It is easy to put together a list of the best movies on Disney+: Grab a handful of Pixar movies, sprinkle in some old-school animation, give it a dash of Marvel and Star Wars, and stir (using Forky, if you wish). But anyone can just pick the movies with the highest Rotten Tomatoes scores. The trick, particularly with a service that runs as deep as Disney+, is to look past the obvious films. Here, our choices for the best underappreciated movies on Disney+ for parents — ten titles that will make your kids a little bit wiser and more plugged in than the rest of their classmates.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Maybe the greatest Christmas movie ever, this Oscar-winning 1947 family film is an impressively grown-up look at holding onto the spirit of the season, even if the holidays are overrun by cynicism and commercialism. Edmund Gwenn took home an Academy Award for his role as a kindly old man who descends upon Manhattan claiming to be the real Kris Kringle. Not only does Gwenn look the part; the actor’s no-nonsense but warmhearted portrayal gave us that rare tough-love Santa who, above all else, is inspiringly noble and decent.
Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Neither Maleficent movie has done justice to just how imposing Sleeping Beauty’s villain is. Indeed, she’s the main draw of this underrated 1959 animated film, a widescreen Technicolor colossus that’s more about its astounding visuals than its good-enough story. (The film was originally released in 70-mm. in some theaters.) Other Disney movies are sweeter or more beloved, but this one is rich in mood and texture — you can get lost in its beauty.
The Black Hole (1979)
It’s ironic that Disney now owns Lucasfilm considering that, back in the 1970s, the studio just tried aping Star Wars. Drawing from that blockbuster as well as 2001, The Black Hole is a moody, somewhat schlocky, really endearing sci-fi/action/adventure/horror flick concerning a crew of explorers that meets up with a desolate ship parked right outside a black hole. Bad things await our heroes, although your kids should enjoy the trippy, cheap effects and John Barry’s grandiose score.
The Muppet Movie (1979)
Because your kids ought to know where “Rainbow Connection” comes from, right? Better than any Muppet movie that’s come around since, the original perfectly captures the smart-ass humor and sincere sentiment that were always inextricably linked in Jim Henson’s enduring creation. Also, it is very nice to be reminded how these characters’ voices used to sound — none of the talented subsequent voice artists have ever gotten them quite right.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
The last of the great films of the Disney animation renaissance — following The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Pocahontas — The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the darkest and most brooding of all of them. But don’t be scared! It’s still a blast, and it has a lasting lesson of acceptance, tolerance, and empathy.
Director Gavin O’Connor signed up for the challenge of dramatizing perhaps the most widely known and unlikeliest patriotic moment in American sports history and … somehow makes it even more inspirational. Kurt Russell may have been a great Snake Plissken, but he was born to play a hockey coach. It feels good to root for America again, doesn’t it?
Danny Boyle’s most plaintive and earnest movie concerns a Catholic school boy in England who discovers a satchel full of money and decides, unlike nearly every other character in every movie with a similar plot, to give it away to the poor and needy. This is a deeply goodhearted movie with Boyle’s signature panache: Millions is basically the opposite of his Trainspotting.
Odds are your kids are more into Toy Story or Finding Nemo or even the Cars movies, but this remains the greatest Pixar film: an ambitious, almost experimental (the first half-hour has no dialogue) look at a futuristic world destroyed by mankind … and the robot who saves it through the simple act of falling in love. Moving, sad, wistful, and incredibly funny, WALL-E feels even more relevant today than it did a decade ago.
The Princess and the Frog (2009)
The emergence of Pixar briefly made Disney stop working on traditional animated films, but it went back to the well with this sharp, snappy, and charming fairy-tale retelling. Set in New Orleans, The Princess and the Frog was one of the first Disney films to feature an African-American protagonist, a princess no less. It was ahead of its time: A financial disappointment in 2009, one suspects it would do gangbusters in 2019.
You and your family have watched Frozen a trillion times by now. We humbly suggest that the movie Disney Animation Studios released right before is actually better, boasting funnier jokes, richer characters … and, yes, superior songs. Actively catering to both boys and girls, Tangled redoes the Rapunzel story, giving it humor, heart, and action. We defy you not to get teary during its note-perfect finale.
*A version of this article appears in the December 23, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!