Though computer animated films had debuted in the mid 1990s, the genre didn’t completely take off until the turn of the century – as major studios such as Disney, DreamWorks, and Fox all but abandoned traditional hand-drawn animation and focused instead on releases employing the new technology. There are exceptions to this, of course, and although the following list is dominated by computer-generated fare, there will hopefully always be a place for other kinds of animation (including hand-drawn and stop-motion).
1. 'Up' (2009)
Pixar closed out the decade with what is perhaps their best and most mature work to date, with the movie counting among its ample pleasures lovable, relatable characters, stirring action sequences, and a love story that’s unexpectedly moving. The kid-friendly storyline, which follows a grizzled retiree as he and a young wilderness explorer embark on a trip into South America, acts as jumping-off point for an incredibly poignant look at friendship and growing older, while the 10-minute montage of Carl’s life Ellie stands as one of the most touching and flat-out heartbreaking passages held within a film (and that includes live action releases). Up is as good as it gets, and it seems unlikely that Pixar will be able to top it any time soon.
Only the geniuses at Pixar could have pulled off a movie like WALL-E, with the dialogue-free opening half hour representing a tremendous gamble for the famed animation studio. It’s clear right from the start, however, that filmmaker Andrew Stanton has created a central character that’s as vivid and three-dimensional as any within animation history, and there’s little doubt WALL-E, a mute, trash-cleaning robot, becomes a tremendously compelling figure that the viewer roots for and sympathizes with. The inclusion of a captivating love story between WALL-E and fellow robot EVE is simply the icing on the cake, with the film’s action-packed finale and subtle messages of environmentalism rounding out what is a near flawless package.
The movie that kicked off the record-breaking series remains the best, as Shrek perfectly introduces all of the characters that we’ve come to know and love while also sending up many of the clichés of the fairy tale genre. Mike Myers’ note-perfect voice performance as the title character is matched by a supporting cast that includes Cameron Diaz and John Lithgow, yet it’s Eddie Murphy’s hilarious turn as Shrek’s loyal sidekick Donkey that stands out as the film’s most entertaining aspect. Shrek remains one of the best examples of a modern animated film that holds as much appeal for adults as it does for kids, and there’s little doubt that it remains DreamWorks’ crowning achievement (although How to Train Your Dragon comes awfully close).
4. 'Spirited Away' (2001)
In a career that includes such masterpieces as 1984’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and 1997’s Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away stands out as the most accomplished and consistently enthralling effort from legendary animator/filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. The movie, which follows a young girl as she inadvertently steps into a world dominated by strange creatures, features precisely the sort of lush, eye-popping animation style that has come to define Miyazaki’s work, while the subtle pro-environment message affords the proceedings a depth that’s generally lacking within modern animated offerings. It’s no wonder that the film won the Best Animated Feature at the '03 Academy Awards, beating out popular favorites like Ice Age and Lilo & Stitch.
Directed by Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich, Finding Nemo follows a timid clown fish named Marlin (Albert Brooks) as he embarks on an epic (and perilous) journey to recover his lost son. It’s a relatively familiar set-up that’s employed to consistently engrossing effect by the folks as Pixar, as the movie features hair-raising action sequences, hilarious instances of comedy, and a sentimental streak that’s sure to leave even the most uptight viewer choking back tears. Add to that indelible voice performances from, among others, Ellen DeGeneres, Willem Dafoe, and Brooks, and you’ve got one of Pixar’s most purely entertaining efforts to date.
6. 'Persepolis' (2007)
An uncommonly grown-up and timely animated endeavor, Persepolis follows a young girl as she comes of age against the backdrop of Iran's violent uprising. It’s the kind of premise that could’ve easily resulted in a well-made but uninvolving piece of Oscar bait, yet filmmakers Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud effectively draw the viewer in by emphasizing the central character’s consistently relatable exploits. The stark black-and-white animation style only heightens the movie’s inherently fascinating atmosphere, and it’s worth noting that Persepolis is rarely as dark and depressing as its subject matter might have indicated. The film remains one of the best examples of how animation can be used to effectively tackle real-life issues.
Rumors of a big-screen version of the long-running Fox sitcom had been making the rounds virtually since it hit the airwaves back in 1989, with the show’s decline in quality over the years ensuring that hopes for the film were not exactly high. Fears of a lackluster adaptation turned out to be unfounded, as The Simpsons Movie is just as irreverent and hilarious as its small-screen predecessor. The film’s impressively colorful and vibrant animation style is matched by an epic storyline that manages to squeeze in appearances by Springfield’s most beloved residents, yet it’s the touching family dynamic between Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie that stands as the movie’s most engaging and heartwarming aspect.
Brad Bird’s first film for Pixar, The Incredibles follows a family of superheroes as they’re forced to come out of retirement after the emergence of a vicious supervillain called Syndrome. With 1999’s excellent The Iron Giant kicking off his movie career, Bird set out to prove that he was no one-hit wonder and it’s clear almost from the get-go that The Incredibles lives up to the high standard set by his debut. Armed with vivid characters and gripping action sequences, The Incredibles comes off as a superhero movie that outshines its live-action counterparts on an impressively consistent basis – with Bird’s ongoing willingness to poke fun at the genre’s various clichés cementing the film’s place as an above-average animated endeavor.
There’s been lots of controversy swirling around director Robert Zemeckis’ ongoing fascination with motion-capture animation, and although his use of the technology has been otherwise employed to mediocre effect (see: 2009’s A Christmas Carol), Beowulf proves that with the right story and in the right hands, motion capture can be just as vital a tool as anything else within the animation genre. And although the film’s characters suffer from that dead-eyed look associated with mocap, Beowulf’s surplus of awe-inspiring action sequences and stellar performances ultimately allows the viewer to overlook such problems – with the end result one of the most entertaining and downright awe-inspiring adventure movies to come out of Hollywood in years.
From the Oscar-nominated director of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums comes this adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s novel, in which a family of foxes, led by George Clooney’s Mr. Fox, attempt to prevent three nasty farmers from destroying their home. Filmmaker Wes Anderson’s notoriously quirky sense of style survives the transition from live-action to animation with impressive ease, as the movie features an off-the-wall atmosphere that’s reflected in everything from the voice performances to the emphasis on absurd situations to the captivating use of stop-motion animation. (And between this and 2009’s Coraline, it certainly seems as though stop-motion animation still has some life left in it.)