There are plenty of underrated Disney animated films that deserved more time in the spotlight. Here are some of our personal favorites.
Disney is the place to be right now. Beauty and the Beast, Coco, and an anti-musical Mulan. There is a lot of buzz surrounding the studio. Today, however, we are here to talk about some of the fallen few. Specifically animated films, who sadly, either missed their time in the light or maybe got buzz for the wrong reasons. Films that deserve much, much better than what they received.
Underrated Disney animated movies
‘Treasure Planet’ – Matthew Howland
It isn’t necessarily an Academy Award winning film. For me, however, it doesn’t need to be. There is so much about this space-inspired take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island that I could write an entire feature about it. Maybe one day I will. Although, today is not that day. For now, there are a few things to discuss specifically.
A) The visuals. The worlds the movie is set in are rich and diverse. Technically speaking, it was one of the first animated Disney films, after Tarzan, to use actual 3D sets within 2D animation. This process created what animators called “painted image with depth perception” resulting in the masterfully gorgeous film you see now. From the sky-sailing scene to the death of a star, Treasure Planet contains some of the most spectacular 2D visuals to ever grace my television, personally. The way Captain Silver’s mechanical arm is animated, and how hair flows through the cosmic winds. It’s 2D animation at its finest and it makes me sad that such art is dead now.
B) The soundtrack. It’s 2002, who else are you going to have write a song for the film other than The Goo Goo Dolls? “I’m Still Here” plays over one of the films key scenes where you learn Jim Hawkin’s father left years previously. Both the song and the scene itself are powerful together and individually. Likewise, the entire score, composed by James Newton Howard, is far beyond sonic excellence. James took inspiration from the Scottish roots of the story to include fiddles, bagpipes, and other classical instruments in multiple tracks giving the “space film” a Celtic feel. Which to me, is just pure brilliance.
C) The themes. On the surface Treasure Planet is a classic “rags-to-riches” tale about a young boy who finds a treasure map and saves his family from poverty. Beneath all of that, however, there is so much more. The film tells a story about what it is to be a man. Jim, whose father left, struggles with his own role as the male of the household. He finds himself lost in delinquency when needed most to step up and take the mantle of responsibility. It is a film about growing up when it’s least convenient. Furthermore it’s a film about “goodness” and how there is no such thing as clean-cut evil. Humanity is a spectrum and it fluctuates. This is seen in the menacing, but fatherly Captain Silver. It is this same character who teaches Jim about fatherhood and responsibility. Other themes of the film include, diversity, acceptance, and love.
‘Lilo & Stitch’ – Donya Abramo
When it comes to Disney movies that are focused on family, you’d be forgiven for your thoughts immediately gravitating to Brave, Frozen, and even the recently released Moana. Frozen, especially, was lauded for its tale of sisterhood and familial love. But there is one film that arguably has the most honest and heartfelt depictions of a family unit healing and recovering from their grief, that often flies under the radar — Lilo and Stitch.
Certainly the bulk of Lilo and Stitch’s marketing campaign was honed in on the mascot-esque Stitch, and the wacky sci-fi adventure, but the true heart of the film is in their atypical family unit – headed up by Nani and Lilo, initially, and later when they bring Stitch into the fold.
Nani and Lilo aren’t perfectly put together and composed. They are messy, lost and hurt, adrift in a sea of grief and uncertain of how to find their way back to each other. They lash out, out of frustration, out of fear of losing each other, but one thing is always painfully clear, they love each other. More than anything.
Stitch may be the catalyst of their small and broken family galvanizing itself, and finding a way to function within the painful space of their parents’ absence, but it is in Nani and Lilo’s struggles where the film truly shines – particularly now, as some of us attempt to navigate the sea-change of our adult lives.
Nani, far removed from the well-trodden path of the female characters that came before her, isn’t a beacon of domesticity – her house is often messy, she can’t cook, and she struggles to make ends meet in a difficult economy, driven by the tourist trade. Lilo isn’t always likeable, she acts out, is lonely and insecure, and relies on familiar rituals to provide stability – she’s a child, and allowed to behave like one. They are both permitted to operate within their flaws, are allowed to be unpleasant, and they aren’t shamed within the narrative for being so.
They are human.
Perhaps it is that honest portrayal that has meant that Lilo and Stitch hasn’t enjoyed the success of some of its contemporaries. It doesn’t have a happily ever after, it isn’t a fairy tale, it deals more in the harsh realities of grieving, struggling with unpredictable employment, and custody battles. Unlike some of Disney’s other movies, it shows that an ending doesn’t always have to be picture perfect, that happiness comes in many forms.
When anyone asks me what Disney film is my favorite, my knee-jerk reaction is to say Beauty and the Beast. In some respects, that is true. But, perhaps, the real truth is that it’s the perfectly imperfect tale of Lilo and Stitch.
‘A Goofy Movie’ – Brandi Delhagen
When asked to name a favorite Disney movie one must make sure said film has three things: a romantic interest for the lead, tear-jerking family bonding moments and amazing musical numbers. A Goofy Movie fits in all three categories, yet it’s extremely underrated! Goofy himself is often overlooked because he comes off as clueless and klutzy but he’s a single dad trying to do his best to raise his son. We don’t get many amazing single dads on television these days but Goofy deserves the credit.
Goofy’s son Max is naturally embarrassed by his father in general and having high school girl problems at the same time. Ah, don’t we all miss those days? Not. At. All. Well, Max plays a prank on his principal and it gets him in trouble… or “bus-ted” as Max’s friend Bobby (voiced by Pauly Shore) would say. In order to reconnect with his son, Goofy decides to take Max on his famous fishing road trip, just like his dad did when he was a kid. To complicate things further Max tells his crush that his dad is taking him to Powerline’s concert instead and it’s being televised live.
I’ll spare you the recap of the movie, only because you really should see it for yourselves and swoon with me over Powerline’s voice and moves. A Goofy Movie is a compassionate film about a father wanting to connect with his son and his son finally realizing — after his rude and bratty ways — that his father would do anything for him. From its hilarious one-liners to an amazing soundtrack that will have you singing after the movie’s ended, A Goofy Movie is a film everyone can love and enjoy.
For now I’ll leave you with this clip of Goofy’s son Max impersonating Powerline at the high school and immediately following is Powerline’s performance so I can continue swooning. I dare you not to have this song stuck in your head after watching!
‘Aladdin and the King of Thieves’ – Brittany Lovely
Sequels can do a lot to ruin the chances of a trilogy. Personally, Toy Story 2 didn’t do much to persuade me to check out Toy Story 3. Same goes for The Little Mermaid 2, Mulan 2, Pocahontas 2, you get the gist. However, there is a diamond in the rough. If you can get passed the unforgiving, and quite horrible, Return of Jafar you are in for a cinematic treat in Aladdin and the King of Thieves.
Robin Williams famously did not return for Return of Jafar and something about it never felt quite right. But with Jafar out of the picture, the Aladdin team took Al and the gang on a journey with oracles, the original Genie, and, in retrospect, an alarmingly attractive lost father. On a journey to reconnect with his past and find out where he and who he came from, Aladdin and his father realize that having each other is better than any treasure they could ever steal.
If you are still on the fence, there is an incredible moment where Al’s dad enters the palace and Genie goes on full alert. Not to mention a plethora of new songs!
‘Hercules’ – Karen Rought
Out of all the movies on this list, Hercules is probably the one with the highest profile. Yet, when you talk about the Disney Renaissance (1989-1999), Hercules very rarely comes up. It’s true that there’s stiff competition between The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, and Mulan, but don’t ever try to tell me Hercules doesn’t belong on that list.
The 1997 animated classic has a lot going for it, including a storyline that doesn’t focus on a princess. I never gravitated toward Cinderella, Snow White, or Ariel in the same way I took to the more unconventional heroes like Pocahontas and Mulan. I never cared that Hercules was a guy; I still related to his story. It also never bothered me that Meg wasn’t a princess (although according to the original myth she was); I still thought she was strong and independent.
Hercules isn’t your typical Disney movie, and perhaps that’s why people don’t talk about it as much as The Little Mermaid or Beauty in the Beast, but it still hits a lot of the same beats. It’s about love, but it’s also about the importance of family and finding out who you are for yourself. Plus, it’s got an amazing soundtrack, and I dare you not to get it stuck in your head.
BONUS! – Not Disney!
The Iron Giant – Emily McDonald
Like every other film on this list, The Iron Giant possesses something that is a little different than the average Disney film. And, since it doesn’t have the magical seal of Walt Disney Animation, further down the rabbit hole it goes.
Initially criticized for its anti-war and anti-gun stance, there is something so special about how this film doesn’t pull back. It has hilarious comedy but doesn’t glaze over the very serious moments. Director Brad Bird (who would later direct films like The Incredibles and Ratatouille) once described the idea of the giant with the question, “What if a gun had a soul?”
The film takes place during the Cold War; atomic bombs were a real viable threat. Some of the most heartbreaking moments are when the boy, Hogarth, teaches The Giant about how it’s bad to kill, but dying isn’t bad. Hogarth reassures The Giant that they have a soul that will live on, even he, made of iron. The Giant has feelings and thoughts and surely that was proof of a soul. The Iron Giant struggles with this, however, when he remembers his days as a killing machine. “I am a gun” he sadly concludes. But Hogarth insists, “You are who you choose to be.”
The Giant chooses to be Superman. Did I mention this movie makes you cry?
The Iron Giant has heart, laughter, and serious commentaries, but most of all it is fun and magical and shouldn’t be overlooked.