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The 41 Best Animated Movies of the 21st Century, Ranked

You've got a friend in these classic movies.

The Best Animated Films of the 21st Century

The Best Animated Films of the 21st Century

30. “ParaNorman” (2012)

The stop-motion animation geniuses at Laika got their start with 2009’s “Coraline,” a critically acclaimed adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel from “The Nightmare Before Christmas” filmmaker Henry Selick. It was an outstanding debut film from the studio (see the “Coraline” entry on this list), but it was with follow-up project ParaNorman that Laika proved it was not only one of the most vital animation studios in operation but that it could also rival Pixar in terms of narrative and emotional originality.

Sam Fell and Chris Butler’s stop-motion fantasy horror film centers around a young boy who can communicate with ghosts as he tries to save his Massachusetts town from being destroyed by a 300 year old witch. For all the wacky supernatural hijinks that unfold over the film’s runtime, “ParaNorman” is most concerned with a reconciliation between the past and present. That an animated family movie even attempts to make sense of America’s lingering guilt for the murder of those charged with witchcraft makes “ParaNorman” a rare gift. “ParaNorman” rightfully earned an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature and set Laika on its way to becoming a stop-motion powerhouse. —ZS
Rent or buy on Amazon.

29. “Sita Sings the Blues” (2008)

Sita Sings the Blues

Nina Paley’s “Sita Sings the Blues” is a visual feast and an extremely personal attempt to make sense of and contextualize one of the most important works of Indian literature. The film is simultaneously an adaptation of and a commentary on the Ramayana, the epic Indian poem that tells the story of the prince Rama as he rescues his wife Sita from the demon king Ravana. Paley splits the movie into three narratives, each individualized through different animated techniques.

The more straightforward adaptation of the story is rendered in the style of Rajput paintings and includes a Greek chorus that interprets the poem’s meanings. Another storyline tells a similar narrative to the Ramayana but sets it in modern day, proving the text’s timelessness. The final story thread introduces a musical number by a more active Sita, who modifies the original text by making herself more self-reliant. By putting the power in Sita’s hands and making her more than a damsel in distress, Paley ultimately makes “Sita Sings the Blues” a radical redefinition of a sacred work. It’s as impressive as it is daring. —ZS
Buy on Amazon.

28. “Frozen” (2013)

Disney has long excelled at taking classic fairy tales — think “The Little Mermaid,” “Cinderella,” and “The Princess and the Frog” — and freshening them up to suit their Princess-driven agenda, but even the studio’s biggest hits have never been assured winners. Walt Disney himself cooked up an idea to build a film around the life of author and poet Hans Christian Andersen way back in the 1930s, envisioning a live-action and animated hybrid that interspersed stories from his real life with scenes from Andersen’s most popular fairy tales, including “The Snow Queen.” That project never got off the ground, and though Andersen’s stories went on to inspire other Disney hits and characters, from “The Little Mermaid” to “The Ugly Duckling,” the story of the Snow Queen remained a problem for Disney’s top creators, who could never quite crack the classic story. 

That inability to untangle the icy figure for modern audiences (and younger-skewing viewers who would, understandably, be terrified of a leading lady who isn’t exactly an easy protagonist) kept the tale from being adapted for decades, despite numerous attempts over the years. Even Buck, who always approached the story with his own twists, swung out for years before Disney brass hit upon the idea that would finally make “Frozen” viable: what if its leading ladies were sisters? Aided by Lee’s scripting and directing finesse, indelible songs from Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, strong animation work that utilized stereoscopic 3D to bring a winter wonderland to life, and a vibrant voice cast (from Kristen Bell to Josh Gad, Idina Menzel to Jonathan Groff), the film became one of Disney’s biggest hits and a two-time Oscar winner to boot. 

Despite the predictably dark shades of Andersen’s original story, building in a family dynamic that eschewed classic “good versus evil” divides and adding in lots of laughs helped the film fit the Disney mold and appeal to a wide audience. And that’s a good thing, because baked inside yet another Disney Princess story is an essential story about finding (and loving) yourself and the people who matter most. (Plus, plenty of banging jams about just that very topic.) It was worth the wait. —KE
Stream on Disney+; rent or buy on Amazon.

27. “Moana” (2016)

Disney’s musical “Moana” conjures a gorgeous vision of Polynesia and its people in 3D animation with direction by Ron Clements and John Musker, but the songs stick, too. Even the blackest of hearts can’t resist the soundtrack from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mark Mancina, and Opetaia Foa’i, with vocals hailing from New Zealand and Fiji, and instruments flung out of the South Pacific. Meanwhile, the central story of the title heroine, a feisty youngster sent on a perilous journey to rescue her people, is empowering for both the kids and the adults watching. “Moana” is packed with memorable creatures, from Dwayne Johnson’s protean Maui to Jemaine Clement’s over-the-top coconut crab hailing from the Realm of Monsters. The animation finds astonishing tactility in the lush locales, making for one of Disney’s most beautiful 3D-animated outings ever. —RL
Stream on Disney+; rent or buy on Amazon.

26. “Anomalisa” (2015)

Anomalisa

“Each person you speak to has had a day. Some of the days have been good, some bad, but they’ve all had one.” Even with all the other pain and beauty in Charlie Kaufman’s foray into animation, this simple reminder stands out as one of his most profound musings. We may lose sight of ourselves and the object of our affection when we become infatuated with someone new — especially during a business trip in Cincinnati — but there’s a painful honesty to the way Kaufman portrays those swooning early moments. David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh are both stellar in their voice-acting roles, but the decision to have literally every other character be voiced by Tom Noonan may be the film’s true stroke of genius — it makes it impossible not to see Lisa the way Michael does. The film itself is an anomaly, of course, one made all the more special by its rarity. Learn from Michael’s mistake and cherish it even after it’s over and you’ve returned to the mundanity of daily life. —MN
Rent or buy on Amazon.

25. “The Triplets of Belleville” (2003)

The Triplets of Belleville

It is the rare silent film that achieves such international acclaim and popularity as Sylvain Chomet’s “The Triplets of Belleville.” Drawn in the style of French comics, the figures either pour languidly into frame or bounce jubilantly, depending on their moods. The original score was both bopping and haunting, earning “The Belleville Rendez-vous” an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song (the film itself was also nominated for Best Animated Feature). The driving story of a devoted mother who will stop at nothing to help her son is told with such heart, soul, and humor, that the movie waltzed right into its rightful place in the animated film canon. —JD
Rent or buy on Amazon.

24. “Isle of Dogs” (2018)

Set 20 years in the future in a fictional Japanese city known as Megasaki, Wes Anderson’s darling stop-motion feature is a fantastic take on a world that doesn’t actually exist, one strongly rooted in cinema over reality (you know, like a Wes Anderson film). That Anderson would seek to apply his world-building aesthetic to something as meticulous and controlled as stop-motion animation is one of the last great non-shockers of modern cinema. That it would be this cute, well, that’s a bit more surprising.

Smacking of all kinds of Anderson obsessions, from Akira Kurosawa to Ray Harryhausen’s Christmas television specials, “Isle of Dogs” follows a relatively simple story: a boy loves a dog, a canine flu breaks out, said dog is sent to “Trash Island” with the rest of the country’s pups, boy goes looking for beloved dog. Yet Anderson and his game cast of characters — voiced by a murderer’s row of stars, including Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Courtney B. Vance, Fisher Stevens, Harvey Keitel, Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Frank Wood, Kunichi Nomura, and Yoko Ono — liven up the wild adventure story with plenty of zip and wit.

While the focal point of the film is always spunky Atari Kobayashi and his faithful best friend Spots, Anderson’s nutty plotline allows for the introduction of whole packs of vibrant characters, canine and human alike. There are the other doggie denizens of ol’ Trash Island, the humans desperate to free them, and evil government types who have rejected all common sense (and human emotion) in the face of a maybe-not-totally-above-board crisis. Laced into the hairy tale are plenty of mysteries (conspiracies! exploding teeth! a secret puppy lair!), and Anderson never sacrifices storytelling for the cute factor, instead crafting a solid story with plenty of adorable moments to go around. Thrilling, sweet, and satisfying, it’s one of the best things Anderson has ever done, and a worthy addition to the always-awe-inspiring lineage of stop-motion wonders. —KE
Stream, rent, or buy on Amazon.

23. “The Lego Movie” (2014)

The Lego Movie

Everything is awesome, indeed, in Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s blockbuster hit. The directing duo who surprised everyone with the hilarious “21 Jump Street” reboot did it once again with a branded toy commercial that was never supposed to be as good as it is. Universally praised for its biting humor and colorful visual style, the film deconstructed the bloated blockbuster formula and rebuilt it one hilarious brick at a time. Chris Pratt is perfect as the lovable Lego oaf who must destroy the aptly named Evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell), and sassy punk Wildstyle (Elizabeth Banks) is the sadly still rare capable and funny girl character. With inventive CGI mining the removable Lego appendages for laughs, “The Lego Movie” is one for the ages. —JD
Rent or buy on Amazon.

22. “Ratatouille” (2007)

Ratatouille

With “Ratatouille,” Brad Bird salvaged a problem project and set a new standard for Pixar. Ostensibly a buddy comedy pairing a French rat (Patton Oswalt) with culinary talent and a wannabe chef (artist Lou Romano), the film was transformed into a loving tribute to cooking, art, and innocence by Bird. When cranky, cynical food critic Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole) takes one bite of the rodent’s eponymous dish, he’s transported back to childhood in sublime fashion. The Oscar winner, fortunately, has aged very well. It’s as deliciously absurd as a French farce, and animation wise, offers expressive rodents, exquisite Parisian eye candy, and mouth-watering cuisine. Restaurants and rats might not go together in real life, but, thanks to Bird and Pixar, they thrived “on the mother’s milk of caricature.” —BD
Stream on Disney+; rent or buy on Amazon.

21. “Shaun the Sheep Movie” (2015)

Shaun the Sheep Movie

Who would have thought that a “Wallace & Gromit” spinoff would end up being just as good — and, according to some well-meaning heretics, better — than the original series? Aardman Animation outdid itself with this quietly daring corker, which has a simple premise (Shaun and his fellow sheep cause much mischief during a day away from the farm) and wildly entertaining set-pieces. There’s essentially no dialogue — or at least none that can be discerned, as the sheep bleat in much the same manner as their real-world counterparts and the humans speak not unlike the grownups on “Peanuts,” which only draws more attention to the madcap, almost Chaplinesque goings-on. At this point it almost sounds like faint praise to describe an animated film as being just as entertaining for adults as it is for children, but “Shaun the Sheep Movie” makes good on that promise as few others do. —MN
Stream, rent, or buy on Amazon.

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