What was the greatest decade for animated films?

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This post is part of The Month of Animated Features.

Without thinking too much about it, what’s your gut answer to the headline?

Once you take a close look at the catalog of animated features released over the years, the answer becomes pretty obvious pretty quickly. First, let’s examine this question in terms of rigid numeric decades — e.g. “the 1950’s” would be eligible as a decade, but 1967-1976 would not be eligible as a decade.

Before I reveal what I believe is the clearly correct answer, let me go over how I evaluated each decade. As a reminder, I’m concerned mostly with enduring artistic quality and entertainment value, as opposed to issues separate from the product itself, like influence, technical innovation, or reputation.

[Edit: To reiterate, I’m focused exclusively on feature-length animation. I am not including animated shorts, TV shows, etc. This is especially important when considering the early decades in which theatrical shorts were very popular. While those are compelling in their own right, they are not relevant to this analysis. The logical flaws in this distinction have been argued, but I’m sticking with this constraint.]

Perhaps we should look first at the peak films of each decade. Generating a list of five of the best animated features from each decade should make it a little bit more clear which decades stand out as particularly weak or strong. We’ll start with the 1940’s, since that was the first complete decade with American-released animated films. (The movies are in no particularly order.)

  • 1940’s: Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi, Dumbo, and… umm… Bugville?
  • 1950’s: Cinderella, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, Peter Pan, and Animal Farm (UK)
  • 1960’s: Yellow Submarine (UK) and 101 Dalmations. Then… The Jungle Book? The Phantom Toolbooth? Sword in the Stone?
  • 1970’s: Allegro Non Troppo (Italy), Fritz the Cat, Watership Down, Fantastic Planet (Fr.), and Heavy Traffic
  • 1980’s: The Little Mermaid, Akira (Jap.), Castle in the Sky (Jap.), Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and The Secret of NIMH
  • 1990’s: Toy Story, Toy Story 2, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Princess Mononoke (Jap.) [just to have something non-Disney]
  • 2000’s: Wall-E, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Shrek, and Spirited Away (Jap.)

Upon looking at those lists, there are a few obvious cuts. The 1960’s go out the door first, quickly followed by the 1970’s. The 1940’s have a tremendous top four, but thin quickly afterwards, so they have to go, too. The 1950’s, 1980’s, 1990’s, and 2000’s all seem worth consideration.

But if you start trying to come up with the five next best films from each of those decades, it becomes obvious two decades really warrant consideration for the top spot.

  • 1950’s: Alice in Wonderland… followed by… maybe the claymation cult favorite Hansel and Gretel? The Sword in the Stone? That’s about it.
  • 1980’s: My Neighbor Totoro (Jap.), Grave of the Fireflies (Jap.), Barefoot Gen (Jap.), The King and the Mockingbird (Fr.), and… that’s it?
  • 1990’s: Aladdin, Tarzan, The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Iron Giant, and A Bug’s Life
  • 2000’s: Up, Finding Nemo, Howl’s Moving Castle, Kung Fu Panda, and Monsters Inc.

So, assuming you want at least ten great-or-borderline-great films from whatever decade you choose, the only real contenders here are the 1990’s and the 2000’s. You could argue that I’m biased because that’s really the only time I was watching movies, but I think the lists back me up.

(Quick sidebar that will receive expansion later: There is a very compelling conclusion from this observation: Animated film has been better the past two decades than it ever was before that, period. This statement will probably bother some purists and historians — the ones who dubbed 1918-1960 the so-called “Golden Age” of animation.)

So, which decade of these two is it, then? Just looking at the ten films as the best from each decade, even if there were a few that I missed that you’d have chosen, it seems relatively balanced. So I will go through a few more bits of evidence.

  • Exhibit  A: The Annies — a set of annual awards given out for excellent work in animation — were instituted in 1991, when they nominated three films for Best Animated Feature. Starting in 1998, they expanded the nominations to four or five pictures, peaking with six nominations in 2009.
  • Exhibit B: The Academy Awards added the category “Best Animated Feature” in 2001.
  • Exhibit C: According to Rotten Tomates — if you count only movies with 20 or more reviews — the 1990’s had 12 animated films with a 90%+ critical approval, whereas 2000’s had 21 animated films with a 90%+ critical approval. If you expand this to all films with at least five reviews, the minimum required by RT for a movie to have a valid approval rating, then the 1990’s have 16 and the 2000’s have 28 with 90%+ critical approval. Bring this bar down to 80%, and the 1990’s had 29, while 2000’s had 58.
  • Exhibit D: On the IMDb poll, the 1990’s have 12 on the list of the 50 most popular animated films. The 2000’s have 21 on the list.

You could find reasons to ignore any one of these on their own, but the more you stare at the facts — and look at lists of films from each decade — the more clear it becomes that there was a serious expansion in the quality, credibility, and breadth of animation in 2000’s; this is evidenced by the number of popular films and the increased industry respect through more Annie nominations and the Academy Award category.

Look closely at which films were released when, and you have trouble finding great animated films in the first half of the 1990’s not produced by Disney. The Annie Awards in particular are pretty revealing. I can tell you with pretty strong confidence that Space Jam, Ferngully, Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumber Land, The Swan Princess, and Once Upon a Forest — all Best Animated Feature nominees — would have had a tough time being nominated in the 2000’s in any year. They’re decent, but not quite best-of-the-year material. For most of the 1990’s, it seems like The Annies struggled to find at least three options. (And in 1996, they didn’t even try — they just gave it to Toy Story.)

To spin it one last way, the weakest year for animation in the 2000’s was probably 2004, with 2003 not far behind. Only 1999 (TS2, The Iron Giant, Tarzan) from the 90’s definitively tops them. Every other year from 1990’s was weaker than every year from the 2000’s.

There’s just a richer, more diverse group of studios and film-makers using animation these past ten years than ever. The result is the strongest slate of animated movies, and it’s honestly not even close. Credit the 1990’s for reviving the medium and for providing what will remain some of the most cherished animated films of all time. But don’t let nostalgia for the Disney masterpieces plus the merely decent non-Disney fairy tales that filled theaters trick you into choosing it as a stronger overall decade.

So, to answer the question raised in the headline: the 2000’s (with the 2010’s projecting to at least match it) were the greatest, with the 1990’s taking silver, and the 1980’s taking bronze. That’s a nice upward trend that excites me about the next few years.

A question with a less clear-cut answer is “What set of 10 years gave us the best animation?” For this discussion, I will allow 2010. I know we’re only six-and-a-half months into the year, but 2010 has been so good for animation so far that this half year trumps most other full years.

So, there are two answers for which I think you can make a really good case: 1999-2008 and 2001-2010. The problem is that 1999 and 2009 were two of the best years ever for animation, and they’re just far enough apart that you can’t include both of them.

These two spans obviously have a lot of overlap, so let’s consider the films not included in both of these categories. From 1999-2000 — so in the first span, but not the second — you have Toy Story 2, The Iron Giant, Tarzan, The Emperor’s New Groove, Chicken Run, and Fantasia 2000 probably in that order in terms of significance. In 2009-2010 — in the second span, but not the first — you get Toy Story 3, How to Train Your Dragon, Up, Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and the Frog, Despicable Me, and The Secret of Kells.

Again, I’m hesitant to fixate on the present and overlook the past, but I have to side with the more recent 2001-2010. I can pretty confidently say that the past ten years have been the best overall years for animation ever.

Note: Perhaps you’re wondering why I included a frame from The Sword and the Stone, of the 1960’s. One reason is that Merlin’s looking ponderous, as appropriate for a post with a question for a headline. The other, more prominent reason is that I forgot to bring up the film in my overview of Disney during “The Golden Age” and wanted to give it some recognition. A glaring omission of a passable film. [Edit: Not true following my recent revision]

Dan S.

Dan is the editor of Earn This. He co-founded the site in 2009.

10 thoughts on “What was the greatest decade for animated films?

  1. i disagree that you’re being a “brat” that ignores the past…i wouldn’t say that, because you’ve clearly looked into it and i totally agree that the current decade is the best for animated films. they are SO GOOD and hopefully perched to keep on going. so excited for the upcoming decade of animation!

  2. Sorry this list is biased. If you had payed closer attention to the forties and fifties you would know that there were others besides Disney producing amazing work. You are ignoring the past by saying that because last decade had more output and is more relevant they must be better. Do more research consult an animation historian, there is much undiscovered material.

    • I appreciate you taking the time to read my article and comment, but I call bullshit on this list being “biased.” I’ve done my research. You can read my articles on the topics of Disney’s Golden Age. Under the criteria I’m looking at — the quantity and highest peaks of quality films, the aughts wins. I’m not disputing the greatness of the stone-cold classics like Snow White and Bambi, nor am I suggesting that filmmakers nowadays deserve more props than did the animators of the ’40s and ’50s.

      If you take out animated shorts (which were the primary form of animation during the decades you praise) and look specifically at features, then you just can’t say either the ’40s or ’50s were the best decade for animated films. Three to five films does not a great canon make. The past two decades have had variety and more emotionally intelligent animated films than anything but the best two or three animated films from those decades.

      Actually, I think the evidence is so overwhelming that you’re being biased. Nostalgia can be a form of bias, too.

    • “Do more research consult an animation historian, there is much undiscovered material.”

      I own three books on animation from the period you’re referring to. I considered every single animated feature released theatrically in the United States during the ’40s and ’50s — that’s right, all 18 and 12 of them, respectively — and came to the conclusion they didn’t match the prolific output of the ’00s. If I’m missing anything, let me know.

  3. First off we all have bias, animation is subjective art form not any specific film is superior to another specific film. It is all a matter of taste. The only form of “bias” I had was making you reconsider your list to be more open to the forties and fifties. Features are not all that makes a decade great. It can also be based on how certain animated shorts can be seen as art or the level of innovation that each decade brought.

    Also your going to need more than three books, why don’t you consult animation historians or why not immerse yourself deeper into the subject matter. There is a lot to be discovered. Disney is not the only company that mattered. Try researching the works of Fleischer, Warner Bros., Winsor Mccay, UB Iwerks, Columbia, UPA, Lotte Reigniger, Otto Messmer, Charlie Bowers, Grim Natwick, Walter Lantz and countless others.

    The reason I responded to this post is because there is such a reluctance to look at the past of animation generally speaking throughout the artistic community.

  4. Woot! You mentioned Fantastic Planet and the Phantom Tollbooth (one I recently remembered existed). I know we’ve kind of gotten away from the long-form animation list/book project, but if it comes together I’d be interested in covering Phantom Tollbooth. Maybe the best “children’s book” ever written…passable film.
    Interesting to think about what forces have led to the abundance of high-quality animated films in recent years. There have been countless technological advancements, of course. But additionally, credit is due to the 90s “renaissance” for inspiring non-Disney studios to “get in the game.” Critical acclaim and box-office success led more studios to see animated features as legitimate (and lucrative) and thus worthy of pouring large budgets into. Though not always true by any means, higher budgets can buy more prominent stars, crews, and craftspeople, yielding consistently high-quality results (again, not always, but often).

  5. This is a tough question, no doubt. Kudos for tackling something as expansive as this. I agree with you on the level of your reasoning, but I’m wondering if the sheer number of animated films per decade warrants heavy consideration.

    As you Brian comments, the 2000’s have had many more studios spring up trying and snatch some of the revenue practically monopolized by Disney before, and as a result, many more animated films come out year after year. So it’s almost no surprise that the 2000’s has had a better collection of films–it would be almost sad if it was otherwise.

    Like you, I’m a Pixar fanboy, so I would likely pick the 2000’s for the best decade (I haven’t done the research you have, so I can’t be as confident), but in terms of success rate, I would go back all the way to the 1940’s. In terms of innovation, I would go to 1990’s. In terms of the number of great films (4 out of my top 10 are from the 2000’s, although 1990’s is not far behind with 3), I would go with the 2000’s. I’m just not quite sure if this is the best way to try and define the best decade for animation. Perhaps the more important emphasis of your argument is that now more than ever, are there more studios competing with each other trying to distinguish themselves from the pack.

    • Oh Kevin… Why must you find my four-year-old articles. I’m glad you agree with most of the reasoning I’d use, and I think you’re right that the answer varies depending on how you frame the question. Please don’t judge me too harshly for my snarky comments to Tfeed

      • Haha I liked the brashness of your response. I actually think it’s a bit snarky on Tfeed’s part to ask you to consult an animation historian. I mean, this is the internet. People can write about stuff they are passionate about without doing scholarly research. In fact, you kind of did consult animation historians, assuming those books were written by historians. At least, that’s my say in the matter 🙂

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