Since 1937, Walt Disney Studios have been releasing timeless animated classics. Nearly eight decades of work have proven that Disney films manage to be perfect for the whole family, as they often contain adult themes that will go over the heads of children but the films are funny and charming enough for children to adore. Whether it is a musical, comedy or drama, Walt Disney films cater to everyone. With the release of Zootopia, the 55th feature film released by the animation studio, it’s become clear that Disney films are experiencing yet another renaissance and have returned to peak form. The following are the 10 greatest theatrical animated releases from Disney, excluding Pixar films.
10. The Jungle Book (1967)
The first animated feature to be released after the death of Walt Disney, The Jungle Book is an iconic piece of the Disney canon that is often referenced and never forgotten. The $141 million this film brought in domestically at the box office during 1967 when adjusted for inflation amounts to $641 million. That places it as the 32nd highest domestic grossing film of all time, when adjusted for inflation. It grossed just about the same amount of money as The Dark Knight. Therefore, it is surprising that it took until 2016 for a remake to occur. The live-action film is set to be released in April and has a lot to live up to. The Jungle Book may get by on charm and soundtrack, but as a total package it is a beautiful work of art and an absolute classic.
9. The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
Not quite having the appearance of a traditional Disney film, The Emperor’s New Groove may be snubbed on the list of greatest Disney titles among the Baby Boomer generation, but among Millennials it has accrued a cult following, surpassing nearly every title in the Disney canon. Featuring one of the highest replay values of any Disney film, The Emperor’s New Groove is hilarious and feels fresh. Perfectly-paced action sequences drive the plot forward while allowing the comedy to steal the show. Like the majority of the studio’s offerings, the film proves equally entertaining for children and adults alike. In a role David Spade was born to voice, this uproarious title brings much-needed fun and humor to the Disney family. At its heart a buddy comedy, The Emperor’s New Groove successfully manages to modernize the Disney brand and deserves all the respect it receives.
8. Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
When considering how influential the early works of Walt Disney were and how well the majority of these classics hold up, it is understandably difficult to make room for a 2012 title. While we can see the impact other films on this list have made on technology, pop culture and animation, it is still too early to properly place Wreck-It Ralph in perspective. That being said, it’s clear that Wreck-It Ralph is a special film. Despite being based on contemporary technology in the form of videogames, the film is able to transcend its source and appeal to old and young alike. It is one of the finest character-driven stories ever created, animated or not. Featuring a story that is relatable to everyone, Ralph lives a life that’s not glamorous by any means and has doubts about his future. What follows is the finest piece of character growth seen in a Disney film. Wreck-It Ralph manages to avoid feeling predictable, despite the cliches on human existence it so clearly flaunts. When adding wonderful nostalgia in the form of videogames, this phenomenal piece of storytelling is clearly one of the studio’s best pieces of work. With a few more years of reflection, it can possibly soar even higher on this list.
7. Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Lewis Carroll’s twisted, dark literary work is presented under the Disney name in the form of a children’s film. Taking inspiration from sources not originally intended for a young demographic, Disney proved here once and for all that the studio can take any work and present it tastefully while appealing to all ages. Taking many creative liberties on the original literary work, many eyes were initially rolled at how significant some of the changes were to the original piece. What has stood out over the test of time, however, is that after countless versions of Alice falling down the rabbit hole, it’s the Disney work that newer versions are often compared to. Newer versions of the story tend to follow this Disney masterpiece more closely than that literary work, and this version has indeed become the pop culture version of the story that is most well known. With unforgettable characters such as The Mad Hatter, The Queen of Hearts and The Cheshire Cat, Alice in Wonderland proves to be wonderfully memorable.
6. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs started it all by realizing the dream that Walt Disney had. That dream involved releasing a full-length animated feature in theaters. While that was originally viewed as an absurd notion, it goes without saying that Disney was correct in his assumptions that the film could succeed. Snow White was a massive milestone in cinema. It is quite possibly the most influential film of all time, as it set the standard for animated feature films and influenced many studios to explore and fully realize celluloid-animation. Animation allows filmmakers to present aspects that aren’t possible in live action movies. The possibilities are endless and the originality that comes with it is an aspect that Disney would completely embrace. On its own and without taking into account the foundation that Snow White would lay for future films, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs still holds up remarkably well. A classic in every sense of the word, Snow White is an endearing film that is one of the greatest achievements of our time.
5. The Little Mermaid (1989)
Kicking off what’s known as “The Disney Renaissance era” of the 1990s, The Little Mermaid revitalized the Disney brand after a stagnant period during the 80s. What would follow would be a string of the most successful animated films of all time. For the next decade, anything the studio touched would turn into gold, and The Little Mermaid was the ambassador for ushering in this golden era for Disney animation. Audiences of all ages are bound to fall in love with the catchy music, enchanting story and beautiful characters. The tale of Ariel the mermaid has become a cinematic masterpiece often studied in film classes. This film proved that Disney still had so much to offer with storytelling and presentation that could rival any live-action film. Animated features were far from dead and The Little Mermaid embraced the genre to cement its place in film history. Featuring one of the greatest villains in the studio’s history in the form of Ursula the Sea Witch, The Little Mermaid hits a home run in every aspect required for magnificent filmmaking.
4. Pinocchio (1940)
Following the success of Snow White, Disney had an uphill battle to create a work of art that could match the masterpiece that was his original work. Then Pinocchio arrived and expectations would arguably be surpassed. Ambitious and adventurous, Pinocchio is a beautifully crafted film that tugs on our emotional heartstrings. Pinocchio showed that good people can often make mistakes and the important part is how we deal with these mistakes. The story of a boy growing up and facing the temptations of adulthood as well as life, Pinocchio is an impressive work of art that features one of the best and certainly catchiest soundtracks of all time. Pinocchio is an uplifting fable that continues to shine bright and proves once and for all that animated features have a place for both young and old audiences alike.
3. Aladdin (1992)
The late Robin Williams steals the show during this outrageous comedy; however, the cast as an ensemble remains one of the most loveable and the soundtrack as a complete work is in a tier of its own. Presented with a sense of magic in order to captivate youth, Aladdin proves how wonderful it is to revisit these Disney classics. As a more knowing adult, the surprisingly sly humor and unrestrained parody proves delightfully hilarious. It’s a marvel how many jokes can fly over a child’s head during an initial watch and yet, the movie will be loved by the entire family. Aladdin is an amazing film; a perfectly-paced love story with comedy and a fiendish villain, Aladdin has it all and hits on every note.
2. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, Beauty and the Beast is one of Disney’s finest offerings. While The Silence of the Lambs is a worthy contender for the Oscar, many film historians believe that Beauty and the Beast was robbed at the 1992 Academy Awards. The awards show would eventually create a Best Animated Feature category in order to avoid these situations in the future. Beauty and the Beast is animated poetry in its truest form. A majestic, sweeping love story featuring amazing musical numbers, Beauty and the Beast proved an unforgettable tale for all ages that embodies the essence of Disney. The film features one of the most dastardly villains in the form of the arrogant Gaston, who is a refreshing departure from the wicked stepmother cliche that Disney had admittedly created.
1. The Lion King (1994)
Offering the pinnacle of Disney animation, The Lion King is without peers and stands tall as the best piece of work produced by the Walt Disney Animation Studio. The Lion King is a powerful story delivered with outstanding voice talent (Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, and Rowan Atkinson stand out, but the ensemble of voice acting is perhaps the deepest ever assembled). The Lion King is the Shakespeare of Disney. Based on the play Hamlet, The Lion King is so expertly crafted that a large portion of audiences never even realize the inspiration the story takes from Shakespeare’s tragedy. Indeed, The Lion King reaches far deeper than its source material and presents metaphors of tyranny and rebellion along with the lust for power. The Lion King is a legendary piece of artwork; a gorgeous triumph that set the standard on animated features and what can be expected of them.