It’s sort of remarkable, the ways that animation on the big screen has changed in the past two decades or so. In the early ’90s, the game was pretty much entirely owned by Disney’s hand-drawn animated fairy tales, which were hugely successful but almost entirely seen as kids’ stuff, with the occasional Don Bluth or Ralph Bakshi effort winning some eyes but not really competing; and the beginning of an interesting scene in Japan that largely failed to crossover to mainstream audiences stateside.
But as the end of the 20th century closed in, things shifted seismically. Disney’s alliance with Pixar saw the explosion of computer animation, which all but killed traditional 2D hand-drawn stuff. Disney boss Jeffrey Katzenberg defected and founded DreamWorks Animation, and soon every other studio was getting in on the act, with varying degrees of success. Japan’s Studio Ghibli won more and more fans, and international and independent animators found it easier and easier to get their films in front of people. Disney ebbed away to the point of disaster, then came back stronger than ever.
It’s been a tumultuous time, and one that’s seen a whole heap of animated greatness for young and old audiences alike arrive. How this week’s “The Secret Life Of Pets” matches up remains to be seen — it’s probably not a classic, let’s face it, though it’s hopefully a reasonably good time at the movies — but it put us in a cartoon mood. And so we’ve expanded our old list of the 25 Best Animated Films Of The 21st Century (part of our occasional Best Of The Century So Far features) from a year or two ago to a whopping 50, to include more of the movies we wished we had space for last time around. Take a look at the list below, and make your disagreements and agreements known in the comments.
50. “Brave” (2012)
Inexplicably dismissed by many on release (perhaps because it was more female-driven than most Pixar movies), “Brave” is already aging well just a few years on. Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman’s film about a feisty young Scottish princess (Kelly MacDonald) who accidentally turns her mother (Emma Thompson) into a bear is atypically straightforward for a Pixar film, with a folklore simplicity that feels more influenced by Hayao Miyazaki or Tomm Moore than John Lasseter. What initially might have felt thin has now shown itself to be something truly resonant, a film with a rare focus: on the fractious, ultimately loving relationship between a mother and a daughter. Sprinkled with a feel of real magic, and topped with one of the most emotional finales the studio has made, it’ll only grow in people’s estimation over time once its departure from Pixar formula settles in a bit.
49. “The Pirates! Band Of Misfits” (2012)
After a series of disappointments — “Flushed Away,” “Arthur Christmas,” a warehouse fire, a split with DreamWorks — ‘The Pirates!’ was the kind of modest triumph that Aardman Animations needed to put them back on top. Based on a series of books and directed by Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt, the film takes a decidedly silly approach to high-seas plundering, with Hugh Grant’s Pirate Captain and his crew teaming up with Charles Darwin (David Tennant) to win Pirate Of The Year. With a cast also including Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton (as a hilariously psychotic Queen Victoria), Jeremy Piven and Salma Hayek, the film comes across as a pleasingly anarchic, low-key counterpoint to the billion-dollar glitz of most animated films, the closest thing you can get to a full-length Monty Python animation, with more consistent laughs than almost anything else on this list.
48. “Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs” (2009)
The film that first introduced mainstream audiences to the very particular sensibilities of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, “Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs” couldn’t have looked much more unpromising on paper: a disaster-movie parody based on a 34-page children’s book. But in Lord and Miller’s hands, the film — which follows Bill Hader’s eccentric inventor Flint Lockwood as he invents a machine that rains food on his hometown, only to see it become a Roland Emmerich-style world-threatener — was both visually and comedically inventive, able to draw out belly laughs from young and old while throwing some truly impressive 3D spectacle at you. But it did more, too, with a sweet-natured, simple moral backbone about being true to yourself and letting your special qualities flourish — not reinventing the wheel, exactly, but rarely as well-executed as it is here. No wonder its directors have since gone on to conquer the world.
47. “Tokyo Godfathers” (2003)
Perhaps no Japanese animated director had greater range than the late, much-missed Satoshi Kon, and “Tokyo Godfathers” is his most atypical film. The exact midpoint of Italian neo-realism and,well, “Three Men And A Baby,” it sees a trio of homeless people — alcoholic Gin (Toru Emori), trans woman Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki) and runaway Miyuki (Aya Okamoto) — encounter an abandoned child in the trash, and set out to reunite with its parents. The film has flaws that some of Kon’s other work doesn’t — it’s sloppily plotted (Kon would claim that the film was about coincidences, but it doesn’t make the contrived quality any easier) and a bit treacly in places. But the warmth and compassion, particularly in its treatment of the three central characters and its portrait of the child’s real mother, makes up for any holes, and it’s such a charming fable that its memory lingers long after the frustration of the plot has passed.
46. “Frankenweenie” (2012)
Most right-minded people would agree that most of what Tim Burton has done this century has been a crushing disappointment, an increasing ossification of a once talented and distinctive filmmaker. But there’s actually a bit of a gem among the rough: the charming and rather beautiful “Frankenweenie,” which returned Burton to his roots in more ways than one. A remake of the live-action short film that helped bring him to people’s attention, it sees the bond between a boy and his dog severed when the adorable Sparky is run over, only for his owner Victor (Charlie Tahan) to resurrect him, Mary Shelley-style. Put together in striking black-and-white stop-motion, and with big-eyed Burton-style characters, it’s a visual pleasure, but a narrative one too, with John August’s script successfully expanding things to pay homage both to “Frankenstein” and to a host of other monster movies too. It’s deeply felt stuff, and perhaps the closest we’ve come in a while to the real Burton.
45. “Zootopia” (2016)
The recent turn-around in Disney animation has been something to see: After spending most of the ’00s in their worst-ever rut, the stewardship of John Lasseter has seen a run of commercial triumphs from “Bolt” to “Frozen.” We’d argue that so far, few have been good enough to truly compete with the best of Pixar, but this year’s “Zootopia” comes closest. Its conceit — ‘world of animals’ — is simple almost to the point of laziness, but directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore build a legitimately fascinating world and a surprisingly involving “Chinatown”-style buddy cop mystery around it. It adheres to formula a little too closely, and the politics are a bit muddled, but the craft, and quality of voice performances (Jason Bateman’s arguably never been better) go a long way to make up for it. And again, that world is one that you positively want to swim in, to the extent that the now-inevitable sequel feels like good news rather than bad.
44. “Kung Fu Panda” (2008)
DreamWorks Animation’s formula, derived mostly from the “Shrek” movies — star voices plus cute animals plus movie references — led to great commercial success in the ’00s, but relatively few critical plaudits, and eventually a slight sense of diminishing returns. But they’ve had some highlights along the way, and “Kung Fu Panda” is undoubtedly one of them. In many respects, the story, which sees Jack Black’s slovenly panda become a martial-arts master to battle evil forces, follows the company’s formula. But there’s a greater artistry at work here thanks to John Stevenson and Mark Osborne’s direction, a sense of scope and ambition that dwarfs most of the DreamWorks output, a solid sense of story that juggles heart and gags effectively, and even (and perhaps most essentially, given the title) some cracking action sequences. The two sequels are both pretty good, but the original feels the most distinctive today.
43. “Shaun The Sheep Movie” (2015)
There’s little more dispiriting, animation-wise, than the idea of the TV-cartoon-to-movie spin-off: When the best-case scenario is “The Simpsons Movie,” you know you’re in trouble. But trust the great Aardman to buck the trend with their big-screen version of their “Shaun The Sheep” series for very young kids (which is in itself a “Wallace & Gromit” spin-off). Made for relatively little cash by directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak, the film strands its titular hero and his flock in the big city where they must flee an animal-control guy in order to find their way home. Beautifully animated in the company’s trademark stop-motion style, the film’s almost entirely without dialogue, which sets up obvious comparison points to Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Jacques Tati. Such comparisons prove to be surprisingly justified: This is pure, joyous visual storytelling, with some of the most perfect comic timing you’ll see, and gorgeously expressive animation throughout. U.S. audiences slept on it, but it deserves to be sought out.
42. “Paprika” (2006)
Heartbreakingly, Satoshi Kon only made four movies before he passed away of cancer at the age of just 46. All four were terrific, but his final one might have been his most ambitious. Based on Yasutaka Tsutsui’s novel, it’s set in a world where people can go into people’s dreams with the help of a machine called the DC Mini, which has now been stolen (and yes, people drew comparisons with “Inception” when the latter arrived, though, their conceit aside, things are quite different). It’s an absolute visual stunner, with Kon throwing everything but the kitchen sink (and actually, quite possibly the kitchen sink, too) at you, leading to some utterly stunning, feverish sequences with everything from giant babies to faces in clouds. Amid the craziness, the narrative gets lost in the mud a little bit, but frankly, it’s such a heady, trippy visual delight that it doesn’t matter too much. We’ve had few losses from the animation world as painful as Kon’s early departure.
41. “Song Of the Sea” (2014)
Quietly, Tomm Moore and his Cartoon Saloon company have been building an animation powerhouse in Ireland, a nation without a long tradition of great animated films, but one that’s growing every time Moore puts out a new film. His second was 2014’s “Song Of The Sea,” an utterly charming tale told in a trademark crisp, circular style about the two children of a lighthouse keeper, one of whom, the silent Saoirse, turns out to be a selkie (part humans, part seals). Feeling like a warm hug, melding Celtic folklore and a Studio Ghibli vibe, it’s soulful and haunting stuff that’s deceptively narratively rigorous, with such an assured mood and tone (thanks in part to a lovely score by Bruno Coulais and Kíla) that you can’t quite believe that Moore is yet to be 40. He perhaps has yet to make his absolute masterpiece, but on the evidence of this and its predecessor (see below), it’s not far away.