2023 was a landmark year for animation. If the medium was to be further taken seriously as more than a genre for children, it needed a year like this to prove that there is far more to offer. The mainstream animation industry shed its homogeneity and dove head first into experimental techniques and storytelling previously deemed too risky and time-consuming.
It was a year when the big hitters of animation all came up to bat. Walt Disney Animation celebrated its 100th Anniversary with Wish. Pixar tweaked their house style with Elemental, which became a runaway success at the global box office. Illumination knocked it out of the park with The Super Mario Bros. Movie, which is now the highest-grossing video game movie of all time. As much as it was a great year for big American studios, stellar work was also being produced around the globe, with great masters returning and new voices shining bright.
However, not all of these box office hits stood out as the most innovative and thought-provoking animated features of the year. So which animated films stood their heads out above the rest and cemented themselves as the best of the year? Which international films should you look out for when they finally get their wide releases in 2024? Find out as we rank the 10 best animated movies of 2023.
The 10 Best Animated Films of 2023
10. Unicorn Wars
Directed by Alberto Vázquez
Written by Alberto Vázquez
Main Voice Cast: Jon Goiri, Jaione Insausti, Ramón Barea, Txema Regalado, Maribel Legarreta, Itxaso Quintana, Manu Heras, Gaizka Soria, Kepa Cueto, Juan Carlos Loriz, Estívaliz Lizárraga, Iker Diaz, Pedro Arrieta, & Alberto Vázquez
Music by Joseba Beristain & Víctor García
Released on March 10, 2023 (North America)
The shock value that comes from seeing teddy bears swear and bleed is but a small part of what makes Unicorn Wars stand out. Writer-director Alberto Vázquez utilizes overtly brash violence and shocking horror to tell a harrowing anti-war story. The cuddliness of these 2D character models is immediately twisted as soon as the film opens. A blissful-seeming forest is contorted into a hellscape as a unicorn searches for its mother, only to find a writhing demon masquerading as a loved one.
Conflict arises from teddy bears being fed propaganda that demonizes unicorns, graceful and peaceful beings that only attack once provoked. The bears are then fueled by greed and ego as they embark on a journey across an enchanted forest to kill off the unicorn population. The further they progress, the more they lose any sense of morality. The animation’s ability to vibrantly reflect that transition towards evil makes Unicorn Wars a skillful, scarring experience.
9. They Shot the Piano Player
Directed by Fernando Trueba & Javier Mariscal
Written by Fernando Trueba
Main Voice Cast: Jeff Goldblum
Released on November 24, 2023 (Limited in New York & Los Angeles) with an upcoming wider release on February 23, 2024
Animation is underutilized when it comes to documentaries. They Shot the Piano Player is a tale of how fascism in Brazil killed a golden age of Bossa Nova music. Jeff Goldblum voices an American journalist who investigates the disappearance of piano genius, Francisco Tenório Júnior, uncovering many conspiracies and tragedies along the way. This investigative structure is inherently cinematic, and switching between 2D animated versions of Brazil and New York is endlessly compelling.
They Shot The Piano Player could not have been made in live-action, depicting the vibrancy of music through beautiful 2D animation. Directors Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal take full advantage of the medium with these moments that let you get lost in the music. This allows the documentary to keep its grounding in the art, focusing on this monumental loss to a whole genre of music while always being careful to never over-sensationalize the tragedy.
Directed by Nick Bruno & Troy Quane
Screenplay by Robert L. Baird & Lloyd Taylor
Story by Robert L. Baird, Lloyd Taylor, Pamela Ribon, Marc Haimes, Nick Bruno, Troy Quane, & Keith Bunin
Based on Nimona by ND Stevenson
Main Voice Cast: Chloë Grace Moretz, Riz Ahmed, Eugene Lee Yang, Frances Conroy, Lorraine Toussaint, Beck Bennett, RuPaul Charles, Indya Moore, Julio Torres, & Sarah Sherman.
Music by Christophe Beck
Released on June 30, 2023 (Netflix)
This adaptation of ND Stevenson’s graphic novel defies all the odds by simply existing. After an arduous process of finding the right directors to tackle the project, finding the right look for Nimona in CG, and translating this fantasy world to the screen, the film was canned by Disney following their 2019 acquisition of 21st Century Fox and Blue Sky Studios. After a few years in the wilderness, Netflix came along to finally complete Nimona. And now that it’s been released into the world, it’s safe to say that the animation industry has learned a lot from it.
Nimona carries with it a rebellious edge, a refusal to settle for the status quo provided by a broken system. It uses a fairytale setting to discuss themes of trans identity and the rewriting of history by fascist states, a radical streak within mainstream animation. One can only hope that the success of Nimona throws a gauntlet down to other major studios to dive head-first into queer stories, maybe subtext isn’t enough anymore.
7. Robot Dreams
Directed by Pablo Berger
Written by Pablo Berger
Based on Robot Dreams by Sara Varon
Music by Alfonso de Vilallonga
Wide release coming in 2024
Spanish filmmaker Pablo Berger’s entry into animation is a dialogue-free emotional rollercoaster. Robot Dreams follows Dog, a lonely soul who orders a robot companion. Finding connection for the first time in his life, Dog finally sees the world in color through Robot. Disaster strikes in the form of a malfunction for Robot, tragically leaving Dog without the love he just found.
Without uttering a word, Robot Dreams, which is set for a wider release in 2024, says so much about how people move in and out of our lives. Moreover, it explores how we yearn for connection and sometimes exploit it. Growing away from someone is naturally painful. Losing someone is even worse. Even finding someone new can be a challenging experience. All of this is expressed through music and facial animation, which any animator will tell you is the hardest part of the job. Robot Dreams also takes full advantage of the medium of animation with multiple fantasy-driven dream sequences that break the boundaries of cinema.
6. The First Slam Dunk
Directed by Takehiko Inoue
Screenplay by Takehiko Inoue
Based on Slam Dunk by Takehiko Inoue
Main Japanese Voice Cast: Shugo Nakamura, Jun Kasama. Shinichiro Kamio, Subaru Kimura, Kenta Miyake, Maaya Sakamoto, Ryota Iwasaki, Chikahiro Kobayashi, Masafumi Kobatake, Kenichiro Matsuda, Asami Seto, Katsuhisa Hōki, & Shunsuke Takeuchi
Main English Voice Cast: Paul Castro Jr., Jonah Scott, Aleks Le, Ben Balmaceda, Aaron Goodson, Abby Espiritu, Zeno Robinson, Yong Yea, Brent Mukai, River Vitae, Kelsey Jaffer, Mike Pollock, & Alan Lee
Music by Satoshi Takebe & Takuma Mitamura
Released on July 28, 2023 (North America)
The First Slam Dunk is a movie with a simple concept that’ll have you digging your nails into your seat time and time again. Following every point in a high school basketball game could sound like a mellow concept, but your investment rests in the masterful way in which each player’s backstory is unfurled as the game progresses. Like any great sports movie, The First Slam Dunk emphasizes the bonds between friends and shows how the obstacles of life, whether it be grief, failure, or depression, are overcome with the help of those around you.
The film’s use of CGI blended with 2D animation injects kinetic energy and dynamism into the action, enabling more camera movement and fluidity to the play. This draws the optimum tension from every pass, every collision, every injury, and of course, every slam dunk. While animation is often used to depict world-ending stakes, The First Slam Dunk makes this basketball game feel just as important.
5. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem
Directed by Jeff Rowe
Screenplay by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Jeff Rowe, Dan Hernandez, & Benji Samit
Story by Brendan O’Brien, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, & Jeff Rowe
Based on characters by Peter Laird & Kevin Eastman
Main Voice Cast: Micah Abbey, Shamon Brown Jr., Nicolas Cantu, Brady Noon, Ayo Edebiri, Maya Rudolph, John Cena, Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Natasia Demetriou, Giancarlo Esposito, Jackie Chan, Ice Cube, Paul Rudd, Austin Post, & Hannibal Buress
Music by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
Released on August 2, 2023
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is an oozy delight. The design of this film takes inspiration from the off-kilter designs of classic Nickelodeon cartoons like Rugrats and CatDog with human faces that aren’t quite right, abstract architecture, and celestial bodies that are essentially scribbles in the sky. This creates a world straight from the mind of a teenager whose artistic skills haven’t quite come together yet.
The art style beautifully reflects the journey of our beloved Ninja Turtles. This time around, Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), Michaelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr), Donatello (Micah Abbey), and Raphael (Brady Noon) are played by teenagers, actually talk and behave like teenagers, and are stuck in a weird liminal space between maturity and good old-fashioned youthful hijinks. Comedy naturally sparks from their smallest interactions which are often rooted in pop culture, their only view of the outside world. The film’s stellar 90s hip-hop soundtrack also helps to make Mutant Mayhem an authentic and nostalgic representation of teenage life, ran through a sewery, highly imaginative visual style.
Directed by Makoto Shinkai
Written by Makoto Shinkai
Main Japanese Voice Cast: Nanoka Hara, Hokuto Matsumura, Eri Fukatsu, Shota Sometani, Sairi Ito, Kotone Hanase, Kana Hanazawa, Matsumoto Hakuō II, Ryūnosuke Kamiki, Ann Yamane, & Aimi
Main English Voice Cast: Nichole Sakura, Josh Keaton, Jennifer Sun Bell, Roger Craig Smith, Amanda C. Miller, Rosalie Chiang, Allegra Clark, Cam Clarke, Joe Zieja, Lena Josephine Marano, & Mela Lee
Music by Radwimps & Kazuma Jinnouchi
Released on April 14, 2023 (North America)
Having followed up the modern classic Your Name with the divisive Weathering With You, Suzume is something of a return to form for Makoto Shinkai. Originally released in 2022 in Japan but distributed globally in 2023, Suzume carries the filmmaker’s ever-present obsessions; natural disaster, romance, bonding with strangers, and glistening visuals. What Suzume gets right is the balance between wholesome relationship-building and devastating disaster.
Added to the Shinkai repertoire is a depiction of earthquakes in the form of an underworld-dwelling worm being freed from its prison, as well as a very goofy anthropomorphic chair that has the most satisfying running animation of any character from 2023. Suzume is simultaneously a buddy road trip comedy between a girl and said chair and a meditation on the heartbreaking effects that natural disasters can have on a nation. Shinkai reminds us why he’s a force to be reckoned with in animation as he flicks between these two tones with expert ease.
3. Blue Giant
Directed by Yuzuru Tachikawa
Screenplay by NUMBER 8
Based on Blue Giant by Shin’ichi Ishizuka
Main Japanese Voice Cast: Yuki Yamada, Yukinori Sawabe, & Shunji Tamada
Music by Hiromi Uehara
Released on October 8, 2023 (North America)
It’s so easy to fall head over heels for Blue Giant. Stories built around passionate artists who live for their craft pierce the heart of anyone yearning to create. Dai (Yuki Yamada) is such a person, an 18-year-old who lives for jazz music and wants to be the greatest saxophone player in the world, along with his two bandmates. Gorgeous 2D Animation is used to sell you what this music means to these three artists. The electricity of falling in love with a song, the psychedelia of getting lost in music, and how you become aware of all the beauty in the world at once are communicated through stunning setpieces that take you to the edge of the universe.
Director Yuzuru Tachikawa wholeheartedly communicates the beauty in jazz music sometimes without having to say a word, letting the stunning visuals speak for themselves. Blue Giant is also the study of the conflict between those who see art as a gift, and those who see it as competition. For some, success is being the greatest of all time, for others it’s the simple acknowledgment that you’re getting better. Blue Giant is a warm, yet breathtaking study of the human desire to be great.
2. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
Directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, & Justin K. Thompson
Written by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, & Dave Callaham
Based on Marvel Comics
Main Voice Cast: Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Vélez, Jake Johnson, Jason Schwartzman, Issa Rae, Karan Soni, Shea Whigham, Greta Lee, Daniel Kaluuya, Mahershala Ali, & Oscar Isaac
Music by Daniel Pemberton
Released on June 2, 2023
Just as the animation industry was starting to catch up to the game-changing visuals of the Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse, Sony Pictures Animation ushers in a new standard for American CG animation with the sequel, Across the Spider-Verse. If blending hand-drawn elements with CGI character models felt impressive in the first movie, this follow-up blows it out of the water with a totally different art style being used to represent each world in this multiverse-hopping chase.
Whether inspired by watercolor, oil paintings, magazine cutouts, or Indian comics, Across the Spider-verse is constantly reinventing itself visually. Grounding this story is Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a main character endearing and likable enough to carry an audience across infinite timelines. Though its incomplete story is frustrating to some, the film’s visual style cements a new benchmark for every Western studio to live up to, and therefore its influence will be felt for years to come.
1. The Boy and the Heron
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki
Main Japense Voice Cast: Soma Santoki, Masaki Suda, Aimyon, Yoshino Kimura, Takuya Kimura, Shōhei Hino, Ko Shibasaki, Kaoru Kobayashi, & Jun Kunimura
Main English Voice Cast: Luca Padovan, Robert Pattinson, Karen Fukuhara, Gemma Chan, Christian Bale, Mark Hamill, Florence Pugh, Willem Dafoe, & Dave Bautista
Music by Joe Hisaishi
Released on December 8, 2023
The latest from the greatest living animated filmmaker, Hayao Miyazaki, is the kind of movie you wait 10 years for. Miyazaki’s retirement after 2013’s The Wind Rises was interrupted by the need to tell a new story. Moreover, by the need to express a new message and to ask the world a single question: how do you live? The Boy and the Heron is a film that represents so much of who Miyazaki is, providing the comforting familiarity of being back in one of his bewildering and charming worlds. It also sees Miyazaki looking deeply within, questioning his childhood, adulthood mentality, and the decisions he’s made across his storied career.
For the viewer unfamiliar with Miyazaki, The Boy and the Heron is an odyssey through grief, a plunge through the guts of regret, and a soaring tribute to the beauty of 2D animation. If you value seeing things put to screen that you’ve never seen before, you will value The Boy and the Heron. After a decade away from the big screen, Hayao Miyazaki had no interest in telling a short-scoped story. The Boy and the Heron quests for answers to the biggest questions of life itself, achieving cinematic bliss along the way.