“[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.
30. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Based on Roald Dahl’s wildly popular children’s book, Wes Anderson’s sole attempt at directing an animated film still feels completely Wes Anderson. That can be a good or bad thing, depending on how you feel about the eccentric director. For me, this is the best film in his entire catalog. The story follows Mr. Fox, a family man who goes back to his ways of stealing, unable to resist his animal instincts. It’s told in a whimsical yet relatable way and it’s a film that old and young can both enjoy equally, even though the story will have different meanings to each age group. The stop motion animation looks great and the A-list cast (George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, and Owen Wilson) make it a memorable experience all around.
29. The Lego Movie (2014)
I don’t know about you, but I had no expectations for The Lego Movie. Wait. That’s not quite true, I expected The Lego Movie to be bad. Cheesy, lowest-common-denominator pablum designed more to sell toys than to entertain. What I was NOT expecting was a self-aware satire with hilarious jokes and gags coming at you in fire-hose fashion, animated by CGI in a way that felt like stop-motion, and roughly half a million cameos that were all pretty much awesome. And that damn theme song was pretty catchy.
So, yeah, it IS an extremely long toy commercial, but one that made you remember what you loved about Legos in the first place, had a story that didn’t beat you over the head with the satire, great characters that kept you invested during the madness, and was actually damn funny. They’ve never really managed to recreate the magic (though The Lego Batman Movie comes close), but who cares – I still can’t believe we got this magical Unikitty of a movie. The rarest of property-based projects – one that’s actually great.
28. Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Upon its release in 1959, Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty received mixed reviews from both critics and audiences. While praised for its stunning animation and memorable musical score, the film was also criticized for its slow pacing and lack of character development. However, despite these initial reactions, Sleeping Beauty has since become a beloved classic in the Disney canon, leaving a lasting impact on animation and popular culture. The film’s intricate animation style, inspired by medieval tapestries and European art, set it apart from other animated features of its time. The detailed backgrounds, elaborate costumes, and fluid character movements showcased Disney’s commitment to pushing the boundaries of traditional animation techniques. Over time, Sleeping Beauty gained recognition for its contributions to visual storytelling.
Sleeping Beauty has also left an enduring legacy through its iconic characters, all of whom have become pretty legendary within pop culture. Maleficent especially stands out as one of Disney’s most memorable villains – her striking appearance and commanding presence have made her an enduring symbol of evil, which is exactly how I like her (no redemption arc for this villain, please, and thanks). Overall, Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty continues to enchant audiences with its compelling characters and captivating storyline. And personally? I prefer the blue dress.
27. Toy Story 2 (1999)
What an amazing story of how close we were to an awful universe where Pixar actually made the same straight-to-DVD sequel trash as Disney did in the 90s. But Pixar said “Nah” and casually made one of the greatest sequels of all time. Whereas the first movie dealt with being replaced as the “favorite toy,” this one smartly pivots to a realization that a day will come when Andy will no longer play with toys at all, and considering whether that short-lived experience is worth it, or living on forever in a museum, never to be played with again. “When Somebody Loved Me” is arguably the best original song in any Pixar movie ever, absolutely crushing. And Jessie and Bullseye feel like an inseparable part of the core toy group. Stinky Pete is also a great villain in that he only wants Woody so that the set can be complete and he won’t have to return to storage, which isn’t that far off from Woody’s own insecurities.
26. Inside Out (2015)
It can’t be overstated how important Inside Out has ended up being for Pixar. Up until 2010 with Toy Story 3, we’d had 15 years of almost flawless filmmaking from the studio. But then we hit a three-year skid with Pixar’s biggest flop with Cars 2, an underwhelming original in Brave, and then a middling prequel in Monsters University. Also worth noting, Cars 2 was the first non-Toy-Story sequel and it was immediately followed by a Monster’s Inc. prequel, so there was this feeling that the studio had run out of creative energy.
Of course, Inside Out reassured everyone that the studio still has some of that creative spark, and this film ultimately cemented director Pete Docter as the heir apparent to CEO John Lasseter. The premise could have been utterly flimsy in lesser hands, but Docter uses the personification of emotions to take us on a very different coming-of-age story where we learn how the simple emotions of childhood shift into something more complex and real. A children’s movie about the important role sadness plays in our lives? That’s brilliant. Oh, and it’s hilarious to boot, from Anger, Disgust, and Fear attempting to run the controls to Joy’s relentless refusal to see the negative in a very negative situation. This film has cemented itself as a bonfire Pixar classic.
25. Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Ghost in the Shell features some of the coolest animation, fight scenes, and violent action that you’re ever likely to see in an animated film. These things made me fall in love with it when I first watched it around 20 years ago. Yet there is much more to it than just the grandeur of its presentation. As I’ve rewatched it in my more mature years it’s clear that it’s chocked full of complex narratives and themes. Self-aware computer programs, memory alteration, and the nature of human cyborgs are all looked at here. Come for the bombastic entertainment, stay for the detailed philosophizing.
24. Your Name (2016)
Your Name should’ve catapulted Makoto Shinkai into a household name. Not only was it the first film to dethrone Spirited Away (which made all the money), it’s of the most breathtaking and emotionally resonant love stories to come out in decades. Drawing inspiration from Japanese folklore and blending it with contemporary fantasy tropes, Your Name transcends the boundaries of traditional animated films inviting viewers on a journey filled with wonder mystery, and heartache.
The film follows the lives of two teenagers Taki and Mitsuha who inexplicably swap bodies sporadically throughout the week. As they come to terms with this strange phenomenon they begin to communicate with each other by leaving messages on their phones about their daily experiences. Through these interactions, they gradually form a bond and find solace in the fact that despite living different lives and being separated by time and space they are not alone. What sets Your Name apart is its ability to seamlessly weave together different genres and narrative styles. On one hand, it beautifully captures the intricacies of the human experience exploring themes of identity longing and the fleeting nature of time. On the other hand, it effortlessly incorporates elements of fantasy and science fiction unraveling a complex and multilayered plot that keeps viewers guessing until the very end.
23. Ratatouille (2007)
What do you do when a director is struggling to finish putting your animated movie together? You bring in legend Brad Bird to come in and deliver a five-star offering. It’s never been clear how influential Bird was on the finished product, but one can only imagine him stepping in and saving the film like Remy saved Linguini’s terrible soup. This film has long been a sleeper hit for Pixar, as the tale of a rat chef wasn’t as appealing to kids at the time it came out. Sure, critics and audiences had rave reviews at the time, but it has only recently become a viral sensation, even garnering a massive multiverse nod in last year’s Best Picture winner Everything Everywhere All at Once. This is a story about discrimination, and about how a great artist can come from any situation. And with the antagonist Anton Ego, it is also about the meaning of food and of art. It is not meant to be nitpicked, but to be enjoyed and savored for what the flavors bring to the table. Paris provides a beautiful backdrop for one of the most sophisticated and mature films in the Pixar canon.
22. Shrek (2001)
When Lord Farquaad exiles a group of fairy tale creatures to his swamp, anti-social ogre Shrek is forced to rescue Princess Fiona from a dragon in exchange for getting his home back. It’s a simple story at its core, isn’t it? Grumpy loner roped into a heroic quest; finds friendship, love, and self-acceptance along the way. Not exactly earth-shattering cinema when you put it like that. But Shrek takes that simple concept and layers it with hilariously creative reimaginings of nearly every fairy tale trope known to modern storytelling. Combined with some spectacular voice acting (particularly Mike Myers’ glorious Scottish accent and Eddie Murphy doing what Eddie Murphy does, minus the profanity) and you get an animated movie that children and adults can both enjoy.
21. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Studio Ghibli is known for child-friendly fantastical animations that can be enjoyed by people of all ages. Grave of the Fireflies is an exception to the rule and goes off in a completely different direction. Told from the point of view of two Japanese children after an American firebombing during World War II, it’s a devastating portrayal of the collateral damage and cost of war to innocent bystanders. The animation is traditional Ghibli standards, which makes the subject matter all that more resonant. There is no heroic struggle between competing nations here, just a bleak look at how war is the ultimate failure of society. One of the most emotionally affecting films I’ve ever seen, animated or otherwise
What are some of your favorite animated films? Maybe they’ll show up later in the list!