The Top Ten Best Animated Movies

The recent release of Disney’s Winnie the Pooh has me nostalgic for all those great 2D drawn-animation flicks that I grew up with. It is a style of animation that is now, sadly, disappearing. Kudos to Disney for keeping Winnie the Pooh old-school. I’m not saying stop-motion and CGI animation aren’t wonderful in their own way, but this list is in appreciation of the best in traditional animation (so don’t come crying that there are no Pixar pics on the list; and if it was all types of animation, Nightmare Before Christmas would probably be #1).

While I’ve been reminiscing, many great 2D Disney films have popped up in my mind, only to be dismissed again because I know certain computer effects/processes were employed in their making. However, I’m going to count films that are in the hand-drawn animation “style”, even if some computer manipulation was involved. That saying, here’s the Top Ten Best Animated Movies:

1. The Last Unicorn

Based on a fabulous novel by Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn is not just a kid’s movie. On the surface, it looks like a simple story of a lonely unicorn looking for the rest of its kind. But dig a little deeper and you can detect subtle adult themes of aging, friendship and wasted dreams.

If the story alone wasn’t enough the earn this film first place on this list, then the animation would. The Last Unicorn is a 1982 Rankin/Bass production, a company famous for their stop-motion animated Christmas classics and the force behind over 16 animated feature films. Rankin/Bass used Japanese animation studio TopCraft for most of its work after 1972, both stop-motion and traditional animation. This cultural and artistic influence lends an exotic and anime-esque quality to the artwork in The Last Unicorn, as well as highly-stylized characters and a vibrant color palate.

Ok. If you’re not convinced yet that The Last Unicorn deserves to be #1 on this list, then maybe a look at the voice cast and the soundtrack will decide you. The songs were arranged by Jimmy Webb, and performed by the folk rock group America (famous for their song “A Horse with No Name”), so there’s a great melancholy whimsy to the tunes. The voice talents include Mia Farrow, Alan Arkin, Tammy Grimes, Angela Lansbury, Jeff Bridges and Christopher Lee. Convinced?

2. Watership Down

Here’s another animated film that’s not quite kid-friendly. I did see this as a kid, and certain images stuck with me for a long time. It may be disturbing for youngsters, but Watership Down is one of the best animated films out there. It, like The Last Unicorn, is based on a great novel by Richard Adams. Here is another story that contains adult themes of survival and political/social freedom under the guise of something seemingly innocent. In this case, the story revolves around rabbits and their search for a new home.

As far as animation, this 1978 British animated production is extremely old-school, with hand-drawn animation over hand-drawn and watercolor backgrounds. There are some great creation/fable sequences that employ a unique, almost tribal artistic style. The majority of the animation is in a very naturalistic style; the rabbits aren’t cute Easter Bunnies, and there is a realism to them that matches the darkness and violence of the story.

3. The Hobbit

Now when I say this is Rankin/Bass production, you’ll understand the caliber of animated film we’re talking here. The Hobbit (hmmm…hello trend) is based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s famed fantasy adventure novel of the same name. Now there are a ton of cinematic versions of both “The Hobbit”, and Tolkien’s companion trilogy “Lord of the Rings”, out there. But this is the only animated version ever attempted, and it was released first in 1977 as an animated TV special.

Though the animation was done by the same Japanese TopCraft animation studio that did The Last Unicorn, the concept artwork wasn’t done by Japanese artists but by American artists. Thus The Hobbit doesn’t have the same stylization of The Last Unicorn. Instead, the style and artwork were inspired by respected illustrator Arthur Rackham. Rackham’s illustration were realistic and dark, sometimes monotone in color, and in the early 1900s he illustrated a number of literary classics like “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, “Aesop’s Fables”, and “The Wind in the Willows”.

Besides a subtle, monochromatic color scheme and a realistic but rustic animation style, The Hobbit has a great soundtrack. Original songs were developed by the Rankin/Bass in-house composer Maury Laws, with Bass himself developing lyrics based on poems and ballads taken from Tolkien’s novel. Here is another example of an animated film based on exceptional literature that has attempted to stay true to the source material, if not in story details then in spirit.

4. The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe

This animated pic is based on C. S. Lewis’ childrens book of the same name, and like the book it’s charming and accessible. Originally a 1979 film for TV by Bill Melendez (the force behind almost every animated Charlie Brown special you’ve ever seen), the animation is cartoonish and simple, with sketched backgrounds and very little nuance of color. However, the voice acting, the teleplay and the astounding original music by Michael Lewis all make this old-school animated film one of the best around.

5. Beauty and the Beast

Ok, so we’re entering Disney territory now. It becomes very hard at this point to choose from the vast collection of great hand-drawn style animated film classics from the Disney vault. A strong tsk tsk to Disney for deciding to abandon traditional 2D animation in favor of 3D computer animation in 2003 (after a string of 2D animation flops like Brother Bear). Since the problem obviously wasn’t the style of animation, but the fact that these were inferior films with weak stories, it’s good to know that Disney re-instated its hand-drawn animation studio in 2007.

When Beauty and the Beast came out in 1991, it broke through a lot of ceilings for animated film, garnering more than one Academy Award nomination. It was the first animated feature film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (which it lost to Silence of the Lambs).

Also, Disney used an interesting melding of traditional animation and computer techniques in a fairly new computer animation system which included digital scanning, ink, paint and compositing software. This was utilized mainly for the last ballroom dance scene, which has that great sense of depth and amazing reflective effects. Beauty and the Beast also differed from previous animated films in that it started with a screenplay and then went to storyboards. Most animated films don’t start with scripts, but as storyboards and art concepts.

In many ways Beauty and the Beast represents a very successful marriage of the old and new school of animation, while making a movie that appears mirror-sleek and full of beautiful saturated colors, well-drawn characters, and the little expert extra effects like reflections and shadowing. Not to mention an award-winning soundtrack, that features an original score by long-time Disney composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman (the musical geniuses behind Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, among others).

6. Cinderella

An old-school animated classic, I count Cinderella on par with many of the other “princess” Disney films, like Snow White and The Seven Dwarves and Sleeping Beauty (and even more recent pics made during the “Disney Renaissance” like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin).

Cinderella stands out because, when it came out in 1950, it was a huge gamble for Walt Disney studios. If it hadn’t been well-received, Disney might have gone bankrupt and it wouldn’t be the cultural megalith it is today. Cinderella is certainly old-school hand-drawn animation, but the fairytale re-telling is so compelling, the music catchy and charming, and the colorful animation so delightful that it is easy to forget this pic is over 60 years old.

7. Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust

Here’s one for the anime fans. Anime is Japanese animation, though it has taken the rest of the world by storm over the last few decades. Anime’s signature look of huge eyes and bubble mouths has pretty much been maintained over the years, and the strange Eastern stories that give the animation life make for some interesting viewing. I’m not a huge fan of anime, but Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust is one of my favorite films due to its sleek and stunning artwork.

So let’s not confuse Vampire Hunter D with this film, which is Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust. The first Vampire Hunter D was made in the ‘80s, and as far as animation and story it is pretty weak. And the floating blobs don’t help. Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust came out in 2000, and is based on the third in a series of horror novels by Hideyuki Kikuchi. The animation has a stark beauty with an amazing amount of detail, and the soft shading and other motion effects are incredible. There’s a great use of black and other dark hues against white backgrounds with a compelling, bleak, gritty, art concept. And D’s signature look with his wide-brimmed black hat and back-strapped sword is awesome.

8. Ponyo

Here’s another anime, and one that is a child-friendly re-imagining of The Little Mermaid fairytale. It written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, the acclaimed animator behind classics like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. It was released in Japan in 2008 to great success, and then Disney gave it a new heavy-weight voice cast (which included Tina Fey, Matt Damon, Liam Neeson and Cate Blanchett) and released it in the U.S. in 2008.

The animation is incredibly detailed, from the myriad of underwater creatures, to the realism and movement of the water itself. And if that isn’t enough to spark your interest, Ponyo is one of the most adorable animated characters I’ve ever seen.

9. The Secret of NIMH

This film should be mentioned, as it’s a colorful and vibrant animated classic in the charming musical style of the Don Bluth oeuvre (Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven, An American Tail). It’s based on a great childrens novel about secret government experimentation and super-intelligent rats. Ok, that’s a very brief summary, and the animated pic is a lot more kid-friendly. Plus its got some great musical numbers, fabulously crisp and colorful cels, and as Bluth believed in traditional labor-intensive animation techniques there’s some awesome effects as far as lighting (used backlit animation techniques) and subtle shadows/transparency.

10. The Land Before Time

Yes, it’s another Don Bluth film. As someone who worked as a chief animator at the Disney animation studio for a number of years, when Bluth left to form his own animation studio he took some great talent and experience with him. He’s credited with providing Disney with some much needed competition, improving their films as well as his own.

The Land Before Time also boasts of some powerful producers, with both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg executive producing the pic through Bluth’s own studio and Amblin Entertainment. In case those production values don’t grab you, filmmakers behind this dinosaur adventure pic did extensive research at the Natural History Museum in New York and the Smithsonian to get their landscapes/environments and dinosaurs accurate. As for animation, it’s rich and colorful and sleek, with an average of 18 drawings for every second of the film.

So I’ve run out of numbers, and I know there are still tons of worthy hand-drawn style animated films out there, but these are the best of the best (in my opinion).

What do you think? Anything I’ve missed that deserves Top Ten recognition?

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