With Your Favorite Disney Movies, Nostalgia Beats The Classics (A Not-Quite-Scientific Study)

We may receive a commission on purchases made from links.

It all started with a tweet. Last week, after seeing a couple of other such tweets catch fire amidst the madness of real-world news, I posed a question to the denizens of Twitter. "What are your five favorite Disney animated films?" I thought it would be fun to tally up some of the responses, and see what film takes the day in an unscientific survey. Maybe I could even pit the top few vote-getters in an actual Twitter poll. Would The Lion King be the big favorite? Maybe the first Disney feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, would take the day. Alternatively, a dark-horse contender could surprise everyone and reach the top.

I don't exactly know what I was expecting, either in terms of the amount of responses and the answers themselves. What I received was massive. I've gotten literally thousands of responses. As I write this essay, I am still getting responses, more than a week later. The answers flew in virtually from a wide and varied group of people: fellow film critics, like Keith Phipps of Uproxx and Monica Castillo of The New York Times; other journalists, such as Jamelle Bouie of Slate; actors like Zoe Kazan; and many other folks from around the globe. I was initially taken aback at how varied the responses were: there was a clear victor, but if you cast your net wide enough, you'll find fans of every Disney animated film, not just a small cluster of favorites. The conclusion I reached from the responses, at least in part, is one that's unavoidable in all of current popular culture: nostalgia reigns over all.

Rules and Regulations

Full disclosure: I have not tallied every single response that I got to the initial quote-tweet. I'm a masochist, no doubt — I was not wise enough to, you know, ask in the original tweet for one favorite movie, not five — but I'm not quite crazy enough to just keep liking every tweet I receive over a weeklong period. (But who am I kidding: in the next few days, I will probably go through all of the mentions I got, just to see how the final vote shakes out. Like I said: I'm a masochist.) In the end, I tallied all the responses I got for the first 8 hours after the tweet was passed around the virtual campfire. Eight hours' worth of responses meant that I still had many thousands of tweets to sift through, because guess what: people like to rank things!

Another important point: I ignored anything that isn't part of the official canon for Walt Disney Animation Studios. If I could have edited the original tweet, I would've probably made it much clearer what I meant when I said "Disney animated film." To me, the definition only encompasses the 56 features in the Walt Disney Animation Studios canon. No Pixar, no DisneyToon Studios (some people, I presume unironically, listed direct-to-video sequels among their choices), no animated shorts, not even The Nightmare Before Christmas. To be fair, some of the respondents guessed or acknowledged that some of their entries — including live-action/animation hybrids like Mary Poppins or Who Framed Roger Rabbit — don't quite count. I didn't disqualify a full response if one of the selected titles didn't fit my rules; I simply ignored that title and moved on.

disney nostalgia robin hood

The Power of Nostalgia

So, what did I learn from the results? My takeaways, or what I choose to take away from the responses to a wildly unscientific survey conducted via Twitter, were fascinating.

Considering the domination of '90s-era nostalgia on social media, it didn't surprise me that all of the top six films (in order of votes received, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Mulan, The Little Mermaid, and Hercules) were released during the so-called Disney Renaissance of the 1990s. I'm turning 33 later this year, so these are films I grew up with too. The experience of seeing each of these films is burned in my brain permanently. They aren't the only Disney movies I saw in my youth, or rewatched countless times on VHS, but they are touchstones of my childhood, as is the case for many of the respondents. The gauzy memory of watching these films can sometimes be more satisfying than the films themselves; now that I'm a parent of a nearly 3-year old, these memories can be compounded by the experience of watching my son watch these films for the first time.

There are some dark horses in the WDAS canon with enough of a traditionally vocal fanbase; as such, I wasn't surprised to see them perform well in the poll. A good example is Robin Hood, the 1973 adaptation of the British legend, featuring anthropomorphized animals. For some people (such as myself), Robin Hood is close to the nadir of Disney's feature animation. It was released in a period where Wolfgang Reitherman, one of the fabled Nine Old Men of the studio's animation department, directed each WDAS film. While Reitherman had been at the studio for nearly 40 years by the time of Robin Hood's release, the laid-back style of the films he directed (also including The AristoCats, The Rescuers, and The Sword in the Stone) allowed for less complex artwork, in part because of the xerographic process of essentially photocopying drawings to animation cels. Robin Hood is one of a number of Disney films that uses xerography to its detriment; there are enough videos on YouTube showcasing how Robin Hood copies shots from films as early as Snow White and as recent as The Jungle Book.

While I don't like Robin Hood that much, outside of the snappy opening credits scored to a Roger Miller song, I'm aware that lots of people in my age group, as well as some folks in Generation X, are big, big fans. Growing up with a film can make its impact that much larger for the right audience. Thus, when Robin Hood made it to 11th in the tallied results, I wasn't shocked.

Fun fact: Robin Hood is the highest-ranking film in the results that was released before 1989. More votes than Fantasia, more than Pinocchio, more than Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

People dig this movie, either because they grew up with it, or because they might have been attracted to Robin Hood when they were growing up. That last bit, for those not in the know, is serious. This film is a well-known entry point for folks into the world of furries; even if it wasn't, I would need more than one hand to count the number of people who listed Robin Hood in their tweets and referenced being attracted to the title character. Thanks for that extra information, total strangers!

disney nostalgia emperor's new groove

Secret Fanbases

But some of the movies with staying power took me off guard. Either these films have hidden fanbases, or I'd simply never heard their passionate cries before.

To wit: The Emperor's New Groove, the 2000 animated film featuring the voices of David Spade, John Goodman, Eartha Kitt, and Patrick Warburton. The film only grossed $89 million at the domestic box office, and is known among animation buffs primarily because of its famously tortured production, which was partly captured on film by Trudie Styler. (The subsequent documentary, The Sweatbox, has never been officially released. However, every few years, someone posts a bootleg of The Sweatbox to Vimeo or YouTube; when this happens again, I highly recommend that you check it out if you're a fan of animation or The Emperor's New Groove.) I have, over the last few years, noticed a few folks praising the film, arguing that New Groove is one of the funnier Disney films in recent memory. (I think the movie is enjoyable, but not top-five material.) So, in spite of those fans, I didn't think it would place tenth in the poll. Tenth! More votes than Sleeping Beauty, Fantasia, Zootopia, or even Frozen.

A weird sidebar about Frozen: a good number of the 150+ people who voted for the film — which landed at 31st out of 56 overall after the first 8 hours of responses — added a comment like "Don't judge me!" Is it really that embarrassing to say that a billion-dollar worldwide phenomenon is one of your favorite Disney animated films?

Anyway, The Emperor's New Groove, like a few other Disney films released in the early 2000s, may have ridden a wave of votes not just because of its spikier humor, but because of the arguably accurate assumption that it's underrated relative to the classic standbys.

disney nostalgia fox and the hound

Classics Versus Childhood Favorites

Throughout the responses, I saw some other fascinating trends, such as what people genuinely define as a "Disney animated movie." I understand how some of those definitions spring up — more than anything else, I had to exclude a lot of Pixar films, everything from the Toy Story franchise to this summer's Cars 3. We connect the concept of "Disney movies" with whatever family-oriented or animated films that we watched ad nauseam in our youth, no matter what the definition truly is. This, at least, is how I choose to justify seeing respondents include films like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and...shudder...Space Jam. (Predictably, some people offered joke responses instead of real ones. So maybe Space Jam was a tongue-in-cheek joke. I kind of doubt it.)

Here's another pleasantly surprising takeaway: every Disney animated film was accounted for on the list. 39 of the 56 Disney animated feature films received over 100 votes, everything from The Lion King to Oliver and Company. The Lion King was the top vote-getter from an early point; it wound up with just under 1,500 votes, nearly 250 more than the second-place finisher, Beauty and the Beast. Only the top three films (Aladdin ranked third) received more than 1,000 votes, though I have to imagine that once I go through every single response — whenever I do that — a few more films in the top 10 will reach the four-digit plateau. Some of the 56 films got very few votes; Melody Time, one of the 1940s-era "package" films comprised of a series of shorts, received just one. Even Home on the Range got more votes than that. (It got two votes. But still!) 50 of the 56 films received at least 10 votes, suggesting even a mild passion for less expected or popular options.

This year, Walt Disney Animation Studios celebrates its 80th anniversary of making feature films, beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. If I make any genuine conclusion from this list, I don't have to look much farther than where the 1937 film landed: Snow White ranked real low at 37th, with 142 votes. The Fox and the Hound got more votes. The Fox and the Hound! Whenever you read a list of the best animated films of all time, or just the best Disney animated films of all time, you're likely to find Snow White's adventures ranking higher than that of Tod and Copper. But to see The Fox and the Hound outperform an obvious classic is to see the power of nostalgia in action.

The Lion King Footage

Childhood Affection in Action

I've written about nostalgia and animation before (an entire book on the subject, even), and have been talking about it in podcast form on Mousterpiece Cinema for over six years. Co-hosting the podcast, which covers anything and everything released by the Walt Disney Company, has often been a self-inflicted trial by fire, watching films that I may have adored when I was young, but with a fresh set of adult eyes. Movies I grew up with, like Beauty and the Beast, may still be among my favorites, but they look and feel different to adult me than they did to child me. The first time, as an adult, I realized how little logic there is in tracking how old the Prince/Beast is when he's cursed, it almost hurt. I still love the movie. But that illogic was something I never noticed as a kid.

If I could ask a follow-up question to any of the respondents, it'd be this: when was the last time you saw your five favorite Disney animated films? This is not meant to suggest bad faith on the respondent's part  —I don't mean to suggest that people don't really love the films they chose, as opposed to having fond memories from watching them at a young age — but genuine curiosity. Do people who love The Fox and the Hound watch that film regularly? Have they watched it since they were kids? Is there something more to their love, akin to the moment in Ratatouille when food critic Anton Ego eats the eponymous dish and flashes back to a memory of being tended to lovingly by his mother as a kid? (I know, I referenced a Pixar film in an essay about the Disney animation canon. I'm truly daring.)

Even for the predictable favorites, the Pinocchios and Lion Kings and Little Mermaids, I imagine we all have some associated nostalgia. Pinocchio is my favorite animated film, not just because of the music and characters and story and animation. It's my favorite because, as a kid, it terrified me in ways that other films couldn't quite muster. Even the briefest childhood memory, of watching Pinocchio turn into a jackass because of bad behavior, can be potent enough to burrow into my subconscious over time. I can only imagine that many of the people who voted, overwhelmingly, in favor of The Lion King did so because of their own childhood memories from the mid-1990s. I have no doubt that such memories sway us all when we think the question over, rolling it around in our minds.

So now, I ask you the same: what's your favorite Disney animated film?