While the summer movie blockbuster shuffle may make you think that live-action is the only way to go for a spectacle, we beg to differ. There are plenty of animated movies that can compete with the summer movie fare (if not completely trump them). In celebration of all things animated, here’s our list of cartoon and anime films that are better than the big ticket noise makers of the summer.
Be warned, this is about animated movies that could take the place of a giant, action-packed, explosion-filled blockbuster. So it’s not going to have Animal Farm or Grave of Fireflies (although both of those movies are amazing in their own right). What it will have is a whole lot of awesome.
The Iron Giant (1999)
A little boy discovers a giant metal man, and then every grown-up in the world cried for days.
Spirited Away (2001)
Arguably the greatest animated film ever made, Spirited Away is beloved and adored animated director Hayao Miyazaki’s greatest work. The story centers around a 10-year-old girl who moves to the country but discovers a magical world unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. Her parents are horrifically turned into pigs by an evil witch, and the little girl is forced to work at the witch’s monster-filled bathhouse until she can find a way to save her them (and herself). And there’s a dragon! The whole world is sprinkled with incredible details that make you wish all animated movies gave kids this much credit.
Wonder Woman (2009)
Wonder Woman’s origin story, rejiggered a bit and partially inspired by George Pérez’s reboot of the Amazon Queen back in 1987. It’s a tight story which, thankfully, doesn’t suffer from done-to-deathitus. Seriously, if DC just made a live-action version of this, it would be a damned good WW movie.
Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (1998)
Spike Spiegel is the greatest space cowboy ever created (even though d0esn’t have a hat or a horse), and although the Bebop movie is set mostly on Mars, is still has all the trappings of a great Western. Spike and his fellow bounty hunters are on the search for a criminal about to dump a ton of poison into Mars’ atmosphere on Halloween. Watch for Spike, stay for the crew and the epic martial arts showdown.
Titan A.E. (2000)
Too early for its time (and one of Joss Whedon’s lesser-known writing works), Titan A.E. has all the making of a blockbuster hit today. Earth is destroyed, turning all its old inhabitants into space refugees. They wander though space, looking for a new home, until one Matt Damon-voiced hero finds out he’s humanity’s only hope. The only thing that doesn’t hold up is the score — it features songs from Urge and Lit when the cast kicks it into super awesome space travel, and it kind of makes you want to scream.
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Goddamn great cyberpunk. The cyborg Motoko Kusanagi is a major in the Public Security Section 9. Cue epic chase scenes, both online and off, as Motoko and her team try to track down the hacker known as the Puppet Master. The world is cyberpunk scifi at its finest and launched a cavalcade of copycats, the mystery is compelling, and (again) Motoko is gorgeous.
Prince of Egypt (1998)
A masterful score, an excellent voice cast (Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Patrick Stewart, Danny Glover, Steve Martin, and Martin Short) and an engaging translation of a fairly well-known Bible story. It’s impossible not to get swept up into the gorgeous Egyptian monuments, but we’ll never forget how directors Brenda Chapman, Simon Wells and Steve Hickner handles Moses’ dream sequence. Plus the movie found a way to balance death, destruction and religious imagery in a way that was foreboding, but not preachy.
The Land Before Time (1988)
Oh cruel dinosaur story, you started off by shooting us three times in the heart and then throwing our bloody organ into the street. Five of the littlest dinosaurs you’ve ever seen go on a long journey to the great valley and almost die at every turn… a lot.
The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)
Hayao Miyazaki’s directorial debut and all-around game-changer for anime movies. Part of the long-running Lupin the 3rd series, a gentleman thief who wander in a princess held against her will, a country about to be takeover over by a tyrant, and a massive treasure lost centuries ago. The movie’s astounding action sequences (that would later directly influence The Simpsons Movie and Disney’s Atlantis) and gorgeous art make the film on its own, but the movie has heart and a spirit of adventure that’s almost unparalleled.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
One of Bruce Timm’s greatest works. Set in the ultra-gothic animated world of Gotham, A new vigilante in town frames Batman for a bunch of murders, but this movie is all Bruce Wayne’s internal dilemma. This animated work does what so few Batman movies before it (and after it) could — balance story, action, Batman’s quest and Bruce Wayne’s damaged psyche. No flesh-and-blood live-action Batman, including Christian Bale, can hold a candle to the gravel-voiced caped crusader who originated from Batman: The Animated Series. and it’s the only Batman movie that ever got the romance angle right.
Princess Mononoke (1999)
Miyazaki paints a “save the Earth” story with blood, starring the slightly scary (but awesome) Princess Mononoke and her band of fantastic woodland creatures. Together they fight the iron mongers, who are simply trying to build their city and protect it, but cutting down the forest in the process. The Princess rides into battle on a giant white wolf. We don’t care if Miyazaki makes 1,000 movies all with an “down with industrialization” vibe, as long as they all star badass bitches like this lady.
The only animated movie to ever encapsulate the ragtag band of weirdos on a journey a la The Goonies. Infinitely darker than any other animated flick coming out these days, ParaNorman has a character who pops pills and up and dies in the middle of the movie. And then the main character is trapped under his body. Plus it’s Laika, so it’s straight-up gorgeous stop animation. Even the zombies are beautiful!
Heavy Metal (1981)
Inspired by the magazine, Heavy Metal picked a collection of stories from the naked-ladies-with-swords-and-spaceships-and-screams magazine and turned it into a movie. Yeah, it’s awesome.
Lion King (1994)
How do you pick just one classic Disney animated movie that can top a blockbuster hit? Put on The Lion King. Perhaps one of the first movies that had fairly accurate-looking animated talking animals, it’s a Shakespearian tale intertwined with songs that will make you want to purchase a ticket to Africa. Never did I ever imagine I would be cheering while watching lions fight in slomo.
Directed by its own creator, Katsuhiro Otomo, Akira is a true epic. Set in the year 2019 in Neo-Tokyo, this cyberpunk anime follows the leader of a bike gang Kaneda (yes, there are awesome bike gangs in the future packed with hot young people). Long story short, Kaneada and his best friend Tetsuo get mixed up in underground revolution. Tetsuo gets experimented on, gains crazy psychic powers and goes crazy. Everyone wants to harness Tetsuo’s powers for their own purposes, but Tetsuo has other plans... plans that could destroy Tokyo again. The anime is a non-stop stream of gorgeous action.
The Incredibles (2004)
The animated superhero movie to end all animated superhero movies. There’s no tireless Marvel or DC canon attached to this original Pixar gem; instead, these supers come with their own adorable history and life lessons (such as “why you never want a cape”). The action and art is reminiscent of 1960s comic books, but the story is all modern day. One super family goes into hiding after the public’s distaste for heroes boils over. After many years, it’s time to discover what made them super again.
Treasure Planet (2002)
An overlooked beauty. This movie merges surprising heart with epic space travel. This colonial future world integrates aliens, pirates, steampunk and treasure-hunting across the galaxy. While the plot gets lost in a bit of movie magic turbulence, the characters and skyline keep your eyes glued to the screen.
Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
What could have turned into a long line of nostalgia jokes for arcade aficionados wound up being a great tale of friendship. You don’t have to actually play video games to enjoy this movie, because the characters and lively worlds do all the heavy lifting. Also one of the first movies to create a racing scene that was neither tedious nor insufferable.
Summer Wars (2009)
Boy genius Kenji Koiso is accused of hacking into Oz, the computer system that the Japanese folk of this story use for just about every detail in their lives (email, GPS, phone calls, banking etc). But instead of turning this into some sort of man-on-the-run tale, we get to visit the innerworkings of Oz, which are rad. Everything is ultra colorful, creatures and Avatars look like religious idols. It’s unbelievably creative, and it has just as much heart as it has visual splendor
Transformers: The Movie
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
The Black Cauldron