In the history of animated films, there have been many milestones, benchmarks, and undeniably important films. By important I don’t necessarily mean best, I mean films that have paved the way for others to come; the pioneers, the giants, and the challenging. This list features the innovations that shocked the world and the films that gave birth to new eras of success. They are in chronological order only, because each one is arguably as important as the next.
Walt Disney’s second feature showed the world that his success in feature-length animation was no fluke. Disney didn’t have to make an excellent movie after the success of Snow White and The Seven Dwarves, but the studio did more than expected, making one of the greatest and most-beloved animated films of all time. Almost everything about this piece was an improvement over Snow White: the music, the animation quality, the characters, the themes and the story line. A legacy was born, and we’re all still wishing upon that star.
Disney’s 1940 epic took animated filmmaking to an ambitious new level. Fantasia merged experimental animated sequences with pieces of classical music. The two elements fit so well together, it seems the musical piece were written for the animation, and not the other way around. The film is also credited for improving film sound quality in movie with its innovative Fantasound, a surround sound system developed to enhance audiences’ theater experience. The benchmark for audio in animation was set, and boy was it a high standard.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Anime feature films were a thing before Hayao Miyazaki’s breakthrough, but this was an early financial success. According to Wikipedia, the film made 1.48 billion yen ($11 million USD, about $24 million USD adjusted to 2015 inflation) at the box office in Japan. Also, the success of Nausicaa led to the creation of Studio Ghibli, an empire of legendary animated features, two years later. A golden anime age was born, and the industry began to make great profits. Unfortunately, it took 21 years for the the full version of Nausicaa to reach the United States, but the film’s impact in Japan influenced more widespread anime films to come.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)
In the mid-1980s, animation was struggling. The industry craved for its impressive past era after reaching a devastating critical and commercial blow with Disney’s The Black Cauldron in 1985. Something needed to be done. 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? showed that if done right, animation could return to its glory days. The wide variety of classic cartoon characters in the film must have led people to strive for the days of classic animation, and they succeeded. What followed was The Disney Renaissance, a return to form that greatly impacted the entire animation industry. Other studios followed suit, creating great works for theaters and television alike. Thanks, Roger Rabbit!
Unlike Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, this 1988 dystopian sci-fi anime epic had a huge impact in the United States upon its release. It introduced American audiences to one of the first mature and big-budget anime films, featuring highly detailed character animations, top notch voice acting, and a high-concept plot involving children possessing telekinetic powers. This film is responsible for the birth of anime’s popularity in the United States as a highly respected and artistic medium. Cartoons were no longer just fun and games, they could be incredibly serious, violent, and painstakingly detailed. Although sci-fi anime films existed before Akira, this one left an undeniable impression unlike any before.
Toy Story (1995)
Toy Story rocked the world unlike few animated films before or after it. Pixar’s early masterpiece was the first full-length computer generated film. This alone is enough to warrant mention, but it’s the film’s strong and well-developed characters that made it one of the best and most innovate animated films ever. Toy Story introduced a whole new world to us: that of living toys, who experience the same emotions as the humans that play with them. There’s a reason Woody and Buzz are one of the most popular film duos of all time, and its not because they are computer generated; friendship has never been so beautiful. Many computer generated films followed, but few captured the great cinematic abilities of Pixar films including Toy Story and many that followed.
More great animated innovations are sure to come, but without these six films, animated films would be slightly less developed today.