Animated movies can be every bit as emotive, funny, and enticing as their live-action counterparts. Though relatively young in the grand scheme of entertainment, animation has become one of the most beloved film genres in the world. Its ability to allow creators to make vast and detailed universes that far exceed our own makes for the perfect canvas on which to paint fantastical stories, which is one reason why we’ve crafted an extensive guide to the best animated movies ever made.
What’s more, animation empowers creators to exaggerate otherwise subtle characteristics to highlight commentary on our world. Sure, the bulk of animated movies are geared toward children, but more often than not, their lessons and themes apply even more to the adults who watch them. To celebrate our appreciation of the “cartoon” form, we compiled a list of our all-time favorite animated movies that stand the test of time. These films are masterpieces on their own — funny, heartbreaking, poignant, dramatic, and thoroughly entertaining — and they just so happen to be animated.
Set in a dystopian Neo-Japan in the far-away year of 2019, Akira follows a leader of a biker gang after his childhood friend develops near-omnipotent telekinetic powers that threaten the lives of everyone in the country. This cyberpunk movie is one of the more influential sci-fi movies of all time, animated or otherwise. Its gorgeous hand-drawn art still surpasses the art direction of many current, big-budget animes, and its simple yet compelling story will have you on the edge of your seat until the very end.
Aladdin may get overshadowed by some of its Disney counterparts, but that doesn’t lessen its excellence or impact on the animated medium. Not only does the story succeed by telling a wonderful tale of forbidden love, but it also kills on the comedic front by featuring the cosmically hilarious Robin Williams as the Genie. The film has spectacular animation, a wonderful setting, and an amazing score that featured “A Whole New World,” which won both a Grammy and an Academy Award.
With a budget of $858,000 and an eye-popping box office of $267.4 million (including re-releases), it’s safe to say that Bambi was a mega-hit. The stunning art direction, heart-wrenching opening, and out-of-this-world character design immortalized this emotional tale of a young deer who becomes the Great Prince of the Forest. What’s more compelling (and haunting) is that its theme of man destroying nature is still an all-too-relatable topic for modern-day viewers 80 years later.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
For kids of the 1990s and much of the 2000s, Kevin Conroy’s Batman and Mark Hamill’s Joker will forever stand as one of the ultimate superhero/supervillain rivalries. This movie takes place in the universe of Batman: The Animated Series and revolves around a mysterious villain, Phantasm, who frames Batman for a series of crimes. There are twists and turns throughout this stellar mystery that proved to the world that even a kids’ animated movie can still have gritty, high-caliber thriller elements to it. Its art, compelling voice acting, and magnificent story structure make Mask of the Phantasm one of the great Batman movies.
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
One of the great romances of the modern era, this list would be incomplete if it didn’t include the instant-classic, Beauty and the Beast. It has everything you want in a love story: a pure-hearted bookworm, a brooding and misunderstood beast who’s secretly a hunk, and singing furniture with gloriously French accents. The movie is as charming as it is visually enthralling, and it sends viewers on an emotional roller coaster before giving us one of the best happy endings in all of Disney’s catalog.
Charlotte’s Web (1973)
While more people may have a connection with the book than the film, Charlotte’s Web is indeed a critical movie to the animated medium. Aside from the book being incredibly influential, its animated adaptation more than faithfully translated the story’s message to the screen. As if being adorable, charming, and well-animated weren’t enough, this movie was able to introduce the concept of mortality to young children in a way that was palatable and hopeful. If that doesn’t make a movie great, what does?
Chicken Run (2000)
Chicken Run is a stop-action romp created by the hilarious minds behind Wallace and Grommet (more on them later). Even people who don’t particularly enjoy stop-action would have a hard time not crying of laughter from this story. A group of anthropomorphic chickens hatches a plan (no pun intended) to escape their nefarious captors after enlisting an American rooster, Rocky Rhodes, who tricks everyone into thinking he can fly. The cartoonish hijinx that ensue are side-splittingly funny and the film contains many heart-warming moments as the chickens work together to escape their prison.
Cinderella is about as classic as classic gets. While she may not be the first Disney Princess, it is hard to find one who is more iconic. Aside from the movie saving Disney from financial ruin in the 1950s, Cinderella was also a critical success, being nominated for three Academy Awards. Simply put, it succeeded on all fronts: the voice acting, the splendid music, the character design, the stunning visual sequences, you name it. Through a retelling of a centuries-old story, Cinderella is a nostalgic charmer that encapsulates the wonderment of fairytales.
Coco, more than any movie in the last twenty years, has opened the world’s eyes to the beauty, scope, and richness of Mexican culture. It’s also immaculately animated and exists as one of the more dynamic stories in all of Disney/Pixar’s movies. The movie follows a boy who challenges his family’s ban on playing music and ventures into the realm of the dead to find his great-great-grandfather, who he believes to be a famous musician. It’s a journey about identity, family, and following your dreams, all through a gorgeous and vibrant lens that celebrates the glory of Mexican culture. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing “Un Poco Loco” for a day and a half.
A wonderfully stylized adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novella of the same name that was both a critical and commercial success, Coraline explores darker themes that most traditional animated movies choose to eschew. The movie explores a girl who’s neglected by her workaholic parents and ventures into a parallel world that’s much like her own aside from the fact that everyone has buttons for eyes. While the world seems to be everything Coraline would ever want, it comes at a great cost, which teaches her the value of loving what and who you have in life.
Duck Amuck (1953)
Duck Amuck is a Daffy Duck short and one of the all-time best cartoons, period. Equally important, this surreal and side-splittingly funny gem was directed by the legendary Chuck Jones, who is one of the most influential figures in all of animation. What’s particularly fantastic, as well as historically significant, about this short is the subversive humor Jones employed when creating it. The constant quips, over-the-top jokes, and breaking of the fourth wall made Duck Amuck revolutionary from a comedic standpoint. Even more impressive, its humor ages wonderfully, still drawing roaring cackles from its viewers.
One of the earliest Disney movies that helped lay the foundation for the studio’s empire, Dumbo is a gorgeous film that teaches the audience the benefit of being different. A young elephant who’s ridiculed for his big ears finds friendship and support through a mouse who helps him realize his dream of being accepted. It also helps that Dumbo features some of the most adorable character designs in Disney’s storied history. If you’re looking for a vintage feel-good movie, you can’t go wrong with this heartwarming tale.
Ernest & Celestine (2012)
If you’re ever feeling down, do yourself a favor and watch Ernest & Celestine. The movie’s wonderful water coloring is an inspired stylistic choice that injects a sense of pure-hearted levity throughout this touching story of an unlikely friendship between a bear and a young mouse. It’s one of those sweet, simple movies that makes you feel like everything in the world is going to work out all right. On top of that, its plot is fun and heartwarming while exploring themes such as identity, artistic passion, and unconditional love.
While it bombed at the box office due to World War II, Fantasia got the love and appreciation it deserved in the subsequent decades after its release. It may not have a single line of dialogue in it, but it is still one of the most visually compelling movies of all time. Moreover, its art direction, animation, and score are achingly beautiful to the point where Fantasia is still viewed as one of the most gorgeous films ever made. It consists of eight animated segments, with the most iconic being The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which features Mickey Mouse as an aspiring sorcerer who all but destroys his master’s tower. Fantasia is poetry in motion, and its quality trumps most of almost any animated film you’ll watch today.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Leave it to Wes Anderson to make a kids movie for adults. Fantastic Mr. Fox is an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s similarly named book that follows a Fox who can’t stop his farm-raiding ways. After stealing from three dangerous farmers one too many times, Mr. Fox has to save his community from the farmers’ dangerous retaliation. Like any Wes Anderson movie, Fantastic Mr. Fox is hyper-stylized and features an array of high-profile actors, however, its themes of what it means to be a man and father are what make this heart-warming romp a classic.
Finding Nemo (2003)
Finding Nemo is an emotionally-charged and hilarious story about a clownfish who spans the world looking for his lost son. Of course, the ancillary characters such as the short-memoried Dory, fish-loving sharks, surfer bro sea turtles, and Nemo’s ragtag group of captive fish only add to this story’s charm and hilarity. Simple in concept, wonderfully executed, and massive in scope, Finding Nemo is a gorgeous film that explores unconditional love, processing grief, and the unbreakable bonds of friendship. It’s a standout movie in Pixar’s long line of masterpieces.
Arguably the most popular animated movie in the modern era, Frozen captured the hearts and imaginations of all who saw it. The mega-hit grossed over $1.2 billion in the box office and inspired a sequel, spin-offs, and tv specials. It would be easier to describe what didn’t work in Frozen rather than what succeeded. From a narrative and thematic perspective, the film challenged the “damsel in distress” archetype on top of which Disney built its older hits with a story about two sisters who wouldn’t let anything get between them. On top of that, its animation and all-too-catchy score, which contains the iconic “Let It Go” number, made it impossible not to love.
How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
How to Train Your Dragon is an incredible coming-of-age story about Hiccup, a misfit Viking boy, and Toothless, a dragon he befriends. They develop a forbidden bond that augments both of their lives and proves to everyone that humans and dragons can live in harmony. With themes that explore unlikely friendship and what it really means to be a man, How to Train Your Dragon is poignant and heartfelt from top to bottom. Add to its fantastic narrative a stout cast, gorgeous animated sequences, and a phenomenal score, and you have a movie you can repeatedly watch indefinitely.
The Incredibles (2004)
It’s odd, people argue that the Batman movies or the Marvel franchise are the best superhero movies of all time, but they never bring up The Incredibles. It has the action sequences, costumed bravado, and high-octane pace everyone loves about the superhero genre, with a stellar cast of characters to boot. Perhaps the reason is that this is a movie that’s so well-written, so expertly directed, and so phenomenally acted that people got lost in the family dynamics of the Parrs that they forgot this movie easily fits in the superhero genre. What’s amazing about The Incredibles is that it’s a laugh-out-loud funny and touchingly relatable movie about a family that just happens to be superheroic.
Inside Out (2015)
Inside Out may be one of the most profound kids’ stories ever told. Hardly any movie before it has been able to break down complex emotional scenarios to kids and adults alike without a shred of condescension. The film also has a gut-wrenching scene near the end that will reduce even the manliest of men to a puddle. Along with its emotional depth, the movie has a stalwart cast of characters who are hilarious in their own ways. The film’s vibrant animation and stunning art direction only elevate its quality, making it an instant hit and a modern-day classic.
The Iron Giant (1999)
The Iron Giant didn’t have the box office success it deserved by a long shot. Thankfully, the movie developed a cult following in the subsequent years after its release where it at least garnered the critical acclaim it was denied. It’s a simple movie that tugs at the heartstrings of our inner child, revolving around a little boy who befriends an oaf of a giant robot. Of course, the little boy has to keep his big pal a secret from the government, which leads to all sorts of hijinx and emotional moments. Above all else, The Iron Giant has one of the most heart-wrenching and beautiful portrayals of friendship in modern cinema. It’s huge on heart, beautifully animated, and has an ending that will charm even the most cynical of viewers.
The Lego Movie (2014)
The Lego Movie had no business being as funny, charming, authentic, and well-written as it was, but that didn’t stop Phil Lord and Chris Miller from making one of the best animated movies of the modern era. From start to finish, The Lego Movie delivers huge laughs, a killer theme song, and lively performances, all while exploring themes of friendship, identity, acceptance, and individuality. What’s more, this movie takes place in a disarmingly cute and stylized world that’s rife with Easter Eggs. Much like its theme song, this movie is awesome.
The Little Mermaid (1989)
How could this list be complete without everyone’s favorite mermaid? The Little Mermaid is a timeless tale about forbidden love that covers themes of identity and self-acceptance. Moreover, its gorgeous character design, beautiful world, and wonderfully catchy musical numbers make for a thoroughly entertaining time. The movie proves that age-old tales of romance will always have a place in our hearts.
The Lion King (1994)
Four words: The Circle of Life. The Lion King is arguably the defining animated movie of the 1990s. It has everything: comedy, romance, betrayal, action, drama, amazing songs, and a lineup of characters that is second to none. Seriously, Scar may be one of the most despicable and nefarious villains in all of Disney, and that includes Darth Vader and every bad guy from the Marvel franchise. To this day, The Lion King remains one of the most beloved animated movies ever, and its impact couldn’t be clearer. It was a box office monster, won countless awards, spawned several sequels and spin-offs, became a hit play, and has a bottomless amount of merchandise.
Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Monsters, Inc. is a timeless movie that only seems to get better with age. It’s a touching story that explores the duality of what it means to be a monster and circles around the message that laughter will always triumph over fear. The characters are as hilarious as they are sympathetic, the pacing is perfect, the world is vast and detailed, and the score is one of Pixar’s all-time best. The story is simple — a little girl who doesn’t belong in this world needs to get home — but the execution and caliber of storytelling are what make this movie a classic.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
My Neighbor Totoro is a visual treat and an adorable movie that follows two young daughters and their interactions with woodland spirits. This movie is often regarded as one of, if not the, best animated movies ever. Totoro examines themes of spirituality through an entertaining lens, high-caliber storytelling, and resplendent artwork. Aside from its stellar reviews, My Neighbor Totoro has achieved immense commercial success and is a merchandising juggernaut. If you’re looking to watch a movie that will transport you into a fantastical realm with lovable forest spirits, this is your flick.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Tim Burton may be a bit on the eccentric side but it’s undeniable that he created one of the best, most moving, most stylized animated movies under the Disney umbrella. The Nightmare Before Christmas is a cult classic that has captivated audiences throughout the globe with its fantastic visuals, wondrous soundtrack, and amazing voice acting. Its story follows Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, as he tries to bring the wonder of Christmas to his ghoulish world. Of course, everything that can go wrong does, which makes for an enchanting and treacherous adventure that will keep you on the edge of your seat the whole time.
Persepolis may be the most artistic and stylized entry on this list, which is one of the dozens of reasons why we love it. It’s based on Marjane Satrapi’s eponymous biography and tracks her journey living through political unrest in Iran. This movie is important for a slew of reasons: it shines a light on life as a refugee, shows the grim changes that have taken place in Iran, and it challenges any preconceived notion that an animated movie can’t have thought-provoking commentary on the real world. This movie is by no means for kids, but it is a more honest, authentic, and enthralling coming-of-age story than virtually any live-action counterpart.
Princess Mononoke (1997)
There’s no way we can rank our favorite Hayao Miyazaki films by quality (the Japanese director also helmed My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away), however, one could make the argument that the most relevant and poignant would be Princess Mononoke. Thematically, the film explores man’s erosion of the natural world through a story about a prince who becomes involved in a bitter struggle between the forest gods and the inhabitants of Iron Town. Artistically, the film is nothing short of stunning and features some of the finest hand-drawn animation you’ll ever watch. Thematically, Princess Mononoke is haunting due to its far too relatable theme of man destroying the natural world. It’s a gorgeous movie capped with fantastic voice performances that every fan of animation should see.
Rango is a funky romp of a film that employs a near-absurdist take on some of its humor. The story revolves around an oddball chameleon, Rango, who stumbles into the lawless town of Dirt and accidentally becomes its sheriff. The film has fantastic humor, inspired character design, and a truly unique world that we don’t often see in animated movies. Narratively, the movie covers an archetype we all know and love: an unexpected hero comes into town and saves the day. Rango delivers superb writing, a knockout performance by star Johnny Depp, and high-octane animated sequences that will have you enthralled from start to finish.
When you have Patton Oswalt as your lead, Brad Bird as your director (of The Incredibles and The Iron Giant fame), and Thomas Kellar (see: world’s best chef) as your culinary consultant, you’re in for an experience. Ratatouille has a palpable amount of charm and follows Remy that rat as he chases his dream of becoming a chef. The movie is hilarious, impeccably detailed, and captures the day-to-day life of a chef in a way few movies have been able to.
Shrek countered the glitz, glamor, and niceties of Disney’s animated movies by creating a story about a crass and disgusting ogre (voiced by Mike Myers), his overly-attached Donkey (Eddie Murphy), and a rough-and-tumble princess (Cameron Diaz). The movie is legitimately hilarious, with some of the best joke-writing in animated movie history, and fearlessly challenges the fairytale status quo from start to finish. On top of its unparalleled hilarity, Shrek offers plenty of emotional depth and touching moments, as well as a fantastic (if very of its time) soundtrack that captures its contemporary spirit. Not including it in this list would be blasphemous.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Snow White was the world’s first feature-length animated film and it laid the foundation for Disney to become the empire it is today. The film’s style and artistic integrity can still trump the quality of just about any modern counterpart, and it smashed all sorts of box office records when it came out. Equally as important, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs immortalized the true love’s kiss archetype 23 years before Sleeping Beauty. While its story is simple and a bit on the dated side, it is undeniably one of the great animated movies and a pillar of the medium.
South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut (1999)
South Park is one of the most influential and important television shows in all of American entertainment. It’s a fearless, aggressively funny show that has never pulled a punch or shied away from berating hypocrisy, which is how it virtually eliminated taboos from entertainment. Its first movie is a worthy and hysterical theatrical adaptation that stays true to the show’s central tenets, while also making fun of PC culture, actors, PTA moms, Satan, Saddam Hussein, Canadians, and censorship as a concept. South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut was laugh-out-loud funny when it debuted and more than twenty years later, it’s still hilarious and poignant.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
Groundbreaking. Visually stunning. Hilarious. Touching. A cinematic revelation. There are so many ways to describe Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, so instead of listing them all, we’ll just summarize our adoration and admiration by saying it is a must-watch and an instant classic. The plot follows Miles Morales as he learns to accept his identity, as well as what it means to be a Spider-Man. Armed with the best animation in recent decades, a killer soundtrack, a stacked cast, and phenomenal writing, one could easily make the argument that Spider-Verse is also one of the best superhero movies of all time.
Spirited Away (2001)
Spirited Away isn’t just Miyazaki’s most critically acclaimed movie, it’s one of the most celebrated animated movies of all time. Aside from being the only hand-drawn, non-English movie to win the Best Animated Feature Academy Award, it was a smashing success at the box office. It’s a stunning film about a little girl who ventures into the spirit world, and while there, her parents are turned into pigs by an evil witch who forces the little girl to work at her bathhouse in exchange for her family’s freedom. Its emotional and artistic beauty have propelled Spirited Away to the top of many an all-time best movies list.
Toy Story Trilogy (1995)
We don’t say this lightly but Toy Story may be the best movie Pixar has ever made. As a whole, the trilogy stands as one of the most complete franchises in all of cinematic history (fourth entrant notwithstanding). Each entry of the trilogy stands as a superb movie with tear-jerking moments, huge laughs, and phenomenal character moments. It connects particularly well to kids of the 1990s, as the viewers watched Andy grow up throughout the trilogy. The simple concept of what our toys do when we’re not playing with them exploded into a rich universe with compelling characters and timeless stories about friendship and knowing when to let go.
It’s safe to say that Up has by far the most emotional opening in all of cinema. Audiences go from a delightful opening sequence to a heartbreaking crash in the span of six minutes. What’s more, the story builds from that emotional trench into one of the most charming, funny, and adorable movies we’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. Each character is more personable and likable than the last, and its lighthearted score only adds to the wonderment and cute characters of this fantastic film.
Hilarious, heartbreaking, haunting, hopeful. WALL-E covers so many emotional bases it doesn’t even make sense, all with a protagonist that hardly utters a word of dialogue. The movie covers difficult topics with a disarmingly cute patina, protagonist, and set of ancillary characters. The story follows a lonely robot whose sole purpose is to clean up junk on an uninhabitable Earth. However, after being visited by the sleek EVE robot, WALL-E falls in love and pursues her throughout the galaxy. This is a movie that anyone with a heart will absolutely love.
Wallace and Gromit Series (1989-2008)
The genius of Wallace and Gromit is its simplicity. An eccentric inventor and his canine companions go on a series of wacky adventures, almost always involving the consumption of cheese. The movies are lighthearted, laugh-out-loud hysterical, and employ some of the best stop-action animation you’ll ever see. More than anything, these movies are just so lovable. They’re the perfect combination of zany antics, charming British sensibilities, and over-the-top physical humor that will make you smile from ear to ear.
Capping off our list is an entry that’s equal parts poignant, comedic, and heartfelt: Zootopia. Never before has there been a children’s movie that so eloquently breaks down race relations in a palatable and humorous manner. The film makes viewers take their preconceived notions of predatory animals and turn them on their heads. Zootopia is a prime example of Disney’s ability to use anthropomorphic animals to teach the audience, especially kids, a greater lesson about humanity.
The 30 Most Anticipated Movies of 2022
Now that you’ve learned about the best animated films of all time, check out our guide to the 30 most-anticipated movies coming out this year for more cinematic splendor.
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