The Best Animated Films Of The 21st Century So Far

“Brave” (2012)
Inexplicably dismissed by many on release (perhaps because it was more female-driven than most Pixar movies), “Brave” is already aging well just a few years on. Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman’s film about a feisty young Scottish princess (Kelly MacDonald) who accidentally turns her mother (Emma Thompson) into a bear is atypically straightforward for a Pixar film, with a folklore simplicity that feels more influenced by Hayao Miyazaki or Tomm Moore than John Lasseter.

Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs” (2009)
The film that first introduced mainstream audiences to the very particular sensibilities of Phil Lordand Chris Miller, “Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs” couldn’t have looked much more unpromising on paper: a disaster-movie parody based on a 34-page children’s book. But in Lord and Miller’s hands, the film — which follows Bill Hader’s eccentric inventor Flint Lockwood as he invents a machine that rains food on his hometown, only to see it become a Roland Emmerich-style world-threatener — was both visually and comedically inventive, able to draw out belly laughs from young and old while throwing some truly impressive 3D spectacle at you.

“Tokyo Godfathers” (2003)
Perhaps no Japanese animated director had greater range than the late, much-missed Satoshi Kon, and “Tokyo Godfathers” is his most atypical film. The exact midpoint of Italian neo-realism and,well, “Three Men And A Baby,” it sees a trio of homeless people — alcoholic Gin (Toru Emori), trans woman Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki) and runaway Miyuki (Aya Okamoto) — encounter an abandoned child in the trash, and set out to reunite with its parents. The film has flaws that some of Kon’s other work doesn’t — it’s sloppily plotted (Kon would claim that the film was about coincidences, but it doesn’t make the contrived quality any easier) and a bit treacly in places.

“Zootopia” (2016)
The recent turn-around in Disney animation has been something to see: After spending most of the ’00s in their worst-ever rut, the stewardship of John Lasseter has seen a run of commercial triumphs from “Bolt” to “Frozen.” We’d argue that so far, few have been good enough to truly compete with the best of Pixar, but this year’s “Zootopia” comes closest. Its conceit — ‘world of animals’ — is simple almost to the point of laziness, but directors Byron Howard and Rich Moorebuild a legitimately fascinating world and a surprisingly involving “Chinatown”-style buddy cop mystery around it.

“Paprika” (2006)
Heartbreakingly, Satoshi Kon only made four movies before he passed away of cancer at the age of just 46. All four were terrific, but his final one might have been his most ambitious. Based on Yasutaka Tsutsui’s novel, it’s set in a world where people can go into people’s dreams with the help of a machine called the DC Mini, which has now been stolen (and yes, people drew comparisons with “Inception” when the latter arrived, though, their conceit aside, things are quite different). It’s an absolute visual stunner, with Kon throwing everything but the kitchen sink (and actually, quite possibly the kitchen sink, too) at you, leading to some utterly stunning, feverish sequences with everything from giant babies to faces in clouds

“April And The Extraordinary World” (2015)
Aside from “Heavy Metal” (and, actually, our next entry), the long, fine tradition of the European comic book/graphic novel hasn’t had much success in being translated to the screen, but the recent sleeper “April And The Extraordinary World” bodes well for the future. Directed by Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci, it’s actually an original rather than an adaptation (though created by “Adele Blanc-Sec” writer Jacques Tardi), set in an alternate world where the French Empire continued to grow across the late 19th century and early 20th century, and sees young April (Marion Cotillard) embroiled in a hunt for her long-thought-dead parents, and a serum that could make people invulnerable. A simple but beautiful art style brings to life a thrillingly realized steampunk world, but the storytelling know-how is just as impressive, with a potentially convoluted story coming across effortlessly.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” (2006)
With Satoshi Kon passing, and Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata retiring, Japanese animation’s been in serious need of some new blood, and the most promising name to emerge in the last decade is Mamoru Hosoda, who first found fame with his nominal feature debut “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.” Based loosely on, and technically sequelizing, a 1967 novel, the film focuses on Makoto (Riisa Naka), a Tokyo teenager who discovers that she’s able to travel back in time, albeit only for a limited number of times. More teen movie than science-fiction, it proves witty and inventive in its early stages, neatly capturing a take on adolescent life that not many animated movies would dare to try, before tipping into melodrama (slightly less successfully) in its second half. Hosoda would make more visually resplendent films in the years to come (see the recent “The Boy & The Bear”), but few as assured as this one.

Lilo & Stitch” (2002)
The late ’90s and early ’00s were a bleak time for Disney animation: That pre-“Frozen” era paid almost nothing off at the box office, in large part because films like “Brother Bear” and “Home On The Range” were extremely poor. But the major shining light (along with “The Emperor’s New Groove,” see above) was “Lilo & Stitch.” It’s a riff on “E.T.” on the surface — eccentric young girl befriends intergalactic runaway — but directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois (who’d go on to make “How To Train Your Dragon”) make it sing through specificity: the delirious mischief of the adorably psychotic Stitch, the gorgeously realized Hawaiian setting, and the surprising pathos of Lilo and her older sister, who are being investigated by social services.

Monster House” (2006)
Easily the best of Robert Zemeckis’ performance-capture films, partly due to only being creepy when it’s trying to be and partly by not being directed by Zemeckis (Gil Kenan had the gig instead), “Monster House” is the rare film to pull off both ‘Burtonesque’ and ‘Amblin-esque’ in a successful manner, and does so with a heap of heart and scares in the process. Co-written by “Community” creator Dan Harmon and his friend Rob Schrab, it’s the tale of three adventurous pre-teens investigating a spooky local home. Working where “The Polar Express” didn’t by stylizing the characters further, it makes its young protagonists believably and likably childlike in a way that few films bother with, leading to both great gags ( “It’s the uvula!” “So it’s a girl house?”) and pathos more effective than most.

“How To Train Your Dragon” (2010)
Its films vary in quality from the nearly great (“Kung Fu Panda,” the original “Shrek”) to the surprisingly entertaining (“Madagascar 3” — no, seriously!) to the essentially worthless (later “Shrek” sequels, “Shark Tale”), but whatever the turnout, DreamWorks Animation has almost always been seen as second fiddle to Pixar.

“Finding Nemo” (2003)
Fortunately, our worries came to naught: “Finding Dory” proved to be much more “Toy Story 3” than “Cars 2” or “Monsters University” as far as Pixar sequels go. But could you blame us for being worried? After all, the original was something close to a miracle. The story of the over-protective father (Albert Brooks) whose worst nightmare comes true when his son is taken across the ocean is a dizzyingly colorful, enormously funny story full of incredibly memorable characters and arguably Pixar’s best-ever voice cast (Brooks and co-lead Ellen DeGeneres are perfect, but we also get Willem Dafoe, Allison Janney, Stephen Root, Geoffrey Rush and Eric Bana)

Monsters, Inc.” (2001)
After two great “Toy Story” movies and the middlingly received (somewhat unfairly) “A Bug’s Life,” “Monsters, Inc.” was the film that suggested that Pixar would be far more than the house that Buzz built. Like “Toy Story,” this film takes up an irresistible childhood conceit — the story behind the monsters under every child’s bed or in the closet — and filled it with two of the company’s most lovable characters in Billy Crystal’s eyeball-on-legs Mike Wazowski and John Goodman’s fuzzy blue Sully, who accidentally let a supposedly deadly child, the utterly adorable Boo, into their monster’s paradise. The film’s not as narratively perfect as some of the later Pixar pics (the Yeti diversion is dead air), but it’s still gorgeously designed, has a giant heart and proves utterly satisfying. Decent-but-unnecessary prequel “Monsters University” paled in comparison, which is a testament to the strength of the original.

. “Coraline” (2009)
There’s more quality coming out of more animation houses these days, thanks in part to Portland’s Laika, a stop-motion studio who broke out with the sublime “Coraline.” Based on a book by geek idol Neil Gaiman and directed by “The Nightmare Before Christmas” helmer Henry Selick, the film focuses on the titular girl (Dakota Fanning) who escapes from her neglectful parents into another world that turns out to be more sinister than she planned. The picture is gorgeously designed (with a use of 3D that’s still among the best ever, flat in the ‘real world’ and expansive in the fantasy one, “Wizard of Oz”-style), smart, soulful, atmospheric, rich, funny, exciting and strange, and it’s only aged like a fine wine in the last half-decade. “Paranorman” and “The Boxtrolls” are both worth checking out, but Laika’s first hour remains their finest so far.

“The Lego Movie” (2014)
On paper, it seemed to be a nightmarish corporate synergy-fest (it isn’t just based on a toy, but includes toy versions of superheroes!). In practice, “The Lego Movie” is a sly, subversive, giddy joy, with Phil Lord and Chris Miller topping their previous animated pic “Cloudy With Chance Of Meatballs” (which some of us are very grumpy isn’t in this list…). Spoofing ‘chosen one’ narratives as Chris Pratt’s Emmett is picked out as the last great hope against the evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell), it’s a deeply silly, meta-tastic action-comedy that still finds room for a surprising degree of pathos, not least in its secret late-game live-action gambit. Capturing a childish sense of play in a way that few had done outside of “Toy Story” but filtering it through a millennial mash-up mentality, it must figure as one of the most glorious mainstream surprises in recent memory.

“Ratatouille” (2007)
“Ratatouille” is something of an oddity among the Pixar canon, less because of its production history (“The Incredibles” helmer Brad Bird completely retooled the film late in production, which is par for the course at the studio), and more because it plays so much older than many of the rest of their films. Set in the world of fine cuisine, the picture targets and celebrates critics, is relatively slow paced, and draws from influences as diverse as Lubitsch and Proust. It’s auteurist, borderline-arthouse animation somehow went on to make hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide. Bird’s tale about a rat (played perfectly by Patton Oswalt) with a refined palate and culinary dreams works as a talking animal picture, a romantic comedy, a love-letter to Paris (those cityscapes!) and to food, and could only have been made by Pixar. Some of their other films might have had a broader appeal, but “Ratatouille” is truly refined.

“Wall-E” (2008)
The biggest risk that Pixar had ever made up to that point (and possibly since too) was “Wall-E,” a film that went from silent romantic comedy in its first act to finger-wagging environmental parable in its ending, and proved to be hugely entertaining in both modes. Tracking a lonely trash-collecting robot amid the fragments of a neglected civilization that only he cherishes, before he falls in love with a hi-tech probe droid and reconnects with the remnants of humanity, the film was an audacious undertaking to say the least. With much less dialogue than the wisecrackery of previous outings and a near-mute protagonist, it remains one of the studio’s most formally austere and outright satirical films. And yet Andrew Stanton‘s film is warm and funny, relying on the stunning expressiveness of Wall-E’s design (his playing with the ball and bat is a perfect example of the immaculate physics at work throughout) to tell with glimmering originality a story that ultimately employs every old-school trope in the book: an unlikely hero fights to win the hand of his lady love, and in so doing saves humanity from itself.

“The Wind Rises” (2013)
Hayao Miyazaki has retired before (he’d suggested he was done with filmmaking as early as a decade ago), but with Studio Ghibli supposedly winding down, “The Wind Rises” definitely seems like it could be the anime master’s swan song. The film certainly seems like a defining statement: a (mostly) fantasy-free melodrama about real-life airplane designer Jiro Horikoshi, it’s a moving portrait of the end of an era in Japan, an examination of way that progress, technology, and even art can be corrupted, a love-letter to the director’s beloved aviation, and more than anything else an autobiographical portrait of the artist as an obsessed young man. Anyone dismissing this as a cartoon doesn’t have their head screwed on properly.

“Inside Out” (2015)
The last few sequel-heavy years aside, Pixar has built up such a reputation for brilliance that when the studio makes a film deemed only ‘pretty good,’ as with the recent “The Good Dinosaur” or even “Finding Dory,” you can feel disproportionately disappointed. But that certainly wasn’t the reaction to “Inside Out,”, because it’s certainly Pixar’s most ambitious film and easily one of its best. Set inside the head of young Riley, whose emotional turmoil after moving to San Francisco sends the personifications of Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) into the deepest recesses of her mind, it’s a remarkably mature yet accessible look at what makes us tick and which grapples with an elusive truth — sadness isn’t just unavoidable, it’s necessary — that so-called grown-up movies would cross the street to avoid. But this being from Pixar, and in particular from “Up” director Pete Docter, it’s also a total, well, joy — bright, exciting, funny (was anything funnier this year than the film’s closing credits? Or the gum commercial?

The Incredibles” (2004)
Director Brad Bird’s best film to date is a blistering amalgam of imagined comic book mythology, family melodrama and gorgeous computer generated animation. It came at the very end of Pixar’s first great wave of titles, right before the studio misstepped with “Cars” and then got back on track with “Ratatouille” (thanks to Bird again, natch). In fact, this still feels like the animation juggernaut’s finest hour and probably its most complete film, full of legitimately thrilling action set pieces and easily relatable character drama (good for adults and kids), and tapping incisively into the culture’s superhero obsession before it got watered down to its current level of ubiquity.

Spirited Away” (2001)
If the great strength of animation is its facility for total immersion in worlds only bounded by the limits of a filmmaker’s imagination, there’s really no other choice for our number one spot than the dazzling “Spirited Away” from Hayao Miyazaki, curator of one of the most comprehensive and beautiful cinematic imaginations in existence. Starting out as a “be careful what you wish for” cautionary tale as a young girl ventures excitedly into a magical realm after her parents are turned into pigs, the film becomes more peculiar, more fanciful and more ambiguous as it goes on, becoming the polar opposite of the kind of patronising simplification and moral black-and-whites that mar the family film genre elsewhere. Grotesque, scary, thrilling, beautiful and very alien to anyone raised on Western animation, “Spirited Away” is, due to its Oscar success and wider U.S. promotion, for many people the first Miyazaki or Studio Ghibli film they saw, and so should occupy a very special place in our hearts as the shining portal into the fantastical, beyond-ken world of Ghibli. Make that multitudes of worlds.

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