10 great animated coming-of-age films

As Riley hits her teenage years in Pixar’s new sequel Inside Out 2, we look at the unique ways animators have depicted the challenges of growing up, from Bambi to Spirited Away.

Inside Out 2 (2024)Disney

Inside Out 2, the new animation from Pixar and the sequel to Inside Out (2015), continues the story of a now-teenage Riley (voiced by Kensington Tallman) as she continues her journey to adulthood. The film takes a unique approach to the tried and true coming-of-age genre, going inside its character’s mind via a series of emotions that function as our guides, including new additions Anxiety (Maya Hawke), Envy (Ayo Edebiri) and Ennui (Adèle Exarchopoulos). It’s the latest in the remarkably flexible world of animated coming-of-age movies.

Coming of age and animation make for particularly comfortable bedfellows. There’s something about the limitless nature of animation that makes it a beautiful medium for exploring the transition from childhood to adulthood. It can explore feelings and emotions in unique and artistic – and in Inside Out 2’s case, very literal – ways that live-action can’t replicate. Perhaps that’s why so many gifted artists, including Hayao Miyazaki, Guillermo del Toro, Céline Sciamma, Isao Takahata, Marjane Satrapi, Nora Twomey and Domee Shi, have all turned to animation to have their characters embark on rites of passage. After all, if you can imagine something, you can animate it.

There’s a vast library of animated films that explore all aspects of growing up, cataloguing fears and anxieties as well as the triumphs that make us who we are. Ahead of Inside Out 2’s release in cinemas across the UK, the selection below spans four continents and a breadth of experiences, including harsh realities and outlandish fantasies.

I do not know how to render the Slice type temporary-announcement

Bambi (1942)

Supervising director: David D. Hand

Bambi (1942)

Coming of age typically happens between adolescence and early adulthood, but some are forced into growing up earlier than others. That’s certainly the case in Bambi, an adaptation of Felix Salten’s novel and a passion project of the nature-loving Walt Disney. The animation is immaculate: animators studied real deer to bring Bambi’s complex musculature to life, and Tyrus Wong’s lush background art gives the forest setting an infinite sense of dimension.

Despite being a family film, Bambi is one of the most heartbreaking American movies, with a pivotal death that changes the course of young Bambi’s life forever. It’s a scene so ingrained in memories that you’d swear it unfolds in front of your eyes, but in fact the awful event happens off-screen. Bambi explores how tragedy shapes us, how a community can come together in the face of unimaginable horror and come out stronger than ever.

The Little Mermaid (1989)

Directors: John Musker and Ron Clements

The Little Mermaid (1989)

After filmmakers John Musker and Ron Clements brought Disney back from the brink with The Great Mouse Detective (1986), their follow-up The Little Mermaid ushered in the Disney Renaissance. The big, Broadway-style musical numbers (composed by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman) shine brightest – ‘Part of Your World’, in particular, is one of the finest songs in the Disney canon. Adapted from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale, the film follows mermaid Ariel who’s conflicted between enjoying her cushy life under the sea and a chance at a new life above water – a world her father, King Triton, forbids her from visiting.

These two worlds are brought to life with awe-inspiring visual imagination and a luminous colour palette. The voice cast is uniformly outstanding, particularly Pat Carroll, whose sea witch Ursula becomes a memorable villain thanks to her spirited performance. The Little Mermaid is special because it effectively captures the voice of adolescence yearning for something more in life.

Whisper of the Heart (1995)

Director: Yoshifumi Kondo

Whisper of the Heart (1995)

Bibliophiles will see plenty of themselves in Shizuku Tsukishima, a 14-year-old girl whose passion for reading trumps all else. Longing to be a writer, she’s stifled by her small-town existence. She’s never been interested in boys like her best friend Yuko, but when she discovers a boy named Seiji Amasawa has been borrowing all of the same books from her school library, Shizuku sets off on a journey to find him.

In Shizuku, Yoshifumi Kondo’s Whisper of the Heart features one of anime’s most loveable protagonists, a warm-natured girl who feels things with her heart. To the sounds of Yuji Nomi’s swooning score, we watch her discover her true passions as she pursues her first romance and her love of writing. This is a strikingly grounded movie for Studio Ghibli, whose films frequently indulge the fantastical, though some beautifully animated fantasy sequences come to life via Shizuku’s imagination.

The Iron Giant (1999)

Director: Brad Bird

The Iron Giant (1999)

Before Brad Bird became a Pixar stalwart with The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouille (2007), he made his directorial debut with The Iron Giant, an adaptation of Ted Hughes’ 1968 children’s novel following a young, lonely boy who befriends the titular titan in his quiet town of Rockwell, Maine. Against the backdrop of the Cold War, a series of strange happenings draws the attention of an irascible government agent who is convinced the giant is a harbinger of doom.

Bird’s screenplay, co-written by Tim McCanlies, is fascinated by America’s immense military-industrial complex as well as the way the Red Scare amplified fear of the unknown. It’s also compelled by the tender relationship between boy and robot, and how their symbiotic relationship pushes both of them forward into empathy and understanding. The Iron Giant is also a fascinating study of nostalgia, bathed in the warm glow of classic diners and comic books, while also recognising how paranoia and exceptionalism can lead to violence.

Spirited Away (2001)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Spirited Away (2001)

Ten-year-old Chihiro is moving with her parents to a new city, but inadvertently winds up in a vast spirit world. To have a chance at freeing her parents – who’ve been transformed into pigs – she must work for the powerful witch Yubaba in her enormous bathhouse. A lot is going on in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, but it’s staggering in its precision, with some of the most remarkable animation – and eye-watering food – you’ll ever see.

Spirited Away has an intimidatingly dense narrative that barrages you with one complex situation after the next. But a stunning train sequence gives a moment of quiet contemplation – a Miyazaki staple – that allows the viewer to reflect and process everything that’s happened. It snaps everything into place and establishes Spirited Away as an awe-inspiring ode to how one small act of kindness can change everything for the better.

Persepolis (2007)

Directors: Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis (2007)

Adapting her own autobiographical graphic novel, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis explores the experience of growing up during the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Co-written and co-directed by Vincent Paronnaud, Persepolis maintains the black-and-white imagery and style of the graphic novel. Young Marjane is fuelled by the spirit of rebellion and an affinity for the music of Iron Maiden. But as her native Iran becomes increasingly politically oppressive, and some of her relatives die at the hands of the regime, things become increasingly untenable for Marjane and her family.  

Satrapi and Paronnaud’s film is often bleak and unsparing in its treatment of war. It’s also unsentimental in its approach to Marjanne’s teenage years in Europe, which left her feeling disconnected from her family and nationality. But Persepolis is also a valiant treatise on resistance and the small and large ways people fight back against systems that seek to oppress them. It explores identity, faith and politics, but above all how it feels to long for a home that no longer welcomes you.

Boy and the World (2013)

Director: Alê Abreu

Boy and the World (2013)

Alê Abreu’s Boy and the World is a dazzling feat following a young boy coming of age, all without dialogue. A young boy lives in a small village with his parents, but his life is shattered when his father leaves for a life in the city. In Abreu’s probing of a Brazillian society ravaged by capitalism, the boy ventures out on his own to find him.

That may sound like Boy and the World is steeped in misery, but far from it. This is a stunning, adventurous film that comes to life with endlessly astonishing animation, using deceptively simple lines and shapes, morphing them into an explosive array of colours. Experimental in content and form, Abreu keeps things accessible for audiences to understand the young boy’s journey. Even when dealing with challenging topics like the impacts of deforestation, Boy and the World is a poignant examination of self-discovery and the power of collective action: in community, there is strength.

Inside Out (2015)

Directors: Pete Docter

Inside Out (2015)

Emotions are a crucial part of day-to-day life, and Pixar’s Inside Out takes a very literal approach to them. Directed by Pete Docter (Up) and inspired by his own experiences of watching his daughter grow up, the film outlines the inner workings of young Riley’s mind as her family embarks on a big move from Minnesota to San Francisco for her dad’s new job. Our main characters aren’t people but the emotions in Riley’s head: specifically Joy, Disgust, Fear, Anger and Sadness.

An illuminating expression of how we process feelings and memories, Inside Out takes a surprisingly radical approach to its coming-of-age theme. Most mainstream animation tells kids that joy is an essential tool for survival – that with a smile on your face, there’s nothing you can’t face. Inside Out dares to suggest that embracing sadness is actually a vital part of growth, and it’s all the better for it.

Wolfwalkers (2020)

Directors: Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart

WolfWalkers (2020)

Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon has emerged as one of the most exciting modern animation studios, having steadily grown in esteem since their feature debut The Secret of the Kells (2009). Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart’s Wolfwalkers takes the studio’s fascination with Celtic folklore and fantasy – a prominent aspect of both The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea (2014) – to enchanting new heights. The plot sees young Robyn move to Kilkenny with her father in 1650, where she befriends Mebh, who can transform into a wolf.

The hand-drawn animation is merged seamlessly with 3D techniques to create a vivid tale of self-discovery, as Robyn learns about her own extraordinary capabilities. Painted backgrounds evoke the harsh and unforgiving nature of the forests, contrasted with the rich warm colours of the character animation. In an era dominated by conventional CG animation, Wolfwalkers is a ravishing delight, with a story to tell that’s every bit as creative as its visual techniques.

The Boy and the Heron (2023)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

The Boy and the Heron (2023)

Anime maestro Hayao Miyazaki brought himself out of self-imposed retirement to make The Boy and the Heron, a wondrous story of 12-year-old Mahito. After his mother passes, Mahito struggles to adjust to a new town, but a messenger reveals she’s still alive, sending him on a quest to reunite with her. Like many great Studio Ghibli films, The Boy and the Heron merges tough realities with ebullient fantasy, crafting an indelible portrait of adolescence. It’s possibly the best a Ghibli film has ever looked, with an early fire sequence landing among some of the most expressive and terrifying animation on film.

Miyazaki’s work has always celebrated youth’s unlimited potential, and that’s certainly true of The Boy and the Heron and its depiction of Mahito’s tremendous abilities. Despite everything Mahito goes through – the loss of his mother, not fitting in at school, and adjusting to a new family – he remains increasingly optimistic about the world and determined to improve it.