A wooden puppet yearns to be a real boy; he must prove himself worthy.
Directors: Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Norman Ferguson, Jack Kinney, Wilfred Jackson and T. Hee
Best quote: “Always let your conscience be your guide.”
Defining moment: Playing pool, drinking beers, smoking cigars: Who knew it could transform kids into jackasses? (Literally.)
And so we reach the top of our list—we’d be lying if we didn’t say it was by a nose. Pinocchio is the most magical of animated movies, a high point of cinematic invention. Its influence on fantasy is massive: Steven Spielberg quotes the soaring ballad “When You Wish Upon a Star” in his dream project Close Encounters of the Third Kind (and remade the whole picture with his aching robot-boy adventure, A.I.). Disney’s second feature—originally a box-office bomb—begins with a sweetly singing cricket, yet plunges into scenes from a nightmare: in front of a jeering audience on a carnival stage; into the belly of a monstrous whale; beyond all human recognition. (Pinocchio’s extending schnoz is animation’s most sinister and profound metaphor.) It’s staggering to think of this material as intended for children, but that’s the power here, a conduit to the churning undercurrent of formulating identity. The takeaway is hard to argue with: Don’t lie, to yourself or others. Cultural theorists have, for decades, discussed Pinocchio in psychosexual terms or as a guide to middle-class assimilation. But those readings are like cracking open a snow globe to see that it’s only water. A swirling adventure flecked with shame, rehabilitation, death and rebirth, the movie contains a universe of feelings. Pinocchio will remain immortal as long as we draw, paint, tell tall tales and wish upon stars.—Joshua Rothkopf
Moving is a drag for ten-year-old Chihiro, until she discovers she’s meant to work in a bathhouse for the spirit world.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Best quote: “There must be some mistake: None of these pigs are my parents!”
Defining moment: Tea and cakes with the monstrous Yubaba and No-Face—a moment in the same surreal league as Lewis Carroll.
The apex of Japanese animation—to fans worldwide, all animation—is one of cinema’s finest tales of untrammeled imagination. It’s a movie that emboldens children to embrace weirdness and wonder, and adults to remember how they once did. The plot is a stew of essential anxieties: dislocation, separation from one’s parents, fear of disappearing forever. Even more thoroughly, Spirited Away is a compendium of ancient folklores—the secret lives of radishes and other gods, the sins we commit against nature, her punishments. But as brilliantly woven together by Hayao Miyazaki (at the peak of his creative gifts), the movie is basically a story about growing up. The world is strange; let’s not fool ourselves. But maybe we, as human beings, are stranger. Chihiro is constantly (and riotously) told that she reeks; she fumbles around and incites fury. The lesson here is humility in the face of immortal forces. Critics were wowed, sensing parallels with Japan’s busted economic bubble and polluted streams. Yet the content was—and is—strong enough to stand on its own, a palimpsest of psychology, dreams and fear brought to life by exquisite craft. No film on our list speaks more to the inner animal and anima; is it any wonder those words are so close to animation?—Joshua Rothkopf
Miyazaki proves he has the heart of a child, the eye of a painter and the soul of a poet.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Best quote: “Trees and people used to be good friends.”
Defining moment: The first appearance of the roving cat-bus will have viewers of all ages gasping in delight.
Some filmmakers build their great artworks with blood, sweat and toil. Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki seems to sprout his from seeds, planting them in good earth and patiently watering them until they burst into bloom. My Neighbor Totoro is the gentlest, most unassuming film on this list, a tale of inquisitive children, mischievous dust fairies, magical trees and shy sylvan creatures. But in its own quietly remarkable way, it’s also one of the richest and most overwhelming.
This is a story whose roots go deep: into Japanese tradition and culture, into its creator’s personal past, into a collective childhood filled with tales of mystery and a love of all things that grow. There is darkness at the film’s heart—the fear of losing a parent, the loneliness and frustration of childhood—but its touch is gossamer-light, delighting in simple pleasures like raindrops on an umbrella, dust motes drifting in the sun and midnight dances in the garden. The visual style is unmistakably Japanese (unadorned and artful) and the theme song is so sugary-chirrupy-sweet that it’s impossible to dislodge once heard. But the cumulative effect is unique and utterly all-encompassing, returning us to a world we have all, at one time, lived in—and perhaps will again.—Tom Huddleston
Cowboy or spaceman—which is Andy’s favorite plaything? And how do these secretly alive toys feel about that?
Director: John Lasseter
Best quote: “To infinity…and beyond!”
Defining moment: The elaborate escape from evil Sid’s room, a breathtaking action sequence that put Hollywood’s A-list to shame.
Nothing less than the first shot in what would become a revolution, John Lasseter’s simple tale turned adults into happy children, naysayers into believers, and computer animation into the dominant expression of an entire industry. Pixar’s debut feature is its most beautiful thing, emphasis on thing: The genius idea here was to embrace the stuff of toys—to imbue plastic and cloth with solidity and tactility. Suddenly there was a real weight to billions of bits and bytes, and audiences were enraptured. Naturally, none of this would have worked had there not been a killer script, labored upon for years by a creative team that included Lasseter and future directors Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton and The Avengers’ Joss Whedon. The humanity imparted by Tom Hanks as the passed-over Woody can’t be understated: This was a role rich enough to lure the hottest actor in the game. Toy Story speaks to our love of play, and the way we invest our dolls and action figures with the souls of whom we want to become. It makes sense that these toys would keep dreaming even when put away for the night. But the film’s lasting impact is simpler than that: Swinging, bouncing or skidding, toys are alive in our minds. Lasseter’s team bent gravity itself to make that a reality.—Joshua Rothkopf
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
It ain’t easy being gray in one of Disney’s most simple, cute and memorable tales.
Directors: Ben Sharpsteen, Samuel Armstrong, Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts and John Elliotte
Best quote: “It ain’t nobody’s fault you got dem big ears.”
Defining moment: Dumbo visits his caged mom at night and cuddles up to her trunk as it extends through the bars—all to the sound of the lullaby “Baby Mine.”
Disney’s tender and moving fourth animated feature, Dumbo remains the company’s shortest. Its brevity and simplicity were born of necessity: Neither Pinocchio nor Fantasia had fared well at the box office, so the creators of Dumbo were tasked with keeping things short, sweet and cheap. Dumbo was based on a story line written for the prototype of a new toy—hardly the most poetic of origins—and tells of a baby elephant born to a single mother working in a traveling circus (the film’s early scenes of storks delivering baby animals did nothing for several generations of sex education). It has both energy—the building of the big top in the rain, the circus train chugging over the landscape—and heart: a piercingly sad story of a mother and child forcibly separated. The template is fairly straightforward, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for some memorable and inventive set pieces. The hallucinogenic, jazzy dance of the pink elephants when Dumbo accidentally gets drunk is a scene for the ages, while the climactic elephant pyramid, when little Dumbo becomes an unlikely hero, is both terrifying and triumphant.—Dave Calhoun
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
Not the first animated feature, but the start of the Disney empire.
Directors: David Hand, William Cottrell, Wilfred Jackson, Larry Morey, Perce Pearce and Ben Sharpsteen
Best quote: “Magic mirror on the wall…”
Defining moment: Snow White’s headlong dash through the moonlit forest is expressionistic, beautiful and terrifying.
They called it Disney’s folly. It took years and millions of dollars to produce Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and one huge question remained unanswered right up to the day of release: Would an audience really sit still for 83 minutes of cartoon antics? Of course, the movie was a huge hit, and kick-started Uncle Walt’s decades-long domination of the painted-cel scene. It may not have been the first feature-length animated film—that honor is held by Argentine animator Quirino Cristiani’s 1917 El Apóstol, though all copies have since been destroyed—but it was the first to receive a global release, and the first to wake up audiences (and producers) to the seemingly limitless potential of a brand-new medium.
What makes Snow White truly special is not its success, however, but its originality: Working without a rule book, Disney and his animators created—fully formed—an entirely new genre. Just look at last year’s Frozen and ask yourself how far mainstream animation has actually developed: Snow White has a dashing fairy-tale heroine, a hunky but slightly dull dude, lovable pratfalling sidekicks, important life lessons, groundbreaking and gorgeous animation, whistleable tunes and, perhaps most notably, the greatest femme fatale in film history. It just goes to show: You can’t improve on perfection.—Tom Huddleston
The film that made Christmas creepy.
Director: Henry Selick
Best quote: “Jack, you make wounds ooze and flesh crawl!” (It’s a compliment.)
Defining moment: The opening song, gloriously and ghoulishly upbeat.
It all started in 1982, with a poem written by Tim Burton, then a humble animator at Disney. A year later, Burton pitched A Nightmare Before Christmas to his bosses as a TV special. But the powers that be thought the idea “too weird,” and the project went on the back burner until Beetlejuice and Batman made Burton a hot property.
Too weird? Not a bit. Burton’s graveyard fairy tale is a good old-fashioned musical, with song-and-dance numbers that would get Gene Kelly tapping his feet. It’s the story of Jack Skellington, the king of Halloween Town, who discovers a portal to Christmas Town and likes what he sees—children throwing snowballs instead of heads. No one is dead. Jack crafts a plan to kidnap Father Christmas, or Sandy Claws, as he calls him.
Directed by stop-motion maestro Henry Selick from Burton’s story, the movie took 15 animators almost three years to make. Working with more than 227 puppets, they completed just one minute of the film a week. That translates into mind-boggling detail, right down to the mayor’s spider tie. The dialogue is deliciously macabre, the storytelling dizzyingly inventive and the characters touchingly sweet. A twisted delight.—Cath Clarke
An idiosyncratic auteur gets animated with this stop-motion take on Roald Dahl’s children’s novel.
Director: Wes Anderson
Best quote: “Redemption? Sure. But in the end, he’s just another dead rat in a garbage pail behind a Chinese restaurant.”
Defining moment: Fox and friends come face-to-face with a mysterious black wolf.
It’s tough being a wild animal. Not that the witty, snappily dressed Mr. Fox (George Clooney) likes to complain about his days making life hell for his human nemeses, farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean (one fat, one short, one lean). It’s in his nature, after all. But when Fox’s wife, Felicity (Meryl Streep), informs him that they have a pup on the way, our vulpine protagonist realizes he has to tame the beast within. Good luck.
There’s nothing docile about Wes Anderson’s first foray into animation. Anderson’s dioramic visuals and pithy plotting translate perfectly to a cartoon world. You’re captivated right from the first gorgeously autumnal shot of Mr. Fox leaning against a tree, an image accompanied, in a very Andersonian touch, by the Wellingtons’ 1954 tune “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.”
As with all of the director’s films, potent emotions underlie the comic-strip surface: Both Fox and his sullen son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), must come to terms with their instinctual ambitions, which tend to clash with their everyday responsibilities. (The heart breaks when Felicity claws her husband’s furry face in frustration at his blithely destructive impulses.) As the foxes find their way of life increasingly threatened, the question arises: How do you use your nature to your advantage? The answers aren’t easy, but it should be clear that Anderson isn’t out to cater to anyone except the audience he knows so well.—Keith Uhlich