Animation usually gets some slack from the casual filmgoer. Some will deem the medium as simply child’s play, while others won’t even bother watching a piece of brilliant cartooning. But whether it be CG or traditionally hand drawn animation, if the box office numbers are any indicator (hint: they are), most moviegoers can’t get enough of these animated features.
While we all know that Disney and DreamWorks rule supreme with animation, the two companies have both seen their fair share of misses. From box office failures to straight ugly animated adventures, no moviemaking powerhouse is immune to the occasional weak feature.
But there are definite hits and full-length animated movies that hit our hearts harder than most live-action films will. We’ve compiled some of the best films from the world of animation that Netflix has to offer on this list, from Disney to DreamWorks, to Laika and beyond. If you’re looking for a thought-provoking, beautiful animated film to watch on Netflix today, check out one (or all!) of these 15 fine cartoonish movies down below.
15. The Iron Giant
Before writing and directing the beloved Pixar movie The Incredibles, but just after finishing a near-decade-long run at The Simpsons, Brad Bird crafted his magnum opus with 1999’s The Iron Giant. While Warner Bros.’ marketing department didn’t do the film any justice — and hardly anyone saw the movie at the time of its release as a result — word-of-mouth and home media releases of The Iron Giant gave the film the cult following and renewed appreciation that it rightfully deserved. From its initial release to the present day, The Iron Giant has garnered enough attention for many to consider it to be one of the best animated movies of all time. And now it’s finally on Netflix.
The film follows a boy named Hogarth who uncovers his new best friend, a nameless 50-foot tall iron monster/alien, during the height of the American Cold War. Not much is known about the giant’s origins, but Hogarth soon becomes fond of the giant and tries keeping his presence a secret from the military and town locals. The cast is top-notch, while the animation itself is nothing short of impressive and beautiful. It’s also the first role Vin Diesel had as a voice actor, playing the Iron Giant himself. Take that, Groot!
Laika is best known for their stop-motion feature films that create in-depth environments, wondrous atmospheres and stories, and relatable, mostly creepy characters. Their first film to showcase this was 2009’s Coraline, based on a 2002 novel of the same name by Neil Gaiman. The movie revolves around a girl named, well, Coraline, who finds that her new home has a door to a parallel universe full of her wildest dreams, though it holds a dark secret she must uncover.
Writer, director, and producer Henry Selick did a fantastic job of creating a kids feature that could double as a horror movie. Its characters are strange and the Other World that Coraline visits is curious, vivid, dark, and creepy as hell. There’s a heavy amount of foreshadowing delivered throughout the film that points arrows toward impending doom, but only eagle-eyed viewers will catch them all. Just knowing that this film is stop-motion while featuring so many colors, backgrounds and character models is an insanely impressive feat. It’s simply a beautiful film unmatched by any other stop-motion tale.
13. Finding Dory
Creating a sequel to a standalone Pixar movie often means potentially ruining an adult’s childhood. Monsters University (a prequel to Monster’s Inc) seemed to hit the mark well enough, but Pixar’s sequel to Finding Nemo, Finding Dory, really upped the ante on how well they could pull off a sequel to a movie that really didn’t need one. Finding Dory is charming, bright, thematic, and at times, it feels even better than its predecessor — and that’s really saying something.
In Finding Dory, Dory takes a step away from a mere supporting character and takes center stage as the film’s main star. We follow Dory as she embarks on a quest to find her family, whom she was separated from when she was a child. The entire journey is thought-provoking and reflects the struggles of a person growing u a with mental disability, which obviously makes this another Pixar movie that slaps you right in the feels. The humor is cleverly written and some visual gags are so fast, they’re quite easy to miss. This movie is beautiful, colorful, bright and slightly terrifying, just as the actual ocean seems in nature documentaries.
12. The Little Prince
Based on a 1943 novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince is an animated fantasy adventure film that flips between stop motion and CG. Directed by Mark Osborne, best known for co-directing Kung Fu Panda and the live-action scenes in the SpongeBob SquarePants movie and television show, The Little Prince tells the tale of a girl who meets an elderly aviator and is told of his meeting with a Little Prince in the Sahara Desert. Its powerful voice cast includes Jeff Bridges, Rachel McAdams, Paul Rudd, Benicio del Toro, James Franco, Paul Giamatti, Ricky Gervais and Bud Cort. The film is also scored by Hans Zimmer, which tags this as a powerhouse of an animated film, all presented by Netflix.
The Little Prince might not serve as a true adaptation of its source material, but it surely suffices as a smart, impressive effort from Mark Osborne. The classic tale gets a modern spin to it and captures a warm intelligence for viewers of all ages to enjoy. Very few animated films challenge younger viewers without going over their heads quite like The Little Prince.
11. Lilo & Stitch
One of the most underrated feature films from Walt Disney Animation Studios has to be the beautiful and wildly successful Lilo & Stitch. Originally created by Disney head storyboard artist Chris Sanders as a failed children’s book pitch, Lilo & Stitch is one of Disney’s final traditionally hand-drawn movies. Interestingly enough, it’s also the first animated film to take place on any of the Hawaiian islands, and one of the last movies Disney created in hopes of saving a bit of money, a la Dumbo.
Lilo & Stitch tells the tale of a little girl named Lilo and her newfound alien pet Stitch. She’s a problem child to her sister and guardian, Nani. Throughout the film, the two sisters only have each other, as no other family is hinted to exist. After Lilo adopts a dog, who is really the alien Stitch in disguise, Nani soon finds that it’s not just Lilo who is a rambunctious troublemaker. This is one of the finest Disney films to date, with each piece of dialogue well fitting and every background beautifully watercolored.
Zootopia revolves around an animal built metropolis that was made for its animal inhabitants. It’s a city by animals, for animals, despite the fact most of these creatures should be eating each other. It follows the unlikely pairing of a rabbit police officer named Judy Hopps and a red fox con artist named Nick Wilde as they uncover a conspiracy involving the disappearance of several of the predatorial creatures in their Zootopia.
The film is more than just a buddy cop movie for Disney. Digging a bit under the surface reveals a much more layered plot, breaking down modern, real-world issues of discrimination and stereotypes. The film’s jokes are animal-centric and clever, like the slow-talking sloth who audiences can’t help but love. It’s cute as all hell and its voice cast is nothing short of superb, thanks to talent of stars Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate and J.K. Simmons. Most of all, it’s a strong animated feature, fitting for any demographic to enjoy and for cinephiles of all ages to gawk over.
9. Kung Fu Panda
One of DreamWorks’ most successful franchises as of late started with a CG film called Kung Fu Panda. Released in 2008, the movie follows an anthropomorphic talking Panda named Po, voiced by Jack Black, who aspires to be a kung fu master. After accidentally, kinda sorta winning a material arts tournament, Po is eventually deemed the chosen one who must fend off an evil warrior who will wreck havoc upon an ancient China. It’s the typical archetype of the hero’s journey spliced in with some martial arts tomfoolery.
There’s plenty of slapstick to go around with Kung Fu Panda, and its voice actors help pull all of it together. Jack Black, David Cross, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Ian McShane, Seth Rogen, and Lucy Liu all make their appearances, supporting Black’s typical dimwit-type humor and delivery and churning out some hilarious jokes that’ll leave you giggling for hours. Its animation isn’t too shabby either, seeking a blend of smooth CG movements with natural colorings that just feel spot-on, visually.
8. Kubo and the Two Strings
Another entry on this list from Laika is Kubo and the Two Strings, a beautiful 3D stop-motion film centered around a boy named Kubo and his magical shamisen. Kubo must stop his evil grandfather and his mother’s twin sisters from ruling the land and prevent them from ultimately stealing Kubo’s left eye. Aiding Kubo is an anthropomorphic snow monkey and beetle, which on paper sounds strange, but makes up for a fun trio full of creative spark and energy.
The film is extraordinarily smart, demanding a watch from both adult and more youthful audiences alike. Its animation is beautiful, similar to the studios’ start with Coraline but amped up to the next level, showing sharp character animations and colors that engage and illuminate its own magical world. Kubo and the Two Strings is funny without being cliche, beautiful, never seeming unpolished, and at its peak, infinitely creative and breathtaking. This is a definite must-see on Netflix for all lovers of animation.
7. Chicken Run
Produced by British animation studio Aardman Animations, the company behind the characters Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run was a box office hit back in 2000. In conjunction with DreamWorks, Aardman Animations saw their first feature film head into theaters to much critical acclaim due to its incredible stop-motion animation work and its talented cast of voiceover actors that included Julia Sawalha, Mel Gibson, Timothy Spall, and Phil Daniels.
Chicken Run revolves around a crew of chickens that are seeking to escape their farm to avoid death after their farm owners decide to move on from selling eggs and onto selling chicken pot pies. It’s a bit ridiculous, of course, but the entire situation explains the film’s choice of comedy: smart, over the top, and often paired (well) with slapstick. Chicken Run is also surprisingly action packed, at times coming off like an epic escape from prison scene in an action movie. Chicken Run is charming, fun, and hilarious, and made for all audiences to devour.
6. Emperor’s New Groove
The Emperor’s New Groove premiered in the year 2000 as Disney’s 40th animated big screen outing. It revolves around a self-centered, sarcastic, and narcissistic emperor named Kuzco who seeks out to demolish a peasant’s house to make room for a summer getaway named “Kuzcotopia.” After Kuzco is turned into a llama by his ex-advisor and her henchman in an attempt to dethrone him, the emperor must return to his kingdom with the help of the same peasant who initially would’ve seen his house destroyed.
Kuzco is played by none other than the sarcastic and self-deprecative comedian himself, David Spade. Joining him on the film’s noteworthy staff includes John Goodman, Eartha Kitt, Patrick Warburton, and Wendiw Malick. This film feels almost out of place for Disney, releasing at the sweet mid-point the company had between its ending of hand-drawn animation films and toward the dawn of its CG boom. Definitely a charming tale, The Emperor’s New Groove is well-deserving of its cult favorite Disney status.
Watching Fantasia today, it’s hard to believe the movie initially debuted all the way back in 1940. Although it’s Disney’s third animated outing ever, and the concept of the film may seem a bit dated, the spectacular visual effects presented in Fantasia still hold up today as some of the more imaginative, visually impressive works in all of animation. This is a movie you can simply watch on mute and still get a ton out of.
The idea for Fantasia is easy to comprehend and executed well enough that all generations of audiences can enjoy this visionary piece of cartoonage. There are animated segments introduced by the film’s narrator, Deems Taylor, who in the film is the Master of Ceremonies, and there are orchestrations to every segment. We hear grandoise, epicly orchestrated music performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra over scenes of awry animation, perfectly in sync with each other and constructed to create some of the coolest visuals in the history of cinema. This film holds up today as a special piece of filmmaking. Just imagine seeing the impact this made on audiences in the ’40s!
The 1999 Disney film Tarzan was one of Disney’s last solid entries before the millenium hit. Critically praised and adored by Disney fanatics all around, Tarzan was a big-time box office success. eventually spawning a Broadway adapation and a few sequels. It’s one of the last Disney movies to be hand-drawn and cherished for it, with its animation department split between a few teams located in Paris, Orlando, and Burbank. It’s even got Phil Collins on the soundtrack!
Tarzan is based off of the tale Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs and follows a nameless man who has been raised by gorillas and ends up slowly discovering what it means to be human. The film’s voiceover cast includes Tony Goldwyn, Minnie Driver, Glenn Close, and Rosie O’Donnell, who delivered their talents with undeniable passions. The movie itself was beautiful for its time, but it still holds up as a fluid piece of animation work today thanks to its lush backgrounds and smooth character designs.
3. The Secret of Kells
The Secret of Kells is a French-Belgian-Irish fantasy film that first hit the scene in 2009. The movie is full of wonder and beauty; a whimsical tale if there ever was one. It revolves around a little boy caught in a medieval outpost under siege who encounters a master illuminator that uncovers secret powers through an ancient book. It’s based on an old Irish manuscript and the legend of the creation of the titular Book of Kells.
The film pays keen attention to detailing Celtic mythology and culture, from its character designs to its backdrops. It’s a unique film, not just for its animation style, but also its pacing, music, and characters. The Secret of Kells feels minimal, yet refreshing, smart, and grandiose. By today’s standards, it’s difficult to find a movie as fresh and whip smart in its animated approach that isn’t produced by DreamWorks or Pixar, but The Secret of Kells seems to do what bigger studios accomplished both effortlessly and independently.
2. The Nightmare Before Christmas
The Nightmare Before Christmas is a classic film from producer Tim Burton that remains one of the most uniquely twisted movies Disney has in its catalogue. (They actually released the film under their Touchtone Pictures banner, as they believed it to be too dark for their traditional audience.) Nightmare is a stop-motion musical revolving around Halloween Town, a place where its ghoulish inhabitants prepare all year for Halloween by thinking of new tricks and ghastly treats to give children. However, the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, Jack Skellington, becomes bored of the scary holiday and seeks something new. He stumbles upon Christmas Town and finds delight in the holiday, eventually stealing Christmas for his own and teaching his Halloween Town citizens how to act more Christmas-y and less Halloween-y.
This classic film has spawned some of Disney’s most iconic and unique characters. Its animation is superb, as Jack Skellington’s tiny limbs move about each frame with ease, and the spookiness held within Halloween Town is felt to this day by its many fans and viewers. It’s hard to believe that this was released in 1993, and it still holds up as one of Disney’s strongest entries to date.
1. The Prince of Egypt
Standing as one of DreamWork’s very first feature films, 1998’s The Prince of Egypt is a film adaptation of the Book of Exodus and follows Moses from his beginnings to his uprising and escape from Egypt. It’s an animated biblical tale full of plagues that induce frogs and famine, an army ready to cross the Red Sea, and an appearance from God himself. It’s a crazy tale that many of us know by heart, and it’s done justice with its adaptation into animation through DreamWorks and directors Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, and Simon Wells.
The movie was carefully planned out by its directors, and the visual style of The Prince of Egypt was unique for its time. Creators wanted to make the characters in the movie feel realistic and visually distinct from other animated designs in 1998. Egyptians were given angular looks based on their environments, while Hebrews were chosen to be more natural in their appearance. On top of a masterful score by Hans Zimmer, 934 hand-painted backgrounds were created for the film when all was said and done — and not a single one was wasted in the slightest. You owe it to yourself to check out this underrated DreamWorks masterpiece at least once.
Did we miss any of the finest animated films Netflix currently has to offer? Which of these movies did you just add to your queue? Let us know in the comments.