As the animation field continues to grow in popularity, it’s becoming increasingly clear that many of today’s most successful animated films owe a huge debt to five landmark examples of the genre. They are:
1. 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' (1937)
The world’s first English-language, full-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs instantly established Walt Disney as a force to contend with within the newly-created genre. The film, which earned Disney an Honorary Academy Award, was rapturously received by audiences and reviewers alike, and it is, as a result, only logical that Walt Disney remained one of the foremost purveyors of animated fare for the next several decades – as he and his legion of legendary animators cranked out one instant classic after another (including 1942’s Bambi, 1950’s Cinderella, and 1953’s Peter Pan).
2. 'Toy Story' (1995)
Given that it’s almost impossible to find anything other than computer-animated fare within modern multiplexes, it’s impossible to understate the importance of Toy Story’s contribution to the animation field. Before its 1995 release, the genre was dominated by traditionally-animated movies from studios like Disney and Universal Pictures – with computers used solely as a tool to enhance complicated segments within otherwise hand-drawn movies (ie that famous ballroom sequence in Beauty and the Beast). Toy Story’s massive success essentially killed traditional animation, as Pixar and its various competitors have since released one computer-animated hit after another – leaving throwbacks like 2009's The Princess and the Frog in the dust.
3. 'The Little Mermaid' (1989)
Though it’s hard to imagine a time when Disney wasn’t on top of the animation heap, the studio went through a highly public slump in the late ‘70s and early-to-mid ‘80s – as virtually all of their releases, from 1985’s The Black Cauldron to 1988’s Oliver and Company, were received poorly by both audiences and critics alike. It wasn’t until 1989’s The Little Mermaid that things started to turn around for the Mouse House, with the film kicking off what is now known as the Disney Renaissance (which encompasses such animated masterpieces as 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, 1992’s Aladdin, and 1994’s The Lion King).
4. 'Akira' (1988)
Thoroughly violent and aimed at adults, Akira remains a landmark film that effectively introduced North America (and the rest of the world) to the Japanese style of animation known as anime. Prior to Akira’s release in 1988, anime was largely thought of as a fringe animation movement that held very little sway over mainstream audiences. Akira’s memorable visuals, post-apocalyptic storyline, and adult-oriented themes immediately opened up the anime realm to viewers whose previous experience with the genre was limited to old Speed Racer reruns, and, in the years since, the influence of Akira and other anime efforts have been felt in a wide variety of Hollywood productions (including 1999’s The Matrix).
Even if you absolutely can’t stand it, The Polar Express deserves a place on this list for two reasons: It marked the first time motion-capture technology was employed in a mainstream endeavor and it popularized 3-D as we now know it. Director Robert Zemeckis’ visionary sensibilities allowed actor Tom Hanks the opportunity to play four very different characters, and it’s clear that modern blockbusters like 2009’s Avatar and the Star Wars prequels would exist in very different forms were it not for Zemeckis’ groundbreaking use of the technology. (And, of course, the movie’s landmark use of 3-D paved the way for the extra dimension’s appearance in hits such as 2009’s Monsters vs. Aliens and 2010’s How to Train Your Dragon).