In the 2010s, 3D animation became the common tongue of Hollywood animation studios. But while Disney and DreamWorks both left their roots behind, smaller studios and international productions fully explored the scope of 2D and other aspects of the medium.
This decade brought us the growth of studios like Cartoon Saloon and Laika, along with a second Disney Renaissance and DreamWorks blossoming with its full potential. While the decade in animation had a shaky start, the full breadth of the medium was ultimately explored: hand-drawn, computer-generated, stop-motion, motion-capture, and everything in between.
The Secret of Kells (2010)
Though the Celtic art tradition dates back to the Iron Age, Ireland’s swirling emerald identity was never done feature-length justice before Tomm Moore’s The Secret of Kells. Chronicling the origins of the Book of Kells with a fantasy twist, the film finds the curious boy Brendan (Evan McGuire) adventuring to complete the legendary Gospel collection. Moore resists the mainstream tendency to strip the tale of its cultural anchor, from the 2D illustrative style to Bruno Coulais’ folk-inspired score. The Secret of Kells is an animated whisper, ethereal even in monstrous moments. —Matt Patches
The Illusionist (2010)
Jacques Tati was like a living animated character. A master of mime who blended slapstick with sociopolitical commentary, the performer carved out a niche with his stunning comedies Mon Oncle and Play Time. The Illusionist adapts one of his unproduced scripts, and Triplets of Belleville writer-director Sylvain Chomet more than does his melancholic gestures justice. The story finds a down-and-out illusionist floating through Paris before being revitalized by the passion of a young girl. As a surrogate parent, he devotes himself to her well-being, even at the sacrifice of his art. The human observations and heart tugging, drawn into every subtle movement, are the reason people will always scream and shout when 2D’s future is under threat. —MP
How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
How to Train Your Dragon changed the expectations of what DreamWorks could do. Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders’ film had a clear emotional crux, with choices that yielded impactful consequences, alongside splashes of cuteness and humor that didn’t compromise the main story. Oh, and also a killer score. The bond Hiccup has with Toothless would go on to define a whole poignant coming-of-age trilogy. —Petrana Radulovic
The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
One more dip into realism and The Adventures of Tintin would crash straight into the uncanny valley. Thankfully, Steven Spielberg’s performance-captured animated adventure manages to walk that fine line, taking a stylized approach that’s more faithful to the original comics than a live-action adaptation would’ve been. Plotwise, it’s a delight, not based on any one particular Tintin story, but instead drawing on three of the seafaring titles and bringing one big swashbuckling adventure. —PR
One of the few non-Disney/Pixar films to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, Rango is a pure creation from the wild mind of Gore Verbinski. When a pet chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp) becomes stranded in the desert, he’s forced to fend for himself in the animal Old West and the town of Dirt. A series of misunderstandings leads to his being appointed sheriff, which makes him the first line of defense against the fearsome Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy). The movie’s subversion of Western tropes (as well as some of its cast’s own work) is a delight, as are the unwinding conspiracy of Dirt’s dwindling water supply and Verbinski’s inventiveness when it comes to action. —Karen Han
When ParaNorman manifested in theaters early this decade, the stop-motion film looked like Hot Topic fodder: the sort of angsty comedy with moody character design that can be splashed on thousands of cheap socks, hoodies, and beanies. Another intellectual property to fuel the “suburban outsider aesthetic.”
The film starts on that path, introducing us to Norman, a teenage boy who has better luck making friends with the dead than the living. Then the film zags in the opposite direction. Norman doesn’t get revenge on the cool kids, but he doesn’t embrace his outsider status either. The film refreshingly refuses to treat identity as something to be solved. Instead, it suggests the best we can do is simply embrace ourselves, and practice empathy toward others. —Chris Plante
The Wind Rises (2013)
Hayao Miyazaki initially produced The Wind Rises as a manga — a more experimental, less financially risky medium for him to fine-tune the most ambitious project of his career. Though both the manga and film present themselves as biographies of Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the notorious Mitsubishi A6M Zero plane, which Japan used during the attack on Pearl Harbor in the Second World War, Miyazaki takes grand and sweeping liberties with Horikoshi’s backstory.
How grand and sweeping? The animator fuses the biography with an adaptation of a famous work of fiction: The Wind Has Risen, an 80-year-old novel that chronicles a couple’s tragic time at a tuberculosis sanitarium in 1930s Nagano.
The film goes even further, adding another layer atop the manga, using both the life of this historical figure and this beloved novel to interrogate Miyazaki’s own long and storied career. The result is entirely unique: part early Hollywood historical epic, part biopic, part humble autobiography.
Or, to put it another way, The Wind Rises has one of the greatest filmmakers of all time asking, “Should I have created?” You might assume the answer is an empowering “yes!” But with Miyazaki, nothing is ever so simple or so emotionally concrete.
At the time of its release, Miyazaki had claimed The Wind Rises would be his last film, giving each screening a sense of finality. I will never forget watching it in a packed house at the now-defunct Sunshine Cinema in Manhattan. As the credits rolled, nobody moved; they just sat there, crying in the dark. —CP
Big Hero 6 (2014)
Out of all the Disney titles released this decade, Big Hero 6 is the most innovative. The animated Marvel movie sheds the tried-and-true Disney formula: It’s not explicitly a comedy (Zootopia, Wreck-It Ralph and its sequel) or a princess film (Tangled, Frozen, Moana). The movie takes one of Chris Claremont’s lesser-known comics series and ramps it up into a dynamic action-adventure. With an eclectic and diverse cast, a beautiful futuristic city, and one of the cutest robots in Disney history, Big Hero 6 isn’t just a fun time; it’s also a poignant exploration of grief. —PR
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2014)
Finances will always limit the imagination of the manpower-dependent animated medium. The hard truth makes The Tale of the Princess Kaguya even more of a triumph. Isao Takahata’s commitment to realizing a timeless Japanese folk story with ink-and-charcoal impressionism turned the fantasy drama into the most expensive Japanese movie of the time. The art speaks for itself: From the pastoral blankness of its hand-drawn backgrounds to Kaguya’s dynamic portrait — which often bursts into jagged-line rage when her parents push her in the wrong direction — Takahata creates a delicacy that makes the cosmic ending all the more crushing. There’s never been anything like it, and likely, there never will be again. —MP
The Lego Movie (2014)
What could just be a gratuitous Brand™️ movie became a genuinely funny and bonkers adventure (with arguably one of the best plot twists of the 2010s). Normal Lego-man Emmet finds himself on the run after the mysterious Kragle (aka a superglue cap) attaches itself to his back. The Lego Movie is hilarious without being too pandering, witty without being too grown-up, immaculate in its stop-motion-like CG style, heartfelt without being too gooey, and overall a wonderful time. —PR
World of Tomorrow (2015)
Whenever I scroll through Netflix, I pass roughly 300 “important films” I should watch, but I won’t watch them, because, look, it’s been a tough day, I’m tired, and my brain can’t take a two-hour spasm of existential dread. On a workday night, my brain just craves a series of fart noises and flashing lights. The trick of Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow is that it appears to be the latter, but ends up being the former. The creator of “My Anus Is Bleeding” unspools the mysteries of the universe — and he only takes 17 minutes. —CP
Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
Kubo and the Two Strings tells the tale of a young boy in feudal Japan who can magically manipulate origami with his shamisen. Laika’s stop-motion prowess was already made clear by earlier titles like 2009’s Coraline and 2012’s ParaNorman (also on this list), but Kubo pushed the technical abilities to the max, becoming the second-ever animated film to be nominated for the Best Visual Effects Oscar. A testament to the power of storytelling and memories, Kubo reverbates like an echoing note, a memory held dearly. —PR
Your Name (2017)
Your Name is as good as the hype and blockbuster box office would have you believe. Two teenagers in Japan — one living in a small rural town, the other in a bustling metropolis — wake up in each other’s bodies. They switch places back and forth, slowly learning more about one another and helping each other’s lives. But zany as that concept sounds, it’s not the only twist at play. What follows is a movie about connections: the bonds we make with one another, the bonds that could have been but never play out, and the connections that we slowly cultivate. —PR
Out of the 11 Pixar movies this decade, only five were non-sequels. And out of those originals, Coco stands out the most. Pixar movies have a way of ending happily — but not without some sort of compromise, and never in the way the protagonist might want. Coco is no exception, painting a beautiful portrait of a family divided. A superb soundtrack, dense visuals, and a story full of the Pixar heart we all know and love, Coco manages to also step outside Hollywood animation’s usual demographic to embrace a different culture for once. —PR
The Breadwinner (2017)
Cartoon Saloon’s The Breadwinner sheds the fantastical bent of most animation for stark reality. In Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, a young girl named Parvana poses as a boy after her father’s imprisonment in order to bring in much-needed income. Striking visuals weave both the story at hand and the tale Parvana spins for her father and brother. It’s a story of resilience, fleshed out by the familial relationships and a sense of solidarity. Angelina Jolie shepherded this film to American theaters for a reason. —PR
This list is chronological and not in order of worst to best, but it is fitting that Into the Spider-Verse gets this last slot — because it is the best animated movie of the decade. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse redefined what it meant to be a comic book movie and what it meant to be an animated movie. Instead of trying to circumvent its genre limitations, Spider-Verse wholeheartedly embraced everything that makes animation special: the vibrant colors and patterns, the different styles used for the different characters, and the comics-style paneling and typography. The film, from directors Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman, and Bob Persichetti, reminds us that there are some stories that are told best with animation. A superhero origin that pulls characters from different universes is one of them.
Not just visually stunning, Spider-Verse also imbues a lot of heart into its story, thrusting Miles Morales into the mainstream. The film immediately endears us to him as a character, and we watch him grow, fail, change, and rise through the course of the movie. It’s an origin story that we’ve seen before (seriously, how many Spider-Men have we gone through in the past 20 years?), but with a refreshing new hero, new look, and wonderful message.