5 Groundbreaking Animated Movies to Stretch Your Mind and Your Heart

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5 Groundbreaking Animated Movies to Stretch Your Mind and Your Heart

By Lili Baehr, Movieguide® Co-Founder

Whether the 3D realistic graphics in superhero movies or the earliest Mickey Mouse cartoon, animation is an amazing art form. It’s art created by a team of specialists that seems to come alive and tell a story. There are master artists who specialize in character, backgrounds and story. There are even composers who add music to make the art immersive. From the movie SNOW WHITE until now, animation has enabled story tellers to tell stories that could not be told with actors alone.  Animation enables filmmakers to tackle mythical takes with talking animals, elves and world’s beyond what could be built on a sound stage.

In sharing some of my favorites I’ve created two groups, my favorite innovative animation and my favorite heart warmers. I’m including some movies that stretched the boundaries of the art form and others that simply stretched my heart. When you think of animation the first thought that comes to mind is probably family entertainment, but as you will see some animated works of art go beyond what children will find entertaining.

Rather than start with SNOW WHITE and or one of the other early stories animated by the Disney studios I’d like you to consider FANTASIA.


With SNOW WHITE and PINOCCHIO Walt Disney had demonstrated the ability of animation to tell stories difficult or impossible to tell with live action. What he attempted to do with FANTASIA was to make classical music more appealing by creating animated sequences to add visual to auditory stimulation. Unfortunately for Walt, FANTASIA was released in late 1940, just as World War II closed the European markets. FANTASIA was so revolutionary it was intended to be shown in theaters that needed expensive enhanced sound systems. While initially a financial disappointment, it did offer a profoundly creative way to enjoy some of the world’s best known classical music.


Disney 2D animation went through a major slump in the 1980s but came back strong in the 1990s with LITTLE MERMAID, ALADDIN and, one of my favorites, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. One thing I loved about the story was the presentation of Belle as something more than just a love interest. She was bright, compassionate, brave, and not willing settle for the most popular thug in town. It absolutely includes a romance, but it called for showing love to someone who appeared unlovable. The movie even featured a dance sequence that required the use of computers to generate the look of camera angles spinning around the dance floor. It’s the kind of movie with something for audiences of all ages. Disney remade it in 2017 as a live action feature with ample computer generated special effects.

TOY STORY (1995)

TOY STORY was the official opening to the era of computer animation, and the reason it was is that the story itself was far greater than the new technology. You get pulled into the story and only after the movie did you really get to thinking, “Wow!!! That was done with computers.” It adds a depth not possible in 2D but more important it added Woody and Buzz to the list of most adorable Disney characters. TOY STORY 2 wound up being the equal of TOY STORY and featured one of the most heart melting songs in cinema history.


I am adding RATATOUILLE to my list of groundbreakers, not because it was a huge leap in the art of animation, but because it was one of the bravest steps ever in storytelling. The fact a rat in the kitchen was made absolutely lovable shows the power of great story telling. Some of the animation of Paris is breathtaking. It’s so nice it’s worthy of being a painting. The music alone would make you want to visit Paris. RATATOUILLE is also brilliant in its portrayal of the restaurant critic Anton. It’s the kind of movie that leaves you feeling anyone can change the world for the better.


Perhaps the most unusual and adult of the animations I admire is LOVING VINCENT. It’s like watching an oil painting done by Vincent Van Gogh come alive and tell a mystery unfolding the last few days of his life. Van Gough did more than 800 paintings, but only one sold in his lifetime. Now, they sell for many millions when one is auctioned. There is considerable drinking and smoking in the story, but it does capture something special about the man who once said, “I want to touch people with my art. I want them to say: he feels deeply, he feels tenderly.” You can tell the artists who made this movie felt deeply about Van Gogh.

Look for my heart warmers list coming up.