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Top 10 Animated Movies You Should See at Least Once

VO: Phoebe de Jeu WRITTEN BY: Nick Spake
As legendary animator Chuck Jones once said, 'animation isn’t the illusion of life; it is life.' Join WatchMojo.com as we count down our picks for the Top 10 Animated Movies Everyone Should See at Least Once. For this list, we’re taking a look at influential and innovation animated features that left an impact on both pop culture and the medium itself - making them essential viewings for film lovers. Watch the video at WatchMojo.com
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Top 10 Animated Movies Everyone Should See at Least Once


As legendary animator Chuck Jones once said, “animation isn’t the illusion of life; it is life.” Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the Top 10 Animated Movies Everyone Should See at Least Once.

For this list, we’re taking a look at influential and innovation animated features that left an impact on both pop culture and the medium itself - making them essential viewings for film lovers.

#10: “Akira” (1988)

In an era when anime was known for cutting corners, “Akira” went all out with flowing character movements and vibrant backgrounds, using over 160,000 animation cels. For many western audiences, the film was not only their introduction to anime, but also an early example of how animation could be tailored for mature audiences. The world that Katsuhiro Otomo created is as gritty as it is philosophical, recalling both “Blade Runner” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”. The film’s gorgeous cyberpunk imagery can be found in numerous projects that followed, from other anime like “Cowboy Bebop” to blockbusters like “The Matrix.” Even with all the modern advances in CGI, it’s hard to imagine a live-action adaptation competing with the sheer grandeur of Otomo’s original magnum opus.

#9: “Paprika” (2006)

Satoshi Kon is another filmmaker who frequently touches upon adult themes, taking animation to new depths. In his directorial debut, “Perfect Blue,” Kon gave us a psychological thriller that unraveled the fabric of reality. Similarly, “Paprika” revolves around a machine that provides a gateway into dreams. Just as the imagination is practically limitless, this exploration into the human psyche demonstrates how the possibilities are endless when it comes to animation. There are many people who don’t consider animation a “serious” art form. When you think about it, though, animation is like a living painting - and “Paprika” overflows with gorgeous, gallery-worthy visuals that evoke classic surrealist painters at their finest.

#8: “The Iron Giant” (1999)

Although western animation had seen a resurgence of popularity throughout the 90s, audiences still generally associated the medium with musical fairy tales. Rather than mimicking Disney’s successful formula, “The Iron Giant” broke the mold with a touching tale about a boy and his giant robot. Writer/director Brad Bird had previously worked as a creative supervisor on “The Simpsons,” which really shines through here. The filmmakers put just as much thought into the script as they did into the slick animation, creating a character-driven family film with an ideal balance of comedy, thrills, and heart. While the film bombed financially upon release, you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody today who wouldn’t deem it a perennial classic.

#7: “Grave of the Fireflies” (1988)

Centering on a teenage boy and his little sister as they struggle to get by during WWII, this Japanese animated feature doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war, but writer/director Isao Takahata didn’t see it as an anti-war picture per se. Rather, Takahata viewed his film as a cautionary tale for younger generations, exploring how pride and isolation from society can contribute to one’s own downfall. However you interpret its themes, film critic Roger Ebert summed up “Grave of the Fireflies” best, calling it “an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation.” The titular fireflies in particular provide some of the most poignant imagery in all animation, acting as both symbols of hope, and of loss.

#6: “Up” (2009)

An old man, a naïve boy scout, a talking dog, an exotic bird, and a flying house . . . You wouldn’t think these elements could fit together in a story that’s humorous, exciting, and dramatically compelling. When a group of creative geniuses let their imaginations run wild, though, the impossible can become reality. Some of the ideas in this Pixar film might sound preeetty far-fetched, but the way they’re executed is surprisingly mature and meaningful. The result is a film that speaks to all ages, with kids gravitating towards its colorful world, while adults latch onto its themes of loss and letting go. A movie with universal appeal, “Up” became the second animated feature to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.


#5: “Beauty and the Beast” (1991)

18 years before “Up” broke into the Best Picture race, this tale as old as time became the first animated film to contend for the Academy’s highest honor. Coming out towards the dawn of the Disney Renaissance, “Beauty and the Beast” kept the studio’s traditions alive while also redefining what animation could accomplish. With a modern heroine, a profound love story, and music worthy of Broadway, Disney’s wasn’t just making a comeback. They were taking animation to a new frontier, pushing the envelope in ways that hadn’t been attempted since Walt Disney’s death. Prior to its official release, an unfinished version of the film was screened at the New York Film Festival, where it earned a ten-minute-long standing ovation. Animation hasn’t been the same ever since.

#4: “Persepolis” (2007)

A graphic novel is like a detailed storyboard for an animated feature, although few have translated to the silver screen as masterfully as Marjane Satrapi’s life story. The simplistic character designs and black-and-white environments give “Persepolis” a personal touch, as if Satrapi’s drawing have come alive. The film is a must-see not only for its stunning artistry, but for its multi-layered themes regarding religion, war, and being a modern Middle Eastern woman. Above all else, “Persepolis” is about the confusing journey that is childhood and how these experiences shape the people we grow into. “Persepolis” presents the world from the perspectives of both a child and an adult, with the animation creating a brilliant contrast between the past and present.

#3: “Toy Story” (1995)

Pixar’s debut feature is often celebrated for being the first full-length computer-animated film, which earned it a Special Achievement Academy Award. The film’s game-changing technical innovation can’t be denied, especially since CGI became the new norm for western feature animation in the years that followed. Even more significant, though, was the film’s Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The dialog had a contemporary sensibility to it, while still sounding timeless, treating younger viewers like adults and making older viewers feels like kids again. The film also stood out by putting an emphasis on friendship over romance and not being a traditional musical. Proving that this town was big enough for more than one type of animated feature, “Toy Story” opened the floodgate for much more variety.

#2: “The Lion King” (1994)

Feature animation wouldn’t be what it is today without the Disney Renaissance, and “The Lion King” is widely considered the pinnacle of this era. The film became the highest-grossing animated feature of its time and for a while nothing even came close to topping its success. What makes this so ironic is that Disney actually wasn’t expecting it to become a cultural phenomenon during early production, with chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg reportedly having more faith in “Pocahontas.” Even without some of Disney’s top talents onboard, “The Lion King” emerged as an animated epic through its sweeping animation, grand musical numbers, and Shakespearean story. Just as Simba accepted his place in the circle of life, the film etched out a special place in cinematic history.

Before we get to our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions:

“Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” (2005)

“Shrek” (2001)

“Fantasia” (1940)

“Ghost in the Shell” (1995)

“Waltz with Bashir” (2008)

#1: “Spirited Away” (2001)

We’ve discussed several animation masters throughout this countdown, but even some of Disney’s key creative figures would point to Hayao Miyazaki as their idol. From “My Neighbor Totoro” to “Princess Mononoke,” this Japanese filmmaker helped turn Studio Ghibli into the animation powerhouse it is today. “Spirited Away” has been called Miyazaki’s crowning achievement, balancing a world of boundless imagination with a relatable story about finding oneself. It may be a 21st century film, but the characters, environments, and narrative all feel like the stuff of legend. In addition to winning the Japan Academy Award for Best Film, “Spirited Away” broke new grounds in the US, where it became the first anime film to win an Oscar, triumphing over the western competition in Best Animation Feature.
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