The Best (with Caveats) Animated Films

When you think animation, do you automatically think Disney, Pixar, Anime, Miyazaki, Studio Ghilbi and/or stop motion. Here are ten terrific examples that will broaden your perspective.

Perhaps a better title here would be The Best Non-Disney, Non -Pixar, Non-Anime, Non-Miyazaki, Non-Studio Ghilbi, Non-Stop Motion Animated Films of All Time. Yes, believe it or not, there are other offerings out there in the history of the artform other than the pen and ink (now mostly CG) spectacle of the House of Mouse, its computer supported partner, the fascinating finesse of the Japanese, and the entire Nightmare Before the Fantastic Mr. Fox frame-by-frame conceit. We would never know it, however. The merchandising machine built by Uncle Walt and his workers more or less covers the globe with its glad tidings, and the other studios in the system — Fox, Dreamworks, Paramount, etc. — can’t help but play Ice Age/Madagascar/How I Shreked Your Dragon catch-up. That just leaves the outsiders, the foreign entries and the independent wannabes who desperately hope your don’t mind a lack of Mickey, Minnie, Buzz, Woody, my neighbor Totorro or Porco Rosso in your latest trip to the cineplex.

As you can guess, we’ve specifically filtered out anything from the above listed entities. We haven’t completely left out the competition, but we’ve tried to steer away from those long standing franchises that have found more money than mirth in their constantly seasonal showcases. A few of our choices are outright classics sadly underrated by a lack of a convenient re-playable medium. Others are forgotten gems that few remembers (though we decided to leave off such standards as Gay Puree! and Hoppity Goes to Town/Mr. Bug Goes to Town). Then there are personal decisions, like whether or not to include Richard Williams’ unfinished masterwork, The Thief and the Cobbler (we didn’t). No matter. The 10 films represented here show why the artform itself is so magical and memorable. They may not live up to the high standards of their genre overall, but they each offer their own unique approach to one of the oldest entries in the entirety of film.

#10 – Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Film for Theaters

Unfortunately, few saw this amazing slice of surrealism. For others, their only memory is a reference to “[adult swim]” and the infamous marketing misfire that arrived when a street team campaign featuring neon signs was mistaken for a terrorist attack (no, seriously). No matter, as the movie itself stands on its own, a backwards badass reimagining of the successful TV series into a bizarro world combination of social commentary and aimless nonsequitors. Just beating out Rob Zombie’s intriguing update of a certain ’70s icon’s confrontational output, this is the cinematic version of Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, and we mean that in the best way possible.

#9 – Heavy Traffic

As mentioned before, Ralph Bakshi was a Me Decade maverick. While Disney was wallowing in the hallows of their own excess, this street savvy artist was taking questionable material — underground comic Fritz the Cat, the racially inflammatory Coonskin — and making it into animation for adults. Semi-autobiographical and utilizing the then hot arcade concept of pinball as a metaphor for life in the inner city, it was a critical hit but a commercial failure. This didn’t stop Bakshi from making other memorable efforts, including Wizards and his take on The Lord of the Rings, but this remains his best, most defining film.

#8 – Watership Down

Many a ’70s teenager found their psyche unequivocally damaged after reading Richard Adams’ heartbreaking book about anthropomorphized rabbits and the struggles within their secret society. Now imagine seeing your worst waking cute critter nightmares visualized on film, with said creatures facing undeniable horrors and hardships. It’s amazing we’re not an entire generation of serial killers. While grounded in classic folklore, the story also strives to be much more than a mere kiddie fable, and it is, to a fault. There is just something so unnerving about seeing these sweet, thoughtful beings threatened by the uncaring hand of Man. Like any great film, it’s both commanding and concerning.

#7 – The Triplets of Belleville

This unique, near silent movie, incorporating music and pantomime instead of dialogue, became a Awards Season phenomenon back in 2003 and it’s to see why. The story, about an older woman who must save her grandson, a Tour de France cyclist, from the French mafia with the help of some music hall performers (the title trio) is both a clever reminder of why animation excels where live action often stumbles as well as a reference to past foreign film classics, including those of the much loved Jacques Tati. Thanks to the unusual design and slightly surreal touches, it stands as a stellar cinematic statement.

#6 – Animal Farm

George Orwell’s mandatory missive on the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalinism is often misinterpreted by young minds as a reaction to Hitler and the Third Reich. Oddly enough, the author was compelled to write the novel after the Allies joined up with the Soviets to defeat Germany. Made by British artists who actually worked in the propaganda administration during the War, this engaging effort has the look and feel of a Soviet era recruitment offering, and the message remains loud and cruelly crystal clear. In fact, the film is so disturbing that some school districts ban its presentation to the innocent and impressionable.

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#5 – Persepolis

In an unusual move, especially for such a sensitive subject, Marjane Satrapi decided to describe her life in Iran before and after the Fall of the Shah and the rise of the Islamic Revolution in graphic novel form. The resulting comic became a sensation, so naturally, French filmmaker Vincent Paronnaud came along and, with Satrapi’s assistance, came up with an amazing motion picture adaptation. Similar to Waltz with Bashir, which also highlighted to horrors of war in the Middle East via brilliantly conceived cartooning, this film finds the humanity in the Hell that was growing up during the rise of religious fundamentalism. Truly inspired.

#4 – Allegro Non Troppo

Many have forgotten this film, especially given its foreign arthouse credentials and its lack of a legitimate DVD/Blu-ray release (at least, in this territory). But Bruno Bozzetto’s clever satire on Disney and all things Fantasia is just as compelling, and creative, as the omnibus inspiration from 35 years before. Of course, this being a parody, a certain level of humor can be found in its divergent sequences. There’s even a bit of heartbreak, especially a sequence involving a stray cat and its memories of being a beloved house pet. If any film on this list deserves to be rediscovered, it’s this former festival circuit fave.

#3 – South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut

So crude. So clever. So classic. This wasn’t the response many believed they’d have when it was announced that Trey Parker and Matt Stone wanted to take their curse-word characters from the stupid little podunk Colorado TV town and turn them loose on the big screen (well, maybe the first part of that alliterative triptych). This remains, hands down, one of the funniest and most insightful social commentaries ever committed to film. From how to handle your unruly children to blaming anyone else but the parents for their problems, the end result is a laugh riot that retains its meaning long after the shock has worn off.

#2 – Yellow Submarine

The Beatles were battling among themselves, so when it came time to complete their commitment to United Artists for a third film, they were less than enthusiastic. With the disappointing outcome of Magical Mystery Tour, the boys didn’t want to go live action again. They believed animation would best represent their new psychedelic ideas, and in the end, they were right. While their participation was rather limited, the outcome was a Summer of Love sensation, and a classic cartoon that would endure long after the band broke up and flower power turned sour. Even today, it’s Peter Max meets rotoscope revelry stands as an animation milestone.

#1 – The Iron Giant

One word: “Superman!” That’s all you really need to know about this early Brad Bird masterpiece. With a script approved by the book’s author Ted Hughes himself, and a brilliant use of Cold War era iconography, the fledgling filmmaker managed to find the right combination of heroism and heart, something he would excel at later on in efforts such as The Incredibles and Ratatouille. While he’s gone on to have a successful live action career, Bird’s work on this and his other animated films shows someone who clearly understands the artform. He is, indeed, the genre’s true purveyor of pen and ink perfection.