The best Disney movies you've never seen

Of all the major film studios, Walt Disney Pictures might have the strongest and longest established brand. Putting aside subsidiaries like Marvel and LucasFilm, Disney films are strongly associated in the public consciousness with family themes, colorful visuals, and uplifting (although sometimes tearful) plots. The number of widely celebrated classics they've produced is also impressive, stretching all the way from 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to 2016's Moana.

However, there have always been missteps (and perceived missteps) along the way. People love to talk about the worst of things, and bad Disney films are a common subject, particularly on the internet. Not every film deserves its bad reputation, and it's often worthwhile, if you have the means and the interest, to check out a film and judge for yourself. Public consensus isn't always trustworthy, and memories of past films that don't achieve "classic" status often fade away. Here, then, is a selection of Disney movies you probably haven't bothered to watch, but probably should.

Mars Needs Moms

2011's Mars Needs Moms can seem a bit confusing at first glance. It's an animated film released by Disney, but it's not really a Walt Disney Animated Feature. It's actually from ImageMovers, Robert Zemeckis' studio, which had previously produced The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol. The latter film, in which most of the major roles are played by Jim Carrey, was also produced in partnership with Disney. Mars Needs Moms, which nobody saw, ended that partnership.

Based on a children's book by cartoonist Berkeley Breathed, Mars Needs Moms is a sci-fi story that gets surprisingly dark. The whole thing hinges on a boy from Earth racing to save his mother from being killed by the martians, who want to extract her memories and her "mom-ness" for use in their robot nannies. An adult character reveals that the same thing to his mom, and he failed to save her from the lethal process. Even for kids who've seen Bambi and Finding Nemo, this movie's focus on maternal death will be probably be too much.

For older fans who are looking for a classic sci-fi adventure with some innovative new touches, Mars Needs Moms is worth a watch. The Zemeckis style of motion capture-based animation actually works much better with the Martian characters, since their faces are meant to look inhuman. Whether you end up liking the film or not, it's an attempt to do something different from anything Zemeckis or Disney had done in animation before, and that alone may make it worthwhile.

Winnie the Pooh

When Disney released a new theatrical Winnie the Pooh in 2011, it was easy to dismiss it as a recycled cash grab. After all, there had already been three Pooh movies since 2000, The Tigger Movie, Piglet's Big Movie, and Pooh's Heffalump Movie, none of which were very impressive. What a lot of people didn't realize, however, is that those films were made by DisneyToon Studios, the division of Disney that specializes in direct-to-video sequels and movies based on TV shows. The new Winnie the Pooh, on the other hand, had the full weight of Walt Disney Animation Studios behind it, and was a real attempt to do something worthwhile with these classic Disney characters.

Unlike most Pooh animation that came after 1977's The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, this new film returned to A.A. Milne's Pooh stories for inspiration, spinning a tale of Christopher Robin disappearing, and everyone in the Hundred Acre Wood panicking because a misunderstood note makes them think he's been abducted by a monster. Along the way, Pooh is constantly trying to get his hands on some honey, and Eeyore is looking for his tail. It's a pretty classic Winnie the Pooh story, and it's also full of clever jokes that will amuse parents as well as kids, without relying on pop culture references (of which it's totally free).

On top of that, it's currently the final Walt Disney film to feature traditional hand-drawn animation, and it's gorgeous from beginning to end. Any fan of animation or of Winnie the Pooh should absolutely watch it.

John Carter

Maybe the title of this movie was Disney's biggest mistake. It was meant to be John Carter of Mars, but after the failure of the aforementioned Mars Needs Moms, Disney apparently decided the word "Mars" was a bad look. Unfortunately, that left anyone who wasn't already a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs' books with little clue as to what the movie was about. "John Carter" isn't even a particularly interesting name for an Earth man, let alone for a warlord of Mars. The movie did much better overseas than in the United States, but was nevertheless regarded as a flop.

For those who actually watch the movie for what it is, however, it's a lot of fun. Based on Burroughs' first John Carter book, A Princess of Mars, it's the story of the titular human who finds himself teleported to the red planet, where several distinct races of Martians are locked in a complicated state of war. Carter aligns himself with the four-armed Green Martians, finds romance with Red Martian Princess Deja Thoris, and ultimately faces off against the manipulative White Martians. There are monsters, huge actions set pieces, cities that soar through the air, and basically all the things you could want from an old-fashioned sci-fi epic. In the center of it all is Taylor Kitsch as Carter. Although the reception of this movie most likely kept him from becoming a big-time action star, watching it should prove that he has the skills for the job.

Meet the Robinsons

Meet the Robinsons came out in 2007, shortly after Pixar's John Lasseter took over Disney Animation, and that led to a lot of scrutiny for this film, which was reportedly changed extensively on Lasseter's orders. That may have cast a pall over the movie at the time, and in the years since it seems to have been largely forgotten. If you actually sit down and watch it, though, it's a clever and zippy family sci-fi romp with heart, and its retro-futuristic aesthetic is a ton of fun.

The story focuses on Lewis, a young science prodigy who lives in an orphanage. He meets a boy named Wilbur Robinson who comes from the future. Naturally, Lewis ends up in the future as well, and they have to save the day from a time traveling baddie with world-conquering ambitions and a surprisingly dangerous hat, not to mention a secret connection to Wilbur's past. The way the time travel story comes full circle at the end is one of the most satisfying things about it, so we won't spoil that here. Ultimately, as the title implies, Meet the Robinsons is a movie about family. That may not seem new for Disney (or movies in general) but this one's successful sci-fi trappings make it a standout.

Sky High

Sky High did well at the box office in 2005, but it didn't get much attention outside of its tween-age demographic. It came out when the current superhero boom was barely in its infancy. 2005 was the same year as Batman Begins and the Jessica Alba/Michael Chiklis Fantastic Four movie, and three years before the Marvel Cinematic Universe got underway. Superheroic tropes that are now common knowledge for the movie-going public seemed at the time more like ideas that were probably left over from The Incredibles.

Regardless of its context, Sky High is actually a really fun family comedy. Its basic plot works just as a superhero story, but it has the added Disney dimension of focusing on a kid who must gain confidence and learn how to tell which friends he can trust. Will Stronghold is the son of a great superhero, but he hasn't manifested any superpowers yet, which puts him on the bottom of the social rankings at Sky High, where all the kids of superheroes and villains go. As he attempts to navigate all that, he also has a secret supervillain plot to uncover, which will ultimately lead to the realization of his own heroic abilities.

Kurt Russell fits perfectly as the Commander, Will's superhero dad, and former TV Wonder Woman Lynda Carter plays the school principal, which is a nice touch. If you love superhero stories, or if you're just looking for something fun for the entire family, Sky High is a solid pick.

Treasure Planet

Disney substantially changes everything they adapt, but usually they do it under the surface, so that you only realize how different things are if you're familiar with the original book or story. Treasure Planet wore its difference on its proverbial sleeve, taking Robert Louis Stevenson's pirate adventure novel Treasure Island and setting it in a steampunk version of outer space. Writer Rob Edwards explained that this was an attempt to make the story as exciting for children in 2002 as the book was for children when it was published. That gambit didn't pay off, however, and Treasure Planet was a box office bomb

It's a shame, because there's a lot of the movie that comes directly from Stevenson, and even the stuff that's entirely new works really well as a rollicking, propulsive adventure story, with some themes about found family that hold up well. The complex surrogate father/son relationship that develops between protagonist Jack Hawkins and cyborg pirate villain John Silver is a lot more interesting than the usual Disney hero/villain dynamics. On top of that, the movie is visually spectacular, combining traditionally animated figures with CGI backgrounds, even as it combines the aesthetics of tall sailing ships with its sci-fi setting. It may not be Disney's usual fare, but it's a genuinely good animated movie.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire

Released the year before Treasure Planet, Atlantis is another science fiction adventure film that just didn't do what people expect animated Disney movies to do, and suffered for it at the box office. Sadly, that means Princess Kida of Atlantis never really got to join the Disney Princesses, where she would have made a unique and interesting addition.

The movie focuses on Milo Thatch, a young researcher who finds the way to the legendary undersea kingdom even as everyone around mocks him for believing Atlantis is real. With funding from an eccentric millionaire, Milo joins a diverse team of explorers on a mission to Atlantis, where he finds romance with Kida even as betrayal seems inevitable thanks to surface-world greed. Production designer Mike Mignola, better known as the creator of Hellboy, gives the film a unique look that's unlike both past Disney films and previous portrayals of Atlantis. The voice cast, led by Michael J. Fox as Milo and Cree Summer as Kida, is also particularly strong. The plot gets convoluted at points, but it's still a really fun watch despite its reputation.

Tarzan

All anybody remembers about Tarzan is that Phil Collins won multiple awards for a really sappy song he wrote for it, which wasn't one tenth as good as the songs Elton John and Tim Rice contributed to The Lion King. The song is not very good, and honestly most of the music isn't that memorable, but everything else about the movie works quite well. In fact, it was a critical and box office success at the time, although you'd never know it from how it's remembered (or not remembered) today.

Disney's Tarzan retells the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs story about a man who's raised by apes and then encounters humans as an adult. His romance with Jane Porter, here voiced delightfully by Minnie Driver, is a highlight of the film. There are of course some comic relief animal sidekicks, which some may find annoying, but it all holds together pretty well. For a film set in Africa, there's a noticeable lack of black characters among the relatively few humans. On the other hand, that's better than how black people are portrayed in a lot of previous Tarzan adaptations. All of which is to say, it has its flaws, but no more so than a great many beloved Disney classics.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Victor Hugo's novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame was always a strange choice for an animated Disney film. It's a very dark, grim story, with a strong sexual element and no small amount of death. Obviously the Disney version gave the tale a relatively happy ending, but it left a lot of darkness around the edges that took people by surprise when the film was released in 1996. It was a box office disappointment, if not a flop.

That same edge that held it back as a family entertainment, however, can make it a particularly interesting film for older viewers. It still has fun songs and silly talking gargoyles, but it also has Frollo, one of the darkest Disney villains of all time. Unlike Scar or Ursula or even Gaston, Frollo isn't anybody's favorite character. He's pure evil, with a particular lustful obsession with Esmerelda, the Romani dancer who also catches the eye of Quasimodo, the title character and protagonist. Frollo basically attempts to commit genocide against the Romani people of Paris, and attempts to use that as leverage for control of Esmerelda, while Quasimodo and a heroic soldier named Phoebus attempt to put a stop to his plans. It's not quite Victor Hugo, but it's still a complex and interesting tale.

One thing that unites this film with a lot of other movies on this list is that it isn't what people expect. Audiences often seem to be looking for a particular thing from Walt Disney, but the studio has always been interested in pushing their own boundaries and trying stuff out. It doesn't always work, but when it does, you often end up with overlooked gems like these.