Last week I shared my list of the ten most overrated Disney animated features. While it’s true that many Disney cartoons get more attention than they deserve, just as many don’t get the acclaim that they should. Here’s my list of the top ten underrated Disney animated movies. Who knows? Maybe you’ll discover a new favorite among this list.
10. Fantasia (1940)
No one can deny the artistic spectacle that is Fantasia. There wasn’t anything like it before, and there really hasn’t been anything since, other than Michael Eisner’s attempt to recreate the magic with Fantasia 2000.
Fantasia makes this list because most everybody fails to realize what an audacious project the film was. Walt Disney and his collaborator, arranger and conductor Leopold Stokowski, took a tremendous risk combining animation with classical music, and the gamble didn’t pay off right away, as it took years for the feature to turn a profit.
I consider Fantasia underrated because most moviegoers (even Disney fans) just don’t understand how bold and revolutionary an undertaking this piece of art truly is.
9. The Black Cauldron (1985)
Too few Disney fans name 1985’s The Black Cauldron among their favorites. It was the first Disney animated feature to incorporate computer-generated images, was the most costly cartoon ever made at the time (and tied for the most expensive movie), and it flopped miserably at the box office.
The problem with The Black Cauldron, as compared to pretty much every other Disney production, lies in the fact that it’s so dark. In fact, the subject matter generated controversy between Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg over cutting some of the more intense scenes.
The Black Cauldron may not work well for the younger set, but it’s still a striking artistic achievement and worth seeing, at least for older viewers.
8. Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
Wreck-It Ralph was one of Disney Animation Studios’ attempts to create a computer-generated hit like those from Pixar, and this one worked. The story of a video game bad guy who decides to change his lot in life resonates and captivates. The depiction of the video game world, complete with characters from the classic video games of the 1980s, is a total knockout. Everything about Wreck-It Ralph hits on nearly all cylinders.
So why did I include it on this list? Well, it’s here mainly because, even though it did well critically as well as at the box office, it seemed to just disappear. Nobody has talked much about it since its time in the theaters, which is too bad, because Wreck-It Ralph brings tons of fun along with the requisite message, and it provides a nice kick of nostalgia for the adults in the audience.
7. Mulan (1998)
Many critics consider the Disney animation renaissance that began with The Little Mermaid in 1989 to have ended with 1999’s Tarzan (which I abhor), but I beg to differ. The way I see it, the renaissance ended with Pocahontas in 1995 but made a brief comeback in 1998 with Mulan.
Mulan tells a tale from Chinese lore of Fa Mulan, a woman who masquerades as a male solder to help fight the Hun invasion. With a style intended to resemble Asian art and excellent voice work (especially musically, featuring Lea Salonga, Donny Osmond, and ’80s pop star Matthew Wilder), Mulan is truly unique among Disney’s animated movies. Eddie Murphy’s Mushu is one of the most appealing and clever sidekicks in the modern Disney canon.
Mulan doesn’t get the love that some of the other Disney princess films do, and we don’t see much from it in the parks either. That’s a shame, because Mulan is a rare bright spot in the late ’90s-early ’00s Disney output.
6. The Princess and the Frog (2009)
I’ve been a fan of The Princess and the Frog from the start. The 2009 feature made history with the characterization of Tiana as Disney’s first African-American princess, but she’s more notable (or at least as notable) to me as the studio’s first American princess – and a Southerner to boot.
Disney reportedly expressed disappointment at the lackluster box office performance of this film, but they should still be proud of it. The Princess and the Frog is the total package: top-notch writing and animation, excellent voice work, and terrific songs. The sweltering New Orleans setting is exotic enough to create intrigue, yet it’s still quintessentially American.
Tiana and company deserve a place in the pantheon of Disney’s best cartoons, and I hope with time The Princess and the Frog will see more of the affection it deserves.
5. The Rescuers (1977)
I’ve always held a special place in my heart for The Rescuers, mainly because it is the first animated feature I remember seeing in the theater. I included the sequel, The Rescuers Down Under, in my list of overrated cartoons, but the original, in which Bernard and Bianca of the Rescue Aid Society free the orphan Penny from the evil Madame Medusa, is one of the few Disney classics of the 1970s.
The Rescuers blends the right amount of comedy and action – and not too much sweetness – for a Disney film, and the voice performances are pitch-perfect. Critics hailed it as the beginning of a new golden era in animation, but, unfortunately, they were about a dozen years too early. Regardless of its place in Disney history, The Rescuers deserves more affection that it has received, especially over the last few years.
4. The Sword in the Stone (1963)
The Sword in the Stone retells the legend of King Arthur in a way that only Disney could. So maybe it didn’t make history like a Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and it’s not an artistic triumph like Cinderella, but I can’t help but think that more fans should flock to The Sword in the Stone, especially considering how few Disney cartoons aim so squarely for boys. The film seamlessly blends comedy and action with appealing songs by the Sherman Brothers in a winning combination.
The fact that The Sword in the Stone rarely makes lists of the best Disney animated features doesn’t do this movie justice. Of course, Disney bears part of the blame for doing next to nothing to promote it these days, which is sad because The Sword in the Stone deserves a wider audience.
3. Robin Hood (1973)
There’s so much to love about Robin Hood – the clever forest animal characterizations, the breezy script, Roger Miller’s wonderful songs. Yet people tend to forget the 1973 feature from time to time. I’ve had plenty of conversations with friends where they will name their favorite Disney movies, and they’ll fondly remember Robin Hood only after a gentle reminding.
Disney put a terrific spin on the legends of Robin Hood, Maid Marian, Friar Tuck, and the rest, and I don’t really know why people forget about it. The film has a look and pacing that’s decidedly different from most anything before or since. I just wish Robin Hood would get the love it deserves.
2. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
When family members suggested The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad for this list, I thought including the film would be tantamount to cheating, but I dug around and found out that Disney A to Z: The Official Encyclopedia lists the 1949 release as a feature, which is good enough for me.
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad packages the shorts “The Wind in the Willows” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” into one feature. You can’t beat it for sheer entertainment – Mr. Toad’s story is a rollicking comic adventure, while Ichabod’s tale spins chills in a way only Disney can. At the time, the studio couldn’t top narrators Bing Crosby and Basil Rathbone for star power, either.
The cartoon also bore its indelible stamp on the Disney theme parks. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” provided the inspiration for the upstate New York setting of Walt Disney World’s Haunted Mansion, while “The Wind in the Willows” gave us Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, one of the most beloved attractions at Disneyland (and, alas, dearly departed from Walt Disney World).
1. Dumbo (1941)
It’s hard to name a more charming animated film than Dumbo. Walt ordered the studio to make the feature on the cheap as an avenue to make enough money to cover the losses from movies like Fantasia and Pinocchio. Barely long enough to be a feature at only 64 minutes, Dumbo is elegant in its simplicity.
Sweet without being saccharine, simple without being too childish, encouraging and heartwarming, Dumbo represents the purest distillation of Disney’s entertainment. The very cartoons that Dumbo was made to bail out have overshadowed it over the years, which is a shame.
Though Disney fans have a special place in their hearts for the film, Dumbo still winds up being overlooked compared to the more artistic and technically advanced features of the era. And that’s too bad, because there’s a lot to love about Dumbo.
What are your favorites? Feel free to share in the comments section below.