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
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 cartoon Beatles rampage through a psychedelic Pop Art dreamscape.
Director: George Dunning
Best quote: “Nothing is Beatleproof!”
Defining moment: The gorgeously downbeat “Eleanor Rigby” sequence, utilizing monochrome photos of Liverpool.
This may prove to be the most divisive film on our list: Hardened Beatlemaniacs will tell you that Yellow Submarine is a travesty, employing fake (and not especially convincing) Liverpudlian accents to tell a nonsensical tale steeped in late-’60s acid-fried sentiment, never mind that the Fab Four pop up in person at the end to give their blessing. Art maniacs, meanwhile, will tell you it’s a dazzling work of the imagination, harnessing every animation technique available at the time to create an eye-frazzling, insanely inventive trip. To be fair, they’re probably both right: The script is silly, the story is cringeworthy, and the Beatle characterizations are a bit soft. But visually it’s breathtaking, one of the few genuinely hallucinatory cinema experiences, and fully deserving of its high placement here.—Tom Huddleston
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
This unflinching war story proves that, in animation, anything is possible.
Director: Isao Takahata
Best quote: “September 21, 1945…that was the night I died.”
Defining moment: We don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, but it features one of the most heart-wrenching character deaths in movie history.
The year 1988 saw Studio Ghibli at the peak of its powers, releasing a pair of richly personal tributes to youthful resilience that proved the breadth and brilliance of their work. My Neighbor Totoro (coming up!) was studio founder Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece, a work of wondrous beauty and grace. But it’s matched—some would say surpassed—by Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, perhaps the bleakest and least forgiving film in our top 100. Set in the midst of WWII, the story follows two children, Setsuko and Seita, as they lose their mother in an American bombing raid and are forced to fend for themselves. At first it’s all a game, but as sickness and starvation begin to intrude, the film deepens and darkens, ultimately reaching a place of complete emotional exhaustion and absolute, devastating grief. This is not a movie to be taken lightly.—Tom Huddleston