When you wish upon a star, it makes no difference who you are; anything your heart desires will come to you… on Disney+. At least that seems to be the intent for the streaming service which will offer for the first time in forever the entire Walt Disney Animation Studios catalogue and library for streaming. So whether you grew up with that Jiminy Cricket lullaby bringing you pleasant dreams on the big screen or didn’t know what Disney magic was until Elsa let it go on a lonely mountaintop, your childhood nostalgia is about to be serviced by countless streaming delights.
Below is a list of all the animated classics from Disney—and maybe a few of the more obscure gems—that are about to be at your fingertips. Just a note: Den of Geek may receive a commission from links on this page.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Here is the movie that started all: the first feature-length, cel-animated film ever produced. To fully appreciate the technical mastery of this achievement, remember that prior to Snow White, Disney only produced animated shorts, most of them starring the irrepressible Mickey Mouse. Many in the industry scoffed at this movie when RKO Radio Pictures agreed to distribute the film. It was dubbed in the trades “Disney’s Folly.” Eight decades later, it’s still a harmonic confluence of art and commerce.
Here is the film that recast the classic Germanic fairy tale as a “Disney story,” all while creating the vernacular of what we expect from that: adventure; innocent (and maybe infantilized) princesses; lovable animal sidekicks; eccentric supporting characters; a dashing prince, romantic melodies… and a terrifying villain. Admit it: when you see that witch with the apple, you still shiver.
Unlike Snow White, Pinocchio was not a paradigm-shifting cultural juggernaut. Whereas Snow White has still sold more tickets than any animated film ever made, Pinocchio was dubbed a box office disaster upon its release. Which might act as a lesson for how important such details really are for the true greats. Who remembers this as anything else but enchanting?
Still a touchstone for baby boomers everywhere, Pinocchio introduced Disney’s unofficial anthem when Jiminy Cricket sang, “When You Wish Upon a Star.” It is a song still played over the logo before most Disney movies, and in this film it is sung by a charming insect watching poor old Geppetto wish that his wooden puppet Pinocchio would become a real boy. And as he wished upon a star, an enchanting blue fairy grants his heart’s desire… kind of. Pinocchio comes to life, but to become real flesh and blood, he must prove he is brave and virtuous and thus embark on a series of adventures that take him from the circus to the actual belly of a whale. Chances are he landed somewhere in your heart too.
Arguably the most ambitious movie Walt Disney ever produced, Fantasia was more than just an animated adventure: it was a declaration of the artistic depth and complexity of animation as a new art form. Pretty audacious stuff since it began as an exercise in resurrecting Mickey Mouse. Indeed, one of Fantasia’s most famous sequences, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” was a high-minded attempt to reclaim Mickey’s flagging popularity with moviegoers by creating a literal adaptation to Paul Dukas’ symphonic poem of the same name. But costs ran so high on this vision of walking mops run amok that it became just one short in eight beautiful visions of artists’ minds gone wild to the sounds of classical European orchestrations.
Disney told his animators this wasn’t meant just for children, and that audacity showed in the seven other much more abstract visualizations of music, my favorite being the macabre epic, “Night on Bald Mountain.” There the forces of Chernabog (the Devil) are summoned to combat the power of light on Bald Mountain. Like all the animation here, it is still breathtaking 80 years later.
Forget the remake, this is the real deal, flying elephants and all. Barely over an hour, Dumbo shows how quickly a heart can be ripped out of a viewer’s chest and then stepped on for good measure. A story about a poor elephant born with ears too big, he becomes his circus’ laughing stock and is taunted mercilessly until a New Yawk mouse sees the aerial value in ears that big. Some elements have aged less gracefully than others with its stereotyping of people of color via the jive-talking crows in the movie, but as an overall animated lullaby from the World War II era, it still glides pretty high.
Ah, the movie that shattered the innocence of childhoods everywhere. You can roughly tell someone’s age by whether they cite the death of Bambi’s mother or the death of Mufasa as the first time they cried in a theater. Either way, Disney is the studio responsible, not that we would have it any other way.
One of the more artful efforts from Walt Disney’s life, Bambi might strike you as surprisingly meditative and quiet in its depiction of talking animals frolicking through the forest. Yet some things in life must go unspoken, as evidenced by a film that begins as a romp in which a newborn fawn learns to walk and befriends a rabbit called Thumper, and then turns dark when Disney’s cruelest villain strikes… the nameless Man who shoots Bambi’s mother. Soon Bambi will learn the hard lessons of growing up in the world, sometimes with the help of an absentee buck father, but often without it. Children, meanwhile, get a preview of the fact that they too will one day need to stand on their own feet.
The second major “Disney Princess” film, Cinderella has noticeable issues like many of these early fairy tales: the heroine is helpless and complacent; her problems are solved by marrying a prince she just met; and the villains are far more engaging than the protagonist. Still, it also features iconography that endures decades later. There’s the glass slipper, the fairy godmother, and a pumpkin that turns into a carriage and then back again. But it’s also is a luscious work of animated art in spite of those problems.
Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Alice in Wonderland is another one of those Disney efforts that was unsuccessful in its time but has become beloved by generations afterward. Walt Disney himself had been itching to adapt Lewis Carroll’s curiously weird children stories since the 1930s, even toying with the idea of making it a live-action and animation hybrid. Ultimately, it became strictly the providence of animation and is likely better off for it. After Disney kicked it to television following an unsuccessful theatrical run, it grew a legion of young fans… as well as those a little older who liked a pairing of Carroll and psychedelic refreshments.
One of the more fevered Disney movies, Alice in Wonderland is also a universally bemusing work given the marriage of Carroll’s loquacious whimsy with Walt Disney Animation’s own unique visual abstractions. Who can forget the Queen of Hearts crying “off with her head!” to subjects who look like a deck of cards? It’s worth dealing in a new hand on streaming.
Peter Pan (1953)
Every 10 years or so, someone else comes along and tries to make a new adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, and every time, moviegoers or critics generally reject it (even Steven Spielberg doesn’t like Hook). That might be due to the fact that, for many, Disney’s Peter Pan works just fine. While some elements have aged less well than others (ahem, the depiction of the Native Americans in Neverland), other parts continue to sparkle. There’s a reason the ride based on it remains one of the oldest and popular attractions at Disneyland and Disney World.
The actual film is largely a beautiful fantasy in which Wendy Darling meets the Boy Who Never Grows Up and his Lost Boys. Alongside her brothers, and of course the wary-eyed Tinkerbell, Wendy and Peter fight pirates and evade crocodiles. All while Captain Hook remains one of the most beloved, if silly, Disney villains.
Lady and the Tramp (1955)
Ah spaghetti! Meatballs! Doggos! That’s amore! It’s also the foundation for the greatest love story in Disney animation. Yeah, we said it. A romance between a pampered Cocker Spaniel named Lady and a stray mutt scoundrel born on the wrong side of the tracks—appropriately named Tramp—theirs is a love story that transcends its comical subject matter to softly tease the anxieties of dogs—I’ve been replaced by the baby!—while also acting as Walt’s own personal nostalgia for an upper middle class lifestyle in turn of the 20th century America that may have never existed. And above all else, it features some amazing songs and the voice of Peggy Lee.
Sure, Disney is also launching the live-action remakes on Disney+, but we suspect the original is the one you’ll be watching for years to come.
Sleeping Beauty (1959)
The last animated fairy tale produced while Walt Disney was alive, we’d argue Sleeping Beauty is the best of that era. With a new artistic style produced for 70mm photography, Sleeping Beauty is an exquisite artistic achievement that takes influences from actual medieval tapestries and French Renaissance paintings to create an image that as much draws on past ideas of visual romance and magic as it does the fashionable tastes of the decade it was animated in. It also features sweeping reimaginings of Tchaikovsky’s 1890 ballet based on the same French fairy tale.
All of which is technically marvelous, but it is the symmetry of bringing that animation together alongside “Once Upon a Dream” and other musical motifs that makes Sleeping Beauty a heavenly union. That plus the best villain in the entire Disney canon, the lovably nasty Maleficent. It isn’t jealousy or familial ties that cause her to harass sweet Princess Aurora; it’s she got snubbed a party invite so she’s going to murder your newborn daughter. Dayum. Forget the anti-heroine hogwash with Angelina Jolie; she’s an unrepentant devil, and when she turns into a dragon you’ll smile ear-to-ear whether at age nine or 92.
101 Dalmatians (1961)
One shouldn’t ignore Cruella De Vil either when considering great Disney villains. While her motif is sadly more realistic than Maleficent’s, the fact that she is willing to kill hundreds of puppies to make a fur coat is still terrifying stuff even today. Luckily, the tone of 101 Dalmatians is nothing short of affable beyond that little tidbit, as black and white spotted dogs meet as cute and eventually hatch a plan to save their children that involves a lot of soot and a lot of fun.
Robin Hood (1973)
Perhaps the shabbiest movie Walt Disney Animation Studios ever made, there is just something about how low-key this animal-based version of Robin Hood is that’s irresistible. Yes, the characters, backgrounds, and even whole action sequences are shamelessly lifted from The Jungle Book (1967), and that bit of theft also keeps it lower in our list of definitive Robin Hood movies (as does its shaggy haired and beatnik affectation)… but it is also that sly subversiveness, summed up by a rooster crooning “Oo De Lally,” that makes this one hard to completely dismiss.
OTHER DISNEY ANIMATED MOVIES FROM THE CLASSIC ERA ON DISNEY+
The Reluctant Dragon (1941)
Saludos Amigos (1943)
The Three Caballeros (1945)
Fun and Fancy Free (1947)
Melody Time (1948)
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
The Sword in the Stone (1963)
The Jungle Book (1967)
The Aristocrats (1970)
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
The Rescuers (1977)
The Fox and the Hound (1981)
The Little Mermaid (1989)
Ah, the movie that brought Disney Animation back and revived the musical for a whole new generation that grew up on the Disney Renaissance. There are so many who deserve credit for this resurgence, but perhaps none more so than Howard Ashman, who co-wrote the songs with frequent composer Alan Menken. Ashman was the one who updated the Disney Princess formula for a modern sensibility, as well as a decidedly Broadway one, even bringing in his collaborator Jodie Benson from the Great White Way to voice Ariel. The combination of her vocal purity with Glen Keane’s animation for the auburn-haired mermaid is still the stuff of fairy dust.
As is the rest of the musical book here, including the Oscar winning “Under the Sea,” which was the result of Ashman insisting that Ariel’s crustacean butler be Rastafarian. Along with “Part of Your World” and the gorgeous animation that accompanied it, The Little Mermaid stunned audiences 30 years ago and brought Disney and its storied animation into a modern era where a princess could have personality, and an animated movie could have stakes, even if they’re as problematic as one about a girl giving up her voice to find a man.
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
When one hears animators and Disney executives responsible for this second golden age of Disney animation speak, the general sense is that they consider Beauty and the Beast to be the crown jewel of their efforts. While audience opinions may vary (as does our own), there is no denying this was an even more drastic step forward than Mermaid with its sophisticated plotting and layered themes about redemption, romance, self-betterment, and even mob mentality bigotry. It also had some terrific music by Ashman and Menken, including one that turned white male privilege into a classic Disney villain via Gaston.
But this is really Belle and the Beast’s story, and how even though they inhabit a world with magic, it is their own personalities and character growth that really fixes things—not a spell or the slaying of a monster. That alongside the first major pairing of hand-drawn animation with digital effects in their ballroom dance caused Beauty and the Beast to get a Best Picture nomination—and back when the Academy only had five slots. It remains the only animated movie to pull that off!
The movie that made “celebrity voices” in animation a thing, Aladdin still stands as the best use of that novelty. Indeed, one could argue that Robin Williams was never more liberated as an actor than when he played the blue-hued Genie in this classic. Sure, he had to keep it PG, but live-action was never able to keep up with the basis of his humor in stand-up, which relied on a free-flowing stream of consciousness and abstract non-sequiturs. Disney animators could though. And the Genie is a triumph of the art form.
The rest of the movie is pretty grand too with its “A Whole New World” magic carpet ride and depiction of Aladdin and Jasmine as gung ho heroes who are fully proactive at achieving their dreams. Sadly, this would be the last movie Ashman contributed on before his death, yet his and Alan Menken’s songs, as well as Tim Rice’s contributions as a lyricist, will always stay one step ahead in future generations’ memories.
The Lion King (1994)
Here’s the big one—the film that held the title of highest grossing animated movie for nearly 20 years and is yet rarely challenged when inflation is factored in. Devoid of fairy tales or a concrete source material, Disney animators who were relegated to the “B-team” of a project (the A-list was being saved for Pocahontas) had the freedom to loosely pull from Hamlet in this somber-faced depiction of a royal family in crisis on the African Pride Lands.
With songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, and a propulsive Hans Zimmer score, The Lion King enjoys a sound and look distinct from the rest of the European-based and Menken scored Renaissance films; it also has a tremendous dramatic heft anchored by invaluable vocal performances from James Earl Jones and Jeremy Irons. As a pair of brothers whose rivalry shapes the fate of their kingdom, and Mufasa’s son, they add gravitas to an epic whose roar still reverberates through pop culture.
Let’s get down to business to defeat the Huns. Now, I’ve done it. You are singing the rest of “Be a Man,” aren’t you? You should be, as Mulan was the last great entry in the Renaissance era, perhaps because it was overlooked by a company in chaos following the death of COO Frank Wells and the departure of Jeffrey Katzenberg as the studio chief. While the rest of the animated movies suffered in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, Mulan was produced at a satellite operation in Orlando, Florida and had a creative clarity missing in its other contemporaries.
Based on the ancient Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, the film follows a young woman who cannot fit into the restrictive gender roles demanded by feudal China. So when her aged and disabled father is conscripted to fight in a war for the emperor, she steals his sword and armor in the night and passes herself off as his son. The adventure that follows is arguably the first fully feminist Disney animated movie: Mulan isn’t looking for love, it just happens to be a nice bonus on her way to saving her family and aiding her country. The music is also pretty dope too.
And here is the film that revived Disney animation again after a decade of decline. The first computer-generated fairy tale from the Mouse House proper, Tangled was a return to form as it presented the fairy tale of Rapunzel as a road movie. This version of the blonde, imprisoned princess in need of a haircut sees her “rescuer” as neither a prince or an actual rescuer; he’s a smug rogue named Flynn Ryder who she blackmails into helping her get out of the tower. And the vocal chemistry between Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi bringing them to life is infectious. Coupled with a more flower power songbook by Alan Menken, and you have a Disney Animation finally ready to conquer the 21st century.
Have you heard of this one? The current heavyweight for highest grossing animated film, Frozen stunned the world when it proved children could still be enraptured under Disney’s spell. And why not? Frozen weaves it with masterful sorcery, turning Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of the “The Snow Queen” into a good natured and empowering tale of two sisters. It critiques the Disney Princess clichés of the past while creating two iconic princesses in Elsa and Anna (until Elsa is crowned that is). Both have flawed and endearing personalities, and both learn the greatest love in their life is their sibling.
Also enjoying a genuinely surprising twist in the third act and a songbook by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez that consumed every child and parent’s brain one ear-worm at a time, Frozen is a movie we can never let go. Not that we’d want to.
What do you get when you partner an earnest bunny rabbit with a street wise fox? Surprisingly one of the best animated movies of the decade. Despite a title emphasizing a “utopia” vision for its world of anthropomorphic animals inhabiting a cityscape, Zootopia is actually hardboiled noir.
…Okay maybe soft-boiled, but still for Disney and family entertainment that’s a lot of heat! It’s also wildly entertaining as Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde attempt to solve a crime that is turning urbane animals into wild beasts, as well as uncovering a conspiracy with loaded political subtexts that are just one red cap away from being text. Really, this one is extra special.
In many respects, directors Ron Clements and John Musker are unsung heroes in the Disney canon. Directors of some of the greatest renaissance movies like Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, the pair did have a dry spell for a while, even then though they still made pretty good movies like The Princess and the Frog. But Moana was an obvious return to form as a visually dazzling depiction of Polynesian culture (at least through the Disney lens) that at last presented a princess without a single love interest. Rather Moana (voiced impressively by actual teenager Auli’I Cravalho) knows she’ll be the chief of her people one day, and that certainty draws her to the sea in order to save their future.
It also puts her face to face with music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, an exceedingly clever script, and a demigod named Maui voiced by Dwayne Johnson. And yes, the Rock owns the role more than any celebrity vocal casting since Eddie Murphy in Shrek.
(note: currently unavailable in the UK…we speculate on when it will arrive here)
The most recent film from Walt Disney Animation Studios is Frozen II, the long anticipated sequel to the highest-grossing animated film of all-time. If we’re being completely honest… it’s also a little disappointing when compared to that 2003 classic. While undeniably possessing gorgeous animation, in fact we argue it is the most beatific computer-generated imagery we’ve ever seen, the film’s narrative and musicality misses out on some of the original’s magic (and clarity).
Nevertheless, Frozen II is still a pretty good film overall in its own right. Beyond the stunning animation, it also features the key voice cast that made the first movie a classic, including Kristen Bell as the plucky Princess Anna and Idina Menzel as the ethereal Elsa, and the songs are defiantly more sophisticated and haunting in their structure. While there’s no “Let It Go” or even “For the First Time in Forever” here, we promise if you have children, the ghostly refrains of “Into the Unknown” are burrowed deep into your membrane. The film similarly features more complicated themes about shared and historical responsibility for its growing target audience (and maybe their parents), plus a scene where reindeer mimic Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” music video. So can you really resist?
OTHER DISNEY ANIMATED MOVIES FROM THE MODERN ERA
Oliver & Company (1988)
The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
DuckTales: The Movie, Treasure of the Lost Lamp (1990)
A Goofy Movie (1995)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
James and the Giant Peach (1996) – Not Available in the UK
Doug’s 1st Movie (1999)
Fantasia 2000 (2000)
The Tigger Movie (2000)
The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
Recess: School’s Out (2001)
Treasure Planet (2002)
Lilo & Stitch (2002)
Piglet’s Big Movie (2003)
Brother Bear (2003)
Home on the Range (2004)
Teacher’s Pet (2004)
Chicken Little (2005)
The Wild (2006)
Meet the Robinsons (2007)
The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Winnie the Pooh (2011)
Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
Big Hero 6 (2014)
DISNEY’S “CLASSIC” DIRECT-TO-VIDEO MOVIES
Aladdin: The Return of Jafar (1994)
Aladdin and the King of Thieves (1996)
The Brave Little Toaster to the Rescue (1997) – Not Available in the UK
Pooh’s Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin (1997)
Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas (1997)
Belle’s Magical World (1998)
The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars (1998) – Not Available in the UK
Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World (1998)
The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride (1998)
Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas (1999)
An Extremely Goofy Movie (2000)
The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea (2000)
Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure (2001)
Return to Never Land (2002)
Cinderella II: Dreams Come True (2002)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame II (2002)
Tarzan & Jane (2002)
Winnie the Pooh: A Very Merry Pooh Year (2002)
101 Dalmatians II: Patch’s London Adventure (2003)
The Jungle Book 2 (2003)
Atlantis: Milo’s Return (2003)
Stitch! The Movie (2003)
Recess: All Growed Down (2003)
Recess: Taking the 5th Grade (2003)
The Lion King 1½ (2004)
Winnie the Pooh: Springtime with Roo (2004)
Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers (2004)
Mulan II (2005)
Pooh’s Heffalump Movie (2005)
Kim Possible Movie: So The Drama (2005)
The Proud Family Movie (2005)
Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch (2005)
Kronk’s New Groove (2005)
Bambi II (2005)
Leroy & Stitch (2006)
Brother Bear 2 (2006)
The Fox and the Hound 2 (2006)
Cinderella III: A Twist in Time (2007)
The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning (2008)
Tinker Bell (2008)
Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure (2009)
Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue (2010)
Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Across the 2nd Dimension (2011) – Not Available in the UK
Secret of the Wings (2012)
Tangled: Before Ever After (2017)