Disney Animation became synonymous with American animation through technical wonder. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first-ever feature-length animated film in 1939. Twenty years later, Sleeping Beauty melted the minds of theater-goers with state-of-the-art 70mm projection. The company would go on to blend live-action and animation, re-engineer the entire workflow process to make artist brushstrokes more tangible, and in the 1990s, introduce the revolution of computer animation. Disney’s animated films were ahead of curve (while also being the curve) for most of the 20th century.
That doesn’t dawn on you when you sit down to watch Bambi or Peter Pan or The Little Mermaid. When Cinderella’s ragged clothes transform into a ball gown, the meticulous illustration that pulls off the effect — a defining achievement for the artists involved — simply renders as swirling pixie dust. In a film like 101 Dalmatians, the intricacies of xerography only reveal themselves as living caricatures and ink-spotted puppy dogs. Those memories of “Disney magic,” when disparate craftsmanship coalesces into 24-frames-a-second cinema, are hard to shake.
As animation fans, many of us at Polygon either basked in the theatrical glow of Disney animated releases, turned VHS tapes to dust, flocked to YouTube to relive the musical numbers, or are guilty of a little of everything. So we asked the staff: which of the animated movies sticks with you most today? With Disney Plus unlocking the vault for the first time, we got a little nostalgic to name the ones we devoured upon first discovery, and fondly remember today.
My VHS tape of Dumbo broke after rewatching “Pink Elephants on Parade” too many times in a row. Every time it ended I immediately rewound to watch it again, hoping to make any sense at all out of the bizarre images and figure out why it didn’t look like any movie I’d ever seen before. When that didn’t work, I gave up and started watching it just to enjoy my horror and confusion. I hated everything else in that movie as a kid, and it’s even worse to return to now, but that song is still one of my favorite things in any Disney movie. Even as an adult it makes absolutely no sense, but it’s haunting and gorgeous and I’ll absolutely watch it a dozen times the day now that Disney Plus is live. —Austen Goslin
Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Disney’s 1973 Robin Hood was a go to for me, but these days I find it … aggressively boring. “Oo De Lally” is ASMR. Even the chase scenes drag. Maybe my parents wanted me to fall asleep.
The movie that I saw fewer times, but captured my imagination then and to this day, is Alice in Wonderland. Walt Disney’s passion project has a reputation as a psychedelic trip. For adults, the bright colors, a cookie cutter ’50s soundtrack, and the clouds billowing from Caterpillar’s hookah swirl together like a dream. I get that. As a kid, Alice’s journey was an animated film drawn from my perspective. There were moments of awe and horror. The world wasn’t ours, but the pieces felt familiar. Adults acted wacky, angry, sweet, and vacant. The food said “Eat me,” so Alice ate it. The abstract fantasy made so much sense at a time when most things were confusing as hell.
The image of Alice trapped in a glass bottle, floating through hyper-contrast water, hand-drawn droplets splashing up in such a way, was a gut feeling I’d never seen expressed in words of images. The cacophony and silliness of it all wasn’t scary so much as profound.
OK, The Walrus and The Carpenter bit was scary. But still better than Robin Hood! —Matt Patches
101 Dalmatians (1961)
My favorite was the animated one, on VHS. I have no idea what this says about me, except perhaps that as I child I soundly rejected anything that smacked of baby dolls, princesses, or the girl aisle of the toy store. I haven’t seen it in years, but, you know what? I’m confident in saying that it would still slap.
The expert, cutting edge animation, and the obvious toil it took to animate all those spots. The Twilight Bark! Two henchmen who are obsessed with a crime-themed parody of What’s My Line! And the music! “Cruella de Vil” is just as good as “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” —Susana Polo
The Jungle Book (1967)
My mother credits this movie for teaching me the phrase “I don’t want to!” As one of my dad’s favorites, we watched it a lot. He told me about the Kipling book and promised to read it to me one day when I was older. When we sold our VHS before a big move in 1999, we’d accidentally left The Jungle Book tape in the player and I cried. Thankfully, we tracked down the grad student who bought it from us and secured the tape once more. —Petrana Radulovic
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
The bouncing, marching, hallucinogenic beasts known as Heffalumps and Woozles were my first introduction to cosmic horror. Neither elephant, nor weasel, what precisely makes them so unsettling defies description, let alone reason. I suffered many sleepless, October nights during my childhood because I couldn’t get their damn song out of my head.
Only one thing could convince me to watch their wretched dance every single day of the past two years: my son. His favorite film is The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. His favorite sequence? The Heffalumps. The Woozles.
As a child, I would eject the VHS tape the moment things got too scary and hurl the plastic rectangle behind the couch. My son is far more brave. I have, however, discovered something new from our daily viewing: “Heffalumps and Woozles” transitions into “The Rain Rain Rain,” one of the most beautiful sequences from this era of Disney animation. To a gentle nursery rhyme tune, soft but ceaseless raindrops wash away everything, even the words of the book being read to the audience. It’s sweet and calming and, with the risk of overstating it, oddly purifying.
My son loves to cuddle when this song starts, which, it turns out, makes up for the sheer terror that precedes it. —Chris Plante
Most of Tron is animation over live-action footage, so it counts. Channel 9, WGN, out of Chicago had a great back catalog of films that it would show on weekends and late at night. Aside from The Final Countdown, a movie about a time-traveling nuclear aircraft carrier, the one that always gave me pause was the original Tron. The film was really hard to find on VHS, for whatever reason. But, over the years as a child, I’d picked up bits and pieces of the narrative, enough to assemble a working knowledge of what was going on inside the computer world. It wasn’t until I got my own Blockbuster card in high school that I was actually able to rent it and watch it from start to finish. That’s when I finally saw the beginning and the end of the movie. That’s when I learned that Flynn gets digitized and sent inside the computer. Suddenly, everything made a lot more sense. I must have rented Tron a dozen times that summer alongside all the new releases. —Charlie Hall
The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
My sister and I grew up on kid-friendly mystery novels like Bunnicula and Harriet the Spy, so The Great Mouse Detective was a slam dunk for us. It’s Sherlock Holmes, but he’s a mouse! And to be clear, Basil’s nemesis, Professor Ratigan, deserves a spot in the Disney villains hall of fame — that dude is terrifying. The Great Mouse Detective is a deeply weird and charming movie that’s definitely worth a rewatch as an adult; Come for the references that went straight over your 10-year-old head, stay for the devastating critique of automation. —Emily Heller
The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
The Rescuers sequel came too late to be a childhood obsession, but at just the right time for me to obsess over it as an animation buff. Down Under lacks the hypnotic earworm songs of The Jungle Book or Beauty and the Beast, but it has something I desperately longed for as a kid: serious, beautiful, dramatic sequences without any gags or anthropomorphic animals or other things I considered childish by that point.
Growing up before tons of anime was readily available in the U.S., and before many American animators had experimented with animated stories for grown-ups, I kept turning to Disney for anything that resembled the serious medium I knew animation could be. I got it in snatches, in the “Colors of the Wind” segment of Pocahontas, or the mesmerizing “Transformation” sequence in Brother Bear, or the bear fight in Fox and the Hound. But above all, I got it in the eagle rescue and flight in Rescuers Down Under. I watched that sequence obsessively, wondering if I’d ever in my lifetime see a Disney movie that took that kind of breathtaking glamour as a primary tone instead of an exception to the cartoony, kid-focused rule. —Tasha Robinson
DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp (1990)
Disney MovieToons, the other Disney animation studio tasked with TV and direct-to-video, got its theatrical day in the sun with Ducktales’ jump to feature-length. With a vested interest in Scrooge McDuck, Huey, Dewey, Louie, Launchpad, the Beagle Boys, and the rest of Duckberg’s citizens, I recall being one of the few who opted out of Problem Child to see this in theaters. I later recorded it off TV on some early’ 90s DV technology and watched it on a clamshell video device during long car rides. The perfect double feature with Super DuckTales.
Like so many Disney films, the movie stumbles over a few insensitive, Middle Eastern stereotypes during the McDuck’s quest, and the animation isn’t top quality of the true blockbuster releases. But Treasure of the Lost Lamp was basically Aladdin before Aladdin, with Scrooge uncovering a genie in a bottle, and a sorcerer (voiced by Christopher Lloyd) hoping to steal it away and unlock unparalleled power. In the end, the Money Bin and surrounding Duckberg property are lifted out of the air like it’s frickin’ Akira. Disney Plus has a newish HD version of the movie, which is true blessing (and a vast improvement over that ’90s clamshell player). —MP
I liked that Aladdin did flips and cool stunts, which none of the princesses got to do. Now I’m aware of the very dicey racial politics of it, but it still enjoy the banging songs. —Jenna Stoeber
Mulan was also the first movie I have any recollection seeing in theaters. My Chinese mother thought it was very important to show it to me and I soon had a lot of Mulan merchandise. I’ve watched the VHS over and over to the point where I memorized all the commercials. I had a Mulan birthday cake and a Mulan doll and Mulan everything — and looking back, it was very important to my formative years to have toys that looked like me. A year later, I asked for another Mulan cake, but they stopped selling them at that point so I got stuck with Ariel.
Mulan is a strong heroine, one of the first Disney “princesses” to go after what she wants, realize her mistakes, and see her goals through, without coupling up with someone at the end. After rebellious phases where I flirted with Belle and Jasmine as my favorites, I’ve come fully back around on stanning Mulan. —PR