Disney+: Remembering the best forgotten Disney animated movies
Nathanael Smith | On 02, May 2020
The word underrated is a hard one to quantify. It’s the lesser used but equally ill-defined brother of that other favourite “overrated”. Shorn of context, neither word really means anything. However, in a canon of 59 films, many of which have exceptionally high profiles in pop culture, it’s easy for some of Disney’s smaller films to be forgotten or overlooked. We’ve all seen The Lion King (see our guide to the best films on Disney+) but how many of us have dipped into Ichabod and Mr Toad?
So here’s a selection of films by Walt Disney Animation Studios that, for one reason or another, don’t get as much attention as Beauty and the Beast, but have plenty to recommend themselves. We’ve used some vague metrics to determine whether or not something is underrated. If a film features heavily in a theme park or still produces quite a lot of merchandise revenue, then it isn’t eligible. (This is based on the assumption that Disney are the best at knowing what’s popular and they’ll keep products alive if they deem them to be financially valuable enough.) That rules out any of the films from the Princesses line, for instance. Also not counted are films that have had a live-action remake or have come out in the last 10 years (they haven’t stuck around long enough to really be rated – or not – by the whims of cultural memory). Lastly, it has to be good or at least have some quality to make it memorable or interesting. Many of Disney’s films have been forgotten because, well, they deserve to be.
So here are five of the less famous films from the Disney animated catalogue, each begging for your time on Disney+ UK right now. (Not in the mood for animation? See our guide to the most underrated live-action Disney films on Disney+ UK.)
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
Few of Disney’s films are as outright weird as The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, which mashes together the legend of Sleepy Hollow with vignettes from Wind in the Willows. It’s an incongruous pairing borne of financial necessity, with the only connecting threads seeming to be literary adaptations and oddball outsiders.
Toad’s story is a fun one, with slick animation, funny slapstick and instantly memorable characters. The 1955 original ride in Disneyland based on this film is a truly mad experience, ending in a trip to hell for some reason. The second segment is a frothy, fun interpretation of Washington Irving’s novel, with a loose animation style and a mellifluous narration by Bing Crosby. It also features an insane climax involving the headless horseman that Disney would never get away with today.
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
Winnie the Pooh himself is one of the absolute mainstays of Disney’s parks and merchandising and one of the most beloved characters for the studio’s youngest viewers. Yet that’s more from a perennial TV presence and straight-to-video shorts than due to its two wonderful cinematic outings, which are often not remembered as being a part of the studio’s classics canon. Wolfgang Reitherman’s interpretation of A.A. Milne’s world is a meta delight, with characters interacting with the book and arguing with the narrator. It’s gentle, episodic and silly, like a warm cuddle of a film. The cinematic equivalent of a lazy Sunday afternoon.
The Rescuers (1977)
The Rescuers undoubtedly has its fans, and they can probably still sing the lyrics of the Rescue Aid Society’s anthem. Yet it remains a minor film from the studio, and unfairly so. Reitherman’s last film is a thrilling adventure movie with two mice at its heart – one a glamorous, almost Hitchcockian heroine, the other a humble janitor with few skills but lots of bravery. Few of Disney’s films are this tense; you really find yourself rooting for the orphan girl in distress, while the plucky murine heroes are regularly thrown out of their depth. It’s doubly exciting because the risk feels real; you really care about the characters. The good news is that if you enjoy this, then the Rescuers Down Under is also a lot of fun.
Basil: The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
Most of Disney’s films from the 80s can be classed as “underrated”; forgotten by history and ignored by the studio. They’re all really interesting – fascinatingly dark in places and tonally uncertain, yet showing glimpses of what the studio would become. One of the best from the era is this loose Sherlock Holmes adaptation starring mice and rats, all set in the literal underworld of London. It’s got a fun, over-the-top villain in the form of Ratigan and a genuinely thrilling, CG-enhanced action sequence in a clocktower that’s reminiscent of Miyazaki’s Castle of Cagliostro.
The first Fantasia is an undisputed Golden Age classic, the kind that the American Film Institute has entered into its hallowed canons. It was always intended to be the first in a series of similar films, introducing children to classical music through experimentally animated sequences. It was only in Fantasia 2000 that this dream of a franchise was realised; many of the sequences in this “sequel” rival those in the original. Some of the computer animation hasn’t aged well, but then there are scenes such as the Arrival of Spring set to Stravinsky’s Firebird that lift the spirits and show the potential of animation as an expression of pure imagination.