20. “Robin Hood” (1973)
After the death of Walt Disney, the company went into two decades of difficulty with a series of flops through the 1970s and 1980s, with only “The Little Mermaid” helping to right the ship in a big way. Which is odd, because the first film made entirely without Disney’s involvement (he’d greenlit “The Aristocats” but didn’t live to see its release) was actually an excellent note on which to start things, despite the odds. In light of uncertainty over the post-Walt era, the film was given a meager budget and was made with a fair amount of recycled animation (hence Little John’s resemblance to “The Jungle Book“’s Baloo, not aided by Phil Harris returning to voice him). Yet despite its difficulties, the film (directed by the estimable Wolfgang Reitherman) is a highly engaging animal-centric take on Nottingham’s finest, with the Errol Flynn-ish fox Robin (Brian Bedford) clashing with the leonine, plummy Prince John (Peter Ustinov) and his sidekick Hiss (Terry-Thomas), while reconnecting with his childhood sweetheart Maid Marian (Monica Evans). There are some missteps (a rabbit child character for one), and the budgetary strains do show, but it’s got a ton of charm, and Reitherman’s vision — equal parts British pastoral and bluegrass music— somehow coheres. If nothing else, it’s roughly 400 times better than the Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe version.
19. “Winnie The Pooh” (2011)
As adults (albeit in various stages of arrested development), we’re in danger of including picks that work better for the grown-up audience than for kids, especially very young children. But “Winnie The Pooh,” while the polar opposite of the eye-janglingly colorful, squeaky-voiced irritants that a characterize a lot of animation aimed at elementary schoolers and younger, is the rare animation that manages to entirely sustain its naive and completely unironic charms across its slim, 69-minute runtime no matter your age. A lot of that is due to the deceptive simplicity of the approach, in which the very best places to get your Pooh fix — the books — are appropriately honored and homaged by an inventive device that knits the words into the action, and has the narrator (John Cleese) comment on both as well as interacting with the beloved characters. The stories remain slight and sweet and faithful to A.A. Milne‘s originals, but under Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall’s direction, and populated with a wonderful voice cast including Jim Cummings, Travis Oates, Bud Luckey, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Craig Ferguson, they engage in a way that both evokes and transcends the printed page. Essentially, they put a new-fangled, metatextual sensibility at work to promote the most old-fashioned of values: that reading is cool, kids!
18. “Sleeping Beauty” (1959)
Produced on widescreen 70mm and at a budget more than twice those of proceeding films like “Peter Pan” and “Lady And The Tramp,” the modest box office of “Sleeping Beauty” caused layoffs at Disney Animation, and between that and some mixed reviews, it was initially seen as a disappointment. These days, it’s one of the solid gold classics of the 1950s era for the company, and one of its finest fairy tale films. Adapting the classic folk tale, it sees the evil fairy Maleficent (Eleanor Audley) cursing Princess Aurora (Mary Costa) after her parents fail to invite her to the christening, a curse that will mean that after her 16th birthday, if she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel, she’ll fall into an eternal slumber. It’s thinly plotted stuff with a boring hero and heroine, but it looks absolutely gorgeous, thanks to design by painter Eyvind Earle that’s among the distinctive the studio ever made, melding Italian Renaissance, Gothic art and bright primary colors. And when the iconic Maleficent (sanded down and made sympathetic in the studio’s poor recent live-action retelling named after the villain) is onscreen, the film’s far more than a visual feast, taking on a crackle and fizz that puts those moments, if not the sappy romance, among the studio’s finest.
17. “The Emperor’s New Groove” (2000)
Perhaps the greatest crisis for Disney came in the early ’00s. The disappointments of “The Hunchback Of Notre Dame” and “Hercules” had convinced executives that the formula perfected with “Aladdin” and co. was tired, while former head Jeffrey Katzenberg had set up rival Dreamworks, and Disney’s own Pixar was demonstrating an increasing appetite for CGI animation among audiences. The result was a series of unsuccessful course-corrections that lasted nearly a decade without a real hit. Nevertheless, there were gems to be found in this period, and perhaps the most fun of those gems was “The Emperor’s New Groove.” Initially meant to be a musical epic but retooled late in the game as a sort of gonzo comedy utterly out of step with most other Disney pics, the film sees arrogant, spoiled Incan emperor Kuzco (David Spade) transformed into a llama by his evil advisor (Eartha Kitt), and forced to team with the kind peasant Pacha (John Goodman). It’s both atypically small in the scope of its story (there are really only four major character, including Patrick Warburton’s all-timer of a dimwit henchman Kronk), but pleasingly loose in its interests, with an anything-goes sense of humor falling somewhere between Chuck Jones absurdism and Golden Age “Simpsons.” It’s admittedly minor, but it’s also far, far more enjoyable than most.
16. “Bolt” (2008)
Disney’s current creative and commercial renaissance didn’t begin with “Zootopia” or even “Frozen,” but with 2008’s “Bolt.” Overlooked by those who confused it with Disney’s lackluster early CGI fare like “Chicken Little,” the film was the first fully retooled after John Lasseter took creative control over the parent studio as well as Pixar (“Meet The Robinsons” was further into production when it was rejigged), and it shows: far more so than most of the subsequent films, this has a blend of spectacle, thrills, gags and heart that puts it on the top tier. In arguably his most likable role of the last 20 years, John Travolta plays the title character, a dog who believes he has superpowers, but is in fact the sheltered star of a TV show. He’s accidentally sent to New York and believed lost, separated from his beloved owner (Miley Cyrus), and with the help of a cynical cat (Susie Essman) and a fanboy hamster (Mark Walton), he tries to make his way home. It is not wildly original — as you might have guessed, it’s the exact midpoint of “The Truman Show” and “The Incredible Journey.” But for the first time in a long time, it displays the kind of storytelling nous that Pixar were known for, its airtight writing and likable characters making it utterly satisfying and legitimately moving in a way that had begun to feel rare from Disney.
15. “Zootopia” (2016)
A billion dollars and an Oscar later, and it’s already easy to forget that “Zootopia” seemed a bit ‘meh’ in advance. The premise — a city of talking animals! — was hardly groundbreaking, and after the stunning “Inside Out,” it felt like Pixar could be taking back their crown. Instead, “Zootopia” was a joy — a hugely impressive feat of world building that provides real excitement on rewatches, even as it delivers rock-solid character beats for its odd-couple central duo, go-getting bunny cop Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) and wily con-man fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) as they team up to investigate a disappearance that leads to a great conspiracy. Smartly plotted in a way that pulls of the buddy-cop vibe better than most recent live-action movies that attempted to do the same, while also pulling off the “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” trick of being a genuinely involving noir story, the film gets muddled only its politics, which are well-meaning, but perhaps makes some ‘predator’ analogies that are kind of crappy. That aside though, its success was a well-deserved thing.
14. “101 Dalmatians” (1961)
Disney’s practice of pillaging their animated back catalogue for live-action remake fodder may be amping up, but it’s not a wholly new phenomenon. By 1996, the studio made “101 Dalmatians,” a hugely successful but largely pointless live-action version of their 1961 classic which is most notable for Glenn Close‘s portrayal of villain Cruella De Vil being marginally more cartoonish than the hand-painted antecedent. The spectacle of Close treating the scenery as her own personal chew-toy aside, there’s really no comparison, as the gorgeous animated version remains one of the most touching and beautifully drawn films of Disney’s classic era, despite or perhaps because of ingenious solutions to budgetary cutbacks necessitated by the underperformance of the costly “Sleeping Beauty.” Based on Dodie Smith‘s novel, it follows dalmatian couple Pongo (Rod Taylor) and Perdita (Cate Bauer) — because in this version, the dogs talk — whose first litter of puppies is stolen by gaunt, obsessive furmongerer De Vil (Betty Lou Gerson), as they heroically expose Cruella’s whole horrible operation and, with the help of every other dog in the city it seems, rescue 99 puppies. Car chases, frozen river crossings, disguises, narrow escapes, and an Underground Railroad-style network of conspiratorial canines — if you’re not a dog lover before it begins, you will be by the end.
13. “Lady And The Tramp” (1955)
Patenting a certain kind of adorable-animals-have-an-adventure formula that continued on to “101 Dalmatians” and “The Aristocats,” “Lady And The Tramp” may not be Disney’s greatest romance, but it at least provides its single most romantic moment, thanks to the classic, much-repeated spaghetti kiss. But the film’s appeal goes far beyond that. Based in part on a dog belonging to Disney artist Joe Grant, and how it was ignored after the birth of his first child (he was still working at Disney when he died aged 97: “Up” is dedicated to him), it sees posh cocker spaniel Lady (Barbara Luddy) forced out on to the streets by a pair of Siamese cats (Peggy Lee), where she’s aided by the streetwise, rough-around-the-edges Tramp (Larry Roberts). Breaking away from well-established fairy tales for the first time since “Bambi” gives the story a certain room to breathe and makes the film feel pleasingly organic: a sweet, low-key meld of “It Happened One Night” and more child-friendly animal fare with classic characters that go beyond the title characters (even if some, namely the Siamese cats, haven’t aged well).
12. “The Hunchback Of Notre Dame” (1996)
Unfairly consigned to the “minor Disney” category, this Gary Trousdale/Kirk Wise rendering of the Victor Hugo classic is actually one of the Mouse House’s most complex films, in which magic is largely forsworn in favor of traditional religiosity. That might seem obvious, being as the setting is a rather famous Parisian church, but all the talk of God and Hellfire, as well as ethnic persecution, religious hypocrisy, infanticide, abuse of power, the sin of lust and even distrust of female sexuality (seriously!), combine to make it one pretty dark and grown-up cartoon. Of course, all that is subtext while the main story, of Not Judging By Appearances and Being True To Yourself, is Disney handbook 101: Quasimodo (Tom Hulce), the deformed bellringer of Notre Dame raised in secret by the evil, archly pious judge Frollo (Tony Jay), finds in his illicit friendship with the beautiful gypsy Esmeralda (Demi Moore) and her beau Phoebus (Kevin Kline) the courage to go out into the world. It’s an overt simplification of the epic novel, but one that actually introduces some new, interesting elements, so while the songs are a little forgettable and sidekick detail is muted (Jason Alexander, Charles Kimbrough and Mary Wickes), ‘Hunchback’ is a heady brew nonetheless.
11. “Mulan” (1998)
“Mulan,” which came at the tail end of the so-called Disney renaissance of the 1990s, is nothing if not ahead of its time. The studio’s movies haven’t always been terribly progressive, but this adaptation of a Chinese legend features a kick-ass woman of color in its lead role, and one with a somewhat fluid approach to gender at that. When her father (Soon-Tek Oh) is conscripted into the army to battle Shan Yu (Miguel Ferrer) and his invading Huns, the tomboyish Fa Mulan (Ming-Na Wen) disguises herself as a man in order to take his place, and heads off to war with the help of her dragon guardian Mushu (Eddie Murphy). Directed by Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft, the film is legitimately beautiful and truly epic in scale in a way that some of its contemporaries aren’t, with a clear, crisp art style and some stunning battle sequences. The energy drops off every time a song appears — every one of them should have been rejected — but Murphy’s vocal performance, more than just a warm-up for Donkey a few years later, helps to pick things up, and the heroine is resourceful, brave and far less bland than many Disney characters, even if the film’s feminism isn’t perfect. Given how in vogue it would seem now (not least in its appeal to the Chinese market), it’s no wonder Disney has a live-action remake in development.