The Walt Disney Corporation towers so massively in worldwide popular culture that it was already the most powerful entertainment entity that had ever existed before it pulled Marvel and Star Wars under its umbrella. Since the Disney legacy that looms largest is their history of feature-length animated films, it can be easy to feel like the studio was behind every classic cartoon that generations grew up watching. The truth, though, is they weren’t. While no other studio has matched the Mouse House’s animation staying power, that’s never meant nobody was trying; as a result, the movie collections of even the most Disney-focused kid likely contained at least a few features put together by another studio. Here are 15 that should all look fairly familiar – especially to the “VHS Generation” who devoured such fare from their cherished white clamshell cases (ask your parents).
One note: the key theme here is films that were not from Disney but were (often deliberately) “Disney-like,” typically (but not exclusively) produced by studios looking to take a bite out of Uncle Walt’s box office domination. So if you’re wondering why there’s no anime on the list, animated films aimed explicitly at adults or culturally-specific features produced in Europe, Latin America, Africa or the Mid-East, that would be why.
15. THE ROAD TO EL DORADO
When Jeffrey Katzenberg left Disney to form Dreamworks, he brought with him a mission statement to the animation division: beat his former employer at their own game by producing Disney-esque films (i.e. family-focused ensemble pieces built around a Broadway-style musical format) that took chances or embraced material Disney was ignoring. The Road To El Dorado is a crystallization of that mandate, a film designed with an overwhelmingly Disney-style aesthetic but that also deliberately sidesteps the Mouse House’s moneymaking princess obsession in favor of two male leads (Kenneth Brannagh and Kevin Kline) in a musical slapstick buddy-comedy riff on the macho-adventure classic The Man Who Would Be King and paying obvious homage to the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby “The Road To…” movies of the 1940s.
It was a bold statement and a big gambit… and one that didn’t pay off. Audiences didn’t know what to make of it, and to date it’s the only Dreamworks Animation feature to qualify as an outright box office failure. Like many other films on this list, though, it eventually found its audience on home video; and today is remembered as a cult classic by many who grew up with it as one of the more unique pieces in their childhood video rotation.
14. STARCHASER: THE LEGEND OF ORIN
Straightforward futuristic science fiction is a genre that has largely eluded Disney Animation’s grasp, with the studio’s few attempts at the genre in Treasure Planet and Atlantis: The Lost Empire being among their more expensive box office misses. That’s left plenty of room to fill for other studios, and for a time Starchaser was about as close as anyone had come to what a Disney-produced answer to Star Wars might have looked like.
Originally released in 3D, Starchaser boasts impressive traditional animation augmented by early computer-enhanced techniques and digital lighting effects. The story follows a young man who escapes a mining colony after discovering a long-lost magic sword and revealing that his underground tribe’s “god” is a robotic ruse. He eventually escapes into an intergalactic adventure that spans planets as he assembles a team of newfound friends to help free his people and prevent an interplanetary war, in a series of exploits that could have been transplanted to any of the Star Wars movies with minimal editing. A modest success in theaters, it found more favor on video later in its life.
Ralph Bakshi’s reputation largely casts him as the bad boy of American animation; an uncompromising gonzo auteur who pushed feature animation to the limit by tackling subjects like racism, sexuality, drugs, crime and politics in an infamous run of films that blurred the line between the familiar cartoon anarchy of the old Looney Tunes shorts and the underground comics scene of the 1970s. But he also had a dream of tackling the fantasy genre, specifically to create an animated Lord of The Rings. And while that project would indeed be realized to ambitious but mixed results, he first released an original work in 1977’s Wizards.
It’s not precisely a children’s feature; the plot involves a war between fairytale creatures in a post-apocalyptic Earth where an evil wizard refashions himself into the new Furher after discovering old Nazi propaganda films and using them to inspire his troops. It’s also far, far removed from Bakshi’s adults-only affairs like Coonskin and Fritz The Cat, and Wizards very much resembles something Disney might well have made provided the studio decided to start dabbling in the post-Woodstock counter-culture of the day. That’s why, despite not being a major box-office success (despite positive reviews, 20th Century Fox pulled most prints from theaters to make room for a then-unknown film called Star Wars), it did end up finding it’s way into the hands of many younger viewers in the 80s and 90s, eventually attaining cult stature and a loyal fanbase.
12. THE PRINCE OF EGYPT
Speaking of Dreamworks taking on material Disney wouldn’t touch, here’s The Prince of Egypt. Despite Walt Disney’s expressed love for (and shaping of) “family values” Americana, the father of Mickey interestingly put less explicit religiosity into his features than many other family filmmakers of his time. And while the question of Uncle Walt’s beliefs (actual, public or otherwise) are often a point of contention among pop-culture historians, whatever the answer it’s notable that Walt Disney Animation produced very few films with overtly religious themes – and never did a Bible-based animated feature despite the enormous popularity of Biblical epics during the studio’s golden age (though Donald Duck eventually portrayed Noah in a Fantasia 2000 segment.)
Maybe they were worried about the potential controversy, but either way the lack of a faith-based animated feature in the classic Disney style left a void that Dreamworks made an ambitious effort to fill with 1998’s The Prince of Egypt. A reverent adaptation of The Book of Exodus, the film boasted big production values and an all-star vocal cast, and was carefully crafted with input from Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith leaders. The result? Only the second non-Disney traditionally-animated feature to reach $100 million at the box office, and the highest-grossing non-Disney animated feature period until The Simpsons Movie in 2007.
When it comes to trying to beat Disney at its own game, Don Bluth has been chasing that particular dragon longer than anyone. He’d found solid success in the 80s, and in the 90s was brought in to head Fox Animation Studios with an explicit goal of competing with The House That Walt Built on its own turf. Anastasia was the most critically and commercially successful of their attempts, but it wasn’t enough to save them from closure following the failure of Titan A.E. several years later.
Anastasia tries to meet fire with fire: it’s a princess movie (based on the historical legends claiming that Princess Anastasia survived the massacre of the Royal Family during the Russian Revolution) with Broadway-style song numbers, wacky animal sidekicks, romance and a ranting magical villain in Christopher Lloyd’s zombie-fied Rasputin. An overall memorable film, it’s rendered slightly confusing at times largely due to plot contortions attempting to tell the story without getting too into historical politics (“Communism? What’s that?”) or unavoidably adult themes (why did Rasputin curse the Romanov family, again?), but it’s well remembered enough that some of it’s music and story beats are currently being adapted into a new Anastasia stage musical due later this year.
10. FLIGHT OF DRAGONS
When it came to feature-style TV animation in the 70s and 80s, the name Rankin/Bass Productions towered over all others. Best known for their animated adaptation of The Hobbit, Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn and their annual stop-motion Christmas specials, they also produced this thoughtful fairytale adventure that took its title and inspiration from a book of (hypothetical) scientific-explanations for dragon biology by Peter Dickinson and illustrator Wayne Anderson.
In the storyline, the wizards who rule over a medieval fantasy kingdom elect to create and relocate themselves and other magical creatures to another realm in order to stop impeding the evolution of human civilization (and instead inspire humans by becoming legends) but one evil wizard refuses to give up control and declares war with an army of mind-controlled dragons. The good wizards seek out a prophecized hero from the future, who turns out to be a fairytale-loving scientist who has also invented a Dungeons & Dragons style board game, but in trying to bring him back accidentally end up trapping his mind in the body of a dragon. A quest to restore him and defeat the evil wizard is undertaken in proper RPG fashion (complete with party-building!), but the film is most fondly remembered for a boldly bizarre finale where science and magic battle it out in the most literal terms possible.
9. CHARLOTTE’S WEB
The best adaptation of E.B. White’s famous childrens’ classic was produced by Hanna-Barbera in 1973, one of the boldest attempts by another contemporary animation studio to make theatrical animation inroads during Disney’s most difficult era at the box office. The result was well reviewed and performed decently, but didn’t become a classic until it became broadcast television and home video fixture later on.
White himself famously disliked Hanna-Barbera’s take on his story (he also turned down Disney for the rights several times), but it’s a foundational classic to generations who’ve watched it since. The TV-level animation may not be a match for what the Disney powerhouse typically turned out, but the film adheres doggedly to the often downbeat themes of death, aging and losing/gaining loved ones from the book, and certain lines of dialogue or musical cues have been known to shake the resolve of even the most hardened now-grown fan; a testament to the film’s ubiquity in the lives of Generation X and Millennial animation fans.
8. FERNGULLY: THE LAST RAINFOREST
In the early 1990s, Disney was once again ascendant via the post-Little Mermaid renaissance of its animation division, and many competitors floundered in response – unsure of how to compete with a revitalized cartoon juggernaut. 20th Century Fox and one-time Tron-animator Bill Kroyer’s answer with 1992’s Ferngully was to go topical with an original environmentalist fable grounded in the geopolitical hot-topic subject of protecting the rainforest.
While a moderate success in theaters (in a year when every other animated release was eclipsed by Beauty & The Beast), it was often dismissed as just one of many overly-preachy 90s ecological cartoons by adult critics (see also: Captain Planet, Once Upon a Forest.) However, the story of a rainforest-dwelling fairy who strikes-up a romance with a lumberjack whom she shrinks to her size and teaches the values of forest-preservation connected in a big way with kids who caught it on video; especially a memorably bizarre vocal performance by Tim Curry as a perverse-looking demonic spirit accidentally unleashed by deforestation. It also gained a surprising second life in recent years as it’s eerie plot similarities to James Cameron’s Avatar became a popular subject of discussion.
7. FIRE & ICE
Would Disney have ever wanted to produce an animated tribute to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories and the Frank Frazetta fantasy paintings they inspired? Probably not, but Ralph Bakshi’s “other” non-Lord of The Rings fantasy epic isn’t too far removed from the baby-steps the Mouse House was taking toward older-skewing fare before those experiments were cancelled in the wake of The Black Cauldron and the live-action trio of Tron, The Black Hole and Something Wicked This Way Comes bombing catastrophically. Oh, but what might have been…
Pitched more to teenage sword and sorcery fans, Fire & Ice found its way into the hands of plenty of youngsters and remained a cherished “just dark enough” cult item among those who held onto their copies. An attempt to translate Frazetta’s muscular, genre-redefining art style to animation, it’s easily the best-looking Bakshi film even if the storyline is fairly standard princess-rescue fair displaced to Conan-style prehistoric tundra; with still-impressive use of rotoscope (live-action tracing) animation that’s still incredible to behold to this day. Robert Rodriguez has been attempting to launch a live-action remake for close to a decade.
6. AN AMERICAN TAIL
“Beating Disney” at the animation game has been an obsession for many filmmakers, but Steven Spielberg may have been the biggest to actively lean into it. This collaboration with Don Bluth was one of the most ambitious animated productions of the 80s, and the result was one of the most unusual: An almost relentlessly-downbeat, often-terrifying historical fable of early 20th Century European immigration to New York City centered on a family of Jewish mice from Russian whose middle child becomes separate from them during their journey.
While remembered today as one of Bluth’s creative and box office high points (despite a famously troubled production rife with budgetary issues) and burned into the memory of those who saw it in theaters or on video as kids, on its initial release the film drew surprisingly harsh criticism for it’s dark tone and frank treatment of story elements like racism, child-abandonment and poverty. Up until Schindler’s List, it remained Spielberg’s most explicit exploration of his own Jewish heritage on film, with the main character “Fievel” named for his grandfather and a finale that memorably evokes the Jewish folk legend of The Golem.
5. ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN
Don Bluth’s enduring reputation as the “Anti-Mickey” animation auteur of the 80s and 90s was predicated on the idea that his films delved into themes of philosophy, death, sadness and existential melancholy that the upbeat, commercially-minded Disney fare had increasingly abandoned. That reputation seemed to reach its nadir with this famously bizarre feature that married his thematic fixations on orphans, talking animals and magic-realism with a story set in the world of organized crime and a (literal) trip to Hell itself.
In the story, Burt Reynolds voices a small-time criminal dog named Charlie who’s murdered by his gangland rival Carface. Wanting to return to Earth and avenge his own death, Charlie finagles an escape from Dog Heaven, but it comes with a catch: if he dies again, he’ll be condemned to Hell – depicted in eye-popping nightmare sequences as a world of fire and lava where Charlie is clawed at by fiery demons and menaced by a Kaiju-sized canine Satan. Much of the onscreen action follows Charlie’s redemption story as he aids an orphaned girl and his imperiled dog friends, but it’s the frighteningly-effective death and afterlife imagery that’s resonated with generations of viewers who grew up with it on video – where it had a long life after a disappointing showing in theaters and heavy criticism for being too violent from reviewers.
4. THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH
Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry legend Chuck Jones didn’t lend his talents to too many feature-length projects, but the results were always memorable when he did.
Easily the most-praised of Jones’ theatrical features, Phantom Tollbooth is a feature adaptation of Norman Juster’s offbeat classic book about a lonely boy (played by Butch “Eddie Munster” Patrick) who is transported by the titular gateway into the animated Lands Beyond, where he and an eclectic group of fellow travelers must restore order to The Kingdom of Wisdom by halting a conflict between the number and letter-based cities of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis and freeing the captured Princesses Rhyme and Reason. It’s as bizarre as it sounds, but Juster’s unique narrative and caricature-style characters allow ample room for Jones’ freewheeling cartoon sensibilities to take flight.
3. THE LAST UNICORN
Peter S. Beagle’s revisionist fairytale book is a beloved modern classic of the fantasy genre for good reason, and this beloved animated adaptation from Rankin/Bass is justly every bit as loved by generations of fans.
A uniquely mature and thoughtful film grounded in explorations of identity and realistic versus idealized love from a feminine perspective, the story follows a Unicorn who traverses a medieval kingdom encountering atypically-imagined incarnations of classical fantasy creatures and mythic archetypes on a quest to discover what became of the rest of her species; a quest that takes an unexpected turn when she is temporarily transformed into a human woman and must grapple with new emotions she doesn’t fully comprehend. Famous for its unusual voice cast (including Jeff Bridges, Christopher Lee and Mia Farrow) and gorgeous animation, it’s often cited as the sort of childhood favorite that takes on new meaning in adulthood; particularly a sequence where an older woman has a breakdown upon meeting a Unicorn, which in mythology are only supposed to appear to young maidens, now that she is… rather the opposite. Powerful stuff, regardless of when you saw it.
2. THE SECRET OF NIMH
Don Bluth’s crowning achievement as a filmmaker (and his directorial debut), this loose adaptation of Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and The Rats of NIMH adds elements of adventure and the supernatural to the story of a field mouse single mother who sets out to find a secret society of laboratory rats. The rats are escapees, like her late husband, from the National Institute of Mental Health, and imbued with enhanced intelligence that allow them to understand human technology. She needs their help in relocating her family home before it’s destroyed by a farmer’s plowing.
Along with being a flat-out masterpiece of animated storytelling, NIMH is as clear a mission-statement as Bluth’s post-Disney insurgent career could’ve asked for. It boldly lays out the template the majority of his subsequent features would follow, eschewing the musical-comedy formula popularized by second-wave Disney features in favor of darker (yet still kid-focused) imagery and emotionally complex storylines; as the vulnerable Mrs. Brisby undertakes a hero’s journey that places her in constant peril without artificially increasing her strength or survival chances and struggles with her own self-doubt in the face of the almost alien intelligence of the NIMH rats and the legacy of her husband; emerging as one of the most uniquely strong heroines in the animation canon.
1. THE IRON GIANT
Today, Disney is very much in the Brad Bird business. They are enjoying the lavish profits and merchandising from the animation wunderkind’s Pixar features, The Incredibles and Ratatouille; they are so eager for future collaborations (The Incredibles 2 in particular) that they were willing to absorb a costly bomb in his ill-conceived live-action Tomorrowland. So one has to assume that, if they had to do over again, The Mouse House would want to have gotten behind his now-legendary feature debut in The Iron Giant.
A victim of a poor marketing campaign and a lack of faith from Warner Bros Animation (which was still recuperating from the costly box office failure of Quest For Camelot), The Iron Giant faded ignominiously in theaters but became a legit generational classic on home video. A retelling of British author Ted Hughe’s 1968 The Iron Man, Bird’s version relocates the action to 1957 Maine and refocuses the story into a Cold War paranoia spin on the E.T. formula wherein a young boy tries to protect his discovery of a friendly alien robot from a sleazy government agent who believes the titular Giant may be part of a Communist plot. The animation, deftly mixing traditional 2D and 3D elements, still holds up today – as does the memorable voice cast, which includes Vin Diesel as the voice of the Giant itself. Bird is today one of animation’s most sought-after auteur voices, and even back in 1999 he’d already achieved legendary status in his field for his work on Family Dog and The Simpsons. But to many fans and critics, The Iron Giant is still the feature he has yet to top.
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