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The best Disney movies

Rafiki holding baby Kiara on Pride Rock as Simba and Nala watch.
Rafiki holding baby Kiara on Pride Rock as Simba and Nala watch. (Image credit: DIsney)

A lot of us, particularly those of us who grew up with VHS and DVD players, were raised on the idea that a Disney movie was a movie made for us, something that we could watch again and again and never grow tired of. In a very real sense, these films were the mythmaking of our childhoods, and they continue to be the cornerstone of the Disney brand to this day.

So let’s take a moment to highlight some of the best of the bunch, both old and new, that will stick with us and with future generations to come.

The Fox and the Hound (1981)

The Fox and the Hound is a universally relatable story of friendship in spite of the pressures that would tear it apart. A fox (Mickey Rooney) is orphaned when his mother is killed by a hunter, only to be raised by a kindly farmer and named Tod. As Tod grows older, he befriends a neighboring hunter’s hound puppy, named Copper (Kurt Russell). Though the two become fast friends, that friendship butts heads with the reality that hounds will instinctually hunt and that Copper is expected to hunt foxes at the behest of his master. This makes for a surprisingly bittersweet entry to the Disney catalog, but it’s one that is specifically so memorable because it hits so emotionally hard.

The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

The inclusion of Vincent Price as the woefully underrated antagonist Ratigan should be enough to make The Great Mouse Detective stand out, but it’s also such an excellent introduction to the tradition of Sherlock Holmes to a young audience that one can’t help but adore it.

Centered on the titular mouse detective, Basil (Barrie Ingham), the film follows the investigation of Ratigan’s plot to replace the Mouse Queen of England with a clockwork replica, making him the de facto king. It’s a story of mystery and adventure that is genuinely creepy at times, regardless of how old you are, and it’s probably the least appreciated film by directors John Musker and Ron Clements, who would later go on to make The Little Mermaid and Aladdin.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Beauty and the Beast is an exploration of a strong-willed woman finding the inner good in an apparent monster who copes poorly with his traumatic transformation and isolation.

It’s a tight narrative that rightfully criticizes the narrow-minded prejudices of the townsfolk — a fairly cynical take for a Disney film — and demonstrates how love can literally transform that which has been scarred. It’s also one of the most gorgeously animated films Disney has ever made.

The Lion King (1994)

What else can be said about The Lion King? Hamlet by way of talking lions might not be the most obvious hit-making storyline out there, but a combination of excellent humor, incredible character design and animation, and one of the best soundtracks Disney has ever produced makes this an undisputed king, not just of Disney films, but of the whole of animated cinema. HakunaMatata, my friends.

The merits of this one are obvious.

Toy Story (1995)

A lot of folks like to point to its sequels as better entries in the series, but for our money, Pixar’s original Toy Story is one of the best films they’ve ever made. It was a pioneer of 3D animation that revolutionized how the entire film industry functioned, all while setting the groundwork for Pixar’s favorite recurring theme: aging male obsolescence.

Woody (Tom Hanks), a toy cowboy, is threatened by the emergence of a new surrogate father figure in his human Andy’s life, the "space adventurer" Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). Woody's growth toward accepting his outdated, but never less important, role is one of the more brilliant emotional lynchpins an animated movie has ever conceived.

It makes the film about much more than the antagonistic friendship that develops on these lost toys’ journey back home, and that’s why it remains so timeless.

Lilo & Stitch (2002)

Lilo & Stitch is the kind of film that draws you in with a frenetic hook before becoming something so surprisingly sweet that it gives something akin to emotional whiplash. Sure, you may watch the film thinking that you’re going to see the unlikely friendship between a 6-year-old Hawaiian girl (Daveigh Chase) and a hyperactive blue alien (Chris Sanders), but it isn’t as much a riff on E.T. as one might expect. Instead, we’re given a tale about the bonds of sisterhood and extended family, as Lilo’s older sister Nani struggles to keep their lives together after the death of their parents.

Sure, you still get the hilarious comedy beats and alien mischief you’d expect from a gibbering blue menace like Stitch, but this is also shockingly grounded for what the premise postulates, and it’s a film the turns on the waterworks every time I watch it.

Inside Out (2015)

If Toy Story was Pixar’s most revolutionary film, then Inside Out is certainly its most innately intelligent.

One might think that the story of a preteen girl’s conflicting emotions, personified as literal Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), and other personalities of the psyche, would be too esoteric and complicated for a family audience, but this film proves that entirely wrong. The high concept nature of the premise is brought into stark relief by the simple emotional weight of moving to a new town. More importantly, emphasizing to kids — and let’s face it, adults, too — the importance of feeling sad is a message we should all get behind, particularly as many of us find ourselves with more things worth grieving these days.

The fact that this is delivered in such a consistently humorous and adventurously engaging package is nothing short of a cinematic miracle.

Moana (2016)

Sorry to all the Frozen fans out there, but we have to go with Moana as the standout entry of Disney’s most recent animated renaissance. In a fairly direct rebuttal to some of Disney’s more tortuous attempts at non-White representation, Moana is a subversive story of self-discovery that ties Moana’s (Auli’i Cravalho) growth as a character to an embrace of her ancestral inheritance and identity as an explorer.

This comes wrapped in a buddy adventure movie with the demigod Maui, played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson at his most charismatic, making the adventure they share equally hilarious and touching. If you haven’t seen it yet, what can we say except “you’re welcome”?

Leigh Monson
Leigh Monson

Leigh Monson has been a professional film critic and writer for six years, with bylines at Birth.Movies.Death., SlashFilm and Polygon. Attorney by day, cinephile by night and delicious snack by mid-afternoon, Leigh loves queer cinema and deconstructing genre tropes. If you like insights into recent films and love stupid puns, you can follow them on Twitter.