The Top Tens: Top Animated Films

Every month, our contributors submit lists of ten films fitting certain topics. Each month, we feature an alphabetical list of films along with commentary explaining our selections. There will also be an itemized list at the end of each of our individual selections.

This month, we chose to look at animated films. There are a wide variety of them out there, though the animation output has only ramped up in the last three decades. We have each taken a different approach to forming our lists, though they are surprisingly common. While most of us chose strictly animated films, Thomas decided to throw a couple of combined animation/live-action films into the mix.

Of the films that appeared on multiple lists, Beauty and the Beast is the only film to appear on all four lists. Toy Story and Spirited Away each showed up on three lists while Up, Toy Story 2, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, WALL-E, and The Wind Rises were on two each. For directors, Hayao Miyazaki is the most represented with three films on the list. Directors with two titles include Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise, David Hand, Ben Sharpsteen, John Lasseter, Hamilton Luske, and Lee Unkrich.

After the break, dig into our setups and follow that by reading about each film.

The Introductions

Wesley Lovell: This was incredibly tough to lock down. I look at animation in terms of both animation quality and story quality and these ten I selected exemplify that. I had put a number of films on the list from Disney, Pixar, Studio Ghibli, Aardman, and Laika. In the end, I left off several movies that deserve recognition, but won’t fit onto a top ten list including Disney’s Mulan, The Princess and the Frog, and Wreck-It Ralph; Pixar’s Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3, The Incredibles, A Bug’s Life, and Inside Out; Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service; Aardman’s Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Chicken Run; Laika’s Coraline and ParaNorman; and a few from other studios who aren’t always known for the best animated output with films like Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. I didn’t really look at mixed animation/live-action films, though some of my favorites include Mary Poppins, Bedknobs & Broomsticks, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Peter J. Patrick: For more than fifty years, beginning in 1937, Disney was the only real game in town when it came to animation, but Disney’s masterpieces – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi were all made before I was born. All through my childhood and well into adulthood, nothing Disney nor any other studio did with animation was half as thrilling. Then came The Little Mermaid in 1989, the first of the animated musicals with a full musical theatre style score, followed two years later by the pinnacle of the genre, Beauty and the Beast. Four years after that came Pixar’s Toy Story and five years later the masterpiece of the Japanese anime Studio Ghibli, Spirited Away. After that the floodgates opened, and animation was no longer something just to keep the kids amused.
Tripp Burton: This was a hard list to put together, especially if you don’t want to just list all your favorite Disney and Pixar films.
Thomas LaTourrette: I lean more towards the modern films when I went to make up this list. That probably has something to do with seeing them on the big screen rather than on a television. The modern Disney and Pixar films just grab me in ways that many of the older Disney films did not often do. Perhaps the superior graphics or the not having a slightly grating woman’s voice in the lead lean me towards the more recent work. I do have a couple of older films in the list, and one short one, so it isn’t just the most recent films here. It is an art form I enjoy, but one that when I went to list my favorites was harder to fill out than I expected.

Bambi (1942)

(dir. David Hand) Commentary By: Peter J. Patrick – The darkest of the early Disney masterpieces, generations of kids could trace their first filmic taste of what the adult world was like to the scene in which the hunter shoots Bambi’s mother.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

(dir. Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise) Commentary By: Wesley Lovell – This was the second first-run animated film I ever saw in the theater. While I’d seen several Disney classics previously, The Rescuers was the first modern Disney that I caught and this was the second, missing The Little Mermaid and Aladdin immediately prior. I have since seen all but one Disney animated film ever made and among all of them, this is the only one of only a small number that remain unparalleled. An elegant fairy tale told beautifully with lush visuals and a marvelous score. There’s a reason it was the first animated film nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. It also remains one of the best.

Commentary By: Peter J. Patrick – Tale as old as time, song as old rhyme, animation combined with great storytelling and magnificent music brought a new grandeur to the genre.

Commentary By: Tripp Burton – Perhaps the most adult film that Disney ever put together, dealing with emotions in such a mature yet accessible way, Beauty and the Beast feels as fresh and vibrant today as it did more than a quarter century ago. This is a film that works as a kids fantasy, a comedy, a full blown musical, and a heartbreaking romance. It is some of the most beautiful hand drawn animation of all time and a timeless classic.

Commentary By: Thomas La Tourrette – There was a reason that this was the first fully animated film to be nominated for Best Picture. Swirling graphics, strong voice work, and an Oscar-winning score definitely helped. I heard it received a standing ovation when it was shown to the New York critics in unfinished form as they had never seen anything like it, especially the swooping camera work that played over the title song as the two main characters danced.

Dumbo (1941)

(dir. Ben Sharpsteen) Commentary By: Peter J. Patrick – Elephants can fly, obstacles can be overcome and dreams can come true. A deceptively simple tale, it’s easily the most inspiring of the early Disney masterpieces.

Fantasia (1940)

(dir. None Credited) Commentary By: Wesley Lovell – The third full-length animated film Disney ever produced turned out to be its most original and certainly it’s most memorable. With stunning visuals set to a handful of classical music pieces, the entire film brims with energy and elegance, fusing itself into the memories of all children who see it and reminding us that while animation can be used to tell a story, it can also be used to create an emotional response through imagery even without a narrative backing.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

(dir. Wes Anderson) Commentary By: Tripp Burton – Wes Anderson took only the most superficial pieces of Roald Dahl’s children’s book — most of the characters, the basic plot, and a few moments — and turned it into a far deeper, wilder, and more personal animated masterpiece. This is a Wes Anderson film through and through, although it also keeps Dahl’s sense of humor and worldview intact. As funny as it is touching, with a lot to say and some wonderfully creative ways to say them.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

(dir. Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise) Commentary By: Wesley Lovell – Disney had produced some of the 1990s biggest hits when it decided to tackle a hefty tome by Victor Hugo. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a haunting, heavy novel had been filmed at several points in film history and its dark tones seemed ill-fitting for Disney, unless you think back to the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in Fantasia. A sometimes light, sometimes dark score helped anchor a film that saw its protagonist fight between light and darkness in an evocative and compelling way. Using lust as a villainous vice was new territory for Disney, but they executed it with finesse and potency. It also served up one of the greatest animated sequences in history with the “Hellfire” number.

The Jungle Book (1967)

(dir. Wolfgang Reitherman) Commentary By: Tripp Burton – The last film that Walt Disney produced before his death, The Jungle Book feels like the culmination of everything he and his studio had worked towards the previous three decades. It features many of Disney’s greatest voice actors, it features one of the most eclectic and memorable ensemble of characters, features two of the most iconic Disney songs of all time, and fills the screen with bold colors, sharp angles, and a sense of joy and excitement that most films can only dream of reaching.

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

(dir. Travis Knight) Commentary By: Wesley Lovell – The most recent Laika release also happens to be its grandest. Set againts the backdrop of a young boy’s adventure to protect his mother and himself from her father and sisters, Kubo must find courage and passion to defeat his enemies. In stop-motion animation, detail is an important aspect to any narrative, but with Kubo, the richness in design was so resplendent that the wonderful story was fully embellished by it. Unparalleled in its visual creativity, done only limitedly with computer graphics, Kubo is a later-year masterpiece of story and style.

Lady and the Tramp (1955)

(dir. Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske) Commentary By: Thomas La Tourrette – A classic love story of love triumphing over social class makes this one a winner. Yes it is overtly sentimental, but the scene of the two dogs eating spaghetti while being sung to is also a charming memory that everyone takes away from the film. The two Siamese cats scared me so much as a child that I am amazed that I have overcome that fear to have ones in my life for the past 29 years. It is not a deep film, but it is a fun one.

The Lego Movie (2014)

(dir. Phil Lord & Christopher Miller) Commentary By: Tripp Burton – When it came out, The Lego Movie felt like a jolt of fresh energy, not only because it was a great movie, but because it has no right to be great, or even decent. This was a stupid idea made brilliant by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, and it has more jokes packed into every square inch of film than perhaps any other film in Hollywood history. The fact that it says something interesting, even in a muddled way, is only icing on the giant brick cake.

The Little Mermaid (1989)

(dir. Ron Clements & John Musker) Commentary By: Thomas La Tourrette – I view this as the first of the renewed Disney classics. Bright colors and a wonderful feeling of the underwater scenes set it apart from earlier work by the studio. It does contain a good villain to offset the wishful princess, but what makes it work best is the music. It had two songs nominated for the Oscar, winning for one, but the score itself was also an Oscar winner with reason. It was a charmer that heralded in the rebirth of the Disney animated film.

Loving Vincent (2017)

(dir. Dorota Kobiela & Hugh Welchman) Commentary By: Peter J. Patrick – A prime example of the many uses of animation as hand-painted oil frames by more than 100 artists combine to unravel the mystery of Vincent van Gogh’s last days.

Mary Poppins (1964)

(dir. Robert Stevenson) Commentary By: Thomas La Tourrette – This remains one of my all-time favorite films. The animation is only in parts of the film, but is so key to its success that I feel I can include it here. Leaping into pictures and having a “Jolly Holiday with Mary” brought a smile to me as a child and still does as an adult. Whether riding off on carousel horses, dancing with penguins, or singing “Supercalifragilisticexpealidocious,” the animated world of Mary Poppins was truly magical.

Perspolis (2007)

(dir. Vincent Paronnaud & Marjane Satrapi) Commentary By: Peter J. Patrick – An irreverent look at the Islamic Revolution as seen through the eyes of a young girl. This was one of the first, and still best, of the modern animated films to explore adult themes.

Commentary By: Tripp Burton – If you read Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel that Persepolis is based on, you are amazed as to how closely, both in writing and drawing, the film sticks to the source material. That doesn’t negate any of the pure power of this Iranian coming-of-age story, nor the accomplishment that Satrapi and animator Vincent Parranoud have achieved.

Pinocchio (1940)

(dir. Hamilton Luske & Ben Sharpsteen) Commentary By: Peter J. Patrick – One of only two of the early Disney masterpieces I saw on the big screen as a child in one of its many revivals. It still brings a smile to my face when I see it now with all my old memories.

Princes Mononoke (1997)

(dir. Hayao Miyazaki) Commentary By: Wesley Lovell – This was the first Hayao Miyazaki film I had ever seen not long before Spirited Away, and while that film was special for other reasons, Princess Mononoke was a kindred spirit, a potent journey of one young girl’s attempt to come of age against a dangerous backdrop. Filled with gorgeous animation, Princess Mononoke remains a high water mark for Miyazaki, the man often referred to as the Japanese Disney, but whose legacy stands apart from and on equal footing to the man he’s often compared favorably to.

Ratatouille (2007)

(dir. Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava) Commentary By: Wesley Lovell – Pixar had been churning out popular films for some time, but many of them had conventional, if exceptional, protagonists. Ratatouille took the studio in a different and far more unique direction than anyone thought possible. The story of a rat who helps a human become one of the world’s greatest chefs was a masterful creation of energy and narrative. While it might be easy to downplay this film’s position within the Pixar cosmos, it is certainly one of its most inventive and deserves as much recognition as some of its more famous features.

Ryan (2004)

(dir. Chris Landreth) Commentary By: Thomas La Tourrette – This is an animated documentary that won the Oscar for best animated short in 2004. It is about an Academy Award-winning Canadian animator who was then living on skid row in Montreal due to drug and alcohol abuse. It has striking animation where parts of heads and faces are missing. These are to show the metaphorical emotional scars and frustrations. It captures a sense of depression in a way that I have ever seen done in any art form. It is a small masterpiece that should be seen by everyone.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

(dir. David Hand) Commentary By: Peter J. Patrick – The other early Disney masterpiece I saw on the big screen as a child in one of its many revivals. The one that started it all has been surpassed in style, but not in its genuine sweetness.

Commentary By: Tripp Burton – Sometimes the first try is one of the greatest, and with their first shot at a full-length animated film, Walt Disney and his studio made a film that they have rarely ever matched or topped again. As simple as the story and images they paint here might seem, there is a hidden depth to everything on screen and a terror that infuses every moment that has rarely been matched in a children’s film.

Song of the South (1946)

(dir. Wilfred Jackson & Harve Foster) Commentary By: Thomas La Tourrette – It has been so long since I have seen this film, that I thought about not including it here. The mix of animation and live action worked really well, and James Baskett made a fine Uncle Remus. And the stories of Br’er Rabbit outwitting his enemies I remember being delightful. Disney has refused to re-release it due to controversy over whether it sugarcoats the Reconstruction Era south, but I just remember enjoying it.

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)

(dir. Trey Parker) Commentary By: Thomas La Tourrette – Most other films on my list boast stellar graphics, which this one very much does not have. Considering I always found the TV series humorous, but not much more than that, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the film. It is raucous, ribald, and yet thought provoking. It also boasts a surprisingly good score, anchored by the Oscar-nominated “Blame Canada.” It has held up quite well too.

Spirited Away (2001)

(dir. Hayao Miyazaki) Commentary By: Wesley Lovell – In one film, Hayao Miyazaki became one of my favorite artists of all time. I generally dismiss anime as its animation style isn’t appealing to me, but at the core of Miyazaki’s films about growing up, there’s a wonderful energy, an adventurousness and creativity that rivals any film ever made, even live-action ones. This simple story is elegantly animated, bristling with creative excitement, and is ultimately revelatory not only with a child’s coming of age, but with the struggles in maintaining that innocence once in adulthood.

Commentary By: Peter J. Patrick – The pinnacle of the Studio Ghibli films by Hayao Miyazaki about a ten-year-old girl’s move to the Japanese suburbs and the world it opens up for her. Mythical and magical, it’s superb.

Commentary By: Tripp Burton – Hayao Miyazaki is the greatest director of animated films of all time, and Spirited Away is my favorite of all the masterpieces he has put out. As wildly imaginative a ride as has ever been captured on film, with memorable set pieces and characters consistently rolling on screen, it is also one of the most moving portraits of childhood and love I have ever seen in an animated film. There is not one bad step in this film.

Toy Story (1995)

(dir. John Lasseter) Commentary By: Peter J. Patrick – A refreshing mix of animation, genuine wit, and simple child’s humor, the formula has been copied many times over but never as well as in the original.

Commentary By: Tripp Burton – Pixar burst onto the scene with their first computer animated film, and as technically innovative as Toy Story is, they found a story and a group of characters that deserve those innovations. This is a film that does what great animation should: create a world that couldn’t really exist, consistently surprise us at every twist and turn, and let it all resonate with the child inside all of us.

Commentary By: Thomas La Tourrette – The first film of the series seemed so realistic. Who knew how far graphics were going to go by the time the third one came out. The feelings between an old cherished toy and a new snazzier one set the scene for this film. Instead of fighting with each other, they learn to respect each other and work together. It was a sweet movie with a definite moral.

Toy Story 2 (1999)

(dir. John Lasseter, Ash Brannon & Lee Unkrich) Commentary By: Tripp Burton – Sequels are notoriously tricky and Pixar made one of the great ones with Toy Story 2 (and another with Toy Story 3 that almost made my list). This is a film that widens the Toy Story world and deepens the characters in it, while also being outrageously funny and clever. It also contains a sequence, backed by “When She Loved Me,” that remains on the great tear jerking moments in all of cinema history.

Toy Story 3 (2010)

(dir. Lee Unkrich) Commentary By: Thomas La Tourrette – The second Toy Story was good, but I was floored at how brilliant the third one was. The graphics had improved immensely and they kept the story fresh. Of course there were frightening escapes when all seemed lost, but the whole film dealt with the bittersweet moving on of life. The toys’ owner Andy is getting ready to head off to college and is trying to figure out what to do with his toys. They eventually get given to a young girl and there was hardly a dry eye in the house by the end of the movie. I know they are making another sequel, but it is hard to know how they will improve on this one.

Up (2009)

(dir. Pete Docter & Bob Peterson) Commentary By: Wesley Lovell – Of the films that are considered part of the glory days of Pixar, Up was another feature in the more adult-friendly group of films that characterized the period. This one featured a miserly old man going on a journey, escaping to a world he and his late wife had only ever dreamed of. While there was a young Boy Scout and a talking dog along for the ride, this exceptional film explored adulthood and the desire to relive our younger days. It also featured one of the single most haunting, touching, and emotional opening sequences in cinema history.

Commentary By: Peter J. Patrick – A constantly surprising delight, this is the pinnacle of the Pixar films to date in which the time-tested tale of the old and young having something to teach one another holds sway.

WALL-E (2008)

(dir. Andrew Stanton) Commentary By: Wesley Lovell – At the height of Pixar’s legacy, a series of original films captured the imaginations and hearts of all who saw them. While Pixar had been largely known for its kid-friendly films with somewhat adult themes, WALL-E was the second, and perhaps most successful, to dig fully into adult-friendly messages. In an opening where no words are spoken, Pixar paid homage to the silent era of film while impressing the audience with marvelous visuals and the story of a lonely robot falling in love. There were many other messages in the film, including anti-consumerism, anti-pollution, and pro-healthy lifestyles, and all of those concepts were brought together with style and grace.

Commentary By: Tripp Burton – The first thirty minutes of Wall-E, with no dialogue and little story, remain one of the most amazing experiences I have had in a movie theatre. The rest of the film might feel a bit more familiar, but it is still a thrilling adventure and one of the best films from one of the best studios of all time.

The Wind Rises (2013)

(dir. Hayao Miyazaki) Commentary By: Wesley Lovell – Hayao Miyazaki’s purported final film is also the film that most exemplifies and finalizes his legacy. This surprisingly adult-oriented narrative finds a young boy growing up into the war machine, wanting nothing more than to create planes, but being forced to create aircraft capable of delivering death. It’s Miyazaki’s most political film ever, but it more capably parallels Miyazaki’s own journey as a filmmaker. His films are about coming of age and this film is about reaching adulthood and leaving behind childish things to some extent. As his final film, that theme is all the more pointed and poignant.

Commentary By: Thomas La Tourrette – Hayao Miyazaki directed many of the films for Studio Ghibli. They often were slightly surreal with witches, ghosts and fairies. I was unprepared for his final film, which was a mostly serious one about an airplane designer. It is both a conventional love story between a man and a woman, but also between a man and his love for planes and designing them. Most of the planes he designed ended up being used for service in WWII, which dispirits him, but he does realize that the world is better for his planes. It is a quiet, lyrical, and lovely film.

Wesley’s List

Peter’s List

Tripp’s List

Thomas’ List

  • Beauty and the Beast
  • Fantasia
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame
  • Kubo and the Two Strings
  • Princes Mononoke
  • Ratatouille
  • Spirited Away
  • Up
  • WALL-E
  • The Wind Rises
  • Bambi
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • Dumbo
  • Loving Vincent
  • Perspolis
  • Pinocchio
  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
  • Spirited Away
  • Toy Story
  • Up
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • Fantastic Mr. Fox
  • The Jungle Book
  • The Lego Movie
  • Persepolis
  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
  • Spirited Away
  • Toy Story
  • Toy Story 2
  • WALL-E
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • Lady and the Tramp
  • The Little Mermaid
  • Mary Poppins
  • Ryan
  • Song of the South
  • South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut
  • Toy Story
  • Toy Story 3
  • The Wind Rises

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