Content Warning: I went on a limb and assumed that if you are reading this, then you are also old enough to watch a rated R movie. Some of the movies I recommend are acceptable for kiddos to watch, but others are less so. With each of the movies that I recommend, I would suggest using your own judgment to determine if it is appropriate to watch with your kids, with your parents, or by yourself.
The Disney Renaissance was a period when the Walt Disney company produced critically and commercially successful traditionally animated films. This period began in 1989 with “The Little Mermaid” and concluded in 1999 with “Tarzan,” under CEO Michael Eisner’s careful watch. The success of these movies, particularly “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast” propelled Disney from a second-rate animation studio to a global powerhouse.
I like the Disney Renaissance films. I think they are creative, beautifully animated, and well-told stories that deserve praise and attention. I think Howard Ashman and Alan Menken are geniuses whose work has completely redefined musical theatre and animation. However, I do not think that these films, and the princesses featured in them, should be idolized and exploited to the extent they are today. Because at the end of the day, these are just movies. If you like these films, then you have every right to watch them over and over again. However, if you’re like me and want to watch something a little different, or you are troubled by the decline in live-action Disney remakes and sequels, then I have the list for you.
Do you like “The Little Mermaid”?
Then Try: Splash (1984), streaming on Disney+
Splash is the charming tale of a beautiful mermaid, Darryl Hannah, who falls in love with a landman, Allen, played by Tom Hanks. The only problem? He doesn’t know that she’s a mermaid, and if she doesn’t return to the ocean in a few days, then she can never go back. Oh, and a wacky scientist played by Eugene Levy is doing everything in his power to hunt this mermaid down. “Splash” is a delightful romantic fantasy that I would recommend to just about anyone in the mood for a cute rom-com. If you like movies with mermaids, or really just movies that will make you happy, then “Splash” is a must-watch.
If you want something even weirder, then I recommend the 2015 Polish film “The Lure.” The story shares a lot of similarities to the original tale by Hans Christian Anderson, only with a lot more bloodshed and weirdness. It also boasts an impressive musical set list, so if you were worried about having to watch a movie bereft of bangin’ tunes, then fear not, because “The Lure” will have you covered.
Do you like “The Rescuers Down Under”?
Then Try: Watching it again.
“The Rescuers Down Under” is a good movie and I do not believe it is a derivative of any other work. Plus, it’s not as if we see grown adults cosplaying as Bernard and Miss Bianca, so I don’t think Disney considers this film one of their cash cows deserving of a shoddy live-action remake.
Do you like “Beauty and the Beast”?
Then Try: La Belle Et La Bete (1946), streaming on HBO Max
Normally I do not recommend foreign classics to people, but as this is arguably the best fairytale film ever made, I think I would do you all a real disservice by not discussing it. “La Belle Et La Bete” loosely follows the original tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, in that it is about a young woman named Belle who chooses to live with a beast in her father’s place. Every night, the Beast asks Belle to marry him. Belle finds herself torn between her love for her father and her growing feelings for the Beast, feelings which are further complicated by her meddling family and aggressive suitor. I especially recommend watching this film if you liked the 1991 version, because you may even notice similarities between the two.
If you want to watch something a little more recent, then I’d recommend the 2021 Japanese sci-fi fantasy anime, Belle. Suzu Naito is a young woman traumatized by her mother’s death, which left her unable to sing. Suzu joins a virtual metaverse “U” and creates the beautiful avatar “Bell.” Through her avatar, she finds she can sing and express herself musically, and then she unwittingly becomes U’s biggest popstar, renamed “Belle.” While in U, Belle encounters “The Dragon” (or “The Beast”) who has been wreaking havoc in the metaverse and is seemingly unbeatable. Belle finds herself drawn to this Beast and reaches out to him, hoping to discover his true identity so that she may help him. Jin Kim, a Disney animator, also worked on this film, which explains the adorable character designs.
If you’re interested in other versions of Beauty and the Beast, then I recommend reviewing this list.
Do you like “Aladdin”?
Then Try: Arabian Nights (2000), streaming on Amazon Plus
“Arabian Nights” is a miniseries based on One Thousand and One Nights, an epic about Scheherazade the clever storyteller and her love for the mad Sultan, Shahryar. Played by a luminous Mili Avital, Scheherazade marries the Sultan and spends her nights weaving fantastic tales that captivate him, sparing her life for another day. She heals the Sultan from the pain and madness bestowed on him by his conniving brother and treacherous first wife. Her tales include that of Ali Baba, Aladdin, and others, all of which are brought to life by a talented cast, detailed costumes, and impressive set pieces. Viewers will probably love to know that Jason Scott Lee (aka David Kawena) plays Aladdin, and he’s perfect. I think this miniseries is absolutely phenomenal, and as soon as I finished watching it, I immediately messaged several of my friends to beg them to watch it as well. Consider this a more formal example of my begging.
I would also strongly recommend “The Thief and the Cobbler,” aka the Greatest Animated Film That Was Never Made. I’ve written about this film before, but “The Thief and the Cobbler” was the ambitious animation project by Richard Williams that sadly ran out of funding before it could be properly released. A 1995 version starring Matthew Broderick was released by Miramax, but I don’t recommend watching it, as it comes off less like a work of art and more like a bad rip-off of Aladdin. Instead, I recommend looking up one of the “Recobbled Cuts,” which are fan restorations that are available on youtube. These versions follow the project’s workprint very closely and are made with a deep love for Richard Williams’ work.
If neither of those suggestions are to your liking, then maybe now is the time to watch “Sinbad: The Legend of the Seven Seas.” This 2003 Dreamworks film features a star-studded cast in a story that is also based on a tale from A Thousand and One Nights. It has been years since I’ve watched this movie, so I don’t have an official opinion to share with you. However, I have heard that this movie is responsible for several people’s bisexual awakenings, and I can’t think of a better endorsement.
Do you like “The Lion King”?
Then Try: The Prince of Egypt (1998), streaming on Peacock
The Lion King is based on several classic works of literature, including the biblical stories of Moses and Joseph, but also on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Originally I was going to suggest that anyone who likes “The Lion King” check out one of the many, many film versions of Hamlet, but then I remembered this isn’t a high school English class, so forget that. If you liked the darkness and intensity of “The Lion King,” then you’re probably going to love “The Prince of Egypt.” “The Prince of Egypt” is a gorgeous animated film produced by DreamWorks in 1998 about the story of Moses and the Exodus. It has recently experienced a resurgence in popularity on Tiktok because people realize the song “The 10 Plagues” is auditory dynamite. I love this movie, and I love that more people are interested in watching it.
If you want something animated, then maybe check out “Kimba the White Lion,” an animated Japanese show from the 1960s. I haven’t watched it, but it is about a lion king doing animal stuff in the forest, so maybe you’ll like it. Also, The Lion King was briefly accused of plagiarising this franchise, so that’s cool.
Do you like “Pocahontas”?
Then Try: The New World (2005), available for rent
If you love the Disney animated film “Pocahontas” and want to watch something similar, then I think you will really enjoy “The New World,” a 2005 film starring Colin Farrell. “The New World” is a sweeping epic about the initial colonization of what would become Jamestown, Virginia, focusing on the fictional relationships between Pocahontas and John Smith, and later Pocahontas and James Rolfe. This film is well-made, featuring beautiful cinematography and a captivating performance by Q’orianka Kilcher. Heads-up: this movie is over two hours long, which I think should be illegal.
Time for a personal note.
I do not like these fictional accounts of Pocahontas, as I think they are an attempt to romanticize a dark, shameful period in American history. “The New World” is slightly more historically accurate than the Disney film but is still inaccurate in that Pocahontas was only a child when she met John Smith. I’m recommending “The New World” solely for other people who like Disney’s Pocahontas. A friend of mine pointed out that if you like this movie, you may also enjoy the 2009 movie “Avatar” as well as the 1992 movie “FernGully: The Last Rainforest.” There a lot of movies with similar plotlines as the Disney film.
If you would like to watch an animated film that pays homage to Native American storytelling, then I would highly recommend “Crow: The Legend,” a 2018 award-winning short animated film based on a Native American legend. The film boasts some pretty incredible virtual reality animation, but that stuff hurts my brain, so I just watched the HD version.
Do you like “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”?
Then Try: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1997), streaming on Roku
YO. Were you aware that Mandy Patinkin turned down the role of Quasimodo in Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”? He’d been cast and everything but left after disagreeing with Disney producers over the portrayal of the character. He had his chance to play Quasimodo a year later in this made-for-TV version starring himself as the titular Hunchback, Richard Harris as the hypocritical Claude Frollo, and Selma Hayek as the beautiful and kind Esmerelda.
If a modern version isn’t your thing, then why not try something a little more classic? The 1939 version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is a beautiful movie featuring performances from Hollywood stars like Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara.
I think it is interesting that in both of these films, Esmerelda not only survives her sentencing by Claude Frollo, as well as falls in love with Gringoire. For those not in the know, Pierre Gringoire was a French poet from the 15th century who appears as a character in Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” His character was excluded from the Disney film, and the qualities of his character were combined with Captain Phoebus. In the book, he marries Esmerelda but is devasted that she can never love him (she’s hung up on that f*ckboi, Phoebus), so instead he forms an attachment to her goat, Djali. He’s kind of a weird dude, though, in these film adaptations, his love for Esmerelda is mutual. I guess the goat is cool with it.
Quasimodo is tragically single no matter what story is told, except for in the masterpiece “The Hunchback of Notre Dame 2.” But that is a story for another time.
Do you like “Hercules”?
Then Try: Clash of the Titans (1985), streaming on HBO Max
I wanted to recommend another Hercules film, but frankly, there aren’t a lot of good ones. The 1981 film “Clash of the Titans” is something special and spectacular and I think it might scratch that Hercules-itch. “Clash of the Titans” is the story of Perseus, son of Zeus, and the mortal princess Danaë. “Clash of the Titans” is about the story of Perseus and how he slays the gorgon Medusa, though his motivation is different from the original myth. In this film, Perseus falls in love with the beautiful princess, Andromeda, and vows to marry her. Andromeda’s mother foolishly insults the goddess Thetis, who demands that Andromeda be sacrificed to the monstrous Kraken. Only the head of Medusa will kill the Kraken and save his beloved, so Perseus embarks on a perilous journey to find and slay Medusa.
I cannot talk enough about this film. I love the story, the settings and costumes, and the overall earnestness of the tale. “Clash of the Titans” is such a sweet movie in that Perseus desperately wants to save the life of his Andromeda and is willing to travel to the edge of the world to do so. This film is also incredible for the unique stop motion effects by Ray Harryhausen. As this film is over forty years old, the visual effects are far from realistic, but I think that adds to the film’s charm.
If you’re thirsting for Hercules content, then I feel compelled to bring up “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.” Y’all, I loved this 90s show, which was so fun and just cheesy enough to keep you hooked throughout each episode. I wish I could scream about my love for this show from the highest mountain, but unfortunately, the show’s star, Kevin Sorbo, really sucks. So maybe you should watch “Xena: Warrior Princess” instead.
Do you like “Mulan”?
Then Try: Mulan: Rise of a Warrior (2009) streaming on youtube
I have been aware of “Mulan: Rise of a Warrior” for years now, and only this Monday did I finally sit down and make myself watch it. My assessment: it is slightly better than the 2020 live-action Mulan film and therefore worth watching. The film stars Zhao Wei as Mulan, who some viewers may recognize as the lead female role in the fun and goofy “Shaolin Soccer.” Jingle Ma, the director of “Mulan: Rise of a Warrior” was very much aware of the 1998 animated movie and told a story that feels completely different from the animated film. Whether or not you think that is a good thing is up to you. I liked the serious tone of the film and found it appropriate given that the movie was about war.
If you’re looking for something animated that’s similar to the 1998 Mulan, then I highly recommend the 2017 Cartoon Saloon film “The Breadwinner.” I have spoken about my love for the works of Cartoon Saloon before, and this film is no exception. The story is about a young girl, Parvana, who lives in Kabul with her family under the Taliban’s rule. When her father is put in jail, her family has no means to support themselves, and Parvana must dress like a boy to find work and help her family. It’s a beautiful story and I highly recommend it, though I should warn viewers that it is not nearly as light-hearted as the Disney version. I do think viewers will enjoy this movie and be glad that they watched it, but if you sit around waiting for Mushu to appear, you’re going to be disappointed.
Do you like “Tarzan“?
Then Try: Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and Tarzan and His Mate (1934), available for rent
It pains me to say this, but I must be honest: Disney’s Tarzan is the best adaptation I have ever seen of the Tarzan series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I think it is a masterpiece and easily one of Disney Animation’s crowning achievements. There is so much to admire in this movie. The lush backgrounds, the incredible animation of Tarzan’s movements, the banging soundtrack by Phil Collins, the tenderness depicted between Kala and Tarzan, the all-consuming love and passion between Tarzan and Jane – I could go on and on about why I think this is one of Disney’s greatest films. In fact, I would argue that it is even better than the original novel by Burroughs, which you may agree with me if you have ever read the novel (check out the reviews on GoodReads to learn more about why this book is so controversial).
With all that said, I think if you’re looking for some non-Disney content, then I highly recommend the 1932 film “Tarzan the Ape Man” and its sequel “Tarzan and His Mate.” These movies are exciting, dramatic, and incredibly romantic, as the relationship between Tarzan and Jane is put front and center. Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan have incredible chemistry as Tarzan and Jane, so much so that you understand why they were in six films together. These movies are also worth watching because they were created prior to the establishment of the Hayes Code, which severely restricted the kind of content allowed in film.
If you want something a little more modern, then I think you may enjoy the 2016 film “The Legend of Tarzan.” Critics were not fans of the film, but I found it enjoyable, though that may be because I’m just a fan of the franchise in general. The 1984 movie “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” was much more favorably received and was even nominated for several academy awards. Unfortunately, it didn’t win any of those awards. The first Tarzan film to receive an academy award was the 1999 Disney adaptation.
Sometimes Disney really does do it best.
4 thoughts on “Movies to Watch Instead of the Same Disney Films (Renaissance Edition)”
-Ugh, I loved Pocahontas as a toddler/child, but then when I was in middle school, I learned what really happened… and it was disgusting.
-You didn’t want to recommend George of the Jungle LOL LOL
I don’t want to shame any person for enjoying Disney’s Pocahontas movie. If you don’t know the historical context, then it is a nice movie about different people learning to accept each other’s differences, with a sprinkling of “nature is awesome.” However, as most of us have a more advanced knowledge of history, I think it makes it much more difficult to “shut off our brain and just enjoy the movie.”
Also, you are the SECOND person in 12 hours to mention to me that I did not include “George of the Jungle.” Buddy, I love George of the Jungle as much as anyone else, and I’ve even recommended it in prior articles. But I don’t think viewers understand just how many Tarzan movies exist outside of the Disney version. At least 20. Probably more. And some of those movies are really phenomenal, especially the classic films with Johhny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan.
George of the Jungle is a fun movie with a great performance by Brendan Fraser, but I had to go with my heart and recommend a real Tarzan movie.