Five Essential Animated Films

Scott Wallace
1st May 2015

The first animated feature was referred to as “folly,” but Walt Disney had the last laugh in 1937 when Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs became (albeit briefly) the highest grossing sound film to that point. Nearly eight decades on and animated features are an industry unto themselves. Over the years, seriously talented filmmakers have elevated the very idea of animation from simply a medium for children's films into a serious art form, an approach that has even influenced Disney themselves. In celebration of the evolution of animated cinema, here are five of the most powerful animated films from all around the globe. 

Tale of Tales (1979)

Russian auteur Yuri Norstein constructed this short film from his own memories, creating a highly abstract narrative that uses heavy symbolism to tell a story largely based around Russia's heavy losses in World War II from both a personal and more universal perspective. The luscious animation is hand-drawn, bearing the textural marks of pencils and watercolour paints. The film's most enduring images include a grey wolf cub trying to warm himself by the fire, and a voluptuous green apple dripping with fresh rain. In one of the most affecting sequences, couples dancing are slowly deprived of their male components, as the men fade away like ghosts, lost to the war. Tale of Tales creates a story that is not so much told as it is felt. 

Spirited Away (2001)

To many, Spirited Away is the famed Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli’s biggest triumph, and remains the only one to have been awarded an Academy Award. The story of young Chihiro's journey in a strange world filled with magic and strange spirits has often been referred to as a new take on Alice in Wonderland, but unlike Lewis Carroll's classic tale, the themes of Spirited Away are deeply moving and universal. Spirited Away may be a fantasy story, but it is also an incisive coming-of-age tale that sees Chihiro showing profound bravery as she faces down the loss of everything including her own identity and comes out victorious.

Persepolis (2007)

Based on co-director Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novel, Persepolis is the story of the author's life in Iran before and after the Islamic revolution. This French production, featuring the voice talents of Catherine Deneuve, among others, recreates the distinctive black, white and blue visuals of the novel, contrasted with present day sequences in full colour, lending the main narrative a sense of distance and memory. The themes of Persepolis, concerning ethnic and cultural identity, sexism, and westernisation, are approached unflinchingly, but tempered with warmth, nostalgia and gentle humour. Persepolis is a gripping film not only for its beautiful visuals, but also for its expansive, gripping narrative that perfectly captures Satrapi's incredible true story. 

Wall-E (2008)

One of the few animated films included in the British Film Institute's 2012 Sight & Sound poll of the greatest films ever made, this film about a little robot living alone on a post-apocalyptic earth is the absolute peak of the creative partnership between Disney and Pixar. With a dialogue-free first act that evokes the films of Charles Chaplin in its sentimentality and humour, Wall-E is a magical experience from the beginning, but it is in the latter two thirds of the film where it truly comes alive. Its most astounding scene is a fire-extinguisher assisted spaceflight, in which Wall-E dances with E.V.A., his sleek robot companion. But aside from the film's jaw-dropping beauty, what really hits hard is its urgent environmental themes that are not just a message, but a warning.

Waltz with Bashir (2008)

Waltz with Bashir is a total anomaly - it is essentially an animated documentary. It includes talking head interviews, presented in animated form, and replaces dramatic re-enactment with boldly stylised narrative sequences. It tells the story of director Ari Folman and his pursuit of the truth behind an event that he can only half remember; he wants the truth on his complicity in the horrific massacre of Palestinians that took place in 1982 at the hands of the Israel Defence Forces. The film's use of animation is not merely a gimmick, instead it uses the possibilities of animation to question the concept of memory and its highly fallible nature. The digitally assisted visuals are capable of being both beautiful and cathartic, but the biggest shock comes in the film's final moments when what had been a cartoon suddenly becomes an all-too-graphic reality.