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Best Animation Films of the 21st Century

Animation films have grown ever more artful and affecting as more and more folks realize that it’s never just been a medium for kids, with studios and indies alike creating stop-motion marvels, hand-drawn standouts, and CGI spectacles.

The genre has grown so much since we entered the current century, in fact, that it can be easy to forget the Academy Awards didn’t even recognize animation until 2001. As few as three movies were nominated per year until 2010, but since then animation’s increased prominence has been reflected in the race’s competitiveness. Not every worthy movie could make the cut on either the awards circuit or this list, sadly, but rest assured that “How to Train Your Dragon,” “The Secret of Kells,” “The Breadwinner,” and “Loving Vincent,” to name just a few, are very honorable mentions.

“ParaNorman” (2012)

The stop-motion animation geniuses at Laika got their start with 2009’s “Coraline,” a critically acclaimed adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel from “The Nightmare Before Christmas” filmmaker Henry Selick. It was an outstanding debut film from the studio (see the “Coraline” entry on this list), but it was with follow-up project ParaNorman that Laika proved it was not only one of the most vital animation studios in operation but that it could also rival Pixar in terms of narrative and emotional originality.

Sam Fell and Chris Butler’s stop-motion fantasy horror film centers around a young boy who can communicate with ghosts as he tries to save his Massachusetts town from being destroyed by a 300-year-old witch. For all the wacky supernatural hijinks that unfold over the film’s runtime, “ParaNorman” is most concerned with a reconciliation between the past and present. That an animated family movie even attempts to make sense of America’s lingering guilt for the murder of those charged with witchcraft makes “ParaNorman” a rare gift. “ParaNorman” rightfully earned an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature and set Laika on its way to becoming a stop-motion powerhouse.

“Sita Sings the Blues” (2008)

Nina Paley’s “Sita Sings the Blues” is a visual feast and an extremely personal attempt to make sense of and contextualize one of the most important works of Indian literature. The film is simultaneously an adaptation of and a commentary on the Ramayana, the epic Indian poem that tells the story of the prince Rama as he rescues his wife Sita from the demon king Ravana. Paley splits the movie into three narratives, each individualized through different animated techniques.

The more straightforward adaptation of the story is rendered in the style of Rajput paintings and includes a Greek chorus that interprets the poem’s meanings. Another storyline tells a similar narrative to the Ramayana but sets it in the modern-day, proving the text’s timelessness. The final story thread introduces a musical number by a more active Sita, who modifies the original text by making herself more self-reliant. By putting the power in Sita’s hands and making her more than a damsel in distress, Paley ultimately makes “Sita Sings the Blues” a radical redefinition of a sacred work. It’s as impressive as it is daring.

“Shaun the Sheep Movie”

Who would have thought that a “Wallace & Gromit” spinoff would end up being just as good — and, according to some well-meaning heretics, better — than the original series? Aardman Animation outdid itself with this quietly daring corker, which has a simple premise (Shaun and his fellow sheep cause much mischief during a day away from the farm) and wildly entertaining set-pieces. There’s essentially no dialogue — or at least none that can be discerned, as the sheep bleat in much the same manner as their real-world counterparts and the humans speak not unlike the grownups on “Peanuts,” which only draws more attention to the madcap, almost Chaplinesque goings-on. At this point it almost sounds like faint praise to describe an animated film as being just as entertaining for adults as it is for children, but “Shaun the Sheep Movie” makes good on that promise as few others do. Download A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon FREE MP4 Here

“Anomalisa” (2015)

“Each person you speak to has had a day. Some of the days have been good, some bad, but they’ve all had one.” Even with all the other pain and beauty in Charlie Kaufman’s foray into animation, this simple reminder stands out as one of his most profound musings. We may lose sight of ourselves and the object of our affection when we become infatuated with someone new — especially during a business trip in Cincinnati — but there’s a painful honesty to the way Kaufman portrays those swooning early moments. David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh are both stellar in their voice-acting roles, but the decision to have literally every other character be voiced by Tom Noonan may be the film’s true stroke of genius — it makes it impossible not to see Lisa the way Michael does. The film itself is an anomaly, of course, one made all the more special by its rarity. Learn from Michael’s mistake and cherish it even after it’s over and you’ve returned to the mundanity of daily life.

“The Triplets of Belleville” (2003)

It is the rare silent film that achieves such international acclaim and popularity as Sylvain Chomet’s “The Triplets of Belleville.” Drawn in the style of French comics, the figures either pour languidly into frame or bounce jubilantly, depending on their moods. The original score was both bopping and haunting, earning “The Belleville Rendez-vous” an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song (the film itself was also nominated for Best Animated Feature). The driving story of a devoted mother who will stop at nothing to help her son is told with such heart, soul, and humor, that the movie waltzed right into its rightful place in the animated film canon.

“Coco” (2017)

Pixar’s Oscar-winning “Coco” was a long-overdue moment for representation at the animated studio as it was the first project to feature Mexican characters in leading roles, but its power comes from not just being inclusive but from taking Mexican culture and heritage and making it so universal. The story follows an aspiring young musician named Miguel who gains access to the Land of the Dead in an attempt to find his great-grandfather musician and get rid of his family’s ancestral ban on music. “Toy Story 3” director Lee Unkrich and co-director Adrian Molina create such a vibrant, eye-popping Land of the Dead that to watch “Coco” is to get lost in its transfixing colors and imaginative world-building. This hyper-detailed approach to the animation style demonstrates both a reverence for Mexican culture and an enthusiasm for making Mexican heritage connect to every viewer regardless of their background.

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“Isle of Dogs” (2018)

Set 20 years in the future in a fictional Japanese city known as Megasaki, Wes Anderson’s darling stop-motion feature is a fantastic take on a world that doesn’t actually exist, one strongly rooted in cinema over reality (you know, like a Wes Anderson film). That Anderson would seek to apply his world-building aesthetic to something as meticulous and controlled as stop-motion animation is one of the last great non-shockers of modern cinema. That it would be this cute, well, that’s a bit more surprising.

Smacking of all kinds of Anderson obsessions, from Akira Kurosawa to Ray Harryhausen’s Christmas television specials, “Isle of Dogs” follows a relatively simple story: a boy loves a dog, a canine flu breaks out, said dog is sent to “Trash Island” with the rest of the country’s pups, boy goes looking for a beloved dog. Yet Anderson and his game cast of characters — voiced by a murderer’s row of stars, including Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Courtney B. Vance, Fisher Stevens, Harvey Keitel, Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Frank Wood, Kunichi Nomura, and Yoko Ono — liven up the wild adventure story with plenty of zip and wit.

While the focal point of the film is always spunky Atari Kobayashi and his faithful best friend Spots, Anderson’s nutty plotline allows for the introduction of whole packs of vibrant characters, canine and human alike. There are the other doggie denizens of ol’ Trash Island, the humans desperate to free them, and evil government types who have rejected all common sense (and human emotion) in the face of a maybe-not-totally-above-board crisis. Laced into the hairy tale are plenty of mysteries (conspiracies! exploding teeth! a secret puppy lair!), and Anderson never sacrifices storytelling for the cute factor, instead crafting a solid story with plenty of adorable moments to go around. Thrilling, sweet, and satisfying, it’s one of the best things Anderson has ever done, and a worthy addition to the always-awe-inspiring lineage of stop-motion wonders.

“The Lego Movie” (2014)

Everything is awesome, indeed, in Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s blockbuster hit. The directing duo who surprised everyone with the hilarious “21 Jump Street” reboot did it once again with a branded toy commercial that was never supposed to be as good as it is. Universally praised for its biting humor and colorful visual style, the film deconstructed the bloated blockbuster formula and rebuilt it one hilarious brick at a time. Chris Pratt is perfect as the lovable Lego oaf who must destroy the aptly named Evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell), and sassy punk Wildstyle (Elizabeth Banks) is the sadly still rare capable and funny girl character. With inventive CGI mining the removable Lego appendages for laughs, “The Lego Movie” is one for the ages.

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“Moana” (2016)

Disney’s musical “Moana” conjures a gorgeous vision of Polynesia and its people in 3D animation with direction by Ron Clements and John Musker, but the songs stick, too. Even the blackest of hearts can’t resist the soundtrack from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mark Mancina, and Opetaia Foa’i, with vocals hailing from New Zealand and Fiji, and instruments flung out of the South Pacific. Meanwhile, the central story of the title heroine, a feisty youngster sent on a perilous journey to rescue her people, is empowering for both the kids and the adults watching. “Moana” is packed with memorable creatures, from Dwayne Johnson’s protean Maui to Jemaine Clement’s over-the-top coconut crab hailing from the Realm of Monsters. The animation finds astonishing tactility in the lush locales, making for one of Disney’s most beautiful 3D-animated outings ever.

“Ratatouille” (2007)

With “Ratatouille,” Brad Bird salvaged a problem project and set a new standard for Pixar. Ostensibly a buddy comedy pairing a French rat (Patton Oswalt) with culinary talent and a wannabe chef (artist Lou Romano), the film was transformed into a loving tribute to cooking, art, and innocence by Bird. When cranky, cynical food critic Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole) takes one bite of the rodent’s eponymous dish, he’s transported back to childhood in sublime fashion. The Oscar winner, fortunately, has aged very well. It’s as deliciously absurd as a French farce, and animation-wise, offers expressive rodents, exquisite Parisian eye candy, and mouth-watering cuisine. Restaurants and rats might not go together in real life, but, thanks to Bird and Pixar, they thrived “on the mother’s milk of caricature.” —BD

“Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004)

Winning the Oscar for “Spirited Away” was a bittersweet pill for the pacifist Hayao Miyazaki, who was filled with anger over the U.S. invasion of Iraq. As a response, he channeled his energy into this beautiful, sorrowful, and complex anti-war film that proves life is worth living and that old age is hardly a curse. Set in a magical kingdom during a time of war, it centers on a bored hat-shop girl named Sophie who gets swept up in the excitement of Howl the wizard, only to be turned into a 90-year-old woman by the spiteful Witch of Waste.

What begins as a journey to reverse the curse draws Sophie into becoming part of the resistance. The meaningless war, kept in the background, doesn’t lead to a story of good and evil, but a tragedy in which no one is to blame and all suffer. The animation itself is some of Miyazaki’s most complex, with stunning set pieces that feature a depth that’s part of the most technically demanding work of the master’s career.

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“Coraline” (2009)

Animator Henry Selick perfected his stop-motion technique on such films as Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas” and “James and the Giant Peach,” filming puppets in multiple miniature environments, one frame at a time, with flexible still-camera-size digital medical cameras. His masterwork, magical gothic fairy tale “Coraline,” goes way beyond anything done before with stop-motion. Miserably lonely in her family’s ramshackle new house in the country and neglected by her workaholic parents, 11-year-old Coraline seeks refuge in a parallel universe where another set of fantasy parents play and cook and cultivate a fabulous garden. That set-piece was impeccably hand-crafted by artists over months of painstaking production with hand-made manipulated puppets and thousands of paper flowers.

The puppets are built on a delicate metal skeleton armature; they have plastic silicon skin and hand-made costumes and replaceable heads stored in trays with a range of expressions: scowls, smiles, pouty lips. Because Coraline was in almost every shot, the production went through 20 Coraline puppets. On a good day during three and a half years of filming on 50 or so black-curtained one-fourth-scale miniature sets at the gigantic Laika warehouse in Portland, Oregon, an animator would shoot ten seconds of footage. Selick’s team of artists, riggers, electricians, lighters, costumers, makeup artists, voice actors, and animators crafted all the elements of the scene, from the 7-inch Coraline puppet and the smaller black cat to miniature trees, leaves, and blades of grass and glowing black lights. Selick makes this world feel alive.