Almost a century ago, a bankrupt pioneer with no more than $40 to his name hopped on a train from Kansas City to Los Angeles with the dream of re-inventing the world of animation. That pioneer’s name was Walt Disney. He created an empire and a brand that would become synonymous with quality and innovation.
In admiration of all that Disney Animation Studios has achieved in its nearly ten decades of studious work and expert detail, we’ve collected the very best pictures that helped build our childhoods. With so many features to choose from, we’ve narrowed down our list by excluding everything from the Disney-owned Pixar. Instead, our list will focus solely on the cartoon wonders created by Disney’s own personally established studio.
Before we get into our countdown, it’s important to acknowledge that not every film could be included. While some exclusions are sure to get a scoff out of our readers, that doesn’t mean they don’t hold a place of their own in the history of animated cinema. So without further ado, these are the 25 Best Animated Disney Movies Of All Time.
Honorable Mentions: Alice in Wonderland (1951), The Sword in the Stone (1963), The Fox and the Hound (1981), The Great Mouse Detective (1986), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Tangled (2010), Wreck-It Ralph (2012), Big Hero 6 (2014)
25 Zootopia (2016)
We kick things off with one of the newest films in Disney’s history. Only the third animated classic from the studio to cross the $1 billion threshold worldwide, Zootopia made waves earlier in the year thanks to its 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes as well as its topical story about xenophobic relations around the world. While the idea of using anthropomorphic animals is something the studio has done since its inception, the film's inclusive message and updated 3D animation is more in tune with the modernized cartoons of today. It offers the perfect blend of the old and the new in a film that is sure to only get better with time.
Relying on a talented cast of voice actors that includes Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, and many more, the story introduces the headstrong rabbit Judy Hopps and the cunning red fox Nick Wilde in a police procedural that brings the intersecting lives of its characters together through a vast urban utopia. Filled with enough visual metaphors and bad animal puns to keep the audience coming back again, Zootopia is a positive step in a new direction that promises to bring excitement in the years to come.
24 Robin Hood (1973)
The '70s and '80s were a tough time for Walt Disney Animations. Following the death of Disney in 1966, the studio found itself in a creative rut, with one consecutive flop after another threatening to end the magic of animation altogether. Still, at a time where audiences were drifting away from the fantasy of talking animals and princesses, Robin Hood managed to provide a tongue-in-cheek narrative that was fun for kids and adults alike. Inspired by Disney’s initial interest to develop the story of Reynard the Fox into an animated feature, the tale of the deceptive trickster figure was eventually ruled too unsuitable for children, ultimately leading to the decision to blend the tale with that of Nottingham.
Disney is known today for its cost-effective recycling of old animations, and many of Robin Hood’s character designs were borrowed from previous films-- most notable is Little John’s resemblance to Baloo from The Jungle Book. But despite its many troubles, the feature was a charming and colorful illustration of precise anthropomorphization. Everything from the sly fox Robin to Prince John's slithering snake servant was brilliantly envisioned and infused with a sense of community that brings it all together, making this tale an expertly crafted ride to be cherished.
23 Pocahontas (1995)
Following the success of Beauty and the Beast a few years prior, there was an immediate urge from Disney for another Academy Award contender at the following Best Picture races. Appointing story supervisor Tom Sito to do extensive research on colonial America, the studio would hone in on the story of Pocahontas and her meeting with English explorer John Smith. Rather than sticking to the historical accuracy of the real story-- which would see a pre-teen Pocahontas married to John Rolfe, the first cultivator of tobacco in the region-- the company went with a much less complicated plot that could appeal to children.
Despite being criticized for its lack of historical awareness, Pocahontas has remained a timeless classic that’s as relevant today as it was upon its release. One of the more thoughtful films in the Disney canon, it echoes lifelong sentiments about issues of tolerance in the face of cultural and ethnic diversity. It might hold a place in history as one of the more controversial films in animated history, but it overcomes its obstacles through its strong moral philosophies.
22 The Princess and the Frog (2009)
In 2004, following the release of the dismal Home on the Range, Disney called it a day on its traditional hand-drawn animation technique. The pinnacle of animated movies for nearly seven decades would cease in order to give way to the 3D computer imagery made popular by Pixar’s Toy Story. It was the end of an era, that is, until the new chief creative officer for the studio, John Lasseter, reversed that decision and greenlit The Princess and the Frog.
A huge gamble would pay off for Disney as the traditional fairy tale, based on E.D. Baker’s The Frog Princess, wgave audiences their first look at an African-American princess with Tiana. Set in the heart of New Orleans, the film was jumping with jazz music while showing off the Creole and Cajun cuisines made popular by the Big Easy. In a post-Katrina era, the movie was an endearing message to the city to remain resilient. It was at once charming and clever, refusing to let the style of the studio’s past die. For Disney, it was a return to form that proved sometimes the old ways can still be the most effective.
21 Hercules (1997)
Given the epic scale of Disney’s past films, it was only a matter of time before the company tackled a Greek tragedy. The problem was how to condense so many detailed journeys into a compact story which could entertain children without appearing too violent in nature. Enter directors Ron Clements and John Musker. Fresh off the roaring success of Aladdin, the creative duo were ready to jump aboard their next big adventure. After hearing of Hercules, the two were chomping at the bit to join the party, adding their own notes to the story, which included tossing in a Danny DeVito-voiced sidekick and a powerful, overtly cynical villain.
Naive, delightful, and innocent, the Disney version of Hercules is far from the mythological figure taught in schools. While the lighter take on the story is refreshing, it’s the set designs and voice acting that hit the nail on the head. Danny DeVito is golden as the surly satyr Philoctetes while Susan Egan lends her talents as the sarcastic but beautiful Megara; however, it’s James Woods’ fast-talking Hades that truly becomes steals the showe as one of Disney’s wittiest bad guys yet.
20 The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
At the end of the '90s, Disney was tasked with a major decision. Having come off the slightly underwhelming receptions to films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules, there was a need for a new kind of animated picture that could set itself apart from the rest and compete with the growing presence of Pixar. From that moment of creative stagnation arose the unlikeliest of buddy features about an Incan emperor who is transformed into a llama and is forced to team up with a peasant to reverse his bad fortunes.
Initially created as an epic musical which would see the protagonist Kuzco trading places with a commoner, the film would eventually opt for the more slapstick approach. While far from the most ambitious Disney picture, The Emperor’s New Groove makes strides in the animation department with its brisk pacing, charismatic characters and whole-hearted moments of laughter. By turning attention away from the hero’s journey toward comic relief, the film showed that cartoons don’t have to be a spectacle to steal the show, making this turn-of-the-century movie one for the ages.
19 Peter Pan (1953)
The boy who wouldn't grow up got his start with Disney as one of the founder’s favorite stories. Always envisioning it as an animated film, Walt Disney wanted to start production on Peter Pan soon after Snow White, but due to a legal struggle to obtain the rights to J.M. Barrie’s play, the project was shelved until further notice. Soon the United States’ involvement in World War II would again send the film into development limbo as the studio suffered from multiple financial setbacks, but in 1947 Disney would finally see itself back in good standing, setting the production back on track.
A lively Technicolor adventure that will go down as the most kid-friendly Disney feature of the 1950s, Peter Pan is most praised now for its iconic characters, a long list which includes the likes of the boy wonder himself, the daunting Captain Hook, and the cutesy, hot-tempered Tinker Bell. As the ultimate metaphor for eternal childhood, it’s easy to see why the man who created such magical places as Disneyland and Disney World would cherish Neverland. Peter Pan will never grow up and the movie transports even the stodgiest of adults back to their childhood.
18 Tarzan (1999)
Since the first anthropomorphic animal made its way into a Disney animated feature, the studio has had a deep focus on the relationship between humanity and nature. From the conservation of wildlife to the magic of the forests, there’s always been a splendor in the hand-drawn depictions of green shrubs or beautifully colored woodland critters. Whether it’s Cinderella singing with chirping birds while doing her chores or Mowgli lounging around with Baloo, there’s a harmony when the two come together. That’s why when Tarzan finally came out it felt like it had been a long time coming.
The first animated version of the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel was a spirited return to the wild, capped off with a new technical breakthrough called Deep Canvassing that enhanced the depth of the movie’s background using new computer-based tools. Tarzan roams free through the wild, lush scenery, zipping through the skyline and skating down tree branches at a dizzying pace unseen before in animation. Terrifically cast and beautifully animated, Tarzan is a brilliant presentation of style and heart that takes a classic tale to new romantic depths.
17 Lady and the Tramp (1955)
If you were to search through Walt Disney’s entire filmography, taking note of every movie that was influenced by his perspective and morals, we doubt you’d ever find a movie more suited to the man’s own personal life views than this one. That’s because Lady and the Tramp isn’t just one of the greatest love stories ever put on film, it also happens to be a daring, grandiose adventure shot in widescreen CinemaScope with a fine attention to detail.
Today the film is most notably remembered for the often repeated but never duplicated spaghetti-eating sequence, but much like Bambi before it, the film’s focus is much more on the characters than the narrative. Aided by a supporting cast of players that includes a gruff Scottish terrier, a noble bloodhound, and two mischievous Siamese cats, it’s a film that goes beyond the world of talking animals and tugs at the heartstrings.
16 Mulan (1998)
Coming in at the tail end of the 1990s, right before Pixar swept the rug-- and the momentum-- out from under the studio, Disney released a coming-of-age tale that set a new precedent for women of color in children’s movies. Based on a Chinese legend set during the Northern Wei dynasty (386 CE- 524CE), Mulan follows its titular character as she progresses through the ranks of the Chinese army disguised as a man in order to save her father from enlisting. Along the way, the tomboyish heroine (voiced by Ming-Na Wen) is aided by her comical dragon guardian Mushu (played by Eddie Murphy).
A highlight of the Disney vault, Mulan rejected notions that the prototypical Disney princess couldn’t be bold, brave, intelligent, and beautiful while also providing a fluidity to traditional gender roles. Backed up by stunning battle sequences and musical numbers that showcased the vocal talents of the singing cast members, the film was a splendidly animated depiction of Chinese culture that, though romanticized, remained celebratory of its characters in a way that often goes unnoticed.
15 The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is an oddity on our list, not because it isn’t renowned-- it's had many sequels and spin-offs over the years-- but because it was nothing more than an amalgamation of shorts strung together with some additional footage. Based on A. A. Milne’s collection of stories, the film would feature three different featurettes from various years. One such story, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, would be the last of the Pooh productions to be overseen by Walt Disney before his death.
While much of the content in the film wasn't anything new, the movie can be credited with introducing many audiences to the popular characters of the novels. From the honey-loving bear to his best pal Christopher Robin, the residents of the Hundred Acre Wood are so pivotal to the formation of Disney that the franchise as a whole was estimated to be the third highest-selling in the world. With lessons about friendship and compassion, Winnie the Pooh has remained a messenger for the company, jumping from the pages of his books and reminding children that the next great adventure is just around the corner.
14 Frozen (2013)
If the world of Disney animation has taught us anything, it’s that time often brings a renewed sense of appreciation for movies from our past. As it stands, perhaps no animated feature has shaken the world in the past few years more than Frozen. Apart from the sing-along songs like “Let It Go,” which is a powerhouse in its own right, the film brought a female-led tale to the table that refused to put a second-rate love story before the protagonists’ own feats of heroism or sisterly bond.
Through the feminist underpinnings of the movie, the studio has notably shifted to a more ambitious and assertive approach to depicting women on screen, a decision which was backed by the studio's choice to put screenwriter Jennifer Lee behind the camera as the first woman to direct a full-length Walt Disney animated feature. Grossing more than any other Disney cartoon worldwide, the cultural impact has reached beyond young girls, providing role models for all kids by flipping the script on gender roles. The traditional princess formula may have stayed intact, but underneath this Hans Christian Andersen-inspired story is a brave new world.
13 Cinderella (1950)
Coming in after the golden age of Disney animations, Cinderella had the unfortunate honor of kicking off the studio’s less critically esteemed 1950s era. But despite what many of the critics may have said about the '50s features, this adaptation of Charles Perrault’s Cendrillon is still a standout. Every bit a rags-to-riches story, Cinderella reflects Walt Disney's personal connection to the full-hearted princess, which is why it's suiting that the fairy tale would be the one to lift the company out of near bankruptcy following the end of World War II.
While the picture-perfect image of the heroine may seem overbearing to some viewers now, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more recognizable story. Whether it’s the glass slippers, adorable mice, or the pumpkin transformed into a horse-drawn carriage, the glossy colors and textures are still something to obsess over. Pulling together all of Disney’s core animators, collectively known as the Nine Old Men, this pop culture phenomenon was crafted from the imaginations of the company’s most talented artists. If the story seems too familiar today, it’s only because it’s the precedent from which all the other adaptations took notes. No other Cinderella story has topped this movie and we doubt one ever will.
12 Dumbo (1941)
Perhaps more than any other movie on our list, Dumbo is a product of its time. Due to the financial difficulties brought on by World War II, no one was really going to the movies to spend money. After Pinocchio and Fantasia turned in little profit at the box office, Disney decided to move quickly ahead with their next feature. Shortened to only 64 minutes in runtime, Dumbo may have felt like a practice in budget cutbacks, but its strong pathos rang true for so many viewers that it remains one of the finest Disney pictures to date.
The big-eared Dumbo is raised up through the circus, and ridiculed by the other animals for his strange looks. When his mother is locked away, Timothy Q. Mouse steps up to become his mentor, helping him rise to the top of the circus elite. Based on a story that was originally written for a Roll-A-Book novelty toy, Dumbo had a lot working against it, but much like its titular character, it managed to rise to the occasion, becoming an encouraging tale of endurance in the face of adversity.
11 Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Never has a withheld invitation caused more of a stir than it did in the 1959 classic Sleeping Beauty. After the critical and commercial success of Cinderella, Disney was anxious to keep the creative ball rolling on their next big princess fairy tale. The first film to be shot in the Super Technirama 70 process took a full four years to capture all the luscious backgrounds and hand-drawn details, resulting in an unheard of $6 million budget that would ultimately put Disney in a financial crisis.
Despite some bad early word of mouth, which criticized the film for being too similar to other Disney stories, Sleeping Beauty eventually picked up its status as a cartoon favorite thanks to its rich colors and widescreen aspect ratio. Still, the biggest standout was in the supporting cast, which included perhaps the most iconic villain in Disney’s history: Maleficent. After not receiving an invitation to Princess Aurora’s christening, she curses the heroine to an eternal slumber on her sixteenth birthday. Wicked, entrancing, and capable of transforming into a fire-breathing dragon, the Mistress of Evil carries the film almost all on her own, making her a queen among mere mortals in the race for the best on-screen antagonist.
10 101 Dalmatians (1961)
It’s been said time and again that dogs are man’s best friends. Whether or not it’s true, Walt Disney has plenty of gratitude towards his canine companions. After the large investment in Sleeping Beauty left the studio in utter turmoil, there were rumblings that the animation department might be shut down for good. Rather than surrender, however, Disney decided to move forward on his next project, a much cheaper and less risky talking animal picture based on Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel.
101 Dalmatians would not only prove to be the step back in the right direction for the company, but it would become so popular that it received a live-action remake in 1996. Following a dalmatian couple by the names of Pongo and Perdita, the two must go on a quest to save their many children from the clutches of the fur-loving Cruella De Vil, who wishes to make coats out of the little rascals. It’s the movie that still has PETA screaming in protest and children asking for spotted puppies every Christmas and for that we can only remember it more fondly.
9 Fantasia (1940)
By the late 1930s, Disney was heading in a new direction. Animated feature films were just on the horizon and short cartoon segments were soon to be a thing of the past. With technological innovations promising to bring a cavalcade of new and imaginative characters into the fold, it was none other than Walt Disney’s most beloved creation, Mickey Mouse, who was falling to the wayside. So, in 1936, early production ideas began floating around for a way to reinvigorate the famed mouse. What began as a deluxe cartoon short intended to match animations to the sounds of classical music soon turned into a full-length musical feature.
It was pure coincidence that Walt Disney happened to bump into Leopold Stokowski, conductor for the Philadelphia Orchestra, just as the project was coming together. So excited at the prospect of composing the music for Fantasia, he offered to provide the symphonies for next to nothing. Divided into eight distinct segments, the rhythms and phantasmagorical imagery came together, creating a barrage of visuals that seems downright insane today. At just over two hours, it’s one of the longest Disney cartoons in history but it’s also quite easily one of the most rewarding.
8 Aladdin (1992)
By the time Aladdin made its way to theaters, Disney was already in the middle of a successful run that included such hits as The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Best. It would therefore be dishonest to say that the Arabian Nights tale was the cornerstone of the studios 1990s renaissance. What we can say, however, is that the film helped to revolutionize marketing for animated movies as a whole, not just by targeting children and asking them to drag their parents to the movies, but by actually pitching an entertaining time to the adults as well.
As much as we love the story of the kind-hearted thief Aladdin and the fiery Princess Jasmine, it was far and away the performance of Robin Williams as The Genie that kept us tuned in. That’s because with all his omnipotent power to grant his master’s every wish, it was his rip-roaring pop culture references and impressions that truly made the film. It jump-started the transition from professional voice actors to celebrity castings, luring in adults while also providing one of the most brilliant displays of voice work ever created.
7 Bambi (1942)
Tragic, intimate, fearless-- few films have built a reputation around bringing a tear to your eye more than Bambi. Episodic in its narrative, the adaptation of Felix Salten’s novel has the distinct honor of being Walt Disney's favorite film he ever produced. Depicting man as the enemy hunter, the survivalist story was perceived as too grim a task at first, but in time Bambi would prove to be a rewarding experience for those who could bear to watch.
One scene was all it took to churn the stomachs of audiences and leave them feeling deep sorrow for a single talking deer. The death of Bambi’s mother often stands ahead of the pack as the most soul-crushing scene in Disney’s history. Today, it’s the simplicity that remains the most endearing part of the film as the innocent, young Bambi learns to adopt his position as the prince of the forest. Now, more than seven decades since the film first premiered, kids are still being traumatized by the somber, horror-like tone of the movie, but there’s no denying the impact it’s had on the lives of all who’ve seen it.
6 The Jungle Book (1967)
Earlier this year, we were treated to a live-action adaptation of The Jungle Book courtesy of director Jon Favreau. No offense to the team behind that version of the story, but we can’t help feeling more emotionally connected to the 1967 film. Not only was the cartoon version a top-notch romp which remains as lively and funny today as it did then, but it’s the swan song of one man’s lasting legacy, the last film that Walt Disney would ever put his personal touch on before finally passing away before the year of its release.
At the height of their talents, the creative department adapted Rudyard Kipling’s novel into a delightful depiction that was childlike without being too childish. The warm sentiments, animal-sized spirits and simple narrative were only outmatched by the musical numbers, which featured such hits as “Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You.” Still, it was the voice acting for characters like the sophisticated Shere Khan (voiced by George Sanders), the lazy jungle bum Baloo (played by Phil Harris), and the rowdy King Louie (crafted by Louis Prima) that stand out today, assembling one of the greatest cartoon casts to ever grace the big screen.
5 The Little Mermaid (1989)
For many of the readers of this list, we’d imagine The Little Mermaid is where it all started. Every minute detail from the musical numbers to the well-rounded character development is remembered fondly by so many because it was the beginning of a new golden era for the company. Down on their luck for two decades, the Disney crew couldn’t seem to string together a hit. Stifling competition from studios like Don Bluths Productions, which had released features like The Secret of NIMH (1982) and The Land Before Time (1988), was all but sinking Disney, that was, until Ariel came out with a dream to walk on land.
Credited as the film that would usher in the next ten years of Disney's success, The Little Mermaid was an almost perfect achievement in cartoon musicals. Referred to as the picture that brought Broadway into the animated world, the sweeping score and musical hits such as “Part of Your World” highlighted the jovial and rebellious spirit of the film’s protagonist. Ariel was the independent- thinking princess that audiences had long waited to see. In her struggle to be human, she showed just how magical cinema can truly be.
4 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
On an evening in 1934, Walt Disney assembled a meeting that would forever change the landscape of filmmaking. Before a group of animators, he began to act out the entirety of a story about a princess who finds refuge from her evil stepmother after moving in with seven strangers who live in a forest. The presentation would be the first look at Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, history's first full-length animated feature.
Referred to as “Disney’s Folly” while in production, it was a hard fought struggle to keep the project afloat. Every way Disney turned, he met opposition. His business partner and brother, Roy Disney, tried convincing him of the risk, but he wouldn’t hear it. In the end, he would prove to be right, making the highest grossing movie of the year in 1937 and forever putting the signature Disney stamp on Hollywood with the cel-drawn fairy tale.
Hailed as the most culturally significant cartoon of all time, Snow White remains one of the most faithful Disney adaptations. Appearing noticeably grim compared to the lighter cartoon stories of today, it remains a crucial part of the studio’s history that came at a time before children’s movies became more conservative.
3 Pinocchio (1940)
If you think about the typical Disney story, you’ll think of a sweet tale with a moral story about good versus evil, right versus wrong, black versus white. We’ve all come to expect these kinds of movies from the animation behemoth, but Pinocchio came at a time when none of that had set in yet. Instead, audiences were treated to a story based on a 1883 Italian fairy tale about a wooden puppet on a quest to become a real boy. Headed by a guileless hero and a parade of villains, it's a fever nightmare by today’s Disney standards, but it was its stunning progression in the world of animation that made it a standout among children’s tales.
Revolutionary in its techniques, Pinocchio set the standard for every animation that followed. From pioneering the use of non-humanoid characters to adding subtle effects to give each scene a more detailed realism, the things we think about as commonplace in the world of animation can be traced back to this 1940 picture. Compared to the 3D animation of today, it may appear outdated, but take one look at any cartoon now and you’ll see the influences of this classic shining just beneath the surface.
2 The Lion King (1994)
To date, no other Disney animated classic has brought in more money domestically than The Lion King. Considered the pinnacle of the studio’s 1990s renaissance, it took the box office by storm with a whopping $330 million, showing that the animated world of kids’ films could not only satisfy adults as well, but could also bring in some serious dollars.
A retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet told through the eyes of a young lion cub, The Lion King is a groundbreaking look into the sincerity of Disney’s traditionalist ideals. The noble and prideful Simba is resilient in the face of heartbreak after watching his father, the courageous King Mufasa, die at the hands of his jealous uncle Scar. Only through his escape, with the help of a meerkat and warthog, does he learn to let go of his grudge and adopt a carefree philosophy that reminds him of everything he still has left. The film would ultimately widen the scope of many animations to come, leading to a boom in work for animators and even resulting in a Broadway musical, but it was the original story that inspires families and keeps everyone watching over and over again.
1 Beauty and the Beast (1991)
As we round the corner in anticipation of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast remake, we do it we the remembrance of the 1991 film still firmly embedded in our minds. Forever known as the first animated kids’ film to break the mold as a serious contender at the Oscars, this timeless classic would not only be nominated for Best Picture but would be forever held in high regard as one of the finest efforts ever put into a cartoon production.
From the beginning, Beauty and the Beast feels like a different breed of fantasy princess film than all that came before it. Belle isn’t a damsel in need of saving, nor a product of wealth. Instead, she values education and books over money or virtue. She finds hope inside the forlorn eyes of a gentle, loving prince stuck alone inside a decrepit castle, a prisoner of a curse placed on him long ago. The cast comes together seamlessly to liberate the beast in a tale of love that grows over time, rather than developing instantly. With the greatest soundtrack of any Disney movie, it became the company's most rewatchable film and remains as charming, intelligent and humorous today as it was twenty-five years ago.
What is your favorite animated Disney movie? Let us know in the comments!
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