Walt Disney Studios is considered the king of animation, but they are hardly the only studio churning out animated movies. Across the pond, you’ll find Studio Ghibli and many other powerhouses in the industry, some of which have created animated classics far better than some of what Disney has produced over the years.
The best aspect of animation is that it isn’t a genre, as it can be about literally anything, so determining which films are the best is no easy task. To land on this list, a movie has to be technically well done, have a compelling story with interesting characters, and instill a sense of awe through the visual medium.
Like all movie lists, this one is entirely subjective to the writer, so shout out your favorite non-Disney animated films in the comments.
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10 The Secret of NIMH (1982)
The Secret of NIMH may not be a Disney movie, but it wouldn’t exist were it not for the House of Mouse. Back in the early ‘80s, Don Bluth and Gary Goldman left Disney with 14 other animators to form their own studio, and the first film project they took on was an adaptation of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of N.I.M.H. The film is much darker than the works of Disney at the time. It deals with mass extermination, drugs, predation, deadly pneumonia, death, magic, and hyper-intelligent rats who agree to help a field mouse move her home to save her son’s life.
The tone may be dark, but the movie is incredibly well-made. The use of backlight animation techniques offered an eery visage for some of the more interesting and frightening characters in a way that established a level of danger and awe in the audience. It’s one of those movies that stays with you your entire life until you show it to your children. Shortly after its release, The Secret of NIMH was honored with the Saturn Award for Best Animated Film, though it lost the coveted Best Fantasy Film that year to The Dark Crystal.
9 When the Wind Blows (1986)
Animated films often deal with mature issues, but they rarely cover nuclear war and the end of all things. When the Wind Blows is a British film based on a graphic novel of the same name, and it uses a unique means of storytelling by combining two different animation techniques to tell the story. The characters are all hand-drawn in a traditional cell animation style, while the world around them is made up of real objects, which are animated via stop-motion animation. While this may seem odd at first, it establishes an effect of realism on the animated characters, making them relatable to the audience.
The film deals with a fear many people had in the 1980s, which was the threat of nuclear war. The two characters, Hilda and James Bloggs are a couple, who lived through World War II, and having lived through that nightmare, they have memories of a time leading up to war, and it is upon them once more. As the war looms on the horizon, they follow the government’s advice to “Keep calm and carry on,” but when the war does come, they succumb to radiation sickness, which does little to hamper their resolve in the face of the end of the world.
8 Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
If you’re familiar with the works of Isao Takahata and Studio Ghibli, you know that every film the studio produced could top a list of best animated films. After all, the studio has been churning out hits since its first film, Castle in the Sky. While there are plenty of greats to choose from, the best of all Studio Ghibli’s films is the second one made by the studio. Grave of the Fireflies is one of the best animated films ever made, but it’s also one of the saddest movies ever produced. The film follows the story of a young boy and his little sister who barely survive the fire-bombing of Tokyo during World War II.
As the story progresses, the two struggle to survive as war orphans in a country fighting to save itself from the rest of the world, and it’s one of the most harrowing tales ever filmed. It’s one of those movies you can’t finish watching with dry eyes, as the heartwrenching tale will bring the most hardened sociopath to tears. The animation was done superbly, which isn’t a surprise given Takahata’s skills as a director, but the real reason the film landed on this list is simply due to the fact that it’s a phenomenal film.
7 The Iron Giant (1999)
When The Iron Giant was released in 1999, it was something of an outlier in the world of animated films, and it did two things well: it bombed completely and utterly, and it entertained the masses (who caught it on video after it left theaters). It is often considered to be a modern animated classic and has a massive cult following. The movie did underperform at the box office, but that wasn’t due to critics panning it; Warner Bros. didn’t market it well, and that led to a critically acclaimed movie bombing at the box office.
The film follows a little boy who finds a giant robot he forms a close bond with. It’s much like the plot of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, but with more lasers and giant robots playing with a kid in a junkyard. There was a ton of talent involved in making the film, which included a great voice cast with Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr., Vin Diesel, and many more. Additionally, the animation style was masterfully done, as it blended traditional cell animation with computer-generated imagery in a seamless combination of the two forms.
6 The Triplets of Belleville (2003)
Typically, music is used in an animated film in much the same way it’s used in a musical. That’s especially true for most Disney movies, but while music is important, it’s rarely used as the primary means of storytelling. The French animated film, The Triplets of Belleville doesn’t follow this format, and while there is some dialogue sprinkled throughout, the majority of the storytelling is done through the highly stylized art and through song. This makes The Triplets of Belleville a unique standout in the world of animation, and it’s incredibly fun to watch.
The film is about an elderly woman named Madame Souza, who embarks on a quest to save her grandson from the French mafia. As she embarks on her journey to the city of Belleville to find her grandson, Champion, she takes along his dog, Bruno, and the titular triplets, all of whom are accomplished singers she met along the way. The movie is surreal in its storytelling, yet this doesn’t take away from its charm the story, settings, and characters display, scene after scene. It was nominated for Best Animated Feature the year it was released but lost to Finding Nemo.
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5 Persepolis (2007)
Persepolis is based on a graphic novel of the same name by Marjane Satrapi. The film and book are an autobiographical representation of Satrapi’s life growing up in Iran against the backdrop of the Iranian Revolution. Her life is complicated by the fact that her family is liberal and not Fundamentalists, but also because she’s a woman, and her life became incredibly complicated and wrought with misogyny once the Islamic Fundamentalists took over her home country. As the story progresses, she moves to Vienna to mature and find her way in life.
Eventually, she returns to Iran but is forced to flee her home country when it becomes clear her life is on the line. Despite the turmoil of her life, she remains a proud Iranian woman, and the story reflects this through the animation style, which depicted past events in black & white, while present moments were presented in color. The illustration style was also interesting due to the somewhat two-dimensional look of the characters, and overall, it’s visually quite stunning. This movie is somewhat difficult to watch, as the subject matter is antithetical to the social constructs a Western audience is familiar with, but that only helps to make it an incredibly compelling film.
4 Wizards (1977)
Ralph Bakshi is something of a controversial animator due to the various projects he’s worked on over the years. He made Coonskin and Fritz the Cat, which is the first animated film to be rated XXX when it was released. Those projects aside, the man is a brilliant storyteller, and the way he perfected the use of rotoscoping as a technique in his films have made them stand apart from the competition. American Pop from 1981 is one of his best stories, but the best movie Bakshi ever made — as far as the fans are concerned — is 1977’s Wizards.
Wizards is a cult classic about two magical brothers, who represent good and evil in a world long lost to mankind. The setting takes place millions of years after mankind killed the world and mutated into monsters. Avatar, the good wizard, has all that is good and virtuous on his side while his brother, Blackwolf, commands a legion of orcs, goblins, and other monsters outfitted with Nazi imagery that clearly established the divide between both sides in the war. Bakshi has called the movie an allegorical story about the creation of Israel after the Holocaust amidst the backdrop of a potential resurgence of fascism.
3 Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
The most recent addition to this list is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and despite being a superhero movie released when they are mainstream money-makers, it’s not on here for that reason. Sony could have made this film into a live-action extravaganza, but instead, it was done via animation, and what beautiful animation it is. The film took its visual cues from comics published nearly 60 years before it was made, and this was done to follow the director’s desire to make it feel like the viewer “walked inside a comic book.”
Computers were used to build the animation of the characters and move them from scene to scene, but artists went back into every single frame of the film, and hand drew dots and line work, which made it look like it truly was a comic book come alive. The result was a film that is best described by the concept of “every frame a painting.” Every shot had a style and texture to it that set it apart from every animated film that came before it, and while it does have an amazing story, which makes it a vastly entertaining movie to watch, it’s on here solely due to the visual artistry that went into making it.
2 The LEGO Movie (2014)
When it was first announced that a fully-rendered CGI LEGO film was being made into a major motion picture, few could have imagined the movie would go on to become a massive hit adults and kids loved, but that’s what happened. In terms of the story, the movie is played out like a satire, and it’s brilliantly written. The characters hearken back to just about everyone’s childhood in one way or another, and that helps to instill a sense of nostalgia in everything that happens in much the same way Toy Story managed nearly 20 years prior.
When it comes to the animation done to make this movie a reality, the best way to describe it might be to call it painstakingly accurate to the smallest detail. The detail put into making this film LEGO accurate cannot be stressed enough, as every single plastic piece in the film is a real LEGO you can purchase IRL, but you’d have to buy a total of 15,080,330 to recreate everything seen in the movie. Not only that, but the animators also added fingerprints and scratches to the pieces, which can only be seen when the light hits them perfectly, making the textures and lighting a fantastic achievement in moviemaking.
1 The Last Unicorn (1982)
Another pioneer in early ‘80s animation was Ranking/Bass Productions, which put together a number of hits, including Flight of Dragons and The Hobbit. While those two moves are incredibly well-made, the best the studio ever made was 1982’s The Last Unicorn. Sadly, there are tons of adults who never saw this film due to a limited VHS release and the fact that it appears, on the surface, to be a children’s film. While a kid can certainly sit down to watch The Last Unicorn, there’s a good chance it will scare the crap out of them, as the themes are more aligned with an audience that is more mature.
The film follows the quest of the only known unicorn, who sets out from her enchanted forest to find out what happened to the rest of the world’s unicorns. She is seen as a white mare by most, but the magically attuned see her for what she is, and this leads to all sorts of dangerous adventures. In addition to the customarily beautiful animation the studio consistently put out, the film features a beautiful soundtrack, consisting entirely of original songs written and performed by the band America, which ensures you will be humming the titular tune for weeks after enjoying this amazing film.
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