Releasing its first full length animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in 1938 Walt Disney Productions has become the gold standard in animation. When asked to name their favorite animated movie, most people will inevitably answer with a Disney film. From perfect princesses to dashing princes to the most lovable of four-legged friends, the Mouse House has been making cartoons beloved by all for almost a hundred years and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
While it is true that Disney reigns supreme in this department of filmmaking, many lesser-known animated features are deserving of the same recognition. There are countless other realms to explore, incredible journeys to embark on and amazing characters to encounter. Disney doesn’t hold the keys to every kingdom.
Many of these films are quite moving, while a couple of them are even a bit traumatizing. Some have become venerated classics, although sadly, others have faded into obscurity. However, all of them are excellent. You have no doubt seen several of the movies on this list, but there are probably at least a few that are unfamiliar.
Here are the 20 Best Animated Films That Were Not Made By Disney.
20 The Lego Movie
Let’s be honest, The Lego Movie was kind of amazing!
It’s not just that the movie brilliantly employs pastiche and intertextuality, but it’s also a brilliant social satire. The Lego Movie lulls you into complacency – just like its protagonist – from the very beginning, with a bright, shiny world, set to the beat of one unstoppable hook. We recognize Emmett’s prison of conformity, but it does indeed feel like “Everything is Awesome!” However, the movie then proceeds to subvert just about every expectation that you had when it began.
Aside from that, The Lego Movie is more enjoyable than a film about toys has any right to be. It’s also got a solid message for kids and adults alike. Growing up doesn’t have to mean becoming shackled to a life of monotony. There is no point in life at which we need to quash our creativity and become someone who we no longer recognize in favor of some bogus idea of what adulthood should look like. The Lego Movie reminds us just how important it is to have fun!
19 All Dogs Go to Heaven
Released in 1989, Don Bluth's All Dogs Go to Heaven may be a bit disjointed, but that doesn’t mean it’s not beloved. The story of a bad dog who had to die before he could learn how to be a good one kicks off with just that: the death of our protagonist, Charlie B. Barkin. Well, after he tunnels out of doggie death row, that is, and returns home to his drinking, gambling ways, only to be killed off by his duplicitous partner – who set him up in the first place.
All in all, pretty disturbing subject matter for children, no? That was certainly a distinguishing characteristic of Bluth’s work. All Dogs Go to Heaven may not have always made narrative sense. However, it was a beautiful and heartbreaking meditation on love and loss.
Charlie wasn’t always likable, but a great protagonist doesn’t have to be. In the end, he gave his life for Anne-Marie and earned the spot in heaven that he had originally given up. That’s awesome, because the doggie hell depicted in the film is terrifying!
18 The Hobbit
Peter Jackson’s overblown Hobbit trilogy may be the adaptation that springs to mind when people think of the landmark Tolkien novel, but this 1977 Rankin/Bass animated special was the one that the book deserved. At the time, the production company was most well known for their beloved stop-motion Christmas classic, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Peter Jackson’s approach was perfect for adapting The Lord of the Rings trilogy and if he had taken some cues from this animated feature, as opposed to attempting to replicate his earlier success, The Hobbit might have had a more faithful live-action adaptation. The cartoon not only embraced the musical aspects of the novel, but also the smaller scale of the story.
Topcraft’s gorgeous animation was perfected in subsequent efforts – we’ll get to that – and the members of this Japanese team later reformed under Hayao Miyazaki as Studio Ghibli. The movie may have been made for children, but as with most of the animation of the time, it was never condescending, which is why it remains a classic for viewers of any age.
Satoshi Kon’s 2006 visual feast was a nonstop thrill ride from first frame to last. This sci-fi film was based on Yasutaka Tsutsui's 1993 novel and served as the partial inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s 2010 blockbuster, Inception. Although Nolan’s film is hardly a rip-off, the similarities between the two movies are impossible to miss.
A machine that allows therapists to enter the dreams of their patients is stolen and the world descends into chaos. Like the dreams that act as the film’s basis, the movie’s logic isn’t always apparent. However, none of that really matters, because Paprika’s sumptuous visuals tested the limits of what animation was capable of, weaving dreams through reality with mind-bending effect. Aside from that, it had an incredible score. The film was absolutely gorgeous, an unforgettable head-trip in the best possible way.
16 Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
Wallace & Gromit’s creator, Nick Park, is a legend in stop-motion animation. The top two highest-grossing stop-motion animated films ever were his creations, Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Both are excellent films, but we’ve chosen the latter for this list because of its titular stars, and also, because by this point Park had truly honed his meticulous craft.
Released in 2005, the film continues the misadventures of an absent-minded inventor and his clever, loyal best bud, who happens to be a dog. The team had previously starred in several wonderful and award winning shorts, and with the immense success of Chicken Run, it was a no brainer to finally bring them to the big screen.
Wallace and Gromit are undoubtedly two of the most lovable animated characters ever created. The film takes everything that made the shorts so special and expands on it, giving man and dog their greatest challenge yet. Of course, they faced it head on, making the world a little better and leaving our hearts a little lighter.
This delightful fairy tale satire did such a good job of slyly mocking Disney animated features that the film had to be screened by lawyers of Disney and DreamWorks in order to avoid lawsuits. Shrek was an important film, not just for how clever and heartwarming it was, but also for the fact that it saved DreamWorks Animation. It was because of Shrek’s success that the studio was able to go on to create several more prosperous franchises.
It’s hard to believe that the role of this lovable ogre originally went to Chris Farley, and that he had recorded the majority of the character’s dialogue before his death in 1997. Actually, the original idea for the film was for Bill Murray and Steve Martin to play Shrek and Donkey. At this point, it is impossible to imagine anyone other than Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy in those iconic roles.
Released in 2001, the film boasted incredible computer animation, gorgeous and groundbreaking. Shrek not only deconstructs the idea of fairy tales, but also picks up those pieces and creates a new one. The tropes may be familiar, but the outcomes – other than the “happily ever after” part – are not what you’d expect.
14 The Land Before Time
The Land Before Time was released in 1988 and it was the director’s second triumph, after An American Tail.
The Land Before Time was a truly beautiful film about friendship and love that also explored prejudice in a way that kids could understand. Like most of Bluth’s films, it was also fairly dark. The Land Before Time followed the journey of Littlefoot, a young Apatosaurus - or Brontosaurus to those of us who grew up in the ‘80s - after the tragic death of his mother. Littlefoot was separated from his herd, and along with Cera, Ducky, Petrie, and Spike, searched for safety in the Great Valley.
There are certainly similarities to Bambi and at the time, the film was often compared to the best of Disney’s Golden Age. The movie elucidates hard truths, especially concerning death: “It is nobody's fault. The Great Circle of Life has begun, but, you see, not all of us arrive together at the end." Sure, The Lion King would get there, but not for another six years.
Both heartwarming and heartbreaking, The Land Before Time belongs in the pantheon of truly great animation.
13 Howl’s Moving Castle
Although Disney distributes Studio Ghibli films, the company has been around long before making that deal, and Disney has no say in the filmmaking process. Many even consider Hayao Miyazaki to be the Walt Disney of Japan. Although this assertion ignores the huge stylistic differences between these two revolutionary filmmakers, it’s not entirely untrue in terms of their accomplishments.
Howl’s Moving Castle is one of several Miyazaki films to make this list, but you can’t really go wrong with any of his movies. Loosely based on Diana Wynne Jones’s amazing novel of the same name, the director has cited this 2004 animated feature as his favorite creation, stating, “I wanted to convey the message that life is worth living, and I don't think that's changed”.
After Sophie, a young hatter, becomes an old woman thanks to the curse of one vindictive witch, she gets caught up in the shenanigans of a dreamy wizard named Howl, who has his own curse to break. The film is a gorgeous spectacle with dazzling animation and layered, interesting characters. It also gave us one of composer Joe Hisaishi's most memorable themes – although all of his film scores are fantastic.
12 The Iron Giant
This film takes its cues from the 1968 story, The Iron Man, by British poet laureate, Ted Hughes. After his wife, Sylvia Plath, committed suicide, Hughes wrote the story to help his children cope with the sudden death of their mother.
Although on its surface the movie is about a boy who befriends a robot from outer space, it is also a parable about peace. It was a film that entertained children, while giving their parents a lot to consider. The Iron Giant was also the directorial debut of Brad Bird, who would go on to direct The Incredibles and Ratatouille.
Although the film was a critical success, it was a commercial failure. However, in the years since its 1999 release, The Iron Giant has gone on to become a beloved cult classic, praised for both style and substance.
11 Watership Down
Based on Richard Adams’s acclaimed 1972 novel, this 1978 movie has left generations of children both captivated and scarred for life. Watership Down is widely considered one of the greatest animated features ever made. It pushed the boundaries of what everyone thought cartoons were capable of.
The film may have left many young viewers traumatized, but its influence and importance is incontrovertible. Watership Down addressed a number of issues, from mortality to oppression to community, and it did so using anthropomorphized rabbits. The movie was violent, but it was also undeniably beautiful. Director Martin Rosen has stated, “Some people get it and some people don’t. Some people get it, very powerfully. I’m accused of waking people up at night, 25 years after they saw it.”
Although the film is difficult to watch at times, it is also impossible to look away from. Look for a brand new adaptation from Netflix and BBC One later this year, starring the likes of James McAvoy and Ben Kingsley.
Persepolis is a 2007 film based on the graphic novels written by Marjane Satrapi about her experiences growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution. The movie was an incredibly faithful adaptation, bringing the comics to life. This is probably because Satrapi co-wrote and co-directed it, along with Vincent Paronnaud.
The animation of the film was in stark contrast with the movie’s Disney and Dreamworks contemporaries. Black and white, stylized and stark, the perfect way to unfold the story of Marjane, a girl torn between being free without her home, or being home without her freedom.
There is incredible depth in Satrapi’s depiction and she doesn’t paint herself in the most heroic light. Marjane is a flawed human being like the rest of us, and even if we can’t always relate to her specific experiences, we can relate to the emotions that accompany them.
9 Wonder Woman
As much as we adored the recent Wonder Woman film, it wasn’t the first movie to do the Amazonian princess justice. This 2009 animated feature was the perfect portrayal of Diana of Themyscira. This was no children’s cartoon. In fact, the film’s action sequences actually had to be edited after the first cut received an R rating.
With a story that adhered closely to George Perez’s seminal “Gods and Mortals” story arc, a screenplay by Wonder Woman writer, Gail Simone, and a production team led by DC animation legend, Bruce Timm, the film turned out to be an inspired origin story. It also definitely kept with our hero’s feminist roots.
In many ways, Wonder Woman is so successful for the same reasons as the character's recent adaptation. The film looked great and had emotional depth, as well as an excellent cast. However, the animated movie had one thing that the live-action one did not… the invisible jet!
8 Princess Mononoke
Princess Mononoke was released to widespread critical and commercial success in 1997. A truly incredible film, it was both larger in scope and darker in tone than Hayao Miyazaki’s earlier films. At the center of the movie is Ashitaka, an exiled prince, struggling to keep peace between humans and animals.
With beautifully rendered animation, Princess Mononoke tackles environmentalism like you’ve never seen before. For one thing, calling the two warring sides good and evil would be reductive in a world so full of shades of grey. The film asks difficult questions without providing simple answers.
There is no clear cut Big Bad. Sure, Eboshi initially appears to be the villain of the piece, but really, she is just trying to help her people. Another interesting aspect of the film is that neither side is blameless. Both are unwilling to compromise and are really just fighting to survive.
Environmental awareness has been at the heart of many of Miyazaki’s films, but the director always puts the story before the message. This is why, although there are several other themes explored, such as moral ambiguity and disability, the narrative always takes precedent.
7 Kubo and the Two Strings
This brilliant film from Laika Entertainment is a stop-motion masterpiece. Kubo and the Two Strings is more beautiful than any other animated movie in recent memory. Released in 2016, this feature’s visuals are unmatched thus far by anything that Pixar or DreamWorks have to offer, and that’s saying a lot. Perhaps seeing something created with this incredible blend of CGI, 3D prototyping, and stop-motion animation elicits a more visceral reaction than watching a film made through CGI alone, no matter how amazing it looks.
However, Kubo is more than just a pretty face. This film is a love letter to storytelling, and expresses that affection by crafting a truly original and engaging tale. A boy with mysterious musical powers, accompanied by a monkey and a beetle – of sorts – goes on a quest to find the enchanted armor connected to the father he never got a chance to know.
Kubo is a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve. The characters are not only lovable, but also memorable, and its excellent score is positively transportive. So much more than the children's film it appears to be, Kubo is sure to enchant all viewers, regardless of their age.
6 Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
Considered by many to be the greatest Batman film ever made, Mask of the Phantasm was released in 1993. Despite being mostly well regarded by critics, the movie’s box office performance wasn’t stellar. However, it has since gone on to become one of the most beloved animated films of all time.
In this continuation of Batman: The Animated Series, Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. all reprised their roles as Batman, Joker and Alfred, respectively. The behind-the-scenes talent from that show was enlisted as well, with a screenplay written by Paul Dini, Alan Burnett, Martin Pasko and Michael Reaves, and Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski handling the direction.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm told one of the most cohesive and heartfelt Batman stories ever to appear on the big screen. It also had pulse pounding action and one of the Caped Crusader’s most intriguing and original villains to date. The way that the past and present storylines came together was nothing short of masterful.
Based on the much-adored novel by Neil Gaiman, Coraline was the first feature produced by Laika. It was adapted for the screen and directed by Henry Selick, who directed other stop-motion classics such as The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. Aside from the immense talent onboard, Coraline also made history as the first stereoscopic stop-motion animated movie.
Coraline is both adventurous and impetuous. She’s also extremely bored, longing for excitement and more attention from her parents. Coraline finds both when she discovers a door that leads into a reality almost identical to her own. However, this world seems tailor-made for her. Coraline’s “other” parents are more attentive, wonders abound, and fun is paramount. Unfortunately, the one caveat of remaining in that world is that Coraline must allow “mother” to sew buttons into her eyes.
Coraline is at once wondrous and horrifying. The stark contrast of worlds is perfectly illustrated by reality’s muted color pallet, as opposed to the bright, exciting hues of the other dimension. Bruno Coulais’s extraordinary score is another major component of what makes this film so perfect.
4 The Last Unicorn
Regardless of how much amazing progress is made in this field, it’s probably safe to say that animation will never get quite as wonderfully weird as it was in the ‘80s. This 1982 Rankin/Bass production, based on Peter S. Beagle’s 1968 classic, perfectly exemplifies this. The beautiful and tragic tale of a unicorn in search of others like her featured an incredible cast, including Mia Farrow, Jeff Bridges, and Christopher Lee, and had a screenplay written by Beagle himself.
This film is heartbreaking, terrifying and utterly captivating. Its animation is positively gorgeous, even by today’s standards. Beagle populated his novel with a variety of delightful characters and the film brought them to glorious life. Aside from the unicorn's traveling companions, Schmendrick and Molly Grue, we encounter a song-obsessed butterfly, a pirate cat, and an alcoholic skeleton, among others. There’s also a particularly disturbing moment between the magician and a Douglas fir.
The Last Unicorn remains one of the finest animated features ever created. From the bizarre to the magnificent to the truly frightening, the film runs the gamut of human emotion. A truly touching rumination on love, loss and regret, The Last Unicorn will forever remain a classic.
3 The Triplets of Belleville
So many wonderful things can be said about this extraordinary 2003 cartoon from Sylvain Chomet. There has been nothing like it before or since – although Chomet’s follow up, The Illusionist is also delightful – which makes it somewhat difficult to describe. The animation is completely unique and Benoît Charest’s score is nothing short of brilliant.
When the French Mafia kidnaps a Tour de France cyclist, it’s up to his grandmother to rescue him. However, she’s not alone. Madame Souza is accompanied on this quest by her grandson’s loyal pup and the titular triplets, who were actually famed music hall singers in the ‘30s.
The Triplets of Belleville features very little dialogue, but you’ll never find yourself missing it. Between stunning visuals that range from the gorgeous to the grotesque, and the toe-tapping score, you will be completely enraptured from start to finish.
2 The Secret of NIMH
Released in 1982,The Secret of NIMH was loosely based on Robert C. O'Brien's 1971 novel, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. It was a critical success, but a commercial flop, most likely due to studio politics. However, it is now considered by many to be Bluth’s finest film. NIMH began the David and Goliath type battle between Disney and its rogue former employees. Although the latter would lose, they not only challenged the animation titans, but also forced them to work harder.
The film follows a widowed mouse who must move her children to safety before they are all killed by the farmer’s terrifying death contraption, his tractor. It’s not that easy though, because Mrs. Brisby’s son is ill. She seeks aid from nearby rats who have enhanced intelligence thanks to the horrific experiments that they endured at the hands of humans. Seriously, the film taught us that famers are heartless murderers and animal testing is obviously evil. It also probably caused many children to grow up overestimating the intelligence of rats.
The Secret of NIMH is beautifully animated, with memorable songs, a lovely score and real stakes.
1 Spirited Away
As crazy as this is to consider, Spirited Away began without a script, but Miyazaki's films generally didn’t have scripts. According to Miyazaki, “It's not me who makes the film. The film makes itself and I have no choice but to follow.”
As fantastical and immersive as Spirited Away is, this Academy Award winning film was made to give young girls a truly relatable heroine. Despite all of her incredible experiences, Chihiro is a typical ten-year-old girl. While in the process of moving, she winds up in the spirit world. After her parents are transformed into pigs, it’s up to Chihiro to find a way to free them.
While many see the film as an allegory about childhood prostitution, at its heart, Spirited Away is about growing up. Chihiro must navigate her way through a strange world, populated by dangerous creatures. In the process, she discovers a great deal not only about who she is, but also what she can handle.
Spirited Away remains unparalleled in terms of both animation and imagination. It is devastatingly beautiful and undeniably magical. It is not only the best film on this list, but it also might just be the greatest animated feature of all time.
What are your favorite animated movies that were not made by Disney? Let us know in the comments!
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