Why yes, it is a tale as old as time: another Disney animation getting the live-action treatment. We’ve already seen live-action Cinderella, Maleficent, and The Jungle Book, to name a few, and Mulan, The Little Mermaid, and more are on the way. The latest addition to the growing list is the new adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. But as much as we enjoy the new versions, there’s an irreplaceable magic to the original animated films.
Perhaps you’ll go see Beauty and the Beast, fueled by nostalgic excitement or curiosity, or perhaps you’ll choose to preserve your childhood by treating yourself to a rewatch of the original instead. Whatever you choose to do, we can all agree that the animated Beauty and the Beast is a classic. Here, we’ve put together a collection of the 25 best animated films of all time—they’re definitely not just for kids.
It’s incredible to think that Disney’s psychedelic explosion of vignettes was released in 1940—think about all the labor that went into translating this kind of magic to the big screen. Fantasia really is pure magic, with spectacular dancing hippos, centaurs, and a score featuring Bach and Tchaikovsky. Then, of course, there’s Mickey Mouse and the brooms that almost drown him—a nightmarish yet somehow still delightful segment that remains the film’s most iconic. Fantasia, the precursor to future psychedelic animations, lingers in the mind like an acid trip.
Belladonna of Sadness (1973)
Fantasia is just child’s play compared to this long-lost psychosexual fever dream from Japanese director Eiichi Yamamoto, which was inspired by French writer Jules Michelet’s feminist witchcraft book, La Sorciere. Too X-rated for its own good, Belladonna failed to find popular footing upon its release, even shuttering its parent studio. But with a 2016 U.S. release—more than four decades later—this curious work found a new cult following, and a new audience to scandalize (it is rather shocking, even by modern standards). Though drawn in the most delicate manner, with soft pastels and watercolors, Belladonna almost immediately traumatizes the viewer—as well as its heroine, who is viciously assaulted. Consider yourself warned.
Fantastic Planet (1973)
Were all animators just tripping their faces off in 1973? Like a Salvador Dali-fied Dr. Seuss book, this Franco-Czech animation from René Laloux is a strange sci-fi oddity about blue-skinned creatures called Draags who have enslaved humans (“Oms”) on a faraway planet. Though the extremely two-dimensional drawing style recalls children’s books, Fantastic Planet’s chilling Cold War-inspired, genocidal tale tips it more towards the “adult” side of the scale. It’s never not a trip, and a present-day viewing will probably have chilling familiarity in our troubled political climate.
Robin Hood (1973)
Though this is considered “budget Disney” (Robin Hood was the first film from the studio after Walt Disney’s death, and it was called an “embarrassment”), it’s still one of the best. Robin Hood is, of course, the famed little people’s hero, who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. There have been several adaptations of the dude but none as charming as Disney’s fox, who was weirdly kind of hot? Robin Hood plays out like a fairy tale, with a whistling rooster narrator, a fair maiden (Maid Marian, Robin’s foxy love interest), and a squad of furry friends that helps Robin recover what the Trump-ish Prince John has taken.
Watership Down (1978)
The filmmakers should really apologize to anyone who watched this thinking it’d be some innocuous Peter the Rabbit or Thumper-from-Bambi type movie. Do not be fooled by the “It’s a beautiful day” narration in the trailer, which is quickly followed with “Or is it?” Indeed. This animated adventure, adapted from Richard Adams’ novel, is brutal in how it puts adorable cartoon bunnies in constant danger—think blood-soaked fields and disturbing deaths—as they try to find a new home. This harrowing tale’s political allegory and poetic tone will leave the viewer shook.
Kanye West raved about it being one of his favorite movies, and we gotta give it to him—the man has good taste. This apocalyptic flick, set after a nuclear explosion in Tokyo, shares in the sci-fi genre of Blade Runner (also set in the year 2019) and The Matrix, with a futuristic urban setting drawn in incredible detail. Set in Neo-Tokyo, Akira follows a teen biker protagonist named Tetsuo on an action-packed mission to free the imprisoned psychic, Akira. Like Ghost in the Shell (which is getting a Scarlett Johansson-starring live adaptation this month), this manga-turned-movie is considered one of Japan’s finest works of animation and has a huge cult following.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Not just one of the best from the celebrated Studio Ghibli filmmaker, Hayao Miyazaki, My Neighbor Totoro is simply one of the best animated films, ever, period. It never fails to lift up spirits, with two adorable children who find magic outside their humble Japanese home, including the cutest, gentlest giant (Totoro) and a wondrous cat bus. No matter what age you are, Totoro will make you feel like a child again: gleefully uninhibited, open to supernatural delights, or simply open to life’s most basic pleasures—even when darker contexts loom (here, a post-WWII Japan).
The Little Mermaid (1989)
If you, too, grew up wanting to be a mermaid, then this Disney movie provided a little perspective through our main gal Ariel, who had serious leg-and-land envy. The Little Mermaid kicked off Disney’s renaissance (see also: the next few movies on this list), and it’s obvious why. This Faustian tale of a mermaid giving up her beautiful voice to pursue life as a human (and fall in love with the dreamy Prince Eric) gave us one of the most memorable Disney soundtracks, along with a strong-willed, adventurous go-getter of a heroine who is relatable even at her most stubborn and frustrating. Sure, there are some suss things about this movie, like the prince falling for a girl who couldn’t talk back, but The Little Mermaid’s enduring legacy is as a Disney all-time favorite.
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
There’s a good reason why this was the first animated film to receive a Best Picture nomination. Beauty and the Beast is Disney at its very best—beautifully animated, with a thrilling, heartfelt story—and that’s why there are such high expectations riding on the live remake. Every girl I knew wanted to grow up to be Belle, the beautiful weirdo who was more concerned with borrowing books from the library than accepting Gaston’s gross and shallow advances. Of course there’s that, um, bestiality element, but look, the point is that only a pure soul like Belle could see the prince inside the buffalo and free him from the curse that turned him into a monster and everyone else at the castle into kitchenware.
Damn, Disney was on a roll, following The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast with another instant classic, Aladdin: the rags-to-riches tale of romance adapted from One Thousand and One Nights with a Shakespearean touch (ahem, Othello). A bread-stealing, open-vested homeless boy falls for an out-of-his-league royal princess with a pet tiger, and successfully woos her, despite the evil Jafar’s attempt to steal her hand, thanks to a Robin Williams-voiced genie and one magic carpet. “A Whole New World,” by the way? An absolute banger.
Porco Rosso (1992)
What an odd little film! But a great one, too. Hayao Miyazaki’s protagonist here is an ex-WWI Italian fighter pilot who also happens to be…a pig. Why, yes, it is a curse our dear Porco Rosso (translation: Red Pig) must live with. But that doesn’t stop him from canoodling with gorgeous women or flying planes—the latter thanks to the help of a mechanic protegée named Fio. As weird as it is, Porco Rosso is brilliant and funny, and takes a fascinating spin on history. There’s a little bit of Casablanca, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, and even a hint of Inglourious Basterds, and the childlike exhilaration that occupies all of Miyazaki’s best films.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Remember when Tim Burton was churning out spooky hits, instead of strange Alice in Wonderland movies with Johnny Depp? The Nightmare Before Christmas is one of Burton’s most important works (it was even honored in a Blink-182 lyric), and immensely influential for the stop-motion movies that followed. This Halloween-slash-Christmastime movie, which Burton conceived and Henry Selick (later of Coraline fame) directed, follows the skeletal hero Jack Skellington, who tries to bring Christmas cheer to his Halloween Town. Listen out for the incredible Danny Elfman score.
The Lion King (1994)
Another Shakespearean Disney endeavor: Here, Hamlet is adapted into a tale about lions and their jungle friends. The Lion King is still selling tickets on Broadway, all thanks to this immensely popular animation. The movie boasted a robust cast and serious pop cred, with Elton John in charge of the soundtrack. It’s impossible not to feel the love (tonight) watching Simba and Nala tussle in the grass, but it’s also completely devastating when Scar betrays his brother Mufasa and leaves the orphaned Simba to think he was responsible for his father’s death. Simba gets back up on his paws, though, thanks to a little “Hakuna Matata” from his new buds Pumbaa and Timon, and we get to see the cub turn into the noble king of the jungle he was always meant to be.
Toy Story (1995)
The surprisingly impressive third installment, Toy Story 3, may be the one that got the Best Picture Oscar nom in 2010, but the computer-animated first Toy Story is the OG masterpiece that made Pixar the leaders in animation excellence. Two rivals, cowboy Woody and astronaut Buzz Lightyear, slowly overcome their differences in a heartfelt story of friendship and growing up, and set off on an adventure worthy of their Western/outer space backstories. Plus, Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”? Classic.
Greek mythology has never been more fun. Compared to its Disney Renaissance stablemates, Hercules doesn’t get talked about enough, but this tale of a demigod separated as an infant from his almighty parents Zeus and Hera is an epic story that keeps testing its freakishly strong hero. The best part of the movie, however, is not the title protagonist, but his love interest, Megara—who has some serious column-esque hair, by the way—a take-no-shit-from-anyone girl who’s tormented by her ex-boyfriend and Hades (we’ve all been there, right?) and plays rightfully hard to get with Herc. Let’s also not forget the iconic Muses, who sing like Phil Spector-era girl group members; in one of the most memorable scenes, they provide Meg with backup vocals in her lovelorn “I Won’t Say I’m in Love” number.
Perfect Blue (1997)
This proto-Black Swan animation from Satoshi Kon is no light viewing, and it’s certainly not kid-friendly. It starts innocuously enough, with Mima, a Japanese pop star who decides to make a foray into acting. This angers her fans, especially one creepy stalker, who starts invading her life in terrifying ways. Mima also starts becoming tormented by an alter-ego who claims to be the real her, as she falls deeper into a seedy industry that puts her in more and more compromising positions. The double identity element is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s work (and that of his descendant, Brian De Palma), and there’s a touch of Olivier Assayas as well (Personal Shopper, Demonlover). Graphic, sexually explicit, and haunting, Perfect Blue is a daring look at celebrity, media’s violent gaze, and Japan’s history with sexualization and exploitation.
Where were we when Mulan fully showed up at gender’s funeral like, “Hello, I am here to fight some Huns”? Not only did Mulan give us some much needed Asian representation on screen, but she became a brave role model who refused to be confined by dated sexist norms. Our Chinese heroine becomes one of the boys and joins the army to relieve her elderly father of the duty. Along the way, she and Captain Li Shang share some sparks and kick some Hun ass together. Like in most great Disney films, there’s a wacky sidekick: the Eddie Murphy-voiced mini dragon, Mu-Shu. Plus, Christina Aguilera recorded the pop version of Mulan’s identity crisis anthem, “Reflection”—what’s not to love?
The wild success of Shrek can be credited to how perfectly it catered to children and adult audiences alike. For kids, it was a fantastical fairy tale, complete with castle, dragon, damsel in distress, and a curse in need of breaking. But this DreamWorks animation—which had Mike Myers voice the titular ogre, Eddie Murphy his loyal donkey steed, and Cameron Diaz as Princess Fiona—also packed Shrek with a load of pop culture references, from Robin Hood to The Matrix, and a soundtrack that pandered to the parental crowd. I first heard “I’m a Believer” and “Like a Virgin” thanks to Shrek—and let us never, ever forget Smash Mouth, who still refer to their fans as “Shrekers.”
Spirited Away (2001)
Up there with My Neighbor Totoro as one of Hayao Miyazaki’s best, Spirited Away remains the sole Japanese film to take home the Best Animated Feature Oscar, and is still Japan’s highest-grossing film. But unlike Totoro, Spirited Away has a darker side, and is often truly terrifying—whether it’s the main plot point of a little girl getting trapped in spirit world, or that scene where protagonist Chihiro’s parents get turned into pigs. The ghostly No-Face is another Miyazaki creation that continues to haunt our dreams, but the idea of being separated from one’s parents and fighting to get back home is enough to keep anyone on the edge of their seats. Of course, Miyazaki finesses this with the most beautiful and imaginative illustrations.
Waking Life (2001)
Before 2006’s A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater experimented with the rotoscoping technique in his 2001 film Waking Life. Though aesthetically a huge departure for the director who had given us Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Before Sunrise, this movie showcased Linklater’s affinity for waxing poetic: a dead giveaway that it was indeed his creation. If anything, one hint comes when we’re reunited with Before Sunrise leads Celine and Jesse (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) for a brief rendezvous in bed, before we ever knew that film would receive a sequel—let alone a trilogy—a few years later.
Finding Nemo (2003)
The Little Mermaid isn’t the only under-the-sea classic on this list. Pixar made quite the splash with Finding Nemo, the story of a brave little clown fish who is separated from his father and must venture through the terrifying deep blue sea to find him. Along the way, Nemo meets the loveable space cadet, Dory (who, of course, would later get her own film, Finding Dory); a surprisingly friendly shark; cute turtles; and a gang of sea creatures trapped in a dentist’s tank. With some expert animation, the ocean itself looks simply breathtaking as well.
Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel was turned into a feature film with the help of French animator Vincent Paronnaud, who preserved Satrapi’s black and white drawings but breathed life into them to match the vivacious punk spirit of the Iranian teen girl at the heart of this coming-of-age story. Satrapi, who co-directed, drew (literally and figuratively) from her own life, exploring what it means to be a woman in a country with strict traditional norms, and her move to Europe, which posed new questions for her sense of identity.
Arguably the best film from the stop-motion animation house Laika, Coraline is also straight-up scary, and no wonder: It was adapted from a Neil Gaiman book. Like all kids, Coraline is frustrated by her parents, so she runs off and finds Stepford-like replacements, who are creepily cheery, with black buttons instead of eyes. That alone is horrifying enough, but Coraline also faces off with a horrifying spider lady straight out of a James Wan film.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
We can’t wait for Wes Anderson’s upcoming star-studded animation, Isle of Dogs, in large part because he did it so well with his Roald Dahl adaptation, Fantastic Mr. Fox. The source material, about a fox who loves to steal from mean farmers, proved to be ripe for Anderson’s auteurist touch—not just visually, but also in the wry sense of humor that can be found in any of his other films, delivered perfectly here by George Clooney.
World of Tomorrow (2015)
Don Hertzfeldt’s 2012 feature, It’s Such a Beautiful Day, could easily have made the list, but it’s his Oscar-nominated short film, World of Tomorrow, that remains his most affecting. The wry “I no longer fall in love with rocks” line is cute and quotable, but in just 17 minutes, this movie can make you both laugh out loud and sob like a baby. Animated in Hertzfeldt’s trademark line drawing, this futuristic short follows an adorable kid named Emily (voiced by his four-year-old niece), who meets her future, grown-up clone. The clone takes her through a journey of memory, contemplating life with a sentimentality beyond the toddler’s comprehension—but absolutely comprehensible to older viewers. Delightful, and heartbreaking all the same.