Chances are the first movie you ever saw was animation. Exuberant, colourful and full of wonder, animation is the stuff of childhood. It introduces us to the magic of cinema. From directors such Fantastic Mr Fox’s Wes Anderson, Ice Age and Rio’s Carlos Saldanha, Wallace & Gromit’s Nick Park, to critics and fans alike – animation doesn’t just mean kids’ and family movies. Worldwide innovators have adapted the form to include action, politics, and race. Animation has grown up right before our eyes. From the timeless Disney classics, the best Pixar films to sophisticated modern works from Japan’s cottage industry – anime, one thing is certain: Animation is an endless well of fun. Here are our favourites.
The Incredibles (2004) Director: Brad Bird.
Best quote: ‘When everyone’s super…no one will be.’
Defining moment: ‘No capes!’ declares Edna Mode, the film’s snooty fashionista, and we see the fates that befell some unlucky caped crusaders.
Pixar’s first film to earn a PG rating signalled a grabbing of the brass ring: Yes, the studio’s computer animation was peerless, but could it also do marital malaise, middle-aged belly spread and sneakily ambitious philosophy tucked into spandex? Writer-director Brad Bird commanded control unprecedented since the days of old Walt. The plot’s spirit proved infectious. Thematically, the movie’s deepest fear concerns the creeping slump of mediocrity: If greatness lies within us, why can’t we let it out? Joshua Rothkopf
Defining moment: The escape from evil Sid’s room, a breathtaking action sequence that put Hollywood’s A-list to shame. John Lasseter’s simple tale turned adults into happy children, naysayers into believers, and animation into the dominant expression of an industry. Pixar’s big screen debut is its most beautiful thing. The genius idea was to imbue plastic and cloth with solidity. Naturally, none of this would have worked had there not been a killer script, too. The humanity imparted by Tom Hanks as the passed-over Woody can’t be understated: This was a role rich enough to lure the hottest actor. Joshua Rothkopf
My Neighbor Totoro (1988) Director: Hayao Miyazaki.
Best quote: ‘Trees and people used to be good friends.’
Defining moment: The first appearance of the roving cat-bus will have viewers of all ages gasping in delight. My Neighbor Totoro is the gentlest, most unassuming film on this list, a tale of inquisitive children, mischievous dust fairies, magical trees and shy sylvan creatures. But it’s also one of the richest and most overwhelming. This is a story whose roots go deep: into Japanese tradition and culture, into its creator’s personal past, into a collective childhood filled with tales of mystery and a love of all things that grow. There is darkness at the film’s heart – the fear of losing a parent, the loneliness and frustration of childhood – but its touch is gossamer-light, delighting in simple pleasures like raindrops on an umbrella. Tom Huddleston
Spirited Away (2001) Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Best quote: ‘There must be some mistake: none of these are my parents.’
Defining moment: Tea and cakes with the monstrous Yubaba and No-Face – a moment in the same surreal league as Lewis Carroll. The apex of Japanese animation, this is one of cinema’s finest tales of untrammeled imagination. It’s a movie that emboldens children to embrace weirdness and wonder, and adults to remember how they once did. The plot is a stew of essential anxieties: dislocation, separation from one’s parents, fear of disappearing forever. Even more thoroughly, Spirited Away is a compendium of ancient folklores. But as brilliantly woven together by Hayao Miyazaki (at the peak of his creative gifts), the movie is basically a story about growing up. No other animation film speaks more to the inner animal and anima; is it any wonder those words are so close to animation? Joshua Rothkopf
Pinocchio (1940) Directors: Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Norman Ferguson, Jack Kinney, Wilfred Jackson and T Hee.
Best quote: ‘Always let your conscience be your guide.’
Defining moment: And so we reach the top of our list – we’d be lying if we didn’t say it was by a nose. Pinocchio is the most magical of animated movies, a high point of cinematic invention. Disney’s second feature begins with a sweetly singing cricket, yet plunges into scenes from a nightmare. (Pinocchio’s extending nose is animation’s most sinister and profound metaphor.) It’s staggering to think of this as intended for children, but that’s the power here, a conduit to the undercurrent of formulating identity. The takeaway is hard to argue with: Don’t lie, to yourself or others. Joshua Rothkopf