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The Greatest Animated Movies Ever Made

March 18, 2024 - Movies

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For the purposes of this list of greatest animated films of all time, only feature films will be included herein. No short films, in other words — don’t expect Duck Amuck to make an appearance. And no documentaries, either: sorry, Waltz with Bashir. Most of these are produced either in America or Japan, so obviously, international cinema will be included. But even then, you should recognize the vast majority of titles on the list.




It’s also worth noting that the list will be limited to one entry per franchise. Otherwise, it’d be filled to the brim with Toy Story films, to be frank. All that said, these are the twenty greatest animated movies ever made, ranked.

Updated March 7th, 2024 by Ben Hathaway: Fans of animation will be glad to hear that this list has been updated with more detail.


20 A Scanner Darkly (2006)

Directed by Richard Linklater, he also adapted the script from a novel of the same name, written in 1977 by Philip K. Dick. There are many qualitative elements of filmmaking worth writing home about with A Scanner Darkly, starting with its plot. Set in a dystopian society with residents addicted to a drug called Substance D, an officer goes undercover and befriends a household of users to better understand its distribution.


An Entrancing Trip

It’s an enticing plot for a film of this ilk that becomes entirely more intriguing when considering Linklater’s use of interpolated rotoscoping. He shot the scenes of A Scanner Darkly in live action, then traced over them with a distinct visual style by dint of the aforementioned animation system. It creates a hallucinatory effect that defines the style from its very first frame. But as Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson, and Robert Downey Jr. all show up in lead roles, the name value of its cast rivals its actual quality. It’s perhaps the most underrated animated film ever made, but also one of the greatest.


19 Ghost in the Shell (1995)

From the film’s opening scene, a mastery of screenwriting is on full display with an enticing setup and witty wordplay within its dialogue. Those high-quality elements of storytelling by no means let up from there. But as a famous neo-noir cyberpunk thriller, there are endless qualities worth writing home about with regard to the visuals of Ghost in the Shell, not to mention its fascinating world.

A Gorgeous World

This animated outing from Mamoru Oshii is based on the manga of the same name by Masamune Shirow, following a cyber public security agent named Motoko Kusanagi as she tracks down a mysterious figure known as the Puppet Master. Its originally composed music and enticing style of animation render this a well-made piece of cinema from start to finish. But the vast intrigue of its technologically advanced society with a no-holds-barred approach to storytelling makes Ghost in the Shell one of the greatest animated movies of all time.


18 Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Beauty and the Beast 1991 Poster

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Release Date
November 22, 1991

Runtime
1h 24m

With a few notable exceptions, almost every American film on this list was directed by (at least) two people. With Beauty and the Beast, those directors were Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. Sure, you may not recognize either name, but you’ll undoubtedly know the other films under their belts as co-directors: The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Atlantis: The Lost Empire. The former falls in the same era as the film at hand, while the latter is among the most underrated animated movies ever made.


A Lovely Classic

But back to Beauty and the Beast: it’s the third overall film from the Disney Renaissance — the aforementioned era — and it was quite the milestone upon release. Not only was this the first-ever animated film to earn a nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, but it was also the first non-live-action project to reach more than $100 million at the worldwide box office. Those are pretty substantial feats, and they represent the quality hereof to a tee.

17 Princess Mononoke (1997)

princess mononoke

Princess Mononoke

Release Date
July 12, 1997

Cast
Yôji Matsuda , Yuriko Ishida , Yûko Tanaka , Kaoru Kobayashi , Masahiko Nishimura , Tsunehiko Kamijô

Runtime
134


If you’re unfamiliar with the work of Hayo Miyazaki, where have you been? He’s one of Japan’s foremost filmmakers, and Princess Mononoke (1998) is only the first of his movies on the list. It follows Ashitaka, a young prince who struggles to keep peace between the gods of a nearby forest and the humans who use up all the forest’s resources.

A Major International Hit

This was the highest-grossing domestic release in the history of Japanese cinema until Miyazaki beat his own record a few years down the line. But more on Spirited Away in a bit. With regard to Mononoke: it achieves a certain charm off the bat that only flourishes as the plot develops, and as per usual with Miyazaki films — and entries from Studio Ghibli in general — it received praise from critics and audiences alike. It holds up just wonderfully today.

16 Watership Down (1978)


Within the first few minutes of Watership Down, writer-director Martin Rosen achieves a particularly creepy yet atmospheric style of animation that is accused by some pundits of the industry of traumatizing an entire generation of children. Its poignant plot follows a rabbit named Fiver who experiences a vision of the apocalypse overcoming a warren near Sandleford in which he lives. The effects of animation with carefully curated color palettes and shots from Fiver’s perspective render this a visual masterpiece from its very first frame.

The Ultimate Heartbreaking Animated Film

It also features a somber score by Angela Morley and Malcolm Williamson, with well-written dialogue seen into fruition by the perfect cast of voice actors. Although critics were divided in their reviews upon release, the project was quite the success at the worldwide box office. Today, Watership Down is among the greatest examples of a cult classic featured on this list. Rest assured, there’s a reason it’s gained so many devout followers throughout the years.


15 Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

howl's moving castle

Howl’s Moving Castle

Release Date
November 19, 2004

Cast
Chieko Baisho , Takuya Kimura , Akihiro Miwa , Tatsuya Gashûin , Ryûnosuke Kamiki , Mitsunori Isaki

Runtime
118

This isn’t the first Miyazaki film on the list, nor will it be the last. For what it’s worth: almost anything from the legendary director of animation could have made the list. On any given day, Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) could place even higher on the list, with the same going for the aforementioned Princess Mononoke and the upcoming Spirited Away.


Typically Incredible Miyazaki

This list isn’t inundated with his filmography, but all the necessary entries will be included. With the film at hand, Miyazaki took inspiration from the 1986 novel of the same name (written by Diana Wynne Jones) and the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq. He was opposed to the latter event and channeled that passion toward one of the most seminal releases of his career. The plot, character dynamics, art direction, and more are worth noting. But it’s best if you experience Howl’s Moving Castle from as fresh a perspective as possible. It’s truly a masterpiece of animation.

14 How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

DreamWorks has been around since the late ’90s, pumping out projects like Antz and The Prince of Egypt. But, in the subsequent decade, they really hit their stride: franchises like Shrek, Madagascar, and Kung Fu Panda all started in the 2000s. But perhaps the most seminal DreamWorks release of the past twenty years is How to Train Your Dragon. It follows a young Viking boy named Hiccup who discovers that the dragons inhabiting his world aren’t as dangerous as his people make them seem.


DreamWorks’ Masterpiece

Sure, each entry in this fan-favorite series is nearly on par with the next. But just in terms of charm, originality, and with a slight edge in overall quality, the first How to Train Your Dragon stands out as the best. It’s a famous plot, and it hits home around every corner of its production thanks to dulcet dialogue and a phenomenal cast of characters. It’s one of the best animated ventures of the century, and it therefore deserves its applause.

13 Grave of the Fireflies (1989)

Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies

Release Date
July 26, 1989

Cast
Tsutomu Tatsumi , Ayano Shiraishi , Akemi Yamaguchi

Runtime
1hr 29min


Off the bat, it’s worth noting that Grave of the Fireflies (1988) holds a 100% approval rating on critical consensus website Rotten Tomatoes, with a 95% audience score based on more than 50,000 ratings. It’s a widely renowned film, in other words, capturing a certain depth of the human condition that few films on this list can boast.

A Gravesite Worth Visiting

It follows a brother-and-sister duo of war orphans in Kobe, Japan as they traverse the final months of World War II. The result is one of the most beautifully animated and emotionally haunting films on the list. Grave of the Fireflies is an essential movie from Japan, a prominent piece of ’80s cinema, and one of the best animated movies of all time. On any day of the week, it could land even higher than number thirteen.

12 The Iron Giant (1999)


Soon after a giant, alien robot (the titular character, in this case) crashes onto the surface of the earth (specifically in 1957 within the city of Rockwell, Maine), it’s discovered by a nine-year-old boy named Hogarth. The two quickly form a bond, and Hogarth is tasked with saving the machine once it piques the interest of a paranoid government agent named Kent Mansley, who’s voiced by Christopher McDonald.

A Top-Tier Cult Classic

Other noteworthy names among the cast include Jennifer Aniston as Hogarth’s mom Annie, along with Harry Connick Jr., Cloris Leachman, and Vin Diesel in the eponymous role. Despite that star-studded cast, The Iron Giant (1999) actually bombed at the worldwide box office. Thankfully, it garnered rave reviews from critics around the globe upon release, and it’s since amassed quite the cult following. But on-paper stats aside — no one would argue against its inclusion on this list.


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11 Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)


Directed by Wes Anderson, he and Noah Baumbach adapted the script of Fantastic Mr. Fox from Roald Dahl’s children’s novel of the same name, written in 1970. It’s perhaps the most faithful animated adaptation of a literary work, period. George Clooney leads the most star-studded cast you’ll read about today, appearing as the titular Mr. Fox, while Meryl Streep shows up as his wife, Mrs. Felicity Fox. As you may have guessed, these characters are foxes of the anthropomorphic variety, and they share a hilarious but also emotional rapport with every other character herein.

A Terrific First Foray Into Animation for Anderson

Appearing in supporting roles are Bill Murray and Owen Wilson — the director’s two most frequent and famous collaborators — with other performers including Jason Schwartzman, Michael Gambon, and Willem Dafoe. They rattle off to perfection the dulcet dialogue of Anderson and Baumbach, and of course, its stop-motion animation style is also worth noting. This was Anderson’s first of two stop-motion projects with Isle of Dogs coming next. But Fantastic Mr. Fox will always be his greatest animated outing.


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10 Akira (1991)

Akira

Akira

Release Date
June 28, 1991

Cast
Mitsuo Iwata , Nozomu Sasaki , Mami Koyama , Tesshô Genda

Runtime
2hr 4min

A cyberpunk action film from director Katsuhiro Otomo, its script was co-written by Otomo along with Izo Hashimoto. As the final product that was seen into flawless fruition from that groundwork, Akira is widely considered by pundits and fans alike as one of the greatest animated films ever made for its influence alone, not to mention the high-quality elements of filmmaking at play around every corner of its production.


A Cyberpunk Masterwork

Akira picked up traction around the world through home videos and is now considered a cult classic. Not without good reason. Based on the 1982 manga of the same name — also created by Otomo — it’s set in a dystopian 2019 and follows the leader of a biker gang named Shōtarō Kaneda. When his childhood best friend develops the abilities of telekinesis, the futuristic landscape of “Neo-Tokyo” assists in rebelling against a military complex. As you can imagine, a story of that magnitude lays down a palette for endlessly impressive visuals. Rest assured, Akira is among the best animated movies ever made.


9 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938)

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Release Date
February 4, 1938

Director
David Hand

Cast
Roy Atwell , Stuart Buchanan , Adriana Caselotti , Zeke Clements , Eddie Collins , Pinto Colvig

Runtime
83

Writers
Wilhelm Grimm , Jacob Grimm , Ted Sears , Richard Creedon , Otto Englander , Dick Rickard

The oldest film on the list, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came out amid the Golden Age of Hollywood as the first full-length feature film from Disney animation. Plus, it’s the first full-length movie of traditional animation, period, and in spite of all these records for essentially being ancient, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs holds up just wonderfully today.

A Golden Age Masterpiece

It’s been preserved by the Library of Congress with a spot in the National Film Registry, and it’s currently sitting at a whopping 97% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Those are two high honors, and they absolutely do justice to the overall quality of the film. But on sheer importance and legacy, there’s an argument for an even higher spot than number nine.


8 Finding Nemo (2003)

Easily among the most poignant pieces of the bunch is Finding Nemo, a seminal release from the juggernaut animation studio Pixar. This is their first film on the list, and it’s by no means their last — quantity aside, the consistent quality from Pixar (steady enough quality for three of their titles to land within the top ten in less than thirty years since their inception) is what sets them apart from the other studios of animated feature films.


One of Pixar’s Best

Pixar rarely misses, in other words, and that’s exactly the case with Finding Nemo. Its story of a single father (a talking clownfish) named Marlin who searches for his son Nemo amid the fabled depths of the Great Barrier Reef hits home consistently. Emotional resonance (the opening scene alone) aside, Finding Nemo is among the funniest films of the mix, too. Without a doubt, it’s among the greatest films ever seen in the realm of animation.

7 Shrek (2001)

Shrek

Shrek

Release Date
May 18, 2001

Runtime
90


The most prominent piece from DreamWorks Animation, the one that kicked everything into gear for that juggernaut of a studio, Shrek is easily among the most popular animated films of all time. It spawned a massive multimedia franchise with its basis being the children’s book Shrek!, written by William Steig in 1990.

Why We’ve All Heard of DreamWorks

Its story follows the titular ogre (played by Mike Myers) who wakes up one night to find his beloved home (a swamp, mind you) overrun by fairy tale creatures — Pinocchio, the Three Blind Mice, and the Big Bad Wolf, for example. To rid them of his abode, he goes on a cross-country trek with a companion named Donkey (voiced to a renowned degree by Eddie Murphy) to save Princess Fiona from the fiery grips of a dragon. It’s a famous story, with an equally well-known execution. Although many fans may prefer the direct sequel, the original Shrek deserves its spot here.

6 Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023)


The most recent film on the list, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023) is also (by dint of technological advancement) the most visually appealing. But it’s a masterclass of storytelling, too, from its solid structure and tangible character development to the wit of its dialogue and the poignance of its message.

Even Better Than the First One

But really, Across the Spider-Verse places this high on the list by virtue of its technical feats. Not just the eye-popping color palettes that were seen into beautiful fruition, but also the fluidity of its movements and the brilliance of its action sequences. And sure, there’s an argument that the original, Spider-Man:Into the Spider-Verse (2018) is the more appropriate choice. But if any sequel is going to make the list, it has to be Across the Spider-Verse.


5 Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Frankly, half of Hayo Miyazaki’s filmography has an argument for a spot on this list, and many fans will be upset with their omissions. One reason he’s such a popular filmmaker is due to his storytelling prowess. That much is obvious. But more specifically, Miyazaki is capable of creating the most alluring fictional worlds you’re ever likely to see.

More Majestic Miyazaki

Following the titular character, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is best classified as a fantasy film. But its world is also post-apocalyptic after a war that destroyed civilization and spawned an ecocide. Thus, a poisonous forest was formed called the Toxic Jungle, which swarms with giant insects. This world acts as a conduit for tangible development with Nausicaä, and it’s frankly an experience you’ll never forget thanks to a hard-hitting story and ahead-of-its-time animation.


4 The Incredibles (2004)

This entry from Pixar Animation stands out for its blending of genres: off the bat, it’s a tale of a family of a superpowered dad, mom, daughter, and two sons (although, Jack-Jack is of course a toddler). But as they operate on a covert basis and utilize technologies that would typically be equipped to the belt of a secret agent, The Incredibles is also a spy film.

A Superheroic Dynamo

Aside from perhaps Across the Spider-Verse, this is the most action-oriented film on the list, and it holds up just wonderfully in that variety of filmmaking, too. Its over-the-top fight sequences are believable through and through thanks to Pixar’s art style and keen tactics of screenwriting, But The Incredibles is just as emotional a journey as it is action-packed and hilarious.


3 Spirited Away (2001)

Spirited Away

Spirited Away

Release Date
July 20, 2001

Cast
Rumi Hîragi , Miyu Irino , Mari Natsuki , Takashi Naitô , Yasuko Sawaguchi , Tatsuya Gashûin

Runtime
125

Many fans consider this to be the magnum opus of Hayo Miyazaki. And whether you agree, there’s of course justification behind those opinions, as Spirited Away (2001) is one of the greatest films of the twenty-first century animation and live action alike, with substantial name value to boot.


Miyazaki’s Magnum Opus

It follows ten-year-old Chihiro as she discovers an abandoned amusement park that is revealed to be a getaway spot for supernatural beings. And when the spirits turn her parents into pigs as a curse, Chihiro is put to work to free herself and her family. It’s a popular plot that facilitates true emotion and indelible sequences, with well-developed characters, too. If you haven’t seen Spirited Away, it’s essential viewing with regard to animation in general.

2 The Lion King

The popularity of The Lion King essentially speaks for itself and with good reason. During their Renaissance era, Disney shocked the world with their most poignant story to date. Its characters are endlessly memorable, its musical numbers are as catchy as can be, and its style of animation rivals the beauty of anything you’ll read about today.


The Best of Disney

Sure, its story is essentially Hamlet by Shakespeare. But the uniqueness around every other corner of production renders The Lion King one of the most original films ever produced, animation and live-action alike. It without a doubt deserves a spot in the list’s upper ranks, and on any given film fan’s list, it may even come out on top.

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1 Toy Story (1995)

toy story

Toy Story

Release Date
October 30, 1995

Runtime
81

This isn’t just a masterful piece of cinema — it’s also among the most groundbreaking movies ever made. The industry landscape traversed by filmmakers and fans today would be nigh unrecognizable without Toy Story and its innovative tactics of animation. Of course, this project spawned a massive franchise that’s still pumping out entries today, all thanks to the success of the original. But again: even off paper, Toy Story is of the utmost quality from its very first frame.


Simply Iconic and Timeless

It tells the story of Sheriff Woody, a toy who’s forced to hide his sentience from his owner, Andy. All the toys in Andy’s stable are sentient, in fact, and they’re voiced by some absolutely massive names in the industry. The voice cast and premise are only the beginning, though. Once a new toy named Buzz Lightyear comes into the mix and challenges Woody’s status as Andy’s favorite toy, perhaps the greatest character dynamic in all of animation materializes between the two. Frankly, every other fathomable facet of filmmaking also comes to perfect fruition.

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