When news first broke of the intention to celebrate ten years of Blueprint: Review with a series of articles looking back over the past decade of film, I enthusiastically put myself forward to cover the top 10 greatest animated feature films of the period. I didn’t realise at the time quite how heartbreaking the whittling-down process was going to be. You see, we are currently going through a golden age of animation and the riches that spilled out before me as I feverishly pawed at my Letterboxd app at first made my heart leap and then my stomach sink as I realised I didn’t have room to include so many films I had utterly fallen for in that way animation makes me experience again and again. Even accounting for the list of Honourable Mentions and Runners-up I decided to allow myself, I was devastated that there would be no room to mention Rocks in my Pockets, Wrinkles or Miniscule: Valley of the Lost Ants. Window Horses and Phantom Boy would have to fall by the wayside, as would Dilili in Paris and My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea. Even by cheating and slipping those mentions into this first paragraph, I still haven’t got to mention April and the Extraordinary World, Tower, Mirai or Klaus. OK, I’ll stop it now… except to mention The Lego Movie… and The Boxtrolls… and The Breadwinner… and… well, you get the picture. This has been hard because it’s an incredible time for animation… and Megamind, I bloody love Megamind!
Honourable Mentions – The films I have rated just below the 5 star mark but which could well be candidates for an upgrade in future.
Moana – Cracking Disney musical adventure that should’ve been bigger than Frozen.
Zootropolis – Hilarious and timely anti-hate satire from Disney with already legendary sloth scene.
Wreck It Ralph – Lovely Disney tribute to retro arcade games. At this stage I should make the controversial admission that no Disney films have made my top 10!
Coco – Ravishing, moving Pixar meditation on life, death and memory.
Toy Story 3 – Great third part to a trilogy that became a quadrilogy. In retrospect, I don’t love it as much as the first two but still a great addition to a series I’d happily see run and run (check out the short films too).
Night is Short, Walk On Girl – Mind-blowingly bizarre Anime with terrific stylised visuals from Masaaki Yuasa.
Lu Over the Wall – Another terrific Masaaki Yuasa film with a more coherent, if still distinctly oddball, narrative. A gloriously colourful beach party of a film.
Wolf Children – Multi-faceted, emotionally gripping Anime from Mamoru Hosoda about the lupine offspring of a tragic werewolf romance.
Anthem of the Heart – A deeply emotional exploration of guilt by Tatsuyuki Nagai. Like so many Anime films, this is set in a high school but the romance elements that often overwhelm such films are merely the garnish for deeper themes. Plus there’s an egg prince who can place curses on people!
Kubo and the Two Strings – Wonderfully inventive stop-motion fantasy adventure from Laika, a studio that have yet to make a bad film. This is probably my favourite of their impressive canon.
My Life as a Courgette – Emotionally incisive stop-motion tale of children in an orphanage, directed by Claude Barras and co-written by ace director Celine Sciamma
Louis & Luca: The Big Cheese Race – Pinchcliffe Grand Prix is one of my favourite animated films so I was sceptical of this reboot of the characters forty years after the original film. Upon finally seeing the film however I was thoroughly charmed and am now looking forward to seeing the other two films in this reboot series.
Long Way North – Remi Chaye’s adventure story is a knockout with its bold visuals and slow-building story which ends up at the North Pole.
Virus Tropical – Santiago Caicedo’s beautifully observed family saga following a girl’s journey from conception to young adulthood.
The Big Bad Fox & Other Tales – Benjamin Renner and Patrick Imbert’s hilarious trilogy of tales starring animals is one of the most purely enjoyable films of the last ten years, reminding me of the animated shows I grew up watching.
Anina – Excellent, quirky Uruguayan-Colombian film with deceptively simple but effective animation style, telling the story of a 10 year old girl who is given an unusual punishment for fighting at school.
Runners-up – 5 star films that had to make way for other candidates in the top 10.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya – Visually striking final film from the legendary Isao Takahata, The Tale of Princess Kaguya suffers only from the sometimes outlandish narrative quirks of its source text. As an aesthetic experience alone it is a masterpiece and as an adaptation of 10th century Japanese literature its unusual story is actually quite fascinating.
Isle of Dogs – Pulled up for perceived cultural appropriation and white saviour issues, Wes Anderson’s second stop-motion animation is a film I loved too much on first viewing to allow myself to even enter into the debate.
Boy & the World – Alê Abreu’s vibrant, largely dialogueless tale of a boy in search of his father is one of the least-seen Oscar-nominated animated features of the last decade but its mix of drawn, painted and digital animation demands a wider audience.
Ethel and Ernest – Directed by Roger Mainwood, who had worked as an animator on the classic Raymond Briggs adaptations of the 80s and 90s, this adaptation of Briggs’s deeply personal work about his parents manages to capture all the magical, nostalgic feel of The Snowman and Father Christmas, while also channeling the grittier realism and inevitable tragedy of the chilling When the Wind Blows.
This Magnificent Cake! – Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels’ extraordinary felt animation is one of the most visually impressive animations I’ve ever seen. Running at a barely feature-length 44 minutes, This Magnificent Cake! is equally striking in its surrealist, symbolist approach to narrative, telling five interlocking stories set in colonial Africa which treat the subject with a grim, sometimes deeply uncomfortable humorous edge.
Ruben Brandt: Collector – Hungarian director Milorad Krstic’s animated crime thriller is an astonishing film overflowing with references to classic art combined with nods to action movies. With its unusual premise and surrealist designs, Ruben Brandt, Collector proved a tad too esoteric for some but fans of independent animation with even a passing awareness of art will eat it up and, for those less taken by the abstraction and symbolism, the film is also peppered with some of the most thrilling, extended chase scenes in recent memory.
And now, the main event…
The Top 10 Best Animated Films of the Last 10 Years
10. Spiderman: Into the Spider-verse
As someone who has very little interest in comic books, producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s stated intentions to make a film that seemed like a comic book brought to life did not excite me in the way it did so many comics devotees but it didn’t take more than a couple of minutes for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse to remove any doubt that I was going to fall for it as hard as any comic book fan. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse looks like no other animated film I’ve ever seen. This was achieved by combining CGI animation and 2D animation, with line work, painting and comic-book-style dots being overlaid on computer rendered frames. But if the much-discussed visual style was all Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse had going for it, the film would not be able to sustain its near-two-hour runtime. Fortunately, Lord and co-writer Rodney Rothman clearly put as much work into the screenplay as any other element of the film. The story is complex but accessible, fantastical but involving, hysterically funny but emotionally engaging. As a non-comic-book-fan, I’m sure there is much I am missing in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. It is a film tailor-made for hardcore fans, filled with Easter eggs and in-jokes that will reward multiple viewings. But it is not a film that leaves anyone out in the cold and the fact that there are potentially more delights for the comics enthusiast does not decrease the enjoyment of those who just want a good story, great animation or fast-paced action. This high level of accessibility should allow the film to maintain its instant reputation as a classic even as its visual innovations inspire imitators and spin-offs.
9. Kung Fu Panda 2
The Kung Fu Panda franchise is a masterpiece of modern animation that crept up on me. I remember seeing the first film in the middle of the day one Christmas, half-watching it through a haze of festive snacks and early afternoon libations and then casually dismissing it as just another Dreamworks trifle. Upon returning to that film years later I saw what a fool I’d been but it took its crackerjack sequel Kung Fu Panda 2 to inspire me to give it another try. I still remember sitting down to watch Kung Fu Panda 2 with no expectations whatsoever and emerging enthused to the point of fidgety excitement by just how superb the film was. While the first film focused on the overweight panda Po’s unlikely appointment as the Dragon Warrior and his lengthy training process to help him fulfil his destiny, the sequel launches headlong into an action-packed adventure right from the off as Po and the Furious Five head to Gongmen City to take on a psychotic, kung-fu hating peacock voiced by an on-form Gary Oldman. As well as a fast-moving plot that boasts great action sequences and moments of genuine emotional resonance, Kung Fu Panda 2 also has better jokes than its predecessor, with barely a scene going by that doesn’t offer at least one big belly laugh. Few people would place Kung Fu Panda 2 in their top 10, let alone place it above the lauded Spiderman: Into the Spider-verse, but I’m only too pleased to be able to buck the trend and it feels fitting to throw a spotlight on the underappreciated Dreamworks who, despite their myriad commercial successes, have so often lived in the critical shadow of Disney and Pixar.
8. Chico and Rita
This Spanish animation from Tono Errando, Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal tells the story of two lovers, a songwriter and a singer, whose lengthy and complex affair plays out against the backdrop of the 40s and 50s jazz scene, an era when many Cuban jazz musicians were leaving their country for America where their expertise and innovations helped push jazz into new territories. Filled with great music and even some animated appearances by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente and Thelonious Monk, Chico and Rita tells a compelling story of fiery passions and life-changing loves. Beautifully and seamlessly combining CGI and inspiring hand-drawn animation, the film looks gorgeous, saturated in vivid, joyous colours. From the moment I saw it, Chico and Rita instantly became one of my favourite animated features of all time. I just love it, it strikes such a chord with me emotionally, as well as visually and aurally. I’ll also never forget that the first time I saw the film was at a cinema in Nottingham where I was forced to leave the screening due to a sudden case of explosive diarrhoea. It is testament to the film’s excellence that I momentarily wrestled against the urgency of the situation in an attempt to remain in the screening but ultimately, while my bowels weren’t receptive to Chico and Rita’s charms, my heart certainly was.
7. Consuming Spirits
A true labour of love, Chris Sullivan’s astonishing feature Consuming Spirits is a long, eloquent, dreamlike, blackly comic meditation on poverty, madness, death and depression in a small industrial American town. Created over the course of fourteen years, during which it morphed from a mini-series into a 90 minute feature and finally a 128 minute film, the natural progression of Consuming Spirits’ material is clear in its fluid structure and extremely satisfying denouement which ties together its numerous threads and makes sense of what initially seems to be an elusive narrative. Focusing on the lives of three quietly desperate individuals and their struggles to cope with the problems and secrets of their past and present, Consuming Spirits lays out its plot strands across five acts. What first seems disorienting and vague becomes clearer with each of the film’s five acts but Sullivan helps differentiate between the images of the past, present and representations of dreams and imaginings by employing several different animation styles. The characters are mainly presented as stop-motion cut-outs while images of the past appear as stark black and white line drawings or manipulated photographs. Outdoor scenes of cars driving through town are represented by defiantly artificial model shots. The fascinating visual experimentation and narrative structure are bolstered by Sullivan’s excellent screenplay which is built around drily philosophical monologues delivered by Earl Gray, the host of the local radio station’s gardening show who constantly segues from the subject of gardening into elaborate musings on life and death. The tone is expertly struck so as to allow plenty of mordant laughs while never undermining the pain and suffering that underscores everything. There are many scenes that are almost overwhelmingly emotional but never overplayed and the voice cast, which includes Sullivan himself, are uniformly excellent at capturing the vulnerability and awkwardness that pervades these sickened souls and makes their lives that little bit more difficult than it already is.
6. Inside Out
So at last we get to the almost obligatory Pixar film! But any Pixar fans expecting the floodgates to open as we enter the top 5 should know now that there are no other Pixar films in my top 10. This may sound audacious or unnecessarily contrary given how beloved the studio’s output is but, much as I love Pixar, looking back over the last decade they have been somewhat bogged down in sequels, prequels and remakes. Of the twelve films they’ve released between 2010 and 2020, only five have been original ideas, with seven being derived from existing franchises. Not that I don’t enjoy those films too. I’ve already given Toy Story 3 the nod in my Honourable Mentions section, I really liked Incredibles 2 and Finding Dory, and Cars 3 achieved the seemingly impossible by being a good Cars film! But even if you factor in the delayed release of the forthcoming Soul, it still seems a shame to me that Pixar’s original creations are outnumbered by their franchise films. For me then, Inside Out felt like one of the few moments this decade when Pixar absolutely hit it out of the park in that way they couldn’t seem to stop doing in the previous decade. It’s a surprisingly divisive film and I’ve heard criticisms ranging from the concept being unoriginal to Bing Bong being annoying and the problematic body image issues in portraying Joy as slim and pretty and Sadness as overweight and sporting thick glasses. To be honest, none of these things bothered me at all (I love Bing Bong!) and the only thing I have against the film is that it contains the worst Chinatown gag I’ve ever seen (Forget it Jake, it’s Cloud Town? It doesn’t even work!). But Inside Out moved me to tears with its dead-on depiction of a child’s fluctuating emotions and its celebration of how those emotions feed into each other, so that even the seemingly negative ones can be positive. It’s a complex, important theme which the film breaks down brilliantly without tripping over itself or sacrificing entertainment value. For me, Inside Out stands as among the finest films Pixar have given us.
5. The Red Turtle
I’ve long been in love with the work of Michael Dudok de Wit, whose animated shorts have amused, intrigued and moved me in equal measures. So when I first heard he was making a feature film I was ecstatic. I also knew, given the intricacy of his beautiful films, that I would have to wait a while for it. When The Red Turtle, as it was called, finally arrived in the UK it did so under the Studio Ghibli banner, having been a co-production between Ghibli and German company Wild Bunch. But the film is not generally recognised as a true Ghibli film and, much as I adore Studio Ghibli, not only does The Red Turtle stand apart as distinct from the studio’s work, it also easily trumps the films they’ve put out since 2010. Told entirely without dialogue, The Red Turtle follows the story of a man shipwrecked on a large, luscious desert island and the giant red turtle who prevents his escape by persistently destroying his carefully constructed rafts. Where the story goes from there is difficult to explain without hamfistedly decimating the film’s elegant symbolism but even those baffled by de Wit’s unconventional narrative will find much to enjoy in the exquisite visual style and the way the director captures the dual sense of haunting isolation and liberating freedom inherent in the protagonist’s situation. The Red Turtle is a thrillingly experiential work which both invites and benefits from multiple viewings.
4. The Illusionist
With The Ilusionist, Sylvain Chomet did the improbable and topped his first feature The Triplets of Belleville. Based on an unproduced Jacques Tati script and starring an animated version of Tati, The Illusionist is less viscerally grotesque than Chomet’s previous works and instead achieves a dramatic sense of melancholy, the like of which seems naturally interlinked with this sort of pantomime clowning. Told, as is usually the case with Chomet, with almost no dialogue, The Illusionist follows the dwindling fortunes of a magician in 1959 as he finds himself unable to compete with more modern forms of entertainment. Taking his act to Scotland, he inadvertently acquires a young fan who follows him to Edinburgh. The girl believes he has real magic powers and, not wanting to shatter her illusions, the magician strives to keep up this impression, making life financially difficult for himself in the process. The Illusionist is an achingly beautiful film, with Chomet’s painstakingly detailed hand drawn style being the highlight. It had the misfortune to come out the same year as Toy Story 3, which pretty much swept all animated Oscar competition aside, but while that was a great film, The Illusionist is a slow-burning classic which rewards many viewing and just seems to get more mesmerising each time.
3. Ernest and Celestine
Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar’s debut animated feature A Town Called Panic was one of the most unusual and bizarrely appealing animated films of recent times but its frenetic stop-motion and absurdist script left little clue of where the pair would go next. Certainly no-one could have predicted Ernest and Celestine, a modern classic of animation that trades in A Town Called Panic’s wild energy for a cosy, charming, painterly style which recalls some of the loveliest animated shorts of the 80s and 90s. Based on the series of children’s books by Gabrielle Vincent, Ernest and Celestine tells the story of the unlikely friendship between a starving, brutish bear and a curious, adventurous little mouse. Although it may look like a twee little parable on the power of platonic love and friendship conquering all, Ernest and Celestine in fact retains much of the edge of Aubier and Patar’s previous film, with the plot taking in elements of the fugitives-on-the-run crime genre. The impeccable storybook style of the artwork captures the mood perfectly and the pacing is gentle but engaging, betraying the influence of a third directorial collaborator Benjamin Renner who would go on to make the excellent The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales.
2. Song of the Sea
After the critical success of his debut feature The Secret of Kells, Tomm Moore confirmed his potential as one of the most exciting new animation directors of the 21st century with his masterful follow-up Song of the Sea. An utterly timeless, magical adventure that is once again rooted in Irish folklore, Song of the Sea tells the story of ten year old Ben who lives in a lighthouse with his father Conor and mother Bronagh. When the birth of Ben’s sister Saoirise causes his mother to disappear, Ben becomes resentful of his mute sister and, six years later, is whisked off to live in the city with his grandmother after Saoirise apparently almost drowns. But in reality Saoirise is a selkie, a combination of human and seal, and Ben and Saoirise’s attempts to get back to their home on the lighthouse reveals other magical secrets about their family. Combining real magic with deftly realised symbolism, Song of the Sea has just as much to say about the difficulties of childhood in the real world as it does about the realm of faeries and owl-witches, and this link to reality makes the film all the more powerful even when it is at its most whimsically fantastical. The gorgeous art style of Moore’s previous film, something that pervades all Cartoon Saloon productions without being rigidly restrictive, is present here and Song of the Sea emerges as one of the most gorgeous animated features in recent memory.
1. It’s Such a Beautiful Day
Originally released as three separate shorts films, It’s Such a Beautiful Day tells the story of Bill, a man with a humorously mundane life which takes a dark turn when it becomes apparent that he may be suffering from a potentially fatal mental disorder. The feature debut of cult animator Don Hertzfeldt, It’s Such a Beautiful Day is one of those incredible films that animation enthusiasts dream of unearthing. An instant classic and a completely unique experience, Hertzfeldt’s first foray into feature animation not only lived up to his catalogue of classic animated shorts (the most famous of which is the Oscar nominated Rejected) but surpassed them completely. Hertzfeldt takes on the subject of serious illness with his usual irreverent style but crucially, while he mines the mordant humour out of every situation, he is also respectful and never drifts into rude, pointless nihilism. This is outsider art of the highest quality. Hertzfeldt’s trademark stick figure characters and monochrome backgrounds do nothing to diminish the film’s cinematic qualities and he enhances these with a series of impressive in-camera special effects. It’s Such a Beautiful Day received rave reviews upon its limited release but it still remains relatively buried for all but the most dedicated animation fans or Hertzfeldt devotees. I won’t pretend that its black humour, measured pace and cerebral outlook will ever see it rival the likes of Despicable Me for universal appeal but those who are intrigued enough to seek it out will likely fall in love with it as much as I did.