In the early 1900s, animation mostly appeared as short films and was used for comedic gags. Walt Disney elevated this art form to a new level with the first full-length, animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The media referred to this project as “Disney’s folly,” due to its overblown budget and recurring delays; no one actually expected Disney to pull it off. Boy, were they wrong. Snow White’s success put Walt Disney Pictures on the map, changed what a film could be, and forever altered the landscape of Hollywood.
Since then, for the last 100 years, Disney has been pumping out animated masterpieces. The best Disney movies, and also the most famous ones, are typically princess-related fairy tales, such as Frozen, Cinderella, and Beauty and the Beast. Other beloved, well-known Disney films include anthropomorphic animals, like The Jungle Book, Zootopia, and The Lion King. But there are some great Disney movies that fly under the radar, underrated works that didn’t, and still don’t, get the love they deserve. If it’s been a long time since you’ve seen these movies, go back and check them out. They may surprise you and be better than you remember. Here are ten of the most underrated animated films in Disney’s impressive 100-year catalog.
10 The Fox and the Hound (1981)
The Fox and the Hound follows the relationship between — yep, you guessed it — a fox and a hound, who go from being childhood best friends to the hunted and the hunter later in life. The Fox and the Hound received mixed reviews from critics. And while it is a known film in the House of Mouse’s catalog, it doesn’t enjoy the same love and attention that other anthropomorphic Disney animals get. Disney has made some heart-wrenching films over the years, but The Fox and the Hound ranks up there as one of the studio’s most endearing and tear-jerking tales. And also one if its most underrated.
9 The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
The Disney Renaissance is regarded as one of the best time periods in Disney animation, a period of artistic revival and commercial and critical success. Between 1989 and 1999 (starting with The Little Mermaid and ending with Tarzan), Disney pumped out some of the most iconic films in its catalog. The second film of the Disney Renaissance, The Rescuers Down Under, gets overshadowed by the more iconic films and Disney princess stories of the era.
It’s also a sequel to the more popular 1977 original, The Rescuers, and released the same day as Home Alone, which dominated The Rescuers Down Under at the box office. But this film actually improves upon the original with its upgraded, beautiful animation, unique setting, and stellar plot. It’s not The Little Mermaid, which had just released a year before, but it’s still a great addition to the House of Mouse’s catalog. Fun fact: The Rescuers Down Under is the first Disney animated sequel to get a theatrical release, and it absolutely deserved it — and it also deserves more attention.
8 The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is another film that’s a part of the Disney Renaissance. But it was, and continues to be, largely overshadowed by its peers. And it’s not hard to see why. This film is adapted from the very mature, very serious Victor Hugo novel of the same name. Its main character, Quasimodo, is deformed and ugly, which is a departure from the typically beautiful main characters that we see in Disney films; it’s usually the villain that’s ugly, not the hero. There are also religious undertones and an uncomfortable torture scene.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a very different kind of Disney film. And because of that, it’s criminally underrated. The film kicks off with one of the most memorable and beautiful (and dark) openings in Disney, an opening that deserves to be in the company of films like The Lion King and Up. Its music and animation are beautiful, as is the film’s iconic setting of Paris. Quasimodo as a main character is a breath of fresh air. He teaches its young audience that beauty doesn’t always come from the outside; it often comes from within.
7 Robin Hood (1973)
1973’s Robin Hood is such quintessential Disney: it’s based on the legendary outlaw who steals from the rich to give to the poor — except here, all the characters are played by animals. Robin Hood is a sly fox, Little John is a comically enormous bear, and the antagonist Prince John is a whiny lion who sucks his thumb. The film received mixed reviews from critics at the time of its release and hasn’t gotten much love or acknowledgment in the years since. But it’s actually one of the best adaptations of the classic Robin Hood story.
6 Treasure Planet (2002)
Treasure Planet is a largely overlooked film. It’s a science fiction adaptation of the iconic adventure novel Treasure Island, which sounds like it should be right up Disney’s alley. It features a star-studded cast that includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emma Thompson, and Martin Short. And its pair of directors were also behind Disney masterpieces like Aladdin and The Little Mermaid. But by 2002, 3D animation was gaining serious traction, thanks to the commercial and critical success of Pixar’s films and the aforementioned Shrek. Despite combining hand-drawn 2D animation with up-and-coming 3D computer animation, Treasure Planet went overlooked by most audiences. It’s another movie that’s since garnered a cult following — as it should. It’s a unique adaptation of a classic story and features some beautiful animation.
5 Oliver & Company (1988)
It’s surprising that Oliver & Company isn’t more famous and beloved than it is. This film is one of the best adaptations of Charles Dickens’ timeless novel Oliver Twist. Except here, of course, it’s set in 1980s New York City rather than 19th century London and features a cast of anthropomorphic, singing dogs. Kind of the same right? This film has a star-studded cast that includes Joey Lawrence, Cheech Marin, and Bette Midler. And of course, we can’t forget Billy Joel, whose vocals provide some of the best music in Disney. The catchy, Golden Globe nominated tune “Why Should I Worry?” might actually be one of the greatest Billy Joel performances — and that’s saying something.
4 Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
Atlantis: The Lost Empire has all the makings of a Disney-animated classic: it features a talented cast led by Michael J. Fox, and it explores the mythology behind the lost city of Atlantis. Unfortunately, the timing of its release didn’t work in its favor. The wildly popular Shrek had just come out a few weeks beforehand, which overshadowed Atlantis and helped sink it at the box office. This movie has since become a cult classic among fans who feel that it was misjudged and underappreciated at the time of its release. Atlantis could actually benefit from a live-action adaptation unlike other Disney films we’ve seen, though there aren’t any plans for that just yet.
3 The Sword in the Stone (1963)
The legend of Britain’s King Arthur has been adapted into many movies over the years. They usually show Arthur as an adult, either as a king ruling over Camelot or as a warrior on his way to obtaining his crown. Disney’s The Sword in the Stone offers a fresh view of the Arthurian legend. Based on The Once and Future King by T.H. White, The Sword in the Stone shows Arthur as an incompetent young boy, who miraculously pulls Excalibur from its stone and becomes the king of England.
It’s a fun, intriguing story that features Merlin the wizard, a comical and sassy owl, and a pink dragon. Despite mixed reviews and years of negligence from Disney, The Sword in the Stone deserves to be dusted off and rewatched. It’s an endearing tale that reminds us that heroes can come from the unlikeliest of places. Plus, the moment that Arthur, or Wart as he’s called in the film, pulls Excalibur from its stone is one of the most epic, beautiful, and magical moments in Disney canon.
2 The Black Cauldron (1989)
The Black Cauldron is one of the most forgotten movies in Disney’s canon. And also one of the most underrated. The Black Cauldron was panned by audiences for its dark and mature tone. But it’s this dark tone that makes the movie so good and stand out from other fantastical Disney films. It also features one of the best and most frightening Disney villains, the Horned King, and captures a magical heroic journey that’s perfect for Disney animation. There are people out there who appreciate The Black Cauldron and view it as a Disney classic. Try watching it if you don’t believe them. This film is definitely worthy of your attention.
1 The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
Walt Disney Pictures was in serious financial trouble after the abysmal box office performance from The Black Cauldron. Walt Disney’s older brother, and the unsung hero of the House of Mouse, Roy stepped in to establish new leadership to oversee the animation department. The Great Mouse Detective followed The Black Cauldron and was the first film to come out of this restructuring. Despite its commercial success, this film has since become one of Disney’s most forgotten and underrated films.
The Great Mouse Detective cleverly parallels Britain’s most famous detective duo, Sherlock Holmes and his trusty sidekick Watson. In fact, it may just be one of the best Sherlock Holmes movies we’ve gotten. It features an intriguing mystery, an awesome villain, and an epic brawl at the top of London’s iconic Big Ben. The Great Mouse Detective is also largely responsible for saving Disney from bankruptcy, making it one of the most important and yet underappreciated films in Disney’s catalog.