Though the likes of Disney and Dreamworks have made billions of dollars off animated films for children and families, animation is so much more than that. As a medium, it’s offered some artful and mature films that challenge perceptions of animation. While the likes of the Oscars seem to dismiss it and relegate those films to their own categories, there are plenty that deserves to compete for the bigger prizes.
The films listed here are animated films that challenge the notion of animation only being for children. This isn’t a list of exclusively R-rated animated films but rather a collection of mature and artful films that explore the human condition somehow and somehow. Here are ten great and mature animated films.
“This is it folks.” Ralph Bakshi has always been one to push buttons. From the X-rated sexcapades of Fritz the Cat to the oddly racist/sexist undertones of his fantasy films like The Lord of the Rings and Fire & Ice, he is one of the most controversial figures in animation but a lot of his films offer some substance.
Coonskin is a transgressive film that aims to make fun of racial stereotypes. Starring the likes of Barry White and Scatman Crothers, the film is a live-action/animation hybrid that deals with themes like police corruption, organized crime and increasingly deteriorating racial relations. While it may not handle those themes well all that time, its attempt to say something is an impressive feat.
9 Watership Down
Harrowing and suspenseful is not how most would describe an animated film featuring rabbits, but Watership Down is that exception. Detailing the journey of a group of rabbits and their fight for survival, the film dives deep into heavy themes of religion, politics and the afterlife.
It’s an incredibly dark feature that also deals with its themes with a tenderness. It features a large cast of great English actors such as John Hurt and Nigel Hawthorne and is one of three animated films released on the Criterion Collection. It’s one of the darkest animated films out there, but it’s a rewarding experience for those who want a dash of existentialism in their pictures.
8 Waking Life
If Watership Down touched upon some deep themes concerning humanity, Waking Life is full of them. Richard Linklater’s first animated feature is an experimental ride that deals with dreaming, free will and ultimately, finding the meaning of life. It features a large cast including actors like Wiley Wiggins and Ethan Hawke and non-actors Eamonn Healy and Otto Jürgen Hofmann.Linklater uses rotoscoping (drawing over live-action footage) to tell this experimental tale. It’s an actual experience, one where viewers aren’t just spectators. Instead, they are characters actively participating in this much larger narrative.
7 Grave Of The Fireflies
How does a country heal from a catastrophic event? What is the human cost of war? Who really suffers when two countries fight? Grave of the Fireflies attempts to answer these questions with an unflinching sense of brutality.
Detailing the journey two siblings, Seita and Setsuko, have during the final moments of World War II, the film shows how other countries dealt with a worldwide tragedy. It’s one of Studio Ghibli’s most powerful films, using its somber tone to meditate on what war does to people. Far from easy viewing, the grim subject matter makes for one of the boldest artistic statements ever animated.
Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical, graphic novel Persepolis is one of the greatest comics ever. It’s stark, black and white art coupled with a coming of age story (set against the backdrop of the Iranian Revolution) makes for powerful reading.
Its film adaptation is a gorgeously animated odyssey, that retains the bold black and white style of the graphic novel. It is a story of adolescence, war, and revolution. Satrapi co-directed the film with Vincent Paronnaud and was released to controversy from the Iranian government. In spite of that, it was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and won the Jury Prize.
5 Yellow Submarine
The Beatles were on top of the world in 1968. That year, their self-titled album (also known as The White Album) was released to acclaim and the band was entering their twilight years. After two successful comedies (A Hard Day’s Night and Help!) a new film featuring the band premiered.
Yellow Submarine is a psychedelic animated film that takes the group through a faraway land. It’s a surreal film, nothing compared to Disney films at the time. Instead of a traditional plot, there are a number of set pieces that are accompanied by Beatles songs. It’s a music video, a drug trip and a history lesson rolled into one. It is still one of the most visually impressive films ever and high marks for one of the most culturally revered bands.
4 Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm
Batman: The Animated Series was a show primarily aimed at children. Despite that, it was a mature portrait of one of the most famous superheroes, full of the definitive versions of characters like Batman, Joker, Two-Face, and others.
The feature-length film set within the continuity of the show is probably one of the best Batman films ever. It explores Bruce Wayne’s first adventures as Batman and his former lover named Andrea. It’s full of the same action and drama that fans of the show can expect, with excellent performances from Kevin Conroy and Mark Hammil as Bruce Wayne and the Joker respectively.
3 Wallace And Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit
Aardman films are always of high quality. Full of dry wit and oozing with charm, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit was the first film based on the eponymous shorts. Parodying monster films, it follows Wallace and Gromit as they investigate a string of incidents caused by an overlord of rabbits in their quiet town.
It’s funny in a way that adults will appreciate more. It feels like a great comedy from the 60s like Dr. Strangelove, The Pink Panther, and Penelope. It’s a classic in Aardman’s filmography and full of the heart that people have come to expect from the studio.
2 Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal
Technically, this is a miniseries for Adult Swim. Thankfully, Genndy Tartakovsky (Dexter’s Lab, Samurai Jack, Hotel Transylvania) released a film version called Primal: Tales of Savagery for Oscar voting, so it counts.
Primal is a prehistoric action film that centers around a caveman who forms an uneasy alliance with a T-rex. It features no dialogue, echoing filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa to create something beautiful. In that beauty, however, there is a lot of violence and gore, something that can be incredibly unflinching. Its violence can be a huge barrier of entry but those who can stomach it are rewarded with a breathtaking piece of art.
1 Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Anderson’s best and most mature film was the 2009 animated film based on the Roald Dahl novel Fantastic Mr. Fox. It’s the story of a fox dealing with a mid-life crisis. He decides to go back into stealing chickens, only for it to backfire.
It has a massive ensemble cast and the classic Wes Anderson motifs (symmetrical shots, 60s pop music, muted colors) while offering a more sobering look at themes like marriage, honesty, and mortality. It may be marketed as a family film but this one is truly for the adults.
NEXT: The 10 Best Non-Disney Animated Films, Ranked