Animation, it’s frequently been said, is a medium, not a genre. You can use it to tell any number of stories in any number of ways. And it’s certainly not just for kids. So of course our list of the 10 most noteworthy animated features runs the gamut from talking toys to psychedelic orgies.
1. SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937)
According to Box Office Mojo, the highest-grossing animated film in history is Disney/Pixar’s Finding Dory, which rode a wave of positive reviews and 3D surcharges to a $486.2 million domestic haul last year. But there’s a little thing called inflation to consider. When you factor in rising ticket prices over the last 80 years, the highest-grossing feature length animated movie is still Disney’s first: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Per Business Insider, adjust Snow White’s $184.9 million take and you get a whopping $935.2 million in today’s dollars.
2. THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED (1926)
Though Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is often cited as the first full-length animated movie, it was beaten to the punch by a good 11 years by German director Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed. (Quirino Cristiani's The Apostle and Without a Trace were released earlier, but have been lost.) The earliest surviving animated feature film and the first—surviving or not—directed by a woman, The Adventures of Prince Achmed is loosely based on One Thousand and One Nights and tells the story of a prince who goes on a series of magical adventures. It took Reiniger and her (uncredited) co-director Carl Koch three years to make the film, cutting silhouettes out of sheets of cardboard and lead and bringing their characters to life using stop-motion animation.
3. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991)
In September 1991, nearly two months before its nationwide theatrical bow, Disney took a gamble by screening an early version of Beauty and the Beast at the New York Film Festival. It was an audience more accustomed to arthouse and foreign films, and on top of that, approximately a third of what was screened was either storyboard art or black and white animation tests. “There was a lot of gulping here,” recalled a Disney executive. “It was a risky but interesting idea to show it before that audience. We knew no one would hate the film. The worst they could say was, ‘Ok, it's an animated film; why is it here?’” But the reaction to the film was far less ambivalent; Beauty and the Beast received a standing ovation from the seasoned crowd of moviegoers. The next year, Beauty and the Beast became the first animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. It’s still an exclusive club; Up (2009) and Toy Story 3 (2010) are the only two other animated films that have joined Disney’s tale as old as time in receiving the honor.
4. YOUR NAME (2016)
The most recent film on this list, Your Name shocked box office prognosticators late last year when it blew past anime legend Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle to become the second highest-grossing Japanese film of all time. Director Makoto Shinkai’s moving fantasy romance—in which a teenage girl in an out-of-the-way village and a teenage boy from bustling Tokyo find that going to sleep inexplicably causes them to swap bodies—would eventually become Japan’s third highest-grossing film ever, behind only American imports Titanic and Frozen and Miyazaki’s (still reigning champ) Spirited Away.
5. SPIRITED AWAY (2001)
Speaking of Spirited Away: More than 15 years after its initial release, the Miyazaki classic (one of his many) is still Japan’s highest-grossing film, with a total domestic gross of ￥30.4 billion ($300 million). The film, about a sullen young girl who wanders into a fantasy land, was also the first film to gross $200 million before opening in the United States. When it finally did arrive stateside, distributor Disney declined to do much by way of marketing and never released it in more than 151 theaters ... until Spirited Away picked up a surprise Best Animated Feature Oscar, becoming the only Japanese film and only hand-drawn film ever to do so, and beating out two Disney releases (Lilo & Stitch and Treasure Planet) in the process. Disney subsequently pushed Spirited Away into more than 700 theaters.
6. THE IRON GIANT (1999)
Disney’s not the only studio to bungle the release of an animated movie that would go on to be considered a classic. Excited to venture into feature animation after the enormous success enjoyed by Disney in the '90s, Warner Bros. moved ahead with the Cold War-set The Iron Giant, about a young boy (Eli Marienthal) who stumbles upon and befriends a robot (Vin Diesel) from outer space … only to then, according to director Brad Bird, basically drop it after the failure of the studio’s Quest for Camelot.
“We were perceived as a film that would be finished and put on the shelf until there was a hole or something in the release schedule in the future," Bird said. "And then we'd be plugged in. They wouldn't give us a release date, they didn't have any hopes. They just thought animation wasn't going to really work for them.” Despite extremely positive test screenings, Warner Bros. “hadn't laid all the groundwork you're supposed to lay, with fast food restaurants, cereals, teasers, posters.” The lack of marketing led to box office disappointment, to the tune of a $23.1 million gross against a $70 million budget. But the film impressed Pixar chief John Lasseter, which in turn enabled Bird to direct The Incredibles.
7. TOY STORY (1995)
When talking about milestones in animation, you can’t leave out Toy Story, the first feature-length computer animated film. Director John Lasseter was the first person to win a Special Achievement Oscar for a 100 percent animated film (though Richard Williams got one for the animated portions of Who Framed Roger Rabbit), and Toy Story was the first animated film to be nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar. (In 2002, Shrek would snag the equivalent honor for Best Adapted Screenplay.) Lasseter showed up to the ceremony in the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.
8. WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT (1988)
Though live-action/animation hybrids are commonplace now—think The Smurfs and the Alvin and the Chipmunks movies, or for that matter motion capture-heavy films like The Jungle Book—when Robert Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit came out in 1988, it was rightly hailed as a groundbreaking work of technological innovation. It wasn’t the first film to combine cartoon characters with live actors (Gene Kelly memorably danced with Jerry the Mouse in 1945’s Anchors Aweigh), but it was the most ambitious. In fact, at the time it came out it was the most expensive movie ever made. The film also gave rise to the animation term “bumping the lamp,” which is when extreme effort is put into something that audiences probably won’t notice. The term comes from a scene where Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) repeatedly bangs his head on a lamp, requiring animators to draw shifting patterns of light and shadow onto scene partner Roger Rabbit (Charles Fleischer).
9. BELLADONNA OF SADNESS (1973)
The most obscure film on this list, Belladonna of Sadness is the work of two anime masters: producer and “godfather of manga” Osamu Tezuka, who created Astro Boy, and his longtime collaborator Eiichi Yamamoto, who directed Belladonna. Decidedly not for children, this third film in Tezuka and Yamamoto’s Animerama trilogy is loosely based on Jules Michelet’s 1862 book La Sorcière, which examines the history of witchcraft through a proto-feminist lens. Aiko Nagayama stars as Jeanne, a French peasant who is raped on her wedding night by the local baron and subsequently turns to sorcery to right the wrongs done to her. (Yes, there is a psychedelic orgy scene.) Done in an unusual style—the bulk of the “animation” is the camera panning across intricate watercolor paintings, Ken Burns-style—Belladonna was all but lost for decades, receiving no home video release and practically no theatrical distribution. Fortunately, a restored 4K version was released last year by Cinelicious Pics, SpectreVision and Cinefamily.
10. SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER & UNCUT (1999)
There are a lot more, uh, traditional films we could include on this list—Dumbo, Pinocchio, or Fantasia, to name just a few—but none of those ever held the Guinness World Record for most swearing in an animated movie. (“399 swear words, 128 offensive gestures, and 221 acts of violence.”) Dealing with issues of censorship and parental responsibility, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut sees South Park’s famous foul-mouthed kids embark on a mission to save their Canadian comedy idols from execution after they’re blamed for corrupting America’s youth, sparking a war between the United States and Canada. A musical that pulls inspiration from (among others) Oklahoma!, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Les Misérables, and the Disney canon, Bigger, Longer & Uncut received an Oscar nomination for the song “Blame Canada.” The film frequently lands on “best of” animation lists, with TIME Magazine’s Richard Corliss calling it the “finest, sassiest full-movie musical score since the disbanding of the Freed unit at MGM” in his 2011 ranking.