Plenty of movies immediately come to mind when someone thinks of the word “Disney.” Be they early classics like Snow White or Cinderella, some of the studio's groundbreaking work in the 1990s, such as Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin, or even some of their more recent memorable hits like The Princess and the Frog, Frozen, or Moana, Disney strikes an immediate chord in the mind.
Since 1937, Disney has managed to deliver some of the best, most popular animated movies ever made, releasing a total of 59 movies (soon to be 60 with Encanto) over the course of its 84-year history.
With such an extensive filmography, it's natural for some Disney movies to – unfortunately – get buried under the acclaim of some of their contemporaries. We wanted to look at some of the greatest, most underrated Disney animated movies ever made.
1. The Jungle Book (1967)
Out of all the movies on this list, The Jungle Book may actually be the most appropriately rated; not exactly Disney's finest, but not altogether as bad as some of the studio's other, less memorable movies as well.
The final movie released Walt oversaw the production of (he would die a year before its 1967 release), The Jungle Book was one of the last good movies the studio would release from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, a period when the company really struggled to make the same caliber of movies they had under Walt’s supervision.
Based on the famous story collection of the same name by Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book follows Mowgli, a young human boy raised by a pack of wolves in the jungles of India. When the man-hating Bengal tiger, Shere Khan, begins to hunt Mowgli, the boy must travel back to the human villages where he can live in safety, joined along the way by his responsible guardian, the black panther Bagheera, and the carefree sloth bear, Baloo.
There's not much in the way of plot to The Jungle Book; it's really more a standard travel story featuring the characters walking through the jungle and being chased by Shere Khan. It's the encounters along the way that make the story, including their interactions with such memorable characters as Kaa, the hypnotic Indian python, and King Louie, the jazzy, fire-loving orangutan who “wants to be human toooooo.”
Then, there's also the numerous catchy songs sung throughout the movie (especially “Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You”), and the hilarious banter between the overprotective Bagheera and the more relaxed Baloo, whose constant bickering over what's best for Mowgli resembles two parents arguing over their child.
The Jungle Book may not rank up there with some of Disney's best or most famous movies like Cinderella or Snow White, but it still remains one of the more enjoyable movies from an era in the studio's history where entertaining films were far and few between.
2. The Great Mouse Detective
Disney has adapted numerous well-known fairy tales and contemporary stories over the years. Given their choice for using popular stories like Oliver Twist (Oliver!) or Hamlet (The Lion King), it seemed a natural choice that they would one day use the legendary fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, as the basis for a movie. Basing a movie off the character and using anthropomorphic mice for characters instead of humans, though? Now, that was inspired.
An interesting cross between Arthur Conan Doyle's famous mystery stories and the children's book series Basil of Baker Street (itself inspired by Doyle's detective, with the name Basil paying homage to the actor Basil Rathbone, who played the character in 14 movies), an astute detective, and his loyal sidekick, Dawson, assist a young girl whose father is mysteriously kidnapped. As Basil and company investigate the mouse's disappearance, they uncover a heinous plot orchestrated by Basil's archenemy, Professor Ratigan.
Released in the mid-'80s (when Disney was really struggling to capture the same quality to their movies as they had while Walt was alive), The Great Mouse Detective was easily one of the best, most entertaining movies Disney released during that era. A much-needed financial success, it would also win praise from both critics and audiences for its adventurous plotline and mystery, as well as its loose, child-friendly adaptation of Sherlock Holmes to animation.
Nowadays, The Great Mouse Detective, unfortunately, tends to get overlooked due to its having been released during an otherwise forgettable decade in Disney's history. The movie's directors, John Muskers and Ron Clements, would later work on The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Hercules, all of which also tend to overshadow their earliest efforts with this movie (another potential reason it remains unknown today).
Basil or Professor Ratigan may not roam the streets of Disneyland signing autographs, but either way, The Great Mouse Detective is easily the most underrated Disney animated movie to come out of the 1980s, bolstered by a fun, creative plotline and a remarkably unique villain (voiced by the iconic Vincent Price, no less!).
3. Treasure Planet
Similar to Disney's choice to adapt the famous stories of Sherlock Holmes into The Great Mouse Detective, the studio's decision to base Robert Louis Stevenson's immortal adventure novel, Treasure Island, into an animated film wasn't an altogether surprising one. Back in 1950, Disney boasted massive success adapting the novel into a live-action film, and repeating that process for animation – merging the 17th-century swashbuckler with science fiction – seemed like the recipe for something brilliant.
In a more or less faithful adaptation of the original story, Treasure Planet follows a teenaged Jim Hawkins, who spends his time dreaming about one day leaving the safety of his home planet and traveling the stars. When a passing spaceship crashes near his home, Jim learns the location of the fabled “Treasure Planet,” a lost world where the infamous pirate Captain Flint hid all of his loot over the years.
Joined by an awkward guardian/family-friendly to watch over him, Jim finally achieves his boyhood dreams, traveling aboard a starship with a skilled captain and a mysterious cyborg cook and setting out to find the legendary treasure.
The most expensive animated movie ever made at a budget of $140 million, you can't help but feel that Treasure Planet had set an unattainably high bar for itself, and one that, unfortunately, the movie was unable to meet (it grossed just over $100 million globally).
Box office aside, though, the directors, John Musker and Ron Clements, still managed to craft an amazingly modern adaptation of the beloved novel, beautifully designed to blend the 18th-century pirate story with a sci-fi setting (the spaceships, for example, resemble massive 18th-century sailing ships). It's a unique, lovingly-designed movie that blends the lighthearted, nautical fun of the book with a science fiction spin, helping translate the narrative for younger audiences to enjoy.
In 1995, Disney was in the middle of their Renaissance: a period from the late '80s to the end of the '90s in which the studio produced a string of critically and commercially successful movies that renewed audience interest in the company.
During the height of that period, the studio began working on a project that was intended to be the animated movie that topped all other animated movies: Pocahontas. Unfortunately, the finished product failed to live up to its high expectations, yet still remains an interesting historical narrative with real-life roots (albeit in a very loose, overly simplified manner).
In 1607, English settlers travel to the New World to establish the colony of Jamestown, led by the adventurous explorer John Smith and the arrogant, wealth-obsessed Governor Ratcliffe. Encountering the nearby Powhatan tribe, the settlers first attempt to coexist with the Native Americans (resulting in a romantic relationship between Smith and Chief Powhatan's daughter, Pocahontas), only for violence to lead eventually to a rift between the two groups.
Beginning development around the same time as The Lion King, the studio assigned its best animators to Pocahontas, believing the movie would be the more successful of the two. Of course, The Lion King would end up earning numerous awards and raking in nearly a billion dollars at the worldwide box office, while Pocahontas performed…decently well. Because of The Lion King's success, though, Pocahontas typically tends to get overshadowed by the far more popular, earlier film.
Unlike other Disney movies, Pocahontas is a somewhat more mature Disney movie than most of its animated features. Included are such adult themes as colonization and violence, as well as the more destructive effect Europe's colonists would have on the Native American population and the land itself. Likely because it had Disney's best animators working on it, too, it also has some of the most imaginative, colorfully vibrant sequences in all of Disney's canon.
Like The Rescuers Down Under and The Hunchback Notre Dame, it may not be the best movie Disney has ever released or the greatest achievement to come out of the Renaissance, but it remains an incredibly enjoyable movie in and of itself.
5. The Rescuers Down Under
Disney's 1977 project, The Rescuers, marked a rare critical success for the studio during the 1970s. The story focuses on two anthropomorphic mice who work for the Rescue Aid Society, a humanitarian mouse group dedicated to helping people, and who save a young girl from her greedy kidnappers. The Rescuers was a warm, exciting, sometimes emotional film that remains unique in Disney's lengthy filmography.
In the late '80s, with the studio still struggling to make critically and commercially successful movies based on the success of the earlier movie, new CEO Michael Eisner and producer Jeffrey Katzenberg approved a sequel, resulting in 1990's The Rescuers Down Under.
In the Australian Outback, a young boy named Cody frees a rare giant eagle named Marahute from a poacher's trap, resulting in a close friendship between the two. When the poacher attempting to kill Marahute captures Cody, RAS agents Bianca and Bernard are called in to rescue the boy and save Marahute before it’s too late.
Both movies have their individual strengths, with The Rescuers Down Under being somewhat darker than the first movie (which was, admittedly, already a somewhat dark movie to begin with), and full of memorable animated sequences, including scenes where the characters fly on the back of Marahute or on a comedic albatross named Wilbur (voiced by John Candy).
The first Disney sequel ever produced, its success opened the door for a vast number of possibilities in regard to potential Disney sequels in the future – something the studio would capitalize on during the DVD/VHS craze of the late '90s and 2000s.
An underrated film that came early on in the Renaissance, The Rescuers Down Under is a fast-paced thrill ride, balancing lighthearted humor with somewhat more mature action scenes (as well as a more serious villain), never slowing down at any point during its hour and seventeen-minute runtime.
6. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Released in the middle of the Disney Renaissance, The Hunchback of Notre Dame tends to get buried a bit under the critical acclaim and popularity of its contemporaries, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Mulan. It's hard to say why exactly so many people forget this movie (likely its general darker atmosphere), but either way, Hunchback remains one of the greatest Disney movies during a time when pretty much every movie the studio released was great.
Set in 15th-century Paris, Quasimodo, the hunchbacked, gentle-souled bell-ringer of Notre Dame cathedral, is raised by the religious fanatic Judge Claude Frollo and is told never to leave his tower. After years spent almost entirely on his own, Quasimodo longs to venture outside, eventually leading him to a young Gyspy woman, Esmeralda, putting both himself and Esmeralda at risk from the malicious Frollo.
One of the more “adult” Disney movies ever released, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is certainly darker than your average Disney animated movie, featuring songs titled “Hellfire” and exploring themes such as self-independence, physical and psychological escape, bureaucracy, and religious faith (the only Disney movie to date to tackle such a heavy subject).
Many of the actual subjects and themes may fly over younger viewers' heads, but it still remains extremely unsettling in its subject matter. For example, in the opening scene, Frollo chases a woman on horseback through Paris, kills her by kicking her down some stairs, and nearly drowns her baby (a young Quasimodo) before an archdeacon steps in.
The movie may be shockingly grim for a Disney movie, but it's this grimness that makes Hunchback so enjoyable. Despite its G-rating, it explores more adult subjects than your average Disney movie, remaining one of the more unique, mature underrated Disney animated films the studio has ever released.
7. Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Yes, okay, Who Framed Roger Rabbit isn't entirely an animated movie. However, due to its heavy inclusion and plot focus on animation, we thought it was reasonable to include such an amazingly unique, fun movie on this list of underrated Disney films.
Set in 1940s Hollywood, depressed, alcoholic, cantankerous private detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is hired by an animation mogul to uncover an adulterous relationship between a studio rival and an animated character's wife. When the rival turns up murdered, it's up to Valiant to prove the husband (Roger Rabbit) innocent.
One of the most ingeniously made movies that incorporated live-action film with animation, Roger Rabbit was one of Disney's major successes in the 1980s. A clever cross between noir and animation where animated characters appear in the real world as celebrities, it's an unbelievably entertaining movie that manages to balance plenty of laughs with genuine thrills and even some scares (thanks to Christopher Lloyd's gargoyle-like antagonist, the sinister Judge Doom).
Like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Roger Rabbit is a far darker, more daring movie than Disney has ever released, depicting such topics as murder, extramarital affairs, crime, and a generally more sexualized nature than other Disney movies.
From its interesting premise and its murder mystery plotline alone, though, Roger Rabbit remains an immensely creative movie and one of Disney's most unprecedented successes in the 1980s, winning Oscars for Best Film Editing, Best Sound Effects Editing, and Best Visual Effects, and receiving a Special Achievement Academy Award. Without it, who knows if the studio would’ve survived to the 1990s?
8. The Emperor’s New Groove
Hands down Disney's funniest movie, it boggles the mind why The Emperor's New Groove doesn't rank more often as one of the studio's best, most enjoyable movies. It has non-stop laughs, an engagingly simple plot, and some of the most likable characters in any Disney film (especially the villains).
Set during the days of the Incan Empire, Kuzco is a young, arrogant prince who is focused more on fulfilling his own desires than actually ruling his kingdom. When his former advisor, the vindictive Yzma and her good-natured but dimwitted sidekick Kronk, try to steal the throne and accidentally turn Kuzco into a llama (they wind up confusing poison with a llama-transforming potion), Kuzco seeks the help of a kind villager to save him, ultimately learning to grow as a person along the way.
It's a largely simple story, full of Disney's trademark lessons about moving beyond your own selfish desires and learning empathy for others. However, The Emperor's New Groove never feels like some sort of sappy, boring moral lesson. Instead, it uses every chance to tell a good joke, relying heavily on its comedic voice talents, including David Spade, John Goodman, Eartha Kitt, and Patrick Warburton (the latter two of whom voice the movie's two villains, and who steal the show in literally every scene they are in).
The Emperor's New Groove also feels like a different kind of Disney movie. One of the first movies released after the Renaissance, there's no heavy-handed, dramatic final battles between a purely evil figure and the hero that sees the villain horrifically killed à la Clayton in Tarzan or Scar in The Lion King (even the final fight in this movie is played for laughs). The movie relies entirely on maintaining its comedic tone, breaking once in a while to hammer home a more sobering scene, but then seamlessly reverting back to comedy.
It's a light, gut-wrenchingly funny movie that's perfect for all ages, and will leave everyone in the family chuckling heartily at any one of the numerous gags throughout. It's possibly the most underrated Disney animated film.
9. The Brave Little Toaster
This one technically may not actually be an original Disney property (perhaps accounting for its relative lack of popularity). Originally produced by Hyperion Animation, the distribution rights eventually ended up in Disney's hands, hence why we decided to include this underrated little 1987 gem on this list.
Based on the novel of the same name by Thomas M. Disch, The Brave Little Toaster follows a group of sentient household appliances – a toaster, a lampstand, a blanket, a radio, and a vacuum cleaner – who join together to find their rightful owner.
If that plot sounds similar, don't be surprised. The primary animators who worked on this movie would go on to found Pixar, whose debut film, Toy Story, follows a strikingly similar plotline to this movie (including the fact that the household items pretend to be lifeless objects whenever humans are nearby). In a way, The Brave Little Toaster feels kind of like a rough draft, or at the very least, a close dramatic precursor to the later Toy Story.
Deliberately setting out to craft a different sort of animated movie, the film’s animators managed to utilize the somewhat simple storyline to ask surprisingly fundamental and important questions, namely about what it feels like to help people as well as questions over your individual usefulness. It’s a movie that manages to feature plenty of heartfelt emotion that few Disney movies during the 1980s possessed.
Positively received upon its release, many of The Brave Little Toaster‘s crew would go on to work for Disney and Pixar in the years to come, using their knowledge of animation to craft everything from Aladdin and Tarzan to the animated sequences in 2007's Enchanted. For fans of Pixar–and underrated Disney animated movies–this is a must-watch.
10. The Lion King 1½
For this list, we wanted to keep sequels to a minimum, and in fact, given how many Disney sequels there are out there, were reluctant to include any sequel at all. However, considering how unique and positively received this 2004 sequel to the classic The Lion King was, we thought it only fair to include The Lion King 1½ anyway.
The third entry in Disney's Lion King trilogy, Lion King 1½ acts as an origin story of sorts to the first Lion King, providing backstories for fan-favorite characters Timon and Pumbaa. In a unique spin on the traditional sequel, the first half of the movie focuses entirely on Timon and Pumbaa's meeting before the events of The Lion King, with the second half taking place simultaneously with the original movie (characters from The Lion King appear in the background in certain scenes, such as a young Simba singing “I Just Can't Wait to Be King” as Timon and Pumbaa try to sleep).
From the late 1990s onward, Disney released several direct-to-video sequels to beloved Disney classics like Cinderella, Peter Pan, The Little Mermaid, and many more. However, few sequels managed to implement such an original concept quite as well as The Lion King 1½, the Disney equivalent to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead for kids.
Heartwarming in its portrayal of Timon and Pumbaa's relationship (two outcasts rejected by their community and who have only each other) it brings a great deal of development to two otherwise standard comedic relief side characters, as well as providing an interesting, humorous perspective on The Lion King from an outside point of view. If more Disney sequels were as great as this underrated Disney animated movie, no doubt Disney would've made an even greater splash on the direct-to-video market.