25 Most Iconic Disney Characters (2024)

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Peter Debruge, Sharareh Drury, McKinley Franklin, Diane Garrett, Carole Horst, Jenelle Riley, Jazz Tangcay, Jaden Thompson, K.J. Yossman

25 Most Iconic Disney Characters (1)

During its first 100 years, the Walt Disney Co. has brought to life many of cinema’s iconic and revered fantasy figures — from a plucky mouse with a signature chuckle to princesses, rakish pirates and even walking-and-talking skeletons — and birthed a host of stars through its small-screen programming.

In choosing Disney’s most iconic characters, we considered — and debated — which among the studio’s many concoctions had the greatest lasting impact. There are no “Star Wars” figures or Marvel superheroes, as those were developed well before Disney bought the respective companies behind them, but Woody and Buzz from “Toy Story” are, as that Pixar movie was made under a co-production deal prior to the company being acquired by the Mouse House.

The list, presented chronologically, incorporates animated and live-action characters from the studio’s early days up through the pandemic era. To gain additional insight into the enduring appeal of these iconic creations, we drew upon interviews with studio insiders and those involved in the making of the projects.

  • Mickey and Minnie Mouse

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    “Steamboat Willie” (1928)

    Technically, Mickey Mouse is not the first animated creation from the fledgling Disney studio — that would be Oswald the Lucky Rabbit — but the character with the distinctive ears took off in ways his toon predecessor never did, fueling the company to great economic heights, frequently with girlfriend Minnie by his side. There’s good reason that entertainment publications such as Variety have long referred to the company as the Mouse House.

    Bret Iwan, the voice of Mickey since 2009, believes the character’s humble beginnings — so similar to Walt’s own — make him relatable to all ages.

    “It’s this story of a little guy going on to do great big things,” Iwan says. “I always joke that Mickey is a mutual friend that we all know and love.”

    And then there’s Minnie, the yin to Mickey’s yang. “Lest anybody forget, Minnie has been around as long as Mickey,” says longtime Disney animator Eric Goldberg, noting she also first appeared in “Steamboat Willie” in 1928. “Absolutely, she is his equal.”

  • Snow White

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    “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937)

    Snow White, a fairy tale character dating back to the 1800s, became Disney’s first movie princess in the ambitious 1937 film named for her. Dubbed Disney’s folly during production, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” became the first traditionally animated feature film, and ended up a box office hit, vindicating Walt Disney’s decision to take out a mortgage to finance it. “Snow White” established the template for big-screen Disney princesses to come — typically smart young women yearning for true love and facing life-changing adversity with courage and pluck — and featured catchy songs such as “Whistle While You Work.” Also popular: Dopey, Grumpy and the rest of Snow White’s dwarf friends.

  • Bambi

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    “Bambi” (1942)

    Disney animators studied live deer while creating the character of Bambi, a fawn whose mother is killed by hunters during the movie, a development that left many young viewers in tears. Though it didn’t do well at the box office initially, it has since brought in significant coin via theatrical re-releases and home entertainment re-issues. Many subsequent Disney animated movies have featured protagonists that lose a parent, including Simba in “The Lion King,” but “Bambi” is perhaps the first children-skewing film to explore grief so poignantly — through the eyes of its young protagonist.

  • Cinderella

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    “Cinderella” (1950)

    Cinderella’s rags-to-riches story sounds like a fairy tale because the movie bearing her name is based on one. Forced by her evil stepmother to work as a maid, she meets Prince Charming at a ball with the help of her fairy godmother but leaves a glass slipper behind in her haste to get home before the spell ends; a search for the young woman that fits the abandoned slipper ensues. The movie was a hit — and a real shot in the arm for the studio, going on to spawn two sequels and a live-action 2015 remake starring Lily James.

  • Peter Pan and Tinker Bell

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    “Peter Pan” (1953)

    Peter Pan and Tinker Bell first appeared on screen in Disney’s 1953 adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play, and the animated tale about a free-spirited boy who won’t grow up has captivated audiences for decades. The film received retrospective criticism over its depiction of Native Americans, which Disney acknowledged and has since added advisories on its streaming platforms.

    Disney returned to Neverland with a 2002 sequel and 2023 live-action adaptation; an adult Peter and Tinker Bell also appear in Steven Spielberg’s live-action “Hook,” with Dustin Hoffman portraying the villainous pirate. Tinker Bell has taken on greater prominence over the decades, waving her wand over theme park castles and trailing pixie dust before many a Disney film.

  • Maleficent

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    “Sleeping Beauty” (1959)

    The tall, slender “Mistress of Evil” from 1959’s “Sleeping Beauty” ranks among the studio’s most iconic villains, an evil, green-skinned fairy with twisted black horns, a long cape and an angular face. Supervising animator Marc Davis (who went on to oversee Cruella de Vil two years later) blended elegance and menace to give Maleficent her imperious personality, which would later attract Angelina Jolie to play the character’s misunderstood dimensions in a live-action spinoff. “We aim for the clearest silhouette possible,” explains Disney veteran Eric Goldberg. “Sometimes we fill in our characters black to see if the silhouettes read, even without the internal detail.”

  • Cruella de Vil

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    “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” (1961)

    Everything about Cruella de Vil, introduced to moviegoers in “101 Dalmatians,” screamed villain: her henchmen, her name, her theme song and her thirst for fur. Whenever Cruella’s red and black car pulled up, it was never good. “Marc Davis designed her as if she’s a walking poison bottle,” says longtime Disney animator Eric Goldberg about the character who arranged to have a litter of puppies abducted so she could turn them into a distinctive coat. Glenn Close brought the character to life in the 1996 live-action adaptation, and Emma Stone played the young de Vil in the 2021 film “Cruella.”

  • Mary Poppins

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    “Mary Poppins” (1964)

    Julie Andrews won an Oscar for her performance as the titular “spoonful of sugar” loving nanny in “Mary Poppins,” a 1964 Disney adaptation of P.L. Travers’ book that is packed with hummable tunes, including “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” courtesy Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman’s Oscar-winning score.

    The original movie, co-starring Dick Van Dyke as chimney sweep Bert, spawned a hit Broadway musical in 2004, followed by the making-of movie “Saving Mr. Banks,” starring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney in 2013 and “Mary Poppins Returns,” starring Emily Blunt in 2018.

    Although Travers complained about Disney’s first adaptation, the studio undeniably created an enduring hit, thanks in large part to the iconic, umbrella-toting character. “Walt was very, very proud of ‘Mary Poppins,’” says animator Eric Goldberg, who is part of the studio’s creative legacy team and was just a kid when the original movie was released.

    He credits Andrews with making the character more appealing than in Travers’ books. Her nanny “kind of coaxed the children along by making a game out of things,” he says. “She’s part of the Disney DNA.”

  • Winnie the Pooh

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    “Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree” (1966)

    Originally created by A. A. Milne in the early 1920s, Winnie the Pooh made his onscreen debut in 1966 and hasn’t slowed down since. Deemed the most famous bear in the world (with a Hollywood Walk of Fame star to prove it), Pooh is Disney’s second-best-selling character after Mickey Mouse. His exuberant friend Tigger and mournful Eeyore also have legions of fans.

  • Roger Rabbit

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    “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988)

    Robert Zemeckis introduced moviegoers to the character of Roger Rabbit, originally created by author Gary K. Wolf, in a zippy cartoon/live-action hybrid that tore down stereotypes and indicted the oil companies and automotive industry for Machiavellian business practices. Plus, it was an eye-popping and hilarious adventure, notable for the vocal work of Charles Fleischer as the titular character, and the va-va-voom look of Roger’s wife Jessica Rabbit, who proclaimed: “I’m not bad — I’m just drawn that way.” The movie spawned rides in Disney parks, spinoff cartoons and video games.

  • Ursula

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    “The Little Mermaid” (1989)

    “The Little Mermaid” revived Disney’s animation ambitions in 1989, and while Ariel is popular, Ursula has captured imaginations and has become an icon of sorts — she’s bold, unapologetic, canny and exudes big grrrl/drag queen confidence that many women and those in the LGBTQ+ community celebrate. Drag queen Divine was a big influence on the character’s look, who had to move like a real octopus and be seductive with her tentacles. “She still pictured herself as being the vamp that she used to be back in the day when she lived in the Mermaid Kingdom,” says supervising animator Rubin A. Aquino. “She is very confident in herself.”

  • Genie

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    “Aladdin” (1992)

    Genie, the magical funster from Disney’s animated feature “Aladdin,” was not originally supposed to be blue but Black, inspired by musicians such as Fats Waller and Cab Calloway, says composer Alan Menken, who first developed “Aladdin” as a musical alongside lyricist Howard Ashman.

    Having expected a jazz singer to step into the role, Menken admits he was “thrown” when Robin Williams was first cast — until the comedian got into the recording booth. His performance was “just the most brilliant thing you’ve ever seen, amazing,” says Menken. (Will Smith, who played Genie in the 2019 live-action remake, was “stylistically perfect,” adds the composer).

    While “Aladdin” is ostensibly the story of a pauper trying to woo a princess, it is the friendship between Aladdin and Genie that really gives the movie its heart. Menken agrees the film is something of a “bromance” between the two characters. Why does he think Genie has remained so popular? “He’s a shapeshifter, he’s ebullient, he’s fun, he’s vulnerable.”

    Ashman, who wrote “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” with Menken, did not live to see “Aladdin” go into production, dying of AIDS at the age of 40 in 1991. But the story he first conceived for the stage — and the showstoppers he wrote — have ensured Genie remains a fan favorite more than three decades later.

  • Jack Skellington

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    “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993)

    First introduced in 1993’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” Jack Skellington is the film’s, as well as Disney’s, patron spirit of Halloween. Born from a poem by the king of gothic-style cinema Tim Burton, the infamous skeleton and the spooky citizens of Halloween Town became the studio’s first venture into stop-motion animation.

    Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the film is fondly remembered by Henry Selick, for which “Nightmare” was his feature directorial debut. “All the things that people might have felt are strange or too scary, that’s what people have grown to love the most — the strangeness and originality of it,” says Selick.

    The innovative use of stop motion, which Selick describes as “ancient magic,” furthers the film’s notoriety within Disney’s library. Selick admits he and his crew had “unlimited confidence” with their creativity, and it paid off, as the film justly earned an Oscar nomination for best visual effects.

    Skellington has since become a representative of the Halloween-to-Christmas season for Disney — from taking over the Haunted Mansion to appearing in Halloween parades.

    From his iconic look to catchy and oh-so-spooky, songs, Selick notes there are many reasons why the Pumpkin King is so beloved during that time of year. Most of all though, he believes Jack’s charm is due to his “irrepressible enthusiasm to take on something completely new.”

  • Simba

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    “The Lion King” (1994)

    Disney’s most famous anthropomorphic animals tend to walk on their hind legs. But not the talking critters in 1994’s “The Lion King.” The decision to observe realistic animal traits within hand-drawn animation marked a return to Walt Disney’s approach to “Bambi,” where artists found references in nature, studying the anatomy and behavior of wildlife.

    Mark Henn, supervising animator on the young Simba character, recalls how Disney legend “Eric Larson used to describe the deer in ‘Snow White’ as ‘flour sacks with legs,’ whereas there was a real concerted effort at the studio to make ‘Bambi’ as believable a deer as possible. We went through the same process for ‘Lion King.’ We had experts bringing animals into the studio, just like we had deer in the studio for Bambi.” Lion cubs “have a power you don’t see in a domestic cat, underlying that seemingly soft exterior,” which he melded with child actor Jonathan Taylor Thomas’ playful facial expressions.

    Later, director Julie Taymor cast human performers in African tribal masks for the Broadway musical, and Jon Favreau took a more photoreal approach for the mostly computer-generated remake.

  • Buzz and Woody

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    “Toy Story” (1995)

    When Buzz Lightyear and Woody first crossed paths in 1995’s “Toy Story,” the pull-string cowboy and plastic space ranger were instant rivals. Woody’s jealousy over Buzz potentially replacing him as Andy’s favorite toy paired with Buzz realizing he actually is a toy was comedic gold for Pixar’s first feature film that was entirely computer animated, and the first produced under a deal with eventual-owner Disney.

    Four films into the franchise (and a fifth on the way), the two characters have become the best of friends. Buzz’s persona “changed enormously” once Tim Allen was cast opposite Tom Hanks, according to Pixar’s creative chief officer Pete Docter.

    “Allen played Buzz like a space cop with swagger,” he notes. “It forced us to rewrite everything based on the way Tim was approaching it. Of course, it turned out way better than anything we had in mind.”

  • Mulan

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    “Mulan” (1998)

    Fa Mulan wasn’t just the first Asian woman to lead an animated Disney movie, she kicked ass — a heroine with brawn and brains who schooled the men around her by going undercover as a soldier in the Imperial Chinese Army in place of her elderly father. Ming-Na Wen, who voiced the character in the 1998 movie and its 2004 sequel, says the character still affects people to this day. “I was at the doctor’s and wearing a mask and the nurse told me I sounded so familiar,” Wen told Variety. “She said, ‘Oh my God, you were Mulan! And my goodness, this nurse practically broke into tears.”

  • Mike and Sully

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    “Monsters, Inc.” (2001)

    Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan — aka Mike and Sully — were never supposed to be heroes. “My initial pitch was this big scary monster who gets stuck with a little kid,” says Pete Docter, director of the movie and now chief creative officer at Pixar Animation Studios. “When we went to pitch it to Disney, they said, ‘What if he had a friend?’”

    With voice acting magic dropped in by Billy Crystal (Mike) and John Goodman (Sully), the duo came to life and defied the odds in saving the life of human Boo who accidentally slipped into their world.

    As one of the most memorable animated buddies, Mike and Sully taught audiences that things aren’t always as they seem, and sometimes it just takes a little shift in perspective. They returned to share their origin story in the 2013 prequel “Monsters University” that, again, stressed the importance of friendship and never giving up.

  • Stitch

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    “Lilo & Stitch” (2002)

    Disney’s marketing department positioned six-limbed, blue-skinned alien Stitch as the misfit of the Disney family. Truth is, the studio developed the lower-budget toon from its Florida hub, far from the mothership. But audiences loved the little guy, who launched tons of toys, and even earned an upcoming live-action remake. “He had an incredibly cute character design and was very round, lovable and huggable,” says producer Clark Spencer. “Yet inside, he was this very naughty character who does everything he’s not supposed to do, which is why people get attached to him.”

  • Dory

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    “Finding Nemo” (2003)

    Dory, a bluefish with short-term memory loss that tries to help a nervous father locate his son in Oscar-winning “Finding Nemo,” was one of Disney’s earliest characters with a biological disability.

    “It came very honestly,” says director Andrew Stanton. “I read that goldfish have a memory of three seconds, and that slowly turned into a great quality to have for a fish that was attached to a father with helicopter parenting issues.”

    Ellen DeGeneres voiced Dory, whose catchphrase, “Just keep swimming,” has taught audiences to never give up. “I’m really amazed by its power,” he says. “It just made sense at the time; there’s not much fish do other than that.”

    Stanton says his “itch” to do a film centered around Dory blossomed when he thought, “wait a minute, she never found her family, she lost them. We’ve always had this ethos at Pixar that we shouldn’t make a sequel unless it comes to us like an original does.”

  • Cap. Jack Sparrow

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    “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003)

    Johnny Depp’s personal ups and downs notwithstanding, the actor created a bona fide cinematic icon with Capt. Jack Sparrow, notable for his midnight eyes and Keith Richards-inspired swagger. Depp, together with hair stylist Martin Samuel and makeup artist Ve Neill, came up with the character’s distinctive look.

    “Johnny captured lightning in a bottle,” says Joel Harlow, key makeup artist on the first three movies before graduating to head of department for “On Stranger Tides.” Harlow remembers often finding himself tasked with applying Depp’s eyeliner on a rocking boat in the middle of the sea. “A lot of times he would go home with the kohl on,” says Harlow. “There’s a big part of Jack Sparrow that is Johnny and vice versa.”

  • Hannah Montana

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    “Hannah Montana” (2006)

    The appeal of “Hannah Montana” — the Disney Channel show that propelled Miley Cyrus to stardom — lay in its premise, which could basically be summed up as “Superman” meets Britney Spears. “You can be this regular girl and also have a secret life being a famous pop star,” says Dahlia Foroutan, a costume designer on the “Hannah Montana” show and tour.

    The show birthed No. 1 one albums, tours and substantial merchandise sales, with the 2007 Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus concert tour generating the same kind of hysteria as Taylor Swift’s recent Eras outing. “It was insane. It was bigger and more of a phenomenon than anyone could have imagined,” says Foroutan.

    A 3D concert film grossed over $70 million worldwide and was followed by “Hannah Montana: The Movie.” By 2010, when the show’s fourth and final season aired, the secret was out: Cyrus had become a superstar in her own right. It was time to leave Hannah behind.

  • WALL-E

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    “WALL-E” (2008)

    The cubical little trash compactor is one of Pixar’s most rudimentary designs, with its tank-tread “feet” and binoculars-looking head, illustrating how much life animators can breathe into even the simplest shapes. The fact that Wall-E doesn’t speak forced the studio to push the character’s pantomime-based gestures and micro-eye movements for maximum expressivity. The result was a robot love story with an eco-conscious soul. “It’s been 15 years since that movie came out,” recalls director Andrew Stanton. “I’d like to think it inspired a whole youth or toddler drive to be aware of taking care of the planet from early on.”

  • Tiana

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    “The Princess and the Frog” (2009)

    When “The Princess and the Frog” was released in 2009, Princess Tiana left an invaluable cultural imprint as the first Black Disney Princess. Joyce Sherri, who will serve ash the upcoming “Tiana” animated series‘ lead writer and director, speaks to the significance of Tiana’s character and her ongoing legacy.

    As a writer and filmmaker, Sherri was personally affected when she saw Tiana’s story on screen. Like Tiana, Sherri was a Black woman growing up in the South with dreams of her own. “I saw a lot of myself in Tiana as a young Black girl. Witnessing Tiana’s relentless pursuit of her dreams and her transformation into a princess by the end of it all was something I had never seen before,” Sherri says. “Tiana for me personally stands among the representations that have not only shaped me as a filmmaker, but also just as a human being.”

    Sherri also notes the pressure that went along with being the first Black Disney princess. “She is representing an entire diaspora, which is a lot to put on the shoulders of an animated character.”

    Tiana has certainly struck a chord with moviegoers and inspired an upcoming ride at Disneyland and World; the restaurant Tiana’s Palace just opened at Disneyland.

    “It really speaks to the impact of Black culture and Black people, to be able to see it jump off of the screen and now be in real life,” Sherri says. “It’s not enough to just see it in the movie. You have to be able to see it in the real world as well and to interact with it and to find enjoyment in it.”

  • Elsa and Anna

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    “Frozen” (2013)

    It’s been a decade since “Frozen” was released and audiences just can’t “Let It Go” — thanks in large part to the appeal of Elsa and Anna, who take the classic trope of a true love’s kiss and turn it on its head. In the Oscar-winning movie based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, Elsa’s true love is not a royal prince, but her sister.

    “Elsa is a very interesting character to me because she has incredible power, but she also struggles with a lot of what people struggle with, insecurities,” says the film’s co-director Jennifer Lee, who has since become chief creative officer of Disney Animation. “There’s a little tragic nature to her that I think is relatable but also in that a triumph.” Anna, on the other hand, is “all about possibility. She’s an ordinary hero like us.”

    The original movie grossed more than $1.28 billion worldwide; sequels, spinoffs and a Broadway adaptation have followed.

    Even through its Broadway adaptation, the theme of sisterhood has been key. During the finale, Elsa sings, “The magic one is you.” Says Lee, “That’s how they see one another, and that means a lot to me. It goes back to the power of sisterhood.”

  • Mirabel

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    “Encanto” (2021)

    Everything about Disney’s “Encanto” is magical — except for 15-year-old Mirabel, the youngest child of a large family and the only one without special powers.

    “She’s not poised or perfect in any way, shape or form,” producer Clark Spencer says of the glasses-wearing character living in the mountains of Colombia. “She’s discovering who she is. So she’s very empathetic and compassionate.”

    As with all Disney movies, there’s a deeper message in the film of intergenerational trauma. The Madrigal family’s magic is rooted in deep pain that begins with Abuela Alma. Although coming from a place of sadness, Abuela tries to find beauty in trauma, but unfortunately passes expectations on to her children and grandchildren, expecting them to be nothing short of perfect and hard-working rather than face Abuela’s disdain.

    Mirabel’s discoveries about herself and her fellow family members throughout the film begin the healing process for all. “What she discovered through this journey is her power is who she is and what she brings to the family. She’s the one who can ultimately bring this family to the place that it needs to be,” Spencer says.

    And although awkward, Mirabel is loveable and over the course of the movie realizes that “it’s OK to be who you are,” Spencer says. “That is where your power is.”

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