The Nine Best Disney Movies of the 2000s
Walt Disney Animation Studios has stood apart as the gold standard in animated cinema since it created the art form in 1937. More than 80 years later, the studio continues releases masterpieces year in and year out. During the 21st century alone, Disney’s released countless classics that are box office blockbusters and critical darlings. But which one is the best? In this article, I will pick the best nine Disney movies of the 2000s.
9) The Princess and the Frog
Before we get started, let’s establish some ground rules. We’re only evaluating films from Walt Disney Animation Studios today. Anything that was straight to video or a Pixar release is out. Similarly, the sublime Studio Ghibli catalogue isn’t up for consideration here. Otherwise, Spirited Away might have won. We’re only talking true Disney animated movies released in theaters.
Choosing the ninth best Disney movie of the 2000s isn’t easy, and it will only get harder from here. When I collated my list, I had a dozen titles that I deem A or A+ films. The three that I had to cut are Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero Six, and Chicken Little, all of which I love. While each one is worthy of celebration, Wreck-It Ralph is a bit uneven and Big Hero Six a bit too slight. Chicken Little’s shiny and charming, but it’s also a flick that I doubt few people would rank so highly. I’m more a fan of it than most.
Eventually, I chose The Princess and the Frog for ninth place, using the thought princess that it embodies classic Disney cinema. A troubled would-be chef embarks on a journey of self-discovery. She also encounters one of the best Disney villains in recent memory, the menacing voodoo man, Doctor Facilier. Most importantly, it’s the first time that Disney did female empowerment right in the 2000s. You can trace a direct line from Princess Tiana to Moana, Elsa, and Anna. Tiana’s importance in Disney canon is wildly underappreciated.
8) The Emperor’s New Groove
“Why does she even have that lever?”
This list doesn’t feature the Disney blockbusters that you might expect. Some of the titles listed here have slid beneath the radar a bit, like so many Disney classics have before. People have only come to appreciate their greatness over time.
I would absolutely throw The Emperor’s New Groove into that category. It’s one of the most daring, original animated movies that the Mouse House has produced to date. An unworthy emperor falls for the ol’ Magic Potion That Turns You into a Llama routine. Forced to live life in decidedly humble fashion, the former ruler encounters several memorable characters.
The royal llama also combats an evil sorceress named Yzma, played by the silky voiced Eartha Kitt, and a bumbling buffoon of a henchman named Kronk. The laughs in The Emperor’s New Groove come are huge, but the humor is genteel and warm.
One of the reasons why Disney animated films resonate so long after we watch them is the commonality of each story. With Zootopia, a small town girl moves to the big city and tries to take on the world. Unfortunately, the world fights back. Also, it’s a world comprised of anthropomorphic animals, some of whom are in the fuzzy critter mafia. According to Zootopia, that’s a real thing.
Seriously, the film is about the most charming thing Disney has done over the past 20 years. The plucky heroine rabbit must work with a morally flexible red fox to solve a series of crimes. Throughout the film, the subtext of predators and prey getting along in tight spaces subtly makes it point about mankind. Zootopia is a small scale triumph of positivity.
6) Meet the Robinsons
And Zootopia still can’t hold a torch to Meet the Robinsons when it comes to optimism. Meet the Robinsons is the quirkiest thing that Disney has ever done in my opinion, and that’s why it works. Ostensibly, it’s about a lonely orphan trying to make his mark on society. He’s an inventor, you see, and he’s certain that one of his gadgets will better humanity one day.
Then, there’s some time travel or something. I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. Meet the Robinsons has a message that it hides in plain sight. That message is that unconditional love improves literally anyone’s life. As the story relishes this uplifting philosophy, it also does something else. It functions as a love letter to Walt Disney himself.
The story has unmistakable parallels with his life’s work, and it quotes him on occasion, too. Meet the Robinsons is one of the most upbeat movies ever made and the one that I suspect that Walt Disney would admire the most were he alive today. “Keep moving forward,” my friends.
and 4) Moana
I went back and forth on these two entries. They share an intriguing commonality. Each one has a protagonist who is royalty but also conflicted. The main characters, Moana and Elsa, possess rare abilities that differentiate them from their people. And these powers cause natural conflict. Moana feels the pull of her heritage, for she is from a family of explorers. Elsa is the proverbial ice queen whose touch is detrimental to those around here.
Over the course of each film, the young woman learns not to control the power but to embrace it instead. The movies share that same kernel of wisdom about self-acceptance. They’re also two more phenomenal examples of how Disney has mastered the art of female empowerment.
Picking between these two blockbuster movies is an impossible task. Ultimately, I favor Moana ever so slightly for a specific reason. The resolution of this film doesn’t see a villain delivered a long overdue comeuppance. Instead, a wounded soul finds some semblance of peace and forgiveness. Moana subverts expectations in a moving way. Also, Frozen doesn’t have The Rock.
In 2004, a stray cat showed up at our door step. She was a scrawny little thing, and I could see every one of her ribs. It was pretty clear in that moment that if she didn’t get some food in her right then, she wasn’t going to make it. As she entered her new home for the first time, I admired her bravery. She’d boldly approached a dog that was at least somewhat bigger than her, silently asking for his aid in her moment of need.
A few years later, that dog aged as our pets unfortunately do. As his strength faded, his faithful companion would sit beside him. I’ve heard all the stories about how well cats and dogs get along, but that stray cat never forgot the kindness shown by her puppy buddy. She was loyal and grateful to him to the very end.
I say all of this not to make you sad but to point out just how powerful our love for our pets can be…and just how tender they can be with one another. Bolt is Disney’s best pet movie ever. By far. It’s a story about a confused dog who cannot separate reality from fiction. But it’s also a story about an abandoned cat that finds the courage to trust and love once again. Disney’s created better movies in the 2000s. They’ve never made a purer one, though. Bolt is the beauty of life perfectly encapsulated in 90 perfect minutes.
A woman repeatedly striking people with a frying pan is funny. It’s that simple.
Tangled is a throwback film in many ways. It’s based on a classic fable, and the humor decidedly skews toward cartoon violence at times. Even when Rapunzel isn’t pan-smacking folks, an oddly motivated horse is doing non-horse-like things in pursuit of a wanted criminal named Flynn Rider. Tangled is a lot more slapstick than most Disney films.
Tangled also features some of the most beautiful scenes in Disney history. While Moana has since surpassed it as the most beautiful Disney animated film (again, not counting Pixar or Studio Ghibli), the boat light sequences in Tangled still take my breath away.
I made the mistake of buying a 3-D television a few years ago when the technology seemed futuristic. Tangled is one of the few 3-D movies I ever bought on Vudu, and it’s just about the only one for which I’d break out the 3-D glasses.
Of course, the visuals aren’t the strongest part of Tangled. The tale of Rapunzel reimagined as a kidnapped princess is a masterstroke. She’s such a strong character on her own, but Disney adds some terrific comic relief, particularly the singing brigands who have unexpected life goals. With great songs, breathtaking visuals, and a near-perfect story, Tangled is tough to beat. But…
1) Lilo & Stitch
Before I explain the why of this, stop for a moment and think about the greatness of Disney animation. Look at the movies listed above. Now, think about the ones that didn’t even qualify for the list! Just about every year this century, Walt Disney Animation Studios has put out a thoroughly entertaining movie that warms you heart and maybe makes you think, too.
So, why do I choose Lilo & Stitch as the greatest Disney animated movie of the 2000s? Anyone that knows me understands just how much I value family. I strongly believe that this is a common trait among Disney fans. These films from our childhood aren’t just enjoyable to watch. They also remind us a time when kids and parents sat together, spellbound by the story told onscreen.
With the idea of family intrinsic to the Disney empire, isn’t it fitting that Lilo & Stitch wins? After all, this story embraces family like nothing Disney has ever done before or since. An older sister is forced to raise a distinctly strange younger sister named Lilo in the wake of the death of their parents. Neither of them likes the arrangement, but they try to make do as best that they can. I’ve just described the home life of countless people in the post-nuclear family world in which we live.
Lilo’s fortunes change when she meets a dog/alien/genetic experiment gone awry. Stitch is the mischievous genius who is always up to no good…until he meets Lilo. The two of them fall head over heels in love with one another. Even though he’s a genius who understand the universe much better than her, the maternal instincts that she shows to him win him over. A creature that has never known happiness discovers a feeling of family with the kind little girl who adopts him into her ‘ohana aka her family.
The message of Lilo & Stitch is simple. “Ohana means family. Family means no one gets left behind or forgotten.” Those are quite possibly the greatest two sentences in the history of Disney animated cinema. They’re pure and powerful. They give me peace, even at times when my life is in turmoil. No matter what happens in the outside world, I always have my ‘ohana, just like you. It’s what unites us as a people.
The message of Lilo & Stitch is what differentiates and elevates it above everything else on this list. It’s the movie that best embodies the loving nature of Disney animation.
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