The Most Beautiful Hand-Drawn Animated Films Ever

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The Most Beautiful Hand-Drawn Animated Films Ever
Studio Ghibli

Walt Disney changed the game of animation. When the company released “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1937, all the nagging doubts of whether animation could sustain a feature-length film were quickly put to rest. The film was an enormous commercial and critical success, and it sent a signal to the world that animation wasn’t going anywhere.

Ever since then, animation has grown into an enormous industry, and studios all over the world produce animated films on a regular basis. These days, however, the vast majority of animated films are CGI — computer-generated imagery — and traditional modes of hand-drawn animation are far and few between. While hand-drawn animation films do still get made, it’s hard not to lament the loss of such a wonderful form of filmmaking. For fans of traditional hand-drawn animation and those who just love incredibly good-looking movies, we’ve put together this list of the most beautiful hand-drawn animated films ever.

Pinocchio

The Most Beautiful Hand-Drawn Animated Films Ever
RKO Pictures

Disney was facing a lot of pressure to follow up “Snow White” with something special, and while the animation studio delivered on all the promise and more with 1940’s “Pinocchio,” the film actually tanked at the box office.

There were a number of technical innovations involved in the making of “Pinocchio,” and one of the most significant was the multiplane camera, which allowed for astonishing dimension. It’s difficult to put into words just how beautiful the film is — the character animation is second to none, and it’s this brilliant work that has allowed the film to endure for so long. Indeed, characters like Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket, Stromboli, and Monstro the whale have endured for generations thanks to their striking designs. The film is also downright terrifying at times, and the horror comes across so effectively thanks to some of the best hand-drawn animation in history.

“Pinocchio” is full of jaw-dropping detail, and thanks to the painstaking efforts taken by animators, something as simple as a window opening at night feels realistic. You can even see the reflection of the moonlight upon a character’s face, which is something that animation in the present day often misses out on. Though it was released over 80 years ago, many artists still believe “Pinocchio” is still the gold standard of animation, and it’s easy to see why.

Fantasia

The Most Beautiful Hand-Drawn Animated Films Ever
RKO Radio Pictures

Disney was a studio always trying to innovate and build on its previous achievements, and it certainly upped the ante with “Fantasia,” a concert feature comprised of a series of animated sequences set to popular classical music. The most famous is perhaps “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” which brought the iconic Mickey Mouse into a Disney feature. Each sequence, however, has its own merit, and a series of unique styles combine to make “Fantasia” one of the most breathtaking animated experiences.

A myriad of styles and techniques were employed in Fantasia, from the avant-garde opening sequence, the more traditional Disney style in “Dance of the Hours,” a more realistic approach in “The Rite of Spring,” and the haunting, ethereal nature of “Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria.” Almost every moment is a stand-out from an animation perspective, and the film remains Disney’s longest animated offering at 126 minutes. The film is special for its use of classical music to drive its stories, but it’s also a showcase for a group of the world’s finest animators pushing their skills and abilities to the limits and creating real magic with strokes of the pencil. The film has plenty of great moments, but the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence may be the finest example of the film’s unbridled animation excellence.

Sleeping Beauty

The Most Beautiful Hand-Drawn Animated Films Ever
Disney

While Disney films have a fairly consistent style, one film in the studio’s output is a considerable departure — 1959’s “Sleeping Beauty.” This is largely thanks to the remarkable work of artist Eyvind Earle, whose unique background paintings clashed considerably with Disney animators. While Earle left Disney before the film was released, and he may have lost the battle, he certainly won the war — his impact on “Sleeping Beauty” resulted in one of the best-looking hand-drawn animated films ever.

Earle’s medieval inspirations are keenly felt, and his hyper-stylized approach leaves an indelible impression. Earle truly created an enchanted forest that gives the first act of “Sleeping Beauty” so much vibrancy. The film also features some bold and beautiful colors; so often films based in medieval times are overwhelmingly grey and brown, but “Sleeping Beauty” wisely takes inspiration from medieval art that is overflowing with the resplendent color pallets of the era. Each and every frame of the film is an image that you’d want to be framed on your wall. Throw in astonishing character animation, an iconic villain (and a dragon!), and an unforgettable sequence, and you have a true work of art.

Fantastic Planet

The Most Beautiful Hand-Drawn Animated Films Ever
New World Pictures

French animator René Laloux took the world by storm with “Fantastic Planet,” an experimental science-fiction animated experience. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973, where it won a special award for its achievements.

The film takes place on a faraway planet called Ygam, where humans are slaves to the native inhabitants, gigantic blue beings called Traags. The Traags toy with the humans as if they were pets, though often treat them far worse than we would our furry friends. “Fantastic Planet” is a story of oppression and the role technology can play, and it has echoes of “Dune” and “Planet of the Apes.” Its avant-garde style has echoes of masters like Salvador Dalí, and it’s the powerful story of fighting back against your oppressors despite seemingly impossible odds that makes the film such a joy to witness.

Admittedly, the inclusion of “Fantastic Planet” is a bit of a cheat, as it technically uses cutouts and stop-motion animation rather than hand-drawn. But as the cutouts are drawn by hand, we think it more than warrants its inclusion here.

Belladonna of Sadness

The Most Beautiful Hand-Drawn Animated Films Ever
Kadokawa Daiei Studio

Not one to watch with your kids, Eiichi Yamamoto’s psychedelic 1973 masterpiece “Belladonna of Sadness” is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. The film follows Jeanne (Aiko Nagayama), a peasant woman in France who is raped by a baron on her wedding night. In the throes of utter despair, Jeanne is offered a deal with a distinctly phallic satanic demon who offers her great power to exact revenge on the people who wronged her.

The film was originally conceived by the “godfather of manga,” Osamu Tezuka, though he stepped down, making way for Yamamoto to take over. The film employs an exquisite watercolor painting style that brings a sense of calm and peacefulness to what are ultimately some of the most pornographic scenes in animation, striking an uneasy yet hypnotic balance. The film is a truly phantasmagorical experience — some of the most striking imagery includes a woman being torn in half, with the blood morphing into birds. It may not be the kind of stuff you want to hang up on your wall, but the film really contains some of the most beautiful images you’ve ever seen. It’s blasphemous, sacrilegious, violent, vulgar, and painstakingly beautiful. You’ve never seen anything quite like “Belladonna of Sadness.”

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Watership Down

The Most Beautiful Hand-Drawn Animated Films Ever
Nepenthe Productions

While the story of a group of rabbits may sound like charming fodder for an animated film, “Watership Down” is actually one of the darker and more traumatic films in animation. The difficulties are jumpstarted by a rabbit named Fiver (Richard Briers), who has a vision that the end of his rabbit warren his nigh, so he convinces a group of rabbits to follow him in search of a new home. The group undergoes brutal challenges on the way to their new home — Watership Down — but when they finally get there, they discover their troubles are far from over.

“Watership Down” was directed by Martin Rosen, and the film was an immediate success in the U.K. as one of the two films at the island nation’s box office in 1978. The film is remarkable for its realistic approach, delivering some truly beautiful and utterly haunting images. The film starts with a brutal rabbit fight, challenging our preconceived notions of adorable, harmless, fluffy bunnies. The film rarely relents, and its approach to the harsh realities of animal life and their struggles in the wild forever remains in the minds of those who have seen it.

Son of the White Mare

The Most Beautiful Hand-Drawn Animated Films Ever
Arbelos Films

Marcell Jankovics’ Hungarian masterpiece, “Son of the White Mare,” was released in 1981 but only just debuted in the United States after forty long years. The fantasy adventure is based on an Eastern European folktale, and in an interview with Polygon, Jankovics recalls, “I know of 55 different versions of this fairytale, of which I used about five or six.” “Son of the White Mare” is the story of the titular mare who gives birth to three sons, all of whom are destined to save the world from enormous dragons that dominate the Underworld. The sons’ journey is led by youngest brother Treeshaker, whose glowing, sun-like features light the way amid the effort to restore peace and order to the universe.

Similar to “Fantasia,” “Son of the White Mare” is a visual odyssey, where imagery and sound are prioritized over plot, but that certainly doesn’t make the film boring. Its style has few comparisons, as it’s so unique and features bold use of greens, reds, golds, and blues. It’s a miracle “Son of the White Mare” is finally available for American audiences to see after 40 long years, and it possesses a beguiling, highly stylized sort of beauty that makes you wonder what other unearthed treasures are waiting to be found.

The Secret of NIMH

The Most Beautiful Hand-Drawn Animated Films Ever
MGM/UA Entertainment Co.

Legendary animator Don Bluth began his career at the Disney Studios, working on films like “Robin Hood” and “Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too.” After increasing difficulties with studio executives, Bluth left the company during the late ’70s and took a group of other animators with him to form his own animation company. Along with Morris Sullivan, Bluth founded Sullivan Bluth Studios and entered the feature film animation world with 1982’s “The Secret of NIMH.”

It’s pretty apparent why Bluth felt at odds with Disney, as “NIMH” is downright terrifying and dark. It’s the kind of film that, at the time, Disney hadn’t really made since 1940’s “Pinocchio.” The film is completely unafraid to embrace its dark side, but it strikes an impressive balance between being family-friendly and a straight-up horror movie, which is no easy feat. The story is unique, as its main character is a mother — mouse Mrs. Brisby (Elizabeth Hartman) — who sets out on an adventure to save her son and must work together with a colony of rats in order to do so. The film’s beauty is evident in scenes like the heartwarming lullaby sequence, but also in more frightening moments like when the secret is revealed. The film introduces stunning references to American Gothic, as well as more psychedelic elements, and has a considerably darker color palette than its Disney counterparts, as observed by Scott Beggs for Slash Film.

Fire and Ice

The Most Beautiful Hand-Drawn Animated Films Ever
20th Century Fox

Ralph Bakshi is something of a bad boy in the animation world. After all, this is the man who created the first X-rated animated film, “Fritz the Cat.” Bakshi formed his own studio to provide a space for adult animation and himself directed a number of animated films in the 1970s and ’80s, including “Wizards” and “The Lord of the Rings.” His most exciting film, however, may just be “Fire and Ice,” a thrilling action epic.

The film’s title is quite literal, as evil Lord Nekron advances his land of ice through the kingdom, destroying anything and everything in its path. All that stands in his way is King Jarol, whose castle sits atop a volcano that holds back an enormous ocean of fire. It’s something like an animated Dungeons & Dragons campaign, featuring endlessly muscular men, scantily clad women, and various creatures.

While “Fire and Ice” is a bit rougher around the edges than some others on this list, that only serves as a reminder of the amazing nature of hand-drawn animation. There’s plenty of epic action that’s beautifully rendered, including a moment when Larn leaps off the top of a tall tree that exemplifies the film’s remarkable depth of field. In addition, the Dragonhawk riding is nothing short of awe-inspiring. You can feel the influence of Bakshi’s film in the video game series “The Banner Saga,” which employs a similar style of hand-drawn animation.

Pocahontas

The Most Beautiful Hand-Drawn Animated Films Ever
Disney

Disney was on a seemingly unstoppable roll, making “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” and “The Lion King” in a row. The films are considered amongst the finest in the entire studio’s output and really represented the peak of the renaissance. Disney was ready for more, though, and was preparing their next film, “Pocahontas,” to finally do what no animated film had done before: dominate the Oscars and take home the coveted Best Picture prize.

This didn’t happen. In fact, “Pocahontas” was something of a disappointment for the studio, with a middling box office performance and mixed critical reception. Notably, critics were quick to note the serious historical inaccuracies. But while the central romance and story of “Pocahontas” may not have been enough to get Disney that Oscar gold, it’s clear now that the film is a major leap forward in terms of its visual achievement.

All one really needs to understand the overwhelming beauty of “Pocahontas” is to watch the magnificent “Colors of the Wind” musical number (the song won an Academy Award). The scene abounds with absolutely magnificent color — just watching Pocahontas (Irene Bedard) sing, “We need to sing with all the voices of the mountain, we need to paint with all the colors of the wind” is enough to make your jaw drop, as a rainbow of leaves passes through the image of Pocahontas standing upon a mountain peak. The animation is the film’s greatest quality, and the entire film takes Disney in a more serious, prestigious direction within the field. It feels as if it was made mere moments ago.

Spirited Away

The Most Beautiful Hand-Drawn Animated Films Ever
Toho Co., Ltd.

Studio Ghibli is probably the world’s most recognizable animation studio, barring Disney. After the success of “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind,” directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki founded their own studio, and the rest is history. The studio has six of the ten highest-grossing anime films of all time, the most successful of which was 2001’s “Spirited Away.” The film even won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature — the only anime film to do so.

“Spirited Away,” directed by Hayao Miyazaki, follows Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi), a young girl who must save her parents, who are caught stealing and turned into pigs by the vengeful witch Yubaba (Mari Natsuki). Chihiro must work at a magical bathhouse to earn enough to rescue her family and return from the spirit world. Where “Spirited Away” really shines is its exemplary character design. So many characters are completely unique, yet all feel like they authentically belong in the world of “Spirited Away,” which is an extremely difficult feat to pull off.

The film is chock-full of remarkable creatures, all of which are equally fascinating. The witch Yubaba is an absolute sight to behold — her enormous face, hair, and wrinkles are simply unforgettable. Perhaps the best example of the film’s beauty comes from the sequence on the train. It’s a simple moment that lacks any real plot, but it’s a special moment that just lets Chihiro exist and shows how much the film values mood and emotion over everything else.

Millennium Actress

The Most Beautiful Hand-Drawn Animated Films Ever
KlockWorx Co.ltd

“Millennium Actress” opens in space, where a woman launches off in a rocket, risking her life and leaving a man who adores her behind. None of this is real, of course, as we soon learn that the woman is actress Chiyoko Fujiwara (Fumiko Orikasa), who once was one of Japan’s greatest stars on the silver screen. Filmmaker Genya Tachibana (Shōzō Iizuka) sets out to interview Fujiwara for a documentary about her life, as she left acting in her prime, opting for a quiet, reclusive life.

What follows is a beautiful, kaleidoscopic adventure through Fujiwara’s career. Mastermind director Satoshi Kon (“Perfect Blue,” “Tokyo Godfathers”) is known for bendy, twisty thrillers, and while “Millennium Actress” has a straightforward premise, the lines between fantasy and reality soon start to blur. With a story told largely in flashback, Kon uses Fujiwara’s history as a legendary actress to explore a wide array of genres, including samurai epics, period dramas, monster movies, and science fiction.

Following Fujiwara provides an amazing opportunity to interrogate the cinema history of Japan, which is brought to life in evocative detail and tremendous costuming. Colors burst forth, and the imagery is so vivid, and combining magnificent visuals with an emotional story is the stuff of magic.

The Princess and the Frog

The Most Beautiful Hand-Drawn Animated Films Ever
Disney

Ron Clements and John Musker provided a lifeline that Disney desperately needed in 1986 with “The Great Mouse Detective,” which effectively kicked off the Disney Renaissance. They soon became a staple of the Disney studio, directing films like “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin.” Their last film for Disney, “The Princess and the Frog,” provided an opportunity for Disney to go back to its roots and make a hand-drawn film in 2009. The market had become oversaturated with CGI animation, and hand-drawn was quickly becoming a method of the past, especially with DreamWorks and Pixar regularly churning out huge box office successes. Ultimately, Disney’s bold decision certainly paid off, as the film is a sight to behold.

The film is a testament to how far even traditional methods like hand-drawn animation have come. The effects animation is world-class (just look at the sugar dusting on the beignets!), and this is especially evident when Dr. Facilier (Keith David) is singing “Friends on the Other Side.” But the real standout moment comes thanks to animator Eric Goldberg, who has given us some magnificent characters and moments, including the Genie and the “Rhapsody in Blue” sequence from “Fantasia 2000.” Notably, Goldberg animated the sequence for Tiana’s (Anika Noni Rose) “Almost There,” where an already striking film turns into an art deco masterpiece that stands as one of the most exceptional moments in animation’s history.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya

The Most Beautiful Hand-Drawn Animated Films Ever
Studio Ghibli

“The Tale of Princess Kaguya” is definitely Studio Ghibli’s epic; it’s also the company’s longest film, at a whopping 137 minutes. It’s extremely rare for animated films to go anywhere near two hours due to exceptionally high costs, but for a film as bold and beautiful as “Kaguya,” its lengthy runtime is more than earned.

The film, directed by Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata (a mastermind behind “Grave of the Fireflies” and “Pom Poko”), is about a tiny creature discovered inside a stalk of bamboo that grows up to be a princess desired by many suitors. In order for them to prove their worth to Princess Kaguya (Aki Asakura), they must perform seemingly impossible tasks to win her heart.

Just a glance at the film’s trailer makes it immediately apparent that the film’s style is a considerable departure from Ghibli’s typical output, and it makes “Princess Kaguya” one of the most beautiful films ever. That’s no slight to Ghibli’s phenomenal work — it’s more of a testament to the film’s gentler approach. There’s a surprising amount of blank space, but it allows the eye to focus more on specific details, and the film abounds with a seemingly endless beauty that makes its nearly two-and-a-half-hour length a breeze.

Loving Vincent

The Most Beautiful Hand-Drawn Animated Films Ever
Altitude Film Distribution

Called “the world’s first fully painted feature film,” “Loving Vincent” is a breathtaking experiment and a revelation in the world of animation. The film is a biopic of the life of Vincent van Gogh, with a particular focus on the end of his life and the circumstances surrounding his death. The film contains an unbelievable 65,000 paintings to bring “Loving Vincent” to life. While not technically a hand-drawn animated film, all of the painting was certainly done by hand — the only real difference is that these are oil paintings instead of pictures drawn with pencils, but we think it’s more than deserving of a spot here.

Determining whether something is beautiful can come down to the question: Would you hang the image on your wall? In the case of something like “Loving Vincent,” chances are you may already have something from the film (or similar) in your home.

Your Name

The Most Beautiful Hand-Drawn Animated Films Ever
Toho Co., Ltd.

It’s hard to overstate the success of Makoto Shinkai’s “Your Name” — it’s currently the third highest-grossing anime film ever. Shinkai is a force in anime, having directed films for over 20 years, including “The Place Promised in Our Early Days,” “5 Centimeters per Second,” and “Voices of a Distant Star.” But it was “Your Name” that launched him into superstardom, and looking at the film, it’s easy to see why.

“Your Name” is a romantic fantasy story about a high school boy in busy Tokyo and a high school girl in the Japanese countryside who find themselves inexplicably swapping bodies without notice. The two begin to adjust to their new lives and circumstances, and both of them set out on a journey to find the other in an attempt to get to the bottom of these mysterious happenings. On top of its immense commercial success, the film has received praise from endless sources, including Disney stalwarts Ron Clements and John Musker. The film feels like another leap forward in what hand-drawn animation is capable of achieving, as “Your Name” possesses an astonishing beauty. Its environments are lush and full of detail, its character design is impressive, and the effects animation is astounding. If films like “Your Name” are the future of hand-drawn animation, we have a lot of wonderful experiences to look forward to.

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