Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers for the Disney films on this list.
Disney+ finally reached the UK in March, several months after its US release. I was actually already a subscriber to a different Disney streaming service, Disney Life, and had been for a while, but Disney+ is better-organised, sharper, and does offer more content. Given that you may find yourself with some time on your hands at the moment, it could be a good moment to check out this streaming platform – and I believe it’s free to try for seven days.
I don’t intend for this to be a review of Disney+, but just to discuss it in a little more detail, the service delivers what it promises. Disney’s library of films – including from brands now under the Disney umbrella like Marvel and Star Wars – and Disney Channel original television shows. There’s also a limited amount of content from National Geographic, including some documentaries made specifically for Disney+. I hope to see them add more to this in future, as I love a good documentary. There are also a couple of original shows, including the first live-action Star Wars show, The Mandalorian. But save yourself time on that one because I’ve honestly not seen such a boring series in a long time.
As a childless adult man fast approaching middle-age, I admit I still feel a certain embarrassment at admitting I’m a huge Disney fan. Perhaps that’s a product of the time and place I grew up, as nowadays it seems far more acceptable! Disney has created some of the best animated feature films of all time, and even today, almost a century on from when Walt and Roy founded the company, Disney sets the bar that other animation studios wish they could reach. In the last couple of decades, the company has greatly expanded both its content and the brands it owns, growing to become one of the biggest and most powerful entertainment companies in the world.
For this list, I’ll be picking ten of my favourite Disney animated films. This isn’t a “Top Ten” ranked list; instead these are just ten films I really enjoy and I’ll be listing them in order of release. All of them are available to watch on Disney+ if you’re lucky enough to live in a part of the world where the service is already live. If not, I daresay you can find copies on DVD, Blu-ray, or by, shall we say, other means… matey.
So without further ado, let’s jump into the list. Please be aware that spoilers may be present, and that a couple of the entries on this list may have scenes that are outdated and/or insensitive.
Number 1: Peter Pan (1953)
There’s a ride at Disney World – and I believe at other Disney parks too – based on 1953’s Peter Pan called Peter Pan’s Flight. If you ever find yourself at the Magic Kingdom I highly recommend it; it’s one of my favourite rides there.
By 1953 Disney was already well-established as the best studio in town for animation. Peter Pan retells – faithfully, at least by Disney standards – the JM Barrie story, which had been a play in 1904 and a novel in 1911. You know the story, of course: Peter Pan lives in Neverland, a place where children never grow up, and has adventures with the Lost Boys while trying to stay one step ahead of his pirate nemesis, Captain Hook. It’s a story which has become a classic, in fact it already was a classic when it was given the Disney treatment. Disney films have been incredibly successful using this formula – taking a classic story and presenting it in a child-friendly manner. In 1953 that explanation described a good portion of Disney’s back catalogue, as indeed it still does today.
Peter Pan introduces a number of characters who would become Disney favourites, including Captain Hook, who is, in some respects, the archetypal film pirate even today (though the “pirate accent” is based on another film of the 1950s, Treasure Island). Tinker Bell, Peter’s fairy friend whose magical dust allows him and the children to fly, also debuts here. Tinker Bell has become a legend in her own right in the wider Disney universe, and is the subject of numerous spin-offs including her own film series.
One thing that always surprises me about older Disney films is how good the animation is – even rendered in full HD on a big-screen television. I was downright shocked to learn, in my youth, that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was as old as it was; it still holds up today. As does Peter Pan – the animation, which was all hand-drawn and hand-painted, looks amazing and hasn’t aged a day. Unlike some computer-animated titles, Peter Pan and other hand-drawn films are timeless.
The story is a pure-hearted swashbuckling adventure, as Peter and Wendy lead the Lost Boys to victory against the nefarious Captain Hook. Some of the scenes and references are undeniably dated by today’s standards – I’m thinking in particular of the way Wendy’s leadership is only seen as something maternal, and of course the now-infamous portrayal of Tiger Lily and the Native American tribe. I don’t believe, however, that either of those things are reason to hide Peter Pan or try to pretend it doesn’t exist.
Number 2: The Aristocats (1970)
Often overlooked, as it came out only three years after the incredibly-successful The Jungle Book, The Aristocats is nevertheless a brilliant and fun film with some great musical numbers. Production began shortly before Walt’s death in 1966, and thus The Aristocats is the last film he actively worked on and approved before passing away.
1961’s 101 Dalmations had proven a great success as an adventure story with animal protagonists and human villains, and that basic formula was reused for The Aristocats too. When a rich older lady decides to leave her fortune to her cats – instead of to her butler – he schemes to get rid of them to get his hands on her money. Taking the cats far away from their home, they meet a fun and eclectic cast of characters on their journey home.
As someone with several cats of my own, I do enjoy a good cat-themed story! And while The Aristocats doesn’t do anything radically different or new in terms of its animation style or story – both of which are comparable to Disney’s earlier output – it’s a sweet film that’s greatly enjoyable. Its music celebrates the jazz era of its 1910s-20s setting, and there’s a distinctly old-fashioned feel throughout – but not in a negative way.
There are some great musical numbers, all of which fit into that jazz/swing theme, as the cats make their way home. Marie, one of the kittens, has become a permanent fixture on Disney merchandise, though many of the younger people picking up those items haven’t seen The Aristocats in full! If that applies to you or your little ones, I definitely recommend sitting down to watch the film.
Number 3: Robin Hood (1973)
I mentioned at the beginning that this list doesn’t rank the films in order of how much I like them, but if it did, Robin Hood would be the undisputed number one. It’s my all-time favourite Disney film. Purely from a subjective point of view, of course!
Disney’s output between the “classic” era of the 1930s-50s and the “Renaissance” of the late 1980s-90s that we’ll look at in a moment is often ignored by fans today, and I think that’s a great shame. Perhaps it’s because I grew up on titles like Robin Hood, but I think that it has a lot to offer.
The hand-drawn animation retains much of the Disney charm of years gone by, and though it doesn’t necessarily bring anything new to the table compared to earlier titles, it still looks fantastic today – and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! There was some recycling present in the film’s animation – most notably in the character of Little John, which is a copy of Baloo, the bear from 1967’s The Jungle Book. In fact, both characters are actually voiced by the same actor – Phil Harris, who also voiced Thomas O’Malley in The Aristocats – which further drives home the point. Even this recycling was actually Disney being cutting-edge; the process used to make exact copies of drawings was an early precursor to photocopying.
Robin Hood is a classic story, an old-world legend of a bandit who steals only to turn around and give away his money to the poor people in the community. In Disney’s adaptation, all of the characters are anthropomorphic animals, but otherwise the story doesn’t really stray too far from the confines of its source material. The inept Prince John – represented by a cowardly thumb-sucking lion, which as a kid I found to be absolutely hilarious – and his evil cohort are outsmarted by Robin and his brave Merry Men. Disney has always been great at using animals perfectly – portraying the Prince’s adviser as a sneaky snake, and the Sheriff’s men as wolves and vultures is definitely a great example of that!
The opening of Robin Hood introduces one of my favourite Disney songs, too – the beautiful Oo-De-Lally.
Number 4: Beauty and the Beast (1991)
After The Little Mermaid revived both the fortunes and reputation of Disney animation in 1989, a period known as the “Disney Renaissance” kicked off, in which the studio churned out a series of films which were both critical and commercial hits. Beauty and the Beast is the second of these films, and it’s amazing.
One of the first animated feature films to use CGI, Beauty and the Beast is groundbreaking in that regard, and the lessons Disney learned about computer animation would bear fruit later in the decade with releases like Toy Story. In that sense, Beauty and the Beast is a very important moment in the history not just of Disney, but of animated films and indeed all of cinema – as CGI has gone on to be massively important in all kinds of titles.
Beauty and the Beast managed to tell an engrossing story that was tense and dramatic, as a cursed prince learns to love for the first time. After a spell was put on him, a prince and his household staff (which seems a tad unfair to them!) were cursed to live as non-human objects, with the prince himself turned into a monster. Belle, a social outcast in her village, falls for him while in captivity.
By making Belle the protagonist, Disney has changed up its traditional princess formula. Belle is a “commoner”; a girl from the village as opposed to aristocratic or royal by birth. She’s disliked and gossiped about for enjoying reading and being intelligent, and with these points Beauty and the Beast says that it’s okay to be smart, and that any girl can be a princess – being a princess is less about where you come from than about being a good person, a theme which has carried through other Disney titles in some ways.
Number 5: Aladdin (1992)
Aladdin marked Disney’s first real attempt to make a major film based on a non-European or American legend. It’s a title which marked a change in the way Disney operated, and a risk which could have backfired. It’s a title which is now famous for the Genie – voiced by Robin Williams close to the peak of his career – who has gone on to be a major character in Disney’s merchandise empire.
The story of Aladdin was perhaps uniquely suited to get the Disney treatment as a non-European legend, as it was quite well-known even in Europe and North America, and had been for many years. I remember, as a child, seeing a pantomime version of Aladdin before the film came out. It was probably one of the very few stories from “elsewhere” that Disney could have readily adapted, at least at the time. Nowadays, with the exception of those people who want to screech “cultural appropriation!” at everything, making stories from all across the world into Disney films is something we’ve come to expect and would be fine with; in 1992 it was something different and its success was less than certain. In that sense, Aladdin paved the way for future titles – like Mulan and Moana.
Following The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin kept the “Renaissance” going, winning critical and commercial acclaim for its fun characters, great musical numbers, and exciting storyline. The Genie was, of course, the breakout star – though apparently Williams and Disney didn’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of things during the film’s production and marketing. It would also win two Oscars, and became the highest-earning film of 1992.
There would be two direct-to-video sequels to Aladdin – the first of which, The Return of Jafar, is a rare example of one of these Disney sequels being a success (at least in my opinion!) The film would be remade in 2019 in a live-action format, and while it lacks much of the character of the original, it remains probably the most watchable of the live-action remakes.
Number 6: The Lion King (1994)
For many people, The Lion King’s 1994 release was the high-water mark of the Disney Renaissance, and while there will always be a debate on that front, what shouldn’t be contentious is that this film is fantastic. A star-studded cast, including James Earl Jones, bring the characters to life, and Elton John provided an incredible soundtrack, resulting in The Lion King being spun-off to create a long-running West End and Broadway musical.
There was, at the time, some degree of controversy regarding how similar The Lion King was to a Japanese series called Kimba the White Lion, with some fans of the manga/anime franchise going so far as to accuse Disney of ripping off a significant amount of material. Whether you believe this was intentional or not, it’s worth noting that there are similarities in terms of plot and certain characters – I’ll leave the final judgement on that up to you.
The Lion King billed itself as the first ever Disney film to be a wholly original story. Setting aside the Kimba controversy, this marked a change in the way Disney would approach writing stories for its major motion pictures, and while the studio would return many times to legends, history, and existing works of fiction, The Lion King laid the groundwork for future original stories.
The cast included Jeremy Irons, Rowan Atkinson, and Whoopi Goldberg among other stars, and while The Lion King is Simba’s story, the whole main cast gets a turn in the spotlight, including being able to sing. Many of the film’s songs have become well-known classics, often heard on playlists and CDs representing the best of Disney music.
Number 7: Pocahontas (1995)
Pocahontas remains an outlier in the Disney canon. Other films are based on folklore, legends, and other published works, but the characters in Pocahontas were all real people – people whose lives are surprisingly well-documented. As you may know if you’re a regular, I’m somewhat of a history buff, and the early 1600s – the period in which Pocahontas is set – is really when record-keeping in England had begun to vastly improve in quality. Records of England’s first colony in mainland North America were meticulous, and while some information has been lost over time, for the most part we know a lot about John Smith, Pocahontas, and others who lived at the time.
The film takes a lot of liberties with the real-life story, which is always a contentious topic in historical fiction. But if we can set that argument aside, what Disney created is a film that tries very hard to celebrate Native American culture, recognising that they were the victims in Europe’s rush to colonise North America.
Compared to earlier depictions of Native Americans – like the one we talked about in Peter Pan a moment ago – Pocahontas represents them in a much fairer and less stereotypical manner. There is definitely a case of the “noble savage” – the presentation of Native Americans (and other indigenous peoples in other works) as being “better off” without contact, living peaceful, natural lives that were disrupted. Stereotypes like this aren’t always true, and while the song Savages in particular has sometimes been criticised for portraying the conflict between English settlers and Native Americans as if both were equally in the wrong, it’s worth recognising that Native American tribes, like all groups of people everywhere for all of history, could be violent. I feel like I have to justify some of these aspects of Pocahontas, as the film has recently come in for criticism, so I apologise for going off on a tangent.
Following up The Lion King was always going to be tough, and I think for that reason some of the things Pocahontas did very well, in terms of its animation and music to name but two examples, were overshadowed, especially at the time it was released.
Number 8: Lilo and Stitch (2002)
After seeing Lilo and Stitch in 2002, it was one of the first films I ever bought on DVD. I was so keen to be able to rewatch it that I even bought a DVD-player kit for my Xbox (it was cheaper than buying an actual DVD player at the time) to be able to watch it! I would go on to collect many other DVDs – before the rise of HD and streaming made the whole collection redundant.
The widely-accepted definition of the Disney Renaissance I mentioned earlier puts 1999’s Tarzan as the final film, but I’d absolutely include Lilo and Stitch alongside titles of that era. Unlike the other films of the Renaissance, Lilo and Stitch tells a wholly original story and introduces new characters to the Disney canon. Release of the film was delayed due to the 11th of September attacks in the United States in 2001, with one section of the film’s climax being reworked to avoid comparisons to that atrocity.
Lilo and Stitch steers away from the often-sanitised world of prior Disney titles, showing Lilo and her sister Nani as a dysfunctional family, with Lilo on the cusp of being taken into care by the state. By Disney standards, this was something radical and different, taking a look at the “real” world in a way no prior film really had. This is complemented by the film’s present-day setting. Lilo herself is a misfit – but someone who refuses to change or conform to fit in. The message she sends is that it’s okay for kids to be themselves, and even that it’s okay to be weird – something I wholly embrace!
Stitch is adorable, but also naughty in a way that undoubtedly appeals to kids. As the film progresses, he has a chance to show his good nature and big heart, in a story that tells the audience that genetics and how you’re born doesn’t matter – what matters is being a good person and making the choice to do the right thing. Stitch overcomes his innate badness – the desire to misbehave instilled in him by his creator – thanks to the time he spends with Lilo and her family, choosing at the end to remain with her on Earth.
The film’s soundtrack definitely deserves a mention. While there are a couple of great original songs inspired by the music of Hawaii (where Lilo and Stitch is set), the soundtrack also features several of Elvis Presley’s greatest hits, including greats like Devil in Disguise and Burning Love. As an Elvis fan, I couldn’t be happier about this, and introducing more than one new generation of kids to the music of the King is definitely something great that Lilo and Stitch has done.
Number 9: Frozen (2013)
When Frozen was released in 2013 I was living overseas for work. While browsing local cinema listings for English-language titles, I spotted Frozen, and it was the first I’d heard of it! Having missed all of the marketing I had no idea what to expect – and I was absolutely blown away.
I’m a big Christmas fan, and being released a few weeks before Christmas and with such a wintry setting, Frozen was absolutely perfect for that time of year. It was the first Disney film I’d seen in years that I felt was on par with some of the studio’s offerings in the 1990s – the height of the “Renaisannce” we’ve already mentioned.
Focusing on two sisters instead of the traditional prince and princess, Frozen shakes up the traditional Disney fairytale formula while keeping things royal for the sake of its Disney Princess brand. It was a change that absolutely worked, and the film’s “one true act of love” being sisterly love instead of romantic love was beautiful.
The big twist that Anna’s beloved Hans is in fact a villain and not the heroic prince charming she thought he was was shocking – and I can still remember the audible gasp from the audience at the cinema at that moment! By Disney standards, this was absolutely stunning, and tied in perfectly to the level-headed reasoning Elsa had shown earlier in the film when she forbade Anna to marry him. Indeed in many ways, Frozen is a film of its time, just as earlier titles were films of theirs. Acutely aware of the fact that its princesses are often seen as role models by young girls, the need to be socially responsible within the story definitely led to some of these decisions.
Frozen also has the best soundtrack of any modern Disney title – with several memorable songs like Do You Want to Build a Snowman, Love is an Open Door, Fixer Upper, and of course Let It Go, which remains an amazing song despite how frequently it was heard for at least a year afterwards… but perhaps parents of young girls would disagree on that point!
I picked Frozen for one of my top ten films of the 2010s when I made a list back in December – you can find the full list by clicking or tapping here.
Number 10: Moana (2016)
In 2016, when it was released, at least some of the hype surrounding Moana was lost due to the release six months earlier of Zootopia – which was retitled, for some stupid and inexplicable reason, Zootropolis in the UK. We’d been used to only seeing one Disney film a year, at most, so this meant that some of the pre-release marketing surrounding Moana didn’t get as much attention as it otherwise might’ve. Zootopia was a big hit, but of the two films released in 2016, Moana was by far the more enjoyable title.
Disney had begun to diversify away from Old-World European fairytales and folklore for its inspiration as far back as Aladdin and Mulan, and had brought in other non-European protagonists and princesses in films like The Princess and the Frog and even Pocahontas, but Moana was the first foray into a lesser-known culture – lesser-known, that is, from the point of view of Disney’s western audience.
The history of Polynesian peoples is long, diverse, and fascinating, with a blurred line between history and legend due to stories being passed down orally. It’s also something most people in the west have never encountered; scattered across small and remote Pacific islands, most Polynesian legends stayed within their own communities or were recorded by academics and anthropologists and never made it into the cultural mainstream. Moana looks at one of these legends and spins it into a Disney tale for the modern age.
Moana is adamant that she isn’t a princess, even reacting angrily when Māui says she is. Where Frozen had finally told a Disney Princess story in which the princesses are the heroines and have genuine agency as characters, Moana amplifies that trend by having just a single protagonist. Her bravery and determination to overcome the obstacles in front of her drives the story forward, and eventually her courage leads her to stand up in the face of a terrifying foe. Moana had help, but ultimately she had to make those decisions and fight those battles – thus out of all the princesses in Disney’s canon, Moana is the bravest and most determined, which is a great message for the film to have.
The film also has a great soundtrack, with several hit tunes such as You’re Welcome going on to be played time and again.
So that’s it. The list doesn’t include live-action Disney films like the Pirates of the Caribbean series, so perhaps we’ll have to come to live-action Disney films on another occasion. However, several of the titles on this list have had live-action remakes – and in my opinion at least, not one of them has managed to live up to the original work. A couple of them are well worth a watch – Aladdin, in particular, was at least a decent film – but none of them come close to recapturing the Disney animation magic, at least not for me.
There are more films on the horizon, with Raya and the Last Dragon being the only one with a title so far, scheduled for release in 2021. Disney+ has, in some respects, changed the way Disney approaches its films and back catalogue. Gone are the days of the “Disney vault”, with titles given only limited home video releases. Instead, the company plans to leave all of its films available all the time, and in some cases will even be experimenting with simultaneous releases in cinemas and on streaming. That has the potential to really shake up the way films are released. From a selfish point of view, as someone who can’t go to the cinema in person any more, I think it’s a positive change. But whether it will work as intended is anyone’s guess.
Several generations of people have now grown up with Disney films – even my parents’ generation, people born in the 1940s and who are now well into their 70s, remember with fondness the Disney films of their childhoods. Which titles someone may prefer is probably, at least in part, dependent on when they grew up and which ones they saw at that time. But each “era” of titles, whether we’re talking about those made before Walt Disney’s death, the “Renaissance” of the 1990s, or the modern films like Frozen all have merit, and while the way they’re made may have changed through the years, the effort and attention to detail has not. Disney remains the market leader in animation because each film is meticulously created. There may be some flops and failures, but broadly speaking, the studio’s output has been phenomenal. The fact that they’re still around and still making films after such a long time is testament to that.
It was great fun making this list, and if it helped you decide what to watch on Disney+, then as Māui said… you’re welcome!