The 100 best animated movies: 20–11

World-famous animators pick the best animated movies ever, including Disney and Pixar movies, cult movies, kids movies, stop-motion, anime and more

Up (2009)

Pixar’s saddest, sweetest, strangest film.

Directors: Pete Docter and Bob Peterson

Best quote: “Adventure is out there!”

Defining moment: An obvious one—the heartbreaking opening sequence tracking Carl and Ellie through their life together.

Even after Ratatouille, even after The Incredibles, even after Wall-E, we weren’t expecting this. Up is Pixar at its most profound and risk-taking, opening with a devastating eight-minute montage of love and loss before proceeding with the tale of a grouchy elderly man who makes the decision to fly his entire house to South America using helium balloons. It was, of course, a massive hit. That three-hankie opening is the sequence most viewers remember, and it is astonishing. But the rest of the movie is just as magnificent, flitting from stoner humor (“I do not like the cone of shame,” a dog woefully says) and soaring 3-D action to genuinely affecting age-gap bonding. The result falls somewhere between Werner Herzog and Winnie the Pooh: a tale of adventure, determination, grief, friendship and talking canines. Squirrel!—Tom Huddleston

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Ratatouille (2007)

Pixar was at the height of its powers when it made this Paris-set tale of a rat with immense cooking talent.

Directors: Brad Bird and Jan Pinkava

Best quote: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy.”

Defining moment: Food critic Anton Ego tastes Remy’s dish and is plunged into memories of his childhood.

Sandwiched in time between Cars and Wall-E, Pixar’s Ratatouille was the third animated feature from codirector Brad Bird, after The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. Perhaps there’s no better example of the boldness of Pixar’s approach to story and character. Ratatouille tells of Remy, a food-obsessed French rat washed down a sewer only to emerge in Paris, where he begins to help an awkward young kitchen worker cook incredible food in a top restaurant. The story is as mature and original as the animation (which, as ever, is groundbreaking without showing off—just look at how they show water and hair). And the Peter O’Toole–voiced character—Anton Ego, the icy food critic thawed by Remy’s cooking—is a total delight. Pixar also proved that originality can sell: The film stormed the box office.—Dave Calhoun

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Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

A live-action gumshoe must prove that a cartoon rabbit has been wrongly accused of murder.

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Best quote: “I’m not bad—I’m just drawn that way.”

Defining moment: Roger falls for the ol’ shave-and-a-haircut trick.

Live action and animation have been mixed multiple times, but never quite as brilliantly as in Robert Zemeckis’s blockbuster film noir parody. The setting is postwar Los Angeles, where characters like Bugs Bunny, Dumbo and Mickey Mouse are actual Hollywood contract players as opposed to artists’ caprices. A bowtied-and-overalled hare named Roger (voiced with sputtering glee by Charles Fleischer) is accused of murdering the human founder of Acme products for having slept with his comely spouse, Jessica (smokily realized by Kathleen Turner). Only alcoholic private eye Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) can clear this poor bunny’s name and save him from the death-dealing hands of the conniving Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd). Zemeckis and chief animator Richard Williams (whose Academy Award–winning work here was part of a deal to complete his long-gestating opus The Thief and the Cobbler) keep the eye-popping sights coming. Highlights are the many classic cameos, including a hilarious piano duel between Daffy and Donald Duck; a careering car chase involving a Bronx-accented cab named Benny; and Eddie’s own “dark night” in the ominously cheery Toontown, where even Droopy Dog is out to get him.—Keith Uhlich

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Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)

An eccentric inventor and his loyal canine companion hunt a mutant bunny.

Directors: Steve Box and Nick Park

Best quote: “I’m sorry, Gromit—I know you’re doing this for my own good, but the fact is I’m just crackers about cheese.”

Defining moment: Gromit follows the oversize bunny in a vehicular chase that goes below ground.

British animator Nick Park made his name with a series of award-winning stop-motion shorts featuring Wallace, an inventor whose creations often go awry, and Gromit, his devoted dog. In their Oscar-winning feature debut (a coproduction between Park’s Aardman Animations and DreamWorks), the two are hired to protect their town’s vegetable patches from ravenous rabbits. Wallace tries to brainwash the bunnies with his latest creation (the Mind Manipulation–O-Matic), but instead ends up creating a bigger foe—a towering were-rabbit that emerges at every full moon. The canvas is a bit bigger than in Aardman’s previous excursions: Celebrities like Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter lend their vocal talents, and there are a few beautifully bombastic action scenes. Yet the endearingly handmade qualities of Park’s shorter works are still fully evident, especially in Gromit’s priceless silent reactions to his human master’s frequent obliviousness.—Keith Uhlich

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It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012)

A one-man masterpiece.

Director: Don Hertzfeldt

Best quote: “Someone sits on the shore and tells him how the waves have been there long before Bill existed, and that they’ll still be there long after he’s gone. Bill looks out at the water and thinks of all the wonderful things he will do with his life.”

Defining moment: In the epic finale, a stick hero is reborn into an ageless existence and learns all the secrets of the universe.

How satisfying it is to find Don Hertzfeldt’s self-made saga of schizophrenia and self-loss nestling comfortably in the higher reaches of our rankings. Written, directed, produced, animated, photographed, voiced and distributed entirely by Hertzfeldt himself (he admits to getting a little help with the editing), It’s Such a Beautiful Day is the tale of a young everyman, Bill, who finds his mind and his world unexpectedly going to pieces. Hertzfeldt’s style may have started off simple, with stick figures and basic line drawings, but by the time of this feature, it had broadened to include a dizzying array of in-camera, nondigital visual effects. The result is one of the great outsider artworks of the modern era, at once sympathetic and shocking, beautiful and horrifying, angry and hilarious, uplifting and almost unbearably sad. Seek it out.—Tom Huddleston

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Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

This unflinching war story proves that, in animation, anything is possible.

Director: Isao Takahata

Best quote: “September 21, 1945…that was the night I died.”

Defining moment: We don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, but it features one of the most heart-wrenching character deaths in movie history.

The year 1988 saw Studio Ghibli at the peak of its powers, releasing a pair of richly personal tributes to youthful resilience that proved the breadth and brilliance of their work. My Neighbor Totoro (coming up!) was studio founder Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece, a work of wondrous beauty and grace. But it’s matched—some would say surpassed—by Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, perhaps the bleakest and least forgiving film in our top 100. Set in the midst of WWII, the story follows two children, Setsuko and Seita, as they lose their mother in an American bombing raid and are forced to fend for themselves. At first it’s all a game, but as sickness and starvation begin to intrude, the film deepens and darkens, ultimately reaching a place of complete emotional exhaustion and absolute, devastating grief. This is not a movie to be taken lightly.—Tom Huddleston

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Akira (1988)

A biker teen unleashes a psychic with apocalyptic powers—oh, and it’s 2019.

Director: Katsuhiro Ohtomo

Best quote: “The future is not a straight line. It is filled with many crossroads.”

Defining moment: Motorcycle gangs tear through the night destroying all in their wake—a scene that would give Mad Max chills.

Anime’s breakout moment, this supercharged sci-fi thriller turned a niche subgenre into a global phenomenon: Western teens started using the term cyberpunk in casual geek-speak, while Japan’s printed manga suddenly flew off the shelves. To the nonfan dragged along for the ride, the movie felt a lot like Blade Runner and Brazil, featuring incredibly vivid details and attention paid to urban decay. But Akira was also a watershed moment for sci-fi in a larger sense, popularizing ideas of citywide ruination, futuristic rebirth and a distinctly Asian notion of psionic powers that would influence everything from The Matrix to Inception. The mutable setting of Neo-Tokyo anticipated the larger playground of the Internet, still years off but somehow of a piece with these youthful speed racers.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Fantasia (1940)

In Disney’s extravaganza, eight fantastical vignettes are scored to music by Bach, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky.

Director: No less than 11 directors slaved on individual sequences, many without credit.

Best quote: “Mr. Stokowski! Mr. Stokowski!”

Defining moment: Sorcerer’s apprentice Mickey Mouse finds himself on the wrong end of the broomsticks.

By the end of the 1930s, Mickey Mouse, the bedrock character of a growing empire, had declined in popularity. So Walt Disney commissioned the elaborate short “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Accompanied by the highly hummable Paul Dukas composition of the same name, it follows the red-robed rodent as he magically brings an army of broomsticks to life. While in postproduction on the short, Disney decided to surround it with similar vignettes scored to other classical compositions, and Fantasia was born. Aside from some interstitial material narrated by Deems Taylor (during which Mickey himself greets star conductor Leopold Stokowski), the music dictates Fantasia’s visual-aural flow. Abstract color patterns rise and fall to Bach, life-size mushrooms dance to Tchaikovksy, a hippo and an alligator do a slapstick Ponchielli ballet, and the devil himself summons dark spirits to Modest Mussorgsky’s churning Night on Bald Mountain. Silly and sublime in equal measure—as well as a film that served to introduce generations of kids to the joys of classical music—this is one of the Mouse House’s finest.—Keith Uhlich

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Alice (1988)

This Lewis Carroll adaptation, from a brilliant Czech surrealist, is too wild and wonderful for kids.

Director: Jan Svankmajer

Best quote: “Alice thought to herself, Now you will see a film…made for children…perhaps.”

Defining moment: The Mad Hatter’s tea party: hilarious, anarchic and a fabulous example of Svankmajer’s ability to make the impossible seem absolutely real.

Jan Svankmajer’s first feature is a characteristically inventive but rigorous account of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, faithful in spirit to the original while remaining conspicuously true to his own highly distinctive brand of surrealism. Blending live action (Kristyna Kohoutová, who plays the heroine, is the only human in the film) with various forms of stop-motion animation, Svankmajer creates a wonderland notable for its bizarre dreamlike logic and its grotesque beauty: Skeletal creatures scuttle and steaks crawl while Alice, no stranger to thoughts of cruel whimsy, changes size and becomes her own doll. It’s brilliantly imaginative, bitingly witty and fittingly Freudian. This is no saccharine celebration of innocence, but a foray into the darker recesses of childhood fears and desires. And therefore, perhaps not a film for children.—Geoff Andrew

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Yellow Submarine (1968)

The cartoon Beatles rampage through a psychedelic Pop Art dreamscape.

Director: George Dunning

Best quote: “Nothing is Beatleproof!”

Defining moment: The gorgeously downbeat “Eleanor Rigby” sequence, utilizing monochrome photos of Liverpool.

This may prove to be the most divisive film on our list: Hardened Beatlemaniacs will tell you that Yellow Submarine is a travesty, employing fake (and not especially convincing) Liverpudlian accents to tell a nonsensical tale steeped in late-’60s acid-fried sentiment, never mind that the Fab Four pop up in person at the end to give their blessing. Art maniacs, meanwhile, will tell you it’s a dazzling work of the imagination, harnessing every animation technique available at the time to create an eye-frazzling, insanely inventive trip. To be fair, they’re probably both right: The script is silly, the story is cringeworthy, and the Beatle characterizations are a bit soft. But visually it’s breathtaking, one of the few genuinely hallucinatory cinema experiences, and fully deserving of its high placement here.—Tom Huddleston

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