Top 15 Disney feature films

My personal favorite animated Disney movies.
July 16, 2009
This article is written in response to dalmatianlover's article "Disney Really Touched Me". He had already told his favorite Disney and Disney/Pixar films, and wanted me to write an article to follow up on it. Now I know that his article didn't seem to do be especially popular, but I have given a lot of thoughts towards my favorites as a follow-up.

As I'm sure is the case with everyone else, Disney Animation and I go back a long way. I grew up with it, saw many of these films theatrically (new or as reissues), and now own a good number of my personal favorites on DVD. Now, I won't list exactly how many animated Disney films there are (after all, Disney isn't going anywhere), but these films are movies which are indeed animated, and as of now, I have only 2 2000s era Disney features listed. I was able to narrow my personal favorite animated Disney films down to a Personal Top 15. Why is it 15 instead of just 10? Well, it's nice to have a Top 10 list. However, sometimes you'd probably be left wondering what the next 5 down would be. You know. What would be numbers 11 through 15?

On this article, I won't list any of Disney's live-action/animation hybrids, animated feature films based on a TV show or anything made by Pixar.

So, without further ado, here we go with...

TreyVore's Personal Top 15 Disney animated features

Robin Hood (1973)

Did I see it theatrically?: No.

Just making the list is debatably the best Disney animated movie from the 1970s. The very first Disney film to be in production after Uncle Walt's death, this movie is an all-animal character retelling of the famed heroic English outlaw who fought to uphold justice against the whiny Prince John and the greedy Sheriff of Nottingham by breaking the law. While of course this movie is never to be judged as one of the studio's absolute best; considering it has some oddly whimsical animation (the recycled rough pencil outlook), some animation feels recycled (it's been stated that during the "Phony King of England" number, it's animation is lifted straight out of earlier movies--though it's not the first to do this), some aspects require suspension of disbelief (the relationship between Prince John and Maid Marian) and of course Little John is really just "The Jungle Book"'s Baloo cast as Robin's buddy. Of course, since I grew up with it, I am expected to be forgiving of this movie's flaws and enjoy it. The movie's characters all work just fine, the humor still works, and considering all that was against this movie (Disney was no longer with us at this time), I would say it is ultimately the best of the 1970s-era Disney animated features. And yes, I grew up with this movie in the 1980s, so of course it brings back some good memories for me. Not bad for a movie made in the bowels of the infamous Animation Dark Age.

Oliver and Company (1988)

Did I see it theatrically?: Yes.

Second of what you can call my Disney animation 'guilty pleasures' is Oliver and Company. This movie is a contemporarized, 1980s-era spin on the Charles Dickens 1830s serial "Oliver Twist". It stars Oliver, an orphaned kitten trying to get himself adopted on the mean streets of New York City, but until then, he's taken in by a dog gang led by Dodger and their human owner Fagin, a lowlife under pressure from a vicious loan shark named Sykes. This movie is quite different from the other Disney films; considering it's not set in Europe, no royalty and no, well, magic involved. By comparison, this seems very gritty and urban, but I tend to like seeing something that can be judged as 'down-to-earth'. Now, like "Robin Hood", it's still not Disney's best, but it's still lots of fun. Does it seem dated? Yes, but unlike some others, the strong 1980s vibe one gets from watching this movie factors into its charm. At the same time, you've got Billy Joel (as Dodger) and Bette Midler (as Georgette) providing musical numbers and the unmistakable Cheech Marin as the hyperactive chihuahua Tito. I can say with no doubt I like "Oliver and Company".

Side note: "Oliver and Company" is the first Disney animated movie I saw theatrically and was not a reissue.

Peter Pan (1953)

Did I see it theatrically?: Yes, as a reissue, twice!

Disney planned to make his version of "The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up" in the 1940s, but we had gotten ourselves involved in the war against Germany and Japan and production had to wait. It was finally finished in 1953. Based on James M. Barrie's immortal story, it is about the title character who whisks Wendy, John and Michael Darling from their London nursery to the eternal youth realm of Neverland, where they must fend themselves off from a villainous band of pirates led by the charmingly devious Captain Hook. Another movie I grew up with, "Peter Pan" might be seen as a 'lesser classic', it may reek of some strong degrees of political incorrectness (everything involving the Indians) and I am aware has some elements that are altered from the original story (in the original story Hook tried to kill Peter with poison, here it's a gift-wrapped bomb), but who cares if the story's so much fun? And one seriously can't go near any Disney spectacle without seeing Tinkerbell somewhere! I still remember seeing this movie on a trip with a summer school class with my brother back in 1989, what a good time.

Mulan (1998)

Did I see it theatrically?: No.

I may have thought Disney was for kids by the late 1990s (shows you how blind I was), but "Mulan" is a different type of Disney movie indeed. It tells the story of a Chinese maiden who passes herself off as a male child by donning her father's war armor to help aid the Chinese army against Shan-Yu and his band of Huns. Now, I'm not sure if this movie's story is wholly accurate to the story of Mulan, but it's still a very nice movie. Coming after the sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek "Hercules", this movie may seem...well, more subdued, but everything seemed to connect with the audiences better and they responded accordingly; it was better reviewed and more financially successful than "Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "Hercules". The artists and writers did an incredible job with the atmosphere; everything feels very East Asian and I happened to have really enjoyed some of the songs ("Reflection" and "I'll Make a Man Out of You" I liked best). Of course, I sorta felt Mushu, Mulan's guardian dragon, was something more of a hinderance than an aid, and some of the characters have less personality in this film than earlier films, but "Mulan" still is a crowd pleaser that I thought got Disney back into things. If Disney's former Florida Animation unit could have taught them anything, it's the creative direction, not the management dictation, that makes an animated movie cool.

Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Did I see it theatrically?: Yes, as a reissue.

The final 'princess' movie Uncle Walt himself would have seen, 1959's "Sleeping Beauty" is a beautiful story. It is about three fairies, Flora, Fauna and Merriweather, whom while Princess Aurora is under threat from a vile sorceress named Maleficient, take the good king's child in their custody until her 16th birthday, when she can safely return. The looks of all the different castles were taken from various castles set in France, which gives everything a really nice look. Another element that I loved was Maleficient, how evil was she? If there are flaws, well, Aurora is a rather bland princess, she doesn't really develop much at all. It's not common for Disney heroes/heroines to be blah instead of being incredibly interesting explosives, but this movie is really more about the fairies, Prince Phillip and Maleficient. From what I understand, this movie was a mega dud back in the late 1950s--but that may have been because at this time in his career, Walt Disney was not so concerned with his movies as much as he was with building Disneyland. A classic film, also last of the 1950s features, I would highly recommend "Sleeping Beauty".

Tarzan (1999)

Did I see it theatrically?: No.

Like Mulan, I still thought Disney was just for young kids, but Tarzan eventually got his revenge on me for that. This adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' story is of a man raised by gorillas in Africa his whole life, but upon discovering humans, he wishes to know more about these "Strangers Like Me". It has an incredible merging of traditional cel-animation together with CGI-animation, everything seems to work so well together. The sequences of Tarzan sliding around on trees, together with his hardened look, were inspired by various ESPN programs of skateboarding competitons, it established that this Disney is certainly 'not your father's Disney'--and sometimes, that's a good thing. In addition, the musical score by pop artist Phil Collins is a very pleasant addition to the film. I know a few themes seem a little too dark for very young children, and it goes without saying Rosie O'Donnell's voice that she gives Tarzan's gorilla buddy Terk--an African gorilla sounding like a New Yorker--doesn't really fit as it stands out completely and becomes jarring. At one time, I thought it was an odd choice to make Jane English (she's originally American). All in all, Tarzan has held up just fine, and this version of the story is likely good for the more mature viewers. It may have some rather dark themes as little kids might be disturbed, but "Tarzan" is still worthy of its praise.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Did I see it theatrically?: Yes, as a reissue.

Where would Disney be if not for "Walt's Folly"? This is the movie that started it all, and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" got us off to a great start. This animated adaptation of the familiar Brothers Grimm story, it is about Snow White, deemed 'fairest maiden in all the land' to the obsence jealousy of the Wicked Queen, who orders her to be killed, but she escapes and hides in a run-down house owned by the Seven Dwarfs. Now, since it is such an ancient film, one would think that it might seem very dated, especially considering this movie is over 70 years old. In some ways--like Snow White herself--the main heroine is a helpless, benign, 'I will simply wait until my handsome prince comes to take me in his arms to his castle' twit. Snow White seems dated, and some "let's sing and wash our hands" stuff is passe, but everything else? No complaints! This movie also served its purpose that there are no harmful effects on watching an animated film at length; and at the same time, as evidence that a character does not need to be flesh-and-blood for us to sympathize with--if Snow White's death sequence was any indication, the audience can find it in their hearts to take pity on an animated character. Some elements seem dated, but much more is timeless. A beautiful way to start a new breed of American pilgrimage.

The Little Mermaid (1989)

Did I see it theatrically?: Yes.
If you ignore "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" (that movie is a Touchstone film), "The Little Mermaid" was a sign that Disney was well on their way to deliver classic animated entertainment that we had not seen (or at least, was in short supply) since Disney's death in 1966; not much solid material came from them during the 1970s and much of the 1980s. But this movie is different: based on Hans Christian Andersen's story, it is about a 16-year old mermaid named Ariel who has grown to love a human prince named Eric and is willing to bargain with the demonic sea witch Ursula to make him hers; all he's gotta do is "Kiss the Girl". I loved the atmosphere of the film; some underwater parts feel almost like the inside of an aquarium. The music? Composed by the great Howard Ashman who had a natural born talent of writing music anyone would remember and sing along with long after the movie was over, the movie's score would later go on to win two Academy Awards, one for Best Music: Original Score and one for the song "Under the Sea" as performed by the reggae-singing Sebastian the crab. Does it follow a well-worn path? Yes, but it's too much fun and it brings back some good memories for me. In addition, some viewers prefer the film's happy ending to the original story's tragic end. My pick for Disney's best animated feature of the 1980s, "The Little Mermaid" always will be "Part of my World".

Lady and the Tramp (1955)

Did I see it theatrically?: Yes, as a reissue.

My personal pick for Best Animated Disney Feature of the 1950s, "Lady and the Tramp" is a classic love story between a middle-class born cocker spaniel and a street savvy, stray mutt known simply as "Tramp". Often refered to as "a moving Norman Rockwell painting" and "one of the greatest romance stories on film", "Lady and the Tramp" initally was panned by critics, but it managed to have a long life through different reissues and the like. And how many movies have you seen where they go and make jokes about the famous 'spaghetti dinner' sequence since this film debuted? Too many I think! That's not criticism but more of a statement considering this film has been regarded as a classic. Is the story sorta thin? Yes, but the romance between the characters helps make it worth your while considering you may see it as 'character driven'. I would say it's success is a no-brainer considering it's a very well-done movie. And the success of the DVD proves to the Disney company that we don't care simply about it being traditional vs. digital animation: it's the weight of the characters, themes and story.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Did I see it theatrically?: Yes.

The first (and so far, only) animated movie ever to become nominated for "Best Picture" back in 1991 (it lost to "Silence of the Lambs"), "Beauty and the Beast" has everything one may need to be considered classic. Originally a movie Disney himself wanted to do in his lifetime but was never satisfied with it's direction, it tells the story of a young French maiden named Belle who becomes the prisoner of a spoiled prince, who upon seeing he has no compassion, sympathy or love for anything, was transformed by an enchantress into a hideous beast, and as time races on, the Beast must learn to love someone, and earn her love in return, or risk remaining a beast forever. The emotional weight in this film is quite heavy; together with an unforgettable cast including characters like Lumiere the candelabra, Cogsworth the clock, Mrs. Potts the teapot and Chip the cup, not to mention the villain in the form of the self-centered, stuck-up pretty boy hunter Gaston (who can be seen as everything the unnamed Prince was), it's a film that solidified Disney back into people's good animation graces. One problem I had was even though this is seen as Howard Ashman's swan song (Howard died at age 40 before its release--he had AIDS) I felt that beyond "Beauty and the Beast", the musical numbers seem like a step down compared to say, "The Little Mermaid", and other elements, like humor, don't work so well. Still, from an aesthetic viewpoint, I would say this is the best animated Disney movie of the 1990s probably due to its praise.

Bolt (2008)

Did I see it theatrically?: Yes.

Now for my #5 pick, it goes to the 2008 Disney movie "Bolt". This movie is about a heroic dog with superpowers, but in truth an unknowing TV actor, accidently shipped across the US during a cliffhanger of his show and must venture cross country, picking up a alley cat bully and a fanboy hamster to be reunited with his 'person', Penny. Does this story seem familiar? In a way yes, as two of the heroes include a male character who thinks he's a real deal hero but isn't and a female character with a history of abandonment issues (remind anyone of the Toy Stories' Buzz Lightyear and Jessie?) but having seen this movie upon it's release in Thanksgiving 2008, I would say this movie is a worthy addition to the Disney features catalog. It tries to stay within the familiar Disney characteristics we grew to love the company for in the first place instead of trying to aggressively shed it to be something we wouldn't recognize of Disney. And what's really nice is this movie would have worked as either traditional or digital animation: this movie is digitally animated yes, but what I like about it is the animators don't try to make everything look photo-realistic, that only leaves the audience feeling creeped out. It's animated and it's not supposed to look real, that's the charm of it! If Disney continues with CGI-features, this is definitely a step in the right direction.

Aladdin (1992)

Did I see it theatrically?: Yes, twice!

The highest grossing movie of 1992 (no small feat considering it was up against "Batman Returns", "A Few Good Men", "Lethal Weapon 3", "The Bodyguard", "Wayne's World", "Home Alone 2" and "Sister Act"), I will always hold a soft spot for "Aladdin". Based on the Arab folktale "Aladdin's Wonderful Lamp" it is about the titular street rat who has managed to steal a magic lamp from the mystic Cave of Wonders, and wants to use it's power to help win the heart of the beautiful Princess Jasmine, while the Sultan's trusted advisor Jafar has other plans for it. One thing that I loved about this movie is after the more girl-targeted "Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast", this movie's seemly more boy-oriented (oh, if only "Treasure Planet" worked as well as this movie did). This is also the final movie Howard Ashman had wrote the musical score for before he died; I remember I had to learn how to sing "A Whole New World" for my elementary school graduation--and yes, to this day, when it comes to "A Whole New World", I am pretty much a trained seal. "Aladdin" may not have achieved the same praise as "Beauty and the Beast", but I still think "Aladdin" has a greater humor ratio and a better musical score, so nothing else to say but "Aladdin" is #4 on my list.

One more thing: Robin Williams voicing the Genie. What else could you ask for?

101 Dalmatians (1961)

Did I see it theatrically?: Yes, as a reissue, three times!

I needed to have at least one Walt-era film in my Top 5 out of 15, and "101 Dalmatians" deserves it! Based on English author Dodie Smith's 1956 children's novel, it is about a pair of newlywed Dalmatians named Pongo and Perdita, who soon have a new litter of 15, yes 15, puppies. But the villainous Cruella DeVil won't accept that the puppies are not for sale and steals them; and it's up to Pongo and Perdita to rescue their puppies and the other puppies before Cruella turns them into a fur coat. This movie, known for its use of xeroxography, is likely the last true classic during the time Walt himself was in charge (I feel "The Jungle Book" is so highly rated only because it's the last film Walt himself worked on--but wouldn't see released). It has a wide number of memorable characters and the 'family conquers all' theme never gets old. Another testament to the film is while one should acknowledge that it was originally the idea of Dodie Smith, the best way to remember the story of "101 Dalmatians" is probably what Disney does with the franchise, considering it has similar themes, but it doesn't dwell on some of the lesser pleasant aspects of the original book. In my honest opinion, I might prefer what Disney did with "101 Dalmatians" in the mid-late 1990s to this film (such as the live-action remake), but I would still testify that this is the Best Animated Disney Feature of the 1960s.

Lilo and Stitch (2002)

Did I see it theatrically?: Yes, twice!

I owe so much to "Lilo and Stitch". This quirky, offbeat Disney movie that helped make summer 2002 so awesome deserves a high rank on my list. The movie is about a lonely, young Elvis Presley obsessed Hawaiian girl who wishes for a friend, and gets her wish at the dog pound--problem is her new dog is an alien experiment on the run from the Galactic Federation. I remember seeing the "Inter-Stitch-al" trailers for this movie (ie. Stitch rides off with Princess Jasmine, Stitch dropping the chandlier on Belle and the Beast) and not thinking they looked like much. At that time, I was taking a watercolor painting class and I heard of this movie's painting methods. Since I was having fun with it, soon I began to start grappling with the idea of seeing a new animated Disney movie theatrically (during this time, they had some movies that either underperformed or just failed completely at what they tried to do). On June 21, 2002, I finally said "To hell with it", I saw "Lilo and Stitch" theatrically and I loved it! Together with a cable upgrade so I could start getting Toon Disney back in the day...what do you know, suddenly Disney was my thing all over again! I loved how this movie knows its focus, the humor, the high respect paid to Hawaiian culture, and themes of everyone has good in them. Maybe there is no real villain, but "Lilo and Stitch" is definitely a favorite of mine.

And finally, my #1 pick...

The Lion King (1994)

Did I see it theatrically?: Yes, three times!

The highlight of my summer 1994, "The Lion King" I could never get enough of. The story is about Simba, Mufasa's silver spoon and the future king of Pride Rock, who can't wait to be king and run the fun, while his vile Uncle Scar is plotting against them both. Essentially a maturity story, I honestly...would change very little, if anything, about this film. It emphasizes that life is precious and everyone is important in the Circle of Life. This movie seems to be so powerful; the atmosphere does a phenomeonal job recreating the feel of the African savanna and the characters are unforgettably cool, in addition to Simba, who can forget the mystic shaman Rafiki, the spunky Nala, the caring slackers Timon and Pumbaa or the nasty-yet-cool Shenzi, Banzai and Ed? With Howard Ashman gone, the music was performed by English pop artist Sir Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice. The music doesn't seem quite up to par, but it is still something I never tire of hearing, and that says something. Who could forget the introductory "Circle of Life" or Timon and Pumbaa's philosophy of "Hakuna Matata"? And one of my favorite 'love songs' is still to this day "Can You Feel the Love Tonight". Maybe "The Lion King" didn't get nominated for Best Picture, and it lost the top box-office spot to "Forrest Gump" (though it can say it DID sell more tickets; kids would happily see "Lion King" as a matinee), this movie grossed over $300 million initally...the highest amount ever for a cel-animated movie. Now, I said earlier that from an aesthetic viewpoint, "Beauty and the Beast" would be the Best Animated Disney Feature of the 1990s, but from a personal viewpoint, I would give that to "The Lion King".

What else is there I can say..."The Lion King" is my #1 out of 15. This is appropriate, considering the movie just turned 15 years old!

This would conclude my Top 15 Animated Disney Films list. I hope you enjoyed it and I welcome your thoughts.

So take the advice of Uncle Remus:

"Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay
My, oh my, what a wonderful day
Plenty of sunshine headin' my way
Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay!"
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