The world of animated films is beautiful. With the power of an artist’s tool and creativity, the impossible can be made real as audiences are transported to new and diverse worlds populated by unique characters. While it is sadly seen as a children’s medium today, the greatest animated movies can be enjoyed by all ages thanks to their timeless themes.
Animation evolved alongside cinema, beginning as shorts before exploding in 1937 with the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. While Disney continued to pioneer animated films across the 20th century, other companies also did their part in shaping the medium. Some of the all-time greatest animated efforts came out in the past century, with some standing the test of time to become icons of American cinema.
26 ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ (1996)
During the Festival of Fools, the hunchback Quasimodo (Tom Hulce) partakes in the festivities for the first time. This defies the orders of his adopted father, Frollo (Tony Jay), who refuses to help when the crowd turns on him. A Romani woman named Esmeralda (Demi Moore) takes pity on him, earning Frollo’s wrath while simultaneously becoming the object of his lust.
While not the biggest hit of the Disney Renaissance, The Hunchback of Notre Dameexcels in several ways. It captures the size and scale of Notre Dame through gorgeous angles and grand music. Frollo also ranks among Disney’s most evil villains thanks to his brutality and mastery of emotional manipulation.
25 ‘Fantastic Planet’ (1973)
On an alien planet are two species: the human-like Oms and the gigantic, blue-skinned Draag. Due to their psychic capabilities and superior technology, the Draag view Oms as pets at best and vermin at worst. One domestic Om named Terr (Eric Baugin/Mark Gruner and Jean Valmont/Barry Bostwick) learns from the Draag and tries to share his knowledge with wild Oms to improve their lives.
Fantastic Planet is among the weirdest animated movies, to be sure. It boasts some of the most trippy and creative visuals ever seen in an animated movie, best demonstrated when the Draag use their psychic abilities or when observing the truly alien wildlife. Its themes are heavy-hitting and mature, ranging from eugenics to genocide and the idea of a superior race ruling over others.
24 ‘Heavy Traffic’ (1973)
Michael Corleone (Joseph Kaufman) is an independent animator trying to make sense of a crazy world. While on a walk, he hooks up with a woman named Carole (Beverly Hope Atkinson), and the two begin planning their future. Unfortunately, their relationship draws the ire of Michael’s Mafioso father and Carole’s stalker.
Heavy Traffic offers a grim, hands-on look at the ground level of big city life. Around every corner is a new face of corruption, depravity, and disillusionment brought to life by legendary animator Ralph Bakshi. The film also uses a pinball as its framing device and metaphor for life’s unpredictability and the need for escape.
23 ‘The Secret of NIMH’ (1982)
As a farmer prepares to plow his field, a field mouse named Mrs. Brisby (Elizabeth Hartman) cannot move her family due to her youngest son catching pneumonia. Her quest to save him takes her into the lair of the Great Owl (John Carradine), who points her toward the rats in the farmer’s rosebush. She discovers that the rats have harnessed enhanced technology and are linked to her deceased husband, Johnathan.
Don Bluth created The Secret of NIMH to bring animation back to its Golden Era roots. The film certainly succeeds, evoking films like Snow White with its backgrounds and use of lighting and special effects. Its story is also a timeless and emotional tale about the power of motherhood and selfless courage.
22 ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (1995)
In 2029, technology has advanced to a point where humans can augment themselves with cybernetic enhancements and even connect to the internet. A mysterious being known as the Puppet Master uses this connection to hack into individuals and control their cybernetic bodies. A task force led by Major Motoko Kusanagi (Atsuko Tanaka/Mimi Woods) is tasked with tracking them down.
Along with its gorgeous animation, Ghost in the Shell presents numerous thought-provoking questions. Through the use of its cyborg characters, many of whom have human consciousness inside completely artificial bodies, it questions the nature of humanity and what it means to be alive. It also brought up numerous concerns regarding internet security, which has become all too relevant in today’s globalized world.
21 ‘The Prince of Egypt’ (1998)
A Hebrew woman saves her baby from genocide by sending him downriver, where he is found and adopted by the Pharaoh’s wife and named Moses (Val Kilmer). As a young man, Moses eventually learns the truth of his parentage and becomes chosen by God to rescue his people. This brings him into conflict with his adopted brother, Rameses (Ralph Fiennes).
The Prince of Egypt is perhaps DreamWorks’ best movie. It does a terrific job portraying a sense of grand scale through camera angles and lighting to bring this biblical story to life. It also focuses on the drama between Moses and Rameses’ brotherly bond and the harsh rivalry that spawns from their conflicting goals.
20 ‘American Pop’ (1981)
Following a pogrom that killed her husband, a Jewish woman and her son, Zalmie (Jeffrey Lippa), move to America. Zalmie becomes engrossed in vaudeville, which begins his family’s love of music and entertainment. However, personal tragedy also prevents them from making it big.
American Pop uses its powerful narrative to explore how every generation is affected by its predecessor. Each of Zalmie’s descendants faces different challenges due to their cultural landscape, and their actions have direct and far-reaching impacts on the next one. The film’s use of rotoscoping gives the characters more human-like movements, which helps it work as a window into the past.
19 ‘The Iron Giant’ (1999)
During the 1950s, an alien robot (Vin Diesel) arrives in the town of Rockwell, Maine. A young boy named Hogarth (Eli Marienthal) finds and befriends him after saving him from some power lines. With the help of a beatnik artist named Dean (Harry Connick Jr.), Hogarth tries to hide the giant from a government agent who fears it could be a deadly weapon.
While not a commercial success on release, The Iron Giant has been recognized as an underrated gem of animation. Its plot and character design harkens back to pulp fiction sci-fi stories, while its more modern characters add a surprising amount of heart and reliability. Dielsel’s performance as the giant is particularly noteworthy, as he gives the character lots of emotion in very little dialogue.
18 ‘Cinderella’ (1950)
Following her father’s death, Cinderella (Ilene Woods) becomes a servant to her stepmother, Lady Tremaine (Eleanor Audley). Despite her situation, she always makes time to look after the local animals, who help her finish a dress for the royal ball. After Tremaine ruins her gown, Cinderella’s fairy godmother steps in, granting her a new dress and a pair of glass slippers.
Cinderella was a massive return to form for Disney, departing from the package films of the Wartime Era and returning to grand fairytales and innovative animation. The backgrounds particularly stand out for their sharp angles and beautiful colors. Cinderella remains one of the best Disney Princesses thanks to her emphasis on helping others regardless of her situation.
17 ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ (1988)
The Kusakabe family moves to a new house closer to the hospital where their mother is recovering from an illness. To their surprise, there are many spirits who live in the surrounding wilderness. One of them, a large cat-like spirit named Totoro (Hitoshi Takagi/Frank Welker), befriends the young sisters, Satsuki (Noriko Hidaka/Lisa Michelson/Dakota Fanning) and Mei (Chika Sakamoto/Cheryl Chase/Elle Fanning).
The beauty of My Neighbor Totoro is in its simplicity. The plot is very laid back and focuses on the beauty of nature and the childlike wonder of exploration and making friends. All the spirits have iconic designs that have helped the film become internationally famous, from Totoro’s round, huggable belly to a cat that is also a bus. My Neighbor Totoro is among the best Studio Ghibli movies and a classic of 20th-century animation.
16 ‘Dumbo’ (1941)
Born into the life of a circus elephant, Dumbo experiences hardship due to his oversize ears. When his mother is locked up after rampaging to defend him from some mean children, Dumbo is ostracized by his fellow elephants. Fortunately, he meets a mouse named Timothy (Edward Brophy), who tries to help him become a star.
Dumbo is Disney’s best story about outcasts. It shows how important support groups are, both for building confidence and showing how one’s perceived weakness can be a strength. Dumbo also stands out as one of Disney’s most empathetic protagonists without saying a line, carried entirely by Bill Tytla’s legendary animation.
15 ‘Aladdin’ (1992)
On the streets of Agrabah, Aladdin (Scott Weinger) dreams of living in the lap of luxury, especially after meeting Princess Jasmine (Linda Larkin). The royal vizier, Jafar (Johnathan Freeman), coerces Aladdin to retrieve a magic lamp from the Cave of Wonders. Trapped inside the lamp is a genie (Robin Williams) who will grant the lamp’s holder three wishes.
Aladdin tells a heartfelt story about integrity and self-belief with gorgeous animation and hilarious comedy. Williams’ work as the Genie is legendary among animated films and went on to create the current landscape of celebrity voice actors. His relationship with Aladdin is one of Disney’s strongest due to their mutual respect and how they constantly prop the other up. Groundbreaking and featuring spectacular music, Aladdin is among the best movies of 1992.
14 ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989)
Ariel (Jodi Benson) is the youngest daughter of King Triton (Kenneth Mars), ruler of the sea. She is fascinated by human culture and regularly visits the surface world against her father’s wishes. After saving the life of Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes), Ariel falls in love with him, prompting the sea witch, Ursula (Pat Carroll), to exploit her naiveté and take control of the sea.
The Little Mermaid pulled Disney out of its Dark Age with its Broadway-styled musical numbers and gorgeous underwater world. Its characters are also among the Mouse House’s, especially the crab composer Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright). Ursula remains one of Disney’s top female villains thanks to her bombastic personality, creative use of magic, and Carroll’s wonderfully evil performance.
13 ‘Bambi’ (1942)
In a tranquil forest, a deer is born as the young prince. Named Bambi (Bobby Stewart, Donnie Dunagan and Hardie Albright), he makes friends with other young animals and grows up under the care of his mother (Paula Winslowe). Amidst his carefree youth, Bambi is taught to fear Man, the unseen danger that can kill any animal.
Bambi perfectly captures the look and feel of nature. The animation on the animals is pretty close to how they move in real life, and the backgrounds by Tyrus Wong are beautiful and mysterious, much like a natural forest. Its story is quite basic, following Bambi as he grows from child to adult and faces new challenges in the struggle to survive. However, there’s a timelessness to this coming-of-age journey that remains relatable eighty-plus years after its premiere.
12 ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ (1993)
In Halloween Town, the spooky residents spend all year planning how to frighten people come Halloween. Unfortunately, their leader, the Pumpkin King Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon), longs for something new. One day, he falls into Christmas Town and decides this year, he will take Christmas for Santa Claus (Ed Ivory).
The Nightmare Before Christmas revolutionized stop-motion films thanks to its dynamic camera angles, dramatic lighting, and fluid character movements. While only a modest success at the box office, it gained a cult following thanks to its macabre art style and memorable characters. Danny Elfman’s songs are also very memorable, with “This Is Halloween” becoming the holiday’s unofficial anthem.
11 ‘Princess Mononoke’ (1997)
Prince Ashitaka (Yōji Matsuda/Billy Crudup) kills a demon that threatens his village but is cursed by its touch. He sets out to find a cure from the enigmatic Forest Spirit before the curse consumes him. This gets him wrapped up in a conflict between humans and animal spirits fighting for control of the forest.
Princess Mononoke is a masterpiece of Japanese animation and storytelling. Its art style is among the most impressive in the medium thanks to its gorgeous backgrounds, complex creature design and the fluidity of its animation. Its story is also full of likable, multifaceted characters and a strong environmental message.
10 ‘Akira’ (1988)
Shōtarō Kaneda (Mitsuo Iwata/Cam Clarke/Johnny Yong Bosch) and his best friend Tetsuo Shima (Nozomu Sasaki/Jan Rabson/Joshua Seth) are part of a biker gang in the futuristic Neo-Tokyo. While fighting a rival gang, Tetsuo crashes into a child with psychic powers, which awakens his own. Fearing his powers could destroy the city, government forces try to neutralize Tetsuo while a resistance group recruits Kaneda.
Akirawas a landmark in animation, helping to increase the popularity of anime outside of Japan. Along with its beautiful animation, the film’s complex themes of absolute power, societal decay, and advanced technologies greatly impacted the science fiction and dystopian future genres. The scene of Kaneda sliding on his motorcycle has also become a commonly re-created image in countless animated movies and shows.
9 ‘Fantasia’ (1940)
While producing a new Mickey Mouse short, Walt Disney was inspired to make a film that combined Disney’s groundbreaking animation techniques with classical music. Leopold Stokowski was hired as the conductor, and Deems Taylor as the host. Disney’s animators then brought to life eight unique segments, some told through abstract images, others through detailed storytelling.
Fantasia is a truly unique and magical experience. The combination of beautiful animation and classical music results in a rich emotional experience, from whimsical moments of fun and beauty to emotional lows of atrophy and ruin. Fantasia’s now-iconic closing segment, “Night on Bald Mountain,” contrasts images of ghosts, demons, and hellfire with the calm, soothing chorus of “Ave Maria,” resulting in one of the most striking and unforgettable sequences in the medium.
8 ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (1959)
Because she wasn’t invited to the christening of Princess Aurora (Mary Costa), the evil fairy Maleficent (Eleanor Audley) places a curse that will kill her by age 16. The good fairy, Merryweather (Barbara Luddy), changes the curse to put her in an enchanted sleep, then takes Aurora into hiding in the woods with fellow fairies Flora (Verna Felton) and Fauna (Barbara Jo Allen). Unfortunately, Maleficent’s evil is not so easily thwarted.
Sleeping Beauty is one of the most gorgeously stylized animated films ever made. The rich colors and angular designs are evocative of a medieval tapestry, and when combined with its musical choice, it sucks viewers into the fairytale world. Maleficent also stands out as perhaps Disney’s best villain thanks to her iconic design and plethora of dark magical powers.
7 ‘Toy Story’ (1995)
Woody (Tom Hanks) is the favorite toy of a young boy named Andy (John Morris) and acts as the leader of his fellow toys. This changes when Andy receives a Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), who thinks he is a real space ranger. The other toys begin to flock toward Buzz, making Woody jealous.
Toy Story broke new ground by being the first fully computer-animated film. Beyond its technical achievements, its story is relatable and full of memorable characters and quotable dialogue. Woody and Buzz’s development from rivals to close friends is among the best in animation, featuring engaging themes about identity and acceptance.
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