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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

10. “Persepolis” (2007)

Persepolis

Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel comes to life in “Persepolis,” Satrapi’s autobiographical coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the Iranian revolution. Although the film’s present day scenes are in color, the majority of the film is depicted in black-and-white, which is not only faithful to the graphic novel but also a stylistic choice which Satrapi felt would help show how Iran could be like any other country. The enduring charm of “Persepolis” is how relatable it is despite how very personal it is. Marji’s story is engrossing and an interesting slice of history, but it also speaks to how we struggle to connect with others and find ourselves. We can overlay our own experiences with every heartbreak and moment of happiness Marji experiences. “Persepolis” was the co-winner of the Jury Prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, and has won its place as one of the most vital coming-of-age tales made this century. —JR
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9. “Flee” (2021)

FLEE, 2021. © Neon /Courtesy Everett Collection

Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s autobiographical therapy session of a movie was one of the most sparkling entries at the virtual 2021 Sundance. Amin, on the verge of marrying his boyfriend, recalls his harrowing journey as a child escaping Afghanistan at the end of the Soviet Union’s decade-long invasion. His parents, employed by the fallen communist government, escape with him and his siblings to Moscow, then split up to seek a better life in the West. The animation here helps bring to life events that would be extremely difficult (or at least very expensive) to recreate in live-action, let alone the need to obscure Amin’s real identity. But above all, these (deceptively) simple 2-D images lend an expressiveness to this story, pitching it somewhere between the memory of a child and a fable: You’ll never forget how Amin’s ‘90s light-up sneakers, their flickering red light falling on snow, almost give away his group of refugees trying to cross the Russian border illegally. —CB

8. “The Illusionist” (2010)

Sylvain Chomet’s first feature since the Academy Award-nominated 2003 film “The Triplets of Belleville” is an ode to Jacques Tati, with the film’s magician protagonist inspired by the French absurdist filmmaker and the lanky Monsieur Hulot. But the film, with a screenplay by his longtime writing partner Henri Marquet along with Chomet, works from an unproduced Tati script. Set in mid-century Europe, “The Illusionist” is a father-and-daughter story without a father or daughter, exactly, as the out-of-luck protagonist decamps from Paris to Edinburgh, where he meets an alluring girl whom he takes under his wing. “The Illusionist” makes the case for simple 2D animation used to tell a simple story, and the film’s mournful history as an alleged mea culpa from Tati to his estranged daughter gives “The Illusionist” a wistful, melancholy air rarely seen in American animated movies. —RL
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7. “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
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6. “Wolfwalkers” (2020)

WOLFWALKERS, from left: Mebh Og Mactire (voice: Eva Whittaker), Robyn Goodfellowe (voice: Honor Kneafsey), 2020. © Apple TV+ / Courtesy Everett Collection

Cartoon Saloon’s third and final installment in the Kilkenny-based studio’s “Irish Folklore Trilogy” is its most expansive: an epic about the endless struggle between fanaticism and freedom. During Oliver Cromwell’s tyrannical reign, when Ireland suffered under English rule worse than ever before, the “Lord Protector” orders the extermination of all wolves on the Emerald Isle. The adventurous daughter (Honor Kneafsey) of an English hunter (Sean Bean) comes to realize that the English impulse to destroy the wolves, and anything “wild,” is about control and obedience — colonialism — when she encounters a young Irish girl named Mebh (Eva Whittaker), whose part of the wolfwalkers, people who can turn into wolves. Directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart give impossible levels of background detail despite telling a complex, action-driven story. Even if the narrative becomes a bit repetitive, there’s more than enough for your eyes to take in.—CB

5. “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
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4. “Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse” (2018)

Does the world need another Spider-Man movie? In the case of Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman’s inspired animated outing “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” the answer is a resounding yes. A new spin inside an old web, the film exists inside the so-called “Spider-Verse” — a multi-verse that doesn’t discount the current Tom Holland-starring live-action films and handily builds in tales from all over the long-running comic book series that could frame their own film — and still manages to carve out its own path.

Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) is, like so many Spider-Men before him, a regular kid whose life is thrown into turmoil after a nip from radioactive spider. What’s always been compelling about Spider-Man, however, is that his (or her!) life is interesting enough beyond that spider bite, and Miles delivers on that with ease: whipsmart, on the cusp of the rest of his teenage life, and from a compelling complex family, Miles is fun to watch even without all the superhero stuff. 

The superhero stuff, well, it’s pretty great, too. Vibrant, colorful, inventive animation pushes the heroics to blazing new heights (often literally) allows “Into the Spider-Verse” to tap into the nuttier aspects of being suddenly thrust into greatness (read: candy-colored psychedelic sequences that are as fun as they are thrilling). The introduction of a cadre of other Spider-People adds both humor and shocking stakes to a story that’s already built around Miles’ big heart and earnest desire to save the day, giving him plenty of new friends and the film a slew of zippy new players to indulge. Not just one of the most successful Spider-Man films of all time, not only a pitch-perfect exploration of the mind-bending implications of a multiverse, but a feature that happily carves out its own path while staying true to its rich history. —KE
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3. “The Red Turtle” (2016)

Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit joined forces with Studio Ghibli for this wordless survival story, which morphs into a delectable fairy tale over the course of its trim running time, and never wastes a frame. When the movie was released, even its biggest fans tended to note that it traded plot for mood, but that doesn’t quite do justice to the visual mastery on display. Instead, “The Red Turtle” uses the form of a familiar story while reinventing it from the inside out.

The plight of a lonely castaway tossed onto a deserted island in the midst of a harrowing storm screams “Robinson Crusoe,” but once the man comes across the majestic creature of the title, his adventures take a series of unusual new twists. The island companion initially registers as an annoyance, until it dies. But when the turtle suddenly transforms into a woman, the ensuing adventure transcends its narrative traditions, and becomes a profound meditation on mortality and companionship. At once in tune with the magnetic imagery of Miyazaki’s studio and more concise in its vision, “The Red Turtle” has a complex, soulful nature that sneaks into the deceptive simplicity of its design, and puts it in a class of its own as one of the greatest animated movies in history. —EK
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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
Stream on Disney+; rent or buy on Amazon.

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. —SG
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