No offense to The Lion King, but in the years since animation’s renaissance in the ’90s, the form has undergone such a vast makeover, it’s practically a new species when compared to the flicks of yesteryear. Forget hokey jokes and cornily-sung duets about the glory of love; the new animated classics aim as high as their live-action counterparts in the pursuit of smart laughs, real terror, and moody atmosphere. Need proof? Read on for a greatest-hits list of the best animated movies to hit theaters since the year 2000.
10. Ice Age (2002)
You wouldn’t think that a movie about a widowed woolly mammoth (Ray Romano) would be the stuff of great cinema, but this movie packs a surprisingly emotional punch. Meanwhile, Scrat the Squirrel, a comic-relief character who could easily gone the way of Jar-Jar Binks, provides well-played sight gags that are actually — wait for it — charming. This pick is a bit more cartoonish than its millennial peers, but even cynical viewers can’t help but be drawn in by its story, landing it the bottom spot on the list.
9. Monster House (2006)
Monsters, Inc. and Monsters Vs. Aliens may have gotten the lion’s share of attention but Monster House passes them both to make this list by having one of the best (and most unexpected) animated objects: A ravenous house! This scare-fest was also one of the first to make extensive use of performance-capture advances, but that feat comes to second to its genuine thrills, which earn it ninth place.
8. Ratatouille (2008)
Lady and the Tramp‘s spaghetti scene was memorable, but it wasn’t anywhere near the quality of the dishes in Ratatouille — nor did that movie have anywhere near the emotional depth of this Oscar winner. The movie’s attention to detail is unparalleled — even a compost pile gets star treatment — and Remy the Rat’s topsy-turvy movements rival the best of the silent clowns. Indeed, the animators’ artistry steals the show as well as eighth place. What could top this? Read on…
7. The Simpsons Movie (2007)
After twenty years as a hit television series, the majority of people in theaters opening night of The Simpsons Movie were in their thirties. This cartoon movie had no techy gimmicks, no 3D glasses, and no big names; it just had decades of loyal fans. No matter your age, you still root for Homer to beat the bad guys and laugh at dumb-but-funny visual gags like Bart’s epic naked skateboard ride, complete with full-frontal cartoon nudity. The Simpsons Movie‘s ballsy approach puts it in seventh place.
6. Finding Nemo (2003)
What hit movie starts out with the protagonist’s mom being eaten alive within the first ten minutes? Hint — it’s not The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. While kids innocently root for dad and son to reunite in this Pixar flick, even the most hardened father in the audience will enjoy witnessing more near-death sequences than pop up in a Die Hard movie. Nemo’s ability to give a delicate subject mass appeal — plus kudos for giving its main character an irksome disability — keeps it afloat at number six.
5. Up (2009)
Forget princes and princesses: This movie stars a nerdy pre-teen Wilderness Explorer and a geriatric Ed Asner on his way into a retirement home. After the first few scenes there’s no love story in sight, so even men won’t have to worry about their masculinity being compromised. Up taps into the spirit of adventure in all of us, and it’s hard not to adore the kid, the curmudgeon, or their self-imposed canine best friend at number five.
4. Shrek (2001)
No frogs here. This time it’s a hottie who’s ugly inside and needs a nasty wake-up call before she can show us her true form. Shrek‘s plot is like the ogre himself, simple but adult-oriented, and brings in humor and musical references grown-ups can relate to (Joan Jett, Rufus Wainwright, etc.). Fart jokes that manage to not feel totally stale propel Shrek to number four.
3. Coraline (2009)
Coraline goes deep into disturbing territory with parent-napping, eyeball-skewering, and characters named “Why Born.” That’s what you get when you adapt a Neil Gaiman story into stop-motion animation. Gone are the days of Gumby and herky-jerky movements — Coraline‘s transitions are as smooth as the one between a little girl’s real house and the one in which her Other Mother lives. Coraline makes no excuses for its disconcerting storyline, taking it to third place.
2. The Incredibles (2004)
The Incredibles twists the traditional coming-of-age theme to include a set of parents who’ve lost their way, a prescient move in the pre-economic-disaster era of plenty. Endearing characters and smart dialogue make this one easy to watch, and yes, it teaches a lesson (capes are bad!), but it doesn’t put the entertainment factor at risk. The Incredibles manages to get its point across clearly, but with a lighter tone than Coraline, inching them into spot number two.
1. WALL-E (2008)
Nothing says kids movie like the end of humanity. Oh, wait. Children will enjoy the pretty pictures and WALL-E’s evocative robot eyes, but here’s hoping they don’t notice the overwhelming sense of futility that permeates the first two thirds of the movie. Adults will get a good dose of guilt over not recycling, but ultimately kids and their parents bond over the message of love and inner strength. WALL-E makes you laugh, cry, and kind of want to change the world, which is reason enough to be named the best animated movie of this young century.