Few movie studios command as much respect and enthusiasm as Disney, who built their name and legacy on some of the best animated movies ever made. With dozens of features since 1937, the company's library of animated films is unmatched by anyone not named Hayao Miyazaki and many of their movies have forever shaped the way we watch films and absorb popular culture.
And that's why picking a top 20 is so insanely difficult. How do you pick only 20 films from a catalog with so much greatness? Well, with 'Frozen' now in theaters, we figured we'd take a shot.
First, you start by carving away the handful of truly bad films. Then you remove the films that weren't directly made by Disney Animation (so Pixar doesn't count!). Then you start making the hard choices and weep as truly great movies hit the floor.
But when you're done, you have a list of the 20 greatest Disney animated movies of all time.
'Atlantis: The Lost Empire'
Few Disney films deserve a second chance quite like 'Atlantis: The Lost Empire,' which came and went during one of the company's biggest slumps. Unlike so many of Disney's early '00s flops, this isn't a half-assed comedy, but a genuine adventure movie, a clever blend of science fiction and fantasy that's truly unlike anything that's been attempted by the studio before or since. It's the closest thing that Disney has to a 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' and while it's not a great movie, its ambition alone makes it worthy of inclusion on this list.
The character of Robin Hood has always been at his best when he's been portrayed as a carefree romantic, a slacker with a bow-and-arrow and a heart of gold. Erroy Flynn got it right and so did the Disney company, whose 'Robin Hood' is effortlessly charming experience, taking a story of civil war and making it into a folksy, laid-back movie that feels strangely at home with the filmmaking style and temperament of Hollywood in the 1970s. The drama may be low-key compared to the genuine opera of other Disney productions, but this simple, effortlessly cool movie is one of the studio's most undervalued and under-appreciated efforts.
Even people who haven't seen 'Lady and the Tramp' know about the scene with the spaghetti. You know the one. It's one of the most iconic moments in the entire Disney catalogue, but it comes from a film that always seems to hide in the sidelines. That's a shame, really. This movie actually earns that silly-but-romantic moment -- it's beautifully animated, sweet and occasionally downright strange. Like 'Robin Hood,' it's a slight experience, but let's not undervalue the true power of pure, undistilled charm.
The best thing about 'Wreck-It Ralph' is how unafraid it is to be truly modern. A company as old (and old fashioned) as Disney could easily get away with doing the same old thing over and over again, so they deserve some serious props for making a video game-centric movie that has its roots in modern culture instead of fairy tales. It helps that 'Wreck-It Ralph' is a very clever and very funny movie that takes what could have been a collection of pop culture references and transforms them into a dense world that you just want to lose yourself in.
'Dumbo' is one weird movie, guys. Despite only being 64 minutes long, it packs more crazy visuals and general surreal craziness into its scant running time than any other "classic" Disney movie. Don't forget: this a movie about an emotionally abused circus elephant who learns that he has the power of flight. While there's ultimately a happy ending, 'Dumbo' is also noteworthy for being one of the most miserable and depressing films in this catalog, a fact that everyone seems to forget when you show it to their children for the first time. There are better Disney films from this era, but none that are so unafraid of going off the rails.
A few things make 'Mulan' one of the most unique Disney films of all time. First, there's the Chinese setting and the entirely Asian cast. Second, there's Eddie Murphy's performance as Mushu the dragon, the rare example of stunt casting that hasn't aged poorly. Third, there's Mulan herself, one of the strongest and best of the Disney princesses. Oh, and there's "I'll Make a Man Out of You," which may be the best workout song in all of Disney's animated library.
With Disney animation going CG by default at this point, it's easy to turn your nose up at their newest films. After all, what do these movies offer that traditionally animated films don't? However, rhetorical questions become redundant when you're dealing with a movie as sweet and funny as 'Tangled,' which reinvents the story of Rapunzel in a number of surprising and mildly subversive ways. The lovely animation perfectly complements the film's gentle comedy and surprising honesty, making this one of the few Disney movies where every character feels truly real and lived-in. But all of that is secondary to Maximus the horse, who may be one of the greatest animated characters of all time. No kidding.
Whoever decided that Disney's take on Greek mythology deserved to be scored with Gospel music was a genius. On its own, 'Hercules' is a blast, but with that soundtrack backing it, it jumps up three or four spots on this list. Seriously. If the songs don't do it for you, the film's epic scope and awesome monsters will do it for you. If you're still not satisfied (which means you have no soul), you can still appreciate James Woods' Hades, who remains one of the best Disney villains of all time.
In the '60s, Disney animation faced a series of budgetary crises that threatened to shut the entire division down. Drastic changes were made to how the studio made animated movies and the results were drastic, with the painterly style of the classic days replaced by something rougher. One of the few films to wear this new style perfectly fine was 'One Hundred and One Dalmatians,' which embraced its rough-around-the-edges animation by being shaggy, small and likable. Despite its small ambitions, the film is excellent, feeling more off-the-cuff and jazzy than any other animated Disney movie. Although Cruella DeVille has rightfully received her fair share of accolades as one of Disney's top villains, the rest of the characters are just as strong, with Pogo and Perdita, despite being dogs, being two of the most relatable characters Disney history.
The cult of the new can be a dangerous thing. Is the newly released 'Frozen' really the eleventh best Disney film or are we just excited by its shiny new-ness? Time will tell where this film ultimately lands, but there's no denying that it's one of the best films to come out of the studio in a long time and that its soundtrack is an all-timer. Make no mistake: we're going to be hearing "Let It Go" with the same frequency we hear other Disney signature tunes. Like the best animated films, 'Frozen' finds the perfect balance between comedy and drama, telling a stirring, moving story with the bravado of an all-star Broadway musical. This is a very special movie and the kind of work we hope Disney continues to churn out in the years to come.
'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs'
Here's the funny thing about 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs': it hasn't aged particularly well. However, it's aged interestingly, which makes it as compelling as any modern animated movie. There are stretches of Walt Disney's first animated feature that are downright difficult to watch at times. The pacing is odd. Snow White herself is grating. Everything is surface-level. But as a historical artifact, it's breathtaking. The animation is still gorgeous, the iconic moments still sing and you can see the seeds of every other Disney movie being planted here. Sure, everyone would learn to do better (and their follow-up film is a bonafide masterpiece that still holds up today), but this remains one of the most important films ever made. It may not be Disney's most rewatchable, but every self-respecting film buff deserves to study every frame.
Snow White may have been the first Disney princess, but Cinderella was the first Disney Princess. Every Disney heroine lives in her shadow: the plucky girl who dreams big and, through a little luck and a lot of courage, achieves her dreams. Think of how many real life events and people we compare to 'Cinderella.' Think of the cultural impact this story has had on our psyche. Think of the images and ideas that have entered the pop culture lexicon. Glass slippers. Fairy Godmother. Singing mice. "Bippity-boppity-boo." 'Cinderella' earns a spot on this list because it's as effortlessly charming and lovely as most classic Disney movies, but it earns a spot this high because our cultural landscape would feel so different without it.
Everyone remembers 'Bambi' for two reasons. First, it's the adorable movie where that cute baby deer hangs out with the even cuter rabbit. Second, it's the heartbreaking movie where that cute baby deer's mother is gunned down by an unseen hunter. We remember bits and pieces of 'Bambi' because that's what the film feels like. It's a series of short stories, loosely tied together with themes of growing up and taking responsibility for yourself and others. The rejection of a traditional three-act narrative makes 'Bambi' one of Disney's stranger and more antiquated films, but every individual moment is so strong and animation so stunning that it's impossible disregard. There's a quiet power to 'Bambi's simplicity that more complicated films could never capture.
'The Nightmare Before Christmas'
This is a tricky one. Originally, 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' was going to be an official Disney release, but the people with the reins chickened out the last second and released it under their Touchstone banner. Two decades later, the film is a certified classic that Disney has embraced whole-heartedly, so we think it deserves to be in same ranks as the studio's other iconic releases. The story of Jack Skellington's foray into the world of Christmas is certainly more gruesome than your typical Disney movie, but strangely enough, its heart is always in the same place. This is a big, grand, honest musical about a lovable hero who goes on a journey of self-discovery. Take out the skeletons and monsters and you've got the Disney template. If anything, this is proof that the Disney template looks really good with a harder edge.
Disney has had its fair share of ups and downs over the years, but few ups compare to 'The Little Mermaid,' which launched the company back into prominence after almost a decade of critical and financial disaster. The triumph of 'The Little Mermaid' is that it doesn't reinvent the wheel, it simply takes that tried and true Disney formula, polishes it until it shines and injects with with the gloss and power of a Broadway show. This is a film that makes you applaud in your seat after every musical number, which every broad moment landing perfectly because animation lets you get away with going theatrical. In fact, the only bad thing about 'The Little Mermaid' is that there are films from Disney's late '80s/early '90s Renaissance that topped it.
The princess at the center of 'Sleeping Beauty' is fairly dull. Her heroic prince doesn't have much character either. Their love story isn't that impressive or deep or interesting. So what makes this one of the best Disney movies and one of the best animated films of all time? Simple: it feels huge. This is an epic movie, a beautifully crafted adventure where every single frame is worthy of being put on a canvas and hung on the wall. Disney's animated films have never looked this incredible before or since and when the big action climax arrives, it feels like you're lost in a painting rather than watching a movie. It's astonishing. It helps that the villainous Maleficent is nothing short of incredible, of course.
'The Lion King,' or "Hamlet on the Plains of Africa," was one of the biggest hits of the '90s and for good reasons. Forced to live up to expectations set by 'The Little Mermaid' and 'Beauty and the Beast,' this film swings for the fences. Songs consistently top each other, characters go on sprawling, life-changing quests and the villain is truly, wonderfully nasty. This movie moves with purpose and takes no prisoners, traumatizing its young audience in name of juicy drama.
'Fantasia' may not have the popular appeal of most Disney productions, but it's one of the few times in the company's history that they made something truly audacious. Outside of the iconic "Sorcerer's Apprentice" sequence (which sees Mickey Mouse bringing mops to life with calamitous results), little of the film lingers in the public's consciousness. But see it again and, more importantly, see it again now that you're a little older. Disney's dialogue-free tribute to music is a work of art, a stunning and occasionally maddening look at how music can conjure a thousand images. It's a brave message, really. 'Fantasia' dares to put music on a platform above all else, to exclaim that imagination is the most powerful form of entertainment. Not every segment in the film works, but as a genuine work of art, it treads (and succeeds) where few animated films dare to go.
Three years after 'Snow White the Seven Dwarfs,' Walt Disney and his team made 'Pinocchio' and the leap from one to the other is nothing short of astonishing. While the story of the living puppet who longs to be a real boy has its fair share of dated moments, the overall film is just plain charming, offering a dramatic weight and a scope that would come to define these movies. It especially helps that Pinocchio himself is a likable, flawed character and that his journey is wonderful. It's especially helpful that Jiminy Cricket exists, because he's the greatest Disney sidekick of all time (and a very effective moral anchor, to boot). 'Pinocchio' is funny and sad and scary and moving, sticking just close enough to the original story to keep the sharp edges in. Later Disney films would be sanitized into oblivion, but Disney knew back in 1940 that good stories require people to get bruised.
And here we are at the greatest animated Disney movie of all time. Let's not beat around the bush: 'Beauty and the Beast' is a perfect movie that represents everything that Disney animation has aiming for since its inception and it does it all better than everyone. It's a smart update on a classic story, a stirring adventure, a truly touching romance and silly comedy. Every song is great and belted memorably, with the title song instantly entering "Greatest Movie Theme Song Of All Time" territory. The smart, adventurous Belle is the greatest of the Disney princesses, the brooding Beast is the greatest Disney hero and the despicable Gaston is the greatest Disney villain. Oh, and it's just plain gorgeous to look at. Come on. Say another Disney movie is better. We'll fight you.