Walking sketches by Carol Amadio

100 Years of Animated Movies

2017 was the 100th anniversary of animated feature films. Today, animated movies are box office juggernauts. In 2016, of the worldwide top 25 grossing films, 9 were animated (not including films like Warcraft that used animation extremely extensively or films like Your Name that were released internationally but only made their broad US release in 2017). Feature length animated films have transformed almost beyond recognition from their roots in early 20th century political satire.

I haven’t seen an online resource that I really liked covering the history of animation (ok Mat Brunet’s series of videos is great but it’s like 10 hours long). Inspired by Jerry Brotton’s A History of the World in 12 Maps, I decided to write my own history. Brotton explores cartography by looking specifically at a set of maps to describe the entire discipline. Hopefully, looking at a set of individual movies will give an idea of overall trends and patterns as well.

I had to do a lot of pruning down of what counts as an animated movie, otherwise the list would be really challenging to make. So I excluded any movies that were not feature films (for example, Steamboat Willie) as well as any films that were a mixture of animation and live action (such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit) unless the two were kept very distinct . For example in Fantasia you see the orchestra setting up before playing but I decided that the real “movie” was the animated part.

This is not a list of my favorite movies; there are a lot of movies on this list that I haven’t even seen and some movies on this list have not aged well. I’m listing movies that I think are particularly significant. Fortunately, significant movies tend to be excellent to watch as well. What does it mean for a movie to be significant? To give an idea with examples from Disney, I typically mean movies that were technically innovative (101 Dalmatians), exceptionally critically acclaimed (Beauty and the Beast), extremely commercially successful (Frozen), influenced a number of subsequent movies (The Little Mermaid), or some combination of the above (Snow White).

I’ve broken the history of theatrical animation into 6 eras:

  • Genesis, which runs from the release of the first animated feature film to just before the release of Snow White is the earliest age, where films experimented with new technologies as animation was in its infancy.
  • Success covers Disney’s “Golden Age”, from the release of Snow White until the deaths of Walt and Roy Disney.
  • Upheaval is the period between Roy Disney’s death and the establishment of Studio Ghibli, when films were less commercially successful but more experimental and idiosyncratic.
  • Renaissance describes the return of blockbuster animated features in both Japan and the United States, running from the establishment of Studio Ghibli until the first CGI films.
  • Revolution covers Pixar’s emergence as the culturally dominant animation studio, covering the period from the release of Toy Story in 1995 to Disney’s acquisition of Pixar in 2006.
  • Diversification describes the current state of feature film animation, with the formation of numerous new studios and emergence of a variety of animation styles and ideas.

Animation is super cool and the medium in feature films has changed so much over the past century. Let’s take a look!

1917 to 1937: Genesis

1917: The Apostle is the first animated feature film

This film, a satire of Argentine politics, was lost in a fire. Animator Quirino Cristiani used cardboard cutouts to depict president Hipólito Yrigoyen attacking Buenos Aires governor Marcelino Ugarte with thunderbolts. While this might seem like an odd theme for the first animated movie, it shows how early animated films did not fit the ideas of drawn films for children that we think of today.

1926: The Adventures of Prince Achmed is the oldest surviving animated film

This film used cardboard models to draw silhouettes which were manipulated frame by frame. The movie featured a system of panes of glass that were placed over the camera to differentiate between foreground and background, a precursor to the multiplane camera system invented by Disney more than a decade later. It inspired one of the absolute coolest Google Doodles ever made.

1935: The New Gulliver is the first stop-motion puppet film

Yup, a marxist retelling of Gulliver’s Travels was the first stop motion film to use three dimensional models. The French film The Tale of the Fox was actually finished several years earlier but the soundtrack wasn’t added until 1937. The New Gulliver used three thousand puppets with hundreds of interchangeable heads and faces to manipulate facial expressions.

1937 to Late 1960s: Success

In 1937, the young Walt Disney Company released its first feature length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Snow White was utterly revolutionary. It was the first film to use cel animation which was to become the dominant style of animation until the advent of computers. Adjusted for inflation, it is the most commercially successful animated movie in U.S. history.

After Snow White, Disney went on an incredible run, releasing Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi within a two year period from 1940 to 1942. While America’s entrance into World War Two forced the creation of cheaper (and worse) films, once the war was over Disney went back to producing brilliant movies. During this “Golden Age of Disney” the company continuously innovated new animation techniques. Meanwhile, animation was spreading across the globe, with many aspiring animators inspired by the Disney films.

1937: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs marks the beginning of popular animated films

Snow White is the most influential animated film of all time, and it isn’t particularly close. The film was a monumental technical achievement. Not only was it the first film to be filmed fully with cell animation (i.e. drawn instead of using puppets or stop motion models) but it also featured a number of new animation techniques. Most notable among these was the multiplane camera, where multiple cameras were used to film different parts of the animation, creating an illusion of depth and differentiation between foreground and background.

Snow White was also of course a fairy tale featuring musical numbers, a formula that has proven to be effective to this day. The movie was a box office phenomenon, which greatly helped Disney when it released more experimental (and initially less successful) fare in the next several years.

After its release, other studios rushed to copy Disney’s success. Fleischer Studios had been the preeminent American animation studio with famous characters such as Betty Boop and Popeye. After Snow White, Paramount pressured Fleischer for a feature picture within 2 years. The film, Gulliver’s Travels, went far over budget and although it recouped the investment Fleischer was soon eclipsed by Disney and closed down in 1942. Disney would go on to dominate the animation scene for decades.

1940: Technical innovations at Disney

In 1940, Disney released Pinnochio and Fantasia, both of which introduced technical innovations. Pinnochio featured refinements in effects animation (animation of moving objects other than characters, such as flames for example). Animators used varying levels of detail depending on how close to the foreground the effect was, making waves in water look more realistic for example. Fantasia used new recording techniques to be the first film to be released with stereo sound. While both films were initial commercial failures, they became major hits on re-releases.

1941: Princess Iron Fan marks the beginning of Asian animation

Princess Iron Fan was made under extraordinarily trying circumstances. Inspired by Snow White, the movie’s producers began the project in 1938 during the escalating second Sino-Japanese war, part of the larger conflict of World War Two. Creating a large animation project requiring hundreds of thousands of sheets of paper in the midst being conquered posed obvious challenges. Ironically, the movie had the biggest impact on the invaders. After the film was released Japan’s propaganda department began making feature animated films of its own. The movie also inspired Tezuka Osamu to go into comics and animation. Osamu would go on to start the manga revolution in Japan and establish Japan as a forerunner in comics and animation to this day.

1950: Cinderella builds the Disney empire

While films like Pinnochio, Fantasia, and Bambi made lots of money through re-releases and home video eventually, initially they bombed at the box office. Disney was nearing bankruptcy. Fortunately for the studio Cinderella was Disney’s biggest hit since Snow White. Not only did the film make lots of money in theaters, but record sales and other merchandise gave Disney the funds to not only pay off debts but pursue new ambitious ventures, such as building a theme park. Cinderella was also the first movie where the legendary “Nine Old Men” of Disney worked together as supervising animators. Before Cinderella Disney had incredibly talented staff and grand ambitions; after Cinderella it had the financial resources to achieve those ambitions.

1957: The Snow Queen is the most lauded work by Soyuzmultfilm

Soyuzmultfilm is one of the most prolific animation studios ever, having produced more than 1,500 works of various lengths since its founding in 1936. The studio is little known in America because most of those works were made during the Cold War and the studio collapsed along with the USSR. Because the films were not “sold”, Soyuzmultfilm did not have to be as concerned with popularity and was free to produce more experimental work than its counterpart studios in capitalist countries. The Snow Queen was one of the few works by the studio to get an international release. It won awards across the globe and was an inspiration for Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki to pursue animation.

1961: One Hundred and One Dalmatians shows refinement in animation techniques

In 1959, Disney released Sleeping Beauty, the first animated feature to be filmed in 70mm widescreen. The film was expensive to make and underperformed commercially. Seeking cost saving measures, Disney used xerography, a technique that involved xeroxing drawings to save time and money (which made animating all of the dogs dramatically easier). While Walt Disney himself disliked the technique the film was a success and xerography was used in most American animated movies until the 1990s.

Late 1960s to Mid 1980s: Upheaval

After the deaths of Walt Disney in 1966 and his brother Roy in 1971, Disney entered more than a decade of doldrums, with little commercial or critical success. In its relative absence, a number of new animation companies formed and began experimenting by moving away from the tropes Disney had used during its golden age.

1972: Fritz The Cat is the first X-rated animated film

All the other images (except obviously El Apostol) are from the movies themselves but I had difficulty finding a remotely SFW image from this movie so you get this instead.

Fritz the Cat, the first film written and directed by Ralph Bakshi, featured lots of drugs, sex, and social commentary. It became a surprise hit. Bakshi went on to direct a number of other more adult animated films such as Heavy Traffic and Coonskin before moving on to fantasy works such as Wizards and The Lord of the Rings. Here too he was less family-friendly than traditional Disney fare. Bakshi’s work reflects a time period where directors had the freedom to make animated films that weren’t just targeted at families.

1980: The King and the Mockingbird inspires filmmakers

Paul Grimault was a leader of the French animation scene. His masterpiece, The King and the Mockingbird was originally released in partial form against his wishes back in 1952. He didn’t get the rights to the film until 1977 when he could finally finish the movie. Grimault’s satirical style and minimal dialogue were hugely influential in the French scene and this influence is visible today in the work by acclaimed director Sylvain Chomet. The movie was also a major influence on Japanese filmmakers Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata.

1982: The Secret of NIMH symbolizes the rejection of Disney

During the doldrums of the 70s and 80s, Disney introduced more and more cost-saving techniques in their theatrical pictures, re-using animation from other films (Robin Hood is infamous for this for example). Frustrated, animator Don Bluth and 9 other animators quit the company and formed a rival company, Don Bluth Productions. Their first film , The Secret of NIMH, was darker and more daring than contemporary Disney films. Although a middling commercial success, critics lauded it and it established Bluth as a viable alternative to Disney. His later films such as An American Tale and The Land Before Time performed well. Bluth’s success was the biggest threat Disney had ever faced to their dominance of feature animation.

Mid 1980s to Mid 1990s: Rennaissance

While there had been a few major commercially successful movies in the upheaval period, no studio had made a series of films that were both critically acclaimed and popular with audiences. That changed in the 1980s. A team of Japanese filmmakers who had worked on Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind teamed up to found Studio Ghibli in 1985. The studio would go on to produce a series of films unsurpassed in quality since Disney’s classics of the 1930s and 40s (and arguably, ever).

Meanwhile, Disney would release a string of musical hits that revitalized the studio. Disney and Ghibli would be the two dominant studios until the rise of 3D animation in the mid-nineties.

1984: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind establishes Studio Ghibli

This was Hayao Miyazaki’s second movie, and his first based on an original story. The team behind the film was one of the most incredible in history and the movie launched the careers of many people who would dominate the Anime industry for decades. Director Hayao Miyazaki and Producer Isao Takahata teamed up to found the legendary Studio Ghibli. Animator Hideaki Anno founded Studio Gainax soon after working on the movie and would later direct prominent anime series such as Gunbuster and Neon Genesis Evangelion. Takahata recruited electro-minimalist composer Joe Hisaishi for the soundtrack. Hisaishi would go on to score every subsequent Miyazaki movie and become arguably the greatest Japanese film composer ever.

Nausicaa marked the beginning of Japanese animated movies gaining worldwide critical acclaim, although the English localization was infamously horrible. While animated movies in the west were having difficulties, Nausicaa powered an animation renaissance in Japan.

1988: A watershed year for Japanese animation

Studio Ghibli released My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies as a double feature. Today, both films are widely considered among the greatest animated movies in history. While the movies took a while to arrive on American shores, critics raved about them. Roger Ebert claimed Grave of the Fireflies “belongs on any list of the greatest war films ever made” and Ernest Rister called it “the most profoundly human animated film I’ve ever seen.” In the same year, Katsuhiro Otomo released the influential and ultra-violent science fiction movie Akira. Akira had a major influence on science fiction aesthetics and helped boost the cult following anime had outside of Japan. All three films helped boost Anime’s status in the west, paving the way for later wider releases and critical acclaim.

1989: The Little Mermaid saves Disney animation

Disney animation was floundering in the 1980s. After the death of Walt Disney in 1966 and his younger brother in 1971 Disney animation went through a long period of decline. In 1979, Disney animator Don Bluth left the company, taking many of his fellow animators with him to found a rival animation company, Don Bluth Productions. Disney’s animated films in the 80s failed to achieve the commercial success of Bluth’s films. In 1981 “The Fox and the Hound” was successful at the box office, but it was also the most expensive animated movie ever at the time. Then in 1985 “The Black Cauldron” was a box office disaster. While Disney films later in the decade were at least profitable, they were still outperformed by competitors. Disney’s obvious weakness and struggles to compete with Bluth prompted the creation of new studios such as Steven Spielberg’s much heralded (and awkwardly named) “Amblimation”.

Disney made an explosive return to form with “The Little Mermaid”. In addition to being a major commercial success, The Little Mermaid established a formula for Disney musicals that the studio copied over and over throughout the 1990s. This period of critically and commercially successful (if occasionally quite formulaic) movies became known as “the Disney Renaissance.” The movie convinced the studio that fairy tale musicals could be huge successes and assuaged doubts that a movie with a female main character would be a box office success — Disney executives worried that the movie couldn’t match the appeal of the previous year’s Oliver and Company.

1990: The Rescuers Down Under is the first entirely digital movie

I remember watching this on some VHS from Blockbuster when I was a kid and I think I liked it? Well, the movie isn’t exactly regarded as an all-time classic. However, it was the first movie to be entirely digital using the new “Computer Animation Production System” (CAPS) which finally displaced the xerography techniques of the 1960s and the multiplane camera techniques of the 1930s. Characters and enclosed areas were colored and shaded using computers, then digitally merged with scanned background images. Because the whole process was digital, computer-generated 3D animation could be mixed in with traditional hand drawn animation. It was also easier to do elaborate camera movements than it would be with a regular camera. This meant The Rescuers Down Under could have more dynamic action scenes than in any prior animated movie. The dance sequence in Beauty and the Beast for example would have been extraordinarily difficult to animate using traditional techniques; using CAPS animators could superimpose dancing animated characters on a 3D ballroom with the camera twirling around them.

1991: Beauty and the Beast wins critical acclaim

And speaking of Beauty and the Beast, it was not only a gigantic box office success, but raised the bar for popular animation in America. A “kids cartoon” was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. The only other animated movie to be nominated was Up in 2009, and at that point the best picture nomination pool had been expanded to ten movies. Beauty and the Beast showed Disney had not only escaped the doldrums of the 80s, but was clearly at the forefront of American animation.

1993: The Nightmare Before Christmas makes stop-motion mainstream

Fully stop-motion films had been around for more than a decade, and stop motion had been used in movies since the nineteenth century. Aardman animations released their absolutely brilliant Wallace and Grommit short films in the late 80s and early 90s. But it was The Nightmare Before Christmas that pushed stop motion films into the mainstream, or at least into cult-classic status until it became mainstream.

1994: The Lion King dominates the box office

The Lion King represented the apex of the Disney Renaissance. While it was not as critically lauded as Beauty and the Beast, it dominated the box office as no animated movie had since Snow White. Including re-releases, more people have watched The Lion King in theaters than any animated movie since Snow White. It also spawned the most successful musical ever, which has earned over 6 billion dollars (for reference, no movie has made more than 3 billion in ticket sales).

Disney never made another traditionally animated movie nearly as popular as The Lion King. While they continued making popular movies for another half-decade, the global animation industry was about to be rocked by the most influential movie since Snow White; a movie that would revolutionize animation technology.

Mid 1990s to Late 2000s: Revolution

In 1995, Pixar came out with its first feature film and the first entirely CGI feature film ever, Toy Story. CGI films offered a variety of new opportunities and techniques in animation. Existing studios such as Dreamworks quickly switched to developing entirely CGI features.Over the course of the 2000s, Dreamworks and especially Pixar enjoyed unprecedented commercial success. Other studios were founded to make CGI films.

While newer studios were flourishing Disney, long the critical and commercial leader of the animated world, had clearly lost its way. As the Disney Renaissance petered out in the late 90s, Disney released a series of increasingly dismal duds. For an idea of how bad their films had become, the final four films from Disney during this period were Brother Bear, Home on the Range, Chicken Little, and Meet the Robinsons.

1995: Toy Story heralds the era of CGI; Ghost in the Shell influences cyberpunk aesthetics

Toy Story was a complete revolution in animated movies. Not only was it the first feature film to be entirely 3D animated (on early 1990s computers!) but it was also a roaring success at the box office and launched Pixar which would go on to release a series of colossally successful movies. Its director John Lasseter would soon become the most important person in the western animation scene and others who worked on the project such as Pete Docter (story), Andrew Stanton (screenplay), and Lee Unkrich (editor) all went on to become extremely successful directors in their own right.

In the same year, Ghost in the Shell made a huge splash in Japan and in the more indie animation scene. Using a mixture of 2D and 3D animation the movie influenced science fiction films from The Matrix to Avatar. Ultimately that was part of the reason why the 2017 remake failed. The original was so influential that by the time the remake came out twenty years later the once radical ideas had become cliches.

1997: Perfect Blue introduces Satoshi Kon

I struggled to determine how important directors had to be to include their first major theatrical release as an important moment in animation. Of course Hayao Miyazaki and Walt Disney make the cut, but what about people like Brad Bird, Sylvain Chomet, or Ron Clements? But I couldn’t not include Satoshi Kon, the brilliant director who tragically died at only 46. Perfect Blue was his breakout film, about an aspiring actress whose grip on reality begins to deteriorate. Kon’s lightning fast editing, brilliant shots, and use of match cuts have inspired numerous directors and his influence is clear in movies from Inception to Black Swan, which is essentially a live-action remake of Perfect Blue.

1998: Kirikou and the Sorceress pioneers cross-European collaboration

Kirikou and the Sorceress was co-produced by French, Belgian, and Luxembourgian companies with animation from Hungary and Latvia. It won numerous awards including the grand prize at Annency and was popular enough to have two sequels and a musical. But the real influence came from the high levels of cooperation among a variety of European movie studios. This was the first major animated feature to use that sort of highly international collaboration among European studios. Now, in European animation this level of cooperation is normal and acclaimed films such as The Triplets of Belleville, The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, My Life as a Zucchini, Long Way North, and The Breadwinner were all collaborative multinational projects.

2000: Chicken Run is the highest-grossing stop-motion film ever

Chicken Run is a reflection of how the industry was shifting in the early 2000s. Disney and traditional animation was fading in the west, but Pixar was the only studio putting out major 3D animated hits (no, Antz does not count as a major hit). Stop motion movies have never been that popular, but Chicken Run came out at the right time to be successful. It’s also a terrifically fun movie, so that probably helped too.

2001: Shrek makes Dreamworks a box-office juggernaut; Spirited Away is Ghibli’s jewel

Spirited Away’s 2002 Oscar victory for best animated feature is perhaps the most astonishing result in the history of the category. Most voters almost surely never saw the film but those who did were so enthralled that it became the first foreign film to win (and almost certainly last since big studios have changed the rules to make it harder for limited release films to do well). Its international success as well as it’s astonishing performance in Japan made Miyazaki an international name and contributed to wider releases of his later films in the United States.

While Spirited Away astonished critics, Shrek established Dreamworks as an animation powerhouse. Rebelling against the fairytale tropes of the Disney Renaissance, Shrek was a box office smash that was followed up by two even more successful sequels. It was significantly cheaper to make than its Pixar competition and emphasized jokes and contemporary references. Dreamworks and other companies are still copying that winning formula to this day.

2002: My Beautiful Girl, Mari boosts Korean animation; Blue Sky scores a hit with Ice Age

Throughout the history of animation, almost all major releases came from the US, Europe, or Japan. In fact, at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival, the largest animation festival in the world, 52 films were nominated for best animated feature before 2002. One came from China, one from Cuba, and the rest were from Europe, Japan, or the United States. While Korea is still a long way away from global animation success, it has a giant talent base of animators and My Beautiful Girl Mari breakout win at Annecy paved the way for a series of successful Korean films.

Ice Age was the first feature film from Blue Sky Studios and was a commercial juggernaut. It now has five movies in the franchise and is one of the most successful media franchises ever. Nothing else Blue Sky has done has been anywhere near as successful but Blue Sky is still an important and active studio

Late 2000s to Today: Diversification

In 2006 Disney bought Pixar and brought its creative director John Lasseter to run the floundering Disney animation studios. The change brought on a second renaissance, known as the “Disney Revival” and once again made Disney a force in animation.

While Disney surged forwards, established companies began to stumble. Pixar’s stellar quality declined, bogged down by mediocre sequels and films that didn’t match up to their earlier classics. Dreamworks struggled with a series of duds. Studio Ghibli’s brilliant directing core began retiring or leaving the studio after decades of excellence. A host of new studios and new directors rose up to replace the fallen giants. With the industry in flux, today there is more diversity of ideas and styles in animated films than ever before.

2006: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time shows new Japanese directors can thrive without Studio Ghibli.

After the shocking death of Ghibli heir-apparent Yoshifumi Kondō at age 47 in 1998, the studio needed a new star director to replace Miyazaki and Takahata who were then in their late 60s and early 70s respectively. Mamoru Hosoda had gained attention for his work on the Digimon Adventure movies (apparently they’re really good) and was recruited to direct the new Ghibli film Howl’s Moving Castle. Hosoda had a falling out with the studio and set off on his own. His first film on his own was The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. It won massive acclaim in Japan while Ghibli’s film that year, Tales from Earthsea, is widely regarded as the studio’s worst film.

Ghibli was never able to recruit a director like Hosoda again as talented young Japanese directors making Ghibli-style films went to other studios instead. Ghibli’s most recent recruit, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, recently left to form the new Studio Ponoc. With both its stars retiring Ghibli’s future is deeply uncertain while other studios have found continuing success.

2007: Persepolis draws attention to “serious” animation

Animated movies in the United States are often assumed to be for children. Persepolis lead a wave of acclaimed films that were for older audiences and evaluated purely as films not with prejudices or preconceptions from them being animated. It was nominated for best foreign language film at the Golden Globes and won the Jury Prize (and was nominated for the Palm d’Or) at Cannes. The next year Waltz with Bashir won the Golden Globe for foreign language picture and was nominated for the foreign language Oscar — even though it wasn’t nominated for best animated feature! In the next several years Up, Toy Story 3, and The Wind Rises would all be nominated for major non-animation awards at various awards ceremonies.

2008: Bolt begins the Disney revival

While Bolt didn’t perform as well as later Disney films with critics or audiences it was a dramatic improvement from the Disney’s previous attempts at CGI films such as Chicken Little or Meet the Robinsons. The first film with Lasseter at the helm showed that Disney was making good movies again and would lead to a series of popular and highly regarded 3D films such as Tangled and Wreck it Ralph. It was also technically innovative with new rendering techniques designed to make the characters look less computer-generated.

2009: An explosion of worldwide creativity

2009 was a banner year for animation across the world. Coraline was released from the new US stop-motion studio Laika using 3D printing to help with character facial expressions. Wes Anderson released Fantastic Mr. Fox, his first foray into stop motion animation. Small Irish studio Cartoon Saloon won a surprise Oscar nomination for their debut film The Secret of Kells and has since used that early success to become one of the biggest names in European animation. Australian animator Adam Elliot released his debut feature film Mary and Max, Disney made a surprising return to 2D animation with The Princess and the Frog and Up also came out (not really anything new or innovative, but it’s a good movie). 2009 was a sign of just how diverse the industry had become, with lots of different ideas, regions, and styles of animation being exhibited in excellent movies.

2010: Despicable Me launches Illumination

Illumination was founded by Christopher Meledandri, formerly of Blue Sky. The studio’s first movie, Despicable Me, was cheap to make and a box office sensation. The sequels made even more money and the Minion sidekicks provided their own movie and an avalanche of merchandise. Despite their movies’ middling critical reception Illumination has made so much money that it bought its former rival Dreamworks in 2016. This was an absolutely meteoric rise for such a young studio and it was built almost entirely off of the Despicable Me franchise.

2013: Frozen becomes the highest grossing animated film ever

Is there anything that special about Frozen? Not really, except that it was the first Disney animated film to be (co-)directed by a woman (the Hollywood animation industry is notorious for its lack of female directors and the long-running whispers about John Lasseter’s serial harassment can’t have helped Disney recruit or retain talent). Still, Frozen is fun, well produced, has amazing character designs that are brilliant for selling merchandise, and made a ton of money. Frozen demonstrated that Disney had eclipsed Pixar as the biggest box office force in the animation scene.

2014: The Lego Movie launches Warner Animation Group

This movie should not have been good. Somehow it was amazing and its snub from even being nominated for best animated feature at the Oscars is one of the most puzzling choices in the history of the prize. Warner Bros are famous for their animated TV shows, but all of their animated movies were box office flops (including sadly The Iron Giant). The studio rebooted feature films in 2014 with The Lego Movie and while none of its subsequent movies have been as successful or good, the studio is still chugging along as a major player in the animation scene.

2015: Monkey King: Hero is Back becomes the first massively successful Chinese animated movie

You probably haven’t heard much about it, but the Chinese animation industry is huge. Last year 39 animated feature films were released and most of them were, from what I’ve heard, terrible. Chinese animation has a pretty poor reputation and while lots of movies are made in China for the domestic market they generally underperform imports. In 2015 though, there was finally a major hit with Monkey King: Hero is Back. It was briefly the highest grossing animated film ever in China and seemed to show that China was finally becoming a bigger player on the world stage.

2016: Your Name signals a changing of the guard in Japan

I’ve already written extensively about Your Name, the box office smash that is now the highest grossing anime movie ever. Makoto Shinkai had made other fairly successful films, but none have reached anywhere near the same level of success. As Studio Ghibli began to flounder following the retirement of founders Takahata and Miyazaki in 2014 (although Miyazaki then un-retired), other directors rose to prominence. Your Name shows that even once Miyazaki finally stops making movies there are many other extremely talented directors in Japan with their own styles and stories.

Making this list was an interesting challenge. I am 100% sure that I am missing stuff or could have had some stuff be better. Please let me know any comments, additions, removals, or anything I got wrong. I’m no expert on animated movies; I’m just a fan who has poor time management skills and procrastinates by writing and researching stuff. Thanks for reading!

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Communications/Political Science PhD at University of Pennsylvania

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