The 16 Best Animated Films Ever Made
If you think back to the first time you watched a film—a full-length one, all the way through, without stopping for a nap—it was probably animated. They're the way that most of us start to understand what films actually are and how they work.
Animated films' roots go deep into the origins of cinema, and the mid-Victorian magic lantern showmen who'd project painted scenes on glass slides that appeared to move, and since then it's been at the cutting edge of where film technology can be pushed to, while mimicking, remixing and exploiting the way that live-action films look, folding cinema back onto itself. It can express the impossible, make the abstract concrete, and create worlds that feel more real and vibrant than ours. Here are 16 of the best ever made.
We could go round the houses arguing about how many Disney films deserve to be in here, and Pinocchio (1940) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) were both early groundbreakers. No other Disney animation is so obviously in love with the endless possibilities of animation, though. Its eight segments are loosely connected by being soundtracked by work by Bach, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and other composers, interpreting them in a virtuoso exhibition of animation styles from total abstraction to Mickey Mouse's comeback as the sorcerer's apprentice.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Nearly 80 years later, Into the Spider-Verse pulled off a similar trick to joyous effect. The Spider-Man we meet this time isn't Peter Parker; it's Miles Morales, a kid from Brooklyn who was saved by the old, dead Spider-Man and tries to honour him by following in his footsteps. Then another, grumpier Spider-Man turns up from another dimension. And another. And another. Spider-Woman, Spider-Man Noir, the animé-inflected SP//dr and Spider-Ham, an anthropomorphic pig, have to work out what's melting the divisions between dimensions.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed
Director and silhouette artist Lotte Reiniger's first feature-length piece was one of the first feature-length animations full stop, and its extraordinary lyricism, craftsmanship and outright trippiness is still a wellspring of inspiration nearly a century on. It pulls from the One Thousand and One Nights collection of Middle Eastern folk tales, sending Prince Achmed into a land of sorcerers, witches, demons and a magic lamp.
Pixar's films articulate the painful, confusing bits of growing up beautifully, and never better than through Inside Out. When 10-year-old Riley's uprooted from Minnesota to San Francisco, the emotions in her head—Joy, Disgust, Fear, Anger and Sadness—try to keep everything together, journeying through Riley's subconscious as her sense of self crumbles. Remember to pour one out for Bing Bong.
There's something extremely unnerving about stopmotion, in its very slight jerkiness, and the way that characters can float between looking alive and vital and suddenly blank and still. Czech animator Jan Svankmajer's style exploits that strangeness, and his adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland takes it to extremes: it starts with a boggle-eyed, taxidermied rabbit springing back to life and gets more upsetting from there. Svankmajer's splenetic football short The Male Game is great too.
It might have struggled to make any money when it first came out, but Akira's bloody, bombastic, visceral energy was key to helping Japanese pop culture to permeate through the West and finally prove beyond doubt that anime was a global artistic force. In 2019, a rebuilt Neo-Tokyo is swarmed with violence and corruption. A fight between biker vigilantes uncovers a government plan to exploit people with telekinetic powers, while the 'espers' struggle to get their heads around their responsibilities.
World of Tomorrow
This short is set in a dystopian future in which everyone's cloning themselves to cling to life a little longer, a world which third-generation clone Emily explains to her original self as a very young girl—Emily Prime—while exploring an abstract landscape. Sounds melancholy, but Emily Prime's voiced joyously and spontaneously by animator Don Hertzfeld's four-year-old niece Winona. It's Never Let Me Go crossed with Outnumbered.
The crowning glory of Disney's 2010s purple patch: funnier than Tangled, better songs than Frozen thanks to Hamilton's Lin-Manuel Miranda, and more mystically wonderstruck than Brave. Moana leaves her blight-hit home on a Polynesian island and sets out to find the demi-god Maui—voiced by Dwayne Johnson, who it turns out is a decent rapper—to see if he can help save them.
Well, obviously. That it packs so much invention, wit and heartstring-tugging into 81 minutes belies how stormy its making was—it was nearly cancelled a couple of times, and at one point while recording lines for an aborted version, Tom Hanks realised aloud that Woody had been turned into "a jerk." Maybe the most miraculous thing about it is that it's so charming and lyrical that you don't realise how hard it is to imagine animation without it.
Coraline is a young girl whose family has just moved to Oregon. She's got no mates, which is sad, but she does have the next best thing: a portal into another world that a creepy button-eyed doll showed her. It seems a lot more fun at first, but things take several sinister turns, in the way that Laika's gorgeous but unsettling stop-motion features tend to.
The Wrong Trousers
We've said it before, and we've also said it again. Allow us to say it a third time: The Wrong Trousers is the peak of Western civilization's artistic achievements in the 20th century. Wallace, Gromit, a mysterious lodger, some ex-Nasa techno-trousers, a diamond heist, and a breakneck chase on a model railway that makes Steve McQueen's Bullitt sequence look shit.
Never a pair of robots to do things by halves, Daft Punk got Dragonball Z and Sailor Moon studio Toei Animation to put together a dialogue-free anime musical about a band that gets kidnapped and forced to help a despot who wants to rule the universe, set to their Discovery album. It's extremely heavily front-loaded—"One More Time," then "Aerodynamic," then "Digital Love," then "Harder Better Faster Stronger" is just showing off really—but a richly designed visual treat.
Set during the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and its fallout, this adaptation of Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novel is a powerful, sprawling coming-of-age story. As the Communists and Islamic fundamentalists fight for control of the country, and the new fundamentalist regime imposes strict new laws, Marji rebels with bootlegged Iron Maiden and Michael Jackson tapes and tries to work out who she wants to be.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya
There's something appropriately elegiac about the last film directed by Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata. While chopping down bamboo, Sanuki Miyatsuko finds a tiny, tiny girl glowing in the middle of a shoot. He and his wife adopt her, call her Princess, and then decide that her mystical powers demand that she be made an actual royal. Princess, though, yearns to go back to her simple life.
Song of the Sea
Widowed lighthouse keeper Conor and his children, Ben and Saoirse, leave the coast for the city, trying to leave behind the painful memories of their mum, but away from her home in the sea Saoirse—who's part-selkie—starts to die, and it's up to Ben to save her. This Irish film's rooted deeply in ancient legends and Irish folklore, and it bleeds through into a lush, mystical animation style.
On Christmas Eve, three homeless people—Gin, Hana and Miyuki—find a baby abandoned in a dumpster, and set out to find its parents. Their quest takes them through the Tokyo underworld, and shows them that the invisible threads of obligation and mutual support that bind everyone in a society together are stronger than they first appear.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.