Before I start with the list, some explanations: Those are not necessarily my favorite movies. Those are movies I believe to be special in one way or another, movies which I think offer something different from the standard animated movie. And while I numbered the list, most of the placements are pretty much exchangeable – to make it on the list, it had to be a full-length movie (regardless of theatrical release, though don’t expect any TV specials), it had to be a stand-alone (not a sequel or TV-show based) and it had to offer something special, preferably in terms of animation (though sometimes I went for well written plots and characters, too), but the placement itself very much hinged on my personal experiences with those movies.
I also tried to be as diverse as possible, especially in terms of the different types of animation out there. Some of the movies of the list are very well known some are fairly obscure. Awards don’t make much of a difference to me, even though there are some award winners on the list. I also mostly went for older movies, because I believe that it is one thing if a movie is relevant and impressive the year it's made, but another thing how it is seen when the years pass. So, please don't complain that let's say "The Little Mermaid" isn't on the list. It's a great and important movie, but what I was searching for is mostly "different".
I don’t claim to have seen every animated movie out there, so naturally I might have missed some real gems. Feel free to suggest some more obscure movies if you like, but if it’s a well known one, it is very, very likely that I have seen it at one point or another or will see it sooner or later.
This movie is perhaps the best ever done in stop-motion-animation (so far). The only other movie which can rival it in this category is “Coraline”, but I decided to go with this one, because it was the movie which put stop-motion-animation back on the map. Plus, while I believe that “Coraline” has the better story, I think “A Nightmare before Christmas” has more to offer in terms of animation. The dark design and the details in the Halloween world are definitely worth a watch. Though I have to admit, while the score and the design make sure that the story flows very well, the plot itself is pretty much run-of-the-mil, even if there are some morbid elements to it. But when it comes to stop-motion-animation, this is the movie to watch.
I’m not a fan of Studio Ghibli. Here, I said it; you are allowed to throw eggs at me. Thus said, I don’t dislike the movies they make, I just never really connected with them. Perhaps it’s an age issue – I saw none of them before I was an adult, so there is no nostalgia connected with them. Though I suspect it’s mostly a theme-issue. There are two kinds of movies I really don’t like to watch, unless they somehow managed to hit the right note with me. I don’t like “Alice down the rabbit-hole” stories, meaning aimless plots which are mostly about someone discovering a senseless world. I want to see characters that have some sense of purpose on screen, and nothing peeves me more than the “it was only a dream” solution. And no, the “she doesn’t really remember” solution in “Spirited Away” isn’t better by any means. The other kind of movie I tend to dislike even more are environmental ones, because most of them are unbelievable preachy. Studio Ghibli tends to do mostly movies about one of those two themes, and even if the main theme of the movie isn’t about it, a certain preachiness tends to pop up in them (also a certain “you young people have no idea how good your life is” tone). But my personal feelings aside, I think that the work Japanese Animation does should be acknowledged, and even if the story he tells are mostly not my cup of tea, when it comes to movies Miyazaki imself directed than you'll get at least some impressive visuals out of it, even if you don't like the movie as a whole. But if there is one movie which stands above all the others, it’s “Princess Mononoke” (yeah, I went for the award winner this time around). I don’t promise you that you will like it, I don’t. But a lot of people do and I can see why. It’s a movie which notable was made with a lot of care and the animation is really a sight to see. And, while I have trouble to connect with the movie (I suspect mostly because I don’t really connect with the characters) I have to give it credit for not being preachy. I think it’s the only movie I know in which “nature” isn’t some innocent beautiful thing egoistical humans like to destroy, but a dangerous thing humans tend to destroy because their priorities are set on survival. It’s just – the movie seems to be so set on being more than just a movie, that is sometimes forgets to be a movie (if that makes any sense to you).
I basically sort Disney movies (those in the list of their masterpieces) into four categories: The classic fairy tale which Disney is famous for (even though only twelve movies in the canon are really based on fairy tales or legends, and only perhaps 20 follow what I call the “Disney Formula” with a certain pattern of musical numbers, love story aso), the package movies (which I refuse to see as real movies), the CGI-movies (which are terrible with the exception of Rapunzel, which is more a classical fairy tale made in CGI) and the fourth category, which more or less contains everything else. Movies, which are based on books, rarely on original stories, and which try to do something new and different. I thought long and hard which one of those movies is the best to present this aspect of Disney animation, and finally chose “Lilo and Stitch” because it is a movie really far removed from what people normally connect with Disney. It's not really the animation which made the movie interesting, it's the subject matter. Behind a really ridiculous premise (Alien experiment is found by orphan in Hawaii? Really?) hides a really heartwarming story, which touches some real life issues. No overly happy family in this one, no overly cheery musical numbers either. The animation is not really that unusual, but the style is fairly distinctive, and the Hawaiian dancer at the beginning are really a sight to watch, the movements are so fluid. So if you want to see what Disney can do when it takes a step away from its usual style, this is the movie for you.
There are a few animated movies which are NOT for children. This is definitely one of them, even though I did see it as a child and had nightmares to kingdom come as a result. I don’t think that I really understood what the movie was about back then, I took away a hazy idea about how horrible humans act towards rabbits. But that’s not the actual theme of the movie, it is in fact about different models of society, represented in the four different warren which are featured. It also has some interesting animation whenever rabbit mythology (yeah, there is such a thing) is mentioned. Oh, and a really great score on top of it. And while I made a point of mentioning that adults and not children are the target audience of the movie, I don't think that it hurts them to watch once they reached a certain age - just don't expect it to be right for pre-schoolers because of the fluffy bunnies in it. It's definitly not.
At least one Don Bluth movie had to make the list, but there are actually only three I considered. I discarded “An American Tail” pretty fast, but was very tempted to chose “A Land before Time”, which frankly is less flawed in terms of storytelling. Nevertheless I chose this one in the end, because it has one of the strongest female characters not just in animated movies but in general. Mrs. Brisby isn’t your usual hero. She doesn’t have any great dreams she just wants to keep her family alive. She is terrified during nearly the whole movie, but she chooses to act despite her fears.
I also like the dark tone of the movie. This movie sugercoats nothing, it delves into some really scary stuff, but it always manages to keep the balance between taking the audience serious enough to leave the blood on the sword, but still keeping it to a level which isn't too disturbing. Add some really memorable scenes towards the end (mostly connected to the stone) and you have a masterpiece, which might not be perfect, but works the way it should. It’s too bad that Don Bluth’s never reached the quality of his first movies with his later projects.
Well, technically it is only half-animated, but it is the animation which made this movie special. Partly because of the effort put in it. Partly because we will most likely never see all this characters in one movie. But what makes this a “must see” movie is the fact that this is the only movie I know in which the animation/real character mix really makes sense. Don’t get me wrong, I love other movies which do this. But in those movies, the animation part is more a gimmick. Here it is really used to bring animated characters to live. It is acknowledged that those characters are toons, different from “normal” people, but they are treated like real. And that’s what makes this movie so unique. That and Jessica Rabbit.
Well, I could simply write Disney Pixar instead, since every movie they made, even those which are considered “not as good” are worth at least one watch (though it remains to see how well those movies will age), but if I had to pick one movie they made, it would be this one. Pixar movies are known for taking crazy premises and turning it into something which works. And it is my conviction that those movies do work, because they are based on two elements: Characters and relationship. Every Pixar movie has very well fleshed out characters and in nearly all of them, the understanding for each other is a central plot point, starting with “Toy Story”. I like “Up” above all of them, because, despite its crazy premise, it’s actually about our everyday life. It’s about understanding why old people sometimes act the way they do, but also about pointing out that children have their own burdens to bear. It tells us that live in itself is already an adventure, and that the true treasure is sharing it with the right people. Add some nice visuals and the best movie beginnings I have ever seen (in only five minutes this movie makes you feel and weep for a character who barely says a word), and you have a true Pixar masterpiece. Other people might like other movies by them better, but for me, this one is the one which floats above all of them.
Despite what I said about the “Disney Formula” so far: It works. It works a little bit too well, to be honest. Personally I thought that there are a lot of movies Disney made in the late nineties which could have been outstanding but only ended up good or okay, because Disney went for the safe concept instead of taking a step away. But there are a few movies, which are made for this concept. “Snow White and the seven Dwarves” is the most important one because it was and will always be the one which started it all. “Beauty and the Beast” is the one which got the most positive critical reception. Nevertheless, the movie you just have to see is in my honest opinion “Sleeping Beauty”. Not because I think the movie is perfect, there are some plot problems in it which nobody can discuss away. But it works so well in all the other aspects that it is always worth a second (and third, and fourth…) watch, and not just because it features one of the (imho THE) greatest Disney Villains of all time, or because of the outstanding music. No, it is the animation which makes this one special. There has never been a movie styled like this before or after. See, the opening book at the start of the classic Disney movie was not just an easy way to start the story it was actually part of the idea that watching those movies should be like diving into a book. But none of those movies ever came close to reach this particular effect, with the exception of “Sleeping Beauty”. The whole thing is like a walking painting, and I never get tired of admiring the details. It is unbelievable that the Disney Studies created something like this in hand-drawn animation. Despite its flaws, it is a true masterpiece, and one of a kind, because I doubt that anyone will ever be ready to invest the time and money which were needed to reach the artistic quality of Sleeping Beauty.
Yeah, people might be surprised about this one – not that it’s on the list, but because it’s not number one. It often is, and rightfully so. It’s basically a movie which celebrates animation, sometimes whimsy, sometimes fun, sometimes just full of stunning visuals. Yeah, “Night on bald mountain” is my favorite part, but that wasn’t always the case. There was a time I like the nutcracker segment the best, another time I was very much into dancing rhinos, and even the female centaurs got some love from me at one point. I think this movie has something for everyone – you might not like every segment, but there should be at least one segment which hits the right notes for you.
Or “Prince Achmed”, a movie by Lotte Reiniger. To explain this one, I have to tell how I saw the movie for the first time. It started out with learning that Disney’s claim that “Snow White and the seven dwarves” was the first movie-length animated feature is not really true. There were some animated movies beforehand, just not in the US, and not using the same techniques. “Prinz Achmed” wasn’t the first one either, but it’s the oldest still available, and the only one which uses Silhouette animation. So when I heard that they would show it in one of the local theaters I was immediately interested. When I read that they would show it with orchestra and the original music, I knew I had to see it. It’s so rare to see a silent movie the way it was originally supposed to be shown. So I went to this really old cinema, which looks more like a theater inside, with the expectation to see something I haven’t seen before, but which might look a little bit dated to me. I was blown away! The details in the movie are unbelievable, the motions very fluid, and considering that this was the work of a few dedicated people, who spend nearly two years with creating this masterpiece, it’s the most impressive piece of animation I’ve ever seen. Naturally the story is not as fleshed out as we would expect it today, it is basically a fairy tale after all, but everything else in this movie is so good, that I was totally enthralled very fast. If you ever have the chance to see this one in theaters and with orchestra, do it. There is a very good DVD version available by now (colored and with the right music), but it’s not comparable to seeing it live by any stretch.
Aaaaand…some honorable mentions. First of all, “The Last Unicorn”. It didn’t make the list because the animation is frankly subpar for large part of the movie. Never boring, though. The plot is refreshingly different, but it’s mostly the dubbing and the score which carries this movie. There are some scenes which are really memorable though, therefore, definitely worth a watch.
Dreamworks didn’t make the list – I think despite scoring the first Oscar win for best animated movie (which imho should have gone to Monster Inc), the company isn’t really there yet. I’m still waiting for the movie which really takes a risk and the last works were way too heavy on pop culture references (though I haven’t seen “How to train your dragon” yet). But if I had to pick their best movie, it would be "Spirit" – but not with the English dubbing. This movie hinges very much on the narrator, and I don’t think that Matt Damon really cuts it. In any case, I look forward to what Deamworks might create in the future.
Another movie I seriously considered is Felidea, a German production based on a very successful novel – just look it up, but be careful not to get spoiled, it will ruin the movie for you. I believe though that the quality of the movie is mostly thanks to the quality of the novel it is based on. The animation is overall a little bit choppy, though there are some really memorable scenes in it, just not necessarily in a good way. Let’s just say that this one is so adult, I can still barely watch some of the scenes in it, but it’s not pure gore, it’s a serious movie about a serious issue (don’t be fooled by the protagonists being cats). And to it's credit, the gory scenes are well done and they do serve a purpose.
My dislike for senseless gore is, btw, also the reason why I decided against adding movies like "Akira" to the list. Those movies are definitly for adults, often have some interesting visuals to offer, but I'm not sure if they are particulary mature, because in those movies the violence tends to distract from the message they try to bring across instead of enhancing it.
To finish this, here a personal favorite of mine. even thought it certainly can’t keep up with the high budget movies the big studios tend to make. But for a 1978 movie with limited resources, the animation is surprisingly good, the story is really enjoyable to watch, and since I doubt that many people know it, here it is: “Mattie the Goose-Boy”. Though I strongly advice you not to watch the English version if you have a choice. The dubbing is horrible, spoken with barely any emotion at all. I personally like the German dubbing very much, and can’t really judge the original dubbing since my Hungarian is frankly non-existent. It is certainly not groundbreaking movie or anything like it, I never really considered for the list, but there are way too many animated movies which undeserving end up in obscurity, and that's certainly one of it.