30. “Wreck-It Ralph” (2012)
The bar for video-game-related movies has been set so low that “Wreck-It Ralph” can be easily the best one ever made, and still have a whole bunch of problems. Somewhere between “Tron” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” Rich Moore’s film follows the title character, a Donkey Kong-type villain on a quest to prove that he can be more than just the bad guy. It’s visually splendid, and the central vocal turns from John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman are aces, but for all the fun Easter eggs and references, it sometimes feels kind of visually overstuffed, and more importantly, the story is kind of a mess when it comes down to it. Like we said, though, still the best video-game movie ever.
29. “The Rescuers Down Under” (1990)
Disney’s first-ever sequel makes a pretty good case for there being more, given that it’s arguably better than the original film. Though it certainly follows the template of the original in ways that could be seen as unimaginative, it also retains most of the strengths of the first film, while also bumping up the visual beauty and thrills, and having a better villain, in George C. Scott’s sinister Percival C. McLeach. It’s almost a shame that it underperformed wildly in the era of the Disney renaissance — we would have been happy with more “Rescuers” movies.
28. “Tangled” (2010)
Though successful in its own right (it had to be: it was one of the most expensive movies ever made on its release), “Tangled” is probably now destined to be overshadowed forever by “Frozen,” which it serves as a sort of prototype for in many ways. And that’s kind of a shame, because we’d argue that it’s better. Yeah, the music kind of sucks compared to its more wintery cousin, but “Tangled,” a riff on the Rapunzel story, has a bit more visual pep to it, is mostly funnier, pulls off the screwball “It Happened One Night” dynamic more effectively, and is better looking too (the lantern sequence might be the most gorgeous Disney moment of the modern era).
27. “Alice In Wonderland” (1951)
Unlike the 3D live-action Tim Burton take the studio made 59 years later, the Disney take on Lewis Carroll’s absurdist adventure gets the balance mostly right of staying true to the source material and going into its own places. It’s a genuinely trippy and visually spectacular work, still one of the most striking-looking films the studio has ever made, and its take on some of the characters, like the Cheshire Cat, are near-definitive. But at the same time, the surreal beauty of it aside, we don’t quite find the solid classic that some do: the story has never really felt anything but episodic on screen, Alice is kind of a bore, and the music is never as good as that in some of the other films of the period.
26. “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” (2001)
Almost every time that Disney try to move into unfamiliar, more action-adventure-y territory — as with “The Black Cauldron” or “Treasure Planet” — it goes badly. That was the cast too with “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” one of a run of money-losers at the start of the 2000s. But it’s a damn shame, because as far as massive action-adventure blockbusters go, it’s a pretty good one. Helmed by “Beauty & The Beast” duo Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, and patently influenced by early Miyazaki like “Laputa: Castle In The Sky,” it’s solidly put together, stylishly drawn (“Hellboy” creator Mike Mignola helped on character design) and genuinely exciting. One of the most underrated of the Disney films.
25. “Cinderella” (1950)
After a decade of flops and WW2-enforced cheaper movies, Walt Disney Productions got firmly back on track with their 12th feature, returning them to the fairy tale origins of ‘Snow White.’ It was a massive hit and ensured the company would survive, and rightly so: it’s an absolutely solid and often very beautiful film that set the tone for much of what would follow in the next decade or so. It’s perhaps not as clever as some of the fairy tale riffs the company made, and it doesn’t transcend like ‘Snow White’ does, but it’s still a lovely film that’s hardly aged a day.
24. “The Princess And The Frog” (2009)
Disney buffs were over the moon about “The Princess And The Frog,” which not only saw the studio return to 2D animation for the first time in five years, and to classic fairy-tale territory in even longer, but also introduced the first African-American Disney princess, in Anika Noni Rose’s Tiana. It’s an absolute beauty to look at, for sure, and has a lot of the right elements — good music, a great villain in Keith David’s voodoo priest — but the story doesn’t quite see it match the films that inspired it, perhaps because a slight source is slightly over-extended, perhaps because it doesn’t quite throw enough surprises in the mix. Still, we’re glad it exists, and better was to come.
23. “Fantasia” (1940)
A flop on release but re-released so many times that it became one of the most successful films in history, Walt Disney’s third film was a pretty big risk — a collection of shorts, each one set to classical music. To some, it’s his greatest achievement, and perhaps even more than the films before, it really showcases what an art form of its own animated cinema could be. It’s certainly more consistent than its sequel, and its most soaring highs — “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” the stunning “Night On Bald Mountain” finale — are up there with the very best the studio have ever made. But not every sequence is as good, with the Beethoven-derived “The Pastoral Symphony” section being particularly skippable, so for us it falls just outside the Top 20.
22. “Hercules” (1997)
John Musker and Ron Clements’ follow-up to megahit “Aladdin” doesn’t quite hit the heights of its predecessor, but it’s a pretty successful attempt at tweaking a similar formula and somehow keeping it fresh. The film’s very loose version of the Greek myth sees baby Hercules turned mortal and adrift by the machinations of the evil Hades (James Woods), who’s plotting to free the Titans and conquer Olympus. Years later, Herc (Tate Donovan) discovers his heritage and sets out to be a hero worthy of the gods. It’s a lighter, poppier affair than “Aladdin,” with a distinctive style of animation influenced at once by Greek vases and Pink Floyd-affiliated cartoonist Gerald Scarfe (who worked on the film), and is exemplified best by the villain, a witty and memorable creation among Disney’s best. The hero’s a bit bland, but the set pieces are striking, the Motown-influenced music is fun, and in the Susan Egan-voiced Meg, the film has one of Disney’s best and most complex female characters.
21. “The Little Mermaid” (1989)
There’ll no doubt be an outcry at the perceived low placement of a film that was the childhood Disney animation for a large swathe of our readership. But nostalgia aside, while the exploits of Ariel and her quest to become human are enjoyable, the songs characterful and charming, and the film’s importance in ushering in the 1990s Disney Renaissance after a couple of wilderness decades can’t be overstated, it doesn’t quite hold up as well as others. It’s a somewhat predictable take on the Disney princess formula, a straightforward romance between pretty mermaid Ariel (Jodi Benson) and handsome sailor prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes) which is only given dramatic stakes by the intervention of Ursula (in fairness, an excellent villain voiced by Pat Carroll) and her dastardly plot to wrest dominion over the underwater realm. Where later, more sophisticated stories from Disney’s second Golden Age would make their heroines’ psychologies a bit more complex, the 16-year-old Ariel has few qualms about leaving her home, friends and family forever for love, which strikes a slightly discordant note in an otherwise sweet and harmonious confection.