It’s time for the fourth and final installment of The Great Disney Countdown! So far, we’ve looked at the bottom of the barrel, the muddle in the middle, and the strong second tier of Walt Disney Animation Studios theatrical releases. Now, it’s time to break down the top ten greatest films Disney has ever released. A mix of classics, Renaissance-era films, and a surprising number of modern instant classics, they all have one thing in common – they perfectly capture the imagination and magic of Disney at its best.
This list only includes the films officially produced and released by Walt Disney Animation Studios. No Pixar films and it also doesn’t include the cheaper DisneyToon films like A Goofy Movie, or the oddball Touchstone musicals like The Nightmare Before Christmas.
10. Sleeping Beauty (1959)
The most epic of Disney’s classic films, this spectacular fairy tale improves on its predecessors with a Princess and Prince with actual character development and a good amount of humor. Its cranky trio of fairies who raise Aurora are a hoot, and the animation and music is gorgeous. But what everyone remembers about this film, of course, is its villain. The imposing, petty Maleficent is the first truly iconic Disney villain, and her dragon transformation remains one of the most spectacular finales in Disney history. Its only flaw? A little slow compared to the rest of the elites.
9. Moana (2016)
This epic Polynesian adventure improves on the model created by Pixar’s Brave – a solo coming-of-age adventure for a young Princess battling her own demons as much as the environment. In many ways, Moana parallels The Little Mermaid nicely – royal daughter of an overprotective father who wants to visit other realms! Crabs! – but improves on it in almost every way. Auli’l Cravalho makes a great debut as the young hero, and Dwayne Johnson steals every scene he’s in as the scheming demigod who becomes an unlikely ally. The culturally-accurate music is one of the greatest Disney musical soundtracks as well. Its one weak spot – it lacks a strong antagonist, but that’s acceptable in a coming-of-age story. But Tamatoa did nothing wrong!
8. Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
A wildly inventive expansion on many of the themes from the Toy Story film, this film wins you over immediately with its hilarious video game world and endless array of nostalgic cameos. But when you get beyond that, you find a fascinating story about stereotypes, figuring out your identity in a world where your role is preordained, and unlikely friendships and romances. With higher stakes than many Disney films – the heroes are literally facing annihilation of their world at points – its biggest winning point is possibly the most shocking surprise villain reveal in Disney history.
7. Lilo and Stitch (2000)
An unlikely winner from Disney’s post-Renaissance doldrums, this “sweet girl-and-her-alien” comedy has aged incredibly well since its debut. While the wacky dog-like alien is the big scene-stealer of the film, there’s something much more real that makes the film so great. That would be the very human story of Lilo and her sister Nani, a pair of orphans. The teenage Nani’s struggle to grow up fast and provide for her sister, as well as her awkward courtship with crush David, makes this a film with appeal for all ages and probably the best depiction of siblings ever in a Disney film. But it never gets too serious – Stitch, aliens Jumba and Pleakley, and hilariously serious social worker Cobra Bubbles are some of the most memorable supporting characters in the studio’s history.
6. Zootopia (2016)
There’s a case to be made that 2016 was the best year in Disney’s long history. Moana played its part, but to my eye the winner was this wildly creative detective comedy. Imagine the world of Richard Scarry combined with a Harlan Coben thriller. Set in a world populated entirely by sapient evolved mammals, this story of a rabbit police officer and a fox con man struggling to solve a mystery of predators gone wild in a world that treats them both with bigotry works surprisingly well as a straight mystery – but it’s also packed with dozens of hilarious sight gags a minute. Flash the Sloth may be the best bit character in Disney history, but nothing made me laugh quite as hard as the shrew mob clan. Disney’s second foray into detective movies is the perfect genre-bender.
5. Mulan (1998)
One of the most adult movies Disney has ever made but without the mood whiplash of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, this China-set war thriller features one of the most fleshed-out leads in the studio’s history. Teenager Fa Mulan, who impersonates a male soldier to save her disabled father from the draft, became an icon for a reason. Eddie Murphy’s hilarious dragon sidekick manages to add some levity without ruining the stakes. While the villain, Hun general Shan-Yu, has been criticized for being one-note, I think he works as a terrifying force of nature. Of the movie’s four songs, only one really endures – but that one may be the single best song in Disney’s history.
4. Pinocchio (1940)
Released less than two years after Snow White, the rise in story quality of Disney’s second feature is stunning. It wouldn’t work nearly as well if it wasn’t grounded in the deeply poignant story of the elderly toymaker, Gepetto, who wants a son. The puppet boy’s misadventures result in one of the best dramatic arcs in Disney history, leading to cursed islands and hungry whales. A quartet of memorable villains – the scam artists Honest John and Foulfellow; the cruel puppetmaster Stromboli, and the demonic Coachman – make up a terrifying ensemble, but it all leads to a happy ending that remains one of Disney’s greatest “Happily Ever Afters”.
3. The Lion King (1994)
Still the only Disney film set in Africa, this animal-based reinvention of Hamlet is a popular pick for the greatest Disney film of all time. It’s very easy to see why – from the opening note, its soundtrack is a wildly engaging tour de force. Its murderous villain, Scar, delivers the greatest villain song in movie history, and his hyena henchmen may be scarier than the majority of main Disney villains. Simba’s hilarious surrogate parents, Timon and Pumbaa, get far more to do than most sidekicks, and the movie’s famous tearjerker moment remains the greatest punch-in-the-gut in animation history. Its one weak point? Love interest Nala is largely a blank slate, and that’s just enough to knock it out of the championship bout.
2. Tangled (2010)
Disney’s first adaptation of a classic European fairy tale in almost twenty years, this adaptation of Rapunzel went through many permutations before it found its final version. And what it found was spectacular – reinventing the original fairy tale as the story of an abused girl’s coming of age and discovering her destiny. Rapunzel’s emotional arc over the course of the film is incredibly powerful, and it’s nicely paralleled with the redemption arc of orphaned thief Flynn Ryder. The music does a great job of both serving as a classic, yearning musical soundtrack and parodying the same, and Donna Murphy’s snarling, manipulative villain is all the more terrifying based on how real she is. And that brilliant hair animation! Don’t sleep on the animated series sequel, which expands the mythology and adds a trio of great new characters.
1. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Beauty and the Beast is always in the conversation for the best Disney film of all time – and in this case, it’s totally warranted. Holding up just as well today as it did twenty-six years ago, it draws its strength from its compelling leads – the clever, bookish Belle who dreams of adventure; and the prickly Beast, transformed as a teenager and angry at the world. Its lush, epic animation commands your attention from the stunning stained-glass prologue. Every member of the supporting cast is memorable, from Belle’s clumsy father Maurice to the hapless, cursed castle servants. Every musical number endures as a classic. But the movie’s secret weapon is in its villain – the arrogant hunter Gaston, who begins as a smug annoyance and devolves into a murderous monster. He’s the first Disney villain to evolve over the course of the film, and without him I guarantee we wouldn’t have Hans or King Candy. There’s a reason Beauty and the Beast is the only Disney feature film ever nomination for Best Picture – it’s perfect.