- Animated films have been around for almost 100 years, with thousands getting released over the decades. But not all of them reach icon status.
- Insider picked 45 must-watch animated films, from the very beginnings of Disney to the superhero hit “Into the Spider-Verse.”
- In history, three animated films have been nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, and they all make this list: “Beauty and the Beast,” “Up” and “Toy Story 3.”
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Animated movies are sometimes dismissed as being “for kids.” We couldn’t disagree more – animation is an art form, and can be entertaining for both kids and adults like (or sometimes, just adults).
Insider picked 45 films from the past 92 years of animated feature films, from the very first Disney movie, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” to films from studios like Pixar, Laika, Studio Ghibli, 20th Century Fox, and more.
Keep scrolling to see what movies you should be adding to your watch list, ASAP.
“Steamboat Willie” started it all back in 1928. It’s a must-see for any animation fan, if not just to see how far the medium has come in less than 100 years.
“Steamboat Willie” was the first animated movie to do many things that are now, of course, considered staples. It was Mickey Mouse’s debut, leading to a billion-dollar empire based on everyone’s favourite mouse. It was also the first animated movie to have synchronised sound – silent animated shorts were suddenly obsolete.
Yes, it’s only seven minutes long, but it completely changed the movie industry forever, and for that it’s earned a spot on this list.
But “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is really where the modern-day Disney Princess movie stems from. It was released in 1937.
Snow White has the distinction of being the very first Disney Princess and Disney’s first feature animated film. All the tropes lead back to here – dead parents, woodland creatures, a handsome prince, a singing princess – it all started with Snow White and her dwarfs.
The American Film Institute didn’t name this the greatest animated film of all time, nor did the Library of Congress choose it as one of the first 25 films to be preserved in the National Film Registry, but it holds up today as a blueprint of where animation would go in the future.
“Pinocchio” proved Disney could tell stories about people other than princesses.
In 1940, Disney released “Pinocchio,” a moralistic tale about a boy who couldn’t stop lying. Telling someone their nose is growing has now become shorthand for calling someone a liar, and it all stems from this film.
Jiminy Cricket, the Blue Fairy, Geppetto, and Pinocchio himself are all iconic characters, and “When You Wish Upon a Star” is now forever linked with the feeling of sitting down to watch a Disney film. AFI ranked this just underneath “Snow White” as the No. 2 best animated film of all time.
That same year, Disney released “Fantasia,” an almost entirely wordless film based on segments set to classical music.
There’s never been anything else quite like “Fanstasia” (besides its sequel film “Fantasia 2000,” of course) – a series of animated segments connected by different pieces of classical music. The moment that an animated Mickey Mouse steps on stage and shakes hands with a real-life conductor might not seem like a huge deal today, but in 1940, it was downright magical.
Though it took a while to be appreciated by the masses, “It’s a grand failure that became a trailblazer and a part of the national consciousness,” Smithsonian Magazine writes.
Though it’s not the first, 1950’s “Cinderella” has now become the quintessential Disney Princess movie.
The rags-to-riches story of Cinderella is one of the oldest and most adapted tales of all time. There have been dozens of Cinderella stories, but none so famous as Disney’s musical tale complete with a Fairy Godmother, magical talking mice, and a pumpkin carriage.
According to legend, Walt Disney’s favourite piece of animation he ever did was Cinderella’s dress transforming from a torn-up pink mess to a breathtaking shimmery blue gown. Seventy years later, it’s still chill-inducing.
“Yellow Submarine,” which was released in 1968, proved that cartoons weren’t just for kids. It starred the Beatles!
“Yellow Submarine” doesn’t actually star the real voices of the Beatles, though they do make a brief appearance at the end. But this animated musical certainly captures the trippy aesthetic that the Beatles had adopted at this point, and endures as a genuinely enjoyable watch. If you’re looking to introduce kids or teens to the music of the Fab Four, this is a great place to start.
“Fantastic Planet,” released in 1973, was one of the first animated films made specifically for adults.
“Fantastic Planet,” or “La Planète sauvage,” in French, is based on the French sci-fi novel “Oms en série.” It tells the story of a race of giant blue aliens, the Draags, who have discovered humans (called Oms) and view them as animals. The Oms dream of finding a place of their own, and escaping to a distant moon, the titular Fantastic Planet.
“Fantastic Planet” has been described as “eerie, surreal and a welcome respite from Disney-style animation” by TV Guide. It even won the Special Prize at Cannes Film Festival in 1973.
As animation became more popular, other studios began releasing animated movies, like 1986’s “An American Tail.”
“An American Tail” was released by Don Bluth, an animator who left Disney to strike out on his own, and Steven Spielberg. It tells the story of a young Jewish mouse, Fievel Mousekewitz, and his family who escape Ukraine to get away from the “cats” (the anti-Jewish pogroms).
The movie attempted to explain horrible and difficult subjects to children, like anti-Semitism, child labour, sweatshops, corruption, and extortion, in ways they would understand. While it got called too dark for a children’s film, it made a huge amount of money and even spawned a sequel, “Fievel Goes West.”
For Jewish kids around the world, it was exciting to see themselves represented on screen. To date, there’s still never been a Jewish protagonist in a Pixar film.
In 1988, audiences were introduced to “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and its unforgettable hybrid of live-action and animated characters.
As Business Insider previously wrote, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” isn’t just a stellar animated movie, but a hilarious comedy in its own right.
The legacy of the movie lives on in various ways. It was the first live-action/animation movie to win Academy Awards since “Mary Poppins” more than two decades earlier. It was the first time that two of the most iconic cartoon characters of all time, Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse, met on screen, and spawned a thriving online community, Toontown Online, and an area inside Disneyland.
That same year, kids all over were simultaneously traumatized and awed by “The Land Before Time.”
The death of Little Foot’s mother in “The Land Before Time” deserves its spot in the pantheon of traumatic animated deaths right next to Mufasa. It never fails to break your heart, even if you’ve seen it a million times. But then, the movie becomes an adventure story as Little Foot and his friends make their way to the Great Valley. It’s a story about grief as Little Foot accepts what happened to his mother, and a story about chosen family.
Over the last three decades, “The Land Before Time” has spawned 13 direct-to-video sequels varying in quality, and an animated series. But the only one you need to watch is the original.
“Akira,” which was made in 1988, is the first anime film on this list.
“Akira” takes place in 2019 in a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk future Tokyo, which has been ravaged by World War III. Two teen biker rebels, Kaneda and Tetsuo, are captured by the corrupt government and come across a giant conspiracy involving using telekinetic humans as weapons. If this idea sounds familiar, it might be because, as Vice writes, “Akira” is “one of the greatest and most influential films of the past 30 years.”
It’s one of, if not the first Japanese movie to have a massive breakthrough in the Western world, and was just the beginning of anime and manga crossing over to American culture.
Clearly, 1988 was a banner year for animated movies because the Studio Ghibli classic “My Neighbour Totoro” was also released that year.
Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki are legendary names in animation for a reason. “My Neighbour Totoro” was the writer and studio’s breakthrough movie, and rightfully so. It’s a masterpiece –Time Out ranked it the best animated movie of all time.
The film centres on two sisters, Satsuki and Mei, who are trying to deal with the fact that their mother is living in a hospital due a to long-term illness. The two discover a friendly spirit, Totoro, who delights them and takes them on adventures. It might not sound like much, but it’s a truly breathtaking film.
In 1989, Disney kicked off the Disney Renaissance with “The Little Mermaid.”
Disney returned to what they do best: princess stories. But what really makes “The Little Mermaid” a classic is its music. “Part of Your World,” “Under the Sea,” “Kiss the Girl” … these are all essential parts of the Disney canon.
The 1991 film “Beauty and the Beast” became the first animated film to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.
“Beauty and the Beast” might not have aged perfectly (Belle essentially has Stockholm syndrome), but its soundtrack and animation are equally breathtaking – and the ballroom dance sequence combines them both. But while Belle fell in love with her actual kidnapper, she was also the first Disney princess more interested in learning and adventure than getting married to a handsome man, giving little girls the world over a new kind of heroine.
Robin Williams’ performance as the Genie alone makes 1992’s “Aladdin” a must-see movie, animated or not.
Has there ever been a character and performer so inextricably linked than the legendary comedian and his giant blue counterpart?
But besides the Genie, “Aladdin” has potentially the most beloved Disney duet of all time (“A Whole New World”), another princess who cares more about her agency than a man, and a compelling villain.
Tim Burton brought his gothic aesthetic to animation with 1993’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
Though there might be some debate as to whether the tale of Jack Skellington is a Halloween or Christmas movie (for what it’s worth, we say Christmas), it’s a universally beloved movie. The stop-motion classic is traditionally darker than most Disney movies, and has suitably darker songs and a genuinely unnerving score.
The love story of Jack the Pumpkin King and rag doll Sally is so enduring that it’s been immortalised forever in a famous Blink 182 song, “I Miss You,” which tells the listener that “We can live like Jack and Sally if we want.“
The 1993 film “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” is not just a great animated movie, but an excellent superhero movie.
“Mask of the Phantasm” is the feature film origin story/continuation of “Batman: The Animated Series,” widely regarded as one of the best animated series of all time.
The voice cast is firing on all cylinders, with Adam Conroy as the Bat and Mark Hamill as the seriously deranged (yet loveable) Joker reprising their roles from the show, along with newcomer Dana Delany as one of Bruce’s ill-fated love interests, Andrea Beaumont.
“The Lion King,” released in 1994, manages to combine a tragic death with some of the most upbeat Disney music ever.
Yes, it’s painfully ironic that around 10 minutes after Simba sings that he just can’t wait to be king, his beloved father Mufasa is killed and he actually becomes king – but it goes to show how infectiously joyful the song is that we don’t associate it with Mufasa’s imminent demise.
Every song in “Lion King” has achieved classic status, from Scar’s evil manifesto “Be Prepared” to the sweet duet of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”
Understanding the circle of life is an important idea for kids, and no movie has taught it more gracefully than “The Lion King.”
When Pixar came on to the scene in 1995 with “Toy Story,” the world was changed forever.
A rare 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, “Toy Story” was the first feature-length film to be released by Pixar, ushering in a new titan of animation, and a new 3D style that’s still popular to this day.
Characters like Woody, Buzz, Mr. Potato Head, Slinky, and more are still carried with us 25 years later.
The 1997 film “Anastasia” is one of the only princess movies not made by Disney.
“Anastasia,” based on a real Russian princess who died alongside her family in the early 1900s, was 20th Century Fox’s attempt at creating a princess story – and they were successful. Anastasia is a heroine you want to root for, Dmitri gives any Disney Prince a run for his money (there’s a case to be made he’s better than any of them), and the soundtrack contains some classics, like “Journey to the Past” and “At the Beginning.”
The film is popular enough that a pretty vocal section of the internet demanded that Anastasia become an official Disney Princess after Disney acquired Fox.
“Mulan,” released in 1998, was the culmination of years of giving Disney heroines more and more agency over their lives.
“Mulan” gets close to becoming a straight-up action movie at some points, with intense battle scenes and a genuinely heartbreaking scene about the real cost of war.
But not to worry, it also has the hilarious talking dragon Mushu, played by Eddie Murphy, catchy songs like “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” a solid love story, and the beautiful ballad “Reflection.”
As 1999’s “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” proved, animated movies work as R-rated extravaganzas, too.
The “South Park” movie was the highest-grossing R-rated animated movie for 17 years, until it was overtaken by “Sausage Party” in 2017.
“South Park,” the show, had only been on TV for two years when the movie was released. Twenty-three years later, the show is still on, and the movie is still lauded for its music, and its themes. As the New York Times wrote, “the movie is a scathing social parable in which desperate, paranoid grown-ups who long for an impossibly sanitised environment go collectively crazy to the point that they’re willing to bring on World War III.”
Though it was a box office bomb, 1999’s “The Iron Giant” has a special place in ’90s and 2000s kids’ hearts.
“The Iron Giant” is the directorial debut of Brad Bird, who will reappear on this list later on. The movie tackles complex issues like xenophobia, death, and what it means to be human, and results in a heartbreaking, yet uplifting, conclusion.
The distinct animation style of 2000’s “Chicken Run” helped differentiate it from other animated films.
“Chicken Run” set the tone for animated movies that are ostensibly made for kids, but have tons of jokes that go right over their heads.
The claymation style remains cool to this day, and the dry British humour sets it apart from the G-rated tone of its Disney competition.
Studio Ghibli released “Spirited Away” in 2001. It’s still the highest-grossing film in Japanese history.
The film tells the story of Chihiro/Sen, a young girl who accidentally makes her way into the spirit world, and has to outsmart a witch to save her parents. To this day, it remains the only hand-drawn and non-English film to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
The original 2001 tale of Shrek, Donkey, and Fiona launched three more sequels, a spin-off, a Broadway musical, multiple short films and TV shows, and a theme park ride.
“Shrek” proved that Pixar didn’t have a monopoly on the 3D-animation style they had pioneered – “Shrek” was released by Dreamworks.
It could be argued that many modern-day films owe a lot to “Shrek” – the constant pop culture references and the constant quips of the characters basically paved the way for the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe.
“Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,” released in 2002, provided a beautifully animated version of the American West.
“Spirit” is largely told through the inner monologue of Spirit, a horse, voiced by Matt Damon, as he makes his way from freedom with his herd to captivity at a US Army base to living with a Native American tribe to building a railroad.
The vistas of the American West will have you longing to travel back in time to when the western half of the country was just open land.
In 2003, Pixar released “Finding Nemo,” a rare father-son story in the Disney/Pixar canon.
“Finding Nemo” began the tradition of a Pixar film emotionally devastating you in the first 10 minutes of screen-time (something that “Up” will improve upon even more). But it manages to become simultaneously funny, scary, heartwarming, and inspiring, as Marlin treks across the ocean to find his son, alongside Dory, a fish with short-term memory loss.
Something underrated about “Finding Nemo” are its side characters, from sea turtles Crush and Squirt, the hopeful vegetarian shark Bruce, all of Nemo’s new friends in the fish tank, and his old friends back at the reef – every character has a memorable line.
The following year, Pixar released “The Incredibles,” their take on a superhero movie.
“The Incredibles” was directed by Brad Bird (of “Iron Giant” fame). This take on superheroes and how the public would come to resent them constantly destroying their property arguably paved the way for films like “The Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
Syndrome is a perfectly hammy villain, and seeing the Parr family come together to finally use their powers and defeat him is always satisfying.
Wallace and Gromit made their feature-film debut in 2005’s “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.”
Wallace and Gromit are two iconic figures in British pop culture, though they had only appeared in shorts up until this film. “The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” is a send-up of classic monster movies of the ’50s and ’60s, and turns the cheese-loving Wallace into a vegetable-eating were-rabbit at night.
“Persepolis” is a 2007 film based on the Iranian graphic novel of the same name.
“Persepolis” was written and directed by Marjane Satrapi, who also wrote the autobiographical graphic novel on which the film is based. It tells the story of Satrapi growing up amidst the Iranian Revolution, and her experiences in Iran, Austria, and France.
The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and won a Jury Prize at Cannes.
Twelve years after its release, the moral of “WALL-E” still remains relevant today.
“WALL-E” is one of the more overtly political films in the Pixar canon, as it addresses themes of environmentalism, consumerism, waste management, and obesity.
Though the film is largely wordless, the love story between WALL-E and EVE is one of the most poignant in animation history.
Though people mainly remember 2009’s “Up” for its heartbreaking montage, the rest of the film is quite good, too.
Like we mentioned before, the montage of Carl and and Ellie’s life together is perhaps five of the most emotionally devastating minutes in movie history. But after you wipe away your tears, you get to watch a really fun adventure movie starring a curmudgeonly Carl, an overeager Boy Scout, and a talking dog.
But we can’t overstate how good the montage is.
“Coraline,” the faithful 2009 adaptation of the Neil Gaiman novel, is delightfully creepy.
Gaiman himself called the movie “the biggest, most strange, expressive, peculiar, enormous stop-motion film I think that’s ever been made.” It certainly is peculiar – an entire generation of kids has been scared by the Other Mother, her parallel dimension, and the concept of buttons for eyes.
When “Toy Story 3” was released in 2010, it was a fitting, if not tear-inducing, conclusion to the story.
Though we’ve since gotten “Toy Story 4,” at the time it seemed like this was the end of the road for our old pals Woody and Buzz. Those who were kids when the original “Toy Story” was released were teenagers or adults by 2010, just like Andy. The film capitalised on all that nostalgia for our toys, our hometowns, and our childhoods – and it worked. “Toy Story 3” is a moving film about growing up and the bonds that we have with our toys, even if we haven’t played with them in a while.
After “Beauty and the Beast” and “Up,” “Toy Story 3” was the third animated movie in history to earn a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars.
That same year, “Despicable Me” kick-started a new animated franchise that’s still going on today.
We all know about Minions, but there are other things to love about “Despicable Me,” like the hilarious vocal performances of Steve Carell as Gru, Jason Segel as Vector, and Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, and Elsie Fisher as Margo, Edith, and Agnes, respectively.
It spawned two sequels, a spin-off, and an upcoming prequel.
Yet another franchise started in 2010: “How to Train Your Dragon.”
“How to Train Your Dragon” was called “quite probably the best dragon movie ever made” by Variety when it was released 10 years ago, and that still stands. “How to Train Your Dragon” has beautiful animation, a sweet story, loveable characters, and the cutest dragon you’ll ever lay your eyes on. The sequels shouldn’t be missed either.
Would a list of must-see animated movies be complete without the 2013 phenomenon “Frozen”?
Maybe it’s been overexposed now, but at the time, “Frozen” was a revelation. It was a return to form for Disney: Catchy songs, fun side characters, a love story, and an added sisterly bond? This movie didn’t break the wheel, but it certainly reminded us all why Disney is so beloved.
The 2014 film “The Lego Movie” is the exception to the rule — movies based on toys are not normally this good.
As we saw from the Playmobil movie, rarely does a film based on toys end up as good as “The Lego Movie,” which benefits from mile-a-minute sight gags, a star-studded voice cast, an inventive story, and two comedic geniuses, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, behind the wheel.
Pixar’s 2015 movie “Inside Out” gave kids a way to visualise and understand their feelings better.
The perfect casting of Amy Poehler as Joy in “Inside Out” cannot be overstated. She’s basically joy personified in real life!
As the Washington Post put it, “Inside Out” is “that rare movie that transcends its role as pure entertainment to become something genuinely cathartic, even therapeutic, giving children a symbolic language with which to manage their unruliest emotions.” It teaches kids (and some adults, likely) that being happy all the time isn’t the same as being mentally healthy – we need both joy and sadness.
“Kubo and the Two Strings,” released in 2016, is just the second animated film ever to be nominated for Best Visual Effects at the Academy Awards — the first was “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
“Kubo and the Two Strings,” produced by stop-motion animation studio Laika, tells the story of Kubo, a 12-year-old who can manipulate origami with his magical instrument, the shamisen. He goes on a coming-of-age quest, aided by two friends (a talking monkey and an amnesiac samurai), but the film is elevated by its exquisite animation.
In Disney fashion, 2016 film “Zootopia” tackles complex issues like racism using anthropomorphic animals.
“Zootopia” centres on the story of a bunny named Judy who aspires to be a great cop, and a fox named Nick, a con artist. Of course, they quickly team up and gain respect for one another. The movie also tackles the complex issue of racism, using predators and prey as analogues for our society.
With 2016’s “Moana,” we finally have a Disney Princess that’s truly an independent woman who doesn’t need a man.
As time has gone on, Disney has become more committed to telling diverse stories, which is how we got the wonderful film “Moana.” It tells the story of a Polynesian princess and her determination to save her island, with the help of a demigod or not.
With songs penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda and beautifully animated oceanscapes and skies, “Moana” may only be four years old, but it is poised to become a classic.
In 2017, Pixar released “Coco,” a story about a young Mexican boy reconnecting with his family and heritage.
“Coco” focuses on the Mexican holiday, Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which has long been seen by Americans as essentially Halloween – but it’s actually an extremely meaningful holiday in which families come together to remember their lost loved ones.
With its $US175 million budget, it became the first film with a nine-figure budget to feature a cast of primarily Latinx actors, and Pixar’s first film with a non-white protagonist – but the story of family, love, pressure, and following one’s dreams is universal.
In 2018, comic books came to life with “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” a step in the right direction for diversity in superhero movies.
“Into the Spider-Verse” is Miller and Lord’s second appearance on this list after “The Lego Movie,” but the visual styles couldn’t be more different. The look is so unprecedented that Sony filed patents on the technology used to create the film.
Insider previously called the film, which is a new origin story for a new Spider-Man, “a breath of fresh air after years of hearing that ‘with great power comes great responsibility.'”