Disney refers to all of their films as "classics" (except for Song of the South, which probably exists in a heavily padlocked vault in a secret bunker under the studio lot because... racism), but in truth, nearly all of the films produced before Walt Disney's death and more than a few of those produced afterwards really are classic films. And yet, while everyone is familiar with Pinocchio, Dumbo, Cinderella, and especially the Disney Renaissance films, like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, there are a number of great Disney films that have slipped through the cracks, perhaps not forgotten, but rarely receiving the acclaim that they deserve. These are the six most underrated Disney animated films that never seem to make any best-of list.
The Reluctant Dragon (1941)
This twenty minute short film is one of the greatest that the company ever produced, brilliantly animated, written, composed, and voiced, but unfortunately it is buried in one of the worst films the studio produced. The feature length version follows Robert Benchley - a comedian so lacking in actual humor that he might just be the most depressing comic ever captured on film - as he tours the Disney studios. Though it does give some interesting insights into the early processes of the studio, it's rather bleak and miserable. But the centerpiece, the animated segment based on Kenneth Grahame's novella, could not be more perfect. The songs alone, including "Poor Little Upside Down Cake" and "Radish So Red," are enough to elevate this cartoon to classic status.
The Wind in the Willows (1949)
This half hour cartoon is the first half of the anthology film, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Narrated by Basil Rathbone, with the characters voiced by Eric Blore, Pat O'Malley, Colin Campbell, and Claude Allister, the film adapts one of the adventures of Kenneth Grahame's woodland characters, in which Toad, always the scallywag, exchanges the deed for Toad Hall for a stolen motorcar. While The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is surprisingly lacking in wit and is essentially an excuse to listen to Bing Crosby croon (I have something of a personal vendetta against Crosby, whom I find absolutely insufferable), The Wind in the Willows is not simply a beautiful example of the best of animated storytelling. It's a witty, delightful, and thoroughly entertaining adventure about the trials of friendship.
The Sword in the Stone (1963)
Though a financial success and critically appreciated in Britain (surprising, given its many Americanizing deviations from T. H. White's classic novel), this film was not embraced by American critics, who reacted with indifference. The story of the future King Arthur's education with Merlin and his cantankerous and highly educated owl, Archimedes, this film is far more philosophical than any other Disney animated film. Merlin (Karl Swenson) and Archimedes (Junius Matthews) explore, among other things, love and its consequences, the importance of intellectual inquiry, the power of intelligence over aggression, and many other subjects that, profound as they are, are easily understood and yet still nuanced. The wizards' duel scene is a showpiece for the animators and the songs by the Sherman brothers are pleasantly catchy.
The Aristocats (1970)
Though it is fair to say that this film essentially recycles the plots of The Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians, with cats instead of dogs, The Aristocats has many merits of its own. The studio was still reeling after Disney's death in 1967 and the animators and story department were struggling to move forward without him, but the result is a charming story of a cat (Eva Gabor) desperate to protect her kittens from the scheming butler, who has a dastardly plan to cheat them of their inheritance. The backgrounds of Paris and the French countryside are quite spectacular, Scatman Crothers sings one of the Sherman brothers' best songs, "Everybody Wants to Be a Cat," and even the overly cutesy kittens can't dim the magic.
Robin Hood (1973)
Peter Ustinov is the voice of Prince John in one of the Disney studio's most critically maligned films. I will watch pretty much anything with Ustinov, whose performance in this is fabulous and note-perfect, particularly in his interactions with Sir Hiss, voiced by British comic Terry-Thomas.The screenplay by Larry Clemons has a great deal of wit and style, and the music has a decidedly folksy flavor, once again Americanizing a British legend, but hardly to its detriment. It's next to impossible to produce a Robin Hood film that has any claim to a fresh take on the material, but this version, with its cast of animals, can certainly make that claim.
Oliver and Company (1988)
Oliver and Company was the precursor to the Disney Renaissance that kicked off with The Little Mermaid, and a film that has many of the ingredients that revived interest in Disney animation, from the celebrity cast that includes Bette Midler, Cheech Marin, Dom DeLuise, and Billy Joel, a return to the musical form, and some of the most innovative CGI work of its era. It's also one of the most successful transplantations of a classic literary work, in this case Oliver Twist, to the modern day; an orange kitten is abandoned on the streets of New York and adopted by a gang of pickpocketing dogs led by hobo Fagin. This is one of Disney's few successful films with a contemporary setting and it perfectly captures the grit and grime of New York City in the '80s.