For generations, Disney has dominated the world of animated movies, along the way giving birth to iconic characters as diverse as Mickey Mouse, Bambi and Woody and Buzz. But Walt doesn’t have a monopoly on artistry. Here are ten non-Disney animated gems streaming on Netflix right now. (And, to make it more interesting, we’re not even including untraditional classics like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Who Framed Roger Rabbit that were released through the Mouse House.)
The darkest movie on this list, Alice is the work of Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, a master of stop-motion animation who offers his own twist on folktales and Edgar Allan Poe stories. This adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland combines live action and stop-motion, creating a surreal experience that’s disturbing but also evokes the giddiness of being scared as a kid. “I cannot see any difference between myself at seven and now,” Švankmajer once said. “Children are still seized by the magic in the world. Animation is an act of magic.” Alice is the perfect place to start falling under his spell.
The movies Woody Allen has made in the last 20 years have been inconsistent, but hands-down his funniest performance during that time was in this family film, which he neither wrote nor directed. He voices Z, a Woody-like neurotic ant who longs to break away from his monolithic colony and become his own man—er, bug. One of DreamWorks Animation’s first forays, Antz boasts a wonderfully smart-ass sense of humor, all the better to sneak across a subversive message to kids about the dangers of groupthink.
Chicken Run (2000)
Long before Mel Gibson became that Mel Gibson, the action star lent his voice to this exceptionally droll sendup of prison-escape movies like The Great Escape. Masterminded by Aardman and co-directed by Nick Park, the studio and filmmaker behind Wallace and Gromit’s very British adventures, Chicken Run expands that duo’s laughs-plus-action shorts into a feature-length format, delivering a feast of handmade stop-motion animation. Watch it now to be reminded how charming and silly Gibson once was.
Chico & Rita (2010)
An unrequited love affair set to a winning jazz score, Chico & Rita favors atmosphere over sophisticated storytelling. But that doesn’t matter much when the atmosphere (and the music) is so vibrant. Told through flashbacks, the movie shows how Chico, an aspiring Cuban musician, fell hard for Rita, an entrancing singer who will become his muse for the rest of his days. A tour of jazz’s cultural ascension that bounces around from Havana to New York to Paris, Chico & Rita has a sad song in its heart. The film’s sensual tenor will have you singing along.
Mary and Max (2009)
The passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman has inspired plenty of discussion about his best performances. One that’s often overlooked is his voice work in this Australian animated film, in which he plays a middle-aged New Yorker who becomes pen pals with an Australian girl. Spanning decades, Mary and Max looks at aging, illness and friendship. Filmmaker Adam Elliot (who won an Oscar for his animated short Harvie Krumpet) painstakingly crafts his characters out of clay, which is appropriate for people who don’t quite fit in a society that moves too fast.
In modern times, the majority of animation is done on computers, rendering fantastic worlds through the click of a button. Which is why it’s so valuable that Laika is around: An animation company specializing in old-fashioned stop-motion movies, it values the lovable and imperfect to the sleek and cutting-edge. ParaNorman, Laika’s best film, highlights the company’s particular blend of fractured fairy tale, oddball humor and surprisingly nuanced emotions. The story of a boy (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) who can communicate with the dead, ParaNorman is about ghouls and ghosts, but it’s also about finding your place in the big, scary world.
The Secret of Kells (2009)
Those who long for quieter, more thoughtful animated movies—ones in which the heroes don’t zip around spouting one-liners—should seek out The Secret of Kells. An Oscar-nominated charmer about a medieval lad on a quest to help complete a mysterious magic book, this film is hand-drawn and intimate, telling its enchanted tale with grace and restraint. We’re always told that kids these days don’t have the attention span for anything that’s not hyper-frenetic—but at 75 minutes, The Secret of Kells has the ease and resonance of a good bedtime story.
Team America: World Police (2004)
If Team America: World Police were merely responsible for the most bitterly ironic pro-America song since “Born in the U.S.A.,” that alone would make this film a classic. But South Park geniuses Trey Parker and Matt Stone have plenty of other targets to eviscerate: jingoistic Hollywood action movies, spy flicks, Broadway musicals, America’s let’s-kick-some-ass foreign policy, conservatives, liberals, overblown sex scenes, Matt Damon. And yet for all the movie’s satiric barbs, the filmmakers have also taken great care in rendering their colorful marionette universe. That, of course, makes Team America even funnier: The guys went out of their way to make a fake world to show how ridiculous our real one is.
The Triplets of Belleville (2003)
The world discovered French animator and comics artist Sylvain Chomet through his feature debut, a bizarre, sweet tale that includes mobsters, kidnapping and the Tour de France. The Triplets of Belleville may look like a cartoon, but its angular, exaggerated characters and dry humor (often done in pantomime) mark it a movie that adults may love more. Chomet’s story involves an elderly woman on the hunt for her missing grandson, which leads her to the frightening metropolis Belleville. Every direction the movie turns, there’s a wry laugh—and the pleasure in watching a distinctive artist make a passion project without a big studio telling him what to do.
Waking Life (2001)
Movies about a young man on a quest for enlightenment are rarely this touching and visually dazzling. Boyhood filmmaker Richard Linklater took the spirit of his groundbreaking debut Slacker, which featured plenty of random conversations about life, and expanded on it with Waking Life, an animated musing on fate, love, art and the purpose of existence. That’s heavy stuff, but Linklater’s trademark light touch mitigates the ponderousness. Shooting his actors digitally and then having animators paint over them, he makes philosophical inquiry seem like a very inviting, very playful trip.
Tim Grierson is a film and music critic who writes for Screen International, Deadspin, Paste, Rolling Stone and The Dissolve. He tweets at @timgrierson.