My Disney Top 5 - Underrated and Under-appreciated Disney Animated Films

by Chris Barry, staff writer
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Welcome back to another Disney Top 5.

As I write this article I am enjoying what every kid waits for in winter – a snow day. It’s icing. It’s snowing. It’s a real mess, and it’s the second one we’ve had this week. We’re having one of those winters here in New York, as are quite a few other regions of the country. If it’s too nasty to go out sledding, which it has been, then one has to think about what to do with the kids all day. How about a movie? But which one? Our collection is quite extensive. So why is it that we always seem to watch the same ones?

Here’s a thought, kids. How about a movie other than one of the Toy Story movies? How about not watching Monster’s Inc. again or any of the dozen or so movies that my sons instantly gravitate towards? Maybe a snow day is just the perfect time to watch one of those other Disney movies that seem to get forgotten and brushed aside for the biggies like The Lion King, Aladdin or The Incredibles. The Disney catalog of animated films is so extensive and yet, even with their father being who he is, my sons haven’t seen a whole bunch of them. And they’re not alone.

There are quite a few Disney animated films that have seemingly dropped off of the radar and that’s a crime because there are treasures out there that shamefully get ignored. The public isn’t the only guilty culprit involved in this imposed exile. The Walt Disney Company themselves seem to have forgotten about a lot of the films in their library. They don’t get promoted in the parks. They don’t get toys and merchandise produced for them anymore and they don’t get highly touted rereleases like so many of the other Disney classics.

So with unexpected time to kill on these cold, blustery days at home, I started to look through the DVD shelves for my Top 5 Underrated and Under-appreciated Disney Animated Films. It’s time that they got to see the light of day again and it’s time for the young Barry boys to see just what they’ve been missing.

5 – Robin Hood


Robin Hood. © Disney Enterprises

In this writer’s opinion, Disney’s twenty-first animated release gets quite a bum rap from the Disney faithful. This is no doubt due to its reuse of animation and nearly identical characters to its more popular predecessor, Jungle Book. Yes, Little John is pretty much Baloo, down to the same voice actor, the great Phil Harris. Sir Hiss the snake does that same hypnosis thing as Kaa from Jungle Book and there are other bits of animation that are strikingly similar to other Disney films. We have our beloved Walt Disney World to thank for this. The story goes that thanks to the Florida Project’s burgeoning costs, Robin Hood’s budget was cut and the animators had to make do.

Still, I can absolutely look past these supposed shortcomings and enjoy Robin Hood for what it is, a wonderful, entertaining Disney classic. I clearly remember seeing this at the drive-in and it always brings me back to my childhood, like any good Disney movie should. Robin Hood himself is one of my all-time favorite Disney characters. He’s got a certain swagger about him, which I attribute to his casting as a cool, sly fox. I haven’t seen him out and about in the Magic Kingdom for quite some time, but my daughter and I were always equally thrilled to meet him and take a photo with him. In my opinion, the company ignores the Robin Hood characters. Friar Tuck and Prince John do make appearances in the parade, but I think it’s a shame that more people don’t appreciate this film and put it up there with the classics in the Disney canon.

4 – Atlantis: The Lost Empire


Atlantis: The Lost Empire. © Disney Enterprises

I was a fan of this film from the very start. Definitely a departure from the typical Disney style of animated movies, Atlantis: The Lost Empire was considered quite a financial disappointment after it was released in 2001. The things that some critics didn’t like about this film – that for a Disney movie it was lacking songs, cute animals and children – is exactly what I like most about it. It’s science fiction, not princesses and singing animals. I wish more people had embraced this departure from the norm. Watch this film and enjoy the unique and wonderful animation, the good humor, the action sequences, potent message and the voiceover cast provided by TV royalty like Michael J. Fox, James Garner and Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy. If you’re looking for something different in the Disney library, look no further than the lost city of Atlantis.

3 – The Emperor’s New Groove


The Emperor's New Groove. © Disney Enterprises

Despite the direct-to-video sequel, Kronk’s New Groove and a spin-off animated series, The Emperor’s New School, Kuzco, Pacha, Yzma and Kronk have pretty much vanished from the Disney radar. Personally, I think this is one of Disney’s funniest films. The four stars, David Spade as Emperor Kuzco, John Goodman as Pacha, Patrick Warburton as Kronk and the unforgettable Eartha Kitt as the wicked Yzma are spot on perfect and infuse the film with four totally unique and memorable characters. The pairing of Yzma and Kronk as the classic evildoer and henchman is particularly hysterical at times. New Groove is a forgotten gem and deserves much more attention than it currently receives. Watch it and try not to laugh.

2 – Brother Bear


Brother Bear. © Disney Enterprises

Critics consistently slammed this film. I’ve heard it called bland, dull and formulaic. Honestly, I can’t disagree more. To me, this is a simple, funny, moving, beautifully animated entry in the Disney lineup. I love classic 2-D animation and was thrilled to see this film put out when so many other companies were pushing mediocre bits of CGI that had no story, lame characters, no heart and poorly executed digital animation. Brother Bear shined to me at that moment and it still resonates with me today. I’m a Disney fan. I’m sorry if I sometimes unabashedly like sap. I saw this in the theater with my then five-year-old daughter and it was the perfect film for us to see and enjoy together. I think it’s an unheralded pleasure and aside from the occasional Kenai sighting in Epcot’s Canada pavilion, it’s another Disney great that has pretty much been forgotten.

1 – The Hunchback of Notre Dame


The Hunchback of Notre Dame. © Disney Enterprises

When I sat down to compose this list I approached my 15-year-old daughter to discuss placement and which films should and shouldn’t make the cut. We were unanimous on placing Disney’s 34th animated masterpiece, The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the 1st place slot. This is an absolutely stunning film featuring well-developed characters, Broadway caliber music, breathtaking animation, a wickedly evil villain and a strong willed and non princess-like heroine all wrapped up in one of Disney’s best-produced packages. And yet, as I have mentioned with just about each of my entries on this list, Hunchback has essentially been forgotten in the Disney universe. When my aforementioned daughter arrived in Walt Disney World at the mature age of 4, the character she wanted to meet most was Esmeralda. She was nowhere to be found and still isn’t.

Perhaps it’s the dark themes explored in this film. Persecution, abandonment, cruelty, discrimination and lust are all pretty heavy themes for a Disney movie. Let’s not forget that the main character isn’t a handsome prince and he, in fact, doesn’t get the girl in the end. This movie broke the Disney mold and it should be praised as such. Instead, it seems like this is yet another forgotten Disney classic, one that should be applauded for all of its unique attributes. If you haven’t watched this in a while, dust it off and see for yourself just how great this film is. I have it on in the background as I'm finishing this article and it really is brilliant.

This was a tough list for sure. I could have waxed eloquently on several other lost Disney classics. How many of you loved Treasure Planet as much as I did, a few, maybe? How about The Black Cauldron or The Great Mouse Detective? Am I one of the only ones who gets all choked up and adores The Fox and the Hound? Yet, all of these movies I listed here just don’t seem to register on the “Disney Biggies Scale.” I suppose when you have a library of films like The Lion King, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Peter Pan, and so many others, there’s going to be a hierarchy.

But as Disney fans, we can support these so called second tier Disney classics, can’t we? As a writer for a website like this one, it’s my duty to tout these films as the hidden masterpieces that they are. I don’t think this article will get Esmeralda out of retirement anytime soon, and it’s certainly too late for that Atlantis themed submarine ride in Tomorrowland.

But maybe there are a few of you out there that share my feelings for these lesser-known Disney gems. Maybe if we talk about them more and write about them more, they’ll see a bit of resurgence in their popularity.

Or maybe, they won’t and the die-hard fans out there who know what we know will just have to keep on loving these films on their own and waiting for snow days or long rides in the car to break them out of their old cases and show them to their kids hoping that they’ll love them too.

As always, thanks for reading. Let me know what you think of my list or let me hear your own list by clicking on the link below and I’ll see you next time with another Disney Top 5.


Comments

  1. By Shortpix77

    Great list!! Robin Hood and Emperor's New Groove are two of my favorites, and it's sad how under-appreciated they are. Now I want to re-watch all five :-)

  2. By DwarfPlanet

    My sons just about wore out our VHS tape of Robin Hood, same with Atlantis, I crack up all the time with The Emperor's New Groove, only my older son likes Brother Bear and no one really liked The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The only good thing I can say about Hunchback is it had the great Mary Wickes voicing the gargoyle Laverne.

    "Beware the groove"

  3. By jedited

    I agree 100% with your selection of Brother Bear! GREAT film!
    Atlantis is pretty good too.
    I have to disagree in the STRONGEST possible way to your mention of Black Cauldron. That is hands down the 2nd WORST animated film that Disney ever made (2nd only to Home on the Range).
    I would have included Meet the Robinsons. If you want to talk about a film that gets no love, Bob Iger himself said he hated this film.

  4. By worldlover71

    I have a friend who also loves Hunchback and we argue about it all the time! I'm afraid I just don't see it. I like your other choices though, even if I wouldn't put Atlantis on my own list. I would replace it with Hercules which has really great music and is equally invisible. The random Thumper at Easter is also not enough of a presence for a film as beautiful as Bambi.

  5. By worldlover71

    Quote Originally Posted by jedited View Post
    I have to disagree in the STRONGEST possible way to your mention of Black Cauldron. That is hands down the 2nd WORST animated film that Disney ever made (2nd only to Home on the Range).

    Sorry but I feel The Black Cauldron is one of the worst films ever made, Disney or not, animated or not, period. Crude animation, dull/annoying characters, awful score, lame ending, etc. HotR is a Masterpeice by comparison.

  6. By carolinakid

    My 5 favorite underrated Disney animation films:
    1. Make Mine Music
    2. Melody Time
    3. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad
    4. The Sword in the Stone
    5. The Aristocats

  7. By DisneyGator

    I can't imagine Disney ever promoting Hunchback. Old Quasi limping around the parks would scare kids half to death. And Esmerelda was kind of a shady character.

    As for Robin Hood, I love this movie and have ever since I was a kid. Now my kids love it, too. "I've got a dirty thumb". Wish Robin Hood was around a lot more.

    And for me Brother Bear was my favorite Disney film behind Bug's Life and Up. I remembe watching that film with just my wife. The only other people in the theater was a mom and two kids. I laughed so hard at that film, nearly teared up (but manned up just in time), and loved the score. The music is one of the best Disney has ever done, and that included Phil Collins and Tina Turner's songs. Just a great story overall. I've seen Kenai at California Adventure Park, and had my pic taken with a Moose cut out over at Disney Studios,but that was a long time ago.

  8. By Cory Gross

    Hunchback deserves every bit of hate it gets. Even if I factor out the fact that I love the book, it's such a weak, annoying movie in its own right. Once I factor in that the book is amazing, I wonder why they even bothered to make the movie to begin with. It's not Disney material, and trying to make it that way made it into an awful movie.

    Brother Bear was a fine enough movie, but the audio-commentary with Rutt and Tuke is hilarious. That is the version really worth watching

    Treasure Planet tops my list for underrated Disney films. I have no clue why people don't like it: the story is no different from any other Disney movie, and the retro-futuristic style is ingenious. I also enjoy Atlantis a great deal, but I can understand why it's not as popular. It's not just Science Fiction, but a type of Lovecraftian, Antediluvian story very much inspired by the work of comic writer-artist Mike "Hellboy" Mignola. That sort of thing isn't for everybody.

    I think Princess and the Frog is quite underrated. It's not a very daring film, choosing to play it very safe, but it is a fine film with beautiful art and setting, engaging characters, and some very well-handled scenes. More ignored than underrated are Disney's package films like Melody Time, Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. I enjoy all of them, with Melody Time as my favourite of the bunch.

  9. By gointowdw

    Oliver and Company is on the top of my list. In addition to the voice talents of Robert Loggia, Robert Mulligan, and Bette Midler, it features the voice of Billy Joel as Dodger. I believe this is Billy Joel's only acting role, an admirable job in my opinion. I also enjoyed the feature song "Why Should I Worry?" Sure, there have been many treatments of Oliver Twist over the years, but this is a good one.

  10. By JaySwash

    I agree with a lot of the opinions on this board, it's amazing how many good Disney movies have been collecting dust on the proverbial shelf.

    I really enjoyed Oliver and Company, I was working my first job at McDonalds when it came out and I remember collecting all of the value meal toys for my baby brother.

    Fox and the Hound is the favorite Disney movie that I never actually watch... because I'll end up blubbering like a baby. Such a beautiful story of friendship enduring through hardships... plus a strong endorsement of adoption.

    My pick for most underrated though is Treasure Planet. The animation is stunning, and I think like the beginning of Up that it did a masterful job of explaining the bond between Jim and Silver... the music montage set to "I'm Still Here" told a 2 hour story in 4 minutes. I tear up a little any time I hear the song.

  11. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by Shortpix77 View Post
    Great list!! Robin Hood and Emperor's New Groove are two of my favorites, and it's sad how under-appreciated they are. Now I want to re-watch all five :-)

    Go right ahead Christy. Set them up and watch them all!
    And love the Groove-y (sorry) costumes!

  12. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by DwarfPlanet View Post
    My sons just about wore out our VHS tape of Robin Hood, same with Atlantis, I crack up all the time with The Emperor's New Groove, only my older son likes Brother Bear and no one really liked The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The only good thing I can say about Hunchback is it had the great Mary Wickes voicing the gargoyle Laverne.

    "Beware the groove"

    I enjoyed all three gargoyles actually. It seems that Hunchback is a dividing line for many readers.

  13. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by jedited View Post
    I agree 100% with your selection of Brother Bear! GREAT film!
    Atlantis is pretty good too.
    I have to disagree in the STRONGEST possible way to your mention of Black Cauldron. That is hands down the 2nd WORST animated film that Disney ever made (2nd only to Home on the Range).
    I would have included Meet the Robinsons. If you want to talk about a film that gets no love, Bob Iger himself said he hated this film.

    I really do like Meet the Robinsons. I think the scene where they introduce all of the wacky family members loses me. Too many characters. Too many different wacky things about them. I was never going to get too involved with all of them, so I don't see the point. I think this film suffered from bad advertising. The TV ad campaign didn't portray it well. I remember liking it so much more than I thought I was going to. I remember the ads souring me a bit, and I was pleasantly surprised.

    I have a soft spot for Black Cauldron. Not sure why, but I'm a fan.

  14. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by worldlover71 View Post
    I have a friend who also loves Hunchback and we argue about it all the time! I'm afraid I just don't see it. I like your other choices though, even if I wouldn't put Atlantis on my own list. I would replace it with Hercules which has really great music and is equally invisible. The random Thumper at Easter is also not enough of a presence for a film as beautiful as Bambi.

    Hercules was a runner-up for sure. Big fan of this film. It was tough to narrow down the list. I agree on Bambi, but Bambi is universally well respected and makes "greatest lists" all of the time. I don't think these films get the respect that they deserve. Bambi does get respect.

  15. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by worldlover71 View Post
    Sorry but I feel The Black Cauldron is one of the worst films ever made, Disney or not, animated or not, period. Crude animation, dull/annoying characters, awful score, lame ending, etc. HotR is a Masterpeice by comparison.

    Another Black Cauldron hater. I know they're out there. I'm in the minority on this one, but what can I say...I like it.

  16. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by carolinakid View Post
    My 5 favorite underrated Disney animation films:
    1. Make Mine Music
    2. Melody Time
    3. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad
    4. The Sword in the Stone
    5. The Aristocats

    Hey John,

    I thought about including the "package films" in your top 3, but sometimes I feel like they are a category onto themselves.

    Both Sword in the Stone and Aristocats were in the running as well. Good choices. Does it count that Marie has been out in the parks lately? Probably not. They could do more with these characters.

  17. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by DisneyGator View Post
    I can't imagine Disney ever promoting Hunchback. Old Quasi limping around the parks would scare kids half to death. And Esmerelda was kind of a shady character.

    As for Robin Hood, I love this movie and have ever since I was a kid. Now my kids love it, too. "I've got a dirty thumb". Wish Robin Hood was around a lot more.

    And for me Brother Bear was my favorite Disney film behind Bug's Life and Up. I remembe watching that film with just my wife. The only other people in the theater was a mom and two kids. I laughed so hard at that film, nearly teared up (but manned up just in time), and loved the score. The music is one of the best Disney has ever done, and that included Phil Collins and Tina Turner's songs. Just a great story overall. I've seen Kenai at California Adventure Park, and had my pic taken with a Moose cut out over at Disney Studios,but that was a long time ago.

    Hey Gator,

    Esmeralda was apparently at the princess meal in Norway on occasion. I read that in a guidebook, but can't seem to find any photo evidence of her out there. I asked a character wrangler once and she said to me, "Oh Yes! We used to have some lovely Esmeralda's, but not is a long time." My daughter was heartbroken when she was a little girl. I'm not sure why, but this character stuck with her at a young age.

    Glad to see you're a Brother Bear fan. I also love the music. We've met Koda and Kenai in Animal Kingdom and Canada, but that was a while ago.

  18. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by Cory Gross View Post
    Hunchback deserves every bit of hate it gets. Even if I factor out the fact that I love the book, it's such a weak, annoying movie in its own right. Once I factor in that the book is amazing, I wonder why they even bothered to make the movie to begin with. It's not Disney material, and trying to make it that way made it into an awful movie.

    Brother Bear was a fine enough movie, but the audio-commentary with Rutt and Tuke is hilarious. That is the version really worth watching

    Treasure Planet tops my list for underrated Disney films. I have no clue why people don't like it: the story is no different from any other Disney movie, and the retro-futuristic style is ingenious. I also enjoy Atlantis a great deal, but I can understand why it's not as popular. It's not just Science Fiction, but a type of Lovecraftian, Antediluvian story very much inspired by the work of comic writer-artist Mike "Hellboy" Mignola. That sort of thing isn't for everybody.

    I think Princess and the Frog is quite underrated. It's not a very daring film, choosing to play it very safe, but it is a fine film with beautiful art and setting, engaging characters, and some very well-handled scenes. More ignored than underrated are Disney's package films like Melody Time, Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. I enjoy all of them, with Melody Time as my favourite of the bunch.

    Hey Cory,

    I kind of like the fact that hey took a chance on telling a story that's not quite Disney material and I think they walked the line well. It's still pretty darn dark, especially for a Disney film. But, I see it has haters out there.

    I have a soft spot for Rutt and Tuke. One of the lithographs that came with the pre-order of the DVD release is of these two moose, and it's been hanging in my twin boy's room ever since. It fits them!

    Treasure Planet was probably tied for a spot on my list with Atlantis. I love Treasure Planet. It definitely doesn't get much loving either.

  19. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by gointowdw View Post
    Oliver and Company is on the top of my list. In addition to the voice talents of Robert Loggia, Robert Mulligan, and Bette Midler, it features the voice of Billy Joel as Dodger. I believe this is Billy Joel's only acting role, an admirable job in my opinion. I also enjoyed the feature song "Why Should I Worry?" Sure, there have been many treatments of Oliver Twist over the years, but this is a good one.

    I gotta say...I never quite got Oliver and Company. I can appreciate it. It deserves a place on this kind of list, but I'm just not that big a fan, but people are and it definitely gets ignored.

  20. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by JaySwash View Post
    I agree with a lot of the opinions on this board, it's amazing how many good Disney movies have been collecting dust on the proverbial shelf.

    I really enjoyed Oliver and Company, I was working my first job at McDonalds when it came out and I remember collecting all of the value meal toys for my baby brother.

    Fox and the Hound is the favorite Disney movie that I never actually watch... because I'll end up blubbering like a baby. Such a beautiful story of friendship enduring through hardships... plus a strong endorsement of adoption.

    My pick for most underrated though is Treasure Planet. The animation is stunning, and I think like the beginning of Up that it did a masterful job of explaining the bond between Jim and Silver... the music montage set to "I'm Still Here" told a 2 hour story in 4 minutes. I tear up a little any time I hear the song.

    Hey Jay,

    Fox and the Hound affects me the very same way! Good point on Treasure Planet. It was hard to leave both of these films off of a list like this.

  21. By yedliw

    I've always been a big fan of the Robin Hood movie.. and was excited when it was added to Netflix a few weeks ago..

    I used to watch it all the time growing up.

    I also really enjoy the Sword in the Stone.. which has also been recently added to Netflix.

  22. By betsyrina

    Aristocats would definitely be in my top 5. I also think The Fox and the Hound is also really good. I haven't seen Atlantis.

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