Over its 93-year history, Walt Disney Animation Studios has produced 56 feature-length animated films. Its partner, Pixar Animation, has produced another 18 for a grand total of 74; that’s a lot of movies! However, out of all those wonderful films only 20 of them can be the 20 greatest films in all of the Disney/Pixar Animated Canon! Which ones are they? Well, let me tell you!
A couple of caveats first. This is a full ranking of all 74 movies released by Disney and Pixar except for Cars 3 and with the addition of the live-action/animation hybrid Song of the South (not considered part of the Canon officially). Also, this is a totally subjective list; these aren’t actually the greatest Disney and Pixar films of all time — they’re just my favorite. Feel free to register your agreement or disapproval in the comments, or tell me which movies are your personal favorites!
If you’d like to know where all of the other movies landed, no worries; I’ve got you covered! The other 54 films are all here:
Day One: #74 – #57
Day Two: #56 – #38
Day Three: #37 – #21
Now, my favorite 20!
#20. Big Hero 6 (2014)
People seem to have cooled on this movie since its premiere a few years ago, and I could see why in the age of Superhero Fatigue. Still, this tale of a boy and his helper robot is one I love quite a bit; it manages to combine an examination of grief and loss with a straightforward superhero team origin story. Baymax is such a wonderful character, a robot unlike any other in all of Hollywood. The best feature of Big Hero 6, however, is its mash-up setting of San Fransokyo. Seeing distinctly San Franciscan neighborhoods infused with Japanese aesthetic is a delight and perfectly reflects Hiro’s own comfortable Asian-American background. The other members of the team are aching to have their stories told, so it’s a good thing we’ll be getting a follow-up series soon.
#19. Ratatouille (2007)
Wait, this movie is ten years old? Where does the time go! Brad Bird’s second feature for Pixar takes a high concept (a rat who wants to be a chef) and fuses it with another (said rat can control a friendly human by pulling his hair) to create something weird and wonderful. Bird’s consistent themes — of frustrated genius, self-discovery, and a hostile, unapproving world — combine here for a beautiful, funny, and ultimately satisfying film. Remy, the rat at the heart of the film, is a little snobbish but his earnest passion makes him a protagonist to root for.
#18. Up (2009)
The second of Pete Docter’s Pixar films is a true wonder — and not just for the eight-minute prologue that the rest of the story tries to live up to. Carl Fredricksen is that perfect blend of lovable and caustic, and Russell — the Wilderness Scout who stows away with him on his one-way trip — is the perfect companion to get him to come back to the world. Kevin, a giant exotic bird, and Dug, the dim but loyal talking dog, round out the troupe as they get way more adventure than they bargain for. Carl’s quest is as much internal as it is globe-trotting, and seeing him learn to re-engage with a world he left behind is heartwarming.
#17. Moana (2016)
Disney’s latest film also happens to be one of its best. The team of Musker and Clements strike gold again with this story based on Pacific Islander folktales through crisp and beautiful animation, a brilliant heroine, and one of the catchiest soundtracks ever. While the studio continues to balance commercial demands with its desire to serve the cultures it mines for its stories, Moana gets a lot more right than it gets wrong — its spirit of adventure and sense of heart make it a truly excellent movie.
#16. Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Pete Docter’s first of three films for Pixar is technically brilliant and emotionally stirring, with a perfect sense of comedic timing and cracking dialogue. John Goodman and Billy Crystal star as Sulley (swoon!) and Mike, an all-star monster team that end up turning their world upside-down just by trying to do the right thing. The climactic chase in and out of the closet doors of children’s rooms leaves me breathless, and that final shot of Sulley reuniting with Boo is enough to bring tears to my eyes. Docter is a master of carefully constructing truly emotional moments.
#15. Finding Nemo (2003)
Finding Nemo had a seven-year run as the highest-grossing animated film of all-time, which is just bonkers to think about; but it’s a truly excellent movie that deserves the wild success it received. Marlin is the ultimate helicopter parent, but his quest to get his son back after Nemo is taken by divers teaches him just how capable he is — and how almost everyone in this big, scary world finds a way to not just survive, but thrive despite their own issues. Technically, the movie is astonishing when you think about where Pixar was just eight years prior in Toy Story. The design of a bewildering array of sea life is impressive in its own right, but the aquatic environments are simply masterful. This movie is beautiful, in just about every sense of the word.
#14. Inside Out (2015)
Pete Docter’s latest film is his best; fourteen years after Monsters, Inc., he constructs a meta exploration of our inner lives, the painful process of growing up, and the difficulty of honoring our most difficult emotions. Amy Poelher is an inspired choice to play Joy, especially as the film gradually leads us to an appreciation of Sadness and how the pursuit of happiness above all else can actually stunt out emotional growth. Still, watching Riley’s personality anchors crumble, one by one, is hard to watch — and the representation of depression as it spreads through the central console is truly terrifying. But it’s all in service to a roller-coaster ride that presents a mature and sympathetic look at just how hard it is to deal with change. Not only entertaining, but elevating as well.
#13. Pinocchio (1940)
This is Disney’s best film out of his Golden Age, hands down. The animation pushed the boundaries of what people believed possible at the time, and the scene with Monstro the whale is particularly intense and impressive. I think this also established the time-honored Disney tradition of retooling a fairy tale or story to soften the roughest edges and add touches to make it more commercially palatable. It’s hard to argue with the results here — Pinocchio is strange and sublime, a true masterpiece in the craft of storytelling.
#12. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The first animated film to ever be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, Beauty and the Beast deserves its place as a crown jewel in the Canon. The songs of the Disney Renaissance are some of the best in movie history, and the songs here are some of the best in the Renaissance. What I love most about the movie, obviously, is Beast — he’s one of the most crush-worthy animated characters ever made, but his arc is also a revelation and rehabilitation of the fairy tale. Belle serves more as the catalyst for his internal transformation, a beacon that brings him back to the highest of human ideals, love and compassion. Gaston, the selfish and egotistical brute that he is, highlights how self-love can be just as destructive as self-hatred.
#11. Toy Story 3 (2010)
A perfect cap to the trilogy, Toy Story 3 takes Woody, Buzz and the gang through a kind of death and rebirth. I love how the film never shies away from the difficulty of moving through the end of a relationship but also cautions against letting that loss harden your heart. Lots-O-Huggin’ Bear is underrated as one of the most evil villains ever, in my opinion; I think the comeuppance he got didn’t even go far enough. The scene at the junkyard stopped my heart, and when the gang reaches for each other to accept their fate it gets me every time. The payoff of that scene — fourteen years in the making — is one of the most delightful examples of emotional whiplash ever. It’s just too bad they milked the ending a little too hard; it breaks the spell the rest of the story weaved so well.
#10. Lilo & Stitch (2002)
I didn’t realize how many of my favorite movies deal with struggling through loss and tragedy, but here’s another one. Lilo & Stitch is one of the absolute best films about the act of emotional kintsukoroi ever made — the titular pair find each other when they need something to help heal them so badly. Another Disney film that’s quietly revolutionary, Lilo & Stitch features native Hawaiians, a broken home, and emotional trauma without feeling exploitative of any of it. The character design is so distinctive and wonderful, and all of the character and comedic beats land with assured precision. Also, Captain Gantu? Whew. WHEW.
#9. Tangled (2010)
Released the same year as Toy Story 3, Tangled gets buried a bit under the avalanche of Frozen. But it’s so much better than the later film; Rapunzel is an exceptional heroine, her spirit irrepressible under the manipulative thumb of Mother Gothel. Gothel is a terrifying villain, not because of any external power, but because of the precise method of emotional control she uses to keep her ward in check. The romantic journey between Rapunzel and Flynn is expertly crafted, with standout song “I See The Light” bringing the plot and personal arcs together in one sublime moment. Also, I’m not sure I’ve seen another film that makes such tremendous use of each and every side character. Maximus the horse is the best Disney horse, and you can fight me on that.
#8. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Quasimodo is one of my favorite Disney heroes ever: I have a true soft spot for people who remain hopeful and upbeat despite difficult circumstances, and the hunchback is one of the purest souls ever. There are so many scenes in this movie that function like emotional body-blows, from the opening song “The Bells of Notre Dame” to Frollo’s shocking “Hellfire” to Esmerelda’s bitter, plaintive “God Help The Outcasts”. The lyrics to the musical numbers of this film are some of the absolute best, and it might be one of Disney’s most nakedly-political movies ever. I understand how fans of Victor Hugo’s novel might dismiss it, but I think this is the most underrated entry in all of the Disney canon.
#7. The Little Mermaid (1989)
The Little Mermaid has the most killer soundtrack of all the Disney Renaissance films, with that tiny little crab Sebastian doing most of the heavy lifting with “Under The Sea” and “Kiss The Girl”. Still, “Le Poisson” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” are genuine five-star classics, and Ursula is a delightfully fierce villain — modeled after Divine, the muse of John Waters. The music is enough to overlook the truly problematic implications of Ariel’s romantic choices, though an argument could be made that she really gave up her voice to be part of a world she had dreamed about for so long.
#6. The Incredibles (2004)
I’m a sucker for superheroes, and this Brad Bird-directed homage to Golden Age capes is just about pitch-perfect. Imagining a world where litigation actually spelled the end of costumed vigilantism, The Incredibles makes a pretty strong case for the idea of people being far more capable than most would give them credit for. The relationship of the Incredible family is the glue that keeps the story so tight, and Helen is an unsung hero for her quick thinking, incredible patience, and wise counsel to her children in life-threatening circumstances. Honestly, I think she steals the show.
#5. Finding Dory (2016)
A lot of people give Pixar flak for its shifting stance on sequels, but if the animation studio can keep producing follow-ups of this quality I’m all for it. Finding Dory is the rare continuation that not only justifies its own existence but elevates what came before it, reinforcing and deepening the themes of Finding Nemo. This might be one of the most insightful and sensitive stories about disability I’ve ever seen, showing us how much even small gestures of support or criticism can be the difference between someone’s success or failure. Hilarious, uplifting, instructive, and thoughtful — all of things that make a Pixar film so special.
#4. The Lion King (1994)
There are an awful lot of folks who are sick to death of The Lion King, and I kind of get it. Among furries, it’s been lauded so much that even the most die-hard fans are at risk of burnout. But have you seen it recently? Because it is the best movie to come out of the Renaissance period. The animation is just stunning, the songs are great, and each character is just about perfectly cast. The pacing and tone are almost exactly where it needs to be at any given moment. It really is one of those movies where everything comes together. I almost hate to say it, but The Lion King lives up to the hype. It’s the real deal.
#3. Toy Story 2 (1999)
This is Pixar’s best sequel — a film that reinforces and deepens the world it created in its first entry. Woody has to choose between his ego, which will see him shipped off to a museum where he’ll be forever separated from anyone close to him, and the difficult but more rewarding prospect of living amongst the toys in Andy’s room. The choice between alienation and appeasement is an interesting one, and what’s best is that the story makes a compelling case for both of them before making its choice. “When She Loved Me”, though, is forever one of those songs that reduces me to a blubbering mess.
#2. Zootopia (2016)
I know that this is really, really high for a relatively brand-new cartoon, but come ON. Judy Hopps is literally my spirit animal, a little grey rabbit whose enthusiasm for making the world a better place knows no bounds. She makes a perfect partner for the street hustler Nick Wilde, a fox who gave up on the world because the world gave up on him. Zootopia is perhaps the best-realized furry universe ever created, with an astonishing variety of wildlife all doing their best to live together harmoniously. There’s no skirting around how difficult that is; even Judy herself makes a mistake with terrible consequences. But ultimately the film asserts that we must continue to try, and that doing our best is always going to be the right thing to do. The character designs are amazing, the world on the screen is unique and immersive, and the social consciousness of its story is perfectly topical and timeless as well. Zootopia is everything I hoped it would be and that much more. I can’t stop gushing about it, but I’ll have to because…
#1. WALL-E (2008)
I know, I’m surprised too. But WALL-E is perhaps the most ambitious and beautiful animated film of all time. The first sequence, which establishes the ruined Earth our robotagonist is tasked with fixing, is haunting, melancholy, and almost wistful in the way it gives WALL-E a powerful longing for the culture that designed him. When EVE arrives and they head off to the generation ship Axiom, the disruption is enough to shake humanity out of its helpless torpor. WALL-E can’t help but change everyone he comes into contact with. His interest and willingness to engage and help triggers a cascade effect and brings people back to more immediate engagement. It is such a beautiful thing to watch; WALL-E is such a pure and earnest character, and the way he helps humanity find its way back to its home is incredibly inspiring. I love it, wholeheartedly, unabashedly. This is my absolute favorite Disney/Pixar film, even though the only other animal in it is a cockroach.