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40 Greatest Animated Movies Ever

From Pixar landmarks to cyberpunk anime and stop-motion indies — our top non-live-action films and toons of all time

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It's crazy to think that, in the century-plus since Winsor McCay and the French Fantasmagorie first made moving drawings on a screen a form of popular entertainment, animation has given us everything from steamboat-steering mice and sly stop-motion foxes to, well, you name it: a septet of singing dwarves, psychic Japanese teens, counterculturally hip cats, crooning French triplets, classical-gassed satyrs and demons, humanity-saving robots, superhero families, the young-female brain's emotional terrain and a lovable, unclassifiable creature known as a Totoro. What was once considered a cinematic distraction for children has blossomed into a medium that's as creatively fertile and emotionally resonant as any live-action films aimed at the 18-and-over crowd (or, in the case of a stunner like Anomalisa, an incredible substitute for "adult" movies featuring actual adults).

So we're counting down our picks for the 40 greatest animated movies of all time — the features (and a handful of key shorts too good not to include) that have pushed the boundaries of what drawn lines, computerized pixels or manipulated puppets could accomplish for filmgoers. These are the ones that scare us, move us, crack us up and remind us of how fun and moving it is to watch cartoons, etc. with a crowd. 

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23. ‘Yellow Submarine’ (1968)

Few animated movies are more synonymous with "turn off your mind, relax and float downstream" vibe than this psychedelic late-Sixties Beatles odyssey, in which John, Paul, Ringo and George must rescue an underwater utopia from the fun-killing Blue Meanies. Sure, the Fab Four might not have actually provided their own speaking voices, but George Dunning's hallucinatory animation paired with some of their trippiest music makes for a memorable Pop-Art ride all the same. Yellow Submarine's popular success demonstrated to the mainstream that there were more ways than the Disney mode to pull off feature-length cartoons. JS

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22. ‘Toy Story’ (1995)

Pixar entered the world fully-formed with its miraculously assured debut film, already possessing a strong handle on the themes, sense of humor, and house style that would make them the standard bearer for modern animated features done right. Fluent in the poignant, primal language of childhood, the company's then-revolutionary team created a cast of lovable toys that feel more like old friends with every additional re-watch. Woody and Buzz Lightyear (Tom Hanks and Tim Allen) make for a stellar comedic odd couple, and Randy Newman's "You Got a Friend in Me" still gets us every time. CB

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21. ‘The Lego Movie’ (2014)

Proving that the Toy Story franchise isn't the last word on the secret life of children's playthings, director Chris Miller and Phil Lord's gloriously goofy take on those little building blocks made Chris Pratt a star, harnessing both his preternatural sweetness and his mastery of dumb-guy humor. The Parks and Recreation star voices Emmet, an everyLego who learns he's the chosen one who must save the universe from the evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell). Sure, hero's-journey narratives are a total cliché — and it's but one of several action-movies tropes that this hilariously self-aware hoot spoofs. Making a movie that's a feature-length advertisement for the titular product is easy; making one this zippy, charming and as endlessly inventive as the titular product is damn hard. TG

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20. ‘Pinocchio’ (1940)

So much of this early-phase triumph from the Mouse House has been enshrined in history: Jiminy Cricket warbling "When You Wish Upon A Star"; Monstro the whale swallowing our hero; the traumatizing, surreal sequences on Pleasure Island. But at its core, the studio's adaptation of Carlo Collodi's fairy tale revolves around what it means to be human. What you remember the most is the look on Pinocchio's face as he goes from wood to flesh and blood. It's heartwarming, imaginative and beautiful all at once — no strings attached. CB

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19. ‘Akira’ (1988)

Considering the year we've been having, we're well on our way to a worst-case-scenario dystopia by 2019 — so Katsuhiro Otomo's cyberpunk anime high-water mark may still be a prophecy of things to come. The nightmarish future-shock vision of a postapocalyptic Tokyo filled warring psychic gangs has earned this sleek, stylish wonder a cult reputation and inspired a generation of visual artists on both sides of the globe (Kanye's a fan). It's the epitome of J-geek-cool, with a painstakingly mapped high-tech that’s worth spending a lifetime or three in. CB

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18. ‘Waking Life’ (2001)

A decade after his breakthrough film, Slacker, did more than its part to keep Austin weird, Richard Linklater turned to rotoscoping wizard Bob Sabiston to animate another series of free-flowing philosophical musings, Beckett-like sketches and silly asides. The process involves tracing over existing footage, and the shimmering images have the quality of a head-trip — or, as the title suggests, a trance-like odyssey between dreams and reality. Casually loping from academic profundities to digressive bits of comedy, Waking Life lures you into a suggestive state before proceeding to blow your mind. ST

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17. ‘Anomalisa’ (2015)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind screenwriter Charlie Kaufman often places his characters in fantastical worlds, so perhaps it was inevitable that he'd finally turn to stop-motion animation. In this romantic comedy-drama, he and co-director Duke Johnson tell the bittersweet story of a British motivational speaker (David Thewlis) who falls for a seemingly plain jane named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) during a stop in Cincinnati. The barbed wit and quiet anxiety prevalent in Kaufman's work is supplemented here by a palpable sense of longing — not just for connection, but for a reason to keep going at all. A love story, a character study, a commentary on modern malaise: Anomalisa would be crushingly despairing if it wasn't also so damn funny. TG

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16. ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989)

After decades in the wilderness, Disney ushered in a new era of animated hits with this Broadway-style adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale — a bright musical fantasy about the dream of being human. This was the one that set the bar for high production values and impeccable song craft; you don't get The Lion King or Frozen without it. In particular, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's songs, like "Under the Sea" and "Part of Your World," have permanently left their Mouse-House marks on the culture. ST

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15. ‘Chicken Run’ (2000)

Nick Park and Peter Lord took a break from their cheese-loving inventor and his dog to make their studio's first feature-length film: A stop-motion tale of quirky chickens and the big-talking rooster (voiced by Mel Gibson) who wants to lead them away from certain death and to freedom. Both an homage to The Great Escape and a parable of the wreckage of capitalism's triumph, Chicken Run is clever and always quotable, thanks to its madcap slapstick, scrappy heroine, and band of endearing poultry weirdos. AW

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14. ‘Steamboat Willie’ (1928)

Long before he became a corporate logo, Mickey Mouse was a mischievous little scamp, stirring up trouble in massively popular short films. The first and best-known is still "Steamboat Willie," notable not just for debuting Mickey and Minnie, but for being Walt Disney's first sound cartoon. Eighty-eight years later, it's still impressive to see how the studio's technicians synch up the soundtrack to the characters' hijinks on the big river, using music and effects to underscore the slapstick adventures of one wild mouse — in the years before he got corporatized and domesticated. NM

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13. ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ (1988)

Hayao Miyazaki's gentle fantasy that connects a world of magical creatures and supernatural occurrences with a strong feelings of maternal longing — and is considered by many to be the quintessential Studio Ghibli film that's perfect viewing for both very young tots and adults. Its adorable woodland whatzit of a hero remains Miyazaki's most beloved character, and the story of two young sisters finding joy and solace in nature while Mom's in the hospital is quietly poignant without ever getting sentimental. And the movie's portrayal of childhood as a world where eccentricities are accepted as part of the landscape is damn near peerless — of course a bus made out a cat (or is that vice versa?) will pull up whenever you need a ride. ST

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12. ‘Inside Out’ (2015)

Proof that Pixar is mightier than any brand in Hollywood: Walt Disney spent $175 million to make a movie about the value of sadness. With its whimsical hook of a premise, about five emotions (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust) running a control board in a little girl's mind, the pitch probably sounded like the digital animation company's answer to Herman's Head. But as the child reacts to difficult changes in her life, Inside Out shifts into a full-blown tearjerker about growing up, and the bittersweet feelings that go along with it. ST

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11. ‘What’s Opera, Doc?’ (1957)

Your average elementary schooler doesn't usually get hyped up about opera, but with a short this infectiously fun, listening to "The Ride of the Valkyries" doesn't feel like getting force-fed cultural broccoli. Elmer Fudd and animation's most wascally wabbit chase one another through a German Expressionist daydream, with all the expected cross-dressing that a Bugs Bunny cartoon implies. And like all the most enduring works to emerge from the Looney Tunes heyday, it ends with the perfect punch line. Gee, ain't Wagner a stinker? CB

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10. ‘World of Tomorrow’ (2015)

Got 17 minutes? That's all pioneering short filmmaker Don Hertzfeldt needs to craft a beguiling, frightening alternate reality in which our future clones make contact with us, explaining what's in store for humanity. (Think evolution will have cured our fundamental emotional cravings? Think again.)  Hertzfeldt's four-year-old niece Winona Mae voices Emily, a little girl who's far too young to grasp the implications of what her two-centuries-ahead clone has to tell her. But the film is as beautifully innocent as its child heroine, attuned to life's nagging little mysteries but also content in the knowledge that some questions simply don't have answers. World of Tomorrow is as vast as the cosmos but full of simple pleasures — none more life-affirming than Mae's delightful giggles. TG

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9. ‘Street of Crocodiles’ (1986)

Animation has gone almost entirely digital, but stop-motion visionaries Stephen and Timothy Quay still use their hands. Inspired by the Polish surrealist writer Bruno Schultz, as well as kindred stop-motion spirit Jan Svankmajer, their 1986 short features dancing screws and a timepiece stuffed with bloody innards, navigated by a hatchet-faced puppet whose body seems to be decaying as we watch. It might be a century ago or a hundred years from now, a timeless nowhere that's like a vivid dream you can't wake up from. SA

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8. ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ (1993)

Who doesn't love everyone's favorite dancing bag of bones, Jack Skellington? The elegant skeleton mayor's attempts to transpose Christmas celebrations into his macabre Halloween-themed town make for some awfully fun fish-out-of-water comedy — and studio executives worried it would be too scary for children. But the project's producer and patron saint Tim Burton specializes in taking horror-movie concepts and turning them into wistful tales of longing to find your place, and he helps director Henry Selick turn Nightmare's stop-motion fantasy world into something both Goth-mall ghoulish and tween-friendly affectionate. The weirder the characters get, the more you want to see. AW

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7. ‘The Iron Giant’ (1999)

Director Brad Bird is responsible for two of Pixar's biggest moneymakers (The Incredibles and Ratatouille), yet even his animation colleagues would say that his most personal work is this exciting, tear-jerking adaptation of Ted Hughes' children's book, about a boy who befriends an enormous robot from outer space. Initially a box office disappointment, The Iron Giant has become a cult favorite because of how it turns a simple science-fiction premise into a heartfelt statement about heroism. The movie pays homage to the look of old Superman cartoons to show how another alien "man of steel" uses his strength to help, not harm. NM

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6. ‘WALL-E’ (2008)

At a meeting during Pixar's early days, the studio's core team brainstormed ideas, in the process coming up with a unlikely robot hero who had been left behind on Earth. ("I just thought that was the saddest character I had ever heard of," director Andrew Stanton later recalled, "and I just loved that.") Thus set in motion one of the company's most ambitious films: An almost-silent first act — in which the lovable, dependable droid encounters the all-business probe robot EVE — gives way to a journey into outer space, where we'll learn what happened to humanity after generations of relying on technology. Pro-environment and anti-consumerism, WALL-E is, first and foremost, a poignant love story about two mismatched misfits. Can anyone hear "It Only Takes a Moment" now without getting misty-eyed? TG

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5.’ Duck Amuck’ (1953)

A deconstructionist masterpiece in the form of an anarchic romp — or is it the other way around? — Chuck Jones' epochal short subject tears down the fourth wall, shreds it, and dances in the confetti. When you watch it as a child, the antagonism between Daffy Duck and his (largely) offscreen animator is a hoot, and you feel like you're being let in on a secret. But as as an adult, it's also lightly terrifying: Daffy Duck's world may be merely lines on celluloid, but he's real, and he's trapped. The final pullback shows us a mischievous Bugs Bunny at the drawing board, the prankish illustrator of all Daffy's pain — but what if the camera kept moving? We'd see Jones holding the brush, or ourselves watching the screen, and then what? All of a sudden, a cartoon about a short-tempered duck has you contemplating the cruel indifference of fate. Thanks for the sour persimmons, cousin. SA

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4. ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937)

Tales of singing princesses, evil queens, handsome heroes, and helpful bands of sidekicks have become as much as much a part of the Disney formula as the "secret blend of herbs and spices" is to KFC. But back in the 1930s, Walt Disney himself gambled the future of his company on one feature-length fairy tale, and changed the future of animation. Snow White's smash international success proved that audiences could be held spellbound by a cartoon for 80 minutes; and the movie's many technological marvels justified the money the studio had spent over the previous decade on special cameras and new animation techniques. All the risk paid off in something beautiful and timeless. Even today, this picture looks stunning — like an old painting that springs to life whenever someone shines a light on it. NM

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3. ‘Fantasia’ (1940)

Arguably Disney's greatest artistic and creative achievement, these eight sketches set to classical music combine sound and image with a dazzling intricacy. The swirls of amorphous color that accompany Bach in the opening can make an infant gurgle with delight; the hellish "Night on Bald Mountain" finale can still give grown-ass adults nightmares; and everyone agrees that the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" passage is a near-peerless Mickey Mouse showcase. It's a celebration of art for art's sake, a joyous and surreal Classical Compositions 101 lecture that pushed the medium several quantum leaps forward. Disney and his fleet of animators ended the "Can cartoons be art?" conversation before it even began — the colossal accomplishments on display here are self-evident. CB

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2. ‘Spirited Away’ (2001)

Studio Ghibli has produced one animated classic after another, but this is the one that goes into the vault. Part fantasy, part adventure, part dream, and part metaphor, Hayao Miyazaki's masterpiece follows a 10-year-old girl who's forced to work in a extra-dimensional bath-house for ghosts and demons after a mysterious spell turns her parents into pigs. Scarcely a minute of this movie goes by without some kind of strange or scary vision, dredged up directly from Miyazaki's subconscious  — including floating frogs, oozing stink-gods, chattering skull-phones, and trains that glide across the water. It's all held together by a thrilling and poignant story, about a kid on the cusp of adulthood, discovering how complicated it can be to live in a world that's constantly changing. NM

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1. ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ (2009)

"I always loved Fantastic Mr. Fox," Wes Anderson recalled in 2009 about the Roald Dahl novel that inspired his greatest film. "It was the first book I actually owned with my name written in the title page on a little sticker." That kind of loving, handmade detail is all over the filmmaker's adaptation, a gloriously tactile rendering of the Fox family and its hopelessly restless patriarch, whose fear of mortality drives him to return to his old criminal lifestyle. All Anderson films are tributes to their own meticulous design and dry wit, but Fox's stop-motion style adds a graceful fragility to the director's ethos, and his voice cast (including George Clooney and Meryl Streep) gives decidedly grown-up, anti-cute performances. It's a beloved cult item, as well as a holiday staple for discriminating families — ones who will no doubt see part of themselves reflected back in the movie's very "different" menagerie of critters. TG

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