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  • Writer's pictureM.H. Barton

Best Animated Films

Greetings, intrepid readers! M. H. Barton here with another blog on the art and craft of storytelling. Apologies for the three-month absence. A combination of potty training a three-year-old and playing The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom ate up much of my writing time. But now, I’m back. I may shift to only blogging monthly instead of biweekly, but we’ll see how it goes.

Today, I wanted to take a look at one of my favorite movie types out there: animated films. Specifically, I’ll be ranking my ten animated films of all time. Now, animation has been around for more than a century, but the benchmark for what makes a great animated film has changed over time, especially as animation techniques have evolved. Accordingly, the animated features in this list all come from the last 35 years. That is meant as no disrespect to the older animated films, which built the foundation on which modern animation stands. Rather, it’s a simple admission of fact that storytelling in animation has grown by leaps and bounds since the art form’s humble beginnings. Again, this is simply my opinion, so feel free to disagree. Anyway, you know how this works by now. On with the show!

Number Ten: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

I’ll start off the list with probably the greatest film made purely with stop-motion animation. While stop-motion was nothing new, having been used in some form before even hand-drawn animation, the technique had never been used to this scale until Tim Burton’s 1993 classic. Innovative doesn’t begin to describe the film and story, though the Walt Disney Company was nervous enough that it released it under the Touchstone logo, rather than as an official Disney film. After all, where previous stop-motion outings usually involved kid-friend “Claymation” stories, as seen in the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials, this new take on stop-motion told a story that was equal parts whimsical and creepy. Still, it wasn’t just the animation that made this film so amazing. The story is well-written, the songs are surprisingly catchy, and the voice cast is absolutely stellar, even if not filled with A-list actors. Nightmare definitely grabs you from the get-go with its eye-popping visuals, but it’s the surprisingly heartwarming story of “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” that lands it on this list.

Number Nine: How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

DreamWorks Animation has frequently been seen as a second banana to Disney, but when they get it right, they really get it right. With respect to a certain green ogre, I believe this film is their crowning achievement in storytelling. With an excellent cast that includes Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, and Gerard Butler, it was easy for DreamWorks to immerse the audience in a fantasy world populated by Vikings and dragons. But even with the massive advancements in CGI animation by 2010, the strength of this film is the down-to-earth story lurking beneath the stunning visuals. We first think it will be a father-son story between Baruchel’s Hiccup and Butler’s Stoick, but the story soon veers off in a direction of discovery and friendship between Hiccup and a fearsome young dragon named Toothless. This budding friendship serves the story extremely well, as Hiccup’s awkward tendencies play well with the cat-like behaviors Toothless displays. The story’s tension ramps up dramatically when Hiccup decides to try and change the way his fellow Vikings view dragons, leading to a dazzling and emotional climax. DreamWorks has always known how to tug at the heartstrings with its stories, and this gem is a prime example.

Number Eight: Beauty and the Beast (1991)

The first official Disney film on the list, Beauty and the Beast is often acclaimed as one of the best of the Disney Renaissance era. While The Little Mermaid began the Renaissance, this is the film that perfected Disney’s formula. Not only is it probably the best princess fairy tale in Disney’s library, but it also received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. This was unheard of for animated films, especially with there being no award for Best Animated Picture at that time. The film features amazing visuals which combine hand-drawn scenes with bits of CGI, some of the best Disney songs of all time, and perfectly realized characters that fit the story’s style. Seriously, Beast and Gaston are a wonderful juxtaposition of outer beauty versus inner beauty. And I haven’t even gotten to Belle, a heroine who is one of the best role models of all the Disney princesses. Kind, well-read, and patient to a fault, Belle is everything an animated heroine aspires to be. There’s not much else to say about this film. It was an easy choice for this ranking.

Number Seven: Toy Story (1995)

Talk about breaking the mold! The maiden voyage for Pixar Studios was a smash success, being the first entirely CGI animated film. Though the graphics are a little dated by modern standards, Woody and Buzz Lightyear are such an iconic pair of characters that it hardly matters. The perfect voice cast only sells this movie further, headlined by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen. The story is heartwarming, the humor is spot-on, and even the music fits the tone of the film. For a movie that was so experimental at the time, it managed to succeed in so many ways, establishing the vital tropes that have made Pixar into one of the top animation studios of all time. All of their headier stories couldn’t have existed but for Toy Story. To infinity and beyond!

Number Six: Princess Mononoke (1997)

Japanese animation is almost its own category of visuals and storytelling, but a few examples are so universally beloved that they transcend national borders. The films of Studio Ghibli are the preeminent examples of this. In addition, there are poor souls out there who believe animated films are only for kids. I always point them to this Hayao Miazaki masterpiece as proof of the contrary. This gritty, violent fantasy adventure does so many impossible things flawlessly. The protagonist, Ashitaka, is tortured yet likable. He stumbles into a war over complex environmental issues in which both sides can seem sympathetic and detestable at the same time. Different types of antagonists present conflicting obstacles for the protagonist to overcome – Minnie Driver’s portrayal of Lady Eboshi is a particular standout. And just when all hope seems lost, Ashitaka uses all he has learned on his journey to bring about an end to the war and a somewhat positive outcome for the various factions. Miazaki manages to tightrope-walk many difficult lines in this story, yet he does so with amazing grace and poetry. He tackles complex and controversial themes in such a way that the story speaks to viewers of all backgrounds and philosophical bends. That is the true mark of a master, and this isn’t even the last Miazaki film on this list. (This was almost a ranking of Studio Ghibli films. Let me know if you’d be interested in that ranking!)

Number Five: Coco (2017)

One of my favorite stories of all time, Coco is a brilliant fantasy reimagining of the Mexican Day of the Dead. Interestingly, this is the only Pixar film to actually be a musical, something they usually leave for official Disney releases. But for the story that’s being told, it couldn’t be any other way. Music is such an important part of this story, featuring a boy who desperately wants to be a mariachi singer despite his music-hating family. The music further contributes to the story’s themes of family, redemption, and what it means to be remembered after death, creating a magical setting unlike anything I’ve ever seen. And that climax. Seriously, if the final scene between Miguel and Coco doesn’t make you cry, you don’t have a soul. This is musical storytelling at its absolute finest.

Number Four: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Multiverse movies are very popular here in 2023, but so few of them get it right. This one, however, does nearly everything right, despite my initial reaction to the trailer. It was a heady concept, a film starring a Spider-Man not named Peter Parker and having him team up with other non-Peter Parker Spider-People from other universes. I never thought it could have widespread appeal, but was I ever wrong. Oh, and the animation style is so different from anything else out there, be it CGI or hand-drawn animation. It looks like a literal comic book come to life. The fact that it caught on and became arguably the best multiverse story ever put to film is such an achievement, and it did it by focusing on character growth before multiverse gimmicks. This isn’t a story about the multiverse. This is a story about Miles, the other Spider-People, and how they deal with their vast differences after the multiverse forces them together. Characters and stories always come first in successful stories, no matter the medium. This film could make the case to be the best superhero movie of them all, if not for…

Number Three: The Incredibles (2004)

Pixar has reached some incredible (hah) heights through the years, but none have equaled this triumph, at least in my mind. As with Spider-Verse, this is a superhero movie more focused on the people behind the masks than their heroic personas. Bob and Helen Parr are just iconic as a married couple trying to raise three kids after being forced to retire from superheroing. Syndrome is one of the best movie villains of all time, in my opinion – a fanboy gone bad. Supporting roles from Samuel L. Jackson and director Brad Bird are glorious. (Where’s my super suit?!) This film celebrates, subverts, and pokes fun at the famous tropes from superhero films as well as family dramas. Hell, the big fight against the Omnidroid features the family literally passing a remote control back and forth! But what makes this film special is that Pixar heart. Bob is strong enough to move buildings, but not to face the chance of losing his family. Helen can stretch in so many super ways, but not when it comes to her marriage. Even with the MCU and the Dark Knight trilogy, this film might still be the best superhero movie ever made and definitely earns its crown as Pixar’s masterpiece.

Number Two: Spirited Away (2001)

While I may prefer Princess Mononoke, I have no trouble admitting the objective truth that this film is Hayao Miazaki’s greatest achievement. He’s an amazing storyteller, able to balance the fantastic and the subtle all at once, often in the same scene! While the type of fantasy story told in this film does feel familiar, being reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, the stunning visuals and strong themes put it in a class all its own. Loss of innocence, knowing oneself, temperance, consumerism, the environment, and ancient Japanese traditions all feature in some capacity throughout the narrative. That seems like it would be too much weight for any one story to bear, but Miazaki handles it effortlessly in a story that’s just as enjoyable and fun as it is deep and poetic. I can’t say enough about this tour de force. If one only watches a single piece of Japanese animation in one’s entire life, it must be this one.

Before my number one pick, let’s do a few…

Honorable Mentions

Shrek (2001)

It took DreamWorks a bit to find its footing, but it finally struck gold with this subversive fairy tale. I’m not a big fan of this one personally, but I can definitely admit how important and influential it was for animated films as they moved into the new millennium. And the vocal performances by Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy are often praised as some of the best in the history of animation.

Despicable Me (2010)

As an adoptive dad myself, I had to include this gem of a film. Easily the best film Illumination has ever produced, (Though Mario might have something to say about that) this one took the popular trope of “villain becomes a hero” and perfected it. Megamind and Wreck-It Ralph are both great, but neither can top Felonius Gru and his three adorable adopted daughters.

Aladdin (1992)

Growing up in the 90s, Aladdin was my main man! Yes, I’m biased, but this film is also considered by many to be one of the best of the Disney Renaissance. Not to mention it features the single greatest voice acting job of all time in Robin Williams bringing the Genie of the Lamp to life. Rest in peace, Robin. Rest in peace.

Up (2009)

Pixar has always known how to bring out the feels, but this one is something else altogether. Beware the first fifteen minutes of this gorgeous story. Not for those with a weak constitution, especially if you’re a romantic like me. Nonetheless, this tale of adventure, redemption, and second chances is up there in the pantheon of Pixar greats.

Fantasia (1940)

The only old film I’m including, largely because I’m a classical music buff. This was such a cool concept, setting famous symphonies and concertos to Disney animated shorts. I just wish they had managed to keep to their original plan of updating it with new segments every ten years or so. Alas.

With that, let’s reveal the winner.

Number One: The Lion King (1994)

Could it have been anything else? As I made this list, I found that Spirited Away was the only real threat to unseat Disney’s crown jewel. It was a very close call, but an American like me is usually going to give the edge to this one. While the film has detractors claiming it to be overrated, (Some say it rips off Kimba the White Lion) I’m in the camp that believes it absolutely lives up to the hype. The story and characters are downright Shakespearean, carrying a striking number of similarities to Hamlet. And the cast. My god, the cast is spectacular. Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Matthew Broderick as Simba, James Earl Jones as Mufasa, Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) as Zazu, Nathan Lane as Timon, and Jeremy Irons as the greatest Disney villain of them all, Scar. Hell, we even get Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings as the bumbling henchmen! There was not a hair out of place as Disney crafted this film, from the voices and animation to the legendary score from Tim Rice, Elton John, and Hans Zimmer. It’s no wonder this is one of the most popular of Disney’s films for derivations, be it TV shows, sequels, prequels, remakes, or one of the best Broadway stage musicals I’ve ever seen in my life. All of these things speak to the universal story of growth Disney tells in this incredible movie. Through the long history of animated storytelling, this film remains the gold standard. Simba’s epic adventure is truly king.

And that’s going to do it for this ranking. Animation really is a unique storytelling medium and one that I’m always happy to explore in depth. Of course, I’d love to know what you think. Did I hit the mark? Miss any big ones? Feel free to let me know in the comments or reach out directly, especially if you have any ideas or requests for future entries. I’ve got an active running list of ideas, but I’m always open to more. I’d appreciate it if you’d leave a like and share this post on social media. And to stay up to date on future blog posts, you can sign up for my monthly newsletter on my website. Until the next story!

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