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The 100 best animated movies: the best cult movies

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

Now we know which are the 100 best animation movies of all time. But which are the best Disney movies and which are the best Pixar or Studio Ghibli films? Which are best for kids and families and which are strictly arty, political or edgy?

We’ve applied 26 handy labels to the 100 great animations in our list. Here you’ll find all the films deserving of the label “cult.”

But how many have you seen? Take our poll to find out.

RECOMMENDED: Explore the 100 best animated movies ever made

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Miyazaki proves he has the heart of a child, the eye of a painter and the soul of a poet.

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Best quote: “Trees and people used to be good friends.”

Defining moment: The first appearance of the roving cat-bus will have viewers of all ages gasping in delight.

Some filmmakers build their great artworks with blood, sweat and toil. Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki seems to sprout his from seeds, planting them in good earth and patiently watering them until they burst into bloom. My Neighbor Totoro is the gentlest, most unassuming film on this list, a tale of inquisitive children, mischievous dust fairies, magical trees and shy sylvan creatures. But in its own quietly remarkable way, it’s also one of the richest and most overwhelming.

This is a story whose roots go deep: into Japanese tradition and culture, into its creator’s personal past, into a collective childhood filled with tales of mystery and a love of all things that grow. There is darkness at the film’s heart—the fear of losing a parent, the loneliness and frustration of childhood—but its touch is gossamer-light, delighting in simple pleasures like raindrops on an umbrella, dust motes drifting in the sun and midnight dances in the garden. The visual style is unmistakably Japanese (unadorned and artful) and the theme song is so sugary-chirrupy-sweet that it’s impossible to dislodge once heard. But the cumulative effect is unique and utterly all-encompassing, returning us to a world we have all, at one time, lived in—and perhaps will again.—Tom Huddleston

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The Iron Giant (1999)

The Ted Hughes novel came to Hollywood in a studio movie that broke technical and storytelling boundaries—if not box-office records.

Director: Brad Bird

Best quote: “I am not a gun.”

Defining moment: The giant carries Hogarth in his hand, high above the treetops below.

Before directing The Incredibles and Rataouille, animator Brad Bird made his feature debut with this charming, intelligent adaptation of the late 1960s Ted Hughes children’s story The Iron Man. Best known at the time for his work on The Simpsons, Bird moved the tale from Britain to 1950s Maine, lending it distinct Cold War flavor. A young boy, Hogarth (given the surname Hughes in honor of the poet, who died in 1998, a year before the film’s release), discovers a metallic giant in his hometown and fights to protect it from being pulverized by the military—while simultaneously teaching it how to live in peace on earth. The widescreen film has a streak of smart humor as well as a winning, harmonious worldview, and mixes computer animation and more traditional techniques: The CGI was mostly invested in rendering the giant as convincingly as possible, while traditional hand-drawn techniques were reserved for the humans. Visually, the film offers stunning moments without sacrificing a pleasingly old-fashioned air. It wasn’t a success at the box office, although it was hailed as a rare example of a family movie with heart and brains. Thankfully, Pixar gave Bird a chance to fly again.—Dave Calhoun

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The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

The film that made Christmas creepy.

Director: Henry Selick

Best quote: “Jack, you make wounds ooze and flesh crawl!” (It’s a compliment.)

Defining moment: The opening song, gloriously and ghoulishly upbeat.

It all started in 1982, with a poem written by Tim Burton, then a humble animator at Disney. A year later, Burton pitched A Nightmare Before Christmas to his bosses as a TV special. But the powers that be thought the idea “too weird,” and the project went on the back burner until Beetlejuice and Batman made Burton a hot property.

Too weird? Not a bit. Burton’s graveyard fairy tale is a good old-fashioned musical, with song-and-dance numbers that would get Gene Kelly tapping his feet. It’s the story of Jack Skellington, the king of Halloween Town, who discovers a portal to Christmas Town and likes what he sees—children throwing snowballs instead of heads. No one is dead. Jack crafts a plan to kidnap Father Christmas, or Sandy Claws, as he calls him.

Directed by stop-motion maestro Henry Selick from Burton’s story, the movie took 15 animators almost three years to make. Working with more than 227 puppets, they completed just one minute of the film a week. That translates into mind-boggling detail, right down to the mayor’s spider tie. The dialogue is deliciously macabre, the storytelling dizzyingly inventive and the characters touchingly sweet. A twisted delight.—Cath Clarke

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Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

An idiosyncratic auteur gets animated with this stop-motion take on Roald Dahl’s children’s novel.

Director: Wes Anderson

Best quote: “Redemption? Sure. But in the end, he’s just another dead rat in a garbage pail behind a Chinese restaurant.”

Defining moment: Fox and friends come face-to-face with a mysterious black wolf.

It’s tough being a wild animal. Not that the witty, snappily dressed Mr. Fox (George Clooney) likes to complain about his days making life hell for his human nemeses, farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean (one fat, one short, one lean). It’s in his nature, after all. But when Fox’s wife, Felicity (Meryl Streep), informs him that they have a pup on the way, our vulpine protagonist realizes he has to tame the beast within. Good luck.

There’s nothing docile about Wes Anderson’s first foray into animation. Anderson’s dioramic visuals and pithy plotting translate perfectly to a cartoon world. You’re captivated right from the first gorgeously autumnal shot of Mr. Fox leaning against a tree, an image accompanied, in a very Andersonian touch, by the Wellingtons’ 1954 tune “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.”

As with all of the director’s films, potent emotions underlie the comic-strip surface: Both Fox and his sullen son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), must come to terms with their instinctual ambitions, which tend to clash with their everyday responsibilities. (The heart breaks when Felicity claws her husband’s furry face in frustration at his blithely destructive impulses.) As the foxes find their way of life increasingly threatened, the question arises: How do you use your nature to your advantage? The answers aren’t easy, but it should be clear that Anderson isn’t out to cater to anyone except the audience he knows so well.—Keith Uhlich

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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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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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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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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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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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Fantastic Planet (1973)

Surreal social commentary in a Gallic animated sci-fi milestone.

Director: René Laloux

Best quote: “I was only a tiny toy, but on occasion a toy who dared to rebel.”

Defining moment: A mother runs in terror cradling her child, only to be picked up and flung to the ground by a giant blue hand.

Take the big’uns-versus-little’uns conflict from Gulliver’s Travels, sprinkle with the Blue Meanies from Yellow Submarine, add a political allegory as forceful as Orwell’s 1984 and you’re beginning to grasp this unique combination of Gallic creativity and Czech production expertise. No other animated feature looks like this, since planet Ygam and its weirdly wonderful inhabitants are drawn in a deliberately antique fashion, like some illustrated bestiary from before Columbus set sail. The tiny Homs (think hommes, French for “men”) are kept as pets by their otherworldly conquerors, the giant Draags (perhaps drogues, French for “drugs”), but they have the spirit and ingenuity to turn the tables on their technologically advanced yet dangerously self-absorbed masters. This definitely prefigures the world of Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicäa, even if it lacks his robust storytelling and crisp action. It’s a ’70s landmark all the same.—Trevor Johnston

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