Over the last 100 years, Disney has produced many iconic and beloved films that have become cultural touchstones. However, several underrated gems within the Disney filmography haven’t received the same notoriety as their more well-known counterparts. These films often suffer from various factors, such as limited theatrical release, lack of marketing, or being overshadowed by other blockbuster hits and counter-programming. Despite these challenges, these underrated Disney films hold unique qualities and artistic merits that make them worthy of recognition and celebration.
In honor of Walt Disney Co.’s 100th birthday later this year, Variety has ranked the 10 most underrated Disney movies, including animated and live action, that deserve more love than they’re given.
The definition of “underrated” will vary to anyone reading. Some might consider a movie such as “The Princess and the Frog” (2009) a worthy entry on this list. The film, a return to hand-drawn animation, did not deliver the same cultural impact as some of the studio’s previous 3D animated ventures, and it faced tough competition upon release in the shadow of Pixar’s “Up” and other blockbusters that affected it overall box office performance. Nevertheless, “The Princess and the Frog” is a significant entry in Disney’s history for being the first film to feature an African American princess, Princess Tiana; for this list, I think the film has established a solid legacy and respect following its release.
Discussing and celebrating these underrated Disney films is crucial. Recognizing these films allows us to appreciate the diversity and depth of Disney’s creative achievements while showcasing the studio’s willingness to experiment with different storytelling approaches, animation styles, and cultural representation. These films can inspire new generations of filmmakers and storytellers, encouraging them to think outside the box and push boundaries in their creative endeavors. They’re hidden treasures that deserve more attention and recognition in the vast cultural landscape of Disney’s history.
Read the 10 underrated feature films below.
Honorable mentions: “Blank Check” (1994); “A Goofy Movie” (1995); “Frankenweenie” (2012)
‘Atlantis: The Lost Empire’ (2001)
An action-adventure film that delves into the mythical city of Atlantis is such a blip when talking about classic Disney. However, its imaginative premise received a lukewarm response upon release, sandwiched between other Disney hits like “The Emperor’s New Groove” and “Lilo & Stitch,” which likely contributed to its underwhelming performance at the box office. However, “Atlantis” boasts a distinctive visual style, engaging characters, and innovative world-building, blending a unique mixture of sci-fi and mythology.
I was on record in 2020 that “Onward” was the stronger of the two Pixar releases that year, although “Soul” ended up taking home the Oscar for animated feature. In fact, “Onward” should have been nominated for best picture, in my humble opinion — it’s a heartwarming and imaginative film with engaging storytelling and impressive animation. The voice performances by Tom Holland as Ian Lightfoot and Chris Pratt as Barley Lightfoot are nothing short of brilliant, radiating chemistry as brothers on a quest to spend one more day with their late father. The epic adventure is told through a modern world of magic, elicits laughter and puts the tear ducts into overdrive — a true standout in Disney’s animated library.
‘Robin Hood’ (1973)
Outside of “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” (1992), Disney’s animated take on “Robin Hood” are the two nearly perfect endeavors of the timeless classic. The voice performances by a talented cast, led by Brian Bedford as Robin Hood and Peter Ustinov as Prince John, breathe life into the beloved characters.
The film’s themes of justice, loyalty, and standing up for the oppressed resonate with viewers of all ages, creating a timeless appeal. The artistry and attention to detail in bringing the animal kingdom to life with anthropomorphic characters are truly remarkable, with fluid and expressive animation styling that captures the essence of the characters, immersing audiences in the vibrant world of Sherwood Forest. It’s simply the best.
‘DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp’ (1990)
The Disney Afternoon was a staple of my childhood. So when the movie adaptation of the famed “DuckTales” cartoon landed on home video, the VHS copy in my home barely lasted a month after purchasing.
All the beloved characters from the hit TV series, led by the charismatic Scrooge McDuck (voiced by the incomparable Alan Young) are in “DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp,” which is terrific. With a perfect blend of wit, charm, and heart, Scrooge, along with his grandnephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie, endures all these years later.
At its core, “Treasure of the Lost Lamp” boasts a thrilling and adventurous spirit that is full of heartfelt moments, appealing to audiences of all ages.
‘Cool Runnings’ (1993)
If you’re a millennial, you’ve probably said, “A bobsled is a simple thing” a million times for no reason at all.
“Cool Runnings” boasts an exceptional cast led by the talented John Candy, whose portrayal of the determined and unconventional coach, Irv Blitzer, is humorous and touching. He’s surrounded by four talents – Leon, Doug E. Doug, Rawle D. Lewis, and Malik Yoba – who create a camaraderie that is infectious and endearing. Their journey from being unlikely Jamaican bobsledders to earning the respect of their competitors at the Winter Olympics is a testament to the power of chasing one’s dreams: A timeless classic that continues to be celebrated and referenced long after its initial release, just not as loudly as it should be.
Some may think the 1993 inspirational true story is loved enough to not warrant a spot on the list, but the term “underrated” is subjective, and I wish I felt like it’s more respected. And if people disagree, then giving this sports film a shoutout gives the gas needed to pop it in tonight and take it all in once again.
‘The Three Musketeers’ (1993)
I loved this movie in a way that can’t be deemed logical for a 10-year-old.
The film features a stellar ensemble, including a pre-“winning” Charlie Sheen, a softer Kiefer Sutherland, a scene-stealing Oliver Platt, and a fun, albeit whiny, Chris O’Donnell. The four actors bring the iconic characters of Athos, Aramis, Porthos, and D’Artagnan to life with charm and charisma. It’s Tim Curry’s portrayal of the villainous Cardinal Richelieu that adds a menacing presence to the story. In contrast, Rebecca DeMornay’s Milady de Winter (coming one year after her career best work in “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle”) adds complexity and intrigue. It’s a worthy entry in the list of great Disney live-action classics.
“Dinosaur” is a visually stunning and captivating film that stands as an outstanding achievement in animation and isn’t given the respect it so clearly deserves. While the film features minimal dialogue, the voice performances are noteworthy, particularly the narration by D.B. Sweeney as Aladar, a young dinosaur raised by lemurs, that make the character’s journey of survival and self-discovery even more compelling. It skillfully blends prehistoric adventure with themes of friendship, family, and environmental stewardship, resonating with audiences of all ages.
‘The Fox and the Hound’ (1981)
Every time I tell someone how much I love “The Fox and the Hound,” and they respond with, “But it’s boring,” an angel loses its wings.
It is one of Disney’s most incredible efforts in its 100 years. The voice cast, led by legendary actors Mickey Rooney as the playful and innocent fox, Tod (Keith Mitchell as young Tod), perfectly contrasts with Russell’s masterful portrayal of the loyal and conflicted hound, Copper (with Corey Feldman handling young Copper). Their genuine chemistry highlights the central theme of friendship and the challenges that come with societal expectations. As the film unfolds, viewers are taken on a journey, captivated by the nuanced performances that elevate the characters beyond mere animated figures.
Poignant and beautifully crafted, “The Fox and the Hound” is a classic that everyone should embrace more often.
‘D2: The Mighty Ducks’ (1994)
Emilio Estevez reprises his role as coach Gordon Bombay in the hit sequel that outdoes its predecessor. The young cast members, led by Joshua Jackson as Charlie Conway and the spirited ensemble of Mighty Ducks, showcase excellent chemistry and high-powered stakes throughout the film. The legacy lies in its enduring impact that sparked a successful franchise and a live-action TV series. Beyond its entertainment, the movie offers valuable lessons about perseverance, teamwork, and the ability to perform the “Flying V.”
‘The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea’ (2000)
Disney’s “The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea” is one of the straight-to-DVD titles that may have been thrown into the dollar bin of a local video store back in the day, but people may have missed that it was a delightful and heartwarming sequel.
Featuring the return of Jodi Benson as the iconic Ariel, whose voice performance retains the same charm and spirit that made the character so beloved, we add Tara Strong as Ariel and Eric’s daughter Melody, who brings youthful energy and curiosity to her role, providing a fresh and relatable perspective to a familiar story. The film’s memorable songs, including “For a Moment” and “Here on the Land and Sea,” further enhance the quality and timeless appeal.
The film has become a treasured part of the “Little Mermaid” saga, cherished by fans and new generations alike.