From Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio to Weathering With You, many recent non-Disney/Pixar animated movies have redefined the genre and left their mark.
The best-animated films are not always from Disney or Pixar, and some recently released great animated movies prove precisely that. Since its inception from the days of early hand-drawn classics like Bambi and Snow White, animation in cinema has come a long way in terms of production. However, some key ingredients that made the classics so incredibly captivating, including their sense of wonder, fascinating narratives, and larger-than-life characters, are still primary drivers of animated movies. Owing to this, as long as they have engaging and meaningful stories to tell, it does not matter whether the industry's two giants helm them or just ambitious up-and-coming indie studios.
For instance, while Disney allowed viewers to experience the enchanting adventures of Encanto's Mirabel, CoMix Wave Films brought a unique climate-conscious romantic narrative to the big screens with Weathering With You. Similarly, while Pixar expanded the Toy Story franchise with sequels and spin-offs, Netflix brought new life to timeless fables with Pinocchio and Klaus. Given that so many epic non-Disney/Pixar animated films have come out in recent years, it is hard not to wonder which ones rank among the best.
Produced by Dreamworks Animation, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World marks the beginning of another adventure for the franchise's central Viking character, Hiccup, where he journeys to a hidden world and, with the help of his dragon friend, Toothless, confronts his most powerful enemy to date. As fiery and photorealistic as its predecessors, it cements the movie series' place as Dreamworks' finest animated creations. Not to mention, its perfect balance of emotion, endearment, and action brings a satisfying closure to the spectacular How to Train Your Dragon trilogy.
With a simple storyline where a severed hand breaks loose from a lab to find its body, I Lost My Body explores complex, thought-provoking themes surrounding grief, loneliness, and self-discovery. As bizarre as its narrative may sound on paper, the French animated movie does an incredible job of using breathtaking hand-drawn visuals, soulful music scores, and well-timed twists to morph its weirdness into a scintillating poem. Considering how it beautifully gets viewers emotionally invested in a disembodied hand's struggles and makes them root for it, it is not surprising that it was nominated for the Academy Awards.
Blending traditional 2D animation with modern 3D, Klaus offers a vibrant visual experience. From a storytelling standpoint, the Santa Claus origin story initially seems appealing because of its absurd one-liners that are reminiscent of Roald Dahl's work. However, what begins as a bratty postman's punishment in the dreary north turns into a heartwarming portrayal of how the power of kindness can bring joy even during the darkest of days. What makes Klaus memorable is that, unlike the usual fare of Disney and Pixar's animated movies, it dares to dip its feet into darker genre-bending themes without compromising on the holiday cheer one expects from a Christmas movie.
Written and directed by Makoto Shinkai (also known for helming critically acclaimed anime movie Your Name), Weathering With You is a fantasy romance story on the surface, revolving around the relationship of a high school student named Hodaka and a young girl named Hina. However, beyond its romantic drama, the anime movie has a socio-philosophical undertone that highlights the impact of human activities on the environment. It is as mystical and technically sound as Shinkai's other creations and even presents exciting references to Your Name's character beats.
Similar to Studio Ghibli's movies in tone and style, Wolfwalkers' period drama unfolds in Ireland, where a young hunter, Robyn, learns that wolves in her world are far kinder and more magical than they get credit for. This puts her on a path against her father but also helps her find true companionship in a girl from a mysterious shape-shifting wolf tribe. While there is intriguing subtext surrounding colonialism and environmentalism in Wolfwalkers' storyline, its allure lies in its intentionally splashy watercolored aesthetic, which adds more heft to its story by reminding viewers of the human effort that goes behind hand-drawn animation.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines focuses on the comical adventures—and misadventures—of a dysfunctional family that has no choice but to duke it out against an army of vicious robots. Bringing a family-friendly twist to the humans vs. technology sci-fi sub-genre, the Netflix animated movie is jampacked with a lot of action and heart. In its apocalyptic family mayhem, The Mitchells vs. The Machines also boasts a talented cast of voice actors, including Abi Johnson, Danny McBride, and Maya Rudolph, and features some spectacular visuals created by the team of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse.
Partly live-action and partly stop-motion animated, Marcel The Shell With Shoes On is a mockumentary film that follows a snail's rise to fame after a filmmaker posts a short documentary of him online. This meta-film narrative takes a new turn when the adorable anthropomorphic snail faces unforeseeable perils following his new-found popularity but hopes to find his long-lost family. A movie that walks through the inner monologue of an animated snail has no business being this tender and profoundly entertaining. And yet, with its comic timing and fun-sized pieces of life lessons, Marcel The Shell With Shoes On never leaves a dull moment.
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish sends the Shrek universe's notorious feline on another grand quest where Puss is determined to get a reset on its nine cat lives after unknowingly burning through eight of them. While Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is still as witty and amiable as its predecessor, it allows its titular character to grow into something more by portraying him as a death-fearing adult, gradually losing sight of what truly matters. The emotional awareness with which it deals with the universal fear of borrowed time while staying true to the silliness of its parent franchise proves that not all sequels offer diminishing returns.
Setting sail into a compelling nautical adventure, The Sea Beast shows that there is much more to the world than meets the eye by voyaging through the emotional up and downs faced by a monster-hunting crew and a young girl who joins them along the way. The Sea Beast's best moments are the ones where it puts its bright color palette on full display and not only uses its stunning visuals to portray a wide range of monsters but also highlights the diverse cultural backgrounds of its central ship's crew. Even its voice cast, led by Karl Urban and Zaris-Angel Hator, does a phenomenal job of enhancing the impact of its character beats.
Oscar-winning film Pinocchio puts Guillermo del Toro's artistic forte and directorial mastery on full display. The stop-motion drama takes the classic Pinocchio narrative and spins it into its own yarn of bleakness, with fascist Italy as its setting and grief as its primary theme. However, as heart-wrenching as it is in its first half, the Netflix movie effectively balances its darker bits with an uplifting ending that reinstates hope and compassion. With so much going on in its runtime, Toro's Pinocchio proves that not all great animated movies come with the Disney/Pixar stamp, affirming that the auteur was right on the money when he said (via AVclub), “animation is not a genre.”