Animation makes up a huge part of what kids watch during their youth. Most of us grew up with a strong love for classic Disney films and beloved cartoons on TV. But as people grow older, most of us switch over to the world of live-action and leave animated flicks in the past. Some even start to view cartoon films as something one grows out of as they mature.
In reality, animation is capable of catering to a wide variety of audiences. Plenty of studios produce animated films that portray complex topics or depict graphic violence. So here’s a spoiler-free list of 16 animated films that are far from simple child’s play.
16. The Littlest Warrior (1961)
While this film is the oldest on the list, it’s also one of the most interesting. Also released as The Orphan Brother and Anju and Zushiomaru, the film had two directors – Taiji Yabushita and Yugo Serikawa – and was a Toei Corporation production. The story is about a young boy and his older sister living in feudal Japan with their family. But when someone frames their father for arson, the siblings face slavery and separation from their mother. This isn’t quite the most violent or action-packed movie on the list. But its darker themes and visual imagery make it an excellent piece in the history of animation made for adults.
15. Watership Down (1972)
Don’t let the bunnies fool you; this movie’s not some cutesy Disney adventure. Watership Down is a British animated film based on author Richard Adams’s novel of the same name. Directed by Martin Rosen, the film contains a lot of graphic violence and unsettling imagery. It’s also a prime example of a film many people mistake for children’s content at first glance. The story revolves around a group of rabbits who must find a new home after losing their old warren. Along the way, the furry creatures face many different perils from nature, predators, and even other rabbits.
14. The Last Unicorn (1982)
Created by the now-shut down but legendary Rankin/Bass Productions, this film has gained quite a cult following over the years. Based on a novel of the same name by American novelist Peter S. Beagle, the film is about a talking unicorn who learns that she’s apparently the last of her species. After learning of the monstrous creature responsible, the Unicorn ventures out on a journey to bring back her kind. Rankin/Bass was mostly known for their animated adaptations of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series and their iconic Christmas movies. The Last Unicorn shares a similar unique art style and features many stunning shots throughout. It is definitely worth checking out, especially if you enjoy animation from the ’80s.
13. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Fair warning; it’s probably best to watch this one with some tissues on hand. Grave of the Fireflies – a Studio Ghibli piece directed by Isao Takahata – is not only a highly appraised war film, but also one of the most heart-wrenching animated features of all time. Set towards the end of World War II, the story follows Seita, a Japanese teen, and his little sister Setsuko. After a bombing kills their mother, the two children must fend for themselves while fighting off fatigue and malnutrition. With a masterful portrayal of the hardships of war and stunning visuals to boot, it’s truly a must-see masterpiece.
12. The Land Before Time (1988)
Many people nowadays see The Land Before Time as a franchise aimed towards little kids. But the original film with Don Bluth as director was much grimmer than the content that came later on. The movie tells the origin of the series’ main character Little Foot, a “Longneck” dinosaur who loses his mother after she fights a “Sharptooth.” Unlike many of its sequels, the first film featured darker themes, imagery, and atmosphere. Some fans have claimed that the follow-up films are actually disservices to the original. But regardless of how one feels about the whole series, the original is a classic beloved by kids and adults alike.
11. Perfect Blue (1997)
If you’re a fan of psychological thrillers, this is definitely worth checking out. Inspired by the novel Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis, the film is a cult classic from Madhouse, Inc. The story’s protagonist, Mima Kirigoe, is a former pop star who’s trying to become an actress. But soon into her new career, she finds herself traumatized by a role and questioning her identity, and a mysterious stalker and a string of murders only escalate things. Satoshi Kon, the movie’s director, is a master of blurring reality and fiction, and it shows in every single scene. It’s an intense film that asks difficult questions about how we see ourselves and others.
10. Princess Mononoke (1997)
As a masterpiece from director Hayao Miyazaki, Princess Mononoke is among Studio Ghibli’s most critically acclaimed films. The movie follows Ashitaka, an exiled prince with a demon-cursed arm. After he’s caught up in a violent conflict between a town of humans and forest deities, he meets San, a girl raised by wolf gods, and struggles to find a way to end the war. The film’s graphic content and stunning visuals truly make it a legend in adult animation. Its environmental message also works very well, along with its masterful orchestral soundtrack.
9. The Prince of Egypt (1998)
This film’s legacy as a DreamWorks Animation masterpiece is far from an unfounded one. Based on the classic biblical story, the movie focuses on Moses, the adopted son of an Egyptian pharaoh. But after learning he’s the son of a Hebrew slave, Moses must free the enslaved Hebrews from Egypt – a task that puts him in conflict with his adoptive older brother. From start to finish, The Prince of Egypt is a riveting adaptation that is enjoyable regardless of your religious beliefs. The hard work is evident in every frame, resulting in some of the most stunning animation ever seen on film.
8. Tokyo Godfathers (2003)
As another project from director Satoshi Kon, Tokyo Godfathers delivers a truly special experience. The story focuses on a trio of homeless people who discover an abandoned baby girl on Christmas Eve. As they search Tokyo for the baby’s family, they face many unexpected challenges along the way. While not as surreal as Kon’s other works, this movie is a great balance of comedy and drama. It presents viewers with a very peculiar brand of humor that switches between dark and lighthearted. But at the same time, it discusses very serious subjects that even live-action films sometimes struggle with.
7. The Triplets of Belleville (2003)
Despite not being very well known, The Triplets of Belleville is as unique as animated films get. Written and directed by Sylvain Chomet, the movie not only has distinct visuals and style, but also delivers most of its story without the traditional use of dialogue. The film’s protagonist, Madame Souza, has raised her grandson Champion since his parents’ deaths. As a professional cyclist, Champion is set to take part in Tour de France, with Souza as his coach. But when the French mafia kidnaps Champion, she and an elderly trio of singers hed off on a mission to rescue him.
6. Persepolis (2007)
Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is definitely a unique jewel among modern films. Adapted from her unique graphic novel-style autobiography, she directed the film along with Vincent Paronnaud. The story follows a Marjane – or Marji, for short – as a child growing up in Iran. As she lives through the Islamic Revolution and the repressive government eventually founded by Islamic fundamentalists, she attempts to find balance in her life as a Muslim woman and a fighter for freedom. The film’s unique art and animation style makes it a truly unique experience. And the story itself covers very relevant topics from a perspective that’s neglected far too often.
5. 9 (2009)
When this film first premiered in theaters, reviews ranged on a mixed scale of good and bad. But even with its issues, 9 still tends to leave an impression for those who’ve seen it. Directed by Shane Acker, the film takes place in a world where machines eradicated the human race. The only living things left are nine “stitchpunks,” a group sentient rag dolls who must uncover their mysterious origins while finding a way to stop the machines. Despite its mixed reception, many consider the film to be a visually stunning piece. Its deeper themes and concepts also make it a fascinating story to watch.
4. Extraordinary Tales (2013)
Technically, this “film” is an anthology piece that’s made up of much shorter features. But still, it might be worth checking out for adult fans of classic horror stories. Directed by Raul Garcia, the film serves as an interesting showcase of creepy and supernatural concepts. Each of the five short films included takes basis from stories by Edgar Allan Poe, including classics like The Tell-Tale Heart and The Masque of the Red Death. The benefits of a film like this definitely come from the diversity of the content. With many distinct art styles compiled together, it’s bound to be a fun hour or so of entertainment.
3. Patema Inverted (2013)
If Inception’s complex plot was a lot for you, then this film will definitely be a wild ride. The titular character is Patema, a young girl from a civilization deep underground. When she journeys too far from her home one day, she finds herself in a world where her gravity is inverted, and without the help of a resident boy named Age, she’s in danger of floating away into the sky. While the film’s director, Yasuhiro Yoshiura, usually works in short films, it’s clear from the success of Patema Inverted that he’s perfectly capable of full-length features. There are many twists and turns that we won’t mention in order to avoid spoilers. But rest assured, your jaw is gonna drop.
2. In This Corner of the World (2016)
Directed by Sunao Katabuchi, this entry is another highly appraised film discussing topics of civilians facing war. Set before, during and after World War II, the story is about a young woman named Suzu, who gets married and moves in with her new family near Hiroshima. As the result of the war, Suzu faces many struggles and personal tragedies as a result, leading to her struggle to regain passion for life. As an adaptation of a manga with the same name, this production from the MAPPA Company is both beautiful and painful in all the right ways. The realistic struggles the protagonist faces make her character and circumstances feel real, a quality that makes this film a true work of art.
1. The Breadwinner (2017)
After premiering last year, this film has quickly joined the ranks of great animated films. Based on Deborah Ellis’s novel of the same name, The Breadwinner features Nora Twomey as director and Angelina Jolie as one of its producers. The story is about Parvana, a young Muslim girl living in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. When her father’s arrest leaves her family with no means of income, she begins to masquerade as a boy in order to evade laws that keep women from leaving their homes without male escorts. Much like Persepolis, The Breadwinner provides viewers with a perspective that is neglected often in film. It’s one of the best animated movies in years, and certainly worthy of acclaim.