40 Greatest Animated Movies Ever - Rolling Stone
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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

Greatest Animated Movies Wallace gromit Nightmare Christmas Fantasia

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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.

Greatest Animated Movies Wallace gromit Nightmare Christmas Fantasia

‘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

Greatest Animated Movies Wallace gromit Nightmare Christmas Fantasia

‘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

Greatest Animated Movies Wallace gromit Nightmare Christmas Fantasia

‘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

Greatest Animated Movies Wallace gromit Nightmare Christmas Fantasia

‘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

Greatest Animated Movies Wallace gromit Nightmare Christmas Fantasia

‘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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