For the past eight decades, Walt Disney Animation Studios has given us some of the most beloved animated films of all-time, from their early classics like Snow White, Pinocchio, and Cinderella to more recent hits like Frozen, Zootopia, and Moana. However, of the 56 feature films that they’ve produced since 1937, not all of them have gone on to become classics. And so, for my first big post here on Disney Film Facts, I give you my Top 5 most underrated Disney films of all-time, whether it was due to them being an underperformer at the box-office or because they just don’t get brought up that often when people are discussing the best Disney animated films.
- FUN AND FANCY FREE
In the 40’s, Disney Animation’s output mostly came in the form of ‘package films’, which were mainly a series of animated vignettes that were occasionally tied together by an overarching theme. This was mainly done to keep costs down after the studio had endured a few box-office flops, similar to when the cheaper-costing Dumbo was made after the original Fantasia failed to make much of a profit. However, they were also affected at the time by the loss of several overseas markets due to World War II, which also cost them several of their animators as a result of them being drafted into the military. One of these package films was 1947’s Fun and Fancy Free, which was hands down the one package film that I watched the most of growing up on VHS back when that was a thing. I even bought this film on Blu-Ray a few years back, where it’s packaged as a double feature with Disney’s other two-story package film, 1949’s The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. And while Ichabod and Toad has technically maintained a stronger reputation over the years, I still generally prefer Fun and Fancy Free, which is hosted by everyone’s favorite conscience from Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket. The first of the two featurettes in this film, Bongo, is the charming story of the titular circus bear who escapes captivity to live in the wild. It’s bolstered by the sweet-sounding vocals of narrator Dinah Shore and has some great humorous bits here and there, like a whole musical number where we learn that bears express their love for each other by slapping them.
The other featurette in this film is easily its most famous, the Mickey Mouse version of Jack and the Beanstalk starring Mickey, Donald Duck, Goofy, a beautiful golden harp that sings, and a shape-shifting giant named Willie. I’ve always been a fan of the Mickey, Donald, and Goofy shorts and this one is easily one of the best in that category. It’s also worth checking out for being the last major outing in which Mickey was voiced by Walt Disney himself and for having one of Donald’s most legendary freak-outs. However, I must say that the best version of this featurette is the one found in Volume 1 of the Walt Disney Animation Collection on Netflix. This version, which originally aired on TV on November 17th, 1963 as part of the Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color block, is narrated by the eccentric inventor Ludwig von Drake and his beetle buddy, Herman the Bootle Beetle. In Fun and Fancy Free, it was narrated by legendary comedian Edgar Bergen and his two puppet sidekicks, Mortimer Snerd and Charlie McCarthy, who tell the story to child actress Luana Patten (who had also appeared in Disney’s 1948 package film Melody Time) at her birthday party. However, with no disrespect to Bergen, I always found this part of the film to be rather bland even as a kid, thus why I now prefer the Ludwig von Drake narrated version on Netflix. Still, while the scenes with Bergen may be its only real shortcoming, Fun and Fancy Free has always been one of my childhood favorites and I still think fondly about it today.
- THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE
The Emperor’s New Groove had one of the most fascinating albeit undeniably troubled productions of any Disney animated film to date. Originally, it was going to be a full-blown Incan musical titled Kingdom of the Sun, featuring songs from the legendary musician Sting. However, two years into the film’s production, the filmmakers realized that they weren’t making much progress with it. Thus, the original story concept was scrapped entirely and the film was reworked into the Chuck Jones-esque buddy comedy that we know it as today. And while I’ve found that some people weren’t too big on the idea of Disney doing a ‘straightforward buddy flick’, I’d argue that The Emperor’s New Groove is one of the studio’s most entertaining films to date. For one thing, the film is endlessly quotable, which is mainly thanks to the lead villain duo made up of the delightfully over-the-top royal advisor Yzma (Eartha Kitt) and her simple-minded henchman Kronk (Patrick Warburton). From Yzma’s inability to properly label her potions to Kronk’s many arguments with both his shoulder angel and shoulder devil, these two are easily some of the funniest villains in the entire Disney canon. Thus, even with all of its pre-production woes in mind, The Emperor’s New Groove managed to overcome all that to produce a film that is in my personal Top 10 when it comes to Disney’s historic line of animated films. And while it may not have been Disney Animation’s most financially successful film ever made, it did go on to produce its own little franchise, which included a Kronk-centered direct-to-video spinoff in 2005, Kronk’s New Groove, and an animated series that ran for two seasons on the Disney Channel, The Emperor’s New School.
- ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE
Despite being directed by the duo of Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, who helmed Disney’s 1991 classic Beauty and the Beast, Atlantis: The Lost Empire only did ‘okay’ at the box-office upon its release in the summer of 2001. This then resulted in Disney shuttering almost all of their plans to create a franchise out of it, which would’ve included a spin-off TV series and a Submarine Voyage style attraction at Disneyland (which, of course, was later realized via the Finding Nemo franchise instead). It’s a shame, really, because this film is an enjoyable sci-fi action-adventure flick that dared to be a Disney animated film that wasn’t directly geared towards younger audiences. Granted, the film does still try to appeal to that demographic, which does result in some admittedly awkward tonal shifts from time to time. And yet, thanks to a great animation style courtesy of Hellboy creator Mike Mignola and a solid cast of main characters, highlighted by main protagonist Milo Thatch (voiced by Marty McFly himself, Michael J. Fox) and the lovable demolitions expert Vinny (voiced by SNL’s ‘Father Guido Sarducci’, Don Novello), it’s easy to see why this film has managed to attract a sizable cult following over the years.
- THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER
Out of all the films that came out during the Disney Renaissance era, one sticks out amongst the rest for an unfortunate reason. The film in question is the first ever sequel to a Disney film, 1990’s The Rescuers Down Under, which was a follow-up to the studio’s 1977 effort The Rescuers. However, despite being released just one year after the whirlwind success of The Little Mermaid, the film didn’t do so hot at the box-office. In fact, after its lackluster opening weekend, then Disney CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg shut down the film’s entire TV marketing campaign. But since then, many have found that not only is this film an underrated entry in the Disney canon, but it’s also one of the rare cases of a sequel that’s far superior to its predecessor. The original Rescuers, for the record, was a decent little adventure flick that benefitted greatly from the lovable lead duo of Bernard and Miss Bianca (voiced excellently by Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor, respectively) and a memorable villain in the delightfully insane Madame Medusa. However, it also suffered from being rather slow-paced, and despite its unique New Orleans bayou setting, this resulted in some rather drab animation. The sequel wisely avoids this mistake by having the story set in the beautiful desert landscapes of Australia, which paves the way for some gorgeous animation, especially during the flying scenes involving the rare golden eagle Marahute. Bernard and Miss Bianca are back again and are still just as likable as ever, and they’re backed by a solid supporting cast that includes John Candy as the goofy albatross Wilbur and George C. Scott as the film’s entertaining villain, Percival C. McLeach. In short, if you haven’t seen this film before, I encourage you to check it out because it’s arguably just as good as some of the other Disney Renaissance era films.
- TREASURE PLANET
Treasure Planet was a unique sci-fi spin on the classic story that is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. It was also directed by one of the studio’s most legendary duos, Ron Clements and John Musker, the duo behind several of the Renaissance era’s biggest hits like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. However, the film ended up being a massive box-office bomb when it was released in November 2002. On a large budget of $140 million, it only made a little over a quarter of that amount in the U.S., probably because it was released around the same time as the second Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The same scenario would later go on to affect the 2011 Winnie the Pooh film when it was released during the same weekend as the final Potter film, Deathly Hallows Part 2. And yet, just like Atlantis, it seems like this sci-fi fantasy adventure has attracted a sizable cult following over the years. While some may have been drawn off by the film’s mixing of genres, in which the pirate ships soar through space instead of sailing the open seas, it does result in a unique visual style that’s bolstered by some of the best animation to ever come out of a Disney film at the time. And just like other adaptations of Treasure Island, the film does a great job with the ‘father-son’ relationship between rogue pirate John Silver (re-imagined here as a cyborg) and the young and adventurous explorer Jim Hawkins, which is what ultimately provides the heart of the film. In short, as someone who was born in the mid 90’s, I mainly grew up during the time of Disney Animation’s ‘post-Renaissance, pre-John Lasseter’ era of films, a time where the studio began to struggle due to the rise of computer animation. This ultimately explains why three of the films of that era ended up making this list, and of them all, Treasure Planet was hands down my favorite of the bunch.
And those are my Top 5 picks for the most underrated films to come from Walt Disney Animation Studios. Thanks for following along and be sure to come back to Disney Film Facts for all your Disney-related news, reviews, and editorials.