Animation is the medium that perhaps most frequently divides viewers and critics. In the American history of film and television, animation has often been associated with innocence and silliness. But films like Toy Story, Spirited Away, and The Nightmare Before Christmas are as much for adults as they are for children. Animation has a creative beauty that allows the filmmakers and storytellers to work outside of the confines of live-action film making.
To honor the rich history of animated feature film making over the years, I have chosen 50 animated films that have had some of the greatest cultural impact on adults and children alike.
50. World of Tomorrow (2015)
The best parts of World of Tomorrow occur when Adult Emily leads Emily Prime on a space-time odyssey full of colors and shapes that evoke Kubrick’s Jupiter Space sequence in 2001: a space odyssey. My favorite moment is when Emily Prime sees a vibrant shade of pink shoot across the screen and she exclaims with pride and glee, “That’s a pink one!”
What Hertzfeldt has done most importantly is take Adult Emily’s very serious narrative of “where we are headed” and hold it up against Emily Prime’s very joyful narrative of “where we are.” We walk away asking, is it possible that the four-year-old has a better grasp on what it means to be fully human in this ever changing, shifting, breaking world than the successful, ‘well-adjusted’ adult? I certainly think so.
I finished Hertzfeldt’s newest animated short film and felt grateful. Films that evoke a deep sense of gratitude are some of the best you can encounter. So, see Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow (it’s currently streaming on Netflix). You might walk away with a sense of gratitude, awe, wonder, and “childlike faith” that, it turns out, we need to survive the cruelty of our world.
49. Extraordinary Tales (2013)
Raul Garcia’s Extraordinary Tales is a stunning and haunting interpretation of some of Edgar Allen Poe’s greatest works. Where it falls short with its crude, boxy CGI elements, it makes up for in voice casting and absolutely exquisite animation that resembles water-color painting and an old comic strip. The rich-voiced Christopher Lee narrates Poe’s fantastic The Fall of the House of Usher which looks like it was animated by a video game designer who failed out of college. But Lee’s voice and the pacing and music add just the right dark “spice” to mask the silly animation of Roderick Usher and Frederick.
The incomparable Bela Lugosi narrates my favorite Poe story, The Tell Tale Heart, adding Draculian flair to this monument of psychological terror. The black and white images and “snap, crackle, pop” old audio of Lugosi’s voice create the perfect container for this story. Short, dark, and sweet, it is Poe’s best and Garcia treats it with dignity.
I will admit that I had never read The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar before seeing this film, but after seeing Garcia’s comic strip-like animation of this gruesome tale of the macabre and Julian Sands’ refined narration, I was sold! It is animation at its most captivating.
Roger Corman voices Prince Prospero in the strongest piece in Garcia’s film: The Masque of the Red Death. Without narration, Garcia and his team of animators rely solely on images and movement to capture the absolute horror and unspeakable tragedy of the story’s hopelessness. It is certainly the most adult of the five pieces and it is animated in such a way that it feels like we are watching a beautiful water color painting come to life on the screen!
As transitional pieces, Garcia embodies the spirit of Poe in an old Raven (voiced by Stephen Hughes) who drops in to have one last conversation with Death (voiced by Cornelia Funke). These pieces weave together each of the tales, leaving us to wonder what really went on in Poe’s heart and mind as he faced his terrifying vision of the world.
48. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
For a minute, try to forget Nolan’s Dark Knight films (I know it’s difficult!) and forget Tim Burton’s approach. Don’t even worry about Clooney’s nipple suit or Nicole Kidman’s black dress. Don’t consider Ben Affleck’s brawny Trump-esque version of the Bat. Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is the best of the Batman films, not to mention that it is art deco noir at its very finest.
Empire magazine named it the best animated film of 1993, but its fans believe it to be the best visual interpretation of Batman out there. I am sure we can all agree that Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series is the most faithful to the Batman/Bruce Wayne comic book mythos and it might just be one of the greatest animated TV series of all time. Mask of the Phantasm successfully takes all of the things that make The Animated Series great and puts them into a brilliant little film that really gets inside Bruce Wayne’s (voiced by Kevin Conroy) head for the first time on screen.
Mark Hamill’s Joker is not as front and center in the film as he tends to be in The Animated Series and in the comic books, he plays a vital role in the unveiling of Batman’s adversary, proving that, once again, the Batman mythos belongs just as much to The Joker as it does to Bruce Wayne.
Everything from the score to the use of the color blue is excellently done, but what makes Mask of the Phantasm so endurably good and sets it apart from The Dark Knight is that unlike Nolan’s second and best Batman film, this film is a truly well-executed and full fledged Batman/Bruce Wayne story. The Dark Knight is a film about The Joker, as it should be, while Mask of the Phantasm is a film all about Bruce Wayne and his experience in the Gotham of the comic books.
47. Beavis and Butt-head Do America (1996)
Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-head Do America is pretty damn grotesque and off-putting, but, that is precisely the appeal. I never enjoyed the television show, and I think the characters and the themes are some of Mike Judge’s worst work. However, the series and this film remain a pop-culture phenomenon.
The characters began as idiotic adolescent rock critics on MTV. Their incessant low laughing and mumbling was the source of great disgust for dismayed parents all over America. Mike Judge must have known some pretty rotten teenage boys, that’s all I have to say.
In the film, Beavis wakes Butt-head (both voiced by Judge) from a dream and informs him, spastically, that the source of all of their joy, the TV, has been stolen. Thus begins their brainless and sickening odyssey across America. This film, unfortunately, belongs on this list. That’s all I have to say.
46. Aladdin (1992)
In the late 80’s and into the 90’s Disney had a resurgence of wonderful films that are now all considered classics. Ron Clements’ and John Musker’s Aladdin is one of them. From “A Whole New World” to “Never Had a Friend Like Me,” the songs are super catchy and fun. Robin Williams, may he rest in peace, may have played his most memorable role as the Genie of the Lamp. We are still confused about Jafar the evil sorcerer’s sexual orientation, and we like that, and we love that Abu the monkey is Aladdin’s best buddy, Rajah the tiger is Princess Jasmine’s, and the brassy Iago the parrot is Jafar’s.
The scene where the Genie leads Aladdin down the city streets to the Sultan’s palace to the tune of “Make Way for Prince Ali” is one of the most lovely and chaotic in the film (“Don’t they look lovely June?” “Fabulous Harry, I love the feathers!”).
The rags to riches themes of a poor, likable hero gets the royal treatment, talking animals, and good and black magic are recognizable and, perhaps, cliche for Disney. But, this is why folks keep coming back to watch the film, and why we who grew up with it are now showing it to our children. Aladdin, among others, is reliable, and we are grateful for that.
45. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966)
Bill Melendez’s delightful follow up to the quintessential Peanuts special A Charlie Brown Christmas need not be compared to it’s yuletide predecessor because it stands on its own feet as a perfect tribute to the innocence of a child’s Halloween and to Charles Schulz’s vision of unbridled imagination, hope in the midst of doubts, and the joys of helping your neighbor and building community.
The adorable and deeply philosophical Linus Van Pelt (voiced by Christopher Shea) takes the reigns in this 1966 TV special and while all of his buddies prepare themselves for a night of “Tricks or Treats,” he waits expectantly in the local pumpkin patch with his trusty blanket and with the smitten Sally Brown (voiced by Cathy Steinberg) by his side. He’s waiting for The Great Pumpkin, the Halloween equivalent of Santa, who he is determined will “rise out of the pumpkin patch at midnight.”
Audiences also get a healthy helping of the silly beagle Snoopy (voiced by Melendez himself) and his tiny yellow bird pal Woodstock as they transform their world into war torn Germany and Snoopy becomes the WWI flying ace who is determined to take down the infamous Red Baron. Although Charlie Brown’s (voiced by Peter Robbins) role is a smaller one, he becomes the embodiment, once again, of disappointment and doubt. We are left by Schulz and Melendez to ask are we going to be Linus Van Pelts in this world or are we going to be Charlie Browns? Maybe we are a little bit of both. Peanuts has enough grace for every kind of person.
44. South Park Bigger, Longer, & Uncut (1999)
Speaking of Bill Melendez’s Peanuts specials, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s South Park TV series is Peanuts for adults, so to speak. While Peanuts comics and TV specials pointed out the sacred, child-like wisdom that shows up in everyday life, South Park has done much the same, but through wicked satire and the absurd antics and horrid misbehavior of little boys.
South Park Bigger, Longer, & Uncut, as one of the more unapologetically in-your-face satirical visions of human society, belongs on the shelf next to Jonathan Swift’s classic Gulliver’s Travels and Voltaire’s Candide. Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny (all voiced by Parker and Stone) take aim at freedom of speech and censorship in the most gloriously self-aware animated film ever made. Through a series of catchy and profane song and dance numbers, which paved the way for Broadway’s Book of Mormon musical, the four terrible little boys confront the absurdity of conservatism and fundamentalism in America. Try not singing “Shut Your Fucking Face, Unclefucker!” after seeing this film. You may be shocked at what is coming out of your mouth and that means that Parker and Stone have done their job well, once again.
Although much ado was made about the over-the-top homosexual relationship between Satan (Parker) and a damned Saddam Hussein (Stone), it was one of the first queer relationships used unapologetically on screen, let alone in Western animation. For this and more, we give thanks to Trey Parker and Matt Stone. You’ve got balls, gentlemen, and we look forward to more wisdom, satire, and (SPOILER ALERT) killings of Kenny in the future.
42. Zootopia (2016)
Pixar triumphed last year, creating their best film yet with Inside Out. But Byron Howard, Rich Moore, and Jared Bush’s Zootopia is an even better film. I despise the cliche phrase “fun for the whole family” (who doesn’t?) but that is precisely what Disney’s Zootopia is. And it isn’t just fun. Zootopia also has a depth of thought, and confronts families with the present realities of sexism, racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, police brutality and the violence related to each.
The best scene takes place in a Zootopia ice cream shoppe. Nick (voiced by Jason Bateman) attempts to convince the owner to sell his toddler “son” (a kit fox in disguise) a jumbo pop. The owner gives Nick the schtick about his right to refuse service to anybody and Judy (Ginnifer Goodwin) witnesses this. In a seemingly heroic move, Judy defends Nick’s honor, only seconds later to tell Nick that he is such a “nice fox” and “so articulate,” as if that were a compliment. The best and worst part about this scene is the familiarity for audiences. Whether in the media or in real life, we’ve encountered such a scene. In the midst of all of the fuzzy cuteness, Zootopia is a sobering reminder that the struggle to recognize those who look different from us as equals and to empower one another to live our lives to the fullest is far from over.
I love this film because of the astounding visual detail. I love this film because it is hilarious. I love this film because it is relevant and an adorable, fuzzy middle finger to Donald Trump and his presidential campaign of hatred and intolerance. I love this film because it is not subtle in its critique of what our society has become. I love this film because it empowers women. I love this film because it reminds us that police officers are fallible and should be held responsible for their actions. My one critique of Zootopia is that it was only steps away from being a powerful salute to the Black Lives Matter movement. Both of the main characters’voices were played by white actors. Yes, Idris Elba makes an appearance as Officer Bogo, but once again, a major studio predominantly run by white folks refused to go the extra mile.
42. The Little Mermaid (1989)
Ron Clements and John Musker’s The Little Mermaid began the renaissance that resulted in Disney classics like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, Hercules, Mulan, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, etc. Disney’s success came by turning classic and tragic fairy tales into colorful stories of hope with incredible villains and happy endings. While Hans Christian Anderson’s original fairy tale ends with Princess Ariel the mermaid killing her beloved human prince and then taking her own life a la Romeo and Juliet, this one ends with the defeat of the villain and the unity of the beautiful mermaid Ariel (voiced by Jodi Benson) with her handsome human Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes). Suicide and murder? Leave that to the anime!
The best part of Clements’ and Musker’s film is that it puts the lovable sea critters front and center. Flounder the fish (Jason Marin), Sebastian the crab (Samuel E. Wright), and Scuttle the seagull (Buddy Hackett) are Ariel’s closest friends and enablers, much to the great King Triton’s (Kenneth Mars) dismay. Songs like “Part of Your World” and “Under the Sea” are better than most Broadway numbers, and would pave the way for the catchy and inspirational songs of Disney films to come.
Young, independent princesses who defy their birth parents and go out on a limb to risk their lives for someone/something they love became the hook on which Disney hung their hat. Potentially harmful for young men and women? Perhaps, but damn, Disney is good at it.
41. The Sword in the Stone (1963)
I love Wolfgang Reitherman’s The Sword in the Stone and I have loved it since I was a kid. Based on one part of T.H. White’s reimagining of Arthurian legend, The Once and Future King (where George R. R. Martin got his primary inspiration for A Song of Wind and Fire), The Sword in the Stone pairs Wart the stable boy (aka the future King Arthur with a forgetful and blundering magician named Merlin who helps him realize his great purpose in life.
Sebastian Cabot, the Great Voice before Morgan Freeman and Richard Kiley, played the voice of Bagheera in Disney’s The Jungle Book and narrated Disney’s Winnie the Pooh films. He is the narrator of this film and his warm, playful, refined voice ushers in a magic that still warms my tummy. The best scenes happen when the witch Madam Mim (Martha Wentworth) challenges Merlin and Wart to a duel of magic. Who can forget Mim as the ugly warthog?
Joey Armstrong is a hospital chaplain from Western New York. He is also a playwright and amateur cartoonist. Follow him on Twitter @chaplainmystic and Medium, where he writes more reviews for film and television.