The Dark Era Of The Greatest 80s Disney Movies Ranked

10 Greatest Disney Movies of the ’80s, Ranked
March 21, 2023

The Dark Era Of The Greatest 80s Disney Movies Ranked
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Often referred to as the “Dark Era” of Disney films, the 1980s were a unique time for Walt Disney Studios. Although many Disney movies actually deal with some hefty themes, such as the death of parents, most of their films are considered to be lighthearted and family-friendly. During the Dark Era, occurring between 1977-1988, many of the films released by the studio were considered to be dark in tone, themes, and design. “Dark” doesn’t only refer to the subject of these movies, it also refers to a period of decline for the studio as many of their films were experimental and did not perform nearly as well as their films from previous decades. The reasons behind Disney wanting to change up its successful formula stemmed from wanting to produce movies that were for a more mature audience in order to reach new viewers and come up with more story ideas.

This desire that Walt Disney Studios had led to the creation of Touchstone Pictures, formerly Touchstone Films. The company was founded in 1984 by then-CEO Ron Miller as a label of Walt Disney Studios. All films made under the Touchstone label were produced and financed by Walt Disney Studios in the hopes to create the more mature content they were seeking. Movies such as Splash, The Color of Money, Dead Poets Society, and many more were filmed and produced under Touchstone. The company and the studio wanted to prove that every movie Disney produced wasn’t just geared toward children.

The combination of exploring more serious themes in their movies directly under the Disney label and the creation of a label specifically for more mature content, it is no surprise that the ’80s were a strange yet important time for Walt Disney Studios. Their endeavors did provide us with some of their most memorable and interesting films, however, and even paved the way for some of the best Disney movies of any time period. Let’s take a look at ten of the best Disney movies of the ’80s, ranked:

10 The Black Cauldron (1985)

Buena Vista Distribution

Based on the first two books of a five-part series, The Black Cauldron follows a young boy named Taran who is tasked with protecting an oracular pig named Hen Wen, who knows the location of a mystical black cauldron. However, this proves to be a difficult task as the Evil Horned King will stop at nothing to obtain the cauldron in order to conquer the world. It is up to Taran and his band of misfits to protect Hen Wen and the cauldron itself.

The movie featured some incredible animation, including the design of the Horned King, which made the movie technically brilliant. However, some of the imagery was perhaps a bit too disturbing compared to the studio’s previous animated films, which led to it being the first animated Disney film to receive a PG rating. Some people felt that the humor was forced and that the movie didn’t actually feel like something Disney would have made, and some people believe that now it deserves a live-action remake.

9 Popeye (1980)

Paramount Pictures

Based on the iconic cartoon character of the same name, Popeye is a musical-comedy starring the great Robin Williams as the titular muscle-bound sailor in his many adventures in the seaside town of Sweethaven. He meets many people during his adventures and even falls in love with the lanky daughter of his landlord, Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall). The movie was produced both by Walt Disney Studios and Paramount Pictures.

The character of Popeye is a pipe-smoking, wisecracking, spinach-loving sailor who gains his muscles by eating spinach out of a can. He has been loved by cartoon and comic fans for decades, but adapting him and his outlandish town into a live-action musical comedy proved to not be an easy feat as it was received poorly both critically and commercially. The screwball comedy style of the cartoon on paper sounds like something that would have translated well on the big screen given the success of screwball comedies in the ’30s and ’40s, but perhaps some stories are simply not meant for the live-action treatment.

8 Tron (1982)

Buena Vista Distribution

In this sci-fi adventure, a computer hacker (Jeff Bridges) is somehow digitally broken down into a data stream and abducted into the 3-D world of computers by a software pirate known as Master Control. His only hope of escaping is to team up with a security program called Tron in order to outmaneuver the Master Control Program in an infinitely challenging computer game.

Tron was originally intended to be a completely animated movie, but director Steven Lisberger decided that he wanted to have live-action elements infused with computer animation for the film. The only studio that agreed to finance and distribute the film with both live-action and computer-animated elements was Walt Disney Studios. It actually ended up receiving Oscar nominations for Best Costume Design and Best Sound at the Academy Awards in 1983, but it was only moderately successful at the box office. Even so, a sequel was eventually released in 2010 titled Tron: Legacy with Jeff Bridges back in his original role. Walt Disney World is also debuting a new ride called Tron Lightcycle/Run, which will be open to the public on April 4th of this year.

7 The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

Buena Vista Distribution

In Victorian-era London, a little mouse girl’s toymaker father is abducted by a peg-legged bat. In order to find her father, she asks for the help of Basil of Baker Street, the rodent version of Sherlock Holmes. The case grows larger as Basil uncovers that the abduction of the toymaker is linked to a plot against the Crown itself.

Despite being released during the Dark Era, The Great Mouse Detective is credited as one of the films to set the stage for the Disney Renaissance. The Disney Renaissance occurred between 1989-1999 during the time period the Walt Disney Company and Walt Disney Studios in which they started to produce critically and commercially successful movies again that were mostly musical adaptations of well-known stories, similar to what they had done from the ’30s-’60s. This was one of the few movies that came out during the Dark Era that felt more like a traditional Disney movie and didn’t include more serious or mature themes.

6 Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989)

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

A scientist and father of two teenagers accidentally shrinks his kids and two other neighborhood teenagers down to a quarter of an inch with his electromagnetic shrinking device. Unknowingly, he accidentally throws the kids out with the trash. The four teens must navigate their backyard to return home all while fending off insects and other obstacles that they are now equal in size.

Starring Rick Moranis as the scientist dad, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids was a major box office success and was Disney’s highest-grossing live-action film ever for five years. The movie was such a hit that it led to two sequels, Honey, I Blew Up the Kid and Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves, in the ’90s as well as a TV series that ran from 1997-2000. It is one of the first movies to be released during the Disney Renaissance, thus leaving behind the darker, edgier themes of other Disney films to be released in the ’80s.

Related: Disney Renaissance Films, Ranked By Rotten Tomatoes Score

5 Adventures in Babysitting (1987)

Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

After her boyfriend stands her up, Chris Parker (Elisabeth Shue) agrees to babysit three kids and settles in for a boring night of TV watching. When her friend frantically calls her from a bus stop in downtown Chicago pleading to be rescued, Chris packs the kids up and brings them into the big city where their night becomes anything but boring.

Adventures in Babysitting was released under the Touchstone Pictures label, therefore it was financed and produced by Walt Disney Studios. Similar to many teen comedies of the time, the movie features multiple hijinks and shenanigans that get in the way of the characters’ rather simple task of picking someone up from a bus station. There’s even a musical number in which Chris and the kids get stuck at a blues bar where they have to perform for the crowd before they can leave. There was even a remake of the movie released in 2016 for that actually earned a score of 86% on Rotten Tomatoes.

4 The Fox and the Hound (1981)

Buena Vista Distribution Co., Inc.

In one of Disney’s most beloved stories, a young fox named Tod and a hound puppy named Cooper vow to be best friends forever, not knowing what their lives have in store for them. As they grow up and Cooper is trained to be a hunting dog, their innocent friendship is put to the test.

Similar to some of the other films Disney released in the ’80s, The Fox and the Hound deals with relatively dark themes for a children’s movie. The harsh realities of both hunting and societal expectations are present in the film and explored through the unlikely friendship between Tod and Cooper. There is really no reason for the pair to be friends as everything in nature and in society is designed for them to be enemies. Even as pressure to put an end to the other builds up for both of them, their childhood friendship still remains. It’s really a beautiful coming-of-age story that is both heartfelt and realistic in terms of societal pressures.

3 Oliver & Company (1988)


#The Dark Era Of The Greatest 80s Disney Movies_Bette Midler
the dark era of the greatest 80s disney movies bette midler

Loosely based on the 1838 classic Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist, Oliver & Company follows a homeless kitten named Oliver who roams the streets of New York where he is eventually taken in by a group of mutts who survive by stealing. During one of their schemes, Oliver meets a little girl from a wealthy family named Jenny, and their lives will never be the same again.

The movie was a box office success and featured a talented voice cast including Cheech Marin and Billy Joel, who also performed the infectious song “Why Should I Worry?” as his character Dodger. The movie was also Disney’s first true musical since The Aristocats in the sense that the songs were part of the narrative and the development of the characters, not just performative. The music composed for the film was definitely more contemporary pop than previous Disney movies, and in addition to Billy Joel also included songs performed by Huey Lewis and Bette Midler and one song even written by Barry Manilow. With a talented voice cast, an excellent soundtrack, and a lovable cast of characters, it was clear that Walt Disney Studios was only heading upward from there.

Perfect Isn;t Easy-Bette Midler

2 The Little Mermaid (1989)


Ariel is a mermaid princess who has grown tired of living under the sea and longs to be part of the surface world. During one of her forbidden visits to the land above the sea, she rescues a drowning prince and subsequently falls in love with him. Determined to be with her new love, Ariel makes a toxic deal with the sea witch Ursula to become human for just three days. Of course, the deal does not go exactly as Ariel had planned, leaving her in a dangerous situation.

Taking cues from the musical styling of the previous year’s film Oliver & CompanyThe Little Mermaid features perhaps one of Disney’s best soundtracks. A mix of ballads and upbeat island numbers, the music combined with the gorgeous colors of the film make for one of the animation studio’s most exciting entries. That, and giving the movie’s villain her own show-stopping musical number in “Poor Unfortunate Souls” altered the formula for gripping villains in every future Disney movie. The colorful art direction, lively characters, and incredible soundtrack are what helped make this iconic movie the kickstart to the Disney Renaissance.

1 Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

Set in 1947 in a version of Hollywood where both human beings and cartoon characters coexist, Who Framed Roger Rabbit follows a toon-hating private detective named Eddie Valiant who is hired to solve the case of who framed the cartoon actor Roger Rabbit for the murder of the creator of Acme Cartoons.

The movie’s blend of both real-life people and cartoons makes for some absurdly funny scenes that are still funny to this day. The movie even won three Oscars at the 1989 Academy Awards for Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Film Editing, and Best Visual Effects. It even won a Special Achievement Award for art direction by Richard Williams. Featuring popular characters such as Jessica Rabbit and Benny the Cab as well as references to other classic animations, Who Framed Roger Rabbit feels like a timeless classic despite being released almost 35 years ago and taking place over 70 years ago. Plus, it is the only movie where you will witness Mickey Mouse interacting with the cartoon icon, Bugs Bunny.

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