I’ve been looking forward to doing this feature – and tomorrow’s, too!
So obviously everyone’s “top 10 favorites” list will look a bit different from anyone else’s and it’s all subjective, of course. And while my top 25 Disney animated features list was pretty easy to whittle down, narrowing it to just 10 was more difficult. Still, I had a general feeling for what most of this list would consist of, though I wasn’t totally sure in which order they would fall. And I could continue to wiggle a few of these around into different rankings, but the top few are definitely my biggest favorites even if they were switched around in order a bit.
Before I get into my list, however, I’d like to stress that this is my grouping of *favorites* – which would absolutely fall into a different order and even different films than a 10 *best* list – which I may do another time.
And one more thing I’d like to acknowledge: while I grew up with and love all of the classic Disney animated films, none of them – even my beloved Alice in Wonderland – actually made it onto this list! The reason for this is that I made my selections based on the films that I watch most often, in many cases due to my love of their soundtracks, but also the themes addressed in them.
Now, without further ado – my top 10 favorites!
10) The Little Mermaid
- The glory of the soundtrack featuring the brilliance of Howard Ashman, combined with some of the most colorful and gorgeous hand drawn animation ever makes for one of the greatest Disney films ever. Perfect songs, perfect princess, perfect villain, perfect sidekicks. This is the textbook on how to do it right and it’s no surprise this was the film that jump-started a new golden age of Disney animation.
9) Beauty and the Beast
- Next year, audiences will fall in love all over again with this “tale as old as time” with its new live-action incarnation. But in the meantime, I strongly recommend you revisit this touching story of a girl who sees beneath the surface of a beast to the potential prince within. The ballroom scene alone is worth watching the entire film for, but the absolutely exquisite voice casting of Angela Lansbury, David Ogden Stiers and Jerry Orbach show just how critical the sidekick characters can be – especially in the showstopping number, “Be Our Guest”!
8) The Lion King
- Yes, it’s a whole lot of Hamlet. And that’s just fine with this Shakespeare fan! While Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent may generally be the most popular villain in the Disney canon, to me, Scar is the absolute tops! From his purring, seductive tones to his sheer murderous actions, his evil is devastating as it is so very human. While theoretically, this is Simba’s story, I’m wild about all the rest of the characters from the fussy Zazu and wise Rafiki to the hilarious henchmen hyenas to the beloved sidekicks Timon & Pumbaa. Not to mention Simba’s parents, the noble Mufasa and loving Sarabi, and of course, Simba’s spunky romantic interest, Nala. Again, it is all tied together by an amazing soundtrack. The resulting film is timeless and amazing.
7) The Emperor’s New Groove
- Wait, what? So few people seem to even remember this one exists, but between the absolute brilliance of David Spade’s Kuzco and John Goodman’s Pacha along with the sheer magic of Eartha Kitt’s Yzma and Patrick Warburton’s Kronk, the humor and charm of this film never fails to make me laugh out loud. From the first time I saw it, I dubbed it “a Warner Brothers cartoon as made by Disney”. Please do yourselves a favor and watch this underappreciated gem of a film! Otherwise, Yzma may turn you into a flea, a harmless, little flea…
- And speaking of humor… this film absolutely belongs to James Woods’ makes-me-laugh-till-I-cry Hades. With some extra credit to his scheming henchmen Pain & Panic. But then there’s Meg – who breaks and steals my heart every time I watch this film. One of the most imperfect, yet relatable, Disney heroines ever, it is Meg who, as the audience surrogate, makes us appreciate “Wonder Boy” Hercules. And then there is the ultimate inspirational song, “Go the Distance” that makes you believe that anything is possible. Another overlooked film that’s worth your time.
5) The Hunchback of Notre Dame
- The film on this list that I probably watch the least out of all of them – and yet, it’s only because it’s so sad and difficult and beautiful that I can only watch it periodically. Frollo and Quasimodo’s relationship is painful and even more convincingly emotionally abusive than Mother Gothel’s passive aggressive treatment of Rapunzel in Tangled. Aside from the one tone-deaf moment of levity with “A Guy Like You”, this film and its soundtrack is, for me, one of the greatest musicals ever written, with “God Bless the Outcasts” being one of the most gut-wrenching songs I’ve ever heard. Watch this one with a box of Kleenex beside you. But WATCH IT.
- While Ariel’s “Part of Your World” in The Little Mermaid may be the ultimate Disney Princess “I Wish” song, the one that may top it for me is Pocahontas’ “Just Around the Riverbend”. While I’m certainly fond of many of the Disney Princesses – though heroines Alice and Meg also have my heart – Pocahontas was one of the first I could really connect to as a character as there was more to her than just “I want a guy”. Torn between her desire to see what life may have to offer and a desire to support her family, Pocahontas straddles two worlds and in the end makes a very different choice than any before her. (Which is later disrupted in one of the few straight-to-video sequels I rather like in Pocahontas II.) But it’s also a story of how we view and fear people who are different from us and the consequences of that fear. It’s an incredibly powerful sociological study and a visually stunning film.
3) Lilo & Stitch
- This story is all about Ohana – it means family and family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten. In this film, it’s not just troublemaker Stitch who learns the importance of family, but before there was Frozen, there was this Disney film about sisterly love. It is Lilo & Nani’s relationship that is tested and reinforced as various agencies try to tear them apart. Plus it’s a sci-fi film set to an Elvis Presley soundtrack with a Hawaiian backdrop. The sheer irreverent weirdness of this film endears itself to me, but it’s the tale of what we do for family and how we define it that touches my heart.
2) Meet the Robinsons
- Yes, this is the curveball. This poorly-received film attempted to jump-start the Disney CGI-animation revolution but failed at the time to connect with audiences who still associated that style with PIXAR-branded films alone. The marketing of frogs and a T-Rex without revealing the heart of the film likely didn’t help either. But I love this film so VERY, VERY much that it easily could have been my number one pick. Again, it’s a film about the family we choose and the family we make. And one with a deep respect for and support of individuality and following one’s dreams. Plus a totally ridiculously amazing villain. Along with a beautiful futuristic outlook and setting, which I was immediately reminded of when I saw the also wonderful faith-in-our-future film, Tomorrowland. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it certainly is mine – I’d gladly spend a day with the Robinsons, and much more!
- Really, there was never a question for me what would top my list. If Pocahontas was one of the first Disney Princesses I was really drawn to, then Mulan was the evolution and immediately became my favorite Disney Princess with her independent, feisty and unstoppable determination as she put her family and country before any other consideration including risking her own life. She let nothing (including her gender) stand between her and her goals and was clever in foiling any opposition. Add to this a fantastic sidekick in the Eddie Murphy-voiced Mushu, and a terrific pop soundtrack – this is a film I can (and do!) watch repeatedly and never tire of. Love the girl and love this film above and beyond the rest. She brings honor to us all.
So that is my oddball and too-contemporary list of favorite Disney animated films that probably no one else would agree with. And that’s okay by me!
Just to give an honorary mention, however, a film that just missed making the list for me was Tarzan, which is another less-appreciated creation from the same general era with a strong soundtrack, a noble and compassionate hero and a terrific heroine in Jane!
I would also like to recognize a recent opus that immediately became my all-time favorite Disney animated short film: Paperman. A romantic study in mostly black and white, it does everything a story should: making you care about the characters, eager to follow the plot and satisfied with the ending. In a few quick moments, it was better than most full-length features I’ve seen – truly an amazing artistic accomplishment!
Do you agree with the selections here? Or would your top 10 favorites list look very different?