In what is sure to be a heated debate down in the comments section, I’ve decided to try and put together my Top 10 picks for the best CGI animated films to date. While the hand-drawn vs CGI debate rages still, I’m keen to avoid any major controversy and stick with the computer animated ones today – I’ll pick up the slack with a “traditionally animated” Top 10 later, I think.
Ever since Toy Story, film studios have been falling over themselves to produce slick, funny and flashy computer animated films of varying quality, usually involving normally inanimate objects or anthropomorphic animals and what have you. The cute factor has long since evaporated from the CGI realm, leaving us with simple, often stunningly visual storylines that wrap us up in their narrative often even moreso than their live-action brethren. Enough time has passed, and the quantity of CGI films has exploded thanks to Pixar, DreamWorks, Blue Sky and Disney; each have produced quality films in their time. But which of the multitude of CGI animated bliss ranks among the very best? Which do I think would be included in a time capsule sent into space as a sample of our civilisation for aliens to receive? Here’s my picks…
10. Kung Fu Panda (DreamWorks, 2008)
We kick off with DreamWorks Kung Fu Panda, a pastiche of the chop-socky Asian cinema filled with bad lip-synch and amazing camera moves: only here, they’re replicated in amazing, gut-busting detail and clarity on an animated stage. Jack Black does his best work vocally as the inept Po, a Panda who dreams of joining an elite kung-fu masters, the Furious Five. When destiny calls, Po must become more than what he is to save the day and redeem himself. Filled with devilishly cool visuals, held together by a great script and performed by a terrific cast, Kung Fu Panda is a film that should remain on your annual rotation on DVD.
9. Wall-E (Pixar, 2008)
The kind of animated film that Warners only wish they could have made back when Bugs Bunny ruled the roost, Wall-E remains one of the best of Pixar’s impressive stable. The first half of the film is essentially a silent movie, with no vocals to be heard from any human being – it’s a robot stuck crushing garbage on an overpulluted Earth, who finds love in a probe sent by humans to search for life on the surface. This is the kind of film Pixar do best, where the character cannot speak but must emote using only his physical attributes and some sound effects: it’s staggering clever and a worthy entrant into the Top 10.
8. Ice Age (Blue Sky/Sony, 2002)
When Scrat first bumbled his way onto the screen, chasing that nut, I was sold. Pants-wetting funny, Ice Age is less about global warming and more about heart warming, a facet often misunderstood as kitsch or cliched by today’s modern audiences. With Scrat providing much of the slapstick, and John Leguizamo’s Sid the Sloth doing the rest, the stellar vocal cast ensure Ice Age remains one of the best examples of Blue Sky’s animated work to date.
7. Finding Nemo (Pixar, 2003)
If the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ever needed an excuse to add a “Best Animated Film” category, then Finding Nemo is it. It goes without saying that Ellen Degeneres’ vocal performance here is capable of making you laugh and cry at almost the same time, as Dory the intellectually stunted fish, but the rest of the casting and animation backs that up by being equally superb. Willem DaFoe’s underrated performance as a “war weary” aquarium fish is one of the film’s key highlights.
6. The Incredibles (Pixar, 2004)
The Pixar slant on super-heroes, a genre probably the most perfect for this kind of film, is both action-packed and emotionally grounded: audiences lapped up the references to heroic conventions and contrivances, as well as the more mundane family unit that is the central core of the film. Director Brad Bird, who brought us The Iron Giant (a contender for the Top 10 hand-drawn animated films list!) moves to CGI and delivers in every concievable way. The Incredibles is widescreen storytelling of the highest order, and remains one of the most stylish, zesty and fabulous Pixar films thus far.
5. Toy Story (Pixar, 1995)
The original CGI animated feature, and for a long time the measuring stick by which all others were compared. The visuals and the story are superbly designed, with Pixar’s John Lassetter rightly collecting a Special Achievement Oscar for his work on this film. Woody and Buzz, now considered iconic characters in film, get their first run here in a funny, moving and ultimately entertaining feature debut that would change the world.
4. Happy Feet (Warner Bros, 2006)
I have a soft spot for penguins, so move on haters. Happy Feet, made in Australia using both local vocal talent as well as international stars, Happy Feet’s environmental and social messages resound throughout the film’s spectacular visuals. A mix of song, dance and icy escapades, this is one stunning animated feature that can be enjoyed again and again. Special mention- Robin William’s outdoes his Genie performance here, as a tiny Mexican penguin named Raoul. Genuis.
3. Shrek (DreamWorks, 2001)
Pop culture hip and self-referential to the Disney animation cliché, Shrek takes all the fairy tale characters you’ve grown up with and gives them a whole new slant. Funny, brilliantly animated and to this day, the best of the Shrek franchise, Mike Meyer’s portrayal of the title character pales into second-rate when matched with the vocal gymnastics of co-star Eddie Murphy, as Shreks wisecracking friend Donkey.
2. Toy Story 2 (Pixar, 1999)
The sequel that trumped the original, Pixar’s return to the playroom with Woody and Buzz makes for a darker, more energetic and epic story. Uprooted by a nasty toy collector, Woody finds himself encountering a group of his fellow “Woody’s Roundup” collection, including Jessie the cowgirl. While Buzz and the rest of the toys search for him, Woody learns a valuable lesson in family, friendship and how to escape an aeroplane. Originally destined for the DTV crowd, thank goodness wiser heads prevailed over at Disney and allowed this film to become a full fledged theatrical release. Toy Story 2 is like watching lighting in a bottle – the story, animation and vocal work here is superb.
1. UP (Pixar, 2009)
Breathtaking visuals, mixed with one of the most human stories ever told in an animated film, UP remains Pixar’s crowning achievement thus far. The story of an old man, overlooked by a society that he no longer understands, mourning the death of his wife, floats away on a cluster of balloons to find the stunning waterfall both he and his wife long dreamed of visiting. Delivering all of Pixar’s skill with the animation, as well as some brilliant vocals from Ed Asner, UP is quite simply a perfect film in every way.
Written and compiled by Rodney Twelftree.
Rodney is a writer and filmmaker based in Australia. He runs the film production company Fernby Films with his brother Warwick. See his Top 10 Film Sequels of All Time HERE & Top 10 Steven Spielberg Films HERE