The 10 Best Animated Films of 2023

Robots, elements and Venture Bros. (oh my)

Ember (Leah Lewis) and Wade (Mamoudou Athie) in Pixar's "Elemental"

The year 2023 has been one of the greatest in animation history.

This is not just due to the animation’s ubiquity (if “Barbie” had never come along, the No. 1 movie of the year would have undoubtedly been “The Super Mario Bros. Movie”) but also the originality of the movies, even if they are part of a larger franchise, and the variety of animation styles that brought them to life (stop-motion, computer animation, traditional animation and combinations of all of the above). The fact that treasures like Disney’s “Wish,” DreamWorks’ “Trolls Band Together” and “Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken,” Netflix’s “Leo” and Illumination’s “Migration” didn’t make the list is a testament to just how strong this year was. Also: we really, really liked “Merry Little Batman.” It’s on Prime Video and it is cute as s–t.

But without further ado, here are the very best animated features of 2023:

10. “The Venture Bros: Radiant Is the Blood of the Baboon Heart”

Adult Swim

After “The Venture Bros.,” the beloved Adult Swim animated series that began back in 2004, was unceremoniously canceled in 2020, the show’s creators, Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer, scrambled to find a way to conclude their magnum opus. (The last proper season aired way back in 2018.) The solution was a feature-length film that would wrap up various plotlines and character arcs from the series and would be rated R to maintain the series’ patented, late-night edge. And what a solution it was! “Radiant Is the Blood of the Baboon Heart” is, yes, a supersized episode of the series but also grander and more sophisticated. It does wrap up most of the questions left dangling from the show, but it also gives lovely little moments for smaller secondary characters and leaves room to introduce new characters, like ones based on Liam Neeson’s “Darkman” character and another based on Jeff Goldblum from “The Fly” (yes really). It all leads to an explosive climax that involves a flying office building and a number of shocking reveals. As a standalone film its one of the year’s best, but as the finale to one of the most underrated, complex animated series of the last few decades, it’s downright spectacular.

9. “The Inventor”

Blue Fox Entertainment

One of the year’s most charming (and sadly underseen) animated features was “The Inventor.” Written and directed by Jim Capobianco, a Pixar story artist who worked on “Ratatouille,” “Inside Out” and “Finding Dory” (among many others), the movie is a fanciful Leonardo da Vinci biopic that also serves as a follow-up to his 2009 short film “Leonardo.” Using a combination of stop-motion animation and more traditional 2D artwork (employed when the action gets too big or too metaphysical), it follows Leonardo (voiced by Stephen Fry) as he leaves Rome, bullied by Pope Leo X (Matt Berry) and travels to France to try and indulge his intellectual curiosities with more leeway. The film is animated in a style that isn’t out of step with, say, a Rankin-Bass holiday special. But don’t be fooled by its cuteness. There is something pricklier and more contemplative underneath. Leonardo is chastised (and ultimately run out of Italy) for wanting to discover the human soul; he experiments on fresh corpses and contemplates our place in the universe. In France he becomes frustrated because all of the nobles want are statues. It’s an odd and extremely special movie that deserves to be seen by a wider audience. Hopefully it will be.

8. “Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget”

Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget

It only took 23 years for a proper sequel to Aardman Animation’s breakthrough “Chicken Run.” But it was worth the wait. In “Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget,” the chickens who escaped the farm in the first movie are now living in a secluded paradise. But when some of the chickens, including the daughter of Ringer and Rocky, get snapped up by a mysterious new farm, an elaborate plot is hatched to save them and shut down a farm that could spell the end of chicken-kind. Instead of the original film’s “The Great Escape” but with chickens conceit, the sequel adopts more ambitious “Mission: Impossible”-style contours. Director Sam Fell, a Aardman veteran who also made the miraculous “ParaNorman” for Laika, expands the scope considerably while maintaining the emotional intimacy of the first film. (The stop-motion animation of the first film is flawlessly augmented by computer-generated effects.) While the first film questioned the morality of farming in general, the sequel also takes a more pointed look at factory farming. Yes, it’s as effervescent and entertaining as the first and yes, it will make you rethink your next trip to Chick-Fil-A. (If you weren’t already questioning it.)

7. “Elemental”

elemental pixar

Pixar’s latest computer-generated wonder is one of the most Pixar-y movies yet. “Elemental” set in a modern metropolis where characters based on the elements (air, water, fire and earth) live together. The story follows a flinty fire girl named Ember (Leah Lewis) who falls in love with a mushy water guy named Wade (Mamoudou Athie). Opposites, as they say, attract. And while the movie is a deceptively simple romance (there’s no mustache-twirling villain trying to doom the city or a larger plot to keep the elements separate), it’s undeniably moving and laced with autobiographical detail that really make it come alive. Director Peter Sohn, a longtime Pixar secret weapon and the man who got “The Good Dinosaur” across the finish line, is the child of immigrants; his parents ran a grocery store in New York City. And there are details of that experience, particularly in the movie’s dynamic opening sequence, laced throughout “Elemental.” A gorgeously rendered technological marvel that is also a heartfelt, hugely moving ode to the hardships and triumphs of the immigrant experience in America? Yeah, that’s pretty damn Pixar-y.

6. “Robot Dreams”

Robot Dreams

One of the year’s most beguiling movies, “Robot Dreams” was acquired by Neon out of the Cannes Film Festival (where they also acquired “Anatomy of a Fall”). And aside from an awards-qualifying run, “Robot Dreams” has not really been seen by anybody. This is downright tragic. Because the movie is absolutely incredible. Written and directed by Spanish filmmaker Pablo Berger and based on a 2007 comic book by Sara Varon, it is set in a version of 1980’s New York City populated exclusively by animals. It’s there that DOG, lonely and in need of a pal, orders ROBOT. The movie is completely dialogue-free, save for some well-placed songs (including an excellent use of Earth Wind & Fire’s “September”). And it is about a dog and its robot. You will cry through almost the entire thing. Talking about the plot of “Robot Dreams” will deny the movie some of its elemental power. But it’s much more emotionally complicated and absolutely gut-wrenching than you could ever imagine. Track this down, wherever it is playing. It is a future classic. And you want to say you saw it first.

5. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem”

teenage mutant ninja turtles Mutant Mayhem

Since “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” became zeitgeist-capturing pop culture phenomenon in the late 1980s and early 1990s (thanks to the one-two punch of a ubiquitous Saturday morning cartoon and a blockbuster live-action feature, plus all of those toys), there have been countless iteration of the characters in live-action and animation, on television and the big screen. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” is set apart by all of the previous versions by embracing the teenage aspects of the title. Director Jeff Rowe hired actual teenagers to voice the characters (Micah Abbey, Shamon Brown Jr., Nicolas Cantu and Brady Noon) and established a new visual style that mimics the doodles you’d find in the margins of a teenager’s school notebook. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who composed the movie’s jangly score, even approximated the sound of a high school garage band. The resulting film is charming and funny and the most relatable the characters have been in ages. (Just compare them to, say, the ‘roided out freaks of Michael Bay’s recent live-action movies.) One of the most dazzlingly animated movies of the year and also one of the most emotionally involving. Cowabunga!

4. “Nimona”


The fact that “Nimona” exists at all is something of a miracle. It was developed at Blue Sky before Disney purchased the 21st Century assets that included the studio; when they deemed the studio redundant (and were, consequently, made nervous by the film’s LGBTQ+ themes), the movie died. It found unlikely resurrection from Annapurna and Netflix, who started the animation over from scratch (courtesy of DNEG) and didn’t do anything to soften the movie’s glorious queerness. The fact that the movie wound up as good as it did is beyond imagination. “Nimona” is a movie about otherness, with the title character (Chloë Grace Moretz), a monster in a futuristic medieval city, teaming up with a disgraced knight (Riz Ahmed), to clear their names and uncover a conspiracy that threatens everyone. Filmmakers Nick Bruno and Troy Quane used the acclaimed graphic novel by ND Stevenson as the basis for the movie but infused it with personal stories from the artists working on the movie, to create something both high concept and deeply personal. This is a movie with shape-shifting characters and some devilishly clever action set pieces that has the guts to climax with a main character contemplating suicide. It’s proof that films ostensibly aimed at children can wrangle with knotty, complicated ideas. And still be entertaining and funny and fun. That’s the magic of “Nimona.”

3. “Suzume”


Released late last year in Japan but debuting domestically this spring, “Suzume” was directed by Makoto Shinkai, the filmmaker behind such blockbusters as “Your Name” and “Weathering With You” (some of the highest grossing movies in Japan). Shinkai’s films always have an amazing depth of sensitivity and “Suzume” is no different. He was inspired by several aspects of Japanese culture – abandoned buildings and places, left to rot along the Japanese countryside and the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami – in telling the story of a young man who travels around Japan to stop a potentially apocalyptic outcome and the young woman who falls in love with him. Also the male lead gets turned into a three-legged chair at the beginning of the movie, which is both incredibly hilarious and provides some of the very best character animation of the year, with the audience deeply engrossed in the personal struggle of a three-legged chair. That’s animation baby! This might be Shinkai’s very best film; even when the movie becomes a bit lost in its metaphysical threat, it is always emotionally engrossing and visually striking. It is also unlike any other movie – animated or otherwise – released this year. If you haven’t yet, be prepared to fall in love with “Suzume.”

2. “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse”

Sony Pictures

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” set the bar extraordinarily high in 2018, both in terms of its cutting-edge animation and its willingness to experiment with storytelling and theme. Somehow, the sequel surpassed it. In “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) finds that there are even more Spider-people out there. And that most of them don’t want anything to do with him. He also finds that being Spider-Man comes with a very heavy price. The paralleled worlds conjured by “Across the Spider-Verse” are detailed and eye-popping – a Syd Mead-inspired 1980s future-world; a world that acts like a giant mood ring, with painterly splotches that slide down the screen; a world that combines Mumbai and Manhattan – and all of these are highly engrossing, extremely detailed environments that you can’t help but get lost in. But the true secret weapon of the super-sized sequel is its melancholic tone, from Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) coming to grips with the possibility of losing her father, to a third act twist that is both incredibly cool and absolutely devastating. With a third film on the way, it’s hard to imagine how the filmmakers behind “Across the Spider-Verse,” led by directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson, along with writers/producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, will be able to top this one. Somehow, they’ll get it done.

1. “The Boy and the Heron”

The Boy and the Heron
GKids/Studio Ghibli

Ten years ago Hayao Miyazaki released what he would ultimately claim was his final film, the Oscar-nominated “The Wind Rises.” He was retired, he claimed. Finished. Done. Except that, of course, he wasn’t. And he started working on what would become “The Boy and the Heron,” which would wind up his most ambitious and autobiographical film yet. Inspired in part by “How Do You Live?” a 1937 novel of the same name that is featured in the film (that is also its much-better name in Japan), the movie follows a young boy named Mahito, who travels with his father to the countryside following the death of his mother. It’s 1943 and Mahito’s dad oversees an air munitions factory. He is also set to marry his dead wife’s sister (and she’s already pregnant). If this wasn’t enough, a mysterious heron (voiced by Robert Pattinson in the English dub) whisks him away to a dangerous netherworld between time and space, ruled over by an ageless wizard and home to a Parakeet King and all many of Miyazaki-style whimsy. (A particularly moving sequence involves souls being born and ascending in columns that look like giant lungs; it has shades of Pete Docter’s “Soul.”) With a number of elements borrowed directly from Miyazaki’s own childhood and some of the most inventive, most fantastical set pieces of his career, it offers a rare peek at the man behind some of the most amazing films ever. “The Boy and the Heron,” if it is his last film, certainly concludes his career on a high note. It’s a doozy.


2 responses to “The 10 Best Animated Films of 2023”

  1. XS05 Avatar

    Woulda preferred Elemental, WISH, or at least The Super Mario Bros Movie, but thank God ATSV and Nimona didn’t make it to the top b/c I would not have been happy.

  2. cadavra Avatar

    I know it wasn’t widely seen, but the new and quite faithful version of “The Canterville Ghost,” featuring the vocal reunion of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, was head and shoulders above several of these.

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