Disney’s Most Magical Films

Disney’s most beloved films are renowned for the magic on screen , as well as the inspirations they provide in real life. We look at the twenty most highly rated Disney movies to determine which one is the most “magical”.

There are times when a movie just comes together perfectly to create something truly immersive, engrossing, and endlessly entertaining. Think of Spielberg’s most popular films, that excitement you feel when watching the newest Fast & Furious movie, singing along with the stars of The Wizard of Oz, or the tears of joy you cry when witnessing the greatest Pixar triumphs. These are all examples of the magic of the movies. The zenith of when good storytelling meets spectacular creativity, and dedicated filmmaking. 

Disney has been bringing magic to the big screen for more than 80 years. But with the most beloved Disney movies, the magic isn’t just the experience of watching them. Disney movies are often all about magic. They are fairy tales told anew. They are the creations of the imagination come alive in a brilliant display of artistry and color. They are wild fantasies which have enlightened the childhoods of countless generations. 

But which Disney movie is the most magical of them all? To find out, I looked at the list of the 20 highest rated Disney movies on Rotten Tomatoes, and then ranked them based on their on-screen and off-screen magic. On-screen magic is a representative of how much the story and the characters are indebted to magic or the use thereof. Films with stories more firmly placed in reality will score lower than those which require magic to make them happen. Off-screen magic is the film’s legacy. How popular is it today? How well did it do at the box office? Does it still ring true today compared with the day it was released? 

Of course, all of these ratings/rankings are subjective. I tried to be as even as possible, not letting my own preferences influence my ratings. I also only considered standard Disney releases, either traditionally animated, computer animated, or live action – but no Pixar films. Without further delay, here’s what I came up with: 

#20 Lady and the Tramp (1955)

On Screen Magic: Like most Disney films, it features animals who can talk and who act like humans. That is magical compared to reality, but otherwise the rest of the plot does not require magic to be believable. 1/10

Off Screen Magic: When it came out, this film was not well loved by audiences or critics. The spaghetti-eating scene is really the only thing it has going for it, and I feel like that scene alone has allowed it to become more popular as time has gone by. Compared to the other highly-rated classics on this list, it does seem a little mundane. 5/10

Magic Number: 3.0

#19 Old Yeller (1957)

On Screen Magic: One of the few very movies on this list that is going for historical realism more than being imaginative as possible. It’s based on the popular book everyone loves, but is notorious for its sad sad ending. I’m ranking this a zero in the magic department because it simply doesn’t have any. 0/10

Off Screen Magic: On the other hand, there is a reason this movie has 100% on rotten tomatoes. It’s not exactly a movie you think of when you picture the greatest movies ever made, but it has engrained itself in pop culture for being one of the most emotional films ever made. It teaches a valuable lesson and is an apt adaptation of a classic American novel. I’ll give it 7/10. 

Magic Number: 3.5

#18 Zootopia (2016)

On Screen Magic: More talking animals, this time a whole city full of them. Besides that familiar element, there isn’t really any other magic to speak of. 1/10

Off Screen Magic: Earns points for being a successful computer-animated Disney film that isn’t a Pixar film. The film really comes together as a creative and emotional adventure, although the basis of the young-police-detective-trying-to-prove-herself plot doesn’t really seem that new. But otherwise, a fine example of a modern Disney film. 7/10

Magic Number: 4.0

#17 The Muppets (2011)

On Screen Magic: In the world of the Muppets, the furry little puppet creatures are just like you and me. So, I guess there is some magic involved in making that happen. But besides the foundation, there isn’t a lot of other magic going on here. 2/10

Off Screen Magic: Look at some of the other titles on this list and The Muppets may not seem to belong. Yet this movie is more highly rated than any of the other Muppet films, and has out-grossed (with adjustments) all of the other Muppet movies except for the original. As the seventh film in the franchise, it also says something about the appeal of the Muppets across the generations. Kids (and adults) today are just as entertained by them as they were in the 70’s. 8/10

Magic Number: 5.0

#16 101 Dalmatians (1961)

On Screen Magic: Like Lady and the Tramp, it features talking pets who act like humans but the plot is mostly realistic. I say mostly because having so many puppies could only happen in the movies. 2/10

Off Screen Magic: Unlike Lady and the Tramp, this film was a hit with audiences and critics upon release, and hasn’t been forgotten since. It was applauded as a return to form for Disney after having a string of movies not live up to expectations. It also gave us one of the most memorable antagonists in all of film. 8/10

Magic Number: 5.0

#15 The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)

On Screen Magic: Winnie-the-Pooh and the other characters of the film (based on autor A.A. Milne’s short stories) are basically children’s toys come alive. Pooh’s best friend is the child who is essentially playing with his toys. So, this film is really all about the imagination. I think that counts as being magical. 5/10

Off Screen Magic: The movie is really just a combination of three short films Disney had produced earlier. It wasn’t exactly a smash success when it was released, but the film is looked back upon fondly and Disney’s version of Winnie-the-Pooh remains one of the company’s most treasured characters. 6/10

Magic Number: 5.5

#14 The Lion King (1994)

On Screen Magic: Features animals who can talk. So, it’s not that special in terms of magic, especially because the plot doesn’t have many other moments that require magic, the exception being when Simba encounters Mufasa’s spirit. 3/10

Off Screen Magic: While the story itself may not have much magic, the film itself is very magical. Not only did it establish the reemergence of Disney animation during the 90’s (and was Disney’s highest-grossing film ever at the time), but it has endured to become many people’s favorite Disney films. The way the animation comes together in vivid color to depict real life is simply breathtaking, and of course the music is unforgettable. 10/10

Magic Number: 6.5

#13 Dumbo (1941)

On Screen Magic: A movie about a flying elephant that can talk. Sounds pretty magical to me. 7/10

Off Screen Magic: After the expensive Fantasia, Disney was just trying to make money. Dumbo was short and sweet and could have just gone down in history as a run-of-the-mill Disney film. But it didn’t. Not only was it incredibly popular (and profitable) upon release, it is a film that has stood the test of time. There are some controversial elements of the movie, but you can’t argue that it did not transcend its original intended purpose. 7/10

Magic Number: 7.0

#12 Moana (2016)

On Screen Magic: For Moana, Disney mixed the type of magic found in their most classic films with the folklore and legends of Polynesian culture. Full of animals acting human, tattoos that move, demigods, and forces of nature rendered as characters, the film is full of all sorts of magical elements, and not just the traditional kind we are used to seeing in Disney films. 8/10

Off Screen Magic: Moana was a rare 3D Disney release in the era of Pixar. That the film resonated with audiences further helps its case. But in terms of classic Disney films, this isn’t what comes to mind first. That’s the only negative thing I have to say about it – a decade now that perspective could change. 6/10

Magic Number: 7.0

#11 The Little Mermaid (1989)

On Screen Magic: Another adaptation of a fairy tale – this one has mermaids, talking animals, sea witches, and magical spells. From the title you know it is heavy on the magic. 8/10

Off Screen Magic: This is the film that brought Disney animation back to relevance. In the 70’s and 80’s, a string of not well received animated features caused Disney to lose some of the luster it had created from its success in the 40’s and 50’s. The Little Mermaid may pale in comparison to some of the films which came immediately after, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a big deal. 7/10

Magic Number: 7.5

#10 Fantasia (1940)

On-Screen Magic: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice section is quite literally all about the magic, and stands as one of Disney’s most spellbinding and memorable animated moments. While the rest of the film doesn’t quite have as much magic, it is still very artistic and enjoyable. 9/10

Off-Screen Magic: Fantasia was a more experimental release by Disney, a perfect marriage of animation and classical music. It doesn’t have a singular plot, which means we remember this film for its sensory impact more so than the story it tells. Because of this, it isn’t really as popular as some of Disney’s other earlier animated features, but it has still stood the test of time as an impressive accomplishment. 4/10

Magic Number: 7.5

#9 Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

On Screen Magic: Transporting real people into the animated world, and vice versa does take a lot of magic. And Disney is really the company to do it best. It doesn’t get a 10 because it isn’t what comes to mind when you think of “traditional” Disney fairytales, but it is still plenty magical. 9/10

Off Screen Magic: The film is more than just a special effects gimmick. It’s a technological tour of force painstakingly brought to life by people who are truly committed to their art. Audiences loved it and we still can’t stop talking about it today, 30 years later. Maybe not as popular or what comes to mind when you think of classic Disney, but good nonetheless. 7/10

Magic Number: 8.0

#8 The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

On Screen Magic: The film is all about fantasy, and so it is completely reliant on magic. The setting, the characters, the plot – all of it are magical creations. The film also relies on the magic of the holidays – the cheer of celebration for Halloween and Christmas. 10/10

Off Screen Magic: The film is the marriage of Disney and Tim Burton, both of which who know a lot about magic on and off screen. The film was an experimental gamble by Disney to try new animation techniques, although  there was concern that the darker subject matter would not appeal to kids. The film was a success at the box office, and has since become a cult classic. 7/10

Magic Number: 8.5

#7 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

On Screen Magic: Two words: Magic Mirror. 9/10

Off Screen Magic: The first Disney animated film. The first cel-animated feature film ever made. This one put Disney on the map. Audiences at the time ate it up. Today we still watch it. A classic film we will never forget. 9/10

Magic Number: 9.0

#6 Aladdin (1992)

On Screen Magic: Let’s see…a Cave of Wonders, a magic carpet, illusions, disguises, and oh yeah…a wish-granting Genie! This one’s got lots of magic to spread around. It just isn’t all-magic all the time.  8/10

Off Screen Magic: Aladdin was an important part of Disney’s resurgence in the early 90’s. The film became the highest-grossing of the year, and the brilliant animation and fun story make it one of the most popular. 10/10

Magic Number: 9.0

#5 Frozen (2013)

On Screen Magic: Inspired by another Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, Frozen brings the magic of the winter to the big screen in a brilliantly creative 3D animation. The character Elsa finds that she has magical powers, but the film also features trolls, and a snowman that comes alive. 8/10

Off Screen Magic: Frozen was a huge hit for Disney. Not only was it a rare non-Pixar 3D animation from the company, but it became the 3rd highest-grossing Disney film of all time. One thing that stood out about Frozen was its music. Both kids and adults resonated well to the songs sung by the characters, which made the film hard to forget. 10/10

Magic Number: 9.0

#4 Beauty and the Beast (1991)

On Screen Magic: An enchantress turns a prince into a beast, and turns all of his servants into household items which can talk and move. The only way he can break the curse is finding someone to love and who loves him back, before the magical rose loses its last leaf. The entire premise is dependent on magic, which persists the entire length of the film. 10/10

Off Screen Magic: Disney’s retelling of a classic French fairy tale may not be the only version to ever grace our movie or TV screens, but it is the version we most associate with the tale. It got nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, winning two other awards. It was Disney’s most successful film to date. 10/10

Magic Number: 10

#3 Pinocchio (1940)

On Screen Magic: A woodworker wishes his creation could come alive, and it happens thanks to a fairy. So, the entire premise of the film revolves around magic, and the implications thereof. 10/10

Off Screen Magic: Pinocchio was not a success at the box office, and was not unanimously loved at the time of its release. However, that has changed over time. Today, many people now laude the film as Disney’s finest. 10/10

Magic Number: 10 

#2 Mary Poppins (1964)

On Screen Magic: Singing, dancing, a marriage of animation and cheery live-action. The titular character is a magical nanny. This one is great because of all the magic. 10/10

Off Screen Magic: One of Disney’s most beloved live-action films, as shown by the recent sequel made more than 50 years later. That shows you the staying power of the character and how well the original movie resonates still with both kids and adults. The movie was a hit in theaters and its brilliance was recognized from day 1. 10/10

Magic Number: 10

#1 Cinderella (1950)

On Screen Magic: Fairy Godmother, a pumpkin that becomes a carriage, animals become servants, and that glass slipper. This is Disney bringing a fairytale to life, and it required a lot of magic to do so. 10/10

Off Screen Magic: This film literally saved Disney after a string of successful films before and during WWII. The film’s castle became the centerpiece of Disney’s theme parks, and the logo animation. It was the first Disney animated feature to have involvement of all 9 of Disney’s “Old Men” animators, it received three Oscar nominations, and is still watched by children today. What other 70 year-old movies can say the same? 10/10

Magic Number: 10