In the 20 years since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences introduced the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, a hand-drawn movie has claimed the award only once — Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 masterpiece Spirited Away. From Shrek to Wall-e to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, every other winner save one — the stop-motion animated Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit in 2005 — was birthed by a computer (with 2021 nominee Soul likely to follow suit next month). And I think that’s a shame.
That’s not to discount the artistry of computer-generated animation. Many 3-D animated films are stunning in their beauty and complexity, and have only grown more so as the medium has matured (it’s eye-opening to compare scenes from 1995’s Toy Story, the first entirely CG-animated feature, and 2019’s Toy Story 4). But there are qualities to 2-D animation that 3-D will simply never replicate — quirks and styles and visual shorthand (for example, goofy over-exaggeration for a gag, like this half-second shot of The Little Mermaid’s flounder losing it at the sight of a shark) that don’t quite transfer to the solely digital realm.
Hand-drawn animation has never really gone away — a scant few are released every year — but it’s telling that the biggest animated films of the past two decades have eschewed the style, at least in the U.S. (Japan still has more of an affinity for the more traditional style.) From its hey-day during the 1990s Disney Renaissance, when The Lion King became one of biggest moneymakers of all time — and even as it thrives on television — feature-length 2-D animation has become more of a curiosity, something celebrated by hardcore enthusiasts more than mainstream audiences. Disney’s last hand-drawn effort, 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, did passably, but its box office paled in comparison to the likes of Tangled and Frozen, released just a few years later.
While I love animation in general, the hand-drawn style will always be my favourite. Here are 12 films, drawing from across the history of the medium, that might makes it yours, too. At the very least, watching these entries will prove that you don’t need a Pixar-sized budget and a server warehouse to make a memorable animated feature.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) was Walt Disney’s first full-length animated feature, but Pinocchio is his true masterpiece. Though its style of animation has certainly fallen out of fashion, it still dazzles the eye — especially when you realise that every special effect — from waves crashing against the body of a monstrous whale to rain falling and lighting flashing — had to be achieved in-camera using techniques the animators were inventing along the way (one effects animator kept a year-long diary of his work perfecting the look of the film’s many watery sequences). You can explore the making of the film in an hour-long documentary available on YouTube, but just watching the movie with an eye for detail will do the trick.
Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Arguably his studio’s last great work produced during Walt Disney’s lifetime, Sleeping Beauty was an infamous box-office failure upon its initial release, not because it didn’t do well but because it cost so much. Though its box office receipts resulted in severe layoffs at the studio, the film is revered by animation fans today for its art deco design and ambitious scope (literally — it was the first Disney film produced in 70mm widescreen format). If the story is a little flat (and we can blame the original fairy tale for that), the visuals — not to mention the villain, ice-cold Queen Maleficent — make it a must-watch.
Fantastic Planet (1973)
A far cry from the lush Disney style, this 1973 allegorical sci-fi fable, a French/Czech co-production, shows how much of an impact hand-drawn animation can make, even when constrained by a limited budget. Some might quibble with its inclusion on this list because it actually isn’t far removed from stop-motion animation in many ways — scenes are animated via the minute movements of paper cutouts rather than a progression of dozens of drawings per second. The style will be polarising — this is a film that benefits from being viewed in context, though that’s not the only way to watch it — but the artistry is undeniable.
In the U.S., animation aimed at adults has always lagged behind that produced for older audiences overseas, and particularly in Japan, where the mainstream views manga and anime as simply additional mediums for storytelling. This late-’80s cyberpunk classic certainly felt much more revolutionary to U.S. audiences when removed from its cultural context, but it’s also one of the most visually stunning animated films ever made, wherever you’re from. It’s story of warring motorcycle street gangs and shady government conspiracies is still compelling too, even though it has been mined for ideas by three decades of sci-fi that followed.
Prince of Egypt (1998)
The first traditionally animated film from upstart DreamWorks Animation was produced by studio co-founder and ex-Disney CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg as a direct “fuck you” to his old bosses. He was convinced animation could serve as a medium for the type of story that defined the classic Hollywood epic, and looked to source material of biblical proportions to do it. The result is one of the most grandiose visual feasts every mounted, combining hand drawn animation and computer-generated imagery and special effects to create a story of stunning visual scope; sequences such as the plagues of Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea will linger in your memory long after the admittedly flat story fades (but probably not longer than it will take you to get “When You Believe” out of your head).
The Iron Giant (1999)
The Iron Giant bombed so hard it put a studio out of business, but its critical and cult appreciation began almost immediately (unsurprising when you learn it was directed by Brad Bird, who would go on to make The Incredibles and Ratatouille at Pixar). It is beloved for its story, a perfect blend of childhood heart and comic book nostalgia, but it is a wonder of hand-drawn animation as well — which might seem odd to say considering its titular creation was created with a computer. But it is that blending of traditional techniques with modern wizardry that really makes it stand out, one perfectly complementing the other.
The Triplets of Bellville (2003)
One of the things I appreciate most about hand-drawn animation is just how weird it can look. It’s much easier to draw impossible shapes in two dimensions than to craft them in three, which is why the grotesque, exaggerated character designs of Sylvain Chomet’s 2003 surrealist animated comedy simply couldn’t exist in a CG world. The movie’s one consistent style is a lack of consistency; one whirl through the trailer will reveal how many times this story of an old woman’s journey to save her cyclist son from the French mafia changes things up. (Chomet’s followup, The Illusionist, based on an unproduced screenplay from Jacques Tati, is equally remarkable.)
Live action superhero films have made big business out of translating comic book visions to the screen — odd, considering animation would allowed for the truest translation from one hand-drawn style into another. Take, for instance, this acclaimed adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel memoir about growing up in Iran and Austria before and after the Islamic Revolution. The film version wholly retains the original style while innovating creative ways to give every frame movement.
The Secret of Kells (2009)
Cartoon Saloon, the studio behind this 2009 hand-drawn marvel, has produced four stunning films to date, and is four-for-four for earning Best Animated Feature Oscar nominations (including this year’s contender, Wolfwalkers). I’d argue that none of them have won simply because of the modern prejudice against hand-drawn animation, because on a level of artistry, storytelling, and innovation, I’d place them ahead of the likes of Up or Big Hero 6. These are films that revel in their hand-drawn stylization, making no attempt to chase the pixel-perfect imagery of CG animation, and are the better for it.
World of Tomorrow (2015 – 2020)
Animation need not be complex to make an outsized impact, as one-man animation studio Don Hertzfeld has proven time and again. He hand-crafted his three most beloved works, the trilogy of short films known as World of Tomorrow, entirely on his own, the deceptively simplistic line drawings and hypnotic backgrounds perfectly complementing heady sci-fi-tinged stories about the nature of time and existence. A recent Kickstarter to fund future installments of the series raised more than $US450,000 ($580,680), proving that fans have found much to admire in these unassuming shorts.
your name. (2016)
There’s nothing about 2016 Japanese mega-blockbuster your name. that particularly calls out for animation (naturally, Hollywood is trying to remake it in live action), yet the Groundhog Day-esque story of two teenagers who swap bodies across time and space takes full advantage of what the medium can offer, creating both a picture-perfect recreation of modern Tokyo and gorgeous sci-fi visuals (which I won’t outline, lest I spoil some late-breaking plot developments).
Studio Ghibli (1986 – present)
If you’ve clicked through to this page of the slideshow, you’ve probably only grown more incensed that I’ve left off anything directed by Hayao Miyazaki, but that’s simply because I couldn’t pick just one. Across its entire catalogue, the films from Japan’s Studio Ghibli represent the best of the best in hand-drawn animation — films produced with the highest attention to detail and the most unified ethos of what animation can and should be used for, many of them pulled directly from the mind of arguably the greatest animation who has ever lived (Miyazaki, who has helmed the lion’s share of Ghibli features, hand-draws thousands of images for every movie he directs).
I’d suggest starting with Spirited Away, but then, it’s my personal favourite film of all time. You also can’t go wrong with My Neighbour Totoro, The Wind Rises, the ethereal The Tale of Princess Kaguya, directed by Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata, or any other of more than a dozen classics — all of which are currently available on HBO Max.