The 11 Movies That Redefined Animation This Decade

(This article is part of our Best of the Decade series.)As we exit the 2010s, one thing is certain. The decade brought advancements in technology, bold choices in storytelling, and more creative diversity than cinema has ever seen before, trends that all apply to animation as it does to live-action. This medium remained the one in which artists can dream up wonders that we'll never see in the real world and make them move, and the 2020s will be shaped by what we watched in the 2010s. As Vincent Van Gogh says in the painted animated film Loving Vincent: "I don't know anything with certainty, but seeing the stars makes me dream." These animated films either dreamt more boldly than what came before or inspired more daring dreams in their wake. 

Tangled (2010)

Disney's 50th animated feature wound up being the most expensive animated film ever made—a resource-intensive CGI film rendered to resemble oil paintings that underwent a controversial title change before its release. Cynics can point to it as a capitalist success success that portended much of the company's marketing strategies for the coming decade when it dropped in 2010, but Tangled nonetheless remains a stunning film.

Frozen (2013)

Almost seven years later, "Let It Go" is still stuck in the head of every grade-schooler (and adult) with access to an internet connection. Frozen was Disney Animation's biggest original, unadulterated win in years and became to feature animation what Game of Thrones is now to TV: what's the next Frozen? No new cartoon penetrated the zeitgeist as deeply in the 2010s, raising the bar for everything that came after—including Frozen 2, which was much, much more intricately animated.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)

Studio Ghibli's Isao Takahata died in 2018 after a lifetime of genius work, but his last film alone is a legacy any artist would envy. Animated beautifully with watercolors and charcoal while the rest of the animation studio worked on Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises, the film is nonetheless tells an epic, simple, perfect story.

World of Tomorrow (2015)

On some level, almost every artist probably dreams of achieving Don Hertzfeldt what managed—to produce one of the most empathetic and gorgeous works of that exist in a medium in a wholly original, super-condensed form. World of Tomorrow has no fat and is one of the most existentially curious films you'll ever watch, all in less than 17 minutes. Hertzfeldt managed all that alone.

Inside Out (2015) and Anomalisa (2015)

It is a massive triumph whenever an animated film made for a mass audience successfully internalizes its central conflicts rather than looking outward for it. The fact that two such cerebral and funny and poignant films, made for completely different audiences and taking wildly distinct approaches, both came out in 2015 is nothing short of miraculous.

A Silent Voice (2016)

It's not often that you see bullies as the protagonists of their story, but A Silent Voice sits you down and forces you to empathize with one, as well as his childhood victim. It's a unique choice in animation, but not that unique given its director Naoko Yamada and her production company Kyoto Animation's oeuvre. KyoAni has long been respected for valuing its employees and championing female voices and stories. The arson attack that consumed KyoAni's studio this year racked the anime industry precisely because of what the animators have accomplished.

The Jungle Book (2016)

In many ways, The Jungle Book remake worked marvelously. It pioneered a new standard for marrying CGI animation with live-action and also improved upon both Disney's original cartoon and Rudyard Kipling's text, a triumph and a testament to the skill of animators given that so much of it was acted in front of blue screens. Without The Jungle Book, we would absolutely not have had The Lion King released three years later, also directed by Jon Favreau.

Your Name (2016)

Makoto Shinkai's Your Name felt like a capstone achievement when it first came out. The anime director had already been hailed as "the next Hayao Miyazaki" and had been known for meticulously animating landscapes based on real-life photographs as well as telling achingly romantic stories about lovers set apart. This one just happened to make a full 10% of 2016's total Japanese box office, making double what Star Wars: The Force Awakens in the country.

Loving Vincent (2017)

"The world's first fully painted feature film" was a bold statement from Loving Vincent's producers, but it was earned. This 95-minute movie was made with 66,960 fully painted frames—riffing on the work of Vincent Van Gogh to tell a story about his life and death. Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman and animated by a team of 100 painters, the film is a staggering achievement in experimental technique.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

It's hysterical that Sony Pictures Imageworks released The Emoji Movie a year and a half before Into the Spider-Verse dropped. In one, a simulacrum of shit (Sir Patrick Stewart!) cracks dad jokes about "accidents," and in the other, a mixed-race Spider-Man tells his audience that "Anyone can wear the mask." Into the Spider-Verse's sly progressive theme, propulsive story, banging soundtrack, and engaging characters made it a good movie, but its animation—rich with color, Ben Day dots, creative framing, and nonstop action—evoke the feel of a comic book like no other superhero movie managed to in a decade full of them. 

The Lion King (2019)

It's hard to remember another animated film at the center of an aggressive campaign to rebrand as a "live-action" film. The Lion King remake is a CGI achievement, but The Walt Disney Company's insistence that it's not animation and that—by extension—those 600 million strands of fur you see in it were real, is an odd way for the company to close out a decade of lucrative mythmaking. Regardless, this animated remake sold $1.6 billion in tickets, so Disney will probably continue attempting to literally redefine what "animation" is in the coming decade.