– By Tyler Carlos –
During the making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, Walt Disney risked all that he had on the idea that audiences would want to watch a 90-minute cartoon. Up until that time, cartoons were usually done in short, comedic installments. Fast forward to today, animation has grown to not only one of the most admirable forms of filmmaking, but also one of the most complex. Most Disney animated films deal with deep, innately human themes in a way that both adults and children and relate to and learn from. Unfortunately, however, some Disney films are simply more popular than others. While those popular films have definitely earned their place in everyday society, let’s not forget that there are other Disney animated films that deserve their time in the spotlight as well. After consulting with several other Disney aficionados, here is the list of the 5 most underrated Disney animated features of all time (given in alphabetical order).
1. Brother Bear
First up on the list is Brother Bear. Released in 2003, this film follows a Native American boy named Kenai, who is desperate to become a man. After one of his brothers is killed by a bear, he seeks vengeance on the bear; but, upon gaining his vengeance, he angers the spirits of his people, and is turned into a bear himself. Desperate to become a man again, he and a young cub named Koda set out to find the mountain where the spirits meet the Earth.
There are so many elements that make this film such a deep and profound story. For starters, it deals with so many powerful themes that most Disney films simply do not. For starters, there are very few Disney films that are meant to speak to young men, and one of the most central themes of this film is the meaning of manhood. The films discusses how many men see strength or courage as the source of manhood, when in reality, it is about leadership, wisdom, and love. In addition, it deals with loss and grief, as well as self-forgiveness and brotherhood (why do so few Disney characters have brothers?).
Secondly, the soundtrack of this film was written by the one and only Phil Collins. Most people are aware that Phil Collins wrote the soundtrack for Tarzan (discussed later in this article), but it’s not common knowledge that he wrote another Disney soundtrack. To be fair, his voice only appears a few times in the actual movie- although he wrote all of the songs, different artists perform them. However, it does not take away the strength of this soundtrack, capable of dishing out all the feels that we are used to when it comes to Phil Collins.
Brother Bear garnered mixed reviews from critics, and currently has a 38% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Nevertheless, Brother Bear earned $85 million at the domestic box office on an estimated $46 million budget, and $250 million at the worldwide box office. Disney also released a straight-to-DVD sequel in 2006.
Though the film garnered mixed reviews from critics, it does not dismiss the fact that Brother Bear touches on important topics that need to be discussed, especially in today’s society, while also dishing out great music and an emotional story (complete with a few unexpected twists). While it may not top timeless classics like The Lion King or Frozen, Brother Bear deserves its place in the Disney pantheon, and I highly recommend you check it out if you haven’t yet.
Next up on this list of underrated films is Disney’s 1997 animated film Hercules. This film follows Hercules, the son of Olympian gods Zeus and Hera, as he attempts to become a true hero and earn his place back on Olympus after having his godhood taken from him by the villainous Hades.
This film is a great example of Disney’s ability to put their own creative spin on stories and myths that have been told for hundreds (or thousands) of years. If you’ve ever studied Greek mythology, you’ll know that this film diverts significantly from the true story of Hercules and the gods. This is not a criticism, but simply an observation. The writers really made the mythology their own, and delivered such a fun and action-packed adventure that simply deserves more recognition.
Though certainly not the most underrated film on this list, Hercules is never discussed as being a classic Disney film. It’s certainly had its moments in the spotlight over the years- the film earned $99 million in the domestic box office on an $85 million budget, and was nominated for the Academy Award for “Best Original Song” with “Go The Distance. The film had a spinoff series on the Disney Channel, and has been a staple in the Kingdom Hearts video game series since the first game was released in 2002. And overall, James Woods, who voiced Hades, has received overwhelming acclaim for his portrayal in this film.
The theme of this film is hit pretty much on the nose as the film is ending. Zeus says to Hercules “A true hero is measured by the size of his strength, but by the strength of his heart.” He even says earlier in the film “…fame doesn’t equal a true hero.” And perhaps this is a theme we need to hear today as well. The culture tells us that fame and fortune leads us to our ultimate reward, but that is simply not true.
Next up is Disney’s Tarzan. Based on the novel Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs, this film follows Tarzan, a human that has been raised by apes in the jungles of Africa. Due to his non-gorilla appearance, Tarzan has always been something of an outcast, and he seeks to prove that he is a true gorilla- until three humans arrive in the jungle to study the gorillas. Desperate to know more about the strangers, he begins to learn there is much more to the world that he knew, and perhaps he belongs to another world entirely.
By far the most famous element of this film is the soundtrack. Like Brother Bear, the soundtrack was written by Phil Collins, and won the Oscar for “Best Original Song” in 2000 for “You’ll Be In My Heart.” At the domestic box office, Tarzan earned $171 million on a $130 million budget, and earned a total $448 million at the worldwide box office. The film has also been featured in the first Kingdom Hearts game, and was adapted into a Broadway production that opened on May 10, 2006. Due to poor ticket sales, however, the show closed on July 8, 2007 after 35 previews and 486 performances.
But I don’t want to focus solely on the soundtrack (which is fantastic and is proven to give one “all the feels”). Instead, I want to focus on what is perhaps the most underrated part of this film- the story itself. When someone thinks of Tarzan, they typically think of the soundtrack, not the movie. This is a travesty, as this is one of the most heartfelt films that Disney has put out. This is a movie that is meant to be seen on the big screen. With its crazy detail and fast movements, the animation is simply beyond that of most Disney films. The new 3D style artwork that we see nowadays is beautiful, but there is something to the hand drawn animation of this film that sets it above even other hand-drawn films.
Beyond that, this film really touches on the idea of what it means to be a family. What makes a family, and what does it mean to truly belong somewhere? Many Disney films touch on the power of love, and this one in particular focuses on how love is what connects us all. Combine that with its beautiful animation and groundbreaking soundtrack, Tarzan proves that it belongs among the greats in Disney history.
4. The Emperor’s New Groove
Fourth on this list of underrated films is The Emperor’s New Groove. This film, perhaps better than any other film on this list, offers viewers the chance to look at a fun and comedic film that is meant to be simply fun and comedic, with just a bit of emotion thrown in. This movie follows the self-obsessed Emperor Kuzco as he he tries to make his way home and reclaim his throne after he is turned into a llama by the evil Yzma. Accompanying him is the humble farmer Pacha, who is desperate to save his village after Kuzco has threatened to destroy the village to make room for his summer palace.
The Emperor’s New Groove opened to good reviews when it released in 2000. Its budget was estimated at $100 million, and it earned $89,000,000 in the US Box Office and a total of $169 million in the worldwide box office. Though it made back its budget, the film made considerably less than most other animated films of the 1990’s, which includes box office phenomenons like The Lion King, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast.
One great thing about this film is that there isn’t really anyone you “hate” in the film. Yzma, while still the antagonist, is a great character, overall. She gets what she deserves in the end, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be funny. In fact, the audience is not meant to take the villains of this movie too seriously- especially considering that Kuzco is probably the most unlikeable character in the beginning. He has a strong, redeeming character arc that makes up for it, and in the end, you just love all the characters- including the villains.
Another thing to mention is that, while slapstick comedy is common in Disney films, The Emperor’s New Groove relies almost solely on it. The comedy is surprising, and comes from crazy characters being put into physically comedic circumstances that simply aren’t normal. The laughs come from falling down unknown trap doors, being struck by lightning, and being hit like a piñata. In most Disney films, there is usually one, maybe two characters that are always over-the-top, falling down, or saying something funny. But in this film, that can easily describe every character.
The theme is simple for this one, too. Its primary message centers on human decency, for wealth and power are no comparison for a good and serving heart. Combine that message in a fun and exciting slapstick comedy, and you’ve got a recipe for a great film.
5. Treasure Planet
Last on the list is Treasure Planet. Based on the book Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, this film follows 15-year-old Jim Hawkins as he seeks out a legendary treasure that is said to be the “loot of a thousand worlds.” But he is not the only one after the treasure, and he will have to watch his back as those others are willing to do whatever it takes to find the treasure first.
Similar to Tarzan, Treasure Planet is a movie that is meant to be seen on the big screen. This film used a then unique combination of 2D hand drawn animation combined with 3D computer animation, which builds a universe that has to be seen to believe. The animators used a “70/30 Law,” in which 70% of the film was traditional and 30% was sci-fi. This is a movie that you watch for the visuals. The story is a decently strong adaptation, but this is a visual film that offers lots of action and excitement. Plus, it has a star-studded cast, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Martin Short, Emma Thompson, and Laurie Metcalf.
Thematically, this is a movie about finding oneself. Jim, as a character, is lost in the world. After being abandoned by his father, he was always getting into trouble, despite being intelligent and adventurous. But this is also about redemption, as he sets out to prove that he is not just some screw-up, but a young man with great potential that needs a chance to live up to it.
The film received decent reviews from critics when it was released in 2002, though it opened at 4th in the box office during its opening weekend. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 2003, but lost to Spirited Away. The film was budgeted at $140 million, but only made $38 million in the domestic box office, and made $109 million total in the global box office. In 2014, the LA Times listed Treasure Planet as the one of the expensive box office flops of all time. Perhaps this is why we don’t hear much about this movie, as Disney is known to sweep low-grossing films under the rug.
But don’t let the low numbers discourage you. For one, Treasure Planet was up against Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Die Another Day, AND The Santa Clause 2 all in the same weekend. Second, simply put, this is a wonderfully uplifting and exciting film. If you haven’t seen it yet, give Treasure Planet the chance to live up to its potential, and I’m sure it won’t disappoint.
It’s rare that Disney releases a film that is not loved by audiences everywhere. But as we’ve seen over the last 81 years of Disney, it’s been made clear that some movies are simply able to integrate into the culture better than others. But we mustn’t forget those that stand alone. Their stories are strong and their messages necessary. If you haven’t seen the films on this list, then I say do so as soon as possible.
About the Author
Tyler Carlos is a proud nerd originally from Baton Rouge, LA. He completed his undergraduate in Mass Communication from Louisiana State University, and graduated from JPCatholic’s MBA in Film Producing in 2016. In his off time, he enjoys Crossfit, escape rooms, and watching Gotham and This Is Us. His ultimate goal in life is to learn how to fly.