“[Animation is] not a genre! A Western is a genre! Animation is an art form, and it can do any genre. You know, it can do a detective film, a cowboy film, a horror film, an R-rated film, or a kids’ fairy tale. But it doesn’t do one thing. And, next time I hear, ‘What’s it like working in the animation genre?’ I’m going to punch that person!” – Brad Bird
Two of the worst camps of people are: 1) People that automatically dismiss animation as a children’s medium; and 2) People that argue that film isn’t art because it’s the byproduct of multiple collaborators and not a singular vision. This is ironic considering the process of making an animated film consists of a rapid succession of hand-drawn images in a sequential order. This is to say, every frame of an animated film is a work of literal art. And it might be the most important art form because as Bird put it, an animated film can be anything.
Not only is every genre available, but animation also affords artists the canvas on which to create anything. There’s always a level of suspension of disbelief when it comes to live action that animation never suffers from. Animation taps into the primordial part of our brains that separates the real and the unreal, the logic and the surreal. We subconsciously understand that since real people aren’t involved, the rules are different. There’s no other art form that speaks to every generation and culture. Because imagination is universal. And this list will be a celebration of the makers of imagination.
These are the 100 Greatest Animated Films of All Time.
100. Yellow Submarine (1968)
Yellow Submarine is a phantasmagoric journey to Pepperland, an unearthly paradise located 80,000 leagues under the sea and home to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The peaceful existence of Pepperland is threatened by the music-hating Blue Meanies, who freeze the inhabitants, trap the band in a music-proof glass glove, and destroy all art and beauty. In a desperate attempt to save their beloved land, Fred embarks on a mission in the Yellow Submarine to seek help from the surface world. In Liverpool, Fred persuades John, Paul, George, and Ringo to help him (which they of course do using music to revive the people and fight the Meanies). Now, that description doesn’t sound much trippier than many other animated kids’ movies that I’ve seen but actually watching it is a somewhat different matter. Everything about the animation, the characters, and the random twists and turns the plot takes all combine to scream “acid trip.” To be honest, I have no idea what is happening in about 80% of the movie, but I love the bizarreness and the songs.
99. The Girl Without Hands (2016)
Based on a German fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm, The Girl Without Hands (or “The Helpless Maiden” or “The Armless Maiden”) is the kind of fairy tale Disney would never dream of telling and animated in a way they wouldn’t even conceive of. The animation mentioned above is a clear standout. It captures the essence of a classic fairy tale while also incorporating thought-provoking themes and a unique visual style. It’s minimalist to a fault, only the most important things are detailed, and even then, with extreme sparsity. It’s an aesthetic choice that lends a dreamlike quality to the film but also adds to its overall ethereal and enchanting atmosphere. It’s not for everyone but if it works for you, there’s no doubt you consider this as close to a moving artwork as any film as ever achieved. In addition to its visually arresting art style, The Girl Without Hands is also notable for its exploration of female agency and empowerment. The central character defies societal expectations and overcomes adversity showcasing her resilience and inner strength. This feminist undertone adds depth to the story and makes it resonate deeper. She’s a strong independent woman other movies joke about having and that Disney only wishes it could craft.
98. Boy and the World (2013)
It’s interesting that this film is called Boy and the World instead of Boy and His World because the entire film is from the perspective of a little boy and every design choice is born from that. Characters speak gibberish, environments look distorted and everything is bright like the ugliest of Christmas sweaters. It looks like a rainbow threw up on a Don Hertzfeldt film and then got sucker punched by digital confetti. It’s alive and vibrant, which is exactly how children see the world. They see the world in simple shapes and through the filter of the brightest of color palettes. Kind of like how a really drunk guy experiences Mardi Gras. A cacophony of color. This film is gorgeous, is what I’m saying. Plus, it has an environmental message, so it’s also about something. So that’s like double awesome points.
97. Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998)
This film is the definition of the cultural divide between America and the rest of the world. Since America over-sexualizes everything, the fact that every single character in this film is naked would instantly make this film controversial if released. We can handle violence and sex (as long as it’s straight) but include a naked baby walking around other naked or semi-naked people and we would collectively lose our shit. We’re the country that had to censor the baby’s genitalia on the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind, after all. Since you’re a nation of conservative prudes, entire generations of our school children will miss out on one of the best-told fables since Aesop. This entire film can be seen as an allegory for how mental or physical illness can destroy someone’s life and how as a community, we should do everything in our power to help them. It’s a lesson America desperately needs right now.
96. $9.99 (2008)
Based on a collection of short stories by Etgar Keret, 9.99 explores the lives of various tenants living in a rundown apartment building. With its captivating animation style and introspective approach to storytelling, 9.99 is a thought-provoking and unique film that seemingly flew under everyone’s radars because you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who’s even heard of it. Which is crazy since it’s easily one of the best-looking stop-motion films in existence. It can hold its own against the best of them, including Aardman, Selick, and Laika. Every frame is meticulously crafted with each character and set piece showing remarkable attention to detail. The use of stop-motion enhances the film’s overall atmosphere lending a sense of surrealism and whimsy to the story. The voice acting is top-notch with a talented cast that includes famous actors like Geoffrey Rush and Anthony LaPaglia. Each actor brings their character to life with nuance and depth infusing their voices with emotion and vulnerability. The voice performances add another layer of richness to the film amplifying the impact of the characters’ struggles and desires. Due to its slow pace and introspective nature, the film may not appeal to everyone, especially those seeking a more action-packed or plot-driven experience. However, for viewers who appreciate a more contemplative and artistic approach to storytelling, 9.99 is a gem worth discovering.
95. Rango (2011)
Rango has the distinct honor of being one of a handful of animated films to win a Best Animated Feature Oscar that is not affiliated with Disney. With a quirky, quasi-realistic Western style, Rango brings something different to the animated canon. Despite its somewhat off-putting character designs, the story and voice work lead to real stakes and emotions for the characters as you get to know them. Johnny Depp as Rango in particular provides a different kind of protagonist to root for as the once-pampered lizard adjusts to the harsh conditions of the Western roadside.
94. Tangled (2010)
Frozen is the seminal movie of Disney’s latest princess renaissance, but for my money, Tangled is probably the best movie in the series. Lifting most of its story from the classic tale of Rapunzel, the arcs of Flynn Rider, Rapunzel, and Mother Gothel lead to some great drama in the end. The story primarily works as a romance between Rider and Rapunzel, and that chemistry through the voice work and animation gets you invested in where this story is going to go.
93. The King of Pigs (2011)
Seeing as how bullying is worse now than it’s ever been, you’d think King of Pigs, a portrait that explores themes of bullying violence and the dark side of human nature, would be more well-known but it seems like only a handful of people have ever heard of it. The story revolves around two friends who reunite as adults after many years apart. They reminisce about their middle school days when their classmates constantly bullied them, particularly the “king of pigs” Chul. The film switches between the present and the past giving us a glimpse into the traumatic experiences these characters went through as children. One of the strengths of King of Pigs is its raw and unapologetic approach in depicting the brutality and psychological torment associated with bullying. The film does not shy away from showing the physical violence and psychological manipulation that these characters endure nor is afraid to tackle important social issues such as class discrimination and societal pressures. The class divide is prominent in the film with the wealthy students often belittling and marginalizing those from poorer backgrounds. King of Pigs is a powerful and thought-provoking film that leaves an impact.
92. Chico and Rita (2010)
Set in 1940s Havana and 1950s New York City, Chico and Rita tells the story of a passionate love affair between Chico, a talented pianist, and Rita, a beautiful singer who, despite their obvious connection, just can’t seem to ever be in the right place for that love affair to be permanent. Their love is constantly being tested by various obstacles including fame, jealousy, and personal ambitions. Fate is bound and determined to prove the old adage “the only thing more powerful than love is timing.” It’s not a will they, won’t they type of love story. You already know they love each other and are destined to be together. It’s hoping that destiny agrees with the cosmic plan and gives them a happy ending or decides to fuck with them because it can. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions set to an amazing soundtrack held together with breathtaking visuals.
91. I Lost My Body (2019)
Never has the phrase “it’s about the journey, not the destination” been as thoroughly tested as it is in this film. I Lost My Body tells the story of a young man (Dev Patel) who is trying to win the affection of a young woman while working as an apprentice for her uncle. The story cuts between their budding romance and his severed hand who’s getting into all sorts of misadventures on his way back to his body. It’s a very unique framing device whose central mystery kept me engaged. How did he lose his hand and how the hell did it end up in a dissection lab across town? But unfortunately the answer to that question will determine how much this film will stick with you. If you think a mystery with no payoff or a romance without a resolution sounds awful, stay far very away but if you’re a cinematic adventurer who values the journey more than the destination, you’ll most likely love it.
What are some of your favorite animated films? Maybe they’ll show up later in the list!