Even if you’ve never seen Frozen, you’ve probably heard a catchy little tune called ‘Let it Go’ that proved to be a bit popular. The movie and that song’s successes have made it the highest-grossing movie in the history of Walt Disney Animation Studios, with Elsa’s face a mainstay on childrens’ lunch boxes everywhere. Walt Disney himself toyed with an adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Snow Queen’ but was never able to pool his ideas into a single script. 70 years later, many applauded Frozen for upending the classic Disney Princess narrative by gently mocking Ana and Hans’ lightning-quick engagement. However, Frozen isn’t quite the bastion of modernity it’d have you believe; Ana ends up tying the knot with Kristoff at the end of the movie - a man who she has literally known for two days. Still, the focus on sisterhood with the trappings of a Disney classic is enough to thaw most frozen hearts.
Spanning just 64 minutes, Dumbo is shorter than some individual Game of Thrones episodes - but it packs just as many emotional punches. Remember when Dumbo’s Mum reaches her trunk through the bars? Or the single tear that rolls down her son’s face? While many of the studio’s senior animators were working on Bambi, the younger staff were ripping up the rulebook and experimenting with scenes like the nightmarish ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’ sequence. But the core story remains touching in its simplicity: a shy circus elephant bullied for the size of his ears turns them into a talent. Like Rudolph and his red nose, Dumbo teaches audiences that our differences make us stronger.
18. The Jungle Book
It’s fair to say that 'Hakuna Matata' owes a fair bit to 'Bare Necessities.' The Jungle Book’s songs is one of the reasons why it's one of the best Disney movies out there: they laid the foundations for rhythms, tunes, and themes that would crop up in later Disney movies in years to come. What’s interesting about the 1967 movie is how upbeat its score is compared to the underlying dark themes of the story. A tale of a lost orphan boy raised by wolves and hunted by a man-eating tiger could have been tonally grim, but stick a singing orangutan in there and you have yourself an emotional key change. Risky casting decisions like wise-cracking comedian Phil Harris as Baloo (who improvised most of his lines) helped bring the tale to life and propel The Jungle Book into classic status.
17. Lady and the Tramp
The pitch for Lady and the Tramp first landed on Walt Disney’s desk in 1937, but the arrival of WWII ground production to a halt. It wasn’t resurrected until the 1950s, when it became the first Disney movie specifically designed for Cinemascope exhibition. But while the sumptuous animation holds up even today, it’s the simplicity of Lady and the Tramp’s story that makes it so timeless: a posh springer spaniel falls in love with a scrappy street mutt years before Billy Joel penned his catchy classic ‘Uptown Girl’. Lady and the Tramp might have a fairly stripped back narrative compared to the dragons and princesses cavorting through Disney movies at the time, but that spaghetti smooch set a standard for first date-kisses everywhere.
It says a lot about Tangled’s development hell that one of the brilliant minds behind characters like Aladdin, Ariel, Beast and Tarzan - Glen Keane - had a heart attack midway through production. The stress of the project was too much and spanned years, spiralling the budget until it became the most expensive animated movie of all time with a cost of $260 million. But despite all of that drama, the end product is excellent. Tangled brings the traditional story of Rapunzel into the modern era while still respecting the classic hallmarks of a princess movie. Sidekick characters like the adorable Pascal and hilarious Maximus create some standout moments (watching a sword-wielding horse dual a man with a frying pan never gets old) and the climatic love song under thousands of coloured lanterns is breathtaking. And speaking of taking breaths, Glen Keane is fine. In case you were wondering.
15. Peter Pan
A story about a boy unwilling to grow up and instead live in a fantasy land was always going to make brilliant material for Disney. Walt’s brother Roy secured the rights to turn J.M. Barrie’s original play into an animated feature following the success of Snow White, and Peter Pan remains one of the studio’s most iconic projects. It brought magic and literal fairy dust to cinema, along with the idea that hidden just around the corner could lie an entire new world. Neverland’s population is filled with fascinating characters, from scared lost boys to terrifying hooked pirates themselves terrified of crocodiles and ticking clocks. Such a large cast would be easy to lose track of, but Disney’s writing team handled the storytelling with the ease audiences had come to expect by 1953.
At a time in the 40s when Disney was experimenting with magic and fantasy, Bambi was a quiet shift in gear. Set in a naturalistic forest, it’s a story about grief and growing up - and the eventual realisation that while we’ll never get the loved ones we lose back, we can build family again. These real-world truths required realistic animation, and Walt Disney pushed his most senior animators to fill each frame with cleverly placed lifelike details. For one thing, the animals don’t wear clothes. Yet despite pulling back on anthropomorphism, audiences have continued to deeply connect and empathise with Bambi, Thumper and the other inhabitants of the forest for decades since.
13. Sleeping Beauty
There’s a reason Sleeping Beauty’s castle is the centerpiece of the original Disneyland theme park. The sheer ambition of this animated movie would dwarf all other projects at the time, with animators painting on pieces of paper as big as bed sheets to try to match the movie’s anamorphic widescreen 70mm format. The result is an eye-poppingly stunning princess movie packed with vibrant colour combined in unusual ways. Lead artist Eyvind Earle - who’d worked on Peter Pan - played with violet, green, ochre, indigo and fuchsia to create a palette never before seen on movie. With a rousing score based on the Tchaikovsky ballet and an iconic villain in the form of Maleficent, Sleeping Beauty remains one of the cornerstones of the Disney catalogue, and easily makes it into our list of the best Disney movies.
Disney had long toyed with the idea of making an animated Romeo and Juliet, so when legendary director Mike Gabriel pitched Pocahontas, it was greenlit almost immediately. The story was very loosely based on the life of a real Native American woman and her encounter with an English colonialist called John Smith. The movie had a mixed reception for its treatment of Powhatan culture. Some Native Americans claimed Pocahontas distorted history, while others praised it for being one of the first instances where popular culture acknowledged the brutal intentions of English settlers intent on wiping out ‘savage’ indigenous tribes. Whatever your belief, there’s no denying that Pocahontas is graphically stunning, with sharp lines and gorgeous sequences (who could forget the flowing chalk in ‘Colours of the Wind?’). With iconic songs that won two Oscars and a story that started conversation, Pocahontas is one of the most entertaining and thought-provoking Disney movies in recent years.
Despite releasing slap-bang in the middle of the 90s Disney Renaissance, Hercules is often passed over in favour of other movies of the decade. That’s a shame, because the story of the son of Zeus’s search for his true family is full of comedy, emotion, and some subtle unpicking of outdated tropes - like Meg’s refusal to be a damsel in distress. While audiences were going goggle-eyed at Toy Story’s 3D graphics, 2D animators on Hercules were smartly interweaving Ancient Greek pottery angles into their character designs. Before Marvel took over cinema, Disney writers were penning this superhero origins story that also includes more than a few biting commentaries on obsessive celebrity culture. Hercules was clever and creative - and let’s not forget that incredible score that meshed R&B beats with gospel. Bless my soul, Herc was truly on a roll.
Turn to page two for our top 10 picks of the best Disney movies of all time...