Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Frankly, this is so true I’m inclined to not even consider it a cliché. This is why every Top Ten list is a little bit silly to begin with, and most of them aren’t even about beauty, per se. To sit down and write a list of the ten most aesthetically beautiful animated feature films of all time seems, well, impossible. Yet here at Film.com we do not believe in “impossible" (in fact, we don't even believe in "The Impossible"), so I'm going to give this a shot anyway.
While it would be ridiculous to assert that a list like this is definitive, I have tried to make sure that it is at least representative. The greatest works of animated cinema are not all hand-drawn, nor are they all computer-generated. Animation is almost as old as the medium itself, starting (perhaps) with “Fantasmagorie” in 1908. Since then there have been a whole slew of techniques, more than a few of which I’ve made an effort to highlight here. Moreover, the international dimension of the art form shouldn’t be overlooked. Animation is more than Disney and the Hollywood studios, more than even Studio Ghibli. And with with the somewhat garish "Turbo" racing into theaters (read our rather positive review here), it's important to remember that animation is a lot more than what most audiences are sold these days.
Finally, I’d like to stress just how fantastic animated films actually are. That, again, sounds silly. But animated features don’t show up on Sight and Sound lists, they rarely get nominated for Oscars outside of their own category, and many critics seem to assume that the art of animation is only for children. Theoretically, the absolute freedom of animators to do whatever they want with any frame should excite film nerds, rather than bore them. Consider this list a little bit of a wake-up call.
10. "Grave of the Fireflies" by Isao Tokahata (1988)
When discussing beauty in animation, we usually think of the pleasant stuff. Breathtakingly pristine landscapes, warm colors, every Disney princess’s perfectly painted hair. Yet there’s an artistic achievement in the design of tragedies as well, even the most horrific ones. Isao Tokahata’s “Grave of the Fireflies” is a stunning example, a touching portrait of two children caught in the extended bombing of Japan’s cities by the United States in the last months of World War Two. This association of fire bombs with fireflies taps into both the innocence of children in wartime and the grandiose destruction inflicted on so many Japanese cities (even before the last, nuclear assault). It has a beauty that brings tears.
9. "Waltz with Bashir" by Ari Folman (2008)
Ari Folman’s documentary about his own experiences during the 1982 Lebanon War is even more gorgeously made, though in a very different way. Folman’s technique seems like rotoscoping, but is actually a unique combination of traditional and computer animation. The result is a virtual reality that filters the true-to-life horrors witnessed by its director/protagonist through the waves of the mind. Somehow the resulting images present beauty within catastrophe, portraying the vivid potential of memory without trivializing the massacre deep in Folman’s past.
8. "Coraline" by Henry Selick (2009)
Four of the films on this list were made within the last ten years, which I understand probably invalidates it to many of you. I want to stress that the most exciting time for animation wasn’t the Hollywood Golden Age of the 1930s-1950s, but rather may very well be happening right now. It isn’t just CGI, either. Laika arrived on the feature filmmaking scene in 2009 with “Coraline,” an exquisitely dark fairy tale in stop motion, adapted from Neil Gaiman’s novel. It haunts in the best way, and with the triumph of “ParaNorman” last year, Laika is well on its way.
7. "Fantastic Planet" by René Laloux (1973)
“Fantastic Planet” is deeply strange, in that wonderful 1970s science fiction sort of way. René Laloux’s film is a masterwork of cutout stop-motion, the kind that many of us associate most strongly with Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python antics. This film raises the bar, tapping into a weirdness that is cool but not cold, otherworldly but not too distant. It may not be the most intricate of allegories, but its images are exactly what I’d hope to find on any faraway planet.
6. "Paprika" by Satoshi Kon (2006)
Satoshi Kon’s layered and lunatic masterpiece makes “Inception” look dumb, or at the very least too dour. The manic procession that marches through the collective dream at the center of “Paprika” is probably more visually interesting than anything in Christopher Nolan’s filmography, but that’s a conversation for another time. The layers of consciousness in Kon’s extraordinary universe expand with gusto and a multitude of bold colors, richer than your wildest dreams.
5. "WALL-E" by Andrew Stanton (2008)
The opening scenes of “WALL-E” may very well be the culmination of all CGI animation, at least for now. So what if it takes place on and around an enormous heap of garbage? That’s a crucial part of its beauty. Its embrace of simplicity is its triumph, an intensely complex technical effort required to produce something so humble, but with great artistic ambition. This mastery of contradiction, a space epic about two robots who don’t speak, is Pixar’s magnum opus.
4. "Princess Mononoke" by Hayao Miyazaki (1997)
Now, picking a single Hayao Miyazaki film is not easy. “Spirited Away” is formidable, and has more than a few times been called the greatest animated feature ever made. Yet “Princess Mononoke” might just have the edge in purely stunning artwork. It’s a redefinition of the word lush, with the goal of making every prior depiction of a forest in cinema look like a parking lot. It comes pretty close. The Deer God in particular is a stroke of genius, but everything around it fits right in to this uncompromising insistence on total natural beauty. It also makes “Avatar” look pretty foolish, which we can all enjoy.
3. "The Adventures of Prince Achmed" by Lotte Reiniger (1922)
The third most beautiful animated feature of all time is also the earliest surviving. One is hard-pressed to find anything in this world more perfect than Lotte Reiniger’s silhouette puppetry. The color-tinted prints are so intricate, so masterfully constructed that it seems impossible this work could be so old, so rudimentary. It is, in a way, the first superhero movie, and does not slouch when it comes to the requisite visual bravado. If you have an opportunity to catch this on the big screen, with live accompaniment, pounce on it. It will be one of the defining cinematic experiences of your life.
2. "Fantasia" by Walt Disney (1940)
There are other breathtakingly beautiful Disney feature films (obviously). None of them, however, are about beauty in the way that “Fantasia” is. Walt Disney set out to bring the titanic works of classical music to the public accompanied by cartoons both clever and foreboding. The very idea is deeply in love with art itself. The Night on Bald Mountain sequence is a nightmare come to life, while the flowery Nutcracker sequence might be the best use of Tchaikovsky on screen. As for the Rite of Spring, it makes The Land Before Time look like cheap TV. Each of these sequences could stand on their own among the best cartoons ever made – together, they are unique.
1. "The Thief and the Cobbler" by Richard Williams (1964-1993)
This could probably be considered cheating. “The Thief and the Cobbler” is the great unfinished masterpiece of Richard Williams, the Oscar-winning animator behind “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” the 1971 “A Christmas Carol” and countless classic title sequences. He began working on his passion project in 1964. It was to be a chef d’oeuvre, the culmination of a whole career of experience. Yet the money wasn’t there, and production was on and off for years. In 1988 Warner Bros. decided to give him the backing he needed, but Williams went over budget. The film was eventually finished by producer Fred Calvert for a completion bond company, and the version that finally made it to theaters was less than stellar. For more, track down the new documentary on the subject, “Persistence of Vision.”
Now, what survived Calvert’s hack job is extraordinary. The mangled plot isn’t, and much of the changes ruin the film as a whole. Yet now we have another option. Artist Garrett Gilchrist has spent years working on the “Recobbled Cut,” restoring the original work print. He is now in the midst of Mark 4, and has put his works in progress on YouTube. The film’s opening zoom in to the Golden City remains breathtaking, an introduction to a setting with bombast in spades. Its inhabitants, meanwhile, lilt with an uncommon grace. Every frame is beautifully arranged, the whole film choreographed with effortless fluidity. It is the rarest of accomplishments, somehow both rigidly geometric and liberated from form, brilliant even in its unfinished state.