The best movies on Disney+

Clockwise from top right: Cool Runnings (Photo: Disney); The Muppet Movie (Screengrab: Disney+); The Last Jedi (Screengrab: YouTube); The Rocketeer (Screengrab: Disney+); Waking Sleeping Beauty (Still: Disney); Return to Oz (Screengrab: Disney+); Wall-E (Still: Disney)
Clockwise from top right: Cool Runnings (Photo: Disney); The Muppet Movie (Screengrab: Disney+); The Last Jedi (Screengrab: YouTube); The Rocketeer (Screengrab: Disney+); Waking Sleeping Beauty (Still: Disney); Return to Oz (Screengrab: Disney+); Wall-E (Still: Disney)

Streaming libraries expand and contract. Algorithms are imperfect. Those damn thumbnail images are always changing. But you know what you can always rely on? The expert opinions and knowledgeable commentary of The A.V. Club. That’s why we’re scouring both the menus of the most popular services and our own archives to bring you these guides to the best viewing options, broken down by streamer, medium, and genre. Want to know why we’re so keen on a particular title? Click the movie title at the top of each slide for some in-depth coverage from The A.V. Club’s past. And be sure to check back often, because we’ll be adding more recommendations as films come and go.

There are plenty of great classic films available as part of your Disney+ subscription, but this list is compiled of movies that were actually reviewed or otherwise lauded on The A.V. Club over the years. That means some classics that we reviewed when released on DVD—like Sleeping Beauty or Snow White—are included while others like The Lion King are not. (We’re talking about the 1994 animated version. We reviewed the remake, and it wasn’t making it on this list.)

Looking for other movies to stream? Also check out our list of the best movies on Netflix, best movies on Hulu, and best movies on Amazon Prime. And for more family-friendly content, take a look at The A.V. Club’s Field Guide To Parenting.

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10 Things I Hate About You

If 10 Things I Hate About You isn’t quite as perfect as Clueless, it’s certainly the best of the 1999 teen romantic comedies. And it holds the distinction of being the year’s thinking person’s teen rom-com, largely thanks to the unconventional choice of its two romantic leads. Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger are weightier, more thoughtful actors than usually get cast in these kinds of roles. (The other people up for the Ledger part were Josh Harnett and Ashton Kutcher, charming actors who would’ve made this a very different movie.) Stiles and Ledger were both unknowns, and 10 Things was Ledger’s first American movie. Their naturalistic performances lend the otherwise fairly heightened film a realism akin to later, more grounded teen films like The Spectacular Now and The Edge Of Seventeen. That’s best exemplified by Stiles’ heart wrenching delivery of the poem that gives the film its title, which solidified her as an iconic talent for a microgeneration of teen fans. [Caroline Siede]

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20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

The fullness of classic Disney adventure films still makes other movies about sweaty men in exotic locales look weak. Leagues has only the faintest aroma of “art,” but the odd nods toward maturity are enough to counteract such concessions to broad commerciality as Kirk Douglas’ pet seal, or his incessant singing of the maddening “A Whale Of A Tail.” The action lets up frequently for amazing undersea footage–most impressively, an extended hunting and farming expedition–and for explorations of character that reveal James Mason’s complex sense of morality and Douglas’ dangerous loutishness. Most vitally, the filmmakers never let the audience lose track of how cool it would be to cruise the bottom of the ocean in an elegantly appointed super-boat. The secret of good escapist fare, as Disney’s crew knew, is giving the audience someplace remarkable to escape to. [Noel Murray]

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Ant-Man

Though partly overshadowed by the very public departure of original director Edgar Wright, Ant-Man stands apart from the rest of the Marvel pack simply by being small. A sci-fi caper movie about an inventor who drafts a thief to steal a knockoff of his shrinking technology before it falls into the wrong hands, it feels a world away from the cross-cut planetary peril climaxes that have become the studio’s default mode. Even its humor—usually seen as one of the stronger points of the Marvel house style—is different. Though some viewers may find themselves playing spot-the-author with the patchy script (e.g., a fight scene gag involving The Cure’s Disintegration, which smacks of Wright), it still makes for an enjoyable, intermittently inspired effects-driven comedy and a welcome antidote to the over-burdened world-saving that seems to define big-screen superhero stories. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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Around The World In 80 Days

Part travelogue, part slapstick comedy, and part action extravaganza, Around The World In 80 Days benefits from a likable tone and a quaint, refreshing optimism about the possibilities of progress, science, and technology. Steve Coogan seems intent on single-handedly dragging the British Empire into the 20th century, and the film is sunny and boyishly exuberant enough to suggest that that’s entirely for the best. Around The World finds a winning formula: Jackie Chan provides the action, various exotic lands serve up props begging to be employed in Chan-style combat, Coogan brings the dry wit, a minor constellation of surprise guest stars provides razzle-dazzle, and a steady stream of mild chuckles helps the whole fandango fly by painlessly. [Nathan Rabin]

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The Avengers

Since making an Avengers movie requires lining up so many moving pieces in an orderly row, it’s something of an accomplishment that The Avengers even exists. But beyond that logistical nightmare is the double agenda the film has to serve, advancing the stories of the individual characters as begun in previous films while telling a coherent, self-contained story. Factor in another wave of Marvel movies and an inevitable sequel, and that agenda gets even more complicated. All of which raises the question: Is there room for any movie within this Avengers movie? Decidedly, yes. [Keith Phipps]

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Bambi

The first thing everyone remembers about Walt Disney’s 1942 animated classic Bambi is that Bambi’s mom gets shot, traumatizing generations of America’s youth, from Baby Boomers to the present. And yes, the moment is still shocking, even though it happens offscreen and the body is never seen again. Yet Disney showed a willingness to go to dark places in his previous films—the “Pleasure Island” sequence in Pinocchio, the elephant’s alcohol-fueled hallucinations in Dumbo—and since Bambi is fundamentally about life, it must also include the reality of death. The studio revisited the same territory half a century later with The Lion King, but the differences between the two films are stark: Unfolding with minimal dialogue, Bambi doesn’t need to explain away its themes with a “Circle Of Life” production number. It simply illustrates them with a quiet, subtle, and ultimately reassuring touch. [Scott Tobias]

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Beauty And The Beast

Just one film occupies the peak of Disney’s Renaissance period, proving so brilliant and influential that the studio has tried and failed over the last 25 years to replicate its power: Beauty And The Beast. The film stands apart from Disney’s other modern hits, as well as those from its sister company, Pixar, and its animation-studio competitors. It’s the first animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. (Up and Toy Story 3 have since gotten the nod, but only when the field of nominees was doubled to 10.) It’s the first Disney film used as the foundation for a Broadway musical. And at the time, it was Disney’s most financially successful animated film. Creatively, Beauty And The Beast is the apotheosis of everything Walt Disney Animation Studios made in between its first Golden Age (ending with Bambi) and the present. [Josh Spiegel]

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Bedknobs And Broomsticks

Sure, Bedknobs And Broomsticks is a kid-lit fantasy adaptation that casts a titan of musical theater as a magical caregiver improving the lives of British moppets. And yes, the film takes place in a bygone era of Old Blighty, blends live-action with animation, boasts a supporting turn from David Tomlinson, and is packed to its colorful cartoon gills with sticky compositions from the Sherman Brothers and Irwin Kostal. But it’d be a mistake to dismiss Bedknobs And Broomsticks as a pretender to Mary Poppins: First and foremost, the kids are orphans this time around—“three cockney waifs” as the trailer voiceover booms. But Bedknobs And Broomsticks is also unencumbered by the Best Picture-courting import of its more prestigious predecessor, possessing a ramshackle charm embodied by Lansbury’s apprentice witch, Tomlinson’s street-corner charlatan, and the practical-effect regiment of antiquated armor and weaponry they sic on invading Nazi forces. Add a splash of Main Street Electrical Parade psychedelia, and Bedknobs And Broomsticks makes for an absolute hoot from a transitional era for Disney. [Erik Adams]

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Black Panther

It took a decade and 18 films, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe finally produced a superhero movie that feels like it was ripped from the pages of a comic book. Ditching the MCU’s familiar roster of heroes (they don’t get as much as a mention) along with many of the basics of the Marvel film formula, Ryan Coogler turned Black Panther into a highly personal crowd-pleaser in the vein of his previous film, the Rocky sequel Creed, but with all the idiosyncrasies and intrigues afforded by its main setting, the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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Bolt

When Disney disbanded its cel-animation unit and went full CGI, its feature cartoons—Chicken Little, The Wild, Meet The Robinsons—began to seem painfully calculated and pandering, more an attempt to catch up with the burgeoning kid-film market than to lead it. Bolt was the studio’s first film since Lilo & Stitch that felt like it was trying to recapture the old Disney instead of aggressively shedding it in favor of something slick and new. And yet it comes with a healthy cutting-edge Pixar flavor as well. It’s tempting to lay both aspects firmly at the feet of John Lasseter, the Pixar honcho who became Disney Animation’s chief creative officer when Disney bought Pixar; in spite of its mostly animal protagonists, Bolt has a humanity rarely seen in the CGI world outside of Pixar’s features. [Tasha Roberston]

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A Bug’s Life

Like Toy Story, Pixar’s previous computer-animated outing, A Bug’s Life is both an extraordinary technical achievement and a notable artistic accomplishment. Though deliberately vague as a political allegory—the oppressive grasshoppers could represent Stalinists, fascists, or cutthroat capitalists—A Bug’s Life is still smashing family entertainment: The whole thing is quick-witted, fast-paced, and loaded with clever sight gags and colorful, engaging supporting characters. [Nathan Rabin]

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Captain America: The First Avenger

More than any Marvel Studios film since Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger feels like it’s working from a conceptual checklist titled How To Make A Superhero Movie Fun For Everyone. For mainstream viewers, there are big action sequences, a heady battle montage, a ’40s setting featuring über-Nazis with glowing laser-guns, and plenty of well-timed one-liners. For the hardcore comic-book fans, there’s the Wilhelm scream, the Stan Lee cameo, the Marvel-history inside jokes, and a self-aware humor that even includes a wry dig at Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Just so everyone feels included, the eponymous hero has a competent multicultural support team and a kick-ass love interest who never needs to be rescued. And to cover even more bases, director Joe Johnston reaches past all the modern meta humor to inject the film with the cheery gosh-wow sincerity he brought to The Rocketeer. The roster of crowd-pleasing elements seems dubiously calculated and ambitiously lengthy, but ultimately, that’s no strike against the film, which follows Iron Man’s lead in obscuring the calculation behind outsized, gleeful fun. [Tasha Robinson]

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Captain America: Civil War

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has a villain problem. With a few blessed exceptions—Tom Hiddleston’s arrogant trickster god Loki; the ex-boyfriend-from-hell played by David Tennant on Jessica Jones—its bad guys aren’t half as interesting as its good guys. That’s true, mostly, of the sneering Machiavellian schemer Daniel Brühl portrays in Captain America: Civil War, who’s about as unmemorable as the usual intergalactic conqueror or corporate scumbag making life tough for Earth’s mightiest heroes. But the film’s hook, its big conceptual draw, is that it doesn’t really need a heavy at all: In this long but brightly entertaining return trip to the ever-expanding MCU, star-spangled do-gooder Captain America (Chris Evans) and playboy flyboy Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) find themselves on opposite sides of a conflict, their typically testy rapport flowering into a full-on showdown. The studio solves its villain problem by basically removing the villain from the equation. [A.A. Dowd]

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

In this spectacularly entertaining sequel, Rogers is still running, jumping, and chucking his mighty shield like it’s 1945. But now he’s doing so with the weariness and distrust of historical hindsight. Briefed on what the homeland was up to during his six decades on ice, the Captain has become a disillusioned company man, unafraid to question the government bigwigs handing him his marching orders. The Winter Soldier unfolds in a post-Watergate, post-9/11 political climate, one in which crimes are stopped before they happen, someone is always listening, and automated death comes from above. (Add the film to a growing list of tentpole fantasies—Oblivion, Man Of Steel, the Robocop remake—to take metaphoric potshots at drone warfare.) [A.A. Dowd]

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Coco

At a glance, this musical fantasy of departed family members peering back on our world seems like an oversweet interpretation of Pixar’s sentimental themes, not to mention the perfectionist animation studio’s preoccupation with memory. (See: Inside Out, Finding Dory.) But Coco teaches a salient point: In the dead, we see ourselves. Their world bears more than a passing resemblance to ours—and to the plight of families separated by borders—because our anxieties about death mirror our worries about own lives. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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Cool Runnings

Unlike its more kid-centric counterparts, Cool Runnings reached out to children not through characters they could initially relate to, but through the emotions being expressed. Brenner, the film’s stoic straight man, is the first to confront the film’s sobering life lessons when he learns that the dream home he’s long pined for is, in fact, Buckingham Palace. It’s a foregone conclusion that what he’s aspired to for the bulk of his adult life is forever out of reach. Perhaps this element of darkness has helped Cool Runnings overcome the limitations of the genre, destroying some of its inherent sentimentality. It certainly didn’t hurt the film’s commercial appeal: Despite its deviation from the crowd-pleasing formula, Cool Runnings was the most successful of Disney’s ’90s sports movies, raking in $154 million at the box-office and recouping its budget 11 times over. [David Anthony]

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Doctor Strange

There’s never been anything particularly special about the special effects in the Marvel movies. For all the money and resources the studio dumps into its whiz-bang showdowns, these are still superhero extravaganzas that put more stock in quips than spectacle; “cool enough” is about the highest praise one can usually lavish upon their elaborate climaxes, even when they feature a rampaging rage-monster, dueling deities, or a fleet of flying battle drones. But Doctor Strange is different. The 14th installment in the ever-expanding MCU is the first to really exploit the possibilities of CGI—to use state-of-the-art technology to its full, jaw-dropping advantage. “Cool enough” doesn’t do justice to this blockbuster’s city- and reality-bending set pieces. “Awe-inspiring” is closer. [A.A. Dowd]

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The Emperor’s New Groove

David Spade and John Goodman make a terrific comic team, with the former’s barbed delivery nicely complementing the latter’s easygoing charm. They’re joined by another well-cast pair—Eartha Kitt as a cronelike villainess and Patrick Warburton (Seinfeld’s Puddy) as her dull-witted henchman—but The Emperor’s New Groove’s greatest strength comes from its willingness to think outside formula. By limiting the songs to a jokey opening number sung by Tom Jones and the obligatory closing-credits ballad, Groove gains more room for a wide variety of well-crafted gags. Willing to be unabashedly cartoonish, verbally witty, and, rare for animation, periodically silent, The Emperor’s New Groove, whatever its origins, is one of the most enjoyable animated comedies this side of the Toy Story films. [Keith Phipps]

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Fantasia 2000

Shot for IMAX (with a conventional theatrical run planned), Fantasia 2000 combines seven new animated sequences with seven new classical pieces, with the beloved “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” the sole remnant of the old Fantasia. Yet the animators seem to have taken great care to recall Disney’s classic style of animation: Though Fantasia 2000 is loaded with computer imagery, the flashy stuff is nicely integrated into more conventional scenery. And, at 75 minutes, Fantasia 2000 is short enough to captivate the kids and mature enough to draw in adults, making it one of Disney’s more successful stabs at universal entertainment. [Joshua Klein]

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Finding Nemo

The poster for Finding Nemo references the “3.7 trillion fish” in the ocean, then, in fine print, suggests that the number might be a conservative estimate. Whatever the true tally is, Finding Nemo gives the sense that if it weren’t limited by its borders, it would eventually reveal them all. Like Pixar’s previous films, Finding Nemo mines humor from the oddities of an unknown world but stays grounded in a familiar one, finding recognizable elements of heartbreak and happiness amid the ink-jetting octopi and irritable flounders. [Keith Phipps]

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Flight Of The Navigator

Although it hits terminal cuteness sometime around the two-thirds mark—i.e., pretty much the moment a pseudonymous Paul Reubens arrives as the voice of a sentient spaceship who laughs way too much—the first hour or so of Disney’s attempt to cash in on the E.T. craze is remarkably bracing stuff. What’s most shocking about Flight Of The Navigator, to modern eyes, is what a slow, subtle burn it is; though director Randal Kleiser fills the movie’s opening act with tongue-in-cheek references to flying saucers and people staring up in wonder at the skies, the actual abduction that drives its plot takes place in the span of a single, barely noticeable cut. The upshot of all this misdirection is that the audience ends up just as scared and disoriented as poor David Freeman (Joey Cramer), who falls into a ravine near his Florida home one night, and somehow emerges eight years later, untouched by the ravages of time, and with a mysterious extraterrestrial voice yelling in his head. It’s actually a bit of a letdown once the movie gets to the kid-flies-a-spaceship parts that are ostensibly its reason for existing; it’s a better mystery movie than an action-adventure, no matter how many times Reubens does the Pee-wee Herman laugh. [William Hughes]

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Freaky Friday

Before Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis switched bodies, before even Tom Hanks became Big and Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage went Vice Versa, there was Jodie Foster in the original body-swapping romp, 1976’s Freaky Friday. Foster’s Annabelle is the coolest of cool kids, sporting a shag haircut and a puka shell necklace as she traverses her neighborhood on her skateboard, rebelling against her strict mother in the process. But then Annabelle becomes her mother, and her mother becomes Annabelle, and future Oscar-winner Foster and Second City alum Barbara Harris usher in the age of body-swap movies by taking on each other’s personalities. Foster asking her pal, “Could I trouble you for a dime, dear?” is comedy gold, as is Harris blowing bubble gum and heading out on that skateboard. Naturally, everything ends up with a car driving down stairs and a wild water-skiing stunt, because this is a 1970s Disney movie. But the two Golden Globe-nominated leads end up expertly delivering the true message of Freaky Friday: Nobody’s life is as easy as it looks from the outside. [Gwen Ihnat]

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Frozen

It’s not often that Disney Animation outdoes the storytellers at Pixar. But the parent studio has much more experience with lead female characters, and a modern take on female independence is the best aspect here, especially when judged against the reductive princess fantasies in the Mouse House vault. Frozen does for sisterly relationships what Brave should have done for mothers and daughters—and the frigid distance and lopsided maturity helps the sibling bond feel more like a maternal one. Rebuking the simplistic romantic tropes of its fairy-tale predecessors, Frozen isn’t quite as accomplished as The Princess And The Frog, Wreck-It Ralph, or Tangled. But in its simple pleasures, it’s every bit as enjoyable as Winnie The Pooh, with a strong and valuable moral undercurrent to boot. Most importantly, this is a long-needed step in the right direction to a more varied depiction of female characters in Disney’s canon. [Kevin McFarland]

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The Great Muppet Caper

Within Hollywood’s greatest trilogies, the second film is always the best. So it goes with The Empire Strikes Back and Star Wars, The Two Towers and Lord Of The Rings, and 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper and the first three Muppet movies. With The Empire Strikes Back and The Two Towers, that’s just a symptom of a second act of a story traditionally being more engrossing than its opening passages or its resolution. The Great Muppet Caper succeeds by following a different rule of film sequels: Go bigger. Its predecessor, The Muppet Movie, wowed moviegoers by putting Kermit The Frog on a bike, so The Great Muppet Caper put an entire felt-and-fur ensemble on wheels. As an encore to the feats of contortion that allowed Fozzie Bear to drive a Studebaker in The Muppet Movie, Frank Oz submerged himself for hours in order to give Miss Piggy her Esther Williams moment in The Great Muppet Caper. But it’s not all empty showmanship from Oz, Jim Henson, and company: All the spectacle of the sequel is in service of paying tribute to the magic of the silver screen. [Erik Adams]

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Hocus Pocus

Hocus Pocus’ plot is just the binding agent for the real attractions of the film—an animatronic talking black cat, a charming zombie ex-boyfriend, and a trio of singing witches (Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker) who are blatantly copping the aesthetic and comedic patter of drag queens. Hocus Pocus stands out from a host of other films from that era because it embraces its silliness, and then goes the extra mile to make sure that silliness is executed well. It’s a film made purely for entertainment value, without extra fat or pretension. That’s why it has lingered in the hearts of audiences, even when simple nostalgia has faded away. [Sonia Saraiya]

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Home On The Range

Like the underrated The Emperor’s New Groove, Home On The Range shares many of the virtues associated with classic Warner Bros. animation: manic energy, inspired characters and character design, a smart script equally pitched at squirmy children and parents, and deftly executed verbal and physical comedy. Perfectly cast down to minor but memorable roles like Joe Flaherty’s ornery old goat and Steve Buscemi’s wormy crook, Home On The Range is the rare animated movie whose success is attributable as much to its inventive, quotable dialogue as its kinetic, cartoony animation. It may seem heretical to suggest this of the studio that brought the world the emotionally stirring likes of Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi, but maybe Disney should just stick to comedy. [Nathan Rabin]

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The Hunchback Of Notre Dame

A remarkably faithful adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic 1831 novel about a lovable, golden-voiced hunchback and his trio of zany, wise-cracking gargoyle sidekicks, The Hunchback of Notre Dame should please both Disney fans and 19th century French romanticists alike. The plot: Deformed hunchback Quasimodo is trapped in the belltower by the evil Judge Frollo. Leggy gypsy Esmeralda must seek refuge in the belltower after lashing out against Frollo during the Feast of Fools. Together, Quasimodo and Esmeralda share many exciting adventures and sing many wonderful songs from the award-winning musical team of Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. [Stephen Thompson]

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The Incredibles

With The Incredibles, an endlessly clever riff on superhero tropes, Pixar furthers a tradition of personal, character-driven storytelling that has the speed of a Warner Bros. cartoon, but doesn’t rely too heavily on verbal gags to hang together. Written and directed by Brad Bird, who also contributes the funniest vocal performance as an artsy designer for the cape-wearing set, the film expands the possibilities of what computer animation can accomplish. But for all the artisans involved in putting it together, The Incredibles doesn’t feel machine-processed: Like Bird’s superb The Iron Giant or the films of Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), it rings with the small, idiosyncratic touches of a single auteur. [Scott Tobias]

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Inside Out

Inside Out takes place almost entirely within the mind of a preteen girl, where five personified emotions struggle to guide her through a life crisis. Bucking the company mandate of churning out lesser sequels and prequels, it’s not just a brilliant idea, but maybe the most conceptually daring movie the Bay Area animation house has ever produced. And that’s really saying something, what with WALL-E on the books. [A.A. Dowd]

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Iron Man

Comic-book-to-film franchise starters often sag under the weight of creation stories, establishing conflict between the super-heroic and super-villainous and introducing a roster of iconic characters familiar to comics geeks but unknown to the general movie-going public. That’s an awful lot of exposition for any one film to handle. Jon Favreau’s Iron Man wrestles with those responsibilities as well as a relatively unique conundrum: How do you make audiences care about a character whose face is hidden under a metallic scowl? The Iron Man filmmakers’ answer is to cast Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role and keep him out of the Iron Man suit for as long as possible. Iron Man is the rare comic-book movie that makes the prospect of a sequel seem like a promise instead of a threat. [Nathan Rabin]

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John Carter

Forget how much Walt Disney’s adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel series cost, and forget the (relatively) disappointing box-office. Director Andrew Stanton and his team of screenwriters and special-effects technicians made a highly entertaining retro-adventure, true to Burroughs’ epic vision of a Civil War soldier who fights monsters on Mars. Sure, star Taylor Kitsch comes up short whenever he has to bring a little gravitas to the story of war and romance, but he’s charismatic in the many light-hearted moments, and from Stanton’s years at Pixar (where he helmed Finding Nemo and Wall-E), he’s learned how to build stories and characters carefully, and to fill the screen with images that delight the eye. [Noel Murray]

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Lady And The Tramp

Lady And The Tramp is the rare Disney film more interested in reality than fantasy. Sure, it involves an imagined world of talking dogs, but they reflect and refract the film’s 1909 Midwestern setting. Many of the creators who worked on the project—including Walt Disney himself—grew up around that time period, and the film is brimming with nostalgia for a simpler era (which, ironically, is now much the same way we feel about the 1950s). But while it may be full of lovingly drawn worlds and bright musical numbers, underneath its charming exterior of literal puppy love, Lady And The Tramp explores its setting in a manner more akin to Howard’s End than Snow White & The Seven Dwarves. [Caroline Siede]

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Lilo & Stitch

At the end of a hard day, Lilo, a friendless orphan girl from Hawaii, makes a desperate wish for a guardian angel, preferably the nicest one available. Cut to a malevolent-looking, if diminutive, alien emerging from the wreckage of a spaceship. That’s the most concise example of the impressive balancing act that goes on in Lilo & Stitch, which gets to have its sentiment and keep its teeth, almost literally. Even with so much of its running time taken up with expertly executed cartoon humor—worthy, like that of The Emperor’s New Groove, of Disney’s old Warner Bros. competitors—Lilo & Stitch keeps circling back to its characters’ emotions, making Stitch’s inevitable retreat from his destructive agenda feel like a natural development rather than a plot contrivance. [Keith Phipps]

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The Little Mermaid

At the time of its 1989 release, The Little Mermaid felt unlike anything that Disney had made in years, from the archetypal tale of a girl defying her father to throwaway comic bits like the savage musical salute to fish-slaughter, “Les Poissons.” Much of that was due to Ashman’s off-Broadway wit, and also due to veteran Disney staffers who latched fiercely onto the material, and wouldn’t let their chance to revive their craft pass them by. Too much of what Disney would do for the next decade is tied to The Little Mermaid formula, and it can be hard to hear Jodi Benson voicing the heroine—with her soaring, pageant-ready vocals—without hearing every increasingly cloying post-”Part Of Your World” ballad to come. But the movie’s “we’re ready to entertain you again” spirit remains infectious. The first time tiny Sebastian the crab scuttles across the frame, dwarfed by the mer-people, it’s funny. Half an hour into the movie, when he leads the entire ocean in a rousing chorus of “Under The Sea,” the audience is hooked. [Noel Murray]

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Mars Needs Moms

Mars Needs Moms director Simon Wells (The Time Machine) delivers an eye-catching, sneakily moving adaptation of the 2007 Mars Needs Moms picture book (written and illustrated by Bloom County creator Berkeley Breathed), about a high-spirited kid named Milo (performed by Seth Green, whose voice was replaced at the 11th hour by child actor Seth Robert Dusky) who tells his mom (Joan Cusack) he’d be better off without her, then watches in horror as Martians take her away. Turns out that—well, you read the title. It’s a fun rush, though, and an intense one, too, with plenty of grim moments along the way that heighten the sense of danger as Mars Needs Moms moves toward an unexpectedly wrenching finale. [Keith Phipps]

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Mary Poppins

From the turn-of-the-century setting to the perpetual-twilight art direction, Mary Poppins captures Disney’s preoccupation with nostalgia and rounded corners, which unkinked many a classic story. But sometimes Disney’s casts and crews put some kinks back in. Mary Poppins rides the anarchic energy of Dick Van Dyke (as a night-prowling jack-of-all-trades) and the steely cool of Andrews, who keeps her charges in line with well-placed songs by Richard and Robert Sherman. When Julie Andrews sings them to sleep with the heartbreaking “Feed The Birds,” she earns the greatest accolade any entertainer can receive: she changes the mood of the room. [Noel Murray]

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Millions

What would happen if the two beleaguered kids from Mike Newell’s charming 1992 fable Into The West got their hands on a huge pile of money? That’s not quite the official concept behind Millions, from 28 Days Later director Danny Boyle, but it comes remarkably close to describing the film’s dynamic and tone. Millions completely lacks the grimy adult edge of Boyle’s previous films, but its complexity marks it as something more than a children’s caper: 7-year-old Etel struggles with morality, his responsibility to himself and his family, and his affirming but alienating fantasies about interacting with saints. Meanwhile, his father and brother undergo their own, more subtle struggles. That subtlety is one of Millions’ many assets: A little broad comedy keeps things perky, but the kids’ excellent, restrained acting and the low-key script by The Claim screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce hold the whole sprawling project together, from weepy revelations to silly fantasy-saint sequences. Much like Into The West, Millions stars kids and boasts kid-friendly content, but its concepts and execution are appealingly grown-up. [Tasha Robinson]

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Miracle On 34th Street

Yes, Miracle On 34th Street is pure Hollywood hokum, a blatant piece of sub-Capra populism designed to advance the controversial proposition that Santa is real and children should be allowed to let their imaginations run free. (How did Fox keep the protestors at bay?) But the film is pretty savvy too, getting a jump on mounting anxieties about the post-war cult of consumerism, soon to be savaged by beatniks, cartoonists, and underground stand-up comics. The story of a real “Kris Kringle” (played by the inimitable Edmund Gwenn) earning the trust of upper management at Macy’s and teaching young Natalie Wood and her progressive mother Maureen O’Hara to believe in Christmas again is really an object lesson in how to put one over on the buying public. What does the Macy’s customer say when Santa sends her to another store to buy her son a fire truck? She congratulates Macy’s on “this wonderful new stunt you’re pullin’.” [Noel Murray]

Clip note: Please enjoy this utterly bizarre trailer that features maybe five seconds of footage from the actual movie.

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Moana

“If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess,” snarks the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) when his new acquaintance Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) protests that she’s actually the daughter of her tribe’s chief, not royalty. He’s got a clearly meta point: Heroines of Disney cartoons like Moana are instantly eligible to be inducted into the marketing network of Disney Princesses (at least if their movies are successful), regardless of their actual in-movie lineage. It’s an early sign that Moana, from veteran Little Mermaid directors John Musker and Ron Clements, is self-conscious. And for the most part, Moana feels more heartfelt than calculated, no small feat after decades of princesses, journeys, and “I want” songs. Compared to other animation studios, Disney attracts an unusual amount of attention for its representation, optics, subtext, and so on. It makes sense; relatively few films are assured of multi-generation circulation the way a hit Disney movie is. In the end, Moana deserves its pre-built legacy of royalty. [Jesse Hassenger]

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Monsters, Inc.

The setup of Monsters Inc. so clever that it almost wouldn’t matter if the film didn’t fully deliver on it, though it’s not surprising when it does. Beneath the carefully rendered fur, Monsters, Inc. finds heart, which is Pixar’s secret: Both the Terry Gilliam-worthy production design and the film’s range of feeling are necessary to create, once again, a fully realized alternate universe. [Keith Phipps]

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The Muppet Christmas Carol

As with any holiday tradition, each new version of A Christmas Carol is vulnerable to the pitfalls of faithfulness and reverence. It’s a lot like our personal experiences with the holiday, expectations forged in the warm heat of nostalgia that never match up to how we “remember” Christmas, or how Christmas is “supposed to be.” This is how tradition, like any other substance that isn’t properly maintained or meaningfully refreshed over time, grows toxic. This is also why The Muppet Christmas Carol may be the most important Dickens adaptation of our time. With dialogue that draws directly from Dickens’ words and the inclusion of typically omitted details, The Muppet Christmas Carol is unusually faithful to its source material. Grim, Dickensian realities are acknowledged, yet all 85 minutes are infused with the energy and the imagination of the Muppets, which give a Christmas Carol a hearty enough shake to keep it from spoiling for a few more years. [Erik Adams]

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The Muppet Movie

As an adult viewer, much of the fun in re-watching these films is in seeing how they fit within the larger history of Hollywood comedy. That’s the case with The Muppet Movie especially, which acknowledges its debt to comedic films past through cameos (Henson and Kermit forebears Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy as talent-show judges; Bob Hope as an ice-cream salesman; Mel Brooks as a mad German scientist) and content. The movie casts Carol Kane in a brilliant recurring gag as a lisping bar patron who emerges at Kermit’s repeated exclamation of the word “myth.” That’s a bit of wordplay in the vein of the Marx brothers and Mel Brooks, and the type of joke that Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker would push to comedic extremes in Airplane! the following year. (Airplane!’s jokes-per-minute ratio is only slightly higher than that of The Muppet Movie.) In contrast to the way more recent Muppet movies overexerted themselves in the race to catch up with contemporary pop-culture, Jerry Juhl and Jack Burns’ script for The Muppet Movie is remarkably self-assured—even though some of its reference points were already dusty in 1979. [Erik Adams]

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The Nightmare Before Christmas

Originally released in 1993, The Nightmare Before Christmas marks almost as much of an advance for stop-motion animation as Pixar’s Toy Story did for computer animation. Directed by Henry Selick from a story and characters created by Tim Burton and a screenplay by Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands), it’s a marvelously imaginative, visually striking film relating the adventures of the good-hearted Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon and sung by Danny Elfman), the hero of Halloween Town. Deftly crafted enough to make a skeleton dissecting a teddy bear or the sight of children terrorized by an evil toy duck seem cute, Nightmare taps directly into Burton’s unique sensibility, bringing it to life with highly memorable results. [Keith Phipps]

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The Parent Trap

Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer’s remake of Disney’s 1961 Hayley Mills vehicle The Parent Trap is a genuinely good film, a sweet-natured trifle that works as both a whimsical children’s fantasy and an engaging romantic comedy. Then-newcomer Lindsay Lohan’s performance is a little shaky early on—and her English accent is questionable throughout—but both her performance and the film eventually improve rapidly. The film is every bit as romantic and patrician as Meyers and Shyer’s Father Of The Bride movies, but this time, the film is sentimental without being saccharine, and upscale without devolving into grotesque, Martha Stewart-esque consumer porn. [Nathan Rabin]

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Pete’s Dragon

Looking for poetry in a live-action family film is usually about as futile as hunting for dragons in your backyard; the vast majority of them wager on the indiscriminate tastes of kids and their dutiful chaperons. But Pete’s Dragon has poetry in spades. It’s right there in the hushed beauty of its prologue, in which a newly parentless boy—the lone survivor of a car crash in the deep Pacific Northwest—wanders off the road and into the mysterious twilight of the surrounding woods. From the foliage emerges a towering wonder, a creature with expressive feline features, the wingspan of an airliner, and green fur so photorealistic that the viewer can practically run its fingers through each errant strand. It’s a kind of platonic love at first sight between the beast and the boy, and the latter takes one last glance back at civilization before embracing his new life as a wild thing. Against the landscape of all-ages entertainment, a moment of such strange power stands out as starkly as a giant, fire-breathing monster. [A.A. Dowd]

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Pinocchio

Is it possible that in 2009, animated feature films may finally be catching up to Pinocchio? Walt Disney’s classic adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s dark, moralistic fable about a puppet who leans there’s more to being “a real boy” than playing all day is one of those rare movies that doesn’t just feel ahead of its time, but out of time. Was there ever a world in which a story about a talking puppet waited 15 minutes to bring the title character to life? Were there ever parents comfortable with taking their children to a movie that showed the nightmarish consequences of misbehavior? Pinocchio was considered a box-office disappointment when it was released in 1940, but it’s remained a staple of the Disney library, and over the decades, only a few feature-length cartoons have come along that trust a young audience’s ability to handle such a relaxed pace and a grim message. [Noel Murray]

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Pirates Of The Caribbean: Curse Of The Black Pearl

Flouncing, bugging his eyes, and speaking in an indescribable accent when not engaging in feats of derring-do, Johnny Depp finds a balance between the comic and the heroic perfectly aligned with a script written in part by the Shrek team of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. Similarly, The Ring director Gore Verbinski knows when to break out the stunning action sequences and when to let his characters dominate the film, and he handles both modes expertly. In a rare bit of successful corporate synergy, Verbinski even finds a way to incorporate gags from the Disney theme-park ride that lends the film its name, and he keeps the proceedings fun once Depp, Keira Knightley, and Orlando Bloom get drawn into a special-effects-heavy plot involving cursed gold and ghostly pirates captained by a perfectly over-the-top Geoffrey Rush. Rush even has a monkey sidekick (the traditional parrot belongs to someone else) and says “Arrr!” without a hint of self-consciousness. Pirates Of The Caribbean is that sort of movie, and though no one seemed to be clamoring for pirate adventures in 2003, it still seemed long overdue. [Keith Phipps]

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The Princess Bride

Like pretty much everything else in Rob Reiner’s comedy-adventure The Princess Bride, the swordplay comes with witty lines, abrupt reversals, and now-iconic catchphrases, but it’s entertaining for the action as much as for the comedy. The story is framed as a favorite tale Peter Falk is reading to his sick, initially resistant grandson Fred Savage, and it reads like a checklist of what a kid might find cool. In fact, the original book—written by longtime screenwriter William Goldman, who also adapted Princess Bride for the screen—actually features a winning checklist of the contents, as the reader (in the book’s case, it’s the sick boy’s distant dad) tries to sell the boy by promising everything he could want in a book: “Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles.” He left out “banter,” which the film version strongly emphasizes; its characters apparently can’t trade blows without trading barbs as well. [Tasha Robinson]

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Ratatouille

Toward the end of Ratatouille, Pixar’s latest animated romp, writer-director Brad Bird mounts such a cogent, feeling, pained deconstruction of professional criticism that viewers might almost suspect he’s had problems with persnickety critics in the past. But how is that possible, when everything he touches is wonderful? The writer-director behind The Iron Giant and The Incredibles (the former a critically beloved, poorly marketed underperformer, the latter a critically beloved smash) and an animation consultant on the likes of King Of The Hill and The Simpsons, Bird has a rare cinematic gift: the ability to stage slam-bang action sequences without neglecting the rich emotional resonance that makes for a great story. [Tasha Robinson]

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Return To Oz

The film that launched a thousand childhood nightmares, Return To Oz takes the sweetness and whimsy of the original 1939 film and strips it of… sweetness and whimsy. What’s left is a bleak and unsettling story about Dorothy (precocious Fairuza Balk, just 9 years old when it was filmed), now committed to a mental institution, who manages to return to her beloved fantasyland only to find it a barren shell, its citizens turned to statues and the countryside ruled by the Harryhausen-esque Nome King. Director Walter Murch, a legendary sound artist and editor who made his only feature film with Return To Oz, manages to craft some of the most disturbing kids’ entertainment this side of The Last Unicorn. His ear for haunting composition finds its scariest outlet in the Wheelers, the harrowing evil henchman with wheels for hands and feet, and he does cold justice to L. Frank Baum’s world, making it the sort of fantastical haunt of which no child would ever want to come within a thousand yards. There are other “dark and gritty” reworkings of the Baum mythos, but few achieve such a primal sense of trauma. In other words: perfect for family movie night! [Alex McLevy]

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The Rocketeer

The Rocketeer was a whole new type of superhero movie. Batman, the movie that really ignited the modern version of the genre, had a visual style built from exaggerated, gothic darkness, something that later attempts like Darkman and even Dick Tracy would emulate. The Rocketeer was based on a comic that the artist Dave Stevens had begun publishing in the early ’80s. Stevens’ comic was, in turn, clearly inspired by the movie serials of the ’30s and ’40s, and the movie follows its lead; it’s bright and lighthearted and idealistic. In spirit and tone, the movie is a whole lot closer to Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, another 1989 blockbuster, than it is to Batman. The Rocketeer might not have made money, but it’s one of those blessed aesthetic experiences where everything just came together. [Tom Breihan]

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The Simpsons Movie

The deafening buzz greeting The Simpsons Movie represents a marriage of convenience between savvy corporate marketing and frothing fanboy adulation. Fox has stoked anticipation for the film to feverish levels simply by tapping into the massive groundswell of goodwill the show has built up over two decades as one of the country’s most beloved pop-culture phenomena. Such torrents of hype often lead to crushing disappointment, but The Simpsons Movie more or less justifies its massive buildup. [Nathan Rabin]

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Sleeping Beauty

When it was originally released in 1959, Sleeping Beauty was Disney’s most lavish (and expensive) film, as well as something of a financial and critical disappointment. But time has been kind to it. The elaborate, gothic-inspired designs still look great, and the supporting characters—most notably the three good fairies and the Joan Crawford-like villain Maleficent—liven up the proceedings despite the bland hero and heroine. [Keith Phipps]

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Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs

There had never been a full-length animated movie prior to Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. And while Disney no doubt had to overcome skepticism as to whether an audience would watch a cartoon that long, he also innately understood that feature-length animation would happen with or without him sooner or later. The question was how to fill the time. Visually, there’s a lot going on in each frame of Snow White, and somewhat less going on in the story, which has been pared down even from its spare fairy-tale origins until it’s just a few incidents and a lot of entertaining comic business. Yet the film benefits from simplicity, which pits the arch, vain, Hollywood-inspired glamour of the jealous Queen against the all-American, scullery-maid-next-door virtues of Snow White. [Keith Phipps]

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The Sound Of Music

Studio executives probably lie awake at night, wishing something like The Sound Of Music would fall into their laps. There was plenty of reason to think the movie might be a success. It had a star, Julie Andrews, who’d just broken out with Mary Poppins, a tremendous hit. She’d won an Oscar for it, too, which didn’t hurt. It also had a director, Robert Wise, whose previous musical, West Side Story, had also been a much-loved smash and an Oscar juggernaut. More good signs: The Sound Of Music was based on a successful Broadway play from Rodgers and Hammerstein, the duo who had already been responsible for big musicals like Oklahoma! and South Pacific. So The Sound Of Music was in a position to succeed. But its success was way, way beyond what anyone involved imagined. [Tom Breihan]

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Star Wars: A New Hope

With Star Wars, George Lucas aimed squarely at audiences of children, but he imagined a world of tremendous scope. Tiny little one-off lines in Lucas’ Star Wars script would later launch entire spinoff novels and TV series. It’s a testament to the level of writing; you hear someone say the words “clone wars,” with no added context, and you want to know more. [Tom Breihan]

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The Empire Strikes Back

Before The Empire Strikes Back, the whole idea of the sequel was to essentially retell the story of the first movie, adding extra wrinkles but hitting the same reassuring beats. They’re victory laps. The Empire Strikes Back is not a victory lap. Instead, Lucas and his collaborators took the Godfather Part II approach. Empire imagines the larger world around that first Star Wars movie—the circumstances that led to the events of the film, the ripple effects of the climactic battle, the changing relationships of the characters. Empire introduces new landscapes: a frozen wasteland, a marsh, a majestically psychedelic city in the sky, a gigantic space slug’s digestive tract. It brings in characters that, in their own ways, are nearly as iconic as any from the first picture: Yoda, Lando Calrissian, Emperor Palpatine, Boba Fett. Even after the world-historic success of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back is a bigger creative swing than anyone could’ve reasonably expected. Empire takes the leap of imagining a film as part of a grand, overarching continuing narrative—sort of like the old film serials that inspired Star Wars in the first place. [Tom Breihan]

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The Last Jedi

Early into the zippy, operatic, and occasionally exhilarating Last Jedi, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) smashes his helmet into pieces. It’s chiefly a symbolic act: Kylo, who established his volcanic temper as the formidable new heavy of The Force Awakens, is determined to “let the past die”—to emerge from the shadow of his infamous grandfather, to shake the Vader comparisons he once courted and make the galaxy far, far away forget all about the fallen Jedi with the basso profondo and the beetle-black armor. But is there a promise, too, in the shattered remains of that villainous headwear? After two “new” Star Wars movies inextricably linked to the 1977 original, perhaps letting the past die isn’t the worst route for this series to take. By the rousing final act, director Rian Johnson has brought an apocalyptic grandeur to the lightsaber duels and airborne combat. His often-stirring addition to the saga finally lands on an affecting point about the importance of preserving essential cultural tradition without clinging too strictly to the dogma—and the texts—of the old way. In that philosophy, contrasting hard with the burn-it-all-down zealotry of Kylo Ren, Star Wars locates a promising path forward: old virtues, new cool. [A.A. Dowd]

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The Straight Story

With his sweet, lyrical masterpiece The Straight Story, David Lynch frees himself from the heavy irony and noir affectations of his last few films, discovering the pure, mythical slice of Americana previously confined to Agent Cooper’s coffee and donuts in Twin Peaks. His surprising deliverance comes in the form of an unusual and moving true story that appeals to his offbeat sensibility, yet invites more emotional directness and clarity than anything he’s done before. In a warm and unassuming turn, Richard Farnsworth stars as Alvin Straight, a 73-year-old widower who journeys from Laurens, Iowa, to Mt. Zion, Wisconsin, to make amends with his estranged brother after the latter suffers a stroke. Too vision-impaired to drive a car, Alvin stocks up on cigars and Braunschweiger, climbs atop a 1966 John Deere lawnmower, and bridges the distance at 10 mph. Assured in every detail, from Freddie Francis’ shimmering widescreen vistas to Angelo Badalamenti’s gentle acoustic score, The Straight Story rings with a simple poetry that’s bracing and true. [Scott Tobias]

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Tangled

Tangled doesn’t come across as a traditional Disney film, certainly not in the spirit of 2009’s conscious old-school throwback The Princess And The Frog. It’s a rambunctious, modern story full of chases, smart banter, big emotions, and palpable darkness. It feels like a Pixar product—no great wonder, since Catmull and Disney/Pixar creative director John Lasseter restarted the film almost from scratch in 2008, to fit their proven sensibilities. In this telling of Rapunzel, as with Pixar features, the impressive draw of the animation comes second to winning, nuanced characters and to well-developed characters and relationships. Everything here is a too-familiar Disney formula, but one done right. [Tasha Robinson]

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Thor

Some of the best moments in Thor, an adaptation of a long-running Marvel Comics character, don’t spotlight its hero’s abilities as a hammer-slinging, battle-loving, monster-fighting Norse god. They come from Natalie Portman, who co-stars as an astrophysicist who discovers Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in the middle of the New Mexico desert. The film establishes her as a hard-driving, fiercely committed professional using the usual shorthand, but the way she melts into a stammering, smitten, girlish mess in Hemsworth’s presence is all her own. It’s not hard to see where her character’s coming from, though. In a star-making turn, Hemsworth plays Thor as an uncomplicated man of action with the moral clarity and love of derring-do of a ’40s swashbuckler and the toned physique of a 21st-century underwear model. He’s also the embodiment of the big, loud, relentlessly entertaining film around him, the sort that should remind moviegoers why they used to get so excited about comic-book movies in the first place. [Keith Phipps]

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Thor: Ragnarok

Thor, played with a familiar twinkle of jovial regality by Chris Hemsworth, spends the first few minutes of Thor: Ragnarok in chains, hanging sideways in a straitjacket of iron links. Things do not get easier for him. Like Tony Stark in Iron Man 3, the god of thunder will lose his weapon of choice: that mighty hammer of his, reduced to shards with the flick of the villain’s wrist. He will be stranded on an alien world, pitted against friend and foe alike, and even have his flowing locks chopped clean off, like Samson or James Hetfield from Metallica. (Unlike Hetfield, he still looks pretty cool without them.) Ragnarok, the third and easily the best entry in Marvel’s least-loved solo series, succeeds partly because it does something its predecessors never quite could: It makes an ageless space god with the nobility of King Arthur and the bodacious abs of a supermodel look like an underdog. Fallibility, not lightning, is his secret weapon. [A.A. Dowd]

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The Three Caballeros

This giddy animators’ showcase about birthday boy Donald Duck running amok in Mexico with feathered friends José Carioca and Panchito boasts a breezy, exhilarating lightness and a refreshing undercurrent of perversity. Donald Duck spends much of the film leering at live-action beauties in ways that would make Tex Avery’s Big Bad Wolf blush, Panchito is a sombrero-wearing, pistol-toting maniac, and the film is graced by some of the trippiest, most casually psychedelic animation this side of Fantasia. Freed from having to convey ideas more involved than “Donald Duck goofs around in tropical locales with his new buddies,” the animators let their imaginations run wild, plunging into delirious abstraction, kaleidoscopic compositions, and charmingly primitive stabs at integrating animation and live-action. It’s a holiday of a movie animated by a sense of fun and frivolity that is blissfully universal. Seldom has Disney’s unofficial status as America’s foremost goodwill ambassador felt more official or justified. [Nathan Rabin]

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Toy Story

Pixar’s first feature is still one of its greatest, an all-ages buddy comedy that’s genuinely for all ages because its characters and its wit shine as brightly as its once-revolutionary imagery. Which it to say, while Toy Story, the first feature animated entirely on computers, no longer looks as state-of-the-art as it did in 1995, the story it applies that technology to is timeless. It’s a fairy-tale about a cowboy doll (Tom Hanks) whose jealousy of his owner’s new prized possession, a clueless and hubristic space-ranger action figure (Tim Allen), plummets the two into an adventure of miniature peril. Pixar would make three sequels, all good to great, but none quite replicate the screwball magic of the original, driven as it is by the hilariously antagonistic relationship between these neurotic, richly developed archetypes of childhood imagination. [A.A. Dowd]

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Toy Story 2

The unwritten rule of sequels is to paint exactly the same picture, only bigger, brighter, flashier, and more crowded. The result, with precious few exceptions, is diminished returns, a hollow second- or third-generation copy without the soul that made the original worth sequelizing. Toy Story 2, the sequel to Pixar Studios’ groundbreaking computer-animated debut, instead gets everything right, applying the bigger-and-louder rule to a fresh, funny, sharply written story that effectively appeals to every possible demographic. [Stephen Thompson]

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Toy Story 3

Deep into Toy Story 3, there’s a moment where some of the toy protagonists realize that in spite of all their cleverness and determination, there’s no way out of the fatal trap into which they’ve fallen. In any other children’s film, this would be a time for comedic panic, long-withheld personal confessions, or dramatic statements that would immediately turn out to be ironic. In any other children’s film, the moment would quickly peak and pass. But Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich (Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc.) holds for long, excruciating moments on the silent characters, as they pass from disbelief into sorrowful resolve, then take each others’ hands and wait. And wait. And wait. It’s a shockingly grim sequence, but this is what Pixar films do best: find a place of deep emotion and explore it without blunting it, overexplaining it, or passing it off with a laugh. Toy Story 3 never gets darker than this moment, but time and again, it similarly finds real, resonant emotion in the antics of a bunch of children’s toys having adventures when nobody’s looking. [Tasha Robinson]

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Toy Story 4

Compared to its predecessors, Toy Story 4 is a breezier affair, up to and including an ending that feels a few hankies shy of full tearjerker, landing on a note of conclusion that the movie barely seems to pretend will really hold this time. Yet the relatable insecurity the series has always located in its pint-sized heroes—the quality that makes them more human than the humans they worship, regardless of what their manufacturing stamps read—worms its way into every stray crack and crevice of the G-rated material. Toy Story, in other words, remains a uniquely existential crowd-pleaser. In this case, it’s also a pretty strange one, co-headlined as it is by a utensil with a death wish. We’re not in Andy’s room anymore. [A.A. Dowd]

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Up

It took more than 65 years, but a Disney company finally topped the death of Bambi’s mother on the pathos-and-childhood-trauma scale. Pixar Animation’s Up begins with an efficiently brutal sequence encapsulating the life of a thoroughly lovely woman, from childhood to death: With the studio’s usual economy and depth of characterization, the film goes about making audiences love her, then takes her away for good. The point is to let viewers share the grief of her grumpy old widower Carl (Ed Asner), and to humanize him and explain his actions going forward. But as an ancillary effect, the sequence proves once again that Pixar is always more concerned about a well-told story than with hedging its bets about what’s safe for or even naturally appealing to audiences. [Tasha Robinson]

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Waking Sleeping Beauty

Given the Walt Disney Company’s many decades of ruthlessly (and successfully) managing its image, branding itself as a literally magical place serving up the best in wholesome entertainment, it seems ridiculous to expect candor from any branch of the company at this late date. And yet Disney is distributing Waking Sleeping Beauty, a surprisingly intimate behind-the-scenes documentary look at the near death and joyous revivification of its animation studio from the Black Cauldron years to Little Mermaid and the boom that followed. Waking Sleeping Beauty Director Don Hahn (a producer on Beauty And The Beast and The Lion King, among many other projects) was on hand throughout the entire period, and through home movies, interviews, finished and raw Disney footage, in-house video clips, and the usual documentary devices, he tells the story in such a lively, humorous fashion that it may well even have disarmed the Disney PR machine. The documentary is an unusual peek inside the Mouse House, one delivered by a director who seems to love the studio without letting that cloud his judgement. [Tasha Robinson]

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WALL-E

Ever since Toy Story showed the artistic—and, more attractively in Hollywood, financial—potential of CGI animated films, studios have rushed to follow, crowding theaters with CGI kids’ romps that generally come packed with celebrity voices and commercial calculation. Meanwhile, Pixar has continued breaking molds, and stayed ahead of the pack largely by focusing on story and taking risks. In 2008, the stretch came in the form of Andrew Stanton’s audaciously non-commercial WALL-E, an animated feature that adds in live-action footage, leans thematically on scenes and songs from a 1969 musical flop, and largely eschews English dialogue for half its runtime. It was Pixar’s most daring experiment to date, but it still fits neatly into the studio’s pantheon: Made with as much focus on heart as on visual quality, it’s a sheer joy. [Tasha Robinson]

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Who Framed Roger Rabbit

It’s become easy to take Who Framed Roger Rabbit for granted. Groundbreaking when it came out, the film now looks prophetic: Its interactions between human actors and three-dimensional cartoons were a harbinger of the Jar-Jars and Gollums to come. If Roger Rabbit were only about its technological achievements–as impressive as ever, if not more, considering they were created in a pre-digital era–it might look like a museum piece now. Instead, it treats the effects as a means to an end, an entryway into an alternate cinematic universe. “If it didn’t work, it would be over three minutes after it started,” Zemeckis says, regarding the first scene’s slow retreat from the cartoon universe of one of Roger’s animated shorts to the world he shares with humans. But Rabbit’s absurd premise is realized to the last detail, and the illusion takes hold immediately, so much so that when Lloyd destroys an adorable squeaking shoe by dipping it in a turpentine solution, it’s horrific enough to make Herschell Gordon Lewis jealous. Toons don’t die, but they do fade away, and that can be tragic, too. [Keith Phipps]

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Winnie the Pooh

Children’s films these days generally tend to feel like dry runs for their inevitable video-game adaptations, especially 3-D kid flicks that are all about shiny things going zoom. So it’s refreshing to watch a children’s film that moseys along placidly to the soothing rhythms of a beautifully illustrated children’s book rather than attempting to mimic the deafening volume and speed of most children’s entertainment. Disney’s lovely, John Cleese-narrated adaptation of Winnie The Pooh represents an unusually pure literary adaptation, and not just because words have such a physical presence in the film that they literally help the characters out of a bind. Winnie The Pooh is a bibliophile kid’s film that assumes, to its credit, that children love words and books and the characters contained within them just as much as it does. [Nathan Rabin]

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Wreck-It Ralph

For just a moment early on, Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph looks like it’s attempting to ape Pixar’s Toy Story. But Wreck-It Ralph has loftier ambitions than imitating a previous success. It’s a wildly exciting ride, the fastest-moving, most enthusiastically kinetic kids’ action film since The Incredibles. But it’s also a surprisingly ambitious, crafty gimcrack that piles subplot upon subplot, building a teetering tower of ideas that seems more suited to a full season of television than a single feature film. As it turns out, it’s largely an elaborate shell game: Time and again, the script presents important plot points, disguising them as offhand comments or throwaway ideas, then reveals their significance at a crucial moment. Eventually, this process leads to a glorious collapse of the tower, as all the seemingly unrelated or unresolved threads pull together at once. It’s a terrific trick, and it makes for a film that’s both viscerally enjoyable and narratively thrilling. [Tasha Robinson]

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Zootopia

The early trailers for Disney Animation’s Zootopia went out of their way to explain something that most children will understand instinctively: In the world of this movie, animals walk upright, talk, wear clothes, and coexist with species they might otherwise avoid. It felt like a bizarre amount of table-setting to describe how cartoons about animals work, but as it turns out, Zootopia itself is premised on exactly that kind of explanation—and cleverly so. The film’s titular city is the center of a world where evolved animals (mammals only, presumably for simplicity’s sake) have formed a civilized truce. Former predators and prey of all sizes attempt to live in harmony, referring vaguely to the bad old days when being born a certain type of animal meant confining yourself to a certain type of fate. In other words, this is a feature-length cartoon explicitly about the dynamics preventing a bunch of cute animals from devouring one another. [Jesse Hassenger]

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