Whether you’re wishing upon a star, partying under the sea, exploring a whole new world, letting it go, or feeling the love tonight, it’s an accepted absolute truth that Disney films are pure magic. And that’s where our list of the 25 best Disney animated movies comes in.
Beasts and beauties, ladies and tramps, princesses and frogs – Walt Disney Animation Studios has been creating sublime ground-breaking entertainment for almost 100 years and its feature films, starting with 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, have cemented a cinematic legacy.
As we now rank the 25 greatest Disney animated films – sorry, no Pixar on this list, folks (that’s a different list) – please keep in mind that this was a Herculean effort (a hint based on one of the movies on the list, perhaps?) involving the weighing of time-honored classics, new upstart arrivals, the famed ’90s resurgence/revival, and our own individual favorites. It’s a blending of the best and brightest that Disney has to offer.
Mirror, mirror, on the wall, what’s the fairest Disney film of all? Let’s take a journey of whimsy, wonder and wickedness – watch the video at the top of this page for the full list, or check out our picks below for the 25 best Disney animated movies ever!
Though not the first adaptation, or re-telling, of the famous fairy tale (which has origins dating back to a Greek story from the 1st century BC), Disney’s 1950 box office smash Cinderella is truly iconic. As one of the biggest risks of Walt Disney’s career, Cinderella would pay off big time, becoming his most successful film since Snow White and helping to save Disney Animation after a string of under-performing films that saddled the studio with a $4 million debt.
With a tighter initial budget that forced filmmakers to shoot in live-action first, Cinderella would overcome numerous obstacles, delighting movie-goers with imaginative art, glowing colors, mischievous humor, memorable songs (“A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” etc) and an endearing rags-to-riches story about unjust oppression and triumphant reward. The glass slipper, the Fairy Godmother, Jaq and Gus – Cinderella is a parade of majestic moments.
Based on the surreal mid-Victorian era novels by Lewis Carroll, 1951’s Alice in Wonderland wasn’t received well by critics when it was first released, but has since been hailed a triumph of animation far ahead of its time. With bold and vibrant colors, trippy characters voiced by luminaries like Sterling Holloway and Ed Wynn, and an abstract adventure that attracted the ’60s counterculture some years later, Alice in Wonderland has become a somewhat subversive cult classic among the Disney canon.
Combining the Carroll books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, this fun and flashy film utilized iconic artist Mary Blair to create a narrative full of popping wonders and dreamlike oddities.
Loosely based on a story that, in turn, is loosely based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “The Frog Prince,” Disney’s The Princess and the Frog took the “fairy tale” out of Europe and perfectly placed it in America – 1920s New Orleans to be specific.
Taking cues from studio classics like Lady and the Tramp and Bambi, 2009’s The Princess and the Frog would dip its toe into the past as the first Disney film after a six-year break to be a traditional hand-drawn feature. It would also look ahead to the future, however, as Anika Noni Rose’s Tiana – a 19-year-old waitress who dreams of owning her own restaurant – would be the first-ever black Disney Princess.
The film’s old-fashioned Bayou charm harkens back to the studio’s golden era – helping it stand out during a time when animated features were riddled with pop-culture gags and goofs – while the story enchants with smart and sweet swampland critters, evil voodoo sorcerers, and ageless themes.
With a shared spaghetti string kiss that would become a landmark moment for every rom-com to follow it, Lady and the Tramp was a massive hit for Disney back in 1955 – a love story that still endures the test of time. Based on the antics of story developer Joe Grant’s own English Springer Spaniel Lady, combined with Ward Greene’s short story “Happy Dan, the Whistling Dog,” Lady and the Tramp created mismatched magic set to songs co-written by pop singer Peggy Lee (who also voices one of the dogs).
As the first animated feature filmed in the (brand-new, at the time) CinemaScope widescreen process, Lady and the Tramp captivated crowds with the story of the refined and proper Lady falling for a stray street-wise mutt called Tramp. During production, Disney offices were filled with live animals for the animators to reference so that the tale could be told exclusively from the point of view of the animals. The story may not have the scale of other Disney classics, but the simple charm and richly colored animation make it one of the best of the bunch.
With a highly-anticipated sequel due out this fall, 2012’s wonderful Wreck-It Ralph – a Disney-meets-video games project that had been in development for over 20 years – is ultimately a story about outcasts finding their place in the world, and becoming comfortable in their own skin.
Centered on the title character (voiced by John C. Reilly), who for 30 years has been a villain inside of an 8-bit video game, Wreck-It Ralph follows this so-called “bad guy” on a journey to redefine himself, placing us within the world of games for an adventure steeped in both nostalgia and the new – a cyber-world populated by everything from Mario to Sonic to Q*bert to Lara Croft. It’s the most pop culture-laced Disney project to date, but it still contains the gorgeous visuals and genuine emotion you’d expect from Disney Animation.
As the last of the classic animated fairy tales produced by Walt Disney himself, 1959’s Sleeping Beauty was initially a disappointment at the box office, but has come to be recognized as one of the greatest and most beloved of Disney’s golden era. This is the studio at its most iconic, with frolicking woodland creatures, a warbling princess, an evil sorceress and a handsome prince on a majestic steed.
Filled with vibrant color, modern designs and music based on the Tchaikovsky ballet, it looks and sounds different than any of the films that came before. The meticulously hand-painted cells inspired by medieval art have a stylized look to them and a striking palette filled with unusual combinations of violet, green, ochre, indigo and fuchsia. The final climactic battle between Prince Phillip and Maleficent in the form of a gigantic dragon remains one of the most beautiful and thrilling sequences ever animated.
One of the most witty and entertaining Disney films of all time, with one of the most memorable villains in cinema history, the quasi-musical 101 Dalmatians from 1961 gave audiences a scrappier, sketchier animation style – thanks to new Xerox technology (and a modest budget compared to predecessor Sleeping Beauty) – coupled with a fun family adventure about a litter of Dalmatian puppies who are kidnapped by a wealthy, fashion-obsessed heiress who wants to use their fur to make into coats.
It’s the Betty Lou Gerson-voiced Cruella de Vil, and her renowned theme song, that steal the show however. Rumored to have been modeled after Zsa Zsa Gabor, Cruella’s look, flair, and crazed cackle instantly infused her into the ranks of the most malicious movie evil-doers of all time. Though not a plush spectacle, 101 Dalmatians runneth over with heart, humor, and hu… dogmanity.
Disney’s rollicking 1999 adaptation of “Tarzan of the Apes” by Edgar Rice Burroughs capped off the studio’s ’90s win streak with an animated feast of sweeping 3D backgrounds, using a then-new technique (called “Deep Canvas”) that allows CGI to resemble a traditional painting.
With a revolutionary visual flow and style that pushed the envelope of the entire medium, and Academy Award-winning music from Phil Collins (“You’ll Be In My Heart” took home Best Original Song that year), Tarzan is a spirited, thrilling spectacle featuring rich storytelling and colorfully conceived art that put a new special spin on the much-told tale of a young man raised by gorillas in the jungles of Africa.
This instant classic from 2010 featured Disney’s charming take on the German fairy tale “Rapunzel.” With the company momentarily focused on gender-neutral titling, as we’d see again with 2013’s Frozen, Tangled told the story of a young princess with magical long hair, voiced by Mandy Moore, who’s held prisoner by a woman who uses the girl’s innate powers to cheat death.
With 3D art inspired by oil-on-canvas Rococo-style paintings, Tangled was a compelling and complex mix of adventure and romance that brought together both modern and classic elements of Disney. Tangled, while wildly loved by fans, also holds the strange distinction of being the most expensive animated feature of all time thanks to an extremely long development process as well as extensive testing done for the animation processes (as it was the company’s first-ever fully computer-animated film).
More of an out-and-out comedy than most Disney offerings, and coming on the heels of Disney’s ’90s resurgence, 2000’s The Emperor’s New Groove was a slight detour from more traditional studio fare in favor of a slapstick-driven mismatched buddy adventure featuring a more markedly Chuck Jones cartoon-ish animation style.
Featuring the voices of David Spade, John Goodman and Patrick Warburton, New Groove is a redemption tale centered on an arrogant teenage Incan emperor named Kuzco who is transformed into a llama by his ex-adviser. The roller coaster production for the film – which began as a more mature and traditional Disney story called Kingdom of the Sun (featuring six songs by Sting!) – saw the entire project change packaging and switch tone after the box office disappointments of both Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Though New Groove is purposefully less grand and epic than most of Disney’s offerings, it’s still a hearty and hip hero’s journey filled with unabashed silliness and nonsense.
Using amiable anthropomorphic animals to tell the legend of Robin Hood, this offbeat oddball gem from 1973 featured acclaimed folksy songs and a Butch and Sundance buddy movie tone that helped it become, at the time, Disney’s highest grossing film to date.
Robin Hood takes some knocks because it features some recycled bits of animation and its low-key conventional charm is way different from the majesty showcased in other company classics, but sometimes simpler designs and humbler approaches make for the most beloved stories.
Despite World War II spelling out box office doom for most of Disney’s films in the ’40s, the classic Dumbo, from 1941, which was purposefully designed to be short and bare-bones simple, managed to be the most successful picture for the studio in that decade. At 64 minutes, Dumbo was a pleasant, straight-forward alternative to the ambition of Fantasia from the previous year.
Though modest in delivery, Dumbo, about a lowly circus elephant that’s constantly and cruelly ridiculed for having comically over-sized ears, stands as one of the most precious and endearing animated films of all time. With simpler animation than its predecessors, and watercolor backgrounds, Dumbo is a small story that delivers a giant-sized emotional punch, teaching us that while we all might yearn to be like everyone else, it’s our differences that define us and make us special.