The greatest animated films of all time?

Disappointed with the poor showing for animation in the recent Sight & Sound critics’ poll, curator Jez Stewart offers his own selection of the 10 greatest animated films.

28 August 2012

By Jez Stewart

Spirited Away (2001) © 2001 Nibariki - GNDDTM

Looking at the results of the latest Sight & Sound poll with my animation curator hat on, I was struck by the almost complete absence of animated films. Nothing reached the Top 100 published in the September 2012 issue, and in the critics’ top 250 the highest animated entry was Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro (1988) in joint 154th place.

WALL-E (2008)

In the critics’ lists featured in the magazine, only six animated films appeared, with Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) leading on only two votes. Spread across separate lists, WALL-E (2008), Yellow Submarine (1968), Len Lye’s Rainbow Dance (1936), the Quay Brothers’ Street of Crocodiles (1986) and Miyazaki’s lesser-known Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) each appear once. On the filmmakers’ side, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) got two votes, three different Stan Brakhage films represent the experimental side of animation, and Mike Leigh makes an eccentric but admirable pick of Winsor McCay’s How a Mosquito Operates (1912). 

Automania 2000 (1963)

This overlooking of animation is a bit of a habit in film polls. So I decided to do my bit to redress the balance, and pick my own animation-only top ten. Here it is, in chronological order.

Dumbo (1941)

Director: Ben Sharpsteen

My favourite Disney film as a child, and the one I most enjoy sharing with my son today. The bathtime sequence is one of the most moving scenes in cinema.

The Spider and the Tulip (1943)

Director: Kenzo Masaoka

This Japanese short featuring an adorable ladybird reveals the influence of Disney’s Silly Symphony series, and yet also has an undercurrent of anti-American propaganda. The animation of the rain sequence is staggering.

Automania 2000 (1963)

Director: John Halas

Though best known for their version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, this short shows the Halas & Batchelor studio at their creative height thanks to Tom Bailey’s design and Harold Whitaker’s animation.

Canon (1963)

Directors: Norman McLaren, Grant Munro

A visual exploration of the repeating musical canon that I admire more and more as I realise the planning behind it, especially the complex optical printing work.

A Fairy Story (1967)

Director: Tony Cattaneo

Good animation scripting is very difficult, but this is the best example of the unique perspective of Stan Hayward’s stories, a collaborator of Richard Williams, George Dunning and Bob Godfrey.

Damon the Mower (1972)

Director: George Dunning,

Inspired by an Andrew Marvell poem, George Dunning sketched short phrases of animated movement on index cards, which were then stuck to a table top and filmed. Animation bared to the bone, and still extraordinary.

Great (1975)

Great (1975)

Director: Bob Godfrey

Thirty minutes of catchy songs, typical humour, and visual splendour. Bob Godfrey at his most ambitious, but sadly little seen.

A Tale of Tales (1979)

Director: Yuri Norstein

Norstein’s masterpiece was voted the best animated film of all time by an international panel of animators in 2002, and it is very hard to argue against that today. A film of infinite richness.

The Village (1993)

Director: Mark Baker

In the 1990s British animation was at a peak, and to me this is the highlight of that period. Mark Baker is best known today for Peppa Pig – a few episodes of which are not far off my top ten either…

Spirited Away (2001)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

My Neighbour Totoro is a close second, but this is the most rewarding of Miyazaki’s film. It can be watched and celebrated over and over again.

Spirited Away (2001)

Only two feature films made my list, but the ratio of shorts to features in animation is very different to live action (one of the big reasons why many great animated films are little known and rarely considered). Some of the shorts, like A Fairy Story, Damon the Mower and even Great (the first British film to win the Oscar for short animation), are very hard to track down, but the majority of these can, with a little effort, be found online or on DVD.

I took the ‘gut instinct’ approach of picking the titles that came most readily to mind, and tried not to feel too guilty about what was missing – easier said than done when there is no Pixar, Jiří Trnka, Frédéric Back, Joanna Quinn, Suzan Pitt, Don Hertzfeld, John Hubley, Aardman… The exercise is a form of torture, but it certainly convinced me that animation was hard done by on the list. Time to start the propaganda for the next Sight & Sound poll in 2022!

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