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]