When Walt Disney virtually invented the feature-length animated film with 1937's Snow White, he changed moviemaking forever. What was once called "Walt's Folly" became a box-office winner, elevating animation to the level of serious art. Though the studio has held the majority of the public's interest for going on one-hundred years, there are countless other animation houses who have (and continue to) produce incredible work that goes underseen or underappreciated. Below, we list ten of the best non-Disney animated films that you've likely never experienced, but absolutely must!
10 Fantastic Planet (1973)
This much-emulated, spoofed and referenced Science Fiction masterwork from René Laloux has proven so influential to film and popular culture, most people aren’t even aware of its existence. An imaginative and often surreal epic that comments on human/animal rights and racism, the film was virtually the first to break the Disney mold and show that animation could strike out into bizarre and serious new horizons.
9 Belladonna of Sadness (1973)
Psychedelic, sumptuously erotic, and violent, Belladonna of Sadness is the arthouse answer to the later Heavy Metal’s prurience. Director Eiichi Yamamoto largely pans across still paintings to tell this story of a woman raped and accused of witchcraft, taking inspiration from Gustav Klimt and tarot card decks. Though the narrative is a little too loose to be memorable, the delicate swirl of sight and sound makes Belladonna of Sadness a head trip worth taking.
8 Watership Down (1978)
The movie that launched a million and one night terrors, Martin Rosen’s adaptation of Richard Adams’ classic British novel about a colony of rabbits seeking a new home brought the novel to almost-too-effective life for children who were scarred by it in the theater.
With gentle, at times unrefined animation befitting the wildness of its setting, Watership Down captures the spirit of Adams’ novel all-too-well, something the CGI four-parter that debuted on Netflix last year should have realized.
7 Heavy Metal (1981)
A grubby, sexist, ridiculous animation that could only have come out of the '80s, Heavy Metal is still a notable cultural fixture and a strangely compelling oddity despite (or maybe because of) its rough style which was created by outsourcing the work to several different animation houses. An anthology of loosely connected Science Fiction stories that draw inspiration from Heavy Metal magazine, the film’s juvenile preoccupation with sex, graphic violence, and humongous boobs have made it so infamous/iconic it was spoofed on an episode of South Park. Love it or hate it, Heavy Metal is a crude, rude, rockin' and rollin’ time-capsule unlike any other animated film of all time...for better and worse.
6 The Secret of Nimh (1982)
Disney deserter Don Bluth’s The Land Before Time (1988) and An American Tail (1986) get all the love, but his earlier effort, The Secret of Nimh (1982) is an animation treasure in its own right.
A dark fantasy adventure about a family of Mice desperately seeking to move their home before its destroyed, Bluth found inspiration in Robert C. O’Brien’s novel, 'Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH' for his directorial debut. A masterpiece of classicly detailed animation that doesn’t blunt its sharper thematic edges for younger viewers, The Secret of Nimh is the type of complex and haunting fable Bluth could never have made had he not turned his back on the "house of mouse."
5 Flight of Dragons (1982)
Based on a “speculative natural history” book of the same name, Rankin/Bass’ Flight of Dragons may not be as well-loved or memorable as their holiday films or even their 1977 rendition of J.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, but its a beautifully old-fashioned adventure film with a dated sort of charm. With a fantastic voice cast that includes John Ritter, Victor Buono, and James Earl Jones, dialogue and visuals sure to inspire young minds, and an unforgettable title song, Flight of Dragons is a humble - though essential - Rankin/Bass B-side.
4 The Thief and The Cobbler (1993)
When a lowly cobbler named Tack (Matthew Broderick) incurs the wrath of a villainous Grand Vizier named ZigZag (Vincent Price) he’s rescued from execution by the beautiful Princess YumYum (Jennifer Beals). The two set out to save the kingdom and stop ZigZag’s hostile takeover after the palace’s protective orbs are pinched by a hapless thief (Ed E. Carroll).
This British-America-Canadian fantasy (directed, written, and produced by animator Richard Williams) is famous for a long, tumultuous release history due to the difficulties of independent funding and its ambitious and complex animation. With a halting production schedule unfolding over thirty years, it’s a miracle that the film turned out as lovely and watchable as it is while still being considered notoriously “unfinished.”
3 Pom Poko (1994)
Studio Ghibli is synonymous with Hayo Miyazaki, but the storied Japanese animation house has produced many artists worth their salt. Case in point: Isao Takahata, whose tremendously entertaining Pom Poko is simultaneously the most culturally specific and environmentally conscious films the studio has ever produced.
In telling the story of a clan of shapeshifting Tanuki (Japanese Raccoon Dogs) who try to beat back the humans encroaching upon their environment, Takahata created a profound plea for respecting the natural world, and a wildly entertaining romp to boot.
2 Perfect Blue (1997)
The jury may always be out on whether Darren Aronofsky ripped the plot of this psychological thriller by Satoshi Kon for his own, Black Swan (2010), but the source material is an accomplished piece of cinema in its own right. Following a member of a pop group who leaves music to pursue an acting career as she slowly loses her mind, Kon’s film is considered a masterpiece of modern Japanese animation and storytelling. Concerned as it is with perception, reality, fame, voyeurism and feminist issues, Perfect Blue is a socially aware thriller that bests most films of its type featuring flesh and blood characters not rendered with pencil and ink.
1 The Triplets of Belleville (2003)
This Academy Award-nominated charmer tells the story of a plucky old lady who must rescue her Tour de France cyclist grandson from the mafia with the help of her trusty dog and the titular triplets who are music hall singers of the 1930s. This delightfully old-fangled plot is told is a delightfully old-fangled way: with limited dialogue, and through song and pantomime. A celebration of Paris in days gone by, Sylvain Chomet’s beautifully stylized musical comedy looks to vaudeville and music halls for inspiration to create one of the most achingly nostalgic animated features ever made.