Cartoon capers on the silver screen

Animation is enjoying the sort of golden era last seen in Disney's heyday. Andrew Johnson reports on the form's takeover of the global film industry

It began as a flickering optical illusion of a horse running around a ring; transformed into ink splotches resembling a cat or a mouse; and is now a multi-billion pound industry noted for its breathtaking realism.

Nearly 100 years after its shadowy, flickering beginnings, animated films have entered their most successful era. A report out this week about the state of animation reveals that when it comes to feature films there has never been so many high-quality adventures earning so much money and appealing to so many people.

For the first time all of Hollywood's major studios are producing animated films. "This is a golden age of animation," said Tim Westcott, a senior analyst for the film research organisation Screen Digest. "CGI has reinvigorated the form."

Three of this year's highest earning films are animations – Monsters Versus Aliens, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs and Up, which has topped the box office on both sides of the Atlantic in recent weeks. Also in the top 10 is The Fantastic Mr Fox and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. To come are films such as Astro Boy, Planet 51 and The Princess and the Frog, the eagerly anticipated Disney film which uses traditional hand-drawn methods. This new golden era can be plotted back to the creation of Pixar and its first film, Toy Story.

The high cost of animation is offset by its box-office performance – Shrek 2 is the 11th highest grossing film of all time – and the merchandising, which means a mildly successful film like Cars can still earn $2bn (£1.2bn) since its release in 2006.

Toy Story

Pixar Studio's first film. Using revolutionary Computer Generated Imagery it is a true milestone of cinema. Toy Story was not only a massive hit, introducing the world to Buzz Lightyear, it ushered in the new golden age

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Three years in the making and painstakingly drawn by hand on transparent cells, this was the first full-length animated feature and a blockbuster for Disney in 1937. A cinematic triumph, it ushered in the first golden age of animation

Pinocchio

Three years after Snow White's, success Disney's follow-up was ready. The puppet with no strings wasn't an initial success, but like its eponymous character's nose it has grown on audiences and is now established as a classic.

Felix the Cat

The bug-eyed Felix didn't speak on his 1919 debut – sound still being eight years off. But the black cat with the sly grin brought lots of luck to Paramount. Ninety years on he is still one of the most recognisable cartoon characters.

Fantasia

Mickey Mouse botched spells as a sorcerer's apprentice years before Harry Potter. It received mixed reviews on release in 1940, but it is now seen as a cinematic milestone. The animation is set to classical music and there is no dialogue.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Animation features appeared to be in terminal decline until Bob Hoskins turned up with a sexy cartoon rabbit called Jessica, voiced by Kathleen Turner, in this 1988 ground-breaking and almost seamless blend of animation and live action.

Steam Boat Willie

Mickey Mouse had debuted for Disney six months earlier, but he first squeaked in this 1928 short, the first Disney cartoon with synchronised sound. He now makes an estimated $5bn a year for the corporation, which is planning to rebrand him next year.

Shrek 2

Finding Nemo held its record for one year, before the ugly green ogre Shrek embarked on his second adventure for Pixar's great rival, DreamWorks. It took $920m, making it the highest earner of 2004, the 11th highest grossing film of all time and the highest grossing animation of all time.

Ice Age 2: The Meltdown

20th Century Fox got in on the act through their Blue Sky Studios and the phenomenally successful Ice Age series. This film about global warming and cute dinosaurs became the fifth highest grossing animated movie of all time. The third instalment released this year, Dawn of the Dinosaurs, did even better, becoming the second highest grossing animation after Shrek 2.

The Jungle Book

The bear necessities were the $13m it took at the box office and its enduring appeal has a lot to do with the swinging soundtrack, not least Louis Prima's version of I Wanna Be Like You. It was released in 1967 and was the Magic Kingdom's first posthumous success coming 10 months after Walt's death.

Peter Pan

By 1953 Disney had become the colossus of global animation. The lead in Peter Pan – another mining of a children's classic – was played by the Oscar-winning child actor Bobby Driscoll, an early example of a known star being used for the voice-over.

Beauty and the Beast

Computer technology just wasn't quite ready for 1991's Beauty and the Beast, a hark back to more traditional Disney output, but it improved enough during the course of filming for it to be used for the ballroom scene. Universally praised and the only animated film to receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination.

Finding Nemo

A fishy tale about a clown fish called Marlin who sets off to find his son Nemo. It became the second highest grossing film of 2003 (behind The Lord of the Rings) and was the highest grossing animated film of all time with a $864.6m take.

WALL-E

It's not that adults didn't previously enjoy taking their children to see cartoons, but WALL-E and its daring 30-minute dialogue-free opening, appealed to adults in its own right in 2008. A critical and commercial hit.

Tom and Jerry

Violent, slapstick and hilarious, the cat and mouse double act made 1940 quite a year. The Hanna-Barbera shorts won seven Oscars, were nominated for another six, and are still lampooned in The Simpsons' Itchy and Scratchy.

The Lion King

Buoyed by the success of Beauty and the Beast, Disney released The Lion King in 1994 with songs by Elton John. It is the highest grossing D animated film of all time with a box office gross of $784m.

Waltz with Bashir

This Israeli animation dealt with the 1982 Lebanon war. Along with 2007's Persepolis about life in revolutionary Iran, animation could now do adult themes. Waltz with Bashir is the only animation to be nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Bambi

Another Disney feature that nuzzled its way into the arms of popular culture after an initial slow start on its release in 1942. It came into its own on its post-war re-release in 1947. It is noted for the Eastern influence of its art direction.

Up

This year's smash hit, which topped the box-office charts both here and in the US. Bravely making the lead a grumpy old man, mainstream animation was now boldly aimed at adults. A critical and commercial success.

Cars

The final Pixar film before it was bought by Disney, Cars highlights the franchise-friendly nature of cartoons. Despite a modest (by Pixar standards) box office the movie has made an estimated $2bn from spin-off merchandise.

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