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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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36. ‘Fantastic Planet’ (1973)

At once gorgeous and jarringly violent, this psychedelic allegory from French animator René Laloux has inspired everyone from musical polymath Flying Lotus to hip-hop producer of repute Madlib. The freaky art design and distinctive paper-cutout animation style still wow curious viewers today, while Alain Goraguer's eerie score creates an uncanny tone seldom heard on a soundtrack. Towering azure-skinned aliens called Traags keep humans for pets and indifferently abuse them as such, so the subtext isn't too sub-. But the inventive aesthetics alone qualify this one for inclusion on all-time lists such as these. CB

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35. ‘The Secret of NIMH’ (1982)

Ditching his job at Disney in the late 1970s after being disillusioned with the Mouse House's sputtering creative drive, Don Bluth made his feature directorial debut with this fable about a widowed mouse who must move her family's home so that a farmer doesn't destroy it. That quest leads to her discovery of what happened to her beloved husband, who was part of insidious government trials on rats. Based on Robert C. O'Brien's book, The Secret of NIMH folds a commentary on the evils of animal experimentation and a salute to the bravery of single moms into a smart, gripping action-adventure framework, becoming an underappreciated touchstone for sensitive Eighties kids. TG

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34. ‘Up’ (2009)

Look up "tearjerker" in the dictionary: The indelible sequence that starts this Pixar movie — a whole marriage, in a little over four minutes — should be the first entry. The story of an unlikely friendship between a little boy and a lonely old man (with a house towed by thousands of balloons, talking dogs and a good ol' zeppelin fight thrown in for good measure) is a bit of magical realism that befits its subject of never being too old for an adventure. Up garnered a Best Picture nomination and became the first animated film to open the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, and with its eye-popping animation and surprisingly deep emotional resonance, it's no wonder. AW

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33. ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ (2004)

Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki brilliantly blends Eastern and Western sensibilities in this antiwar tale, loosely adapted from a novel by Brit Diana Wynne Jones. Howl's Moving Castle features one of Studio Ghibli's most inventive set pieces: a mobile steampunk castle powered by a wisecracking fire demon and lorded over by a bellicose wizard. Filtering the aesthetics of Old World Europe through a Eastern lens, it's a visually stunning love story that's also a blistering indictment of the human and environmental toll of war. Pixar's Pete Docter oversaw the English dubbing, and he packed it with heavyweight vocal talents including Lauren Bacall, Christian Bale, Emily Mortimer and Billy Crystal. JS

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32. ‘The Triplets of Belleville’ (2003)

Schooled in Jazz Age stage acts and silent comedy, France's Sylvain Chomet cranked up the whimsy and vintage grotesquerie for this old-timey caper involving American gangsters, Tour de France cyclists and the titular trio of weird sisters out to expose a crime ring. The movie has catchy tunes and wry physical humor to spare, but its most charming idiosyncrasy is its joy in laying out moving parts – a makeshift treadmill, a daily routine, a song – and watching them go. CB

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31. ‘Fritz the Cat’ (1972)

Cult legend Ralph Bakshi's adaptation of Robert Crumb's creation — a hip kitty-cat with a taste for getting high, antagonizing cops, and cajoling busty coeds into group sex — served as the ultimate big-screen statement regarding the bitter, biting satire of underground comix. (Although the artist himself was no fan — he immediately killed off Fritz with an icepick in the books.) Its distinction for being the first X-rated cartoon overshadows the more subversive dimensions of its anthropomorphic look at Nixon-era Amerika, but Bakshi's bad-trip toon is far from an empty provocation. Targeting everyone from social fatcats (rendered as literal fat cats) to simpering progressives, the midnight-movie staple burns like a Molotov cocktail, equal parts nihilism and let-it-all-hang-out hedonism. CB

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30. ‘Persepolis’ (2007)

Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel is one of the great achievements in comics history: a sui generis look inside Iran during the rise of the fundamentalist Islamic government, told from the perspective of a punky teenage girl. The movie version (made in collaboration with French animator Vincent Paronnaud) is just as lively, tracking the heroine as she rebels and screws up just like any kid, but in a country where even wearing lipstick can get a young woman arrested. With its thick-lined monochrome art and its eye-opening story about Satrapi's migration to Europe, the movie is as gripping and groundbreaking as the original book. NM

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29. ‘The Incredibles’ (2004)

Before the Christopher Nolan Batmans made superhero movies dark and the Marvel Cinematic Universe made them mythically intertwined, Pixar's take on caped crusaders made them more inventive and fun than they've ever been since. Countless superhero stories deal with public blowback over collateral damage, but writer-director Brad Bird (The Iron Giant) gets endless comic mileage out of "Supers" trying to fit into normal, buttoned-down, middle-class society. When they're finally called to action, the thrills come not only from the Incredibles saving the world, but from the freedom to be their true selves. Remember: The family that fights super villains togethers, stays together. ST

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28. ‘The Wrong Trousers’ (1993)

The fussbudget inventor Wallace and his faithful dog Gromit are one of the screen's great comedy duos, and they — and the hands that patiently mold their Plasticene bodies — are at their best as they do battle with a sociopathic penguin armed with a pair of robotic pants. (Just go with it.) Nick Park and his Aardman crew, also responsible for the classic "Creature Comforts," in which zoo animals candidly discuss the merits of life behind bars, sweat every painstaking detail of the duo's miniature environment, right down to the wallpaper in their cozy British cottage. SA

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27. ‘Waltz With Bashir’ (2008)

Israeli documentarian Ari Folman was accustomed to making traditional live-action films, but he chose animation to explore the slippery nature of memories, specifically those that he and his friends repressed after fighting in the devastating Lebanon War. Folman's conversations with friends and slow unwinding of his own memories become more distressing as the film goes on; because it's fully animated, the usual documentary method of jumping from talking-head interview to re-enactment gives way to a blurred present and past. The result is hallucinatory and unnerving, a cri de coeur mixing personal experience, political protest and poetry. AW

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26. ‘Bambi’ (1942)

There are few moments in Disney history as unforgettable — or notorious — as Bambi's mother getting shot by a hunter, leaving her sweet little fawn to fend for herself. What people might forget, however, is that Bambi is a beautiful and lyrical affirmation of life, which must include death, but which also makes room for friendship, family, and the verdant glories of the natural world. Losing her mother may have been the end of the innocence for the movie's titular doe, but the film makes a strong virtue of growing up, gaining knowledge, and learning to stand on your own four legs. ST

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25. ‘South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut’ (1999)

The most technically crude movie on this list is also one of its most sophisticated. Trey Parker and Matt Stone love primitive, cutout-style animation and broad gags — the movie's subtitle is possibly the least subtle dick joke ever made — but they're also deft satirists with a keen eye and deadly aim. In addition to showing Saddam Hussein in bed with Satan, BL&U showcases note-perfect musical theatre pastiches that prefigured the duo's Broadway smash hit, The Book of Mormon. Vive la résistance! (And don't forget the punch and pie.) SA

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24. ‘The Adventures of Prince Achmed’ (1926)

Nine-tenths of a century after its initial release, Lotte Reininger's otherworldly fable still astonishes with its rapturous fluidity. Although its images were created with intricate paper cut-outs, they seem to flow like water, pure magic created with the simplest of tools. The Adventures of Prince Achmed's accomplishments are even more astonishing when you consider that Reininger and her collaborators were working without a map. There were no rules for them to break, so for three years they went wherever their imaginations and their experimentation took them, creating one of animation's first feature films, and still one of the medium's best. SA

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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