When “Toy Story” was released in November of 1995, Pixar’s first feature dropped into movie theaters like a monolith from another planet, and the world of animation hasn’t been the same since.
The dawn of digital technology and the arrival of computer-generated imagery were game-changers of the greatest scale, and the 20 years since have proven to be as formatively crucial to animated films as the two decades that passed between Thomas Edison’s first Kinetoscope shorts and “The Birth of a Nation” were for their live-action cousins.
For better or worse, our commercial and artistic understanding of what animation can do — what it can be — has forever changed. In America, where feature-length animation had largely been the province of Disney princesses and talking dogs, these new tools forced Hollywood to reconsider the possibilities in the format.
As the big studios began introducing audiences to the likes of Dory and Shrek, other players in the industry naturally began using the same technology to subvert the status quo. Trey Parker and Matt Stone couldn’t resist the irony of using digital wizardry to make the most absurd animated musical of all time, crude in every sense of the word. Richard Linklater capitalized on the industry’s reinvigorated love for the format by using rotoscope technology to sink his actors into a surreal dream world suspended between animation and reality. Inevitably, some filmmakers (and film fans) responded to the future by embracing the past, as handcrafted features began to feel like precious relics from another time, and their creators were newly inspired to make the most of every image.
To reflect that changing landscape, Indiewire is highlighting our choices for the 20 best animated feature films of the last 20 years. Animation is a medium that boasts any number of masters, so (difficult as it was) we limited ourselves to one choice per director. Hard as it is to leave films like “Princess Mononoke” or “The Illusionist” or “Ratatouille” out of a collection like this, our hope was that this would reflect animation born from a variety of styles, nations and cultural backgrounds. Our picks are presented below in chronological order.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
There’s something really special about “Hunchback,” starting with the fact that looking back, its existence is pretty bonkers. Disney was in the middle of a creative resurgence in 1996, but a story based on one of Victor Hugo’s more depressing novels might not have seemed like the most obvious choice. Even if you change the ending, it’s still going to get pretty dark, thanks to elements of xenophobia and threatened infanticide, not to mention the absence of anyone remotely resembling a princess. (You do not see too many little girls dressed as the Demi Moore-voiced gypsy badass Esmerelda wandering around Disneyland.) Yet, this movie stands out as one of Disney’s least commercial and most challenging efforts, given its unconventional structure and adult mindset — in case you forgot, the film’s main villain literally sings a song about how he wants to sex things up with Esmerelda. It’s also a beautiful film, rich with hand-drawn animation capturing the unique beauty of 1800s Paris, especially the titular cathedral. We’re so grateful it was made. – Liz Shannon Miller
Another film that, given the gestation time of this sequel (it came nearly sixty years after the 1940 original and after almost a decade of development and production), it’s a miracle it exists at all. What makes it a worthy successor to its groundbreaking predecessor is the way it succeeds in all its disparate segments. “Fantasia 2000,” paints grandeur (the soaring whales of “Pines of Rome”) and breeziness (flamingos yo-yo-ing to Camille Saint-Saëns) with equal aplomb, even finding a place right in the middle (the Donald Duck “Pomp and Circumstance” spin on the Noah’s Ark story). More than most films, there’s a true reward in repeated viewings, in anticipating how the rhythms of the animation and the classical compositions line up. Even when watched and listened to separately, there’s something special about the way the images and the music fuse together. Sure, some of the interstitials come off as a little goofy, even despite Steve Martin’s best efforts. But how can you not hear those sweeping “Firebird” Stravinsky strings and see the majestic greenery spring up along the mountainside and not feel a little thrilled to be alive? – Steve Greene
The Iron Giant
Brad Bird’s later films would touch on ideas of family and acceptance, but none of his films found a mixture as poignant as his animated fable about Cold War paranoia in 1950s New England. Adapted from the Ted Hughes novella, “The Iron Giant” channels the energy of outsider-dom into a tale that jettisons resentment in favor of wonder. Hogarth’s friendship with a stories-tall metal man features a deep fondness for a specific time and place without feeling trapped by sentimentality. At its best, “The Iron Giant” gets at the fundamental feelings of young friendship, but it’s also filled with plenty of laughs. Giant-based physical comedy (“We’re landing! We’re landing!“), small sight gags (“Disaster Seen as Catastrophe Looms”) and the joy of hearing Vin Diesel deliver lines one word at a time are just some of the elements that make this an underrated gem. With a core emphasis on understanding and communication as an antidote for prejudice and blind condemnation, it’s an essential addition to the children’s movie canon that still never feels tethered to any particular age group. – SG
South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut
There’s an odd sort of ballet that Trey Parker and Matt Stone have been dancing for the last few decades, as they keep finding ways to remind us that they are far from crude jokesters. When they put their minds to it, they’re two of the savviest satirists around, with (as an added bonus) an innate Tony-winning gift for creating musicals. “South Park” easily could have been a cheap attempt at capitalizing on the Comedy Central series’ 1990s popularity. Instead it’s a well-crafted examination of American culture when it comes to censorship, with a few sequences which revealed that the show could push beyond its deliberately crude style for some eye-catching animation. Plus, it’s one of modern cinema’s best-written musicals, both in terms of music and structure, ensuring that it holds up almost 20 years later. It’s politically incorrect in a way that might not really play anymore, but we’ll never forget Robin Williams belting out “Blame Canada” during that year’s Oscars. Pure magic. – LSM
Toy Story 2
It’s no wonder that Pixar is continuing to bang the sequel drum, if only because their first attempt at it (and only their third film, which is really weird when you think about it in the grand scheme of studio-building) was such a major hit. “Toy Story” was Pixar’s first feature film, an instant classic that made clear the level of storytelling ability and overall craftsmanship viewers could expect from the newly hatched animation house. How does one possibly follow that up? In “Toy Story 2” land, that means using the charms of the original to build out the bones of the feature, gently and respectfully spinning on them and making something new in the process. By moving the majority of the action outside Andy’s house, the Pixar team had more to play with, but in a totally natural way that lent itself to the story. Putting the crew through another wrenching adventure – albeit with less concern that their beloved owner doesn’t want them anymore, and with lots more actual terror – deepens their bonds and makes the audience feel even more invested in them. And, because it’s Pixar, the whole thing looks great, sounds great and has tons of funny jokes. “Toy Story 2” isn’t just a great animated film, it’s proof that sequels – any kind of sequel! not just animated ones or ones for kids! – can effectively increase the emotion and worth of a franchise without simply resorting to repetition. – Kate Erbland