10 Ugliest Animated Movies Ever Made
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is ugliness. And when it comes to the century of animated filmmaking, there’s an awful lot to choose from. Last month I went through this with Film.com’s list of The Ten Most Beautiful Animated Films Ever Made , attempting to make the list at least representative given the impossibility of making it definitive. There’s simply too much stunning animation, starting in 1908 and moving across a great number of techniques and styles. The same goes for the dreadful stuff.
There is no concrete way to differentiate an ugly movie from an attractive one, of course. Plenty of people find beauty in the most garish and irritating images, animated or otherwise. So I’d like to try out two different theories on ugliness in this one list. The first is, simply, that some things are hideous and it’s the individual’s prerogative to decide what they are. Many of the films on this list got here because I think they’re awful, as is the nature of listing. By all means, tell me why I’m wrong once you’ve read it.
However, there’s also a way to make it a little more definitive. Hideousness can be intentional. Animators are able to create ugliness and use it. Not every effective work of art is pleasant to experience, after all. Isao Tokahata’s Grave of the Fireflies and Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir use beauty to express the horror of human tragedy, and stunningly so, but do not represent the only way. I’ve included some masterpieces of gaudiness and refuse to try and get past the notion that good animation has to be beautiful, whatever that means.
So here, definitely not in any way timed to the release of Disney's 'Planes', is our list of the ugliest animated movies ever made.
10. The Lord of the Rings (1978)
In a conversation about ugliness, what does one do with Ralph Bakshi? Some of his work is intentionally punchy, like Fritz the Cat and Coonskin. Some of it works, and some of it doesn’t. But when it comes to Lord of the Rings, I think something definitely went wrong. The animation isn’t exactly ugly so much as it is unsettling, subtly off-putting in a way that almost suggests the uncanniness of more recent animation missteps.
9. Pinocchio in Outer Space (1965)
There are innumerable miserably animated spinoffs and sequels, and any truly honest list of the most offensively bad animation of all time would probably have no room for anything else. But picking on the obvious seems like a waste of everyone’s time, so here’s one particularly strange example to stand in for the lot. Made by a Belgian studio in the mid-60s, I guess the plan was to capitalize on the success of a Disney film made a quarter-century before. The animation just looks sluggish, the character design in particular.
8. The Smurfs (2011)
While we’re on the subject of Belgium, let’s talk about The Smurfs. The original comic books appeared in the late 1950s, later graduating to the now-beloved television program of the 1980s. Neither the design of the books nor the series are particularly ugly. To the contrary, the brightly-colored aesthetics work quite well. However, the Sony Pictures CGI/live-action hybrid is a disaster. The little blue people aren’t just garishly designed, but awkwardly and frustratingly dropped into New York City.
7. Team America: World Police (2004)
Now, for something a bit more successful. Team America: World Police is a ridiculous movie, brimming over with ugliness. The puppets themselves, lewd variations on the Barbie doll, are hilariously rough. The whole film has an air of blunt and garish aesthetic hostility, which is the whole point. Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Pam Brady are not in the animation business to create breathtaking triumphs of the craft. They make smart, outrageous, and brilliantly funny satires that look cheap not because they are cheap, but because the conscious stylistic choice supports and perfects their humor.
6. Shark Tale (2004)
Same year as Team America, total opposite. Shark Tale perfectly represents the problem with cynical studio CGI animation, both in its writing and execution. Many other films that get bogged down in inane pop culture references are at least well-crafted, whereas Shark Tale is actually a victim of that obvious tendency toward the pander. The characters are designed to resemble the celebrities voicing them, a totally unnecessary move that undercuts everything else and just makes the film look stupid.
5. Spirited Away (2001)
Hear me out! The ugliness of Spirited Away is the proof of Hayao Miyazaki’s brilliance. While many of the animator’s other films are beautiful almost from start to finish, this masterpiece is an extremely intelligent blend of attractive images and elements that make your skin crawl. It succeeds because of its familiarity with ugliness, its bravery to temporarily gross out its audience and its commitment to garish excess (think of the rather terrifying sequence in which No Face goes on a vomit-soaked rampage). When Miyazaki wants to be hideous, he’s the best at that too.
4. Tarzoon, Shame of the Jungle (1975)
Fritz the Cat pushes the envelope with aggressive animation and parody, and it works. It works for Trey Parker and Matt Stone. It does not work for this strange, unbridled French/Belgian co-production. Tarzoon is a little bit too in love with its own status as an agitator, and runs as far as it can with its lewd images. Relatively quickly they no longer shock, and remain little more than mindless provocation with almost no aesthetic value.
3. Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July and Every Rankin/Bass Holiday Special (1979)
The stop-motion films of Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass are, pretty much without exception, terrible. The features are terrible, the television specials are terrible, and even the experience of writing about them is a little bit terrible. The haphazard way with which the characters are constructed is supposed to be quaint but it just ends up looking busted. I would claim that this is the result of a cynical confidence that slapping Christmas songs onto a mess of stop-motion snowballs couldn’t fail in the America of yesteryear, but I actually think the laziness is much more well-meaning. That doesn’t make it ok.
2. Alice (1988)
In a way, this is Jan Svankmajer’s greatest work. The Czech animator’s entire career is inflected with ugliness, using it to even greater effect than Miyazaki in Spirited Away. Alice is full of animal skeletons, creepy dolls and other monstrosities that change the aesthetic bent of Lewis Carroll’s story but don’t necessarily betray its intentions. There is pleasure in these unpleasant images, an almost anarchic commitment to the original horrors of the European fairy tale. It is unsettling yet playful, a little bit gross and extremely charming.
1. Polar Express (2004)
Creepy, obnoxious and completely oblivious to its own stylistic failures, Polar Express may very well be the ugliest animated feature of all time. Ostensibly making a movie for children, Robert Zemeckis may have created the most unsettling animated characters most adults have ever seen. Yet somehow it is simultaneously nightmarish and sickeningly benign, impossible to enjoy on its own terms but equally resistant to the ironic joy of watching a train wreck. The single most compelling proof of the uncanny valley, this film is a disconcerting disaster.