A while ago, an article in The Sunday Times’ Culture magazine annoyed me so much I started a list. Said article claimed: “It’s time to appreciate [animation’s] wonders.” And then proceeded to list mainstream commercial hits by well-known studios. Of the 14 films recommended, for example, seven were Disney or Pixar. Of only three anime mentioned, two were by Studio Ghibli. For an article that supposedly aimed to educate readers (however shallowly) about the breadth and scope of the animation industry, there was a lot of emphasis on kids’ films. A strange and frustrating choice, given the already strong association between animation and children’s entertainment. Not that there was anything wrong with the nominees themselves, but the list lacked diversity, like the Oscars’ track record for Best Animated Feature winners (*cough* Pixar). So here’s an alternative list of animation greats with a few culled from the original article, since even The Times isn’t wrong about everything.
The Prince of Egypt (1998)
It would be remiss of me to ignore DreamWorks (ahem, Sunday Times), and the animation of this musical based on the story of Moses was cutting-edge in the 90s and still looks amazing today. The music and songs are also magnificent and its handling of the source material is respectful.
Corpse Bride (2005)
A stop-motion musical fantasy, this Tim Burton offering about a hapless young man who accidentally ‘marries’ a zombie bride vaguely resembles a Disney movie. It’s still quintessential Burton, though – Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are both present and correct – and its macabre, Victorian aesthetic, starry cast and folkloric inspiration combine to form an entertaining flick for all ages.
Azur and Asmar (2006)
Michel Ocelet is another often overlooked creator of visually-arresting animated films. In this case, he was inspired by One Thousand and One Nights and Moroccan art to create an Arabian fairy tale about two long-lost foster brothers reuniting for a magical quest. Azur and Asmar boasts an unusual blend of 3D computer graphics and traditional painted animation and it’s breathtaking.
Dragon Hunters (2008)
This French-German-Luxembourgish 3D computer animation from Futurikon deserves more attention. Dragon Hunters is a cheerful fantasy adventure movie with a sense of humour about two bumbling hunters hired by a little girl to take down a world-destroying eldritch abomination. It has trippy animation, loveable characters and an excellent score, so don’t miss it.
A Town Called Panic (2009)
This movie is totally bonkers and it’s glorious. Cowboy, Indian and Horse and their neighbours are all plastic figurines brought to life through the power of stop-motion animation. They panic their way through various bizarre misadventures. In French.
Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)
I wanted to keep one Wes Anderson film from the original list, and since I haven’t seen Isles of Dogs yet, I went for this one. As a fan of the book, I like how Anderson maintains Roald Dahl’s dark undertone, while adding his own flair and (sigh) an American feel to the animal heist movie.
The Secret of Kells (2009)
Cartoon Saloon is another animation studio that The Sunday Times somehow overlooked completely. Creators of Song of the Sea and The Breadwinner and now Wolfwalkers, which are also superb, The Secret of Kells was the Irish animation studio’s first offering, drawing inspiration from Irish mythology and the titular illuminated manuscript, the ancient Book of Kells.
The Lego Movie (2014)
Another keeper, this movie is original, meta, surprisingly sweet and has cross-generational appeal. And Lego Batman. It’s also clever in how it blends animation and live action and breaks the fourth wall gloriously.
Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
The omission of Laika from any animation list is an egregious oversight. The stop-motion animation studio also produced Coraline, The Box Trolls and Missing Link, but Kubo and the Two Strings is still my favourite. Inspired by Japanese folklore, it’s by-turns heartwarming and tragic and beautifully animated.
The Red Turtle (2016)
This French-Japanese animation written and directed by Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit, was nominated for an Oscar in 2016 and it’s easy to see why. The animation is gorgeous and the story is meditative and a little melancholy, as you would expect from a Studio Ghibli co-production.
Your Name (2016)
Get ready for an anime that isn’t Studio Ghibli! Your Name looks gorgeous and has an unusual story as two Japanese teenagers (one from the city, one from the countryside) unexpectedly wake up in each other’s bodies. There’s the expected comedy and fish-out-of-waster hilarity that come with body-swapping, as well as a darker, more tragic twist to the tale.
A feast for the eyes and emotionally devastating besides, I had to keep one representative of the Disney/Pixar oeuvre and I could think of none better than their only foray into Mexican mythology. Its sumptuous animation and beautiful score add up to a deserved Oscars win for Coco.
Loving Vincent (2017)
Rotoscoping animation blends with Vincent Van Gogh’s art to create Loving Vincent. Unmissable for the animation alone, it investigates the last days and untimely death of the great artist and is packed with people and places he had painted, a fact the credits helpfully illustrate. Through the magic of rotoscoping, the likes of Douglas Booth, Saoirse Ronan and Aidan Turner bring Van Gogh’s subjects to life.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
Another good entry from the original list, Spider-Verse is visually stunning, meta and features Miles Morales, a black Spider-Man. Finally.
Over the Moon (2020)
Part traditional animated musical, part neon extravaganza, Over the Moon is a Netflix collaboration inspired by Chinese mythology. This makes for a gorgeous aesthetic packed with cultural references, like Tai Chi in the park, mooncakes and ping pong. Fei Fei is a teenager struggling to accept the loss of her mother. When her father decides to remarry, she builds a rocket to the moon to prove the existence of Chang’e, a moon goddess eternally faithful to her lost love. With its stunning visuals and sensitive handling of grief and depression, Over the Moon is a beautiful film.
The Wrong Trousers (1993)
Aardman Animation and particularly Wallace and Gromit deserve a mention in any celebration of animation and, in this case, The Sunday Times got it right. Well done, lad.
Cowboy Bebop (1998-1999)
Iconic, pure and simple. This classic about bounty hunters in space was (and still is) a gateway into anime for Western audiences. With its smooth jazz soundtrack, catch phrases, action sequences and philosophical themes, Cowboy Bebop continues to inspire to this day.
Peter and the Wolf (2006)
This Polish-British-Swiss-Mexican-Norwegian stop-motion collaboration is beautiful to behold and, of course, the music of Prokofiev is magnificent. Without any dialogue or annoying narration, it’s also the most compelling adaptation of Peter and the Wolf that I’ve ever seen.
Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008)
Forget the terrible movie, Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender set a new standard of excellence for children’s cartoons. Despite being a kids show, its writing and themes have made it a fan favourite among adult audiences. Its also packed with memorable characters, iconic lines, fascinating worldbuilding and impressive visuals, especially in its action sequences. The sequel series, Legend of Korra is also well worth watching.
Hetalia: Axis Powers (2009-2010)
This is one anime worth watching dubbed, if only for all the accents. Hetalia: Axis Powers starts with a literal meeting of nations as each character is a personified country. From there the show dives into history (with an emphasis on World War II) and rapid-fire jokes about national stereotypes and benign cultural differences. It packs in a lot of information amongst the comedy, so each five minute episode is actually pretty educational.
Adventure Time (2010-2018)
I’m genuinely shocked that The Sunday Times omitted this one. From memes to merchandise, Adventure Time has become a cultural touchstone. It may be a fantasy comedy about one boy and his dog living in a post-apocalyptic future, but it also hits enough serious notes to have inspired a devoted following.
Steven Universe (2013-2019)
The brainchild of Rebecca Sugar (a writer for Adventure Time), Steven Universe was the first Cartoon Network show created solely by a woman. It also earned ire for its frank depiction of lesbian relationships (though, technically, the Crystal Gems are rock-based aliens) and for its exploration of gender. Even the premise (a team of female superheroes defending Earth while raising the son of their late leader) flips off typical (male) superhero narratives. It also features great songs, witty scripts and quirky characters galore.
Over the Garden Wall (2014)
Elijah Wood and Christopher Lloyd star in this sadly overlooked fairy tale fantasy about two half-brothers lost in a deep dark wood. Luckily, various weird inhabitants of the Unknown are on hand to offer advice, but can they be trusted? Over the Garden Wall is off-beat and kind of creepy, but in the best way.
Bojack Horseman (2014-2020)
Bojack Horseman is crass and funny and actually one of the best depictions of depression around. Bojack is a washed-up actor attempting to make a comeback. He’s also determined to ignore his own mental health issues. Over 77 episodes, Bojack and a supporting cast of human and animal characters grapple with loneliness and self-esteem, all while satirizing Hollywood with pitch black humour.
Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir (2015)
This French-Korean collaboration looks fantastic and has a cult following among adults, regardless of its actual target audience. Miraculous is essentially a “Magical Girl” anime as Marinette, a Parisian teenager, juggles school, her crush on a classmate and her super hero alter-ego, Ladybug. Said crush is Adrien, a young model who, unbeknownst to Marinette, happens to be Cat Noir, her love-struck sidekick. Add a classic supervillain to the “love square” and exciting, high-stakes action and you’ve got a winning formula.
Yuri On Ice (2016)
The sports anime actual figure skaters love, Yuri On Ice is also adored for its LGBTQ+ characters and excellent representation of clinical anxiety. Despite being a world-class figure skater, Yuri is convinced of his own inadequacy and on the point of early retirement when his long-term crush and professional idol declares himself Yuri’s new coach. Yuri On Ice boasts beautiful music and skating sequences and, unusually for mainstream Japanese anime, a canonical gay romance.
The Kirilian Frequency (2017)
Argentina’s answer to Welcome to Night Vale is an animation instead of a podcast, but the premise and matter-of-fact yet creepy vibe is very similar. Each episode of The Kirilian Frequency is under ten minutes long and features a radio presenter reporting unsettling events in a cursed town. Expect distinctive animation, black comedy and monsters.
Retsuko is a cute, mild-mannered red panda and office worker. She’s also a secret death metal devotee who uses karaoke as an outlet for all her pent-up rage. Aggretsuko is a smart satire of Japanese workplace culture that shreds sexist stereotypes without mercy. It’s also very funny and relatable (who hasn’t had a terrible boss or awkward first date?), so its bite-sized episodes (15 minutes, on average) sail by.
Love, Death & Robots (2019)
Love, Death & Robots is an anthology of short films (less than 20 minutes each) about love, death and/or robots (or some other supernatural or sci-fi element). The tone, animation style and subjects of the films vary wildly, though most of them are definitely not for kids. Brace yourself for aliens, demons, werewolves, time loops and mecha suits among (many) other things.
Undone looks spectacular and a little uncanny, thanks to its remarkable rotoscope animation. Its premise is also slightly unsettling. After a car accident, Alma starts seeing visions of her dead father. He claims she can travel back in time and prevent his death, but can she trust her own perceptions? Themes of subjective reality, time travel and mental illness combine with Undone‘s surreal animation to immerse the viewer fully in Alma’s disorientation.