9 Best animated films for adults

James Oliver 14 February 2022

Thought cartoons were just for kids? Think again. From Japanese anime to Animal Farm, here are a selection of animated films that are a world away from Disney

Cartoons, of course, are for kids. Or so we have been led to believe by the likes of Walt Disney. In fact, animation is a far broader form than is often recognised, one that's yielded so much more than talking mice.

Why, this very month, the new (and newly Oscar nominated) animation Flee opens, a semi-documentary that covers subjects—asylum-seeking, sexuality—that would make Uncle Walt turn in in his cryogenic chamber.

But it has precedents, some of which we've included on the list below, a list of other animations that grown-ups might enjoy. Why should kids have all the fun?

  1. Animal Farm, 1954

OK, so there could be some argument whether this is for adults alone—it's got talking animals, after all. However, since it's an allegory for revolutionary politics (like the George Orwell book 'pon which it's based), it's never gone over all that big with the pre-teen crowd.

In truth, it's not a great adaptation but it is of considerable interest, for it was funded by a most unusual patron. It was released in 1954, with the Cold War in full swing; obviously Orwell's tale took a dim view of communism but so did the people who bankrolled the film.

That would be America's Central Intelligence Agency (ie the CIA) who saw it as a way of circulating a potent warning against the Soviet menace. A strange artefact from a very strange time.

  1. Fritz The Cat, 1972

Let's get this out of the way. No one in the English-speaking world did more to make animation an adult affair than Ralph Bakshi.

A one-time wunderkind (he worked on Mighty Mouse), he was also deeply involved with the counter-culture of the 1960s, and caused a sensation with this adaptation of underground cartoonist Robert Crumb's most notorious comic, which became the very first cartoon to be rated X for all the sex 'n' drugs 'n' rock 'n' roll.

But like too many of the “adult” animations that followed in its wake (Sausage Party, anyone?), it's grindingly adolescent and rather tiresome. Pixar might make their films with children in mind but they're a damn sight more “mature”.

  1. Fantastic Planet, 1973

Animation has always been taken more seriously as an art form outside the Anglophone world. Directed by animator René Laloux and with character designs by Roland Topor, one of France's most highly acclaimed illustrators, Fantastic Planet is proof of that.

It's science fiction, about a race of big blue giants called Traags, who keep human beings— they call them “Oms”—as pets. But one “pet” escapes and goes wild, where he meets other Oms.

Together, they start dreaming of a way to escape their master's planet. It is, if you excuse the pun, worlds away from Disney and all the better for it.

  1. When the Wind Blows, 1986

Not says light-hearted entertainment quite like the aftermath of a nuclear explosion, does it?

Adapted from Raymond Briggs' deeply depressing graphic novel, this deeply depressing animation follows an ordinary elderly couple (voiced by Sir John Mills and Dame Peggy Ashcroft) who survive a nuclear blast. And then die. Slowly. Curiously, McDonalds didn't rush to do a Happy Meal tie-in.

  1. Grave of the Fireflies, 1988

We need at least one Japanese film on this list; their anime is very often a vehicle for serious, mature storytelling in a way that would be inconceivable in America.

Grave of the Fireflies was produced by Studio Ghibli, the Pixar and Disney of Japan. Most famous for the films of Miyazaki Hayao (My Neighbour Totoro et al), this one was directed by Takahata Isao.

Goodness, it's harsh. Although it concerns children, it is resolutely not a children's film. It's set near the end of the Second World War, a terrible time in Japan. Seita is a young lad who has to look after his sister Setsuko after they lose their house, and their mother, during a firebombing. It's a far tougher film than Totoro or Howl's Moving Castle but no less worthy of attention.

  1. Waking Life/ A Scanner Darkly, 2001, 2004

Animation has always been a time-consuming, and thus expensive, proposition but the proliferation of digital technology has made things at least a little easier, hence the increased number of more grown-up animations these days.

These two films (from 2001 and 2004, respectively) are directed by leading independent filmmaker Richard Linklater and owe little to normal cartoon conventions.

Waking Life is a sprawling film that floats between characters and vignettes like a dream (or, at least, like the director's earlier Slacker).

A Scanner Darkly is even weirder—Linklater essentially filmed the movie with actors (including Keanu Reeves and Woody Harrelson), then got his team to “rotoscope” (essentially trace) the action into a computer and layered animation over it. Since it's All About Drugs, the bizarre effect is probably quite appropriate.

If Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly stretched the conventions of animation, then Waltz With Bashir blew them wide open.

Most animations have traditionally been fantasias, stressing illusion and imagination. By contrast, this film is rooted in specific realism.

It's an autobiographical affair; director Ari Folman served with the Israeli Defence Force during one of their incursions into the Lebanon and was left with a rather nasty bout of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, topped off with a spot of amnesia. Waltz With Bashir shows his attempts to understand what happened to him, opening up new areas for animators as it went.

  1. Persepolis, 2007

What contemporary animation is missing is a name. Consider this: once upon a time, we had “comics”; in the 1980s, as “comics” became increasingly grown-up, someone coined the name “graphic novels” for more mature work. We need a similar name for this new breed of animations, something to suggest a more idiosyncratic sensibility.

As it happened, Persepolis began as a “graphic novel”, written and illustrated by Marjane Satrapi; this was an autobiographical piece about growing up in Iran after the 1979 revolution, when things became altogether more restrictive for free-spirited little girls.

The success of the book led Sarapi to make this film version, recruiting no less than Catherine Deneuve to give voice of her mother, in both the French and English versions. Better still, the English dub adds Iggy Pop!

  1. Chico and Rita, 2010

This list is necessarily selective. It's restricted for feature films, for a start (no shorts here!), and we've kept it to traditional “drawn” animation (even if the “drawings” were accomplished with the help of a computer). Some of the best animations are stop motions, and many of them well below an hour in length.

But at least that allows the inclusion of Chico and Rita. Although it scored an Oscar nom and was widely and enthusiastically reviewed, it was underseen, which is a shame as it's great. Starting in pre-revolutionary Cuba and spanning near enough a half-century, it's a love story between a singer and her pianist.

Many of the films on our list are a tad on the grim side but, even though the path of true love doesn't run entirely smooth (tissues at the ready, lads!), here's one that is glorious and celebratory. “Grown up” does not have to mean “utterly miserable”.

Read more: 10 Essential Steven Spielberg films

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