The 100 best animated movies: the best kids 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 films especially suitable for little kids.
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
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
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 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
Pixar’s beloved shaggy-fish story hooked the box office.
Director: Andrew Stanton
Best quote: “Just keep swimming.”
Defining moment: Those toothy, Aussie “vegetarian” sharks really are terrifying.
Nowadays we take it as a given that half of the year’s biggest moneymakers are going to be cartoons: Even inferior animated sequels draw the kind of audiences once reserved for Schwarzenegger and Spielberg. Finding Nemo may not have managed to crack the top slot at the box office—it was up against The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King—but its success both at the multiplex and on home video (it’s the biggest seller of all time, apparently) heralded a new age of animated blockbusters. And it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving film, the warmest, most universal of all the Pixar home-run hitters. Particularly notable: Finding Nemo eschews a big-name voice cast in favor of talented character actors like Albert Brooks and Allison Janney, a lesson that too many recent animated films have failed to learn.—Tom Huddleston
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
How the Vikings learned to stop warring and love dragons.
Directors: Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders
Best quote: “It’s only fun if you get a scar out of it.”
Defining moment: Pint-size Viking Hiccup meets Toothless, the not-so-scary Night Fury dragon.
Odin almighty! Here’s a kids’ animated film with wit, charm and one-liners. The story is as old as a Nordic longboat: a coming-of-age yarn about a boy with daddy issues. Our hero is Viking pipsqueak Hiccup, raised in a proud nation of dragon slayers. All Hiccup wants is to please his warrior father, Stoick the Vast (who sums up the macho Viking philosophy nicely: “When I was a kid, my dad told me to bang my head against a rock—and I did it”). Hiccup’s trouble is that he is the geekiest, weediest Viking in the tribe. But (pay attention, kids) since the brain is mightier than brawn, he learns the ways of the dragons. The film climaxes with a spectacular aerial battle sequence. Meanwhile, Hiccup’s little dragon buddy Toothless is the cutest kitten-bat-lizard crossbreed you’re likely ever to see onscreen.—Cath Clarke
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
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
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 takes a modern approach to an old-fashioned fairy tale.
Directors: Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck
Best quote: “Wait, you got engaged to someone you just met that day?”
Defining moment: Whether you think it’s a feminist belter or reactionary pop drivel, the Oscar-winning song “Let It Go” is a new Disney classic.
Despite its box-office appeal and Oscar wins, Disney’s most recent animated smash divides opinion. Some see Frozen as a delirious throwback to the studio’s classic era, with tongue firmly in cheek and belting torch songs galore (the stage musical cannot be far away). For others, though, its shiny veneer masks old-fashioned ideals: The heroines are all slim, perky and good-looking, and the idea that freedom drives women mad might not be a particularly welcome one. Whatever your take, there’s no denying that Frozen is ridiculously entertaining: beautifully animated, breathlessly paced and winningly goofy. The fun part is seeing those classic fairy-tale characters—the adventurous princess, the handsome prince and the wicked queen—being forced through a postmodern blender.—Tom Huddleston
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
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
It may be mainstream, but this all-action chopsocky film has wit, charm and guts.
Directors: Mark Osborne and John Stevenson
Best quote: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.”
Defining moment: The beautiful prologue sequence, playing on Chinese shadow-puppet traditions.
Jack Black’s public profile was on the verge of hitting full saturation when this knockabout, action-packed tribute to Chinese martial-arts flicks was released. Its huge success may have been instrumental in pushing Black over the line from lovable manchild to omnipresent irritation. It’s a shame, because Kung Fu Panda really is inventive and enjoyable, and much of its success is due to Black, whose overweight, ever-eager hero, Po, is the big, soft heart of the movie. It could be argued that the film goes slightly overboard on the voice casting—Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Ian McShane and, somewhat inevitably, Jackie Chan all chime in—but luckily, Kung Fu Panda has the witty script to support their celebrity weight.—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
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
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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