A few days ago, our CineNation writer and podcaster, Thomas Horton, started some controversy on his social media when he declared that Oliver & Company is the Most Underrated Animated Disney Film. Needless to say, a number of people were upset. A lot of people argued with him, listing off the movies that they felt were the most underrated animated films from Disney.
So, because of that conversation, we felt it was a good topic to discuss. We asked some of our writers to pick their favorite underrated Disney film. The only stipulation was the the film could not be Certified Fresh on RottenTomatoes (Sorry Hercules). Some of the films have over 80% on the site, but because they have not been reviewed by that many people, the films don’t have a Certified Fresh rating.
Here we go…
The Aristocats (1970, 66% on RT)
I, like many across the world, love Disney films. They have carved a place in the hearts of children and adults across the world. I mean, just think of the happiest place on earth? That little mouse has us right in the palm of his gloved hand, and I’m here for it.
Your general audience can’t get enough of the classics, but there are some that fly a little below the radar and deserve your attention. My pick? The Aristocats.
We all know and love this story, but rarely is it the popular choice. Maybe it’s because the lack of princesses or the fact that this came out in Disney’s “depression” era, but I think that the films produced in this time were some of Disney’s best.
Though the animation is obviously lifted from other films released in Disney’s depression era, you can’t help but love these characters. The trio of kittens are just adorable, the two duck sisters and their strange uncle are hilarious and the dog duo at the end really make the film memorable.
The music of this film is spot-on, starting with Thomas O’Malley Cat and culminating with Everybody Wants to be a Cat, featuring a multicolored dance party scene that propels the film into a jazz fueled homage. There’s scat, a harp and even Siamese cat playing the drums. What’s not to like?
You may not enjoy the bourgeois attitude of this film in our current state of affairs, but you’ll love the charming story and the expert scoring of this movie.
The Great Mouse Detective (1986, 81% on RT)
by Sean Randall
The greatest Disney musical of all time is Hunchback of Notre Dame and the genius of Alan Menken and his role in saving Disney cannot be overstated. That said, my favorite Disney film, which set the stage for Menken and is too oft forgot, is The Great Mouse Detective.
RottenTomatoes rates it at 81%, but only 16 critics have reviewed it. The audience gives it a 79%… out of less than 59,000 ratings. Not nearly enough people have watched this film! The Little Mermaid and other powerhouse classics in the Renaissance wiped the film from the essential personal Disney collections of the ‘90s.
The Great Mouse Detective is based on Eve Titus’ animal spin on Sherlock Holmes, Basil of Baker Street. While the characters (Sherlock equivalent Basil, Watson equivalent Dr. Dawson, and Moriarty equivalent Professor Ratigan) are all derived from the series, the story is largely original: A young Scottish girl looking for her kidnapped inventor father. If you’re a Sherlock Holmes lover in any of its forms, you’ll likely delight in the various little details and homages given throughout. But one of the things that truly makes this film excel beyond that of other Disney films is Professor Ratigan, as voiced by the estimable giant of horror Vincent Price.
The movie does not truly qualify as a musical, as it only has three songs in it, but Vincent Price’s delivery on the regrettably forgotten song “The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind,” as well as the balance (in this song and throughout the film) between upbeat humor and incredibly dark subject matter, set Rattigan up as one of the better villains in the Disney collection.
The film utilized one of the earliest uses of computer animation in the climactic final scene in the clock tower, which is just gorgeous. The film saw the directorial debut of the duo John Musker and Ron Clements, who later directed The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. And the film was scored by Academy Award-winner Henry Mancini (Touch of Evil, Breakfast at Tiffany’s). Dark, humorous, beautiful, this movie is everything a Disney fan, Sherlock Holmes fan, or film fan could want in an animated non-musical film.
Robin Hood (1973, 52% on RT)
by Dan LeVine
Before Zootopia brought us anthropomorphic foxes and rabbits, there was 1973’s Robin Hood, a solid yet often overlooked animated classic. This adaptation of the British legend with talking animals has an all-star voice cast, including Phil Harris (Jungle Book, Aristocats), Pat Buttram (Rescuers, Fox and The Hound) and Carole Shelley (Aristocats, Hercules). The unique soundtrack is full of folk-infused tunes that are simple yet catchy, such as Roger Miller’s “Whistle Stop” and “Oo-de-lally”. The film’s song, “Love”, was actually nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song.
Robin Hood is unusually dark and bleak for a Disney film. The cruel villains “collect” taxes from the poor in heart-wrenching scenes. However, these cruelties justify our heroes’ not-so-legal activities. This is one of the first Disney films where the stakes feel real; our characters truly seem to be in mortal danger. In fact, we are lead to believe that Robin Hood is dead more than once.
Still, the film is never short on comedy. Many of the characters provide comic relief, including the plucky Lady Kluck, Trigger & Nutsy (a pair of goofy vultures), idiotic henchman Sir Hiss, and even the main villain, Prince John, whose crown is much too large for his head. Robin Hood and Little John have witty banter throughout and hatch up all sorts of crazy plans and disguises, such as when the two dress up as women. The writing is fabulous — just check out this page of quotes!
The film’s main romance — between Robin Hood and Maid Marian — is better developed than many modern films. They were childhood friends who love each other, but are each worried that the other would never want to be with them. Its 52% on Rotten Tomatoes is only from 25 reviews but it has an 81% audience score from 270,000+ reviewers. Give Robin Hood a chance & it’ll “steal” your heart. Oo-de-lally, oo-de-lally golly, what a day.
Oliver & Company (1988, 44% on RT)
For all purposes, Oliver & Company was considered a misfire for Disney, declared mediocre by most of the prominent critics at the time. Disney didn’t even release it on home video until almost a decade after its premiere.
But the reason Oliver & Company was disliked is the very same reason I love it. It’s something very different from your normal Disney animated film. People go to Disney movies to escape, to explore fantastic tales in a distant land and a different time. But Oliver & Company is distinctly contemporary. It’s a proud slice of 1980s New York, and it’s not afraid to get in your face about it.
It establishes this right from the start, with the perfect combination of music and visual storytelling that is “Once Upon a Time in New York City.” The huge, sprawling landscapes of New York are unlike anything else Disney’s ever produced. They’re gorgeous, but they almost feel unfinished; the rough-around-the-edges pencilling captures the spirit of pre-Giuliani New York.
The film isn’t afraid to explore the dark sides of the city. In the spirit of Dickens’ source novel, Oliver Twist, the film brings in some social commentary by visually contrasting the city’s wealthy areas and its darker underbelly. As Huey Lewis belts out, “It’s a big old, bad old, tough old town, it’s true.” It’s loud, it’s noisy, it’s colorful, it’s dark, it’s scary, it’s cool.
And nothing’s cooler than the cast of famous New Yorkers who populate this film, from legends with Broadway beginnings — Robert Loggia, Dom DeLuise, Bette Midler — to the Piano Man himself, Billy Joel, acting and singing as the effortlessly cool Dodger.
So you might not be able to call Oliver & Company a “timeless Disney classic,” but the unique animation, New York spirit and distinctly ’80s vibe make it a truly underrated Disney offering.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996, 73% on RT)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is easily one of my favorite films by Disney. I enjoyed the film when I was younger, but as I have gotten older the film has started to resonate with me more and more every time I watch it. When it was released, it was without a doubt Disney’s darkest animated film since The Black Cauldron. I think that is one of the reasons why a lot of people do not talk about it as much as the other Disney Renaissance films of the time period. I mean it deals with religion, lust, sin, murder, and a number of other hot button issues when it comes to Disney movies.
The film has a phenomenal voice cast with Tom Hulce, Demi Moore, Jason Alexander, Tony Jay, Mary Wicks, and the great Kevin Kline. The film is dark, but it is mixed with a good bit of humor from majority of the characters. Then you have this sweetness to the film that Tom Hulce brings as Quasimodo, and it makes me miss seeing Tom Hulce in movies.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is also one of the most beautiful animated films that Disney has ever created since. The large landscapes and wide shots of Paris are breathtaking to me. The lighting is astounding, and the movie isn’t afraid to get dark. The shots look and feel like paintings. It’s something that not just animated fans will appreciate, but film fans in general.
The film is also one of the best Disney musicals ever. A big reason why is because they had a Disney veteran like Alan Menken composing the music and a Broadway legend, Stephen Schwartz, writing the lyrics. The opening sequence of the film with “Bells of Notre Dame” might be the best opening ever in a Disney animated film. The music is beautiful, dark, and heart-pounding, and mixed with the breathtaking animation, the opening sequence sets up most of the main characters and the overall theme of the film. Also, in a movie filled with great songs, “God Help the Outcasts” might be one of the best in the film and it is easily one of the most underrated songs from any Disney film.
This is a movie that definitely deserves re-evaluation if you have not seen it in a long time. If you have never seen the film, then you are in for a treat. It’s something that deserves to be in the conversation when talking about great Disney movies.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001, 49% on RT)
by Alex Bauer
The first science fiction film in Disney’s animated world gets a bad wrap. Perhaps the characters are not as memorable as other Disney icons, and, maybe, science fiction is a hard sell. I’ll concede those points. But, Atlantis is a whole lot of fun. It’s a fascinating adventure movie that delves into the world of one of history’s greatest mysteries: the lost city of Atlantis.
Inspired by the works of Jules Verne, Atlantis is a visually spectacular film. On top of Jules Verne, the film’s production team worked with Hellboy creator Mike Mignola to create its visual distinctiveness. At the time, the film used CGI unlike any other animated feature film. Filmmakers shot the film in anamorphic format — where one shoots a widescreen picture on a standard 35 mm format. The advancements in CGI and comic book visuals stuck out as new and fresh. As a kid, and guessing from the visuals, I would never have thought this was coming from the likes of The Lion King and Aladdin.
The film is not a musical, a major departure of the “Disney renaissance” of the 1990s. Nonetheless, Atlantis is scored by James Newton Howard. The composer understood the change of direction Disney wanted to go. The score beautifully captures the adventure led by the characters in the film — enhancing the viewing experience.
Sure the film might not capture pop culture’s eye — as have their earlier work and the work in the 1990s — but Atlantis is one fun movie. The adventure learnings about the lost city is magnificent, where the music and visuals capture one’s imagination.
The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride (1998, 33% on RT)
by Anna Catley
Let me preface this with my Disney origin story. When I was five years old, I went to a friend’s birthday party and watched The Little Mermaid for the first time. When I got home and I told my Mum about what I’d seen, she sat me down and asked me some critical-thinking questions about the movie. How old was Ariel when she got married? Now wasn’t that too young to get married? You would never give up your voice for a man like Ariel did, would you Anna? In the end I think we conceded that the music was awesome but the feminist morals, not so much. And so with that, my Disney upbringing largely consisted of films of the animal variety with less propensity to sexist storylines. You could say it was overkill, but here I am with my all-time Disney favourites of The Aristocats, Robin Hood, and The Jungle Book. Wholesome animal fun. Which brings me to the CRIMINALLY underrated The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride. I love this movie a stupid amount, and it’s not just because my first film crush was Kovu, the dastardly nephew of all-star Disney bad boy, Scar.
So The Lion King II picks up where The Lion King left off, with the story now following Simba’s young daughter Kiara as she adventures, learns about love, and unites the lions who live in the Outlands and the lions who live in the Pride Lands i.e. Simba’s Pride (woah…title of the movie). Kiara becomes friends with Kovu a lion from the Outlands, who is immediately treated as an enemy by Simba and his pride due to his relation to Scar. Kovu’s eventual ejection from the Pridelands makes way for one the best songs in any Disney movie, “One of Us”. The plot of The Lion King II is fairly predictable and is one of the reasons why it’s was poorly received, which I find kind of hilarious considering the original Lion King is based on one of the most well-known plays of all time. But okay. So let’s imagine that the plot isn’t that great (I think it’s pretty solid by the way…love, adventure, deceit, violence etc.), the movie would still be amazing if only for it’s incredible soundtrack. Songs like “He Lives in You” rivals, and for me, even eclipses the classic “Circle of Life”. And “That’s My Lullaby”, a song about a plot to kill Simba is beautifully reminiscent of “Be Prepared”, though lacking in goose-stepping hyenas.
There are a few reasons why I love The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride. I love the animation, I love the story (very Pride & Prejudice visits the Savannah), and damn it do I love the music, but that said, I do have some qualms. Kiara’s first hunt, an important rite of passage, gets interrupted for an unnecessarily lovey-dovey song “Upendi” wherein all the animals sing, and conspire to have Kovu and Kiara be a couple à la “Kiss the Girl”. Another misstep is in the otherwise beautiful song “Love Will Find A Way” — namely with the line “I may not be brave, or strong, or smart, but somewhere in my secret heart, love will find a way”. C’mon. Kiara is portrayed as a badass lioness who just wants to be her own person (her own lion?) and adventure and hunt without her father breathing down her neck. At the very start of the film she escapes a swarm of snapping crocodiles, so she’s indeed very brave AND strong, and she manages to unite the two lion prides proving she’s smart. The song itself is very pretty but somehow seems to undermine Kiara by suggesting that she doesn’t need to possess traits like bravery, strength or brains when she has the luuuuuuuuurve of a charming lion like Kovu.
Issues aside, The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride is a legitimately wonderful Disney sequel that doesn’t get nearly enough credit as it deserves. Perhaps it was the straight-to-VHS release that hindered its critical reception, but I think it was doomed to fail no matter what considering follow-ups to classics aren’t usually well received. Whatever the reason, if you haven’t watched this film or if it’s been a few years, give it another watch because you may be surprised at how well it holds up.