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.