Last Updated: March 2nd
When it comes to beloved animated films, Disney‘s had the market cornered for quite some time. The Mouse House consistently churns out beautifully-rendered art and expertly-crafted storytelling, which is why the studio has been at the forefront of animation and computer generation in the world of film. From classics once locked up in that metaphorical vault to modern offerings that combine cutting-edge tech with truly inspiring stories, Disney is now home to the best animated features its parent company has to offer.
So of course, we’ve rounded up the ones worth watching (first).
Run Time: 105 min | IMDb: 8.5/10
Disney continued its trend of spotlighting underserved communities and lesser-known cultures with Coco, a Pixar project that follows a young boy learning the importance of family during a traditional Mexican celebration, “Dia de Los Muertos.” The Day of the Dead is probably a holiday you’ve heard of before, but the film adds a rich history and vibrancy to a time held sacred by so many. Coco has dreams of becoming a singer, but when he finds himself amongst the dead, he must rely on his courage and his ancestors to help him return to the living. Bring your tissues for this one.
Robin Hood (1973)
Run Time: 83 min | IMDb: 7.6/10
There are too many Robin Hoods on film to count at this point, but there’s something special about this take on the masked outlaw, who’s imagined here as a sly fox while the rest of the key players take on other humanoid animal forms. He’s charming, gallant, and just heroic enough to make us root for him, plus he’s responsible for many a sexual awakening, so Disney must’ve done something right.
Toy Story (1995)
Run Time: 81 min | IMDb: 8.3/10
Another animated flick that revolutionized the genre when it landed in theaters in the mid-1990s is this beloved story about a group of anthropomorphic toys who come to life when their human, a little boy named Andy, and his family aren’t around. The group is led by a cowboy named Woody (Tom Hanks), who becomes jealous when Andy receives a new action figure for his birthday, a space ranger named Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), who believes he’s an actual ranger, not a toy. The two battle for Andy’s attention, resulting in misadventures that land them in all kinds of danger. It’s Pixar’s first feature film, the first computer-animated movie, and its screenplay was penned by the likes of Joss Whedon and Andrew Stanton. So yeah, it’s worth a watch.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Run Time: 76 min | IMDb: 8/10
There are inventively animated children’s stories and then there’s whatever Tim Burton decides to do next. The director never fails to bring something wholly-original and cutting edge to whatever genre he tackles but his greatest triumph might be this ’90s fantasy classic that manages to make even Christmas just a bit dark.
Oliver and Company (1988)
Run Time: 74 min | IMDb: 6.7/10
Occasionally, Disney displayed moments of true ingenuity in its storytelling aspirations, digging for interesting angles in the oddest of places, reinventing classics, and reimagining worn-out tropes. Oliver and Company is one of those moments. A canine spin on Charles Dickens’ classic Oliver Twist, this film follows an orphaned kitten named Oliver who joins up with some street-savvy mutts led by a mongrel named Dodger (Billy Joel in all his savoir-faire) and begins pulling jobs to help them pay off a debt to a vicious loan shark and his Dobermen henchmen. But when Oliver draws the attention of a little rich girl who decides to adopt him, the crew must rescue them both from the opportunistic thug. The music, the voice cast, the emotions this film draws out — who gave Disney permission to be so good?
The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
Run Time: 78 min | IMDb: 7.3/10
Here’s an over-reaching statement that we will defend until the end of time: The Emperor’s New Groove is one of the greatest animated films of our generation. The film follows a spoiled king (voiced by David Spade), who is accidentally turned into a llama and goes on the run from his evil adviser Yzma (Eartha freaking Kitt people). He’s befriended by a lovable llama herder named Pacha (John Goodman), who helps him take back his thrown. Llamas don’t get enough screen time, to be honest, and they make for hilarious heroes, but the real star of this show is Kronk (Partick Warburton), Yzma’s dim-witted, kind-hearted sidekick who can talk to squirrels and was so entertaining, he got his own spin-off.
The Aristocats (1970)
Run Time: 78 min | IMDb: 7.1/10
Look, Disney usually banks on cute canines to sell movies, but cat people will always have this animated classic about a reckless alley cat who must save a family of Parisian felines set to inherit their owner’s fortune when an evil butler takes matters into his own hands. Jazz-loving cats? Who knew?
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Run Time: 84 min | IMDb: 8/10
Sure, the story of Beauty and the Beast is more than a bit problematic. A bookish young woman sacrifices her freedom to save her father’s life and becomes the prisoner of a churlish prince cursed to live life as a beast unless he can win her affections. It may have taught children some strange lessons about the power of Stockholm Syndrome, but look, the soundtrack slaps and any time Lumiere and Cogsworth are on screen, they’re comedy gold.
Run Time: 102 min | IMDb: 7.5/10
Disney switched up its formulaic princess model with this icy musical about two orphaned sisters who must work together to protect their kingdom from evil forces. Kristen Bell plays Anna, the perky protagonist and younger sibling to Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel), a young woman with extraordinary abilities who must hide her powers from the world. The songs are terrific, the animation is superb, and you can’t tell us that you don’t love Josh Gad as a talking snowman.
Inside Out (2015)
Run Time: 95 min | IMDb: 8.2/10
Warning: watching this animated flick that personifies the inner emotions of a preteen girl going through the turmoil of a cross-country move will bring out all the feels. Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, and Mindy Kaling lead the stellar voice cast for this on-brand story that follows Poehler’s Joy as she navigates the little girl’s mind space with Sadness (Phyllis Smith) in tow. It’s beautifully-realized with plenty of humor and heart, but please, don’t talk to us about Bing Bong. It’s still too soon.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Run Time: 91 min | IMDb: 6.9/10
Demi Moore, Jason Alexander, and Kevin Kline lend their voices to this colorful tale of a deformed bell ringer who must fight his guardian, an evil government minister, to help his gypsy friend. There’s talking gargoyles, some great musical numbers, and the animation is breathtaking, but the heart of this story — which examines how we treat those who veer from what society deems as “the norm” — is sophisticated stuff that feels relevant, even decades later.
Run Time: 107 min | IMDb: 7.6/10
Moana made waves when it landed in theaters a few years ago thanks to its thoughtful coming-of-age story rooted in South Pacific folklore, a fun performance from Dwayne Johnson, and its earworm-y songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia. The film is filled with insightful storytelling and beautifully-rendered artwork, and it also gave kids a heroine they could really root for and relate to. Watching it never gets old — and neither does listening to its soundtrack.
Run Time: 88 min | IMDb: 7.6/10
Another animated classic, the story of Mulan might be getting a live-action version in 2020, but this animated rendition of a young woman who poses as a man to prevent her father from serving in the Emperor’s army (and defeats the greatest threat to China’s dynasty) is still the standard by which all other animated movies are measured.
Run Time: 96 min | IMDb: 8.2/10
Somehow, Disney knew that audiences would get choked up by lonely boomers, balloon houses, and dim-witted golden retrievers, so they threw all three into this flick that follows an elderly man named Carl, who decides to fly his house to Paradise Falls following the death of his wife. He gets an unexpected travel buddy in Russell, a young “Wilderness Explorer” hoping to earn his final merit badge by helping Carl. The two journey to the Falls where they encounter an exotic beast that Russell names Kevin. It’s quirky and exciting and just sentimental enough to warrant some tissues.
Run Time: 108 min | IMDb: 8/10
Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, and Ginnifer Goodwin lend their voices to this adventure comedy about a city of anthropomorphic animals and a rookie bunny cop with dreams of making it on the force. Goodwin plays Judy Hopps, a young hare with big goals who leaves her farming family behind to live in Zootopia. She encounters a slick criminal in fox Nick Wilde who gives her more than a bit of trouble but also helps her uncover a bigger conspiracy when some of the less-predatory animals begin disappearing. The humor is elevated above normal Disney far as is the underlying message of acceptance and tolerance but, if nothing else, you can just enjoy a delightful Jenny Slate voicing a sheep named Bellwether.
Run Time: 98 min | IMDb: 8.4/10
Another unique, expertly-crafted Disney offering is this animated space adventure flick about a waste-collecting robot named Wall-E, who falls in love with another robot named EVE and follows her across the galaxy. Set years into the future, Wall-E is responsible for cleaning up an uninhabitable Earth while its residents coast through space on a luxury cruiser. EVE is a probe sent to assess Earth’s viability, which is when she strikes up a friendship with Wall-E. The two eventually go on a mission to convince humans to return to Earth, a wild ride that touches on everything from eco-conservatism to consumerism and the bonds of friendship.
Run Time: 90 min | IMDb: 8/10
Sorry to Will Smith, but there’s a superior Genie in our book. He’s big, blue, animated, and voiced by Robin Williams. Come for the musical numbers, stay for Williams’ outlandish comedy and the gorgeous artwork in this classic that imagines a world in which a regular street rat can become a prince — if he can manage to outwit an evil sorcerer and his meddlesome parrot.
The Lion King (1994)
Run Time: 88 min | IMDb: 8.5/10
Yeah, Beyonce’s version will eventually land on Disney , but no offense to Queen Bey, there’s just no beating the original, which tells the tale of a lion cub destined for greatness who must overcome tragedy and a scheming uncle to rule the Pride Lands. The Elton John-created soundtrack, the Shakespearean story, James Earl Jones as Mufasa, and Jeremy Irons as a sassy Scar. What’s not to love about this classic?
The Little Mermaid (1989)
Run Time: 83 min | IMDb: 7.6/10
This Disney classic about a mermaid princess who strikes a terrible bargain with a sea witch in exchange for the chance to walk on land and find her prince makes for such an interesting re-watch as an adult. It’s still filled with the same breathtaking imagery and banging musical numbers you remember, but Ariel’s journey and Ursula’s position as the film’s villain might need to be reexamined. You tell us.
James and the Giant Peach (1996)
Run Time: 79 min | IMDb: 6.7/10
Based on a children’s story from Roald Dahl, this imaginative tale of an orphan who befriends a group of anthropomorphic bugs living inside a giant peach marked a breakthrough in animation when it was first released. James, a good-natured boy abused by his guardians, finds a new family inside a magical fruit that he takes on grand adventures to the North Pole and New York City. It’s deliciously weird and fun, and it’s got Tim Burton all over it.