An animation giant plunders classic kids’ lit for this tale of a resourceful young witch.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Best quote: “You’d think they’d never seen a girl and a cat on a broom before.”
Defining moment: The airship disaster is one of the most thrilling sequences in the Ghibli catalog.
When J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books were first unleashed on an unsuspecting public, cries of familiarity were rampant. And it’s true, the books were inspired by everything from the Worst Witch literary series to Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings novels. But Rowling was hardly the first kids’ writer to raid the past for inspiration, a point proved by Kiki’s Delivery Service, Hayao Miyazaki’s adaptation of the sweet, charming but hardly groundbreaking novel by Japanese author Eiko Kadono. A tale of a teenage witch, her bad-tempered pet cat and a sleepy city by the sea, the film is a grab bag of kid-lit tropes. But it’s not so much the story as how you tell it, and that’s Miyazaki’s genius: In the hands of a great director, this cozy little coming-of-age tale becomes something altogether more strange, beautiful and affecting than its outline would suggest.—Tom Huddleston
A landmark work of British animation, terrifying to kids, and some adults.
Directors: John Halas and Joy Batchelor
Best quote: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Defining moment: Utterly corrupted by greed and selfishness, the pigs send Boxer the cart horse to the glue factory (an allegory of Stalin’s betrayal of the proletariat?).
It’s safe to assume that Animal Farm is the only film in this list to be partly funded by the CIA. A propaganda unit in the agency bought the film rights to George Orwell’s allegory of the failures of the Russian revolution from the writer’s widow. One slight problem: The ending of the book saw the pigs and humans join forces. That needed to change to fit the CIA’s anti-Soviet aims, so it was replaced by a scene in which the animals revolt against the pigs. Animation historians doubt that the film’s animator-directors, the British husband-and-wife team John Halas and Joy Batchelor, knew how their film was funded. Released in 1954, Animal Farm is the first feature-length British animated film, its kitchen-sink craft bold and striking. At the time, one critic dubbed it “Disney-turned-serious.” As anyone made to watch it at school in the 1980s will tell you, it’s not suitable for young children.—Cath Clarke
An unfilmed Jacques Tati script is realized with gentle wit and piercing melancholy.
Director: Sylvain Chomet
Best quote: Not big on dialogue, but the tears of the broken-down clown in the gutter speak volumes.
Defining moment: When Tatischeff the magician is reduced to doing shopwindow demonstrations.
The lanky gait and eternally distracted air might be familiar to viewers of Mon Oncle and Playtime, though this animated version of a never-before-filmed Jacques Tati script presents its creator not in his familiar Monsieur Hulot screen persona but under his real name, as a music-hall artiste stuck in an era when magic was going out of style. Tagging along is a Scottish waif captivated by his trickery, but it’s not long before changing times will shatter her illusions and their tenuous bond, all the while affirming the audience’s need to invest in life-salving fantasy. A complex, ultimately affecting affair, the film has a mood of stoic resignation, exquisitely conveyed by Sylvain Chomet’s poignant visualization of early-’60s Edinburgh—all rundown boardinghouses and rain-swept streets, where Tatischeff makes his last stand.—Trevor Johnston
What happens when a well-groomed cocker spaniel meets the love of her life, a stray mutt from downtown?
Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske
Best quote: “I wonder what the leash-and-collar set does for excitement.”
Defining moment: As if you have to ask: a romantic Italian dinner, a single spaghetti strand and two slurpers.
None of Disney’s animated productions speaks better to that studio’s legendary machine than this one, hatched a full 18 years before its ultimate completion. The story was inspired by an actual dog, Lady, the pet of scenarist Joe Grant (also the cowriter of Dumbo), who began shaping material as early as 1937. In the subsequent decade, several more scripters hacked away at drafts, incorporating their own doggie anecdotes. By the early ’50s, a working story was approved, but technology demanded a wider canvas: This was the first animated film to be crafted in CinemaScope (a far greater headache for draftsmen than you’d imagine). As for that famous “spaghetti kiss,” a now-classic bit of flirtation? Walt almost killed it. Legendary artist Frank Thomas defied his boss and mocked up a rough version that won the day.—Joshua Rothkopf
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
A bookish Tokyo schoolgirl ponders her future—and delicately comes of age.
Director: Yoshifumi Kondô
Best quote: “It looks like springtime has come for Shizuku at last.”
Defining moment: The heroine’s telling first visit to the creepy-yet-enticing antiques emporium.
Yoshifumi Kondo was admired enough to be Miyazaki’s anointed successor at Studio Ghibli, but he completed only this single remarkable feature before succumbing to an aneurysm at 47. Although Miyazaki’s screenplay allows a brief flourish of airborne fantasy, this is predominantly an intimately observed story on a canvas even more compact than Only Yesterday, spotlighting a book-loving high-school student whose fortunes change when she follows a stray cat into a mysterious antiques shop. As this chance encounter transforms her outlook on life, a delicate love story blossoms between two shyly hesitant youngsters, yet the key focus is really the adolescent flowering of the creative urge—the “whisper of the heart.” A shame it slightly loses its nerve in the end; otherwise, this is tender, wise and magical fare deserving much greater prominence in the esteemed Ghibli canon.—Trevor Johnston
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 Clarke
This anime film is a searingly intense mash-up of styles, genres and narrative techniques.
Director: Masaaki Yuasa
Best quote: “I was killed! Shot by that creep! Then I was sucked up to heaven.”
Defining moment: Nishi, the protagonist, is murdered and sent into limbo, where he encounters a shape-shifting god who’s preoccupied with grooming himself in front of a mirror.
This ambitious feature came out of nowhere in 2004 to rock the anime world, making stars of director Masaaki Yuasa and his Studio 4°C. The plot starts as typically convoluted gangster fare, before the main characters are plunged Pinocchio-style into the belly of a whale to embark on an utterly bonkers journey of self-discovery. Though little actually happens, the film somehow keeps up a blistering pace, propelled by a string of flashbacks, hallucinations, near-death experiences and other surreal flights of fancy. Throughout, the animation style shifts in accordance with the mood, even incorporating live actors at points. Disorienting on the first viewing, very funny on the second, and strangely moving on the third, this is bold, almost reckless filmmaking.—Alex Dudok De Wit
Three Japanese vagabonds attempt to find the parents of an abandoned baby during Christmastime.
Directors: Satoshi Kon and Shogo Furuya
Best quote: “You peep pretty loud for a chick that can’t even find its own worms.”
Defining moment: The little bundle of joy, miraculously saved after a fall from a skyscraper, yawns in reply.
For his third animated project, the late, great Satoshi Kon moved away from the trippy stylings of Perfect Blue (1997) and Millennium Actress (2001) to tell a straightforward, though no less inventive, Christmas story. The loose inspiration is John Ford’s Western 3 Godfathers, in which a John Wayne–led trio of outlaws shepherd a baby to safety. Here the setting is an initially oppressive modern-day Tokyo (full of imposing neon skyscrapers), while the three leads, all homeless, are a comically mismatched crew: a middle-aged male alcoholic, a trans woman and a runaway teen girl. Kon has lots of fun putting the group in crazy, slapstick-heavy situations, including a car chase, a clash with gun-toting yakuza and an assassination attempt. Yet he also creates a compelling portrait of Japan’s underclass and shows how this seeming miracle baby acts as a spiritual salve for hardened souls.—Keith Uhlich
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 Uhlich