It’s time for the next edition of The Great Disney Countdown, ranking all 58 feature films released by Walt Disney Animation Studios over the last eighty years. In the last article, we looked at the bottom of the barrel. This time, we get into the more mixed range of Disney films with a lot going for them, but with some significant flaws that keep them from true greatness
This list only includes the films officially produced and released by Walt Disney Animation Studios. No Pixar films (although you can see my current ranking of those here) and it also doesn’t include the cheaper DisneyToon films like A Goofy Movie, or the oddball Touchstone musicals like The Nightmare Before Christmas.
39. Meet the Robinsons (2007)
The third CGI release from the main Disney studio, this was also the first with something resembling a halfway decent script. The problem is, it’s essentially two movies in one. There’s a very sweet and powerful story about a young orphan’s quest to find a family, but the time-travel antics are dense and slapstick-y. And good luck explaining the plot of this film in less than a paragraph!
38. Oliver and Company (1988)
An in-name-only adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, this story of a stray kitten who gets taken in by a gang of dog thieves and their kindly homeless owner is one of many animal-based films Disney made in the 1980s. Its cruel gangster villain, Sykes, provides some weird tonal dissonance with an otherwise very cute and fluffy story. The movie as a whole entertains, but is largely forgotten in the Renaissance that followed.
37. Lady and the Tramp (1955)
The first of Disney’s many “Pets have adventures” films, this movie is mostly known for its iconic spaghetti scene that’s spawned countless imitators plus a Disney World restaurant. It’s a romantic film, sure, but a lot of the stuff surrounding the courtship doesn’t hold up – including a weak set of villains that includes the grossly racist Si and Am cat duo. This is a movie, like Dumbo, that could benefit from its coming live-action remake treatment.
36. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
There’s a difference between an impressive achievement in film and a great, enduring film. There’s no question that the first Disney film is one of the greatest achievements in movie history and kick-started a new genre. But watching it today, its story doesn’t hold up to the ones that came after. It has a great, creepy villain and the antics of the Dwarfs hold up even today, but its lead princess is largely a cheery cipher and its prince is literally a plot device. The ones after it owe it everything, but they also dwarf it.
35. Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
Disney’s first modern foray into the high-adventure genre has a lot going for it, including gorgeous production design by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola and a diverse crew of misfit adventurers. The plot is largely a generic “secret magical city” pastiche cobbled together from countless other sources, but its exciting final act rivals some of the all-time great Disney final battles.
34. The Aristocats (1970)
The first Disney film developed after the death of Walt Disney, this Parisian animal adventure tends to get a bad rap. I actually think it holds up a bit better than many of the other “funny animal films” Disney did. The story of a prize show cat and her three kittens abandoned in the wild by a scheming butler and helped back to civilization by a charming alley cat, it’s got one of the most underrated musical soundtracks in the Disney stable. Its jazzy “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat” number has a few ugly racial stereotypes briefly peppered in, but remains one of the most memorable animated musical numbers.
33. Tarzan (1999)
Considered the final film of the 1990s Disney renaissance, Tarzan broke from the era’s most successful model in some key ways – subbing out the classic musical soundtrack for a series of well-done but largely forgettable Phil Collins background songs. Its villain, Clayton, is a copy-paste of several better villains like Gaston, but the movie’s gorgeous animation saves the day. The story isn’t the best, but the visuals alone make it worth watching.
32. The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
Disney turned Oliver Twist into funny animals, why not Sherlock Holmes? Based on a classic series of children’s book about tiny rodent Detectives solving crimes deep under London, this attempt at a Disney detective movie is elevated by one major factor – Vincent Price giving an incredibly memorable performance as villain Professor Ratigan. It’s one of the most bizarre movies the studio has ever made, and one that turns out pretty enjoyable.
31. Winnie the Pooh (2011)
The more recent of two Winnie the Pooh films on this list, this recent film was a return by the studio to traditional animation and is deliberately retro. Although it was composed as a single film, it takes on the vibe of an anthology due to the many short, gentle stories taking place in the Hundred Acre Woods. It’s a trifle, an excellently animated trifle that will make a great introduction to Disney for the youngest viewers but be forgettable for the rest.
30. Big Hero 6 (2014)
A strange crossing-of-the-streams between Disney and Marvel, this animated superhero adventure is one of the studio’s more successful forays into classic boys’ adventure. A high-tech fictional city and a nicely diverse team of young heroes makes this a successful adventure, but half the team seems to get zero development and the trauma the main character experiences over the narrative feels a bit excessive. But there’s no denying that Baymax is one of the best animation creations of recent years.
29. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
Disney’s first full-length attempt at adapting the works of AA Milne, this series of shorts packs some of the most iconic Winnie the Pooh stories into one classically-animated package. Like its later sequel, it’s a very slim movie composed of little stories with minimal dramatic tension. Unlike that one, it feels more timeless and gets a higher rating.
28. Peter Pan (1953)
There’s no question this is a classic Disney film. It features some of the best characters in the studio’s history, a fantastic set piece in Neverland, and the comic dynamic between the film’s three arch-enemies – Peter, Captain Hook, and the Crocodile – is comic brilliance. But my GOD, those Native American caricatures. Of all the Disney films hurt by hindsight of racism, this may be the best of them, but it’s also the one where the problems are the most front and center.
27. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
The last of the package-film era, this duo of half-hour cartoons adapts a duo of classic books. The first segment, based on The Wind in the Willows, is a slight but enjoyable tale of some very British animals and their wealthy friend with a taste for fast cars. The second story, adapted from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, is the real gem here. A cleverly animated, creepy tale of the rivalry between a boorish bruiser and a scheming schoolteacher that turns supernatural, its iconic Headless Horseman chase is enough to ensure this film endures more than any other from the era.
It’s always hard to review a film only two days past its release and figure out where it lands in an eighty-year history. It’s one of the most visually inventive films Disney has ever put out, with a barrage of hilarious meta gags and an array of guest-stars from Disney history. The extended Princess reunion is enough to make it a must-watch, but it’s a stronger climax away from being a true classic.
25. Frozen (2012)
Frozen is a phenomenon in itself, spawning a fandom that undoubtedly makes countless parents shudder at the thought of yet another screening. It also has a sequel in development for next year. So, six years after its record-breaking release, how does it stack up? It has a lot going for it, including gorgeous animation, a likable set of oddball main characters, and a great villain reveal. But aside from the omnipresent “Let It Go”, its soundtrack is not the most memorable. Its biggest flaw is that its most engaging character, the fascinating and traumatized Elsa, is rendered a supporting character in her sister’s quest.