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10 Most Underrated Animated Fantasy Movies, Ranked

Animation is a medium unlike any other, capable of being the vehicle for unique stories that film could never encapsulate otherwise. This is thanks to its limitless visual capabilities and the room that it leaves for filmmakers’ imaginations to run wild. Since The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the true first animated feature, artists have been using animated cinema as a tool to tell magical stories of wonder and adventure.

Quite often, fantasy and animation go hand in hand. After all, it isn’t surprising that a genre that’s all about magic, amazement, and expansive world-building would find its home in a medium that’s a blank slate for directors’ creativity. However, plenty of animated fantasy gems still don’t get as much recognition as they deserve. From old classics like Son of the White Mare to modern arthouse experiments like Mad God, these films are treasures that are still waiting to find the right audience.

10 ‘Belladonna of Sadness’ (1973)

Directed by Eiichi Yamamoto

A young woman with her eyes closed lying down in the film Belladonna of Sadness still
Image via Nippon Herald FIlms

The Japanese erotic drama Belladonna of Sadness is, if anything, unique, a feminist psychedelic cult classic whose every frame is an artistically rich work of art. It’s about a peasant girl who, after suffering abuse at the hands of an evil feudal lord and getting banished from her village, makes a deal with the Devil to gain magical powers and get her revenge.

One of the most underrated anime movies of all time, Belladonna of Sadness is a gorgeous picture both visually and aurally. Anchored by a creative animation style and a psychedelic score, it grabs viewers’ attention and enthralls them more than enough to keep their attention fixed on the surrealistic narrative. Its runtime of less than 90 minutes sometimes feels a bit too short for such a thematically ambitious story, but ultimately, Belladonna of Sadness succeeds at everything it sets out to do.

Rent on YouTube

9 ‘Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama’ (1993)

Directed by Ram Mohan, Yûgô Sakô, and Koichi Sasaki

a man and a woman in old Indian clothing in 'Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama' (1993)
Image via Toei Animation

There’s something undeniably special about multicultural films, and Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama is proof of that. Based on the legendary text from ancient India, this Japanese-Indian anime co-production pits Lord Ram against the wicked king Ravana. It’s one of the best Indian animated movies and the ideal way to learn about this crucial piece of Indian storytelling.

“What makes the movie all the more special is the way the distinctive Japanese visual style fits the unmistakably Indian storytelling style.”

Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama more than makes up for its rough-around-the-edges animation with beautiful landscapes and character designs, as well as a powerful retelling of the story of the Ramayana. What makes the movie all the more special is the way the distinctive Japanese visual style fits the unmistakably Indian storytelling style, making for a culturally invaluable animated fantasy film that is culturally enriching and undeniably entertaining.

Buy on Amazon

8 ‘Faust’ (1994)

Directed by Jan Švankmajer

The head of a devil statue lays on rocks in Faust
Image via Lucernafilm – Beta

All in all, arthouse Czech director Jan Švankmajer is one of the most underrated animated fantasy filmmakers around. Faust is far and away one of his best works, about an ordinary man lured into a strange puppet theater where he finds himself inside a production of the legend of Faust, the man who sold his soul to the Devil.

Described by Oscar-winner Miloš Forman as “Disney + Buñuel,” Švankmajer is a director who has helped define the language of cinematic surrealism with works like Faust. It’s an eccentric mixture of animation and live-action, with the best of its director’s idiosyncrasies on full display. Delightfully bizarre, profoundly intelligent, and unafraid to experiment with crazy ideas and its own diegesis, Faust is the perfect introduction to this unique auteur for newcomers.

Watch on Kanopy

7 ‘A Town Called Panic’ (2009)

Directed by Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar

A cowboy and an American Indian chief standing at a train station with a pig and a donkey looking sad in A Town Called Panic
Image via Cinéart

The Belgian-French comedy A Town Called Panic is about Cowboy and Indian, two characters whose only wish is to find the perfect idea for Mr. Horse’s birthday. However, when their plan fails, they’ll have to traverse the globe to make things right again. For those who enjoy quirky romps whose sole ambition is to entertain, this is a perfect fit.

Modern French cinema is full of outstanding films, including some genuinely hilarious comedies and plenty of visually unique animated movies. A Town Called Panic takes both genres, adds a dash of surrealistic fantasy with talking horses and Monty Python-like humor, and ends up delivering a refreshingly absurd cinematic shenanigan that’s impossible not to have a blast with. Its stop-motion animation enriches an already colorful story, adding an element of whimsy that brings the whole thing together.

Watch on Plex

6 ‘Mad God’ (2021)

Directed by Phil Tippett

A masked figure standing in a dark room in Mad God - 2021
Image via Shudder

Puppeteer and VFX magician Phil Tippett is best known for his visual effects work, including his participation in some of the most revolutionary films in the industry’s history. Recently, though, he proved with his debut feature, Mad God, that he could also work wonders when sitting in the director’s chair. Grotesque and utterly unforgettable, the movie is about an Assassin who travels through a hellish world of tortured souls and wretched monstrosities taken from the darkest pits of Tippett’s unconscious mind.

Mad God is terrifying, mainly because it’s entirely unafraid of being disgusting. It examines themes of death, madness, and Sisyphean existentialism in one of the most immersive stop-motion animation worlds created in the medium’s history. Animated fantasy can be scary and graphic and experimental, too, and Tippett is all too enthusiastic to prove it.

Mad God Film Poster

Mad God

Release Date
June 16, 2022

Alex Cox , Niketa Roman , Satish Ratakonda , Harper Taylor

83 minutes

5 ‘Ernest & Celestine’ (2012)

Directed by Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, and Benjamin Renner

A bear in pagamas raising his arms in Ernest & Celestine (2012)
Image via StudioCanal

One of only a few foreign films that have been nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, Ernest & Célestine is a charming adventure comedy following the unlikely friendship between a bear named Ernest and a mouse named Celestine. There are plenty of underrated animated gems from around the world out there, and this is one of the best.

Its pretty watercolor animation and kid-friendly tone only add to the magic of Ernest & Célestine. It reminds viewers of simpler old-fashioned times of animated fantasy films about talking animals, drawing strength from classic influences that it wears out on its sleeve with pride. Ernest & Celestine‘s enchanting story and hand-drawn animation make it feel like a passion project that’s truly hard to resist, and its heartwarming story will leave everyone with a smile from ear to ear.

Ernest & Célestine

Release Date
December 12, 2012

80 minutes

Gabrielle Vincent , Daniel Pennac

Rent on Apple TV

4 ‘Son of the White Mare’ (1981)

Directed by Marcell Jankovics

A yellow warrior at the top of a glowing blue mountain in the animated movie Son of the White Mare.
Image via Arbelos Films

The best arthouse animated movies are experimental yet accessible, visually unique yet undeniably beautiful; put more simply, they usually look a lot like the Hungarian masterpiece Son of the White Mare. In this dreamlike Hungarian folk myth, a horse goddess births three powerful brothers who travel to the Underworld to save three princesses and reclaim their ancestors’ lost kingdom.

Animation tends to be the perfect home for beautiful folktales like this. Indeed, Son of the White Mare is animated and structured in such a way that it feels like a cultural treasure, a once-in-a-lifetime event that’s impossible to look away from. It’s a spectacle that’s entertaining from beginning to end, yes, but also an experimental marvel that’s a delight for movie fans to analyze. Today, Son of the White Mare is deeply influential within the medium of animation, but it sadly remains underappreciated among mainstream audiences.

Watch on Mubi

3 ‘The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl’ (2017)

Directed by Masaaki Yuasa

A girl in a red dress standing in the middle of a lan, with each side holding book stalls
Image via Toho

When it comes to anime films, it’s not all Studio Ghibli. The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl is a spellbinding and magical fantasy comedy about one epic night in Kyoto when a college sophomore goes on a series of surreal encounters while unaware of the romantic longings of her classmate. Cinematic surrealism like this may leave general audiences a bit confused, but cinephiles looking for more unique pieces of animation will find a lot of fun in this terrific gem.

Highly original and rapidly paced, The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl looks and feels like a colorful hallucination that audiences are being invited to take part in. Where quite a few similarly bizarre animated fantasy films have earned more recognition in the mainstream, this one deserves to get a lot more love for its creative animation style, romantic and surprisingly philosophical story, and dynamic atmosphere.

Watch on Max

2 ‘Alice’ (1988)

Directed by Jan Švankmajer

a doll kneeling on a bed next to a window in the film Alice
Image via First Run Features

Perhaps Jan Švankmajer’s most popular work (as well as arguably his best), Alice is the director’s unique take on the classic story of Alice in Wonderland. It’s definitely more for the older members of the family—unless the kiddos are into surrealistic arthouse extravaganzas that are even more nightmare-inducing than Disney’s 1951 adaptation of Lewis Carroll‘s book.

“A fascinating portrayal of the characters, concepts, and themes present in Carroll’s classic.”

Alice is full of profound yet seemingly impenetrable imagery, including richly constructed sequences that are bound to stay with viewers for weeks. Its fascinating portrayal of the characters, concepts, and themes present in Carroll’s classic is refreshing and wildly creative, proving that some stories truly are timeless. Macabre and imaginative, Švankmajer’s Alice is the definitive version of this well-known fantasy tale, on top of being one of the most visually stunning foreign films ever made.

Watch on Kanopy

1 ‘The Adventures of Prince Achmed’ (1926)

Directed by Lotte Reiniger and Carl Koch

Experts usually agree that the German production The Adventures of Prince Achmed is the earliest surviving animated feature in film history, having come out eleven years before Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Even then, this riveting story about a handsome prince’s magical adventures hasn’t ingrained itself nearly as deeply in modern pop culture as it deserves. Cultural significance aside, it’s a charming animated fantasy spectacle made with light, shadows, and black cardboard figures.

Prince Achmed‘s unique animation style is far from its only strength. Drawing inspiration from Middle Eastern folklore, it tells an enchanting story of adventure, courage, and magic. Unlike many of its contemporaries, age has only made this early masterpiece better, too. Nowadays, The Adventures of Prince Achmed will make even the oldest and most cynical viewers feel like amazed children entranced by a wonderful puppet show.

Watch on Criterion

NEXT:25 Best Animated Fantasy Movies, Ranked

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