With the release of the CG Lion King remake, I got to thinking about which Disney movies I love that don’t get that love in return. Here are my thoughts on my favorite underrated Disney animated flicks.
The Sword in the Stone (1963, dir. Wolfgang Reitherman)
While you might think this Disney version of the legend of King Arthur is just based on general stories it is, in fact, an adaptation of T.H. White which was one volume of four in The Once and Future King series, which was in turn a more modern updating of Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. Not only that, Walt Disney was inspired to approve the project as the studio’s next feature after seeing the Broadway musical Camelot in 1960. Instead of a high adventure film, The Sword in the Stone is a light comedy, focusing purely on Arthur’s adolescence and the first few months of training with the wizard Merlin. The primary arc of the film is not about Arthur becoming the king but finding strength and bravery within himself. Along the way, there’s lots of great visual comedy, especially when Merlin and his rival Madam Mim start breaking out the spells.
The Fox and the Hound (1981, dir. Ted Berman, Richard Rich, and Art Stevens)
This was another film based on a novel, much more obscure than The Sword in the Stone. The director of that film, now a producer in Disney’s animation wing, read the book and was very touched by the themes it portrayed. The story is about Tod, an orphaned fox kit which is adopted by a kindly widow. Her neighbor has just brought home Cooper, a hound puppy who he plans on raising to be his second hunting dog. The neighbor’s older mutt, Chief discourages the friendship between the dog and fox yet it persists. Things change when they both reach maturity, and it culminates in an extremely harrowing scenario, much darker in the book but softened for the Disney film. I have always been impressed at the way the movie works an allegory for racism, and it has an ending that is emotionally complex and will stay with the viewer.
The Great Mouse Detective (1985, dir. Ron Clements, Burny Mattinson, Dave Michener, and John Musker)
I first encountered this movie as part of one of my fifth birthday presents, The Disney Read-Along collection. This was a large clamshell case containing books and audio cassettes of these texts being read, complete with music and sound effects. I wouldn’t see the actual movie until many years later, and I loved it. This picture began development back in the late 1960s but was shelved for appearing too similar to the Rescuers. Decades later, Michael Eisner would revive the idea, but the picture ended up being a box office failure. This is Sherlock Holmes but with mice and features Vincent Price voicing the villain Ratigan, an analog to Moriarty. It’s a short, face-paced adventure film that feels like a lost 80s classic no one talks about anymore.
The Rescuers Down Under (1990, dir. Mike Gabriel)
This was a movie on repeat in our house for much of the early and mid-90s, deservedly so. The Rescuers Down Under is the sequel to The Rescuers, released thirteen years prior. The story focuses on the kidnapping of Cody, who has discovered a golden eagle in the Australian outback. McLeach, a local poacher wants the boy to give up the location of the animal, but he refuses. Word reaches the Rescue Aid Society in NYC that Cody needs help, so they send their top mouse agents, Bernard & Bianca to save him. This is a sequel that improves on the original and ends up being a genuinely funny and exciting adventure story. Bob Newhart and Zsa Zsa Gabor play themselves as the two protagonists, but they are a perfect pair, so we don’t need characters different from their personalities. George C. Scott voices the villain McLeach and is a terrifying presence, always walking a tightrope to keep his role from becoming completely disturbing to the kids in the audience.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996, dir. Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise)
This is probably the darkest and most mature Disney animated film we’ve ever gotten. Based on the definitely-not-a-kid’ s-novel by Victor Hugo, the story centers on Quasimodo, the deformed resident of the Notre Dame cathedral who rings the bells. During a rare venture outside of the church, Quasi begins to fall for Esmerelda, a gypsy woman. Judge Frollo, a brutal Church authority, gets in the way and lusts after Esme himself, but she only has feelings for Captain Phoebus, one of Frollo’s men. It’s an emotionally complicated story which has some Disney elements inserted, mainly a trio of talking and singing gargoyles. Most of the songs are not the kind you find yourself humming afterward; they are brooding and contemplative. Little kids will likely get bored with a lot of Hunchback, but I think older kids and adult audiences are going to find a lot to mull over in this picture.
The Emperor’s New Groove (2000, dir. Mark Dindall)
I know young adults probably don’t see this as underrated, but I don’t think The Emperor’s New Groove has gotten the recognition it deserves. In montages of Disney animated films, it might get a single clip if you’re lucky. The project initially began development in 1994 under the title Kingdom of the Sun. It was going to be a reskinning of Mark Twain’s The Prince and The Pauper with the emperor trading places with a peasant in his kingdom. The tone would have been more like a classic romantic musical comedy, the type of film Disney used to make. However, due to box office disappointment on films like Hunchback and Pocohantas, there was a dramatic overhaul of the project, and we got a much more comedy-centric story that removed the role swapping and had the emperor transformed into a llama. It’s a hilarious movie that still holds up nearly twenty years later, not relying on the period-specific reference pictures like Shrek bank on. The humor here is situational rather than referential. I still would love to see what Kingdom of the Sun would have been like.