Time to feel old, everyone: The Lion King turns 25 this week, with its LA and NY release hitting theaters two and a half decades ago.
The Disney Renaissance reached its creative and box office peak with this 1994 classic, making Simba and his story instantly iconic — and changing the way Hollywood views and makes animated films. They were no longer matinee distractions for families out shopping at malls with or near a multiplex. Lion King was an event movie — on par with that same summer’s Forrest Gump; if you didn’t see this movie, you were missing out.
The film’s pop-culture impact resonated with audiences long after the end credits rolled. As the original turns 25, and with the live-action remake coming this summer on July 19, we decided to look at that golden age of Disney animation to rank the studio’s best ’90s fare. (And sorry, Pixar fans — we’re just focusing on Disney’s traditional animated fare made in-house and released under the Walt Disney Pictures banner.)
10. ‘DuckTales the Movie: The Treasure of the Lost Lamp’ (1990)
Yes, DuckTales the Movie definitely feels like a feature-length episode of the TV series and there is nothing wrong with that. While Treasure of the Lost Lamp is barely a blip on our collective radars now, it’s worth revisiting because who doesn’t love a fun, brisk, entertaining AF adventure in the tone of Indiana Jones?
9. ‘The Rescuers Down Under’ (1990)
Disney’s first animated sequel to be released in theaters, Rescuers Down Under is an underrated entry in the studio’s animated canon. This sequel to the 1978 hit has been largely forgotten by fans, thanks to the movie coming out between the releases of The Little Mermaid and the Oscar-nominated Beauty and the Beast. The movie’s mix of early CG and traditional animation is a highlight, however, and the movie is definitely worth adding to your queue if you haven’t seen it.
8. ‘Pocahontas’ (1995)
Pocahontas, visually, is one of Disney’s most beautiful works. The painterly scenes and character designs more than make up for the film’s less-than-urgent narrative and pace. The film’s dramatic license with its historical subject matter is misguided and problematic, taking a few too many cues from Dances With Wolves and teetering into yet another “white savior” tale involving Native Americans. Having the unenviable task of being released after instant classics The Lion King and Aladdin, Pocahontas proves that Disney is not immune to misfires.
7. ‘Tarzan’ (1999)
Shocker, the Phil Collins-infused pop soundtrack does not hold up. What does, however, are the Disney animators’ lush landscapes and fluid character movements — a near-seamless blend of CG and 2D animation working together to inject this well-told tale with a strong dose of visual splendor. Tarzan is arguably Disney’s first animated action movie, as it packs in a variety of sweeping set pieces in between its many cutesy moments designed to help sell Happy Meal toys.
6. ‘Mulan’ (1998)
With a live-action remake of this popular animated movie on the way from Disney, it’s worth revisiting the original and its epic battle scenes, along with its poignant themes of identity and self-worth. Twenty years later, Mulan — thanks in part to its iconic movie poster keyart — continues to charm as one of Disney’s most underrated classics.
5. ‘Hercules’ (1997)
The Greek Chorus’ catchy, gospel-inspired tunes and a scene-stealing vocal performance from James Woods as Hades earned Hercules deserved care space in the hearts of its die-hard fans. The filmmakers overly sanitize the very adult source material of ancient Greek mythology to appeal to a family-friendly crowd, but smoothing out the edges of the titular hero and his hero’s journey do not dull the film’s epic scope and witty script.
4. ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ (1996)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame was nowhere near the box office success of previous Disney classics, which quickly led to the film’s fleeting presence in theaters. Disney’s darkest animated movie since The Black Cauldron, Hunchback is also the studio’s most powerful drama, thanks to the script’s gripping and unflinching take on the classic tale. The movie was unfairly dismissed by family audiences at the time of its theatrical release but is now slowly but surely coming around to be appreciated as the classic it was meant to be. Time has been very kind to Hunchback, especially in regard to its villain, the hatred-fueled, sexually-frustrated Judge Frollo (voiced by Tony Jay).
3. ‘Aladdin’ (1992)
Robin Williams’ iconic voice work makes this movie. Without his unique, kitchen sink performance, Aladdin would just be a good movie in search of that extra something to elevate it to greatness. Thankfully, legions of Disney and movie fans were blessed with this definitive Genie, as he helps Aladdin find love and his place in the world with Jasmine by his side. Twenty-seven years since its original release, Aladdin still features several of the Mouse House’s best songs to ever appear in an animated movie.
2. ‘The Lion King’ (1994)
From the stirring “Circle of Life” opening sequence that smashes to title, The Lion King demands your attention as both a visual and narrative departure from previous Disney fare. With Hamlet serving as a loose inspiration for the story, Lion King achieves near-epic tragedy levels as it chronicles the fall of one king (Mustafa’s death is still a gut punch) and the rise of a new one, Simba.
The animated animal designs seem to effortlessly balance the cute with the verisimilitude factor, without them coming off as merely a delivery system to sell merch. The movie delicately pushes the medium into new narrative and visual territory while also packaging it in the familiar, crowd-pleasing way to which audiences were accustomed. The movie is an endlessly rewatchable masterpiece that never loses its charm after the umpteenth viewing.
1. ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991)
The first animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture, Beauty and the Beast is still the high bar all future Disney animated films are measured against.
The poignant and action-packed love story of Belle and Beast is more than just a showcase of exceptional animation and unforgettable musical numbers. It’s a heartbreaking romance, perhaps the best ever feature-length take on the theme of “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” To enthrall generations of children with a story about how one’s true beauty doesn’t stop at skin-deep is just one of this Oscar-winning film’s crowning achievements, which helps earn Beauty and the Beast its status as a timeless classic.