30. “The Emperor’s New Groove” (2000)
When Disney started to go off the rails at the turn of the century, the result was a series of unsuccessful course corrections that lasted nearly a decade without a real hit. Nevertheless, there were gems to be found in this period, and perhaps the most fun of those gems was “The Emperor’s New Groove.” Initially meant to be a musical epic but retooled late in the game as a sort of gonzo comedy utterly out of step with most other Disney pics, the film sees arrogant, spoiled Incan emperor Kuzco (David Spade) transformed into a llama by his evil advisor (Eartha Kitt), and forced to team with the kind peasant Pacha (John Goodman). It’s both atypically small in the scope of its story (there are really only four major character, including Patrick Warburton’s all-timer of a dimwit henchman Kronk), but pleasingly loose in its interests, with an anything-goes sense of humor falling somewhere between Chuck Jones absurdism and Golden Age “Simpsons.” It’s admittedly minor, but it’s also far, far more enjoyable than most.
29. “Mary And Max” (2009)
Two things that you don’t see much of: animated films from Australia, and animated films based on true stories. But on the basis of “Mary And Max,” we should see a lot more of both. The first feature film from director Adam Elliot (who won the short-film Oscar for 2003’s “Harvie Krumpet”), and based on his own friendship with a New York pen pal, it’s the muted-palette stop-motion tale of an Australian child (Bethan Whitmore) who writes a letter to an autistic New Yorker (Philip Seymour Hoffman), sparking a friendship that lasts decades. It sometimes leans a little over-quirky, but its fearlessness in tackling subjects not often dealt with in animated film — loneliness, depression, bullying, mental illness, Aspergers — is entirely welcome, particularly when it does so with real sensitivity and feeling. And by the time it reaches its ending, the mutually rewarding bond between the two is utterly moving, and has only become more so since the sad death of Hoffman.
28. “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit” (2005)
After winning two Oscars (and a further nomination) for their earlier shorts starring the character, Nick Park and Aardman had to work against high expectations for the first feature-length “Wallace & Gromit” movie. “The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit” isn’t quite as perfect as “The Wrong Trousers” or “A Close Shave,” but that still makes it a total triumph. Park and Steve Box’s film takes the claymation characters, a middle-aged Yorkshire inventor (Peter Sallis) and his silent long-suffering dog, and drops them in the middle of a sort of Hammer Horror pastiche, as their pest-control company is threatened by a part-man, part-rabbit, while Wallace competes for the attentions of Lady Tottington (Helena Bonham Carter) with the villainous Lord Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes). It doesn’t quite have the emotional resonance of some of these films, but the cracking action sequences, beautiful design and deeply British wit more than make up for it.
27. “Lilo & Stitch” (2002)
The late ’90s and early ’00s were a bleak time for Disney animation: That pre-“Frozen” era paid almost nothing off at the box office, in large part because films like “Brother Bear” and “Home On The Range” were extremely poor. But the major shining light (along with “The Emperor’s New Groove,” see above) was “Lilo & Stitch.” It’s a riff on “E.T.” on the surface — eccentric young girl befriends intergalactic runaway — but directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois (who’d go on to make “How To Train Your Dragon”) make it sing through specificity: the delirious mischief of the adorably psychotic Stitch, the gorgeously realized Hawaiian setting, and the surprising pathos of Lilo and her older sister, who are being investigated by social services. It perhaps doesn’t stand with the early ’90s late golden age of Disney, but it’s a wonderfully weird and enormously satisfying film.
26.”Winnie The Pooh” (2011)
Every generation feels a sense that the children of today are missing out on some vital part of childhood due to the technological advancements of modern life (right back to the first Neolithic Dad who shook his head sadly at his son’s use of those new-fangled bronze tools). But Disney’s hand-animated “Winnie The Pooh” from directors Don Hall and Stephen J. Anderson evokes simpler times with charm and wit and even — gasp! — suggests the pleasures of reading, with the characters interacting with text on the page in a continually inventive way. It’s admittedly for very young children, and some adults who grew up with previous Disney Pooh films were apparently disappointed that this wasn’t quite as, well, Disneyfied. But this is a short, calm, gently screwy homage to one of the sweetest and best-loved children’s characters of all time that respects Pooh’s original source material — A.A. Milne’s wonderful books.
25. “Rango” (2011)
Even when the original “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies weren’t working, they were still admirably weird. So it’s unsurprising in retrospect than when director Gore Verbinski and star Johnny Depp reteamed for an animated picture, they produced one of the odder animated movies ever made by a studio. Melding “Chinatown” with any one of a number of classic Westerns, but with animals and a slightly deranged high-on-peyote vibe, it sees Depp’s Hunter S. Thompson-ish chameleon become mistaken for a hero by a town suffering from drought. Rehearsed with the actors in costume (an absolute rarity in the animation world) before being brought to stunning life by Industrial Light & Magic, the VFX company’s sole animated feature to date, it’s a reminder of the oddball vision that Verbinski could bring without blockbuster bloat, and while it barely even qualifies as a kids’ movie, it still proves an enormously entertaining trip.
24. “A Town Called Panic” (2009)
Based on a gently surreal French-language TV show and bearing the distinction of being the first stop-motion animation ever to be shown at Cannes, “A Town Called Panic” from Belgians Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar is the absurd story of Cowboy (a plastic toy cowboy), Indian (a plastic toy Indian) and Horse (a plastic toy you get the idea) who live together in a house in the country and get into inexplicable scrapes. An attempt to celebrate Horse’s birthday goes awry when an internet order for 50 bricks accidentally is mistaken for 50 million bricks, and so they build big walls which are stolen by malicious sea creatures, so they go track them down through a terrains snowy, airborne, subterranean and forested… the plot makes zero sense and the story can feel as jerky as the charmingly crude animation. But it’s also invested with a totally lunatic energy that’s less about grand narrative arcs than the momentary interactions and weirdnesses that cram every single bonkers scene.
23. “Millennium Actress” (2001)
We’ve mentioned Satoshi Kon more than once here: He was one of the most exciting talents not just in Japanese animation, but in animation in general, and it’s heartbreaking to think of the work that we would have got to see from him in the decade since, given that every one of his features is interesting to one degree or another., But we’d probably argue that his masterpiece was his second feature, 2001’s “Millennium Actress.” Far more mature than most animated features, this film has a fascinating concept, as an elderly retired movie star brings a documentary crew through her memories, switching genres and form as she tells her story through her cinematic roles. Fans of clear-cut narrative are likely to be left disappointed, but there’s a fascinating and rich puzzle box to untangle, grappling successfully with Kon’s favorite themes of the nature of reality and the power of art.
22. “Monster House” (2006)
Easily the best of Robert Zemeckis’ performance-capture films, partly due to only being creepy when it’s trying to be and partly by not being directed by Zemeckis (Gil Kenan had the gig instead), “Monster House” is the rare film to pull off both ‘Burtonesque’ and ‘Amblin-esque’ in a successful manner, and does so with a heap of heart and scares in the process. Co-written by “Community” creator Dan Harmon and his friend Rob Schrab, it’s the tale of three adventurous pre-teens investigating a spooky local home. Working where “The Polar Express” didn’t by stylizing the characters further, it makes its young protagonists believably and likably childlike in a way that few films bother with, leading to both great gags ( “It’s the uvula!” “So it’s a girl house?”) and pathos more effective than most. There are better looking films here, but few that are as much fun.
21. “How To Train Your Dragon” (2010)
Its films vary in quality from the nearly great (“Kung Fu Panda,” the original “Shrek”) to the surprisingly entertaining (“Madagascar 3” — no, seriously!) to the essentially worthless (later “Shrek” sequels, “Shark Tale”), but whatever the turnout, DreamWorks Animation has almost always been seen as second fiddle to Pixar. The exception being “How To Train Your Dragon,” a thrilling adventure tale that combines a boy-and-his-dog, “E.T”-ish central relationship between a young Viking and his dragon pal with stunning, 3D-enabled flying sequences, world-building and the company’s most painterly visuals (created with aid of cinematography legend Roger Deakins). So often DreamWorks falls back on pop-culture gags or celebrity casting, but this (and to a lesser extent its sequel) is where they let the story lead the way, and the result is an absolute triumph.