Digitally animated films, I am happy to see, are here to stay. Toy Story made a big splash in 1995, but it took the industry nearly a decade to get into full swing. Now we are treated to a wide array of tales and styles each year. Increased quantity has also diversified the quality. Some truly boring movies (e.g. Valiant, Barnyard) have appeared right in step with well-written stories. Pixar of late has leaned toward the more serious (Wall-E, Up), which I don't mind, because there are other studios happy enough to pick up the slack in the silly department.
This list over at The Numbers ranks the 25 highest grossing digitally animated films (inflation adjusted). Below I present films that didn't earn as much money, but are still worth seeing and offer something unique. I list them in decreasing order of box office success (i.e. #10 was the most successful, #1 the least).
10. Chicken Little (2005)
Is it paranoia if someone really is out to get you? This fun and fast-paced movie continues the children's story of Chicken Little; it's years later, and he is only now beginning to live down the shame of declaring "the sky is falling!". But now, against his better judgement, Chicken Little must take up the same rallying cry, as he has stumbled upon evidence of an alien invasion. Despite being a pariah, Chicken Little (who has an enormous head and tiny body) enlists the aid of his friends Ugly Duckling, Runt (a large pig), and Fish-out-of-Water to fend off the attack. The animation looks great. The entire movie is humorous, with many fun supporting characters (including the school bully, Foxy Loxy). And there is some real romance between Chicken Little and Ugly Duckling.
9. Robots (2005)
In my opinion, this is the only movie on the list that isn't actually all that good. For laughs, you'd be better off with Over the Hedge, Open Season, or Meet the Robinsons. But it looks great. I won't even bother with the plot; you could write it on a gum wrapper while taking a nap. And the humor, mostly in the form of Robin Williams, falls flat. But the robots! They come in all shapes and sizes and colors, and their city and culture is amazing. One of the great joys of animation is to show the audience something that could never be done with live-action, and that is the case here.
8. Antz (1998)
The first response to Toy Story, and by rival Dreamworks, whose animation studio has become successful in its own right. Antz preceded the similarly-themed A Bug's Life by a month, but was less successful. A Bug's Life has a colorful cast, and a terrific villain in Kevin Spacey's Hopper. In Antz, all the characters look alike, but the writing is quite good. This is my favorite role for Woody Allen. His romance with a fellow ant is much more believable than with Helen Hunt, Mira Sorvino, or Téa Leoni. And while A Bug's Life is basically just a retelling of The Seven Samurai, Antz distinguishes itself by actually portraying ant life (seen through a humanist perspective, of course). There is a brutal battle with giant termites, an obligatory picnic scene, and lots of digging in the dirt.
7. Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (2001)
I think this spins off from a T.V. show that might be digitally animated as well. The movie is geared toward the very young (elementary school age), but I found it entertaining. Aliens invade earth and kidnap all the adults. It's up to the brainy Jimmy Neutron to rally the troops (other kids), and, with his arsenal of brilliant gadgets, liberate their parents. Like in the recent Planet 51, the movie lampoons 50's-era sci-fi movies, none of which I've seen, but the jokes are funny nonetheless.
6. Monster House (2006)
The characters look strange and have jerky movements, as has been the pattern for many motion-capture films (Golem is the exception to the rule; the creepy The Polar Express is not). The adventure is satisfying, and the house is successfully personified. The three main characters, all kids, are genuine and amusing, as is a local guru they seek for advice. Monster House, had it been live-action, would have been horror (The Haunting) or boring (Zathura). As animation, it works.
5. Flushed Away (2006)
Not as funny as Aardman's Wallace and Gromit, but still enjoyable. Much of the plot is predictable, but the inept frog villains are fun in every scene. Something interesting about this movie is that two characters who appear at length in the first trailer, twin hamster butlers, are entirely absent from the film.
4. Hoodwinked (2006)
Currently, my third favorite digitally-animated film, just behind The Incredibles and Monsters, Inc. (I suspect it will eventually win out over Monsters, Inc.). Many viewers were turned off by the animation style, which could have been used in a Strawberry Shortcake video game as easily as in this movie. But I think it's great. The characters are unlike any I've seen in digital animation. They appear to have been designed in isolation from each other, by different animation teams, to yield distinct, incongruous looks. The plot is a satisfying take on the Rashômon idea; in that classic tale, the same events are told from different emotional perspectives, with different prejudices influencing their telling, resulting in disparate accounts. In Hoodwinked, the tales are differentiated not by prejudice, but by literal visual perspective. Red (Riding Hood) says that the Wolf bared his fangs and screamed at her. As the Wolf tells it, that is exactly what happened, but only because his tail, hidden from Red's view, had been painfully and suddenly caught in a camera. These sorts of misunderstandings are exploited for good laughs, and adds to the films rewatchability, since later evidence gives new insight into earlier scenes. Anne Hathaway is great as Red; Glenn Close and James Belushi are remarkable and unrecognizable in their roles; Patrick Warburton is so good as the Wolf it has ruined him for me as a voice actor in other films. There are fun songs and lots of nursery rhyme spoofs. With the introduction of a Poirot-like detective, Nicky Flippers, the entire plot is couched as a Whodunnit. Simply awesome.
3. The Tale of Despereaux (2008)
In a kingdom once famous for its soups, a chance error by a mouse causes the ruin of both the soup-making culture and the peace between humans and mice. Years later, deep in the kingdom's depression, young mouse Despereaux, cast out for his unorthodox thinking, embarks on a quest to save the human princess, and perhaps even restore the kingdom to its former glory. There is good adventure in this story, sets and props that might remind you of the 80's cartoon The Littles, and an odd but likable friendship between the mouse and the princess. Just as in Bee Movie, inter-species love might just be possible.
2. Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008)
So you didn't like the prequel trilogy? Thought the acting was stiff, the dialog pedestrian, and everything practically a cartoon? Well, now it IS a cartoon. No more pretending. We know Jackson, Portman, and McGregor can act. We've seen it (elsewhere). So the problem must have been the screenwriting and the direction. Fine. We've done away with those pesky actors completely, and reduced the dialog to a bare minimum. Now the audience can focus on what they really came to see: lightsabers! In a sense, this animated film, cribbed from several episodes of an ongoing series (the first season of which I've just completed), has all of the strengths of the prequel trilogy but none of its weaknesses. It is non-stop action, with fight sequences that could never be achieved as live action. Obi-Wan is just as cool as a cartoon as when played by Ewan or Alec, and Anakin is the most likable he's ever been. His padawan, Asouka, is thrown in for the kiddies, but I like her; she's got zest. And with a never-ending supply of clones on one side and droids on the other, there is also no shortage of death and carnage. This movie does not pull punches for the sake of a young audience; I'm surprised it snuck by with a PG rating. Finally, this begins to fill in the gaps between episodes II and III, to let us know why Anakin was famous for his participation in the Clone Wars. In the prequel trilogy, he's a whiney teen; in this movie, he's a general.
1. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)
Another movie that, had it been live-action, would have been too scary to watch. This is pure sci-fi goodness. It has a great concept (which I won't spoil), leading to beautiful visuals, bogged down by a typical "oh my god let's get out of here" plot. Many frames are photo-realistic, though the transitions between them are very stiff. If you saw Disney's A Christmas Carol, you'll see that Robert Zemeckis's team haven't improved much on the accomplishments of this movie. The male lead, voiced by Alec Baldwin, is a dead ringer for Ben Affleck. At times, the doctor (Donald Sutherland) is the most realistic animated human to have hit the big screen. You might find it difficult to sympathize with the expressionless leads, but if you like sci-fi, this is a must.