Claudia Leisinger

Sticking to features only, we name those ‘toons that make up the best and most influential in animation history.

20. The Iron Giant (1999, dir: Brad Bird)
Until recently, Bird’s highest flyer: an irresistible tale of boy-meets-metal-man, brilliantly adapted from poet Ted Hughes’s book, touching and trenchant in its skewering of 1950s Cold War paranoia. The E.T of animation, if Warner Bros. hadn’t sold it as scrap.

19. South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut (1999, dir: Trey Parker)
Uh-oh. Parker and Stone’s primitive cutout kids get the feature treatment, expanding their cult TV show to ever more offensive lows (heights?) Hilarious, scabrous satire - that just happens to be one of the best musicals of recent years too.

18. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993, dir: Henry Selick)
Marvellously warped fantasy from Tim Burton’s imagination, with Halloweentown pumpkin king Jack Skellington hijacking his neighbour Santa’s job and coming up with a new meaning of Xmas. Here Burton and director Selick perform a similar makeover on bland kids entertainment.

17. Heavy Traffic (1973, dir: Ralph Bakshi)
Fritz the Cat gets the notoriety, unfinished Lord of the Rings the controversy, but Bakshi’s best is arguably this savage, live-action / animation (self-?)portrait of a struggling cartoonist and screwed-up New York City, both clenched with social, racial and sexual tensions.

16. Aladdin (1992, dir: Ron Clements & John Musker)
Little Mermaid maestros Musker and Clements came up with this breathless Arabian Nights-inspired action-adventure that might have made the shortlist even without Robin Williams’s outstanding - and appropriate - vocal improvisations. His Genie single-handedly prompted today’s A-list voice casting craze.

15. Chicken Run (2000, dir: Peter Lord & Nick Park)
If shorts were eligible no doubt Wallace and Gromit would score higher but Aardman’s feature-length clay-made debut hatched a hugely inventive Great Escape pastiche, equal parts unsentimental British pluck and blithely self-assured Hollywood razzle-dazzle (courtesy of Mel Gibson). Clucking brilliant.

14. Shrek (2001, dir: Andrew Adamson, Vicky Jenson)
DreamWorks needed to loosen rival Pixar’s CG-animation stranglehold: enter the grumpy green ogre. Slyly parodying both traditional fairy-tales and Disney conventions, star voices –Myers, Murphy, Diaz - and rapid-fire gags helped instigate a corporate takeover from the Monsters, Inc. crew.

13. Akira (1988, dir: Katsuhiro Otomo)
Proof that visionary sci-fi didn’t belong exclusively to either live-action or Western cinema, Otomo’s sensory overload still holds up as well as Blade Runner in its awesome imagining of a dystopian future, while retaining its inherently demented Japanese anime vibe.

12. Alice (1988, dir: Jan Svankmajer)
A true original, in his feature debut Czech surrealist Svankmajer crossbreeds Lewis Carroll, David Lynch and Jim Henson, yet his take on Alice in Wonderland, using a real girl amid fantastical puppet creations, is weird, wonderful and wholly his own.

11. Grave of the Fireflies (1988, dir: Isao Takahata)
Despite Hayao Miyazaki’s looming shadow, Studio Ghibli was never a one-man band. His cohort Takahara’s heartbreaking tale of two young orphaned siblings struggling to survive ravaged World War II Japan is one of the great anti-war films, animation or live-action.

10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937, dir: David Hand)
Where it all started. Until Snow White, people believed animation could only distract for mere minutes at a time. Disney wasn’t Bashful; sceptics were Grumpy. The groundbreaking results left everyone feeling Happy. You’d be Dopey not to feel the same.

9. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988, dir: Robert Zemeckis)
Never mind the seamless mixing of humans and ‘toons; bringing Disney and Warner Bros. characters together for the first time, you better have new animated stars who can hold their own. Would Roger and Jessica Rabbit be overshadowed? Oh p-p-p-p-please…

8. Finding Nemo (2003, dir: Andrew Stanton)
Pixar’s digital wizards achieve underwater vistas so convincing, they offer them as therapeutic screen savers on the DVD. Oh and the story of a clownfish father’s search for his son is another near-perfect blend of narrative invention and heart-warming emotion.

7. Princess Mononoke (1997, dir: Hayao Miyazaki)
Eco-friendly mythmaking from Miyazaki, pitting samurai against warrior against animals against Nature itself. Refusing to shirk the savagery or beauty of the natural, man-made or fantasy worlds, its beauty lies in proffering balanced co-existence from all sides. Strange, singular, spellbinding.

6. Pinocchio (1940, dir: Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske)
Apparently the animators’ favourite animated feature, Disney’s follow-up to Snow White comprehensively raised the artistic stakes - multi-plane camera technique, off-screen action – with the definitive screen version of the fairy tale that continues to enchant filmmakers from Benigni to Spielberg.

5. The Incredibles (2004, dir: Brad Bird)
Bird added more adult, PG-rated sensibilities to Pixar’s slate but outfitted his superhero saga so spectacularly (minus the capes, daaahling), that your inner kid still leaps tall buildings in a single bound with glee. Technologically astounding (finally nailing stylised CG-humans), intellectually challenging (should all men be equal?) but ultimately just a joyful blend of dynamic action and hilarious comedy, the title applies to both its family of ‘supers’ and the geniuses who created them.

4. Beauty and the Beast (1991, dir: Kirk Wise, Gary Trousdale)
The only animated Best Picture Oscar nominee and peak of Disney’s modern revival, this exquisite fairy tale bridged the industry’s history and future. Traditional 2-D cel drawings were subtly enhanced by the burgeoning CG technology (the vertiginous ballroom tracking shots still thrill), and everything Walt and co stood for is honoured yet updated - the heroine is feistier, the hero more conflicted, the villain more complex and the standout set of songs arguably Disney’s best ever.

3. Bambi (1942, dir: David Hand)
Animal magic. Not until Disney had his team study real-life deer, rabbits and skunks did animated critters have the uncanny verisimilitude here. From fawn to king, Bambi doesn’t put a foot wrong. Its pared-down dialogue relies on skilful visual storytelling and in Thumper and the death of Bambi’s mother, you’ve got possibly the greatest scene-stealer and most traumatic moment in the history of movies in the same film. Often copied (The Lion King), never equalled.

2. Spirited Away (2001, dir: Hayao Miyazaki)
Miyazaki came out of retirement to produce his finest achievement and pushed Studio Ghibli’s superb work to its widest appreciation yet at home (it became Japan’s highest-grossing film of all time) and abroad (winning an Oscar). Finally – though discreetly - embracing digital animation, the constantly surprising tale of a ten-year old girl suddenly trapped in a fantasy world of Japanese gods and magic offers a seemingly endless array of dazzling imagery and emotional resonance. Transcendent.

1. Toy Story 1&2 (1995, 1999, dir: John Lasseter)
Toy Story takes its place in the record books as the first full-length, wholly computer-generated animated feature. It earns its place in film history, however, by being a flat-out masterpiece, with a sequel that’s equal if not an upgrade in quality. Yes, Pixar’s software development skills revolutionised both animation and filmmaking in general. But if their triumphs were merely ‘technical’, the films would be Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.

Using toys as the main characters wasn’t just a smart way to disguise technological limitations – the humans still looked a little boxy - but a brilliant way to win over the kids and their nostalgic parents (merchandising angles presumably didn’t hurt either). Buzz, Woody and co were also perfect surrogates for conveying some pretty grown-up ideas: the shock of realising your place in the big old universe; fear of rejection; and of course, understanding that flying is simply “falling with style”.

Memorable characters, expert voice work, brilliant slapstick, sophisticated gags, sprightly tunes, visual innovation: the essence of animation, its potential now stretching to infinity and beyond…

May 2005

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