As Disney and Pixar continue to dominate the animation field, audiences often forget that other studios make animated movies too! Yes, historically speaking, Disney and Pixar have been the most consistent producers of high quality animation, but that doesn’t diminish the impact or fun of other great stories or characters.
The films on this list weren’t meant to sell toys, inspire theme park rides or launch Saturday Morning Cartoons (though some of them did). Rather, they used animation as a storytelling medium and an artistic one, with great results. That they don’t have a major studio touting them about ad-nauseum is actually sad in this case— they are great films, much-deserving of a broad audience and frequent viewings. Most have come to DVD or Blu-Ray, so head over to Netflix or Amazon to secure a copy…though not before you finish reading the list!
Here are the 15 Most Overlooked Animated Movies.
15. Race for Your Life Charlie Brown
The Peanuts comic strip gang have an iconic status that rivals any Disney character, and their newspaper mini-adventures remain in print long after their first run and the death of their famed creator, Charles Schultz. A Charlie Brown Christmas continues its legacy as a holiday classic, yet one of Charlie Brown’s best outings goes completely overlooked today.
The 1970s saw a huge surge in Peanuts popularity, culminating in the big screen release of Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown! The movie follows the gang as they go away for summer camp, and engage in a river race that pits the boys against the girls. Snoopy and Woodstock get in on the action too, as do a group of bullies bent on winning at any cost. Like the best Peanuts adventures, Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown underlines the value of friendship through outrageous humor.
In fact, it’s almost as good as the surprisingly wonderful 2015 animated adaptation.
14. The Last Unicorn
This little-seen fantasy classic maintains something of a cult following despite a dearth of showings on television. Boasting an all-star cast that includes Mia Farrow, Angela Lansbury, Christopher Lee, Jeff Bridges and Alan Arkin, the film tells the story of — as the title suggests — the last unicorn, Amalthea, as she searches for the rest of her species.
Episodic by design, the story serves as a metaphor for womanhood with rich characters and breathtaking animation. Best of all, the cast delivers rich performances, in particular Lee and Lansbury, that convey fully realized characters. Funny, stirring, exciting and full of visual splendor, it’s a masterpiece from animation studio Rankin-Bass.
13. The Hobbit
Rankin-Bass had a great run in the 1970s, producing films like the aforementioned Last Unicorn, and the much-lauded TV movie, The Hobbit. Long before Peter Jackson launched audiences to Middle-Earth, this splendid adaptation hinted at the latter-day success of Lord of the Rings. Using stylized animation that integrated designs from author J.R.R. Tolkien’s own, the cast boasted a cast of veteran stage and radio actors, including Cyril Richard, Brother Theodore and Otto Preminger.
The standout performance comes from actor John Huston as the wizard Gandalf, who finds the delicate balance between the character’s silliness and his frightening persona. Even the big-budget Hobbit trilogy Jackson served up in recent years cannot eclipse the success of the original — a vastly superior film.
12. The Black Cauldron
Disney took note of the success of fantasy animation in the 1970s and wanted in on the game. In an attempt to impress audiences who flocked to The Last Unicorn and Ralph Bakshi’s animated Lord of the Rings, the studio elected Lloyd Alexander’s popular fantasy series The Chronicles of Prydain as the basis for a full-on animated fantasy adventure.
The resulting film, however, became something of an embarrassment for the studio. The Black Cauldron boasted no songs and a noted lack of cute sidekicks, which were replaced by zombies, evil witches and one of the most frightening villains Disney ever produced: The Horned King. The dark and violent content of the film outraged parents, and audiences stayed away. Disney kept the film buried in their vaults for years, though recent days have seen it released on DVD and Blu-Ray in bare-bones editions. It’s a shame: while far from perfect, The Black Cauldron makes a refreshing addition to the Disney canon, full of adventure and spellbinding animation.
11. The Thief and the Cobbler
Fresh of the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, three time Oscar-winner Richard Williams made a bid to finish his magnum opus: an animated adventure called The Thief and the Cobbler. Williams had actually begun work on the film some 30 years (!) before, and his success as animation director on Roger Rabbit granted him the funds and the clout to finish the film. Disney first approached him to finish and distribute the movie, though when the studio suggested changes to the story, Williams balked. Instead, he took the project to Warner Bros., and it soon went into full on production.
Then it all went to hell. Williams regularly hired and fired animators, threw temper tantrums and clashed with studio executives. When the proposed budget ran out and the movie was still incomplete, Warners opted to kill the project, in large part because Disney’s Aladdin borrowed similar themes, characters and designs.
Though never fully completed, a group of fans and animators acquired all available materials of the film, finished and assembled it under the title The Thief and the Cobbler: Recobbled. Though still lacking in a compelling story, the animation is unparalleled, with Williams achieving new techniques that studios like Disney wouldn’t attempt until after the advent of computer animation. It also features a wicked performance by Vincent Price as the villainous sorcerer Zig-Zag.
10. Rock and Rule
Canadian studio Nelvana had a great run in the 1980s, producing hit films like The Care Bears Movie and a plethora of successful Saturday morning cartoons, including Beetlejuice, Strawberry Shortcake and the two Star Wars animated series, Droids and Ewoks. But it almost didn’t happen.
Nevlana had tried to branch out into animated features in 1982 with Rock and Rule, a bizarre mashup of rock, animation and just plain weirdness. Set in a post-apocalyptic world where mankind has mutated into animals, a Satanic cult plots to take over the world using a rock song. Yes, really.
With a soundtrack that included songs from Debbie Harry, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Cheap Trick, Rock & Rule sported a robust budget of $8 million. Distributors gagged at the adult content, sexuality and violence, and the movie quickly vanished, making only $30,000 at the box office and nearly bankrupting Nelvana.
The movie found a second life as fledgling channel HBO struggled to find cheap content. Frequent showings also allowed Rock and Rule to develop a cult audience which would later help see the unique film restored to Blu-Ray.
9. The Flight of Dragons
Another TV film from Rankin-Bass, Flight of Dragons assembled a prestigious cast which included John Ritter, Harry Morgan and James Earl Jones. Telling the story of a dragon war between wizards, it ranks among the best fantasy animated films ever produced.
It aired to a positive reception and strong ratings in 1982, only to vanish into obscurity. It’s a shame — the voice cast deliver great performances, and the animation is outstanding. Cynics have called it a nostalgia piece, which is true to some degree. However, Flight of Dragons remains a solid, intelligent and unique fantasy adventure. Fans of the genre shouldn’t miss it!
8. The Great Mouse Detective
Vincent Price leads the cast of The Great Mouse Detective as the wicked Professor Rattigan, a role in which the actor delivered one of his most memorable performances. Another movie that toiled for years as an embarrassment in the Disney vaults, The Great Mouse Detective adapts the character of Sherlock Holmes into a mouse, Basil of Baker Street. After a little girl mouse witnesses the kidnapping of her toymaker father, she enlists the help of Basil, the sharpest detective in the rodent world. The fate of said world rests on Basil rescuing the toymaker and defeating Rattigan, before the villain kidnaps the queen of England!
Featuring a veteran voice cast and with a wonderful score by Henry Mancini, The Great Mouse Detective plays better to a slightly older audience. Adventure and spectacular animation about, but the whole way through, it’s Price’s show. The actor relishes the role and his character’s vile behavior, making the film a buried treasure.
7. The Brave Little Toaster
Detractors of Toy Story have accused the movie of ripping off the plot of The Brave Little Toaster. The allegations don’t hold up under scrutiny, but it’s also easy to see the comparison: like Pixar’s first outing, The Brave Little Toaster tells a heartwarming story about inanimate objects with sharp personalities.
A group of household appliances occupy an old vacation cabin opening for Rob, the young boy who used to stay there. When the appliances learn that the cabin is to be sold, they decide to venture out to find Rob. Lead by the titular toaster, they encounter a series of wild adventures along the way and discover the value of friendship.
Disney originally accepted, then rejected, proposals by future Toy Story director John Lasseter to make the film. Instead, director Jerry Rees took over the scripting and directorial duties, and made the film as an independent movie on a small budget. Early screenings had overwhelmingly positive responses, but Disney, who had purchased video rights, managed to block a wide theatrical release. Instead, they tried to bury it with showings on The Disney Channel, which only helped the movie become a cult success.
6. The Secret of NIMH
Speaking of the House of Mouse and bad blood…once upon a time, an animator named Don Bluth looked to become a major voice at the Disney animation studios. Creative tensions over budgeting and the content of their animated movies caused a rift between Bluth and Disney, making the animator jump ship and start his own animation studio!
Bluth’s first major bid to get a foothold in the animation market came in the form of The Secret of NIMH. A criminally loose adaptation of the popular novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, it nonetheless found box office success, courtesy of a first-rate voice-over cast and spectacular animation. Critics, including Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, hailed the movie as a visual masterpiece.
And then…the film disappeared into obscurity. Upstaged by Disney’s later efforts and hampered by director Bluth’s financial troubles, the movie slipped off the radar. A fan base of the film have kept it popular enough to find distribution on Netflix, allowing future generations to witness its heartbreaking magic.
5. Once Upon a Forest
In 1993, TV animation giant Hanna-Barbera made a bid for movie success with Once Upon a Forest. Jumping on the then-trend of environmentalism, the story follows a mole, a badger, and a hedgehog as they seek healing herbs to save a friend’s life. Much like Ferngully, Once Upon A Forest demonizes man’s rape of the environment, and portrays construction machines as demonic beings. Hanna-Barbera worked to raise their quality of animation to match that of Disney, and hired a noted vocal cast that included Michael Crawford, Ben Vereen and Elizabeth Moss.
Despite positive reviews, Once Upon a Forest died at the box office, crushed by another natural disaster film: Jurassic Park. The financial bomb-yness of the film insured Hanna-Barbera would never produce another animated feature, and eventually drove the studio into bankruptcy. The legacy of the film is an unfortunate one; it’s a little-seen gem.
4. Chicken Run
The stop-motion Wallace and Grommit cartoons had already become a phenomenon in the UK and even begun to catch on in the U.S. when creator Nick Park decided to try his hand at feature filmmaking. Having just won his second Oscar for best animated short, Hollywood vied to distribute the film, with Dreamworks eventually beating out Disney, much to the latter’s chagrin.
The film became Chicken Run, an adventure comedy about a group of chickens who must escape from their farm or else end up slaughtered for meat. A number of noted British thespians joined Mel Gibson in the cast, and the film made a killing at the box office when it opened in 2000, becoming the highest-grossing stop-motion film up to that time. Like several other films on this list though, it remains little seen today thanks to a dearth of tie-in merchandising. Exciting and hilarious, the movie deserves a far larger audience.
3. Fire & Ice
Animator Ralph Bakshi caused a stir in the 1970s with his raunchy style of animation. His first feature was the pornographic Fritz the Cat, which attracted a fair amount of publicity for its content. Bakshi followed up with Wizards and an animated Lord of the Rings, both of which opened to mixed receptions.
With the sword and sorcery fad of the 1980s in full swing, Bakshi again tried for a hit. Fire & Ice borrowed heavily from the Conan the Barbarian stories, telling of a kingdom ruled by an incestuous mother-son sorcerer couple that can control glaciers. A barbarian village seeks to liberate the land of their dark influence, and sets out to save the world from a perpetual ice age.
Bakshi’s films make notorious use of rotoscoping — that is, animating over live action footage — to produce a more fluid sense of action. Fire & Ice flopped on initial release, though because Bakshi continues to have a strong fanbase, it is widely available on DVD. The film certainly isn’t for everyone, but for fans of hardcore fantasy, or for audiences wanting something a little different, it’s a treasure.
2. Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland
The Little Nemo comic strips enjoyed wide popularity in the early 20th century, and a series of silent animated shorts proved very influential for early animators. It seemed only a matter of time before Little Nemo would make it to a feature adaptation.
It took almost a century. At various points, George Lucas, Hayao Miyazaki, Moebius, Ray Bradbury, Brad Bird and even Disney attempted to get the film to the big screen, only to see the project fall by the wayside. Japanese director Yutaka Fujioka finally committed to the project in the 1980s and secured Japanese funding for the film aimed at an American audience. Chris Columbus penned the script about a little boy who falls asleep and goes on a series of dreaming adventures.
The movie debuted in Japan 1989, where it promptly flopped. In 1992, the film made its U.S. debut and died a similar death. Beautiful animation and a winning score by the Sherman Brothers (noted composers of Mary Poppins) make the film something of a sleeper classic.
1. James and the Giant Peach
Tim Burton gets all the credit for the success of The Nightmare Before Christmas, which is something of a cruel joke. While Burton did conceive the story and produce the movie, the lion’s share of credit should go to Henry Selick, the visionary who directed the film. Selick is a master of stop-motion animation, as his follow-up to Nightmare demonstrates.
James and the Giant Peach adapted the Roald Dahl book of the same name into a mix of animation and live-action. With a cast that included Susan Sarandon, David Thewlis and Richard Dreyfuss, the movie follows a young boy who goes on a worldwide adventure with a group of friendly insects inside a giant peach. Highly stylized and featuring a score by Randy Newman, the movie did solid box office business and earned rave reviews. Though Disney funded the film, they released it under their Touchstone banner, and have since let it fall into obscurity to promote their Disney-branded animation. That cannot change that James and the Giant Peach is an overlooked classic. Do yourself a favor and rediscover it today!
Which animated movies do you think deserve more recognition? Let us know in the comments.