Since its inception, animation has been an underrated art form. Creatively, it’s a limitless medium, but commercial interests have put it in certain restricting boxes. For starters, most animation is aimed at children, because big studios don’t think that adults are interested in so-called “cartoons.” However, when it’s done right, animation can be a great genre for adult audiences.
Whether they touch on deeper human issues than kids’ movies dare to or they simply contain graphic content you’d never see in a family-friendly Pixar production, adult-oriented animation is often awesome. So, here are the best animated movies for adults.
Updated on November 18th, 2020: Animation aimed at adult audiences is still disappointingly rare because studios have a better chance of turning a profit with a cartoon about talking animals than a cerebral story about the foibles of getting old. But the form of animation is virtually limitless. It can be used to tell all kinds of stories in all kinds of ways. Although there’s a lot more animation for kids, there’s still plenty out there for grownups, so we’ve updated this list with a few new entries.
15 Beavis And Butt-Head Do America (1996)
Mike Judge brought his Beavis and Butt-head characters to the big screen in Beavis and Butt-Head Do America. Instead of sitting around and watching TV like on the MTV series, the duo hits the road in their big-screen debut, albeit in order to track down their stolen TV.
Judge’s work on Beavis and Butt-Head was an early pioneer in adult-oriented animation on television, and he was one of the first to bring that style from the small screen to the big screen.
14 The Lord Of The Rings (1978)
Ralph Bakshi set out to animate The Lord of the Rings trilogy across two movies. However, due to problems behind the scenes, Bakshi only ever managed to make the first one, covering The Fellowship of the Ring and the first half of The Two Towers.
Still, Bakshi’s adaptation has become a cult classic over the years. Peter Jackson acknowledged its influence on his own adaptation of Tolkien’s work a couple of decades later.
13 Ghost In The Shell (1995)
Its reputation may have been tarnished by its whitewashed live-action remake, but Mamoru Oshii’s original Ghost in the Shell movie from 1995 remains a timeless classic of cyberpunk animation. The animation is gorgeous and the story touches on some challenging themes.
The movie’s influence on The Matrix trilogy was so strong that the Wachowskis apparently pitched the project to studios by screening Ghost in the Shell and telling executives they wanted to basically just do that but in live-action.
12 Mary And Max (2009)
Inspired by his relationship with his own pen pal in New York, writer-director Adam Elliot made Mary and Max, a stop-motion animated dramedy about an isolated Australian girl and the overweight American with whom she exchanges letters.
The movie’s use of colors to represent its characters, from Max’s dreary noir-tinged palette to Mary’s warm sepia tones, is exemplary, while the story itself is a heartfelt testament to the virtues of human interaction in all its forms.
11 Fritz The Cat (1972)
In addition to adapting The Lord of the Rings, or at least half of it, Ralph Bakshi helmed the X-rated animated satire Fritz the Cat. While its comic sensibility doesn’t hold up particularly well today, the revolutions made by Fritz the Cat can’t be understated.
If it hadn’t been for Fritz the Cat pushing adult content and mature themes through an animated prism in the early ‘70s, then we would never have had The Simpsons or South Park.
10 Jay & Silent Bob’s Super Groovy Cartoon Movie! (2013)
It’s always a joy to watch when Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith get together for another appearance as Jay and Silent Bob. Jay & Silent Bob’s Super Groovy Cartoon Movie! adapts Smith’s Bluntman and Chronic comic books for the screen.
The animation style is simplistic, but the crude comedy in Smith’s script is perfect for these characters. The movie has a ton of great moments, including a post-credits stinger in which a cameoing Stan Lee recruits the titular duo onto the Avengers.
9 The Animatrix (2003)
Set in the world of The Matrix trilogy, The Animatrix is an anthology movie that uses a variety of animation styles to tell a variety of stories about a variety of characters.
While it’s not as great as the first chapter in The Matrix trilogy, which is a masterpiece of both thought-provoking science fiction and visceral action cinema, The Animatrix is an improvement on the sequels.
8 Isle Of Dogs (2018)
Despite the adorable dogs in its ensemble, Isle of Dogs is not a movie for kids. Its violence was tame enough to avoid an R rating, but it’s still pretty disturbing – and the historical traumas that its story deals with are not for the faint of heart.
After adapting Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox as a stop-motion animated feature, Wes Anderson returned to the medium for the story of a near-future Japan in which canine flu leads to all dogs being banished to a trash-filled island. The voice cast features the talents of such beloved actors as Bryan Cranston, Greta Gerwig, and Bill Murray.
7 Sausage Party (2016)
In a shockingly crude parody of the worlds conjured up by Pixar, Sausage Party is set in a world where food products are sentient. They dream of making it to “the Great Beyond,” until they discover that they’ll be eaten. Superbad’s Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg brought their R-rated sensibility to a seemingly lighthearted animated romp that includes drugs, suicide, and an extended orgy sequence.
Disney’s go-to guy Alan Menken contributed to the soundtrack, while the voice cast contains such A-list comedic talent as Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig, Paul Rudd, and Danny McBride.
6 Persepolis (2007)
Marjane Satrapi adapted her own autobiographical comic book for the screen with her Oscar-nominated masterpiece Persepolis, a coming-of-age story about a girl growing up during the Iranian Revolution.
It was heavily influenced by Satrapi’s own experiences. Although the story specifically speaks to Iranian experiences, it deals with universal themes and can be enjoyed by anybody with a heart.
5 Akira (1988)
Set in the dystopian Neo-Tokyo, Akira is one of the defining works of cyberpunk cinema. When Tetsuo Shima acquires telekinetic abilities in a motorcycle crash, he uses those abilities to take on corruption in the city, eventually going after the oppressive political powers.
The global success of Akira helped to popularize anime in the western world. Taika Waititi is set to direct a live-action remake after he finishes Thor: Love and Thunder.
4 Waking Life (2001)
Richard Linklater put a surreal, philosophically engaging spin on the structural style of his debut feature Slacker with Waking Life, an animated odyssey about a man bouncing from dream to dream in search of the answers to life’s biggest questions.
The film contains meditations on existentialism, the meaning of life, and the paradox of free will. Linklater achieved the animation by shooting digital video of actors and recruiting animators to rotoscope over the footage.
3 Heavy Metal (1981)
Leaning heavily into the gruesome violence and excessive nudity allowed by its R rating, Heavy Metal is an anthology movie loosely revolving around a glowing green orb that claims to be the source of all the evil in the universe.
The stories (and, of course, the title) were all taken from Heavy Metal magazine, and the animation captures the spirit of the source material. Visually, this movie has been hugely influential, with directors ranging from Guillermo del Toro to David Fincher naming it as an inspiration.
2 South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)
When South Park became one of the most popular comedies on the air, it didn’t take long for Paramount to task creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone with adapting their series for the big screen. The movie–subtitled Bigger, Longer & Uncut–tackled South Park’s biggest satirical target to date: its own critics.
After the boys sneak into the new R-rated Terrance and Phillip movie and start talking like their foul-mouthed Canadian idols, their parents call for the comic duo to be executed.
1 Anomalisa (2015)
Adapted by Charlie Kaufman from a play he wrote under the pseudonym Francis Fregoli, Anomalisa is a stop-motion animated movie starring puppets who are made to feel human by the compelling vocal performances of David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Thewlis plays a customer service guru who perceives everyone in the world to be identical until he meets a woman, played by Leigh, who stands out. It’s a beautiful, muted character piece.
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