To honor the rich history of animated feature film making over the years, Joey Armstrong has chosen 50 animated films that have had some of the greatest cultural impact on adults and children alike.
20. Finding Nemo (2003)
I hold a very unpopular opinion about Pixar’s Finding Nemo. I don’t like it. I just don’t think it’s all that good. In fact, it bugs me. The premise is lame, for a Pixar film, and the characters are the embodiment of the most unnecessary and depressing Disney movie plot point ever: The mother dies. When a Disney animal mother dies, the Disney animal child must go on some peril-filled quest of self-discovery. This was already done in Bambi, and infinitely better film. The animations of water and ocean life are visually impressive, but, after the film introduces the unbearable character of Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) the film devolves into a mess of awkward humor and uninteresting plot points. The reality is, half way through, I stopped giving a shit about Nemo, Marlin, and Dory.
Regardless of my opinion, like Beavis and Butt-head Do America, this film belongs on this list. Why? Because after Toy Story it was the highest grossing animated film in world history. I have no desire to see Finding Dory and I am pretty sure it’s a carbon copy of this film. Pixar has done much better.
19. The Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner Movie (1979)
The incomparable Chuck Jones’s iconic Bugs Bunny character (voiced by Mel Blanc) reflects on his past cartoon exploits in what turned out to be the greatest film homage to the beloved Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies legacy ever made. Forget Space Jam. If you are looking for something valuable, well-made, entertaining, AND surprisingly educational, see this film. It is a bittersweet film to watch because not only was it a successful and fun tribute to Chuck Jones, Mel Blanc, and company but it marked the close of a long, slap happy era of animation. There is no TV cartoon in existence that doesn’t have its roots somewhere in Looney Tunes.
Bugs Bunny does everything from “What’s Opera, Doc?” to playing the minute waltz in 16 seconds. Wyle E. Coyote chases Roadrunner from desert road to desert cliff top and experiences the most violent and grisly of self-inflicted accidents. If Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers gave us slapstick, then, Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies took it to new heights and we are all forever grateful, especially to the immortal Mel Blanc, who, as Bugs Bunny says, “had thousands of voices and was nice enough to give me one of them.”
18. Max Fleischer’s Gulliver’s Travels (1939)
The brothers Max and Dave Fleischer were Austrian-Hungarian immigrants who came to America and changed animation forever. Not only did they invent the technique of rotoscope, but, they also brought the iconic Popeye the Sailor, Superman, and Betty Boop to the silver screen. In 1939 they released their first full-length animated film in Technicolor, just two years after Walt Disney released the very first animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Gulliver’s Travels took Jonathan Swift’s classic satire and turned it into a hilarious and sappy slapstick adventure for children featuring their classic Lilliputian, Gabby (voiced by career clown Pinto Colvig) as the town crier who finds the giant Lemuel Gulliver washed up on the shores of Lilliput, unconscious. Gabby would go on to star in a series of his own Fleischer cartoons for years to come during the Golden Age of Cartoons.
In the Fleischer Bros. version of the classic tale, the “little people” kingdoms of Lilliput and Blefiscu have been living in harmony for centuries. Lilliput’s King Little and Blefiscu’s King Bombo are best of friends. Their children are even marrying each other! Little’s daughter Princess Glory is marrying Bombo’s son Prince David thus bringing the two kingdoms closer together than ever before. At the time that Gulliver arrives on their shores, Little and Bombo are in a heated argument over whether or not to sing “Faithful,” the song of Lilliput, or “Forever,” the song of Blefiscu, at the wedding. This leads to war. A war only Gulliver and Gabby can stop.
The film’s plot and characters are not great and the Fleischers completely butcher Swift’s original story. What makes the film watchable is that it is one of the first of its kind. It is a piece of history and it has informed, for good or ill, the many animated features to come.
17. The Snowman (1982)
Dianne Jackson’s short film adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman is a tender piece of magic. It does not seek to explain itself through dialogue or imagery. Instead, it seeks to elicit wonder from its audiences, adults and children alike, by simply being what it is: a beautiful story of a boy and his snowman. The original cut of the film featured the author Briggs as the opening narrator. He offers the only spoken line in the film: “ I remember that winter because it had brought the heaviest snows I had ever seen. Snow had fallen steadily all night long and in the morning I woke in a room filled with light and silence, the world seemed to be held in a dream-like stillness. It was a magical day…and it was on that day I made the snowman.”
The whole film looks like a beautiful life-like painting. It is fitting that the film is silent. As the snow falls, we are captured in that “dream-like stillness” that Briggs describes in the film’s prologue. The young red-haired boy is filled with glee as his Snowman comes to life and flies him through the air to the North Pole to meet Santa Claus. We may be divided in our world about the “true meaning” of Christmas, but, when you watch this film, you catch a glimpse of it.
16. The Iron Giant (1999)
Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant is not only a great monument of animation, it is also a fantastically spun sci-fi tale that feels a bit like Stephen King’s softer side (think Stand By Me and Hearts in Atlantis) meets early Spielberg (Close Encounters, E.T.). The premise is a familiar one: a young boy meets a giant behemoth who could potentially destroy the village people but is really just misunderstood.
What makes The Iron Giant striking is two-fold: The setting is 1957 Rockwell, Maine which means 1. diners, beatniks, classic cars, and cheesy horror films were all the rage. 2. the film is laced with heavy Cold War McCarthyism. As I sat back and watched this film unfold before my eyes, as an adult, I was struck by how relevant it is today. I wish more adults who vote on the important issues would watch Iron Giant.
15. WALL-E (2008)
Andrew Stanton’s Wall-E was the best film of 2008. It is a Pixar film, certainly, but it does not feel like a Pixar film in the way that the others do. These days, for good or ill, you can smell a Pixar film from a mile away. This film enchanted me in the first 30 minutes because it gave me the very same feelings of transcendence and awe that I felt watching Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a space odyssey for the first time at the age of 9. Also, it’s about adorable robots! What the hell is NOT to love?Pixar demonstrated with this film that they don’t just make well-crafted family films, they make art films as well. Wall-E may not be considered an art film, in the technical sense, but it certainly felt like one to me. Robots falling in love and saving the world from greedy, insufferable humans? Count me in!
14. Bambi (1942)
David Hand’s Bambi, the gentle, enchanting tale of a baby deer and his bunny friend, is one of Disney’s best “existential quest” films, so to speak. Richard Adams and Martin Rosen must have been deeply influenced by the story of Bambi the deer, both the Disney film and the book it is based on by Felix Salten. Like Watership Down (#22), Bambi places the talking animal protagonists in their natural habitat. Bambi’s dad is the great Prince of the Forest, who is a distant, stern monarch and he finds all of his comfort and relationship in the tenderness of his mother’s breast. Bambi’s Mother, a beautiful doe, is the one who teaches Bambi about the important pieces in life, but, above all, teaches Bambi compassion. Bambi befriends the exuberant Thumper the bunny and Flower the socially anxious skunk. Life is beautiful and filled with joy in the forest, that is, until Bambi’s Mother is shot and killed by a man during hunting season.
There is no way around it, folks; According to Bambi and many creature-centered films/stories to come afterward, humanity is the enemy. People with guns killing tender, harmless beings? This film may be about woodland critters, but like Watership Down, it holds up a significant mirror to all human persons, their systems, and their guns. Perhaps the most important question Bambi asks is, “Where is the compassion?”
13. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise succeeded in directing Disney’s greatest animated achievement in Beauty and the Beast, until Pixar arrived on the scene with Toy Story. This film was the very first American animated film to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards. The “tale as old as time” was nothing new to Disney when it was released. They had been making a global impression for years reimagining old, depressing fairy tales through animation. Something feels different about this one, though. It feels slightly more accomplished. It feels bigger. It feels spectacular.
The voice cast may be the most memorable of any animated film and the songs are rich and catchy. This film went on to inspire a major Broadway musical and gave birth to a new wave of deeper Disney classics like The Lion King, Pocahontas, and Mulan. It remains Disney Animation Studios’ crowning achievement and it cannot be outdone, even by a forthcoming live-action remake starring Emma Watson as Belle.
This was the film that proved that animated films can exist and thrive outside of the category of “cartoon for children” and stand on its own next to films likeThe Silence of the Lambs, Bugsy, JFK, and The Prince of Tides. I’m not holding my breath for the new adaptation, honestly. It has large shoes that it can attempt to fill, but it never will, even if it turns out to be a decent movie.
12. Pinocchio (1940)
Norman Ferguson’s Pinocchio is a dark and operatic masterpiece that, surprisingly, works as a film for children. It is based on Carlo Collodi’s creepy fairy tale about a wooden puppet who comes to life as his puppet master, aka “father,” Gepetto raises him in his toy shoppe in the streets of Italy. What begins as a pleasant story about a beautiful Blue Fairy who gives the puppet boy, Pinocchio, life and gives him a friend, Jiminy Cricket, to remind him that he actually possesses a “conscience,” becomes a story about the dark thievery and scandal of the world all navigated by a wide-eyed wooden boy.
Pinocchio is a liar. His enemies, the Fox and the Cat, are set on hanging him from a nearby tree. Little boys are transformed into miserably donkeys. A horrible man is transformed into a whale. Walt Disney attempted to make his version of Pinocchio as “likeable” as possible. Collodi’s Pinocchio is described as a “rascal,” an “imp,” a “disgrace,” and a “ragamuffin.” We do like Pinocchio, even though he’s a pain in the ass. Maybe there’s a little Pinocchio in all of us.
Pinocchio has been called Disney’s finest masterpiece. Leonard Maltin called the film Disney’s “finest technical achievement.” Pinocchio was Disney’s second feature length animated film following Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Maybe it is a better film than its predecessor because it does more, but, it will always be part of the Holy Quadrilogy of Early Disney Masterpieces: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi.
11. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas has been hailed as Tim Burton’s greatest masterpiece, even though it’s not REALLY his film. Make no mistake, this film and all of its grand achievements belong to Selick. The very brave Selick took the twisted, wacky tale by Burton and gave it the royal stop-motion treatment. Not only did this film visually and musically blend the themes of Halloween with Christmas in the most seamless way possible, but, it spawned a revolution in stop-motion feature film making. Every stop-motion film since The Nightmare Before Christmas has been attempting to live up to its iconic originality.
Try walking in to a Hot Topic store without finding a Jack Skellington belt-buckle or a Sally the Ragdoll wristband. The look of Tim Burton’s films, moving forward, would be forever inspired by the tremendously dark and whimsically twisted visual detail of Nightmare for years to come.
Danny Elfman and Chris Sarandon split singing and speaking duties for Jack the Pumpkin King. We are reminded that, before The Simpsons theme song and all of the many wonderful film soundtracks, that Danny Elfman was the frontman for Oingo Boingo in the 80’s.
If the skeletal king of the living dead comes to your town and kidnaps your Santa Claus, would you not freak the fuck out? Well, what if he was doing it to improve the world? What if he was just trying to be a better demonic being? This film makes me wish that Tim Burton still wrote such wonderful original material today. Henry Selick’s work, however, remains incredible and well-made, no matter the plot or characters (see #38, Coraline).
With that, my friends, we have successfully covered numbers 50–11 on my list. As we move into the Top 10 Greatest Animated Films, I will be delivering them an article at a time. Stay tuned and thank you for reading!