Long before your love of sci-fi or romantic movies took wing, we’re betting you were friendly with talking animals. Chances are, the first movie you saw was animated: a Disney movie or a toon about a pig on TV. Animation is where we call come from, as we learn the building blocks of narrative storytelling from the simplest forms.
But the genre has long been a refuge for adults as well. In researching the best animated movies ever made, we encountered plenty of Oscar winners, along with darkly imaginative foreign films from Japan, France and beyond. Our polled experts included Fantastic Mr. Fox’s Wes Anderson and Wallace & Gromit’s Nick Park. Dive in to our authoritative list and you’ll find nostalgia and new horizons alike.
RECOMMENDED: Our list of the 100 best movies of all time
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 Johnston
A career-spanning interview of an elderly film star traces a romantic odyssey fusing life and art.
Director: Satoshi Kon
Best quote: “It’s the key to the most important thing in life.”
Defining moment: When we first realize Chiyoko’s memories and movies are blurred into one.
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 Ehrlich
Hungarian folktales go psychedelic…and then some.
Director: Marcell Jankovics
Best quote: “Tell your mother to breast-feed you for another seven years, then you’ll be able to pull out the tree single-handed.”
Defining moment: When an animated film starts with a hallucinogenic birthing scene, you know you’re not in Kansas anymore.
Any director who has written 15 books on folklore takes his ancient legends seriously, and in Magyar maestro Marcell Jankovics’s full-on fable, three princes ignore the king’s warning about “the lock which must not be opened.” All hell (literally) breaks loose, and a white mare goddess spawns three human sons—who subsequently take the fight back to the underworld. An archetypal saga involving daunting trials of endurance, it unfolds in a Day-Glo visual style suggesting Kandinsky’s colorful curves, Matisse’s cutouts and way too many prog-rock album covers. It is unlike anything else in the world, ever, which makes this a must-see, though the sheer brutality with which Treeshaker, Stonecrumbler and Ironrubber press through the pit of Hell and back may make this just a bit too heavy-duty for sensitive younger viewers.—Trevor Johnston
A 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.
Satoshi Kon’s existential sex thriller has generally appealed to only the most ardent anime fans, but it deserves a wider audience—if only to show off a philosophical ambition rarely seen in animation. Weighty ruminations about the nature of reality versus illusion undergird the circling dance of death between a pop star and a deranged superfan. Critics called Perfect Blue a pretentious excuse to indulge in a bit of the old animated ultraviolence, but its psychosexual lure has proven more durable than anticipated. It feels like a Japanese cousin to Black Swan.—Joshua Rothkopf
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.
The environmentally conscious plot of this early Miyazaki favorite involves a young girl trying to bring peace to her post-apocalyptic society and halt the spread of polluted wastelands. Even after the director grew into the ambition of such masterworks as Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, there’s still something essential about this one, a film that contains all the familiar Miyazakian elements. Centrally, a thoughtful heroine confronts warmongering forces with compassion. If you’ve got a young Rey in your household, obsessed with The Force Awakens, she’ll love you for introducing her to this similar story.—Joshua Rothkopf
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.
The most accomplished feature-length effort to date from renowned Czech animator Svankmajer—best known for his brilliantly surrealistic short films—Little Otik explores the dark side of parenthood with a disturbing dream logic equaled only by David Lynch’s supremely creepy Eraserhead. Shot mostly in arrestingly precise live action, Little Otik functions both as a fantastical evocation of pseudocyesis (in which women who are infertile develop psychosomatic symptoms, including a swollen abdomen) and as a hilariously chilling metaphor for the voracious appetite, both physical and psychic, of a newborn child. In this case, that child is a tree stump.—Joshua Rothkopf
A cosmic journey through time, space and spirituality. With cats.
Directors: Gisaburo Sugii and Arlen Tarlofsky
Best quote: “I’m going to be just like that scorpion…”
Defining moment: An old woman sings “Nearer, My God, to Thee” in the most cracked and haunting voice imaginable.
Kenji Miyazawa’s 1927 novel is a standard text for Japanese schoolchildren but remains virtually unknown elsewhere. Combining eerie Christian mysticism, awestruck pseudoscience and bleak realism, the book follows two put-upon schoolboys, Giovanni and Campanella, as they board the titular train to the stars and beyond. Anime directors Gisaburo Sugii and Arlen Tarlofsky made one major change when they adapted Miyazawa’s work for the screen: They replaced all the central human characters with cute anthropomorphized kittens. But if their intention was to make the story more appealing to youngsters, they were way off. With its meditative pace, unstructured plotting, and rambling, often incomprehensible discourses on morality and mortality, this is about as kid-friendly as a morning in church. For those with patience, however, it is a beautiful, frequently enlightening trip.—Tom Huddleston
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.
A multicultural mix of African folklore and European artistic sensibilities, this tiny animated gem follows a mythical baby who “has willed himself from his mother’s womb” (ouch!) to fight a wicked witch. Even more impressively, the story can be read by adults as a political metaphor for modern African strife, while the kiddies thrill to the exploits of a defiant pint-size hero with a badass stare. And honestly, the sorceress is pretty cool, too. Eat your heart out, Disney.—Joshua Rothkopf
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.
Following up his stop-motion instaclassic The Nightmare Before Christmas wasn’t going to be easy. To make matters worse, director Henry Selick took on a beloved, tricky work by Roald Dahl. The result was undeniably weird: strained, ambitious, unforgettable. There’s magnificent animation here, along with some uninspired live-action scenes, lovable mutant bugs, off-kilter humor, morose lulls and a bizarre vision of travel by fruit. You’re going to need to check this one out for yourself and see how you feel.—Joshua Rothkopf
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
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 Lodge
This compilation of classic Looney Tunes cartoons deserves to be far better known.
Directors: Chuck Jones and Phil Monroe
Best quote: “Duck season! Wabbit season! Duck season! Wabbit season!”
Defining moment: Too many to choose from, but the Wagner-inspired “What’s Opera, Doc?” will make your jaw drop.
The only conceivable reason why this roundup of the best Warner Bros. shorts isn’t higher on this list is because so few are aware of its existence. Released briefly into theaters in 1979, the film opens with Bugs Bunny in scholarly mode, looking back over the history of the chase movie from the earliest silents to the present day. Cue a cavalcade of some of the most insanely inventive, vigorously intelligent, wildly subversive and mind-bendingly bizarre skits and spoofs ever seen on film. The highlights are now part of our culture: Elmer Fudd going toe-to-toe with Bugs in “Rabbit Fire”; Daffy Duck berating his own animator in the dizzying “Duck Amuck”; the surly appearance of Marvin the Martian in “Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century.” But where else can you find them all in one place? We don’t use the word genius lightly, but this qualifies.—Tom Huddleston
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.
Stop-motion-animation aficionados should seek out this rare Polish work about a sly fox who outwits everyone around him (you can see it in full on YouTube). It’s been name-checked in recent years by none other than Wes Anderson, who called it a primary influence on his Fantastic Mr. Fox. That makes sense: Even though our hero is a bit of a Clooney-esque scoundrel, you end up loving him.—Joshua Rothkopf
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.
Bakshi’s corrosive racial satire sets three characters from the “Uncle Remus” stories loose in modern-day Harlem. The movie isn’t going to win over any easily offended viewers (let’s just say that it makes Quentin Tarantino’s fondness for a certain inflammatory word seem quaint), and the animation is a little crude even by the director’s rough-and-ready standard. But in its own singular way, Coonskin pushes the form forward, into adult themes and issues.—Joshua Rothkopf
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.
Also known as Laputa, after the hidden city in which the eponymous fortress is located, this was the first true Studio Ghibli feature, and one of the few to receive even a token theatrical release in the United States. Miyakaki’s deeper stories are still to come on this list, but the aerial dogfights of this film remain marvelous. Castle in the Sky has a symbolic value, introducing Westerners to the glories of anime two years before Akira kicked open the door for good.—Joshua Rothkopf
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 Ehrlich
Lewis Carroll is brought to the screen the Disney way.
Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske
Best quote: “If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t.”
Defining moment: Alice disappearing down the rabbit hole is only the beginning of the weirdness.
Walt Disney had long had his eyes on adapting Lewis Carroll, and when he did so, the results were faithful enough to qualify as one of the studio’s strangest offerings. Evoking the books’ original John Tenniel illustrations but with more than a touch of Disney cuteness, the film as a whole is in thrall to Carroll’s singular visual imagination and his play with language. But it doesn’t quite know how to turn dotty schoolgirl Alice’s episodic odyssey following the white rabbit into anything resembling a satisfying story. One can only imagine what apple-pie audiences thought of it at the time, besieged by hookah-puffing caterpillars, hallucinogenic mushrooms, the Mad Hatter’s tea party and an evidently psychotic Queen of Hearts. It was subsequently a late-night favorite among the herbally assisted.—Trevor Johnston
The easiest and breeziest of all the classic Disney cartoons.
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Best quote: “Oh, he’s so handsome…just like his reward posters.”
Defining moment: The opening tune sung by “King of the Road” balladeer Roger Miller sets the scene perfectly, with laid-back country charm and wheezy gags.
Disney may be infamous for manhandling the world’s finest folktales into moralistic all-American parables (see also The Sword in the Stone, Aladdin, Mulan, etc.), but there are times when it really works. Robin Hood is a fine example: The Jungle Book director Wolfgang Reitherman’s decision to transplant hokey, cowpokey Western movie tropes to Ye Olde England should have led to disaster, but the resulting film is so sweet-natured, so casual, so doggone friendly that it becomes impossible to resist. The minuscule budget meant that entire sequences and characters were lifted wholesale from earlier Disney hits (just think of Little John as a brown Baloo), but somehow this only adds to the film’s unpretentious, shaggy-dog charm.—Tom Huddleston
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.
In the hindsight given to us by Peter Jackson’s sterling live-action trilogy, it’s easy—though perhaps unfair—to say that this earlier attempt is a lesson in how not to adapt Tolkien’s trilogy for the silver screen. Truthfully, Bakshi’s animated version gets a lot wrong, and also abruptly stops midway through the narrative. (To quote Annie Hall: “The food here is terrible—and such small portions!”). But even with its limitations, this version of Middle-earth was the first one experienced by many young viewers, who became full-throated fans of fantasy. And for that alone, Bakshi has done honorable service.—Joshua Rothkopf
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.
No less an authority than Hayao Miyazaki has claimed that this French adaptation of a Hans Christian Andersen tale has been a major influence on a generation of animators. We trust Miyazaki-san’s taste and judgment; you should too. Imagine Disney-style talking animals juxtaposed against weird science fiction, the arrogance of royalty and Bavarian imagery, and you’ll get a whiff of the joint this film lights up for you.—Joshua Rothkopf
It may be mainstream, but this all-action chopsocky film has wit, charm and guts.
Directors: Mark Osborne and John Stevenson
Best quote: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.”
Defining moment: The beautiful prologue sequence, playing on Chinese shadow-puppet traditions.
Jack Black’s public profile was on the verge of hitting full saturation when this knockabout, action-packed tribute to Chinese martial-arts flicks was released. Its huge success may have been instrumental in pushing Black over the line from lovable manchild to omnipresent irritation. It’s a shame, because Kung Fu Panda really is inventive and enjoyable, and much of its success is due to Black, whose overweight, ever-eager hero, Po, is the big, soft heart of the movie. It could be argued that the film goes slightly overboard on the voice casting—Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Ian McShane and, somewhat inevitably, Jackie Chan all chime in—but luckily, Kung Fu Panda has the witty script to support their celebrity weight.—Tom Huddleston
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 shorts tend to be more effective than his feature-length works, but this inventive pastiche of Goethe’s classic tale is the exception, combining stop-motion animation and live action in breathtaking fashion. It’s got the devilish naughtiness of the best music videos, as a nondescript man emerges from a Prague subway to receive a mysterious map with an X on it. He goes to the secret spot, where de descends into a maelstrom of spells, alchemy and every technique known to modern animation.—Joshua Rothkopf
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.
The director is an animator whose ghoulishly giddy feature debut, The Nightmare Before Christmas, is worshipped among shopping-mall misfits. Surely, the notion of pairing macabre kid-lit author Neil Gaiman’s Coraline with stop-motion maverick Selick was an inspired one, a perfect peanut-butter-and-chocolate combo for goth teens. Even while this adaptation sometimes feels frustratingly DOA, there are glimpses of greatness that remain inspiring: monstrous transformations, womblike corridors and beasts of all shapes and sizes.—Joshua Rothkopf
A gizmo that records people’s dreams goes missing, resulting in chaos.
Director: Satoshi Kon
Best quote: “Isn’t it wonderful to see inside a friend’s dream as if it were your own?”
Defining moment: The opening scene moves from a surreal chase sequence to playback of the same dream images now stored on computer.
Kon’s anime is a cross between Hello Kitty and Philip K. Dick, and yes, we mean that as a very good thing. The director would die from cancer only four years later at the premature age of 46. But at least judging on the evidence of this phantasmagoric final feature, he went out with a bang. Don’t go in expecting it to make sense. Just ride the dream logic like you did with Inception, and you’ll enjoy where you end up, a place of professional dream capturers (using tech called a DC Mini), giant robots and a psycho-cutie Japanese doll.—Joshua Rothkopf
A grubby New York City, a murderous cast of characters and plenty of off-color jokes—Walt would not approve.
Director: Ralph Bakshi
Best quote: “Now listen here, boy: As long as Carole’s got this here good thing [Slaps own butt] and this here left [Taps head], she don’t need anything else unless she wants it—and child, I don’t want it!”
Defining moment: A Mafia boss slurps up a forkful of pasta, out of which tiny, helpless figures fall, shaken from the strands.
“It’s animated, but it’s not a cartoon,” promised the trailer, yet the movie that followed, in scummy NYC theaters in August 1973, didn’t fulfill that pledge. Ralph Bakshi’s passion project, a swirling java of urban stereotypes (the overbearing Jewish mother, the Italian mobster, the sassy black girlfriend, etc.), is overstated in a garish, ethnically broad way, very much a cartoon. No matter: There was nothing like it at the time. It’s worth noting that potential viewers had to actively be told that animation could deal with adult subjects like crime, violence and poverty. The style is hand-drawn, superimposed over grainy photographs of Brooklyn’s decay. Though much of Heavy Traffic has since dated poorly, it’s closer to the vibe of early Scorsese than any other movie on this list—and it still represents an avenue that’s gone largely unexplored.—Joshua Rothkopf
A 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.
Oshii’s futuristic cyberthrillers have made fanboys of the normally silly-proof; it’s hard to fathom why. This entry reheats the same half-baked existential questions of the 1995 original, of Blade Runner and of a zillion other sci-fi dystopias. Still, the animation has a gorgeously bruised, glowing quality that even Ridley Scott could roll with. And who doesn’t get turned on by a tale of malfunctioning sexbots? We still couldn’t tell you precisely who the ghost is, innocent or guilty, but perhaps that’s okay. Start with the first one.—Joshua Rothkopf
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.
You’d have to be somewhere far outside the circle of life to not be aware of this Disney-produced, Hamlet-derived smash about an orphaned lion cub out to reclaim the throne from his evil Uncle Scar (voiced brilliantly by Jeremy Irons). Hakuna matata (no worries) either way. 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.—Joshua Rothkopf
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 Rothkopf
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.)
It’s raccoons against humans—actually, raccoons disguised as humans against humans—in this wacky battle for the forests outside Tokyo. (Jeez, not another metamorphosing raccoon flick, for crissakes!) You know the cats over at Studio Ghibli are on their own wavelength, but there’s a special delight in discovering that it includes self-inflatable testicular pouches deployed as hot-air balloons. The movie also has a fair amount of human casualty—again, a weird reason for celebration. It’s two hours that simply can’t be compared to anything else.—Joshua Rothkopf
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.
It’s all about Robin Williams as the Genie in this Disney blockbuster about the titular street urchin and his three wishes. See if your little ones are even more baffled by the William F. Buckley Jr. parodies—Aladdin feels more dated than ever. But time has made it a classic and we can’t deny its innovations. This was the first Disney movie to use computer animation in an extended way (with mixed results); these days, Pixar has perfected that technique. And Williams’s constantly riffing character has become a testament to the boisterous spirit of the man, one who bent an entire industry to his mania.—Joshua Rothkopf
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.
A decorated WWI pilot finds his head transformed into that of a pig in this truly bizarre toon. Gotta hand it to the Japanese—they don’t just make the same damn film over and over. It’s hard to pick a weirder Ghibli movie, this one or our No. 70 pick, Pom Poko. Both of them will have you giving animals plenty of respectful distance after you emerge scarred. Porco Rosso isn’t a simple if-pigs-had-wings fantasy: It also contains political wit, old Hollywood nostalgia (especially for the derring-do of Errol Flynn) and a sad wisdom about flying too high.—Joshua Rothkopf
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 Calhoun
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 Calhoun
The seminal anime series comes to a close with an apocalyptic bang.
Directors: Kazuya Tsurumaki and Hideaki Anno
Best quote: Our protagonist laments, “I’m so fucked up.”
Defining moment: This is the way the world ends…to a pop song.
Fans were mightily displeased with the cerebral, action-free conclusion of Hideaki Anno’s anime TV series Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995–96), in which humans fight otherworldly “angels” with giant robots. So he went back to the drawing board and came up with this immensely satisfying, theatrically released alternate ending, which increases the orgiastic machine-on-monster violence tenfold while doubling down on the heady philosophical and spiritual allusions. This is a movie that begins with our weak-willed adolescent hero, Shinji, masturbating over the comatose body of his colleague, and climaxes with an end-times free-for-all that mixes Christian symbology, Jewish mysticism, sexual paranoia and teenage angst into a searing apocalyptic stew. In between are sights and sounds you’ll never forget—from Shinji’s horrifying descent into insanity to a live-action sequence that provocatively implicates the audience itself in the madness.—Keith Uhlich
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 Rothkopf
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.
Chances are you saw this long ago as a child, or grew up watching this Saturday matinee mythology movie endlessly replayed on TV. In either case, you owe it to yourself to return this pleasantly cheesy retelling of the Greek legend. Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects are worth the price of admission alone: His skeleton army rises from the ground and gets to jittery work wielding swords against live-action warriors. Younger viewers weaned on realistic effects may laugh at these scenes. But we’re hoping they fall into a spell of enchantment that transcends mere verisimilitude. The film is pure magic.—Joshua Rothkopf
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.
You gotta figure that if a fella spends 11 years crafting an hour-long movie, it’s gonna be pretty darn dense. Program notes distributed by NYC’s Anthology Film Archives (a producer) have described the film as “alchemical,” while director Harry Smith 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 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.
An office worker traveling to the countryside reflects upon her childhood. What, no giant killer robots or floating houses or anything? Isao Takahata’s quiet masterpiece is a key entry point into the serious side of Studio Ghibli—and Japanese anime as a whole, viewed at home as a perfectly legitimate forum for non-fantastical drama. Only Yesterday has all the panache of modern-day animation, but weds it to a sweetly nostalgic tale of growing up. And that proves to be wild enough.
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.
One of the best-known anime features apart from Akira, this charming comedy about a teenager who leaves home to try her luck as a witch was Japan’s highest-grossing film of 1989. (In America, that top grosser was Tim Burton’s Batman, as stark a contrast as could be imagined.) In the movie’s wake, teenage witchery would become a huge industry dominated by J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Kiki can’t exactly claim credit for that trend, but it is an early example of turning the magic of spell-casting literature (in this case, an unassuming novel by Eiko Kadono) into popular entertainment.
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?).
Don’t bother toting the little ones to this impressive animated feature: Though the ending has been altered to make the experience a tad less despairing, Orwell’s biting political satire remains largely intact and it’s a fearsome beast. Of historical note: This was the first feature-length British animated film. Moreover, it was partly funded by the CIA, looking to create some quality propaganda to combat the perceived Communist threat. The film was still taught in schools as late as the 1980s.
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 Ehrlich
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
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
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.
A book-happy female junior-high student, a young man whose family is obsessed with music, and a magical cat are but a few of the elements in this difficult-to-summarize, rather whimsical romance. Shame about the gooey title. Tragically, its director, Yoshifumi Kondo, died of a brain aneurism at 47. He was set to succeed the great Hayao Miyazaki and based on this lovely feature (Kondo’s only completed work), it would have been a gloriously inspired reign.
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.
What starts out as a typical anime fantasy—robots, outrageously large-breasted heroines, sci-fi futurism—veers off the rails into anything-goes territory when the geeky male hero dies. Several arguments with God later, he travels back in time and…well, we won’t ruin it for you. Suffice to say, Mind Fuck might have been a better title. Check it out.
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.
Three homeless people find an abandoned baby wanted by the yakuza, and vow to protect her by any means necessary. Kon’s tribute to John Ford’s 3 Godfathers was a departure from his usual psychedelic kitchen-sink aesthetic, and is easily his most accessible film. Whether you want something so straightforward from someone so adept at mining the edges of imagination, however, is another story. But the dramatic range of animation continues to expand, always cause for hope.
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.
Comic-strip-writer-turned-animator Nina Paley draws (literally) various parallels between her own experiences traveling through India and the ancient Sanskrit poem Ramayana. The result is an impressively dense combo of mix-and-match toon styles, literary references and plain ol’ ingenuity. The most distinctive turn is giving Sita the voice of Jazz Age singer Annette Hanshaw, whose cheery verve adds a defiant layer to a story normally defined by machismo.
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 Rothkopf
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 Calhoun
Miyazaki’s first feature is an affectionate, fun-filled take on ’60s spy capers.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Best quote: “My prize is a treasure locked away in a tower by an evil magician—please allow this humble thief to steal it.”
Defining moment: The dashing hero facing certain death entombed in the baddie’s catacombs.
Created by French writer Maurice Leblanc in 1905, gentleman thief Arsène Lupin later morphed into Rupan, the dashing antihero of a manga. It became a hit TV series and generated master animator Hayao Miyazaki’s very first feature. Fresh from another jewel robbery, Rupan finds himself in the tiny duchy of Cagliostro, hoping to rescue comely Clarisse from marriage to the scheming count who’s usurped the throne. What unfolds is a cavalcade of scrapes and gadgetry, indicating that Miyazaki knew his ’60s celluloid spy capers back to front. The result is undeniably lightweight yet breathlessly entertaining: Plotting is resourceful in its succession of twists and reversals, and the architectural hyperdetail of the castle itself is typical Miyazaki. It’s a delightful movie that sits at a slight remove from the rest of his work.—Trevor Johnston
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.
Popularly known as the Italian Fantasia, this animated feature is hit and miss, but the chronicle of evolution set to Ravel’s “Bolero” is a truly remarkable achievement, and damn funny. There’s definitely a Monty Python–style antiestablishment surrealism at play here, not least the musical sections, in which we see humanity evolve from the sludge at the bottom of a Coke bottle. And unless we’re forgetting, Fantasia didn’t include live-action behind-the-scenes bickering, shot in black and white.
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 Ehrlich
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 Huddleston
The calypso-inflected Hans Christian Andersen adaptation that revived the Mouse House’s ailing fortunes.
Directors: John Musker and Ron Clements
Best quote: “Somebody’s got to nail that girl’s fins to the floor.”
Defining moment: In the infectious “Under the Sea,” Sebastian the crab attempts to convince wayward Ariel of the merits of ocean living.
Two years later, Beauty and the Beast received more acclaim, but it was this cheery musical adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s bleakly fatalistic fairy tale that redesigned the template of contemporary Disney animation and returned the studio to pop-culture prominence. The formula—take a story everyone knows with a plucky princess, then add a bunch of hip, catchy-as-chlamydia show tunes—still works, as the recent success of Frozen demonstrates. But alongside the witty, verbally intricate contributions of ingenious songsmiths Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, it’s the depth of yearning for other lives and other forms that gives this one emotional resonance and staying power. Well, that and the lasciviously tentacled, Mae West–and–Divine-inspired sea witch Ursula, surely among the greatest Disney villains.—Guy Lodge
Who needs a caring stepmother when you’ve got glass slippers, an enchanted lifestyle and a hunky Prince Charming at the end of the day?
Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske
Best quote: “A dream is a wish your heart makes when you’re fast asleep.”
Defining moment: A pumpkin and some mice get a magical makeover.
Even today, when you watch a Disney film, the impact of Cinderella can be felt from the very first frame: That iconic castle, the studio’s logo, comes right from this picture. It was the make-or-break gamble that, had it failed, would have meant the end for Walt & Co. Instead, his film’s runaway success allowed him to finance the theme parks and cement his name forever. The elements of the story are bedrock components of the Disney formula: plucky, charming heroine, helpful sidekick animals, the promise of total transformation. Yet there was innovation here, too; musical numbers would, for the first time, be commissed out to Tin Pan Alley experts, while live-action footage was shot as a model for most scenes. When Disney’s own remake comes out in 2015, it will have a huge debt of charm to repay.—Joshua Rothkopf
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 Claymation feature observes the letter-writing relationship between Mary Dinkle, a chubby, lonely eight-year-old girl in the suburbs of Melbourne, and Max Horovitz, a severely obese, Jewish 44-year-old New Yorker with Asperger’s syndrome. Say all that five times fast. More importantly, see it. It’ll convince you that animation can contain a universe of comic variety, from overbearing-mom jokes to pugnacious outsider resiliency. Philip Seymour Hoffman voices Max, movingly.
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.
A very smart film for kids (and a less-than-escapist one for parents), this animated masterpiece plays off the sad premise of lab rats made superintelligent by experimental drugs. Director Don Bluth led the exodus away from Disney in 1980 when he felt that the company was abandoning its attention to detail for cheaper production methods. NIMH is Bluth’s defiant, richly adorned response. It also features the scariest owl ever committed to film.
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 Rothkopf
Conversations swirl in a treatise on the need to stay curious.
Director: Richard Linklater
Best quote: “Are you a dreamer? I haven’t seen too many around lately.”
Defining moment: Floppy-haired Wiley Wiggins floats high above his suburban neighborhood, a black shape against the blue sky.
Trippiness of a highly verbal nature wasn’t unexpected from the director of Slacker and Dazed and Confused. Still, Richard Linklater’s hypnotic plunge into rotoscoping proved a litmus test even for his fans: You either let the flow of cosmic ideas sweep you up in a stimulating rush or you checked out somewhere. In either case, the filmmaker’s creativity was undeniable. Friends morph into banks of fluffy, chatting clouds; flirters launch words like love into earholes. Amateur philosophizing was never so well-supported or flattered by its form. Fans of Before Sunrise noticed Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke lounging in bed (a hint of two sequels yet to come). Yet for the most part, all footholds evaporated. Waking Life was—and still is—a surreal invitation to cut loose.—Joshua Rothkopf
A one-man, multidiscipline labor of love.
Director: Chris Sullivan
Best quote: “I do not suggest using ashes as fertilizer—these bitter urns of charred memories soak into the soil and leave a blackened taste on the lips.”
Defining moment: A scratchy, pencil-sketch scene of loss, as the authorities come to take away little Lydia and Victor Blue.
Surely the most obscure film on our list, Consuming Spirits is the result of more than a decade’s work for writer, director, animator, musician and voice artist Chris Sullivan and his small team. Running 136 minutes and encompassing more than 230,000 individual frames, this epic achievement combines cutout, stop-frame and pencil sketches and a beautiful soundtrack steeped in mountain folk. But as with any great animated movie, it’s the emotional content that’s most rewarding. Set in a small Pennsylvania town, this is a poetic, downbeat tale of three characters united by disappointment, alcohol and a haunted past. Thanks to an extremely limited U.S. release, Consuming Spirits is little known even within the animation community, but almost everyone who voted for it here made it their number-one choice.—Tom Huddleston
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 Calhoun
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 Calhoun
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 Johnston
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 Rothkopf
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
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 Huddleston
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 Calhoun
Ancient forests mark the battleground for mankind’s future in this mythical drama set in medieval Japan.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Best quote: “My goal is to see with eyes unclouded by hate.”
Defining moment: The first sight of the Deer God, antlers glowing as we glimpse him through the trees.
Like Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind and Laputa: Castle in the Sky, this Miyazaki epic puts ecological concerns at the center of a human power struggle—but a decade on from those earlier films, the director’s worldview had become much more complex. The nascent technology of iron smelting allows for the development of firearms, but also means that forests are felled to fuel the process—forests where the ancient gods still live. Half-human, half-spirit Mononoke embodies the contradictions of change, vowing to protect the woods yet drawn to youthful warrior-tribesman Ashitaka, who’s seeking his own destiny at the heart of this threatened landscape. Unlike the Disney universe, there are no simplistic heroes or villains here, just the steady realization that our bid to master nature will have profound consequences: both our making and our undoing. Muscular, troubling, uncompromising storytelling on a grand scale.—Trevor Johnston
Nothing is child’s play in this vivid, gutsy adaptation of Richard Adams’s novel about a colony of rabbits seeking a new warren.
Director: Martin Rosen
Best quote: “All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand Enemies, and when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you.”
Defining moment: The harrowing apocalyptic vision of young Fiver, which sets the story—and decidedly mature tone—in motion.
Not quite children’s adventure, not quite grown-up epic, rich with classical allusions and biblical allegory, Richard Adams’s unexpectedly popular novel posed something of a challenge to animators: How do you make a creature feature that’s not too cute for adults, and a story of death and displacement that’s not too grim for families? Martin Rosen’s solemn, urgent and exquisitely rendered film strikes just that balance. There are sequences in this riveting survival tale to terrify viewers of any age, many involving General Woundwort, the face that launched a thousand childhood nightmares. But there’s comforting, compassionate sweetness, too (exemplified by Art Garfunkel’s sentimental theme song, “Bright Eyes”), all folded into powerful, traditional storytelling. Nobody would dare make anything like it today.—Guy Lodge
Freed from the constraints of network TV, prepubescent paper-cut terrors go on the rampage.
Director: Trey Parker
Best quote: “That movie has warped my fragile little mind.”
Defining moment: “Uncle Fucka,” the foulmouthiest jolly little musical number in animation history.
The Broadway-conquering, Tony-sweeping success of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s stage musical, The Book of Mormon, took many by surprise—but only the sort of people who wouldn’t have touched the South Park movie with a conductor’s baton. If they had, those audiences would have known that the Coloradans were not merely purveyors of taste-baiting trash for sniggering schoolboys, but the slyest, smartest and (yes) most tuneful satirists America had produced since, well, ever. And South Park Bigger Longer & Uncut remains their defining statement, a work combining epic scale (a land war with Canada, a trip to the depths of Hades, a daylight raid on the Baldwin compound) with intimate character comedy (Satan’s grief over his lover Saddam Hussein’s infidelity is genuinely touching), wrapped in a biting commentary on censorship and topped off with belting show tunes worthy of West Side Story.—Tom Huddleston
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 Calhoun
The film that makes little kids (and grown adults) cry.
Directors: James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, David Hand, Graham Heid, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield and Norman Wright
Best quote: “Faster! Faster, Bambi! Don’t look back! Keep running! Keep running!”
Defining moment: Bambi and his mother graze peacefully in a clearing. Her ears prick up. Something’s not right. A gunshot rings out. They run for their lives.
For lots of us, Bambi is so many firsts: the first time we cried in the theater, when…you know when; the first time we realized that really bad things happen to adorably cute deer. In 1942, Walt Disney described Bambi as “the best picture I have ever made, and the best ever to come out of Hollywood.” Today, it still has friends in high places. Toy Story director John Lasseter and the Pixar crew are huge fans, arguing that, from boy to buckhood, Bambi contains some of Disney’s most charming animation (Walt set up a small zoo at the studio for his team to study the animals). And in the roll call of Disney supporting actors, Thumper the rabbit is an all-time great. Despite its reputation for being sentimental, the film’s closing scene—Bambi abandons his mate and newborn twin fawns to join his father in the forest—is as un-Disney as it gets.—Cath Clarke
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 Calhoun
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 Johnston