“[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.
90. Whisper of the Heart (1995)
I feel bad for every other director working at Studio Ghibli who isn’t Hayao Miyazaki. He’s such a titan within the industry, that everyone is in his shadow. Especially his own collaborators. For most, Studio Ghibli is split into two categories: 1) Miyazaki and 2) everything else. Even though that second category has a good handful of undeniable classics, they’ll always be considered lesser than the others because they’re missing that Miyazaki magic. One of the few films that actually managed to break through that impenetrable field and make an impression on audiences was Whisper of the Heart. A film so full of life and humor and imagination, some still believe Miyazaki himself directed it. Since it’s the first film he wrote but didn’t direct, some think he actually ghost-directed it to give his friend and fellow collaborator Yoshifumi Kondō a guaranteed hit to help kickstart his career. We’ll never know since Kondō tragically died four years after the film’s release but if it’s not true (which I sincerely doubt it is), imagine how honored you’d be if your first film out the gate were so good, everyone immediately assumed the greatest animation director of all time actually made it.
89. My Dog Tulip (2009)
An adaptation of J.R. Ackerley’s memoir of the same name, My Dog Tulip is a heartfelt and tender film about a man and his dog. The film centers around the relationship between Ackerley (voiced by Christopher Plummer) and his German Shepherd Tulip (voiced by Isabella Rossellini). From the moment they meet Ackerley is captivated by Tulip’s intelligence loyalty and unwavering love. Through whimsical animated sequences and Ackerley’s introspective narration, we are invited into the inner world of this unconventional but deeply fulfilling companionship. One of the film’s greatest strengths is its animation style. The Fierlingers employ a distinctive approach known as line animation which gives the film a hand-drawn sketched aesthetic.
This visually engaging style perfectly complements the narrative creating a sense of intimacy and nostalgia. The simplicity of the animation allows the viewer to focus on the emotions and experiences of the characters resulting in a powerful and immersive storytelling experience. In addition to its visual beauty My Dog Tulip is a poignant exploration of the complex dynamics between humans and animals. Ackerley’s relationship with Tulip is not without its challenges. From Tulip’s incessant barking to her indifference towards other dogs, Ackerley grapples with how to understand and accommodate her unique needs. Through these struggles, the film offers a profound reflection on the responsibility and sacrifice involved in caring for a pet. It serves as a reminder that animals are living feeling beings with their own needs and desires deserving of respect and understanding.
88. When the Wind Blows (1986)
I don’t know if it’s because of the Cold War or because of the film The China Syndrome but between 1983 and 1986, America was terrified of the bomb. There were ten films released in that short span and if my math is correct, that averages out to three a year. Three films a year about the horrors of nuclear war. Silkwood, Threads, The Day After, Wargames, and Barefoot Gen (which almost made this list) all dealt in one way or the other with “What would happen if the bomb were to drop?” And based on all these films: It’s not good. I don’t want to spoil what happens in this film but since I just listed six films that involve nuclear radiation, I’m pretty sure you can deduce it doesn’t end well for this couple. We’ve seen a million post-apocalyptic films dealing with the awesome destruction of the bomb but on a micro-scale? When it’s just two people? It’s absolutely heart-wrenching.
87. A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Philip K. Dick is considered by many to be one of the preeminent science fiction authors. He wrote stories about monopolistic corporations (relevant), authoritarian governments (double relevant), and in the case of A Scanner Darkly, a government that spies on its own people (congratulations dick, you just hit the paranoia trifecta.) Mistrust in government is actually only a small element of the plot. The real story is about drugs and how they destroy you. Strip away the futurism and you’re left with a painfully real autobiography from the author. He lived this life. Much like his previous film Waking Life, Linklater decided to make this film with rotoscope animation. The intention is clear. It’s a specific design choice to tie into the book’s themes of our perception of reality and how we can never trust the things we see.
1 Corinthians 13:12 – “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known”.
86. Heavy Traffic (1973)
Heavy Traffic is yet another gritty and unapologetic film by Ralph Bakshi. The film presents a raw and unfiltered portrayal of life in the inner city delving into themes of race violence sex and identity. It is a challenging and thought-provoking viewing experience that leaves a lasting impact. The film centers around a young aspiring cartoonist living in a rundown apartment with his overbearing Italian-American mother and his African-American father. Michael’s world is populated by a diverse array of characters each grappling with their own demons and inner conflicts. Through a series of episodic vignettes, the film explores the realities of their lives showing the vicious cycle of poverty crime and racism that constantly surrounds them.
What sets Heavy Traffic apart from other animated films is its bold and unconventional animation style. Bakshi blends gritty live-action footage with animated characters creating a frenetic and chaotic visual landscape that mirrors the chaotic nature of the city. This combination of techniques creates a surreal and immersive experience blurring the lines between reality and fantasy. It also effectively captures the essence of the city with its bustling streets dilapidated buildings and seedy underbelly.
The film’s visual style reflects its narrative content unafraid to depict explicit and uncomfortable themes. Bakshi pulls no punches in his portrayal of violence and sexual encounters presenting them in a graphic and unfiltered manner that may disturb some viewers. However, it is through these scenes that he drives home the harsh realities faced by the characters highlighting the dark and desperate aspects of urban life.
85. Flee (2021)
Animation is always an interesting choice for documentary films. It often allows for otherwise intense subject matter to be a bit easier for audiences to digest. The story central to Flee, which is one about an Afghan refugee’s journey from escaping civil war, to growing up without his family, and eventually settling down with his boyfriend and soon-to-be husband in Denmark. Amin’s story will break your heart, but also fill you with great hope. His story is one of great triumph, resilience, and perseverance. The animation style here raises the emotional stakes, while also providing a sense of security against any of the story’s impending danger. The movie’s power is so undeniable it earned an unprecedented trio of Academy Award nominations for the same film – Best International Feature, Best Documentary Feature, and Best Animated Feature.
84. Coonskin (1975)
This film is the epitome of the old adage “an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.” Ralph Bakshi remaking Song of the South is akin to watching the truck from the film Sorcerer barrow towards a runaway freight train that’s transporting nothing but babies, nuns, and dynamite. No matter the quality, it’s going to be the most controversial thing ever. These two things should never collide but since Bakshi is one of the best directors of the 20th century, it works. It works if you understand what it is and what it’s trying to say. Coonskin is a brutal satire that takes aim at racism and prejudices and doesn’t let anyone off the hook. Nobody is portrayed as the quote-unquote superior race and there are no heroes. This is an angry film that takes a sledgehammer to subtlety. It doesn’t scream at its audience. It grabs it by the throat and doesn’t let go till you understand its message. Which we still haven’t.
83. A Silent Voice (2016)
In A Silent Voice director Naoko Yamada delves deep into the intricacies of human connection giving the audience an emotionally resonant cinematic experience. Based on Yoshitoki Oima’s critically acclaimed manga, this coming-of-age drama shines a spotlight on themes of empathy redemption, and the enduring power of forgiveness. The story centers around Shoya Ishida, a remorseful young man plagued by guilt over his past actions. Flashbacks reveal his turbulent middle school years where he relentlessly bullied a hearing-impaired girl named Shoko Nishimiya. Now in high school, Shoya has isolated himself from society haunted by the consequences of his actions. The narrative takes an authentic and earnest approach to exploring the complexities of bullying and its lasting impact on both the victim and the aggressor. The film is unafraid to confront the dark realities of the emotional psychological and physical repercussions faced by Shoko offering a striking commentary on the importance of empathy and understanding.
82. Moana (2016)
After Pixar spent much of the early 2000s in the shadow of Pixar Studios, Walt Disney Animation Studios came back with a bang during the 2010s. One of the bangers in that run is the wonderfully charming tale of Moana. Much of the movie is delightful, but the soundtrack is what sets it apart. The tunes are insanely catchy, especially the Oscar-winning “How Far I’ll Go”. It also doesn’t hurt to have absolutely visually stunning animation, certified movie star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in your film. In addition to being one of the most fun animated adventure flicks you’ll ever see, it also serves as a really important and quality representation for Polynesian communities across the globe.
81. Ernest & Celestine (2012)
When Bruce Lee coined the phrase “simplicity is the key to brilliance”, I guarantee he never thought it would be the foundation on which a film about a mouse and a bear becoming friends would be born but here we are. There are many words you can use to describe Ernest and Celestine. Whimsical is a good one and so is charming but I think on the whole, the best word to sum up this film is simple. For some reason, the word simple has developed negative connotations over the years. It’s used to describe things that are too easy or people who are too slow. But back in the day, simple meant uncomplicated. A film with a simple plot usually meant it was a film the entire family could see. It’s the difference between The Maltese Falcon and The Wizard of Oz. Ernest and Celestine is simple and according to Bruce Lee, that’s one step away from brilliance baby.
What are some of your favorite animated films? Maybe they’ll show up later in the list!