Top 10 Traditionally Animated Films

A while back we published our list of the Top 10 CGI Animated films, and I did mention that at some stage I’d have to do a list of the top ten traditionally animated films – films drawn by hand and not made in a computer. Well, here’s that list!

Animated films, in one form or another, have been around practically since the dawn of cinema itself. Early cartoon shorts produced by Walt Disney during the early part of the 20th century became a staple of cinema life, although it was felt by many that a feature length version of the art form would fail spectacularly – who’d want to go watch a bunch of animated rabbits chasing carrots for an hour and a half? If history has shown us anything, it’s that “they” were spectacularly wrong. Disney, brave enough to have a crack at inventing one of cinema’s most enduring genres, gave us the first feature length animated film based on the fairy story Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs, and it was an instant hit. Ever since, the worlds fascination with animation, particularly in the feature format, has been insatiable. Mention the word “animation” to anybody and they’ll think of either Disney or Bugs Bunny – two iconic juggernauts of the animated landscape who singlehandedly dragged animation from being a simplistic kiddies entertainment to a form of cinema with plenty to say to all ages.

While we realize that many of our choices will undoubtedly be controversial, the films below represent the best quality animation across the ages and industries – we’ve tried to keep this list from being a complete rundown of the Disney canon (although there are a few Disney films in here!) and in doing so, uncovered a few gems you may have forgotten about. Enjoy!

10. The Secret Of NIMH (MGM/UA, 1982)

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Although he would go on to create debacles of animation such as Titan AE, Don Bluth set the bar high with his first directorial effort in The Secret of NIMH. Dark, frightening and exciting, NIMH is one of the first animated films I remember watching, and scared the crap out of me then – now, not so much, but its gorgeous art and special effects (backlighting, shadow detail and vibrant use of color) still hold up to this day. One of the very best films for all ages, and a lost classic amongst the animated fare of today.

9. Aladdin (Disney, 1992)

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One of Disney’s renaissance films, the immediate precursor to The Lion King, has everything a film fan could want in a movie: adventure, danger, romance and a few good songs. Square-jawed Aladdin meets doe-eyed Jasmine, an Arabian princess with curfew issues, and together must thwart the dastardly plans of the Grand Vizier Jafar – albeit aided by a monkey, a magic carpet, and a rapid-fire Genie voiced by Robin Williams. Terrific entertainment for all ages, Aladdin still stands the test of time as a genuine classic.

8. The Iron Giant (Warner Brothers, 1999)

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The only animated film to ever make me cry, The Iron Giant came out of nowhere back in 2002 and even now remains a classic of the genre. A young boy befriends a massive giant robot during the height of the Red Scare in small-town USA, and learns valuable life lessons along the way. Great characterization and a terrific vocal performance from the entire cast (as well as an unrecognizable Vin Diesel as the eponymous giant robot), plus an ending that will wrench your heart out, make The Iron Giant a giant of an animated film. Director Brad Bird would go on to helm Pixar’s The Incredibles, as well as Ratatouille.

7. Pinocchio (Disney, 1940)

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If there was ever an example of moving art, Pinocchio is it. Every frame of this film could hang quite comfortably in the Louvre and not look out of place, such is the care and quality of the animation in Pinocchio. Featuring a still-stunning battle with the great Whale, and some superb atmospheric scenery throughout – the much parodied tale of the Little Wooden Boy remains a shining example of just how gorgeous well-rendered artwork can look. Breathtaking in almost every sense.

6. Akira (TMS Entertainment, 1988)

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Iconic, if altogether indecipherable, the Manga film stands tall as a classic of the genre, a pop-culture phenom which remains a touchstone example of brave, exploratory storytelling. Featuring some truly brain bending animation, Akira remains a defining film for a generation.
See also our Top 10 Anime Films

5. Tarzan (Disney, 1999)

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Of all the films I’ve seen about Tarzan, Disney’s effort from 1999 would have to be the most exuberant and all-round entertaining. The animation is stunning, the score by Mark Mancina and songs by Phil Collins will make your spirit soar, and the story dispenses with the boring bits of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original version – Disney opts for an action packed, adventurous thrill ride that has touches of emotion and warmth, enough to satisfy both the boys and the girls watching it.

4. The Castle Of Cagliostro (Toho, 1979)

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The second Japanese animated film to make it into the Top Ten, Castle Of Cagliostro was directed by animation legend Hayao Miyazaki, and released in 1979. Actually the second in a series of films about master thief Lupin III, Cagliostro is an action packed adventure film of the highest order. While many animated films still revelled in the kitschy family friendly fare Disney was producing, Cagliostro represents a more adult-oriented film for the discerning viewer. A truly amazing piece of filmed animation.
See also our Top 10 Anime Films

3. Beauty & The Beast (Disney, 1991)

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A giant of the animation world, Beauty & The Beast represents the zenith of the Disney renaissance of the last part of the 20th century. Until the release of Pixar’s UP, this film was the only animated movie to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (it lost to Silence of The Lambs), the story of Belle and the hairy Beast remains a favorite of both Disney aficionados, film fans and children alike – the soundtrack has so many hummable tunes it’s scary, and the gorgeous artwork is a sight to behold.

2. Bambi (Disney, 1942)

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The personification of the Disney-fication of animation, whereby a series of anthropomorphic animals have a variety of adventures in the forest – with the omnipresent danger of nature and human hunters, young Bambi is born. Bambi’s lyrical quality, mixed with the stunning animation style the studio had become famous for, as well as a gripping climax involving a wildfire – this remains one of the most completely involving animation examples ever filmed.

1. The Lion King (Disney, 1994)

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King by name, king by nature: one of the most successful traditionally animated films in history is just that for a reason, folks. Featuring a set of great songs by Tim Rice & Elton John, a fantastic score by maestro Hans Zimmer, and with a superb voice cast and a genuinely moving story, The Lion King still roars the loudest of all. The opening number remains perhaps the most astonishing piece of animation set to music ever devised. Ever.

Written and compiled by Rodney Twelftree

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About the Author
An Aussie lad with a love of cinema, Rodney Twelftree parlayed his interest in films into a website dedicated to reviewing them. Currently Editor In Chief at fernbyfilms.com, Rodney spends much of his time watching films, television, reading science fiction novels and trawling the internet for news and reviews on all things film.

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  1. Castor Reply

    Completely agree with your top 3. A bit surprised that Aladdin isn’t a bit higher, I sort of miss these 2D animations now that CGI has taken over the animation world.

  2. rtm Reply

    No Sleeping Beauty??? That’d be my number one. Otherwise I agree with your top 3. I’m tempted to get the Diamond Edition of Bambi… haven’t seen that in ages.

  3. Dan Reply

    Pinocchio and Beauty and the Beast are two films that I haven’t seen in ages. Would love to catch them again some time but the Disney DVDs always seem overpriced. Was never really a fan of animation as a child – can’t explain why, I used to find live-action much more interesting and that continued into adulthood. I’m going to have to see this Iron Giant everyone keeps talking about. Although speaking of giants, I remember I did like the BFG as a child! 🙂

    Not sure about Sleeping Beauty – another I haven’t seen since childhood but I would have expected Snow White to crop up.

  4. Rodney Reply

    Snow White – might have been the first, but doesn’t automatically make it the best. Watching SW last month (again) made me realise that while it was a stunning film in its time, by the standards of today, it’s not quite up there with the rest of those in this list. Pinocchio and Bambi resonate more emotionally with me (and still look amazing by modern standards), which is why I chose to include them in the Top 10.

    Sleeping Beauty is also a worthwhile film, and could have slotted into this list if it had been a top twenty or something – but I never enjoyed it quite as much as the ones here today!!

    @ rtm – Bambi on Blu is a must-own for any fan of animation. Stunning.

    @ Castor – number 6 thu 9 could all have been equal in this list, I must admit. Aladdin only ranks lower because I tend to think, by comparison to the others, the characters aren’t quite as nuanced as the rest. Just my humble, mind you, but that’s all I got.

    Can I also state, for the record, that a few films missed out on a spot in this list due to the fact I could only choose ten films. Had it been open ended: 11 – Dumbo, 12 – The Little Mermaid, and 13 – Lady & The Tramp.

  5. amy Reply

    I don’t really think Titan A.E ended up being such a dud. LOL But animation-wise, I would add The Three Caballeros xD even if it has live-action footage.

    Would also suggest Naussica, or Grave of the Fireflies.

    Great list nonetheless.

  6. JasonW Reply

    Two British animated films spring to mind – Animal Farm and Watership Down. I think both prove that animation can be more than just entertainment for children.

  7. Dan Reply

    @Rodney: Lady and the Tramp – I remember seeing that at the cinema with my Mum and sister. I’m sure we had it on VHS. I just recall spaghetti bolognese and a very unhygienic way of eating it.

  8. Rodney Reply

    @ JasonW – agreed on Watership Down, that is an amazing film, and well worth including in any Top Ten list: I’d forgotten about it. I haven’t seen Animal Farm yet, so I’ll take your word for it!!

    @Dan – Man, have you got the BluRay player yet? Get your hands on L&TT on DVD or something and give it another go. It’s a great little film, and gorgeous to watch!

  9. Dan Reply

    @Rodney: It pains me to say I still don’t have a Blu-ray player – I’ve got the new HD Plasma screen but it’s still being fed little old DVDs! 🙂

  10. Novroz Reply

    Great list Dan! I have more love for this kind of animations than CGI animations. If I to write my top_5 animation both traditional and CGI….non of the CGI will made it into the top-5.

    Lion King will definitely be in my list too. But my number 1 is definitely from Ghibli.
    I wonder why Disney never make this kind of animation anymore 🙁

  11. sundryandco Reply

    I watched Pinocchio a few weeks ago, having not sat down to watch it in many years – It still has the same magic that it had then! I loved The Little Mermaid too and am a little disappointed that I didn’t grow up to be Ariel. I suppose my fear of water would have been a problem anyway. Other favourites were..let’s see….Peter Pan, Cinderella….and, if I’m truthful, Care Bears and My Little Pony.
    A film which I would never stop talking about as a child (I also sang the songs and owned the book with the cassette) is The Jungle Book. Good times 🙂

  12. Ronan Reply

    Hi Dan, great post. Akira rocks. I think it would break my heart to try to choose between Disney animation and [Jap]anime but most of my childhood movie memories are Disney related, so that might just tip it, but only just. As an adult, no series of films have given me greater pleasure to watch than those of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. All hand drawn as well. Amazing!

  13. Rodney Reply

    @sundryandco – My Little Pony? In THIS list? Hmmm….. maybe a revision is in order! LOL 😉

  14. rtm Reply

    @ Rodney – I’m definitely considering buying Bambi on BD. For sure once Sleeping Beauty comes out on Blu-ray I’d be the first to get it, even though I’ve owned probably 4-5 copies over the course of my lifetime! Aurora is my all time fave princess!

  15. Rodney Reply

    @rtm – if this had been a list of technical accomplishment, Sleeping Beauty would have made it into the ten, because it IS a stunning looking film with some spectacular visuals. But for me, the film never quite “got” me like the others did – I guess it’s a film slanted towards the female demographic, which is why, perhaps. That gorgeous widescreen frame, and the finale with Maleficent, coupled with those three hilarious fairy-women, or whatever they were, makes Sleeping Beauty a keeper, for sure.

    @Ronan – I never really found much about Anime and Manga terribly exciting, to be honest, although the above mentioned films (Akira and Cabinet) rise above the genre by a considerable margin. I find the anime and manga styles a little annoying, to be truthful, films from the Ghibli stable never appealing to me above the Disney/USA animation style. My limited exposure to the Asian animated world probably makes this list a little one-sided, but that’s why it’s a subjective list in the first place.

  16. Richard Reply

    Interesting list. Traditional animation is such a doomed art that it’s great to see someone shouting it out. I’m not a big fan of The Lion King, though. But then, I’m not a big fan of most classic Disney movies. I liked The Jungle Book.

    Wow, I haven’t seen Akira in years. First time I saw it I was high on mushrooms. That was an experience, let me tell you. 😉

  17. sundryandco Reply

    @Rodney

    Who couldn’t love this (Put on your sunglasses before opening link): http://listofnow.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/06/my-little-pony2.jpg

    Ah, indeed, a spectrum of splendiferous hues.

  18. Rodney Reply

    Oh my Lord. I think my eyeballs just exploded inside my head. That actually hurt to look at!! 😉

  19. filmgurl Reply

    Wow, this brings back memories! I’m getting nostalgic all over again, I may just go back and see these again – thanks for sharing! 🙂

  20. OneFlickADay Reply

    Great List!! I can watch Aladdin and Lion King over and over again. Some other noteworthy “traditional” animated films would be Sleeping Beauty, Snow white and Little Mermaid. Now things are changing in the world of animated movies with films like Kung Fu Panda, Toy Story, Cars etc.

  21. DEZMOND Reply

    wasn’t the fresh TANGLED animated in a traditional way too, or am I mixing it with THE FROG PRINCESS?I know Disney made one of those two in a traditional way. Love both of them, TANGLED more off course.

  22. nige Reply

    WHAT !!!! no watership down?

  23. Tori Reply

    This list is pretty rubbish. There’s so much Disney and some I’ve never heard of before. The Castle Of Cagliostro? Akira? The Secret Of NIMH?

    Where’s Watership Down? Anastasia? Balto? Land before time? A Dinosaur’s story? Thumbelina? Quest for Camelot? And of course, Fantasia?

    Not impressed.

  24. Bill Thompson Reply

    The only question I have is, is this list based on the quality of the animation or the overall quality of the film?

    Either way, there’s not much to disagree with on the list (other than Akira which I think is pretty much rubbish). If we’re talking quality of animation my list would be completely different, with films like My Neighbor Totoro, a lot of the Chuck Jones stuff, The Secret of Kells, Pom Poko, Ninja Scroll, Grave of the Fireflies, Fantasia, and many other possible candidates

    If we’re talking best films in terms of overall quality there’s nothing on your list that I wouldn’t at least consider, outside of the aforementioned rubbish that is Akira. I’d probably be more inclined towards the films I mentioned above plus Alice in Wonderland, Whisper of the Heart, Anastasia, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Begone Dull Care, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, and some others.

  25. Chris Reply

    I just saw Bambi for the first time this year, very cute. Has aged remarkably well. I like the celebration of animal personality and unspoiled nature. Most of the film is like watching a child who has never experienced the four seasons before. The weather changes are quite beautiful, agree the animation is stunning.

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