I’ll be honest: I think Disney as a whole is overrated. At the same time, like most Gen Zs (apparently I’m Gen Z, not a millennial like I thought…) I can’t help but acknowledge how integral Disney movies were to my childhood. Pure nostalgia. It’s a love-hate relationship.
In a future post, I’ll share my thoughts on the Age of the Disney Remake (suffice to say they’re not all that positive). But for now, I thought I’d share my list of top underrated animated Disney movies, for your consideration.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
I’m not sure this one counts as an underrated Disney movie because it really is pretty well-known and beloved, but it definitely stands apart from most of its more popular siblings, and it’s definitely on a whole other level of animated movie.
Not only are the music and art absolutely amazing and shake me to my core every time, it’s a beautifully dark and nuanced movie for something that’s also supposed to be a fun, family-oriented(?), animated musical. Exploring themes of corruption, justice, and the deceptive nature of appearances, this honestly isn’t much of a kids’ movie. I mean, have you seen Hellfire?
But it’s just so powerful and visually striking that you can’t fault the movie for it. I don’t remember it ever scarring me personally as a child–I don’t think I even understood what I was watching until I got older. I just liked the music. Go figure.
I always tend to watch this movie around Halloween. Not because it’s scary, but because it’s just so much more haunting than most Disney movies. But it’s also uplifting in its own way. Very, very different from the Victor Hugo novel. Now that’s dark.
The Emperor’s New Groove
Again, I can’t speak to how underrated this movie actually is. I mean, it did have its own Disney Channel show… and a sequel (that we’ll just pretend never happened). But when people talk about their favorite Disney movies growing up, I’m not sure this one always makes the list. Maybe because it’s such an oddball.
I mean, it made my list, but I was an odd child anyway.
Aside from stellar voice acting and some utterly unique art direction in an equally as unique setting (the Incan empire? Whoa!), The Emperor’s New Groove is a quirky, hilarious romp with on-point comedic timing and a faster-than-average pace that actually works for the style and aesthetic. Big things come in small packages, and in this case, it’s the movie’s big heart.
It’s actually kind of a crazy story, how this movie came to be–it was supposed to be a totally different plot but then a bunch of shit happened and it got a major overhaul. Honestly, I’m glad it did, even if it was a box office bomb.
The YouTube channel SuperCarlinBrothers has a great video explaining what happened (and that also sings its praises) which you should totally watch if you’re interested in learning more.
I freaking love this movie and I always will. Boom, baby!
The Great Mouse Detective
Before Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch stole our hearts with their (totally differing) interpretations of Sherlock Holmes, there was Basil of Baker Street, the Great Mouse Detective. Smart, suave, and full of that 90s-Disney-animated-talking-animal charm, this is not only a fun movie, but a unique adaptation of Conan Doyle’s beloved detective stories.
But like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it’s a lot darker than you think it’s going to be. Professor Ratigan, the equally smart, suave, and cultured villain, is literally a rat. As such, he embodies this primal, savage instinct that unravels throughout the movie until he just goes full-on beast. It’s unsettling, and even though it’s fitting because–after all–he is an animal, they didn’t have to go that route. But they did.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire
Subjectively, I just straight-up love this movie. It’s one of those cases where I’m not 100% sure why–it just hits all the right chords for me. But as a story, I think I can actually make a case for its mastery. I might even do a full-length post on it one day. But not now.
Arguably, the animation is a little choppy. I’m sure there’s a reason for it, but I don’t feel like reading the Wikipedia page, so animation aside, it still has beautiful art direction, blended CGI (I think), and a lovely score. But what I love most about it is the world-building–the way they set up Atlantis, the way they present it, the way they develop it. It’s beautiful and spellbinding and in a short amount of time, you understand a lot about this mythical place.
I’ll make a case for the characters, too. They’re much more diverse and developed than you expect them to be, especially the ensemble of crew members that surround the protagonist. For all its fantastical, fantasy-adventure elements, most of the characters feel three-dimensional, and when they don’t, they’re just plain entertaining.
I’m going to come back to this one with a more well-constructed argument one day. And no, I haven’t seen the second one, and I don’t plan to.
I know exactly what not to expect.
I recently learned that Disney announced that they’ll be making a live-action remake of this movie, and I am honestly really excited because if they do it right, it will be spectacular. This is such an underrated movie and the worst part is, most of the reason it bombed at the box office is because Disney sabotaged it.
Why would they sabotage their own movie, you might ask? Well, watch this YouTube video by BREADSWORD to find out.
This is another movie I’d love to take a deeper dive into. But that’s for another day. If you don’t know much about it, then it’s basically Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island in space. But it’s better than that. Not only is the world-building amazing and the blended CGI surprisingly seamless, but the storytelling is just plain masterful. The characters are rich and nuanced and the conflict is derived just as much from character-driven reactions as it is from the action of the plot.
It’s not just about finding a treasure trove–it’s about a boy becoming a man, and a criminal becoming a father, and a beloved story becoming a beautiful movie.
Just watch it. But watch it with a writer’s eyes. Pay attention to how the story is crafted. Pay attention to how all five of the movies mentioned above are crafted. I think there’s something to learn from all of them.
What’s your favorite underrated animated disney movie? Are there any that you think should be on this list? Are there any that you’ve seen and like or don’t like? Discuss!