The animated movie landscape has been so heavily dominated by the all-powerful House of Mouse for so long that audiences might forget that there are filmmakers making animated features in the United States, let alone elsewhere. But countries around the world have made stunning entries in the animated medium that are well worth adding to your movie-watching queue. From fairytales to more grown-up friendly fare, here are 10 international animated films that anyone looking to expand their horizons should check out.
The Secret of Kells
Last year, the Kilkenny-based animation studio released Wolfwalkers, its third entry in a series of films based around traditional Irish myths and legends. A trilogy that started with the studio’s first feature release, The Secret of Kells. It’s a fantastical imagining of the making of the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript that was crafted in the ninth century, and a young boy that must protect the book from Viking invaders. The style of the animation takes inspiration from Celtic art resulting in a stunning film where every frame is so beautiful it could be a page in the Book of Kells itself.
INSIDER TIPThe (real) Book of Kells is on display at Trinity College in Dublin.
April and the Extraordinary World
This 2015 film, directed by Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci, takes place in an alternate, dystopian history wherein the world’s great scientists have been disappearing resulting in a world where technological advances have been stunted in the age of steam for decades. The story follows April as she searches for her missing scientist parents all the while the French Empire primes itself for war with Canada. It’s an imaginatively realized world of incredible scale where cats and komodo dragons talk, and Paris’ cityscape features not one but two Eiffel Towers (what’s better than one Eiffel Tower, after all?), proving that even a dystopian version of Paris is still pretty extraordinary.
Tito and the Birds
This 2018 Portuguese-language film follows the story of a young boy who must go on an adventure to recover his father’s research on birdsong, which may hold the key to quelling an epidemic that causes people to get sick when they’re scared. The backgrounds are beautifully rendered so that each scene has the sumptuous, weighted texture of an oil painting.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya
The number of all-time classic features put out by Studio Ghibli is unmatched by any other animation studio in the world. But there’s something especially enchanting about The Tale of Princess Kaguya, the final film by director Isao Takahata. The film tells the story of a bamboo cutter who discovers a tiny girl inside a bamboo shoot who, as she grows, must confront a mysterious secret. It’s a gorgeously animated film that balances its themes of melancholy with a delicate, watercolor-inspired art style.
This Iranian and French co-production is an adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel. The film is not only a thematically faithful adaptation of Statrapi’s experience coming of age during and in the wake of the Iranian Revolution, the animators also faithfully adapted Statrapi’s distinctive art style (simplistic yet evocative with a primarily black-and-white color scheme)—no small feat, considering the film’s producers were initially resistant to adapting the story as an animated film because of the expense. In an alternate universe, a live-action version of Persepolis may very well exist. Fortunately, we live in the version of the multiverse that got this beautifully-realized animated adaptation of Statrapi’s graphic novel.
This 2013 film tells a charmingly simplistic story of Anina who’s first, middle, and last names are all palindromes—something that draws the teasing of her classmates. After getting into a fight with another girl, they’re both given the unusual punishment of being presented with a sealed envelope that they’re forbidden to open. The animation has the whimsical style of a children’s storybook to match the simple, heartfelt charms of its main character and story.
Birdboy: The Forgotten Children
Birdboy is one of the classic examples of animated films that may bear the cute countenances that make them look like something akin to a Disney creation, but this Spanish film is very much so not for kids. The story follows a group of anthropomorphized animal teens who seek to escape their once idyllic but now devastated island home. It’s a strange, violent, but surprisingly touching film featuring striking and original animation.
Sen Noci Svatojánské
Where: Former Czechoslovakia
Director Jiří Trnk’s adaptation of A Midsummer’s Night Dream from 1959 is a remarkable achievement in stop-action animation. The Czech production stages the Shakespeare comedy using exquisitely crafted puppets that imbue the familiar characters with a fittingly magical quality that’s also weighted in the real, tangible world as only the medium of stop-action animation (executed in the hands of a master artist) can.
Aya of Yop City
Where: Côte d’Ivoire
This 2013 film, a Côte d’Ivoire and France co-production, is based on a series of graphic novels written by Marguerite Abouet and drawn by Clément Oubrerie. Partially inspired by Abouet’s life in Côte d’Ivoire, the film takes place in the Abidjan neighborhood of Yopougon during the 1970s and follows the titular Aya as she wrestles with what to do after discovering that she’s pregnant. The animation style closely resembles that of Oubrerie’s, for a film that is visually vibrant and bold.
The Legend of Hei
This 2019 film tells the story of a cat demon that embarks on an adventure to find a new home. It’s a simple, straightforward premise but what makes this 2-D feature such a delight is how these simple elements are executed with beautiful art and well-staged adventure. It does what some of the best entries in the medium do—it executes interesting stories with creative visual inventiveness that can’t quite be achieved in the same way by live-action films.