There’s no question that when it comes to animated features, Disney rules. Even in the digital age, where the barriers to entry are far lower, the classic studio reminds us with blockbusters like Frozen why they are the beginning and end of cartoon movies. Still, every now and then another studio will make waves or even steal the spotlight, if only for a moment.
NOTE: This isn’t really a “best-of” list so much as it is a “must know” list.
If this were a ranked list (which it is not) Anastasia would probably be number 1 simply because, to this day, Disney is wrongly credited for this film even by those who should know better. It’s not hard to understand why. It is a princess-centric musical featuring talking animals and magical villains. Moreover, with former Disney animator Don Bluth directing, the animation style borrows heavily from Disney while keeping the same high production values.
Yellow Submarine (1968)
This is a must see film if only for its connection to the Fab Four. That said, it is a wildly entertaining and surrealistic show. I daresay it is unparalleled in that last respect. The plot is not much deeper than a typical Saturday morning adventure cartoon, existing only to set up songs from Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band plus a few previously unreleased novelties. However, the animation captures perfectly the psychedelic aesthetic of the time and remains instantly recognizable.
Fern Gully (1992)
This is the quintessential tree-huggers cartoon. Time has not been kind to this environmentalist propaganda piece. Even present-day greenies are likely to cringe at the heavy-handed save-the-rainforest message as its related by mystical noble-savage fairies who turn to a (surprise!) white guy to save them. That’s without mentioning how deeply stuck in the 90s the soundtrack is. (Robin Williams raps?) Yet its mark remains on the culture, as indicated by some of the flack James Cameron’s Avatar received for seeming to imitate the cartoon.
This may well be the film that saved American animation. Don Bluth, fed up with the artistic constraints and lack of respect at the studio, jumped ship to create his own studio. Despite an almost non-existent budget, Bluth managed to produce an exquisite film that completely eclipsed Disney production values that that had steadily declined over the previous two decades. While in the end, Bluth Studios was a short-lived affair, it gave Disney a much-needed kick in the seat.
The Land Before Time (1988)
While this endearing tale about a group of baby dinosaurs’ harrowing journey to find their parents in a tumultuously changing world is highly enjoyable in its own right, it really makes the list for one reason only: a legacy of twelve direct-to-video sequels.
This film deserves a spot just for launching the most successful animated film franchise to date, even if the sequels drove what was a brilliant concept deep into the ground. Shrek won acclaim and made its mark by directly parodying Disney’s classic fairy tale movies. At the same time it put DreamWorks animation in a shoulder-to-shoulder stance with elder studio.
This is the first outing as feature director by Brad Bird and what debut! Though a bit more serious than the work he would become later known for, Bird’s cold-war allegory previews of the sense of style and humor that would eventually permeate The Incredibles. At the time this film was released, musical fairy tales were all the rage (as they are again) so The Iron Giant didn’t fare so well at the box office. However, it gained a loyal fan base on home video and is now regarded as one of the best traditionally animated features of the era.
The Prince of Egypt (1998)
While this isn’t the first feature by DreamWorks Animation, Disney’s closest rival so far, it is the film that showed them to be a serious player. While their traditional animation department would soon fizzle out in favor of CGI, this first outing was epic in the truest sense, not in small part because it tackled the same material as The Ten Commandments. It does, however, depart from the Heston classic quite a bit and even won an Oscar for best song.
I was first introduced to the animated The Lord of the Rings in my junior high English class, the last week before Christmas break. This ambitious film is perhaps the most extensive use of rotoscoping ever, to an unfortunately jarring effect. Another unfortunate aspect is the film’s abrupt end midway through the second book due to the studio’s decision not to produce “Part II.” Still, it is a loving and faithful adaptation of Tolkien’s work that took the lifeless interpretation of Peter Jackson to gain full appreciation.
Everything by Hayao Miyazaki
Admittedly, I’m no anime buff, but Hayao Miyazaki is impossible to ignore. I haven’t seen his entire catalog yet, so I’m reluctant to name a best or to say which of his films is most impactful. That said, his titles, including Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and Howl’s Moving Castle seem to pop up in almost every discussion of animation these days. I recommend you check some or all of them out as I also get caught up.