A superheroic family tries to blend into their quiet suburban lifestyle, but realizes that their skills are nothing to be ashamed of.
Director: Brad Bird
Best quote: “When everyone’s super…no one will be.”
Defining moment: “No capes!” declares Edna Mode, the film’s snooty fashionista, and we see the fates that befell some unlucky caped crusaders.
Firing on all cylinders, Pixar’s first film to earn a PG rating signaled a grabbing of the brass ring: Yes, the studio’s computer animation was peerless, but could it also do marital malaise, middle-aged belly spread and sneakily ambitious philosophy—all of it tucked into spandex? Writer-director Brad Bird commanded a degree of control unprecedented since the days of old Walt himself. Everything was riding on his long-germinating vision of an exceptional family rediscovering its purpose. The plot’s spirit proved infectious, the reviews rapturous. Thematically, the movie’s deepest fear concerns the creeping slump of mediocrity: If greatness lies within us, why can’t we let it out? Maybe it’s because we’re told—in subtle ways—not to shine too brightly and make others feel inadequate. Some pegged the notion as straight out of Ayn Rand (this would have been her favorite movie ever), but the idea was somehow made to feel inclusive via Bird’s humor, panache and narrative clarity. The Incredibles makes us believe in heroes, but more importantly, it reclaims the virtue of heroism itself: a blessing, an ideal, an ambition. And it’s not easy.—Joshua Rothkopf
The Ted Hughes novel came to Hollywood in a studio movie that broke technical and storytelling boundaries—if not box-office records.
Director: Brad Bird
Best quote: “I am not a gun.”
Defining moment: The giant carries Hogarth in his hand, high above the treetops below.
Before directing The Incredibles and Rataouille, animator Brad Bird made his feature debut with this charming, intelligent adaptation of the late 1960s Ted Hughes children’s story The Iron Man. Best known at the time for his work on The Simpsons, Bird moved the tale from Britain to 1950s Maine, lending it distinct Cold War flavor. A young boy, Hogarth (given the surname Hughes in honor of the poet, who died in 1998, a year before the film’s release), discovers a metallic giant in his hometown and fights to protect it from being pulverized by the military—while simultaneously teaching it how to live in peace on earth. The widescreen film has a streak of smart humor as well as a winning, harmonious worldview, and mixes computer animation and more traditional techniques: The CGI was mostly invested in rendering the giant as convincingly as possible, while traditional hand-drawn techniques were reserved for the humans. Visually, the film offers stunning moments without sacrificing a pleasingly old-fashioned air. It wasn’t a success at the box office, although it was hailed as a rare example of a family movie with heart and brains. Thankfully, Pixar gave Bird a chance to fly again.—Dave Calhoun
In Disney’s extravaganza, eight fantastical vignettes are scored to music by Bach, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky.
Director: No less than 11 directors slaved on individual sequences, many without credit.
Best quote: “Mr. Stokowski! Mr. Stokowski!”
Defining moment: Sorcerer’s apprentice Mickey Mouse finds himself on the wrong end of the broomsticks.
By the end of the 1930s, Mickey Mouse, the bedrock character of a growing empire, had declined in popularity. So Walt Disney commissioned the elaborate short “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Accompanied by the highly hummable Paul Dukas composition of the same name, it follows the red-robed rodent as he magically brings an army of broomsticks to life. While in postproduction on the short, Disney decided to surround it with similar vignettes scored to other classical compositions, and Fantasia was born. Aside from some interstitial material narrated by Deems Taylor (during which Mickey himself greets star conductor Leopold Stokowski), the music dictates Fantasia’s visual-aural flow. Abstract color patterns rise and fall to Bach, life-size mushrooms dance to Tchaikovksy, a hippo and an alligator do a slapstick Ponchielli ballet, and the devil himself summons dark spirits to Modest Mussorgsky’s churning Night on Bald Mountain. Silly and sublime in equal measure—as well as a film that served to introduce generations of kids to the joys of classical music—this is one of the Mouse House’s finest.—Keith Uhlich
A biker teen unleashes a psychic with apocalyptic powers—oh, and it’s 2019.
Director: Katsuhiro Ohtomo
Best quote: “The future is not a straight line. It is filled with many crossroads.”
Defining moment: Motorcycle gangs tear through the night destroying all in their wake—a scene that would give Mad Max chills.
Anime’s breakout moment, this supercharged sci-fi thriller turned a niche subgenre into a global phenomenon: Western teens started using the term cyberpunk in casual geek-speak, while Japan’s printed manga suddenly flew off the shelves. To the nonfan dragged along for the ride, the movie felt a lot like Blade Runner and Brazil, featuring incredibly vivid details and attention paid to urban decay. But Akira was also a watershed moment for sci-fi in a larger sense, popularizing ideas of citywide ruination, futuristic rebirth and a distinctly Asian notion of psionic powers that would influence everything from The Matrix to Inception. The mutable setting of Neo-Tokyo anticipated the larger playground of the Internet, still years off but somehow of a piece with these youthful speed racers.—Joshua Rothkopf
A one-man masterpiece.
Director: Don Hertzfeldt
Best quote: “Someone sits on the shore and tells him how the waves have been there long before Bill existed, and that they’ll still be there long after he’s gone. Bill looks out at the water and thinks of all the wonderful things he will do with his life.”
Defining moment: In the epic finale, a stick hero is reborn into an ageless existence and learns all the secrets of the universe.
How satisfying it is to find Don Hertzfeldt’s self-made saga of schizophrenia and self-loss nestling comfortably in the higher reaches of our rankings. Written, directed, produced, animated, photographed, voiced and distributed entirely by Hertzfeldt himself (he admits to getting a little help with the editing), It’s Such a Beautiful Day is the tale of a young everyman, Bill, who finds his mind and his world unexpectedly going to pieces. Hertzfeldt’s style may have started off simple, with stick figures and basic line drawings, but by the time of this feature, it had broadened to include a dizzying array of in-camera, nondigital visual effects. The result is one of the great outsider artworks of the modern era, at once sympathetic and shocking, beautiful and horrifying, angry and hilarious, uplifting and almost unbearably sad. Seek it out.—Tom Huddleston
Pixar’s saddest, sweetest, strangest film.
Directors: Pete Docter and Bob Peterson
Best quote: “Adventure is out there!”
Defining moment: An obvious one—the heartbreaking opening sequence tracking Carl and Ellie through their life together.
Even after Ratatouille, even after The Incredibles, even after Wall-E, we weren’t expecting this. Up is Pixar at its most profound and risk-taking, opening with a devastating eight-minute montage of love and loss before proceeding with the tale of a grouchy elderly man who makes the decision to fly his entire house to South America using helium balloons. It was, of course, a massive hit. That three-hankie opening is the sequence most viewers remember, and it is astonishing. But the rest of the movie is just as magnificent, flitting from stoner humor (“I do not like the cone of shame,” a dog woefully says) and soaring 3-D action to genuinely affecting age-gap bonding. The result falls somewhere between Werner Herzog and Winnie the Pooh: a tale of adventure, determination, grief, friendship and talking canines. Squirrel!—Tom Huddleston
Nothing is child’s play in this vivid, gutsy adaptation of Richard Adams’s novel about a colony of rabbits seeking a new warren.
Director: Martin Rosen
Best quote: “All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand Enemies, and when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you.”
Defining moment: The harrowing apocalyptic vision of young Fiver, which sets the story—and decidedly mature tone—in motion.
Not quite children’s adventure, not quite grown-up epic, rich with classical allusions and biblical allegory, Richard Adams’s unexpectedly popular novel posed something of a challenge to animators: How do you make a creature feature that’s not too cute for adults, and a story of death and displacement that’s not too grim for families? Martin Rosen’s solemn, urgent and exquisitely rendered film strikes just that balance. There are sequences in this riveting survival tale to terrify viewers of any age, many involving General Woundwort, the face that launched a thousand childhood nightmares. But there’s comforting, compassionate sweetness, too (exemplified by Art Garfunkel’s sentimental theme song, “Bright Eyes”), all folded into powerful, traditional storytelling. Nobody would dare make anything like it today.—Guy Lodge
Ancient forests mark the battleground for mankind’s future in this mythical drama set in medieval Japan.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Best quote: “My goal is to see with eyes unclouded by hate.”
Defining moment: The first sight of the Deer God, antlers glowing as we glimpse him through the trees.
Like Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind and Laputa: Castle in the Sky, this Miyazaki epic puts ecological concerns at the center of a human power struggle—but a decade on from those earlier films, the director’s worldview had become much more complex. The nascent technology of iron smelting allows for the development of firearms, but also means that forests are felled to fuel the process—forests where the ancient gods still live. Half-human, half-spirit Mononoke embodies the contradictions of change, vowing to protect the woods yet drawn to youthful warrior-tribesman Ashitaka, who’s seeking his own destiny at the heart of this threatened landscape. Unlike the Disney universe, there are no simplistic heroes or villains here, just the steady realization that our bid to master nature will have profound consequences: both our making and our undoing. Muscular, troubling, uncompromising storytelling on a grand scale.—Trevor Johnston
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
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