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Hand-Drawn to Perfection (Part 1): The 25 Best Animated Films of All Time

Updated on July 10, 2011

On June 23rd, TIME movie critic Richard Corliss published an article detailing what he felt to be the twenty-five best animated films ever made. His piece can be read here.

It's an interesting compilation. While he does throw in a few worthy classics here and there (Snow White, Lady and the Tramp), Corliss also manages to incorporate several wild cards, most notably Happy Feet, Kung Fu Panda and Horton Hears a Who!. One could argue that any of the aforementioned three are okay films (and that, in itself, is a stretch), but to suggest they are among the best of the absolute best? That may be taking it too far.

What stands out the most, however, isn't what Corliss includes. It's what he leaves off.

Several classics are either missing in action completely, or, to add insult to injury, they're referenced but not officially recognized. Below is a sort of rebuttal to the original Timepiece, one that injects more prestigious pictures into the mix and keeps the more average titles a safe distance away. . .


Call it animated. Call it a documentary. Call it foreign. Whatever label you choose to go with, one thing you can't call Ari Folman's Academy Award-nominated anti-war picture is ordinary.

As soon as the film starts, with demonic-looking dogs coming right at us, we know we're about to see something unique. It's hard to distinguish which is more difficult to shake: the images that flash on screen (i.e. a boy launching an RPG), or composer Max Richter's haunting music score.


Disney's seventeenth full-length animated feature film had a lot riding on it during production. After 1959's "Sleeping Beauty" failed to earn its money back (at least during the time), pressure was put on animators to conjure up a new product that moved at a quicker pace and kept audiences engaged.

The result was one of the sixties' biggest hits. Sporting a jazz-infused soundtrack, multiple likable characters and one of Disney's best villains, "One Hundred and One Dalmatians" proved to be so effective that even with the perfect actress cast as Cruella de Vil, the 1996 live-action remake couldn't hold a candle to the original.


For every pet that's felt threatened by the arrival of a newborn baby, perhaps no other film has managed to express what they cannot like this one.

As spectators, we really gain a much better understanding of what it's like to be passed over, particularly when our replacement does less and requires more. Disney's fifteenth animated feature film may be its sweetest, even with a major character who's a bit of a gigolo.


Here is another foreign, animated, anti-war picture from the previous decade that managed to leave a lasting impression. The major difference: humor.

While there's no denying combat affects everyone involved in the worse ways (and that's definitely touched on here, too), it's refreshing to have little interjections of comedy when the time is right.

More than a statement against war, this is a film about female empowerment, and if nothing else, it serves as a stark reminder that certain liberties we enjoy should never be taken for granted.


The first film Don Bluth would go on to direct ended up being his best.

Adapted from the children's novel "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH," this well-paced, oftentimes suspenseful animated drama may, in fact, have been a little too exhilarating for the kids, which would account for its dismal box office numbers.

Regardless, this is a film that should be appreciated for what it has to offer, whether it's the music, the story, or the sheer fact that it manages to make rats look like more than just disease-carrying vermin.


Speaking of perspective, how about a film that captured the outlook of inanimate objects so well, it moved many a male critic to tears?

Good sequels are hard to come by, whether we're talking animated or live-action. So when the third chapter to a story manages to earn as much praise as the original, you have something special, and that's exactly what we got last year. Word is there may be a fourth installment in the works. If so, let's hope our expectations are surpassed yet again.


One word: "underrated."

Thanks to some shoddy publicity courtesy of Warner Bros., most moviegoers managed to overlook this engaging, funny gem from 1999.

However, with word-of-mouth growing over the years (mostly due to frequent replays on Cartoon Network), this criminally under-watched story of a boy and his metallic giant from outer space has finally started to earn the respect it deserved from day one.

Don't let the previews fool you. This is one of the wittiest films you'll come across that's family friendly. Great comedic performances from the likes of Christopher McDonald and Harry Connick, Jr. don't hurt either.


It's less of a coherent, linear feature film and more of a compilation of shorts that, all totaled, result in the running time of a 98-minute motion picture.

But who's complaining?

Not only do we get to see some of the classic Looney Tunes episodes one right after the other, we also view some of the best, including "Hare-Way to the Stars," "Duck Amuck," and "What's Opera, Doc?"


Sometimes you can create a wholly realistic war film without incorporating a whole lot of war.

Case in point: Isao Takahata's piece from 1988.

Following a pair of siblings near the end of the second World War in a ravaged Japan, the film focuses more on how the two struggle to survive and less on what happened to put them in their current situation. It's a bleak story, but don't let that keep you away. As historian Ernest Rister remarks, it is a "profoundly human animated film."


Leave it to Tim Burton to take a Gothic look at a traditional holiday and still create a product where basic sentimentality stays intact the whole way through.

Well, really, it's not just Burton but a perfect collaboration of producer, director (Henry Selick), writer (Caroline Thompson) and composer (Danny Elfman), along with a vivid vocal cast that injects some life into what would otherwise be a dull set of characters.

The visuals still hold up, even by today's standards. The songs are all original and extremely catchy. And now with the advent of 3-D keeping this title in theaters annually, it doesn't look like the most exceptional product of stop-motion animation is going anywhere anytime soon.


Between the music and star Mickey Mouse, "Fantasia" seems to epitomize what it means to be a true classic.

Its combination of symphonies and innovative animation visuals produce some pretty outstanding sequences, including one of the most famous segments, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."

While the film is definitely not without its faults (125 minutes is practically three hours for a cartoon; four scenes being cut because they depicted characters as too stereotypical is a little troubling), overall, what Walt Disney once himself described as "a mistake" is certainly many things, but not that.


It's something when you have a compelling, likable main character who manages to acquire your full support without ever uttering a word.

Made quickly (and cheaply) in an effort to churn out a much more traditional family film after the mixed reaction to "Fantasia," this short, 64-min adaptation of Helen Aberson's book proves that you can still win an audience over in half the time it usually takes. The major setback lies in the film's unnecessary racial stereotyping of African-Americans, embodied in the singing crows.


Designed with some gorgeous computer graphics, anchored by an intelligent script, and topped off with a handsome score by Michael Giacchino, it's no wonder Pixar's eighth film easily walked off with the Oscar for Animated Feature.

The real question is why it wasn't in contention for Best Picture.

Nevertheless, "Ratatouille" provided further proof that after "The Iron Giant" and "The Incredibles," any film under the direction of Brad Bird is in some truly capable hands.


There have been many movies that focus on the bond between fathers and sons.

Few, however, hit it out of the park like this one.

At times both moving and incredibly funny (most of the latter should be attributed to Ellen DeGeneres, who was perfectly cast as Dory), what we have here is an ideal family film.

It's fun, humorous, engaging, and visually striking. While there are some genuinely sentimental moments, the film doesn't overindulge in these areas, a feat few family films pull off effectively.


When it comes to completely computer-generated animated films, it all started here.

John Lasseter, Pete Docter, and Andrew Stanton, among others, conjured up a truly original idea and put the question to paper: what happens when we leave our toys alone?

The result was a highly entertaining, amusing family film that connected with the kid in all of us (assuming we weren't kids at the time) and took us on a wild, visually stunning ride that holds up as well today as it did over fifteen years ago.

10. WALL-E

In the wrong hands, a film that consists of essentially no dialogue (save for a few "WALL-E"s and "EVE-A"s) is all but guaranteed to polarize adult audience members and try the patience of the kindergarten crowd.

Fortunately, Andrew Stanton knew exactly what he was doing when he pitched his idea to Pixar, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Although it serves its purpose as a semi-romance story, the film's major takeaway message centers on environmental reform, as well as healthier living.

Anytime we're forced to look into the mirror and analyze our flaws, filmmakers run the risk of tuning us out. But the issue is handled with such skill here, and our main character is given such genuine heart, any objections we may have simply melt away.


How fitting is it that the Disney Renaissance got under way with a tale that centered on one of the studio's most iconic, fiercely independent heroines?

After a series of commercial flops that dated back to the late '70s / early '80s, Disney found its footing again and produced one of its most thoroughly enjoyable animated feature films ever.

Sporting some of the best songs and compositions (courtesy of the ingenious Alan Menken), it's refreshing to hear these musical numbers as they were, before the new onslaught of Disney Channel stars took it upon themselves to ruin them.

Although the warm, hand-drawn technique and impressive box office numbers that started with this film ended in 1999 with "Tarzan," hopefully, with the success of 2009's "The Princess and the Frog," we could soon see history repeating itself. . .


Expensive debts and a high production value put about as much pressure on this classic as you could expect: it either had to be a hit, or the studio would go under.

Needless to say, more than sixty years after its release, Disney's twelfth animated feature film not only made good on its promise to deliver at the box office, it also inspired generation after generation of idealistic young girls to settle for nothing less than a Prince Charming.

Rags-to-riches stories are fairly commonplace now, particularly in the romantic comedy genre. Few of these titles, however, can come close to matching the appeal and grandeur apparent throughout the film that literally saved a studio from completely closing down.


He's been called "the Japanese Walt Disney," and there's a reason for that: Hayao Miyazaki's imaginative, visionary films dominate the anime genre in much the same way that Disney put a staple on traditional, hand-drawn animation.

"Spirited Away" marks a major milestone in cinematic history, not just due to the fact that it became the first film of its kind to win the Academy Award for Animated Feature, but also because of its enormous box office success (upon its release, it became the most profitable film in Japanese history).

It's a dazzling visual feast for the eyes, and although it may not be the most straightforward kids flick, there's no denying the sheer spellbinding nature it exudes.


Some of the voiceover stars describe the film best as "unconventional" and "breathtaking," and truer words were never spoken.

Impressive as Miyazaki's aforementioned, family-friendly title is, he really outdid himself with this unbelievable entry from 1997. The story is engrossing. The animation seems to pop off the screen. And the American actors, even the more interesting choices (a la Billy Bob Thornton), seem perfectly cast for their respective parts.

Fair warning: although "Princess Mononoke" may be animated, it's definitely not for kids.


Disney's animated version of Hamlet took key elements from the classic Shakespeare fable and presented the story in a refreshing new light.

Anchored by some great songs, an atmospheric score by Hans Zimmer (the only one that's resulted in an Oscar win for him) and an impressive voiceover cast that includes a few Academy Award nominees and winners, the highest-grossing 2D animated film of all time is at times fun, chilling and uplifting.

With the upcoming 3D release of the film set to hit multiplexes in September, now a brand new generation of moviegoers can discover what they were missing (and what the rest of us couldn't get enough of) seventeen years ago.


If you ever find yourself struggling to present your child with proof that making bad decisions can have major consequences, look no further than "Pinocchio."

Although on the onset, it appears to be as sweet and unassuming as its protagonist, underneath that sentimental exterior lies a multitude of harsh life lessons.

Thinking about lying? Your nose will grow. Want to smoke and drink? You'll turn into a donkey. Want to betray your conscience? Get ready for a miserable life of hard child labor.

Some of the images can be a little horrifying for kids to witness (particularly the donkey transformation), but you have to marvel at the impressive visual work that came from a film released in 1940.


Although two others have vied for the top prize at the Academy Awards since, to date, "Beauty and the Beast" is the only animated film to have received a nomination for Best Picture when the category only consisted of five possibilities.

And there's no denying it deserved the honor. The film saw several members of its crew turning in some of their most impressive work.

Animators incorporated groundbreaking computer-generated backgrounds. Songwriters Alan Menken and Howard Ashman composed some of their career-best songs (although Ashman did not live to see the finished film, or claim his Oscar). And, for the first time, Disney reverted to a screenwriter in Linda Woolverton.

The result was easily one of the most gorgeously-constructed animated musicals ever, and one of the best films of all time, period.


Who knew the first ever full-length animated feature film would turn out to be one of the absolute best?

Interestingly enough, at the time, no one seriously considered "Snow White" as a potential money-earner (or even as a good film).

Audiences proved otherwise, however, turning out in droves to get a glimpse at the "dwarf picture" that came equipped with some memorable songs and one of the vainest antagonist in movie history.

Although a little cutesy at times, this product of 1937 still holds up well, and with iconic characters etched into its makeup, it's no wonder why several modern pictures still use it as a point for reference.


It may not have been Walt Disney's most successful film, but in some ways, it would go on to be his company's boldest.

Huntsmen spoke out against the movie for depicting "man" as the major villain. Putting a message like this out there at any point is risky, but it's especially dangerous at a time when war is on the horizon.

The death of the main character's mother, however, also worked to the film's advantage, prompting several viewers to then speak out in favor of animal rights (including one Paul McCartney, no less).

Careful attention was also given to the basic movements of the creatures involved, resulting in some effortless, breathtaking scenes (i.e. Bambi on ice).

In the end, it combines some of the best elements of any animated film listed here (memorable score and song, good story, likable lead, powerful exit of a major character) and fits it all into a concise, 70-minute narrative.


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    • Isabella King profile image

      Isabella King 14 months ago from Cincinnati, Ohio

      You include a lot of great animated movies! I particularly love Lady and the Tramp:) I do wonder whether some of these should be judged separately based on whether they are hand-drawn or computer animated. Great Hub:)