Seeing the Walt Disney Pictures logo grace your television with the visual quiver of VHS error coming across the screen should be enough to get your nostalgia pumping like Casey Junior coming down the railroad track.
The films of Walt Disney have gifted us with many of the great animated movie characters in history. Most recently, we have Frozen's Elsa, the title characters of Moana and Wreck-It Ralph's fun friends, plus pretty much anything Pixar has created in the last 20 years. (We'll ignore The Good Dinosaur.)
While those "modern" classics are fine, I'm talking about even deeper cuts, like Cinderella or Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The real classic characters from Disney as an animation company. We have sang with them, danced with them, cried with them, and even learned a few helpful lessons about life from them.
Yet, which of the many Disney movie characters are most memorable, iconic and, most importantly, lovable? I took a trip down memory lane and revisited the most classic Disney movies, ranking my own picks of the studio's greatest characters. Join me.
10. Bambi - Bambi (1942)
Felix Salten’s hooved hero served as the perfect central character for Disney’s tragic 1942 coming of age tale, Bambi.
Bambi is an adorable and innocent young deer enjoying an idyllic existence in the forest, until his life is changed forever after those superior on the food chain take the life of his loving mother for sport. From that moment, Bambi must immediately outgrow his childhood innocence if he wants to protect his home from the unsympathetic will of "Man."
Behind Bambi’s bright animation style lies a lesson in adult responsibility in the wake of life’s greatest challenges while also aggressively forcing you to empathize with nature. Bambi turns out to be more than a cute woodland animal; he is one of the most educational Disney characters of all time.
9. Sebastian - The Little Mermaid (1989)
The best kind of friend is the one who will break the rules for the sake of your happiness. Case in point: Sebastian’s reluctant disobedience to King Triton in support of Ariel in her quest for love with a royal landlubber in 1989’s The Little Mermaid.
Voiced by the lively, infectiously-entertaining Samuel E. Wright, the spirited crab Sebastian’s official title in the underwater kingdom is King Triton’s Advisor, but more often he looks after his daughter, Ariel. Even though he tries to convince the mermaid princess that life is better “Under the Sea,” he still gives into her wishes to help her become a part of the world above it.
Not only does Sebastian make living underwater sound like paradise, his empathetic support and talent for reggae are key to many of The Little Mermaid’s most iconic moments and one of the most lovable Disney movie characters I can personally think of.
8. Belle - Beauty And The Beast (1991)
During the opening number of Beauty and the Beast, it is made clear that Belle is the outcast of her French village. No one seems to really "get" this attractive, sweet bookworm with a killer singing voice.
But we (and, I suppose, Gaston, too) understand what makes Belle a on- in-a-million person, but not just for her brains and beauty -- for her genuine personality and bravery too.
Belle takes on the selfless task of enduring the Beast’s cruel imprisonment to save her father, and later comes to realize that her captor is not the evil monster he initially seems to be and learns to love him unconditionally, turning him into a better man.
Now, if we choose to ignore how easy it is to interpret this as textbook Stockholm syndrome, Beauty and the Beast is a sweet tale about choosing love for what is inside, not outside, and Belle serves as a great role model for staying true to oneself despite what other people may say.
7. Baloo - The Jungle Book (1967)
So, you’re an orphaned boy, raised by wolves, targeted by a ruthless Bengal tiger in the deepest, most dangerous reaches of the jungle. How do you cope? Just look on the bright side.
In Disney's 1967 animated adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, even in the most pressing moment of Mowgli’s life, his newfound friend, a bear named Baloo, teaches him to “look for the Bear Necessities” and enjoy life to the fullest. After losing everyone else in his life, Baloo becomes Mowgli’s most reliable friend, sticking with him through thick and thin until he finds his destined home.
While he may not be the best guide when it comes to avoiding certain death by the hands of a vicious predator, Baloo still resonates with us in the real world as a friendly reminder that life is not worth living if you cannot let loose every once in a while.
6. Mickey Mouse As The Sorcerer’s Apprentice - Fantasia (1940)
You were probably wondering if Mickey Mouse was going to appear on this list! Well, I could not think of a better way to honor the most Disney character than his now-iconic image in a robe and pointed, enchanted hat.
Mickey appears in Fantasia, Disney’s 1940 anthology of animated segments set to classic orchestral pieces, as the title character of an interpretation of the 18th century poem "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice."
The ambitious rookie gives into his temptation of using his master’s hat to bring a broom to life to help him carry pails of water. He becomes proud and comfortable with his achievement, and inadvertently creates an army of uncontrollable sentient brooms, forcing the sorcerer to intervene.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice represents the side of all of us who would gladly pick automation over manual labor to get the job done, but also provides us with a moral lesson in the potential dangers of growing too reliant on convenience that may be more relevant today than ever.
5. Cruella de Vil - 101 Dalmatians (1961)
I mean, just look at her name. Just one mention of her and you know this woman is bad news.
Cruella de Vil, a fashionista who wants to turn a litter of innocent puppies into a fur coat in 1961’s 101 Dalmatians, is the only villain I have included on this list and for good reason. She is not only one of the greatest villainous Disney movie characters, but one of the most iconic villains in cinematic history. Period.
This woman is ruthless and unsympathetic, with a face that fixes into a bloodcurdling snarl when at rest. She even has a catchy theme song that rivals Darth Vader’s “Imperial March.” How could you not love to hate her?
4. Timon and Pumbaa - The Lion King (1993)
"Hakuna matata" is a Swahili phrase meant to encourage people not to concern themselves with problems outside of their control. It is a wonderful, beneficial mindset to adopt and we can thank the comic relief from one of Disney’s most epic achievements for it.
Timon, a plucky meerkat, and Pumbaa, an imposing-but-harmless warthog, are introduced at a pivotal and very tragic moment in 1993’s The Lion King. After Simba believes he unintentionally killed his father, he runs into exile, fortunate enough to befriend the funny, carefree jungle dwellers.
As a film with Shakespearean-levels of heavy subject matter, The Lion King thrives on Timon and Pumbaa, whose gleeful presence gives us the necessary breathing room in between the film’s most challenging scenes, which is why Disney would later give them their own series. Few onscreen duos come this iconic.
3. Jiminy Cricket - Pinocchio (1940)
One of the most endurable Disney movie characters over the last several decades had a much less pivotal role in Carlo Collodi’s original novel, The Adventures of Pinocchio. In fact, it was Disney that gave him a name (inspired by a common phrase of surprise) and an occupation for their 1940 adaptation of the children’s story about a sentient puppet.
Jiminy Cricket takes on the task of being Pinocchio’s conscience after the Blue Fairy brings him to life and would have done a bang up job had Pinocchio listened to him. Seriously, if you rewatch the movie, all of Pinocchio’s largest mistakes and misadventures are all consequences of ignoring Jiminy, who is literally the movie’s voice of reason.
Jiminy Cricket is Disney’s greatest example of who a role model should aspire to be and what are role models should inspire us to be. He teaches us to always let our conscience be our guide and that, in doing so, our dreams really do have a chance of coming true.
2. Mulan - Mulan (1998)
When China is invaded by the Huns, young maiden Mulan (voiced by Ming-Na Wen) disguises herself as a man to take her elderly father’s place in battle. As the folktale describes, she becomes one of China’s most famed heroes.
Let’s get down to business about why Mulan is awesome. Of all the female Disney animated movie characters now deemed as the “princesses” (although Mulan is technically not a princess), I cannot think of one who is a better inspiration to women.
Mulan single-handedly crushes her entire country’s traditional values of keeping men on the battlefield and women in waiting and proves that courage and will is not defined by gender. She continues to be an enduring feminist icon whose influence is sure to increase when Disney’s live action remake hits theaters in 2020.
1. Genie - Aladdin (1992)
I truly have never had a friend like the genie that Aladdin is lucky enough to befriend after finding a magic lamp, but it would be a wish come true if I did.
What makes Aladdin’s Genie the absolute best of the classic Disney movie characters? For one, it is unfair to call him just one character. He is a compendium of almost all personas that the late, great Robin Williams was capable of impersonating from behind the microphone, all channeled through this timeless magical being.
Furthermore, what else keeps you coming back to revisit Aladdin? Is it to hear “A Whole New World” again? Is it the magic carpet’s charisma? Is it Gilbert Gottfried as Jafar’s parrot Iago?
Of course not! Genie is who I picture first when I think about my favorite memories watching Disney movies and the one character that audiences of all ages can agree is one of Robin Williams’ most beloved performances.
Sorry Will Smith, but there is no way you will ever come close this Genie's perfection.
What do you think of our classic Disney movie characters rank? Did we mention all of your favorites, or are there some we unfairly left out?
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Jason has been writing since he was able to pick up a washable marker, with which he wrote his debut illustrated children's story, later transitioning to a short-lived comic book series and (very) amateur filmmaking before finally settling on pursuing a career in writing about movies in lieu of making them. Look for his name in just about any article related to Batman.
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