I love Disney. You know this already. So please note that these are not the only Disney movies that I like. I had to make some very difficult decisions here. Please refer to the end of this article for an additional thirty-two movies that I considered while trying to narrow it down to twenty. Of course, movies that I haven’t seen yet are not on this list.
Without further ado, here are my top twenty Disney films, ranked!
20. Sleeping Beauty
I can’t blame childhood nostalgia for this one, because I can’t remember ever seeing it before high school. If you want visual art out of your Disney movies, this is the place to go, because it’s an absolute painting. Most people say Maleficent is the best thing that this movie has to offer, but I cast my lot in with the three fairies, whose turbulent teamwork drives the plot. Seriously, none of the characters who are billed as the heroes here would get anything done without the fairies, and I love watching them work.
19. The Great Mouse Detective
Basil of Baker Street might just be my favorite incarnation of Sherlock Holmes. It’s delightful to see the mouse society nested inside the much larger human one, but while the characters are small, the stakes are anything but. Also, this film has one of the few Disney villains to legitimately scare me, and I tip my hat to it for that. There’s just something about the way Rattigan’s gentlemanly demeanor disintegrates during the chase through the clock... It’s terrifying, but in a wonderfully constructed way.
18. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
These days this film is too slow for me, but there’s a reason I keep coming back to its ride at Disney World. There’s something eternally charming about Pooh and his friends overcoming their problems in simple narratives. The songs get stuck in my head and I don’t care. Also, this film is definitely responsible for my love of breaking the fourth wall (How to get Tigger out of a tree? Tilt the book sideways and let him slide down the text. Classic!).
I remember watching the special features on the Bambi VHS at my grandparents’ house, explaining how the animators brought real animals into the studio for the first time to use as a reference, instead of forming their own cartoony interpretations of animals (see the deer in Snow White for comparison). From the start, Bambi was a Disney film like no other, and it still is. It counts on the simple magic of the natural world to carry the story forward, in beautiful landscapes and peaceful, slightly melancholy music, and it succeeds.
16. Cinderella (2015)
The thing I love most about Disney’s recent live-action remakes is the way they improve the original films’ messages - they don’t change them per se, but they make the messages more clear. Cinderella was always a story of a victim and survivor of abuse, but the remake makes it clear without a doubt that Cinderella’s journey is less about being rescued than it is about daring to believe that the world is a loving place.
15. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
This was not a film of my childhood, for reasons that were very clear to me when I finally watched it in high school. Though I tend to avoid the darker and gloomier tales, the anti-religious-extremism message is a bold one, the soundtrack of this film is a must-have in any Disney mix, and I love the matter-of-fact way the love triangle is resolved without making the audience feel like Quasimodo has “lost” anything.
14. Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Forget the “Jolly Holiday” part of Mary Poppins; this is where live action and animation came together in the best of ways! I geek out endlessly over the scene in which Eddie bumps into the lamp, sending shadows flying everywhere and giving the animators a heck of a job to do – and in true Disney fashion, they rise to meet the challenge. It’s also a great detective story, with high stakes that nonetheless coexist well with the inherent goofiness of Toons.
13. Muppet Treasure Island
The Muppets have two modes: playing as themselves, and playing as themselves playing characters, and this movie is the latter at its finest. My siblings and I loved this movie when we were little; it made us laugh and laugh. I enjoyed it before and after I finally read Treasure Island (I think the only thing I didn’t get before reading the book was why the heck Piggy was called “Benjamina”). And god, are the songs catchy!
12. The Lion King
I worked at the Festival of the Lion King show at Animal Kingdom and I never got sick of the music. Never. That has to be worth something. I’m curious what the upcoming live action remake will do with it; The Lion King has a place in my brain in which it just sort of is what it is.
11. Mary Poppins
This supercalifragilisticexpialidocious film has had me singing its songs for as long as I could talk. It’s a heartfelt tale of childhood wonder, growth and redemption, and what it means to be a parent, and all three of those themes became all the more poignant and endearing with the release of Saving Mr. Banks.
10. Finding Nemo
There was a time when my sister and I could and would happily recite this movie, line by line, from beginning to end. I could gush about the animation, the memorable characters, the implicit messages about neurodivergence, or the way it’s a father and son movie even though the father and son spend most of it apart through the use of surrogate fathers and sons, but I think the best review I could give this movie is in the previous sentence.
9. Big Hero 6
I truly believe that this movie is the best of Marvel and the best of Disney rolled into one. It’s a salute to both nerdiness (of the science and problem solving sort) and geekiness (of the comic book loving sort), and it portrays the process of grief with a complexity that no Disney film before it had, for all their instances of family member death. Also, Baymax is one of my favorite fictional robots.
8. The Incredibles
I didn’t have much exposure to comic book heroes as a child, so the Incredibles and Frozone were my superheroes. It’s a phenomenally quotable film that I got new things out of as I grew up. And let’s face it, I’m a sucker for stories about family, and that’s what this movie is more than anything else.
7. Wreck-It Ralph
Most of my fanfiction was about how villains were secretly good guys and good guys were secretly jerks. So that’s definitely one of the reasons I love this movie. I also spent the first ten minutes of the film with my eyes wide open, muttering “oh that’s good… oh that’s clever… oh, that is clever!” as the video game world was built up in front of me.
6. Treasure Planet
I might have a thing for Treasure Island adaptations. Or maybe I have a thing for super detailed science-fiction universes. Or maybe I have a thing for the song “I’m Still Here.” Or maybe I have a thing for Captain Amelia Smollet. The world may never know!
5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
One thought crossed my mind as the opening crawl spread across the movie theatre screen: “Is this what it was like to see it in the seventies?!” I love the music, I love the characters, I love the universe, I love the PowerPoint-esque transitions (okay, that last one is a stretch)… This is a movie that just plain gives me joy. And it’s full of incidentally-female background characters, which is kind of a big deal!
4. Toy Story 3
We went to see this movie literally right after dropping my big sister off at college. Tears were shed. Multiple times. The garbage incinerator sequence in particular is one of the most chilling moments in any Disney film, and at the same time it’s the culmination of a gag years in the making, and there’s something beautiful about that. Anybody who thinks all Disney sequels stink never saw this film.
3. The Nightmare Before Christmas
It’s easy to forget that this film is stop-motion, it’s so fluidly animated. I’d go on about this movie and the rabbit holes it sends my brain down, but I already have here and here. I also love the music and I aspire to help bring this film to Broadway.
Speaking of “tears were shed multiple times…” It takes a truly great film to cut so deep and build you up again into happiness by the end. I’ve been singing “Remember Me” and “Proud Corazón” ever since. But before this movie came out in the States, it came out in Mexico, and nothing about it delighted me more than seeing my Mexican friends post online about how much it meant to them. This is a truly important film, and hopefully a harbinger of more like it. But it couldn’t steal my heart away from my number one favorite…
It’s adorable, with its robots in love. It’s art, with its silent movie magic. It’s inspiring, with its message about how it doesn’t matter how far we fall, as long as one person still believes that the world is a wonderful place, we can make a comeback. It’s criminally underrepresented in the theme parks, but at least that means I don’t spend much on merchandise, and I literally squeal with delight when I do find my two favorite robots somewhere.
Honorable Mentions: Beauty and the Beast, Beauty and the Beast (2017), Brave, Bridge to Terabithia, Brother Bear, Dumbo, Fantasia, Finding Dory, Frozen, Inside Out, Lady and the Tramp, Lilo & Stitch, Meet the Robinsons, Moana, Monsters, Inc., Mulan, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, Pooh’s Heffalump Movie, Queen of Katwe, Saving Mr. Banks, Sky High, Stitch! The Movie, Tangled, Tarzan, The Fox and the Hound, The Hundred-Foot Journey, The Jungle Book, The Jungle Book (2016), The Little Mermaid, Up, Zootopia