It’s safe to assume that most people are familiar with the sorts of animated movies that come out of America. At least for English-speaking audiences, these would have to be the most well-known within the medium of animation. This is thanks to Disney’s dominance over the industry for much of the 20th century, and the rise of other studios like Pixar and Dreamworks in the 1990s, through to the 21st century.
Anime has also become fairly popular among Western viewers in recent decades, but Japan’s far from the only country besides the US to put out interesting animated movies. Some remarkable international animated movies are perfect for showcasing the world of animated films out there, with each coming from a different country outside the US. For anyone wanting to gain a more international understanding of the medium, these films all represent good starting points for exploration and discovery.
‘A Town Called Panic’ (2009)
With a chaotic style and pace suiting its title, A Town Called Panic goes all out and doesn’t let up for its short, humor-packed duration. It’s a Belgium/France co-production with French dialogue and stop-motion animation, and tells a random story about a group of toy figures who get into all sorts of wild misadventures.
It’s a singular experience that’s hard to sum up in words, but it also doesn’t seem interested in making sense or following logic. You have to give yourself over to its ludicrous bursts of energy and weird sense of humor, and if you can do that and get on the movie’s level, it ends up being quite a lot of fun.
‘Waltz With Bashir’ (2008)
An animated war documentary from Israel, Waltz With Bashir stands out for being unlike much else out there, and also for being a greatly disturbing watch. It’s a film that follows its own director as he attempts to remember the role he played in the 1982 Lebanon War when he was a young man; memories that have been suppressed because of the emotional distress they caused.
It unpacks the cruelty of war and the unreliability of memory in stark, confronting detail. The style of animation can be crude, but it’s also stylistically bold, and expertly reflects the haziness of the memories that are animated on-screen. As is the case with anti-war movies, it’s not an easy watch, but it is a powerful experience.
‘Allegro Non Troppo’ (1976)
Presenting a more irreverent and humorous take on Fantasia, Allegro Non Troppo is a strange and hypnotic Italian animated movie. Like the famous Disney film from 1940, it takes pieces of classical music and uses them as accompaniments for complex animated sequences that are sometimes funny, sometimes rude, and sometimes quite dark.
It also includes live-action segments between all the animation that gives it something of an overall story, but these parts of Allegro Non Troppo aren’t quite as consistent. It doesn’t matter too much when the most important scenes are as striking as they are, with the 15-minute dinosaur march set to “Bolero” being particularly amazing.
‘The Treasure Planet’ (1982)
Releasing 20 years before Disney’s far more well-known Treasure Planet, The Treasure Planet is a Bulgarian science-fiction movie that feels like a fever dream in the best way possible. It takes Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novel, Treasure Island, and puts it in space, essentially being about planet-hopping space pirates who are all after hidden treasure.
That’s the basic premise, but it’s almost impossible to follow after a certain point, because the film is just too bizarre when it comes to the style of animation, the character designs, the voice acting and the warped sense of humor. It’s the kind of movie where you don’t believe what you’re watching, and since it’s only about an hour long, it’s easy to recommend to those who like their animated movies bizarre, seeing as you won’t waste much time if you end up hating it.
‘The Wolf House’ (2018)
The Wolf House might be the best dark fairytale of recent years that wasn’t directed by Guillermo Del Toro. It’s a Chilean film with its main plot involving a young woman on the run hiding out in a strange house in a dark forest, and slowly being driven mad by both the isolation and a threat that seems to constantly loom outside.
You never quite know what you’re looking at, nor can you be sure of what’s going on, which adds to the film’s eeriness and horror. It’s also animated with a disturbing mix of stop-motion animation and images that appear to move around parts of 3D sets, such as across the walls, floors, and other areas. The effect is haunting and creepy, and also entirely unforgettable.
‘Millennium Actress’ (2001)
While it’s true that anime is pretty popular, as far as animated movies go, there are a host of anime films that have gone under the radar. The output from Studio Ghibli is quite well-known, especially those Ghibli films that are directed by Hayao Miyazaki, but there are plenty of others that are also worth attention.
The four films released by the late Satoshi Kon are among those slightly lesser-known gems, with Millennium Actress being the most underrated of the lot, seeing as it’s not quite as well-known as Perfect Blue, Paprika or Tokyo Godfathers. It’s a tribute to Japanese cinema, telling the story of a fictional actor who looks back on her career, and is filled with beautiful animation and plenty of bittersweet emotions.
Flee is a Danish movie that earned a sizable amount of acclaim and awards recognition upon release. It takes a look at one man’s story of fleeing from Afghanistan to Denmark, and is told in a documentary format where the man at the story’s center is revealing these things for the first time.
It takes a sympathetic look at refugees and the struggles of coming to terms with one’s sexuality in a country where being anything other than heterosexual was frowned upon. It’s a sad movie that’s heavy going at numerous points, but offers some hope by the film’s end, and is overall a very well-told story with a unique animated presentation.
‘When the Wind Blows’ (1986)
When the Wind Blows is up there with 1984’s Threads when it comes to showing the potential horrors a nuclear war would inflict on the general population. It centers on an elderly couple who are forced to survive on their own after Britain is bombed, and the world is plunged into a vicious and deadly nuclear winter.
It starts off feeling quite family-friendly and relaxed, which makes it all the more jarring and harrowing when the main narrative kicks off. Seeing two sweet yet naive old people succumb to terrible things they don’t quite understand makes for a heartbreaking watch that’s undoubtedly powerful as an anti-nuclear-war statement.
‘Son of the White Mare’ (1981)
A strange animated fantasy movie that’s grown into something of a cult classic, Son of the White Mare is another film that’s hard to put into words. The central premise is at least fairly standard fairytale stuff, involving an Underworld, three powerful, heroic brothers, and three princesses who need to be rescued.
It’s the style of animation and the way it tells its simple-sounding story that makes Son of the White Mare such a strange and potentially intoxicating movie. It’s undeniable that it does very interesting things with the fantasy tropes it tackles, and it makes this Hungarian animation quite hard to forget.
‘The Adventures of Prince Achmed’ (1926)
A German production and one of the earliest feature-length animated movies, The Adventures of Prince Achmed is still striking to look at, almost 100 years on from release. It adapts old stories from The Arabian Nights, and features silhouettes animated against various colored backgrounds for its entire runtime.
Given its age, it also counts as a rare animated silent film, and is among the essential classics of the silent era that are worth watching for anyone interested in films from that period in movie history. The Adventures of Prince Achmed may look simple, but it’s the good kind of simplicity that cast a spell on viewers back in the 1920s, and still holds the power to engage those watching in the 2020s, too.