Disney has been present in the childhood of many generations. But some of the best Disney movies we still love today were released in the 1980s. While some periods in the company are more memorable than others, it was at this point in time that Walt Disney Productions turned into the entertainment giant it is today.
So let’s take a trip back to our living room floor and relive a full decade of box-office hits, underrated gems, and productions that were ahead of their time. Here are
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The Best Disney Movies Of The 80s
Herbie Goes Bananas (1980)
We begin the list with a well-known character that many didn’t know had already appeared in a whole saga. In the early 80s, the charismatic Volkswagen Beetle had an adventure in Mexico helping his owners to unmask a counterfeiting ring. Sounds interesting, right?
Well, the movie wasn’t really of the best quality, being highly criticized to this day, despite having a pretty good cast for the time, highlighting names like John Vernon, Alex Rocco, and Richard Jaeckel in the role of the villains, but they fell short of a poor script.
However, the film does have some funny scenes that are sure to get a few laughs out of you and will perk your interest in the past of Herbie’s films (for those who didn’t know), starting with the classic “The Love Bug” in 1969. And of course, the sequel that everyone knows starring Lindsay Lohan.
Let’s go with another film that was also not well received by critics, but based on a very popular character, Popeye (from Amazon)
Starring Robin Williams, this adaptation put the sailor in the seaside town of Sweethaven, where he meets his great love Olive Oyl, played by Shelley Duvall, but who was engaged to the intimidating Captain Bluto, whose role was played by Paul L. Smith.
So far, the casting is 10 for 10, almost lifted from the original Elzie Crisler Segar comics.
Popeye’s original mission, which is to rescue his missing father, was mixed with a romance story as he tries to save Olivia from the clutches of Captain Bluto, while more classic characters appear throughout the story.
Perhaps the film was overly caricatured, but it earned a special place in the hearts of fans, who dubbed it “the worst masterpiece ever made.” As a fun fact, the town they built for the set still stands to this day, open to the public as Popeye’s Village in northwest Malta.
Starring Tom Hanks and directed by Ron Howard, this film tells the love story between a man and a mermaid, played by Daryl Hannah. Its narrative is much more adult than what Dinsey is used to since this film was produced by Touchstone Films, a Disney company dedicated to creating films for a more mature audience.
Allen, the protagonist of this story, fell into the sea when he was a child, being rescued by Madison, the mermaid. Twenty years later, Allen falls back into the same place and is again rescued by her, who falls in love with him and decides to go to New York to find him (to clarify, her tail transforms into legs when she is out of the sea, but once she comes into contact with water, she returns to her natural state).
This film earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay and was Tom Hanks’ first major film success.
Oliver & Company (1988)
In this version, Oliver is a cat who joins a gang of dogs in 1980s New York. But one day, Ollie is adopted by little Jenny, the daughter of a millionaire family.
It seemed that our catlike protagonist had left poverty behind, but everything changes when his owner is kidnapped by the vagabond Fagin, a poor man who only follows the orders of the evil Sykes, a mafia boss of the city. Because of this, Oliver returned with his street gang to rescue Jenny.
As you can see, the names match the characters in the Oliver Twist story, also matching the roles and personalities of each, but in Disney style, giving a fun “twist” to the story. An undoubtedly underrated gem.
Flight of the Navigator (1986)
A cult classic among science fiction fans. The follows the young protagonist, David, who is abducted in a spaceship, and transported 8 years into the future, from 1976 to 1984, reuniting with his family a little older, and his younger brother not so young.
This starts a whole odyssey to find out what happened to David, revealing that he was on a distant planet and that a dog, Max, was not a dog at all. Of course, NASA is heavily involved in this story, as a variant of the Area 51 agents.
You can see why it’s a classic.
Adding to its importance, it was one of the first Hollywood productions to use a lot of CGI effects (and do it well), leading the way for the future of this technology. It also stands out for being the first film whose soundtrack was entirely electronic music, composed by a Synclavier.
A reboot of this story is in production with Bryce Dallas Howard as director, although at the moment there is no release date.
Return to Oz (1985)
As its name suggests, it is an unofficial sequel to the Wizard of Oz 46 years after its release. This is because Disney bought the rights from the original creator of the world of Oz, L. Frank Baumn in 1954, to present his characters in the TV series “Disneyland”.
Then there was the idea of producing a feature film, but it never materialized. By the ‘80s, Disney was about to lose the film rights, so they made this movie, which takes inspiration from “The Marvelous Land of Oz” and “Ozma of Oz”.
MGM, the company that created the first film, never had any relationship with this sequel, but Disney still had to pay them to use Dorothy’s trademark ruby slippers.
This sequel tells the story of Dorothy’s return to Oz on a mission to rescue her friends from the evil Nome King, who has destroyed the enchantment of the magical land.
The young girl is accompanied on her journey by new and colorful allies such as the chicken Billina, the mechanical man Tik-Tok, and the adorable princess Ozma. Of course, The Cowardly Lion, Tin-Man, and the Scarecrow reappear, but only as cameos.
The Secret of Nimh (1986)
Nothing more and nothing less than the first animated film directed by the legendary Don Bluth in his great career.
With this initial release, the film tells the story of a little mouse, Mrs. Brisby, who enlists the help of a colony of genetically modified rats to save her family. This premise seems very friendly, and in part it is, but the film has a somewhat dark and gloomy, yet at the same time magical, atmosphere.
It’s a movie that today’s fans remember with much affection and admiration, since it’s a more serious story than usual for an animated film of that time, and some even consider it one of Don Bluth’s best movies as a director. Big claims, but with a good base behind them.
With great animation, a sublime soundtrack, and endearing characters, The Secret of NIMH (from Amazon) guarantees a good time for children and adults alike.
Nominated for an Oscar in 1982 for its special effects, Dragonslayer (from Amazon) is a classic medieval fantasy story with all the elements it demands.
A fearsome dragon as the main antagonist, a group of valiant knights, a damsel in distress, and a wise wizard with the power to defeat the dragon… who dies as soon as the story begins. That’s right, there’s an interesting twist, forcing that wizard’s apprentice to empower his skills to take down the dreaded villain.
It was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Music, and nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Performance. Likewise, it has some fantastic scenery and for a PG rating, it has some scenes of graphic gore and violence.
A medieval fantasy made like in the old days, with great dedication, is remembered by the public as one of the best films about dragons.
The Brave Little Toaster (1987)
Before Woody and his toy friends played “pretend to be dead” when they were with Andy, homemade appliances did.
A peculiar premise but one that worked very well. The Brave Little Toaster (from Amazon) tells the story of a toaster and her appliance friends who venture into the city in search of the young Roy, the boy they grew up with but who abandoned them for years in a shack. As you can see, Toy Story owes its success to this film.
Its narrative is fun and fanciful and at the same time contains a subtle but effective message about loneliness and abandonment.
With this load of dark themes well hidden in its plot, this film marked the childhood of thousands of children, who remember it as one of the most educational stories they have seen, whose morals can be interpreted in multiple ways as they go through different stages of life.
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
It has it all, a gloomy setting, a sinister circus, its demonic owner, and a small town haunted by evil. It all adds up to create a creepy atmosphere for the canons of the studio, and it worked for them in this experiment.
Featuring the famous Jonathan Pryce in the role of the circus owner, the mysterious Mr. Dark, this adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel of the same name guides us through a script written by Bradbury himself that flirts with thriller and horror, surrounded by a latent mystery.
A movie for the whole family that manages to unsettle you a little, but also to hook you with its story.
Reading this description, you are sure to find many similarities with a story by Stephen King, and it almost ended up being so, as the famous author wrote a screenplay for this movie, but it was rejected.
Hopefully Disney will return to this type of project, which pushes the PG rating to its limits. And as a final detail, Roger Ebert even liked it!
Turner and Hooch (1989)
This unlikely duo gave us one of the most endearing relationships we’ve seen in cinema between a man and his best friend. The story leads them to follow the clues of a murderer, whose only witness to the crime was the dog himself, Hooch.
Curious, isn’t it?
Beyond that peculiarity, the story does not risk much more, following an already used formula and with secondary characters that are limited to fulfill their role. Although everything is compensated by the wonderful chemistry between Tom Hanks and Beasley (the dog’s real name).
So iconic was this film that Disney launched in 2021 a reboot in the form of a series for its streaming platform, starring Josh Peck and another Dogue de Bordeaux. Whether it’s the original version or this new one, you’re in for a good laugh.
Never Cry Wolf (1983)
Never Cry Wolf (from Amazon) is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Farley Mowat
In this version, our protagonist is an expert biologist who travels to the icy North of Canada to investigate the wolves in the area, suspected of the death of the reindeer in the area. However, with the help of a local Eskimo, he discovers that the wolves are not exactly the responsible ones.
A story with a naturalistic point of view, with a documentary-like formula and spectacular scenery, this film marvels its viewers with exquisite cinematography, which received multiple award nominations. Its sound design was also highly praised, earning it an Oscar nomination.
Don’t let its slow and contemplative pace make you think it’s boring, because that’s what makes it even more special, it’s a film made with love and it shows in every scene, with all its elements well-implemented and incredible attention to detail.
Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)
We’re cheating a bit here, as it’s a short film of just 26 minutes, but come on, who didn’t love this animated version of Christmas Carol starring Mickey and his friends?
Filled with the charisma of these characters, this story is the first introduction many children had to Charles Dickens’s classic tale.
Starring Scrooge McDuck (the best casting ever), this story is faithful to its source material and at the same time with the magic of every Disney product. Perhaps its only flaw is not being a long feature film, so they could have developed the characters much more, especially the ghosts of the past, present, and future.
Still, this short film works perfectly, creating a sense of renewal and holiday joy. Adding to its charm, it includes cameos from several famous characters from other Disney animated films.
Without a doubt, it is an ‘80s Christmas movie that is a must-see every year.
The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
Its protagonist, mouse detective Basil (who lives in Baker Street), investigates the kidnapping of a toymaker, whose trail leads him to his arch-nemesis, Professor Ratigan (not at all Professor Moriarty).
Worthy of a novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Great Mouse Detective (from Amazon) is one of the best animated films Disney has ever made, which unfortunately has lost popularity over time. And that’s a shame, as its narrative is fun but in its fair share because it also features a complex mystery involving the Crown itself.
With a somewhat more mature tone than usual and excellent character development, this gem is fondly remembered by those who enjoyed it at the time and undoubtedly deserves to regain the attention it once had.
In addition, this film laid the groundwork for Disney to launch its successful renaissance.
The Black Cauldron (1985)
The Black Cauldron (from Amazon) is a medieval fantasy story that by Disney standards was quite dark and sinister, being the first animated film to be rated PG. It was criticized by parents, and perhaps that’s why it was a tremendous box-office flop for Disney. But don’t let these prejudices cloud your vision, because it is a very good film.
Its story introduces us to young Taran, who has been entrusted with the mission of protecting Hen Wen, a little pig who is smarter than he looks, as he knows the location of the legendary Black Cauldron.
Their mission becomes seemingly impossible, since The Horned King, the terrible evil spirit, is also on a search for this cauldron.
This is the first Disney film in which its characters do not sing, and with a sinister atmosphere, this story is entertaining for both children and mature audiences.
A true science fiction classic. In a genre market full of Star Wars and Star Trek, Steven Lisberger’s Tron (from Amazon) managed to earn a place among these giants.
Starring the iconic Jeff Bridges as a computer programmer and video game developer who falls into a trap set by his partner and gets trapped in the virtual world of his own creation, so he joins forces with Tron, the hero of that reality. Together, they confront the malicious Master Control software, which is there to stand in their way.
I’m sure you’ve heard by now how groundbreaking Tron was for its time, even though its visual effects didn’t age very well. There’s nothing to fault here, as this production was among the first in Hollywood to use CGI as its main cinematic element, and it was also among the first to place its narrative in virtual reality.
In other aspects it was also quite recognized, being nominated for an Oscar for best costume design and best sound. Although what is surprising is that the film was not nominated for best special effects. The Academy judges found this technology too revolutionary and considered its use as cheating.
The only section that fails in Tron is its story, which can be somewhat incoherent. However, everything else delighted audiences at the time, so Tron became a very profitable product, generating a sequel in 2010, an animated series, countless video games, and even comic books. Not to mention the upcoming third part of the trilogy starring Jared Leto, released in 2025.
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989)
Ever since I saw this movie, I’ve been afraid of my garden. This story follows an inventor, played by the charismatic Rick Moranis, who accidentally shrinks his and his neighbors’ children to a tiny size, and they are forced to deal with a new world of threats that were previously harmless to them.
This fantasy comedy is perfect for family viewing, filled with both funny and heartwarming moments. It has a similar vibe to “Back to the Future,” in which a group of normal people gets caught up in a mind-blowing adventure that not even in their wildest dreams would they have imagined, and now in that situation, they must find their way back home… or back to normal size in this case.
At that time, Disney decided to opt for stop motion animation to recreate the animals that encountered the tiny children, effects that to this day look pretty good, along with the incredible sets in which the story is filmed. And of course, no matter what he does, Rick Moranis will always bring a smile to your face.
This film was a box office success that even Disney didn’t expect, grossing 222.7 million dollars (the equivalent of almost $500 million today) against its “tiny” budget of 18 million dollars, making it Disney’s highest-grossing live-action film for 5 years in a row.
Of course, this amount was overshadowed by the gigantic figures the company now earns thanks to Pixar, Lucasfilm, and Marvel Studios.
The Fox and The Hound (1981)
Possibly one of the best friendship movies ever. As its name suggests, it tells the story of a close friendship between a red fox Tod, and a hunting dog, Copper, who grew up together living the funniest adventures.
But as they grew up, they were forced to become enemies by Copper’s owner, the evil Amos Slade, who, like all humans, sees the fox as the natural prey of a hunting hound. Will this be enough to break their close friendship?
Well, of course not, however, it does create tension between the two, having to decide between loyalty or duty. This moral conflict is the main vehicle of the plot, which for a children’s film, captured this dilemma very well for kids to understand.
And it is no wonder, many situations like this will be found in life, and this film bets in favor of brotherly love above all things. With excellent animation, a cast of charming and complex characters, and a powerful message in its story, The Fox and the Hound (from Amazon) is by far one of the best friendship movies out there.
Of course, in real life, it is very unlikely that a hound and a fox would get along, but the message goes beyond that, and it is undoubtedly one of the best movies for a child to learn values and grow as a better person.
It may sound a bit exaggerated, but that’s what fans say about this film and I’m sure if you’ve seen it, you feel the same way.
The Little Mermaid (1989)
What can we say about The Little Mermaid (from Amazon) that hasn’t already been said? One of the most recognized love stories and with which Disney revitalized its saga of princesses, whose last installment was in 1959 with Sleeping Beauty.
After 40 years, they decided to tell the story of Ariel, based (with clear differences) on the fairy tale by Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, a young mermaid, princess of the submerged kingdom of Atlantica, whom one day sees Prince Eric aboard a ship, falling completely in love with him.
But as a mermaid, her love was almost impossible, so she sealed a pact with the sea witch Ursula, turning her into a human, but in exchange, her voice was taken away from her. This would start one of the most frustrating love stories at the beginning, but as Disney’s magic can do it all, they managed to have a happy ending.
This film, a classic among classics, marked a milestone in the animated universe of Disney films, thanks to its enormous success at the box office, it gave the green light for upcoming films such as Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King. A golden era for this company spanned the entire 1990s.
Continuing with the film itself, all of its characters have something interesting to offer, from the curiosity and innocence of Ariel, the charm and charisma of Eric, the wickedness of the witch Ursula, and several more. And if you add to that a repertoire of musical themes that are still popular today, you have a film that marked the childhood not only of thousands of children but of teenagers and even adults.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
Finally, the jewel in the crown. Directed by the iconic Robert Zemeckis, and produced by the legendary Steven Spielberg. With actors of the caliber of Bob Hoskins as the protagonist and Christopher Lloyd as the villain, Who Framed Roger Rabbit (from Amazon) is an authentic carnival of the popular culture of that time.
Full of references and cameos of the most popular cartoon characters and a plot revolving around Roger Rabbit, an animated character who is being investigated for the alleged murder of an important businessman. It is an allegation that poor Roger kept denying. This would lead the private detective Eddie Valiant to bring to light this intricate case, having to go through the funniest and irreverent situations.
The magic of this film is the world in which it is set, at first glance the same as the one we live in, but with the great twist that the animated characters we grew up watching in our childhood also live in it, where they are Hollywood stars. And when I say all the characters, I mean all of them, from a very funny crossover between Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny to an epic piano duel between Donald Duck and Daffy Duck.
It was a worldwide success at the time, and the truth is that it still is. Nowadays those kinds of stories involving too many popular characters are labeled as “Fan Service”, but that’s not the case with this film at all. Although it is known for its cameos, the story is very good, paying homage to the Hollywood noir era, with its detective narratives and unexpected twists.
Undoubtedly the most iconic film from Disney at the time, it laid the groundwork for similar products that combined traditional animation with live action, such as Space Jam, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, and the more recent Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers.
They owe it all to Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a groundbreaking, highly entertaining film filled with lovable characters and a captivating plot that to this day is still remembered and loved, earning it a preservation spot in the National Film Registry, listed as “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant.”