Disney Animation Studios has long been in the business of making amazing movies. Since its first feature film (Snow White) in the late 1930’s, Disney Animation Studios has produced 54 films, the most recent of which is Big Hero 6, and changed the course of animation several times during the process. We all know the classics, like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, and it’s hard to make a best of Disney list without immediately thinking of Beauty and the Beast, which was the first animated film nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. Of course, there are also the Disney-Pixar collaborations, which are widely regarded as some of the greatest films (animated or not) of all time.
But that’s just the tip of iceberg. There’s a whole plethora of forgotten Disney Animation Studios feature films that just can’t seem to get the respect they deserve. So we’ve reached back into the vault to pull out our list of Top 10 Underappreciated Animated Disney Films, because there is more to life than re-watching The Lion King.
The AristoCats (1970)
The AristoCats follows a family of aristocratic cats who get spirited away by the butler, Edgar Balthazar (voiced by Roddy Maude-Roxby) when he learns that his mistress’ fortune will go to them. More group-comedy than plot heavy action, the film relies on charming interactions between the mother cat, Duchess (Eva Gabor), her three adorable kittens, and an alley cat friend, Abraham de Lacy Giuseppe Casey Thomas O’Malley (Phil Harris), to move the story along.
Walt Disney died before the film’s release, but it was notably the last project that he actually approved himself. It was a critical success at the time, but it has recently come under fire for its depiction of a Siamese cat that plays the piano with chopsticks.
The Rescuers (1977)
Following an international mouse organization known as the Rescue Aid Society, The Rescuers tells the story of Miss Bianca (Eva Gabor) and her co-agent Bernard (Bob Newhart) as they set out to rescue orphan girl, Penny (Michelle Stacy) who is being held prisoner by Madame Medusa (Geraldine Page) a malevolent pawnshop owner.
Wildly successful upon its theatrical release – even breaking box office records for an animated film on its opening weekend – the film earned itself a sequel in The Rescuers Down Under. Despite its humor and excellent animation, the movie has mostly faded into obscurity, overshadowed by better known Disney animated projects.
The Black Cauldron (1985)
The Black Cauldron, a slightly darker tale than your average Disney fare, is about an evil Horned King (voiced by John Hurt) who attempts to acquire a magical cauldron that will enable him to rule the world and the merry group who seeks to thwart him.
Despite mixed reviews from critics, the film’s score is still considered top-notch and the visuals are almost universally acknowledged as stunning (especially for the time). Unfortunately, The Black Cauldron was such a box office failure that even Disney seemed to forget about it – it wasn’t released on home video until a full ten years after its theatrical release.
The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
One of the last films released before the “Disney Renaissance”- the era of Disney movies that produced The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast – The Great Mouse Detective is a Sherlock Holmes type story set in Victorian London – where the main characters are mice and rats.
Led by the Sherlock-like Basil (Barrie Ingham) along with his partner Major Dr. David Q. Dawson (Val Bettin), The Great Mouse Detective is a funny story with a surprisingly engaging villain, Professor Ratigan (Vincent Price), and the film definitely deserves more attention that it gets these days. While only a moderate success at the box office, it was well received by critics at the time of release.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Based on the classic novel of the same name, The Hunchback of Notre Dame follows Quasimodo (Tom Hulce) as he attempts to gain acceptance into society – at a time when gypsy culture was also under attack by intolerant Parisian elites (embodied by Tony Jay’s wicked Judge Claude Frollo). A decidedly darker movie than many Disney classics, Quasimodo starts as a lonely and sad character, who has seemingly never known happiness.
The animated cathedral is spectacular, and appropriately, there’s talk of hell and damnation, culminating in the fantastic musical number, “Hellfire.” While some criticized the film for taking liberties with the source material, and mature content, most critics praised the darker story and overall message of acceptance.
Loosely based on Greek and Roman mythology, Hercules takes plenty of liberties with classic stories, but it still manages to produce an engaging tale. Narrated by “The Muses” (Lillias White, Cheryl Freeman, LaChanze, Roz Ryan and Vanéese Y. Thomas) the story follows Hercules (Tate Donovan) as he attempts to prevent a takeover from Hades (James Woods).
The film is filled with modern-day references and jokes, and it produced several iconic Disney songs, including “I Can Go the Distance” and “Zero to Hero.” Despite receiving generally positive reviews and premiering squarely within the Disney Renaissance, it has never been granted Disney Classic status.
Tarzan takes a classic tale and elevates it with excellent music from Phil Collins and some of the best animation of its time. It’s an adventure heavy story compared to other Disney classics, with plenty of chase scenes, parkour/skateboard-style traversal, and vine swinging through the jungle, yet still maintains the classic romantic arc between Tarzan (Tony Goldwyn) and Jane Porter (Minnie Driver).
Widely regarded as the last film in the Disney Renaissance, and praised for its unique animation style, Tarzan opened at number one at the U.S. box office but hasn’t been able to retain the same love as the other Disney Renaissance films.
The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
One of the most enjoyable Disney films, in terms of pure humor, The Emperor’s New Groove is a buddy-comedy about a selfish and naive emperor, Emperor Kuzco (David Spade) who was turned into a llama. He then teams up with a peasant, Pacha (John Goodman) in order to become human again, learning classic Disney lessons along the way.
But the film actually started its life as an epic musical entitled Kingdom of the Sun – there was even a documentary (The Sweatbox) detailing the production troubles on the movie. Despite development problems, the final film was critically very well-received, and it went on to spawn a direct-to-video sequel and a short-lived animated television series.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
A classic adventure story inspired by the works of Jules Verne, Atlantis is notable as Disney’s first sci-fi animated film. Set at the beginning of the 20th century, the film follows a man, Milo James Thatch (Michael J. Fox), in possession of a sacred book that he believes will guide him and his crew to Atlantis.
At the time, it was a drastic departure from Disney form, particularly the absence of big musical numbers. While the film received mixed reviews from critics and performed lackluster at the box office, the work in it is beautiful, including comic book influenced animation and a new language created specifically for the film.
Brother Bear (2003)
With a message of tolerance and understanding, Brother Bear is easy to love. After a human boy named Kenai (Joaquin Phoenix) kills a bear, angered spirits turn him into one – and he meets the son, Koda (Jeremy Suarez) of the bear he killed.
At times heartbreaking, Brother Bear still manages to be full of adventure and vibrant animation. It received an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Picture when it was released but faced tough competition in (and ultimately lost to) Finding Nemo. Since that time the film has largely been ignored – except for a straight-to-video sequel in 2006.
Those are our picks for the most underappreciated animated disney films. Which ones are your favorite? Are there any we missed? Be sure to share your picks in the comments section below.