Pinocchio, Fantasia and Bambi are nowadays regarded as three of the greatest animated films of all time, but were all huge flops at the box office (and Bambi in particular was coldly received by critics) on their original releases. World War II cost Disney the European market (that had helped make Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs so successful), although other factors contributed to the films' failures (listed below with each film). Their combined failures nearly destroyed Walt Disney Studios. Even after they recovered from the debacle, Disney never again experimented with such risky films, opting for safer, more commercial and profitable ventures instead. However, Walt did live to see the films gain the reputations they truly deserved.
Pinocchio (1940) was considered too episodic by some critics, and audiences proved to NOT be in the mood for such fanciful fare during WWII. It was successful domestically in the United States though, since they had yet to enter the war at that time.
Fantasia (1940), in a nutshell, was too far ahead of its time. Most theaters refused to install the special "Fantasound" speakers needed to create the surround sound which Walt had planned the film to use, and many critics derided the film as pretentious. Yes, the Animation Age Ghetto existed before the trope did. The failure of Fantasia crushed Walt, who abolished plans to make any sequels (and this was the only film he wanted to make a sequel to). The popularity of Fantasia really started to grow in the 1960s, as young audiences in tune with psychedelic imagery found the initial all-abstract Toccata and Fugue scene as well as the false-color pastels of the Pastoral Symphony compelling.
Bambi (1942), like Fantasia, was a victim of being too far ahead of its time, so much that even the European box office was easily shunned. Critics derided it as pretentious and overly introspective compared to everything that had come before. Oh, and lets not bring Bambification into this either, please.
Alice in Wonderland (1951) was a financial failure. But like Fantasia, it would be rediscovered in The '60s and become popular among the counter-culture and a new generation of fans, that didn't care that they weren't the Disney Princess fare. Disney even said he didn't really like it, although that did not stop him from allowing it in Disneyland and coming up with a lot of very good ideas (even the ones, that didn't make it), and the attraction in Disneyland continues to prove itself as quite popular.
Sleeping Beauty (1959) in particular devastated Walt Disney and almost convinced him to abandon animated feature production altogether. He viewed the film as his second shot at getting into more sophisticated, "adult" animation after Fantasia, by using the tried-and-true "princess" style, that made Snow White and Cinderella such big hits. But even though it was the second most popular movie of the year, it hade been so expensive to make that Disney couldn't make a profit out of it. The Xerox process pioneered by 101 Dalmatians and used in subsequent films lowered production costs substantially, which played a pivotal role in Disney's decision to continue animated film production. Still, Disney would not adapt another fairy tale in Walt's lifetime, not until 1989 with The Little Mermaid.
A number of Disney disappointments after Walt's death recuperated on a small scale, either when re-released to theaters or when debuting on home video.
The first completely independent of Walt, Robin Hood (1973), was wrecked by the company's financial problems of the 1970s, resulting in severe corner-cutting in its production. It made money, but was panned by contemporary critics, and was considered Disney's worst film to date internally. However, VHS made it one of Disney's most beloved classics in the 1980s and 1990s. (And then there's its popularity in the Furry Fandom...)
While not panned - they're both graded Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes - The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules were widely criticized for Bowdlerizing a classic work of literature and classical mythology, respectively. Attitudes towards both films have changed since then. Hunchback gets a lot of praise for being one of the darkest Disney films, with one of the most compelling (and complex) villains in the entire canon with Frollo, and quite possibly having Alan Menken's greatest soundtrack, while Herc is often viewed as one of the funniest films in the canon, as well as providing the most genuinely likeable villain since Ratigan in Hades.
Pocahontas downplays it. When it came out in 1995, while a significant hit, it marked the decline in Disney's success. The general public was starting to grow tired of the Princess movies, and Pocahontas had the bad luck to be the first Disney film released after the mega hit that was The Lion King. These days, while not exactly respected, its fans are growing and it has a nostalgic value to many who loved it when they were children. In comparison to some of Disney's worse offerings that came afterwards, general consensus is that it's far from their worst film. There are numerous fans of its stunning animation, award-winning songs and An Aesop that some feel is a good one.
Max and Dave Fleischer: Their cartoons were immensely popular during the 1930s, even rivaling Disney. But Disney got more serious attention from critics, because the animation was more fluid, realistic and better in storytelling. During World War Two the Fleischers went bankrupt, effectively making them fall into obscurity for a few decades. During the 1960s and 1970s, their cartoons were rediscovered by Underground Comics artists, who adored the creative freedom, jazzy soundtracks and bouncy cartoony animation of Betty Boop and Popeye. By the 1980s, Betty Boop even became remarketed in advertising, finding a whole new audience. Nowadays the Fleischer animation is no longer seen as inferior to Disney, but appreciated as original, authentic and creative in its own right. Their technological achievements with mixing live-action and animation are even acknowledged by the Disney Studios.
Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941) had the misfortune of opening two days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, which severely hurt the film's box office returns, combined with Paramount having little faith in it, and was mostly stuck at the bottom half of double feature bills. These misfortunes eventually lead to Paramount's takeover of Fleischer Studios and the ousting of Max and Dave Fleischer. Today, it's a Cult Classic among animation fans and is considered one of the Fleischers' best works for it's animation and story.
Tex Avery: He remained unknown and unrecognized through most of his life. Yes, his work was immensely popular and his style was imitated and plagiarized endlessly. But as his cartoons didn't have any real stars, apart from Droopy, he never was that recognizable to the general audience. Avery was also a very shy man, who did not enjoy being in the spotlight. So his work was never universally awarded, recognized or lauded until after his death.
Also Tex's contemporary, Bob Clampett: Bob was originally much more esoteric compared to the other big name Looney Tunes directors, but thanks in part to the efforts of historians and animators like John Kricfalusi, and lists like The 50 Greatest Cartoons, as well as the DVD collections and the internet making his work much easier to access, his cartoons have gained a substantially large fan following in recent times, many of whom put him on the same pedestal as the other esteemed directors of the franchise, like Chuck Jones and Tex.
What's Opera, Doc? by Chuck Jones took several weeks longer to make than the standard Looney Tune, and Jones gave it a grand Hollywood premiere nearing the scale of a feature-length movie. His aim was the ultimate Bugs Bunny cartoon. His work was not rewarded at the time by animation critics or by the Academy. After 35 years, it became one of the first pieces of animation inducted into the National Film Registry, arguably the highest reward in American cinema. Before Steamboat Willie!
Similarly, two particular characters from Warner's Golden Age, Marvin the Martian and the Tasmanian Devil, each appeared in only five shorts. They have become major Looney Tunes supporting stars since the Golden Age ended, aging much better than a number of characters who appeared in 10 or more Golden Age shorts.
Yellow Submarine, released near the peak of Beatlemania, was nevertheless compared unfavorably to other cartoons of the period, especially Disney products. It took a few decades for the film to eventually gain its tremendous fanbase and to be acknowledged as a wonderfully creative and enjoyable musical.
James and the Giant Peach. The money that Burton and his colleague Henry Selick DID make on Nightmare was lost when James underperformed (even though critics loved it), and their animation studio, Skellington Productions, went bankrupt.
The Secret Of NIMH. While it was a hit with the critics, financial results were less than impressive against Disney Studio fare of the time, and (because it was 1982) against ET The Extraterrestrial. NIMH is currently the most popular work of Don Bluth.
All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989) earned about 27 million in the United States market, and the professional reviews were mostly negative. But it became a smash hit when released on video, considered "one of the top-selling VHS releases of all time". It is currently highly regarded by animation fans.
Twice Upon a Time had the misfortune of being produced at a time when its studio, The Ladd Company, was nearing bankruptcy. If that name sounds familiar, it may be because of another Ladd production, The Right Stuff, which was planned to come out the same year (1983). Since Twice Upon a Time was animated, Ladd decided to put it in limited release with The Right Stuff in worldwide release, and both films bombed at theaters, causing Ladd to shut down. This movie actually has a strange case of Vindicated by History: It gained a cult following in subsequent years for its humor and dialogue, and is notable for both using the relatively-rare form of cutout animation called "Lumage," and for being the first animated film produced by George Lucas, so it's a hit with audiences, but as of 2012 it hasn't seen a DVD release or even been on television since Cartoon Network last reran it as part of their "Cartoon Theater" block in the late 1990s.
The animated The Transformers: The Movie from 1986. Universally panned by critics in its day, an absolute bomb at the box offices, the target audience cried at the deaths of beloved characters and rejected the newly introduced nobodies... 20 years later it was a constant hot seller on video and DVD, and continues to be to this very day, with "anniversary" and "reconstructed" and "ultimate" editions being released every few years. Fans widely believe it to be the quintessential piece of 1980s "Transformers Generation 1" fiction. The Transformers Wikioffers a simple explanation:
On a practical note, it was widely available on videotape, and remained so long after the The Transformers cartoon had gone off the air. Only a handful of series episodes were available on video, making The Transformers: The Movie the logical choice for someone looking to pick up a Transformers cartoon; this made it far more well-known among fans than any particular cartoon episode.
The Brave Little Toaster (1987) received a limited theatrical release and had no real box office results. It only became a hit when released on VHS in 1991. It went to become popular with 1990s animations fans and currently has a reputation as an animated gem.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm performed poorly at the box office (a $5.6 million gross versus a $6 million budget), because it was intended to be a straight-to-video release, but Warner Brothers decided to release it theatrically at the last possible moment, giving them practically no time to promote it. Luckily it slowly gained a stronger audience through VHS release. It is now known around the internet as "The greatest Batman film prior to The Dark Knight."
The Iron Giant tanked domestically (a $23.2 million gross versus a $70 million budget) despite earning overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics, a feat that wasn't helped by Warner Bros.' botched marketing for the film. Upon hitting VHS, it became the best-selling animated film of its year (even outperforming Tarzan), and was the film that convinced John Lasseter to produce Brad Bird's pet project The Incredibles (which naturally turned into another Pixar megablockbuster). It routinely receives marathon airings on Cartoon Network, and has been regarded as one of the best animated films of all time.