This is a site where we like to talk about animation, and sometimes, when the schedule isn’t too too heavy, we actually get to do it.
Today is one of those very special days, and we’ve chosen to talk to you about a handful of animated movies from the 80s and 90s that you should probably watch as soon as you get the chance.
Thankfully, many of them are readily available through common streaming services, with the notable exception of the Studio Ghibli movies we’ve listed here, which, at the time of writing, are available on Netflix everywhere on the planet except for Japan and North America because I guess we don’t deserve those movies.
But whether these flicks are brand new to you and yours or old favorites you’ve got tucked away in some big honking plastic container in the closet under the stairs, they’re all very much worth your time and will most likely give you between 3-5 smiles.
The Land Before Time (1988)
Well, here it is: the movie that started what would soon become one of the most stretched-out and ubiquitous animated film franchises of both the 80s and the 90s.
We can’t speak all that much to the many, many sequels in the Land Before Time series. For now we’ll just say that some of them maybe shouldn’t have seen the light of day.
But the first film is a real treat! The animation itself isn’t going to blow anyone’s mind, unless maybe you’ve never seen an animated movie before in your life, but the characters are just so lovable and the plot is clear-cut and easy to follow (generally a good idea for a children’s film).
The movie also has the added benefit of featuring dinosaurs, which, ya know, immediately adds to the score of just about any piece of media.
Disney’s much later attempt to strike a similar tone with their CG film creatively titled Dinosaur doesn’t even come close to Land Before Time’s lovable characters and fun, colorful world.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1990)
It would be really difficult to argue that, at least in the world of animation, the 80s were anything other than the decade of Ghibli. Miyazaki’s outstanding efforts during this span gave us classics like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbor Totoro, and Castle in the Sky.
In fact, we probably could have just made this whole list nothing but Ghibli movies so that we could head home from the office early to enjoy some herbal tea next to a window and a cat. But we must use restraint.
Instead, the staff sat down together and chose our ultimate favorite from this period in Ghibli’s history: Kiki’s Delivery Service. Because of course it was going to be Kiki. It was always going to be Kiki.
Totoro will perhaps always be the most well-known Ghibli movie, and Mononoke definitely deals with heavier subject matter, but Kiki on the other hand just wants to give the audience a nice old time.
In fact, for one of our staffers, the first viewing of Kiki was slightly stressful, as there was a vague expectation of hearty conflict that would ruin the carefree tone. After all, this is a common event in most kids’ movies, especially that darn Monsters Inc., which we’ll need to talk about some other time.
But Kiki never goes dark. Some of the biggest challenges the eponymous lead ever faces are making deliveries on time and finding the courage to talk to that kind of cute boy over there.
While we could go on about this one for several years, we’ll stop now and remind you firmly that this is one Ghibli movie that can be repeat-watched for the rest of time.
James and the Giant Peach (1996)
Henry Selick is a very talented filmmaker, and in fact we’ve already talked a bit about him in a piece on Coraline and it’s relation to the Hero’s Journey story structure.
But at least from where we’re standing, James and the Giant Peach seems to be one of Selick’s forgotten triumphs.
The odd and creepy stop-motion style somehow keep this movie from feeling like it could only ever belong to the 90s.
It’s transportative in one of the best ways animation can offer, and it’s also one of the only entries on this list that doesn’t utilize traditional animation.
If you can find a way to watch this one, just do it. We’re not angry, just disappointed.
The Iron Giant (1999)
We have a feeling that Brad Bird will forever remain an animation god, at least for those of us who pay a lot of attention to the genre.
This guy’s filmmaking reputation just can’t be touched, from huis duration on The Simpsons to his unmade feature The Spirit to his undeniably perfect Pixar outings The Incredibles and Ratatouille (The Incredibles 2 is a different story entirely).
But the Iron Giant was probably the feature that made it clear to Hollywood that Bird’s action-packed and distinctly American ideas for animated films could be extremely successful.
With this movie in particular, a lot of the clout came well after the release. So many kids and grownups alike found, perhaps even years later, that The Iron Giant was one of their favorite animated films of all time and maybe just one of their favorite films, period.
It definitely alludes to many elements of 1950s America, but you definitely don’t need to be all that familiar with the history of that setting to appreciate the atmosphere.
Don’t tell anybody, but it’s completely ok to hate Akira. At least a few of here at GL kind of hate Akira, and it’s not because it’s a bad movie. It’s actually a very good movie. The visuals are stunning and the story is, if nothing else, certainly creative and ambitious.
Still, it’s very much an anime story, and if you’re hoping for a straightforward tale about a guy and a motorbike, then, well, this is not that.
But even if you don’t find yourself caught up in the narrative, there’s so much to enjoy here, and it’s definitely one of those animated movies that benefits from multiple rewatches.
An American Tail (1986)
This is probably the point where you’ve noticed that there aren’t going to be any Disney renaissance movies on this list.
Yeah, sorry about that, but we really didn’t see the point. The internet has talked, and continues to talk, those movies to absolute death and we’re just not gonna be a part of that right now.
An American Tail is already a classic. If you grew up in either of these decades, then you’ve probably already seen it many times by now. This isn’t a hidden gem; it’s been clearly on display in the world’s largest museum for decades now.
But it also deserves special attention for being one of the major Amblin animated movies of the 80s, helping to establish the company as a Disney alternative at a crucial moment in animation history.
Spielberg’s production endeavors led to the creation of some wonderful work, including the next entry on the list: Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
American Tail, however, remains truly special for its extremely likable characters as well as for its strange but endearing take on early-20th-century immigration to the United States.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
If you get talking to an animation nerd for a fair stretch of time, they will eventually bring up Who Framed Roger Rabbit in some form.
Remember how we just talked about Amblin being a Disney alternative in the 1980s? Well, this movie was actually a co-venture between the two companies, and, at the very, very least, Disney deserves a certain amount of respect for backing an animated movie that was soooo drastically not Disney in its nature and its presentation.
Kids can watch this movie, but it’s really a movie for adults, especially given the extent to which it freely references the tired tropes of old noir and gangster movies from the earlier part of the 20th century.
But, as much as fans of the movie might disagree, the story really isn’t that important, and in fact it even follows that weird 80s trend of having real-world characters either falling into a fantasy land or in some way interacting with fantasy or cartoon characters.
The real star of Who Framed Roger Rabbit is Roger Rabbit and all his wacky cartoon friends. The animation on display here is just fantastic, and it took some real innovative methods to make it work so well with live-action footage.
Wow, coming out of nowhere we’ve got an animated movie, back from the period where DreamWorks was pretty much just reworking Disney/Pixar movies for very petty reasons.
But in this case, Antz just might have outpaced its Pixar equivalent, A Bug’s Life.
Whereas the latter is a unique take on classic fight-the-power tales like Seven Psychopaths and its copycat, The Magnificent Seven, Antz is just fun and goofy and insubstantial.
In a very strange casting choice, disgraced film director Woody Allen voices Z, our lead character, and joins the ant princess lady on a whirlwind adventure to the outside world.
What happens next? Don’t worry about it, it’s not super important. Point is, Antz is in danger of being forgotten and it really shouldn’t be. It’s a great example of late-90s humor, especially in the kids’ entertainment space, and its early CG work is still moderately impressive.
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