The Best Underrated Animation Movies of All Time

Updated July 3, 2024 • Staff

For the longest time, animated movies were unfairly relegated to the realm of kids' entertainment. They were the cartoons we watched on weekend mornings, made to be enjoyed and forgotten almost immediately. 

But near the turn of the century, something shifted. In the west, studios like Pixar were challenging narrative forms with Toy Story and A Bug's Life, while on the other side of the world, Japan's Studio Ghibli blurred the lines between children and adult stories with films like Graveyard of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday. Suddenly, animation was recognized as the art form that it was, full of experimental possibility and visual potential.

Below, we list the best films that demonstrate these qualities of animation. You've likely already seen all the Pixar (and most of the Ghibli) movies, however, so this rounds up the most underseen and underrated of the animated gems. 

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30.

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (2021)

There’s a lot of good to be found in the charming, poignant, and endlessly quotable Marcel the Shell With Shoes On. It follows a documentarian named Dean, who has as his subject the one-inch talking shell that is Marcel. Marcel looks after an empty house along with his grandma Connie, and together they run a delightfully intricate system subsisting on electric mixers, tennis balls, and the occasional human hair.

Despite his small size, Marcel unwittingly makes big observations about life and the world around him, often moving Dean (and this writer) close to tears. It’s a simple film with a grand message, with lots to say about the importance of participating in life as opposed to merely observing it. But ultimately this is a movie with a precocious talking shell at the heart of it all, so really, what’s not to like?

Our staff rating: 8/10
Genre: Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Drama, Family, Fantasy, Kids
Actor: Andy Richter, Avan Jogia, Blake Hottle, Brian Williams, Conan O'Brien, Dean Fleischer-Camp, Isabella Rossellini, Jamie Leonhart, Jenny Slate, Jeremy Evans, Jessi Klein, Joe Gabler, Lesley Stahl, Nathan Fielder, Peter Bonerz, Rosa Salazar, Samuel Painter, Sarah Thyre, Scott Osterman, Shari Finkelstein, Thomas Mann, Victoria Justice
Director: Dean Fleischer-Camp
Rating: PG
29.

Arthur Christmas (2011)

A recent holiday classic you likely haven't seen, Arthur Christmas uses its premise of the North Pole as a massive spy organization to touch on how commercialization tears people apart. It's a surprisingly smart film with a fascinating dynamic among its family of Santas, with an incredibly funny script full of dry, British wit. And while the animation may already look dated at first glance, Arthur Christmas more than makes up for its looks with truly imaginative art direction and director Sarah Smith's fast-paced set pieces. This is that rare Chirstmas movie that doesn't just surrender to schmaltz; the lessons learned by the characters here are unique, complex, and timeless.

Our staff rating: 8/10
Genre: Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Drama, Family, Kids
Actor: Adam Tandy, Alistair McGowan, Andy Serkis, Ashley Jensen, Bill Nighy, Brian Cummings, Bronagh Gallagher, Clint Dyer, Cody Cameron, Danny John-Jules, David Menkin, David Schneider, Deborah Findlay, Dominic West, Donnie Long, Emma Kennedy, Eva Longoria, Hugh Laurie, Iain McKee, Ian Ashpitel, Imelda Staunton, James McAvoy, Jane Horrocks, Jerry Lambert, Jim Broadbent, Joan Cusack, Julia Davis, Kerry Shale, Kevin Cecil, Kevin Eldon, Kris Pearn, Laura Linney, Marc Wootton, Michael Palin, Peter Baynham, Ramona Marquez, Rhys Darby, Rich Fulcher, Rich Hall, Robbie Coltrane, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Sarah Smith, Seamus Malone, Seeta Indrani, Stewart Lee, Tamsin Greig
Director: Barry Cook, Sarah Smith
Rating: PG
28.

Marona’s Fantastic Tale (2019)

Marona’s Fantastic Tale is a rich story about life and death and everything in between, told entirely through the eyes of a dog. With breathtaking visuals and unmatched empathy, the film implores us to think about what might count as joyous and heartbreaking for our four-legged friends. Told normally and in any other way, we might not care as much, but in a story as artful and compassionate as this, we can't help but listen. 

Unlike other films about pets, Marona’s Fantastic Tale isn’t cutesy—its art is dizzying and demanding, but beautiful nonetheless. And isn't afraid to confront tragedy (in fact, it begins with it). But it buoys reality with dreamy art sequences and even finds humor along the way. All in all, it’s a mature film that poses big existential questions that will intrigue adults as well as kids.

Our staff rating: 8/10
Genre: Animation, Drama, Family
Actor: Annie Mercier, Bruno Salomone, Georges Claisse, Isabelle Vitari, Lizzie Brocheré, Maïra Schmitt, Nathalie Boutefeu, Thierry Hancisse
Director: Anca Damian
27.

Tekkonkinkreet (2006)

Visually stunning and energetic, Tekkonkinkreet takes you on a wild ride through the gritty streets of a deteriorating metropolis as it follows two orphaned brothers navigating a world of crime and self-discovery. The animation is an absolute marvel, blending vibrant colors with a unique visual style that immerses you in a surreal urban landscape. But it's the heartfelt story and complex characters that truly shine, exploring themes of friendship, resilience, and the struggle between innocence and corruption. Tekkonkinkreet is a visual feast for the eyes and a poignant exploration of the human connection.

Our staff rating: 8/10
Genre: Animation, Crime, Drama, Thriller
Actor: Harumi Asai, Kankuro Kudo, Kazuko Kurosawa, Kazunari Ninomiya, Masahiro Motoki, Mayumi Yamaguchi, Min Tanaka, Miyuki Oshima, Mugihito, Nao Ōmori, Rokuro Naya, Tomomichi Nishimura, Tooru Nara, Toru Nara, Yoshinori Okada, Yu Aoi, Yūki Tamaki, Yûsuke Iseya
Director: Michael Arias
26.

Sword of the Stranger (2007)

Striking, epic, and occasionally gruesome, Sword of the Stranger is an excellent film about ronin redemption. From the title alone, the film promises and delivers thrilling sword-fighting sequences from the titular stranger Nanashi (or “no name” in Japanese). His bouts with Ming Chinese warriors, as well as the Caucasian Luo-Lang, are so graceful, yet at times, so brutal that it ends with wrecked buildings, copious bleeding, and (on occasion) amputated limbs. However, the gore isn’t what makes these fight scenes work. Nanashi’s will to preserve his honor and self-determination drives the film. It’s the reason why his fight against these invaders feels so compelling. It’s the reason why he reluctantly guards the orphan Kotaro and his cute shiba inu. And when the film finally reveals the cause of that will, rooting for him is inevitable.

Our staff rating: 8/10
Genre: Action, Animation, Drama, History
Actor: Ai Orikasa, Akio Otsuka, Atsushi Ii, Cho, Fumie Mizusawa, Hirofumi Nojima, Hiroshi Shirokuma, Jun Hazumi, Junko Minagawa, Katsuhisa Hôki, Katsuhisa Houki, Kenichi Mochizuki, Kohei Fukuhara, Koichi Yamadera, Maaya Sakamoto, Makoto Yasumura, Mamoru Miyano, Masaki Aizawa, Miyu Matsuki, Naoto Takenaka, Noboru Yamaguchi, Shinya Fukumatsu, Takurou Kitagawa, Tomoya Nagase, Tomoyuki Shimura, Unsho Ishizuka, Yasuhiko Kawazu, Yuki Masuda, Yuri Chinen
Director: Masahiro Ando
Rating: TV-MA
25.

Stamped from the Beginning (2023)

There’s no easy way to talk about racism – it’s a nebulous set of ideas that shift and change and manifests in numerous ways that many people can’t even identify as racism because of how prevalent it is. But Dr. Ibram X. Kendi has been able to write down a fairly comprehensive narrative that outlines key historical moments that shaped the world’s concept of race and Blackness, and this narrative is brought to the screen through vivid animations and strategic sequencing by director Roger Ross Williams in new Netflix release Stamped from the Beginning. It’s a provocative, passionate investigation, and it’s one that should be required viewing.

Our staff rating: 8/10
Genre: Animation, Documentary
Actor: Alexa Rachelle Jennings, Angela Davis, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, Ibram X. Kendi, Jennifer L. Morgan, Julian Joseph, Rafa Marinho
Director: Roger Ross Williams
Rating: R
24.

The Tragedy of Man (2011)

Taking 23 years until its completion, The Tragedy of Man is quite possibly the most ambitious film ever made, not just in its animation, but also in its scope. It’s quite fitting, as an adaptation of the classic Hungarian play, as Imre Madách’s story sets out to question not just the individual’s purpose, but the purpose of humanity as a whole, with writer-director Marcell Jankovics giving life to the play through the historical art styles of past civilizations that shifted today’s Western world, as well as adding what has happened after the play’s publication in 1861. While the film’s length can be daunting, being the Western animated feature in the world, the dialectic hits at the heart of this absurd existence, informed by the cynicism formed after Hungary’s fall of communism in 1989. The Tragedy of Man isn’t an easy film to watch, considering the themes, but it’s an interesting vision of humanity, illustrated in such an interesting way.

Our staff rating: 8/10
Genre: Animation, Drama, History
Actor: Ágnes Bertalan, Mátyás Usztics, Piroska Molnár, Tamás Széles, Tibor Szilágyi
Director: Marcell Jankovics
23.

The Secret of Kells (2009)

A Franco-Gaelic animated film nominated for an Academy Award, the Secret of Kells certainly isn't your average Disney fare. Set in 8th century Ireland, it is beautifully animated, taking cues from ancient illuminated manuscripts and Gaelic folk art. Featuring a plot heavily inspired by Irish mythology, it tells the story of the Viking invasion of Ireland and the creation of the Book of Kells, an Irish national treasure. The world of the film pulses with the lush greenery of the island, populated by fairies, giants, magic and mystery.

Our staff rating: 8.1/10
Genre: Animation, Family, Fantasy
Actor: Brendan Gleeson, Christen Mooney, Evan McGuire, Fabian Erlinghäuser, James William O'Halloran, Kairen Waloch, Liam Hourican, Michael McGrath, Mick Lally, Nora Twomey, Paul Tylack, Paul Tylak, Paul Young, Sean Lennon, Sean Ono Lennon
Director: Nora Twomey, Tomm Moore
Rating: Not Rated
22.

I Lost My Body (2019)

Two storylines take place in this Parisian animation: one of a Moroccan immigrant who works as a pizza delivery guy, and the other of his hand, somehow no longer part of his body, but also going on a trip around Paris.

The hand storyline is not gory by the way, except for one or two very quick scenes. Mostly, this is a film about loneliness and not being able to find your way back, both as an immigrant who misses how they were raised and as a hand who misses its body.

Sporting some of the most beautiful animation work this year, this movie premiered at Cannes where it became the first-ever animated film (and Netflix film) to win the Nespresso Grand Prize.

Our staff rating: 8.2/10
Genre: Animation
Actor: Alia Shawkat, Dev Patel, George Wendt, Hakim Faris, Jérémy Clapin, Jérémy Clapin, Patrick d'Assumçao, Patrick d'Assumçao, Patrick d'Assumcao, Victoire Du Bois
Director: Jérémy Clapin, Jérémy Clapin
Rating: TV-MA
21.

Perfect Blue (1997)

Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue is a chilling psychological thriller and a fantastic next step for those looking to explore anime’s dark side. Kon animates with Hitchcockian flair and is so successful at memorable compositions that Darren Aronofsky even lifted a scene from this into Requiem for a Dream. 

Mima is a pop idol who abandons her singing career to become an actress. Shaken by a series of murders, and a stalker who knows her every move, she begins to lose her grip on reality. The rest is a riveting ride into Mima’s unraveling psyche in the vein of Mulholland Drive or Black Swan. This 1996 film not only anticipates the reality busting thrillers of the early aughts but also presages the way our identities are splintered across the internet.

Our staff rating: 8.2/10
Genre: Animation, Drama, Thriller
Actor: Akio Suyama, Emi Motoi, Emi Shinohara, Emiko Furukawa, Hideyuki Hori, Jin Yamanoi, Junko Iwao, Kaori Minami, Kishō Taniyama, Kiyoyuki Yanada, Kōichi Tōchika, Makoto Kitano, Masaaki Okura, Masashi Ebara, Megumi Tano, Osamu Hosoi, Rica Matsumoto, Rofuto Purasu Wan Burazâzu, Shiho Niiyama, Shin-ichiro Miki, Shin'ichirō Miki, Shinpachi Tsuji, Shokkâ Ôno, Soichiro Hoshi, Takashi Nagasako, Teiya Ichiryusai, Tōru Furusawa, Yoku Shioya, Yosuke Akimoto, Yousuke Akimoto
Director: Kou Matsuo, Satoshi Kon
Rating: R

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