Any list of the top animated films of all time faces one problem: It's bound to be several Disney films, a few Pixar films and maybe one or two from Japan.
I'm going to change things up, just a bit, with a list of my favorites, which includes a couple of wild-card choices and rankings that may not sit well with serious animation buffs. I'm omitting obvious masterpieces like "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" in favor of movies that pushed an envelope or tried to color outside the lines, though there are some popular classics that I couldn't avoid -- they just did everything too well.
Read on to see if your favorite made the grade.
The market for grown-up stop-motion animation -- a small market, to be sure --was long cornered by the Brothers Quay until Charlie Kauffman showed up with this R-rated drama. Directed by Kaufman with Duke Johnson, "Anomalisa" tells the story of a troubled author (David Thewlis) and a naive fan (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in a world where everyone looks and sounds alike (Tom Noonan is credited as Everyone Else). Surely never before have small figurines acted out grown-up themes of sex, love and mental illness with such sensitivity. It's equal parts funny and disturbing, with mesmerizing animation that doesn't look quite anything else ever made.
Pixar's influence has made Disney Animation a far better studio, and the proof is right here. Not long ago, this rabbit-and-fox buddy-comedy might have been content to be whimsical and charming, but it's also socially relevant, insightful and very funny. Wonderfully expressive animation and top-notch voice work from Ginnifer Goodwin as the peppy bunny and Jason Bateman as the cynical fox make this one of Disney's best efforts in years.
"Inside Out" (2015)
Pixar outdid itself with this allegorical tale about a young girl whose emotions -- Joy, Sadness, Anger and so on -- get lost inside her complex head. Few movies in any medium are this clever and wise; the ideas are as sophisticated as anything in "The Phantom Tollboth" or "The Point," while the arechetypal characters are almost as powerful as the ones in any volume of A.A. Milne. "Inside Out" won the Oscar for best animated film of 2015 but should have won best picture, period.
“A Town Called Panic” (2009)
Made with cheap little plastic toys and mountains of imagination, this Belgian stop-motion film (based on a television series) tells the story of Cowboy, Indian and Horse, who live together in the country. The plot is ridiculous: The friends need 50 bricks to build a backyard barbeque, but mistakenly order 50 million, which leads the trio, somehow, on an around-the-world adventure. The magic is in the details, like the way the toys boil water for tea, take their morning showers, and call friends on a cell phone. The whole movie is exactly like its five-year-old target audience: Goofy and a little out of control, but ultimately loveable.
"South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut" (1999)
The paper cut-out technique looks simple -- it's actually computer-generated -- and somehow it's the perfect vehicle for the R-rated poop jokes, political humor and outrageous musical numbers that have become the trademarks of "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Take any live-action raunch-fest from the last decade, and this cartoon will probably beat it.
"Heavy Traffic" (1973)
Ralph Bakshi's follow-up to "Fritz the Cat" is a semi-autobiographical story about a young cartoonist (oddly named Michael Corleone) living in a violent, rascist, rotting New York City. Despite its X rating and surreal visuals -- a bullet exiting a skull takes a flood of memories with it -- the film became a critical and commercial success. The controversial Bakshi is a pioneer very few chose to follow, which makes "Heavy Traffic" a singular piece of work.
“Waltz With Bashir” (2008)
This Israeli film is a stunner, a personal attempt by its creator to piece together his shattered memories of the 1982 Lebanon War, including the infamous Sabra and Shatila massacres. The fragmented narrative would make it unique enough, but "Waltz With Bashir" is also the only animated feature-length documentary to date, and the only animated film to be nominated for a Foreign Language Film Oscar. It won in that category at the Golden Globes. Writer-director Ari Folman uses a combination of Flash computer animation and traditional cut-out animation for a fluid, dreamy effect, and only once - at a crucial, harrowing moment - uses live newsreel footage.
"Spirited Away" (2001)
Animation connoisseurs might say that this Oscar-winner from Japan's Studio Ghibli belongs at No. 1. It's certainly hard to beat the gorgeous imagery -- graceful paper planes, ever-moving water and strange beings that range from whimsical to grotesque. The oddball storyline, in which a little girl is trapped in a bathhouse visited by spirit-creatures, may fly over some American heads, and the running time seems a bit overlong. But for proof that Japanese anime can do more than "Speed Racer" and "Gigantor," look no further.
"The Incredibles" (2004)
The now-familiar Pixar formula still feels fresh in this smart, sparkly comedy-adventure about a family of superheroes reluctantly living a normal, suburban life. For writer-director Brad Bird, it was a tour-de-force -- sharp, funny, heartfelt and also great-looking, with visuals that cleverly combined 1940s nostalgia and mid-oughts modernism. Kudos to voice-actor Craig T. Nelson for lending Mr. Incredible the weariness and nobility of every overworked father on the planet.
"Yellow Submarine" (1968)
Even after all these years, The Beatles' quintessential slice of psychedelia is a terrific trip, swirling with gorgeous colors and leavened by Liverpudlian humor (even though actors provided the Fab Four's voices). Younger minds will be blown by heady concepts like the Sea of Holes and the Nowhere Man, and of course the soundtrack -- including the original song "All Together Now" and George Martin's lovely instrumentals -- is unstoppable.
The tale of a grungy little robot who falls for a curvaceously streamlined model is arguably Pixar's most artful film. Adults may appreciate the pathos, poignance and social satire (global warming, corporate culture, the obesity epidemic) more than children, and the movie's wordless, 40-minute opening sequence -- a throwback to the silent era -- is a thrill for cineastes. The movie hasn't become what you'd call beloved -- you don't see many "Wall-E" lunchboxes -- but it set a phenomenally high bar for sophistication and complexity in animated films.
"Toy Story" (1995)
A whole movie done with computer animation? And they said it couldn't be done. Pixar's groundbreaking "Toy Story" has some visual rough spots that would never pass muster today, but it glows and crackles with life thanks to its wonderful voice cast (Tom Hanks and Tim Allen as toy frenemies Woody and Buzz Lightyear), a warm-and-fuzzy score by Randy Newman and an absolutely irresistible story about friendship, sacrifice and the magic of childhood. Few movies, animated or otherwise, remain so rewarding after the second, third or 50th viewing.
"Beauty and the Beast" (1991)
Disney's version of the familiar fairy tale has it all: comedy, thrills, adventure, Oscar-winning music and, at its center, a romance that's almost embarrassingly powerful considering that this is a cartoon. (Paige O'Hara and Robbie Benson are perfect as the voices of Belle and her Beast.) Hand-drawn but heightened by then-emerging computer technology -- remember that swirling ballroom scene? -- the film charms and dazzles. As an all-ages crowd-pleaser and an all-round piece of work, this is the one.