Illustration: Giacomo Gambineri
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All animation, whether it depicts a whistling mouse, a walking dinosaur, or a leaping superhero, is a kind of magic trick. It’s right there in the name of one of the earliest devices used to project slides: the magic lantern. If you take an image of an open hand and an image of a fist and project the two in sequence, you’ll convey the illusion of a clench. “What happens between each frame is more important than what happens on each frame,” the prominent experimental animator Norman McLaren (who makes the list with his short Neighbours, below) once explained. “Therefore, animation is the art of manipulating the invisible interstices between frames.”
That has largely remained true throughout the medium’s history, both frame by frame and over the course of a two-hour children’s movie. Animated cartoons fool the brain into believing that static images can move; characters are “brought to life” by putting pen to paper or finger to a computer’s trackpad. The medium that began to crawl thanks to the live performances of inventor Charles-Émile Reynaud and illusionist Georges Méliès has now matured into a complex and diverse art form — one that has seen new processes and cultural innovations in every decade since its inception. The characters and intellectual properties it has drawn into existence are as relatable as Daffy Duck and as lucrative as Mickey Mouse. Today, vast audiences understand what artists like McLaren were observing: that the invisible holds a marvelous power over us.
To capture an idea of that power and to narrate its history, we have charted the evolution of animation by considering 100 sequences throughout the medium’s history. We chose the deliberately flexible element of a “sequence” because it felt the most focused: It is often in one inspired moment, more so than a single frame or entire work, that we are able to see the form progress. Focusing on full cartoons would create a bias in the favor of studios with the resources to produce theatrical features — but history has shown that many landmark achievements in animation have been produced with a variety of budgets, formats, and lengths. By focusing on sequences, we can let creators and their individual decisions shine in a way full-length works may not.
The arc of this history begins in 1892, the year Charles-Émile Reynaud first used his Théâtre Optique system to screen his moving pictures — to our mind, the first animated cartoons ever produced — for the public (and long after the invention of the magic lantern). From there, we address sequences in every decade well into our own era, touching on a range of formats, innovations, and historical moments, from the patenting of rotoscoping to the invention of the multiplane camera to the rise of anime and everything in between and after.
This list is not intended to be comprehensive. One hundred is a crushingly compact number of slots with which to encapsulate the totality of a medium. That isn’t to say we didn’t try. We arrived at our list after months of discussions and arguments among a brain trust of animation professionals, historians, and other experts. More than 600 nominations were considered based on the criteria we established: Since this list is for an American audience, entries skew toward what influenced American animation; to be eligible, sequences had to have been made available, at some point, to audiences in the U.S., whether in limited screenings, wide release, or bootleg importation. You’ll notice Japan’s output is better represented than that of French or Czech animators, which we felt reflected American audiences’ evolving, decades-long relationship with Japanese animation. We excluded porn, video games, and advertising, reasoning that they didn’t jibe with a list of art intended to be consumed, rather than interacted with. We were especially choosy about which examples of combined live action and animation to use — a gimmick that had been deployed long before Mary Poppins — and how to handle the question of special effects, which we tried to limit to moments when we felt the tools and forms used by animators crossed over most dramatically with those of live-action filmmakers.
Historical expertise provided by Jerry Beck, Amelia Cook, Jason DeMarco, Maureen Furniss, Monique Henry-Hudson, Willow Catelyn Maclay, Linda Simensky, Koji Yamamura
Entries by Rebecca Alter, Elly Belle, Kambole Campbell, Jen Chaney, Amelia Cook, Alex Costello, Marley Crusch, Toussaint Egan, Christopher L. Inoa, Genevieve Koski, Willow Catelyn Maclay, Rafael Motamayor, Sammy Nickalls, Joshua Rivera, Daniel Schindel, Ayoola Solarin, Drew Taylor, Alison Willmore
All of the nominees were subject to the forces of capturing an accurate historical progression: Necessary inclusions meant omissions, some of which may feel crushing as you notice them. Many a beloved character (Mr. Magoo), creator (Mamoru Hosoda), film (Barefoot Gen), or series (Avatar: The Last Airbender) went unrecognized. Such cuts were typically made because while the titles were important to the history of animation, it was often the case that their impact was not showcased in one specific sequence, and we felt it would be disingenuous to present them in that way. We also didn’t want to sanitize the complicated contributions made to the medium by problematic figures; members of our brain trust ultimately decided work by Bill Cosby, John Kricfalusi, and others ought to be reckoned with in any honest history of the form. And finally, the works of white men ended up disproportionately represented here, for similar reasons, since white men have been disproportionately represented in the American animation industry since its formation.
Inevitably, a list like this can only scratch the surface of an art form unparalleled in its elasticity and capacity for wonder. And yet the sequences included here, listed chronologically, speak as much for the evolution of animation as a medium as they do for themselves. The creators of the early, tastelessly minstrelsy-laden shorts on this list could not have imagined how our entries would make vast audiences vibrate with joy — and the basic compact of the craft still holds, firm as ever: Animators continue to fool us into believing still images can move and breathe, and we in turn remain delighted to live between the frames.
Directed by Charles-Émile Reynaud
Before the Lumière brothers’ cinematograph, one of the earliest movie cameras, there was a filmic evolutionary link that now feels all but forgotten. Starting in 1892, three years before the Lumières first exhibited their motion pictures, French inventor Charles-Émile Reynaud presented his animations for audiences at the Musée Grévin in Paris. His Théâtre Optique (or “optical theater”) system was a rough precursor of the technology that would come to define both animation and film projection. The films were made of hundreds of individually illustrated cells connected via strips that were perforated with sprocket holes — a first in film history — and wound around spools, which could be run rapidly before a magic lantern, projecting a moving image for an audience.
Reynaud’s show, Pantomimes Lumineuses, consisted of sets of shorts that he had drawn. The premiere lineup featured “Un Bon Bock” (A Good Beer), about a tavern boy swiping beers from unsuspecting patrons of a country bar, “Le Clown et Ses Chiens” (The Clown and His Dogs), about a clown directing his three dogs through their tricks, and “Pauvre Pierrot” (Poor Pierrot), a riff on the familiar Pierrot, Harlequin, and Columbine characters from the commedia dell’arte. These animated performances were not fully premade stories that Reynaud simply played for his audiences; manually operating the Théâtre Optique, he could play each short at variable speeds and repeat certain moments. He could react to how patrons responded to the shows, having a character perform an encore of a winning gag or trick.
Sadly, Reynaud was not just a cinema pioneer but also an early victim of the exploitation that would rapidly infect that business. He worked for the Musée Grévin under a stunningly unfair contract. Despite the giant success of Pantomimes Lumineuses, he saw little of the profits and eventually went broke. In despair, he destroyed the Théâtre Optique and tossed most of his films into the Seine. Today, only parts of “Pauvre Pierrot” and 1894’s Autour d’une Cabine (Around a Cabin) survive as testaments to his magic.
Star Film Company
Directed by George Méliès
The turn of the 20th century saw a much needed injection of modern filmmaking thanks to the work of experimental French filmmaker, set designer, and magician George Méliès, widely regarded as the innovator of special effects in movies. Méliès’s penchant for illusion and stage magic played a vital role in the way he approached his early movies, with a desire to transfer the whimsy witnessed in theaters to film. Méliès is credited with innovating the first split screen, the first double exposure and the first dissolve effect.
After being mesmerised by the Lumière brothers’ groundbreaking moving picture camera, the cinematograph, in 1895 Méliès set about designing and re-engineering his own camera and quickly established Star Film Company, with a film studio famously built entirely of glass walls. It was at the studio that Méliès made over 500 shorts, including his most famous work Le Voyage Dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) and not as well known but just as beloved works such as L’Œuf du Sorcier (1902), also known as The Prolific Magical Egg. The film, directed by and starring Méliès, is an example of early stop-motion SFX as the film sees the magician make an egg appear in a deft sleight of hand and then grow the egg until it turns into not one but three giant heads, which then merge into a goblinesque facade.
The seamless jump cut editing of the vanishing act and additional use of double exposure to illustrate the giant heads separating and merging were proto-techniques that would go on to be utilized in animation, and are still employed today. While many of Méliès’s films have been lost over time, his impact remains keenly felt. In the Oscar award-winning 2011 film, Hugo — which fittingly won Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects — Martin Scorsese made Méliès a character whimsically played by Ben Kingsley, showcasing how creative magic can elevate any motion picture.
Alpha Production Works
Directed by Arthur Melbourne-Cooper
Pre-dating Pixar’s Toy Story by nearly 90 years, this stop-motion sequence of toys coming to life was created by Arthur Melbourne-Cooper in 1908. Cooper was an innovative photographer and filmmaker and a pioneer in the medium who’s credited with creating what is often called the first animated film shown in public, Matches: An Appeal (1899). While it differs in content from his “trick films” featuring matchsticks (of which there are several sports-themed pieces in addition to Appeal’s wartime content), Dreams of Toyland is arguably the British filmmaker’s most iconic work and a stunning example of early animation bookended by live action.
The elaborate scene reveals a chaotic world with toy cars driving recklessly through a busy town, dolls falling off wooden horses, and other playthings (such as a toy bear and policeman) brawling in the streets before piling aboard a double-decker bus and ultimately facing a shocking explosion. The motion is remarkably fluid considering the equipment available at the time, and movement is seen not just among the toys in the foreground but with every item viewable onscreen. There’s little in the way of plot, but the movement itself shows the level of care and dedication taken by Cooper in his experimenting with this new form of art. Based on the movement of shadows from the toys, this scene seems to have been shot on an outdoor stage, further heightening the impressiveness of this piece. With through-lines to Gumby, Wallace and Gromit, Laika’s modern stop-motion offerings, and of course, various “living toy” stories, animation enthusiasts everywhere owe a debt to Cooper’s wild dreams.
Société des Etablissements L. Gaumont
Directed by Émile Cohl
A French caricaturist, cartoonist, and one of the first great animation innovators, Émile Cohl became aware of motion pictures in 1907 and wanted to see if this art of movement and the illusions of light could be adapted to include his own interests of cartooning. The next year, Cohl made Fantasmagorie, whose title is a reference to the “fantasmograph,” a mid-19th-century variant of the magic lantern that projected ghostly images onto surrounding walls. And it forever changed animation.
Fantasmagorie was shot with a vertical mounted camera and consisted of 700 chalk-line drawings, each of which was double-exposed and rendered in a stream-of-consciousness style, which saw the drawings morph in and out of one another and evoked a sense of constant transformation. This short is among the first to outline animation as a character-driven medium, and it follows a lively stick-figure clown who pulls various objects out of his own body. It follows shorts by James Stuart Blackton such as The Enchanted Drawing in 1900 and Humorous Phases of Funny Faces in 1906, which also featured clowns appearing to make faces and move from the torso up; Cohl’s film, by comparison, is a full-body exercise.
The introduction of the clown as a central character has its roots in the carnival stylings of the traveling circus, where movies got their start as an extension of the works of illusion and prestidigitation performed by magicians. The little clown was the first character in animation history and began a trend of character-driven work that we still witness today. Fantasmagorie is also one of the great works of the avant-garde, with its morphing abstract images and Cohl’s emphasis on innovating new techniques and scenarios.
The Box Office Attractions Company
Directed by Winsor McCay
Winsor McCay did not create the animated cartoon as he always claimed, but he was responsible for one of its great “big bang” moments. Composed of 10,000 drawings made by the newspaper cartoonist (with the help of his assistant, John A. Fitzsimmons, who traced the backgrounds) and mounted on cardboard, McCay’s third short laid the groundwork for the next century of animation.
Taking inspiration from his son’s collection of flip-books, McCay became interested in testing whether he could turn his illustrations into short films, his first being based on his most famous comic strip, 1911’s Little Nemo in Slumberland. His second, The Story of a Mosquito, appeared a year later, and both were incorporated into his vaudeville act. Audiences approved, but they didn’t truly believe that they’d witnessed McCay’s drawings move. That is, until he introduced them to Gertie the Dinosaur.
The short marked the first use of key animation, registration marks, animation loops, in-betweening, and, most important, character animation. McCay not only gave Gertie life; he gifted her with a personality. Before Gertie the Dinosaur, characters were blank slates. Now they could cry, which Gertie does when McCay scolds her for disobeying, or eat, drink, or breathe, all of which she does with a playful, elegant charm that many later artists would try to emulate and build empires on.
McCay would continue to work in animation until 1921, stepping away shortly after abandoning a sequel, Gertie on Tour, mainly because his editor at the New York Herald, William Randolph Hearst, wanted him focused on editorial cartoons rather than animation. Most of McCay’s work both in comics and in film have been lost, but Gertie the Dinosaur is one of the best preserved; it’s been a part of the U.S. Library of Congress National Film Registry since 2011.
Pat Sullivan Studios
Directed by Otto Messmer
While Lady Gaga used “rite of passage” to describe getting a song parodied by “Weird” Al Yankovic, it’s a phrase that can apply to a celebrity being caricatured in animation, too, from BoJack Horseman’s cheeky use of Character Actress Margo Martindale to pretty much any episode of Family Guy or South Park. Even the British royal family is getting the animated satire treatment (blimey) in HBO Max’s upcoming The Prince. But really, it all started with one anthropomorphic black cat hungry for the spotlight.
Consider the seven-minute-long silent-era short film Felix in Hollywood. Created by Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer, we can credit this little gem, made nearly a century ago, for what’s now a staple of modern-day animated television. In the short, Felix the Cat uses his ample wits to travel to Hollywood, where he shares the silver screen and rubs elbows with real-life industry pioneers and tastemakers like Charlie Chaplin, William S. Hart, Will Hays, Snub Pollard, and Ben Turpin. It was the first animated cartoon to caricature celebrities and along with them the contemporary studio system. Felix even earns his “long-term contract” — bestowed by one of the founding fathers of American cinema, Cecil B. DeMille — after a camera crew catches him rescuing an unconscious, tied-up Douglas Fairbanks from a swarm of angry mosquitoes.
The value of Felix’s contract may be nebulous, but the film’s impact is undeniable. Just a decade later, Looney Tunes celebrity caricatures began to emerge as well. In one of the company’s early shorts, Bosko in Person (1933), the titular character created by Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising finds himself interacting with imitations of Maurice Chevalier, Jimmy Durante, and Greta Garbo.
Directed by Lotte Reiniger
Though Disney would later debut Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was the first animated feature in the U.S., The Adventures of Prince Achmed is the oldest surviving animated feature film, period. Directed by the great Lotte Reiniger, the earliest woman animator whose work is still extant and the first to helm an animated feature, it premiered in Germany over a decade before Disney’s first masterpiece. At that time, Reiniger pioneered silhouette animation as a self-taught artist particularly skilled in shadow play. To create the film, she manipulated cutouts made from cardboard and thin sheets of lead under a camera, similar to Wayang shadow puppetry. Perhaps even more impressively, the piece was animated frame by frame, which took three years. In the scene for the Caliph’s birthday, Reiniger animated the sorcerer’s magical horse, a miraculous steed flying through the air, proving both her fantastic imagination and ability to bring it to life through silhouettes.
It’s also an early use of fairy-tale storytelling, another area Disney’s films would become known for. Prince Achmed specifically tells stories based on One Thousand and One Nights, including the story of Aladdin, which Disney’s studio would return to decades later. Moreover, Reiniger’s style went on to influence even more modern works, including an episode of Steven Universe, “The Answer.”
Despite the fact that Reiniger’s contributions continue to define the medium, sexism has been pervasive within it over time. For years, Lotte Reiniger’s name went largely unsaid in the industry, falling out of the popular canon. Today, there are still too few women with creator credits in animation — but even their success and entry into the medium are owed to those like Reiniger who opened doors and showed that talent and innovation that women could bring to the table. In proving that women could animate as well as men, Reiniger paved the way for those like LaVerne Harding, the second woman in animation history to receive an onscreen credit (known for work on Woody Woodpecker). Later, Walt Disney would hire Bianca Majolie, responsible for much of the early concept work for Peter Pan, Cinderella, and Fantasia’s “Nutcracker Suite” segment.
Walt Disney Studios
Directed by Walt Disney, Ub Iwerks
Steamboat Willie, the short that introduced the world to Mickey Mouse, served as a watershed technological breakthrough thanks to its use of fully synchronized sound and a fully post-produced soundtrack. It was also born out of heartache. Starting a little more than a year before the short’s release, Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks began producing short films for Universal and producer Charles Mintz featuring a character called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. When Walt traveled to New York to renegotiate the terms of the deal, he was blindsided. Not only did Mintz offer him less money, but he had slyly started to steal Disney’s employees for his own animation operation. Walt quit, and Ub stood by his longtime partner. But Walt didn’t own the character. Universal did.
As the undoubtedly apocryphal story goes, Walt began brainstorming the idea for Mickey Mouse on the train ride back from his failed meeting in New York. Disney had a dynamite new character, an intellectual property he could own. Walt could just as easily have given up, but instead the recent experience strengthened his resolve.
Iwerks and Disney got to work. Steamboat Willie wasn’t the first Mickey Mouse short they made (that honor goes to Plane Crazy), but it was the first distributed, and its gags incorporated consistent sound and music throughout, a first in the business. When Steamboat Willie hit theaters in November 1928, this labor of love became a sensation, applauded for its technical artistry and entertainment value. And rightfully so — it is still a hoot, and one you can watch on Disney+ right now. And while many of the cultural references have faded from memory (its title is a play on a Buster Keaton movie called Steamboat Bill, Jr.), Steamboat Willie remains a towering achievement of early animation and a testament to Mickey Mouse’s singular, elemental power — a character whose emergence wound up altering the shape of U.S. copyright law.
Mickey is no bland corporate figurehead. Rather, he’s downright rascally — at one point, he cranks the tail of a goat who has eaten sheet music for “Turkey in the Straw” and the tune spills from the goat’s mouth. Only a few seconds of Steamboat Willie have truly been immortalized in the popular consciousness — the opening moments, in which Mickey whistles and steers the boat, have become a signature of the Walt Disney Company. But the entire short is of staggering importance — for its technological advancement, sure, but more so for the introduction of an American icon.
Directed by Ub Iwerks
Disney magic wasn’t made by Walt Disney alone. Many of Disney’s early successes, before movies, were done in collaboration with Ub Iwerks, who helped to create Mickey Mouse. Then Iwerks and Disney had a falling out in 1930, and Iwerks opened his own animation studio.
There, he created the bow tie-wearing Flip the Frog. And Flip’s big-screen debut short, Fiddlesticks, came as the first complete sound cartoon to use the two-strip Technicolor process. It’s important to note that it was not the first cartoon made in color; that distinction is a matter of debate between 1912’s In Gollywog Land (a lost live-action film based on a racist caricature, which used puppet-animated sequences and was made by the Natural Color Kinematograph Company) and 1920’s The Debut of Thomas the Cat (made by the team of Earl Hurd and John Randolph Bray, who are credited with creating cel animation, at great cost and shot using the Brewster Color process, a Technicolor competitor), neither of which popularized the artistic choice. Fiddlesticks is a simple bit of animation: It starts with Flip dancing and then playing the piano accompanied by a familiar-looking mouse in red shorts playing the violin.
But it is still an achievement. Fiddlesticks came two years before Disney’s own Flowers and Trees, which was the first full-color Technicolor cartoon and won an Academy Award. But it was Iwerks who showed that the burgeoning Technicolor process could be applied to the medium. Technicolor was faster and easier than previous coloring techniques for animation, and the finished product was easy for theaters to screen.
Iwerks and Disney eventually settled their differences, and he went back to work at Disney’s studio in the 1940s. Today, Disney recognizes him as a “master of animation and technology,” a title he richly deserves.
Directed by Dave Fleischer
Of course Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was always going to make this list, but let’s start with the other technically innovative 1930s animated musical adaptation of the fairy tale. This one stars two of the Fleischer brothers’ greatest creations: Betty Boop and Koko the Clown. Koko was developed in 1918 concurrently with Max Fleischer’s invention of the rotoscope technique, which allowed animators to trace over filmed reference footage to achieve fluid, uncannily lifelike motion in their characters. Betty Boop, on the other hand, was created as a send-up of Jazz Age flappers, with a character design naughty enough to match the times.
In the original Out of the Inkwell series, Koko’s filmed movements were acted out by Dave Fleischer while he was dressed as a clown. But in 1933, Fleischer Studios put Betty Boop and Koko the Clown in the seven-minute Betty Boop in Snow-White short animated by Roland C. Crandall, with a rotoscoped set piece in the middle, set to “St. James Infirmary Blues,” performed by jazz artist Cab Calloway. Watching this scene, in contrast with the Disney version of the folktale that would set the template for mainstream animated storytelling, the sheer experimentalism looks like an eerie dispatch from a different, much cooler timeline.
The film was a follow-up to Calloway’s popular Minnie the Moocher Fleischer short from the year prior, which opened with live footage of Calloway dancing before rendering him into a walrus. Here, Calloway seems to moonwalk along the animated landscape as Koko, arms out, singing a blues song about death and decay. When the witch casts her mirror over him, he becomes a ghost, at which point the rotoscoping gives seamlessly to impossible contortions. The ghost’s limbs pretzel in on themselves, turning at one point into a gold chain, echoing the lyrics. At the time, character animation — think the Fleischers’ Bimbo, Otto Messmer and Pat Sullivan’s Felix the Cat, Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks’s Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Mickey Mouse — was often rooted in the racist visual language of blackface and minstrelsy. Cab Calloway’s Fleischer shorts, and their use of rotoscope, saw an African American musician able to voice and perform his own art. Playful and surreal, it remains artistically daring nearly 90 years later.
Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, animated by Willis H. O’Brien (chief technician)
During the early stages of what would become King Kong, Merlan C. Cooper planned to film wild gorillas, intercutting it with footage of Komodo dragons so that it would appear as if the animals were engaged in a life-or-death battle. Thankfully, he figured out that it would be more economically feasible to go with animation, coming to that conclusion after viewing Creation, an overbudget and eventually canceled action-fantasy film helmed by stop-motion animator Willis H. O’Brien.
A working animator since 1915, O’Brien’s stop-motion work was already heralded as groundbreaking before his contributions to Kong. By 1925’s The Lost World, he was already experimenting with ways to make it look as if his creations were sharing the same physical space as the live actors. With Kong, O’Brien was able to push his experiments even further, achieving a milestone not only in the history of stop-motion animation but for the entire field of cinema special effects.
To achieve Cooper’s dream of a giant gorilla, O’Brien and his assistant animator Buzz Gibson combined stop-motion animation with other special effects including miniatures, matte paintings, and rear projection. The result seen in Kong’s introduction to the movie that carries his name makes it appear as if the giant ape, an 18-inch model made out of rubber, latex, and rabbit fur — designed by Marcel Delgado — is towering over Ann Darrow, the helpless blonde the beast falls for. This moment in the 1933 classic would set up the next 90 years of blockbuster movies, everything from the work of Ray Harryhausen, to the animatronics of Stan Winston, to the inclusion of CGI.
Walt Disney Productions
Directed Burt Gillett
There’s a moment, about three and a half minutes into the Silly Symphony short Three Little Pigs, when the Big Bad Wolf is about to blow down one of the pigs’ houses. He gets himself in the headspace to get a-blowin’ and then prepares physically by breathing in more and more air, his chest heaving and expanding with each gasp. Finally, when his chest is about to burst, he lets out a gust of wind powerful enough to knock down the poor piggy’s home. As drawn by Norm Ferguson, perhaps best known as the creator of Mickey’s dog Pluto, the Big Bad Wolf was a benchmark in terms of character animation. Chuck Jones commented that the film made him realize “something was happening there that hadn’t happened before.” Jones said that it showcased a major principle in character animation, that “it wasn’t how a character looked but how he moved that determined his personality.” He even argued that character animation truly began with the film.
Disney himself agreed. Notorious for finding fault in just about anything he produced, upon finishing the short, Disney exclaimed, “At last we have achieved true personality in a whole picture!” And as a result, Three Little Pigs was hugely influential both inside and outside the studio.
Internally, the short featured an original song by Frank Churchill, Ted Sears, and Pinto Colvig, and the use of original music would become a convention of many Disney shorts that followed. Also, thanks largely to the work done by Freddie Moore, a hugely talented and influential artist at the studio, the storytelling and animation style at Disney began to shift. The “rubber hose” style of animation was out; the more naturalistic and complicated “squash and stretch” style was here to stay. It was a huge success for the studio, too, winning an Academy Award and making a truly unbelievable amount of money; the following year, the studio’s net profit was estimated at more than $600,000 and led to Disney’s expansion. One theater played the short for so long that it started adding whiskers to a poster for the short outside the auditorium; as the run went on, the whiskers would get longer and longer.
Most crucially, Three Little Pigs was one of the first of Disney’s films to feature a story department, which included Ferguson, Art Babbitt, and Dick Lundy. (It was also, not coincidentally, one of the first animated films to be fully storyboarded.) While Disney had established a story department before 1932, the success of Three Little Pigs, the creation of which Disney himself was heavily involved in, made him double down on his desire to create specialized roles for talented people that ran in direct opposition to the studio’s earlier, looser, everybody-chip-in ethos. And that story department would prove crucial in the years ahead as he marched toward a feature-length animated film.
Culturally, though, Three Little Pigs had an even larger impact. It proved that Walt’s work, far from being trifles for kiddies, could be considered high art, and the short, along with Disney himself, was fêted widely by the Hollywood elite and embraced by critics. As a metaphor for the Great Depression, then in its fourth year, it also spoke volumes, with the wolf representing the country’s economic hardship and the industrious, hardworking pig serving as a metaphor for Roosevelt’s New Deal. It became something of an anthem for a beleaguered country; its audio was played over the radio and its plot satirized in the newspaper. When fascism began bubbling up in Europe, the pigs with houses of straw and sticks were repurposed as a desperate warning call to Western nations not taking the Nazi threat seriously. (It should be noted that the original version of the short featured the Wolf dressing up as a “Jewish peddler,” a distressing moment that has been edited out of subsequent versions beginning in 1948; the choice didn’t help Disney’s case when he was accused of anti-Semitism.) And the song, “Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?,” was influential too, inspiring Edward Albee to title his hit play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Walt Disney Productions
Directed by Wilfred Jackson and Walt Disney
Mickey Mouse in color! The Band Concert, a ten-minute tour de force, is mostly notable as Mickey’s first appearance, after 72 cartoons, in color — technically three-strip Technicolor — alongside stalwarts Donald Duck and Goofy and lesser-known characters like Clarabelle Cow, Peter Pig, and Horace Horsecollar.
In the short, Mickey is a conductor trying, desperately, to get through the “William Tell Overture.” Goofy is a clarinetist in the band and Donald is an obnoxious ice-cream salesman who takes out a flute and starts jamming along uninvited. There are a number of notable character moments: Mickey’s reaction when a melting scoop of ice cream slides down his back is still a supremely impressive bit of character animation, and when a rampaging tornado threatens the band and its audience, the benches become anthropomorphic and run away from the disaster.
While it’s largely considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Mickey Mouse cartoons ever, Donald is clearly the star of the show. The only character with speaking lines, he is hilarious throughout, something that was commented upon at the time of the movie’s release — “The duck takes over,” a critic for the New York Journal wrote.
Iconic and recognizable, The Band Concert inspired a 1942 short called Symphony Hour, has been referenced in a number of video games over the years, and is the basis for a pair of Disney Parks attractions: Mickey’s PhilharMagic and Silly Symphony Swings, a classic wave-swinger attraction at Disney California Adventure that features characters from the short (including the bee!) painted on the side and whose structure is adorned with a statue of Mickey in his oversize conductor’s coat, stick in hand. (You can even hear the overture as you swing.) Truly a tremendous performance.
Directed by Dave Fleischer
Popeye the Sailor Man made his animated debut in a 1933 Betty Boop short named after him and quickly became Fleischer Studios’ star attraction. The naval pugilist with forearms the size of watermelon had originated from E.C Segar’s daily comic strip Thimble Theatre, where he was only supposed to make a one-off appearance. By the mid-1930s Popeye was the most popular character in America, so it only made sense that Paramount Pictures would push Max Fleischer to produce a more ambitious short starring the spinach chomping strong man.
Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor was the first Popeye cartoon made in Technicolor as well as the first American animated film to be billed as a feature (running over 16 minutes, it took up two reels), and it is where the Fleischer brothers’ “setback process” was showcased to its full potential.
The Fleischers’ studio had been behind a number of inventions that helped innovate animation during the mediums early years, but arguably none were more remarkable than the process invented by John Burks. First used in the 1936 Popeye short, For Better or Worser, the process gave off the illusion that two-dimensional characters were able to maneuver in a three-dimensional space. Over 80 years after its premiere, the process is still effective, the illusion not aging a day.
A vital influence on Ray Harryhausen, who made a Sinbad film of his own, the process would be used for a handful of other shorts and one feature, its heights remaining with Sindbad and its follow up Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves. The pair would be the grandest cartoons Fleischer ever produced — until they began work on the adventures of a mild-mannered reporter from Metropolis.
Walt Disney Productions
Directed by Wilfred Jackson
Walt Disney’s most impactful accomplishments, especially in the early days of the theatrical shorts, came at the intersection of storytelling and technological advancement. Such is the case with Silly Symphony’s The Old Mill. For years, Disney had wanted more realism and dimensionality in his cartoons, foremost by ensuring that both the backgrounds and characters moved — as in a sequence for the Oscar-winning Three Orphan Kittens from 1935 — and later by tasking animator Ken Anderson, effects animator Cy Young, lighting expert Hal Halvenston, and engineer Bill Garity to come up with a solution. (Part of this was preparation for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and one of the tests was a shot pushing in on the dwarfs’ cottage.)
This led to the invention of the multiplane camera, in which different scenes and characters would be painted on separate panes of glass; the camera would then move “through” the panes at different speeds and at various distances from one another, creating the illusion of dimensionality and depth — a concept Ub Iwerks, by this point long gone from Disney, had been tinkering with for years. Walt Disney biographer Neal Gabler hypothesized that Disney “was anticipating the deep-focus photography that director Orson Welles would use so famously in Citizen Kane.” Whether or not that’s true, the technology was used fabulously in The Old Mill.
A wordless ode to nature, the eight-and-a-half-minute film focuses on the titular mill and the animals that inhabit it as a summer storm approaches. Instead of being jokey caricatures, the animals and their action are rendered in a more realistic manner. They are simplified for visual clarity but never personified like in other shorts. It’s an odd and striking conceit, made all the more beautiful by the design of the animals and the exceptionalism of the effects animation — ripples in water, a swaying spiderweb, the way a flower reacts to columns of light, twinkling fireflies — that bring the whole enterprise to life. While Disney intended the short to be a test run of sorts for Snow White, the feature it more closely resembles, with its emphasis on naturalistic beauty and complex effects animation, is 1942’s Bambi.
There’s an eerie intensity to the short as well, with an emphasis on some of the less cuddly creatures in the mill (those bats!), that lent its tone not only to the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment from Fantasia but also to more modern, horror-adjacent animated triumphs like Scooby-Doo and Over the Garden Wall. There is a reason that, for years, clips from the short would be used in Disney Halloween compilation specials. It really is that spooky. Also, if you ever find yourself on the Walt Disney Studios lot, pop into the Frank G. Wells Building. There, you can see the multiplane camera that was used on The Old Mill, sitting right in the lobby.
Walt Disney Productions
Directed by David Hand (supervising) with William Cottrell, Wilfred Jackson, Larry Morey, Perce Pearce, Ben Sharpsteen
It is impossible to overstate the importance of this movie to animation. The first full-length Disney animated film and the first full-length cel animated feature, period, the hardest thing about including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on this list was trying to decide which sequence to highlight.
Disney’s heralded Nine Old Men worked on the film and famously pulled inspiration from many sources, including European fairy-tale illustrations, German expressionism, and silent films. Snow White also turned the tables of influence a bit. Where early animation incorporated the rhythms of jazz music, both metaphorically and literally, Snow White gave the world a song, “Someday My Prince Will Come,” that would become a jazz standard covered by the likes of Dave Brubeck and Herbie Hancock, even inspiring a Miles Davis album more than two decades after the film’s 1937 premiere.
But what’s most notable about the “Someday My Prince Will Come” sequence is the way it establishes, in a very short scene, the core elements for so much of Disney animation going forward. It centers on a princess and her desire for a happy ending. The details in the characterizations of the dwarfs, from the big, moony eyes so many of them share to the individual distinctions, like Grumpy’s snakelike eyebrows and Sleepy’s flabby cheeks, are engaging and precise. The adorability quotient, courtesy of the woodland animals who gather to listen to Snow White, is extremely high. What one gets from watching all these bits of artistry working in tandem is a warmed heart and a lifted spirit. It’s a feeling best described as pure Disney.
Walt Disney Productions
Directed by Ben Sharpsteen and Hamilton Luske
As the first full-length animated feature in the U.S., Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs gets the credit for changing the course of animation history, and rightfully so. But Walt Disney’s wildly ambitious follow-up, Pinocchio, ultimately had much bigger effects on the medium itself. From its ample and ambitious use of the multiplane camera to its reliance on an anthropomorphized animal sidekick to its use of live-action models and celebrity voice-acting, the film planted many of the seeds that would be sown over the next half-century of animation.
But of all Pinocchio’s achievements, it is the film’s special-effects animation, in particular its approach to water, that is most remembered and celebrated. Splitting the difference between stylization and realism, Pinocchio set the standard for water effects in hand-drawn animation and became the model most mainstream animation aspired to up until CG animation made photorealism the new benchmark. The film is lousy with subtly impressive aquatic flourishes, from Jiminy Cricket popping and nearly drowning inside an underwater bubble to Figaro diving into Cleo’s fishbowl, but nothing captures Pinocchio’s marriage of ambition and achievement better than the climactic chase scene, in which Pinocchio and Geppetto escape via sneeze from the gullet of the gargantuan whale Monstro.
Every single frame of the three-and-a-half-minute sequence shows water in motion, a crescendoing symphony of foaming ripples, whirling eddies, and crashing waves achieved through a combination of inked cels photographed over specially toned blue paper and white paint overlays. Walt Disney himself called Pinocchio “the toughest job the animators have ever had” (adding, “I hope I never have to live through another one like it”), and you can see every ounce of that effort paying off in the Monstro chase. A box-office bomb in its day, Pinocchio might have seemed like a stumble for Disney in terms of financial success, but it beat live-action films that year for two competitive Academy Awards: Original Score and Original Song (“When You Wish Upon a Star”).
Walt Disney Productions
Directed by Wilfred Jackson
Fantasia was, undoubtedly, Walt Disney’s biggest gambit — a largely wordless, classical-music-based anthology film that would require theaters to install new equipment in order to accommodate its breakthrough “Fantasound” technology, with individual speakers playing separate musical instruments. In fact, Disney himself saw the film as an ever-evolving, never-complete passion project. (He wanted the film to have its segments switched in and out every few years.) It was Walt at his artsiest and most ambitious. And for the movie’s grand finale, “Night on Bald Mountain,” based on a piece of music by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, Walt would plunge the audience straight into hell.
Well, not hell exactly, but close. “Bald Mountain, according to tradition, is the gathering place of Satan and his followers,” the introduction goes. “Here, on Walpurgisnacht, which is the equivalent of our own Halloween, the creatures of evil gather to worship their master.” What is incredible isn’t just that this vision of darkness somehow made it into a Disney animated film aimed at a mass audience — it’s that an animated version of the material had already been made just a few years before by Alexandre Alexeïeff and Claire Parker, a Russian American husband-and-wife animation team based in France, using their own, incredibly complicated technique called pinscreen animation. This “Night on Bald Mountain,” incredibly, is just as creepy. And Disney still managed to one-up it.
Fantasia was meant to show how limitless animation was and how willing Disney, who had made his fortune with cuddly animated characters, was to experiment. You can feel all of that coursing through “Night on Bald Mountain.” Its iconic devil character, the Chernabog, was animated by the deeply talented Billy Tytla, who found inspiration for the character in everything from doodles by Swiss artist Albert Hurter to the face of Bela Lugosi, who came to the studio and posed for animators. (Tytla would leave the studio after the animators’ strike that rocked Disney in 1941.) Rewatching the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment, it’s downright shocking. Not only is the tone midnight black, but the ghouls and goblins summoned by this unspeakable evil are truly grotesque; there are even topless female witches, their bare breasts exposed. Its bleakness is enough to make you wonder how, when the movie was rereleased in 1969 and aimed explicitly at the period’s head culture (just look at the poster), all those stoned audience members felt about that finale.
It is worth noting that at the time of the film’s release, this segment of Fantasia fell under particular scrutiny. Overall, the film was not well regarded, but critics complained specifically about “Night on Bald Mountain” and how Disney chose to showcase evil in abstract terms (a winged demon lording over an army of the undead) while the real thing was making itself very apparent in Europe.
Tellingly, Disney affixed “Ave Maria” as a coda of sorts, saying, “We are portraying good and evil.” Without that segment, Fantasia would have ended on a note of utter hopelessness — the kind of hopelessness Walt would feel, many times, as the responses to Fantasia rolled in. (In Michael Eisner’s memoir Work in Progress, he recounts that the film didn’t make a profit until it debuted on home video.) To those who were willing to get swept up in it, Fantasia proved a heady, hugely inspiring trip indeed. And Walt would finally get his follow-up, of sorts, at the end of 1999, upon the debut of Fantasia 2000.
Directed by Dave Fleischer
Shortly after Action Comics No. 1 introduced the era of comic-book superheroes, Paramount Pictures acquired the film rights to Superman and wanted its animation studio, Fleischer Studios, to bring the character to series. This was a substantially different task than Max and Dave Fleischer were used to, forcing them to trade caricatured humans and animals for realistic-looking characters.
And yet the Fleischer Superman serial ended up as a definitive take on the Man of Steel. We get the origin, a bit of Clark Kent’s daily life as a journalist having to hide his identity, and Superman heroically saving innocents and doing great feats of strength with a smile on his face, all in the ten minutes of “The Mad Scientist,” the first of 17 shorts. The Fleischers’ patented rotoscoping technique seldom looked as smooth as it does here — the brief moment when Superman lands on the ground after saving a building from collapsing and stands tall to stop a laser beam with his bare hands still looks better than most live-action acts of superheroism.
“The Mad Scientist” was a huge success. Not only was it nominated for an Academy Award, but its influence on both Superman comics and action animation is undeniable. As the legend goes, the studio got permission from the comic’s publisher to make the Man of Steel fly because they were unconvinced with how giant leaps looked. Likewise, Superman’s iconic pose — fists on the hips, with the cape waving in the wind — first appeared in this short. And the shorts’ Art Deco architecture and noirlike aesthetic influenced animator Bruce Timm’s now-classic Batman: The Animated Series and, later, his own Superman: The Animated Series.
Ultimately, though, it was also the series that ended the Fleischer brothers’ working relationship. Amid financing troubles with Paramount Pictures, the Fleischers resigned from their own company having produced nine Superman shorts credited to Fleischer Studios, which was later renamed Famous Studios.
Xinhua Film Company
Directed by Wan Guchan and Wan Laiming
The Wan brothers — Chaochen, Dihuan, Guchan, and Laiming — are the founders of Chinese animation (it’s written right there on Wan Laiming’s tombstone), and their first feature-length film began as an artistic act of resistance. Shanghai was under Japanese occupation in the midst of the Second Sino-Japanese War when, in 1939, the siblings decided to make Princess Iron Fan. They wanted to make something that could match Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which had been released two years earlier, as well as represent their distressed nation.
The Wans looked to famous source material for their 1941 debut, adapting a section of the 16th-century classic Journey to the West, a novel they’d return to in the ’60s for their best-known work, Havoc in Heaven. Princess Iron Fan expands on an interlude in which the mischievous Sun Wukong and his fellow travelers tangle with a demonic couple over a fan they need to continue on their way. It’s a fight that culminates in a spectacular sequence in which the demon king transforms into a giant bull and chases the characters across the skies and through the woods until he’s defeated with the help of some local villagers.
There’s a slapstick logic to the animation that recalls the earlier Disney shorts, but the drawing style and the opera-tinged soundtrack are distinctively Chinese. Princess Iron Fan would, with a touch of irony, be exported to Japan, where it would inspire a then-teenage Osamu Tezuka to pursue animation as well as the commissioning of the country’s own first full-length animated film.
Walt Disney Productions
Directed by David Hand (supervising)
Though not the first time Disney anthropomorphized animals and far from its last time taking the life of an animal parent, the 1942 feature Bambi stands apart. The death of the young Bambi’s mother is perhaps the most brutal and sudden instance of loss in the studio’s filmography, the mother and child’s hope of escape from a human hunter referred to only as “Man” swiftly and mercilessly cut short with the sound of a single gunshot.
That starkness is only amplified upon realizing that the company still dialed back the bleakness of the scene in the novel the film adapted, Felix Salten’s Bambi: A Life in the Woods. The book was originally considered too grim for the company to adapt, but after the film was put on hold following the release of Fantasia, it was, of course, taken into production. The death sequence in Bambi is emblematic of a recurring trope in Disney films: the death of a parent as a formative part of the film’s narrative. Disney producer Don Hahn attributes this trope to Walt Disney’s personal life. He believes the impulse to include such sequences stemmed from residual guilt surrounding the tragic death of his mother, for which he possibly blamed himself. Whether that real-life tragedy influenced Bambi is unknown, even though the famously autocratic Disney held an almost dictatorial control over all the studio’s early works and was directly involved in the process of adapting Bambi. After all, the mother’s death was already written, and the death of a parent in films starring children — as it is in fairy tales — is a trope in part because of its narrative convenience, however emotionally difficult that convenience may prove. (Even Disney’s own daughter wasn’t thrilled at its inclusion.)
Despite its bleakness, the source novel was well received by critics and is considered both one of the first environmentalist novels and an anti-fascist allegory. As for the film, its most tangible effect, besides influencing similar death sequences in films including The Land Before Time and The Lion King, was on animal rights. The film led Sir Paul McCartney to vegetarianism, at least indirectly, and the origins of the term “Bambi effect” as a stand-in for the prioritization of the safety of “adorable” animals over others are obvious.
Those impacts aside, it’s simply a marvelous sequence. Realistic movement of the deer was a particular goal for the studio; animator Eric Larson referred to its previous animated animals as looking “like big flour sacks.” The film is one of the most striking of Disney’s Golden Age, even without the gothic spires and epic scope of Sleeping Beauty or Fantasia — those deceptively simple forest backgrounds enveloped by snow and punctuated by small streams go a long way. Though the studio is now working to “update” the film by remaking it in CGI, as it has done with so many of its works, the effort will surely be for naught. It won’t ever look as good as this.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Cartoon Studio
Directed by Tex Avery
Animated shorts based on fairy tales were a staple of animation in the first part of the 20th century. The Walt Disney Company made more than ten short films based on fairy tales during the 1930s alone, and both Disney’s own feature films and his competitors followed suit. Yet it’s easy to imagine the audiences of the 1940s getting a bit bored with the same handful of stories animated over and over by different studios.
Enter Tex Avery, animation’s master of screwball comedy, capable of pushing every comedic button in every short to produce maximum laughter. For his 1943 MGM short Red Hot Riding Hood, he changed the script with one of his signature fourth-wall breaks: Instead of a straight adaptation of the story, the characters directly talk to the narrator and ask for a new take. Then the second title card appears and we get an urban, catcalling wolf that pursues Red, now a sexy nightclub performer à la pinup girls Rita Hayworth and Lana Turner. The short is the perfect amalgam of Averyisms, from meta-humor to pop-culture references, to gags with characters pulling objects out of thin air, to incredibly stretchy and contorting bodies. On top of it all, Avery’s signature risqué comedy was practically guaranteed to give the era’s censors panic attacks within a short’s first few seconds.
And while cartoon content would be tamed over the coming decades, Avery’s innovations stuck.me His catcalling Wolf, for instance, has received homages and parodies from generations of animators after him. And the sequence in which Red’s grandma, now portrayed as a hip and wealthy woman living in a penthouse, begins chasing the Wolf around her apartment, all the while opening doors that lead outside the building or reveal cement walls, inspired a similar chase sequence in 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Leon Schlesinger Productions
Directed by Bob Clampett
During World War II, nationalism took over multiple animation industries — hell, the first feature-length anime, Momotaro: Sacred Sailors, was about cute animals doing imperialism for the glory of Japan. On the American side, there are a few categories of WWII propaganda cartoons. There are the ones devoted to demonstrating the evils of the enemy (such as Der Fuehrer’s Face). There are instructional films for proper military and/or homefront conduct (the Private Snafu series). There are the ones that are simply about our favorite characters beating the shit out of now-uncomfortable racial caricatures (Commando Duck or Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips).
The Merrie Melodies short “Falling Hare” stands out from this crowd, being non-racist, non-educational, and non-jingoistic, and as such it has endured in reruns over the years without being censored. (To be fair, it probably threatened fewer censorship minefields than the notorious Censored Eleven shorts because it features just two characters at odds with each other.) Mainly, it uses an Army Air Force base as an excuse for airplane shenanigans.
Notably, it also bucks the trend as a Bugs Bunny short in which his adversary consistently gets the better of the wascally wabbit, and the role reversal can be surreal to watch at times. A “gremlin” seeking to sabotage planes puts Bugs through some fantastic physical comedy. In the final sequence, this paradoxically hits new heights as the plane plummets toward the ground. Bugs is made of putty, contorting in mortal agony. The depiction of the falling plane itself is a masterful combination of skillful animation and cost-saving shortcuts on the part of director Bob Clampett; it’s incredible how visceral simply spinning a static shot of the ground is. And it all caps off with one of the greatest punch lines in WB history.
Directed by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera
William Hanna and Joseph Barbera were, like their most famous creation, a match made in animation heaven. In Leonard Maltin’s book Of Mice and Magic, the film historian described how the two complemented each other: “Barbera’s forte was gag comedy. Hanna aspired to be a director and possessed a keen sense of timing.” Hanna was the musical one (and would later write The Flintstones theme), and Barbera’s talent was drawing “like hell” (his words). With their Tom and Jerry shorts, their strengths always rose to the occasion, and the collaborators worked almost exclusively on the two natural enemies for 15 years after their debut short, Puss Gets the Boot.
The Cat Concerto is one of both duos’ zeniths of situation, timing, and gag-based comedy. Tom is a concert pianist animated with a pompous affectation (modeled on the short’s music supervisor, Scott Bradley), and Jerry is a rascal inside the piano looking to ruin Tom’s big performance of Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. What unfolds is a battle of wits built around Bradley’s dynamite explosion of a score. The Tom and Jerry cartoons were created with the highest craft at MGM, racking up numerous Academy Award nominations and wins in the process, and the escalating violence of the premise was lightning in a bottle for the studio.
Tom and Jerry’s influence has stretched across the decades, from its ubiquity on television over the years to absurdly vicious and bloody spoofs like The Simpsons’ Itchy and Scratchy cartoons. Like Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry shorts solidified a type of animated violence that feels distinctly American.
United Productions of America
Directed by Bobe Cannon (main) and John Hubley (supervising)
In the wake of the Disney animators’ strike of 1941, several staff members left the company. Among them was John Hubley, who believed that the medium of animation was constrained by Disney’s painstaking approach to realism. Hubley joined the emerging United Productions of America studio, where he would go on to create the iconic Mr. Magoo. He, together with other animators, would also break the mold in American animation and prove that animation could have as much variety as the imagination allows.
UPA introduced the concept of “limited animation,” which brought a modernist design to the medium. The studio used single blocks of solid color and a few lines to indicate a location, influenced by the flattened perspectives and bright colors of Picasso, Matisse, and other modern painters. This style would later be associated with Hanna-Barbera, which used the technique to save time and money, but it was UPA that made the choices that changed how animation was perceived. The creativity that was possible using limited animation was evident in Gerald McBoing-Boing, a short about a boy cursed to speak only in sound effects.
Produced by Hubley, directed by Bobe Cannon, and based on a story by Dr. Seuss, this short is the perfect showcase for the UPA style, masterfully using limited animation to deliver a modernist film that captures mood through a limited color palette and seamless editing between scenes. The short’s best transition comes after the titular Gerald gets home after being bullied at school. The color palette shifts to reflect his dejection, and when he runs away from home, he finds himself surrounded by black, a backdrop that evokes the woodcut backgrounds of the illustrator Lynd Ward.
Directed by Noburo Ofuji
First made in 1927 as a silent black and white film, Noburo Ofuji’s Kujira, or Whale, maintained its priority of visual storytelling in its final version while taking on some fascinating changes thanks to the possibilities of color film. Ofuji’s film was the first piece of Asian animation ever shown at the Cannes Film Festival, and it garnered praise from festival attendee Pablo Picasso (yes, really) as well as the poet Jean Cocteau, who was a member of the jury the year that it was screened.
In remaking the film, Ofuji deployed the unique method of using cutouts of transparent, colored cellophane and silhouetted shadow puppets, assembled on a multiplane animation table used to backlight the frames. This resulted in intentionally flat but fantastically layered frames, each swirling layer of water or sky remaining distinct even as the film quickly moves into visual chaos. Instead of storytelling through dialogue or conventional animated character acting — expression through both body language and facial expression — Ofuji’s obfuscation of the characters, which only exist here as shadows, forces the film to convey its meaning through just body language and movement, composer Setsuo Tsukahara’s tense classical score, and sound effects: crashing waves and thunder; the strained groans of a sailing ship under duress; and occasionally the laughter, screams, and incidental chatter of the ship’s inhabitants.
The film follows a ship as it’s attacked by the eponymous whale and, subsequently, one of the survivors as she staves off assaults by her crew mates and evokes the work of Herman Melville, with its collisions of man’s vices and folly with titanic marine life, as well as the biblical tale of Jonah, as the survivors of the shipwreck are swallowed by the whale. But Ofuji’s own fable is wholly idiosyncratic in its presentation. Its fairly common themes of humankind’s propensity for violence and the conflict between humans and the natural world become extraordinary in the hands of Ofuji — and its creative ambitions, as that Cannes jury confirmed, were a signal to the world that Japan, sooner rather than later, would become an animation superpower to be reckoned with.
National Film Board of Canada
Directed by Norman McLaren
Neighbours is one of the most important works by animator Norman McLaren and the first short to use live-action actors to make a stop-motion film, a technique called pixilation. The story, which is an antiwar parable, and which was greatly scrutinized when it came out in 1952 (McLaren said he was inspired by witnessing “the beginnings of Mao’s revolution” in the People’s Republic of China), plays out over just eight minutes and shows two men fighting over a flower.
In Neighbours, it’s plain to see exactly how McLaren influenced the industry, with each frame picked and displayed with care, beginning with the scene’s coyly counterposed newspapers. The pixilation and editing in Neighbours allow for a number of visual gags that wouldn’t have been possible in a more straightforward live-action film, no matter how appealing are its two brigands, Jean-Paul Ladouceur and George Munro (who is also credited with innovating the pixilation technique) — from seeing them float mid-jump to creating fences out of thin air. Not only does Neighbours build tension and offer a unique way of presenting his simple story; it forces the viewer to confront the relationship between animation and live-action film. The short went on to win an Academy Award and a Canadian Film Award.
Over the years, McLaren made many more contributions to the medium, mostly in his experiments combining animation with music. He also founded the National Film Board of Canada’s animation department, which cultivated the artistry of several notable independent animators, and taught animation in China and India. Eventually, he retired to a suburb of Montreal with the love of his life, Guy Glover, a man he met in 1937 and who supported him during bouts of depression. They lived there together until McLaren’s death in 1987.
Warner Bros. Cartoons
Directed by Chuck Jones
Duck Amuck is a classic Merrie Melodies short in that, like so many others, it’s about Daffy Duck being driven absolutely bonkers by the situations in which he finds himself. But as a meta-commentary on how Daffy Duck’s entire existence is beholden to those who created him, it’s infused with the sense of mischief that is so very Chuck Jones, who directed it. And, as written by Michael Maltese, it also serves as a lesson in how animation works and why each element of it matters.
”Whoever’s in charge here: Where’s the scenery?” Daffy asks through a ruptured fourth wall after his background has turned into a blank white space. From there, the backdrops keep changing and Daffy keeps trying to adjust. But eventually everything goes haywire: The sound goes out, the frame collapses and nearly crushes Daffy, and even Daffy himself gets erased more than once by the butt end of a pencil that enters the frame, presumably via some God-like figure.
Every person who worked on Duck Amuck matters, this short tells us, because every piece of a story, if altered or absent, transforms the narrative. That said, special shout-outs go to Mel Blanc for his signature, hilarious escalation of Daffy’s exasperation and to legendary composer Carl Stalling for changing up the music with impeccable timing. The big twist is, once again, very Chuck Jones: Turns out it’s Bugs Bunny, ever the stinker, who’s been sitting at the drafting table and messing with Daffy the whole time. A lot of the works on this list are perfect cartoons, but seriously: This is a perfect cartoon.
Warner Bros. Cartoons
Directed by Chuck Jones
More than almost any other short film in this list, this one needs no introduction. Animation legend Chuck Jones at the height of his creative powers? The final appearance of Elmer Fudd in a Jones-directed cartoon? Bugs Bunny in his best drag performance? A pitch-perfect parody of Richard Wagner’s operas and ballets, the Bugs-and-Elmer formula that had grown kind of stale, and even a send-up of Disney’s Fantasia? There’s no wonder this became the first cartoon selected for the National Film Registry.
The short continued in the vein of Jones’s earlier opera parody, Rabbit of Seville, itself a nod to an earlier Woody Woodpecker short loosely adapting the same opera by Gioachino Rossini. What’s Opera, Doc? was an especially labor-intensive cartoon to make, requiring Jones and his animators to fudge the numbers on their time cards to get it done, claiming the additional weeks were instead allocated toward the easier-to-produce Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner shorts. The added time and effort show onscreen. Maurice Noble’s art direction evokes the limited animation style of rival studio UPA to create a world influenced by the horrors of German silent-film expressionism, featuring jagged towers and buildings and sets that simply couldn’t be replicated in live-action even with the highest of budgets. Meanwhile, Dutch angles are used to give the story of Bugs and Elmer’s last stand a scope worthy of Wagner’s grandiose epic.
Then there’s the real star of the show, Bugs’s lapine femme fatale, the pigtailed Brunhilde. For many people, including RuPaul, Bugs Bunny provided a first introduction to drag queens, and the wascally wabbit never did it better than here, riding atop a morbidly obese yet graceful steed as Brunhilde. It is a definitive entry for the character, whose creative life is a subject of a chapter in Jones’s own illustrated autobiography. “Bugs went through a period of wild awkwardness before settling into the self-contained studied attitudes peculiar to him, so that his every movement is Bugs and Bugs only,” Jones wrote. He described What’s Opera, Doc? as one of the final corners turned in that evolutionary process: “Probably our most elaborate and satisfying production.”
Directed by Taiji Yabushita and Kazuhiko Okabe
World War II lasted 15 years for Japan, a period during which few foreign cartoons were accessible. After the war, game-changers like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia flooded Japanese cinemas, overshadowing the domestic industry’s grayscale shorts. Until Toei released Japan’s first full-color animated feature, proving Japan could play the game too.
The head of Toei, the former accountant Hiroshi Okawa, bought respected animation studio Nichido Eiga and rebranded it Toei Animation. He intended to replicate Disney’s business model (and financial success) by churning out features for export beyond both the language barrier and anti-Japanese sentiment. But Japan didn’t have enough animators for that yet, so Toei had to cultivate them to make Panda and the Magic Serpent, which required a staff of more than 13,500 to complete (including a young in-betweener who would later become famous as anime director Rintaro).
The effect was monumental. “I first fell in love with animation when I saw Panda and the Magic Serpent,” said Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki, who worked at Toei early in his career with Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata. “I can still remember the pangs of emotion I felt at the sight of the incredibly beautiful young, female character, Bai-Niang, and how I went to see the film over and over as a result.” Her transformations between her human and serpent form are the emotional cruxes of the film, and Miyazaki’s reaction was far from an isolated experience. Toei had made the biggest anime landmark since Japan’s first feature-length animation 13 years earlier, wartime propaganda Momotaro: Sacred Sailors (1945). Recruiting aspiring animators was easy.
Retention was harder. The so-called Toei University turned young hopefuls into accomplished professionals, creating a massive pool of talent dissatisfied with their wages. Many left, including Miyazaki and Takahata, who became Toei’s competitors. Toei built an animation workforce ripe for poaching, just in time for the anime TV boom of the 1960s.
Walt Disney Productions
Directed by Clyde Geronimi (supervising)
“We took the approach that we were going to kill that damned prince,” Wolfgang Reitherman once said of the dynamic sequence he directed in Sleeping Beauty. Overseen by Reitherman in a film co-directed by several of his fellow Nine Old Men, the fight between Prince Phillip and Maleficent in her dragon form feels like a moment Disney had been building to throughout its history as a studio. This sequence requisitions the best elements of Snow White’s retreat into the forest after she learns of the wicked queen’s plans to kill her and the arrival of the demon in Fantasia’s “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence, combining them into one climactic expression of storytelling bliss. Like many of the studio’s earliest efforts, Sleeping Beauty’s animation techniques owe a lot to the expressionistic quality of silent film. Phillip’s galloping horse and Maleficent’s transformation are clear images of good and evil that are immediately understood and brought to a thrilling conclusion of explosive greens, twisting brambles, and the deadly fires of Hell.
But Sleeping Beauty’s transcendence is not confined to just one scene, and Walt Disney’s decision to film with Super Technirama 70-mm. — the first wide release to utilize the prestige format — only emphasized the film’s glittering assemblage of artistic achievements. There is the expansive, richly painted background work of artist Eyvind Earle. There is also the beautiful color work depicting the three fairy godmothers and their planning of Aurora’s birthday, which Floyd Norman, Disney’s first Black animator, helped create. And there is the arrival of Maleficent, overseen by Marc Davis, whose villainy debuts with a clap of thunder and green fire, dominating the tone and texture of the film’s imagery. That’s not to mention the other remarkable animators who worked on the production in varying capacities, including Chuck Jones and Don Bluth.
Despite all this spectacle, Sleeping Beauty did not find its audience upon release, and it would signal the end of an era for Disney. In the future, the studio would adopt animation shortcuts and digital techniques, and Sleeping Beauty would stand as the last film the studio allowed to be built entirely by the hands of its creators.
Directed by Jiří Trnka
Though not well known in the U.S., Czech animation has a long, rich history. Two of its animators in particular contributed enormously to the medium: Karel Zeman and Jiří Trnka. Zeman was often referred to as the “Czech Méliès” for his use of special effects and animation, and his short Inspirace bears the distinction of being the first film animated using blown-glass figurines, reportedly because of a bet Zeman accepted. His work influenced directors as wide-ranging as Terry Gilliam and Wes Anderson, to say nothing of his contemporary Trnka.
Trnka, a master of puppetry and stop-motion, was called “the Walt Disney of Eastern Europe” in his day owing to his influence on the medium and his fantastical adaptations of literary works. His masterpiece, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, uses framing and posing alone in order to convey the emotions of Shakespeare’s characters, as Trnka refused to alter the hand-carved puppets in any way. The film is set to the balletic music of frequent collaborator Václav Trojan in order to highlight the fluidity and rhythm of the action.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a highly unusual film in technical terms. Trnka, who found letterbox presentation of films to be abhorrent, chose to shoot every single frame with two cameras, one in Academy ratio and the other in CinemaScope, essentially recording an in-camera pan-and-scan of the film simultaneously with the theatrical version. The result is a film that feels epic in ways few other animated films of the time did — and many took notice. Stephen Bosustow, one of the founders of United Productions of America, said Trnka was a great influence on UPA’s visual approach, praising the director as “the first rebel against Disney’s omnipotence.”
Jay Ward Productions, Gamma Productions, Producers Associates of Television, Inc.
Produced by Jay Ward and Bill Scott
Running as interstitials in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Fractured Fairy Tales was a pun-laden series of animated shorts by creator Jay Ward that retold classic fairy tales (always narrated by Edward Everett Horton with Daws Butler, June Foray, Bill Scott, and Paul Frees supplying voices) with a toonish, sardonic flair. In particular, we’re highlighting the series’ first short, a brilliant take on the story of “Rapunzel,” which sports significantly lowered stakes (we’re pretty sure the wife in the story isn’t going to actually die if she doesn’t get her rampion), dressed-down dialogue (“Rampion, shmampion, it still looks like weeds to me”), and a spunky Rapunzel who is sick of her hair-related headaches.
Influenced by Dragnet spoof “St. George and the Dragonet,” by Butler and Stan Freberg, Fractured Fairy Tales started with twists on real fairy tales not only by the Brothers Grimm but by Hans Christian Andersen as well; after a while, the creative brains behind it started composing fairy tales of their own. Fractured Fairy Tales “were so distinctive an element of Rocky and His Friends,” wrote animation historian Keith Scott in The Moose That Roared, his book about Rocky and Bullwinkle, “that they remain the strongest memory of the series for many viewers.”
The humor holds up in excellent fashion eight decades later — unsurprising, given that Fractured Fairy Tales was one of Ward’s favorites of the show. But beyond its timeless binge-worthiness, Fractured Fairy Tales has also cemented its place in animation history for defying industry norms and influencing generations of subsequent creators.
Compared to the Hanna-Barbera re-creations of the family-sitcom format like The Flintstones and The Jetsons, the Rocky and Bullwinkle humor in general and Fractured Fairy Tales in particular felt jaggedly satirical and occasionally dark. Fractured Fairy Tales paved the way for a film like Disney’s Tangled and especially the Shrek franchise. We can ultimately thank Ward for everyone’s favorite Scottish ogre as well as for a host of later fairy-tale twists, such as Jon Scieszka’s award-winning postmodern children’s book, The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales.
Shanghai Animation Film Studio
Directed by Te Wei
Te Wei is unlike anyone else featured on this list. The cartoonist and animator did not come to the medium out of passion for the art or a desire to further innovate it; rather, Wei entered the world of animation because a government official ordered him to.
A year after being hired by his China’s Ministry of Culture to run the animation division of Changchun Film Studio, he, along with a number of artists, moved to Shanghai to form the Shanghai Animation Studio, where together they would pioneer three new animation techniques: paper cutting, paper folding, and Wei’s speciality, ink-wash animation.
Wei and his staff would develop the technique after being challenged by Chen Yi, a high-ranking government official, to create a short that resembled the water color paintings of Qi Baishi, who had just passed away. Astoundingly, they met the challenge on their initial attempt, the seemingly simple Where Is Mama both dazzled and baffled animators around the world, as no one could pin down exactly how Wei and his team at SAFS crafted the beautiful short, whose influence is still being seen in China today — look no further than the opening of 2018’s White Snake.
Chinese animation has such a rich history but has had to overcome many hurdles thanks to government interference or indifference. There has not been a true ink-wash animated film since Wei’s final film, 1988’s Feeling From Mountain and Water, and with older animators not passing their techniques to younger generations, because of a lack of financial support from the government and the most talented animators being acquired by American and Japanese animation studios, there are real fears that the technique Wei help pioneer will soon fade into history.
Directed by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera
Though cartoons were considered children’s entertainment in the ’50s, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera’s The Huckleberry Hound Show, featuring characters like the titular pooch and Yogi Bear, became a surprise hit with adult audiences, who would even go to bars to watch the show. This surprise success inspired the duo, who had already produced Academy Award–winning Tom and Jerry shorts for MGM, to create a groundbreaking adult-oriented cartoon series for prime-time TV.
The Flintstones was not an instant hit, at least not with critics, but the show quickly grew an audience as it married the tropes and humor of beloved live-action sitcoms like The Honeymooners (which Hanna considered the funniest show at the time) with the kind of visual gags you could only achieve with animation. Hanna-Barbera even hired two of The Honeymooners’ writers, Herbert Finn and Sydney Zelinka, to bring the adult humor that was cracking up audiences in the live-action format to the modern Stone Age world of The Flintstones. The cartoon was the first to include laugh tracks and focus on family issues that got resolved with laughter by the end of each episode, and it would create the template for animated sitcoms that The Simpsons ran with decades later to become an animation juggernaut.
The Flintstones, like most of Hanna-Barbera’s productions, made use of looping “limited animation.” The animators kept characters’ hands at their sides. They looped animation of Fred’s feet as he served as the motor of his own car. Characters passed across the same backgrounds over and over again. Limited animation was pioneered by the UPA studio as a stylistic alternative to the more detailed realism of Disney and Warner Bros., but it was Hanna-Barbera that saw the technique’s potential to save serious time and money. The Simpsons memorably mocked this in later years, but in the ’60s and ’70s, this helped Hanna-Barbera become so efficient at churning out shows that 60 Minutes once referred to the studio as “the General Motors of animation.”
Directed by Osamu Tezuka
Despite using fewer than 20 images, this sequence from the show’s first episode, “The Birth of Astro Boy,” covers more than 200 frames. It showcases the limited animation associated with Astro Boy’s creator, manga artist/anime boss/cultural giant Osamu Tezuka. Techniques like partial animation, abstract backgrounds, animation loops, and camera movement on still images all convey motion with as little animation as possible.
But while they developed into stylistic conventions now part of anime’s visual language, these techniques weren’t Tezuka’s. Or new. Or unique to Japan. At the time, Astro Boy didn’t look too out of place next to Hanna-Barbera productions like The Flintstones. Tezuka didn’t pioneer limited animation so much as the commercial conditions that forced TV animators in Japan to rely on it.
Tezuka sold Astro Boy’s pilot in the anime TV industry’s formative years. Unfamiliar with the costs involved, buyers made low offers based on known quantities such as animation imports. By accepting an amount he knew fell far short, Tezuka set a harmful precedent that became industry standard. The ripple effect of that decision continues today; where Tezuka switched suppliers to save five yen per cel, animators now receive starvation wages to work in crunch conditions without benefits. Astro Boy made today’s anime industry possible. That’s a complicated legacy.
Astro Boy was also the first anime series to be broadcast on U.S. TV, imported by Fred Ladd, whose work carries its own complicated legacy. It set the precedent for treating imported anime as raw materials. Renamed characters, liberal translation, heavy-handed editing, bowdlerization, and filled silences (as in this sequence, entirely without words in Japanese) were hallmarks of anime localization until the aughts.
Directed by Don Chaffey; Visual effects by Ray Harryhausen
Ray Harryhausen didn’t invent the use of stop-motion as a means of creating big-screen special effects. But his contributions to the field were instrumental, and his influence remains immense, as the artist responsible for everything from the proto-kaiju that attacks New York in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms to Bubo the mechanical owl in Clash of the Titans. Harryhausen did no less than define a whole generation of moviegoing wonder, bringing to screen flying saucers and fighting centaurs and dinosaurs, all of it decades before the advent of computer-generated imagery.
His genius wasn’t just seen in his skill when it came to designing and manipulating miniatures. He also developed a technique, dubbed “Dynamation,” that combined live-action footage with stop-motion photography, using split screen and rear projection. The result is that his animated creations appeared to exist in the real world — and never more famously than in the climactic skeleton battle in 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts, his masterpiece, in which the eponymous Greek hero (Todd Armstrong) faces down seven bony foes who emerge from the Earth at the behest of King Aeëtes (Jack Gwillim).
The intricate sequence, which took four months to film, looks so good because Harryhausen was able to sync the actions of his models up with the actions of the actors, making for an entirely convincing sword fight. First he shot the actors, who had rehearsed with stunt doubles and were then filmed performing their half of the fight, then he layered in his skeleton warriors, each of which had five appendages, into the film with their halves of the fight. “You have to make 35 moves when you have seven skeletons on the screen for one frame of film,” he later recalled of the workload. In the end, the fight was a landmark special effect. Those stop-motion skeletons shared the screen with the stars, but more importantly, they interacted with them.
Walt Disney Productions
Directed by Robert Stevenson
The hybridization of animation and live-action photography had existed long before Mary Poppins. Walt Disney himself had made a series of shorts using the technology before he ever invented Mickey Mouse or Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. In those early “Alice comedies,” Disney reversed the gimmick of the popular Fleischer brothers’ Out of the Inkwell shorts, putting a live-action girl in a completely animated world. And he would return to the idea decades later in Mary Poppins, during a sequence in which Bert (Dick Van Dyke) and Mary (Julie Andrews) and the children escape into a chalk drawing.
While in this animated wonderland, they dance, they sing catchy tunes by the Sherman Brothers, and they interact with a small platoon of animated penguin waiters, as charmingly animated by Disney legends Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. It feels like something of a throwback today, but for the time was incredibly cutting edge, mostly thanks to the interactivity between the humans and animated characters and the way the sequence was put together in an era long before blue-screen technology or the kind of compositing popularized by Star Wars.
This feat was accomplished using a combination of sodium vapor lights and a specially designed Technicolor camera responsible for only two strips of film, with a special prism that would capture the sodium vapor light on one strip and everything else on the other. The result was a perfect matte line that allowed for the background and characters to be fully animated and things like the piece of material holding Mary’s hat to her head to be fully transparent. Incredibly, Technicolor was never able to replicate the prism again, leading to decades of cumbersome, overtly intricate solutions to the same problem. And looking at the sequence now, it really is as stunning as it ever was, thanks largely to the expressiveness of the animation (at a time when the attention of the head of the world’s most renowned animation studio was drifting away from the medium) and just how good the compositing is. You can tell that Disney wanted to push things forward, and push things he did.
Legend has it that notoriously contentious Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers hated the animated sequence and after the world premiere even urged Disney to cut it. (His reply? “That ship has sailed.”) Yet it remains one of the very best, most lively moments in the movie, let alone a benchmark of live-action/animation combination. In fact, the very same penguin waiters appear at the Ink & Paint Club in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and a similarly intricate animated sequence was conceived for the long-overdue follow-up Mary Poppins Returns. (Somewhat tellingly, the animation on the sequel wasn’t handled by Disney.) Travers might not have been a fan, but the sequence stands as a favorite of animation fans the world over.
Videocraft International, Ltd. (Rankin/Bass Productions)
Directed by Larry Roemer and Kizo Nagashima (associate)
It’s janky. It’s junky. But it’s also jingle-jangly: Rankin-Bass’s 1964 holiday television special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer established the mid-century template for American Christmas tradition in all its glorious kitsch. Something about the stop-motion makes it fascinating, year after year, to the very young: the characters are hypertactile, all hair and fur, the story simple but elemental. Where A Charlie Brown Christmas appeals to the bourgeoisie, with its anti-consumerist screed and middle-brow jazz, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas’s Seussian wit positions it as the most effectively classic and timeless, Rudolph is chintzy and childlike and — between Hermie and the Misfit Toys and the disapproving jock dad — remarkably, charmingly queer. Its Abominable Snowman is like Baby’s First Harryhausen, made all the scarier by its lo-fi movements and the compensating hyper-close-ups.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer endures for all of these elements and a bang-up folksy Burl Ives soundtrack, and its production history represents a model that American TV animation continues to employ to this day: After storyboarding in New York, the actual “Animagic” animation was outsourced to Tadahito Mochinaga’s team in Japan. The interchange between American and Asian animation outfits, including the problem of who exactly does what labor, would endure — as would that adorable, nasal-voiced reindeer.
Directed by Marv Newland
When he was working on his student project at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles in the late ’60s, Marv Newland had no idea that he’d create one of the funniest and famed animated shorts of all time. When his first project — a live-action film — turned out to be too ambitious for the allotted time, Newland abandoned the project and changed course, spending two weeks and less than $300 on Bambi Meets Godzilla.
The minute-and-a-half-long film plays the picturesque, rural “Call to the Dairy Cows” from the 1829 opera William Tell as Bambi grazes in the pasture — that is, until the last haunting note from the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” (1967) reverberates as (spoiler!) Godzilla’s scaled foot comes crashing down on our protagonist. Decades later, Newland joked that Bambi Meets Godzilla is the “film that ruined my career,” though he went on to work on Gary Larson’s Tales From the Far Side TV special.
Jokes aside, few students can say their school project played in theaters across the U.S. (in this case, before screenings of Philippe de Broca’s King of Hearts). The short’s magic is all in the timing. Of the total 90-second runtime, the film spends the first 48 listing the opening credits and the last 27 on the closing credits, leaving just about 12 seconds in the middle for the “action,” which is just Godzilla’s unmoving, monstrous foot, ensuring the life is truly squashed out of poor, poor Bambi. But the film lives on, getting a makeover in a frame-for-frame HD re-creation in 2013.
Filmation, Hanna-Barbera Productions
Directed by Hal Sutherland, William Hanna, Joseph Barbera
These two iconic sequences go hand-in-hand, so we’re combining them as one — cheating, perhaps, but it’s simply irresponsible to discuss the chart-topping megahit without highlighting the heavy hitter it hatched, both spinning out of the pages of Archie comics in the late ’60s.
Written by musicians Jeff Barry and Andy Kim and originally recorded by The Archie Show’s fictional bubblegum pop band the Archies (with Ron Dante, Andy Kim, and Toni White on vocals), “Sugar Sugar” skyrocketed to No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard “Hot 100” chart, where it stayed for four weeks. According to Dante, a promoter in San Francisco “took off the label before giving it to the top radio station there. He said, ‘Just play it! It’s a mystery group.’ The guy played it, and the phones lit up.”
The catchy tune (and the originality of the animated music-video concept) inspired a wave of Saturday-morning cartoons to follow suit by incorporating bands and music, like that time Scooby Doo met the Monkees. And while it was the first song by an animated band to reach the charts, it certainly wasn’t the last.
But if the Archies started the trend, Josie and the Pussycats perfected it with their mega-groovy intro sequence. Featuring an all-women rock band including Valerie Brown, the first Black woman main character in a cartoon, Josie and the Pussycats — which debuted half an hour before the Harlem Globetrotters TV series, the first majority Black cast in an animated show — set the scene for later girl-power animated classics like Jem and the Holograms.
Directed by Osamu Dezaki
Osamu Dezaki was a lion among animators, renowned for his work on such anime as Astro Boy, Dororo, Lupin the Third, and Space Adventure Cobra and whose signature techniques have since become inseparable from the visual language of Japanese animation. His most enduring contribution to the medium of animation comes in the form of his “postcard memories” technique, a stylized form of denouement shots that has been all but unanimously adopted by countless anime directors since the 1970s.
Characterized by a freeze frame resembling a faded pastel-chalk portrait painted on a postcard, hence the name, the “postcard memories” technique is a form of limited animation that’s been used to emphasize humor, drama, romance, action, or melancholy. This last quality is on full display in the closing shot of the 1970 boxing sports anime Ashita No Joe, Dezaki’s directorial debut, where the protagonist Joe Yabuki, following his defeat at the hands of his rival José Mendoza, slumps over in his corner of the boxing ring deathly still, a faint smile eerily painted across his face. The “postcard memories” technique has since transcended its creator to become one of the most ubiquitous visual tropes of Japanese animation, seen everywhere from Dragon Ball Z to Cowboy Bebop to Kill la Kill and beyond.
Fritz Productions, Aurica Finance Company, Krantz Films
Directed by Ralph Bakshi
Furries themselves often point to Disney’s 1973 version of Robin Hood as a shared, foundational text in furry culture. Arguing against a subculture’s own idea of its history might be anathema, but here, they are wrong to evade the key touchstone of horny anthropomorphic cinema: 1972’s Fritz the Cat. A few short years after the Western auteurist revolution of films like Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy came a cast of characters that could have been mistaken for Jay Ward kiddie cartoons — until they opened their potty mouths or shed their hippy togs to reveal full feline tits and ass.
Based on Robert Crumb’s underground comix character, Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat was the first film to score the X rating, and it pulsates with a sophomoric “Can you believe we’re getting away with this?” attitude that presages the naughtiness and cynicism of South Park decades later. In what is perhaps the most memorable of many memorable scenes, you see everything that earned Fritz the Cat its reputation: campus feminists being lured into a dirty bathtub orgy, plenty of drug use, and bumbling cops who in this universe are, of course, pigs. Nearly 50 years later, it still evokes the fresh, rebellious excitement of a kid doodling a wang on a bathroom stall for the first time, giddily sordid.
Created by Bill Cosby; directed by Hal Sutherland
Much as we’d prefer to leave Bill Cosby out of this — and we really, really would — we can’t. That’s because Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, which Cosby co-created and starred in, marks an important milestone as the first animated TV series to focus on original Black characters. (The Jackson 5ive and The Harlem Globetrotters, which preceded it, were based on existing people.) The initial special based on Cosby’s stand-up comedy, Hey, Hey, Hey, It’s Fat Albert featured the designs of Leo Sullivan and the work of six other animators and aired on NBC in 1969, while the long-running series that debuted on CBS in 1972 was produced by Filmation — known for its use of limited animation and adaptations of Archie comics, Star Trek, and other properties.
Like so much of children’s programming during the early ’70s, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids was built on educational underpinnings. In every episode, Fat Albert, Mushmouth, Rudy, and the rest of the Junkyard Gang learned some kind of lesson. That mission, and the show’s spirit, are best captured in the show’s theme song, which starts with a distinctive bass groove that quickly turns into a “na-na-na, gonna have a good time” party. In the song, Fat Albert declares that he and his friends will be “learning from each other while we do our thing,” while the animation introduces its all Black cast of distinctive personalities. The nicknames of these characters weren’t always positive — “Dumb” Donald, not the best! — but seeing all these Black kids on TV, depicted in a positive light, was significant. The fact that Fat Albert, the overweight center of the series, was the hero and that each of his friends had their own challenges to overcome only adds to the show’s status as a true example of better representation in animation.
Scholastic Rock, Inc.
Produced by George Newall and Thomas Yohe
Schoolhouse Rock! was born on the first Saturday in 1973 with this short, which established the sensibility of one of the most significant works of educational animation in modern history. Co-created by a team from an ad agency, including Thomas Yohe, who provided the drawings that became the basis for the animation, “Three Is a Magic Number” was written and performed by jazz musician Bob Dorough, who would go on to contribute to 32 more memorable Schoolhouse Rock! efforts.
“Three Is a Magic Number” was a catchy song, effective at cementing multiplication tables in children’s heads, and moving in its evocation of holy trinities, triangles, and single-child families. The animation was just as elegant in its simplicity. Combined, the music and those visuals created a distinctive aesthetic that would be expanded upon in “Conjunction Junction,” “I’m Just a Bill,” and many other shorts, which were shown regularly between commercials during ABC Saturday-morning cartoons. “Three Is a Magic Number” and its PSA-esque descendants like Muzzy or Téléfrançais! taught kids math, grammar, history, and science while also serving as an antidote to the increasing barrage of commercials being pitched directly to wide-eyed, sugared-cereal-hungry audiences.
Many generations have been exposed to Schoolhouse Rock! since its debut, thanks to the shorts themselves, viewable on Disney+, as well as the many homages and parodies that wound their way through pop culture. But
Gen-Xers were basically homeschooled on “Three Is a Magic Number” and the shorts that followed, to the point where it seems fair to argue that the children of the 1970s became MTV’s earliest music-video-obsessive adopters, in part because Schoolhouse Rock! trained them for the moment.
Jiří Trnka Studio
Directed by René Laloux
There’s nothing else out there quite like Fantastic Planet, that 1973 science-fiction freakout from French filmmakers René Laloux and Roland Topor and the Prague-based Jiří Trnka Studio. To see images from it are to have them forever seared on the brain. Who could forget the giant blue-skinned Draag, with their lidless red eyes and a tendency to keep humans (called Oms) as pets, sometimes indulging the much-smaller species and sometimes subjecting its members to random acts of capricious cruelty? Czech artist Trnka, who died in 1969, was best known for his reliance on puppets and paper in animation, and Laloux had a background in puppetry as well, and the result of the latter’s five-year cross-European collaboration with the studio was a film that used paper cutouts and dreamlike backdrops to unique and unsettling ends.
Fantastic Planet is an all-purpose allegory about oppression that at varying times has been read as having a message about slavery, about animal rights, and about the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. The truth is that it’s malleable enough to be repurposed for any conflict, as the oppressed Oms learn to use Draag knowledge and technology against their captors. The po-faced story is lightened up considerably by the heavy streak of psychedelia in the imagery, something that’s made the film a treasured party backdrop, especially in the scene in which four adult Draags are shown meditating. As their bodies shift kaleidoscopically into strange, organic shapes as they travel with their minds, it’s clear that what you’re watching is sci-fi, sure, but with an unmissable whiff of substances to it.
Directed by Eiichi Yamamoto
Belladonna of Sadness was singular at the time of its release in 1973, addressing historical misogyny and the ways that it can compromise or, in some cases, annihilate the bodies of women. Rendered through beautiful watercolor paintings, much of Belladonna is brought to life in close-ups of its protagonist, Jeanne, whose tragic face often reflects the complicated emotions of Lillian Gish’s work as D.W. Griffith’s tragic martyr. This story of extreme misogyny and violence does not make the implication that Jeanne is a universal figure of woman, but it does present her anguish in a journey reminiscent of Eve’s in the Bible. Jeanne has more in common with the tempting snake than the average woman, but the fatalism of her story, and the way it is rendered through oozing, wretched, red and black paint and a gaze of furious intent contains within it an elemental rage toward those who attempt to fracture the psyche of women everywhere.
Belladonna climaxes, in a way, in its prolonged orgy sequence, which plays in direct opposition to earlier scenes of rape. Jeanne draws the villagers, who believe in God, into a world of animal lust and primal instinct, illuminating a central hypocrisy in those who lift up a higher power only to crush those who are deemed filthy or different. Yamamoto’s Jeanne is a seductive figure, and the way she was painted had prolonged effects in the way that anime heroines were conceived of going forward. It’s easy to trace the DNA of this film to the later works of Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) or Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue). This is also the rare animated feature that has found soul mates of form in the likes of such horror films as Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin and Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem — works also interested in the ways stories of martyred women are woven throughout time.
Academy Productions, Group TAC
Directed by Leiji Matsumoto
Three years before the sci-fi boom led by Star Wars, Space Battleship Yamato sent a salvaged warship through space to save Earth from alien attack. Like Star Trek’s USS Enterprise, the Yamato was named for a real ship. This flashback from the episode “The Opening Gun! Space Battleship Yamato Starts!” animates its very real demise in 1945: bombed and burning, sinking with 3,000 crew members while Japanese soldiers pay their respects. A voice-over says the Yamato’s origin as a warship, born to fight, is a tragedy.
So the director, the prominent manga artist Leiji Matsumoto, was horrified to learn this sequence had aired with a military march. He fought to change the music, insisting, “Young people will not go along with this!” and “If the broadcast station hears this, the program is over.” War was still a delicate subject in Japan, where anti-military protests had filled the previous decade. Using real wartime iconography in a sci-fi setting to tell a very human story required a careful balance — easily tipped by a militaristic soundtrack. He won the fight, changed the cue, and Yamato went on to become one of the most influential anime of all time, both in Japan and in the U.S., where it was localized as Star Blazers.
However, this sequence didn’t make it into the U.S. adaptation in any form. But neither did more overtly antiwar sequences. At one point, the protagonist weeps for his enemies while surrounded by dead allies, wondering if violence was necessary. Star Blazers created audio to keep the dead alive and the hero firm in his beliefs. The U.S. — subject of Japan’s anti-military protests — had its own delicate balance to maintain.
Directed by Isao Takahata
Space Battleship Yamato signaled the beginnings of fandom as we know it, with teenagers turning up at the studio to show their enthusiasm. But the girls would sometimes admit they preferred Yamato’s rival: Heidi, Girl of the Alps. At the time, most TV anime were about sports or sci-fi, starring boys or beautiful women. Heidi, scheduled opposite Yamato and achieving identical ratings, highlighted the business case for TV anime targeting girls.
It also made the case for prestige TV animation. The penny-pinching conditions Osamu Tezuka accepted with Astro Boy’s undervaluation in 1962 had become the industry norm, but Heidi‘s director was Isao Takahata — previously demoted at Toei after ignoring deadlines and budget in pursuit of perfection on his debut feature, The Little Norse Prince (1968).
Heidi’s animators visited the Swiss Alps, shot reference footage, and used up to 8,000 cels per episode (Astro Boy’s average was 2,500, many reused). Impressive anime openings don’t typically represent a show’s animation, but this one does. Heidi’s quality, popularity, and exportability appealed to sponsors, who funded a string of “masterpiece anime” series based on children’s books. These were dubbed and aired around the world, popularizing this anime style.
Hayao Miyazaki (who danced around a car park with a colleague as a reference for Heidi and Peter’s dance in this sequence) described working on Heidi as “a year-long state of emergency,” which he realized was “the danger of television”: maintain that unsustainable state of emergency or sacrifice production quality. He chose to make movies instead.
Directed by Yuri Norstein
A little hedgehog is on his way to meet his friend the bear when he spots a white horse in the evening fog and decides to investigate. The horse disappears, and the hedgehog encounters all manner of frights in the fog before eventually finding his way to the bear. Even when the danger has passed, he cannot shake the image of the horse in the fog from his mind. Neither will anyone who watches this astonishing film.
Animation is breathing the illusion of life into two-dimensional objects, and few directors have made this magic as wondrously as Russia’s Yuri Norstein. Despite working with paper cutouts — a form that has more in common with stop-motion than traditional 2-D animation — he brings incredible dimensionality to his films through a variety of tricks, such as his own unique version of the multiplane camera. With Hedgehog in the Fog, he stumped his colleagues around the world with extraordinary environmental effects. How do the animals actually fade into and out of the fog? How did he replicate the fuzziness of fog so effectively with glass and celluloid? (The answer is that he painstakingly manipulated an extremely thin layer of paper between the camera and the planes of the scenes.) The film is at turns beautiful and scary in its evocation of a child’s imagination and the first encounter with the all-consuming strangeness of the world.
Directed by Caroline Leaf
The best-known practitioner of paint-on-glass animation is probably Russia’s Aleksandr Petrov, who’s gotten four Academy Award nominations for his shorts, winning for his 1999 The Old Man and the Sea, a gorgeous adaptation of the famous Ernest Hemingway novel. But the artist most often credited with inventing the technique is pioneering Canadian filmmaker Caroline Leaf, who first used it to make her wondrous 1976 short The Street, based on the story by Mordecai Richler. Leaf has made use of various innovative approaches to animation throughout her career, creating images with sand or by scratching directly on the emulsion of the film itself.
For her paint-on-glass work, she used pigments with retardants mixed in so they wouldn’t dry. After drawing on a white glass background and photographing the result, she’d wipe away the old image with a cloth and redraw the next frame. The result, in The Street (which was also up for an Oscar), is a handcrafted look that conveys the subjectivity and, in the fluidity of how the figures and scenes shift from one moment to the next, the haziness of the recollected past. It’s a style perfectly suited for a story shot through with love and loss — a Montreal man’s memory of a summer when he was a boy and his grandmother was on her deathbed, the whole family keeping vigil nearby while he thinks mostly of the fact that when the woman passes, he’ll finally have his own room.
Bruno Bozzetto Film
Directed by Bruno Bozzetto
The 1976 animated musical Allegro Non Troppo cannot be described as anything less than an emphatic, full-throated ‘F-U’ to Disney’s Fantasia. The magnum opus of Italian animator Bruno Bozzetto, the film’s title roughly translates to “Not So Fast,” a plea to criticize not only the optimism of Disney’s aforementioned musical but of the Western notion of progress itself. Set to the classical rhythms of Debussy, Dvorák, Sibelius, Vivaldi, and Stravinsky, Bozzetto’s film flips the self-importance Disney’s orchestral concept into a raucous comedy of irreverence and unbridled self-expression.
The film’s most famous sequence, set to Maurice Ravel’s “Boléro,” depicts a sentient dollop of black protoplasmic ooze writhing from the mouth of a discarded soda bottle before slinking across a barren expanse. Big things have small beginnings, and from the folds of this tiny roiling pustule spawns an entire planetary ecosystem of mammoth monstrosities with squinting eyes and gnashing teeth. A parodic counterpoint to Fantasia’s “Rite of Spring” sequence, Allegro Non Troppo’s “Boléro” imagines prehistory not as a titanic clash of competing forces but as a Boschian acid trip of horrors during which life itself strains to survive. Allegro Non Troppo meets and arguably even surpasses Disney’s Fantasia in terms of their respective ambitions, and the film’s “Boléro” sequence is evidence of that fact.
Directed by Charles A. Nichols
In the mid-1970s, Hanna-Barbera was unstoppable. Midway through what would be a 30-year reign as one of the most prolific animation studios in television history, the studio made hay by embracing limited animation, a low-budget technique that only required animators to animate what they absolutely had to, and embraced recycled footage whenever possible. The studio’s success was a victory of quantity over quality, one made easier by the massive portfolio of licensed characters available to it. DC’s Justice League was enshrined by the studio on television for more than a decade as the Super Friends.
The longevity of Super Friends — like many Hanna-Barbera properties, the series would regularly be retooled and renamed — means that wider trends in the television landscape of the time can be seen in its segments. The introduction of Black Vulcan, the first Black superhero on television, is one of them.
A landmark for onscreen diversity is reduced to rote tokenization — Black Vulcan was created for the show when a rights dispute precluded the inclusion of Black Lightning, DC’s first Black superhero. Black Vulcan was one of a rotating cast of ethnic superheroes used interchangeably to team up with one of the “main” Justice League members (in “The Whirlpool,” his first appearance, it’s Aquaman) to try and maximize the value of the superhero IP in animation, which for decades meant selling toys and appealing to audiences in the shallowest way possible.
Directed by Suzan Pitt
Suzan Pitt’s Asparagus was attached as an opening short film to David Lynch’s Eraserhead as the latter was growing into a cult phenomenon on the midnight-movie circuit in the ’70s. Both films glide across an abstract reality of moving images that could only be wrought by the bare hands of their creators. Pitt’s animation used a combination of cut-outs, stop motion, and traditional hand-drawn and painted animation cels. She spent her entire career experimenting with form while finding inspiration through the natural world, and Asparagus is overwhelmed with florid images of vegetation that resemble genitalia, a not-so-subtle metaphor for life and its possibilities of creation.
Pitt animates her film with a gliding, dreamy quality of shape-shifting and effervescent movement. She refuses to cut hard from one image to the next, instead opting for something more fluid with a seductive, liquid effect of disguised image wipes, which give the short a sinking, hallucinatory aura. In Asparagus, when doors and windows open, within those images there are only more images to slip into even further, as if Pitt envisioned her 20-minute short as Alice falling down the rabbit hole if the falling never stopped. The sloping, curving images of Pitt’s animation also feel deliberately feminine in construction and are only amplified by the sensuality of hands cupping phallic imagery that morph and sway with the bobbing of a mouth. Pitt’s work is surrealist but deliberate in its intent, and her straightforward approach to emotions and sensations made all of her work prick the skin of feeling — feeling totally inhabited by the soulfulness of her own human spirit as a result.
Pitt died in 2019, but the influence of her artistry and of Asparagus in particular are undeniable in the fields of experimental animation, visual art, and film to the extent that a community formed in her orbit over the years. In a remembrance, her friend and fellow animator Julie Zammarchi recalled asking her deep “questions about art and life” over the years, which Pitt never shied away from. “No subject was off limits or too personal,” Zammarchi said. “She was always generous during these meandering interviews as long as we both kept drawing and painting.”
A film roughly 30 years in the making, French animator Paul Grimault and poet Jacques Prévert’s adaptation of a tale by Hans Christian Andersen probably felt like a bizarre piece of history even upon its release in 1979. What began in 1948 as The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep, loosely based on Andersen’s fairy tale of the same name, was released unfinished in 1952 (as The Curious Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird in English-language markets) without the approval of either Grimault or Prévert. Grimault eventually obtained the rights to the film and was finally able to complete the film as he originally intended. And boy, were those intentions bizarre.
In this story of an evil painting of a king coming to life so as to kidnap a shepherdess and force her into marriage, Grimault’s work recalls the bouncy movements and ghoulish, wide-eyed characters of animation from decades prior, particularly that of Max Fleischer. It’s all placed within a film that pushes that style to a surrealist extreme, each wild left turn set against backdrops of a kingdom that alternates between minimal brutalism and Escher-esque labyrinthine architecture. And then the giant robot appears.
Despite Mockingbird’s unpredictability up to this point, the first appearance of the king’s giant robot, hidden beneath the city as a last resort weapon, is still a shock, its empty eyes and cold metal making for a stark visual contrast with the clean, white stone of the rest of the kingdom. More shocking still is the film’s final sequence, when the robot is repossessed and transformed into a tool of the common people and used to raze the pristine, decadent structures of the castle to the ground as the king’s tyranny is finally met with cathartic resistance. The surrealist film, particularly this sequence, is a noted influence on Ghibli co-founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, with Miyazaki explaining how the film made him more aware of how to use space in a vertical manner. The design of the robot itself seems to echo throughout that director’s work, but even in isolation the film remains a powerful one, with its animated tale of totalitarianism rendered in beautiful detail.
Directed by Yoshiyuki Tomino, Ichiro Itano (animator)
When Ichiro Itano was 20 years old, he decided one night to strap 50 fireworks onto his motorbike, light them with a Zippo, and start speeding down his local beach at 80 miles an hour. Why? Because he was told it was dangerous. In the midst of all the smoke, light, and sound emanating from the fireworks, the young daredevil and animator gained the inspiration for what would become one of the most iconic sequences in animation.
The “Itano Circus,” where a single character or object maneuvers through a torrent of missiles (or lasers, body parts, etc.), all in a single shot or within a single cut of the character, often shown from the perspective of the cockpit, is one of anime’s most dynamic, stylish, and visually distinctive tropes. Itano first used the technique in the 1980 series Space Runaway Ideon, and gained even more attention for the technique when he pulled it out for 1982’s Super Dimension Fortress Macross, hence the origin of its other name, “The Macross Missile Massacre.”
Since the 1980s, it has been one of the most copied sequences in animation, many attempting to mimic or even outdo the innovator. Itano has said that only three animators have successfully pulled off the technique: Yasushi Muraki, Masami Goto, and Neon Genesis Evangelion creator Hideki Anno. The circus also helped lead to the rise of sakuga culture in anime, where fans become familiar with the work of individual animators, following them from series to series, elevating them to superstar status.
Directed by Jan Švankmajer
No one combines the whimsical and the grotesque quite like Jan Švankmajer. The great Czech stop-motion surrealist turned Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into a half live-action, half-animated child’s-eye-view nightmare. He transformed a folktale into dark comedy about a tree stump baby with a taste for human flesh. He depicted two cutlets of meat having a grand and fully consummated romance before getting fried up for dinner. Švankmajer’s sensibility and style have been hugely influential, particularly when it comes to fellow stop-motion lovers the Brothers Quay and Terry Gilliam, who wrote in the Guardian that his films “always leave me with mixed feelings, but they all have moments that really get to me; moments that evoke the nightmarish specter of seeing commonplace things coming unexpectedly to life.”
Despite the number of artists he’s inspired, Švankmajer’s work remains singular and fantastically strange, which is never more evident than in his 1983 short Dimensions of Dialogue. The three-part film involves different variations on faces doing disturbing things to one another, but it’s the opening sequence that’s the most extensive and the most memorable. In it, tooth-clicking profiles formed out of produce, kitchen equipment, and office gear take turns devouring one another and then regurgitating the increasingly chewed-up bits. After several rounds of this, what’s left are a set of identical and more realistic looking clay heads vomiting each other up ad infinitum — call it a metaphor for anything from the flattening of public discourse under authoritarianism to the tedium of making small-talk.
Aurora Productions, Don Bluth Productions, United Artists
Directed by Don Bluth
After working at Walt Disney Productions for nearly a decade, Don Bluth was fed up. Feeling the famed studio’s decline in the ’70s was due to cut corners in the animation process, he left — along with Gary Goldman, John Pomeroy, and a cadre of other Disney talent to form his own studio, Don Bluth Productions. A staunch advocate for the medium, Bluth wanted to make movies that refused to cut those corners and showed what animation could be at a time when the form was at a box-office low.
This is why The Secret of NIMH, Bluth’s first feature, could be accurately described as “showing off.” When Mrs. Brisby, the mouse hero, meets Jeremy, the clumsy crow voiced by Dom DeLouis, he doesn’t have to be tangled up in thread, but he is, completely. He trips and falls and gesticulates, all while covered in a scarlet cord, dangling with real weight; a touch of painstaking realism in a fantasy world. NIMH is Bluth and his animators beating Disney, but better: a film darker and more emotionally complex, rendered in art that’s impossible not to lose yourself in.
The Secret of NIMH wasn’t a financial success, but its arrival altered the course of American animation. Disney would soon respond to Bluth’s defection with a revitalized slate of films, later canonized as the Disney Renaissance. Bluth’s studio would become the primary competition but mostly in spirit. While Bluth would be responsible for classics like The Land Before Time and An American Tail, financial success would not follow him into the ’90s as Disney’s revitalized juggernaut proved suffocating. It’s a win for Bluth in a way: He thought quality animation would win the day. Audiences didn’t choose his, but they did choose the better animated world he pushed for.
Tatsunoko Production, Artland
Directed by Noboru Ishiguro
This iconic sequence proved you could sell action figures and pop songs at the same time and demonstrated two game-changing innovations: transforming mecha and virtual idols.
Macross co-creator Shoji Kawamori was one of the teenage fans who visited Space Battleship Yamato’s Studio Nue. These visits became regular, and he was working there part time before even starting his mechanical engineering degree. In 1980, he designed a line of toys that transformed smoothly from robots to cars or airplanes and back again, grounded in real world mechanics. These would become Transformers, opening up the most profitable new mecha toy possibilities since Getter Robo first combined robots in 1974.
But the idol content was just as groundbreaking. A Japanese idol’s success relies on their ability to enable parasocial relationships. This framework was never applied to fictional characters until Minmay. After airing, Macross released two albums: a soundtrack and Miss DJ, Minmay’s in-universe radio show complete with adverts, Beatles covers, and in-character interviews. The soundtrack sold music. Miss DJ sold Minmay. She became the first virtual idol, her song from the 1985 film Macross: Do You Remember Love? reaching No. 7 on Japan’s Oricon music charts. It was the first step toward Hatsune Miku (via Sharon Apple, the in-universe virtual idol of 1995’s Macross Plus).
The U.S. adaptation Robotech represented the height of butchering localization practices, combining Macross with two unrelated shows to make one Frankenseries. Nevertheless, it built a dedicated fan following and shaped the animation landscape as Star Blazers had before it.
World Events Productions, Toei Animation
Directed by Franklin Cofod (adaptation), Katsuhiko Taguchi (original)
If it wasn’t for World Events Productions founder Ted Koplar, Toei Animation’s 1981 series Beast King GoLion would have faded into obscurity like many post-Gundam mecha anime of the period. It was by pure chance that Koplar got his hands on a tape of GoLion while searching for programming for KPLR, the independent TV station owned by his father.
Alongside executive producer Peter Keefe, Koplar heavily edited the series, removing the more violent and gruesome aspects of GoLion and rewriting the script so that it could be appropriate for American children. He and his staff would also change the name of the robot from GoLion to Voltron, Defender of the Universe.
A legit pop-culture phenomenon, Voltron is an example where — in the U.S. and elsewhere — the adaptation almost fully eclipsed the source. It was the No. 1-rated syndicated children’s program for three years, mainly remembered today for its formation sequence, where five pilots combine their robot lions to form the all-powerful Voltron — always accompanied by the triumphant score composed by John Petersen. While not the first super-robot series to feature a formation sequence (that honor goes to Toei Animation’s Getter Robo), the trope became synonymous with Voltron, referenced in other animated programs ranging from Dexter’s Laboratory to Robot Chicken, to say nothing of its nod on the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). More than anything, Voltron paved the way for other anime series to appear on American televisions like Dragon Ball Z, and tokusatsu shows like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
Directed by Steve Barron
When the Norwegian pop trio A-Ha released their now-iconic single “Take on Me” in 1984, the reception was a deadening thud. Despite the response, lead singer Morten Harket knew they had a hit on their hands; it just needed that extra something to push it over the top. Enter Jeff Ayeroff, then–creative director of Warner Bros. Records. Ayeroff put the band in touch with “Billie Jean” director Steve Barron, who from there enlisted the talents of animators Michael Patterson and Candace Reckinger to bring the song’s music video to life.
After shooting the live-action scenes in London, Patterson and Reckinger took the footage and spent 16 weeks creating the rest of the video. Drawing on the experience of creating his student film Commuter, Patterson and Reckinger drew over 2,000 drawings, bringing them to life in the style of a flickering, comic-book-like animation with rotoscoping (the first music video to make use of the technique). The result was nothing short of revolutionary, unlike anything television audiences had seen until then; catapulting the song to No. 1 on the Billboard charts in America and embedding itself firmly in the pop-culture subconscious. The video became so popular that viewers would leave MTV on in the background, just waiting for the chance of it coming on. This reception caused a ripple effect that would culminate in MTV creating its own dedicated animation block in the early ’90s, Liquid Television, spawning such shows as Beavis and Butt-head and Æon Flux, which themselves would create a precedent that would ultimately go on to inspire Turner Broadcasting’s own Adult Swim block.
National Film Board of Canada
Directed by Richard Condie
An award-winning short written and directed by Richard Condie in 1985, The Big Snit contrasts a couple’s domestic squabble with world-ending nuclear apocalypse. Laced with absurd humor, and the direct inspiration for the Scrabble scene in The Simpsons episode “Bart the Genius,” this piece manages to be a genuinely funny take on a deadly serious topic. It was produced through the National Film Board of Canada’s animation department — a robust incubator for artists like Cordell Baker, Janet Perlman, Chintis Lundgren, Ryan Larkin, and others — was founded by animation pioneer Norman McLaren. This critically acclaimed piece of animation, which boasts at least 17 awards and an Oscar nomination, is a prime example of the organization’s impact on the art form.
The boiling lines technique used for the character outlines in this short lives on in fellow Canadian animator Danny Antonucci’s Ed, Edd n Eddy, although it’s unclear if this piece is the constantly twitching trio’s direct inspiration. The more lifelike effect of constant slight movements stands in stark contrast to the film’s overall message, that life is ultimately meaningless and annihilation unavoidable. However, the idyllic ending of The Big Snit shrouds its bleak antiwar message in a colorful collage of flowers and flying Scrabble pieces. The short ends on a relatively high note, despite these dark undertones. Sharon Condie is credited with creating the backgrounds, presumably including the visually maximalist floral afterlife, and the result is not unlike George Dunning’s psychedelic 1968 animation in Yellow Submarine. Maybe the true takeaway from Condie’s cartoon is that love really is all we need.
Directed by The Brothers Quay
Siblings Stephen and Timothy Quay were born in Pennsylvania, but their aesthetic feels so innately European in its influences that they might as well be from across the Atlantic in spirit. The Brothers Quay are often held up as inheritors of the tradition of Jan Švankmajer, to whom they paid homage in a 1984 tribute short, though they’ve insisted themselves that their main inspiration is actually Polish filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk. Regardless, their work, which combines stop-motion and live-action footage with a dark sensibility, feels both familiar in its touchpoints and fresh in how it builds on those references toward something new.
In their best-known work, the 1986 short Street of Crocodiles, a puppet inside a curio box is freed from his strings by a man looking down through a viewing window from the outside. What the puppet finds in its explorations is a decrepit landscape that’s a masterpiece of mood and miniatures — all rusted hardware, clouded mirrors, hollow-headed dolls, a pile of dandelion fluff that reassembles itself into a ball, and a pocket watch that opens to reveal it is filled with meat. In the words of the Quays, the film is a depiction of “mechanical realities and manufactured pleasures,” but it’s also just an eerily beautiful experience that injected new life into the realm of experimental stop-motion. And the commercial, as well — it’s no surprise that Mark Romanek cited it when directing the video for Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” eight years later.
Pixar Animation Studios
Directed by John Lasseter
Pixar may be one of the most recognized brands in animation today, but its icon status found its start in a little lamp that could. Luxo Jr. was the first short film ever produced by Pixar Animation Studios, shaping and showcasing the qualities that the studio has come to be known for since. At the time, Pixar was a new, small studio where John Lasseter and a team of part-time animators were working with very little funding and low expectations. Though Luxo Jr. was produced merely as a test to demonstrate the Pixar Image Computer’s capabilities, it exceeded and transformed the traditional understanding of what computer graphics were for and what animation could be.
At the time of its release in 1986, the short was the first work of animation to use procedural animation and marked a breakthrough in CGI, using shadow mapping to show shifting light and shadow animated objects. Its emotional realism established inanimate objects as having lifelike qualities that could inspire both comedy and drama. After premiering it at the SIGGRAPH festival to laughter and applause, it was clear that Pixar had piqued the world’s interest. Later that year, Luxo Jr. became the first computer-animated film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.
”Luxo Jr. sent shock waves through the entire industry,” Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull wrote in his 1998 book Computer Animation: A Whole New World. “At that time, most traditional artists were afraid of the computer. They did not realize that the computer was merely a different tool in the artist’s kit.” The storytelling in Luxo Jr. got Pixar more support and funding and made it possible for the team to turn to feature animation, and eventually Toy Story, the first fully computer-animated feature film, also directed by Lasseter.
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
While waiting for their father’s bus, sisters Satsuki and Mei get caught in the rain. Soon they encounter another commuter, the local bear/cat/rabbit spirit Totoro, to whom Satsuki lends their spare umbrella. Totoro has some fun with making water fall on the umbrella before his ride comes: an enormous bus shaped like a cat. (Or rather, a cat shaped like a bus?) It is an extremely simple scene and also one of the most beat-by-beat delightful movie moments ever.
Hayao Miyazaki directs this sequence, which has been mimicked or parodied countless times and neatly encapsulates Miyazaki’s style, with a mesmerizing rhythm of pauses and actions. Each mundane gesture — Mei stomping in a puddle while Satsuki makes string figures, a streetlight coming on as night falls, Satsuki hefting Mei onto her back when she wants to nap — gradually builds to the intrusion of the fantastic. Every action has an equal and opposite non-action, a moment of consideration and reflection. This is best exemplified when Totoro figures out that raindrops + umbrella = fun noises, with the buildup climaxing with him making a huge hop (an echo of Mei playing in the puddle) to cause a ton of water to shake off the trees. It’s the simple feeling of passing the time, refracted through a lens that makes it indelible.
Directed by Isao Takahata
One of the most emotionally draining animated films ever was originally released in theaters as part of a double bill with My Neighbor Totoro, which would have made for quite the evening. But despite the drastically different tones of the two films, Miyazaki and Isao Takahata share an innate understanding of animation as a combination of movement and non-movement, one built by their long working relationship before they co-founded Studio Ghibli. That understanding is on full display in the devastating climax of Grave of the Fireflies, in which the deprivation of the two young protagonists closes in on them and teenager Seita’s willful refusal of all aid results in his little sister Setsuko’s death.
Nowhere else is a still drawing of a human so agonizing as in this scene. The conclusion is foregone; the movie starts with Seita dying in a train station and his ghost joining his sister’s, before jumping back in time to show us how things came to this. Seita, having cashed in family savings to get food, thinks there’s still time to save Setsuko from malnutrition. There isn’t. Like Miyazaki’s bus stop in Totoro, the sequence has its own rhythm. Seita is horrified by the mud “rice balls” Setsuko has made, then cuts her a slice of watermelon, then it lingers on the pause before she weakly reaches to take it. Each time it cuts to Setsuko lying on the floor of their makeshift shelter, you expect this to be it. When the moment finally comes, it isn’t with a meticulously animated final breath, but instead just another still shot, with Seita’s voice-over stating that she never woke up.
Grave of the Fireflies is indicative of two related historical impulses: the collective act of a population still processing grief decades after the end of World War II and the individual drive of an artist to depict it. Takahata’s film followed Barefoot Gen, a movie that graphically depicted the bombing of Hiroshima, and though he has denied that Grave of the Fireflies was intended as an antiwar film, he took pains to reproduce the era faithfully, knowing that among his animators, he was the only one in fourth grade during the war who could remember what the landscape looked like. “I’m not out to make a movie that explains the times,” he said, “but I think those aspects should get incorporated somehow.”
Directed by Robert Zemeckis; animation directed by Richard Williams
Animation and live action had co-existed on the big screen well before Who Framed Roger Rabbit, dating all the way back to the silent era. But Robert Zemeckis’s work of film cartoon noir married the two for the length of an entire feature with such precision and imagination that it felt like the genre had just rocketed into a new stratosphere.
That feeling sets in immediately during the film’s brilliant opening sequence, which begins with “Somethin’s Cookin’,” a hand-drawn short in the Merrie Melodies vein starring Roger and Baby Herman, then pulls the camera back to reveal a live-action set where human director Raoul J. Raoul and his crew are shooting this “cartoon” on a movie set. Even now, it remains astonishing to see how seamlessly the real people interact with the animated characters, a testament to the work of the legendary Richard Williams, animation director on Roger Rabbit and director of the famously unfinished The Thief and the Cobbler, who sharpened every line of sight between toon and person to make sure that an animated rabbit yanking an actual coat looked completely real.
Arriving in 1988 at a time when animation was on a cultural downswing, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, with moments like that initial sequence and its many homages to beloved cartoons of the past, reminded members of its audience of their deep affection for the medium. It also reminded critics just what animation could do. As a result, it paved the way for the next decade of cartoons, which would include The Simpsons, the Disney Renaissance, the revived popularity of Hanna-Barbera and Looney Tunes, and the return to the gleeful slapstick of yore on networks like Kids WB and Nickelodeon. Yes, this motion picture was half–live action. But it was 100 percent a love letter to the humor and magic of animation. (Click here to watch on Disney+.)
Tokyo Movie Shinsha
Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo
Where does one even begin to adapt, let alone reimagine, Katsuhiro Otomo’s 2,000-plus-page cyberpunk epic Akira for the big screen? For the man himself, the answer was simple: with nothing short of a big bang followed by a scintillating high-speed battle through the streets of a futuristic metropolis teetering on the brink of destruction.
The opening 13 minutes of Akira are a master class in cinematic precision. Otomo grabs the audience and thrusts it full force into the film’s world, weaving a motorcycle chase comprised of pulsating light trails, visceral action, and a thunderous Noh-inspired drum score performed by Geinoh Yamashirogumi between parallel sequences of civil unrest, police brutality, and a mysterious agent provocateur being mercilessly ventilated in a hail of gunfire. Everything you need to know is spelled out in those 13 minutes: the strained friendship and simmering rivalry between protagonist Kaneda and his antagonist/foil Tetsuo, a societal rage threatening self-immolation, and a clandestine military government desperately attempting to bury the past while straining to hold it all together.
The chase’s midpoint climax, animated by veteran animation director Koji Morimoto and informally known as the “Akira Bike Slide,” has been replicated nearly countless times on television, in the movies, and in games since the film’s release in 1988 — and especially in animation. Akira is a monolith of contemporary Japanese cinema, a cinematic achievement as historically significant as it is eminently impressive, and Akira’s opening motorcycle chase is nothing if not an enduring testament to the film’s primacy in the history of animation. (Click here to watch on Hulu.)
Starting as a segment on the Tracey Ullman Show before moving on to its own series, The Simpsons proved to American audiences (once again) that animated programs were not merely for children. For over 30 years, the series has given us many quotes and moments that have been referenced in everything from other cartoons to the cesspool that is Twitter. While not as relevant as it once was in the ’90s, there is one aspect of The Simpsons that can still demand attention from people who haven’t watched a full episode in years, and that is the couch gag. First appearing in the series’ second episode, “Bart the Genius,” the couch gag gives The Simpsons animators free rein to do what they wish to Springfield’s most famous family within constriction of the couch shot of its intro.
In the last three decades, the couch gag has gone from very simple actions such as the Simpsons performing a dance routine to gloriously outlandish ones that sometimes stretched for more than two minutes. The gag also allowed the family to meet other classic cartoon characters, such as Gumby, Rick and Morty, the Flintstones, and even the version of themselves that appeared on Tracey Ullman.
It also offered an opportunity for outsiders to come in and present gags animated in their own personal style. World of Tomorrow’s Don Hertzfeldt, the U.K. street artist Banksy, The Triplets of Belleville’s Sylvain Chomet, Guard Dog’s Bill Plympton, and even Blade II and Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro have all made versions of the gag. It is perhaps the most iconic aspect of one of the most iconic animated programs in history as well as its most adaptable. (Click here to watch on Disney+.)
Walt Disney Feature Animation
Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker
Very few artists had as widespread an influence on the history of animation as lyricist and playwright Howard Ashman, and he wasn’t even an animator. When Ashman started working with Disney in 1986 after he was commissioned to pen the lyrics for a song in the creative failure that was Oliver and Company, it began a relationship that would help birth the so-called Disney Renaissance and chart a path for the animation giants that they are still following to this day.
With The Little Mermaid, Disney’s output returned to the world of fairy tales and tapped into a feminine yearning for something more that resonated deeply with children everywhere. “Part of Your World” is an expertly crafted song of rising, bombastic vocals from Jodi Benson and firmly situated Disney in a new Broadway-influenced style of animated musicals. In the sequence, the mermaid Ariel retreats to her secret treasure trove, where she collects things from the human world, and like a teenage girl’s bedroom, it is decorated with her hopes and dreams. Much of the animation in this sequence is catered to the way Ariel moves, with her gorgeous flowing hair seeming to have a life of its own and her skyward gaze to emphasize her longing for more. (It would be the last fully traditionally cel-animated Disney film, before the process was replaced by Disney’s Computer Animation Production System, or CAPS.)
“Part of Your World” tapped into something fundamental about girlhood, and those sweeping, beautiful enchantments about being liberated and free from the restrictions of where you grew up, or who you are, or what your body looked like, still strike a chord to this day. Disney knows this too, as it has been tapping into the Ariel model ever since with the likes of Elsa from Frozen. “Part of Your World” is not only the start of Disney’s resurrection, but gave them an emotion to inhabit for the next 30 years, and that all started with Howard Ashman. (Click here to watch on Disney+.)
Directed by John Kricfalusi
When Nickelodeon debuted its first Nicktoons in 1991, none were as gross, subversive, and just plain weird as The Ren & Stimpy Show. Animated, directed, written, and created by John Kricfalusi, Ren & Stimpy was one of the most popular cartoons of its day. Unlike Doug and The Rugrats, which it premiered alongside, Ren & Stimpy was known for its surrealist humor and the outsize personalities of its eponymous, anthropomorphized Chihuahua and cat.
The show’s unsettling essence is encapsulated by its most famous moment, “Happy Happy Joy Joy.” It showcased one of the things that Kricfalusi did so well, which was to reintroduce physical humor and timing into cartoons, reminiscent of the work of Bill Hanna and Tex Avery, but with his subversive twist. The two leads perform a weird butt-slapping dance, followed by Ren bashing himself in the head with a hammer in time to the music while Stimpy bounces around, well, joyfully. It channels the weird antics, cringey behavior, and silliness the show was known for into a catchy tune whose popularity helped propel the show to new heights and does so with odd parodies of classic cartoon tropes.
But, like so many things, the show’s inventiveness is now overshadowed by its creator’s indefensible behavior. In 2018, two women came forward with accounts of how Kricfalusi sexually harassed them when they were teens, accusing him of grooming them and starting a sexual relationship with one when she was just 16. Kricfalusi admitted to the claims and said it was motivated by undiagnosed bipolar disorder and ADHD. Kricfalusi’s sexual harassment of female artists and teenage girls was an open secret of the animation industry at the time.
Despite Kricfalusi’s behavior, Ren & Stimpy’s influence is undeniable. It inspired dozens of imitators and fellow envelope-pushers in American adult animation in the late ’90s and early aughts. Mike Judge credits it with MTV picking up Beavis and Butt-head, and many of the conventions that it created or popularized still endure in today’s cartoons. (Click here to watch on CBS All Access.)
Directed by Junichi Sato
In the mid-to-late 1990s, Japanese imports began to find their way to American television sets, becoming massively popular among children in particular. The likes of Power Rangers (Super Sentai) and Pokémon were all the rage, and with the advent of Cartoon Network’s after-school programming on Toonami, such shows as Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon took hold of the imagination. Both of these series presented superheroics as an act of transformation. In the case of Sailor Moon, its function was in the transformational power of dress-up, and its most iconic sequence was birthed from that very idea.
In Japan, the magical-girl anime was nothing new in the 1990s, but it was for American audiences. There was an indefinable magic about this sequence that still resonates, as the magical-girl transformation has directly inspired the creators of popular shows like Steven Universe and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. With their transformation, the Sailor Guardians became superheroes who were powerful and elegant in equal measure — and because these characters were only 14 years old, they all existed in that in-between space of girlhood on the precipice of womanhood. This made the sequence all the more relatable to the preteen girls who were obsessed with the series.
During this sequence, the camera spins around lead character Usagi as she becomes Sailor Moon, as if she were a ballerina mid-pirouette. No longer is she clumsy, but rather assured of her movement, and bit by bit she becomes glamorous and strong; tipped fingernails, mascara, a sailor suit, and a tiara — and with a determined look on her face, she was ready to not only save her friends but the entire world. (Click here to watch on Hulu.)
Warner Bros. Animation
Storyboarded by Bruce Timm; animated by Kazuhide Tomonaga
How many animated television shows have managed to condense nearly an episode’s worth of plot beats comfortably into the space of minute — let alone for that minute to convey one of the most archetypal stories of a character so iconic one could immediately recognize who, or what, they’re watching without any dialogue, title card, or credits to speak of? The intro sequence of Batman: The Animated Series, aside from prefacing one of the greatest animated television series of all time, is itself irrefutably one of the greatest sequences in the history of animation.
“Everything you need to know about Batman is in [that opening],” DC Entertainment president and CCO Geoff Johns said back in 2004. Drawing inspiration from pulp-fiction staples such as the likes of the Avenger and the Shadow, Max Fleischer’s Superman shorts of the 1940s, and the dark futuristic architecture designs of Hugh Ferris, co-creator Bruce Timm and art director Eric Radomski crafted a one-minute pilot short to pitch the series to Warner Bros., which would later be reanimated by Kazuhide Tomonaga of TMS Entertainment to serve as the series’ intro sequence.
The result was an incarnation of the Caped Crusader unlike anything that had been brought to the screen before, drawing on the precedent of Tim Burton’s own feature film (and including its theme), albeit now reimagined through a synthesis of the chiaroscuro stylings of film noir, the architectural audacity of Art Deco, and the angular menace of German Expressionism. Nearly three decades later, the image of a heroic silhouette illuminated by a bolt of lightning against a blood-red sky stands as one of the most iconic depictions of the Dark Knight ever conceived and serves as a benchmark for animated action television to come.
Walt Disney Feature Animation
Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements
Animation is the only medium that could truly keep up with Robin Williams. The zealous, hilarious, endlessly talented actor and comedian first first lent his voice to animation in 1992’s Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, where he played an unbalanced rapping fruit bat named Batty Koda. The animators at Kroyer Films did a decent job animating Williams’s vocal skills, but they would truly shine when he joined Disney, as the company was redoubling its animated efforts, for the biggest film of 1992, Aladdin.
It takes almost 36 minutes for Genie to make his appearance and less than three to steal the entire picture (though Williams also voices the opening scene’s merchant). His opening song, “Friend Like Me,” written by the late Howard Ashman and composed by Alan Menken, is one of the highlights of the Disney Renaissance. From Williams rapid-fire delivery to the off-the-wall and elastic animation from Disney, and especially from the character’s lead animator, Eric Goldberg, the entire sequence is flawless.
Williams’s participation in Aladdin would lead to other studios hiring famous voices for animated characters — Eddie Murphy in Mulan and Shrek, Tom Hanks and Tim Allen in Toy Story, Chris Rock in Osmosis Jones. Williams would not return for the straight-to-video feature The Return of Jafar, as the actor felt betrayed by Disney when the company went back on their word and used his voice for promotional purposes, something Williams was strictly against; he did come back for 1996’s Aladdin and the King of Thieves. Today, Genie is Williams’s most famous and popular character, and it’s unlikely to see a big-budget animated film without at least one or two marquee celebrities attached. (Click here to watch on Disney+.)
Directed by Henry Selick; produced by Tim Burton and Denise Di Novi
Traditional children’s animated entertainment forever got permission to be ghoulish thanks to the opening number of the Tim Burton–produced, Henry Selick–directed The Nightmare Before Christmas, the stop-motion film that brought Ray Harryhausen–style craft into the mainstream as a longform art.
In 1993, in the middle of the Disney Renaissance, The Nightmare Before Christmas showed up on screens and immediately thrust vampires, skeletons, and clowns with tearaway faces into the eyeballs of audiences much more used to Disney princesses and genies with the comedy gifts of Robin Williams. “This Is Halloween” was scary — “Everybody scream!” shouts a creepy talking tree in the Danny Elfman–penned song — and seductively dark. If animated movies of the time were generally for kids who yearned for tiaras and adventure, The Nightmare Before Christmas, released under Disney’s Touchstone Pictures label, was aimed squarely at Wednesday Addams.
The story of Jack Skellington and Halloweentown was made via the painstaking stop-motion process, which was rarely used in feature-length animated motion pictures at the time. When the film opened on Halloween weekend, it rocketed to the top of the North American box office, a success story that brought the format back into vogue. Every stop-motion feature that followed — the Aardman Animation theatricals, Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, the entire output of Laika studios (including such films as Coraline, also directed by Selick, and The Boxtrolls), and Tim Burton’s subsequent stop-motion films, Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie — owes the Pumpkin King a significant debt.
Across the pond, stop-motion animation director Nick Park and studio Aardman Animations achieved feats of their own the same year, with the The Wrong Trousers, a short Wallace and Gromit film with an iconic train chase that nods to Indiana Jones. The short is full of visual humor that builds layers of sight gags in every handcrafted, incredibly detailed scene. We would be remiss not to mention it, as it and Nightmare both kick-started an interest in stop-motion in the ’90s. Aardman’s 2000 film Chicken Run remains the top-grossing stop-motion film of all time. (Click here to watch on Disney+.)
Hanna-Barbera Cartoons, Cartoon Network Studios
Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky
Not to be outdone by Nickelodeon and its Nicktoons success, Hanna-Barbera launched a new show on Cartoon Network called What a Cartoon!, the brainchild of producer Fred Seibert. It was a weekly showcase of new animation by new creators and led to the boom of memorable ’90s cartoons on Cartoon Network like The Powerpuff Girls, Johnny Bravo, Courage the Cowardly Dog, and many more. But the biggest to come out of the early days of the show was Dexter’s Laboratory.
Dexter’s Laboratory, created by Genndy Tartakovsky, was the second short to premiere on What a Cartoon! but the first to be greenlit for a full series. (The Powerpuff Girls, created by Tartakovsky contemporary Craig McCracken, premiered a week earlier in February 1995.) Mike Lazzo, the Space Ghost Coast to Coast creator who would later launch Adult Swim, greenlit Dexter’s Lab after a vote from viewers, who loved the weirdly accented little Dexter and how he contrasted with his destructively ignorant sister Dee Dee.
“Changes,” originally titled simply “Dexter’s Laboratory” in the What a Cartoon! anthology, is the short that started it all. Dee Dee sneaks into Dexter’s lab and starts misusing his latest invention: a remote that inexplicably turns people into random animals. The two run amok, turning each other into various animals throughout the lab and then up into their house, as their oblivious mother calls them down for breakfast. The crisp animation and visual humor made the segment stand out, nowhere more so than in the ending — a battle between a tortoise and the snail racing for the remote.
Dexter’s Laboratory received critical acclaim and won multiple Annie Awards, including the pilot episode, a testament to Tartakovsky’s talent and commitment as a filmmaker and a proof of concept for the What a Cartoon! anthology format, from which more series were quickly greenlit. Once it launched Tartakovsky’s career, he went on to create the Emmy-winning shows Samurai Jack, Star Wars: Clone Wars, and Primal, not to mention directing the Hotel Transylvania franchise.
Klasky Csupo Productions
Directed by Jim Duffy, Steve Socki, Jeff McGrath
Holiday specials have been around nearly as long as television, with virtually every popular serialized TV show, animated or otherwise, incorporating at least one Christmas-themed episode. But it took until 1995 and the arrival of Rugrats before we saw a Jewish-holiday special in an animated show.
Rugrats, together with Doug and The Ren & Stimpy Show, was one of the first slate of creator-driven animated series Nickelodeon called Nicktoons, introduced in 1991 as an alternative to the works of the Walt Disney Company and the merchandise-based adventure series of the 1980s. A show about babies for all ages, Arlene Klasky and Gábor Csupó’s series offered a view of the world through a child’s eyes without ever shying away from mature themes, and it quickly grew into a Peanuts for its generation. This episode was written in response to Nick executives’ request for a Hanukkah special, a request granted only one episode later; no other cartoon had ever before depicted Jewish American life at such length or in such depth.
In the episode, the babies attend a Seder with the maternal grandparents of protagonist Tommy Pickles, Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants who talk with heavy Yiddish accents and at times even in full Yiddish phrases. Because this is still a show about babies, the Ten Plagues are toned down a bit, and Moses tells Pharaoh: “Let my babies go!” But the episode still manages to capture the epic scope of the Passover story, with Tommy as Moses parting the Red Sea evoking the famous scene in The Ten Commandments. The episode was a big hit with critics and audiences alike, with the New York Times even reviewing the episode, and it became the highest-rated episode in the history of Nickelodeon to date. It also proved influential within the network, with Hey Arnold! later including a Bar Mitzvah episode. The creators of Rugrats, Klasky and Csupo went on to define Nickelodeon during the ’90s, producing other hit shows such as Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, The Wild Thornberrys, and As Told by Ginger. (Click here to watch on Hulu.)
Pixar Animation Studios
Directed by John Lasseter
The epochs of feature-length animation are measured in the years before Toy Story and after Toy Story, the first film to be completely animated using CGI and the first collaboration between Disney and Pixar Animation Studios. Following the success of their short Luxo Jr., computer scientists at Pixar were tasked with building the software to design and execute the feature, crafting a new art form. Facing what then seemed like a Sisyphean task, they created an advanced rendering system, named RenderMan.
But learning from Disney’s mistakes in prioritizing art over story, John Lasseter and his team were especially careful to create conversations between characters who would touch people’s hearts. Eight writers are credited with either “screenplay by” or “story by” credits on the film. A huge cast of comedic actors led by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen do the voices. Randy Newman’s award-winning music and the song “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” lent the new and technologically unfamiliar film an inviting warmth. And its themes of changing friendship, jealousy, doubt and fear resonated with adults and children alike. The simplicity of the film’s characters and narrative arcs belied the workmanship it all required; animating Woody alone meant manipulating 596 articulation variables for Toy Story (and 7,198 for Toy Story 4, released 24 years later).
The seams never showed, though. In one of the most memorable sequences in animated film history, the climax of Toy Story has Buzz Lightyear and Woody racing to catch a truck, cheering each other on as they fly. The scene exhibits the camaraderie of the film, as well as the lifelike emotions and features the animators were able to imbue through new technology.
Following its release, John Lasseter received a special Academy Award for leading the Pixar team, and the film became the first animated feature to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, Score, and Song. Lasseter’s star continued to rise at Pixar through its acquisition by Disney until 2018, when he left the company in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal. Since Toy Story’s release, there have been more than 250 computer-animated films released around the world and CGI has eclipsed traditional animation in the blockbuster features market. (Click here to watch on Disney+.)
Developed by Michael Girard, Susan Amkraut, John Chadwick, Paul Bloemink, John Hutchinson, Adam Felt
In the fall of 1996, a 3-D toddler doing what kind of looked like a cha-cha took the internet by storm. It was an ungainly thing, the dancing baby, which was part of the appeal — the absurdity of a diapered tot showing off some elaborate moves matched by the uncanny-valley quality of the animation, which looked like it was aiming more for realism than for the figurative, but really wasn’t getting there. The proud parent was the computer-graphics program that’s now called Autodesk 3ds Max. Wee little sk_baby.max was a sample file meant to show off what a new plug-in called Character Studio could do.
But the kid soon took on a life of its own, especially when video of it was converted into a GIF and the dancing baby went a particularly ’90s version of viral. In the era of CompuServe and AOL, years before social media as we now know it would take hold, this meant that it spread by way of forums, personal sites, and email forwarding. Its true pop-culture ubiquity really arrived only after it became an element on Ally McBeal, where it was given a soundtrack of Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” and appeared as a recurring hallucination, a symbol of the Calista Flockhart character’s fears about her career consuming her chances to have a family. After that, it was everywhere, a milestone of early memedom as a well as a sign of how central raw and interactive animation would become to the culture of the internet.
Gainax, Tatsunoko Production
Directed by Kazuya Tsurumaki
In Neon Genesis Evangelion, a story about a boy forced to fight monsters from within a monster of his own becomes much more: simultaneously homage, deconstruction, and annihilation. For 24 episodes, Hideaki Anno’s acclaimed series breathed new life into the giant robot genre, equally concerned with deep psychodrama as well as massive spectacle. Then came the ending, a pair of episodes that abandoned the forward momentum of the plot for an extended impressionist tone poem, a groundbreaking finale borne of necessity and catharsis.
In its two-part finale, Evangelion retreats entirely into its protagonist Shinji Ikari’s head, repurposing animation from the entire series to illustrate Shinji’s attempts to escape the throes of a deep depression. Offscreen, the Human Instrumentality Project, a last-ditch effort to save humanity from the monstrous Angels that may also wipe it out, begins. We don’t know how it goes; the series essentially abandons its apocalypse in favor of a story about a boy struggling to stop hating himself.
Anno’s own depression while making his wildly influential series is barely subtext; Shinji’s interiority and self-loathing is centered from the start. Yet the decision to end the show in a cathartic work of avant-garde art is completely breathtaking. Whether due to blown deadlines, a dried-up budget, or some combination of the two, the original plans for Evangelion’s ending changed, and in stripping itself down to the atomic level — literally to a single line on paper — Neon Genesis Evangelion transcends. It rebuilds its world into a more complete one, one where its characters, perhaps even its creator, could be happy, all as the apocalyptic story it was telling comes to a horrible end. (Click here to watch on Netflix.)
Directed by Kiyotaka Isako
In 1997, a strobe of flashing lights in episode 38 of Pokemon, “Dennō Senshi Porygon,” gave hundreds of Japanese children seizures. The series was immediately suspended, and a new set of industrywide guidelines was created to prevent animation triggering photo-sensitive epilepsy. In the U.S., this was the first many adults had heard of Pokémon, at a time when the word anime conjured images of nerds, schoolgirls, robots, and tentacles. But there was no media panic. If anything, the incident (which The Simpsons and South Park parodied a couple of years later) boosted Pokémon’s brand awareness.
Pokémon was the turning point for anime’s shift to the mainstream. Like Heidi, Girls of the Alps, and other touchstone anime, it was designed with the perfect cultural balance for export: foreign enough to stand out, but easy to localize. There was a visual language to learn, but the target audience — young Nintendo customers — quickly learned what sweatdrops were, what it meant when eyes became dots or shadows, and so on. The internet was new, but anime fandom was already online. Newbies began to learn that what the Pokémon anime called “jelly donuts” were actually onigiri, a Japanese rice snack. When they saw characters bowing, or wearing yukata, they could look up the significance.
Pokemon flattened the learning curve to appreciate anime and opened a gateway to Japanese culture. This paved the way not just for similar anime like Digimon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, or Monster Rancher, but for the Toonami block of iconic shows like Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, and Gundam Wing.
Directed by Satoshi Kon
The late great Satoshi Kon could depict the fragmentation of identity like few other directors, whether of animation or live action, and this terrifying folie à deux is one of his crowning achievements. When idol singer turned aspiring actress Mima realizes that her manager Rumi is the one who’s been stalking her and murdering men on her behalf throughout the film, Rumi insists that she’s “the real Mima” and attempts to complete this transformation by murdering Mima. A flight through the city streets ensues, in which Mima is pursued by … herself. Or rather, a murderous version of the sugary-sweet, pitch-perfect idol persona she once adopted, the one she’s tried doggedly to leave behind.
Here is a literal rendering of trying to outrun one’s past, the culmination of how Perfect Blue renders an identity crisis as a clash between different projections of a self. The movie refuses to validate any one identity as the “true” one, or to confine an identity to a single individual. Through heart-skipping editing, this chase fragments both Mima and Rumi. In one moment, Mima is fleeing a ballerina-like doppelgänger floating through the air; the next, we see Rumi as she really is, wheezing to keep up with the younger woman. It’s deliberately absurd but loses none of its horror for it.
Kon would revisit these types of deliberate absurdities, fractured identities, and breathtaking chase scenes throughout his works later in titles like Millennium Actress, Paprika, and Paranoia Agent. Though his career was unfortunately cut short when he died in 2010, his impact on the Japanese animation community was undeniable. Before his death, he helped establish the Japanese Animation Creators Association, a group that works to improve labor conditions for animators in the country.
Animation directed by C. Martin Croker
One of the first Cartoon Network originals and an unlikely harbinger of the likes of The Eric Andre Show, the talk-show parody Space Ghost Coast to Coast has a legacy far greater than its roughshod resurrection of a 1960s Hanna-Barbera icon could have foretold. Beginning in 1994 on Cartoon Network, the show eventually ended in 1999 — only to return again with the birth of the network’s Adult Swim late-night programming block.
Rather than something serious and narrative-focused, Coast to Coast parodied the late-night format and was cobbled together from recycled clips from the original series. The show would pit the oblivious and incompetent Space Ghost and his reluctant co-hosts Zorak and Moltar against very real guests, who would usually suffer through a gauntlet of ludicrous questions and non sequiturs. It laid the ground for years of Adult Swim programming, with such shows as Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Sealab 2021, and Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law all born from it. Each of those series shared animators with SGC2C as well as its style, using recycled stock footage from Hanna-Barbera cartoons while lampooning them mercilessly.
Even among all those new and long-running shows, so many of the most memorable moments belonged to SGC2C, perhaps the best of which is the introduction of Grandpa Leonard Ghostal — voiced by an extremely game Macho Man Randy Savage in a remarkable bit of casting — and portrayed with essentially the same character model and animation as Space Ghost but with a long gray beard and walking stick. Mixing the trademarks of his braggadocio showmanship with an amusing, aged belligerence, Savage’s Grandpa Ghostal proved to be one of the show’s surreal peaks. Typically, interviews on the show would unfold as a series of strange miscommunications, which sometimes were pushed into open antagonism, often to incredible effect, and no sequences in the show did so better than those featuring Grandpa Ghostal. Shortly after his arrival, the character wrests control of the show from his grandson, first threatening the life of Rob Zombie before unwittingly terrorizing poor Raven-Symoné (yes, of That’s So Raven) as he loudly asks if she’s ever sought out the thrill of throwing one of her peers to the mat. All in all, a supremely silly delight and a testament to the show’s bizarre imagination and long-lasting charm. RIP, Macho Man. (Click here to watch on HBO Max.)
Directed by Shinichirō Watanabe; animated by Yutaka Nakamura and Masami Goto
Cowboy Bebop announced itself to the world in an erratic burst of black and white type punctuated by a salvo blast of brass horn trumpets. While the sentences that raced across the screen may have been rendered all but subliminal to first-time viewers when it aired, the message between the space of their words rang out loud and clear: Cowboy Bebop was an anime unlike anything that had come before it. Directed by Shinichirō Watanabe, written by Keiko Nobumoto, and produced by a talented committee of young and ambitious animators and producers under the collective pseudonym Hajime Yatate, Cowboy Bebop remains not only a quintessential work in the canon of Japanese animation to this day but a representative work of the aesthetic and tonal elasticity inherent to the medium of animation itself.
Originally conceived as a science-fiction action show designed to capitalize on the then-renewed popularity of the genre in the wake of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace’s release, Watanabe & Co. were given only one clear directive when creating the show: Put a crap-ton of spaceships in it so they could sell merchandise. What the decision-makers at Sunrise and Bandai got was more than they, or anyone for that matter, could have expected: a neo-noir space-western comedy action series that drew from such diverse and far-flung inspirations as French New Wave cinema, Hong Kong action flicks, and mid-century New York jazz. All of which are more than apparent in the series’ iconic title sequence, a synesthetic barrage of stylish images à la Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter, sleek geometric designs and transitions channeling the spirit of Saul Bass, and infectious energy brought to life by a thunderous theme song courtesy of composer Yoko Kanno and her band the Seatbelts. While the series may not have become a new genre in and of itself, as its manifesto so boldly proclaims, Cowboy Bebop nonetheless remains a masterwork of animation all its own. (Click here to watch on Hulu.)
Directed by Daisuke Nishio
The history of Dragon Ball Z in America is long and at times confusing. The seminal anime had already finished airing in Japan before Funimation licensed the show for an English-language release to be syndicated by Saban Entertainment in 1996. The 67-episode order was heavily edited for content, and despite strong ratings, the production halted in 1998 after two seasons — at which point reruns began airing on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block. This is all to say that when American audiences finally had new episodes in the form of the “Frieza Saga” in September 1999, it quickly became a cultural event.
The fight itself encapsulates everything that made Dragon Ball Z special and unlike anything audiences had ever seen. For one, it’s the longest fight in a show already known for its multi-episode fights (part of its serialized DNA as an adaptation of Akira Toriyama’s manga series in Weekly Shōnen Jump). The Frieza fight comes in at over four hours long, stretching across 20 episodes, and it made kids tune in every day to see how the fight would progress. It also weaves emotional character development and the deaths of beloved characters together with moments of epic action. Then there’s Goku’s “Super Saiyan” transformation, a concept that would become the central focus for the remainder of the series.
Finally, Dragon Ball Z served as a major turning point for anime localization in the U.S. It was the first televised anime import whose success flew in the face of its so-called cultural odor, its otherness from what American audiences were used to. Toonami made an event of Dragon Ball Z’s uniqueness and differences from its American programming, and little effort was made — compared to a show like Pokémon — to scrub the show of those differences. The increasing popularity of internet fan communities helped clarify those differences, as American fans more widely came to learn and understand any cultural nuances that were lost in the translation (or the blood that was edited out for Toonami’s daytime broadcast).
And it paid off. The season-three premiere of DBZ became the highest-rated program ever at the time on Cartoon Network, cementing it as a pop-culture juggernaut and Toonami as a powerhouse of programming, heralding a new era for anime in North America. The fight itself introduced a new generation to the idea that anime was more than just cartoons; they were shows with long-running arcs you had to follow religiously. The “Super Saiyan” transformation instantly became iconic, just as Frieza’s “This isn’t even my final form” became a meme that remains popular more than 20 years later.
Comedy Central Films, Scott Rudin Productions, Braniff Productions
Directed by Trey Parker and Matt Stone
South Park was always criticized for its crude nature, both in its animation and its overall content. So when Trey Parker and Matt Stone spun off a major motion picture from their series, they doubled down on that reputation, framing the entire story around the controversy that erupts when all the kids in South Park wind up seeing the wildly inappropriate Terrence and Philip movie, Asses of Fire, a film summed up in the simultaneously puerile and genius musical number “Uncle Fucka.”
Like the Terrence and Philip bits on the Comedy Central series, the animation of those two Canadian obscenity machines is about as primitive as the contents of a flip-book. The construction-paper aesthetic looks even more cut-out and glued together than it does on Stan or Cartman. More importantly, the sequence fully frees up Parker and Stone to be as nasty as they wanna be, resulting in a song with such lyrics as “Shut your fucking face, Uncle Fucka / You’re the one who fucked your uncle, Uncle Fucka,” and a lengthy interlude that consists of nothing but farts. Every adult in the theater walks out during the number — “What garbage,” says one woman. “Well, what do you expect? They’re Canadian,” her date responds — but Stan, Cartman, Kenny, Kyle, and Kyle’s little brother, Ike, are mesmerized. The whole thing is both a celebration of stupid and a meta-commentary on the impact that too much stupid can have on young minds, and the franchise’s historic TV-MA-worthy irreverence and use of cut-out animation lit a path for dozens of adult animated shows to follow.
Directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara
Animation director Kunihiko Ikuhara, dissatisfied with the amount of creative control Toei allowed him while he was a series director on Sailor Moon, formed his own creative group, Be-Papas, in 1996. Its first series, Revolutionary Girl Utena, was created by a super-group of sorts, with Ikuhara and Neon Genesis Evangelion animator Shinya Hasegawa collaborating to rewrite the magical-girl anime as something distinctly queer and transgressive.
After the success of the anime, Be-Papas made a feature-length film to accompany the anime and called it Adolescence of Utena, which took the themes and forms of the series to heights that had never been seen before. At the climax of the film, heroines Utena and Anthy must escape from the angular, boxed-in, constricting world full of harsh lines and cyclical violence. The only way to transcend those boundaries is through literal transformation. Utena’s body shape-shifts into something that can take her love for Anthy and birth it into a brand new world. So, obviously, she becomes a badass pink hot rod, blazing down the open road.
In context, this is an image of liberation for a minority group that is still beholden to conservative ideas in Japan (and America), smuggled through the breathless wonderment of cinematic imagery. Utena’s transformation is also resonant in the scope of transgender imagery, where definition of self can allow you to be anyone or anything you wish. Adolescence of Utena does for the magical-girl anime what Neon Genesis Evangelion did for the mecha anime: lay waste to the rules that came before to craft a bold new language all its own.
Directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson
You can choose to shake your first at clouds as the world changes around you, or you can “let the world roll you,” as it were. And love it or hate it, we started off the new millennium with the animated landmark that was Shrek. At the time of its production, Katzenberg’s DreamWorks was trying to compete with Disney within the template Disney had defined over decades. As the studio attempted to frame itself as a serious alternative to the Disney Renaissance by presenting a grand, sweeping, painterly take on the biblical epic with The Prince of Egypt, it punished its lagging animators to “the gulag” of Shrek, a process called — no kidding — getting Shreked. (Anyone familiar with the A-team/B-team story of the Pocahontas and The Lion King animators at Disney knows how this story turns out.)
Yet Shrek became a critical and commercial phenomenon, winning the first-ever Academy Award for animated feature, and it was even nominated for a goddamn Palme d’Or, its audacious gamble paying dividends. The movie’s opening sequence encapsulates much of what made Shrek a sea change: It begins with genuinely enduring theme music by Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell as a storybook opens in a direct reference to the Disney classics. But just as it lulls you in, Shrek himself stops the narration, tears out a page, says “What a load of —” and flushes the toilet, literally wiping his nasty swamp ass with Disney’s decorum. He kicks open an outhouse door, engages in an inverted princess routine of squeezing the life out of forest animals, and does it all set to Smash Mouth’s “All Star.” It was ballsy and audacious, and by refusing to stick to Disney’s limitations, it set the rules for a new millennium. All of us now suffer the consequences: We wouldn’t have Minions’ fart guns, Trolls’ dance parties, and the abomination to God and nature that is Bee Movie without it. With its opening sequence, Shrek announced that the old ways were dead. The years really do start coming — and, alas, they don’t stop coming. (Click here to watch on Peacock.)
Directed by Hironobu Sakaguchi
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within director, the franchise’s creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, envisioned a cycle of innovation between films and games, making character Aki Ross a virtual actor for other productions. A first-time filmmaker, Sakaguchi’s Hollywood-bankrolled pursuit of realism resulted in a technical marvel. But cost overreaches outweighed box-office returns, and it was deemed a failure.
Photorealism is expensive and tends to yield diminishing returns. Humans can anthropomorphize anything — except non-human things that look just humanlike enough to read as inhuman; that’s where you enter the uncanny valley. Someone who talks to their Roomba like a pet will cringe at the crying and kissing in this Spirits Within scene, a visceral response. You cannot cross the uncanny valley, at least not yet. Motion-captured performances of the most charismatic actors in Hollywood have led to flops from The Polar Express (2004) to Gemini Man (2019). You can only go back, like when Shrek (2001) made human characters more cartoony after children cried in test screenings.
Improving CG animation requires a continuous cycle of artistic innovation and technological advancement. After Spirits Within, Japanese producers largely rejected CG, using it only sparingly and functionally for the next decade. Since CG became cheaper and foreign money increased budgets in the 2010s, Japan has been playing catch-up. Now titles like 2017’s Land of the Lustrous — which influenced Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse — have started to reveal a uniquely Japanese CG aesthetic informed by 2-D anime practices. But getting here took time and talent cultivation that could have begun in 2001.
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Many children’s films are purposefully designed to bombard the senses and maintain a vise-grip on those with even the shortest attention spans. But the films of Hayao Miyazaki consciously move away from that. In his own words: “If you just have nonstop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness. But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension.” That concept of ma, of stillness in the midst of action, is essential to all of Miyazaki’s work, and its most influential examples live in Spirited Away.
After rushing headfirst into an uncanny otherworld, young protagonist Chihiro finds herself at a bathhouse for spirits. Following a lightning-fast descent to its boiler room, longtime Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi’s beautiful score disappears, and Chihiro (and in turn the viewer) simply observes as little soot spirits go about their work as it unfolds over three cuts with no dialogue. Later, Chihiro has a moment to stop and simply cry. This kind of stillness is something that those initially responsible for the Western localization of Ghibli films struggled with — such that earlier films like Castle in the Sky initially had these spaces removed in their dubbed versions, which were filled with extra quips or a more protracted soundtrack cue — yet it is essential to Miyazaki’s work. His films breathe.
The greatest moment of calm in Spirited Away is a sequence about two-thirds of the way through the film. A train appears over a seemingly endless, shallow sea — yet another mystical doorway, leading even further beyond the boundary that Chihiro already crossed. But where her arrival in the spirit world was almost instantaneous, this journey is more decompressed. That stillness is associated with Chihiro’s brave decision to shoulder great responsibility, and so ma becomes part of maturity, in a sense. Hisaishi’s score gently envelops the sequence as Chihiro and her companions, including the no-longer-antagonistic spirit No Face, quietly sit among faceless humanoid commuter spirits, without a word exchanged as the frame holds the characters still in the carriage, the shallow sea racing by behind them.
The film revels in the wordlessness of the journey, only the score swelling in the background as different places pass by, and the sun sets, and the audience, along with Chihiro, is brought further and further from the chaos of the bathhouse. Its meaning remains mysterious, maybe even to Miyazaki: Perhaps the sequence represents the restfulness of escaping the working day, or the passage of adulthood, or the quiet certainty inherent in the acceptance of responsibility, or fate. Regardless of the lesson, the moment is moving in its embrace of respite and contemplation, and in the years since, even Western animators have learned to incorporate more patience in their pacing as a result — but never with the same grace as the master. That a children’s film could prove so meditative and trusting in the patience of its audience felt miraculous in 2001. It feels just as miraculous now. (Click here to watch on HBO Max.)
New Line Cinema, WingNut Films
Directed by Peter Jackson
Animated special effects entered a whole era in Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth. When The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers fully introduced the character Gollum, it was through an animation technique called “performance capture,” better known as motion capture. Though motion capture had originally come out of the medical industry and had been used for studying joint-related illnesses and observing movements for medical purposes, it had begun to be used in video games.
Using special cameras that recorded actor Andy Serkis’s movements and expressions, Jackson’s team was able to conjure Gollum, a swamplike creature who hops like a frog and smirks like a predator. Serkis would wear a special suit and computers would translate visual data into a totally new creature. (The technology would also be used for orcs, though many of them were created using prosthetics.)
In a scene that showcased the abilities of motion capture to translate unique characteristics from an actor into a whole new character, Gollum interrogates Sméagol, his former Hobbit self. Using the technique, Serkis revealed Gollum as a sort of Russian nesting doll, revealing Sméagol’s tics and how they turned into Gollum’s.
In the last decade, the method has grown in popularity, evangelized by Serkis, who has directed motion-capture sequences in films like Avengers: Age of Ultron and in films of his own, like Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. Without the techniques used to create Gollum, the landscape of blockbuster cinema in the last 20 years would look radically different. Gollum showed both audiences and filmmakers that a computer-generated character created through motion capture could convey the range and depth of an actor’s performance, if executed elegantly. (Click here to watch on HBO Max.)
Adelaide Productions, Rebel Base Productions
Directed by Kalvin Lee
The Boondocks, Aaron McGruder’s 2005 animated sitcom adapted from his syndicated comic strip of the same name, was no stranger to controversy when its first season premiered on Adult Swim. But nothing the series had done before, or even after, could compare with the reception the show garnered in the wake of its ninth episode, “Return of the King.” Premiering on what would have been his 77th birthday, the episode, narrated by series protagonist Huey Freeman, tells the story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in an alternate reality, who, instead of being murdered on April 4, 1968, was merely incapacitated, thrust into a 32-year long coma, only to reawaken to a radically changed yet still fundamentally unjust world post-9/11.
As the Freeman family attempts to help King rediscover his purpose, he is forced to grapple not only with the apathy of his own people but a uncanny reality where his very image and status as a martyr for peace have been co-opted by surreptitious forces beyond his control to serve consumerist agendas entirely antithetical to his own. The standout scene, and the reason for its inclusion on this list, is the episode’s climax where Dr. King, having pushed his way through to the podium of his own political rally and exasperated with those in attendance, erupts into a blistering expletive-filled speech condemning everything from BET, Soul Plane, and the complacency of a people and a nation that have lost their way. The most memorable passage of King’s speech, taken from the lyrics of a track by rapper and series collaborator Asheru titled “N**gas,” features King using the N-word as a means of getting across his frustrated and heartbroken message.
The scene catapulted the episode into the eye of firestorm of criticism, earning the series the avowed scorn and condemnation of the Reverend Al Sharpton and, later, a Peabody Award. Despite resigning himself to retirement, King’s speech nonetheless sparks a second civil-rights revolution that, nearly 14 years later, feels as incendiary and timely as when it first aired. It demonstrated both Aaron McGruder and Adult Swim’s willingness and capacity for taking big creative swings that pay off, while crafting a watershed moment in the history of Black American representation in cartoons. There is no other show quite like The Boondocks, and there is no other work of animated television quite like “Return of the King.” (Click here to watch on HBO Max.)
Directed by Jodie Mack
Jodie Mack is one of the most overlooked greats of contemporary animation, a master of using unconventional materials in her work — everything from still photos to craft objects to computer boards to fabric and much more. Yard Work Is Hard Work is her magnum opus, a half-hour musical about falling in love … and then having to face the realities of domestic life under economic hardship. Made out of pictures cut mainly from magazines, advertisements, and other cultural images through which our expectations of the good life are shaped, it’s full of piercing irony.
This early sequence exemplifies this, as the two leads — an average all-American guy and gal — fantasize about the kind of romance they’re after. They start out singing from separate positions but in perfect harmony, underlining the homogeneity of the ideal they aspire to. The free-flowing, simple (incredibly catchy) lyrics capture youthful idealism beautifully. We will clean up and wipe off the dirt / We will have dinner and we’ll have dessert / We’ll laugh and we’ll flirt, we’ll crunch and we’ll munch / We will have breakfast and we will have lunch / Munch m-munch m-munch munch munch munch … we’ll hang out a bunch! Through it all, Mack pulls out one innovative visual or transition after another, layering on suggestive meanings through the sources of the pictures she uses.
Bridgit Folman Film Gang, Les Films d’Ici, Razor Film Produktion
Directed by Ari Folman
Animation and documentary have mainly intersected in the form of short films over the decades, along with features that made significant use of animated segments (such as In the Realms of the Unreal or Chicago 10). Then came Waltz With Bashir, fully animated, a hit which made history as the first animated film to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (now Best International Film). Director Ari Folman first shot the entire thing in live action on a sound stage before animators then used storyboard renderings of the footage as the basis for the animation — a technique related to but not quite the same as rotoscoping. This is not a gimmick but a deliberate distortion of reality to fit with the film’s themes of questioning one’s own memory and sense of what is and isn’t real.
Folman served in the IDF during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and made the movie to document his process of filling in the significant gaps around that time which he realized existed in his memory. The lynchpin of this process is an ambiguous but nebulously sinister dream he has, of swimming with some other soldiers at the beach while flares burn overhead. The story is his slow realization of what this dream really represents, and it is continually recontextualized until all the pieces fit together. Waltz With Bashir has helped pave the way for documentaries to explore the contrast between “reality” and subjective experience with animation, further seen in features like Tower and Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?
Directed by Don Hertzfeldt
The work of Don Hertzfeldt fluctuates between the freakishly abstract and the harshly mundane, and his first feature film, It’s Such a Beautiful Day, exists somewhere between those two extremes. The film, an absurdist experimental collage of philosophical musings and deadpan humor, tells the surprisingly harrowing story of a life potentially approaching its end. Even though Hertzfeldt is now a two-time Academy Award winner and the only filmmaker to win Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize for Short Film twice, the American animator continues to work independently and on his own terms. His work, self-distributed via Vimeo (with his shorts shared at no cost on YouTube) is emblematic of the virile state of today’s independent animation scene and has attracted nearly fanatical support from alternative and mainstream audiences alike — not to mention animators. It’s not, that is, just his work that is notable: How he works, outside of the animation studio–industrial complex, matters too.
Still, what a work It’s Such a Beautiful Day is. Though its protagonist, Bill, appears at first glance to be a simple soul, the world which he navigates is anything from simple. Live-action imagery is combined with animation on a backdrop of plain white paper rimmed by black, asymmetrical frames, as though each frame is being viewed through a telescope. These sensibilities are all in service of a story that, while immensely heart-rending in its depiction of isolation and loss of memory, is still remarkably down to Earth. That is, until the end.
By the end of the film, Bill is clearly dying, but the narrator, voiced by Hertzfeldt, refuses to believe it. Hertzfeldt breaks apart his own story as it’s being told in search of providing his viewers, and himself, some catharsis. The narrator presents an alternative ending, where Bill instead survives his illness and travels the globe, learning the ways of the world anew and attempting to unlearn his past complacency. His cheating of death is taken to the most exaggerated melancholic endpoint possible: Bill outlives the human race and then Earth itself, even eventually observing the deaths of stars and the universe before the screen cuts to black. It’s difficult to put the emotional effect into words — Hertzfeldt manages to both reaffirm and escape the bleakness of the film’s first “ending.” But that’s what’s so beautiful about It’s Such a Beautiful Day — its seemingly rudimentary presentation is both deceptively complex and unspeakably moving.
Frederator Studios, Cartoon Network Studios
Directed by Larry Leichliter, Adam Muto, Nick Jennings
You know that quote about how the Velvet Underground didn’t sell a lot of records but inspired a lot of bands? You could say the same about everyone who worked on Adventure Time, except Adventure Time was extremely popular when it aired. Pendleton Ward’s seminal series about Jake the Dog and Finn the Human’s adventures in the Land of Ooo.
Endlessly malleable, Adventure Time could be about anything — which is why, as a grander story began to take shape one standalone 11-minute episode at a time, what it chose to be about was astonishing. Quietly asserting that Ooo was a post-apocalyptic world and not a fantasy one, Adventure Time proved surprisingly interested in whose post-apocalypse its stories were set in. Is Finn the only human? Are the show’s villains bad or broken? And why does this world of magic and whimsy just feel like it’s missing something?
In “I Remember You,” Adventure Time finally lets the weight of over a hundred episodes of implication play out between two of its most tragic characters, revealing a shared history between recurring antagonist the Ice King, and Marceline, the 1,000-year-old vampire. Through song — an Adventure Time staple — countless details woven into the background of many episodes are anchored in the lives of two characters living with the consequences of unresolved trauma.
The animators and writers responsible for “I Remember You” — among them Rebecca Sugar (Steven Universe), Kent Osborne (Summer Camp Island), Patrick McHale (Over the Garden Wall) — would spiral out of Adventure Time’s creative primordial Ooo, ushering in a new era of idiosyncratic and emotional animation. (Click here to watch on Hulu.)
CoMix Wave Films
Directed by Makoto Shinkai
Makoto Shinkai has been heralded over the past decade as one of Japan’s most vital directors of animation, a vanguard of a new generation of animators and a creator whose works position him as an heir apparent to the likes of Hayao Miyazaki. This comparison, however, on its surface, feels reductionist. While it is true that several animators, Shinkai included, have been named possible successors and standard-bearers to Miyazaki’s legacy, and while the two do share an affinity for magical realism, Shinkai’s approach is to juxtapose it as an element apart from the urban spaces which his characters populate, while Miyazaki employs it as a force that is constantly in tune with the pastoral environments which frequently feature as the primary settings of his films.
Your Name., Shinkai’s 2016 breakout film, which became the highest-grossing Japanese film when it first premiered, is a perfect encapsulation of his sensibilities as a director, particularly his affinity for star-crossed lovers entangled in existentially precarious situations like the body-swapping predicament that protagonists Taki and Mitsuha find themselves in. From its photorealistic backgrounds to its animation, writing, and sound design, Your Name. is a gorgeous film from front to back — which makes the distinction of this particular sequence all the more noteworthy. Taki’s trip, both literally and metaphorically, through time is a stirring dreamlike odyssey that sees a drawing on a cave ceiling surface transform into the wisping tail of a brilliant comet streaking and warping like a ribbon through the expanse of time and space, tethering Taki as he experiences first-hand a beautiful lucid vision of Mitsuha’s birth, the passing of her mother, the subsequent estrangement between her and her father.
Yoshitoshi Shinomiya, a frequent collaborator of Shinkai’s, is the chief animator credited for this sequence, rendering the scene in a saturated pastel chalk aesthetic contrasted with deep shadows and ethereal light leaks, crafting a mood that feels both otherworldly and intimate. It is inarguably the standout scene of Your Name., the most beautiful sequence of animation in a film with no shortage of beautiful sequences, and a feat of artistry that is as emotionally resonative as it is visually compelling. In short, it is the quintessence of all that Makoto Shinkai has to offer as a director. Shinkai may or may not be the next Miyazaki, but he is undeniably the Makoto Shinkai of his generation and a creative force that heralds a bright and broad horizon for the future of anime.
Directed by Masaaki Yuasa
A streaming competitor summed up the Netflix anime strategy in 2018: Outbid no matter what. Anime fans are a good investment, clustered across platforms, demographics, and geographies. Word of mouth incites FOMO, working fast and spreading far. All Netflix needs is the right content to draw these fans in.
Devilman Crybaby features the kind of grim, dark grotesquerie that was popular in the straight-to-VHS market of the 1980s, where the original Devilman (1987) took off. This extremely NSFW sequence in the new series is longer than the original, more explicit and transgressive, and would have all but buried Crybaby in television’s graveyard time slots. Instead, it found a perch on Netflix and became one of the most acclaimed anime titles of 2018, responsible for respected veteran director Masaaki Yuasa’s biggest audience to date — 90 percent of it outside Japan.
When Netflix licenses anime as a Netflix Original, it buys the right to stream it on Netflix first and exclusively, globally, promoted alongside other Originals. (It’s done this with new shows as well as old, like Neon Genesis Evangelion.) Streaming platforms aren’t subject to broadcast rules or restrictions, so creators can be as graphic or unconventional as they like. The Netflix subscriber base is so large, so diverse, the audience for anything is already there. The algorithm just has to identify them.
Netflix currently frustrates anime fans by slapping the Originals label on anything it secures for exclusive distribution, whether it was involved in the show’s production or not. But its influence in the anime market is growing and pushing other streaming platforms to compete by catering to anime fans with their own output. Crybaby also demonstrated the value of giving auteurs like Yuasa the resources and autonomy to create unfiltered artistry that fans can’t get elsewhere. (Click here to watch on Netflix.)
Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures Animation
Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
The much-buzzed-about postmodern take on the Spider-Man mythos, Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, was a thrilling revitalization of the increasingly repetitive superhero movie genre. It’s also groundbreaking thanks to its creative approach to 3-D animation, mixing the styles of hand-drawn 2-D, and even the Ben-Day dot texture of classic comic-book printing. Directed by Rodney Rothman, Peter Ramsey, and Bob Persichetti, the whole film is riveting, but one of its sequences has been picked apart far more than the rest and with good reason.
A moment that has, according to Andy Leviton, been part of the film almost since the very beginning was Miles’s “Leap of Faith,” the scene where he becomes Spider-Man. The sequence cuts back and forth between him preparing to take a very literal “leap of faith” that Peter Parker told him about earlier in the film and finally suiting up in a DIY, spray-painted version of the Spider-Man suit. It’s the film’s emotional crux and is handled marvelously as a mostly visual piece of storytelling — both the loud moments and the grace notes, all gorgeous to behold. Miles’s fingers still cling to the glass in unconscious fear, and it breaks away in shards as he jumps. The flailing of his limbs straightens into a precise dive, emphasized by the film’s use of comic-booky sequential panels spliced into the shot. And in perhaps one of the film’s most talked-about visuals — the virtual camera is framed upside down so, in the words of Rothman and Phil Lord’s script, he’s not falling, but rising.
Notably, despite this being the big moment for Miles, he is animated on twos (meaning 12 frames of his movements are played per second) rather than on ones (24 per second, which is the standard). The Spider-Verse animators alternated between animating on ones and twos depending on the scene. In Miles’s case, the fluidity of movement aligns with his confidence as the film progresses, a clear use of the animation toolkit to illustrate story and character development. Even though he’s on twos, the “Leap of Faith” is still an invigorating moment, one that captures the jittery nerves that come with self-actualization and expands upon Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s original idea for Spider-Man — that under a mask, anyone could be a hero.
That sentiment has rarely been captured with the artistry and nuance shown in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, to say nothing of seeing it channeled through the experiences of a fully realized Afro-Latino hero (who happens to have great taste in music). It’s now the job of tomorrow’s animators to push the medium forward again. We have faith. (Click here to watch on Netflix.)
Cartoon Network Studios
Directed by Joe Johnston (supervising), Kat Morris (supervising), Liz Artinian (art)
The story of Steven Universe, a boy who inherits an intergalactic war from his late mother, Rose Quartz (a.k.a Pink Diamond), is also a struggle for self-knowledge and identity. That all comes to a head in the series’ four-part finale, “Change Your Mind,” as Steven confronts the White Diamond, the architect of a tyrannical empire, the Gems, seeking to remake everything in its image and denying both Steven’s existence and his very name. Part of Steven’s fight to save the universe is also a fight to get White to listen to him, all while coming to understand himself better along the way — and the moment where Steven finally succeeds is simply beautiful, not to mention beautifully animated.
In one of the show’s more horrifying moments, Steven is split into two by White Diamond, who plucks the magical gem he inherited from his mother out of his navel. White expects Pink to come back, but instead, Steven’s gem reforms halfway, as a pink-hued mirror image of himself. Terror soon gives way to affection as the two halves unite in one final act of the show’s concept of “fusion” (an idea previously used in Dragon Ball Z, one of the show’s many anime influences) in the pursuit of physical strength, but which here creator Rebecca Sugar & Co. reenvision as an act of empathy and intimacy. While Steven had previously fused with other renegade Gems and his closest friend, Connie, he now fuses with his doppelgänger in an act of self-understanding, a moment beautifully hand-animated on ones (24 frames per second) by none other than storied animator James Baxter, as his two halves embrace and dance and fuse together, complete, in one fluid cut.
Baxter, whose remarkable career spanned many a Disney Renaissance film, had previously worked with Cartoon Network on episodes of Adventure Time, for which Sugar was a director, storyboard artist, and songwriter. Here, he animates the show’s emotional climax in a manner that doesn’t so much break from the show’s style as it infuses it with a classical style of movement. The magic of a moment stems from its visuals as much as it does from its metaphor — one of self-affirmation and self-love that encourages the viewing of Steven’s journey as a trans allegory. Across its five seasons, the series had wrestled with its own network for the ability to openly portray intimacy between LGBTQ+ characters, so to have this moment, rather than a final battle, stand as the climax to the series is something special. By the time this aired, Steven Universe had already influenced several ongoing series, like She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (another extremely queer sci-fi) and OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes (brainchild of Steven Universe alum Ian Jones-Quartey), not to mention the portfolios of animation students everywhere.
But the sequence itself feels revolutionary in a way the rest of the show felt like it was building toward for 160 episodes. So much of the defining work by animators on this list is visible in maximalist displays of outsized blockbuster effort. Steven Universe could have ended on such a virtuoso set piece. Its animators had the chops, and made a full-blown movie musical later in the same year. What they chose to represent in “Change Your Mind” instead was internal and rooted in self-love. They found what Norman McLaren would call the “invisible.”
Correction: An earlier version of this list mistakingly referred to Floyd Norman as “Norman Floyd.” Vulture regrets the error.
Eric Vilas-Boas is the entertainment editor at Observer. John Maher is the news editor at Publishers Weekly. Together they ran the animation journalism publication The Dot and Line.
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