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The Best Animated Films of the 21st Century Ranked, From ‘Anomalisa’ to ‘Spirited Away’

You've got a friend in these classic movies.

Best Animated Films

5. “The Wind Rises” (2013)

The Wind Rises

Hayao Miyazaki cemented his legacy as cinema’s greatest animator with this ineffably beautiful swan song, the “My Neighbor Totoro” director taking a hard left turn into historical melodrama for this story about “Zero” plane engineer Jiro Horikoshi (voiced with perfect flatness by “Neon Genesis Evangelion” creator Hideaki Anno). Everything about this film was highly unusual, least of all the fact that animated biopics are few and far between, let alone those about controversial World War II figures who went to their grave feeling vaguely responsible for millions of deaths; imagine if Brad Bird’s last movie was a Pixar toon about J. Robert Oppenheimer. Overcoming the misguided controversy that accompanied this film’s release, “The Wind Rises” endures as a peerlessly haunting ode to the creative process and the tortured life of our most beautiful dreams. —DE

4. “Finding Nemo” (2003)

Finding Nemo

Following her second sitcom’s swift cancellation, Ellen DeGeneres  a trailblazer for for women in the ’80s and the LGBTQ community in the ’90s  found herself in a professional lull in the early aughts. Then Pixar asked her to play a fish with short-term memory loss, Dory, who helps a nervous father (Albert Brooks) located his son (Alexander Gould), newly dropped in a dentist office aquarium (Willem Dafoe, Allison Janney, and Geoffrey Rush co-star as fellow sea life). “Finding Nemo” became the second-highest-grossing film of 2003, the same year DeGeneres debuted her hit talk show. Pixar claimed its first Best Animated Feature Academy Award, and the film remains the best-selling DVD ever. DeGeneres hosted the Oscars, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, racked up more than 75 million Twitter followers for her show, and was of course front-and-center for the sequel (“Finding Dory”). As for the lull? Fin. —JM

3. “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” (2013)

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

When it comes to movies adapted from ancient folklore, it’s never wise to hold out hope for a happy ending — the storytellers of yore weren’t quite as gentle as the movie executives who followed in their wake. In other words, people raised on Disney movies might not be prepared for what’s in store for them at the end of Isao Takahata’s stunning “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” which is based on a 10th-century Japanese legend and builds to a degree of emotional devastation unseen in any animated film this side of Takahata’s own “Grave of the Fireflies.” There’s a bittersweet sparseness drawn in to Takahata’s spare watercolor style, but the fairy tale story about an enchanted girl who comes from the moon and is raised by humble woodcutters is unforgettably fleshed out and full of life. But perhaps the saddest thing about this immensely sad masterpiece is that it stands as one of the last we got from the great Studio Ghibli. —DE

2. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009)

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Wes Anderson’s live action films often — and intentionally — can feel like handmade dioramas, so it shouldn’t have been surprising that he’d gravitate toward stop-motion animation where literally everything in frame is put there by design and the hand of the artists can be felt with each flutter of fox fur. Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is less an adaptation of the beloved Roald Dahl novel than it is a jumping off point for the director to imagine his own story world that is a surprisingly adult and philosophical meditation on being human in the 21st century. And the yet the film is a schmaltz-free, kid-friendly story that crackles with capers and humor deliver by wonderfully modulated comedic voice performances from George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Michael Gambon, Jarvis Cocker, and the scene-stealing serenity of Anderson’s brother Eric. —CO

1. “Spirited Away” (2001)

Spirited Away

There’s something beautiful and terrifying about getting exactly what you wish for. The stunning jewel in Hayao Miyazaki’s pocketful of masterpieces follows young Chihiro on a fantastical sojourn through a land of cursed animals, malicious witches, and amorphous blobs that devour humans with minimal effort. It’s the textbook Miyazaki blend of wonder and danger that makes this a modern fairy tale on par with the time-tested stories of Grimm and Aesop and the countless oral traditions that spin yarns of all that the wide world has in store.

What better lesson for a child moving through a strange, treacherous journey that heroes and villains can swap places in an instant, that a hand extended in good faith can be used for terror and that an evil enemy can one day be redeemed? No-Face, Yubaba and Zeniba, Haku: all rich stewards of a story that can be taken as a parable for young adulthood, our modern relationship to nature, the way we treat our elders, or all of those things in one. In tone, color, and thematic ideas, this is as kaleidoscopic as Studio Ghibli gets, all delivered with the grace and control of a storytelling master.

The ending is a perfect distillation of what it means to be transported to an unfamiliar, magical visual world and to be returned safely. You’re still in one piece, but there’s something changed that you can’t quite put a finger on. It’s the great promise of film, animated or otherwise, one rendered here with as much honesty as fantasy allows. —Steve Greene

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