The Disney Renaissance, according to most, ended after the release of Tarzan in 1999. The following 22 years have been a strange era in Disney animation, with the sad death of hand-drawn cartoons and the rocky entry into 3D animated films, along with the transition from the Eisner/Katzenberg/Roy E. Disney era of prestige-hunting creativity into an evolving identity crisis. No longer was Disney the king of animation; now they faced competition from Pixar (who would eventually be owned outright by Disney), Blue Sky, and the Katzenberg-run Dreamworks SKG studios. Though one can argue that Disney has been in a second renaissance since the release of Frozen in 2013, there’s still a remarkable difference between now and what the studio was creating just a couple decades ago.
When I sat down to watch these films chronologically, I noticed that they tended to veer in two different directions: either moving away from the “Disney” brand of animation into the realms of science fiction or modern storytelling (Bolt, Lilo & Stitch, Wreck-It Ralph) or they looked inward, examining the brand’s best-known form of storytelling while also reinventing it (Tangled, Frozen). In so many of the films I could see what the creators were trying to say or make, though it was easy to see why these films failed to reach the acclaim of their 90s predecessors. Still, there were surprises along the way, films that were unexpectedly enjoyable, and some former triumphs that, upon reexamination, started to seem a little hollow.
Note: for this list, I’ve selected only films that were made by the Walt Disney Animation Studios, and only full-length animated films. This omits films made by their television production studio and Pixar films. I’ve also used a similar ranking style to my Pixar list, and each film can get a maximum of 100 points, divided by Story (20 points), Style (15), Voice acting/Music (15), Animation (15), Humor (15), Adventure (10), and Characters (10).
22. Home on the Range (44 points)
The proverbial nail in the coffin for Disney’s hand-drawn animation studios, and for good reason — a well-intentioned little film that lacks imagination or joy, Home on the Range is a plodding save-the-farm story that is thankfully only 76 minutes long. It begins with a zoom-in on a set of cow udders (“Yes, they’re real” says the cow, voiced by Roseanne Barr) and doesn’t really change from there. I wish I had the sort of tirade against this film that I had about the Cars franchise, but thankfully it isn’t needed: the film failed and now you’ll never see a child wearing a Maggie the Cow shirt.
It’s a shame, though, because the stigma Home on the Range created for Disney led to audiences not really trusting that they would make a good film again, losing the benefit of the doubt when it came to more risky projects in the few years after it came out. To watch it is just to watch a harmless film, an experience that’s only strained by knowing that, in the end, it did so much more harm than good.
21. Dinosaur (45 points)
It’s odd that the greatest legacy of Dinosaur was that an attraction in Disney’s Animal Kingdom was renamed after it. I’m not saying that because the film is secretly great — it’s not — but because at the time of its creation it was being hailed as a new step in 3D animation, a realm that Disney had only barely begun to explore.
The production history of the film is an interesting one: it was originally developed by Paul Verhoeven, was going to use stop-motion animation, had original songs by Kate Bush, and a protagonist named Woot. The eventual film does have some spectacular moments — the opening sequence astonished me when I first saw it as a preview — thanks to the unique idea to film real settings and add animated dinosaurs to them, giving the film a depth that full CG films couldn’t create at the time. The plot, though, is a mess, and its characters are lacking dimension. Oddly paced with little humor to account for, it’s clear that Dinosaur only works as a proof-of-concept film to show that Disney could make a 3D animated feature, though clearly they didn’t yet know how to make it good.
20. Frozen II (59 points)
I have my issues with the Frozen franchise, which we’ll get to when I reach the original later in this list. I wrestle, too, with the understanding that, probably more than any other films on this list, Frozen was not meant to appeal to me, that it’s meant to be a safe, gentle film for kids, an empowering princess story for girls. The problem is that there are so many of those films and other pieces of children’s media that are just as accessible as Frozen II and still manage to convey better stories, more developed characters, and deliver greater lessons. Many are on this list!
This is only compounded by the fact that there are several points within the film where the characters out-loud explain the stakes and importance of the story, as though to make it true (at one point a character says, out loud, “I feel like going into the forest[where most of the plot happens] changed all of us!”). And yes, a lot does happen in this story, but so little actually changes — sure, Elsa restores the natural balance between the elements and restores Arendelle’s relationship with a neighboring society, but none of those aspects existed in the prior film, and neither do they seem to relate deeply to the characters’ sense of identity or internal growth. Instead we have forced conflicts that are easily forgiven, atonal music numbers, and a snowman who has inexplicably become existential. The film was bound to be a success thanks to its predecessor being a juggernaut, it’s just too bad that it relies more on its audience’s fanaticism than intelligence to tell something engaging and meaningful.
19. Treasure Planet (60 points)
Ah, Treasure Planet, the long-shelved pet project of Musker & Clements. This was the film that I was sure would astonish me and prove its critics wrong. After all, if there’s any film that could be redeemed, it’s this one: decades in the making, difficult to produce, and such a box office flop that it’s blamed as being the first sign of steep decline for the studio.
It’s far from a bad film, and has moments of true visual splendor, and the choice to wrap the 18th century aesthetic of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island in the world of science fiction is admirably ambitious. For all its creativity, though, it’s an unfunny film with a lazily wrought story that takes away from the surprise twist that made the original book such a classic adventure story. Additionally, it fails at one of the most important rules of science fiction storytelling and fails to explain any of the rules of its universe, which would be forgiven if only it were overshadowed by a better story.
18. Chicken Little (61 points)
Another film that seems to exist just to prove that Disney could make a 3D animated feature, Chicken Little is rough to look at today, especially when you consider that it came out after Pixar had made Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Monster’s, Inc., proving that gorgeous, otherworldy animation was possible not too far away from the House of Mouse. Instead, Chicken Little feels like the two-episode arc at the beginning of a Saturday Morning Cartoon series rather than a complete feature story. Still, it was a breeze to get through and the funniest of the films in the back half of the list, so I can’t fault it too much.
17. Ralph Breaks the Internet (62 points)
I had to give this one points for the still-perfect casting choices it carried from its first iteration, but that doesn’t make up for the tiring mess that this film created. Released a year after The Emoji Movie, Ralph Breaks the Internet continued the dull trend of personifying websites and Internet trends in a shallow attempt at cleverness. I should give credit for the film showing character development, at least, though it feels so shoehorned-in that it hardly breathes.
Then, of course, there’s the scenes with the Disney Princesses, self-congratulatory wink-winks that are the pinnacle of the company’s attempts to seem cool and cynical about their own brand while pushing that very brand (did they give all the princesses pajama sets so that they would seem comfortable or so that little girls would also want princess themed pajama sets? We may never know!) it’s overlong, overdone, and contrived, and a poor example of the IP-heavy event movies that we have too much of now, in the vein of Ready Player One and the new Space Jam.
16. Zootopia (63 points)
Yes, it’s a funny movie, it looks great, it’s well cast. Yes, the sloth DMV scene was really something great when we first saw it. But when you actually watch Zootopia and have to see it try and fail to create a race allegory, you can’t really come away from the film feeling too positive, can you?
Here’s the problem with Zootopia’s race allegory: the film shows a society where predator and prey animals are capable of living together in harmony after becoming “civilized,” until an unknown threat starts to turn the predators feral again. The misunderstanding isn’t based on bias or power imbalance, but instead on the known fact that predators used to be dangerous, as though stereotypes against them are, well, justified. In reality, race is a construct used to oppress others based on their origin and identity, not because they once posed a threat to others — in fact, part of systemic racism is the existence of tropes about people of color being particularly dangerous, violent, and “savage.” To give that identity to predators who “choose” to no longer be violent isn’t as progressive as Disney seems to think it is, and their message of peace and understanding is flawed.
15. Frozen (64 points)
Well, here we are. The princess movie that tried to have it all and succeeded wildly, at least in the financial department.
I wanted to give Frozen a fair shake, since it’s always tempting to dislike something simply because it’s popular — or, in my case, since it replaced your favorite ride at Epcot. I knew, of course, that it had to be popular for a reason, and even though I was open to liking it, it just failed to touch me in the way that it seems to have ensnared an entire generation of people.
I don’t like Frozen. I think its plot is packed to the gills with contrivances, I find its lack of character development frustrating, especially since it brags to have such strong female characters. True love isn’t just about cute boys, you see! It’s also about the love between sisters, a thing that isn’t very well established and is hardly tested at all! We’re not like other princesses that only care about kisses. Nevermind that this is one of the most egregious “you could have solved the problem with a phone call” plots — why can’t Anna know about Elsa’s powers? Why can’t their parents, who are ostensibly wise and loving people, find a solution for their children other than complete isolation from the outside world — especially since this film followed Tanged, where such isolation is framed as cruelty?
The film is significant because it solidified Disney’s recommitment to animated musicals that was reignited with Tangled. But the songs by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez don’t pack the same sort of punch that Menken/Ashman songs did (I know, that’s a harsh comparison) and come off as trite and gimmicky, minus “Let it Go,” a song that is made great because Idina Menzel is great.
And yes, Menzel and the rest of the cast are an asset to this film, as is the deep, gorgeous animation. And as much as I want to admire a “story about princesses that isn’t about finding a prince,” I feel an absence of something more that could have been achieved if they’d only reached for it.
14. Meet the Robinsons (73 points)
Gosh, what a decent breeze this movie is. Released after Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons is another example of Disney attempting to figure out what it was in the early 2000s, especially in the realm of quirky children’s storytelling. I think this film gets written off as a Jimmy Neutron knock off, but it has a good amount of complexity and depth to its story that makes it so much more compelling than your typical boy genius story. I don’t have much else to say about it — it’s clearly not the best of these films, and clearly not the worst, and has the same “this should be a cartoon series” vibe that Chicken Little had — although I gotta admit, that series would be spectacular.
13. Big Hero 6 (74 points)
The first (and so far only) attempt to bring Marvel properties into the animation department, Big Hero 6 works well enough as a superhero adventure story. Focusing on a boy genius’s journey to accept his brother’s untimely death and come of age on his own, Big Hero 6 is a stylish and fun entry, managing to tell a small, human story in the midst of large set pieces and well-paced action sequences. That said, it doesn’t give much expansion to its characters, and feels like it could use a little more time to develop their relationships with each other. The biggest boon of the film, of course, is Baymax, the closest Disney has ever come to creating their own version of the Iron Giant in terms of lovable robot characters.
12. Winnie the Pooh (75 points)
Is it possible to describe a film as relaxing? After several family-friendly madcap movies like Bolt and Tangled, the 2011 Winnie the Pooh is an absolute spa day of an experience. Gorgeously animated with a generous voice cast, it fits well with the original Disney adaptations of AA Milne’s stories, though, admittedly, the whimsy of 2011 seems a little more forced (as shown by the decision to have the theme song sung by 2011’s own Zoey Deschanel). Still, the best aspect of the film is that, rather than trying to reboot or retell the story, it simply reintroduces the Hundred Acre Wood in one of its regular adventures, fulfilling the childlike escape the original shorts so kindly provided.
11. Bolt (76 points)
Bolt was the first 3D animated Disney film that actually looked great, albeit still years behind Pixar’s output. An original story that crosses superheroes and Homeward Bound, Bolt works because it recognizes that it’s nothing more or less than a fun film, quick-witted and sure of itself. The action sequences are among the best in Disney’s animated canon, and the film safely avoids falling into post-Shrek irony; it does comment on pop culture, but doesn’t bank its success on clever references disguised as jokes.
10. Wreck-It Ralph (77 points)
Given that I rated Ralph Breaks the Internet so low, you’d think that I’d have an equal amount of disdain for its predecessor, but: surprise! I was charmed by Wreck-It Ralph. The difference is that this Ralph doesn’t come off as such a gimmick, rather, it uses the world of a video game arcade as a fascinating little society with reasonable rules and expectations. It also gets high mark for style — the jumpy way characters from 8-bit arcade games moved gave me endless delight — as it’s a gorgeously rendered film, even as it has the right to be endlessly cartoonish. It also had a perfect score for voice casting: sure, you can rightfully laud the performances of Sarah Silverman and John C Reilly, but the unlikely couple of Jack McBrayer and Jane Lynch is absolute perfection. The only low points, for me, was a bit too much potty humor (personal preference) and the lack of locations, as the entire third act of the story takes place in a single arcade game.
9. Tangled (78 points)
I think I remembered Tangled a little more favorably than its actual quality. Sure, I still liked it better than Frozen, as its plot makes sense and its characters have motivation and growth that seems to make sense and isn’t based on a series of plot contrivances. Even so I can’t fully enjoy some of its detours and distractions, and though it has some truly breathtaking moments, the design of its characters and costumes is deeply uninspired. That being said, Tangled might be the funniest princess movie, and its cast shows some real chemistry and warmth. This was the film that sparked the new Disney animation renaissance, and you can see why: it’s bright and colorful and appealing, while still showing aspects of more “empowered” female leads — which, true, here means that Rapunzel hits men with frying pans, but it’s a start.
8. Atlantis: The Lost Empire (79 points)
Up there with films like Sleeping Beauty and Hercules, Atlantis: The Lost Empire might be the most stylish film that Disney has ever made. Heavily inspired by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, Atlantis is a steampunk masterpiece, whirring and clanking and full of square-fingered, spry heroes and muscular women. It’s hard to say if Atlantis was ahead of its time or just unappreciated, my theory is that it’s such a hard turn from fairytale-focused renaissance movies that nobody knew what to make of it. Unless, of course, you were like me: a lover of adventure movies and a lover of mythology. And though Atlantis doesn’t really replicate much of Plato’s original parable about the lost continent, it is packed with adventure and thrills, almost like an underwater Avatar. If you doubt my opinion here, I would recommend giving it a shot, and tell me how much fun you end up having.
7. Fantasia 2000 (80 points)
The long-gestated passion project of Roy E. Disney, Fantasia 2000 is a follow-up to the original Fantasia, a film Walt Disney always wanted to expand upon before it became a box office failure. There aren’t really any other animation studios that do what Fantasia did: an entire feature of animated shorts set to classical standards. The marriage of lowbrow animation and highbrow music might seem jarring, but Disney proved that it worked, and Fantasia 2000 continued the legacy. I saw this movie when it premiered on IMAX, and I’ve yet to see a better use of that format: this film is meant to immerse you in imagery and sound. Though there are some lemons here — “Pines of Rome” doesn’t quite hit the surrealist target it was aiming for, and the Steadfast Tin Soldier number set to Shastakovitch doesn’t quite work— the film is an amazing showcase of what Disney animators could do, from the awe of “The Firebird” to the humor of “Pomp and Circumstance” and “Carnival of the Animals” to the absolute brilliance of “Rhapsody in Blue.”
6. Raya and the Last Dragon (81 points)
Up until this point in the list, every main character of these films (minus the plotless Fantasia 2000) has had a protagonist who was either white or an animal voiced by a white actor. That all the films with POC protagonists are this high in the list should be a good sign, however, we have to address the fact that Disney movies don’t do a great job when portraying non-white stories, and even though the newer films are a huge step beyond Pocahontas, they still have a ways to go with thoughtful casting and portrayals that go beyond rote stereotypes, so: take all of these with a grain of salt. Their problems are apparent, and shouldn’t be repeated, and by praising these films I don’t mean to endorse their flaws. Raya, for its part, has been rightly criticized for its cast lacking Southeast Asian actors, despite its fictional setting being deeply influenced by Southeast Asian culture; by casting East Asian actors, the film falls into the stereotype of Asian cultures being monolithic, which is far from the truth.
But Raya isn’t just here for its representation, albeit problematic. It’s a good film, almost a great one, with a gorgeous production quality and a stellar performance by Kelly Marie Tran. Its message, too, is the right kind of divergence from Disney films of the past 30 years: instead of a voyage of self-discovery, Raya’s quest to restore her kingdom becomes one of learning trust and forgiveness, a much more complicated emotional process. It also hosts some of my favorite side characters in a recent Disney film, a relief from the realm of cute lizards/annoying sidekicks/expressive horses that populate the realms of Frozen or Tangled.
5. Brother Bear (83 points)
Ah yes, the first — but not the last — animated movie where someone turns into a bear in order to learn a lesson.
I have to admit: this is 100% my personal opinion, and I doubt that anyone would have guessed that this little forgotten film would be in the top 5 (or even top 10) on this list. And yes, Inuit characters are voiced by mostly white actors, and a Bulgarian woman’s choir is used to represent Indigenous music, a choice that is both bad and sort of hilarious when you think about it.
Brother Bear sticks in my heart for a few reasons: first, I grew up with Bob and Doug McKenzie, characters from SCTV who are, essentially, transformed into a pair of moose for this movie; an absolutely hilarious decision that is perfect. Second, it’s the most beautiful of the post-renaissance hand-drawn animated movies. Third, for reasons I don’t yet know, the story cuts me in a way that’s deep and true. Brother Bear is a love story about siblings and chosen family, about learning grace and kindness and patience and forgiveness. I love this movie the same way that I fell in love with The Good Dinosaur when I did my Pixar rewatch — there’s a certain amount of sincerity that a film can have that, for me, outweighs any of its lacks. And, to be honest, it doesn’t lack much.
4. The Princess and the Frog (85 points)
The last hand-drawn animated feature Disney made, The Princess and the Frog shows how much the team had learned in the previous decade. The Princess and the Frog is an absolute breeze of a movie, popping with color and jazz, full of humor and joy. It also has, by my estimation, the last fun villain in a Disney movie, which shouldn’t be understated. Again, it’s not a perfect representation of its subject — and Disney really wanted some praise for their first Black princess. Its message, too, is unique and charming; a rags-to-riches princess who represents the importance of hard work and responsibility, who needs to learn how to unwind and enjoy life.
3. The Emperor’s New Groove (89 points)
I’m sure that there’s an alternate universe where Kingdom of the Sun was made and released exactly how Sting wanted it to be; a sincere dramatic musical set in pre-Columbian Peru.
The Emperor’s New Groove ain’t that, instead it’s probably the only Disney film to ever have achieved something close to a cult following. It’s also the funniest movie that the Disney Animation Studios has ever made: sharp, clever, fast-paced and fun, with stunning animation and a voice cast ruled over by the unlikely yet perfect duo of Eartha Kitt and Patrick Warburton. I said that the villain in Princess and the Frog was the last fun villain, but Yzma was the last perfect one. Sure, this doesn’t mean that it’s a complex film, and it hasn’t gained the sort of adoration that would promise the immortality of other Disney classics, but of the films on this list it’s the most enjoyable and the one I’ll rewatch in a heartbeat, and that says something.
2. Moana (90 points)
Remember when I unfavorably compared the Lopez’s songs in Frozen to the Ashman/ Menken songs of the early 90s movies? Well, I can’t say the same for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work on Moana, which is excellent, especially with the flagship “How Far I’ll Go,” a song that changes and evolves with Moana herself as her adventure progresses.
One of my favorite commentaries about Moana is Lindsay Ellis’s insight that it serves as a sort of reproach to the problems in Pocahontas, another Disney film about a magical Indigenous princess who is wanting more from her life — specifically, something she can reach by water. But Pocahontas fails in its creation of a protagonist who is so perfect that she never truly is crushed by her own failure and has almost no development — whereas Moana, a child in her story, has her confidence shaken and restored through a genuine moment of self-discovery. Moana is an emotionally honest protagonist, and Auli’i Cravalho is just one of the great vocal performances in the film, along with Dwayne Johnson’s brassy turn as Maui and supporting turns from Jemaine Clement and Rachel House.
And, yes, this is a truly gorgeous film, capturing the open ocean and wide skies of Oceania with clarity and a hint of fantasy. It’s a darling movie, and I’m sure I’ll see it a fourth time soon.
- Lilo & Stitch (91 points)
For me, this is the most surprising entry on this list. I truly disliked Lilo & Stitch when I first saw it in theaters in 2002: I found the science fiction too strange and the characters too irritating. So many things — like Lilo’s love of Elvis or Stitch’s various disgusting habits — seemed contrived and showboaty to me. It didn’t help that Stitch’s Great Escape, one of the worst attractions Disney has ever made, opened a couple years later and loomed over Tommorowland for the next decade. I knew so many people who really loved it, and that was fine for them, but I honestly didn’t think it was for me.
How have I changed since then? It’s hard to tell, really. Whatever happened, I’m glad for it, because Lilo & Stitch is a fantastic film. Sure, the beginning parts in space can be a little odd, but as soon as the story crash lands on Kaua’i, it turns into something so fun and big-hearted that I don’t think Disney could make it again. I love this movie — I love the way the characters are designed, I love how the humans don’t have typical Disney animation proportions, I love the music, yes, even the Elvis parts, I love the relationship between Lilo and Stitch and Nani. I love the watercolor backgrounds of Hawai’i. I love the scene where Nani sings “Aloha Oe” and I’m tearing up just thinking about it. I love that Lilo is a brilliant, weird little kid processing trauma the way that a brilliant, weird little kid would. I love that the setting feels completely lived-in and complete, and I love that ends on an almost ridiculously happy note. It’s the best thing that Disney’s made in the last 20 years.