With Raya and the Last Dragon now on Disney+, Ella Kemp tackles the entire animated canon. To quote a very famous mouse: Oh, boy!
There are 59 Walt Disney Animation Studios films, and roughly half a dozen story templates across them. Star-crossed lovers; optimistic princesses; shunned young outcasts; unlikely adventurers. It’s quite simple, really – what separates a good Disney film from a great one is what is done within the framework, the colours and sounds and feelings that bring the skeleton to life.
When lighting strikes, it strikes: find a Disney film that understands just how to convey the high stakes of a love story against all odds, that understands how to convince you the princess has earned her crown and will fight for her values no matter what, and it’s magic in the most powerful form. Over half a century of storytelling has seen the studio explore mythologies from around the world, experimenting with animation techniques and musical styles that have created visually dazzling affairs and heartrending original songs. But of course, with such an immense output, they can’t all be top-tier.
Separating the good from the bad, the embarrassing from the enchanting, behold: all 59 Walt Disney Animation Studios films, ranked from worst to best…
59. Dinosaur (2000)
Something of a direct predecessor to Jon Favreau’s misfire, the 2019 live-action remake of The Lion King, Dinosaur is dead behind the eyes – a soulless study of an orphaned dinosaur embarking on a mind-numbingly dull trek which lacks any emotion or intrigue. The worst part? It’s just plain ugly.
58. The Three Caballeros (1944)
The early 1940s saw Disney experimenting with already stalwart characters like Donald and Goofy, in this instance blending animation with live-action for the very first time – but this seduction is taken way too literally in The Three Caballeros: Donald Duck has never been more leering or insufferable, making for some highly uncomfortable viewing. Lose the real-life women, calm the duck down.
57. The Black Cauldron (1985)
A bid to connect with a slightly older, maybe edgier, audience, The Black Cauldron fires from all cylinders but lacks compelling heroes or convincing villains to make the darkness ring true. Plus, there’s only so much you can ask from an audience when one of your main characters is an oracular pig named “Hen Wen.”
56. Saludos Amigos (1942)
A sibling of The Three Caballeros that's less lustful but perhaps more forgettable, marred by the episodic format and the fact that each South American-set episode adds little original (or for that matter, inoffensive) value to the wider canon. Nice to see the animators get a holiday, though.
55. Meet the Robinsons (2007)
Regretfully, it’s one of the ugliest things the studio has ever done. An orphaned boy inventor yearns to be adopted, and for some reason, meets a kid from the future searching for a time machine, all while being threatened by a man with a bowler hat called “Bowler Hat Guy.” It’s as insufferable as it sounds: illogical relationships that lack complexity, and little hint as to why we should care. Even Danny Elfman can’t make this better, with a middling score that sounds like elevator music. Disney know about lonely, rejected children better than anyone – but you’ll have to look much further than the Robinsons to find one worth caring about.
54. Fun and Fancy Free (1947)
Hindsight has been kind to Fun and Fancy Free, letting modern-day viewers compare and contrast the ways its two stories – a loose proxy for Dumbo, and an unabashed adaptation of Jack and the Beanstalk – have been better told elsewhere. For what it’s worth, Bongo the circus bear steals the show over Mickey’s hungry beanstalk dreams.
53. Melody Time (1948)
Another haphazard and forgettable anthology package movie from the 1940s, Melody Time loses the viewer at every turn but has just enough vibrant micro-characters to lead the pack. A boat named Little Toot and the (apparently) legendary Johnny Appleseed rescue it somewhat, but a segment about trees – yup, just plain trees – is as wooden as it sounds.
52. Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
An underwater adventure in search of a hidden world, but one that's completely devoid of mystery or emotion. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Atlantis: The Lost Empire, but the design is flat, the score unimaginative, voice performances pedestrian and characterisation paper-thin. For a world under the sea, dive into The Little Mermaid. For an exploration of a mystical, magical people, Hercules is right there.
51. Make Mine Music (1946)
A poor man’s Fantasia. 10 disconnected musical segments make 75 minutes feel like 750 – there are flashes of brilliance in “Peter and the Wolf” (although you could put that down to the pre-existing music), in “Johnny Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet,” and in the bonkers finale “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met.” But Fantasia, and its sequel, have more scope and heart, with obvious verve in every note. Jazz enthusiasts might enjoy letting this one play in the background, but it’s broadly uninteresting.
50. Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)
Animated Disney movies have long reigned supreme on the basis of their sincerity, which is why the studio's tumble into the realm of more cynical, self-referential works was always going to end in irritating chaos. This is technically impressive, as video game “villain” Ralph and his hyper pal Vanellope von Schweetz venture into a physical embodiment of the online world. But the sheer number of grating cameos and cringe-inducing nods to Disney’s past (we’ve all seen that Princesses scene…) makes this as tiring as a full-body, two-hour-long dive into the noisiest corners of the internet.
49. Treasure Planet (2002)
Considering how much heart and vitality directorial duo Ron Clements and John Musker have brought to the studio elsewhere, this reimagining of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel as a sci-fi epic feels somewhat lifeless. This story of the “Loot of a Thousand Worlds” needs more time than 95 minutes – and so works infinitely better as a book than a kids movie. Also, the relentless Goo Goo Dolls needle drops are extremely jarring, making it impossible to focus on what's actually going on.
48. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
Thaddeus Toad and Ichabod Crane are terrific characters, but the odd structure of this 1949 animation – which, for some reason, names Ichabod first although his story is told second? – does a disservice to their rich stories by squeezing them into such a restricted format. Toad finds himself in the wrong crowd and gets into familiar small-town trouble, while Ichabod finds… well, love. Pushed for choice: Ichabod wins, and arguably deserved a full-length feature of his own.
47. Chicken Little (2005)
It’s a good thing Chicken Little has Chicken Licken to fall back on. The otherwise loopy and unattractive 2005 film toys with the nursery rhyme about a little chicken who thought the sky was falling and found himself ridiculed until the day his fears came true. A fun voice cast (including Zach Braff) keeps this somewhat entertaining, as do the frequent pop culture gags, even if the final act spirals out of control. But wouldn’t it in real life, if the sky really did start to fall?
46. Big Hero 6 (2014)
There’s no denying the comfort radiating from Baymax, the marshmallow-type AI healthcare robot at the heart of this film, but there’s something else missing that stops Big Hero 6 from being unique or memorable in its own right. The ragtag crew of nerds, pooling their skills to create super suits and fight back against “Big Tech,” just reeks of The Avengers, of the looming Marvel-isation of the more traditional, thoughtful Disney stories we know and love.
45. The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
Bernard and Bianca, the heroic mice who stole our hearts in The Rescuers, are still their charming selves in this Australia-set sequel – but everything else is pretty lacking. The change of location makes little sense (Disney cashing in on a brief period in which the US was obsessed with all things Australia), while the film's child in peril and its villainous poacher are too forgettable to inspire much enthusiasm about the mission. This was the first animated sequel released under the “Disney Studios” name, and makes you wonder why the sequels to many others – Aladdin, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid – were subsequently released direct-to-video instead. Or maybe it is the reason why. Still, if you like the mice, you’ll like this well enough.
44. Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
A terrific vehicle for the always affable John C. Reilly, Rich Moore’s 2012 effort takes place in a firmly different realm to the usual princess and cute buddy stories, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The plot gets muddled as too many secondary characters and games start to interfere, but the existential reckoning on what it means to be “good” or “bad,” as well as its depiction of loyalty and friendship at all costs (in the place of the usual star-crossed romantic schtick), is neat. A bit loud in places (which is what ultimately ruined the sequel), but inventive and ingenious enough to be remembered as, well, just about good enough.
43. Pocahontas (1995)
There is that one tremendous song, “Colors of the Wind,” and not much else. The story of how the daughter of a Native American tribe chief falls in love with an English soldier in 17th century Virginia has simultaneously inspired endless tales of star-crossed lovers, yet isn’t sufficiently convincing as a blueprint. The main problem comes from having a leading man called John Smith, yet still allowing him to have more character depth than the eponymous princess. It’s perfectly fine! But it should have been better.
42. Oliver and Company (1988)
Oliver Twist, but in New York, and with cats and dogs. And why not! George Scribner’s 1988 film is vibrant and taut, even if the animation style and theme don't add anything new to the mix. You can sense it was almost a full-blown musical, but held back for some reason. It lacks the sturdy happy endings that came to define the best Disney films of the 1990s – but still, Billy Joel as a charismatic mongrel was never not going to be a delight!
41. Home on the Range (2004)
Can anyone remember the plot to this? Some middle-aged dairy cows, a yodelling cattle rustler, a threatened farm. It’s absolutely a visual treat – and was the last traditionally animated Disney film until The Princess and the Frog – with its warm Western desert landscapes; and the ridiculous string of voice performers (Judi Dench! Roseanne Barr! Steve Buscemi!) are having a whale of a time. Worthwhile for a hallucinatory yodelling sequence, and an animated character literally modelled on Buscemi. Uncanny.
40. The Sword in the Stone (1963)
Whenever animator Wolfgang Reitherman was given the reins as director, you knew you were in for a good time. He takes the well-trodden story of King Arthur – before he found his knights – and gives him a playful backstory, though it takes an awfully long time to actually deal with the infamous sword in the stone. Fishes, squirrels, dragons, and lots of intertextual jokes – it’s a hoot, albeit a slightly unfocused one.
39. Tarzan (1999)
There’s the infamous bellow, Phil Collins’ tremendous collection of songs, some lush greenery, but not a whole lot else. The story of a man raised by apes who falls in love with a prim British explorer, Jane, hits all the familiar beats in this genre of soul-searching, fish out of water portraits. But Jane’s trigger-happy colleague Clayton is a two-dimensional villain, and her own connection with Tarzan shows little truth beyond the obvious strife of star-crossed lovers. Still, for the immense strength of “You’ll Be in My Heart” alone, Tarzan is not to be sniffed at.
38. The Fox and the Hound (1981)
The Romeo + Juliet of platonic animal relationships (?), The Fox and the Hound is more compelling in its first half, as Tod the fox and Copper the hound dog spend their time being very small and incredibly cute. The voice performances become less interesting as they grow older – despite the presence of Kurt Russell and Jeff Bridges! – and more immediate violence threatens their special bond, but these two certainly rank high among Disney’s most loveable creations.
37. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
I doubt that Victor Hugo would have insisted on a celebratory affair, but Disney’s take on The Hunchback of Notre Dame is still way too dark to lodge itself in the hearts of either kids or adults. It’s refreshing that our flawed hero isn’t looking for romance to complete him, that his ultimate happiness comes from a sense of acceptance in a wider community, and from within. But the film broadly struggles to elevate his story – Paris is claustrophobic, a little drab, the entertaining and enjoyable scenes a bit on the muffled side. It’s a sad story, for sure – but perhaps one that didn’t have much business being turned into a Disney film in the first place?
36. The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
Good luck trying to find a more sophisticated pair of heroes than Olivia Flaversham and Basil of Baker Street. One of Clements and Musker's more playful offerings, the loose retelling of Sherlock Holmes (and straightforward adaptation of the children's book Basil of Baker Street) trots along nicely, as a mousy toymaker's beloved creations are weaponised by the brilliantly nightmarish villain that is Professor Ratigan (deliciously voiced by Vincent Price). Henry Mancini’s buoyant orchestral score is an absolute treat here.
35. Pinocchio (1940)
Downright terrifying for children – and everyone else for that matter. Pinocchio is no doubt one of the darkest things Disney has ever done – and as their second feature ever, it feels like something of a tone-setter. Jiminy Cricket is – obviously – a joy to behold, and the film's depiction of old-fashioned magic, and innocence, is glorious. The donkey/tobacco/gambling/alcoholism developments are rather troubling (and confusing), but with such resonant storytelling it’s no wonder our fascination with the wooden puppet boy endures.
34. Bolt (2008)
Just the most unlikely voice cast you’ll ever see. John Travolta voices Miley Cyrus’ super-dog. I repeat: John Travolta voices Miley Cyrus’ super-dog! The story is fun, knowing and original – Bolt, a superhero dog, thinks he's actually a superhero dog, except he's really a character in a TV show. He sets out on a mission to save Penny, his owner, only to discover the real world is far more dangerous than he could ever have imagined. The animation is intricate (his fur!) and the sidekicks – a cynical cat and an overexcited hamster – are loveable in spite of their familiarity. A sturdy big screen adventure.
33. Frozen II (2019)
More ambitious, more metaphysical – and so also a bit more muddled than the original. Where the first film saw sisters Elsa and Anna coming to terms with Elsa’s ice queen powers, the focus firmly on the sense of independence and unruly power, the second film reckons with the history of their kingdom, the Northuldra culture, and a whole string of mythologies. It’s less gripping and more sprawling, but the animation, with its crystal-clear smoothness and mellow colours, is divine, while 80s pastiche power ballad “Lost in the Woods” and “Let It Go” 2.0 banger “Into the Unknown” allow it to truly soar.
32. Fantasia 2000 (1999)
Like its 1940 predecessor, Fantasia 2000 both benefits and suffers from a mixed bag of segments. Let’s start with the good: the “Rhapsody in Blue” snippet, a bold portrait of New York with dynamic, emotive characters set to one of the most galvanising pieces of music ever. It's puzzling that “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” the best segment in the original film, is included here without any alterations, which both tarnishes the impact of the new stories but also gives the film a familiar vitality. The celebrity hosts – Steve Martin, Bette Midler, Quincy Jones – are collectively less charismatic than critic and composer Deems Taylor, the 1940s version's Master of Ceremonies. Still: it’s just so exciting that a film like this was made in 1999 – here’s hoping for another one sooner rather than later.
31. Bambi (1942)
There’s magic in a string of tiny moments in Bambi. The way raindrops appear like stars, the fluidity of Bambi’s bouncy footsteps. A collection of vignettes mapping the life of the eponymous young deer, as he overcomes tragedy and the near-constant threat of hunters circling the idyllic woods, this is a film that rises and falls as the seasons change. It’s a nice touch to have omnipresent gunshot sounds, without the presence of an actual human. Despite some pacing issues, the dynamism of Thumper, Flower and Feline (because Bambi loses his edge as his butter-would-melt voice actor passes the baton to a more awkward teen mouthpiece) make for some of Disney’s sweetest characters. And the gorgeous, fragile brilliance of ice-skating sequence – perfection.
30. The Rescuers (1977)
A neat idea delivered with both energy and murkiness, The Rescuers trusts a pair of mice – but not just any mice, as Bernard and Bianca are immediately fascinating tiny detectives – to rescue a child from the evil Medusa as part of the mouse-run “International Rescue Aid Society.” Co-director Wolfgang Reitherman finds a sense of irreverence in a story filled with misery, rain and genuine terror (the scarlet-haired Medusa and her two pet alligators are petrifying). It’s fuelled by adorable and completely convincing voice performances, particularly from Eva Gabor as Miss Bianca and Michelle Stacy as six-year-old orphaned Penny. The spontaneity and freewheeling adrenaline has rarely been matched.
29. Brother Bear (2003)
Brotherhood has never looked so beautiful. What starts as a story of pride and revenge, as an Inuit boy named Kenai (voiced by none other than Joaquin Phoenix) is transformed into a bear after killing one to avenge his older brother, turns into a warm tale of growth and loyalty between a cub and his elder. Directors Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker light the landscapes beautifully, with warm oranges and yellows bathing characters in sunlight and a pinky-brown hue bringing the vast Alaskan scenery to life. Phil Collins returns with a string of songs just as moving and spiriting as those he wrote for Tarzan – yet these tunes come even closer to the characters he’s attempting to illustrate. The human dynamics are a little superficial, but the omnipresence of the Great Spirits, and the belief in a love that transcends species, enhances the positive energy at the heart of this one.
28. Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)
Lush, enchanting design builds a world of strength and courage around the eponymous warrior. It’s refreshing, and comforting, to see a princess so obviously admired for her power, yet never pandered to – by other characters or by the filmmakers themselves. Kelly Marie Tran’s voice work as Raya is brilliantly empathetic, while Awkwafina – as the titular last dragon Sisu – is clearly having a whale of a time. Story-wise it’s a treat, too, with a sense conflict that comes from the adventure itself, rather than any one caricatural bad guy. Inevitably almost a century of work makes this one of the most gorgeous Disney animations – full of detailed body language and warm, transporting landscapes. Not one of the studio's most emotionally affecting stories, but a solid entry nonetheless.
27. Aladdin (1992)
Simply put, Robin Williams’ Genie is the one of the best animated characters of all-time. Enchanting and exciting, colourful and inventive, he bottles the voice actor’s effervescent energy and totally dominates the movie. There’s some outlandish charm in the lavish opulence of Clements and Musker’s Arabian world, and few villains terrorise and entertain as much as Jafar. But there’s something missing here, once you move beyond that iconic Williams performance. It could be because Aladdin and Jasmine seem like they exist only to love one another – and even that bond isn’t built on much. It’s a visual delight, no doubt, but a little flimsy, both narratively and emotionally.
26. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)
It is still baffling that this was the first ever feature-length traditionally animated Disney film. The costume design is iconic, Snow White’s features – her hair, skin, lips – so crucial, the pivot from the Evil Queen into the old hag truly terrifying. Magic and a sense of idyll are at war with the severe threat of these ominous woods. Each dwarf, somehow, makes an individual mark – and every helpful animal further adds to the film’s optimistic energy. There are endless clashing ideas, but a command of tone that lets you delineate every contradiction rather than confuse them. There’s a reason this story is so often revisited – the dangerous underbelly, the threat to pure beauty and goodness, is one that will never cease to frighten us.
25. Moana (2016)
As Clements and Musker’s first fully computer-animated effort, no film better captures the translucent beauty of the ocean waters quite like Moana. The story of the daughter of a Polynesian chief who must venture out to find a mystical relic, it capitalises on the young girl’s ambition (a la Raya) without forcing an empowering narrative. The brightest parts of the film are Lin-Manuel Miranda’s songs, particularly “How Far I’ll Go” and “You’re Welcome,” and the warm intricacy of the beautifully rendered landscapes. Moana’s humour is often too awkward to land – but the giant coconut crab voiced by Jemaine Clement does a lot of the comedic heavy lifting. Would rank this higher if Moana felt a little more authoritative in her mannerisms, but a worthy adventure nonetheless.
24. Zootopia (2016)
Alternate title: We Live in a Society. Zootopia is more about the message than the medium – the 3D animation isn't particularly elegant, but this is a kids film that wrestles with racism and successfully delivers on the promise of its themes. It’s rare for political allegories to be so clear – a new bunny police officer must team up with a sneaky fox to get to the bottom of a serial kidnapping – yet Zootopia never loses its light touch. This comes from a cacophony of lively sub characters – sheep, leopards, pandas, elephants, giraffes – and a wealth of precise, witty pop culture references (and with Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, J.K. Simons making up this voice cast, it’s undeniably vibrant viewing). The kind of film kids should have to watch as part of school curriculums, but also, in this case, police officers, too.
23. The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
He’s camp, he’s cool, he’s selfish, and insufferable. Kuzco, the narcissistic emperor forced to see the errors of his ways after being accidentally turned into a llama (!), has more fun than most regal characters probably would under the circumstances. The Emperor's New Groove is a boisterous, silly buddy comedy propelled by complementary voice performances from David Spade as Kuzco and John Goodman as Pacha, the kind village leader forced to put up with Kuzco’s antics. The villainous advisor Yzma, with her lilac skin and lavender feathers, masters the wickedly entertaining eccentricities of Disney’s finest villains. It’s not a musical per se, but may as well be: teeming with catchy soundtrack songs, playful voice work, and a ridiculous premise that actually works, this is – against the odds – a weird and wickedly enjoyable thing.
22. Winnie the Pooh (2011)
The success of every new Winnie the Pooh film (save Christopher Robin, but the clue’s in the title – it’s better when you focus on the bear) could be put down to the sheer presence of the titular character, but there’s also a lot of heart and wide-eyed imagination in this 2011 outing. We focus on just one incident, in which the gang worries for Christopher Robin’s life, thinking he’s been captured by a “Bisy Backson,” allowing the brief panic to colour each character’s specificities: Tigger’s ambition, Piglet’s neurosis, Eeyore’s pessimism, Rabbit’s holier-than-thou confidence. The framework nods to Pooh’s history, as the silly old bear wanders through worlds on the literal written page of a book that narrates our story. The golden hues of his sweet, delicious honey pots glisten in the light – one of those lightning bolt moments in animation where you think, surely, this must be real.
21. Peter Pan (1953)
The boy who never grow ups can be pretty insufferable. But Peter Pan is about so much more than just that boy – a story about endless dreaming, family, safety, and adventure, one that deserves to be cherished and passed down through the generations. The 1953 animation suffers from offensive representation for Native American communities and rigid gender roles (poor Tinkerbell and her body image, poor Wendy and her responsibility to do everything for everyone). But there’s no denying the soaring excitement that comes from a little bit of fairy dust, from the leap of faith into Neverland and the rollicking adventure that emerges from taking on a cowardly captain and a greedy crocodile. Flawed, yes, but still quite spellbinding.
20. Lilo & Stitch (2002)
Perhaps the most convincing case for friendship as strong as family in the Disney canon. Platonic love as deep as romantic companionship is often neglected – and even more so when it involves a young girl and, uh, a crazy, runaway genetic experiment from a faraway planet. Is any character better primed for impersonation than Stitch, though? Finding the sweet spot between repulsive and adorable, the dog-like alien makes for a perfect companion for Lilo, a lonely and big-hearted girl in desperate need of a friend. Hawaii, too, nicely sets the scene for a monster wreaking havoc in a land of apparent harmony, and whose beautiful beaches fill the screen with marshmallow pinks and rusty oranges. Pairing fun sci-fi quirks with kindly musings on dysfunctional families and eternal loyalty, Lilo & Stitch is as weird as it is heartwarming.
19. Lady and the Tramp (1955)
Astute on class dynamics without being cynical or austere, there’s something new (and weirdly modern for 1955) in this spin on star-crossed lovers, as cocker spaniel Lady strikes up a relationship with stray mutt, Tramp. Adventures abound, full of colourful friends – Peg the Pekingese always steals the show – and constant sense of high stakes. Lady and the Tramp aren’t just frolicking – the dog catcher always looms and Lady’s own responsibilities, her guilt and loneliness, define so much of who she is. Yet amongst all this, there is romance. Will you ever eat a plate of spaghetti with someone you love without going for the same strand, without thinking of these dogs’ own “Bella Notte”? Lively and smart, romantic and hopeful – yet still terrifying whenever Aunt Sarah’s siamese cats rear their heads – Lady and the Tramp understands dogs as loyal, boisterous living beings with entire worlds of their own making.
18. Robin Hood (1973)
A buddy flick, a heist film, a romance, a walking-talking-vibing movie about nothing much at all. Robin Hood thrives on the charisma of its eponymous swindler, and you know where it goes from there – he steals from the rich and gives to the poor, all the time feeding us a lighthearted but still lucid social commentary (maybe we should eat the rich?). It helps that his buffoonish enemy is the pantomimic Prince John, alongside his snarky sidekick Sir Hiss, injecting a sense of carefree fun in what could have been righteous or stuffy. There are shades of the western, a whimsical fanciful energy that trots along as Robin and Little John go about fighting against excessive taxation, while also worrying about winning the heart of Maid Marian. Priorities firmly in the right order, they’re a pair of modern-day heroes. Let’s just hope their forthcoming live-action counterparts honour and enhance their voices, rather than squash them.
17. The Princess and the Frog (2009)
A princess who has tangible, practical dreams as well as a sense of loyalty and romance? Tiana must be protected at all costs! The Princess and the Frog builds a vivid, inviting world around the music and soul of New Orleans, emanating warmth with every performance and in the smile of each passerby. Musker and Clements strike gold by relocating the age-old story of vanity and true love to a place that knows the value of ambition and hard work. Randy Newman’s bouncy score (“Almost There” will ring true for anyone doing their best in pursuit of a dream) and Bruno Capos’ seductive and silly voice work as Prince Naveen prop up the breezy vibe of the film. Full of luminous fantasy sequences – led by the camp intimidation of the Shadow Man (described by supervising animator Bruce W. Smith as the “lovechild” of Captain Hook and Cruella de Vil) – the traditional animation looks enchanting and innovative. It proves there’s always room for a fresh start in a traditional story, especially if you're willing to elevate new voices. After all, you should never judge a frog by its mucus.
16. Sleeping Beauty (1959)
If we disregard the fact that she spends comparatively little time actually sleeping, Aurora is one of the most aesthetically pleasing princesses. Not just in her conventional attributes – long blonde hair, elegant poise – but in the way she, and everything around her, is actually animated. There’s an elegance and a grace that brings this magic to life. It’s one of the earlier Disney films that properly masters the tiny twinkling stars, where eight lines crossed together can actually make you feel like magic is glowing between your fingertips. Simplicity reigns supreme: “Once Upon a Dream” is a straightforward romantic lament, yearning for a perfect love only imagined while asleep, yet its potency is undeniable. Almost the perfect princess, stifled only by the film’s pacing (again, the 20-minute nap), Sleeping Beauty remains as timeless as ever.
15. The Jungle Book (1967)
What could have easily suffered from the same tonal bleakness of The Black Cauldron or The Hunchback of Notre Dame is, in fact, one of Disney’s jolliest offerings. It’s partly thanks to – once more – director Wolfgang Reitherman’s whimsical spirit, but also the wondrous voice performances that bring Rudyard Kipling’s unforgettable characters to life. Mowgli is far less interesting than his friends – particularly Bagheera the panther and Baloo the bear – which slightly lessens the film’s impact. But it’s still overflowing with sharp ideas, toeing the line between terrifying drama (these are predators, after all) and gleeful adventures. It’s difficult to choose between “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You,” but the taoist contentment of the former and the impulsive, bombastic fervour of the latter can compete with basically anything else in the studio's musical canon.
14. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
A tale as old of time with an elegance few can compare with. Belle finds her mysterious, terrifying match in the Beast, as horror and fear give way to patience, compassion and love behind the regal doors of a palace that was left so cold for decades. And beyond the pure, robust romantic story at the film's core, there’s so much to admire: charming side characters, the music (“Be Our Guest” is up there with Disney’s – nay, everyone’s – best musical numbers) and villains that are camp and threatening in equal measure (Gaston!). The songs by legendary duo Alan Menken and Howard Ashman display a timeless sincerity, without ever veering too far into sentimentality. In short: a classic.
13. Alice in Wonderland (1951)
There have been other princesses, other young women to root for across the canon, but there is nothing like Alice in Wonderland. This woozy, hallucinatory trip down the literal and phantasmagorical rabbit hole pushes and pulls what you might expect from a daydream of a movie for kids and a bad trip of a cartoon for adults. Alice is docile and curious, but the characters she meets – dodos, Cheshire cats, queens and mad hatters – are greedy, grotesque, selfish and spiteful. Rage pushes wildlife animals to extremes, the confusion of a Mad Hatter leads to celebrations in times of upheaval. Rarely have there been more theatrical alter egos, each one completely antithetical to the last, in a film that somehow retains a single narrative thread to keep us bobbing along. There’s coherence in the chaos, a sense of wonder even as it all falls apart. Drug use, political uproar, extinction and loneliness somehow co-exist in a 75-minute cartoon. It’s magical and horrific. Of course, we’ll keep remaking it until we figure it out.
12. The Little Mermaid (1989)
A story about love against all odds which also lets a young woman come to terms with how much her voice matters? The Little Mermaid is almost progressive! There are more fantastical elements – starting with, well, the fish tail – yet a real sense of sincere frustration and longing which make Ariel’s plight ring true. Alan Menken’s music and Howard Ashman’s lyrics make a daydreaming teen belter for the ages with “Part of Your World” – no wonder the pair nabbed two Oscars, for the original score, and for “Under the Sea.” Sebastian, Flounder and Scuttle share the anthropomorphic sidekick duties, with Sebastian in particular rising to the occasion as Cupid, Maitre D’, personal advisor and so much more (“Kiss the Girl” sets the example for every good wingman out there). It’s telling that Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg thought The Little Mermaid would flop because it targeted a young female audience – yet, by my lights, the best Disney films are those that truthfully shade the injustices felt by young, misunderstood woman. And anyway, history has shown us: Katzenberg couldn’t have been more wrong.
11. Fantasia (1940)
Once upon a time, Walt Disney Productions produced their most ambitious, glorious musical extravaganza to date – which would rarely, if ever, be trumped. Fantasia stitches together eight animated segments, curated and presented by Master of Ceremonies Deems Taylor, accompanied by music conducted by Leopold Stokowski, with seven of the pieces performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Classical masterpieces we know and love so well – “The Nutcracker Suite,” “Ave Maria,” “Toccata” and “Fugue in D Minor” – flourish and transform with animation that's sometimes lyrical, sometimes sentimental, sometimes philosophical. There are stories of little mice turned greedy sorcerers; stretches of fluid colours and shapes tiptoeing around the orchestra. Centaurs and ballet dancers, ostriches and spirits. It’s too much yet never enough, enhanced by Taylor’s winning charisma and the overwhelming brilliance of the material, aural and visual. The world would be a better place if we had a new Fantasia, say, every 10 years.
10. Tangled (2010)
Subversive yet sincere, traditional but wholly daring. The classic story of Rapunzel is one of patience and subservience, while Tangled is filled with a genuine lust for life. Our titular princess is kept in a tower by an old hag passing as her mother, brushing Rapunzel’s magical hair to stay young. But it’s not just about them: Flynn Rider, a swindler now involved with Rapunzel to escape the goons who are after him, provides some levity. It’s a hopeful, buoyant tale of going in search of your past self and taking control of your future. “When Will My Life Begin” is an anthem for stifled princesses everywhere, and “I See The Light,” in which Rapunzel and Flynn take a boat trip out to see a sky full of warm lanterns, rivals the romantic highs of even The Little Mermaid. It's a film that's so charismatic – Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi are excellent! – it’s impossible to keep a straight face.
9. The Lion King (1994)
If just one Disney film had to earn the distinction of “epic,” it would have to be The Lion King. It’s perhaps why Jon Favreau’s live-action remake was so disappointing – the original film has such high-stakes, and such thrilling and devastating drama (influenced by Hamlet, of course), that it was never really about how realistic the animals looked. What they fight for, who they love, and the things worth dying for… those were its paramount ideals. That’s not to say the animation isn’t marvellous, too: vast landscapes and intricate colour palettes, as every leaf and every bug display as much depth as each strand of fur. It’s rare for such a large ensemble cast to give rich and surprising arcs to each individual player, but there are very few weak links. Add to that a transcendent Hans Zimmer score and a deft range of voice actors (pure and naive when needed, terrifying and theatrical when you least expect it), and it’s hard to remain unmoved by this tremendous portrait of family, loyalty, and responsibility. It's amazing that something as wide-reaching as this actually exists.
8. Frozen (2013)
Widely considered the best Disney film since the Renaissance era, Frozen enchanted kids around the world with shimmering visuals and power ballads so catchy that karaoke bars everywhere have never been the same. It’s thanks to a compassionate, focused voice cast – Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff and Josh Gad – telling a story of fierce independence and female strength without succumbing to faux-empowering marketing catchphrases. There’s also something specifically moving about the bonds of sisterhood that until now had rarely been given the spotlight. But above all else, it’s the songs. Or more specifically, the song. “Let It Go” transformed the character of Elsa, the ice queen, cracking open her world – and ours. Many have interpreted it as a queer anthem about self-acceptance, finally encouraging a sense of pride to break loose from the shackles that can keep a person feeling ashamed for so long. Menzel’s voice is unmatched, and the message continues to ripple across the globe. It has to be heard – and she has to be seen – to be believed.
7. Hercules (1997)
At this point in the ranking, it's crucial to mention that everything is just about perfect, starting with Hercules. So many films have tried to wrestle with ancient mythologies, with magic bestowed by the heavens, but Hercules is one of the few to – sorry – truly go the distance. It benefits greatly from an infectiously bouncy Greek chorus (“A Star Is Born” is the film’s unsung hero) and, quite simply, the casting of Danny DeVito. His hero-trainer Philoctetes was inspired by Snow White’s Grumpy, but as we know by now anything DeVito touches turns to gold. Here he's wonderfully crabby and entertaining, brilliantly balancing our valiant trooper’s naive faith in his future. James Woods’ frenetic delivery of the extravagant Hades might just steal the show, alongside his ridiculous minions Pain and Panic. Meg, a young woman enslaved to Hades, conveys the helpless growing attraction better than most reluctant romantic heroines with her brilliant ballad “I Won’t Say (I’m in Love),” while “Go the Distance” remains a battlecry for stubborn determination (and a tune that wouldn’t be out of place in Moana or The Princess and the Frog) whose sense of soaring grandeur is practically god-like. Endlessly fun and deceptively brave, Hercules is so much more than a rehash of ancient folklore.
6. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
The silly old bear has gone on so many adventures in almost 100 years since he was first brought to life by A. A. Milne, which is why a film in which we skip from page-to-page and get a glimpse at his life across several pockets of fun works so brilliantly. Pooh gets caught in the entrance to Rabbit’s house; the Heffalumps suitably terrify us; Christopher Robin hosts a hero party for Pooh and Piglet. Meanwhile, Sebastian Cabot brings laidback confidence and warmth to the role of the narrator, playing with the toys without ever trivialising them, conveying the wisdom of Milne’s characters without losing sight of the tiny viewers growing up in their company. Vignette-based stories are often disjointed, but The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh welcomes you down the the wooded path without a fuss, bringing forth the stout, round bear and his brave little friends for just as long as you can spare. If we've learn anything of these irresistible characters, it's that they're always there when you need them.
5. One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
There are two key things that shoot One Hundred and One Dalmatians to the top five of this massive ranking. The first is the sheer number of tiny dogs, a sea of endless monochrome polka dots washing over the primary-colour drawings with an immediate feeling of irreverence, the outright incredulity that such a number of Dalmatians could actually exist. The second is “Cruella De Vil” – the villainous woman, yes, but more specifically the crooning, inquisitive piano ballad Roger Radcliffe writes about the old schoolfriend of the love of his life, Anita – mother of Dalmatian Perdita, who is destined to fall in love with Roger’s own dog, Pongo. The clashing tones, between the innocence of the pups and the wicked menace of their captor, is bottled in this practically perfect song, a wry, jazz-inspired number that’s as jolly as it is sceptical. The visuals, simple yet striking, gave Disney one of their least expensive films in terms of design, yet the boldness and clarity allow the room for the narrative to thrive. What a wonderful, fulfilling life these characters share as part of this enormous, unconventional family.
4. The Aristocats (1970)
Oh, what a chic little film this is. Where Lady and the Tramp gave focus to the love story between an upper-class dog and a stray mutt, The Aristocats lets Thomas O’Malley the alley cat help aristocratic mother cat Duchess and her three kittens – Berlioz, Marie, and Toulouse – understand the finer things in life. A haywire plot kicks into gear when Madame Adelaide Bonfamille, the owner of Duchess and her children, is hoodwinked by her butler Edgar, who schemes to get rid of the cats in order to recuperate all of Madame’s money (as one deft Letterboxd review points out, this is truly ridiculous from the start, but who am I to argue with such vision?). The strength of The Aristocats likely rests on how charming you find these characters – the sophisticated bewilderment of Duchess, the charismatic seduction of O’Malley, the dainty cuteness of all three tiny children. And of course, it’s all in “Ev’vrybody Wants to Be A Cat” – straightforward yet ingenious, a big-band number led, naturally, by a feline friend called Scat Cat (voiced by Scatman Crothers), it captures everything that makes the story of these pampered pets so loveable. It’s not so much in the lyrics, which tell you “a cat knows where it’s at,” but in its nonchalant confidence. It doesn’t matter what the existential meaning is, or how you interpret it. It sounds good, feels good, and that's The Aristocats to a tee.
3. Mulan (1998)
Before the internet ruined the credibility of the strong female character and Hollywood broke it further by reducing it to a handful of tropes, Mulan set the gold standard. It works so well precisely because of how seriously it takes itself: nobody mocks Mulan for her intentions, and there are no sly winks about how subversive she is when she disguises herself as a man to fight as part of the Imperial Chinese Army. Yet thanks to Mushu, Eddie Murphy’s jaunty dragon sidekick, there’s no shortage of big laughs, either. And it wouldn’t be this high in the ranking without an adequately life-affirming musical number: “Reflection” goes out to every young person who couldn’t trust what they saw in the mirror, who suffered in silence knowing the life they were living didn’t feel like their own. Mulan understands the individual strife as much as the responsibility of a whole culture, of an entire nation. The stakes have never been higher, and honour is brought to every topic – both moral and societal. Extremely mature for kids, but still so exciting for adults.
2. Dumbo (1941)
A young boy is shunned by the world because he doesn’t look like them. This is the story of Dumbo, a small elephant with very big ears who just wants to make his mother proud, and – just maybe – learn to fly as well. The best Disney stories are the simplest – the stories that take a universal anxiety and flesh it out with specificity and care. Dumbo is bursting with original quirks and fantabulous design: a little elephant who gets the hiccups; a musical steam train; a note-perfect happy birthday rendition from a stork; an impossibly tender lament for lost love in “Baby Mine.” It takes just 64 minutes to get to know Jumbo Jr., rechristened “Dumbo” by the cruel elephants mocking his physical appearance. And it takes as many minutes as you can count on one hand to start rooting for him: the detail in his eyes, in his pained little eyebrows, compel you to care when no one else will. But then the mood completely shifts at the circus: those terrifying pink elephants, the intimidating crows, and – of course – Timothy Q. Mouse. This is also a romance of two unlikely buddies, of optimism against all odds, freeing you from your fears and lifting you up beyond the clouds. Dumbo is uncomplicated yet wondrous. All he asks is that you believe in him.
1. Cinderella (1950)
There are so many different ways to tell the story of Cinderella, which is why everyone keeps retelling it. Dreams of a better life, faith in one true love to change the world, a stubborn belief in magic. You can call it rudimentary, or fundamental: we simply wouldn't have the more complex or original princesses without this one. The 1950 film draws a considerate, gracious portrait of the young girl who lost everything when her mother died (and only left her with the words “Have courage and be kind”), and who could only count on the generosity of her heart (well, and her selfless mice friends Jaq and Gus Gus) to reverse her fate. It’s this that prompts the deus ex machina-like arrival of a fairy godmother who, for one night only, turns rags to riches in the truest, most beautiful visualisation of magic Disney has ever accomplished (while singing along to “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” gibberish on a mission like never before). With a flick of the wrist, everything glitters and a pumpkin turns into a carriage; a bloodhound becomes a coachman; a torn-up blush-pink dress transforms into an ice-blue ballgown. All of this happens because of who Cinderella is: not what she looks like or who her parents are, but because she chooses to live her life with kindness and courage. It’s spiriting and heartwarming – which makes the instances of cruelty so much more devastating. Cinderella can be, and has been, interpreted and updated in a hundred new ways, but the potency of this animation cannot be matched. No love is more pure, no princess more deserving. She leaves the viewer with stars in their eyes and a song in their heart. What more could you ask for?
58 of the 59 Walt Disney Animation Studios films are available to stream on Disney+. Make Music Mine is available on home video release only.