New Disney ain’t old Disney.
We don’t just think new Disney movies, including the Jon Favreau-directed The Lion King, have tough acts to follow, we know it empirically: We’ve reviewed all the feature films released over the past nine decades under Disney’s family-friendly Walt Disney Studios banner, and, using data from the movie-review-aggregate site Metacritic, ranked the 50-plus best entries, from good to classic.
While Favreau’s film, starring the voices of Donald Glover and Beyoncé (billed in the credits as Beyoncé Knowles-Carter), got off to a roaring start at the box office, it made little headway with critics, who called it “surprisingly tame” (Nora McGreevy, Boston Globe) and a “strictly inferior clone” (Kendra James, The Verge).
On Metacritic, 2019’s Lion King is posting a middling score of 55 (compared to 88 for the 1994 film). The good news, if that’s what you’d call it, is that the new Lion King fared better with critics than either the Will Smith-led Aladdin remake (Metacritic score of 53) or the Tim Burton-directed Dumbo redo (Metacritic score of 51), the latter of which was also a costly box-office dud.
Disney losing streaks are rare, but they happen. In our review of the studio's overall output, we found that the 1970s and 1970s were especially bleak decades.
The majority of the films on our ranked list below are animated, and released after 1989’s The Little Mermaid spurred the studio to new heights. Eleven of the films are primarily live-action narrative tales, while another three are documentaries. Two of the films were made by Japanese studios, but brought to the United States by Walt Disney Studios.
Surprisingly, a royal court’s worth of Disney princess titles, including Frozen, Mulan, Pocahantas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, did not make the cut -- neither did any version of Freaky Friday and Alice in Wonderland, nor any live-action remake of the 2010s, including Emma Watson’s Beauty and the Beast and Lily James’ Cinderella.
As a note, where movies in our rundown had identical Metacritic numbers, or where Metacritic numbers were unavailable, we used aggregate critical scores from Rotten Tomatoes, another movie-review aggregator. In the instances when movies had identical Rotten Tomatoes scores, we broke the ties by considering how many overall reviews were tracked--the more, the better--and by how many of the reviews were from what the site considers “Top Critics.”
So, what’s the No. 1-ranked film on our list? Go ahead, and guess. We dare you.
Here we go:
Rotten Tomatoes score: 76
The 1970s is not a decade of especially beloved Disney movies. This live-action adventure about super-powered twins, starring future (and now former) Real Housewives of Beverly Hills resident Kim Richards, is the decade’s only entry on this list.
“A [sci-fi] thriller that's fun, that's cheerfully implausible, that's scary but not too scary, and it works.”--Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times.
Metacritic score: 76
This oft-told fantasy gets the Disney treatment in a tuneful animated feature that’ll make you believe “You Can Fly! You Can Fly! You Can Fly!”
“A wonderful movie.”--TV Guide Magazine
Metacritic score: 77
This Oscar-winning, Jon Favreau-directed entry, combining live action with CGI critters voiced by Bill Murray and more, is the first of two Jungle Book adaptations on our list.
“A visual marvel that cuts a direct path to the heart.”--Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
Metacritic score: 77 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 92)
This computer-animated film about an especially industrious ant is the first of 13 Pixar-produced entries on this list, and only the second-ever Pixar feature.
“It's impossible not to be utterly blown away by Pixar's animation.”--Janelle Brown, Salon
Metacritic score: 77 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 94)
This Pixar sequel isn’t only a star turn for the Ellen DeGeneres-voiced forgetful fish from Finding Nemo, it’s a star turn for DeGeneres, who won raves.
“Finding Dory may be familiar magic, but there’s magic in it all the same.”--Drew McWeeny, Hitfix
Metacritic score: 78 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 90)
This documentary about Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman, the estranged, Oscar-winning siblings who crafted memorable songs for Mary Poppins and so many more Disney things, reminds that the happiest places on Earth aren’t always as they seem.
“...[E]ntertaining and informative and sometimes stunning in its display of the personal demons shared by these two geniuses.”--Peter Hartlaub, San Francisco Chronicle
Metacritic score: 78 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 93)
Sure, this lush, canine romance features songs (and singing) by vocal great Peggy Lee, but more important, it offers up one appealing dish of spaghetti for two.
“The quintessential American love story...has seldom been more elegantly and entertainingly told.”--Dave Kehr, Chicago Tribune
Metacritic score: 78 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 96)
This clever tale shines a light on monsters who are more scared of us than we are of them. It also boasts “If I Don’t Have You,” the ditty which won Pixar favorite Randy Newman his first career Oscar (after 16 nominations).
“An unprecedented friendship between a monster and a child leads to an amazing chase scene.”--Lisa Alspector, Chicago Reader
Metacritic score: 78 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 97)
This Oscar-winning, CGI-animated animal tale, starring the voices of Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman, arguably captures the patience-trying DMV experience better than any movie ever.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 79
“A chaste teen-age love story with an ecological sensibility and some terrific scenery.”--Stephen Holden, The New York Times
Metacritic score: 79 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 88)
This animated blockbuster is another Disney Oscar-winner: It earned its gold for the Phil Collins-penned ballad, “You’ll Be in My Heart.”
“This is entertainment worth thumping your chest over.”--Susan Wloszczyna, USA Today
Metacritic score: 80 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 94)
Helen Parr, aka Elastigirl (voiced by Holly Hunter), comes into her own in this long-awaited (and Oscar-nominated) sequel to writer-director Brad Bird’s Pixar sensation.
“...Incredibles 2 gets its heart by being a sweet family story.”--Moira Macdonald, The Seattle Times
Metacritic score: 80 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 95)
Disney gets credit for bringing this acclaimed Japanese animated tale, about a boy who discovers a tiny family living in his home, to English-language audiences.
“It's hardly the first movie to deal with thimble-size protagonists, but it's one of few animated fairy tales to genuinely transport the audience into their world...”--Sam Adams, Time Out
Metacritic score: 81 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 95)
This thrilling animated musical adventure boasts the voices of Auli'i Cravalho (late of NBC’s canceled Rise) and Dwayne Johnson.
“Directors Ron Clements and John Musker use the island setting to create an authentic, vibrant world.”--Jody Mitori, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Metacritic score: 81 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 97)
A winner of two Oscars, including Best Animated Feature, this Pixar contribution is a lively and tuneful exploration of the after life.
“If this is the afterlife we’re all headed to, don’t fear the reaper.”--Helen O'Hara, Empire
Metacritic score: 82
Originally produced by Disney’s adult-skewing Touchstone division, the mouse house has embraced (and distributed) subsequent re-releases of producer Tim Burton’s Oscar-nominated, stop-motion-animated, gothic-holiday vision.
“The Nightmare Before Christmas is the black diamond of family films, brilliantly conceived, touchingly pure of heart, much more endearing than scary.”--Jay Carr, Boston Globe
Rotten Tomatoes score: 83
This black-and-white family comedy, starring Fred MacMurray who’d joined the Disney stable with 1959’s The Shaggy Dog, is responsible for introducing audiences to the comedic compound known as Flubber.
“This is a zanily inventive piece of work, with delightful special effects, which set the style for a long series of live-action Disney films.”--TV Guide
Metacritic score: 83 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 93)
A double Oscar-winner, for its Hans Zimmer score and Elton John-Tim Rice ballad, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” this blockbuster animated musical fable has spawned a hit Broadway show, and an upcoming Jon Favreau-directed CGI remake.
“This is the Mickey Mouse factory at its finest, with inventive animation, stirring music and a pride of inspired, almost-human animals.”--Desson Thomson, Washington Post
Metacritic score: 83 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 98)
The dogs are the nominal stars, but Cruella De Vil (voiced by Betty Lou Gerson) steals the show and, in the process, becomes one Disney’s most inedible villains.
“It is the wittiest, most charming, least pretentious cartoon feature Walt Disney has ever made.”--Time
Metacritic score: 84 (Rotten Tomatoes: 98)
According to critics, the latest Toy Story movie is the least Toy Story movie, but it’s still pretty good.
"It doesn’t put you through the emotional wringer the way its predecessor did, but it’s consistently inventive, funny, witty, and heartfelt.”--Peter Rainer, Christian Science Monitor
Metacritic score: 85 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 88)
Though not a high-profile entry from Disney’s classic period, this Oscar-nominated, 1945 feature-length travelogue of Latin America, centered around Donald Duck and friends, is a must-see.
“One of the forgotten masterworks of Disney animation…”--Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader
Metacritic score: 85 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 97)
The fairytale is now forever linked to Disney thanks to the film’s timeless storytelling and classic songs, such as "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" and “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes.”
“The glass slipper, the Fairy Godmother, Jaq and Gus--Cinderella is a parade of majestic moments.”--Matt Fowler, IGN
Metacritic score: 86 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 92)
If you’re familiar with this Little Mermaid-esque tale from Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki, it’s probably because Disney championed and distributed it to American audiences.
“You watch a Miyazaki film with the pie-eyed, gape-mouthed awe of a child being read the most fantastic story and suddenly transported to places previously beyond the limits of imagination.”--Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer
Metacritic score: 86 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 94)
This entry is significant on a couple of levels: one, it introduced the Oscar-winning song, “A Whole New World,” and, two, with the help of Robin Williams, brought a Warner Bros.-esque irreverence to Disney.
“Aladdin is a film of wonders.”--Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
Metacritic score: 86 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 96)
This gentle, fact-based tale of a man who rides a lawnmower from Iowa to Wisconsin is distinguished by Richard Farnsworth, who earned a Best Actor nomination for his star turn.
“Clear-eyed and open-hearted...”--Elizabeth Weitzman, Film.com
Rotten Tomatoes score: 87--based on seven reviews
A decade before sexual-harassment allegations ended John Lasseter’s tenure at the animation studio he helped found, the exec is depicted as one of the heroes of this acclaimed history documentary.
“...[A] giddy delight....”--Andrea Chase, Killer Movie Reviews
Rotten Tomatoes score: 87 (based on 30 reviews)
This charming remake, starring the voices of Michael J. Fox and Sally Field, pits a trio of house pets against the rigors of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
“It'll leap up at you, lick you in the face, then curl up in your lap and stay there, soft and warm and content.”--Hollis Chacona, Austin Chronicle
Rotten Tomatoes score: 88
Yes, two dogs and a cat on the road--again. This evidently timeless story is best-told, per critics, in the original film.
“Comes from a place that genuinely respects and loves dogs for being dogs and cats for being cats.”--Tim Brayton, Antagony & Ecstasy
Rotten Tomatoes score: 88--based on eight reviews, including one designated “Top Critics” review
In the third and last documentary on our list, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two of the so-called “Nine Old Men” animators who helped revolutionize their industry with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, are profiled by Thomas’ filmmaker son, Theodore Thomas.
“...[T]he greatest pleasure of Frank and Ollie is the opportunity it offers to simply spend time with these amiable codgers...”--Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
Metacritic score: 88 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 93)
This is the fairytale film that ushered in a new era of classic Disney animation, and a new round of classic Disney songs, including Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s “Part of Your World” and their Oscar-winning “Under the Sea.” (Menken also won an Oscar for the score.)
“...[T]he most thoroughly socko kiddie cartoon feature in decades.”--Mike Clark, USA Today
Metacritic score: 88 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 98)
This poignant, funny story of an old man (voiced by Ed Asner) who takes off on his late wife’s dream adventure is a two-Kleenex-box kind of movie. It’s also a two-Oscar kind of movie, thanks to its wins for Best Animated Feature and score.
“We will be comparing Up with classics like The Wizard of Oz for years to come.”--Marjorie Baumgarten, Austin Chronicle
Metacritic score: 88 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 100--based on 48 reviews)
This live-action-animated hybrid, which claimed five Oscars (off of a whopping 13 nominations) and made a high-flying star of Best Actress winner Julie Andrews, is the ultimate achievement of Walt Disney’s lifetime.
“Julie Andrews’ first appearance on the screen is a signal triumph and she performs as easily as she sings…’--Variety
Metacritic score: 88 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 100--based on 164 reviews)
This Pixar franchise has done its part to demonstrate that sequels don’t have to be bad--and, in fact, can be quite good.
“...[E]very bit as charming, funny and exciting as the original. In fact, I enjoyed it quite a bit more.”--William Arnold, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Rotten Tomatoes score: 89
Kirk Douglas leads the cast in this crackerjack take on the Jules Verne sea-faring, squid-facing adventure that won Oscars for art direction and special effects.
“As fabulous and fantastic as anything [Walt Disney] has ever done in cartoons…”--Bosley Crowther, The New York Times
Rotten Tomatoes score: 90
Considered a costly box-office failure in its initial theatrical release, the film is now considered an essential entry in the Disney princess canon.
“The masterpiece of the Disney Studios' postwar style”--Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader
Metacritic score: 90 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 97)
In this Oscar-winning Pixar title, named Best Animated Feature, writer-director Brad Bird deconstructs the superhero genre, and, in the process, builds a lasting family comedy.
“Clever, buoyant and surprisingly human.”--Jami Bernard, New York Daily News
Metacritic score: 90 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 99)
This fish tale is a Pixar history-maker: It’s the studio’s first film to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.
“An exhilarating fish story in the perfectly cast comic adventure.”--Sheri Linden, The Hollywood Reporter
Metacritic score: 91
Woodland creatures have rarely been more doe-eyed, literally, or more entertaining than they are in this enchanting Disney forest.
“Bambi is gem-like in its reflection of the color and movement of sylvan plant and animal life.”--Variety
Rotten Tomatoes score: 92
Disney’s stop-motion-animated movie, based on the Roald Dahl tale about a boy who finds a whole new world inside a piece of fruit, is a low-key charmer.
“A stunner with a breathtaking array of eye-teasers.”--Susan Wloszczyna, USA Today
Metacritic score: 92 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 98)
This Oscar-winner (for Best Animated Feature and the Randy Newman song, “We Belong Together,” is another tear-jerker from Pixar: a tale that hinges on Andy's coming of age, and saying farewell to his childhood things.
“A sequel made with care and integrity…”--Stephanie Zacharek, Movieline
Rotten Tomatoes score: 94
If you had a bet on which live-action Hayley Mills Disney movie would land in our Top 10, we’re guessing you just lost. (Sorry, Parent Trap fans.)
“It's an entertaining picture.”--Bosley Crowther, The New York Times
Metacritic score: 94 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 98)
Another Best Animated Feature Oscar-winner for Pixar, this pitch-perfect film stars Amy Poehler as a tween girl’s inner joy.
“...[Inside Out] leaves you changed, entertained, nostalgic, dazzled.”--Moira Macdonald, The Seattle Times
Metacritic score: 95 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 95)
A lonely robot is the beating heart of this touching Pixar tale that won the studio yet another Oscar for Best Animated Feature.
“...[A] sheer joy.”--Tasha Robinson, The A.V. Club
Metacritic score: 95 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 100)
This one is for the history books: Toy Story represents the first Pixar feature, Hollywood’s first CGI-animated feature -- and the first meeting of Buzz (voiced by Tim Allen) and Andy (voiced by Tom Hanks). It probably could’ve been the first Pixar move to win the animated feature Oscar, too, but the category didn’t yet exist.
“The film will intoxicate children and charm the parents in their company.”--Barbara Shulgasser, San Francisco Examiner
Metacritic score: 96 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 96)
Walt Disney’s epic, classically tuned animated spectacle has enjoyed successful theatrical re-releases, runs that have put Fantasia’s reputation as a noble, failed experiment long behind it.
“This is a bold work that seeks to educate its young audience about classical music. But it is also playful and delightfully imaginative.”--Sameer Rahim, The Telegraph
Metacritic score: 96 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 98)
The 2019 Tim Burton live-action remake doesn’t come within a Dumbo’s ear of matching the Oscar-winning animated original, for charm or critical acclaim.
“One of the best of Disney's animated features. An ugly duckling variation, lifted by those unforgettable characters.”--Time OutStaff
Metacritic score: 95 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 94)
The 2017 live-action version's a keeper, too, but it's the Oscar-winning animated version of the tale as old as time that's an undisputed classic.
Metacritic score: 95 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 98)
Feature-length animation in Hollywood begins here, with this game-changing, still-gorgeous work that was honored at not one, but two Oscar ceremonies--at the first, in 1938, with a nomination for score, and, at the second, in 1939, with an honorary award for Walt Disney.
“...[O]ne of the truly monumental cinematic accomplishments of all time.”--Steve Persall, Tampa Bay Times
Metacritic score: 96
Brad Bird, who co-directed with Jan Pinkava, figures into our list again with the highest-ranking Disney-Pixar film of all-time: the Oscar-winning tale of a rat with culinary ambitions.
“...[T]he picture is pure joy.”--Stephanie Zacharek, Salon
Metacritic score: 99
Disney’s second animated feature is even more beloved than the first: a tale that’s by turns magical and scary, and, above all, graced by the Oscar-winning classic, “When You Wish Upon a Star.”
“Along with Dumbo,...[this] is probably the best in terms of visual detail and overall imagination as well as narrative sweep.”--Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader
Rotten Tomatoes score: 1000comments
This may not be what you expected to find at No. 1, but here it is: the wondrous, live-action rendering of Robert Louis Stevenson's seafaring novel, billed as the “greatest adventure of all.” (Sorry, Beauty and the Beast fans.)
“...[A] tremendous success. It really is what the boys call smashing.”--Virginia Graham, The Spectator