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Toons of the 2000s: Top 5 Animated Features

by on November 13, 2009

 Go back to the Toons of the 2000s Intro. 


This has been a great decade for animated features. Mainstream acceptance of animation has greatly expanded, with a majority of films that would have been ignored in the 70s and 80s getting wide theatrical releases and heavy commercial and critical attention. A lot of this attention we owe to the 90s; the animation boom that took place during that decade brought the format back to the public eye. But it was during this decade that the trend came to a head, via a (soon to be expanded) category in the Oscars being set aside for animated features and a greater general recognition of animation as an art form. The following article discusses the five best films to be released in the past ten years. Each one, through no design of ours, was made with a different animation style by directors with very different approaches to film making. This shows, more than anything else, the variety and diversity that has dominated this decade. More to the point, they’re all terrific movies which I urge you to seek out.

First, here are forty-five animated features that, while nominated for a position on the top-five, failed to make the cut. Honorable Mention goes to:

  • The Emperor’s New Groove (Mark Dindal, 2000): The selfish Emperor Kuzco is turned into a llama by his former adviser, Yzma. Through a series of lucky coincidences, Kuzco finds himself transported to the peasant Pacha’s house; the same peasant whose house he recently planned to tear down in order to build a summer home, “Kuzcotopia”. Pacha agrees to help him return to his palace if he promises to build his summer home somewhere else.
  • Atlantis: The Lost Empire (Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise, 2001): Young linguist Milo Thatch finds his grandfather’s journal, which he believes will lead him to the lost city of Atlantis. He lends himself and his discovery to a team of explorers also searching for the mythical utopia.
  • Lilo & Stitch (Chris Sanders, Dean Deblois, 2002): Alien Experiment 626 escapes termination at the hands of an alien government and crash-lands on Hawaii, where his fate becomes intertwined with that of a lonely little girl named Lilo.
  • Treasure Planet (Ron Clements, John Musker, 2002): After a crew of pirates burns down Jim Hawkins’ home while searching for a mysterious map, the young man sets out on an expedition to discover the legendary Treasure Planet, on which is said to be hidden “the loot of a thousand worlds”.
  • Brother Bear (Aaron Blaise, Robert Walker, 2003): A young Inuit boy named Kenai is transformed into a bear while trying to kill the bear that attacked and killed his older brother, Sitka.
  • Meet the Robinsons (Steve Anderson, 2007): A young genius orphan named Lewis is pulled into a time-traveling adventure, chased by the sinister “Bowler Hat Guy”. During his adventure, he reunites with his long-lost family line.
  • Bolt (Chris Williams, Byron Howard, 2008): A dog who stars in an action television series believes the show’s plot is real. When the director engineers to have his owner, Penny, kidnapped as part of a two-parter, Bolt sets off to find her and winds up stranded in New York City.
  • Monsters, Inc. (Peter Docter, Lee Unkrich, David Silverman, 2001): In the city of Monstropolis, monsters make daily ventures into the human world in order to harvest the screams of human children, a powerful source of energy; they do this even though it is believed that the touch of a child is poison to a monster. One night, champion scarer Sully is followed back into the monster world by an energetic little girl, sending the entire city into a panic.
  • Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich, 2003): Marlin the clown-fish’s only son Nemo is kidnapped by a diver and taken away in a boat. The distraught Marlin sets out to look for him with the help of a scatter-brained fish named Dory.
  • The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004): All superheroes are forced to give up crime-fighting and must live normal lives. Married former heroes Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl have three children. Their suburban lives are disrupted when Mr. Incredible is offered a job in a high-ranking government facility that is not all that it seems.
  • Cars (John Lasseter, Joe Ranft, 2006): The famous race car Lightning McQueen accidentally destroys the main road of the podunk town Radiator Flats. He is arrested and forced to repair the damage, despite the danger of missing the upcoming race.
  • Ratatouille (Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava, 2007): After being chased out of the house he was living in and separated from his family, Remy the rat finds his true calling as a chef in a once high-end restaurant in Paris.
  • Up (Peter Docter, Bob Peterson, 2009): Elderly Carl Fredricksen attempts to fulfill his dead wife’s wish of visiting the legendary Paradise Falls in South America. He rigs his house with a multitude of balloons and flies there, unaware that he has picked up a stowaway: the young Junior Wilderness Explorer Russell.
  • Happy Feet (George Miller, Warren Coleman, Judy Morris, 2006): A young penguin with an affinity for tap-dancing must find out what’s causing the fish his family feeds on to disappear while struggling with his own quest for acceptance.
  • Surf’s Up (Ash Brannon, Chris Buck, 2003): A surfing mockumentary; Antarctic penguin surfer Cody, inspired by his late hero, the legendary surfer Big Z, enters the Big Z Memorial surfing competition. There he competes against Tank Evans, the surfer Z was competing against when he died.
  • Ice Age (Chris Wedge, Carlos Saldanha, 2002): A grumpy mammoth, a foolish sloth, and a vengeful saber-tooth tiger join forces in order to return a human infant to its family.
  • The Road to El Dorado (Eric “Bibo” Bergeron, Don C. Paul, 2000): Con-men Miguel and Tulio find a map that supposedly leads to the mythical city of El Dorado.
  • Chicken Run (Peter Lord, Nick Park, 2000): A group of chickens, led by the resourceful Ginger, attempt to escape from their imprisonment on Tweedy Farm. All seems lost until the arrival of Rocky, and an American Rooster who claims to be able to teach the chickens how to fly.
  • Shrek (Andrew Adamson, Vicky Jenson, 2001): An antisocial ogre is forced to team up with a talking donkey and rescue the beautiful Princess Fiona from a ferocious dragon, in order to clear his land of a group of unwanted fairy-tale characters.
  • Madagascar (Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath, 2005): A motley group of zoo animals – Marty the zebra, Alex the lion, Gloria the hippo, and Melman the giraffe – are accidentally ship-wrecked on Madagascar, where they have to learn how to live in the wild.
  • Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Nick Park, Steve Box, 2005): Wallace & Gromit’s pesticide company, Anti-Pesto, enters into a competition with the villainous Lord Victor to find the “Were-Rabbit” that has been ravaging the town’s vegetables.
  • Kung Fu Panda (Mark Osborne, John Stevenson, 2008): Po, a noodle-selling panda, is chosen over five trained fighters to be the next Dragon Warrior, a title under which he will train with the kung fu master Shifu and eventually face off against the legendary criminal Tai Lung.
  • Azur & Asmar: The Princes’ Quest (Michel Ocelot, 2006): After being separated from his Indian nanny and her son Asmar at a very young age, the young noble Azur sets out to India in order to rescue and marry the Djinn Fairy.
  • Renaissance (Christian Volckman, 2006): The year is 2054. Illona Tasuiev, a talented young scientist working with the mega-corporation Avalon, is mysteriously kidnapped. Police officer Barthélémy Karas and the missing woman’s sister, Bislane Tasuiev, are drawn into an international plot of death and corruption.
  • Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud, 2007): The story of a young Iranian girl, Marjane Satrapi, as she grows up during the horrors of the Iranian Revolution.
  • Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (Curt Geda, 2000): The new Batman, Terry McGinnis, faces off with Bruce Wayne’s greatest foe, The Joker, who reappears after nearly forty years.
  • Hellboy: Blood & Iron (Victor Cook, Tad Stones, 2007): The Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense investigates a haunting in the Hamptons.
  • Mutant Aliens (Bill Plympton, 2001): After being intentionally abandoned in space by the head of Earths’ Space Department, astronaut Earl Jensen returns to his home planet in order to take his revenge.
  • Corpse Bride (Mike Johnson, Tim Burton, 2005): Victor, the son of two pompous fish merchants, is arranged to marry the aristocratic Victoria, in hopes that the marriage will help his parents climb the social ladder and her parents recover from their financial difficulties. Victor flubs his vows during the wedding rehearsal. While practicing them to himself in the woods, he unwittingly marries Emily, The Corpse Bride, who has been waiting in a shallow grave for her true love to come to her.
  • Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009): A young girl named Coraline Jones discovers a gateway to a parallel universe inhabited completely by button-eyed versions of “real” people.
  • Waking Life (Richard Linklater, 2001): A young man in a dream-like state observes and partakes in a philosophical discourse about life.
  • A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater, 2006): In a future where America has lost the “war on drugs”, undercover agent Bob Arctor is assigned to infiltrate the drug world.
  • The Cat Returns (Hiroyuki Morita, 2002): After unknowingly saving the life of “The Prince of Cats”, schoolgirl Haru is whisked away to the Kingdom of Cats to be his bride. Helping her escape from this unwanted engagement is the swashbuckling Baron and his allies, the fat cat Muta and Toto the crow.
  • Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004): After a chance encounter with the famous wizard Howl, a young girl named Sophie is transformed into an old woman by the villainous Witch of the Waste. Scared to face her family (and, as a side-effect of the witch’s spell, unable to explain anyway) she runs away from home and winds up as a guest in Howl’s castle.
  • Millennium Actress (Satoshi Kon, 2001): Film director Genya Tachibana makes a documentary based on the life of actress Chiyoko Fujiwara.
  • Tokyo Godfathers (Satoshi Kon, 2003): Three homeless street-dwellers – Gin, a saki-loving bum; Hana, a sickly transvestite; and Miyuki, a young runaway – find a baby in a dumpster and set out to find the child’s mother.
  • Paprika (Satoshi Kon, 2006): The powerful DC Mini, a device which allows the user to see into a person’s dreams, is stolen and used to wreak havoc.
  • Tekkonkinkreet (Michael Arias, 2006): Two orphans, Black and White, protect the decaying Treasure Town from the schemes of a group of Yakuza.
  • Metropolis (Rintaro, 2001): Private Detective Sunsaku Ban and his nephew Kenichi travel to Metropolis seeking a renegade organ-trafficker and become wrapped up in a political conspiracy centering on the female robot Tima.
  • Steamboy (Katsuhiro Otomo, 2004): Ten year old James Steam is pulled into a conflict between his father and grandfather, both intelligent scientists with different goals.
  • Sword of the Stranger (Masahiro Ando, 2007): A young Japanese boy named Kotaro is on the run (with his dog, Tobimaru) from a group of Chinese super-warriors. He meets up with the ronin Nanashi (No Name), who agrees to be the boy’s bodyguard in return for a jewel that Kotaro claims is worth ten gold coins.
  • Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (Shinichiro Watanabe, 2000): The crew of the Bebop attempts to find the source of a mysterious virus plaguing Mars.
  • The Spongebob Squarepants Movie (Stephen Hillenburg, 2004): Spongebob’s boss, Mr. Krabs, is accused of stealing the crown of King Neptune. Spongebob and his friend Patrick volunteer to travel to the feared Shell City in order to find and return the crown, thus clearing Mr. Krabs of all guilt.
  • Fullmetal Alchemist the Movie – The Conqueror of Shamballa (Seiji Mizushima, 2005): Edward Elric, after being trapped in London at the end of the television series, has now became a partner of the inventor Alfons Heiderich (his brother Alphonse’s parallel). While searching for a way to get back to his own dimension, he runs afoul of the Thule Society. Meanwhile, in Amestris, Alphonse Elric is desperately trying to find a way to bring his brother back.
  • The Simpsons Movie (David Silverman, 2007): Springfield’s pollution reaches crisis level. The entire town is enclosed within a giant dome on government orders when Homer Simpson dumps a silo of pig feces into the Springfield lake. After escaping a vengeful mob, The Simpsons decide to move to Alaska and start over.

And now, the Top Five films of the past decade: 




5.Idiots & Angels: (Bill Plympton, 2008) 


Plot: A mean-spirited, bad-tempered, unethical drunk named Angel wakes up one morning and discovers he has grown a pair of wings, which force him to do good deeds.

Why It’s Here: Idiots and Angels is one of Bill Plympton’s most fascinating films yet; it’s still full of the good-natured bawdiness, violence, and surrealism that have so long been his trademarks, but they have a surprisingly sincere undercurrent of pathos and humanity accompanying them. The film tells the story of Angel, a mean-spirited drunk who spends the better part of his life in a bar, groping the pretty barmaid and illegally selling guns out of his omnipresent suitcase. One day, Angel wakes up and finds he has sprouted a pair of wings, which force him to do good deeds that get in the way of his bad ones. Angel’s shame of these appendages is apparent as his attempts to get rid of them attract the attention of a villainous bartender and a greedy doctor, who plan to steal the wings for their own purposes.

Plympton’s irreverent style keeps the symbol-heavy plot from becoming obnoxious. Angel himself never becomes a particularly likable protagonist – otherwise a good deal of his misdeeds would not make sense – but there’s still something remarkably endearing about the fuss he makes while being unwillingly shoved towards salvation. His character development is magnificently handled; there are subtle hints, towards the end of the film, that the wings are no longer acting just of their own accord.

Like most of Bill Plympton’s work the animation style in the film is very distinct; it offers a lot of ingenuity in such scenes where Angel reluctantly pursues a burglar or where the activities in his morning routine shift into each other. There is no speech in the movie, which ultimately works to its advantage. Angel’s stylized expressions and grunts say a lot more about his character than any voice actor ever could, and the lack of dialogue allows George Sextro’s fantastic score to push to the forefront. Between the character acting and the music, the movie has no problems communicating with the audience.

Idiots and Angels has yet to be released on DVD; at the moment, the only way to see it is to find out when it’s playing at an animation festival. Many thanks to Bill Plympton and Kerri Allegretta for providing toonzone with a copy for review. If it’s within your means, I urge you to go see it. It’s one of Mr. Plympton’s strongest films yet.



4.Waltz With Bashir: (Ari Folman, 2008) 


Plot: Ari Folman, a former infantry soldier in the Israel Defense Force, is surprised to find that he remembers nothing from his time of service. When he has a nightmare of the Sabra and Shatila Massacre, he begins to seek out others who were in the same place at the same time to try to make sense of his dream.

Why It’s Here: The greatness of Waltz With Bashir simply cannot be overstated. It takes risks, breaks boundaries, and uses the medium of animation in unexpected, inventive ways. It is an intensely personal, heartfelt work that stands with the best films of 2008. But great films are not necessarily enjoyable films. Waltz With Bashir is not intended to be a very pleasant film to watch. It easily contains some of the heaviest and most unsettling content to appear in animation, and it will unnerve even loyal viewers of South Park. While it is worth seeking out, this film is not suitable for everyone.

Waltz With Bashir transports the viewer to hell. Not the hell of fire and brimstone characterized in most cartoons, but the hell of war and its lasting psychological effects. It’s a movie chiefly about memories and director Ari Folman’s search for his own memories of the bitter Israel/Lebanon war. It’s about how the mind adjusts to deal with the innate inhumanity of armed conflict. The protagonists in this movie commit utterly inhuman acts; the climax centers on Israeli soldiers executing innocents.

The film’s structure is unusual for animation; the best description for it is an “animated documentary”. There is no linear storytelling; the film is essentially a series of interviews conducted between Folman and several people connected to the war. It frequently digresses to other perspectives and stories. A photographer’s safety comes from viewing the conflict through the lens of his camera. A soldier envisions himself in the arms of a giantess. Folman weaves between reality and hallucination in a way that seems almost effortless.

It is those hallucinations that justify Folman’s decision to animate this documentary. The flashbacks and hallucinations are colored chiefly in sickening yellow tones. Deep, heavy lines and dark shading are utilized to give the film a graphic novel style. While the story is absolutely drawn from real life, the visuals evoke that of a nightmare. It may surprise you that the film was animated using more traditional means, and did not utilize motion capture or rotoscoping. Rather, it is a composite of several different animation styles, predominantly in Adobe Flash.

More than any other film, Waltz With Bashir reveals the medium of animation as a powerful way to express a point. It is not a film that everyone should view, but for the viewer with an open mind and heart, it is essential viewing.


3.Wall·E: (Andrew Stanton, 2008) 

Plot: WALL·E is the last of the robots left on Earth to clean up the over-polluted planet after all the humans flee into space aboard the Starship Axiom. His repetitive existence is broken by the discovery of small plant, which he stores in a boot, signifying that Earth is once again habitable for humans. The plant is found by EVE, a search probe from the Axiom whom WALL·E falls in love with. The two of them return to the Axiom in order to give the plant to the captain of the ship.

Why It’s Here: Pixar films always get a healthy dose of acclaim. WALL·E in particular has been greeted with a whole lot of love (Well, except from people who took it as thinly-veiled propaganda for the Scottish nationalist movement or something). And you know what? That praise was well-earned, folks.

WALL·E tells the story of a rubbish-shifting robot (a sort of cross between R2-D2 and Johnny Five) who falls in love with a floating probe robot named EVE (a kind of foetal Sony AIBO). He follows her into space, leaving a barren, trash-strewn Earth for the starship Axiom – humanity’s new home. Only it turns out that humans have devolved into giant babies during their centuries in space, with the ship’s mod-cons catering to their every need. The arrival of WALL·E and EVE triggers a series of events that forces mankind’s bloated descendants to stand up for themselves, both literally and figuratively.

The film’s genius is that it manages to tell a satisfying story with a cast that consists mainly of virtual metal chunks that are incapable of uttering a full sentence. The crew studied silent films starring the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton before channeling everything that they’d learned from those masters into a pair of binoculars on caterpillar treads and a levitating egg with LEDs for eyes.

It doesn’t always run smoothly – the opening act plods somewhat – but for the most part, Pixar pulled it off. The filmmakers keep the mechanical characters thoroughly endearing while avoiding the ever-present pitfall of mawkishness. Also of note, although perhaps on a more academic level, is the film’s blending of live action and animation. Footage of human characters from before their infantilizing experience in space are filmed using live actors, and so the film’s animation tries its best to be realistic to match. The ultimate special effects film? Maybe.

WALL·E is a true tour de force of character animation destined to be remembered as a classic. Pixar remains a powerhouse with this film.


2.Spirited Away: (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001) 


Plot: While moving to a new town, ten year old Chihiro becomes trapped in a spiritual bathhouse, forced to work there in order to free her parents from a curse.

Why It’s Here: With the possible exception of My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away is Hayao Miyazaki’s best film yet. It is also his “purest” film; years from now, when animation historians are discussing Miyazaki’s style, this will be the movie they bring up. Spirited Away’s plot is a familiar one. The ten year-old girl Chihiro finds herself trapped in a fantasy world, surrounded by a variety of both well and ill-meaning figures, until she eventually returns to the real world as a stronger person for her experiences.

Spirited Away is a surreal film in spots; while everything fits together on screen, a written plot synopsis ends up sounding a bit silly. Chihiro enters the movie as a surly, almost bratty girl, who is upset with her parents (and with life in general) because they are moving to a new town. The family takes a wrong turn and winds up finding an old building with a green field and a set of restaurants on the other side of it. Finding one of the restaurants to be piled high with food, Chihiro’s parents set down to eat heartily, an action that ends up trapping them in the spirit world. Though she didn’t eat anything, Chihiro is trapped as well; she ends up working in a bathhouse for the wicked owner Yubaba, who agrees to let her have her parents back if she works hard.

Chihiro is very endearing as a protagonist because of (and despite) her character flaws. Her character development, as she has to fend for herself for the first time in her life, is brilliantly handled, and her gentle grasp of maturity is mirrored by the experiences Yubaba’s baby goes through near the end of the film. The other characters are equally thought-out and interesting but the real show-stopper is Yubaba, who’s so scary she’s almost funny. The bathhouse, as Miyazaki himself mentioned, is a place where good and evil frequently mingle, and these shifting moods make the place almost a character in its own right.

As is the norm with Studio Ghibli, the animation is quite astounding, and the film loses no chances to show off its prowess (Chihiro’s expressions are especially fun). I generally watch anime dubbed but could watch the subbed version just as easily; however, with Spirited Away, I can actually say that the dub is superior to the original. Daveigh Chase and Suzanne Pleshette give the most memorable performances as Chihiro and Yubaba respectively, with the rest of the English cast doing at least as well. The only actor I have even the slightest nitpick with is Susan Egan as Lin, who comes across as just a bit too caustic.

If you haven’t seen Spirited Away by now, eight years after it’s been made, I urge you to at least rent it in light of the New Year. I was skeptical when I started watching – I’m skeptical of any film that gets as much praise as this one has – but it turns out it deserved every bit. It is an amazing piece of animation and an amazing film.


1.Sita Sings the Blues: (Nina Paley, 2008) 


Plot: The movie’s story is told through a combination of shadow-puppetry, flash animation, and jazz music. The hero Rama and his wife Sita are exiled and forced to live in the forest, where Sita is kidnapped by the demon Ravana. Rama rescues her, but his worries about her conduct while imprisoned lead to a strain on their relationship. Paralleled with it is the story of a female animator named Nina, whose boyfriend moves to India and dumps her via E-mail.

Why It’s Here: It’s hard to describe Sita Sings the Blues in actual sentences, so for a while I’ll just be using exclamations. Amazing. Astounding. Incredible. A fantastic achievement in the Animation Industry. The Pinocchio of Flash. These are all review tag-lines, but in Sitas’ case they’re also quite accurate. Sita Sings the Blues is something special. There’s not a moment in the movie where I was not glued to the screen, and this continued even during repeat viewings. The movie is, in theory, an adaptation of the Ramayana, the ancient Sanskrit epic detailing the adventures of the hero Rama – based on “as true events as the Bible is based on”, as one of the narrators puts it – but calling it an “adaptation” of anything is doing Sita an injustice, as it is a wholly original work. Still, one cannot deny that the movie borrowed its plot from this ancient text.

The movie’s story is actually told in four different ways: there are a series of scenes which resemble Indian Rajput paintings, which are more art than animation thanks to their detailed character designs and beautiful, diverse backgrounds. These segments are used for the more serious and dialogue-heavy bits of the story. Then there are also segments featuring three shadow-puppets (completely ad-libbed by Aseem Chabra, Bhavana Nagulapally, and Manish Acharya) who elaborate some of the more confusing bits of the Ramayana and often debate certain points or call attention to inconsistencies. Their commentary is actually hilarious, and the humor is heightened by the ever-changing backgrounds during these scenes, which shift to portray whatever the trio are currently talking about. There are also a few segments – animated in heavily stylized “squiggle-vision” – which show the events leading up to the making of the movie itself (these are included due to their peculiar parallel with the Ramayana’s story). These segments are all delightful and entertaining, but they really just serve as backdrops for the main part of the movie – Annette Hanshaw’s music.

These segments – animated in a flatter style of flash that allows for more “cartoony” character designs – are the real headliners here. They are brilliant. From the very first musical number, depicting Sita and Rama’s exile (to the tune of “Here We Are”), I realized why Ms. Paley used these songs despite the troubles they caused her. You see, the songs used in this movie were all protected under copyright laws – it was only after heavy negotiations and payment a fifty-thousand dollar fee that the movie was able to be released at all. One might wonder why Nina Paley would go through all of that, instead of simply using different, public-domain songs. But Annette Hanshaw’s songs are part of the movie, and taking them out or replacing them is an absurd notion. The segments these songs accompany are wonderfully choreographed to the music, to the point where it’s astounding to think that the songs were written before the movie, not for it. Each one is a flight of fantasy worthy of Fantasia; charming, vibrantly colored, and slightly surreal. It is these scenes that make the movie what it is, showing Paleys’ genius as an animator and a director. Everything else feels almost like padding in comparison. They’re not, though – the others are also necessary and interesting components of the movie. Just don’t be surprised when Hanshaw steals the show.

Like a lot of great art, Sita Sings the Blues was made during a rough patch in its creator’s life. Nina Paley crafted this film while going through a divorce. It is this hardship that made the movie what it is. Sita can be downloaded for free – for free, I repeat – at sitasingstheblues.com, or it can be bought for about twenty dollars via Amazon. If you haven’t seen this movie, you have no more excuses. Go watch it now.


There you have them; the top five movies of the past decade. Here’s to good times ahead!


Go back to the Toons of the 2000s Intro. 


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