The Best Animated Movies You've Never Seen

These lesser-known gems deserve a second (or a first) look.

When we think of animation, the big names come to mind – names like Disney, Pixar and Warner Bros. We're giving those powerhouses their due in our Top 25 Animated Movies feature, but what about the rest? Surely there are plenty of overlooked gems from outside the studio system that don't have the benefit of a huge marketing budget and a built-in audience of fans. It's time to give those worthy projects their due as well. We're going to dig into the world of animation to find the more obscure masterpieces that casual fans (not you, Mr. Animation Collector) of the art form may not have heard of, or at least haven't seen. Many of them come from other countries, several deal with subject matter that's exclusively aimed at mature audiences, but all of them expand the definition of what animation can be, both from a storytelling perspective and an artistic one.

Grave of the Fireflies

Out of all the films on this list, Grave of the Fireflies may be the best animated feature that you have never seen. Directed by Isao Takahata (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Kiki's Delivery Service) and animated by Studio Ghibli, this film is so profound and mature in its content that it shatters the misconception of animated movies being strictly for children.

Taking place in Japan near the end of World War II, Grave of the Fireflies follows two starving children who have been orphaned as a result of the war. Scratching to stay alive, this film pulls no punches in its extremely human and realistic depiction of the children's struggles. Due to the unrelenting nature of the story, we are given one of the most unflinching looks as to the true cost of war on a populace. Sure, the film could be dismissed as being too depressing, but we whole-heartedly recommend seeing it for its incredible anti-war message and unforgettable drama.



Waltz with Bashir

This Israeli film from 2008 earned critical acclaim and several prestigious awards and nominations, but that's not why you should see it. You should see it because of the way it blends visual artistry with a realistic and emotionally charged narrative. Animation isn't traditionally associated with documentary-style filmmaking, but somehow this astonishing feature based on a true story and events from the filmmaker's own life pulls it off with a strikingly, comic-book-inspired style.

Much like Grave of the Fireflies, the hard-hitting material addressed in Waltz with Bashir expands the traditionally younger-skewing audience of animation into a broader, more adult demographic. It also tackles the subject of war and its consequences, in this case the Lebanon War in 1982. The story centers on the efforts of one soldier (filmmaker Ari Folman, playing himself) to recover his lost memories of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Through meetings with fellow veterans and friends, as well as a psychologist who specializes in trauma and an Israeli journalist, he tries to put the pieces of his past together. It all makes for a truly unforgettable viewing experience.



Wonder Woman

DC Universe's animated Wonder Woman feature is just further proof that the Amazon princess deserves her own live-action adaptation. This delightful origin story primarily follows the playful interaction between the hardheaded Diana Prince (voiced by Keri Russel) and the charmingly naive Steve Trevor (voiced by Nathan Fillion) as they both attempt to understand each other's native cultures. However, the film also gives fans plenty of action, comedy and rich mythology to go along with the romance.

What really makes Wonder Woman stand out from the rest, though, is its clever integration of all these genres and successfully packing them into a brief but compelling 75 minutes. Featuring the star-studded voice talents of Alfred Molina, Rosario Dawson and the aforementioned Russel-and-Fillion combo, this direct-to-video feature is arguably the best DC animated original movie to date. Unfortunately, initial low retail sales have caused WB to reconsider making future original movies based on female characters, but it's not too late to show your support for the Amazon princess.



Yellow Submarine

The beauty of Yellow Submarine – made in 1968 but long missing on home video until a restoration in 1999 – is that it's a movie that you can smoke-out to while your kids enjoy it on a whole other level.

Featuring a soundtrack full of familiar Beatles songs (plus an orchestral score by the true fifth Beatle, producer George Martin), the film automatically has win running through its veins. But then the animation itself is also so perfect, a phantasmagorical tour de force that essentially has come to represent an entire era. The storyline involves John, Paul, George and Ringo as they are called upon to save the magical realm of Pepperland, which of course is the kind of thing the Fab Four do … though the funny thing is, the actual Beatles had very little to do with the movie (they don't even voice themselves).

The film is currently getting a mo-cap remake from Robert Zemeckis. For some reason.



Heavy Metal

The Loc-Nar will mess you up! This is a lesson we learned from Heavy Metal, the sex-and-violence-filled joy of every wannabe burnout circa 1985-ish. Do we today live in a world where our youth do not know this movie? Won't somebody please think of the children?!

Produced by the publisher of Heavy Metal magazine, the episodic film features a variety of storylines – some long, some short – and animation styles – some crude, some classic – as that damned otherworldly Loc-Nar wreaks all kinds of havoc on our cast of characters. From a film noir involving a cabbie in a future New York City to the sword and space-sorcery tale of warrior princess Taarna and right on up to the beloved adventures of teen-turned-barbarian Den, the movie thrills and chills and rocks … rocks hard, in fact – Blue Oyster Cult, Black Sabbath and Grand Funk Railroad are all on the soundtrack.

This is another film on this list that's getting a modern remake, this time courtesy of guys like David Fincher, James Cameron and Zack Snyder. Again, is that really necessary?

Metropolis

In 2002 Metropolis was brought to the United States, and was probably attended more by people thinking they were seeing Fritz Lang's classic than those that had any clue what it really was. Nearly 10 years after the film's release it is still an underrated and forgotten gem.

Loosely based on Osamu Tezuka's 1949 manga series, this full length anime film was written by Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira), directed by Rintaro (Final Fantasy: Legend of the Crystals), and animated by Madhouse Studios (Ninja Scroll, Trigun). With the all-star production crew it was almost inevitable that the film would become popular among the hardcore animation community.

The film takes place in a futuristic world in which humans and robots live with one another. Forced into segregation, robots are only allowed in their specific zone, and are destroyed by their human owners for straying away. When a young child, Kenichi, finds a lost girl, they befriend one another and uncover a devious plot ordered by the head of the city. While the movie is short on plot, the universe created is impressive and the visuals are about as beautiful as an animated film can get.



Fantastic Planet

This 1973 mind-f#@k flick was a French-Czech coproduction, but American genre fans of a certain age will remember being weirded out by it back in the day. Also called La planete sauvage, the film was a winner at the Cannes Film Festival that same year.

Made by Rene Laloux and Roland Topor, Fantastic Planet depicts a gloriously alien world where giant blue humanoids are the masters and tiny human-like beings are a subjugated race, sort of like pets. But when one of these pets gains the knowledge of its overseers, it's not long before a revolution is fomented and even more freakiness breaks out.

This is about as far as you'll get from Disney fare in the world of feature animation short of Fritz the Cat, but it does share its similarities to the Mouse House's mainstream mainstays, in its way. For one thing, our main character is orphaned early on in the film, ala Bambi and Simba and all the rest, though certainly the means by which this happens (giant children swatting his tiny mama around) is less restrained than Walt's methods. And then there're the life lessons that are de rigueur in the genre; in this case, the filmmakers are commenting on our own treatment of those creatures who are subject to our whims. But it's the far-out (albeit occasionally dated) design work and story that make this one so memorable … so fantastic, you might say.



Persepolis

In 2007 the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature went to Ratatouille. Lesser known, but also nominated for Best Animated Feature was the French film Persepolis. We here in America often disregard foreign films, and as such a foreign animated film was destined to be ignored by the viewing public. While overlooked in the theater by the mass market, the critical community rallied around this film, just as we are doing here in this feature.

For those unfamiliar with the work, Persepolis is based on the autobiographical graphic novel of the same name. Sharing the same style and quirky personality as the comic, the film was directed and written by the writer and artist of the graphic novel, Marjane Satrapi. With control over the film, Satrapi was able to tell her story here in just as spellbinding a fashion as she did in print.

As an autobiography, the film follows Satrapi at 24 remembering her childhood. Balancing the terror of growing up with the Iranian Revolution, Satrapi's story covers the universal challenges of life amid a complicated political backdrop. As she grows up understanding the political challenges around her, we hope for the best for the character. The fact that this is based in reality just helps to further cement the drama which Satrapi witnessed.



The Secret of Kells

We head overseas once again for this Irish-French-Belgian co-production from 2009. If the name sounds familiar, it's probably because it beat out both Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo and Robert Zemeckis' A Christmas Carol for an Academy Award nomination in the Best Animated Feature category this year, undoubtedly bringing down the average of more than a few Oscar predictors. Not bad for a traditional, hand-drawn, independent film in an era when everyone else is focusing on computer-generated features and 3D technology.

Set in and around a medieval Celtic monastery, this beautifully illustrated film depicts the fictional origins of the famous Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript now considered a national treasure of Ireland. Appropriately for an animated film, it stresses the importance of art and self-reliance through the story of young Brendan, who becomes an assistant to Brother Aidan, the author of the Book of Kells. In his quest to help the aging Brother Aidan finish the sacred book, Brendan must find the strength to conquer his fears and face the dangers threatening the monastery, from the woods outside it and the lands far beyond.

Unlike some of the films on this list, The Secret of Kells is just as appropriate for younger viewers as it is for adults. It's a charming fantasy story for the kid in all of us.



The Last Unicorn

Lastly, ahem, we have The Last Unicorn, from famed animation producers Rankin/Bass. This underrated delight from 1982 features the recognizable voice talents of Mia Farrow, Alan Arkin, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Lee and Angela Lansbury in a captivating tale based on a novel by Hugo and Nebula award winner Peter S. Beagle (who also wrote the film's script).

In one of the film's most vivid scenes, the story begins with a stampede of fire generated by an evil elemental known as the Red Bull, who drives all the unicorns to the ends of the earth. All but one, that is. Voiced by Mia Farrow, the unnamed unicorn sets out to find the rest of her kind with the help of a bumbling wannabe magician named Schmendrick (Alan Arkin). To keep her safe, Schmendrick transforms her into a lovely human, but the disguise causes her to temporarily forget her true immortal nature and she falls in love with a prince (Jeff Bridges), learning the meaning of regret for the first time.

Those of us old enough to have seen this film during its initial release have strong memories of the impression it left on us as children. Filled with imagination, adventure, humor and stunning imagery, The Last Unicorn is still just as entertaining nearly 30 years later.



Source: Scott Collura, Dan Iverson, Max Nicholson and Cindy White, The Best Animated Movies You've Never Seen, IGN Movies, 24 June 2010.