Seth Rogen’s Sausage Party is clearly not a film to take your kid to. There might be a long tradition of adult-themed cartoon shows on TV networks, but when it comes to animated feature films, many people have the mistaken perception that they are exclusively targeted towards children. To an extent this makes sense, since the genre was massively popularized by Walt Disney and his kid-friendly studio productions. While there’s a lot of kids-oriented animations that appeal to grown-ups too (Disney/Pixar has been doing a terrific job here), there are also many animated films made solely for adults, just waiting to be discovered.
There is a great deal of pluralism in adult animated films, both thematically and technically. Animation directors from all around the world have been continuously advancing the medium, experimenting with various cinematic genres, such as science fiction and fantasy, dark comedy, social drama, political documentary, and even graphic horror.
Many of those films have managed to reach broad audiences, especially those that were previously TV properties, but most remain relatively unknown as forgotten artifacts of a hidden history. So let’s dig ‘em up and rejoice!
Here are 15 essential adult animated films that are worth your time.
15 A SCANNER DARKLY
In 2001, one of the most versatile directors of our time, Richard Linklater, decided to experiment with animation. Coming up with the innovative technique of interpolated rotoscoping, animating frame by frame over live-action digital footage, he released the philosophical docufiction Waking Life, an animated film about the nature of dreams that ideally combines content and aesthetics. Five years later, he perfected his craft with the stunner A Scanner Darkly, a brainy sci-fi thriller for demanding viewers.
Based on one of Philip K. Dick’s best known novels, it stars Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr., and Woody Harrelson. The film is set in the near future where an undercover cop loses himself in the use of Substance D, a drug which drives people to develop multiple personalities. Despite the impressive and trippy visuals, A Scanner Darkly stays true to Dick’s vision as a grounded and intellectual sci-fi that deals with issues of existentialism, identity and paranoia.
14 FRITZ THE CAT
Ralph Bakshi is the father of adult animation. Growing up in New York as a Palestinian immigrant kid, he was vastly attracted to the big city way of life. From very early on, he got passionately absorbed in American culture-- comics and cartoons in particular-- and soon he started making his own strips. The radical urban environment was crucial in molding his artistic idiosyncrasy and shaping his heretic sense of humor that is boldly present in his early animated films.
Fittingly enough, his first feature film Fritz the Cat was also the first American animation to receive an X rating by the MPAA. Adapted from the obscene comic strips of counterculture cartoonist Robert Crumb, the film follows the lustful antics of Fritz, an anthropomorphized cat/student in the 1960s swinging New York with compulsive tendencies towards drug use and sex.
Bakshi’s playful psychedelic reflection of the hippie movement functions as a social critique on the hypocrisy of a whole generation. The film was inevitably an object of controversy, due to its crude satire and severe offensiveness. It bears, however, a great historical significance, since it helped overcome the barriers of political correctness in animated films.
From Back to the Future to Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, from Forest Gump to The Walk, Robert Zemeckis is one of those Hollywood directors who find themselves in a constant pursuit of technological innovation. He pushes the cinematic medium forward with each and every one of his creations. Zemeckis has also dabbled in animation, utilizing the motion capture technique with three entirely animated films: the Christmas family fantasies Polar Express and A Christmas Carol, and the strictly adult actioner Beowulf.
Bearing the weighty legacy of the legendary Old English epic poem, one the oldest manuscripts in English literature, Beowulf was imaginatively adapted by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary into a spectacular fantasy adventure for modern audiences. Its eye-popping visuals and solid performances by the all-star cast (Ray Winston, Antony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, and Robin Wright among them) together created a vastly entertaining animated feature. Especially when watched in a 3D cinema, it's exhilarating movie-going experience.
12 SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER AND UNCUT
Beavis & Butthead, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, The Simpsons -- adult animated TV shows have always been flirting with the big screen, and often with amazing results. However, if there’s one feature film adaptation that really stands out, it is undoubtedly the hilarious South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, which is also the most successful R-rated animation of all time.
Storywise, the beloved gang of Stan, Kenny, Kyle, and Eric get enthused over an explicit Canadian film featuring Terrance & Phillip, obsessively repeating their quotes, and their furious parents push the government to go to war with Canada. There are enough jokes in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s obscene creation to offend almost everyone. The film’s legendary profanity was met with intense controversy as expected (Satan himself is represented as Sadam Hussein’s kinky sex object). Still, it was critically acclaimed and generally praised by the audience because South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is quite simply one of the funniest movies ever made.
11 SURVIVING LIFE
This list could not be complete without the addition of Czech surrealist master Jan Švankmajer, a criminally overlooked visionary artist whose work was a critical influence on filmmakers such as Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, and the Brothers Quay. Director and animator for more than 50 years, Švankmajer revolutionized the stop-motion technique with his bizarre, horrifically insane, and utterly ingenious creations.
In his most accessible movie to date, 2010’s Surviving Life (or Theory and Practice in Czech), a married man lives a second life in his dreams, where he pursues a beautiful red-dressed woman. Full of shots of a vintage Prague, the film is a mixture of cut-out animation and live-action footage. Švankmajer’s peculiar style, inexhaustible imagination, and inventiveness are combined in a complex, yet oddly entertaining film about the meaning of dreams, the nature of aging, and the essence of love. He is a fierce connoisseur of not only his medium, but the human condition too. Švankmajer invokes Freudian analytics and delves deeply into the subconscious world which dictates our each and every attitude and desire.
10 WALTZ WITH BASHIR
In an incredible moment of inspiration, Israeli director Ari Folman decided to make a documentary film about his own recollections of the 1982 Lebanon War, in animated form. Starring as himself, he embarks on research, visiting people from his past in order to help him remember what exactly happened during the Sabra and Shatila massacre. More than 3,000 Palestinian refugees were murdered by Christian Lebanese militia in 1982, with the consent of the Israeli forces.
Waltz With Bashir is considered as one of the most significant animated movies and documentaries, at the same time. It was overwhelmingly well-received by critics and audiences worldwide, won many important film awards, and ended up in a ton of top ten lists of 2008. The film’s sensational visuals are a mixture of traditional and flash animation with real archived footage, poetic atmosphere, and artful narration. The result is a truly powerful storytelling experience and a bold attempt to expose the calamity of war.
Another autobiographical war-related story coming from the turbulent Middle East, Persepolis is Iranian-French director Marjane Satrapi's adaptation of her own eponymous graphic novel into an animated feature film. Α recounting of the experiences of a young girl growing up in Iran in the late 1970s/early 1980s, it is a poignant coming of age tale set against the oppressive background of the Islamic Revolution.
Through a beautifully illustrated, playful black and white animation, Satrapi sets up a captivating film. Persepolis is sometimes funny, sometimes dramatic, but always emotionally engaging. Satrapi creatively addresses pop culture, especially punk rock and heavy metal music, as a means of liberation. Her deeply political and genuinely feminist heroine, a clear reflection of herself, is a vivid expression against fundamentalism of any kind.
Persepolis was hugely acclaimed universally and won one of the weightiest cinematic awards there is, the Jury Prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.
8 PERFECT BLUE
There are definitely enough adult-oriented anime to fill a dozen lists like this one. The Japanese have customarily treated their animations with a very different approach than Westerners, often infusing them with strictly adult themes and complicated –disturbing even-- ideas. Perfect Blue is an excellent exponent of the genre; a film that indicates the boldness of anime films and their willingness to step into bleak, and uncharted for standard animation, territories.
During his career, late director Satoshi Kon had been cleverly playing with diverse cinematic genres, such as the dreamlike science fiction in Paprika and the Almodovar-esque dramedy in Tokyo Godfathers. In Perfect Blue he takes a spin on the Lynchian psychological thriller, with a daunting story of a famous pop-singer whose decision to give up her career to become an actress signals her progressive descent to madness. Visually engaging and brilliantly performed, the film effectively elaborates on concepts of identity, resonantly commenting upon the modern Japanese consumer society and the deceitful brilliance of stardom.
Kon’s work is highly influential in Hollywood. As much as we probably wouldn’t have Nolan’s Inception if it weren’t for Paprika, there is no way Daren Aronofsky wasn’t worshiping Perfect Blue while he was making Black Swan.
7 WATERSHIP DOWN
Much like Tolkien, who despised allegories, Watership Down author Richard Adams has persistently claimed that his work is not a parable of any kind. It is hard however, not to perceive the analogies between his rabbit-inhabited meadow and our real human world. Especially when the story delves into burning political issues of modern society-- examining its nature, its structure, and its potential repressive effects on man.
The classic novel was faithfully adapted into an influential animated feature in 1978 by producer and director Martin Rosen. It was a huge success upon its release in Britain and it’s largely considered one of the greatest British films ever made. The film centers on a group of rabbits and their hopeless endeavors to create a free community, away from the corruption of a corporate state. The final result is a wonderfully illustrated fable-- grim and emotionally charged, yet incredibly poetic-- that holds a special place in the history of animated films.
The film also opened an extensive debate as to its suitability for younger audiences (some may remember that it was taught in school by Drew Barrymore’s character in Donnie Darko), since it contains a series of rather scary sequences, gory violence, and unsettling themes. The British Board of Film Censors’ decision to provide it with a “U” certificate, suggesting it is proper for all ages, led many parents to keep complaining for almost forty years on the matter, until it recently got re-rated as PG.
6 BELLADONNA OF SADNESS
The story behind the making of this Japanese animated sexploitation gem is as fascinating as the film itself. It was the last part of the Animerama series, a trilogy of adult features aiming to be the animated equivalent of Japanese soft-core films, or pinku as they were imaginatively called. Animerama was a project of Mushi Productions, a short-lived production company established by the godfather of manga, Osamu Tezuka. The first two entries, A Thousand and One Nights in 1969 and Cleopatra in 1970, were commercial failures and the release of Belladonna of Sadness three years later caused the bankruptcy of the studio. Conveniently enough, Osamu Tezuka had already bailed out.
Inspired by La Sorcière, a book written in 1862 by French historian Jules Michelet about witchcraft during the Middle Ages, Belladonna of Sadness can actually be more experienced than analyzed. On paper, it’s the tragic tale of the newly-wed Jeanne who is violently raped by the regional feudal lord and his minions, as is custom by the unwritten medieval law of droit du seigneur). After this devastating event, the tormented woman makes a pact with the devil against those who harmed her and what follows is hard to put into words.
Eiichi Yamamoto’s inventive narrative through image, Kuni Fukai’s magnificent art-nouveau illustrations, and Masahiko Satoh’s excellent psychedelic soundtrack are combined in a vibrant visual extravaganza, where every single frame is a piece of art. Belladonna of Sadness is a hallucinatory occult masterpiece that was severely misunderstood at its time. It was recently restored in 4K by Cinelicious Pics and rereleased, in an ultimate attempt to get the reception it always deserved.
Although he had a carefree childhood, completely absorbed by comics and fantasy literature, René Laloux was completely wrecked when the Nazis invaded France and his father was recruited by the resistance. Those life-changing events, in conjunction with his own rough enlistment later, gave him a manifest aversion towards militarism that is evident throughout his entire body of work.
Widely considered as the premier representative of French animation, he faithfully served the genre of science fiction with surrealism and psychedelia, and collaborated with noted French illustrators such as Caza, with whom he worked on 1988’s Gandahar. The film, an adaptation of Jean-Pierre Andrevon's novel Les Hommes-machines contre Gandahar (translated: The Machine-Men versus Gandahar), was his last feature-length animated film.
The film is a chronicle of a mysterious army of evil robots who invade the utopian realm of Gandahar and the quest of its young prince who was sent to defend it. Laloux builds a remarkably detailed world, full of wondrous sights and abnormal creatures, and touches upon subjects such as the relationship between man and nature and the riskiness of technological advancement. Unmistakably symbolic in its conceptualization, the film heavily recalls the staggering horrors of totalitarianism.
Gandahar was released in English with an edit by Harvey Weinstein and voice-acting by Glenn Close, Bridget Fonda, and Christopher Plummer, among others. The film was even translated by sci-fi guru Isaac Asimov. It’s worth it however to look for the French uncut version, since the English edition is censored and misses much of the original’s eerie magic.
Stop-motion is an animation art as old as cinema itself. Since late 19th century, filmmakers have been experimenting with the technique that captures the movement of manipulated real-life objects. Used throughout history by film magicians such as Georges Méliès and Ray Harryhausen, stop-motion was then considered old-fashioned for many decades, until it was revived with the works of Tim Burton and Henry Selick. It has also intrigued art-house directors such as Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic & Fantastic Mr. Fox) and Adam Elliot (Harvey Crumpet and Mary & Max).
Last year, one more great American filmmaker challenged himself with stop-motion animation. Anomalisa is another filmic puzzle to leap out of the mind of Charlie Kaufman; an honest portrait of an unhappy corporate man with a long-lost interest in people. Clinically incapable of human connection, he yearns to feel again. Based on a previously written stage play by Kaufman, the project was primarily crowdfunded and took two years to complete.
Kaufman did groundbreaking work with the medium, approaching his direction with fluent camerawork and extensive long takes, in a way we’ve never seen before in stop-motion. Amazingly performed, emotionally complex, and thematically sophisticated, the film is, at its core, a sharp comment on the estrangement of the individual in modern society and the futile pursue of fulfillment. Quite ironically, one of the most truthful and humane films to come out recently is an animated one (containing one of the most realistic and heartfelt sex scenes ever).
3 FIRE AND ICE
Ralph Bakshi’s career could be divided in two time (and thematic) periods: the early 1970s explicit period, when he delivered his first edgy animations Fritz the Cat and Coonskin, and the late 1970s/early 1980s epic fantasy period, in which he made the influential. but generally underappreciated adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings, and the celebrated sword and sorcery cult classic Fire and Ice.
Straight from the imagination of virtuoso fantasy painter Frank Frazetta, Fire and Ice is an archetypical heroic fantasy tale of a dark lord, a good king, a damsel in distress, and a brave young warrior, amusingly told through the Bakshi’s pulpy and kinky lens. After using rotoscoping, where scenes are shot in whole with actors on a set and then they are traced onto animation cels, extensively in his Lord of the Rings, he employs it once more here. The result is impressively flowing character movement that is flawlessly combined with Frazetta’s masterful watercolor backgrounds.
Fire and Ice is a joyride of adult fantasy, the arguable animation equivalent of Conan the Barbarian, and at the same time one of the best-looking animated films ever made. A live-action adaptation of Fire and Ice has been in the works since early 2010s. After Frazetta’s death, Bakshi’s didn’t want to be involved in it, but he granted the rights to Robert Rodriguez, who’s currently developing the project at Sony Pictures Entertainment.
2 FANTASTIC PLANET
A second René Laloux entry (unfortunately in a 40-year career he made only three feature-length animations), Fantastic Planet is his first and most important film. It's a timeless masterpiece of the science fiction genre not just in animation, but in film generally.
Based on the novel Oms en série, written in 1957 by leading French science fiction writer Stephan Wul, Fantastic Planet (or Savage Planet, more accurately translated from French) chronicles the battle between two humanoid races, the blue baldy giants named Draags and the tiny relatives of our own kind, the Oms, on the mysterious desert planet Ygam. Despite its heavy symbolisms, political allegories, and sharp anti-fascist ideas, Laloux does well never to take the film too seriously and approaches his material with a playful attitude, adding sufficient doses of humor and absurdity.
Aesthetically, the film is nothing sort of a work of art. Designer Roland Topor’s amazingly weird flora and fauna is brought to life in a beautiful Gilliam-esque style with the technique of cutout animation. Alain Goraguer’s illusory score, a mixture of avant-garde jazz and psychedelic rock, appropriately places it in the countercultural background of the 1970s. And as a trueborn child of that generation, it reaches its coda spreading the universal message of the coexistence of species.
1 HEAVY METAL
It was 35 years ago, during a hot August not unlike this one. Science fiction was being transformed from a sophisticated sociological allegory to a cinematic genre of outrageously overblown fun, hard rock was entering a second decade of rowdy existence, and Heavy Metal was hitting the US theaters, redefining the adult-oriented animated film.
When publisher Leonard Mogel got his hands on the French Métal Hurlant, an anthological sci-fi/fantasy magazine that exhibited the works of noted European comic artists such as Moebius, Enki Bilal, and Milo Manara, he instantly decided to launch an American version. Heavy Metal the magazine was released in 1977 and three years later, Mogel recruited producer Ivan Reitman and director Gerald Potterton for an animated movie adaptation. It was a multifaceted project that involved several studios and dozens of animators and designers.
A medley of sci-fi, sword & sorcery, horror, and sexploitation, Heavy Metal adapted some of the best short stories from the magazine into vibrantly animated segments. It was criticized for its naïve approach and grains of sexism, but its highly enjoyable explicitness and an all0star collection of rock songs by the likes of Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Stevie Nicks, and Journey, to name only a few, earned it an enormous cult status.
It led to a horrendous sequel, Heavy Metal 2000, that should be avoided at all cost, while over the years, many household names such as David Fincher, Guillermo del Toro, Zack Snyder, Gore Verbinski, James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez were attached to the development of its remake that never moved forward. Today, it remains a 1980s pulp explosion of pure fun and perhaps the most recognizable grown-up animated film to date.