Say what you will about the company itself, Disney movies still have a type of magic that no other production companies have been able to consistently reproduce. Their stories remain with the audience until they have long grown old, reigniting their inner child whenever they revisit the classic Disney movies.
Walt Disney Pictures was created back in 1923. This leads to being able to see the evolution of society and the big impacts people faced (world wars, the great depression, etc.) as the decades past reflected in their movies. The stories changed a lot over almost 100 years and are great to look back and see the big, macro picture of how these movies influenced society and how society influenced these movies. Disney films have been produced since the beginning of the last century. Here are their best animated movies of every decade.
Disney in the 1930s – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
The 1930s is the easiest decade to choose the best Disney movie since there was only one of them. The first-ever animated Disney movie (and the first princess): Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The art, the soundtrack, and the nostalgic feeling of seeing the first ever Disney princess are something that only this movie possesses.
Snow White may have fallen regarding her popularity with kids today, which is due mostly to new Disney princesses that are more relatable and modernized. Nevertheless, for Disney fans, and even fans of a happy ending, this movie is not only a milestone in the history of cinema, but it is also a clear representation of what people considered a dream life when facing the Great Depression.
Disney in the 1940s – Fantasia
The 1940s were not a good decade for Disney, as like most production companies, they were affected by the war and its repercussions. Most of the movies from this time period, not counting Dumbo, were box office disappointments and generated some financial problems for Walt Disney Pictures. Nevertheless, their best movie from this decade is a bold masterpiece, the visually and musically stunning Fantasia. With something for every taste, Fantasia is an ambitious production that highlights how cutting-edge animation and a great soundtrack can make a powerful combination even with little actual plot.
Disney in the 1950s – Peter Pan
The 1950s was a strong decade for Disney productions. There were some princesses, such as Cinderella (the first princess since Snow White) and Sleeping Beauty, and even some more unorthodox movies, such as the great Alice in Wonderland. The one that gets the win for this decade is about a boy that doesn’t want to grow up, and thus becomes more relevant every year. Peter Pan is a story that moves adults and children in very different ways, but with equal importance. The Lost Boys and traveling to the second star to the right and straight on until morning will be forever embedded in people’s memories of their childhoods.
Disney in the 1960s – 101 Dalmatians
The 1960s was an interesting time for Disney. There were some impressive choices in stories that can be seen as directly influenced by the experiments in the prior decade. The Sword in the Stone and The Jungle Book are some of the best-known movies of the time. However, 101 Dalmatians stands out for various reasons.
Not only is this movie still relevant today, with Cruella becoming the main character of a live-action franchise, but it is an important story that is different from everything else that Disney had released so far. The animals take center stage in this sensitive story that is ultimately about family and the cruelty of commercial materialism. This was also the last decade that Walt Disney was involved in the movies since he passed away in 1966.
Disney in the 1970s – The Aristocats
Because of Walt Disney’s death, the production company struggled to produce new movies. Even though that happened, there were still good movies that were made during this period, such as Winnie the Pooh and a fan favorite, Robin Hood. Arguably the best one, with a character that people still name their pets today (Marie), is The Aristocats. A cute adventure movie with social class commentary embedded in the narrative, The Aristocats may not have had the strongest animation, but it is still one of the great stories created by Disney.
Disney in the 1980s – The Little Mermaid
There weren’t that many memorable Disney productions in the 1980s. One of them (which probably traumatized people to this day) is the sad tale of The Fox and the Hound. However, the one that gets the win for the 80s is the narrative of the girl who wanted to be a part of that world. The soundtrack, the colorful visuals, and the amazing Disney villains in The Little Mermaid make for a compelling mix. Ariel was also one of the first princesses to have a strong personality, ambitions, and dreams that went against what people around her considered ‚acceptable.‘ It remains beloved to this day, and is getting a new live-action remake soon.
Disney in the 1990s – The Lion King
For most people, the 1990s were Disney’s best decade for animated films. In merely a decade, there were releases such as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Hercules, Tarzan, Mulan, and more. Their 90s output is iconic and paved the way for dozens of future movies, be they remakes, sequels, or spin-offs. However, there is one that is considered by many to be the best Disney movie, and that is The Lion King. This film, essentially Hamlet in the wild, has to be the best one of the decade, if not of all decades. The songs, the plot, the complexity of the characters, and the unbelievable visuals are simply irrefutable when regarding being one of Disney’s finest.
Disney in the 2000s – Emperor’s New Groove
The 2000s were a big shift in what Disney released. At the time, the first 3D animation movies started to come out and changed what were considered the main examples of animated movies. So much so that after this period, the amount of 2D animated movies that came out were near irrelevant when compared with the more digital, 3D releases. In a close second is the one that changed a lot of what was considered the norm, with an incredible soundtrack and characters that were complex and had their own motivations and objectives: The Princess and the Frog.
Nevertheless, the one that stands out because of how different it was (tone, storytelling, comedic timing, and overall characters) was Emperor’s New Groove. This movie set the tone for upcoming productions and can be considered a milestone in Disney movies. It also represents the decade well, as the type of comedy and characters are very particular to what was popular then, as irony and a bit more realism superseded the more sentimental and magical films of Disney’s past.
Disney in the 2010s – Moana
Disney has been outdoing itself for a while now, and in the 2010s, it was no different. From Frozen and Tangled on the princesses side, to Wreck it Ralph and Big Hero 6 on the more original coming-of-age side, it was a very strong decade for the production company. There are even social commentary movies, such as Zootopia.
However, the one that sets itself apart for what it means regarding diversity and representing important stories has to be Moana. It mixes all the elements previously mentioned: a new type of princess, social commentary, and finding yourself, all accompanied by a killer soundtrack by none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda.