The ‘80s and ‘90s are full of brilliant animated films with engaging storylines, great sing-along songs, and plenty of moving moments. These decades have a ton of animated, beloved classics, but let’s talk about the underrated ‘80s and ‘90s animated movies, many of them streaming.
My definition of "underrated" is an enjoyable movie that was either a box office failure at its time, received negative or mixed reviews, one that was only truly popular among a cult audience, or a lesser-known film to casual animated movie watchers. For this list, I limited it to mainly family-friendly animated films. If it was brilliant, but a little too dark for children, I didn’t include it. I also limited myself to only a few underrated Disney animated movies, because many of those films are too popular to be underrated.
Cats Don’t Dance (1997)
Danny (Scott Bakula) moves to Hollywood hoping to make it big in the film industry. However, he soon learns that animals aren’t allowed to have major roles in Hollywood. The Cats Don’t Dance voice cast also includes Jasmine Guy, Matthew Herried, Ashley Peldon, and Kathy Najmy.
Cats Don’t Dance has music written by Randy Newman, and also features choreography by Gene Kelly. In addition to these huge names, Natalie Cole provides the singing voice for Sawyer (voiced by Guy). The film also has a great message about prejudice in Hollywood and has one of the scariest animated villains in the sugary sweet-seeming Darla Dimple (Peldon). Cats Don’t Dance has so many elements that should have made it into an instant animated classic, but it seems it’s only a favorite among cult audiences.
The Pagemaster (1994)
The Pagemaster is a mostly animated, partially live action movie about an overly cautious ten year old boy who ends up as an illustration and takes an adventure with several books (horror, fantasy, and adventure). The voice-cast includes Macaulay Culkin, Christopher Lloyd, Whoopi Goldberg, Patrick Stewart, and Leonard Nimoy.
Young book nerds had their dreams come true when an animated feature about books coming alive came out. Maybe at the time, book lovers and animated family film fans didn’t seem to correlate, but adults can also appreciate The Pagemaster and its many classic literary references.
The Brave Little Toaster (1987)
Household appliances decide to go on an adventure to find their “master” in The Brave Little Toaster. Jerry Rees directed, and the voice-cast includes Jon Lovitz, Timothy Stack, Timothy E. Day, and Deanna Oliver.
This movie featured the talents of many of Pixar’s huge players, including Joe Ranft, who co-wrote it, and animator Chris Buck. In my opinion, the film clearly helped inspire future Pixar films, such as Toy Story. The Brave Little Toaster is not as underrated as many on the list, because the cult love is pretty strong, but it definitely deserves a bigger place in the conversation about best-animated films of all-time. Unfortunately, The Brave Little Toaster is one of those rare films not available to stream or digitally rent / buy, but there are DVDs available.
The Iron Giant (1999)
The Iron Giant is an animated movie about a boy who develops a friendship with a giant alien robot, and was Brad Bird’s directorial debut.
Bird later went on to direct such huge Pixar movies like The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and The Incredibles 2. The Iron Giant cast includes Eli Marienthal, Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr., and Vin Diesel. Despite being set in the 1950s, it may have been ahead of its time, because it had all the elements to be a hit and enduring animated film. It has a spunky kid protagonist, great voice-over acting, an interesting plot, and a creature perfect for merchandising. It may not have had a huge box office success, but has gained more admiration and recognition since its release.
James And The Giant Peach (1996)
The stop-motion animated film James and the Giant Peach follows young James (Paul Terry) as he finds himself inside a giant peach. He then goes on an adventure with the insects inhabiting it. About a quarter of the film is live action. The James and the Giant Peach voice cast includes Richard Dreyfuss, Jane Leeves, Susan Sarandon, Simon Callow, and David Thewlis.
James and the Giant Peach hasn’t had the same success as other stop-motion classics like A Nightmare Before Christmas or The Fantastic Mr. Fox. It also hasn’t been as praised as other Roald Dahl adaptations, such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda. Maybe this is just too strange of a concept to connect with the typical audience, but that’s what makes this animated feature unique and worth watching. I mean, where else can you watch a film about giant fruit turning into a vessel for travel?
The Secret Of NIMH (1982)
A widowed mouse (Mrs. Frisby) sets off on a journey to help save her sick son in The Secret of NIMH. The voice-cast includes Elizabeth Hartman, Peter Strauss, Dom DeLuise, and Shannen Doherty. It was Don Bluth’s animated feature film directorial debut.
The Secret of NIMH creates a rich world with a thrilling heroine at its core, and while it isn’t as underappreciated as many listed here (it received generally positive reviews, did well at the box office, and won a few film awards), four decades later, the film has kind of been forgotten. MGM attempted a film remake back in 2015, but now one is in the works as a TV series for Fox. So, there may be a renewed interest soon in Mrs. Frisby and The Secret of NIMH.
Rock-A Doodle (1991)
It appears that the '90s was full of animated films that start in live-action and then become animated, because Rock-A-Doodle is yet another. It's about a singing rooster named Chanticleer (Glen Campbell), the boy turned cat who seeks him out, Edmond (Toby Scott Ganger), and their farm animal friends.
How can you not love a rooster who sings? Rock-A-Doodle has plenty of great songs and a unique, but fun concept. 30 years later, and Edmond constantly yelling "Chanticleer!" is forever etched in my memory.
Bebe’s Kids (1992)
To impress his new girlfriend, Jamika (Vanessa Bell Calloway), Robin (Faizon Love) agrees to take her, her son, and her friend Bebe’s kids to an amusement park. Bebe’s kids are terrors and find themselves in one troublesome situation after another.
Bebe’s Kids is a cult classic. People who know the film love it, and is known as one of the great animated movies or TV shows centered on black characters. However, the film is just great for anyone who wants to watch a hilarious animated comedy. It has so many funny one-liners, hilarious voice-overs, catchy-funny songs, and memorable characters.
Thumbelina is another Don Bluth film on the list. It follows tiny Thumbelina (Jodi Benson), who finally meets her soulmate, only to be kidnapped and almost forced into marriage to a toad she doesn’t love. Thumbelina’s voice cast includes Gary Imhoff, Gilbert Gottfried, Carol Channing, John Hurt, and Charo.
Thumbelina is one of the craziest animated films of the ‘90s, but that’s what adds to its charm. It’s strange but full of magic, whimsy, and great songs.
Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind (1984)
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where a Toxic Jungle is full of seemingly dangerous insects. Princess Nausicaa (voiced in English by Alison Lohman) hopes to create a better world for humans and insects. The English voice-over cast of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind also includes Patrick Stewart, Shia LaBeouf, and Uma Thurman. The film is directed by Hayao Miyazaki, and though created before Studio Ghibli, it is often associated with it.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is a beloved animated film and is considered one of the best Japanese animated films by many. However, in the United States, it’s lesser-known than many of Hayao Miyazaki's other films, at least by the casual movie fan.
The Swan Princess (1994)
Princess Odette (Michelle Nicastro) has been cursed to turn into a swan most of her days. She can only turn into her true form, a human, in very specific situations. The Swan Princess is based on Swan Lake and directed by Richard Rich.
Over time, The Swan Princess has become a very popular animated film among those who watched the VHS or repeat airings as a child. However, when people mention animated princesses or fairy tales, they rarely speak of Princess Odette and The Swan Princess, which is a shame, because the film is one of the few where the Prince must prove himself worthy of the princess.
An American Tail (1986)
Don Bluth directed An American Tail, a movie about a mouse named Fievel (Philip Glasser) and his family who migrate to America from Russia. Fievel ends up separated from his family and must take a journey to reunite with them.
An American Tail was a box office success and has a pretty faithful fan base, but I consider it underrated because it is not as well-known as some other heartwarming similar films, such as Annie, Finding Nemo, and Oliver and Company. It’s definitely one of the better known films on this list, but An American Tail could always use a little more attention.
The ‘80s and ‘90s are full of highly adored animated films, so you’ve likely heard of at least a few of these movies, but maybe there’ll be a couple of underrated ‘80s and ‘90s animated movies from this list that you can add to your next streaming movie binge.
Spent most of my life in various parts of Illinois, including attending college in Evanston. I have been a life long lover of pop culture, especially television, turned that passion into writing about all things entertainment related. When I'm not writing about pop culture, I can be found channeling Gordon Ramsay by kicking people out the kitchen.
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