10 Best Animated Movies of the 21st Century Ranked

Animation Movies

“One more time: animation is a medium, not a genre. Animation is film,” n art form that requires the most precise control of the cinematic medium — is continually disrespected.

Infamously, 2022’s Best Animated Oscars presentation featured several jokes about the nominees that, in the words of Phil Lord and Chris Miller,  framed “the five Academy Award nominees for Best Animated Feature as a corporate product for kids that parents must begrudgingly endure.” The directing duo called upon the Academy to do better by animation. And this year’s ceremony largely delivered, with less jokes that belittled animation as kiddy stuff and a sterling speech from del Toro himself for his acclaimed stop-motion feature adaptation of “Pinocchio.”

Pixar and Studio Ghibli tend to spring to mind first when discussing great animation, but there’s a world beyond those two giants. Animated films have grown ever more artful and affecting as more and more folks realize that, the Oscars comments notwithstanding, it’s never just been a medium for children, with studios and indies alike creating stop-motion marvels, hand-drawn standouts, and CGI spectacles.

The genre has grown so much since we entered the current century, in fact, that it can be easy to forget the Academy Awards didn’t even recognize animation until 2001. As few as three movies were nominated per year until 2010, but since then animation’s increased prominence has been reflected in the race’s competitiveness.

Next year seems like it’ll be a banner time for the category, with some big contenders in the wings. Tthere’s the smash hit “Super Mario Bros. Movie,” anime fantasy “Suzume,” Pixar and Disney entries “Elemental” and “Wish,” Netflix comic book adaptation “Nimona,” CGI action film “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem,” the long awaited sequel film to “Chicken Run,” and smaller titles like “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” or Cannes premiere “Robot Dreams.” That’s not even getting into the possibility of an American release for master of the artform Hayao Miyazaki’s next film, “How Do You Live?” That project currently only has a release date in Japan, for July 14, but rest assured we’re chomping at the bit to see it as soon as we can.

Here us the updated our list of the best animated films of the century, with a variety of new entries we’ve overlooked and the gems that have come out since our last update.

10. “Rango” (2011)

Yes, the fact that Johnny Depp voices the titular character now strikes one as deeply, deeply unfortunate. But if you can get past that, “Rango” still holds up today as an excellent, and refreshingly weird, animated western. A loving tribute to movies like “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” or the movies of John Ford, “Rango” sees our heroic lizard get lost from his owners and wind up in the western town of Dirt, where he gets roped into becoming sheriff and is tasked with uncovering the mystery behind the drought affecting the landscape. The movie is perhaps most interesting for its unique animation process; director Gore Verbinski shot his actors in live-action, and based the CG animation on that footage, resulting in a unique, surprisingly grimy style totally its own. 

9. “Chicken Run” (2000)

Over 23 years later, “Chicken Run” is still the highest-grossing stop motion film in history, grossing over $227 million during its theatrical run. And that’s a well deserved honor, because this movie is a masterpiece. A co-production between Aardman Animations and Dreamworks, the film focuses on a group of British chickens attempting to escape their farm before they get cooked into meat pies. Led by the strong-willed Ginger (Julia Sawalha), the group engages in a variety of attempts to escape, giving the audience some classic Aardman slapstick comedy.

But beyond the surface charm, “Chicken Run” is a shockingly deep text: in the years following its release, many have examined the themes of feminism and Marxism hiding behind the story, like how George Orwell criticized Russian fascism in “Animal Farm.” In a landscape where western animated films are often the purview of gigantic corporations, it’s hard to classify any of them as truly “radical,” which makes the revolutionary spirit of “Chicken Run” something worth championing.

8. “The Incredibles” (2004)

It’s likely no live-action superhero film will ever be able to hold a candle to the original “The Incredibles,” one of Pixar’s finest hours. Brad Bird’s family of ‘60s superheroes (which are not NOT inspired by the Fantastic Four) is perhaps the most vividly realized group of heroes in cinema history: Holly Hunter’s badass Elastigirl, Craig T. Nelson’s depressed Mr. Incredible, Sarah Vowell’s shy Violet, and Spencer Fox’s hyperactive Dash are all pop off the screen with personality and humor. And the villain that pulls them out of retirement, Jason Lee’s bratty Syndrome, is the exact kind of campy, iconic villain the MCU can’t seem to produce across 30 movies. The action is exhilarating, the supporting cast is perfection (Frozone’s wife, you will always be famous!), and the family bonds are heartwarming: in a world of bland and emotionless “Eternals” and “Ant-Mans,”  “The Incredibles” puts modern superheroes to shame.

7. “The Wind Rises” (2013)

Hayao Miyazaki cemented his legacy as cinema’s greatest animator with this ineffably beautiful swan song, the “My Neighbor Totoro” director taking a hard left turn into historical melodrama for this story about “Zero” plane engineer Jiro Horikoshi (voiced with perfect flatness by “Neon Genesis Evangelion” creator Hideaki Anno). Everything about this film was highly unusual, least of all the fact that animated biopics are few and far between, let alone those about controversial World War II figures who went to their grave feeling vaguely responsible for millions of deaths; imagine if Brad Bird’s last movie was a Pixar toon about J. Robert Oppenheimer. Overcoming the misguided controversy that accompanied this film’s release, “The Wind Rises” endures as a peerlessly haunting ode to the creative process and the tortured life of our most beautiful dreams.

6. “Wolfwalkers” (2020)

Cartoon Saloon’s third and final installment in the Kilkenny-based studio’s “Irish Folklore Trilogy” is its most expansive: an epic about the endless struggle between fanaticism and freedom. During Oliver Cromwell’s tyrannical reign, when Ireland suffered under English rule worse than ever before, the “Lord Protector” orders the extermination of all wolves on the Emerald Isle. The adventurous daughter (Honor Kneafsey) of an English hunter (Sean Bean) comes to realize that the English impulse to destroy the wolves, and anything “wild,” is about control and obedience — colonialism — when she encounters a young Irish girl named Mebh (Eva Whittaker), whose part of the wolfwalkers, people who can turn into wolves. Directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart give impossible levels of background detail despite telling a complex, action-driven story. Even if the narrative becomes a bit repetitive, there’s more than enough for your eyes to take in.

5. “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” (2013)

When it comes to movies adapted from ancient folklore, it’s never wise to hold out hope for a happy ending — the storytellers of yore weren’t quite as gentle as the movie executives who followed in their wake. In other words, people raised on Disney movies might not be prepared for what’s in store for them at the end of Isao Takahata’s stunning “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” which is based on a 10th-century Japanese legend and builds to a degree of emotional devastation unseen in any animated film this side of Takahata’s own “Grave of the Fireflies.”

There’s a bittersweet sparseness drawn in to Takahata’s spare watercolor style, but the fairy tale story about an enchanted girl who comes from the moon and is raised by humble woodcutters is unforgettably fleshed out and full of life. But perhaps the saddest thing about this immensely sad masterpiece is that it stands as one of the last we got from the great Studio Ghibli.

4. “Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse” (2018)

Does the world need another Spider-Man movie? In the case of Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman’s inspired animated outing “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” the answer is a resounding yes. A new spin inside an old web, the film exists inside the so-called “Spider-Verse” — a multi-verse that doesn’t discount the current Tom Holland-starring live-action films and handily builds in tales from all over the long-running comic book series that could frame their own film — and still manages to carve out its own path.

Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) is, like so many Spider-Men before him, a regular kid whose life is thrown into turmoil after a nip from radioactive spider. What’s always been compelling about Spider-Man, however, is that his (or her!) life is interesting enough beyond that spider bite, and Miles delivers on that with ease: whipsmart, on the cusp of the rest of his teenage life, and from a compelling complex family, Miles is fun to watch even without all the superhero stuff. 

The superhero stuff, well, it’s pretty great, too. Vibrant, colorful, inventive animation pushes the heroics to blazing new heights (often literally) allows “Into the Spider-Verse” to tap into the nuttier aspects of being suddenly thrust into greatness (read: candy-colored psychedelic sequences that are as fun as they are thrilling). The introduction of a cadre of other Spider-People adds both humor and shocking stakes to a story that’s already built around Miles’ big heart and earnest desire to save the day, giving him plenty of new friends and the film a slew of zippy new players to indulge. Not just one of the most successful Spider-Man films of all time, not only a pitch-perfect exploration of the mind-bending implications of a multiverse, but a feature that happily carves out its own path while staying true to its rich history.

3. “The Red Turtle” (2016)

Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit joined forces with Studio Ghibli for this wordless survival story, which morphs into a delectable fairy tale over the course of its trim running time, and never wastes a frame. When the movie was released, even its biggest fans tended to note that it traded plot for mood, but that doesn’t quite do justice to the visual mastery on display. Instead, “The Red Turtle” uses the form of a familiar story while reinventing it from the inside out.

The plight of a lonely castaway tossed onto a deserted island in the midst of a harrowing storm screams “Robinson Crusoe,” but once the man comes across the majestic creature of the title, his adventures take a series of unusual new twists. The island companion initially registers as an annoyance, until it dies. But when the turtle suddenly transforms into a woman, the ensuing adventure transcends its narrative traditions, and becomes a profound meditation on mortality and companionship. At once in tune with the magnetic imagery of Miyazaki’s studio and more concise in its vision, “The Red Turtle” has a complex, soulful nature that sneaks into the deceptive simplicity of its design, and puts it in a class of its own as one of the greatest animated movies in history.

2. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009)

Wes Anderson’s live action films often — and intentionally — can feel like handmade dioramas, so it shouldn’t have been surprising that he’d gravitate toward stop-motion animation where literally everything in frame is put there by design and the hand of the artists can be felt with each flutter of fox fur. Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is less an adaptation of the beloved Roald Dahl novel than it is a jumping off point for the director to imagine his own story world that is a surprisingly adult and philosophical meditation on being human in the 21st century.

And the yet the film is a schmaltz-free, kid-friendly story that crackles with capers and humor deliver by wonderfully modulated comedic voice performances from George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Michael Gambon, Jarvis Cocker, and the scene-stealing serenity of Anderson’s brother Eric.

1. “Spirited Away” (2001)

There’s something beautiful and terrifying about getting exactly what you wish for. The stunning jewel in Hayao Miyazaki’s pocketful of masterpieces follows young Chihiro on a fantastical sojourn through a land of cursed animals, malicious witches, and amorphous blobs that devour humans with minimal effort. It’s the textbook Miyazaki blend of wonder and danger that makes this a modern fairy tale on par with the time-tested stories of Grimm and Aesop and the countless oral traditions that spin yarns of all that the wide world has in store.

What better lesson for a child moving through a strange, treacherous journey that heroes and villains can swap places in an instant, that a hand extended in good faith can be used for terror and that an evil enemy can one day be redeemed? No-Face, Yubaba and Zeniba, Haku: all rich stewards of a story that can be taken as a parable for young adulthood, our modern relationship to nature, the way we treat our elders, or all of those things in one. In tone, color, and thematic ideas, this is as kaleidoscopic as Studio Ghibli gets, all delivered with the grace and control of a storytelling master.

The ending is a perfect distillation of what it means to be transported to an unfamiliar, magical visual world and to be returned safely. You’re still in one piece, but there’s something changed that you can’t quite put a finger on. It’s the great promise of film, animated or otherwise, one rendered here with as much honesty as fantasy allows.

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Shaz Salimian
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