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The 25 Best Animated Films Of The 21st Century So Far

The 25 Best Animated Films Of The 21st Century So Far

Surprisingly, of all the many, many names we were called over our ranking of The 50 Best Films Of The Decade So Far, “anti-animation, hegemonic live-action crypto-fascists” wasn’t one, despite the fact we didn’t feature any animated movies on that list. We were a touch disappointed, to be honest, as we had a snappy comeback at the ready: we were already in the planning stages of an all-animation feature, so we felt justified in separating the live action picks from their hand-drawn, computer generated, stop motion and claymation brethren. So here is that list: the time frame is extended this time to include any animated film in any style (bar rotoscoping, which we excluded because of its reliance on live-action filming first) from 2000 till now.

The last fifteen years have seen the animation industry undergo huge upheavals, from the titanic union of old-school giant Disney with beloved game-changer Pixar, to the rise to international and Oscar-winning glory of the extraordinary Studio Ghibli (and its imminent dissolution), to the massive leap in quality made by the likes of DreamWorks and other up-and-comers. All these factors combine to provide a mainstream and arthouse filmmaking landscape that’s friendlier toward a more diverse range of animation styles and subjects than ever before. The sheer breadth of choice we have, and the extremely subjective nature of the beast (one viewer’s pretty is another viewer’s twee) means that we’re fully confident that this ranking will inspire its fair share of rage/accusations of bias as well. But like many of the films listed below have taught us, we’re going to be brave, follow our dreams and find inner reserves of strength and goodness to face whatever life and the commenters throw at us, as we take you on this trip through our 25 favorite animated features of the 21st century. And if you want more of the best films since 2000, you can check out our feature on the best horror movies of the 21st century here.

25. “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,” which is admirably Chuck Jones-esque) 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.

24. “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 —AA Milne’s wonderful books.

23. “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 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.

22. “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 in 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.

21. “Millennium Actress” (2001)
Though he directed only four complete features and sadly passed away in 2010 aged only 46, Satoshi Kon established himself as one of anime’s most important and original filmmakers. We could have easily (and nearly did) include “Tokyo Godfathers” or “Paprika” (the latter said by many to have inspired Christopher Nolan’s “Inception”), but we’d say that his masterpiece was his second feature, 2001’s “Millennium Actress.” Far more mature than most animated features, whether Japanese or American, 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.

20. “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.

19. “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.

18. “Finding Nemo” (2003)
Given Pixar’s mixed track record with sequels, it’s hard not to be apprehensive about next year’s “Finding Dory,” the belated follow-up to one of the studio’s most beloved achievements, 2003’s “Finding Nemo.” After all, the original was something close to a miracle. The story of the over-protective father (Albert Brooks) whose worst nightmare comes true when his son is taken across the ocean is a dizzyingly colorful, enormously funny story full of incredibly memorable characters and arguably Pixar’s best-ever voice cast (Brooks and co-lead Ellen DeGeneres are perfect, but we also get Willem Dafoe, Allison Janney, Stephen Root, Geoffrey Rush and Eric Bana). But at its heart, it packs as big an emotional punch as anything the studio’s made, gradually shortening the gulf between a loving but destructively neurotic father and his adventurous but vulnerable son. If the sequel’s even half as good as this, it should still be a classic.

17. “Monsters Inc.” (2001)
After two great “Toy Story” movies and the middlingly-received (somewhat unfairly) “A Bug’s Life,” “Monsters Inc.” was the film that suggested that Pixar would be far more than the house that Buzz built. Like “Toy Story,” this film takes up an irresistible childhood conceit —the story behind the monsters under every child’s bed or in the closet— and filled it with two of the company’s most lovable characters in Billy Crystal’s eyeball-on-legs Mike Wasowski and John Goodman’s fuzzy blue Sully, who accidentally let a supposedly-deadly child, the utterly adorable Boo, into their monster’s paradise. The film’s not as narratively perfect as some of the later Pixar pics (the Yeti diversion is dead air), but it’s still gorgeously designed, has a giant heart and proves utterly satisfying. Decent-but-unnecessary prequel “Monsters University” paled in comparison, which is a testament to the strength of the original.

16. “Toy Story 3” (2010)
Coming a full decade after the the beloved “Toy Story 2” (and seeming like the final word on ‘Toy Story’ features… until “Toy Story 4“), “Toy Story 3” is one of the best animated films of the century, which demonstrates Pixar’s high bar. Rather than going for a victory lap, the creative team of John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and director Lee Unkrich switched things up the third time out, allowing time to have passed and for Andy to be heading to college. The adventures that ensue are remarkable: there’s genuine peril at times, quite a bit of darkness and some pretty deep soul-searching that makes it even more affecting to adults than its predecessors. Because these films were never really about plastic playthings —they were about childhood, a state you can really only appreciate after it has concluded and someone new is playing with your old toys.

15. “Coraline” (2009)
There’s more quality coming out of more animation houses these days, thanks in part to Portland’s Laika, a stop-motion studio who broke out with the sublime “Coraline.” Based on a book by geek idol Neil Gaiman and directed by “The Nightmare Before Christmas” helmer Henry Selick, the film focuses on the titular girl (Dakota Fanning) who escapes from her neglectful parents into another world that turns out to be more sinister than she planned. The picture is gorgeously designed (with a use of 3D that’s still among the best ever, flat in the ‘real world’ and expansive in the fantasy one, “Wizard of Oz”-style), smart, soulful, atmospheric, rich, funny, exciting and strange, and it’s only aged like a fine wine in the last half-decade. “Paranorman” and “The Boxtrolls” are both worth checking out, but Laika’s first hour remains their finest so far.

14. “The Lego Movie” (2014)
On paper, it seemed to be a nightmarish corporate synergy-fest (it isn’t just based on a toy, but includes toy versions of superheroe!). In practice, “The Lego Movie” is a sly, subversive, giddy joy, with Phil Lord and Chris Miller topping their previous animated pic “Cloudy With Chance Of Meatballs” (which some of us are very grumpy isn’t in this list…). Spoofing ‘chosen one’ narratives as Chris Pratt’s Emmett is picked out as the last great hope against the evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell), it’s a deeply silly, meta-tastic action-comedy that still finds room for a surprising degree of pathos, not least in its secret late-game live-action gambit. Capturing a childish sense of play in a way that few had done outside of “Toy Story” but filtering it through a millennial mash-up mentality, it must figure as one of the most glorious mainstream surprises in recent memory.

13. “Ratatouille” (2007)
“Ratatouille” is something of an oddity among the Pixar canon, less because of its production history (“The Incredibles” helmer Brad Bird completely retooled the film late in production, which is par for the course at the studio), and more because it plays so much older than many of the rest of their films. Set in the world of fine cuisine, the picture  targets and celebrates critics, is relatively slow paced, and draws from influences as diverse as Lubitsch and Proust. It’s auteurist, borderline-arthouse animation somehow went on to make hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide. Bird’s tale about a rat (played perfectly by Patton Oswalt) with a refined palate and culinary dreams works as a talking animal picture, a romantic comedy, a love-letter to Paris (those cityscapes!) and to food, and could only have been made by Pixar. Some of their other films might have had a broader appeal, but “Ratatouille” is truly refined.

12. “Chicken Run” (2000)
On the whole, Aardman Animation’s features didn’t quite match up to its Oscar-winning “Wallace & Gromit” shorts (though the feature adventure of the latter is a joy and nearly made this list). We say “on the whole” because “Chicken Run,” the studio’s first full-length effort is tremendous, a more charming and inventive film than most with budgets many times the size. Following a group of hens who enlist the help of cocky rooster Red (a pre-decline Mel Gibson) to escape their farm when they learn they’re destined to be turned into pies, it brilliantly and evocatively channels WW2 POW movies like “The Great Escape” with a very British eccentric charm. Encompassing the immaculate design, classic physical comedy and thrilling action that characterized the Aardman shorts, it’s also more narratively well-rounded, with a finale as rousing as anything else on this list. Fingers crossed Aardman returns to this kind of form soon.

11. “Persepolis” (2007)
The Cannes Jury Prize-winning and Oscar-nominated “Persepolis” predated the also-Cannes-and-Oscar nominated “Waltz with Bashir” by a year, but taken together, both represent the emergence, or maybe just the more mainstream acceptance, of another function of animation: to tell grown-up stories of autobiography so personal and/or painfully political that somehow they almost beg to be drawn rather than filmed. Marjane Satrapi’s film is a poignant, funny, touching and occasionally horrifying account of her childhood growing up in Tehran during the Islamic rebellion, told in simple, stark, black and white images, but it’s her eye for offbeat, humanizing detail (much of which came from her self-penned comic strip) that marked Satrapi out as a filmmaker of promise. And since then she’s made good on as such, becoming one of the liveliest and most playfully eccentric filmmakers on the international scene, though she has yet to match her debut for sheer impact and importance.

10. “Wall-E” (2008)
Perhaps some of the vitriol poured on “Chappie” came because we already have a lovable (and critically approved) robot-with-a-personality in our cinematic lexicon (not talking about Johnny Five). Pixar’s “Wall-E,” a fairly scathing environmental message wrapped up in the tale of a lonely trash robot and the fragments of a neglected civilization that only he cherishes, was an audacious undertaking. With much less dialogue than the wisecrackery of previous outings and a near-mute protagonist, it remains one of the studio’s most formally austere and outright satirical films. And yet Andrew Stanton‘s film is warm and funny, relying on the stunning expressiveness of Wall-E’s design (his playing with the ball and bat is a perfect example of the immaculate physics at work throughout) to tell with glimmering originality a story that ultimately employs every old-school trope in the book: an unlikely hero fights to win the hand of his lady love, and in so doing saves humanity from itself.

9. “The Wind Rises” (2013)
Hayao Miyazaki has retired before (he’d suggested he was done with filmmaking as early as a decade ago), but with Studio Ghibli supposedly winding down, “The Wind Rises” definitely seems like it could be the anime master’s swan song. The film certainly seems like a defining statement: a (mostly) fantasy-free melodrama about real-life airplane designer Jiro Horikoshi, it’s a moving portrait of the end of an era in Japan, an examination of way that progress, technology, and even art can be corrupted, a love-letter to the director’s beloved aviation, and more than anything else an autobiographical portrait of the artist as an obsessed young man. Anyone dismissing this as a cartoon doesn’t have their head screwed on properly. As gorgeous as anything the director ever made, it also, despite being relatively realistic, could only ever have worked as animation. If it truly is Miyazaki’s last film, he’ll be painfully missed.

8. “Waltz with Bashir” (2008)
A strong case for just how dexterous animation can be, Ari Folman‘s film masterfully hybridizes personal essay, documentary and hallucinatory imagery, all in service of a bold examination of one soldier’s experience of the 1982 Lebanon War that’s just the right amount of stylized cool to hook you into its harrowing insights. Human rights and issue films are unfortunately a dime a dozen these days, so it’s no small feat that Folman was able to transcend those narrow confines by making ‘Waltz’ utterly cinematic. The animation —a mix of Adobe Flash cutouts with classic animation—adds to the surreal nature of Folman’s manifested memories of a traumatic time in his young life. Max Richter’s haunting score and a mix of era-appropriate songs (PiL’s “This is Not a Love Song” is a highlight) also add to its overall power. It’s effective, educational and emotive because it’s entertaining.

7. “Fantastic Mr Fox” (2009)
Stop motion animation and Wes Anderson proved to be a peanut-butter-and-jelly-like combination in this sweet yet acidic adaptation of Roald Dahl‘s book. We wouldn’t argue it’s the auteur’s best film, but in many ways it’s most representative of his reputation as a capital A “artist.” After all, aren’t all his hyper controlled cinematic dioramas a form of live action animation? Beyond just appreciating its place in Anderson’s legacy, ‘Fox’ is beautiful to look at and one of  his funniest films to date. Adapting a children’s story allows for his more broad, even goofy humor to rise to the surface in pleasing ways (the highlight comes when the antagonistic farmers are introduced in snappy vignette cutaways). The visuals harken back to Rankin/Bass, proving that old fashioned methods can feel new when done well. We love this film most because it’s for everyone, but still has rough edges and consequences.

6. “The Tale Of Princess Kaguya” (2013)
It didn’t get as much attention as “The Wind Rises,” but “The Tale Of Princess Kaguya,” the swansong for Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli co-founder and “Grave Of The Fireflies” director Isao Takahata, is an even more elegiac, beautifully bittersweet goodbye from one of the medium’s masters. A fable based loosely on the traditional tale of the Bamboo Cutter and animated in a stunning, painterly fashion, the film sees the discovery of the title character inside a bamboo shoot by her humble parents. She’s elevated to wealth and courted by endless suitors, but nothing can change the sense that her time on Earth will be brief. Simple in both expression and story but yet still incredibly rich (there are strong feminist and environmental themes at work along with the meditations on mortality), it’s a delicate, pastoral film that serves as both a definitive summing up of Takahata’s career and a deeply poignant goodbye.

5. “The Triplets of Belleville” (2003)
78 minutes of pure French bliss. Sylvain Chomet’s script (with hardly any audible dialogue) is made up of seemingly random left turns that not only keep you guessing but miraculously gel into a magical, unique whole. The labor-intensive, beautifully old school, painterly animation is a marvel to behold, bringing to life this bizarre story of an adorable task-mistress mother whose cyclist son is kidnapped by the mafia and used for nefarious gambling schemes. She joins up with the titular singing triplets who aid her in the rescue, adding to the overall infectious musical joy infused in the entire film. It’s a totally original narrative, directed by Chomet with a perfect grasp on the material. While it’s still a cult item (despite being up for 2 Oscars in 2003), the film is more than accessible for any audience.

4. “It’s Such A Beautiful Day” (2012)
He’s far from a household name (though recently contributing one of the best couch sequences to “The Simpsons  in the show’s 25-year-history has helped), but animation fans have long been singing the praises of Austin’s Don Herzfeldt, particularly after “It’s Such A Beautiful Day.” Combining the 2011, 23-minute short film of the same name with two earlier shorts “Everything Will Be Ok” and “I Am So Proud Of You,” it’s a haunting, ultimately strangely life-affirming trilogy in Herzfeldt’s trademark stick-figure, line-drawing style (though embellished with an increasingly heady collection of effects) that take in satire, ultraviolence, and in the staggering final segment mental illness and identity. Oblique and strangely accessible, bleak and transcendent, simple and endlessly re-watchable, it’s a stone-cold masterpiece that confirms that Herzfeldt is a major filmmaker.

3. “Up” (2009)
So are we giving third place to “Up” in its entirety, or are we granting that spot thanks to that 4-minute montage of Carl & Ellie’s married life that reduces us to emotional rubble? Does it even matter? Taking a helicopter or flying-house view, “Up” is not the most satisfying narrative that Pixar has ever created, but it is the apotheosis of the studio’s alchemical ability with character creation and relationships. With this film, Pete Docter and Bob Petersen gave us simply one of the greatest grief movies ever made hidden within a tale full of whimsy, colored balloons, lisping boy scouts and hilarious talking dogs. So while it has as much to say about the generation gap as the average Ozu film, and the fact that it begins with the most affecting animated death since the demise of Bambi’s mother, by its conclusion “Up” is nothing less than a joyous affirmation of life at any age and at any height above sea level.

2. “The Incredibles” (2004)
Director Brad Bird’s best film to date is a blistering amalgam of imagined comic book mythology, family melodrama and gorgeous computer generated animation. It came at the very end of Pixar’s first great wave of titles, right before the studio misstepped with “Cars” and then got back on track with “Ratatouille” (thanks to Bird again, natch). In fact, this still feels like the animation juggernaut’s finest hour and probably its most complete film, full of legitimately thrilling action set pieces and easily relatable character drama (good for adults and kids), and tapping incisively into the culture’s superhero obsession before it got watered down to its current level of ubiquity. Masterfully designed (check the ’50s-style suburban conformity of the home and office locations), cleverly scripted so that A and B storylines constantly complement and enhance each other, and boasting a valuable anti-cape message that Madonna would have done well to heed, “The Incredibles” is not just an all-time great animated film, but is an all-time great superhero movie, period.

1. “Spirited Away” (2001)
If the great strength of animation is its facility for total immersion in worlds only bounded by the limits of a filmmaker’s imagination, there’s really no other choice for our number one spot than the dazzling “Spirited Away” from Hayao Miyazaki, curator of one of the most comprehensive and beautiful cinematic imaginations in existence. Starting out as a “be careful what you wish for” cautionary tale as a young girl ventures excitedly into a magical realm after her parents are turned into pigs, the film becomes more peculiar, more fanciful and more ambiguous as it goes on, becoming the polar opposite of the kind of patronising simplification and moral black-and-whites that mar the family film genre elsewhere. Grotesque, scary, thrilling, beautiful and very alien to anyone raised on Western animation, “Spirited Away” is, due to its Oscar success and wider U.S. promotion, for many people the first Miyazaki or Studio Ghibli film they saw, and so should occupy a very special place in our hearts as the shining portal into the fantastical, beyond-ken world of Ghibli. Make that multitudes of worlds.

Honorable Mentions: So the longlist for this feature ran to more than 100 titles, and passions ran high about simply too many to list here, but there are a few that it physically pained us to exclude, especially when they happened to be from smaller studios or independent filmmakers who could do with the shine. So the lovely, serene “The Secret of Kells” from Irish animation house Cartoon Saloon; its follow-up, the also Oscar-nominated “Song of the Sea“; the independently funded, witty, melting pot mish-mash of ’20s jazz, Indian mythology and flash animation “Sita Sings the Blues” from director Nina Paley; and “Mary and Max” from Australian director Adam Elliott and featuring the voice of the late lamented Philip Seymour Hoffman are all strongly recommended.

And other higher profile but no less beloved films that hovered very near the top of the list included: “The Pirates!,” “Ernest & Celestine,” “Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were Rabbit,” “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” “Howl’s Moving Castle,” “Brave,” “Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence,” “The Illusionist,” “Paranorman,” “The Boxtrolls,” “Tokyo Godfathers,” “Paprika,” “Ponyo,” “Shrek,” “Wolf Children,” “The Adventures of Tintin,” “Kung Fu Panda,” “The Girl Who Leapt through Time,” “Evangelion: You Are Not Alone,” “Dead Leaves,” “The Secret World of Arriety,” “Frankenweenie,” “Tangled,” “The Emperor’s New Groove” and “Wreck-it Ralph” —we could go on forever, so we won’t.

As we said, we ummed and aahed about including rotoscoped films before deciding that they didn’t quite qualify, which isn’t to underestimate the artistry of Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life” or “A Scanner Darkly.” And in case you’re wondering, no we didn’t forget about “Frozen,” which is a good film, but on aggregate we don’t see quite what all the fuss is about. Express your outrage about its no-show and anything else that’s on your mind in the comments section below. Or, you know, let it go.

— Jessica Kiang, Oliver Lyttelton, Erik McClanahan

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