathize with a lot. Jane is awesome as his guide back towards human contact, and the ultimate resolution is great. His triumphant trademark yell feels earned right at the end.
#25. Fantasia 2000 (1999)
Sixty years after the original, Roy Disney tried again to fulfill Walt’s vision. Unfortunately, this one was a commercial failure, too. Still, it’s a creative improvement! “Rhapsody in Blue” alone justifies the existence of the sequence, and “Pomp and Circumstance” (which casts Donald Duck as one of Noah’s helpers aboard the ark) takes it over the top. Disney’s animators used a variety of techniques in various sequences, playing around with computer animation to get a better feel for the tech. There’s only one or two vignettes that don’t quite work, but for the most part this concert film is killer.
#24. Sleeping Beauty (1959)
It’s weird to learn that this film didn’t do very well at the box office, pushing the animation studio away from fairy tale adaptations for 30 years — the next one would be 1989’s The Little Mermaid. But the sheer style of this film is awesome in and of itself; the character design is a mixture of early Disney models and touches of Medieval and Renaissance art, encouraged by the distinctive background art of Eyvind Earle. Maleficent is a gorgeous villain, and it’s hard not to appreciate just how goofy and heroic Prince Phillip is.
#23. Toy Story (1995)
Pixar’s first feature holds up well even after twenty years of technological advancement, and that’s all due to the wonderful characters that were created in Toy Story. Woody and Buzz Lightyear are a mismatched buddy duo for the ages, and Andy’s room is populated with a whole gaggle of iconic and engaging characters. What I appreciate more now that I’m older is just how creepy this movie can be — both intentionally and not — and how Sid’s toys influence the sequels both in theme and design. What’s off-putting initially isn’t necessarily bad; it really is worth getting to know people you might find scary or awful at first sometimes.
#22. Mulan (1998)
I have a confession to make: I’m not that big a fan of Eddie Murphy. He’s done good work, though, and his talents are used well in Mulan. The story itself is based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, and I love that Disney took great pains to serve the culture in which it’s based. There are so many things in this movie that are quietly progressive, and I think that Mulan herself tends to be overlooked as a great role model in the Disney canon. Her motivation is at once dutiful and personal, and the fact that the film takes great pains to show the work involved in her success is something I really appreciate. Also, the romantic subplot — if you can even call it that — is such a slow burn that it only becomes a possibility at the end of the film.
#21. Treasure Planet (2002)
I cannot tell you how much I love this movie. The world building is truly special, with its mixture of storybook warmth and sci-fi elements that make it unlike almost anything else I’ve seen. Having an old-school schooner as a spaceship makes for an entrancing visual, and the wide range of aliens — with touches of recognizably animal traits — allows even the background characters to be distinctive and engrossing. But it’s the bond formed between young Jim Hawkins and the cyborg Long John Silver that makes this film so special; the montage of Jim learning how to be a sailor, set to “I’m Still Here” by the Goo Goo Dolls, is one of my favorite sequences ever. So…why is this film so low? B.E.N., the ‘zany’ robot played by Martin Short, single-handedly keeps this film out of the top 20. He is THAT annoying, and there is legitimately no reason for him to be included in the story. He serves no purpose beyond making everything worse. It’s so frustrating, because if it weren’t for him, I’m fairly sure Treasure Planet would have made my top five.
Tomorrow: the top 20 Disney movies of all time! The best film of Disney’s Golden Age! The best film of the Renaissance! The best of Pixar!! And the best films in the Disney Revival era! All leading up to my absolute favorite! Woo!!