“[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.
50. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
The influence and enduring legacy of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas cannot be overstated. Released in 1993, this dark stop-motion animated film was a modest hit at the box office but soon became a pop culture phenomenon, gathering fans worldwide thanks to its visually stunning and emotionally resonant world.
The film’s gothic aesthetic combined with whimsical characters like Jack Skellington and Sally has become iconic, influencing fashion, art, and even theme park attractions. The film’s soundtrack, composed by Danny Elfman, has also become a classic, with unforgettable songs – Sally’s Song is one that I play often on my phone. Beyond its immediate impact, the enduring legacy of The Nightmare Before Christmas lies in its ability to captivate audiences of all ages. Its universal themes of self-discovery, acceptance, and the power of imagination continue to resonate with viewers today.
49. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind tells the story of a princess brokering peace between mankind and some giant, scary bugs — a quintessential Miyazaki movie, with a strong ecological message and flying contraptions galore. Released before Studio Ghibli was officially founded, it laid the foundation for its success by firmly establishing Miyazaki as a cinematic visionary. From its unique character and creature design to the beautifully realized post-apocalyptic environments, the film stands out not just as a wonderful viewing experience in and of itself, but as a touchstone for all subsequent Ghibli productions, as well as a source of inspiration for films as disconnected as The Force Awakens.
48. The Red Turtle (2016)
What The Red Turtle lacks in dialogue, it makes up for with wonderfully detailed animation. It begins with a man washing up on a deserted island, and the next eighty minutes are purely visual storytelling. Each frame of animation is a work of art, with a fantastic orchestral soundtrack to back it all up.
There are many narrative levels and the story itself could be interpreted in multiple ways. But just taken at face value (the story of a man who becomes shipwrecked on an uninhabited island and meets a giant red female turtle) it’s still an emotional tale of love and loss.
47. My Life as a Zucchini (2016)
After his mother’s death, Zucchini is sent to live at a foster home filled with other orphans his age. There, with the help of his newfound friends, Zucchini eventually learns to trust and love as he searches for a new family of his own. At only 70 minutes, It’s amazing how effectively this film depicts loss and loneliness without ever being overbearing, sweet; sincerity without becoming overtly saccharine; and hope and happiness without having a single formulaic cliche found in most animated films. I loved every second of this film and the only negative I can think of is that it ended.
46. Coco (2017)
Coco is one of those movies that no matter how many times you’ve seen it, will always make you cry. You always know when the big moment is coming that’s supposed to get the waterworks going. You prepare yourself for the moment. Determined that this will be the time that you fight the urge to break down sobbing. But it still gets to you – even though you’re on a full flight and the person in the seat next to you is now totally judging. Either way, it’s an absolutely wonderful movie. It carries the rich tradition of Pixar making movies that are ostensibly for children but deal with complicated themes like loss and grief. It also probably has the best original movie featured in a Pixar film.
45. Monsters, Inc. (2001)
I could watch (or listen, in this case) to Billy Crystal in absolutely anything. His unique style of comedy is always a delight. Add in John Goodman, my favorite ‘90s TV dad, the cutest little chaos creator ever to be animated, and an evil CEO mastermind with too many legs, and you’ve got a great recipe for hilarity and heartache.
I’ve never been a huge Toy Story fan (I know, blasphemy), so Monsters, Inc. was the first Pixar movie that really hooked me. The animation is spectacular, and the plot is beautifully layered. The concept of a world where monsters power their city by collecting the screams of human children is a mind-blowing twist on the typical monster-under-the-bed story. The friendship between Sulley and Mike and the affection they grow to have for Boo resonate deeply, and the witty exchanges and side-splitting sight gags keep you rolling no matter what your age.
44. Fantastic Planet (1973)
“What suggests is superior to what shows. Movies today show more and more. It’s paranoid dictator cinema. What we need is schizophrenic cinema.” That quote perfectly encapsulates the films of René Laloux. The man only made three films but he only really needed one to prove he’s one of the most interesting visionaries to ever make a film. In a previous entry, I referred to Waking Life as a drug trip and it is, but it’s more like getting a contact high while listening to potheads shoot the shit for an hour. Fantastic Planet is like licking toads that were already tripping on acid. It’s so great that L. Ron Hubbard ripped it off for Battlefield Earth. So that’s something.
43. Watership Down (1978)
If I live to be a hundred, I will be forever grateful that I did not see Watership Down until I was a teenager. Don’t get me wrong, this is a beautifully animated film that brings Richard Adams’ story to glorious life. However, it is also one of the darkest animated films you will ever see, even darker than The Secret of NIMH and that’s saying a lot. You wouldn’t think a story about rabbits traveling to find a safe, new home would be nightmare-inducing, yet… even in the film’s prologue, you can tell this is going to be one of THOSE stories.
Despite all that, I find myself drawn back to this film over and over again. For all its darkness, Watership Down contains some powerful lessons about what it means to truly live, as well as how badly things can go wrong when you don’t hold to a basic set of principles. Notably, there’s a huge instance of karma late in the film when one of the rabbits deludes themselves into thinking a known enemy isn’t actually an enemy. In that respect, Watership Down is a heady metaphor for how we should try to live our lives, with a strongly worded emphasis on living in balance with the world instead of trying to force our way of doing things on everyone around us. While Watership Down is by no means appropriate for children, it remains an animated classic that deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest animated films ever made.
42. The Wolf House (2018)
Colonia Dignidad was a compound in Chile that for decades housed a cult led by Paul Schafer, a German who fled his country to escape charges of pedophilia. The colony was the site of a range of atrocities that included child sexual abuse, the torture and disappearance of political prisoners, and the physical and mental abuse of its members. The place also had ties to Nazi war criminals and the rise of Pinochet. Knowing that bit of history isn’t essential to understanding and enjoying this film but it does add some context since the film is heavily stylized and focuses more on visuals than plot, all that does is add another layer of heaviness to the film.
Without it, the wolf is just a wolf and the house is just a house and that works. That’s a fairy tale. If Jan Švankmajer, Yorgos Lanthimos, and The Quay Brothers had a baby, that baby would be The Wolf House. That’s the type of dark fantasy this film operates under. But with that context, that wolf is now a cult and that house is a prison. It never beats you over the head with its metaphors. You either know what it is or you don’t and again, either way works. I didn’t know beforehand and I just thought it was about mental illness and learning to live with the wolf trying to break in, instead of keeping him at bay and I still loved it. It’s a beautiful, surreal onion with each layer being more thought-provoking than the last.
41. Mary and Max (2009)
Mary and Max is probably the only film on this list that brought a tear to my eye. The plot is simple in many ways. It follows the lives and friendships of two unlikely pen-pals; Mary, a lonely Australian girl, and Max, an overweight American man with Asperger’s syndrome. But there is incredible depth to both characters that really makes you empathize with them and their individual struggles. It deals with some pretty deep issues, including addiction, depression, and obesity. The stop-motion animation helps take the edge off the darker elements but it’s still an emotional roller coaster and one of the most underappreciated animated films ever made.
What are some of your favorite animated films? Maybe they’ll show up later in the list!