Where does Snow White rank in our list of the greatest ever Disney animated films?
Disney's best animated movies is a huge topic for debate!
How do you measure Disney’s imperishable early classics such as Snow White and Dumbo against The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and other treasures of the studio’s second golden age, the so-called Disney Renaissance, or against the Third Wave of Disney Princess films and a beloved blockbuster like Frozen - all available on Disney Plus (opens in new tab)?
It’s an impossible task. But that hasn’t stopped our film expert Jason Best from having a go! Here's his list of Disney's best animated movies...
15. Zootropolis 2016
Set in a world of talking animals, this is an animated movie to gladden kids and adults alike. Bright-eyed and cotton-tailed, rabbit heroine Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) is the city of Zootropolis’s first bunny cop.
She’s set on solving a series of puzzling disappearances among the city’s residents, but she needs the aid of con-artist fox Nick Wilde - cue a slyly funny Jason Bateman as an ideal foil for Goodwin’s perky zeal.
If you’re a film noir aficionado, you’ll love the way the film sets up and solves this mystery – and get a kick from the crafty nods to such classics as Chinatown and The Godfather along the way.
But the vivid characters and lively action mean that even when younger viewers miss the references they’re not excluded from the fun.
14. Wreck-It Ralph 2012
Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by a perfect John C Reilly) is the building-smashing bad guy in a 1980s arcade game called Fix-It Felix Jr., but at heart he's really a big softy.
In Disney's jaunty, Oscar-nominated animation, he longs for a chance to be the hero. So he breaks out of his game and sets off on his quest, unleashing mayhem as he stumbles through video games from different eras - which gives Disney's imaginative animators the chance to show off their chops in a variety of visual styles.
Ralph's misadventures take him from the simplicity of his own first-generation video game to the whiz-bang graphics of a contemporary first-person shooter game. But it’s when he lands in 1990s cart-racing game Sugar Rush and meets glitch-ridden misfit Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) that he finds his destiny. Wildly imaginative and stuffed full of great gags, this is a blast.
13. Tangled 2010
Disney's 50th animated movie gave the Brothers Grimm fairy tale of Rapunzel a makeover with a delightful musical that tweaks and teases the original story just enough for a modern audience.
Heroine Rapunzel (voiced by Mandy Moore), is abducted at birth by wicked enchantress Mother Gothel (Broadway star Donna Murphy) and locked in a tower until rascally thief Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) turns up. The arrival of the handsome scoundrel launches the pair on a series of spirited adventures involving various crooks and thugs, plus an unstoppable police horse with a zealous sense of duty.
These escapades are great fun, but it is Rapunzel's journey to maturity, accompanied by violently see-sawing emotions that the film's teen and tween audience will recognise, that provides the story's core.
The songs are tuneful, if not particularly memorable, but the CGI animation has a delightful painterly feel, particularly in an enchanting scene towards the end in which the sky fills with floating lanterns.
12. Aladdin 1992
Following the success of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, Disney were on a roll when they conjured up this magical Arabian Nights adventure. A whirlwind of comic energy, Robin Williams steals the show as the motor-mouthed Genie, who helps ducking-and-diving street thief Aladdin outwit the treacherous grand vizier Jafar and win the heart of the beautiful Princess Jasmine.
The animation is dizzyingly colourful and the songs by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, such as 'A Whole New World' and 'Friend Like Me', have show-stopping brio. Aladdin, incidentally, was modelled on Tom Cruise (the animators kept a photo of Cruise above their drawing boards) and Jasmine's singing voice was provided by Lea Salonga, star of the hit musical Miss Saigon.
11. The Little Mermaid 1989
The Disney animation studio had been treading water for years, producing a series of lacklustre projects in the wake of Walt Disney’s death and the release of The Jungle Book in 1967. That all changed, however, when this sparkling adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale launched the Disney Renaissance.
The heroine is headstrong young mermaid Ariel, who must win the love of human prince Eric within three days or lose her voice to the scheming sea witch Ursula. Buoyed by the lively songs of composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman (including the Oscar-winning ‘Under the Sea’), the Disney animators brought this tale to life with oceans of charm and humour.
10. Fantasia 1940
Apprentice magician Mickey Mouse getting into deep water when he has a broom perform his water-carrying duties; ostriches in ballet shoes and hippos in tutus: no matter how many times you’ve seen these scenes, Walt Disney's 1940 classic still raises a smile and its enchanting hand-drawn animation retains a unique magic.
In creating animated settings for eight well-known works of classical music, Disney was daringly ahead of his time. Who else could have put cartoon icon Mickey and conductor Leopold Stokowski on the same podium?
Admittedly, some bits now seem dated, and the cute fauns and unicorns frolicking in a pastel landscape to the strains of Beethoven's 6th Symphony are tooth-achingly twee. But at its best, Fantasia continues to take your breath away.
9. One Hundred and One Dalmatians 1961
Dazzling hand-drawn animation, cute canine heroes and a delightfully nasty villainess all combine to make this a pedigree film.
Based on the novel by English children’s author Dodie Smith, the story finds a litter of 15 Dalmatian puppies stolen on the orders of haughty heiress Cruella De Vil and swept off to her home, Hell Hall, where they join dozens of other abducted dogs - all of them destined to become Cruella's fur coat… until a hilariously gripping rescue mission gets underway.
Supposedly modelled on extravagantly decadent Hollywood star Tallulah Bankhead, the fur-loving, Bugatti-driving Cruella is a villainess to die for. The film’s animation was done using xerography – a cost-cutting technique deployed in the wake of expensive predecessor Sleeping Beauty – but it still has bags of charm, while the story simply gallops along. You’d have to be barking mad not to love this Disney classic.
8. The Lion King 1994
This beloved animated musical adventure about an orphaned lion cub's quest to claim his rightful crown is, for many, the pinnacle of Disney's second golden age of animation.
The story - partially modelled on Shakespeare's Hamlet - still exerts an almost mythic pull. Its princely hero is lion cub Simba (voiced by Matthew Broderick), whose destiny is to succeed his wise father Musafa (James Earl Jones) as ruler of Pride Rock. But Simba's scheming uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons, full of silky menace) has his own designs on the throne…
The sweeping animated plains of Africa are stunning and the Elton John-Tim Rice tunes as catchy as ever, while carefree meerkat Timon and warthog Pumbaa provide memorably rumbustious comic relief.
7. Bambi 1942
The death of Bambi’s mother is the traumatic moment everyone remembers from this classic coming-of-age tale about a young fawn, but the movie also contains plenty of humour – much of it courtesy of enthusiastic rabbit Thumper and bashful skunk Flower – and its vivid depiction of forest life and the changing seasons is surprisingly accurate.
Taking six years and $2million (a staggering sum at the time) to complete, Bambi was Walt Disney’s own favourite of his movies and the care spent in its creation still shows. Disney sent an artist into the forests of New England to sketch and photograph deer and their natural environment, and had others study rainfall, and he even set up a small zoo at the studio so that the film’s animators could study animal movement at close hand.
6. Beauty and the Beast 1991
This enchanting movie made history by becoming the first animated feature ever to be nominated for a Best Film Oscar – and this was back in the day when the Academy Award field was limited to just five contenders.
Beauty and the Beast harks back to Disney’s earlier fairy tale films, but bookish heroine Belle cuts a very different figure from the likes of Sleeping Beauty and this time it’s the enchanted prince who needs rescuing.
The songs have a different feel too, with composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman giving such numbers as ‘Belle’ and ‘Be Our Guest’ some of the sass and snap of Broadway musicals. Add to this the lush animation – a mix of hand-drawn and computer-generated – and the comic bustle provided by the household objects who comprise the Beast’s retinue of servants, and you have the ingredients for perfect family entertainment.
5. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs 1937
Still a brilliant piece of storytelling after all these years, Disney's first feature cartoon has charm, thrills and comedy to spare. Each of the seven dwarfs is an enchanting individual, while the old hag - the alter ego of Snow White’s stepmother, the wicked queen - remains every bit as scary as she ever was.
Adapting the Brothers Grimm fairy-tale as a feature-length animated film was a huge gamble for Walt Disney, but it paid off spectacularly, earning millions of dollars at the box office and setting the template for an entire genre. It still works.
Snow White’s flight into the forest and the pursuit of the queen at the end are among the most stirring sequences in any Disney movie and the songs, including 'Heigh-Ho', 'Whistle While You Work' and 'Some Day My Prince Will Come', remain deeply lodged in our collective consciousness.
4. Frozen 2013
Disney gave Hans Christian Anderson’s chilly fairy tale The Snow Queen a glossy, girl-power makeover – producing a $1billion blockbuster that bagged a couple of Oscars (for Best Animation and Best Song) and turned Elsa’s rousing solo ‘Let It Go’ into a global phenomenon.
Disney’s take on the tale finds tormented princess Elsa (voiced by big-lunged Broadway star Idina Menzel) casting her kingdom into eternal winter because of her inability to control her ice-making powers – prompting her sister Anna (Kristen Bell) to embark on a snowy rescue mission.
The film’s show-stopping tunes go hand in hand with enchanting visuals and quirky comic relief from Josh Gad’s scene-stealing, winningly goofy talking snowman Olaf. But it’s the touching bond between the two sisters that gives the film its heart.
And there's a few four-year-olds about who might think our Disney's best animated movies list should have been topped by Frozen!
3. The Jungle Book 1967
This was the last of Disney's feature length animated movies to be overseen by Walt Disney himself, and was released in cinemas a few months after his death in 1966.
It was Uncle Walt himself who decided to dispense with Rudyard Kipling's original book almost entirely and transform the tale of an Indian boy raised by wolves into a musical extravaganza. The result: one of the studio's most beloved films.
Among a host of memorable songs the real showstoppers are Phil Harris as Baloo with his ‘Bare Necessities’ and Louis Prima as the wily orang-utan King Louie insisting ‘I Wanna Be Like You’. The inspired blend of rumbustious American jazz singers like Harris and Prima and such silky smooth British actors as Sebastian Cabot, who voices black panther Bagheera, and George Sanders, as villainous tiger Shere Khan, only adds to the film’s pleasures.
2. Dumbo 1941
Disney's gentle tale of the misfit baby elephant who learns how to fly runs a brisk 64 minutes but still manages to pack in plenty of pathos, humour and memorable tunes. ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’, the bizarrely psychedelic sequence where Dumbo gets accidentally sozzled on champagne, is one of the film’s musical and visual highlights, as is ‘When I See an Elephant Fly’, sung by a bunch of cheerfully cynical crows on discovering Dumbo sitting in the topmost branches of a tree.
The tune that earned the film an Oscar nomination for best song (it won for best score) is ‘Baby Mine’, possibly the most beautiful, certainly the saddest, number in the Disney songbook.
Sung by Dumbo’s mother to her child through the bars of a cage, this tender lullaby is almost guaranteed to reduce the viewer to tears.
Disney's best animated movies - here's our number one!
1. Pinocchio 1940
An imperishable classic, Disney’s second feature-length animated movie is still the studio’s best – and by more than a nose. The tale of the wooden puppet that comes to life and then longs to become a real boy, adapted from the work of 19th-century Italian author Carlo Collodi, is a masterpiece of storytelling – by turns funny, touching, stirring and scary.
The good characters, including Geppetto the kindly woodcarver who creates Pinocchio, and Jiminy Cricket, Pinocchio's inch-high conscience, are instantly loveable, while the bad ones, such as carnival puppeteer Stromboli, are really rotten. In places, the movie is truly dark – as when the rowdy boys get turned into donkeys on Pleasure Island.
And it’s genuinely exciting in others, such as the episode in which Pinocchio strives to rescue Geppetto from Monstro the Whale. The songs – including the Oscar-winning ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ – are pretty memorable too.
Disney's best animated movies - well our choice is Pinocchio - what's yours?
Disney's best animated movies written by film expert Jason Best.
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A film critic for over 25 years, Jason admits the job can occasionally be glamorous – sitting on a film festival jury in Portugal; hanging out with Baz Luhrmann at the Chateau Marmont; chatting with Sigourney Weaver about The Archers – but he mostly spends his time in darkened rooms watching films. He’s also written theatre and opera reviews, two guide books on Rome, and competed in a race for Yachting World, whose great wheeze it was to send a seasick film critic to write about his time on the ocean waves. But Jason is happiest on dry land with a classic screwball comedy or Hitchcock thriller.
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