I grew up in a Disney home – pretty literally. While I was growing up, my dad had an obsession with all things Mickey Mouse, and my mom worked for Disney. My sister and I grew up watching Disney movies, and since I was born in 1987 and my sister was born in 1989, we grew up with the films of the Disney Renaissance, the period of Disney animation in the 1990s that many consider the longest sustained successful era of Disney animation. This, of course, was also the era that saw the introduction of many now-dreaded direct to video sequels, along with attempts by other studios at challenging Disney with their own products. Some of these efforts were more successful than others (hi, Pixar), but the 90s helped Disney maintain their close connection to the concept of animated films.
Disney is currently in the middle of a renewed interest from fans and critics alike, in an era currently referred to as the Disney Revival. Over the past few years, thanks to hits like Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen and Big Hero 6, the Disney name is once again a sign of quality animation. It’s funny, though – while Disney is more or less synonymous with top-notch animation, it’s produced its fair share of titles that are less than warmly received.
With the newest animated feature from Disney, Moana, hitting theaters this week, I decided to rank the various films that are considered part of the official canon of Walt Disney Animation Studios. These are the films that officially come from the studio started by Walt Disney, as opposed to animated films distributed by Disney, or films from another studio division of Disney (including Pixar and Disneytoon Studios). In total, including Moana, that makes for 56 films.
To make sure each film received a fair placement, I’ve made sure to watch each of these films as an adult. Time-consuming? Oh yes. Occasionally painful? You bet. But ultimately, I was surprised to see what films held up to my childhood memories and which ones didn’t. I also made some discoveries when I hit films that were completely new to me. Some worked better than others, but this look at Disney animation over the years was rewarding.
Enough of the introduction, though. How do the 56 films in the Disney canon fare? Let’s find out…
56. Fun and Fancy Free
The first of two Package Era films to consist of two stories originally intended to be separate feature-length films, Fun and Fancy Free is among the weakest entries in the Disney animated canon. The “Bongo” sequence is cute enough, but it’s just there. It was supposed to be similar to Dumbo as a feature, though, and I’m glad it wasn’t pushed that way. As for “Mickey and the Beanstalk,” I might have liked it more if the film didn’t keep cutting back to Edgar Bergen and company. As it stands, it’s the weaker of the two stories in the film.
55. Chicken Little
Disney’s first fully-CGI film is a wreck. This feels on par with a lot of the CGI animated films coming from upstart studios today, not like something produced by one of the premier animated studios of all time. That goes not just for the story, but the quality of the animation as well.
54. The Three Caballeros
Made as a sequel of sorts to Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros follows a similar setup as a package film, though live-action footage of Disney animators is replaced with Donald opening various gifts that serve as the various shorts. The range of the shorts is broader this time, and builds up to one of the more unsettling displays in the canon – Donald losing his mind and going crazy over a sea of women.
53. The Sword in the Stone
Dull as dishwater. Director Wolfgang Reitherman liked recycling elements for animation, as he’d prove during his time as Disney’s house director in the 60s and 70s, and even though this one’s early on in that time for him, he recycles so much just in this film. The various actors voicing Wart sound nothing alike, which doesn’t help. This also includes some of the Sherman Brothers’ lesser works.
52. Saludos Amigos
At least it’s under 50 minutes in length. The four segments are just fine as shorts, but taken together, it’s lackluster at best. I did find the first sequence, where Donald visits Lake Titicaca, amusing in its representation of Americans visiting foreign places and acting like buffoons.
51. Melody Time
I like the film’s similarities to Make Mine Music, and some of the pieces are interesting enough. The sequencing is off, though, and some pieces are too long. In particular, ending with the “Pecos Bill” sequence leaves the film on a down note.
50. Brother Bear
Gorgeous animation only goes so far. The story itself bored me, and while I don’t have a problem with Phil Collins’ musical contributions to Tarzan, I do think they’re rather awful here.
49. The Black Cauldron
Typically considered the nadir of Disney’s Bronze Age. It’s an interesting concept, and it feels different for a Disney animated film up to this point. The animation is still far too lackluster, though, and the storyline is practically screaming for something lengthier. Disney head Jeffrey Katzenberg reportedly had 12 minutes cut from the film for content that he considered too dark, and while this is definitely a darker film for the studio, the final product feels like it’s half-assing it.
48. Oliver & Company
Disney hasn’t exactly shied away from popular music in its works, but the music of Oliver & Company has not held up nearly as well as anything that came before it. There’s a certain level of charm to the film, largely from Oliver and Dodger, but it’s a lesser effort from the studio overall.
One problem I noticed more as the Disney Renaissance went on was how much CGI elements began to stick out – poorly, I should add. So Disney’s first attempt at animating a full film in CGI (with live backgrounds) should work, right? Nope. Disney’s CGI attempts here aim for something approaching realism, which makes the animation look particularly dated. It doesn’t help that the story is rather basic by Disney standards.
46. Home on the Range
Like The Emperor’s New Groove, Home on the Range took a long-in-progress story with more serious roots and turned it into something more comedic. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work nearly as well here. Roseanne’s voice is too unique to disappear into the role of Maggie, and pairing her with Judi Dench just doesn’t work. The animation is sharp and distinctive, though, and this film uses CGI better than any of its predecessors.
45. Peter Pan
Peter Pan is probably one of the bigger classics where I disagree with the general consensus. I feel like Neverland should be a more interesting place than it ultimately is, and that’s leaving out the racism toward the Native Americans. Peter isn’t fun and boyish – he’s a nuisance. I came close to cheering for Captain Hook. Not a good sign.
44. Make Mine Music
It’s Fantasia with a pop bent. While not as majestic as its predecessor, it’s an intriguing film that largely holds up. Personal favorites include “All the Cats Join In,” which feels unlike anything Disney animators have done up to this point, and “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met,” which takes an absurd concept and sells it.
43. The Aristocats
The Aristocats runs into a lot of the problems I have with this particular era of Disney animation in general: a story that’s not particularly interesting, a villain barely worth mentioning, and lackluster (and occasionally recycled) animation. In this particular case, there’s not much beyond those points I can say I truly dislike, but there’s nothing that stands out to me either.
42. Robin Hood
If there’s one thing that’s become clear from this era of Disney animation, it’s that Wolfgang Reitherman and company didn’t care about creating an outstanding villain. Prince John and the Sheriff are both played as dumb and corrupt, which doesn’t make for great villainy. You want the hero to face a challenge, and Robin Hood has it relatively easy. Also, the recycling animation reaches new depths here. Little John is just The Jungle Book‘s Baloo painted brown – even the voice actor is the same.
41. Atlantis: The Lost Empire
To Atlantis‘ credit, it manages to create a distinctive world for Atlantis. I would’ve liked to see more of that particular world in this film. Unfortunately, we’re stuck with Milo and his crew for a large chunk of the film before we get to Atlantis, and there are too many people involved to really get to know any of them. Not helping: Michael J. Fox, one of a handful of celebrity voices Disney’s hired whose voice is too distinctive to work as a voice-over actor.