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[Editor’s note: This list has been updated with new additions on May 4, 2022. It was last updated on March 6, 2020.]
“One more time: Animation is a medium, not a genre — Animation is film,” Guillermo del Toro said earlier this year. IndieWire couldn’t agree more, and yet animation, an art form that requires the most precise control of the cinematic medium, is continually disrespected. Following a presentation at the Oscars this year that, in the words of animation wizards Phil Lord and Chris Miller, framed “the five Academy Award nominees for Best Animated Feature as a corporate product for kids that parents must begrudgingly endure,” the directing duo called upon the Academy to do better by animation. What better way to defend the art form than to round up the best animated movies of the 21st century? These movies speak for themselves, and show how vital animation is right now.
Pixar and Studio Ghibli tend to spring to mind first when discussing great animation, but there’s a world beyond those two giants. Animated films have grown ever more artful and affecting as more and more folks realize that, the Oscars comments notwithstanding, it’s never just been a medium for kids, with studios and indies alike creating stop-motion marvels, hand-drawn standouts, and CGI spectacles.
The genre has grown so much since we entered the current century, in fact, that it can be easy to forget the Academy Awards didn’t even recognize animation until 2001. As few as three movies were nominated per year until 2010, but since then animation’s increased prominence has been reflected in the race’s competitiveness. Not every worthy movie could make the cut on either the awards circuit or this list, sadly, but rest assured that “The Breadwinner” and “Loving Vincent,” to name just a few, are very honorable mentions.
Kate Erbland, David Ehrlich, Christian Blauvelt, Steve Greene, Eric Kohn, Jude Dry, Chris O’Falt, Anne Thompson, Zack Sharf, Noel Murray, Jenna Marotta, and Michael Nordine also contributed to this list.
41. “Waking Life” (2001)
Richard Linklater’s first animated feature is an evolution of his style: lengthy dialogue scenes, characters meandering through life, profound philosophical musings tossed off with the effortlessness of bar chatter — but pushed beyond what’s possible with live-action staging. Though it’s brought to life largely via rotoscoping, “Waking Life” finds in animation a way of defamiliarizing the ordinary. Here’s a movie that willfully plunges into the uncanny valley with abandon: Wiley Wiggins plays a protagonist wandering through waking and dreaming worlds (not knowing which is which) encountering people who should be a REM sleep-induced fever dream (abhorred real-life pundit Alex Jones among them) and those who just wander in like stray memories (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s Jesse and Celine from the “Before” movies). A movie about ideas more than story, there really is little through-plot here; Wiggins’ character is more just a concept to hang compelling dialogue scenes and untangle some intellectual knots. In that regard, it could have just been another version of Linklater’s debut, “Slacker.” But the animation gives a spiritual remove to everything that happens. It allows you to take everything that’s said with a grain of salt and see the bigger picture; all these yapping know-it-alls lay bare the limit of our capacity for knowledge itself. —CB
40. “Monsters Inc.” (2001)
Over twenty years later and the message of “Monsters, Inc.” still rings true: There’s more to life than scaring, and certainly more to a job than just work. The 2001 Pixar comedy follows two professional scary monsters, James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman) and Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal), who are employed by an energy company that feeds off the fear of children. While the “monsters” themselves are terrified of human kids, one curious young girl Boo (Mary Gibbs) befriends the duo and sneaks into the monster world. Steve Buscemi, Jennifer Tilly, and James Coburn star as fellow monsters who seek out to bring Boo back to where she belongs. “Monsters, Inc.” opened the door (no pun intended) to children’s films being marketed toward adults, with the commentary on capitalism, career pursuits, and a monster of a day at work certainly relatable to parents in the audience. Add in Randy Newman’s iconic Oscar-winning score, and the critically-acclaimed film is an instant classic, spurring one prequel “Monsters University” in 2013 and a spin-off Disney+ series “Monsters at Work,” which premiered in 2021. —SB
39. “Encanto” (2021)
Disney’s animated movies have adopted the structure and feel of Broadway musicals off and on since “The Little Mermaid” in 1989 (if not earlier); but “Encanto” may be the studio’s most Broadway-like production. With its story-driven, free-ranging Lin-Manuel Miranda songs — framed by Germain Franco’s Latin-steeped score — and its plot largely confined to one magical house in a remote Colombian village, the film plays like an inventive evening at the theater, where the whole saga of a strange and sprawling family is squeezed into a small stage and a taut running time. Of course the main reason “Encanto” became a sensation — and why catchy numbers like “Surface Pressure” and “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” became instant classics — is because this tale of siblings jostling for the approval of their imposing elders resonates across cultures and generations. Like the heroine Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz), everyone has felt under-valued, and has wanted the chance to prove they can uphold their family’s legacy. —NM
38. “How to Train Your Dragon” (2010)
Based on Cressida Cowell’s popular children’s book, “How to Train Your Dragon” was a delightful surprise when it arrived in theaters in the spring of 2010, at a time when adventure movies aimed at kids were stuck in a bit of a rut. This funny, thrilling picture overcame a slow start at the box office to become a word-of-mouth hit; and it remains not just one of the best animated features of its era but also a timeless fantasy classic. Give credit to Cowell’s basic premise: about a misfit teenage Viking named Hiccup (voiced perfectly by the nerdy character actor Jay Baruchel) who befriends a rare dragon he calls “Toothless” and thus shakes up his tradition-bound community. Between the wonderfully exaggerated character designs, the foggy medieval island where the story is set, and the genuinely pulse-pounding action sequences, “How to Train Your Dragon” has a distinctive look and perspective, all in service of illustrating the idea that there may be other ways to deal with danger beyond defaulting to brute force. —NM
37. “The Secret of Kells” (2009)
The Cartoon Saloon team of Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey, and Paul Young have been a breath of fresh air in the animation business ever since they set up shop in 1999. The Irish studio’s debut feature “The Secret of Kells” showed moviegoers around the world what this crew could do. The story’s imagery recalls the look of the illuminated medieval texts handled by its young hero: a 12-year-old boy who falls under the sway of a charismatic monk and learns there’s more to courage and adventure than what he’s read about in books. “The Secret of Kells” bucked nearly every trend in animated films at the time: It’s hand-drawn instead of computer-rendered; it’s based on an ancient manuscript rather than a toy or a fairy tale; and it embraces ambiguity rather than settling into a simple “good vs. evil” duality. Even now, it feels like a minor miracle that this movie exists. —NM
36. “I Lost My Body” (2019)
The visionary French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s frequent screenwriting collaborator Guillaume Laurent wrote the surreal and profound novel “Happy Hand,” adapted by animation director Jérémy Clapin into “I Lost My Body,” a feature-length cartoon made for adults with adventurous tastes (including the International Critics Week jury at Cannes, which made history by making this the first animated film to win their top prize). As imaginatively fantastical as one might expect from the co-writer of “Amélie,” the movie tells the story of a severed hand, crawling across Paris looking for its original owner: a North African immigrant named Naoufel, whose quest for love and personal purpose in Europe has suffered several soul-crushing setbacks. Naoufel’s tale is told mostly in flashback, while in the present his hand heroically avoids various threats. Part action picture and part character sketch, “I Lost My Body” is primarily a poignant look at loneliness. —NM
35. “Belle” (2021)
This Japanese riff on “Beauty and the Beast” from unapologetically maximalist director Mamoru Hosoda takes place within a fictional metaverse known as “U,” and the film’s stunning anime renderings of the “Matrix”-like world are reason enough to see it. But the manic film has enough substance to justify its style, updating the classic fairy tale to tell the story of two people brought together by the anonymity of the Internet. With so many movies focusing on the divisive nature of social media (for good reason!), this one reminds us of the beauty that can be found when two people connect when they would have never met otherwise. —CZ
34. “Toy Story 3” (2010)
Even before that scene, “Toy Story 3” is one of the most moving animated films ever made. Once Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the gang not only face what appears to be certain doom but accept their collective fate, it becomes impossibly wrenching — and that’s coming from someone who never cries during the first 15 minutes of “Up.” Pixar’s semi-recent sequel overload may not inspire much confidence, but anyone who doubts their capacity for occasional greatness (like this writer) need only remember that the studio’s best movie was the third installment in a series that didn’t appear to need one in the first place. The next few “Cars” movies may leave us cold, but at least we’ll always have a friend in “Toy Story.” —MN
33. “Soul” (2020)
Pixar has carved out a niche for itself as a purveyor of colorful, kid-friendly stories with themes that can bring adults to tears. But for “Soul,” the studio seemingly dropped the pretense of making children’s movies altogether, choosing to tell the story of an adult having a midlife crisis who befriends a disembodied soul with a serious case of nihilism. The movie isn’t afraid to get dark in its portrayal of two characters struggling to find a reason to live, but it makes up for it with lots of thoughtfulness and a hefty dose of Pixar’s signature heart. The film is a masterclass in metaphysical world building, resulting in some of the most creative mythology the studio has ever developed. In the end, “Soul” makes a thoroughly convincing case for existence itself, reminding kids and adults alike of the joys of being alive. —CZ
32. “Coco” (2017)
Pixar’s Oscar-winning “Coco” was a long overdue moment for representation at the animated studio as it was the first project to feature Mexican characters in leading roles, but its power comes from not just being inclusive but from taking Mexican culture and heritage and making it so universal. The story follows an aspiring young musician named Miguel who gains access to the Land of the Dead in an attempt to find his great-grandfather musician and get rid of his family’s ancestral ban on music. “Toy Story 3” director Lee Unkrich and co-director Adrian Molina create such a vibrant, eye-popping Land of the Dead that to watch “Coco” is to get lost in its transfixing colors and imaginative world building. This hyper-detailed approach to the animation style demonstrates both a reverence for Mexican culture and an enthusiasm for making Mexican heritage connect to every viewer regardless of their background. —ZS
31. “Finding Nemo” (2003)
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
Stream on Disney+; rent or buy on Amazon.
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