One of the reasons why Disney's classic animated feature films are so timeless is because they're able to recreate or reinvent old tales so that kids can enjoy them without being traumatized (you'll understand if you've ever read the original Grimm' Fairy Tales) and their lessons still shine through. These stories often center on one or more characters who have to overcome an obstacle of some sort of epic proportions, oftentimes that means overcoming a personal flaw, usually by way of learning through struggle against a big bad guy. That's the hero's journey in the tiniest of nutshells.
Those classic films of the Disney renaissance left us with a plethora of heroes to choose from as we grew up but they weren't all perfect role models. Some were more heroic than others, sometimes because their stories allowed for greater acts of heroism and sometimes because the classic heroic traits just weren't a huge part of their character. We're going to go through twenty of Disney's animated human heroes from the Disney renaissance to see which ones acted more heroically than others. We're interested in which characters performed most heroically given their circumstances, which ones acted with bravery, compassion, humility as well as what or who they saved and why.
Out of an unquenchable desire to explore the human world, Ariel makes a deal with the evil Ursula and loses her voice in exchange for a chance to be human. This one act allows Ursula to threaten, not just Atlantica but the entire world since the sea witch was able to acquire Triton's power and trident. In the end, it's not even Ariel that vanquishes Ursula, it's Prince Eric.
Her adventure wasn't completely absent of good. She saved Eric from drowning, which makes her a hero, and Ariel's love for Eric did ultimately bring the human world and Atlantica that much closer by proving to Triton that humans aren't all that bad. Whether or not that's actually heroic in any way is up to you. Regardless, it's why Ariel has earned a place at the bottom of this list.
21 PETER PAN
It's worth reiterating that all we're interested in here are the actions of these heroes. The reason why we say that is because even though Pan represents the freedom and levity of youth, a lot of his actions are mean-spirited. Of course, he's a hero. He saved the Lost Boys, Tiger Lily, Wendy and her brothers from the clutches of Captain Hook, but let's remember that he also tossed Hook's hand to the crocodile after cutting it off.
It was an act he boasted about several times, like to the mermaids at Mermaid Lagoon. The ones that threatened to drown Wendy while Peter laughed about it. He's naive and a childlike, so it's sort of understandable that he'd act that way, but there's a lesson to be learned here...you can't have true heroism without a sense of maturity.
20 PRINCE NAVEEN
This frog prince is far from a heroic character in the beginning of The Princess and the Frog, but over time he proves that, despite his somewhat hedonistic lifestyle, he has a truly noble heart. He may not have fought off the Shadow Man but he showed a willingness to give up at least a little happiness for the good of someone else when he offered to marry Charlotte to ensure Tiana got her restaurant.
Let's not forget that he also risked his life as a frog when he literally leapt into action when Tiana was captured by those swamp-dwelling hunters looking for dinner. It may not be the most heroic thing you'll see in Disney's animated features, but it's worth a place on this list.
Tiana had a tough life growing up, one made easier by her father's diligence and her mother's love. It inspired her to work as hard she could in order to realize an old dream she shared with her father. The fact that she was ready to give up her dream shows growth, which is admirable in a way.
What really made her a hero is the fact that she was able to fight the temptation that Dr. Facilier offered. Even when faced with a crumbling dream and all the voodoo power that Facilier possessed, Tiana didn't falter, which is why she was able to smash the pendant and defeat the Shadow Man. That's worthy of recognition, even if it isn't nearly as heroic as others.
Speaking of a lack of maturity, let's take a look at Pinocchio for a minute. Being an innocent puppet boy, he's easily persuaded to venture to Pleasure Island and partake in some of the island's activities like drinking, smoking and roughhousing in an actual roughhouse. Unbeknown to Pinocchio and the other boys, it all comes at the cost of a truly scary transformation.
We're not taking hero points away from the puppet for not knowing about things he couldn't have possibly understood. In the third act of the film, he performs heroically enough by diving to the depths of the ocean to search for Geppetto in the belly of a whale named Monstro. That took a lot of courage and love, which is why he's on this list at all. All in all however, this one act of heroism doesn't quite measure up to the virtues of the other Disney heroes.
Aside from what looks to be an ability to skate across entire canopies, Tarzan is just a normal, incredibly fit human being. That makes his acts of bravery that much greater, like when he took on Sabor with his bare hands and won, or when he stood up to his adoptive father, Kerchak, a full grown male gorilla. Tarzan is undoubtedly brave, as one would be after a lifetime in the unforgiving jungle.
After his friends, Tantor and Terk rescued everyone from Clayton's ship, Tarzan immediately headed back into the jungle, fully aware of the kind of weapons Clayton had at his disposal. He risked his life to rescue his family, unconcerned that he might not have help behind him. He's definitely got a noble and heroic heart, but there are still plenty more Disney characters more heroic than Tarzan.
16 PRINCE ERIC
Imagine the crazy world Eric was pulled into where he was saved by a mysterious mermaid, hypnotized into almost marrying a stranger a while later only to discover that the stranger was an evil sea witch. Instead of going insane, Eric acted bravely and vanquished the evil witch using some world class ship steering skills.
He dove into that battle to save Ariel and freed all the mer-people Ursula had imprisoned in her twisted little garden, even if it wasn't actually his intention. He was truly a noble prince and because of that, Triton rightly made peace with the human world, finally unafraid of allowing his daughter to live and love freely up there.
Before judging this mysterious Greek minion of Hades, remember that the cynicism you see from her comes from a place of pain. She sold her soul to Hades to save the man she loved only to have him leave her for someone else. Trapped forever in service to the god of the Underworld, you have to forgive her for trying to manipulate Hercules the way she did. It clearly wasn't her choice.
Even though Hades still owned her soul, she still acted nobly to save the demigod from certain doom when he left to fight the Cyclops without his godlike strength. Even afterwards, she stood by him and ended up sacrificing her own life to save him by pushing him out of the way of a falling column. Hercules' story is one of heroes and Meg is definitely one of them.
14 PRINCE PHILLIP
The handsome prince defeated the evil witch and rescued the princess. That's the ending we're all used to hearing. Sleeping Beauty unfolded a little differently. Yes, technically it was Prince Phillip that slayed Maleficent and rescued Aurora but his heroic acts (which were heroic, we're not disputing that) were only possible thanks to the powerful magic of Flora, Fauna and Merryweather.
Phillip was a brave prince, there's not doubt there. Even with a magical sword and shield, fighting a powerful dragon sorceress isn't something many people could accomplish, that's assuming their first instinct isn't to just run away. Phillip is also fairly freespirited and open-minded, he tries to dissuade his father from enforcing that arranged marriage (it's the 14th century, we'll take what we can get). He's hero and a charming one at that, just not the most heroic.
13 FLORA, FAUNA AND MERRYWEATHER
It's worth repeating, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather were the real heroes in Sleeping Beauty. Merryweather was able to alter the curse Maleficent placed on Aurora and the three fairies spent sixteen years devoting themselves to the care of the princess, which included giving up magic...for the most part. Then, when Aurora pricked her finger anyway, it wasn't just the prince that rescued her, it was the three fairies.
They freed Phillip from imprisonment in Maleficent's castle. They armed him with the Sword of Truth and Shield of Virtue so he could face Maleficent. We haven't even gotten to the fact that they ensured stability within the two kingdoms by placing everyone gathered under a spell until princess Aurora had been rescued. The story of a prince and princess has its charms, but the good fairies were the real heroes of this tale.
Impossibly kindhearted and exceptionally bright, Belle doesn't physically defeat evil villains in Beauty and the Beast but she does everything she can. There's no doubt that she would have thrown herself between Gaston and the Beast at that critical moment if she had the chance. The reason why we know that is because she gave herself up in exchange for her father's life almost without hesitation.
She acts with nobility throughout the entire film, doing her best to protect the ones she loved from the townspeople. The only fault she ever really showed -- and we're nitpicking here -- is a lack of respect for privacy, when she wandered into the West Wing. Given the circumstances, that's pretty understandable. With that unrelenting optimism and courage, she's definitely a heroic character.
11 JOHN SMITH
You wouldn't be wrong for thinking that John wasn't very heroic in the beginning of the film. He was completely ready to shoot Pocahontas before seeing her, assuming she was simply a savage. His prejudice might be somewhat understandable since we don't know what his past experiences are and after magically learning how to communicate with Pocahontas, he seems to be immediately abandon those prejudices and fights for peace between his people and hers.
His willingness to do so culminates in the climactic execution scene in which, after the chief tries to put an end to the violence, Ratcliffe attempts to assassinate the chief, only to hit John, who dove in front of Chief Powhatan. While a bit of it was certainly motivated by love, it's undeniable that a lot of his actions were driven by a more selfless desire for peace.
After seeing what Frollo had done to the city, Phoebus undermined his corrupt authority and every turn and it didn't take long for Phoebus to completely relinquish his role as Captain of the Guard and begin a new fight for justice. It began after he was asked to burn down a miller's house for no good reason. There's an argument to be made that he could have acted sooner, but consider the society of medieval Paris. Giving it up was not an easy choice.
Continuing to fight against Frollo later on as a powerless but well-trained soldier wasn't easy either. It showed bravery and compassion unlike many of the characters throughout The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. While it's hard to argue that he was pure-hearted, but fighting against one's own flaws is itself heroic in a way and in the end, he picked the right fight.
It's undeniable that Aladdin has always acted unselfishly. We see that in the beginning of Aladdin when our hero stole bread (forgivable because it was clearly a matter of survival), evaded the guards after a lengthy chase and dance number but still gave that bread away to starving children, right before saving those same kids from a harsh lashing from a snobby noble.
He's flawed, of course. He asked the Genie to turn him into a prince in order to get close to Jasmine but then he lost everything, including the Genie and was forced to act with what he had. It was your average human against an all-powerful sorcerer. He did it to rescue Jasmine as well as the rest of Agrabah from the clutches of that maniac. He's proven himself to possess many of the qualities that make a true hero.
Pocahontas was wiser than most Disney characters. Her understanding of nature and the unity of all its elements was doubtlessly one of the reasons why she was able to fight for peace so well between two peoples that wanted nothing but war and vengeance. She never faced an adversary with aggression. In fact, the only time she showed any real hostility was after Thomas shot Kocoum. Who wouldn't act that way?
She was selfless in the way she flung herself right into the middle of what would have been a battle, were it not for her timely intervention. Her father was right. That really was courage and wisdom beyond her years and that's why she's definitely earned her place on this list.
Again, keeping the society of medieval Paris in mind, Esmeralda's actions -- like showing compassion to Quasimodo during the Festival of Fools -- are incredibly courageous. As a gypsy, she was an outcast. As a woman, she was very much oppressed and yet she made sure her voice was heard and never stopped acting with the kind of compassion she wished all people could receive (as she essentially expressed in her song in Notre-Dame.
Even in the face of evil, moments before her life was about to be taken in the darkest of ways, she showed no fear. We must also mention that she saved Quasimodo at the end, keeping him from falling for as long as she did, which is an impressive show of strength. Esmeralda doesn't act out of selfish desire, she does all this for what knows to be good.
One of the few people who acted purely out of the human decency and kindness in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame was Quasimodo, who was raised by Frollo to believe himself a monster, taught that the people beyond the walls of the cathedral were evil and yet still emerged a good-hearted man.
He wasn't afraid to face the ugliness of the soldiers and his only father figure as they besieged the cathedral, intent on executing Esmeralda. Quasi ventured out and risked his life time and time again: venturing into the Court of Miracles, leaping into flames to save Esmeralda and fighting Frollo. Even after he discovered that Phoebus and Esmeralda wanted to be together, he showed no ill will toward either and parted with them as friends, which shows more humility and bravery than a lot of real people, unfortunately.
5 PRINCESS KIDA
The only heroic character in Atlantis that acted with confidence was Kida, who fought to help Atlantis and grabbed the first real opportunity to do so. Whether or not it was brave or foolish of her to trust outsiders is debatable, we're more interested in how she acted when things went wrong and Commander Rourke and his men tried to abscond with the Heart of Atlantis.
We know she's brave. When threatened, she took down a soldier or two before Rourke displayed superior strength in weapons. Then, when called by the crystal, she willingly embraced it to spare the people around her and the city above them from destruction. Judging from what happened to her mother, that was quite the sacrifice and the willingness to make sacrifices for the greater good is an important feature in all heroes.
This demigods whole story revolved around what it means to be a true hero, so of course the main protagonist of Hercules is going to appear near the top of this list. Herc performed many heroic acts in the first and second acts of the film but as his father Zeus pointed out, none of it were acts of a true hero because none of it required sacrifice or any real bravery and, perhaps most importantly, none of it was even wholly selfless. He was trying to get to Mount Olympus.
His first truly heroic act was going up against the Cyclops in Thebes without his incredible strength, because there was a very real chance that he wouldn't make it out of that fight alive. His second, most heroic act was venturing into the Underworld to rescue Meg, risking his life in that ghoulish whirlpool. It was clear that he wasn't doing it for himself. He was doing it almost solely for another person. That, couple with the fact that he took on Titans and saved the Olympian gods themselves places him among the greatest Disney heroes.
3 MILO THATCH
Consider for a second who Milo Thatch was before the events of Atlantis. He was a humble but brilliant linguist and cartographer who was treated as little more than a nuisance of sorts by his colleagues at the musuem. Throughout the search for Atlantis, he showed a great amount of intelligence and compassion but nothing as heroic as the qualities he displayed when Rourke made off with the Heart of Atlantis.
Almost without hesitation, he prepared to take on Rourke and his forces using one of the Atlantean vehicles. He then led a small battalion through a volcano to free Kida from imprisonment. That took a lot of guts. The kind you'd expect from someone like Rourke or anyone else on that expedition, not Milo. But Milo risked his life, not just for Kida but for the people of Atlantis, who relied on the power of the crystal to survive. It was incredibly selfless and in the end, he saved an entire city.
2 LI SHANG
Shang is a soldier willing to put his life on the line for the defense of China. That alone makes him braver and more selfless than most other Disney heroes. We saw that throughout Mulan, like when he was faced with Shan Yu's entire horde on the snowy mountains and had only a handful of soldiers under his command to fight. He didn't give up and he didn't show fear. He just continued to command to the best of his ability.
He didn't follow orders blindly. He spared Mulan when she was discovered, albeit hesitantly, and defended her against Chi Fu's blatantly sexist insults later on. He may not have been the one to defeat Shan Yu, but he played an essential role in that fight.
By far the most heroic Disney hero from the Disney renaissance is Mulan, who rushed into war to spare her ageing father despite the threat of execution for that crime and even after saving all of China and being acknowledged as a hero, it never got to her head. Throughout Mulan, our heroine showed incredible strength, bravery and humility, making her a fantastic role model, the latter of which isn't itself important here but is worth noting anyway.
It was because of her courageous and compassionate heart that she was able to defeat Shan Yu in the end, even without her armor or her weapons. No other Disney villain almost single-handedly saved an entire nation from the hands of an evil conqueror with little to no magic involved. She deserved the honor that the Emperor and the people of China bestowed on her by bowing. She earned it magnificently.