Pixar’s latest film Inside Out is making waves with both critics and audiences this summer. Animated films have consistently been popular at the box office for the last few years, and it’s not that surprising. The medium can be used to deliver mind-bending concepts and highly expressive characters. To celebrate not just Pixar, but the rich world of animation, here is a list of the greatest characters that have been drawn or modelled inside a computer.
10. Frollo (Tony Jay, The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
He may not be the most iconic of Disney villains, but in terms of characterisation he is one of the richest. A tyrannical judge who cannot reconcile his attraction to a gypsy girl with his prejudice towards her people, and his own rigid beliefs, Frollo is among the most psychologically complex characters in the Disney canon. His conflict is portrayed masterfully in his solo musical number “Hellfire”.
Most of the credit can be taken by the source material, Victor Hugo’s novel Notre Dame de Paris. In fact, Frollo would be higher on this list, if he were not a diluted version of Hugo’s creation. Originally, he was a far more sympathetic and mysterious character. In the film, he’s introduced as a dickhead, and never strays from that, only being given a smattering of sympathy during “Hellfire”. In the book, he is actually a deacon of Notre Dame, which better explains why Quasimodo is kept there. Of course, the film does spare us the tedious, 20-page descriptions of medieval Paris.
Despite Disney’s attempts to nullify the character, Frollo is ultimately saved by the vocal performance from the late Tony Jay. Deep and rich, Jay’s performance manages to command authority, venom, and a twinge of pain, which exquisitely conveys the complex nature of the character.
Despite being devoid of overt spectacle, Frollo stands out as the finest villain Disney has put to screen.
9. Genie (Robin Williams, Aladdin)
In the 20 years since its release, whenever people talk about Disney’s Aladdin it’s always the Genie that’s mentioned first. Voiced by the late Robin Williams, the Genie is placed on this list not because of any psychological depth, but rather because the voice actor and on-screen character are so perfectly matched, creating one of the funniest and most fully-realised characters in animation history.
The wispy look and omnipotence of the Genie give him a dynamism that complements Williams’ rapid-fire verbal comedy in a way that could only be produced in animation, making him a joy to both watch and listen to. This wasn’t by accident either, as the script had been written with Williams in mind for the part. In order to convince the comedian to take the role, Eric Goldberg took a recording of one of Williams’ stand-up routines and created animation for the Genie:
Additionally, it can be argued that the Genie’s fourth wall-breaking and pop culture-referencing antics had a demonstrable impact on animated films by inspiring a certain green ogre. Of course animation had been referential since Felix the Cat, but Williams’ shtick put it into overdrive.
8. Taeko (Miki Imai, Youko Honna, Only Yesterday)
The films of Isao Takahata are replete with incredible characters. Hilda, Seita, Takashi Yamada and Princess Kaguya all could have made this list. Instead, it’s Taeko from Only Yesterday who comes out on top.
The films moves between scenes of Taeko’s childhood in the 1960s, and her life as a 27-year-old city worker in 1982. Looking to get away from it all, the adult Taeko goes to the country to work on a farm and reminisces about her past.
By seeing how she has grown over the years – from the live-wire child to the kindly adult – the audience is able to develop a deep affection for Taeko. Like the best Japanese dramas, the everyday occurrences of life are transformed into precious memories, such as the scene when an exotic pineapple is brought to to Taeko’s childhood home.
It’s easy to make the audience nostalgic for their youth. But what makes Only Yesterday special is that it makes the audience nostalgic for Taeko’s childhood. The gulf between her past and present are juxtaposed visually which makes the temporal gulf between them all the more keenly felt. In short, the film makes one nostalgic for another character’s childhood, rather than their own, fostering a deeper connection with her.
7. Dory (Ellen DeGeneres, Finding Nemo)
Another perfect marriage between voice actor and character, Dory is one of the great comic sidekicks, animated or otherwise. Ellen DeGeneres just layers laughs on top of each other with her lines.
Whereas the Genie was hilarious, but kind of divorced from the main plot, Dory is is an integral part of Finding Nemo. She and Marlin are polar opposites. She’s a blue optimist, and funny, while he is an orange pessimist… and a clownfish. Seriously, a sea cucumber?
It is through this odd pairing that Marlin grows as a character, rather than the physical hurdles he must overcome to rescue his son. The fact that this is achieved so well is a testament to writer-director Andrew Stanton, who has two characters on this list.
6. Chiyoko Fujiwara (Fumiko Orikasa, Mami Koyama, Miyoko Shôji, Millennium Actress)
Much like Taeko, the story of Millennium Actress flits between past and present to tell the story of the reclusive film actress Chiyoko Fujiwara. Here, however, the mood is less nostalgic as Chiyoko’s life runs parallel to the turbulent history of Japan in the 20th century. She was born during the devastating Kanto Earthquake of 1923, grew up amid rising militarism in the 1930s, survived the war and lived through the fast-changing postwar years. And during all of this upheaval Chiyoko is searching relentlessly for a man she fell in love with as a teenager.
Now, on paper that last sentence sounds like sentimental hogwash – and normally it would be. And yet, Millennium Actress transcends this. By weaving the historical with the personal, Chiyoko’s quest becomes so much more. Its sweeping sentimentality makes the emotions big, while the historical backdrop makes those feelings grounded.
What also makes Chiyoko and her story stand out is director Satoshi Kon’s trademark playfulness with reality. All of the flashbacks are told by an elderly Chiyoko. But the scenes of her past transition into scenes from films that she acted in, so it’s impossible to distinguish fact from fiction, making her life all the more fantastical.
Through this novel rupturing of reality, animation is used to enhance a life rooted in the real world and make it just as vibrant and spectacular as any animated fantasy character. Nowhere is this shown more beautifully than in the gorgeous running sequence.
5. Elsa (Idina Menzel, Frozen)
Yes, Frozen is over-exposed and if any of us have to listen to that damn song one more time something is gonna snap. That being said, it’s important to ask how Frozen and “Let it Go” both became these colossal monuments of pop culture in such a short space of time.
Elsa’s conflict speaks powerfully to many different groups of people. Anxiety, repression, self-doubt; these are things that aren’t normally explored so nakedly in a Disney character, and being able to see that is liberating.
Then there are the metaphorical implications of Elsa’s ice powers. While an LGBTQ reading is not necessarily the only interpretation, it is telling that the film does not even give a hint of Elsa being paired up with a prince (she is a Disney princess after all). This leaves her sexuality open to any and all interpretations.
Like sexuality, Elsa was born with her powers, and like many LGBTQ youths, is told “conceal, don’t feel”. As Elsa herself says, “don’t let them see”.
Elsa’s arc towards self-acceptance, and the ambiguity as to what that acceptance entails, allows her to speak to millions who may have felt ignored.
4. Aggie (Jodelle Ferland, ParaNorman)
Warning: Major Spoilers ahead!
Easily one of the best animated films from 2012, ParaNorman also features one of the most memorable characters.
The film’s hero, Norman, like Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, can see dead people. His powers cause him to become an outcast amongst his classmates and family. However, a crazy uncle (impeccably voiced by John Goodman) tasks Norman with protecting the town from the spirit of an evil witch, who threatens to destroy the place.
So far it’s standard fare – albeit with excellent animation and casting – but the third act opens with a gut-punching twist. The witch, far from being a stereotypical hag, is actually the ghost of a little girl who was hanged by the town during the height of the witch scare in the 17th century. To top it all off, she was executed for having the same powers Norman has, leaving her embittered towards the community that wronged her and subsequently used her suffering to attract tourists.
By paralleling Norman’s personal trauma of being bullied with Aggie’s historical trauma, the film illustrates the huge and long-lasting damage of bullying.
This comes to a head in a scene that secures Aggie’s place on this list. It’s the climactic moment when Norman confronts her, explaining to her that by destroying the town Aggie herself becomes the bully. It’s a moral that’s come up before, but what sets it apart here is the way Aggie is literally pulling herself apart. Her pain and anger is made visible through her character design and is punctuated by the mise-en-scène. Taking place around a dying tree that resembles a gallows, but also looks like a literal scar, the implication is that this may be where Aggie was killed.
All of these heavy components come together to depict a character that will strike a chord with anyone who has ever been a victim, especially as a child.
3. Jiji (Rei Sakuma, Phil Hartman, Kiki’s Delivery Service)
Adorable and yet cynical, Jiji is the complete package, both as a cat and and as a cartoon character. Accompanying Kiki on her journey toward adulthood, Jiji serves as comic relief, but also as a poignant symbol of childhood’s impermanence.
As he becomes infatuated with a neighbourhood cat, and Kiki matures, the two are no longer able to communicate. Although they remain together at the end of the film, Jiji is no longer able to talk – only meow like any other cat.
The character of Jiji also represents the fleeting nature of life in another, far more tragic way. Although the feline is voiced well in the Japanese version by Rei Sakuma, the performance by Phil Hartman (you may remember him from such cartoons as The Simpsons and The Brave Little Toaster) in the Disney dub emphasises the cynicism of the character.
Released in 1998, the dub is one of Hartman’s last performances as a voice actor before he was tragically killed that year.
Regardless of this background though, Jiji remains an iconic character in the Ghibli canon, and an excellent companion for any young witch.
2. Wall-E (Ben Burtt, Wall-E)
One of the great aspects of Wall-E is that the computer technology that brings the little robot to life is so sophisticated, yet his design and characterisation is deceptively simple. A big-eyed lovelorn robot, he encapsulates one of our purest desires and expresses it so perfectly. What sets Wall-E apart from other characters like him is that the film takes its time to let the audience get to know the character before the main plot kicks off. This allows for a profound intimacy to grow between character and audience.
Wall-E’s charm is what grants him entry into this top 10 list, but what bags him the number two spot is the oft-maligned second half of the film. It’s often criticised as being weaker, presumably because its artistic merit is not as obvious as the dialogue-free beginning. However the conflict over the future of humanity makes Wall-E a politically-grounded character, not just in the world of the film, but in our own as well.
As a piece of technology who helps save the world he represents the vital role machines will play in humanity’s survival. Meanwhile, his selflessness demonstrates the need for this undeniably human quality as well.
It’s a simplistic argument that could go a lot further, but the tl;dr version of it is: Wall-E’s greatness as a character goes beyond his cuteness.
1. Bill (It’s Such a Beautiful Day)
At the end of the day, smooth animation or eye-popping visuals do not a great character make. Nowhere is this more true than in the character of Bill, protagonist of the hour-long It’s Such a Beautiful Day.
Already popular at One Room With A View, independent animator Don Hertzfeldt managed to create a most memorable character with just a few drawn lines. Bill is a man with an unnamed disorder that wreaks havoc on his psyche and threatens to kill him. The film is nothing more than his life, dreams and memories.
Just as incredible as his simple design is the fact that Bill never speaks. Instead, a narrator (Hertzfeldt) tells the story of Bill’s life. The quality of this writing fills the film with an eccentric sense of humour that is juxtaposed with contemplative melancholy.
Meanwhile, Hertzfeldt’s DIY aesthetic expresses a profound humility. It also allows him to switch to more abstract scenes, without making it jarring for the audience. And despite its simplicity, this style of animation can be incredibly evocative.
A simple scene of uncommon silence has Bill taking off his hat and rubbing his head in the Doctor’s office. It doesn’t advance any plot, or yield any insight into Bill’s mood, and yet it makes this stick figure become real in our imagination. To be able to do that, to make a character transcend the artifice of fiction: that must be the highest achievement of animation.
That concludes our list of the Top 10 Animated Characters in feature films! What do you think? Have we missed off your favourite? Let us know in the comments below.