My Top 10 Animated Films

It occurred to me the other day that, for all my posturing, and championing of animation, I hadn’t really revealed my litmus test of what I consider to be ‘great’ animation; I also noticed how popular my listed entries seem to be on my sight, so I thought that while I was in the midst of documenting the history of animation, that I would list my Top 10 personal favourite animated films.

Now, as I’ve been exploring recently, animation consists of more than merely just ‘films’ but for the purposes of this list, I’m going to stick to feature-length animations only, as much as I love some animated shorts (maybe that can be another list at some point down the line).

Obviously, given their track record of many decades worth of classics of the genre, this list is likely to feature more Disney films than any other studio, although I will try and mix it up, this is, after all, my opinion, and what I alone consider to be the best of the best. I am, however, limiting myself to one film in any given franchise, as much as I love all four Toy Story films, they would take up almost half my list, I may mention some additional ones in honourable mentions though.

Here are some honourable mentions which, for one reason or another, just didn’t make the cut:

The LEGO Movie (2014) – Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

A million times better than anyone could have predicted, with an excellent voice cast and great script, both this and The LEGO Batman Movie can feel slightly hard-done-to for having not made the Top 10.

Aladdin (1992) – Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker

A long-time favourite of mine; I cut it from the list to keep it from being too ‘Disney-heavy’. After a lot of consideration, I concluded that many additions to the list were better and shunted it into honourable mentions.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) – Directed by David Hand, William Cottrell, Wilfred Jackson, Larry Morey, Perce Pearce and Ben Sharpsteen

The measuring stick for which all feature-length animations that followed it, by virtue of being first, Snow White has built a legacy on being ‘the original’. It also helps that it still stands up as a film to this day, with strikingly beautiful artwork, it earns its way into honourable mentions.

The Incredibles (2004) – Directed by Brad Bird

Another victim of my Disney-heavy cuts (I know it’s Pixar, but I think Disney had bought Pixar at this point) The Incredibles is not only a fantastic animated film, but a great superhero film too, with a touching family-centric story; it is an incredible (pun intended) film, but just misses out on the top 10.

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Ware-Rabbit (2005) – Directed by Nick Park and Steve Box

A franchise very close to my heart, very few things are as quintessentially British as Wallace & Gromit. A mainstay of the British animation scene since the 1980’s, the popular duo made their feature-length debut in the mid-2000’s with what was once described as ‘the first ever vegetarian horror film’ it is as charming and quaint as you’d expect from Aardman and their flagship characters.

The Top 10

10: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) – Directed by Henry Selick

Also known as TIM BURTON’S The Nightmare Before Christmas, despite the fact that Tim Burton wasn’t the director, but the producer (great ego boost there, Tim) and the director was actually Henry Selick, who is actually more consistent than Burton as a director, in my humble opinion.

There are many forms of animation, from traditional, hand-drawn animation up to the current CGI method of making movie magic, but one form of animation that seems to get less and less exposure as time goes on is stop-motion animation. One of my honourable mentions (Wallace & Gromit) is also stop motion, and I’m very fond of the workmanship that must go into making these films what they are, with each scene taking weeks, if not months, to complete.

Nightmare Before Christmas is now a beloved cult classic nearly thirty years after its initial release, and it wears its dark, surreal, gothic influences on its sleeve, serving up a wonderful slice of dark musical fantasy that straddles the line between Halloween and Christmas, meaning it can be enjoyed at either holiday, or year ’round, if you’re a rebel.

I love the rich character designs of the character figures; the weird fantasy script and its memorable songs and voice cast make this as complete a package as you can get for a Christmas animation. It isn’t as deep as other animated films that will feature later on in this list, hence why it just makes it into tenth spot.

9: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) – Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman

I bring the list a little closer to the present day with number 9, and a film that straddles the line of two niches I know very well and have written about extensively in the past, that of animation and superhero movies.

Into the Spider-Verse was a pleasant surprise, and that might be the biggest understatement since Usain Bolt was merely described as ‘fast’. To say Sony Animation had a poor reputation is like saying that Jeffrey Dahmer was ‘a bit of a weirdo’ and their range of films up to this point had only ever reached the dizzying heights of ‘basically okay’ and had just the year prior released the abomination that was The Emoji Movie, so my own hopes were not high for the film prior to release.

Imagine my surprise then when what we got was a beautifully realised, comic book-inspired world, filled with complex and detailed characters and just the right spread of humour for there to be something to appeal to everyone. Far from being another Sony paint-by-numbers animation, Into the Spider-Verse ended up not only being one of the best animated films, but maybe one of the best superhero films too.

In terms of animation style, it was as if a comic book had been perfectly transferred onto screen frame-by-frame, and it all looked so seamless. It was visually striking, while also giving each character their own memorable look to distinguish them from the plethora of Spider-People taking up the screen; everyone got their time to shine, and the film itself shone like a supernova.

8: South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999) – Directed by Trey Parker

Lest you all think that animation is an art form purely for the family audience, here’s my adult-themed entry for the list, and moreover, the film I think that did the best job of making R-rated comedy work in a feature-length animation.

I did post my full review of this last month (available here) which tells you in-depth what I thought of the film, so I won’t go into too much detail, but this is what made the appeal of South Park make sense to me, even if I’m not the biggest fan of the show itself, I love the film because of what it manages to achieve.

It’s an R-rated film with very adult material, but it also has a message. While other animations have tried and failed to bring a more foul-mouthed comedic tone to the big screen (looking at you, Sausage Party) they didn’t realise that making an animated film with swearing and sex in just for the sake of it is pointless and uninteresting, whereas this film used it’s more mature tones to tell a cautionary tale about censorship, maybe not the most grounded take, granted, but an effective one.

It’s unmistakably South Park, but with a bigger sense of scale, not to mention a kick-ass soundtrack that laid the groundwork for Stone and Parker’s eventual foray into Broadway theatre, it manages what so many failed to do by being a light, entertaining comedy on the surface, while hiding an actually relevant message if you look closer, it used its material to make a point, rather than just telling fart jokes and cursing for the sake of it.

Also, as a bonus note, Sone and Parker’s Team America: World Police could have also been an inclusion on this list, and my praise would be more or less similar, but it lacks the killer edge and longevity that South Park has, so it just misses out.

7: Zootopia/Zootropolis (2016) – Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore

Despite confusing everyone with its two names (I’ll refer to it as Zootopia from here on in, because that is clearly the better name) this film is a fairly straightforward, but no less important and powerful, tale of acceptance and fighting injustice.

This film is a good example of what I mean when I talk about the p[potential of introducing complex issues to a younger audience, one of the key powers of animation, in my opinion, is its accessibility for everyone means that, with enough skill, any number of issues can be tackled in a digestible way to not only entertain, but to educate.

Even if the finer points go over the heads of younger viewers, it can still be enjoyed as a fun little animal comedy, and the adults might get a kick out of the deeper subtext, but the power of this film is how it uses colourful, talking animals to tell a relevant story about societal inequality, and it manages to do so with a rabbit as its main character.

As I say, even without reading this deep into the film, it’s still a very enjoyable experience, it’s funny, exciting, and very touching too; it’s everything that Disney has perfected over the last 90+ years concentrated into one package, I’d even go so far as to say that it’s Disney’s best film of the new millennium, and given time, it may be considered as one of their best ever.

The film is also helped by a stellar voice cast, not that we’d expect anything less, if we’ve learned anything in the past 20 years it’s that Disney always know how to cat their movies to perfection, with Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman leading the film with great distinction, it also boasts a wide and interesting supporting cast that help flesh out this anthropomorphic world of cartoon animals, and make it feel like a living, breathing world.

An outstanding film with many merits, Zootopia would rank much higher if not for the ridiculous quality of the Renaissance era, but I believe that given time for its legacy to grow, it may one day be considered alongside those films as some of the best Disney have ever produced.

6: Up (2009) – Directed by Pete Docter

A lot has been said about Up, especially of its opening 10 minutes, which did a great job in telling an during love story than most films do in their whole run-time, it also explores themes like grief, loneliness, and moving on, and does it with trademark eye for detail that Pixar specialise in, as well as including some truly memorable characters.

It manages to effortlessly mix darkness and light throughout the film; Carl’s loss of his adoring wife is juxtaposed with his unexpected friendship with Russell, the over-ambitious boy scout, who ends up tagging along for an adventure, and while the darker themes are always present, they are offset by lighter moments and characters, such as the dogs with malfunctioning voice boxes.

This being Pixar, and them having the most cutting-edge technology available to them, the film looks beautiful, sharp, and as crisp as any animation that has followed in the last few years. Again, there is a great sense of juxtaposition in the two main settings for the story; firstly, in the sprawling urban redevelopment that Carl escapes from, and then in the beautiful and hostile landscapes of Paradise Falls, the film is never dull to look at.

For me, a good family film is one that gains more and more depth the older you are, and Up is most certainly one of these films. It can just be a fun adventure for kids about a grumpy old man, a funny kid and a talking dog, but for older viewers, it might hit a little harder; and that is Pixar’s magic in a nutshell, most of their films are like those pictures where more things become apparent the more you look, there is depth to be found the harder you look.

Up is also one of only three animated films nominated for Best Picture, and in a genre as belittled by the Academy as animation, that is one hell of an achievement; and one it richly deserved for its touching narrative, beautifully realised worlds and stellar voice performances, it is a show of how strong some animated films are that this film doesn’t even make the top 5.

5: Coco (2017) – Directed by Lee Unkrich

To me, all the best Animated films are ones that cause an outpouring of emotion from the audience. Up is a good example of this (if you don’t shed a tear at its first ten minutes, you must have a heart of stone) and this film, for me, is another.

It was one moment in Coco that elevated it above the usual Pixar fare for me upon first viewing; I had very much enjoyed the film up to that point, but it was this one particular scene that made the entire film and all of its themes click into place, and in doing so, unleashed the floods of tears.

Towards the film’s climax, Miguel (the films hero) sings the song ‘Remember Me’ to his elderly great-grandmother Coco, a song that was introduced earlier in the film as the signature song of braggadocios Latino singe Ernesto de la Cruz, but we later found out that the song was originally written by Coco’s father who Miguel encounters in the spirit world, as a way for her to keep him in her mind while he was away, he is later murdered by Ernesto, and Miguel sings the song, as it was originally intended to the ailing Coco, as she starts to fade away.

The scene hits you like a train, brings together all of the films major plot points and pays them off in the most heart-breaking way imaginable. It succeeds in pulling all of the story’s dangling threads together, and brings Miguel’s family back together, at the very end of Coco’s life, it’s an extraordinary scene, and utterly breath-taking in its execution.

This isn’t the only thing about the film that makes it such a success however, it has many different reasons for its quality.

Firstly, is its setting and cultural themes. Based off Mexican celebrations of the Day of the Dead, it presents a fully realised version of the Latino afterlife, beautifully designed and brought to life by the artistic wizards at Pixar, whose reverence for the source material and Mexican culture as a whole can be felt in every frame.

Then there’s the characters, who are, for the most part, skeletons occupying the Land of the Dead, they are relatable and their struggles universal and recognisable. In many ways a lot of the characters are re-skins of old reliable tropes, but it’s their development as characters that really sets them apart, especially when it comes to Miguel and Hector, and the bond they cultivate.

This film may only be a few years old, but I can already see it being considered a classic in years to come; its story is universal and emotionally-driven, its characters human and relatable, and it’s soundtrack memorable, and at times tear-jerking, it is so close to perfection, yet it only just makes the top 5, purely on the strength of the four above it.

4: Toy Story 2 (1999) – Directed by John Lasseter

To be honest, any Toy Story film could have made this list, but I was strict on myself to restrict it to one per series, so you can consider Toy Story 1,3, and 4 as honourable mentions that I didn’t mention, mainly because it would immediately give away which instalment would ultimately make the list.

The second Toy Story film is, in my opinion, not only the best Toy Story film, but the best Pixar film. It’s a perfect combination of all the things that made the first film great, and the new ideas that would take the series to new heights, it felt like this sequel made the story into a perfect circle, it would have been just fine to leave the franchise at two instalments, not to take away from the two subsequently excellent successors, but we can view Toy Story 1 & 2 as one story, and we can say the same about 3 & 4, to be honest.

We can all agree that Toy Story was a perfect debut film for the fledgling Pixar studio, and the creators behind that film clearly took all the lessons they learned there and added extra bits of relish, showing their newly-gained experienced, they figured that people bought into the emotional side of Toy Story, so they dialled that up to eleven for the sequel, as well as raising the narrative stakes, and giving our heroes some complex decisions to make.

Woody goes through an incredible arc over the four-film series, and nowhere is his complexity as a character more evident than in this film. He’s loyal, he’s kind-hearted, but he’s also flawed, and has a tendency to be selfish, we saw that in the first film when Buzz arrived to steal his thunder, and we see it again here, albeit in a much softer light. You have to really hand it to the creators for making such a complex character the leading one in their franchise; they’re not afraid to show the bad sides of Woody, to show that everyone has flaws, and that’s probably my favourite part of the series as a whole: it uses anthropomorphic toy characters to explore different parts of the human character, and how complex people can be.

Honestly, I could talk on the merits of the Toy Story films until the cows come home, but we all know their quality. We’ve either grown up with them or had our children/grand-children grow up with them. They have the qualities of a timeless classic, enduring characters, narratives that are easily to follow but hide further depth, and a cohesive world around them.

The beauty in an enduring animated film is in the messages it can teach a younger audience, the kind of audience that don’t care about all the subtleties that I look for, they fall in love with the characters, and learn from their on-screen mistakes; a good animated film with a message behind it can convey the most complex of issues to a younger audience (see Zootopia) and make them understand them; Toy Story as a series is one that teaches the value of relationships, of friendships, and not just the positives, but the feelings of loss when they leave, which is why the third films ending was so effective, in this film, we learn about the lengths some friends will go to to save those they care about, and the struggle of being alone in an unfamiliar place, but still managing to make new friendships.

This whole series is a beautifully moving journey through many stages of human development, and the writers manage to convey that through talking toys. An unbelievable achievement, and an unbelievably good film to boot.

3: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) – Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise

For my money, this is the most underrated film in Disney’s canon. When the Disney Renaissance is mentioned, the same subjects will be brought up (and some of them might be brought up again here, hint hint) but this film is often lost in the conversation. Which is a real shame because it is a film of stunningly high quality, with a beautiful score and story to boot.

Let’s fixate on the score for a second, and let me say right now that this is my favourite soundtrack of any Disney film, epic and soaring in some parts, and introspective and heart-rending in others, it was only improved when the film was translated to the stage, but that’s beside the point, it’s a musical masterpiece, composed by two highly regarded musical minds, those being Disney legend Alan Menken, and Broadway veteran Stephen Schwartz.

But like everything attached to this film, the soundtrack is wildly underappreciated. It boasts perhaps one of the best Disney villain song in ‘Hellfire’ as well as a breath-taking opening number (‘The Bells of Notre Dame’). I get the feeling these tunes are overlooked simply because of their darker nature, something that can be said for the film as a whole too, it’s an incredibly dark tale for Disney, although not as dark as the book it is based off, including adding on a happy ending, such things can be annoying, of course, but I think an ending that sees someone burn to death, and then the titular character dying of grief might not have flown well with the marketing department.

That’s probably why it is so lost in the shuffle these days, it’s just not as easy to market as the other classic Renaissance films, it’s darker than the usual output, it’s atmosphere is dense and foreboding, but that just makes it all the more of a hidden gem.

It is also a fine example of how effective late-era hand-drawn animation is, blending that approach with CG enhancements to create one of the most gorgeous worlds Disney has created. It’s dense and dark, but also has a variety of different palates to showcase the different areas of Paris.

Although it is one of my all-time favourite films, it’s hard to really put into words why I love it so much (which is a shame, because that’s my job) I could reel off the usual points of animation, story and soundtrack, but there’s something deeper there, a connection between myself and the film that is hard to describe.

I think it has something to do with the films protagonists being ‘outcasts. Rather than the main character being a dashing prince or destined hero, he’s a deformed, abused figure who just has more heart than any of his peers, he has more humanity than anyone else, even though he’s described as a ‘monster’ and as someone who grew up ostracised and cast out, I relate to Quasimodo more than any Prince Charming.

It also remains one of the few Disney films where the lead doesn’t ‘get the girl’, as he realises that her friendship is enough, and how many films have that kind of message? It’s so refreshing next to most typical animated stories, and like any great film aimed at a younger audience, there are positive messages to be learned; the main one being that sometimes the most ugly exteriors are merely hiding the most beautiful of interiors, which is also a good analogy for the film as a whole.

2: Beauty and the Beast (1991) – Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise

To me, the early-90’s were the peak of the Renaissance-era at Disney, the mid-to-late 90’s would also have their gems, both hidden and otherwise, but it was the early years of the decade that bore the most fruit for the House of Mouse.

There were three genuine all-time classic in a row from 1991 to 1994, including this film, Aladdin, and the film that I have yet to reveal as my number one, although I may have just given it away to those who are in the know as to when the films were released…

There is a reason this era’s films are now being milked to oblivion with live-action remakes, it’s because those who are nostalgic for these films are now old enough to have kids, and Disney know a payday when they see one, and no film was less in need of the live-action treatment than Beauty and the Beast, wish its mythical beasts and talking cutlery, it’s the kind of thing that works brilliantly with the magic of animation, but looks a tad jarring in live-action (as the 2017 remake shows).

As well as being one of the most critical and commercially successful periods in company history, the Renaissance also saw the peak of animation standards for the time, and even now, some of the films stand head-and-shoulders above others, for example, there’s the now-classic ballroom scene, which still looks stunning all those years on, and is superior in every way to its later incarnation.

The soundtrack is another Menken classic. Composed with long-time song writing partner Howard Ashman and is, tragically, their last full collaboration before Ashman’s passing in 1991. Their obvious chemistry is abundant here and the songs take on a whole other dimension when you factor in the fact that Howard Ashman’s health was undoubtedly deteriorating during the writing, the beautiful words he contributed helped lift this film to the reputation it now enjoys, and his legacy is that of wonderful songs in exceptional films.

Once again, it is a help that deals with unconventional views of beauty, and inner strength over vanity, which are shown in their portrayal of both Gaston, and the titular Beast, one who fails to see the error of their ways, and gets their just desserts (Gaston) and one who learns the error of their ways and how beauty is just as internal as external. A ‘tale as old as time’ indeed.

Beauty and the Beast is also a rare example of a film that crossed-over into mainstream respectability, something the medium is rarely afforded, when it was nominated for the Best Picture at the 1992 Academy Awards, it led the foundations for further recognition at such ceremonies, as much as current awards merely pay lip service to the art, as opposed to celebrating it openly, we have this film to thank for that.

All of these things come together to make a nearly perfect film. A timeless story, beautifully realised, scored and acted. It would undoubtedly be my favourite animated film of all-time, were it not for…

1: The Lion King (1994) – Directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff

Here it is, my favourite animated film of all-time, one that was recently put through the live-action ringer as well, and yet the drawbacks of the newest iteration didn’t manage to spoil its legacy in any way.

One of the few Renaissance-era classics to NOT be based off a popular fairy tale, The Lion King instead took inspiration from Shakespeare, of all things, presenting us with a version of Hamlet that saw the titular Prince and his family replaced by anthropomorphic lions (as well as other animals like meerkats, warthogs, and hornbills) and you know what? Give me the talking lions over Shakespeare any day of the week.

This is a film that shows an animation studio at the height of its powers and influence, realising another breath-taking world of the African Serengeti, and all of the creatures that inhabit it with astounding amounts of visual flair.

The iconic opening scene sets the stage perfectly; playing out like a showcase for all the animators involved, we see this world of animals come to life and assemble before our very eyes, as the music swells, this world of animals celebrates the birth of a Prince, and without a single line of spoken dialogue, the world and everything in it makes complete sense.

There is so much to talk about with this film that this entry could go on forever, so many points whizz around my head, but for the sake of brevity, let’s stick to the main points, as otherwise this might end up being as lengthy as a novel.

The score is probably what springs to mind first for most people when thinking of The Lion King indeed, when thinking of the aforementioned opening scene, it’s impossible to recount it without remembering the just-as-iconic Swahili chanting over the first shot of a rising sun, this is an indication that both music and visuals will exists to enhance each other, and makes for perfect bedfellows.

Disney also scored its biggest named composer thus far when looking for someone to do The Lion King’s music. Bringing in Sir Elton John was a work of genius in itself but pairing him with Tim Rice just put the cherry on top of a delicious cake; and the result was one of the most celebrated soundtracks in Disney history. So good were the songs written for the film that no less than three were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song (‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’ was the winner, with ‘Hakuna Matata’ and ‘Circle of Life’ also being nominated) add to this an additional score by Hans Zimmer, and you have one of the most extraordinarily sounding animated films in history.

The animation was also impeccable, bringing to life a vibrant landscape of the African plains, while juxtaposing this with the darker, grungier settings that the hyenas dwell in, while also finding time to construct a colourful world away from Pride Rock where Timon and Pumbaa live, and you get a complete picture of life for the furry inhabitants of the Serengeti; most of whom are realised in the film too, each exhibiting their own unique designs to make them stand out amongst the throngs of animals present in this film.

The cast is also a winner too. Coming at around the time when Disney were perfecting the art of casting their animated films with established names and capable comedic performers to keep the cast of characters interesting, the thinking surely being that it worked with Robin Williams, maybe they’ll strike gold again and that they do with the casting of Nathan Lane as the motormouth meerkat Timon, and his downtrodden sidekick Pumbaa voiced by a much more reserved, but no less funny Ernie Sabella. This is without mentioning leading performances from established names like Matthew Broderick (Simba), James Earl Jones (Mufasa), and the incredibly menacing Jeremy Irons (Scar).

It occurred to me the other day that, for all my posturing, and championing of animation, I hadn’t really revealed my litmus test of what I consider to be ‘great’ animation; I also noticed how popular my listed entries seem to be on my sight, so I thought that while I was in the midst of documenting the history of animation, that I would list my Top 10 personal favourite animated films.

Now, as I’ve been exploring recently, animation consists of more than merely just ‘films’ but for the purposes of this list, I’m going to stick to feature-length animations only, as much as I love some animated shorts (maybe that can be another list at some point down the line).

Obviously, given their track record of many decades worth of classics of the genre, this list is likely to feature more Disney films than any other studio, although I will try and mix it up, this is, after all, my opinion, and what I alone consider to be the best of the best. I am, however, limiting myself to one film in any given franchise, as much as I love all four Toy Story films, they would take up almost half my list, I may mention some additional ones in honourable mentions though.

Here are some honourable mentions which, for one reason or another, just didn’t make the cut:

The LEGO Movie (2014) – Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

A million times better than anyone could have predicted, with an excellent voice cast and great script, both this and The LEGO Batman Movie can feel slightly hard-done-to for having not made the Top 10.

Aladdin (1992) – Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker

A long-time favourite of mine; I cut it from the list to keep it from being too ‘Disney-heavy’. After a lot of consideration, I concluded that many additions to the list were better and shunted it into honourable mentions.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) – Directed by David Hand, William Cottrell, Wilfred Jackson, Larry Morey, Perce Pearce and Ben Sharpsteen

The measuring stick for which all feature-length animations that followed it, by virtue of being first, Snow White has built a legacy on being ‘the original’. It also helps that it still stands up as a film to this day, with strikingly beautiful artwork, it earns its way into honourable mentions.

The Incredibles (2004) – Directed by Brad Bird

Another victim of my Disney-heavy cuts (I know it’s Pixar, but I think Disney had bought Pixar at this point) The Incredibles is not only a fantastic animated film, but a great superhero film too, with a touching family-centric story; it is an incredible (pun intended) film, but just misses out on the top 10.

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Ware-Rabbit (2005) – Directed by Nick Park and Steve Box

A franchise very close to my heart, very few things are as quintessentially British as Wallace & Gromit. A mainstay of the British animation scene since the 1980’s, the popular duo made their feature-length debut in the mid-2000’s with what was once described as ‘the first ever vegetarian horror film’ it is as charming and quaint as you’d expect from Aardman and their flagship characters.

The Top 10

10: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) – Directed by Henry Selick

Also known as TIM BURTON’S The Nightmare Before Christmas, despite the fact that Tim Burton wasn’t the director, but the producer (great ego boost there, Tim) and the director was actually Henry Selick, who is actually more consistent than Burton as a director, in my humble opinion.

There are many forms of animation, from traditional, hand-drawn animation up to the current CGI method of making movie magic, but one form of animation that seems to get less and less exposure as time goes on is stop-motion animation. One of my honourable mentions (Wallace & Gromit) is also stop motion, and I’m very fond of the workmanship that must go into making these films what they are, with each scene taking weeks, if not months, to complete.

Nightmare Before Christmas is now a beloved cult classic nearly thirty years after its initial release, and it wears its dark, surreal, gothic influences on its sleeve, serving up a wonderful slice of dark musical fantasy that straddles the line between Halloween and Christmas, meaning it can be enjoyed at either holiday, or year ’round, if you’re a rebel.

I love the rich character designs of the character figures; the weird fantasy script and its memorable songs and voice cast make this as complete a package as you can get for a Christmas animation. It isn’t as deep as other animated films that will feature later on in this list, hence why it just makes it into tenth spot.

9: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) – Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman

I bring the list a little closer to the present day with number 9, and a film that straddles the line of two niches I know very well and have written about extensively in the past, that of animation and superhero movies.

Into the Spider-Verse was a pleasant surprise, and that might be the biggest understatement since Usain Bolt was merely described as ‘fast’. To say Sony Animation had a poor reputation is like saying that Jeffrey Dahmer was ‘a bit of a weirdo’ and their range of films up to this point had only ever reached the dizzying heights of ‘basically okay’ and had just the year prior released the abomination that was The Emoji Movie, so my own hopes were not high for the film prior to release.

Imagine my surprise then when what we got was a beautifully realised, comic book-inspired world, filled with complex and detailed characters and just the right spread of humour for there to be something to appeal to everyone. Far from being another Sony paint-by-numbers animation, Into the Spider-Verse ended up not only being one of the best animated films, but maybe one of the best superhero films too.

In terms of animation style, it was as if a comic book had been perfectly transferred onto screen frame-by-frame, and it all looked so seamless. It was visually striking, while also giving each character their own memorable look to distinguish them from the plethora of Spider-People taking up the screen; everyone got their time to shine, and the film itself shone like a supernova.

8: South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999) – Directed by Trey Parker

Lest you all think that animation is an art form purely for the family audience, here’s my adult-themed entry for the list, and moreover, the film I think that did the best job of making R-rated comedy work in a feature-length animation.

I did post my full review of this last month (available here) which tells you in-depth what I thought of the film, so I won’t go into too much detail, but this is what made the appeal of South Park make sense to me, even if I’m not the biggest fan of the show itself, I love the film because of what it manages to achieve.

It’s an R-rated film with very adult material, but it also has a message. While other animations have tried and failed to bring a more foul-mouthed comedic tone to the big screen (looking at you, Sausage Party) they didn’t realise that making an animated film with swearing and sex in just for the sake of it is pointless and uninteresting, whereas this film used it’s more mature tones to tell a cautionary tale about censorship, maybe not the most grounded take, granted, but an effective one.

It’s unmistakably South Park, but with a bigger sense of scale, not to mention a kick-ass soundtrack that laid the groundwork for Stone and Parker’s eventual foray into Broadway theatre, it manages what so many failed to do by being a light, entertaining comedy on the surface, while hiding an actually relevant message if you look closer, it used its material to make a point, rather than just telling fart jokes and cursing for the sake of it.

Also, as a bonus note, Sone and Parker’s Team America: World Police could have also been an inclusion on this list, and my praise would be more or less similar, but it lacks the killer edge and longevity that South Park has, so it just misses out.

7: Zootopia/Zootropolis (2016) – Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore

Despite confusing everyone with its two names (I’ll refer to it as Zootopia from here on in, because that is clearly the better name) this film is a fairly straightforward, but no less important and powerful, tale of acceptance and fighting injustice.

This film is a good example of what I mean when I talk about the p[potential of introducing complex issues to a younger audience, one of the key powers of animation, in my opinion, is its accessibility for everyone means that, with enough skill, any number of issues can be tackled in a digestible way to not only entertain, but to educate.

Even if the finer points go over the heads of younger viewers, it can still be enjoyed as a fun little animal comedy, and the adults might get a kick out of the deeper subtext, but the power of this film is how it uses colourful, talking animals to tell a relevant story about societal inequality, and it manages to do so with a rabbit as its main character.

As I say, even without reading this deep into the film, it’s still a very enjoyable experience, it’s funny, exciting, and very touching too; it’s everything that Disney has perfected over the last 90+ years concentrated into one package, I’d even go so far as to say that it’s Disney’s best film of the new millennium, and given time, it may be considered as one of their best ever.

The film is also helped by a stellar voice cast, not that we’d expect anything less, if we’ve learned anything in the past 20 years it’s that Disney always know how to cat their movies to perfection, with Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman leading the film with great distinction, it also boasts a wide and interesting supporting cast that help flesh out this anthropomorphic world of cartoon animals, and make it feel like a living, breathing world.

An outstanding film with many merits, Zootopia would rank much higher if not for the ridiculous quality of the Renaissance era, but I believe that given time for its legacy to grow, it may one day be considered alongside those films as some of the best Disney have ever produced.

6: Up (2009) – Directed by Pete Docter

A lot has been said about Up, especially of its opening 10 minutes, which did a great job in telling an during love story than most films do in their whole run-time, it also explores themes like grief, loneliness, and moving on, and does it with trademark eye for detail that Pixar specialise in, as well as including some truly memorable characters.

It manages to effortlessly mix darkness and light throughout the film; Carl’s loss of his adoring wife is juxtaposed with his unexpected friendship with Russell, the over-ambitious boy scout, who ends up tagging along for an adventure, and while the darker themes are always present, they are offset by lighter moments and characters, such as the dogs with malfunctioning voice boxes.

This being Pixar, and them having the most cutting-edge technology available to them, the film looks beautiful, sharp, and as crisp as any animation that has followed in the last few years. Again, there is a great sense of juxtaposition in the two main settings for the story; firstly, in the sprawling urban redevelopment that Carl escapes from, and then in the beautiful and hostile landscapes of Paradise Falls, the film is never dull to look at.

For me, a good family film is one that gains more and more depth the older you are, and Up is most certainly one of these films. It can just be a fun adventure for kids about a grumpy old man, a funny kid and a talking dog, but for older viewers, it might hit a little harder; and that is Pixar’s magic in a nutshell, most of their films are like those pictures where more things become apparent the more you look, there is depth to be found the harder you look.

Up is also one of only three animated films nominated for Best Picture, and in a genre as belittled by the Academy as animation, that is one hell of an achievement; and one it richly deserved for its touching narrative, beautifully realised worlds and stellar voice performances, it is a show of how strong some animated films are that this film doesn’t even make the top 5.

5: Coco (2017) – Directed by Lee Unkrich

To me, all the best Animated films are ones that cause an outpouring of emotion from the audience. Up is a good example of this (if you don’t shed a tear at its first ten minutes, you must have a heart of stone) and this film, for me, is another.

It was one moment in Coco that elevated it above the usual Pixar fare for me upon first viewing; I had very much enjoyed the film up to that point, but it was this one particular scene that made the entire film and all of its themes click into place, and in doing so, unleashed the floods of tears.

Towards the film’s climax, Miguel (the films hero) sings the song ‘Remember Me’ to his elderly great-grandmother Coco, a song that was introduced earlier in the film as the signature song of braggadocios Latino singe Ernesto de la Cruz, but we later found out that the song was originally written by Coco’s father who Miguel encounters in the spirit world, as a way for her to keep him in her mind while he was away, he is later murdered by Ernesto, and Miguel sings the song, as it was originally intended to the ailing Coco, as she starts to fade away.

The scene hits you like a train, brings together all of the films major plot points and pays them off in the most heart-breaking way imaginable. It succeeds in pulling all of the story’s dangling threads together, and brings Miguel’s family back together, at the very end of Coco’s life, it’s an extraordinary scene, and utterly breath-taking in its execution.

This isn’t the only thing about the film that makes it such a success however, it has many different reasons for its quality.

Firstly, is its setting and cultural themes. Based off Mexican celebrations of the Day of the Dead, it presents a fully realised version of the Latino afterlife, beautifully designed and brought to life by the artistic wizards at Pixar, whose reverence for the source material and Mexican culture as a whole can be felt in every frame.

Then there’s the characters, who are, for the most part, skeletons occupying the Land of the Dead, they are relatable and their struggles universal and recognisable. In many ways a lot of the characters are re-skins of old reliable tropes, but it’s their development as characters that really sets them apart, especially when it comes to Miguel and Hector, and the bond they cultivate.

This film may only be a few years old, but I can already see it being considered a classic in years to come; its story is universal and emotionally-driven, its characters human and relatable, and it’s soundtrack memorable, and at times tear-jerking, it is so close to perfection, yet it only just makes the top 5, purely on the strength of the four above it.

4: Toy Story 2 (1999) – Directed by John Lasseter

To be honest, any Toy Story film could have made this list, but I was strict on myself to restrict it to one per series, so you can consider Toy Story 1,3, and 4 as honourable mentions that I didn’t mention, mainly because it would immediately give away which instalment would ultimately make the list.

The second Toy Story film is, in my opinion, not only the best Toy Story film, but the best Pixar film. It’s a perfect combination of all the things that made the first film great, and the new ideas that would take the series to new heights, it felt like this sequel made the story into a perfect circle, it would have been just fine to leave the franchise at two instalments, not to take away from the two subsequently excellent successors, but we can view Toy Story 1 & 2 as one story, and we can say the same about 3 & 4, to be honest.

We can all agree that Toy Story was a perfect debut film for the fledgling Pixar studio, and the creators behind that film clearly took all the lessons they learned there and added extra bits of relish, showing their newly-gained experienced, they figured that people bought into the emotional side of Toy Story, so they dialled that up to eleven for the sequel, as well as raising the narrative stakes, and giving our heroes some complex decisions to make.

Woody goes through an incredible arc over the four-film series, and nowhere is his complexity as a character more evident than in this film. He’s loyal, he’s kind-hearted, but he’s also flawed, and has a tendency to be selfish, we saw that in the first film when Buzz arrived to steal his thunder, and we see it again here, albeit in a much softer light. You have to really hand it to the creators for making such a complex character the leading one in their franchise; they’re not afraid to show the bad sides of Woody, to show that everyone has flaws, and that’s probably my favourite part of the series as a whole: it uses anthropomorphic toy characters to explore different parts of the human character, and how complex people can be.

Honestly, I could talk on the merits of the Toy Story films until the cows come home, but we all know their quality. We’ve either grown up with them or had our children/grand-children grow up with them. They have the qualities of a timeless classic, enduring characters, narratives that are easily to follow but hide further depth, and a cohesive world around them.

The beauty in an enduring animated film is in the messages it can teach a younger audience, the kind of audience that don’t care about all the subtleties that I look for, they fall in love with the characters, and learn from their on-screen mistakes; a good animated film with a message behind it can convey the most complex of issues to a younger audience (see Zootopia) and make them understand them; Toy Story as a series is one that teaches the value of relationships, of friendships, and not just the positives, but the feelings of loss when they leave, which is why the third films ending was so effective, in this film, we learn about the lengths some friends will go to to save those they care about, and the struggle of being alone in an unfamiliar place, but still managing to make new friendships.

This whole series is a beautifully moving journey through many stages of human development, and the writers manage to convey that through talking toys. An unbelievable achievement, and an unbelievably good film to boot.

3: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) – Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise

For my money, this is the most underrated film in Disney’s canon. When the Disney Renaissance is mentioned, the same subjects will be brought up (and some of them might be brought up again here, hint hint) but this film is often lost in the conversation. Which is a real shame because it is a film of stunningly high quality, with a beautiful score and story to boot.

Let’s fixate on the score for a second, and let me say right now that this is my favourite soundtrack of any Disney film, epic and soaring in some parts, and introspective and heart-rending in others, it was only improved when the film was translated to the stage, but that’s beside the point, it’s a musical masterpiece, composed by two highly regarded musical minds, those being Disney legend Alan Menken, and Broadway veteran Stephen Schwartz.

But like everything attached to this film, the soundtrack is wildly underappreciated. It boasts perhaps one of the best Disney villain song in ‘Hellfire’ as well as a breath-taking opening number (‘The Bells of Notre Dame’). I get the feeling these tunes are overlooked simply because of their darker nature, something that can be said for the film as a whole too, it’s an incredibly dark tale for Disney, although not as dark as the book it is based off, including adding on a happy ending, such things can be annoying, of course, but I think an ending that sees someone burn to death, and then the titular character dying of grief might not have flown well with the marketing department.

That’s probably why it is so lost in the shuffle these days, it’s just not as easy to market as the other classic Renaissance films, it’s darker than the usual output, it’s atmosphere is dense and foreboding, but that just makes it all the more of a hidden gem.

It is also a fine example of how effective late-era hand-drawn animation is, blending that approach with CG enhancements to create one of the most gorgeous worlds Disney has created. It’s dense and dark, but also has a variety of different palates to showcase the different areas of Paris.

Although it is one of my all-time favourite films, it’s hard to really put into words why I love it so much (which is a shame, because that’s my job) I could reel off the usual points of animation, story and soundtrack, but there’s something deeper there, a connection between myself and the film that is hard to describe.

I think it has something to do with the films protagonists being ‘outcasts. Rather than the main character being a dashing prince or destined hero, he’s a deformed, abused figure who just has more heart than any of his peers, he has more humanity than anyone else, even though he’s described as a ‘monster’ and as someone who grew up ostracised and cast out, I relate to Quasimodo more than any Prince Charming.

It also remains one of the few Disney films where the lead doesn’t ‘get the girl’, as he realises that her friendship is enough, and how many films have that kind of message? It’s so refreshing next to most typical animated stories, and like any great film aimed at a younger audience, there are positive messages to be learned; the main one being that sometimes the most ugly exteriors are merely hiding the most beautiful of interiors, which is also a good analogy for the film as a whole.

2: Beauty and the Beast (1991) – Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise

To me, the early-90’s were the peak of the Renaissance-era at Disney, the mid-to-late 90’s would also have their gems, both hidden and otherwise, but it was the early years of the decade that bore the most fruit for the House of Mouse.

There were three genuine all-time classic in a row from 1991 to 1994, including this film, Aladdin, and the film that I have yet to reveal as my number one, although I may have just given it away to those who are in the know as to when the films were released…

There is a reason this era’s films are now being milked to oblivion with live-action remakes, it’s because those who are nostalgic for these films are now old enough to have kids, and Disney know a payday when they see one, and no film was less in need of the live-action treatment than Beauty and the Beast, wish its mythical beasts and talking cutlery, it’s the kind of thing that works brilliantly with the magic of animation, but looks a tad jarring in live-action (as the 2017 remake shows).

As well as being one of the most critical and commercially successful periods in company history, the Renaissance also saw the peak of animation standards for the time, and even now, some of the films stand head-and-shoulders above others, for example, there’s the now-classic ballroom scene, which still looks stunning all those years on, and is superior in every way to its later incarnation.

The soundtrack is another Menken classic. Composed with long-time song writing partner Howard Ashman and is, tragically, their last full collaboration before Ashman’s passing in 1991. Their obvious chemistry is abundant here and the songs take on a whole other dimension when you factor in the fact that Howard Ashman’s health was undoubtedly deteriorating during the writing, the beautiful words he contributed helped lift this film to the reputation it now enjoys, and his legacy is that of wonderful songs in exceptional films.

Once again, it is a help that deals with unconventional views of beauty, and inner strength over vanity, which are shown in their portrayal of both Gaston, and the titular Beast, one who fails to see the error of their ways, and gets their just desserts (Gaston) and one who learns the error of their ways and how beauty is just as internal as external. A ‘tale as old as time’ indeed.

Beauty and the Beast is also a rare example of a film that crossed-over into mainstream respectability, something the medium is rarely afforded, when it was nominated for the Best Picture at the 1992 Academy Awards, it led the foundations for further recognition at such ceremonies, as much as current awards merely pay lip service to the art, as opposed to celebrating it openly, we have this film to thank for that.

All of these things come together to make a nearly perfect film. A timeless story, beautifully realised, scored and acted. It would undoubtedly be my favourite animated film of all-time, were it not for…

1: The Lion King (1994) – Directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff

Here it is, my favourite animated film of all-time, one that was recently put through the live-action ringer as well, and yet the drawbacks of the newest iteration didn’t manage to spoil its legacy in any way.

One of the few Renaissance-era classics to NOT be based off a popular fairy tale, The Lion King instead took inspiration from Shakespeare, of all things, presenting us with a version of Hamlet that saw the titular Prince and his family replaced by anthropomorphic lions (as well as other animals like meerkats, warthogs, and hornbills) and you know what? Give me the talking lions over Shakespeare any day of the week.

This is a film that shows an animation studio at the height of its powers and influence, realising another breath-taking world of the African Serengeti, and all of the creatures that inhabit it with astounding amounts of visual flair.

The iconic opening scene sets the stage perfectly; playing out like a showcase for all the animators involved, we see this world of animals come to life and assemble before our very eyes, as the music swells, this world of animals celebrates the birth of a Prince, and without a single line of spoken dialogue, the world and everything in it makes complete sense.

There is so much to talk about with this film that this entry could go on forever, so many points whizz around my head, but for the sake of brevity, let’s stick to the main points, as otherwise this might end up being as lengthy as a novel.

The score is probably what springs to mind first for most people when thinking of The Lion King indeed, when thinking of the aforementioned opening scene, it’s impossible to recount it without remembering the just-as-iconic Swahili chanting over the first shot of a rising sun, this is an indication that both music and visuals will exists to enhance each other, and makes for perfect bedfellows.

Disney also scored its biggest named composer thus far when looking for someone to do The Lion King’s music. Bringing in Sir Elton John was a work of genius in itself but pairing him with Tim Rice just put the cherry on top of a delicious cake; and the result was one of the most celebrated soundtracks in Disney history. So good were the songs written for the film that no less than three were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song (‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’ was the winner, with ‘Hakuna Matata’ and ‘Circle of Life’ also being nominated) add to this an additional score by Hans Zimmer, and you have one of the most extraordinarily sounding animated films in history.

The animation was also impeccable, bringing to life a vibrant landscape of the African plains, while juxtaposing this with the darker, grungier settings that the hyenas dwell in, while also finding time to construct a colourful world away from Pride Rock where Timon and Pumbaa live, and you get a complete picture of life for the furry inhabitants of the Serengeti; most of whom are realised in the film too, each exhibiting their own unique designs to make them stand out amongst the throngs of animals present in this film.

The cast is also a winner too. Coming at around the time when Disney were perfecting the art of casting their animated films with established names and capable comedic performers to keep the cast of characters interesting, the thinking surely being that it worked with Robin Williams, maybe they’ll strike gold again and that they do with the casting of Nathan Lane as the motormouth meerkat Timon, and his downtrodden sidekick Pumbaa voiced by a much more reserved, but no less funny Ernie Sabella. This is without mentioning leading performances from established names like Matthew Broderick (Simba), James Earl Jones (Mufasa), and the incredibly menacing Jeremy Irons (Scar).

Put all these elements – as well as a few others I haven’t mentioned – and you get perhaps the most perfectly measured dose of animated goodness. A classic story, told by memorable and interesting characters, with one of the greatest soundtracks to any animated film ever. The Lion King is as mighty as the animal from which it takes its name, and it will take an almighty effort to dislodge its crown.

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