Having now completed my work ranking every Pixar film, it only seems right that I turn my attention to the Mouse House itself. That’s right, Disney. Now, I’ve had a bit of a rough-and-tumble history with Disney – I still do. Part of it was being an obnoxious contrarian, part of it was I always preferred the works of Pixar, but Disney’s animation was never a huge part of my childhood, outside of a few beloved titles. I didn’t develop an appreciation of the artistry until much later in my life – and even that comes with a few caveats surrounding their…complex history. But we aren’t here to deride. We’re here to celebrate. The only problem is, there are way too many films to make up an ordinary Top Ten List. So I’ve decided to split my Disney rankings into two lists. And we’re going to start things off with the Top Ten Underrated Disney Films.
Now, this is a bit of a weird and loaded title. What exactly qualifies an “underrated” Disney film? Well, there are some Disney films that, despite cult followings and appreciation later on in life, just simply never clicked the way they were supposed to. Ask any kid on the street about Aladdin, and you’ll get an earful about Genie and the carpet scene. Ask any kid on the street who The Rescuers are, and you’ll get blank looks, despite being a major Disney release with two of the biggest stars of the 70s. I’m here to look at Disney’s experimental flops, esoteric masterpieces, and lesser-known masterpieces. I don’t have much to address in terms of my Honorable Mentions – that’ll spoil next week’s list. But I will give you a couple, just to give you some examples. In the Age of Walt, The Three Caballeros was a weird, entertaining little masterpiece starring Donald Duck. The Sword in The Stone is a gorgeously animated work of Arthurian legend, even if it isn’t very memorable overall. The Aristocats is a little too sweet for most audiences, but man, are those musical sequences fun, and those little kittens adorable. Hercules takes some weird risks, even if it is a bit basic overall (and James Woods is one of Disney’s best villains). Lilo and Stitch is a light, warmhearted romp with great characters and story. And in terms of swinging for the fences, Dinosaur is a stunning work of animation – it’s just a shame they blew their budget on that first ten minutes. There. Now that we’ve got those out of the way, let’s swing on over to the Top Ten Underrated Disney Films.
10. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mister Toad
I believe the reason Ichabod and Mister Toad isn’t quite as fondly remembered is because the two short films that make up its runtime are so unfathomably different. I mean, you’re jumping from a batsh*t fantasia of wackiness and shroom-inspired hilarity to a sharply executed, hauntingly moody ghost story. Yet despite the two having nothing in common outside of literary legacy, the two disjointed halves do offer some of Disney’s best work. In the first half, focused on The Wind in the Willows, we get a madcap adventure surrounding attempts to have the adventurous Mr. Toad incarcerated in order to keep him from bankrupting himself. The piece works because of Mr. Toad’s borderline insanity, and the hilarious imagery of his frequent attempts to drive motorcars. However, lest audiences assume the first half was the weirdest entry, Disney also offered us his take on Sleepy Hollow, complete with a terrifying ghosts (the Headless Horseman is a Top Ten Disney creation), humorous romances, and, in the weirdest, cleverest choice, Bing Crosby playing every role, and crooning out the legend of the Headless Horseman. In fact, Ichabod alone may be the greatest short film Disney ever produced. I’m not sure the two halves make much sense together, but based on the quality of the animation, the stellar voice work, and the stories at play, this remains one of the most underrated Disney films of all time.
9. Treasure Planet
Treasure Planet is one of the biggest failures in Disney history, from a box office standpoint. Which is insane to me, because it’s also one of the most dazzlingly impressive. An adaptation of the classic children’s story Treasure Island, Planet finds a way to turn the classic seafaring tale into an extravaganza, all while remaining relatively faithful to the original source material. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is an excellent Jim Hawkins, Brian Murray is a terrifying John Silver (here updated from a one-legged man into a cyborg), Martin Short as B.E.N. (again, here updated into a robot who had his memory wiped, as opposed to an insane castaway) just makes sense, and, in a twist that wouldn’t make sense if not executed so well, Squire Trelawney and Captain Smollett are transformed into a romantic couple, here played by David Hyde Pierce and Emma Thompson. However, what makes this film work isn’t the loyalty to the source; it is the dedication to detail and sumptuous animation that makes this film soar. There’s the opening skysurfing scene, the supernova shipwreck, the subtle design on the spherical map, and the update from a talking parrot to a little blob named Morph. There is a great deal of care and creativity in these visuals and images, none of which were appreciated by the early-aughts audience. But this is a film that dazzles on the big screen, and deserves to be treated as one of Disney’s best.
8. Atlantis: The Lost Empire
Atlantis: The Lost Empire is an oddball Disney film. If you asked me, based on the script alone, if it deserved a spot on this list, the answer would be no. But, if you asked me if the style and general story were worthy of entry, I might be willing to change my tune. For Atlantis is a throwback to a style of adventure film long since dead, much in the same vein as Raiders of the Lost Ark. The cast is something to be marveled at, with each actor perfectly capturing a classic archetype – Michael J. Fox’s frantic map expert, Don Novello in his best cinematic role as an Italian explosives expert, Jacqueline Obradors as a mechanic, John Mahoney as an eccentric billionaire, and James Garner as a sinister U.S. Army Commander who wants nothing more than imperialism. The fantasy world they build for Atlantis is filled with sumptuous blues and whites, creating extravagant sequences, including an underwater battle with a robot leviathan, as well as the now-legendary opening sequence capturing the tsunami that wiped out the once-dazzling city 8,000 years ago. And long before Lord of the Rings and Avatar created their own iconic languages, Disney poured months of research into creating an entire language for the Atlantean people. This is a dazzling film of world-building and special effects, and it deserves to be treated with far more respect than it received.
7. Wreck-It Ralph/Ralph Breaks The Internet
As one of only three Disney series to receive a sequel (one of the other two will be appearing later, the other will receive a reference in the future), it only seems fitting that Wreck-It Ralph and Ralph Breaks The Internet both make the cut. As different as they are thematically, they both reflect an intelligence, not only in the writing, but in animation and performance as well. The original film was pitched on a simple premise: what if Who Framed Roger Rabbit? But for video games, with the Donkey Kong style villain trying to become a good guy? The dialogue was sharp and warm, the animation subtle and dazzling, and the actors were perfectly cast, including John C. Reilly as Ralph, Sarah Silverman as a lovably obnoxious glitch, Jack McBrayer as the goody-two-shoes Mario-type, and especially Alan Tudyk as King Candy, who may be one of Disney’s all-time great villains. The sequel, meanwhile, keeps the gorgeous animation and sharp writing, but changes gears. Vanellope’s glitch becomes a metaphor for anxiety and depression, while Ralph’s desire to be a good friend, believably, transforms him into a clingy, gaslighting monster. It’s a very intelligent lesson bundled up in a film that ends in a Rick Roll. Divided, both films are good and worthy of this list. Together, they are a duo of the most underrated Disney films in history.
6. The Emperor’s New Groove
Midnight Run-style comedies are always a hoot – everyone loves an oddball pairing of a motormouth jerk and a sardonic everyman. When The Emperor’s New Groove first debuted in 2000, it received a generally mixed response, mainly because the llama angle, while interesting, weirded people out. It’s a shame, because they missed out on one of Disney’s most engaging, entertaining, and original pieces of work to date. John Goodman’s sardonic straight man plays perfectly off of David Spade’s sarcastic narcissist. Their chemistry – whether bickering or coming together – is perfectly paced and intelligently told. And in a move that, in theory, should not work, the humor shifts away from Disney’s traditional formula of comedy and towards the work of Mel Blanc and Chuck Jones on the Looney Tunes, with its troublemaking squirrels, smart-alecky children, and fourth-wall breaking jokes (including a Tom Jones-esque lounge singer voiced by Tom Jones). And lurking in the background of every scene are a drag-ready Eartha Kitt as Yzma, an insidious advisor plotting to overthrow Emperor Kuzco and speaking only in campy dramatic monologues, and her dim-witted sidekick Kronk, which took Seinfeld’sPatrick Warburton and elevated him into a star. The Emperor’s New Groove flopped in 2000 when it came out. The millennials have been making an effort to save the 78-minute feature. And we should all be grateful for their efforts: Groove may be the furthest thing from a classic Disney film, but that’s what makes it one of their best.
Mulan suffered due to Disney’s waning star. By 1998, the company had wasted all of its goodwill on the underwhelming Hercules, the experimental Hunchback of Notre Dame (more on that in a minute), and the dreadful Pocahontas (yes, I said it). For this reason (and perhaps a more disappointing underlying reason…), Mulan’s budget found itself restricted, limiting its action sequences and only allowing for one star – Eddie Murphy, who in theory should not fit in with the Chinese setting. But despite its inherent simplicity, Mulan has always been a huge hit with fans – and a large part of that is its ability to prove that its not how big the budget is, it’s how you use it. Mulan’s journey is richer than almost any other Disney film to date. The story is perfectly executed, whether it’s character growth (Mulan’s finding courage, Yao, Lin, and Chien-Po finding courage, and the climax where the men cross-dress to save China are all perfectly executed). The Alexander Nevsky-inspired battles hint towards massive scales despite relatively simple animation tricks. The actors are wildly memorable, lovable, and perfectly voiced, from Ming-Na Wen as Mulan to Murphy’s comedic dragon trying to prove himself to Miguel Ferrer’s terrifying villain to Harvey Fierstein, Gedde Watanabe, and Jerry Todo’s slapstick sidekicks. Even the musical numbers all work, from “Reflection” to “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” despite the fact that it in theory should not be a musical. And while it makes no sense that Donny Osmond sings the terrific “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You,” the animation and choreography of this sequence makes it the best sports montage outside of perhaps the first Rocky. Mulan is subtly brilliant across the board, and while it’s never been praised like Mermaid or Beast (something Gene Siskel wrote in his review at the time), it deserves as much praise as we can possible muster
4. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a massive failure when it was released in 1996. To be fair, in hindsight, it’s easy to see why. Disney was known for its simplistic fairy tales, stories of good and evil with a few lighthearted jokes and the occasional spectacle. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was the antithesis to all that. It was a massive swing, steeped in the traditions of the tragic opera, emotionally rich in its portrayals of racism, fascism, and death, and featuring a villain who, at one point, quite literally thrusts into a woman’s dress as he explains that the Devil has convinced him to molest and murder the heroine. In a Disney movie. In fact, the only thing family-friendly about it was the gargoyles voiced by the likes of Jason Alexander so they could still pretend they’d made a children’s film. Yet that’s why Hunchback is so impressive – it’s the type of big swing we need more of. It’s animated scope is unlike anything else. The score abandons the classical Broadway formula to resemble something more of an operatic tragedy. On that note, the opening song by Broadway legend Paul Kandel may be one of the best songs Disney has ever written (kudos to Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz). And the voice work by Tom Hulce, Kevin Kline, Demi Moore, and especially Tony Jay is unrivaled in the Disney canon. This is Disney at its best: when it’s not so high-strung by the demands of the people and instead trying to forward the genre – creatively, emotionally, and thematically.
3. The Many Adventures of Winnie The Pooh/Winnie the Pooh
The second of three sequels (we’ll get to the third next week), how could anyone forget Winnie the Pooh? I’m not sure why Sterling Holloway’s iconic work as the bear with very little brain is inevitably left off lists of best Disney movies. Maybe it’s because it wasn’t an original film, and just a collection of much older shorts stitched together. Maybe it’s because it is designed for a far younger demographic than, say, Pinocchio or Beauty and the Beast. Who knows. But what I do know is that there are few films as magical in Disney canon as Winnie The Pooh. Every character is hilariously on-point, beautifully animated, voiced, and written, from the simply optimistic Pooh to the wondrously cocky Tigger to the adorably nervous Piglet (John Fiedler deserved an Oscar nod) to the manic-depressive donkey Eeyore. Each sequence is whimsical, warmhearted, and funny, with a subtly splendid animation style. And yet, as good as the original film may be, the sequel is, in almost every way, its equal. Disney put their all into making the sequel work – their best animators, the voice talents of Jim Cummingsand Craig Ferguson and beyond, a properly adorable screenplay, and let Robert and Kristen Lopez practice for Frozen and Coco with their witty, funny songs. And you know what? Even if it disappointed at the box office (it opened opposite the last Harry Potter movie, after all), 2011’s Winnie the Pooh is a delightfully underrated treat. I could honestly include any of the non-Disney entries in their lexicon – Pooh’s Grand Adventure, The Tigger Movie, etc. – and not lose a wink of sleep. But even if these are the only two true blue Disney films set in the Hundred Acre Wood, they are more than worthy of their spot in the Top Three of Underrated Disney films.
2. Robin Hood
It’s a point of contention over whether Disney’s Robin Hood is truly underrated. On the one hand, it doesn’t have the name power of, say, Beauty and the Beast, and was something of a disappointment when it debuted in the 70s. On the other hand, many modern-day millennials – and the furry movement at large – owe a great deal of their confusing sexual awakenings to the hot foxes and vixens that comprise this cast. But I’m not giving Robin Hood the #2 slot just because that fox has a sexy British accent that makes my heart flutter. No, I’m giving it the #2 slot because it does it quite well. There’s a recurring pattern in Disney movies that, at a certain point, the writers can’t quite figure out how to move the story along, so they just shove in some cute animal sidekick nonsense. Not so in Robin Hood: this is one of Disney’s tautest stories to date. And what’s more: it’s probably the second-best adaptation of the Robin Hood legend to date, just below Errol Flynn. Robin’s constant Bugs Bunny-ing of Prince John is a sheer delight, the action sequences are good fun (although I’ll never understand why Lady Cluck suddenly becomes a football star), the romance is sweet and earnest, and at the center of it all is Peter Ustinov’s campy queen of a prince hamming it up to great delight. And the magic of this film is the way it makes you feel like a kid again: you never once stop to think, “Wait, why is Robin Hood being performed by a bunch of animals singing 60s era folk tunes?” It’s just that good.
1. The Great Mouse Detective
Out of all the Disney movies, The Great Mouse Detective is the one that most often draws confused looks when you speak its name. And I get it – it was only mildly successful upon release during the 80s Disney slump. But here’s the thing: not only is The Great Mouse Detective a massively innovative work of art, experimenting with scale and computer animation long before Pixar would even dream of it, the film also happens to be the best version of its source material to date – something few other Disney films have come close to accomplishing. The Great Mouse Detective is the Sherlock Holmes story at its best: a pompous, yet charismatic detective, a missing person, a bumbling Dr. Dawson, and beyond. The central mystery, surrounding the kidnapping of a toymaker (as witnessed by his daughter, in a dazzling sequence) is incredibly engaging, and because we care about this mystery, we become invested in how Basil of Baker Street (the world’s smartest mouse, who lives under Sherlock Holmes’ flat) will solve the mystery. And who’s behind this mystery? None other than the legendary Vincent Pricehamming it up as Professor Ratigan, singing upbeat bar ditties about his crimes, murdering drunken henchmen, and looking truly terrifying as he fights his archrival inside of Big Ben (a stunning sequence filled with moving gears and drama and culminating in the infamous Reichenbach Fall). The Great Mouse Detective is one of Disney’s best written, best voiced, and best animated features. It’s just a shame that audiences never caught up with it.
Whelp, that wraps up my look at the Most Underrated Disney Films ever. I hope you saw some of your favorites here, and feel vindicated in your childhood loves. And if you’re currently upset that you didn’t see your favorite listed today? Maybe you’re still in luck – next week I’ll be tackling the Top Ten Greatest Disney Films. And maybe, just maybe, your favorite still has a shot. I’ll see you all next week.