What are the 100 best animated movies of all time? To find out we asked over 100 experts for their favorite animations (60 minutes or over). These are people who know animated movies, from Fantastic Mr. Fox director Wes Anderson and Aardman animators Nick Park and Peter Lord to the creatives behind some of the biggest Disney and Pixar hits ever made. We've crunched the numbers and here's the final list, from 100 down to one.
RECOMMENDED: Explore the 100 best animated movies ever made
The 100 best animated movies: 100-91
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 JohnstonRead more
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.
Satoshi Kon only directed four features before he died of cancer in 2010 at the young age of 46, and while all of them were incredible, it’s Millennium Actress that best illustrates the tender humanity of his limitless imagination. Framed as an interview with fictional fading movie star Chiyoko Fujiwara and folding itself into her various roles in much the same way as Inception would later dive into dreams, this dazzlingly wistful story of lost love is also a beautiful examination of how movies and memories come to occupy a shared space in our minds.—David EhrlichRead more
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 JohnstonRead more
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 JohnstonRead more
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 JohnstonRead more
A couple’s desire for a child inspires a tree stump to come to life—and take over their lives—in this funny absurdist yarn.
Director: Jan Svankmajer
Best quote: “He’s our child and we have to stick by him through thick and thin.”
Defining moment: When the baby devours his own father: Svankmajer never lets Freud get the better of him.
Adapted from a Czech folktale, Svankmajer’s gleefully wicked satire depicts how far a childless couple go to satisfy their parental impulses. After the husband finds a tree stump shaped a little like a human baby, he cleans it up and presents it to his wife, but she soon comes to believe it’s actually their child. Such is her devotion that it somehow brings the thing to life, and its increasingly insatiable appetite has to be dealt with—by any means necessary. With his customary mix of live action and stop-motion animation, Svankmajer explores the more lethally destructive aspects of familial affection and loyalty; at once nightmarish, grotesque and genuinely subversive, the film is also savagely funny as the solipsistic monster grows and grows.—Geoff AndrewRead more
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 HuddlestonRead more
A West African village folktale pits a plucky tot against a fearsome magician.
Director: Michel Ocelot
Best quote: “Why are you mean and evil?”
Defining moment: Any time Kirikou’s tiny legs scamper across the savannah.
French director Michel Ocelot, whose deliberately simple visual style celebrates the power of the silhouette, grew up in Guinea, and manages the rare feat (for a Western filmmaker) of telling a rural African tale without patronizing his subject matter. Instead, the action proceeds with the patience and confidence of a fable, as plucky Kirikou wisely refuses to accept the rule of fear exerted by the stern sorceress Karaba over his home village. Adults will pick up on the political analogy with the continent’s dictatorial rulers, but younger viewers are more likely to be mesmerized by the courage and resilience of the pint-size protagonist. Yes, there’s realistic and entirely nonsexual nudity in the imagery here, but it would be a shame to let Anglo-Saxon prudery stop this delightful film from becoming a much-loved family classic.—Trevor Johnston
Roald Dahl’s beloved but trippy children’s book—about escape, adventure and the company of giant insects—meets its creative match.
Director: Henry Selick
Best quote: “Try looking at it another way.”
Defining moment: The eponymous peach is set free from its tree and rolls to freedom, leaving much bewilderment in its wake.
Many filmmakers have struggled to nail the blend of the whimsical and the macabre in Roald Dahl’s inimitable children’s fiction. Oddly, the ones who succeed best are those who put their own creative personality first: Nicolas Roeg, Wes Anderson and, in this winningly surreal take on Dahl’s least overtly filmable work, Henry Selick. The Nightmare Before Christmas director’s Gothic-style puppetry and doleful sense of humour are ideally suited to this initially melancholy, increasingly manic tale of a lonely young orphan whose life takes a turn for the better when he boards a giant peach bound for New York and populated with lovable mutant bugs. Short, strange and bookended with live-action sequences scarcely less cartoonish than the rest, it’s a fond but inventive tribute to a great storyteller.—Guy LodgeRead more
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
The 100 best animated movies: 90-81
Part art piece, part gross-out comedy, part apocalyptic epic, all indescribable.
Director: Phil Mulloy
Best quote: “That villain’s penis is huge!”
Defining moment: When our hero Mr. Christie accidentally kills God. Well, He was disguised as a spider.
How’s this for a plot synopsis? After being seduced by a studly French sailor, straitlaced upper-middle-class father, husband and unwitting reality-TV star Mr. Christie goes insane and decides to dig a hole to Australia in the garden. Emerging in the Tokyo subway system by mistake, Mr. Christie inadvertently murders God and is exiled to the land of the dead, where he meets Adolf Hitler, Jesus and Dracula. Sadly, just as he’s starting to get a handle on things, the local parish priest decides to rape Mrs. Christie, leading to the destruction of the universe. Part of artist and animator Phil Mulloy’s ongoing Christie series (which has so far consisted of 12 shorts and two features, with another in the pipeline), Goodbye Mr. Christie utilizes ultraminimalist animation, computer-modulated deadpan voices and a dry, mordant wit to create something that is at once enlightening, aggravating, strangely moving and extremely funny.—Tom Huddleston
Fun for the whole family—with ghosts and booger-green zombies.
Directors: Chris Butler and Sam Fell
Best quote: “Can’t you be like other kids your age?”
Defining moment: Norman attempts to wrench a book of spells from the rigor-mortis-stiff grasp of a corpse.
If, in a few years’ time, a generation of teenagers develops an unhealthy fixation with wearing black and the undead, point the finger of blame at ParaNorman. Never has a kids’ film been so gloriously ghoulish. Our hero is a horror-film-obsessed 11-year-old called Norman (nicknamed Ab-Norman by the kids at school, who graffiti “freak” on his locker). Norman can see ghosts—which terrifies his meat-and-potatoes dad, who’s worried that his son will grow up into “limp-wristed hippie stuff.” The second stop-motion animation from the studio Laika (after 2009’s Coraline), ParaNorman was brought lovingly to life, with up to 300 people working on it at a time, and 3-D printers to animate characters’ faces. The detail, down to the zombies’ tombstone teeth, is stunning.—Cath Clarke
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 LodgeRead more
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 HuddlestonRead more
The world’s first feature-length stop-motion animation…and one of the greatest.
Directors: Irene Starewicz and Wladyslaw Starewicz
Best quote: “Sir, I demand compensation for a cold, a nervous breakdown and some stolen hams.”
Defining moment: The silver-tongued, rascally fox talks his way out of the hangman’s noose.
Wes Anderson acknowledged The Tale of the Fox as the biggest single influence on the look of Fantastic Mr. Fox. Watching the 1930 French film today (you can see it in full on YouTube), it’s astonishing how fresh and modern it is. Codirector Wladyslaw Starewicz pioneered stop-motion animation, creating the elegant world of The Tale of Fox with his daughter Irene. Fast, funny and anarchic, The Tale of the Fox is as giddily inventive as Pixar, and as charming as Wallace and Gromit. But no film today could get away with being this deliciously and subversively cynical. In another kids’ film, the crafty, cunning fox would get his comeuppance. Not here. After a string of dastardly crimes, Monsieur Fox is hauled in front of the king of beasts, a chin-stroking lion, only to cheat his way to freedom. Bravo.—Cath ClarkeRead more
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 JohnstonRead more
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 JohnstonRead more
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.
Few films, animated or otherwise, have ever been more ahead of their time than Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, the iconic Japanese anime that anticipated everything from The Matrix and Avatar to Internet culture. A ridiculously dense technothriller set in 2029, the movie introduces a world where cybernetic bodies are commonplace, and hackers are able to remotely take control of the people inside them. Following an assault team as they track the elusive Puppet Master, the movie starts as a slick action film but soon evolves into a prophetic look at the fluidity of identity in the modern world.—David EhrlichRead more
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 JohnstonRead more
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 HuddlestonRead more
The 100 best animated movies: 80-71
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
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 WitRead more
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 HuddlestonRead more
A gleefully bizarre twist on the Faust story that blends live-action with puppetry, stop-motion animation and more.
Director: Jan Svankmajer
Best quote: “How comes it then that thou art now out of hell with me?”
Defining moment: The scene showing a baby’s rapid journey through childhood and adulthood to death is Svankmajer’s Claymation at its best.
Svankmajer’s second feature reimagines the Faust story with reference to Marlowe, Goethe, Gounod, Freud, folk legend—and his own extremely fertile invention. A nondescript everyman (Petr Cepek) emerging from a crowded Prague subway is handed a map with a spot marked X; the next day he visits the place, a dressing room in an abandoned theater, where he unthinkingly transforms himself into Faust and sinks into a sinister realm of arcane spells, alchemy and tricky negotiations with Lucifer. The man’s seemingly inexorable descent toward annihilation is conveyed by an expertly executed blend of live action, puppetry, Claymation and other forms of filmic trickery. As ever with Svankmajer’s work, the underlying pessimism of the story and characterization are balanced by the director’s mischievously witty delight in the absurd.—Geoff AndrewRead more
Nightmare Before Christmas director Selick’s follow-up is altogether more unsettling.
Director: Henry Selick
Best quote: “They say even the proudest spirit can be broken…with love.”
Defining moment: Coraline’s first, dizzying adventure in the night garden, with its exploding flowers, fountains and mechanical grasshoppers.
Director Henry Selick and author Neil Gaiman were an inspired match: two hugely talented, totally idiosyncratic artists who worked like catnip on kids with a somewhat dark turn of mind. So far, this is their only collaboration, an adaptation of Gaiman’s 2002 novel, about a girl whose drab new life in a remote cottage with her parents gains a little spark when she discovers a mysterious door into another world. Selick’s film utilizes the same fabric-and-thread stop-motion style as his earlier success The Nightmare Before Christmas, but jettisons that film’s relatively cheery goths-get-festive ethos for something far more twisted and bleak, a mournful meditation on parental responsibility and childish selfishness. Selick’s attempts to shoehorn in Gaiman’s sprawling gallery of characters doesn’t entirely work, and the film can be hard to warm to. But the visuals are breathtaking, from a pulsating, womblike corridor into the “button world,” to a series of terrifyingly monstrous transformations.—Tom HuddlestonRead more
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 JohnstonRead more
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 RothkopfRead more
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 UhlichRead more
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 ClarkeRead more
A talking chameleon, used to blending in, must take a bold stand as a Western town’s new sheriff.
Director: Gore Verbinski
Best quote: “You ain’t from round here, are you?”
Defining moment: Bellying up to the bar at the local saloon, Rango tells a whopper about killing seven outlaws with one bullet.
Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski had made magic before, in the first Pirates of the Caribbean, a project on which an actor’s wildest impulses met a filmmaker’s warmest encouragements. The sequels made them impossibly rich, yet that spirit of impulsive weirdness was something they wanted to recapture; it thrums through this computer-animated adventure, delightfully scuzzy in its dusty, Sergio Leone–esque locales. Rango follows the arc of many classic Westerns, and speaks strongly to principles of self-respect and inner heroism. But it’s also a creature of many colors, finding room for adult pop-culture references (a Kim Novak joke?) and Depp’s own filmography: Rango wears a garish Hawaiian shirt, and you can’t help but think of Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.—Joshua RothkopfRead more
The 100 best animated movies: 70-61
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 HuddlestonRead more
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 HuddlestonRead more
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
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.
Disney can’t have imagined that this reworking of Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale The Snow Queen would be such an astounding success—just as so many parents could never have imagined that the film's songs and dresses would dominate their lives for so long. It's now the highest-grossing animated film of all time and, as of this writing, has a sequel in the works. Why was it so beloved? Hard to say—it's not exactly groundbreaking. Frozen is, however, sweet, witty and gently empowering, with a belting soundtrack, crowned by Idina Menzel singing “Let It Go,” that sells its charm over and over and over. Presumably the troubled sisterly relationship between Anna and Elsa, the latter of whom has dangerous ice-making powers, is part of the emotional pull of the film, as is, surely, the intoxicating powers of their showstopping dresses and hairstyles. Frozen has plenty of well-imagined comic relief too, including Olaf, the singing snowman who foolishly dreams of summer. It's a traditional-looking melodrama with a distinct but subtle modern edge to it.—Dave CalhounRead more
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.
Inspired by classic tales by both Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, this Disney animated movie was initially a flop at the box office, postponing the company's return to fairytale territory for three decades until 1989's The Little Mermaid. Watching it today as a kids' film, it's striking how truly creepy and terrifying Sleeping Beauty can be, not least when Princess Aurora is led to the fateful spinning wheel by the evil witch Maleficent (much later given her own, live-action incarnation in the form of Angelina Jolie). The final gothic-tinged showdown between the prince and Maleficent (taking the form of a dragon) in the forests and castle of the decaying Forbidden Mountain is both breathtaking and likely to have little children hiding under the furniture for weeks.—Dave CalhounRead more
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 UhlichRead more
Stop-motion animatronics meet live action in this still-thrilling adventure story.
Directors: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Best quote: “It was beauty killed the beast.”
Defining moment: When a T. Rex pauses to scratch his nose, these plasticine monsters really do come to life.
The sequence is one of the most loaded in cinema history: a psychosexual fever dream involving a scantily clad woman, a giant ape who carries her to the top of the Empire State Building, and a fleet of war planes dispatched to take the lovesick simian out. Nothing can improve on Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1933 classic—certainly not those unnecessary 1976 or 2005 remakes. The original King Kong deserves a spot on any serious animation list for its stop-motion-rendered title character, composited out of four different models roughly two feet tall. The ape immediately entered into the public consciousness, and while a campaign to create a special Oscar for the movie failed, a generation of visual artists would be inspired to dream big.—Joshua RothkopfRead more
This mythical adventure provides the ultimate showcase for Ray Harryhausen’s stop-frame animation.
Director: Don Chaffey
Best quote: “The gods are cruel! In time, men will learn to live without them.”
Defining moment: Sword-wielding skeletons rise from the turf to attack our band of brothers.
Generations of younger viewers remain convinced that Ray Harryhausen possessed the magical power to bring model figurines to life, simply on the strength of this ancient-Greek adventure pic he himself regarded as his finest achievement. No one really remembers the plot, which involves Todd Armstrong’s frankly wooden Jason and his brawny crew taking to the seas to bring back the fabled Golden Fleece and thus ascend the throne of Thessaly. But the stop-frame-animation highlights are unforgettable—from fierce winged harpies to the bronze giant Talos and the snapping seven-headed Hydra. Best of all, though, is a battle with sword-swinging skeletons, raised from the earth to take on our heroes. The human and animated elements are uncannily integrated in a way that CGI never quite makes so tactile. They’re alive!—Trevor JohnstonRead more
Wonderfully madcap early-1960s experimental piece.
Director: Harry Smith
Best quote: This is all about the imagery. Words are too pedestrian, man.
Defining moment: A machine that allows you to play a game of tennis with a baby.
Uncompromisingly experimental, U.S. filmmaker Harry Smith’s Heaven and Earth Magic existed in various versions in the late 1950s and early 1960s, before settling down into this final 1962 cut. Scrappy and fiercely DIY in its aesthetic and produced under the auspices of Jonas Mekas’s Anthology Film Archives, this black-and-white film uses stop-motion animation techniques to tell stories with roughly cutout photographs. In terms of story, maybe Smith himself best characterizes his avant-garde, surrealist approach: “The first part depicts the heroine’s toothache consequent to the loss of a very valuable watermelon, her dentistry and transportation to heaven. The second part depicts the return to Earth from being eaten by Max Müller on the day Edward VII dedicated the Great Sewer of London.” Got that? The film’s audio consists only of sound effects, and it’s become a popular choice for screenings with a live score.—Dave Calhoun
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 JohnstonRead more
The 100 best animated movies: 60-51
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 HuddlestonRead more
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 ClarkeRead more
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.
For a film so delicate and graceful, a surprising amount of controversy continues to swirl around Sylvain Chomet’s nearly silent feature about an aging magician and the young Scottish woman who can’t help but believe in his tricks. The title character is an obvious homage to legendary French filmmaker Jacques Tati, and the story goes that Chomet based the movie on a script that Tati wrote as a private apology to his estranged daughter. Tati may never have intended for The Illusionist to be a love letter to himself (or even made at all), but this gorgeously hand-drawn and ineffably heartbreaking wisp of a movie is so perfect that it feels like it was written just for you.—David EhrlichRead more
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 RothkopfRead more
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
No more little miss shy and retiring, this princess means business.
Directors: Nathan Greno and Byron Howard
Best quote: “I’m malicious, mean and scary/My face could curdle dairy.”
Defining moment: Escaping the tower, Rapunzel feels grass under her feet for the first time, and breaks into song (as you would).
The brothers Grimm’s “Rapunzel” must have presented modern Disney with a bit of a head-scratcher. Long gone are the days when a Disney princess would spend her hours mooning around a tower dreaming of a knight in shining armor to rescue her. So in this version (with Pixar’s John Lasseter executive-producing), gone is the handsome prince, replaced with an egotistical thief, Flynn Ryder. When he first smarms his way upstairs, Rapunzel thwacks him with a frying pan. This sparky princess will do her own escaping, thank you very much, twirling all that hair like a lasso. Tangled has energy and humor in spades. Best are the beasts: Maximus the army horse (on a mission to capture Flynn) and Pascal the chameleon.—Cath ClarkeRead more
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 JohnstonRead more
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 WitRead more
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 UhlichRead more
A modern woman’s breakup is paralleled with a musical retelling of the Ramayana.
Director: Nina Paley
Best quote: “Assemble the monkey warriors!”
Defining moment: Sita wonders, “Whooooooooo’s that knockin’ at my door?” in an energetic battle-scene-cum-musical-number.
Fiction, somehow, helps us deal with fact: Reeling from a divorce, animator Nina Paley found solace in the Hindu epic the Ramayana, specifically the section dealing concerning Sita, a woman fought over by two of the tale’s male protagonists. For this eye-popping DIY feature, almost entirely animated by Paley herself, the symbolically pure and virtuous Sita becomes the narrative focus. Paley adheres to the basic outline of the Ramayana—with its multiheadeded gods, monkey armies and heroic warriors—adding her own distinctive touches. The most delightful of these is giving Sita the voice of Jazz Age singer Annette Hanshaw, whose cheery musical stylings (especially during the literally earth-shattering climax) add a defiant layer to a story normally defined by paternalism and machismo.—Keith UhlichRead more
The 100 best animated movies: 50-41
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 RothkopfRead more
This politically charged family adventure effortlessly transcends its toy-exploiting roots.
Directors: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Best quote: “Everything is awesome!”
Defining moment: When our hero Emmet awakes to find himself in the “real” world.
Can you imagine the raised eyebrows when this one was announced? And can you imagine what would have happened if the filmmakers had ruined the reputation of these most-loved plastic toy bricks? Luckily, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs writer-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller came up with a movie that was confident, strangely moving and loopy. Adding a hint of The Truman Show to their conceit, they give us Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt), an everyday builder who's ridiculously chirpy and content (the stupidly catchy “Everything is Awesome” is the key song) and totally unaware that he's a tiny cog in a malevolent corporate machine designed to keep its lowly workers ignorant, useful and disempowered. The film has a cutting streak of satire to it, as well as a stream of sophisticated gags that keep coming. Best of all, the entire thing exists in a world of plasticy brick-ness. The film's final moments have proved divisive, but whatever you make of them, they're no less bold than everything that comes before.—Dave CalhounRead more
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 JohnstonRead more
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
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.
Animation is often used to illustrate the impossible (a talking rat, for example), but Ari Folman’s masterpiece takes unique advantage of the medium’s ability to see things that live-action can’t show us. Waltz with Bashir is a film about a uniquely filmic problem: How do you visualize something that’s been forgotten? Recreating real-world testimony with Adobe Flash animation (and a haunting Max Richter score), Folman tries to remember the role he played in a massacre as a young Israeli soldier. What he finds is less important than how he looks for it, but the results of his search are unforgettably devastating all the same.—David EhrlichRead more
Pixar’s purple patch spawns another monster smash.
Director: Pete Docter
Best quote: “There’s nothing more toxic or deadly than a human child.”
Defining moment: The closing credits, as our heroes perform their hastily improvised stage musical “Put That Thing Back Where It Came from or So Help Me.”
For a while, it seemed so simple: Pixar was on such a spectacular roll that even something as wildly inventive and eye-slappingly beautiful as Monsters, Inc. could be regarded as just another link in the chain. Only now, following a string of disappointments (including 2013’s forgettable prequel, Monsters University), do we realize how good we had it. Perhaps more than any other Pixar flick, Monsters, Inc.—particularly in its 3-D version—plays havoc with the possibilities of animation, harking back to the golden age of Looney Tunes for its wild, dimension hopping action sequences and wealth of background gags, cramming the screen with color, life and wit. The characterization is equally noteworthy: Director Pete Docter milks every ounce of humor and pathos from his voiceover frontmen Billy Crystal and John Goodman, and the script is packed with memorable one-liners and fuzzy warmth.—Tom HuddlestonRead more
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 LodgeRead more
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 RothkopfRead more
A wise, funny Claymation tale of lives lived on the edge of society.
Director: Adam Elliot
Best quote: “Butts are bad because they wash out to sea, and fish smoke them and become nicotine-dependent.”
Defining moment: Max wins the lottery and uses his prize money to buy a lifetime supply of chocolate.
This big-kids-and-adults-only bleak comedy is the only feature to date from Australian filmmaker Adam Elliot, who previously made well-regarded short films, including 2003’s “Harvie Krumpet.” Set in the 1970s and subverting Claymations usual cuddliness, it tells of an unhappy suburban child, Mary, who, after leafing through the phone book, inappropriately (or so it seems) becomes pen pals with Max, a depressed New Yorker with Asperger’s syndrome. It’s almost entirely in black and white—or at least black, white and beige—although there’s the odd flash of color, like the crude lipstick worn by Mary’s grotesque, unloving mother. A celebration of outsiders, this offers comedy as well as tears, as we track Mary and Max over the decades; ultimately, it manages to be both rude and strangely endearing. The voices couldn’t be more appropriate: Barry Humphries narrates, while Philip Seymour Hoffman is Max and Toni Collette is Mary as a grown-up.—Dave CalhounRead more
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.
The production history of The Secret of Nimh—an adaptation of the book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh—is an interesting one. Director Don Bluth headed up a breakaway group of frustrated former Disney animators who decided to break away and do their own thing using traditional animation techniques, at a time when the classic animation studio was in the doldrums. It certainly has an old-school Disney feel to it, moving nimbly between warmth, humor and peril as it tells of Mrs. Brisby (the name change was for legal reasons), a widowed field mouse trying to protect her young brood from humans and other more malevolent creatures. It’s a little soppy, encapsulated in the “Flying Dreams Lullaby” on the soundtrack, but it's also charming and romantic in its depiction of love, grief and a mother's instinct to protect her children at any cost. The Secret of Nimh also features the scariest owl ever committed to animation.—Dave CalhounRead more
The 100 best animated movies: 40-31
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 RothkopfRead more
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 RothkopfRead more
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 HuddlestonRead more
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
Pixar pushes the boundaries (again) with a near-wordless tale of robot romance in a dystopian future.
Director: Andrew Stanton
Best quote: “Computer, define dancing.”
Defining moment: Wall-E’s increasingly frenzied, love-struck attempts to revive his comatose flame are heartbreaking.
This must remain Pixar's most bold movie to date. Taking its cue from the worst projections imaginable of the environmental destruction of our planet, Wall-E imagines Earth in the year 2805 completely devoid of humans. The only animate object that remains is a rusty old robot designed to collect waste (his name stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth Class). This is a rare popular animated feature that offers a challenging, angry vision of the future. And, moreover, it's almost an experimental movie—for its first 40 minutes or so, we watch in awe as Wall-E goes about his work on Earth in almost complete quiet. It's virtually a silent movie, meaning that the script relies heavily on visual gags, messages and cues. The film's later scenes slightly betray the promise of its first, awe-inspiring half when we move to a frenetic, horrific space station where all the remaining humans now live, but even then the film's vision of man's folly is no less cutting. For all its quiet anger, Wall-E is a romance too, and when, back on Earth, a second robot, Eve, appears, we find ourselves cheering on a nascent union in a way that only Pixar could inspire.—Dave CalhounRead more
Aardman’s first feature applied their signature style to a tale of farmed chickens trying to break free.
Directors: Peter Lord and Nick Park
Best quote: “All my life flashed before my eyes.… It was really boring.”
Defining moment: When our feathered friends finally fly a homemade mechanical bird over the fence.
Britain’s Aardman Animations had been going since the early 1970s, and had won three Oscars for its short films “Creature Comforts,” “The Wrong Trousers” and “A Close Shave” (the latter two featuring Wallace and Gromit), by the time that the company’s founder, Peter Lord, and his collaborator Nick Park codirected their first feature, Chicken Run, in 2000. A feathery spin on The Great Escape, the film showcased the same clay animation Aardman had employed to bring the much-loved Morph character to life on British TV in the 1970s and ’80s. Only now their budget was bigger, they were working with DreamWorks and Pathé, and the voices included Mel Gibson as an arrogant American chicken among an ensemble of winged prisoners in Yorkshire desperate to escape a vicious farm and its chicken-pie machine. The Aardman style—amusing, down-to-earth, homey dialogue coupled with simple, oversize features—survived the company’s first brush with Hollywood.—Dave CalhounRead more
Handcrafted silhouettes captivate in the first-ever animated feature.
Director: Lotte Reiniger
Best quote: It’s silent, so you’ll have to provide your own dialogue.
Defining moment: The good witch takes on the evil sorcerer in a shape-shifting smackdown.
Given the immense visual sophistication of today’s computer-aided animation, is there still any point in watching a silent film where paper cutouts move across illuminated sheets of glass? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is a resounding yes, since this fairy-tale adventure from Germany’s Lotte Reiniger is no fusty historical artifact, but a mesmerizing viewing experience, precisely because (unlike modern animation) we can see the handiwork involved in creating the exquisite silhouettes peopling this classic Arabian Nights tale. There’s a flying horse, a dashing prince, an evil sorcerer, a damsel in serious distress, and even a special appearance by Aladdin and his “wunderlampe.” It’s all rendered in filigree detail that brings the time-honored story to life. There’s not quite the seamless movement we’ve come to expect these days, but when Reiniger fills the screen with spiky winged demons, the sheer craft on display is genuinely breathtaking.—Trevor JohnstonRead more
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.
A Disney Renaissance high point, this “tale as old as time” is as essential to the Mouse House’s rep as Pinocchio or Cinderella. Famously, Beauty and the Beast would be the first animated movie ever to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar—and that’s back in the cutthroat era of five nominees, mind you. But all awards talk aside, the movie is enchanting: exactly how a romantic animated fantasy should feel. You might be able to find tougher versions of the fable (nothing can compare to Jean Cocteau’s 1946 stunner), but there’s great compensation via this batch of original musical numbers, including “Be Our Guest,” “Belle” and the title track. All were created by lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, the former to whom the movie is dedicated—he died of AIDS complications mere months before the release. —Joshua RothkopfRead more
Pixar scored a hat trick—in 3-D—with the third film of its signature franchise.
Director: Lee Unkrich
Best quote: “What are you going to do with these old toys?”
Defining moment: When the toys are threatened with a horrific end at the garbage dump.
It took 11 years for Pixar to make a third visit to the playroom. Getting there was a bumpy ride: Development for the final Toy Story film became caught up in the intricacies of the animation studio’s production deal with Disney, and at one point the Mouse House was planning to make the second sequel without Pixar’s involvement. That all changed when Disney bought the studio in 2006, and Pixar took charge of Disney Animation. Much of the original team—including John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich, the latter of whom would now direct Toy Story 3 solo—went back to the drawing board and came up with a narrative that saw Andy, the toys’ owner, about to go to college and the toys escaping the terrible fate of the attic and heading instead to a day-care center—which turns out to not be the paradise they’d hoped for. The mix of energy and emotion was as winning as ever.—Dave Calhoun
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
The 100 best animated movies: 30-21
It’s an emotional reunion as Pixar gets the old gang back together.
Directors: John Lasseter, with Ash Brannon and Lee Unkrich
Best quote: “You never forget kids like Emily or Andy, but they forget you.”
Defining moment: Jessie’s song, in which the cast-off cowgirl tells of the day her beloved owner left her behind.
It was meant to be a straight-to-DVD project, a way for Disney to squeeze a few more bucks out of an unexpected hit. Then Pixar head honcho John Lasseter got involved, and Toy Story 2 was transformed into that Holy Grail for all franchise seekers, a sequel that enriches—and some would say improves upon—the original. While the first film addressed kid-friendly ideas of friendship and trust, this time the themes are far more grown-up: It’s all about self-worth, beautifully and simply expressed through the concept of “collectability” and what that word means both for the owner and his possessions. The fact that Toy Story 2 is also filled with memorable characters, witty asides, geeky spoofs (the whole “Buzz Lightyear, I am your father” riff is hilarious) and zippy action sequences doesn’t hurt a bit either.—Tom HuddlestonRead more
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.
Has there ever been a Disney movie with a more memorable, enduring soundtrack? Perhaps we'll still be humming “Let It Go” from Frozen in 40 years time, but until then, numbers like “Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You” reign supreme. It helps that those songs have such a groovy home, as if the Disney crew had decamped to Haight-Ashbury to get their inspiration for this loose, hippyish spin on Rudyard Kipling's India-set tales. The Jungle Book has a distinctly 1960s flavor, from the vultures with mop tops and British accents to a snake's tripped-out eyes. And the characters, of course, remain some of Disney's most beloved, topped by Baloo (the Bill Murray of bears). Walt himself passed away during the making of this film; its enormous box-office haul is now credited with rescuing the studio's animation division from the possible jaws of closure.—Dave CalhounRead more
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 JohnstonRead more
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 LodgeRead more
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 HuddlestonRead more
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.
This autobiographical, mostly black-and-white animation looks back on the early life of its creator, the Iranian author and filmmaker Marjane Satrapi. Born in 1969, Satrapi's formative years coincided with radical change in her homeland of Iran, which moved from the rule of the Shah, through the 1979 revolution, to being an Islamic state. Mouthy and awkward as a Tehran student, Satrapi was then sent to school in Vienna, where she discovered music and men and challenged the settled European apathy of classmates who called themselves “anarchists.” Persepolis is politics as personal testimony, touched with the humor and wisdom of hindsight, and it’s full of the dry wit of its storyteller. Visually, the film is beguiling: Satrapi gives us characters drawn in soft monochrome, against the charcoal backgrounds of cities. Although told from an adult's perspective, Persepolis retains a child's-eye view of the world, which perfectly suits the deceptively straightforward style of animation.—Dave CalhounRead more
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 ClarkeRead more
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.
You can accuse Disney of softening a lot of things in the making of their animated tales, but scrimping on villains has never been part of their approach. There are few evil Disney folk as memorable as Cruella de Vil, the fur-coated harridan who sweeps into the home of newly-married Roger and Anita to the sound of a thunderclap and in a cloud of cigarette ash. Cruella, an old friend of too-nice Anita, has heart set on skinning their two dogs’ 99 Dalmatian puppies. Unwittingly, she kickstarts a plot that sees the local animal world rising up to defeat her and her henchmen (and inspiring songwriter Roger to pen a catchy new ditty about his wife's awful, murderous acquaintance). The animation here was simpler than its less-successful Disney predecessor Sleeping Beauty, but the film has a metropolitan charm to it, especially in its depiction of London's suburban streets, houses and parks.—Dave CalhounRead more
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
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 JohnstonRead more
The 100 best animated movies: 20-11
Pixar’s saddest, sweetest, strangest film.
Directors: Pete Docter and Bob Peterson
Best quote: “Adventure is out there!”
Defining moment: An obvious one—the heartbreaking opening sequence tracking Carl and Ellie through their life together.
It's the brief opening chapter of Up that everyone remembers best, and rightly so—even Pixar and director Pete Docter returned to its model for their later film Inside Out. It's in those few minutes that we race through the life of now-elderly Carl, a widower who once dreamed of becoming an explorer before work and family, love and tragedy, took over. Rarely has popular animation displayed such acute sensitivity to the pattern and flow of real life. From there, we're back to the present day as Carl decides to respond to the authorities who are trying to push him off his property by tying a thousand balloons to his home and floating off, with his house, to find the waterfalls in South America that he and his wife had always dreamed of visiting. The rest of the film is inventive, fast and visually extravagant, even if it doesn't quite reach the imaginative heights of Pixar’s absolute best (we’re not spoiling it).—Dave CalhounRead more
Pixar was at the height of its powers when it made this Paris-set tale of a rat with immense cooking talent.
Directors: Brad Bird and Jan Pinkava
Best quote: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy.”
Defining moment: Food critic Anton Ego tastes Remy’s dish and is plunged into memories of his childhood.
This charming, Paris-set Pixar film from Brad Bird has something of a midcentury Disney air to it in its story of a food-obsessed rat, Remy, who ends up secretly assisting a likable but extremely green newbie chef, Linguini, in a high-class city restaurant. It's a great example (even down to its title, a play on the name of the classic French dish) of Pixar's belief in being able to sweep mass audiences along in popular stories that might sound eccentric but are defined by fascinating characters, true emotions and having something to say about the world around us. Part of this film's charm is the relationship between Remy and Linguini and how it develops to a point where Linguini is forced to remember that his newfound success is entirely founded on the help of his unsung rodent friend. Equally memorable is the character of Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole, in fine voice), a feared, arrogant food critic whose claws retract at the taste of a ratatouille which reminds him of his youth. His subsequent review, a beautiful piece of writing honoring creativity and talent, is surely close to the heart of the Pixar project itself.—Dave CalhounRead more
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.
A prophetic piece of Hollywood hybridization, Robert Zemeckis’s 1988 comedy fused animated gags to live-action shooting—and, more significantly, classic ’40s-era toons to a TV-weaned generation of younger viewers. The comedy plays like an irreverent Chinatown, with a hard-bitten private eye, a voluptuous femme fatale (Jessica Rabbit isn’t bad, “just drawn that way”) and a urban-planning conspiracy that turns out to be true. It still works as a manic piece of fluff, with some truly astounding moments involving real props handled by animated characters. Behind the scenes, an army of computer wizards hammered out some of the first motion-controlled technology, paving the way for Andy Serkis’s Gollum many years off.—Joshua RothkopfRead more
An eccentric inventor and his loyal canine companion hunt a mutant bunny.
Directors: Steve Box and Nick Park
Best quote: “I’m sorry, Gromit—I know you’re doing this for my own good, but the fact is I’m just crackers about cheese.”
Defining moment: Gromit follows the oversize bunny in a vehicular chase that goes below ground.
British animator Nick Park made his name with a series of award-winning stop-motion shorts featuring Wallace, an inventor whose creations often go awry, and Gromit, his devoted dog. In their Oscar-winning feature debut (a coproduction between Park’s Aardman Animations and DreamWorks), the two are hired to protect their town’s vegetable patches from ravenous rabbits. Wallace tries to brainwash the bunnies with his latest creation (the Mind Manipulation–O-Matic), but instead ends up creating a bigger foe – a towering were-rabbit that emerges at every full moon.
The canvas is a bit bigger than in Aardman’s previous excursions: Celebrities like Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter lend their vocal talents, and there are a few beautifully bombastic action scenes. Yet the endearingly handmade qualities of Park’s shorter works are still fully evident, especially in Gromit’s priceless silent reactions to his human master’s frequent obliviousness.—Keith Uhlich
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
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 HuddlestonRead more
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 RothkopfRead more
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.
At first, Walt Disney’s middlebrow folly was a commercial dog, seriously jeopardizing the company’s bottom line with extravagant touring costs (including the installation of Fantasound, the first stereo theatrical presentation). But re-releases and modifications eventually made the movie profitable—and realized a deeper dream: This was a movie that turned kids on to classical music. It also made conductor Leopold Stokowski a minor celebrity, and produced a best-selling soundtrack. Most memorably among the short films, Mickey Mouse stars in the phantasmagorical “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” but with musical selections ranging from Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” to Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” Fantasia was doing some real good, building a global taste for drama and subtlety alike.—Joshua RothkopfRead more
This Lewis Carroll adaptation, from a brilliant Czech surrealist, is too wild and wonderful for kids.
Director: Jan Svankmajer
Best quote: “Alice thought to herself, Now you will see a film…made for children…perhaps.”
Defining moment: The Mad Hatter’s tea party: hilarious, anarchic and a fabulous example of Svankmajer’s ability to make the impossible seem absolutely real.
Jan Svankmajer’s first feature is a characteristically inventive but rigorous account of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, faithful in spirit to the original while remaining conspicuously true to his own highly distinctive brand of surrealism. Blending live action (Kristyna Kohoutová, who plays the heroine, is the only human in the film) with various forms of stop-motion animation, Svankmajer creates a wonderland notable for its bizarre dreamlike logic and its grotesque beauty: Skeletal creatures scuttle and steaks crawl while Alice, no stranger to thoughts of cruel whimsy, changes size and becomes her own doll. It’s brilliantly imaginative, bitingly witty and fittingly Freudian. This is no saccharine celebration of innocence, but a foray into the darker recesses of childhood fears and desires. And therefore, perhaps not a film for children.—Geoff AndrewRead more
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
The 100 best animated movies: top ten
An idiosyncratic auteur gets animated with this stop-motion take on Roald Dahl’s children’s novel.
Director: Wes Anderson
Best quote: “Redemption? Sure. But in the end, he’s just another dead rat in a garbage pail behind a Chinese restaurant.”
Defining moment: Fox and friends come face-to-face with a mysterious black wolf.
The news that Rushmore director Wes Anderson was directing a stop-motion version of the Roald Dahl classic made complete sense once the film—madcap with a strong sense of refinement—was actually revealed. Stop-motion itself (old-school, hand-made) seems particularly Anderson-esque, and the chance to design an entire new world down to the tiniest detail is something Anderson has always leapt at. And there’s something about Dahl's tale of an urbane, well-dressed fox (voiced by George Clooney) who rises up to defeat three evil, rich farmers that seems totally fitting for this filmmaker. The voice cast, Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, feels especially adult and Wes-like. This is an animation as much for adults as for kids, if not more so, and underlying it all is a smart examination of the clash between instincts and responsibilities. We're all a little bit wild, but sometimes we've got to shape up and represent.—Dave CalhounRead more
The film that made Christmas creepy.
Director: Henry Selick
Best quote: “Jack, you make wounds ooze and flesh crawl!” (It’s a compliment.)
Defining moment: The opening song, gloriously and ghoulishly upbeat.
It all started in 1982, with a poem written by Tim Burton, then a humble animator at Disney. A year later, Burton pitched A Nightmare Before Christmas to his bosses as a TV special. But the powers that be thought the idea “too weird,” and the project went on the back burner until Beetlejuice and Batman made Burton a hot property.
Too weird? Not a bit. Burton’s graveyard fairy tale is a good old-fashioned musical, with song-and-dance numbers that would get Gene Kelly tapping his feet. It’s the story of Jack Skellington, the king of Halloween Town, who discovers a portal to Christmas Town and likes what he sees—children throwing snowballs instead of heads. No one is dead. Jack crafts a plan to kidnap Father Christmas, or Sandy Claws, as he calls him.
Directed by stop-motion maestro Henry Selick from Burton’s story, the movie took 15 animators almost three years to make. Working with more than 227 puppets, they completed just one minute of the film a week. That translates into mind-boggling detail, right down to the mayor’s spider tie. The dialogue is deliciously macabre, the storytelling dizzyingly inventive and the characters touchingly sweet. A twisted delight.—Cath Clarke
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 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 CalhounRead more
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.”
We challenge anyone not to shed a tear at the sight of young Dumbo, the son of a troubled circus elephant, locking trunks with his incarcerated single mother through the bars of a cage. It doesn't help that the weepie lullaby on the soundtrack, “Baby Mine,” is machine-tooled to get the waterworks going. This was Disney's fourth animated feature, and its short running time and simple structure were forcibly concocted after both Pinocchio and Fantasia had performed poorly. The movie's story of an elephant born and then unfairly separated from its mother might be straightforward, but there are still some memorable set pieces along the way, including scenes of the big top being erected during a storm and the circus train yanking itself over a rugged landscape. There's experimentation here, too, especially during a jazz-scored, trippy sequence when Dumbo accidentally gets drunk and sees “pink elephants on parade.” Also unforgettable, though not necessarily helpful to society, are the early scenes of cute storks delivering baby animals, an early sign of the “no sex, thanks, we're Disney” mantra. And who can forget Dumbo's big, floppy ears, so unwieldy that he ends up wrapping himself up in them in a brilliant piece of animated slapstick?—Dave CalhounRead more
A superheroic family tries to blend into their quiet suburban lifestyle, but realizes that their skills are nothing to be ashamed of.
Director: Brad Bird
Best quote: “When everyone’s super…no one will be.”
Defining moment: “No capes!” declares Edna Mode, the film’s snooty fashionista, and we see the fates that befell some unlucky caped crusaders.
Firing on all cylinders, Pixar’s first film to earn a PG rating signaled a grabbing of the brass ring: Yes, the studio’s computer animation was peerless, but could it also do marital malaise, middle-aged belly spread and sneakily ambitious philosophy—all of it tucked into spandex? Writer-director Brad Bird commanded a degree of control unprecedented since the days of old Walt himself. Everything was riding on his long-germinating vision of an exceptional family rediscovering its purpose. The plot’s spirit proved infectious, the reviews rapturous. Thematically, the movie’s deepest fear concerns the creeping slump of mediocrity: If greatness lies within us, why can’t we let it out? Maybe it’s because we’re told—in subtle ways—not to shine too brightly and make others feel inadequate. Some pegged the notion as straight out of Ayn Rand (this would have been her favorite movie ever), but the idea was somehow made to feel inclusive via Bird’s humor, panache and narrative clarity. The Incredibles makes us believe in heroes, but more importantly, it reclaims the virtue of heroism itself: a blessing, an ideal, an ambition. And it’s not easy.—Joshua RothkopfRead more
Cowboy or spaceman—which is Andy’s favorite plaything? And how do these secretly alive toys feel about that?
Director: John Lasseter
Best quote: “To infinity…and beyond!”
Defining moment: The elaborate escape from evil Sid’s room, a breathtaking action sequence that put Hollywood’s A-list to shame.
Nothing less than the first shot in what would become a revolution, John Lasseter’s simple tale turned adults into happy children, naysayers into believers, and computer animation into the dominant expression of an entire industry. Pixar’s debut feature is its most beautiful thing, emphasis on thing: The genius idea here was to embrace the stuff of toys—to imbue plastic and cloth with solidity and tactility. Suddenly there was a real weight to billions of bits and bytes, and audiences were enraptured. Naturally, none of this would have worked had there not been a killer script, labored upon for years by a creative team that included Lasseter and future directors Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton and The Avengers’ Joss Whedon. The humanity imparted by Tom Hanks as the passed-over Woody can’t be understated: This was a role rich enough to lure the hottest actor in the game. Toy Story speaks to our love of play, and the way we invest our dolls and action figures with the souls of whom we want to become. It makes sense that these toys would keep dreaming even when put away for the night. But the film’s lasting impact is simpler than that: Swinging, bouncing or skidding, toys are alive in our minds. Lasseter’s team bent gravity itself to make that a reality.—Joshua RothkopfRead more
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
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 RothkopfRead more
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 RothkopfRead more