Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse winning the Best Animated Feature Oscar was a victory just about everyone appreciated. In the context of any list of the best animated movies ever, Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse is a victory for how far the medium has come.
Its victory is also a culmination of the writers, directors, animators, voice actors, and others who have contributed to the evolution of this medium in one way or another. Animation has been around for roughly as long as film itself. Unfortunately, even as it developed from Gertie to Snow White and beyond, it never quite got the respect it deserved.
Even when Fritz the Cat made the rounds in the 1970’, an animated film clearly for adults, the medium has never been able to shake the notion that it’s for kids. Even now, a lot of people will tell you that they enjoy animated films, but only in the context of how the children in the room liked it. Despite the fact that these films have grossed billions of dollars, and despite a growing tide of adults who are indifferent to whether or not people even care that they like animated movies, there is still something that stops an awful lot of people from treating animated films as seriously as live-action films.
Sure, a lot of them are for kids. We are nonetheless deep enough into their ongoing history to appreciate that a lot of those same movies for kids have been made with other age groups in mind. Some show that in their humor, while others show it by punching the same emotional buttons that ultimately appeal to most of us. You also have animated movies that are not for kids in any form or fashion.
At the end of the day, as important as they are, there is nonetheless a lot out there for anyone who wants to go beyond Disney, Dreamworks, or any of the animation heavyweights you know offhand. Any list of the best animated movies of all time will show you just how much has been done in the field.
This list certainly will, as well as a handful of honorable mentions.
The Best Animated Movies of All-Time
1. Fantasia (1940)
Among other things, Walt Disney believed in the potential of animation unlike anyone before him. Fantasia, released the same year as Disney’s Pinocchio, is still highly-regarded for its fearless ambition to show what animation could do (with a little 1940s racism, but hey) as art and entertainment. Most of the segments retain their appeal, as well, in the sense of their style, characters, and moments of spectacular beauty put to beautiful music.
The story of animation simply cannot be told without Disney. Fantasia remains one of their most significant, meaningful contributions.
Watch if: Quite frankly, you have to see the Mickey Mouse segment. You just have to. Avoid if: No, seriously, just go see it.
2. Yellow Submarine (1968)
The animation is a little dated, but the ambition of this 1968 little tab of sunshine is well worth appreciating in the present. Yellow Submarine has enough weirdness going for it to be enjoyed under a contemporary light. At the same time, you probably want to be a fan of The Beatles going in.
While weak on things like plot and characterization, Yellow Submarine is still an oddly satisfying descent into the compromises made when you don’t have as much money as you should. Yellow Submarine helped further then notion that animation could deal in complex concepts or be compelling to people older than age 10.
Watch if: You want to see a strange trip indeed, man. Avoid if: You’re more of a Rolling Stones sort, or you really hate hippies.
To some, writer/director/animator Ralph Bakshi is just as important as Walt Disney. Regardless of how you feel about that, Fritz the Cat is a wild historical document indeed. Based on the comics by the iconic Robert Crumb, Fritz the Cat is crass, eager to offend absolutely everyone, and as subtle as a cop’s nightstick to the back of the head.
It is also quite frankly hilarious in places, with a depiction of its time and place that honestly still feels at home in the 21st century.
Fritz the Cat was also successful enough to make it clear that adults were at least willing to watch cartoons for adults. It would pave the way for films like Heavy Metal and Rock and Rule.
Watch if: You want to see an example of someone messing around, and still producing some interesting results. Avoid if: You’re looking for something a little more mature in your adult animation.
4. Fantastic Planet (1973)
Despite a story that occasionally comes off a little heavy-handed, Fantastic Planet was a bold achievement for animation, combined with a unique visual style and one of the most fascinating stories ever committed to the medium at that point.
The story of human-like Oms and the dominant, large, and blue creatures known as the Draags is presumably an allegory about racism. Even if you don’t particularly care about that, it’s hard not to be pulled in by Fantastic Planet’s weird rhythm, which is set against some haunting, often minimalist visuals.
Watch if: You want to appreciate one of the most hypnotic animated films ever made. Avoid if: You’re not good at waiting for something to happen.
5. Heavy Metal (1981)
Based on the legendary adult comic book, Heavy Metal is that grubby little entity you love in spite of its noticeable flaws. Divided into several stories, each of which aspire to cram an overwhelming amount of violence, nudity, and madness into every single scene, Heavy Metal is more of an experience than an actual movie, but it’s an experience that remains worth taking—if only once.
The movie also has some fun voice acting turns from the likes of John Candy, Harold Ramis, John Vernon, and Eugene Levy. The stories themselves are written by the likes of Dan O’Bannon (Alien) and Daniel Goldberg. Finally, Heavy Metal also features a range of songs that are just as crucial to the tone and style of this movie as anything else.
Watch if: You want to see an animated film go for absolute broke. Avoid if: You have a low tolerance for weak characters and/or sexism.
6. The Secret Of NIHM (1982)
In 1979, Don Bluth, one of Disney’s top animators, packed up and left to start his own production company. At this point, it was still unimaginable that anyone not Disney (who would struggle heavily through this decade) could sustain itself as an animation studio, producing features on par with what Disney was still doing at that point.
For at least a little while, Bluth proved conventional wisdom wrong, starting with the wonderous, shockingly dark, and intensely multifaceted The Secret of NIHM. While Disney was struggling to establish a direction, Don Bluth stunned audiences and critics alike with what NIHM brought to the table. It brought a sense of wonder back to animation, and it emphasized that animated features could tall complex stories that had the ability to appeal to a wide range of ages without pandering.
Boasting one of the best voice casts ever assembled for an American animated film, The Secret of NIHM also made it abundantly clear that animation could get just as dark as any other type of movie.
Watch if: You want to see one of the most impressive literary adaptations of all time. Avoid if: You have a low threshold for tragedy and mystery.
Grave of the Fireflies is almost certainly the darkest, bleakest entry on this list. Studio Ghibli is known for classic family films like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Grave of the Fireflies was released on the cusp of the studio establishing themselves in that vein.
The story of two orphans trying to survive the horrors of World War II in Japan, in the immediate aftermath of the war, is exactly as unflinchingly somber and brutal as you may think. It is also one of the most impassioned, unforgettable dramas in film history, animated or otherwise.
Just make sure you queue up something to cheer you up afterwards. My god, you’re going to need it.
Watch if: You want to see one of the best films ever made about World War II. Avoid if: You’re easily depressed by sad movies.
8. Akira (1988)
As we are now living in the year in which Akira takes place, people are inevitably discussing this movie in the context of how it measures up to the 2019 we actually wound up with. All the same, Akira, which tells the story of a young man who essentially becomes a really angry god, has endured through the decades as one of the best anime movies of all time.
From its spellbinding, haunting depiction of the future, to its dazzling touches of chaos and madness, it’s hard to argue with the movie’s continued place in film history.
Even today, you can see it creating and retaining an element of spectacle that showcases the uniqueness of anime and animation in general.
Watch if: You want to see some cool kids go through some tough times. Avoid if: You need your movies to make sense.
9. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
I know more than a couple of people who consider this to be the best Batman movie ever made. Personally, I’d say that’s still Batman Returns. Nonetheless, this film, released at the height of the 90s animated series with Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill, is an incredible visual and storytelling achievement.
It offers a unique approach to telling a Batman story in a feature film setting. This is particularly true in the sense that it not only depicts Batman battling The Joker and a mysterious new vigilante in the present, but it also shows more of Batman’s history than any other film had up to that point.
Somewhat ignored during its initial release, Mask of the Phantasm is widely considered today to be one of the best superhero films of the pre-MCU days. It stands up nicely with those live-action movies in the present, as well.
Watch if: You want to see one of the best superhero movies of all time. Avoid if: You like Batman stories with wall-to-wall action.
10. The Lion King (1994)
Whether or not you believe Disney stole The Lion King from Osamu Tezuka’s Kimba the White Lion (there’s a lot of compelling evidence), it’s impossible to deny just how extraordinary The Lion King is in every possible sense.
This was perhaps the peak of Disney’s 90s hitmaking, with a film that was not only every bit as ambitious as a live action movie, but also stood as a testament to the singular qualities of animation.
The upcoming live-action remake will be every bit as expensive and ambitious as the 1994 original. It just won’t have the same sense of amazement.
Watch if: You want to see peak Disney in a good way. Avoid if: You already saw Kimba.
Based on a book by Ted Hughes (the asshole Sylvia Plath married), The Iron Giant was an unfortunate box-office failure when released in 1999. The movie’s worldwide gross falling well under its $70 million dollar budget ruined careers, and led to the film’s studio (Warner Bros.) president Lorenzo di Bonaventura to remark “People always say to me, ‘Why don’t you make smarter family movies?’ The lesson is, Every time you do, you get slaughtered.”
In other words, not only is The Iron Giant one of the greatest animated animated of all time, it is also one of the last true cult films. Extremely well-reviewed at the time, the story of a young boy who befriends a giant robot-like creature from space, The Iron Giant is one of the most moving films ever made.
It found an audience on home video, and its esteem has only grown over time. It is a perfect childhood fantasy, with elements of Cold War paranoia, the emotional toll of divorce, and gentle oddities thrown in to make it absolutely perfect.
Watch if: You want to marvel at a beautiful animation style, and perhaps have a good cry. Avoid if: You’re firmly entrenched in believing an animated movie can’t stir your emotions.
12. Shrek (2001)
Forget about the sequels, TV specials, and everything else they’ve done. Most of it just distracts from the fact that the first Shrek packed references, social commentary, and some glorious digs at Disney into a ridiculous story about ogres, a talking donkey, the dragon the donkey almost certainly bones, and other fairytale fixtures.
Shrek is still pretty funny, and the way it used its soundtrack, which is another element that would eventually wear out its welcome with the sequels, could be considered game-changing.
Watch if: You have a noted love-hate relationship with Disney, and you want to fall in love with a bunch of characters at once. Avoid if: You’re not sure it’s possible to enjoy Shrek in 2019, after everything the internet has done to it.
13. Persepolis (2007)
Graphic novels have not surprisingly leant themselves well to animation, although many of them wind up becoming live action endeavors. More often than not, that is fair enough. However, in the case of Persepolis, adapted from the graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi (who co-directed this film, as well), I’m grateful it was animated.
This story of a young girl coming of age during the Iranian Revolution uses animation in beautiful, varied ways. This is a story of youth, madness, sorrow, love, anger, and much more. The animation style moves around these emotions like an ocean, creating one of the most most stunning animated films ever made.
Watch if: You want an animated film with serious depth and history. Avoid if: You still can’t take animation seriously.
Toy Story established animation studio Pixar in 1995. They in turn ushered in a new age of animation, and of the idea that animated movies could appeal to wide audiences in a fashion that genuinely qualifies as timeless. Toy Story 3, released 15 years after the first, represented the culmination of everything Pixar had become at that point. Their animation style had evolved, and their stories were showing an increasing willingness to trust that audiences could handle dark, even haunting material.
Because without question, Toy Story 3, which forces Woody, Buzz, Jesse the Cowgirl, and the other toys to re-establish a justification for their existence, after their owner outgrows them, Toy Story 3 is going to haunt you. The fact that it does this in equal measure to how often it warms or delights you is even more unsettling.
Watch if: You want to see the most startlingly deep story about toys anyone will probably ever make. Avoid if: You don’t have immediate access to your childhood toys.
15. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
Featuring a top-to-bottom perfect voice cast, and what is currently the most incredible example of animation’s ongoing evolution at this precise moment in time, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is also just an incredibly charming, well-told superhero story. It is the kind of comic book adventure that can win over just about anyone. Even joyless, comic-bashing turds like Bill Maher would probably enjoy the first film appearance of Miles Morales as Spider-Man.
It really is just that good. The best part? Even if it just as simple as this movie being perfect on every level, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is also a wake-up call to anyone who still believes comic books can’t be taken seriously either. Slowly, but thankfully, surely, more and more people are seeing just what these mediums can do.
Watch if: You want to see one of the best movies of 2018. Avoid if: You just can’t handle a plethora of Spider-Folks.
Best Animated Movies – Honorable Mentions
Don’t get too mad at this article on the best animated movies — it barely starts the conversation. To that end, here are five runners up (in no particular order) that were particularly hard to cut from the final list:
– The Triplets of Belleville (2003) – Rock and Rule (1983) – Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) – Spirited Away (2001) – Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)