For over 90 years, the Disney Studios has created some of the most memorable and enduring animated films of all time. But even a fanboy like me can admit that not everything Disney has released has been perfect. As much as Disney markets and hypes every animated feature as a classic, many of them are simply overrated. Here are the top ten.
My ground rules were pretty simple: I didn’t include Pixar’s output because they haven’t always been directly part of the Disney family. I also didn’t include the direct-to-video “cheapquels” that Michael Eisner made so famous, because they’re in a lower class all their own, and I left out the package features of the 1940s. Enjoy!
10. Meet the Robinsons (2007)
Once in a while, Disney tries to throw a bone to boys to make up for the prominence of the princesses in animated films. While the idea is worthwhile and the efforts are valiant, once in a while the more male-oriented movies fall short. 2007’s Meet the Robinsons is one of the latter.
Meet the Robinsons had a lot of potential – a twisty, time travel story with a sweet adoption plot coupled with clever, stylized animation. Instead, Meet the Robinsons is dizzying, noisy, and just falls short. Part of the cartoon’s problem may stem from the fact that John Lasseter, newly taking over as head of animation after Disney acquired Pixar, suggested a retooling.
Whatever the reason, Meet the Robinsons just didn’t make the impact that it could have.
9. The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
Walt Disney never wanted to do sequels, an aversion that went back to “The Three Little Pigs,” when people clamored for more pigs shorts. Michael Eisner had no such compunction and in 1990 Disney released its first animated feature sequel, The Rescuers Down Under.
The film made use of then-cutting-edge computer animation technology, resulting in some stunning visuals. Alas, a beautiful view can’t overcome poor writing and main characters who don’t appear until around 20 minutes into the 77 minute feature.
The Rescuers Down Under didn’t come anywhere close to capturing the magic of the original 1977 hit – one of the first movies I remember seeing in the theater – and it became the lowest-grossing cartoon of the 1990s “Disney renaissance,” which began with The Little Mermaid. Worse, it led directly to Eisner’s infamous direct-to-video cheapquels, which may be its most pernicious legacy.
8. The Aristocats (1970)
Some animated features stand the test of time and become Disney classics. Others become The Aristocats, which was one of the last projects with which Walt Disney was personally involved. The film is a story about a rich French woman’s cat, her kittens, and their stray friends. (Still awake? Let’s keep going.)
The real problem with The Aristocats is that it’s just…there. Nobody remembers the songs. Nobody counts the cartoon’s characters among their favorites. Nobody really seems to care.
The Aristocats never really made a long-lasting impact, yet Disney counts it among its animated classics. The real question is – why?
7. Planes (2013)
The cliché goes that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Even so, a pale imitation may not exactly flatter. In 2013, Disney released Planes, a spinoff of Pixar’s successful Cars franchise — produced through Disney’s animation division rather than through Pixar. The studio initially planned a direct-to-video release for the film, but chose instead to debut it in theaters.
Like Cars, Planes is noisy, bright, and colorful, yet it doesn’t quite capture the magic. It feels more like a cheap imitation than a true spinoff. I suppose it’s cute enough, but honestly, it feels like a throwaway, much like the direct-to-video cheapquels of the Michael Eisner era. It’s a shame for Disney to saddle the successful legacy of Cars with such a poor imitation.
6. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Some people have the Disney renaissance ending at the dawn of the 2000s, but I end it with Pocahontas in 1995, though I’m not even a big fan of that movie. 1996’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame for me marks the beginning of the period of diminishing returns in quality that doesn’t end until the merger of Disney and Pixar.
Disney tried to stay as faithful as they could to the source material, while making it less dark and eliminating Victor Hugo’s criticism of the Catholic Church – though some have claimed that the film goes after Christians in general.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame simply isn’t that memorable, though Disney has tried to cement the cartoon’s status as a classic. Unfortunately, like Quasimodo, some creations don’t fit in for obvious reasons.
5. Oliver & Company (1988)
With the release of The Little Mermaid in 1989, the second golden era of Disney animation began and continued through at least the mid-1990s, depending on who’s making the pronouncement. The last film before this renaissance was 1988’s Oliver & Company. The idea of Oliver Twist in the animal world came from the same brainstorming session with Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg that produced The Little Mermaid and Treasure Planet.
Expectations were high, with voice talent from Bette Midler and Billy Joel among others and songs by Midler, Joel, and Huey Lewis (bear in mind the era). However, lackluster animation and a poor script (13 people received story credit) bogged down the film, and the finished product was cheesy and unmemorable. Oliver & Company now sits on the wrong side of a historical dividing line in animation history.
4. The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
Some movies’ backstories wind up being more interesting than the finished product. Following the success of The Lion King, Disney began work on an animated feature called Kingdom of the Sun. The film promised to be a fun twist on The Prince and the Pauper, but changes in writers and target dates, along with Michael Eisner’s meddling, resulted in the finished product. Trudie Styler, the wife of Sting (whose music graces the film), chronicled the changes in her documentary The Sweatbox.
Three words should keep The Emperor’s New Groove on lists like these in perpetuity: “starring David Spade.” You can’t forget that it’s Spade doing the animated mugging throughout the cartoon. As a result, The Emperor’s New Groove is messy, only marginally funny, and forgettable.
3. Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Some may argue that Disney’s 1951 animated version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass went underappreciated for many years (at least until the psychedelic ’60s), but I would argue that Alice in Wonderland is too surreal and weird for its own good.
The weird, trippy episodes – I have a hard time saying that Alice in Wonderland has a plot – mirror the source material. The movie as a whole takes on an almost cynical tone that doesn’t really fit in with the spirit of most Disney films. In fact, Walt himself stated that he believed the film failed because the character of Alice had no “heart.”
I love Mary Blair’s influence on the style of the film, and Kathryn Beaumont’s voice work as Alice is top notch. But neither of those high points can salvage a movie that just doesn’t merit being called a classic.
2. Tarzan (1999)
The concept of a Disney animated Tarzan film had the potential to be exciting. Instead, we got 1999’s Tarzan. The cartoon follows the Tarzan legend fairly faithfully, but the movie is weak altogether.
The animation falls short of Disney’s standards, especially after the “Disney renaissance” that started with The Little Mermaid. (I read an article that tried to categorize Tarzan as part of the renaissance, but I’m not buying it.) Then there are the Phil Collins songs – someone should rescind any awards he won for that schlock! Last, but not least, there’s the character of Terk, a young gorilla featuring the voice of Rosie O’Donnell – the second most annoying film character of 1999 (behind Jar Jar Binks).
Stay away from Tarzan. It’s not worthy of Disney in most every way, but then again, I could be bitter that the company replaced the Swiss Family Treehouse attraction at Disneyland with Tarzan’s Treehouse. Nah, the movie really is that bad.
1. Lilo & Stitch (2002)
In 2002, Disney released a cartoon starring the most annoying character in the company’s history: Lilo & Stitch. Stitch follows a long line of one of the worst character tropes – the alien who speaks largely in broken English with a screechy voice. Throughout the movie, Stitch gets into one cloyingly mischievous predicament after another. There’s nothing cute about him or the film in general.
For some reason, Disney decided Stitch warranted an addition to the top stars in the studio’s canon. An animated series followed, along with a spitting statue at World of Disney and an attraction at Walt Disney World. Not only did the Imagineers phase out the clever, scary Extra Terrorestrial Alien Encounter in Tomorrowland for Stitch’s Great Escape (complete with chili dog fart scent effect), they celebrated opening the attraction by defacing Cinderella Castle as though Stitch had done it.
Lilo & Stitch is a terrible movie featuring an irritating character which the company continues to foist on its guests and fans. Disney should be ashamed of tripe like this!
What are your picks for the most overrated animated movies in the Disney canon?
See also from Chris: The 10 Most Underrated Disney Animated Films