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
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
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.
Between 2000 and 2003, French-Iranian artist Marjane Satrapi published a well-received autobiographical comic detailing her coming-of-age during and after the Islamic revolution. When the opportunity arose to make a film, Satrapi took on the task herself, with the aid of comics colleague Vincent Paronnaud and an all-star voice cast featuring Catherine Deneuve and Danielle Darrieux, among others. Aside from a framing section in color, the film mimics the high-contrast black-and-white inking of Satrapi’s four-volume graphic novel. The simplicity of the visuals helps universalize the story, which is filled with plenty of the usual travails of growing up (troubles with boys, clandestine parties, etc.), though always viewed in pointedly thumb-nosing contrast with the oppressive regime that wants to keep the populace—especially its women—in check. Persepolis is infused with its creator’s ingratiating rebelliousness, as well as her melancholy for a homeland torn apart by still-rampant social and political divides.—Keith Uhlich
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 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
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.
Call it the work of a rebel: In 1979, Disney animator Don Bluth left the cost-cutting studio in frustration (along with several other colleagues) to start up a company that still valued old-school craft. Their first feature was this remarkably sophisticated adventure, about a field mouse seeking solutions to the problems of an ailing son, an aggressive farmer and the potential destruction of her community. Enter the heroic rats of NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health), who apply their artificially boosted levels of intelligence to the calamities at hand. The style of the animation is hand-painted and traditionally sumptuous, requiring thousands of hours of work, but the real beauty here is in the making of entertainment targeted at kids who enjoy using their minds.—Joshua Rothkopf
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.
Israeli soldier-turned-filmmaker Ari Folman described making his autobiographical antiwar documentary as being like therapy. It began when he left the army (after serving for more than 20 years, full-time and as a reservist). Folman had never talked about his experiences fighting in Lebanon in 1982 at age 19 until he went to see an army therapist, a condition of his discharge. During the conflict, Lebanese Christian militia massacred up to 3,000 Palestinians in refugee camps—possibly under the eyes of Israeli forces. Folman was there, but his memories of the conflict were fuzzily vague. We see him as he sets out to interview the men he fought alongside, the story unfolding in flashbacks, strikingly told with graphic artist David Polonsky’s hallucinatory drawings. The result is an antiwar film in the league of Apocalypse Now and The Thin Red Line. Compelling and original.—Cath Clarke
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.
The LEGO Movie hadn’t even been released when we began polling contributors for this list of the best animated movies, but as soon as it hit the screens, the votes started to roll in. It’s hardly surprising: What could have been a shoddy, cynical attempt to cash in on a beloved brand turned out to be a witty, intelligent, spiky, sweet-natured and insanely enjoyable adventure crammed with goofy gags and movie in-jokes. The decision to hire writer-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (whose earlier collaboration Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is criminally unrepresented on this list) was a masterstroke: This isn’t just another kids’ cartoon, but a satirical sugar bullet aimed directly at the heart of conformity and ordinariness everywhere, be it in the playroom, in the boardroom or on the pop charts.—Tom Huddleston
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.
For his third animated project, the late, great Satoshi Kon moved away from the trippy stylings of Perfect Blue (1997) and Millennium Actress (2001) to tell a straightforward, though no less inventive, Christmas story. The loose inspiration is John Ford’s Western 3 Godfathers, in which a John Wayne–led trio of outlaws shepherd a baby to safety. Here the setting is an initially oppressive modern-day Tokyo (full of imposing neon skyscrapers), while the three leads, all homeless, are a comically mismatched crew: a middle-aged male alcoholic, a trans woman and a runaway teen girl. Kon has lots of fun putting the group in crazy, slapstick-heavy situations, including a car chase, a clash with gun-toting yakuza and an assassination attempt. Yet he also creates a compelling portrait of Japan’s underclass and shows how this seeming miracle baby acts as a spiritual salve for hardened souls.—Keith Uhlich
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?).
It’s safe to assume that Animal Farm is the only film in this list to be partly funded by the CIA. A propaganda unit in the agency bought the film rights to George Orwell’s allegory of the failures of the Russian revolution from the writer’s widow. One slight problem: The ending of the book saw the pigs and humans join forces. That needed to change to fit the CIA’s anti-Soviet aims, so it was replaced by a scene in which the animals revolt against the pigs. Animation historians doubt that the film’s animator-directors, the British husband-and-wife team John Halas and Joy Batchelor, knew how their film was funded. Released in 1954, Animal Farm is the first feature-length British animated film, its kitchen-sink craft bold and striking. At the time, one critic dubbed it “Disney-turned-serious.” As anyone made to watch it at school in the 1980s will tell you, it’s not suitable for young children.—Cath Clarke