Disney, a media giant with a rich history spanning 100 years, has been a significant player in the world of animation and film. Since its inception, Disney has marked each decade with standout films, evolving from black-and-white short films to full-feature CGI masterpieces. Despite these changes, Disney’s unmistakable charm has persisted throughout the years, consistently delivering memorable projects. Let’s delve into the 10 Best Disney Animated Movies of the Past 100 Years.

Best Disney Movies of the Past 100 Years
Best Disney Animated Movies: Walt Disney Animation Studios Logo

10 Best Disney Animated Movies (1923 – 2023)

  1. Frozen
  2. The Emperor’s New Groove
  3. The Lion King
  4. The Little Mermaid
  5. The Aristocats
  1. One Hundred & One Dalmatians
  2. Cinderella
  3. Fantasia
  4. Snow White & The Seven Dwarves
  5. Mickey Mouse – Steamboat Willie

The above list of disney animated movies is from the past 100 years and each one represent a certain decade.

Initially called Disney Brothers Studio, Disney’s first milestone began with Walt Disney’s film, Alice’s Wonderland, released on October 16th, 1923. The innovative short film featured a live-action Alice entering an entirely animated dream world, paving the way for the Alice Comedies series. Over the years, Disney has continued to push boundaries and expand its substantial array of franchises, producing iconic princess-centered films, synchronized sound animations, and even ventures into the realm of Star Wars. As Disney celebrates its 100th year in 2023, it shows no signs of slowing down in terms of innovation and excellence in children’s entertainment.

10. 1923-1929: Mickey Mouse – Steamboat Willie (1928)

Mickey Mouse - Steamboat Willie (1928)

While Disney’s first animation was Alice’s Wonderland, it is Steamboat Willie that remains famous. Holding the belief that synchronized sound was the future for animation, Walt Disney aimed to be a pioneer in this field. He achieved success, as Steamboat Willie is now known as the forerunner of synchronized soundtracks. This milestone animation also marked the introduction of Disney’s iconic characters, Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

9. 1930-1939: Snow White & The Seven Dwarves (1937)

Snow White & The Seven Dwarves (1937)

In the realm of animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs marked a significant milestone as the first-ever full-length cel animated film. Taking a considerable gamble, Disney invested $1.5 million into this project. Had it been unsuccessful, it could have led to Disney’s downfall despite earlier triumphs. Fortunately, audiences were captivated by the exquisite artistry, touching narrative, and unforgettable tunes, setting new standards for animation. It was also during this period that Pinocchio was released, further cementing Disney’s impact in the animation world.

8. 1940-1949: Fantasia (1940)

Fantasia (1940)

As the charm of Mickey Mouse began to wane during the 1940s, Disney sought to create newer and more captivating animated shorts to reengage audiences. Producing high-quality animation similar to Snow White was costly, prompting Disney to merge multiple shorts into one feature film. Fantasia was a visual masterpiece, presenting a spectacular display of fantastical animation that live-action could not achieve. While the decade gave birth to iconic films like Pinocchio and Bambi, Fantasia stood apart, dazzling audiences and succeeding at the box office.

7. 1950-1959: Cinderella (1950)

Cinderella (1950)

The 1950s witnessed the release of numerous remarkable Disney films, including Lady and the Tramp, Peter Pan, and multiple Donald Duck movies. However, the most influential movie of this decade was Cinderella, Disney’s first princess-centered film since Snow White. The enchanting tale of the mistreated girl transformed the company by introducing the enduring message that “dreams do come true.” This iconic film initiated Disney’s legacy of magical princess movies, and by the end of the 1950s, there were already three princess films in their collection, laying the foundation for more captivating stories to come.

6. 1960-1969: One Hundred & One Dalmatians (1961)

One Hundred & One Dalmatians (1961)

During the 1960s, Disney expanded its ventures with the opening of Disneyland and the success of live-action movies, which started to make traditional full-feature animations seem less profitable due to the high costs of intricate cel artwork. However, the tide turned with One Hundred and One Dalmatians (also known as 101 Dalmatians), which brought in a domestic gross of $14 million. This animated adventure film, based on Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel, along with other renowned movies like Peter Pan and Sleeping Beauty, ushered in an era of films featuring endearing talking animals, reestablishing the appeal of animated movies.

5. 1970-1979: The Aristocats (1970)

The Aristocats (1970)

During the 1970s, Disney released various animated movies with talking animals, including popular titles like The Rescuers and Robin Hood. However, these films seemed to lack captivating musical sequences that contributed to the success of earlier Disney films. Despite that, The Aristocats managed to receive considerable box office success in its time. With its endearing kittens and catchy songs such as “Everybody Wants to be a Cat,” the movie ticks all the right boxes. The Aristocats provided a delightful experience, though the resurgence of massive Disney hits would come in the following decade.

4. 1980-1989: The Little Mermaid (1989)

The Little Mermaid (1989)

The 1980s saw Disney focus mainly on live-action films, leaving the realm of fairy tale-inspired animated movies unexplored for some time. However, a significant turning point occurred in 1989 with the release of The Little Mermaid. This film introduced a new type of princess – one who was vocal, inquisitive, and always accompanied by her loyal animal companion. Although the Disney Princess franchise would not officially launch until a decade later, Ariel’s groundbreaking character paved the way for its future success. Her popularity, especially among young girls, had a lasting impact on the direction of Disney’s animated films.

3. 1990-1999: The Lion King (1994)

The Lion King (1994)

The 1990s was a significant era for Disney, marked by a resurgence in animated films. This period, known as the Disney Renaissance, began with The Little Mermaid and continued with successful releases like Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and Mulan. These movies, featuring memorable characters such as Princess Jasmine and Belle, primarily targeted young female audiences. However, Disney sought to create a film that would captivate all ages and genders, leading to the release of The Lion King.

The Lion King proved to be a massive triumph, with unforgettable characters like Mufasa. This animated masterpiece achieved a remarkable worldwide gross of $763 million during its initial release, setting a record that remained unbroken for years to come.

2. 2000-2009: The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

The Emperor's New Groove (2000)

Disney shifted its focus towards live-action films in the 2000s, leading to the creation of the Pirates of the Caribbean series and the foundation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Consequently, the animated films of this era had a distinct flavor, specifically catering to children. One such example is The Emperor’s New Groove, which captured young audiences with its witty, self-aware humor that often broke the fourth wall. Despite being predominantly lighthearted and absurd, it became a surprising hit, earning Disney a substantial $169 million at the global box office.

1. 2010-2023: Frozen (2013)

Frozen (2013)

The 2010s marked a significant change in Disney animation with the transition from traditional 2D animation to CGI 3D animation. Although Pixar had been using this technique for years, Disney’s decision to use it in Tangled (2010) was groundbreaking and came with one of the highest budgets for an animated film. Despite its success, Disney needed something even more impactful to sustain this new direction.

That turning point came with Frozen (2013), another 3D-animated movie that not only broke box-office records by grossing over $1 billion but also had a considerable cultural impact. This modern classic redefined Disney’s princess narrative, standing apart from the traditional Disney Princess franchise. Its sequel, Frozen 2 (2019), continued the streak of success, and anticipation is high for a potential third installment.

Disney’s transformation continued as the company embarked on its second century of filmmaking. Recent releases like Encanto, Raya and the Last Dragon, and Strange World showcase the diverse and innovative stories that Disney continues to create. The studio has also ventured into non-animated realms like Zootopia, Toy Story 3, Big Hero 6, The Incredibles, and Finding Nemo, which contribute to its rich filmmaking legacy.

As Disney moves forward with upcoming projects like Wish, the possibilities are endless, and only time will tell which of these movies will be remembered as some of Disney’s finest creations in the next 100 years.

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  1. Just read your list, Jay and I gotta say, Frozen being at the top spot is totally deserved. That movie took animated films to a whole new level. The soundtrack alone is iconic. Kudos for this compilation!

  2. Fascinating selection across the decades. I think it’s interesting to see how Disney’s storytelling evolved. Steamboat Willie as a starting point really puts the rest in perspective. Each of these films marked a point in animation history.

  3. interesting list but curious why something like moana didn’t make it considering its cultural impact and animation quality. frozen is definitely up there but moana feels like it brought something different too

  4. While I agree with the majority of this list, Jay, The Emperor’s New Groove’s placement at number two raises an eyebrow. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fantastic film – humor, character development, and all. However, comparing its cultural impact and innovation in animation techniques to films like Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin, one could argue its position.

  5. love this list! my kids and i have watched almost all of these. it’s amazing to see how disney movies have evolved but still capture the magic. frozen is a household fave!

  6. This list is a remarkable cross-section of Disney’s animated legacy. Each film represents not just a story, but a distinct era of artistic achievement within the broader context of animation. It’s particularly noteworthy how films like Fantasia stretched the boundaries of the medium.

    1. henry_g totally agree with you on fantasia! it was way ahead of its time. i watched it in my film class and was blown away by the innovation.

  7. So, we’re just going to act like The Emperor’s New Groove is better than Mulan or Beauty and the Beast? Interesting choice, Jay. While it’s humorous and unique, I’m not convinced it’s top two material.