The 2010s were an interesting decade for film that changed the way we defined genres and where acclaim and popularity was frequently tied to new ideas and types of filmmaking. This decade saw the emergence of a new era of auteurs and an increase in the capabilities of independent film. This transformation can be seen extremely well in the growth of animated films in the 2010s.
Coming from the 2000s, perhaps the greatest decade for animated films ever, the leap to 3D CGI had been mastered and people were looking for fresh style and stories. With masters like Hayao Miyazaki reaching the ends of their careers, and powerhouse studios like Pixar inevitably regressing, audiences and animators alike leapt at new types of animated films. With ever improving technology, barriers were broken and many animation processes were made easier letting smaller animating studios take more risks and accomplish more than was previously possible.
The following list features the greatest animated movies of the 2010s, with varied animation styles and countries of origin; some popular, some acclaimed and some underrated.
20. From Up on Poppy Hill (Goro Miyazaki, 2011)
As a director, Goro Miyazaki, son of Hayao, was always going to face scrutiny and comparison to his father’s career. To be honest, so far he’s fallen a bit short, but From Up on Poppy Hill is a step in the right direction.
Essentially, the story follows a group of teens who come together to stop the demolition of a local building by the government, with a conflicted romance budding between the central pair. With the exception of a few interesting wrinkles the plot is fairly predictable and a little saccharine. Nonetheless, it’s an effective film with strong emotions and engrossing art that gives relief to the thought the future of Studio Ghibli without Hayao Miyazaki.
19. Rango (Gore Verbinski, 2011)
Gore Verbinski is one of the most unique directors working in big Hollywood. While he’s known for his big budget flicks like Pirates of the Caribbean and The Lone Ranger, his lesser known flops like The Weather Man and A Cure for Wellness are fascinating in that they are original, auteur driven films made by a large studio. Rango is a bit of a mix of these two sides of the director.
The film follows the titular character, a chameleon voiced by Johnny Depp, who finds himself as the sheriff of a desert town and in the middle of a gunslingin’ Western plot. Although anthropomorphised animals feels like kind of a cop out these days for a premise, there is more to the movie than that. It takes interesting turns, features colorful characters and, if shot live action, would be thought of as one of the most creative Westerns of the decade.
18. How to Train Your Dragon (Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois, 2010)
Dreamworks does not have the same level pedigree as rival studios like Disney, Pixar or Ghibli, and for good reason as many of their films are not great, but every once in a while they hit on a great premise with a lot of heart. How to Train Your Dragon is to the 2010s what Shrek was to the 2000s. On the surface it looks like nothing special, with a standard adventure plot and unimaginative studio design, but it is very well executed and is surprisingly emotional.
The plot is a fairly standard coming-of-age tale following the cowardly son of a Viking chief who befriends a dragon and together they save the village. Far from the artistic fare that makes up most of this list, this is a heartwarming crowd pleaser, whose success has proven to be a hit with not just kids but parents as well.
17. When Marnie Was There (Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2004)
Another acclaimed Ghibli film that has flown a bit under the radar since its release, When Marnie Was There is an enchanting and very moving coming of age story. The film follows a young girl, Anna, who has trouble making friends and suffers from debilitating asthma attacks.
She goes to live with her relatives out on the seashore, and suffers similar problems until she befriends Marnie, another girl who lives in a dilapidated mansion across the bay who only she can see. A touching film with an intriguing mystery and a satisfying ending, When Marnie Was There is not the most game-changing animated film of the decade but surpasses most when regarding plot development and emotional resonance.
16. Boy and the World (Ale Abreu, 2013)
This Brazilian gem pushed the boundaries for animated film. WIth widely varying and shifting animation styles, some crude and some gorgeous, the movie is a brief but engaging visual feast. Though the film is wordless, the imaginative scenes and art keep you captivated the entire runtime.
The plot itself follows a young boy who embarks on a vibrant journey through the countryside into the city, reminiscing on his childhood and discovering how his country is changing around him. Ultimately, it’s a film of personal and environmental growth, infused with dazzling art and fun music.
15. The Pirates! Band of Misfits (Peter Lord, 2012)
Peter Lord, founder of Aardman Animation and creator of Wallace and Gromit, headed this whimsical adventure story following a subpar pirate crew who try to make a name for themselves and win the “Pirate of the Year” award. This sends them on a silly journey, mixing company with Charles Darwin, Queen Victoria and pitting the Pirate Captain against his rival, Black Bellamy. It is not deep or profound like most of the films on this list but it is extremely entertaining.
The plot is captivating for a family film and the animation is world class and charmingly styled. Perhaps the film’s greatest asset is the cheeky British humour that imbibes the film throughout, that rides the slim line of appealing to all ages. It might not be remembered as a masterpiece but it is should surely not be forgotten.
14. The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet, 2010)
Sylvain Chomet broke onto the international stage with the 2003 hit The Triplets of Belleville, a strange movie that garnered acclaim do to its inventive animation and quirky vibe. The Illusionist retains the animation but features a more grounded plot. Based on a story by the great mime-turned-auteur Jacques Tati, the film follows an aging magician who struggles to make ends meet in a quickly changing mid-20th century world.
The autobiographical connections are clear, but this deeply personal story feels nothing Tati’s trademark comedies. Chomet takes the story in a more sombre, sentimental direction, feeding off of the regrets of Tati as pertaining to his flawed relationship with his daughter. One wonders if it need be so melancholy, but the gorgeous animation is enough to stop questioning Chomet.
13. Kubo and the Two Strings (Travis Knight, 2016)
Kubo and the Two Strings is a visual marvel. Effortlessly mixing stop motion and CGI, Kubo creates a stunning environment of steeped in magic, with dynamic action and monsters. The plot follows Kubo, a young boy and Shamisen performer who is descended from god-like beings. His mother was banished from the upper world when she married Kubo’s father, a human samurai.
Kubo, accompanied by a beetle warrior and a talking monkey, go on a journey to defeat his grandfather, the Moon King, and reunite his family. With thrilling action, fascinating lore and unmissable animation, Kubo and the Two Strings is a terrific blend of art and entertainment.
12. Your Name (Makoto Shinkai, 2016)
Your Name was one of the most successful Japanese movies of the decades, setting box office records in the country. While it was well received by critics, the film did not take off as well in Western countries unlike the international Ghibli hits. There is a lot to like about this movie: the art is breathtaking and the plot is both complex and well executed. The story follows a teen boy and girl who start switching bodies with each other on a daily basis. A strange relationship forms between them as they navigate the difficult circumstances.
The plot gets more complex from here, but I won’t spoil it. That being said, there is a reason it does not have the universal appeal of say Spirited Away; first and foremost, Your Name is a teen romance movie, filled with cheesy dialogue and modern pop songs that take you out of the film’s greater artistry. A must see for fans of modern Japanese culture but if you’re not familiar with “youth dramas” be prepared for a bit different type of movie.
11. Ernest and Celestine (Stephane Aubier, Vincent Patar, Benjamin Renner, 2012)
In this simultaneously heartwarming and politically charged film, an anthropomorphised mouse and bear team up to live their lives their own way, flaunting society and tearing down the oppressive rules of their respective kinds. The central characters are cute and charming making their rebellious acts a little jarring, at least compared to similar characters in standard American animated fare.
The animation style is simple and endearing giving the characters personalities and relatability. While the animal-character universe in the film is a cliched pet peeve of mine there at least is some thematic relevance to using different species. It’s not essential viewing, but its charm and entertainment factor, along with some deeper themes, warrant its place on this list.