The 100 best animated movies: the best hand-drawn movies
World-famous animators pick the best animated movies ever, including Disney and Pixar movies, cult movies, kids movies, stop-motion, anime and more
Wed Apr 16 2014
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 best hand-drawn animated movies.
But how many have you seen? Take our poll to find out.
A wooden puppet yearns to be a real boy; he must prove himself worthy.
Directors: Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Norman Ferguson, Jack Kinney, Wilfred Jackson and T. Hee
Best quote: “Always let your conscience be your guide.”
Defining moment: Playing pool, drinking beers, smoking cigars: Who knew it could transform kids into jackasses? (Literally.)
And so we reach the top of our list—we’d be lying if we didn’t say it was by a nose. Pinocchio is the most magical of animated movies, a high point of cinematic invention. Its influence on fantasy is massive: Steven Spielberg quotes the soaring ballad “When You Wish Upon a Star” in his dream project Close Encounters of the Third Kind (and remade the whole picture with his aching robot-boy adventure, A.I.). Disney’s second feature—originally a box-office bomb—begins with a sweetly singing cricket, yet plunges into scenes from a nightmare: in front of a jeering audience on a carnival stage; into the belly of a monstrous whale; beyond all human recognition. (Pinocchio’s extending schnoz is animation’s most sinister and profound metaphor.) It’s staggering to think of this material as intended for children, but that’s the power here, a conduit to the churning undercurrent of formulating identity. The takeaway is hard to argue with: Don’t lie, to yourself or others. Cultural theorists have, for decades, discussed Pinocchio in psychosexual terms or as a guide to middle-class assimilation. But those readings are like cracking open a snow globe to see that it’s only water. A swirling adventure flecked with shame, rehabilitation, death and rebirth, the movie contains a universe of feelings. Pinocchio will remain immortal as long as we draw, paint, tell tall tales and wish upon stars.—Joshua Rothkopf
Moving is a drag for ten-year-old Chihiro, until she discovers she’s meant to work in a bathhouse for the spirit world.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Best quote: “There must be some mistake: None of these pigs are my parents!”
Defining moment: Tea and cakes with the monstrous Yubaba and No-Face—a moment in the same surreal league as Lewis Carroll.
The apex of Japanese animation—to fans worldwide, all animation—is one of cinema’s finest tales of untrammeled imagination. It’s a movie that emboldens children to embrace weirdness and wonder, and adults to remember how they once did. The plot is a stew of essential anxieties: dislocation, separation from one’s parents, fear of disappearing forever. Even more thoroughly, Spirited Away is a compendium of ancient folklores—the secret lives of radishes and other gods, the sins we commit against nature, her punishments. But as brilliantly woven together by Hayao Miyazaki (at the peak of his creative gifts), the movie is basically a story about growing up. The world is strange; let’s not fool ourselves. But maybe we, as human beings, are stranger. Chihiro is constantly (and riotously) told that she reeks; she fumbles around and incites fury. The lesson here is humility in the face of immortal forces. Critics were wowed, sensing parallels with Japan’s busted economic bubble and polluted streams. Yet the content was—and is—strong enough to stand on its own, a palimpsest of psychology, dreams and fear brought to life by exquisite craft. No film on our list speaks more to the inner animal and anima; is it any wonder those words are so close to animation?—Joshua Rothkopf
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
It ain’t easy being gray in one of Disney’s most simple, cute and memorable tales.
Directors: Ben Sharpsteen, Samuel Armstrong, Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts and John Elliotte
Best quote: “It ain’t nobody’s fault you got dem big ears.”
Defining moment: Dumbo visits his caged mom at night and cuddles up to her trunk as it extends through the bars—all to the sound of the lullaby “Baby Mine.”
Disney’s tender and moving fourth animated feature, Dumbo remains the company’s shortest. Its brevity and simplicity were born of necessity: Neither Pinocchio nor Fantasia had fared well at the box office, so the creators of Dumbo were tasked with keeping things short, sweet and cheap. Dumbo was based on a story line written for the prototype of a new toy—hardly the most poetic of origins—and tells of a baby elephant born to a single mother working in a traveling circus (the film’s early scenes of storks delivering baby animals did nothing for several generations of sex education). It has both energy—the building of the big top in the rain, the circus train chugging over the landscape—and heart: a piercingly sad story of a mother and child forcibly separated. The template is fairly straightforward, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for some memorable and inventive set pieces. The hallucinogenic, jazzy dance of the pink elephants when Dumbo accidentally gets drunk is a scene for the ages, while the climactic elephant pyramid, when little Dumbo becomes an unlikely hero, is both terrifying and triumphant.—Dave Calhoun
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
Not the first animated feature, but the start of the Disney empire.
Directors: David Hand, William Cottrell, Wilfred Jackson, Larry Morey, Perce Pearce and Ben Sharpsteen
Best quote: “Magic mirror on the wall…”
Defining moment: Snow White’s headlong dash through the moonlit forest is expressionistic, beautiful and terrifying.
They called it Disney’s folly. It took years and millions of dollars to produce Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and one huge question remained unanswered right up to the day of release: Would an audience really sit still for 83 minutes of cartoon antics? Of course, the movie was a huge hit, and kick-started Uncle Walt’s decades-long domination of the painted-cel scene. It may not have been the first feature-length animated film—that honor is held by Argentine animator Quirino Cristiani’s 1917 El Apóstol, though all copies have since been destroyed—but it was the first to receive a global release, and the first to wake up audiences (and producers) to the seemingly limitless potential of a brand-new medium.
What makes Snow White truly special is not its success, however, but its originality: Working without a rule book, Disney and his animators created—fully formed—an entirely new genre. Just look at last year’s Frozen and ask yourself how far mainstream animation has actually developed: Snow White has a dashing fairy-tale heroine, a hunky but slightly dull dude, lovable pratfalling sidekicks, important life lessons, groundbreaking and gorgeous animation, whistleable tunes and, perhaps most notably, the greatest femme fatale in film history. It just goes to show: You can’t improve on perfection.—Tom Huddleston
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
An oldster saves her kidnapped grandson with the help of three peculiar singers.
Director: Sylvain Chomet
Best quote: “Swinging Belleville rendez-vous!”
Defining moment: The Triplets sing their signature tune to a down-and-out Madame Souza.
For his feature debut, French animator and graphic novelist Sylvain Chomet crafted a wondrous, touching homage to the work of the great physical comic Jacques Tati (Playtime). Madame Souza is a devoted grandmother to her cyclist grandson, Champion, whom she trains to compete in the Tour de France. During the race, he is kidnapped by the mob and taken to the city of Belleville for cryptic purposes. Souza follows and befriends three aging music-hall singers, the Triplets, who assist in her quest to save Champion. Dialogue is kept to a bare minimum; you could count the number of spoken sentences on one hand. This frees Chomet to concentrate on the stunning, sublimely grotesque visuals, which play delightfully with perspective and proportion. Two joined-at-the-shoulder henchmen look like a rectangular black block with legs. Champion’s dog, Bruno, is a galumphing blob of jowl and fur. And the Triplets—as good at making music with household appliances as they are at outwitting gun-toting gangsters—seem to expand and contract at will, as if their spines were Slinkys.—Keith Uhlich
Disney’s most stylish baddie concocts a devilish plan.
Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske and Wolfgang Reitherman
Best quote: “I live for furs. I worship furs! Is there a woman in all this wretched world who doesn’t?”
Defining moment: The puppies sneak past Cruella De Vil, covered in soot, disguised as black Labradors.
What is it with Disney villainesses? So much wrath and murderous rage with so little cause. A year after the evil fairy Maleficent put a curse on Sleeping Beauty for not being invited to her christening, dognapper Cruella De Vil arrived. Flicking ash on the carpet, her mwah-ha-ha plan is to turn 99 dalmatian pups into a fashion statement. With its modern London setting and jazzy score, 101 Dalmatians dragged Disney into the 20th century, leaving behind fairy tales, princesses and musical numbers. Oddly, it’s the earlier scenes, before the puppies arrive, that stick in the mind. Sick of the bachelor life, Pongo studies the lady dogs and their “pets” (owners) passing under his window. And the meet-cute in Regent’s Park is witty and utterly lovely. Later, the twilight bark—the doggie telegraph communicating news of the missing puppies—is Disney at its finest.—Cath Clarke
The film that makes little kids (and grown adults) cry.
Directors: James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, David Hand, Graham Heid, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield and Norman Wright
Best quote: “Faster! Faster, Bambi! Don’t look back! Keep running! Keep running!”
Defining moment: Bambi and his mother graze peacefully in a clearing. Her ears prick up. Something’s not right. A gunshot rings out. They run for their lives.
For lots of us, Bambi is so many firsts: the first time we cried in the theater, when…you know when; the first time we realized that really bad things happen to adorably cute deer. In 1942, Walt Disney described Bambi as “the best picture I have ever made, and the best ever to come out of Hollywood.” Today, it still has friends in high places. Toy Story director John Lasseter and the Pixar crew are huge fans, arguing that, from boy to buckhood, Bambi contains some of Disney’s most charming animation (Walt set up a small zoo at the studio for his team to study the animals). And in the roll call of Disney supporting actors, Thumper the rabbit is an all-time great. Despite its reputation for being sentimental, the film’s closing scene—Bambi abandons his mate and newborn twin fawns to join his father in the forest—is as un-Disney as it gets.—Cath Clarke
An Iranian expat remembers her tumultuous childhood during the Islamic revolution.
Directors: Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi
Best quote: “Shut up, you bitches! Yes, I’m Iranian, and I’m proud of it!”
Defining moment: Young Marjane talks her way out of a tough spot after buying an Iron Maiden bootleg.
Between 2000 and 2003, French-Iranian artist Marjane Satrapi published a well-received autobiographical comic detailing her coming-of-age during and after the Islamic revolution. When the opportunity arose to make a film, Satrapi took on the task herself, with the aid of comics colleague Vincent Paronnaud and an all-star voice cast featuring Catherine Deneuve and Danielle Darrieux, among others. Aside from a framing section in color, the film mimics the high-contrast black-and-white inking of Satrapi’s four-volume graphic novel. The simplicity of the visuals helps universalize the story, which is filled with plenty of the usual travails of growing up (troubles with boys, clandestine parties, etc.), though always viewed in pointedly thumb-nosing contrast with the oppressive regime that wants to keep the populace—especially its women—in check. Persepolis is infused with its creator’s ingratiating rebelliousness, as well as her melancholy for a homeland torn apart by still-rampant social and political divides.—Keith Uhlich
Freed from the constraints of network TV, prepubescent paper-cut terrors go on the rampage.
Director: Trey Parker
Best quote: “That movie has warped my fragile little mind.”
Defining moment: “Uncle Fucka,” the foulmouthiest jolly little musical number in animation history.
The Broadway-conquering, Tony-sweeping success of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s stage musical, The Book of Mormon, took many by surprise—but only the sort of people who wouldn’t have touched the South Park movie with a conductor’s baton. If they had, those audiences would have known that the Coloradans were not merely purveyors of taste-baiting trash for sniggering schoolboys, but the slyest, smartest and (yes) most tuneful satirists America had produced since, well, ever. And South Park Bigger Longer & Uncut remains their defining statement, a work combining epic scale (a land war with Canada, a trip to the depths of Hades, a daylight raid on the Baldwin compound) with intimate character comedy (Satan’s grief over his lover Saddam Hussein’s infidelity is genuinely touching), wrapped in a biting commentary on censorship and topped off with belting show tunes worthy of West Side Story.—Tom Huddleston
Nothing is child’s play in this vivid, gutsy adaptation of Richard Adams’s novel about a colony of rabbits seeking a new warren.
Director: Martin Rosen
Best quote: “All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand Enemies, and when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you.”
Defining moment: The harrowing apocalyptic vision of young Fiver, which sets the story—and decidedly mature tone—in motion.
Not quite children’s adventure, not quite grown-up epic, rich with classical allusions and biblical allegory, Richard Adams’s unexpectedly popular novel posed something of a challenge to animators: How do you make a creature feature that’s not too cute for adults, and a story of death and displacement that’s not too grim for families? Martin Rosen’s solemn, urgent and exquisitely rendered film strikes just that balance. There are sequences in this riveting survival tale to terrify viewers of any age, many involving General Woundwort, the face that launched a thousand childhood nightmares. But there’s comforting, compassionate sweetness, too (exemplified by Art Garfunkel’s sentimental theme song, “Bright Eyes”), all folded into powerful, traditional storytelling. Nobody would dare make anything like it today.—Guy Lodge
Ancient forests mark the battleground for mankind’s future in this mythical drama set in medieval Japan.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Best quote: “My goal is to see with eyes unclouded by hate.”
Defining moment: The first sight of the Deer God, antlers glowing as we glimpse him through the trees.
Like Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind and Laputa: Castle in the Sky, this Miyazaki epic puts ecological concerns at the center of a human power struggle—but a decade on from those earlier films, the director’s worldview had become much more complex. The nascent technology of iron smelting allows for the development of firearms, but also means that forests are felled to fuel the process—forests where the ancient gods still live. Half-human, half-spirit Mononoke embodies the contradictions of change, vowing to protect the woods yet drawn to youthful warrior-tribesman Ashitaka, who’s seeking his own destiny at the heart of this threatened landscape. Unlike the Disney universe, there are no simplistic heroes or villains here, just the steady realization that our bid to master nature will have profound consequences: both our making and our undoing. Muscular, troubling, uncompromising storytelling on a grand scale.—Trevor Johnston
Disney gets with the ’60s.
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Best quote: “I’m the king of the swingers / The jungle VIP / I’ve reached the top and had to stop / And that’s what’s botherin’ me.”
Defining moment: King Louie of the Apes and Baloo the Bear’s scat-’n’-dance routine.
Blame the hippies. The Jungle Book is so loopy, hip and happening, you can’t help wondering if Disney’s animators were passing the bong as they worked. Just look at the vultures, with their mop tops and British accents (the Beatles were intended to do the voices but John Lennon refused). After rejecting an early draft of the script as too dark for a family film, Walt Disney instructed a second team to drop “the heavy stuff” from Rudyard Kipling’s stories of Mowgli. They created some of Disney’s most lovable characters: Baloo (the Bill Murray of bears) and smooth-as-silk Shere Khan the Tiger. The film is a high point for Disney musical numbers—“Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You” are pure joy. Walt himself died during production, and historians credit the huge box-office success of The Jungle Book with saving the studio’s animation department from closure.—Cath Clarke
Romance, music and comedy combine in a latter-day Disney milestone.
Directors: Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale
Best quote: “It’s no use. She’s so beautiful. And I’m…well, look at me!”
Defining moment: The camera sweeps through the ballroom as the couple hits the floor.
Disney had long been in the doldrums when The Little Mermaid showed it could entertain a new generation, but this adaptation of the classic fairy tale pushed the quality threshold to a new level, making it the first animated feature to be Oscar-nominated in the Best Picture category. The key was taking the emotional heart of the story entirely seriously, bolstered by a soaring, Broadway-on-steroids score from Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. So while there are jaunty high jinks from the anthropomorphic fixtures in the Beast’s imposing castle, they never overshadow the tale’s pent-up yearning, as the hairy protagonist must find true love before the petals fall from a rose or remain forever in bestial form. Crucially, the visuals convey enough heft and scale to wow the grown-up audiences who truly appreciate the story’s romantic spell.—Trevor Johnston
A one-man, multidiscipline labor of love.
Director: Chris Sullivan
Best quote: “I do not suggest using ashes as fertilizer—these bitter urns of charred memories soak into the soil and leave a blackened taste on the lips.”
Defining moment: A scratchy, pencil-sketch scene of loss, as the authorities come to take away little Lydia and Victor Blue.
Surely the most obscure film on our list, Consuming Spirits is the result of more than a decade’s work for writer, director, animator, musician and voice artist Chris Sullivan and his small team. Running 136 minutes and encompassing more than 230,000 individual frames, this epic achievement combines cutout, stop-frame and pencil sketches and a beautiful soundtrack steeped in mountain folk. But as with any great animated movie, it’s the emotional content that’s most rewarding. Set in a small Pennsylvania town, this is a poetic, downbeat tale of three characters united by disappointment, alcohol and a haunted past. Thanks to an extremely limited U.S. release, Consuming Spirits is little known even within the animation community, but almost everyone who voted for it here made it their number-one choice.—Tom Huddleston
Conversations swirl in a treatise on the need to stay curious.
Director: Richard Linklater
Best quote: “Are you a dreamer? I haven’t seen too many around lately.”
Defining moment: Floppy-haired Wiley Wiggins floats high above his suburban neighborhood, a black shape against the blue sky.
Trippiness of a highly verbal nature wasn’t unexpected from the director of Slacker and Dazed and Confused. Still, Richard Linklater’s hypnotic plunge into rotoscoping proved a litmus test even for his fans: You either let the flow of cosmic ideas sweep you up in a stimulating rush or you checked out somewhere. In either case, the filmmaker’s creativity was undeniable. Friends morph into banks of fluffy, chatting clouds; flirters launch words like love into earholes. Amateur philosophizing was never so well-supported or flattered by its form. Fans of Before Sunrise noticed Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke lounging in bed (a hint of two sequels yet to come). Yet for the most part, all footholds evaporated. Waking Life was—and still is—a surreal invitation to cut loose.—Joshua Rothkopf
An elderly British couple thinks it can survive a nuclear attack with Blitz-era gumption.
Director: Jimmy T. Murakami
Best quote: “There’s no need to forget your manners just because there’s a war on.”
Defining moment: Surveying their destroyed kitchen, the couple brews a cup of tea and baffles over their silenced TV.
A sick joke on paper, this devastating domestic drama today feels like one of the more honest works of the anti-nuke movement. It’s a complete and utter downer, making a larger point subtly through the employment of animation itself: Such an adorably hand-drawn universe is too precious to last in a world of mutually assured destruction. We’re all living in a cartoon if we actually believe survival is possible when the radiation headaches mount and your hair starts failing out in tufts. (Heartbreakingly, the husband assures his wife that women don’t go bald—a “scientific fact.”) Big-name pop stars lent their music to the cause, including Roger Waters, Squeeze and David Bowie, who crooned the soulful, undanceable title track. If you haven’t seen this one, that’s totally understandable; it makes The Day After look like a gentle summer shower.—Joshua Rothkopf
Threatened farm animals seek the help of super-smart experimental rodents from a lab.
Director: Don Bluth
Best quote: “We can no longer live as rats. We know too much.”
Defining moment: The fearsome, golden-eyed Great Owl smashes a spider, chomps on a moth—and offers some sage advice.
Call it the work of a rebel: In 1979, Disney animator Don Bluth left the cost-cutting studio in frustration (along with several other colleagues) to start up a company that still valued old-school craft. Their first feature was this remarkably sophisticated adventure, about a field mouse seeking solutions to the problems of an ailing son, an aggressive farmer and the potential destruction of her community. Enter the heroic rats of NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health), who apply their artificially boosted levels of intelligence to the calamities at hand. The style of the animation is hand-painted and traditionally sumptuous, requiring thousands of hours of work, but the real beauty here is in the making of entertainment targeted at kids who enjoy using their minds.—Joshua Rothkopf
Who needs a caring stepmother when you’ve got glass slippers, an enchanted lifestyle and a hunky Prince Charming at the end of the day?
Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske
Best quote: “A dream is a wish your heart makes when you’re fast asleep.”
Defining moment: A pumpkin and some mice get a magical makeover.
Even today, when you watch a Disney film, the impact of Cinderella can be felt from the very first frame: That iconic castle, the studio’s logo, comes right from this picture. It was the make-or-break gamble that, had it failed, would have meant the end for Walt & Co. Instead, his film’s runaway success allowed him to finance the theme parks and cement his name forever. The elements of the story are bedrock components of the Disney formula: plucky, charming heroine, helpful sidekick animals, the promise of total transformation. Yet there was innovation here, too; musical numbers would, for the first time, be commissed out to Tin Pan Alley experts, while live-action footage was shot as a model for most scenes. When Disney’s own remake comes out in 2015, it will have a huge debt of charm to repay.—Joshua Rothkopf
The calypso-inflected Hans Christian Andersen adaptation that revived the Mouse House’s ailing fortunes.
Directors: John Musker and Ron Clements
Best quote: “Somebody’s got to nail that girl’s fins to the floor.”
Defining moment: In the infectious “Under the Sea,” Sebastian the crab attempts to convince wayward Ariel of the merits of ocean living.
Two years later, Beauty and the Beast received more acclaim, but it was this cheery musical adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s bleakly fatalistic fairy tale that redesigned the template of contemporary Disney animation and returned the studio to pop-culture prominence. The formula—take a story everyone knows with a plucky princess, then add a bunch of hip, catchy-as-chlamydia show tunes—still works, as the recent success of Frozen demonstrates. But alongside the witty, verbally intricate contributions of ingenious songsmiths Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, it’s the depth of yearning for other lives and other forms that gives this one emotional resonance and staying power. Well, that and the lasciviously tentacled, Mae West–and–Divine-inspired sea witch Ursula, surely among the greatest Disney villains.—Guy Lodge
The madness and futility of war…in animation.
Director: Ari Folman
Best quote: “Memory fills the holes with things that never happened.”
Defining moment: The acid-trip opener: An ex-soldier describes a recurring dream of being chased by a pack of 26 ferocious dogs.
Israeli soldier-turned-filmmaker Ari Folman described making his autobiographical antiwar documentary as being like therapy. It began when he left the army (after serving for more than 20 years, full-time and as a reservist). Folman had never talked about his experiences fighting in Lebanon in 1982 at age 19 until he went to see an army therapist, a condition of his discharge. During the conflict, Lebanese Christian militia massacred up to 3,000 Palestinians in refugee camps—possibly under the eyes of Israeli forces. Folman was there, but his memories of the conflict were fuzzily vague. We see him as he sets out to interview the men he fought alongside, the story unfolding in flashbacks, strikingly told with graphic artist David Polonsky’s hallucinatory drawings. The result is an antiwar film in the league of Apocalypse Now and The Thin Red Line. Compelling and original.—Cath Clarke
Animation meets classical music in an Italian-style Fantasia.
Director: Bruno Bozzetto
Best quote: “Someone called Disney has already made this?”
Defining moment: Humanity’s evolution scored to Ravel’s Bolero is a magnificent set piece.
Of course, Disney’s Fantasia is the acknowledged reference point for Italian mischief maker Bruno Bozzetto’s animated collection of classical pops, interwoven with boisterous live-action interludes in which a hard-pressed animator battles an egomaniac conductor, his shifty producer and an unlikely orchestra of geriatric ladies let out of their cages (no, really) to play the score. There’s definitely a Monty Python–style antiestablishment surrealism in both elements of the movie, not least the musical sections, in which we see humanity evolve from the sludge at the bottom of a Coke bottle, the serpent in the garden of Eden tormented by the sheer variety of the sins he’s about to introduce into the world, and the absurdity of materialism represented by the urge to erect higher and higher buildings. Certainly, it’s uneven, and some of the humor feels dated, but there’s not a hint of classical-music snobbery here.—Trevor Johnston
Miyazaki’s first feature is an affectionate, fun-filled take on ’60s spy capers.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Best quote: “My prize is a treasure locked away in a tower by an evil magician—please allow this humble thief to steal it.”
Defining moment: The dashing hero facing certain death entombed in the baddie’s catacombs.
Created by French writer Maurice Leblanc in 1905, gentleman thief Arsène Lupin later morphed into Rupan, the dashing antihero of a manga. It became a hit TV series and generated master animator Hayao Miyazaki’s very first feature. Fresh from another jewel robbery, Rupan finds himself in the tiny duchy of Cagliostro, hoping to rescue comely Clarisse from marriage to the scheming count who’s usurped the throne. What unfolds is a cavalcade of scrapes and gadgetry, indicating that Miyazaki knew his ’60s celluloid spy capers back to front. The result is undeniably lightweight yet breathlessly entertaining: Plotting is resourceful in its succession of twists and reversals, and the architectural hyperdetail of the castle itself is typical Miyazaki. It’s a delightful movie that sits at a slight remove from the rest of his work.—Trevor Johnston
Hard to be a collegian feline in the city? Not really, especially when there’s so much sex and pot to be had.
Director: Ralph Bakshi
Best quote: “I’ve fought many a good man, and laid many a good woman.”
Defining moment: Fritz gets handsy in a bathtub with at least three other animals.
It’s not an overstatement to divide the whole of animated cinema into two eras: Before Fritz and After Fritz. Aside from becoming a global sensation (and outgrossing most Disney films up to that point), Ralph Bakshi’s libidinous Greenwich Village romp was a slap in the face to purists who hoped to keep cartoons safe for kids. Notoriously, the film received an X rating (and includes a fair amount of bare-assed rutting), but that pejorative label might have also been due to its director’s overall vision, inspired by Robert Crumb’s countercultural characters and filled with Vietnam War–era surliness. Bakshi cut his teeth at Paramount Pictures and in advertising for clients like Coca-Cola; he was no fool to the realities of commerce. Still, it took someone familiar with the game to break the rules so completely. His triumph is animation’s puberty.—Joshua Rothkopf
Three Japanese vagabonds attempt to find the parents of an abandoned baby during Christmastime.
Directors: Satoshi Kon and Shogo Furuya
Best quote: “You peep pretty loud for a chick that can’t even find its own worms.”
Defining moment: The little bundle of joy, miraculously saved after a fall from a skyscraper, yawns in reply.
For his third animated project, the late, great Satoshi Kon moved away from the trippy stylings of Perfect Blue (1997) and Millennium Actress (2001) to tell a straightforward, though no less inventive, Christmas story. The loose inspiration is John Ford’s Western 3 Godfathers, in which a John Wayne–led trio of outlaws shepherd a baby to safety. Here the setting is an initially oppressive modern-day Tokyo (full of imposing neon skyscrapers), while the three leads, all homeless, are a comically mismatched crew: a middle-aged male alcoholic, a trans woman and a runaway teen girl. Kon has lots of fun putting the group in crazy, slapstick-heavy situations, including a car chase, a clash with gun-toting yakuza and an assassination attempt. Yet he also creates a compelling portrait of Japan’s underclass and shows how this seeming miracle baby acts as a spiritual salve for hardened souls.—Keith Uhlich
This anime film is a searingly intense mash-up of styles, genres and narrative techniques.
Director: Masaaki Yuasa
Best quote: “I was killed! Shot by that creep! Then I was sucked up to heaven.”
Defining moment: Nishi, the protagonist, is murdered and sent into limbo, where he encounters a shape-shifting god who’s preoccupied with grooming himself in front of a mirror.
This ambitious feature came out of nowhere in 2004 to rock the anime world, making stars of director Masaaki Yuasa and his Studio 4°C. The plot starts as typically convoluted gangster fare, before the main characters are plunged Pinocchio-style into the belly of a whale to embark on an utterly bonkers journey of self-discovery. Though little actually happens, the film somehow keeps up a blistering pace, propelled by a string of flashbacks, hallucinations, near-death experiences and other surreal flights of fancy. Throughout, the animation style shifts in accordance with the mood, even incorporating live actors at points. Disorienting on the first viewing, very funny on the second, and strangely moving on the third, this is bold, almost reckless filmmaking.—Alex Dudok De Wit
A bookish Tokyo schoolgirl ponders her future—and delicately comes of age.
Director: Yoshifumi Kondô
Best quote: “It looks like springtime has come for Shizuku at last.”
Defining moment: The heroine’s telling first visit to the creepy-yet-enticing antiques emporium.
Yoshifumi Kondo was admired enough to be Miyazaki’s anointed successor at Studio Ghibli, but he completed only this single remarkable feature before succumbing to an aneurysm at 47. Although Miyazaki’s screenplay allows a brief flourish of airborne fantasy, this is predominantly an intimately observed story on a canvas even more compact than Only Yesterday, spotlighting a book-loving high-school student whose fortunes change when she follows a stray cat into a mysterious antiques shop. As this chance encounter transforms her outlook on life, a delicate love story blossoms between two shyly hesitant youngsters, yet the key focus is really the adolescent flowering of the creative urge—the “whisper of the heart.” A shame it slightly loses its nerve in the end; otherwise, this is tender, wise and magical fare deserving much greater prominence in the esteemed Ghibli canon.—Trevor Johnston
The thuggish villain of a classic arcade game gets tired of being bad and breaks out of his cage.
Director: Rich Moore
Best quote: “I don’t need a medal to tell me I’m a good guy.”
Defining moment: Pac-Man shows up at a party and hogs all the hors d’oeuvres.
In the universe of Rich Moore’s quarter-per-play nostalgia bath, the characters are nervous: Our 8-bit arcade heroes of yore have been supplanted by buxom first-person shooters, while their antagonists—like the Donkey Kong–esque Wreck-It Ralph (an inspired John C. Reilly)—attend support groups to talk through their preprogrammed bitterness. Over everyone hangs the threat of a final “game over,” their cabinets unplugged forever. The clever setup avoids too heavy a wink by quickly adding emotional heft, as Ralph busts into another game to befriend the adorable-but-obnoxious Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), who just wants to build her candy car and win the race. Wreck-It Ralph is loaded with cameos—from Sonic the Hedgehog to the ever-profane Q*bert—but it somehow feels fresh: a sincere tale of finding your own identity.—Joshua Rothkopf
What happens when a well-groomed cocker spaniel meets the love of her life, a stray mutt from downtown?
Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske
Best quote: “I wonder what the leash-and-collar set does for excitement.”
Defining moment: As if you have to ask: a romantic Italian dinner, a single spaghetti strand and two slurpers.
None of Disney’s animated productions speaks better to that studio’s legendary machine than this one, hatched a full 18 years before its ultimate completion. The story was inspired by an actual dog, Lady, the pet of scenarist Joe Grant (also the cowriter of Dumbo), who began shaping material as early as 1937. In the subsequent decade, several more scripters hacked away at drafts, incorporating their own doggie anecdotes. By the early ’50s, a working story was approved, but technology demanded a wider canvas: This was the first animated film to be crafted in CinemaScope (a far greater headache for draftsmen than you’d imagine). As for that famous “spaghetti kiss,” a now-classic bit of flirtation? Walt almost killed it. Legendary artist Frank Thomas defied his boss and mocked up a rough version that won the day.—Joshua Rothkopf
An unfilmed Jacques Tati script is realized with gentle wit and piercing melancholy.
Director: Sylvain Chomet
Best quote: Not big on dialogue, but the tears of the broken-down clown in the gutter speak volumes.
Defining moment: When Tatischeff the magician is reduced to doing shopwindow demonstrations.
The lanky gait and eternally distracted air might be familiar to viewers of Mon Oncle and Playtime, though this animated version of a never-before-filmed Jacques Tati script presents its creator not in his familiar Monsieur Hulot screen persona but under his real name, as a music-hall artiste stuck in an era when magic was going out of style. Tagging along is a Scottish waif captivated by his trickery, but it’s not long before changing times will shatter her illusions and their tenuous bond, all the while affirming the audience’s need to invest in life-salving fantasy. A complex, ultimately affecting affair, the film has a mood of stoic resignation, exquisitely conveyed by Sylvain Chomet’s poignant visualization of early-’60s Edinburgh—all rundown boardinghouses and rain-swept streets, where Tatischeff makes his last stand.—Trevor Johnston
A landmark work of British animation, terrifying to kids, and some adults.
Directors: John Halas and Joy Batchelor
Best quote: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Defining moment: Utterly corrupted by greed and selfishness, the pigs send Boxer the cart horse to the glue factory (an allegory of Stalin’s betrayal of the proletariat?).
It’s safe to assume that Animal Farm is the only film in this list to be partly funded by the CIA. A propaganda unit in the agency bought the film rights to George Orwell’s allegory of the failures of the Russian revolution from the writer’s widow. One slight problem: The ending of the book saw the pigs and humans join forces. That needed to change to fit the CIA’s anti-Soviet aims, so it was replaced by a scene in which the animals revolt against the pigs. Animation historians doubt that the film’s animator-directors, the British husband-and-wife team John Halas and Joy Batchelor, knew how their film was funded. Released in 1954, Animal Farm is the first feature-length British animated film, its kitchen-sink craft bold and striking. At the time, one critic dubbed it “Disney-turned-serious.” As anyone made to watch it at school in the 1980s will tell you, it’s not suitable for young children.—Cath Clarke
An animation giant plunders classic kids’ lit for this tale of a resourceful young witch.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Best quote: “You’d think they’d never seen a girl and a cat on a broom before.”
Defining moment: The airship disaster is one of the most thrilling sequences in the Ghibli catalog.
When J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books were first unleashed on an unsuspecting public, cries of familiarity were rampant. And it’s true, the books were inspired by everything from the Worst Witch literary series to Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings novels. But Rowling was hardly the first kids’ writer to raid the past for inspiration, a point proved by Kiki’s Delivery Service, Hayao Miyazaki’s adaptation of the sweet, charming but hardly groundbreaking novel by Japanese author Eiko Kadono. A tale of a teenage witch, her bad-tempered pet cat and a sleepy city by the sea, the film is a grab bag of kid-lit tropes. But it’s not so much the story as how you tell it, and that’s Miyazaki’s genius: In the hands of a great director, this cozy little coming-of-age tale becomes something altogether more strange, beautiful and affecting than its outline would suggest.—Tom Huddleston
The best film Mikio Naruse never made.
Director: Isao Takahata
Best quote: “So many memories playing in my head like a movie, almost overpowering me.”
Defining moment: A ’60s Tokyo family tucking into a whole pineapple becomes a metaphor for life’s promises and disappointments.
A story about a 27-year-old remembering her school days while working on a farm in the country sounds like truly unlikely animated material. Trust the instincts of Studio Ghibli mainstay Isao Takahata, however, who reckoned that when we see recognizable life animated, it acquires a kind of solidity that makes us look anew at the everyday. Here’s a drama that aims to understand the present by reexamining the past, yet it’s not doused in nostalgia. Instead the film explores with uncanny insight and accuracy the sundry minor high-school setbacks that have inhibited protagonist Taeko’s subsequent romantic fortunes. Better days may lie ahead, though, as the story works toward a final-reel emotional release that feels truthful and earned—something rare in any kind of cinema, and arguably unique in the annals of animation. It’s Ghibli’s secret classic.—Trevor Johnston
The seminal anime series comes to a close with an apocalyptic bang.
Directors: Kazuya Tsurumaki and Hideaki Anno
Best quote: Our protagonist laments, “I’m so fucked up.”
Defining moment: This is the way the world ends…to a pop song.
Fans were mightily displeased with the cerebral, action-free conclusion of Hideaki Anno’s anime TV series Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995–96), in which humans fight otherworldly “angels” with giant robots. So he went back to the drawing board and came up with this immensely satisfying, theatrically released alternate ending, which increases the orgiastic machine-on-monster violence tenfold while doubling down on the heady philosophical and spiritual allusions. This is a movie that begins with our weak-willed adolescent hero, Shinji, masturbating over the comatose body of his colleague, and climaxes with an end-times free-for-all that mixes Christian symbology, Jewish mysticism, sexual paranoia and teenage angst into a searing apocalyptic stew. In between are sights and sounds you’ll never forget—from Shinji’s horrifying descent into insanity to a live-action sequence that provocatively implicates the audience itself in the madness.—Keith Uhlich
Never has a party snub had such dire consequences.
Director: Clyde Geronimi
Best quote: “Now you shall deal with me, O prince, and all the powers of hell!”
Defining moment: Evil fairy Maleficent turns herself into a fire-breathing dragon and goes to battle.
In the Disney villainesses hall of fame, Maleficent ranks up there with Cruella De Vil. The self-proclaimed “mistress of all evil,” Maleficent is the badass fairy who casts a spell on Aurora at birth, causing the princess to prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die before her 16th birthday. Why? All because the king left her off the guest list at Aurora’s christening. After nearly a decade of preparation, Walt Disney wanted Sleeping Beauty to stand out from existing princess-led fairy tales Snow White and Cinderella, and so it does. Inspired by medieval art and tapestries, this is Disney as its most wow-worthy, best of all in the lurid scenes at Maleficent’s lair. Sleeping Beauty marked the end of an era—it was the final animation overseen directly by Walt himself, now busy building theme parks and making TV. That said, rebellious, feisty Aurora also harkens to the sparky princesses of Disney future, even if she’s muscled into a supporting-actress slot by a certain scene-stealing bad fairy.—Cath Clarke
Disney’s comeback was assured when this lively romp made millions.
Directors: Ron Clements and John Musker
Best quote: “Three wishes, to be exact. And ixnay on the wishing for more wishes.”
Defining moment: The first appearance of the genie, voiced by Robin Williams, is a rat-a-tat stand-up routine set to dizzying visuals.
In 1992, Disney’s Aladdin heralded the modern age of animation. The cave-of-wonders sequence was the first use of computer animation in a major Disney feature (with admittedly mixed results), while the appearance of Robin Williams as the Genie was a landmark in the employment of celebrity voices: This wasn’t so much a character as a self-portrait in ink and paint. Most importantly, the film’s massive success—it was the biggest movie of 1992 and the biggest animated film ever at the time—proved that, after years of false starts and disappointments, the public was once again ready to hand over their cash to an all-singing, all-quipping animated spectacular. The film has its problems: Accusations of underlying racist attitudes, particularly of the original cut with its “They cut off your nose if they don’t like your face” lyric, were perhaps justified. But this is the work of a company rediscovering its core purpose, to bring joy.—Tom Huddleston
A tribute to classic Hollywood, aviation and the unlimited possibilities of cinema.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Best quote: “I’d rather be a pig than a fascist.”
Defining moment: The climactic duel between Porco and his archnemesis, American air ace Curtis.
The most impressive thing about writer-director-producer and Studio Ghibli chief Hayao Miyazaki is not his imagination (which is vast), nor his compassion (which is bottomless), but his extraordinary confidence: It takes a remarkable man to come up with a tale of a magical pig who flies planes in pre-WWII Italy. But it takes balls of brass to believe that such a story was worth spending three years and who knows how many million yen to bring to the screen. Thank God he did. It takes some arguing to not see Porco Rosso as Miyazaki’s crowning achievement, crammed with charm, empathy, historical irony and dry, brilliantly idiosyncratic wit. But most of all it stands as a testament to the power of film itself, presenting a world both inspired by cinema—from Errol Flynn to Humphrey Bogart via the Pagot brothers—and filled with it, from the movie magazines read by our crumpled porcine hero to the cat-and-mouse cartoons he loves to watch.—Tom Huddleston
This thunderous Ghibli romp—part satire, part family adventure, part war “documentary”—is one of the weirdest movies ever made.
Director: Isao Takahata
Best quote: “I have no face!”
Defining moment: The scene in which a raccoon transforms his scrotum into a giant sailing ship bound for nirvana. (We know you’re curious.)
If you’ve seen Spirited Away, with its ancient ghost demons, and Porco Rosso, with its farmyard flying ace, you’ll know that those Ghibli guys can get a little weird sometimes. But nothing can prepare you for the sheer, mind-melting oddness of Grave of the Fireflies director Isao Takahata’s chronicle of the Great Raccoon War. Structured in pseudodocumentary style, complete with constant voiceover and regular time leaps, it tells the tale of a group of shape-shifting raccoons who take up arms against the human beings destroying their woodland. But cozy critters this lot ain’t: Not only do they kill several people over the course of their campaign—and throw a huge party to celebrate—they also use their testicular pouches as everything from hot-air balloons to welcome mats, employ their transformative powers to infiltrate human society and argue constantly (and often viciously) with each other. Sweet, satirical, savage, sad, silly and quite spectacularly strange, Pom Poko stands utterly alone.—Tom Huddleston
Like Shakespeare at the zoo, it’s the story of one lion cub who goes from pampered prince to outcast, and then to lord of the pride.
Directors: Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff
Best quote: “I was first in line until the little hairball was born.”
Defining moment: On a cliff edge, Scar lets his brother, Mufasa, the king of the lions, fall to his death.
The opening alone is worth the price of a DVD: a majestic scene as beasts of the savannah gather to pay tribute to new lion prince, Simba. Even inside Disney, expectations for The Lion King were low. As producer Don Hahn later summed it up: “Lion cub gets framed for murder by his uncle, set to the music of Elton John…good luck with that.” But it stormed the box office as 1994’s second-highest-grossing film. Why? For a start it has one of the best (possibly the best) Disney villains, the king’s brother, Scar, drawling and plotting with supreme boredom and devilish sarcasm. The soundtrack by Tim Rice and Elton John is endlessly hummable, and the animation—best of all, a wildebeest stampede, which took three years to animate—is spectacular.—Cath Clarke
A spooky sequel descends even deeper into virtual reality’s underworld.
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Best quote: “When dialogue fails, it’s time for violence.”
Defining moment: Our heroes get trapped in an M.C. Escher–like time loop.
Mamoru Oshii’s futuristic thriller Ghost in the Shell (1995)—about a law-enforcement cyborg searching for the meaning of her existence—is one of the most highly regarded anime features ever made. This sequel, made nine years later, expands on the original’s heady philosophical conceits with a no-less-striking visual palette. The presumed-dead Major’s former colleagues Batô and Togusa are the leads, tasked with investigating a series of deaths caused by malfunctioning sex robots called gynoids. Of course, there’s much more to the mystery, which takes Batô and Togusa everywhere from a ratty yakuza den (site of an ecstatically bloody shoot-out) to the topsy-turvy mansion of a doll-obsessed hacker. Oshii lets his imagination run wild: A gorgeously rendered parade sequence (which itself took more than a year to complete) could stand on its own as an immersive mini masterpiece. The endlessly imaginative visual play complements the film’s stimulating inquiry into the fine line separating man and machine.—Keith Uhlich
A grubby New York City, a murderous cast of characters and plenty of off-color jokes—Walt would not approve.
Director: Ralph Bakshi
Best quote: “Now listen here, boy: As long as Carole’s got this here good thing [Slaps own butt] and this here left [Taps head], she don’t need anything else unless she wants it—and child, I don’t want it!”
Defining moment: A Mafia boss slurps up a forkful of pasta, out of which tiny, helpless figures fall, shaken from the strands.
“It’s animated, but it’s not a cartoon,” promised the trailer, yet the movie that followed, in scummy NYC theaters in August 1973, didn’t fulfill that pledge. Ralph Bakshi’s passion project, a swirling java of urban stereotypes (the overbearing Jewish mother, the Italian mobster, the sassy black girlfriend, etc.), is overstated in a garish, ethnically broad way, very much a cartoon. No matter: There was nothing like it at the time. It’s worth noting that potential viewers had to actively be told that animation could deal with adult subjects like crime, violence and poverty. The style is hand-drawn, superimposed over grainy photographs of Brooklyn’s decay. Though much of Heavy Traffic has since dated poorly, it’s closer to the vibe of early Scorsese than any other movie on this list—and it still represents an avenue that’s gone largely unexplored.—Joshua Rothkopf
A gizmo that records people’s dreams goes missing, resulting in chaos.
Director: Satoshi Kon
Best quote: “Isn’t it wonderful to see inside a friend’s dream as if it were your own?”
Defining moment: The opening scene moves from a surreal chase sequence to playback of the same dream images now stored on computer.
It’s called the DC Mini, a flimsy headset that records our dreams as video files. There’s consternation at the research unit when one of the prototypes goes missing. Soon the very fabric of reality tears when the addled psyches of the scientific team and investigating cop take physical form. The last completed feature of the ill-fated Kon (lost to cancer at 46) exemplifies his uniqueness and his foibles, since the supernova of weirdness bursting from the characters’ imaginations is something to behold: fridges on the march, giant robots at large, a psycho-cutie Japanese doll. While the plot itself makes very little sense, Kon’s depiction of flexible reality inside others’ dreams parallels Christopher Nolan’s Inception, and his mind-fuck cavalcade truly has to be seen to be believed.—Trevor Johnston
A mockingbird conspires to bring down a despotic king in this seminal futuristic fairy tale.
Director: Paul Grimault
Best quote: “Attention: A charming shepherdess and a worthless little chimney sweep are being hunted by His Majesty the King’s police.”
Defining moment: A giant robot under the mockingbird’s control frees a young chicken from its cage, before smashing said cage with its fist.
If you chucked Disney characters into a sci-fi setting and sprinkled in a dose of French lyricism, you might end up with something like Le Roi et L’Oiseau. The film, scripted by poet Jacques Prévert and loosely based on a Hans Christian Andersen tale, tells the story of a detestable king brought down by arrogance and the machinations of his own paintings (trust us, it makes sense when you watch it). Ostensibly a kids’ flick, it doubles as a cautionary tale about the dangers of totalitarianism—the king’s absurdly ornate palace brings to mind the Bavarian castles beloved of the Nazis, whose regime had barely collapsed when Prévert and Paul Grimault began scripting it in 1948. But above all, it’s a great yarn, at once warm and sharply satirical, all 32 tortuous years of its production visible in the glorious attention to detail.—Alex Dudok De Wit
Peter Jackson was only 17 when a brave filmmaker tackled Tolkien.
Director: Ralph Bakshi
Best quote: “My precious…”
Defining moment: The attack at the ford by Rotoscoped Black Riders is truly unnerving.
First, let’s get the standard complaints out of the way: Yes, it can be a bit goofy, and some of the voices are way off (whose bright idea was it to cast C-3PO Anthony Daniels as Legolas?). And yes, it unexpectedly stops halfway through, with Frodo and Sam still lost in the wild and the Riders of Rohan beating back the orc army at Helm’s Deep (a conclusion was actually shot for TV, without Bakshi’s involvement, but the less said about that the better). But please, let’s focus on the positives, and there are many. The characterization is simple but effective: We’d say that Sam Gamgee is more wholesomely Tolkienish here than in the Jackson version. The action scenes are genuinely gripping, especially the climactic battle. And most of all, the visual style is just glorious, from the ornate, convincingly twisted woods of Fangorn to those utterly unique Rotoscoped Ringwraiths.—Tom Huddleston
The easiest and breeziest of all the classic Disney cartoons.
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Best quote: “Oh, he’s so handsome…just like his reward posters.”
Defining moment: The opening tune sung by “King of the Road” balladeer Roger Miller sets the scene perfectly, with laid-back country charm and wheezy gags.
Disney may be infamous for manhandling the world’s finest folktales into moralistic all-American parables (see also The Sword in the Stone, Aladdin, Mulan, etc.), but there are times when it really works. Robin Hood is a fine example: The Jungle Book director Wolfgang Reitherman’s decision to transplant hokey, cowpokey Western movie tropes to Ye Olde England should have led to disaster, but the resulting film is so sweet-natured, so casual, so doggone friendly that it becomes impossible to resist. The minuscule budget meant that entire sequences and characters were lifted wholesale from earlier Disney hits (just think of Little John as a brown Baloo), but somehow this only adds to the film’s unpretentious, shaggy-dog charm.—Tom Huddleston
Lewis Carroll is brought to the screen the Disney way.
Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske
Best quote: “If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t.”
Defining moment: Alice disappearing down the rabbit hole is only the beginning of the weirdness.
Walt Disney had long had his eyes on adapting Lewis Carroll, and when he did so, the results were faithful enough to qualify as one of the studio’s strangest offerings. Evoking the books’ original John Tenniel illustrations but with more than a touch of Disney cuteness, the film as a whole is in thrall to Carroll’s singular visual imagination and his play with language. But it doesn’t quite know how to turn dotty schoolgirl Alice’s episodic odyssey following the white rabbit into anything resembling a satisfying story. One can only imagine what apple-pie audiences thought of it at the time, besieged by hookah-puffing caterpillars, hallucinogenic mushrooms, the Mad Hatter’s tea party and an evidently psychotic Queen of Hearts. It was subsequently a late-night favorite among the herbally assisted.—Trevor Johnston
Anime’s international breakthrough, probing the dystopia of an all-engulfing network.
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Best quote: “I am a living, thinking entity who was created in the sea of information.”
Defining moment: Our security-agent heroine pulls the connectors from her neck and we realize she’s a cyborg.
Among the first Japanese anime features to be released theatrically in the West, this remarkable vision of the networked future arrived when most of us were barely aware of the Internet. As an elite cybercrime squad hunts down a dangerous hacker known as the Puppetmaster (who’s active online yet elusive in the real world), the story is also an opportunity to wonder if a character is still human when its body is a patchwork of cyborg limbs, and its memories a catalog of information open to manipulation. It’s more a think piece than a thriller, and you can certainly see the roots of the Matrix trilogy here. A Blade Runner–like noir atmosphere still compels, meshing beautifully with Kenji Kawai’s electro-organic score to convey the aching melancholy of being connected to everything, yet remaining utterly alone.—Trevor Johnston
Thrilling adventure, as an archetypal Miyazaki heroine seeks a mythic lost city somewhere above the clouds.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Best quote: “The crystal should remind us that we come from the earth and to the earth we must return.”
Defining moment: The destructive power of a giant robot signals the ominous threat of Laputan technology.
For the very first Studio Ghibli production, writer-director Miyazaki stepped forward boldly with fleets of lovingly realized vintage flying machines. The film traces the story of a young girl wondering whether the glowing crystal passed to her as a family heirloom will lead her to the legendary flying city of Laputa. If the tale then proceeds along expected lines, the exhilaration of the myriad chase sequences and aerial dogfights remains a marvel (not least given the rudimentary technology available to the Ghibli animators at the time). Also, a strong, ecologically aware undertow adds ballast to otherwise slightly two-dimensional villains. As such, it’s not as thematically rich as Miyazaki’s best (those titles are coming up), but the sheer imagination on view as the camera navigates the richly thought-out Laputa cityscape is obviously the product of a true visionary.—Trevor Johnston
A controversial satire on race relations from ’70s animation outlaw Bakshi.
Director: Ralph Bakshi
Best quote: “Harlem. Yeah! The pot of smack at the end of the rainbow. No more happy-actin’, back-bustin’. Harlem!”
Defining moment: A naked obese preacher who claims he’s the black Jesus shoots holes in photos of John Wayne, Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley.
After introducing drug use, salty street talk and working genitalia into his scandalous first feature, Fritz the Cat, Ralph Bakshi really caused a stir with this caustic look at race relations, featuring three animated brothers in conflict with both phony revolutionaries and the New York Mafia. Notwithstanding the white and gay characters (just as caricatured as the black ones), racial-equality groups were appalled and the film was barely released, later emerging on DVD under the more benign title Street Fight. Viewed in retrospect—and putting aside the Tarantino argument of whether a white writer-director has the right to use the n-word so liberally—it’s possible to see Bakshi attempting a strong statement about the subjugation of African-Americans, but undermining himself by using the worst stereotypes of preachers, pimps and whores to make his point.—Trevor Johnston
This compilation of classic Looney Tunes cartoons deserves to be far better known.
Directors: Chuck Jones and Phil Monroe
Best quote: “Duck season! Wabbit season! Duck season! Wabbit season!”
Defining moment: Too many to choose from, but the Wagner-inspired “What’s Opera, Doc?” will make your jaw drop.
The only conceivable reason why this roundup of the best Warner Bros. shorts isn’t higher on this list is because so few are aware of its existence. Released briefly into theaters in 1979, the film opens with Bugs Bunny in scholarly mode, looking back over the history of the chase movie from the earliest silents to the present day. Cue a cavalcade of some of the most insanely inventive, vigorously intelligent, wildly subversive and mind-bendingly bizarre skits and spoofs ever seen on film. The highlights are now part of our culture: Elmer Fudd going toe-to-toe with Bugs in “Rabbit Fire”; Daffy Duck berating his own animator in the dizzying “Duck Amuck”; the surly appearance of Marvin the Martian in “Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century.” But where else can you find them all in one place? We don’t use the word genius lightly, but this qualifies.—Tom Huddleston
A French children’s publishing phenomenon is brought to handmade life in this story of friendship across species.
Directors: Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner
Best quote: “If you don’t eat me, I’ll give you whatever you most want in the world.”
Defining moment: Parallel court cases above and below ground, as Ernest and Celestine try their best to end bear-mouse apartheid.
Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar came to prominence with the deliciously absurd, aptly titled A Town Called Panic, to which this more conventionally visualized heart-warmer seems positively Disneyesque by comparison—if Disney made off-kilter political allegories involving bohemian bears and tooth-collecting mice on the fringes of society, all rendered in delicate watercolor tones. A dark-horse Oscar nominee in 2014, this adorable oddity was big in France, but has yet to find the English-speaking audience it deserves; perhaps a new Forest Whitaker–featuring dub will make the difference. In its current form, however, it’s as pretty and as quintessentially Gallic as a plate of pastel-colored macarons, though with a sharper bite than you might expect.—Guy Lodge
Jonathan Swift is adapted in the first feature from Disney’s closest rivals.
Director: Dave Fleischer
Best quote: “There’s a g-g-giant on the b-b-beach!”
Defining moment: Lilliputian ingenuity and effort transport their new arrival back to the royal castle.
The achievements of the Fleischer brothers (director Dave and producer Max) have long been overshadowed by Walt Disney, yet they invented many key animation techniques, brought sound to the medium, and found wide audiences for their Betty Boop, Popeye and Superman shorts. Still, Disney’s 1937 Snow White was a game-changer, and the Fleischers responded with their own animated feature, which took the more family-friendly elements from Swift’s caustic original and delivered an upbeat story in which shipwrecked sailor Gulliver intervenes in the senseless conflict between tiny rival nations over the music at a forthcoming royal wedding. The operetta-influenced warbling hasn’t worn especially well, and the knockabout comedy lacks subtlety, yet the thought-through detail with which the Fleischers imagine Lilliput’s micro fixtures and fittings still impresses. A worthwhile reminder that Disney didn’t have it all its way.—Trevor Johnston
A cosmic journey through time, space and spirituality. With cats.
Directors: Gisaburo Sugii and Arlen Tarlofsky
Best quote: “I’m going to be just like that scorpion…”
Defining moment: An old woman sings “Nearer, My God, to Thee” in the most cracked and haunting voice imaginable.
Kenji Miyazawa’s 1927 novel is a standard text for Japanese schoolchildren but remains virtually unknown elsewhere. Combining eerie Christian mysticism, awestruck pseudoscience and bleak realism, the book follows two put-upon schoolboys, Giovanni and Campanella, as they board the titular train to the stars and beyond. Anime directors Gisaburo Sugii and Arlen Tarlofsky made one major change when they adapted Miyazawa’s work for the screen: They replaced all the central human characters with cute anthropomorphized kittens. But if their intention was to make the story more appealing to youngsters, they were way off. With its meditative pace, unstructured plotting, and rambling, often incomprehensible discourses on morality and mortality, this is about as kid-friendly as a morning in church. For those with patience, however, it is a beautiful, frequently enlightening trip.—Tom Huddleston
This richly imagined postapocalyptic fantasy is Miyazaki’s first masterpiece.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Best quote: “Man and insect cannot live together!”
Defining moment: The glow of the rampaging insects’ hate-filled red eyes lines the horizon.
Miyazaki’s first film based on his own original material is a major statement of intent. The man doesn’t just tell stories; he creates entire worlds. That sense of total immersion pays dividends here. It’s truly shocking when the eponymous heroine’s peaceful agrarian community comes under attack from a warmongering nation whose aggressive expansion plans could completely unbalance the postapocalyptic environment, where deadly giant insects lurk in the so-called Sea of Decay. Just as Star Wars did before it, the film thrillingly shows how one individual’s distinctive perceptions can affect events on a cosmic scale, yet the triumph here is the insistence on endeavoring to resolve mankind’s fate rather than deploy more destruction. Looking to discover early Miyazaki? Start with this epic saga of conflict and compassion.—Trevor Johnston
A former J-pop idol’s move into acting triggers psychological meltdown.
Director: Satoshi Kon
Best quote: “The Internet? That’s popular at the moment. What is it?”
Defining moment: The sight of Mima’s alter ego skipping in midair from lamppost to lamppost would freak anyone out.
The pressures of career choices and the threat of a murderously obsessive fan loosen former pop star Mima’s grasp on reality, in a story that explores the dehumanizing effects of the entertainment industry. Perfect Blue also shows how that same industry makes vulnerable women complicit in their own sexual exploitation. This startling first feature reminds us of the immense talent the anime universe lost when director Satoshi Kon succumbed to cancer at 46. No one else would even have thought of doing this intense psychodrama as an animated feature—the source material’s not dissimilar to Black Swan—and surely only Kon had the visual skills to transfer the disturbingly fragmented mise en scène of a Polanski or an Argento into animated form. The outcome is dark, mesmerizing, but also controlled and coherent in a way the hyperimaginative Kon never quite managed again.—Trevor Johnston
Hungarian folktales go psychedelic…and then some.
Director: Marcell Jankovics
Best quote: “Tell your mother to breast-feed you for another seven years, then you’ll be able to pull out the tree single-handed.”
Defining moment: When an animated film starts with a hallucinogenic birthing scene, you know you’re not in Kansas anymore.
Any director who has written 15 books on folklore takes his ancient legends seriously, and in Magyar maestro Marcell Jankovics’s full-on fable, three princes ignore the king’s warning about “the lock which must not be opened.” All hell (literally) breaks loose, and a white mare goddess spawns three human sons—who subsequently take the fight back to the underworld. An archetypal saga involving daunting trials of endurance, it unfolds in a Day-Glo visual style suggesting Kandinsky’s colorful curves, Matisse’s cutouts and way too many prog-rock album covers. It is unlike anything else in the world, ever, which makes this a must-see, though the sheer brutality with which Treeshaker, Stonecrumbler and Ironrubber press through the pit of Hell and back may make this just a bit too heavy-duty for sensitive younger viewers.—Trevor Johnston
A career-spanning interview of an elderly film star traces a romantic odyssey fusing life and art.
Director: Satoshi Kon
Best quote: “It’s the key to the most important thing in life.”
Defining moment: When we first realize Chiyoko’s memories and movies are blurred into one.
A fictional reclusive screen legend recalls how she embarked upon a lifelong romantic quest to track down the rebel artist who captured her young girl’s heart. Was she hopelessly deluded, or in the throes of a grand passion many of us will never be fortunate enough to experience? So strong are her memories that her devoted interviewer (and his nonplussed cameraman) find themselves sucked into her past, where personal travails and melodramatic film roles intermingle via Perfect Blue auteur Kon’s dizzying narrative transitions. The sheer single-mindedness of Chiyoko’s journey almost traps the movie in a groove, yet Kon saves the day with some thought-provoking final-reel reveals, by which point the sheer audacity of his fluidly imaginative direction and loving re-creation of Japanese screen history—from samurai swashbucklers to modern sci-fi epics—has long since cast their spell.—Trevor Johnston
Disney tackles J.M. Barrie’s tale of Neverland and the spirit of childhood.
Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske
Best quote: “But Mother, I don’t want to grow up!”
Defining moment: Peter leads Wendy and her siblings across the London night sky.
Parents, do you know where your children are? Maybe they’re following mischievous spirit Peter Pan past the second star and straight on to Neverland, where kids can be kids to their hearts’ content. The sight of grown men threatening children with cutlasses and even a ticking bomb makes this occasionally uncomfortable viewing today (and its dubious treatment of the crimson-hued Native Americans is hard to forgive). But while definitely from a more innocent age, the comedy still plays: Blustery Captain Hook remains an endearingly fallible bad guy, hotly pursued by an ever-ravenous crocodile, while the vigorous action throughout suggests that the Disney team had one eye on Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes output. It’s somewhat superficial overall, but still the best adaptation of Barrie’s play, perennially unlucky onscreen.—Trevor Johnston
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