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
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
An eccentric inventor and his loyal canine companion hunt a mutant bunny.
Directors: Steve Box and Nick Park
Best quote: “I’m sorry, Gromit—I know you’re doing this for my own good, but the fact is I’m just crackers about cheese.”
Defining moment: Gromit follows the oversize bunny in a vehicular chase that goes below ground.
British animator Nick Park made his name with a series of award-winning stop-motion shorts featuring Wallace, an inventor whose creations often go awry, and Gromit, his devoted dog. In their Oscar-winning feature debut (a coproduction between Park’s Aardman Animations and DreamWorks), the two are hired to protect their town’s vegetable patches from ravenous rabbits. Wallace tries to brainwash the bunnies with his latest creation (the Mind Manipulation–O-Matic), but instead ends up creating a bigger foe—a towering were-rabbit that emerges at every full moon. The canvas is a bit bigger than in Aardman’s previous excursions: Celebrities like Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter lend their vocal talents, and there are a few beautifully bombastic action scenes. Yet the endearingly handmade qualities of Park’s shorter works are still fully evident, especially in Gromit’s priceless silent reactions to his human master’s frequent obliviousness.—Keith Uhlich
Pixar was at the height of its powers when it made this Paris-set tale of a rat with immense cooking talent.
Directors: Brad Bird and Jan Pinkava
Best quote: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy.”
Defining moment: Food critic Anton Ego tastes Remy’s dish and is plunged into memories of his childhood.
Sandwiched in time between Cars and Wall-E, Pixar’s Ratatouille was the third animated feature from codirector Brad Bird, after The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. Perhaps there’s no better example of the boldness of Pixar’s approach to story and character. Ratatouille tells of Remy, a food-obsessed French rat washed down a sewer only to emerge in Paris, where he begins to help an awkward young kitchen worker cook incredible food in a top restaurant. The story is as mature and original as the animation (which, as ever, is groundbreaking without showing off—just look at how they show water and hair). And the Peter O’Toole–voiced character—Anton Ego, the icy food critic thawed by Remy’s cooking—is a total delight. Pixar also proved that originality can sell: The film stormed the box office.—Dave Calhoun
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
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
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 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.
Fourteen years in development and costing a reported $180 million, Wall-E was Pixar’s biggest risk since Toy Story. It plays on the traditions of silent cinema to present the politically charged story of a lonely robot cleaning up a devastated, trash-covered Earth and falling in love with the first sentient being he meets. Despite its futuristic setting, nothing feels modern: There are no recognizable characters, no sweeping ballads, no crafty in-jokes. In fact, for the first 45 minutes, there’s no dialogue at all. The result is a delirious dream in film: romantic but technological, funny but sad, smart but goofy, slushy but sharp, familiar but entirely unique. The second half does veer off into more standard fare (cue pratfalls and wisecracks), but for many, that opening act remains perhaps the peak of Pixar’s art.—Tom Huddleston
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.
Despite its box-office appeal and Oscar wins, Disney’s most recent animated smash divides opinion. Some see Frozen as a delirious throwback to the studio’s classic era, with tongue firmly in cheek and belting torch songs galore (the stage musical cannot be far away). For others, though, its shiny veneer masks old-fashioned ideals: The heroines are all slim, perky and good-looking, and the idea that freedom drives women mad might not be a particularly welcome one. Whatever your take, there’s no denying that Frozen is ridiculously entertaining: beautifully animated, breathlessly paced and winningly goofy. The fun part is seeing those classic fairy-tale characters—the adventurous princess, the handsome prince and the wicked queen—being forced through a postmodern blender.—Tom Huddleston