17 greatest animated sci-fi features in the galaxy, ranked

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Mar 28, 2017, 11:30 AM EDT

We badly need an operatic, galaxy-spanning animated sci-fi saga on the big screen, and I keep waiting for some huge adaptation news to streak into our geeky orbit any day, but so far it hasn't happened.

Until that momentous occasion, and while I surreptitiously invade the dreams of major studio executives to influence their decisions, let's put 17 space-based or speculative realm science-fiction 'toons under the mighty microscope and see who comes out on top. No Japanese anime or Disney films were aboard this roundup to keep it simpler and avoid any heated battles or unpleasant rioting in the comments section.

Join me for a cosmic countdown and see where out-of-this world studio offerings like Transformers: The Movie,The Incredibles, Monsters vs Aliens, Heavy Metal, Titan A.E, Robots, Jetsons: The Movie, Battle For Terra and more place in this judicious ranking of animated science fiction features.

And no whining about Fantastic Planet being excluded!


Jetsons: The Movie (1990)

I'll admit it, I was never really a Jetsons fan and always thought the forced humor got old fast, but loved its sparkling, jet-packed, flying-car far-future. This semi-lost feature failed to capture folks' imaginations who grew up with the Hanna-Barbera cartoons and it got relegated to cable and the $2 VHS bin at the local Walmart. It's voiced by Mel Blanc, George O'Hanlon, Penny Singleton and many of the original cast and seems out of place on the big screen; it's better watched on a small home screen with little expectations. This was the final performance for the legendary Blanc and O'Hanlon, who both passed away during production. Nevertheless, gather the kids and you'll have a sunny time seeing the bright, shiny technology of the 21st century.


Battle For Terra (2007)

This is sort of an odd duck in the list but demands to be included due to its earnest attempt at a hard-nosed CGI feature with some big ideas attached. Made and released by Lionsgate in 2007 when 3D space spectacles were being heavily hyped, Battle For Terra borrows liberally from a number of well-worn Hollywood tropes where a technologically-advanced Earth force attempts to overpower and exploit a primitive alien culture. Given a wide US release as Terra in 2009, seven months before the same story was told in James Cameron's Avatar. Kid-friendly but with some surprisingly deep mature themes woven in.


Planet 51 (2009)

This mediocre sci-fi adventure released in the U.S. by Sony's TriStar is a 3D comedic trip to a planet where green aliens exist in a perfect 1950s-like society. Handsome astronaut Chuck Baker lands on this mysterious world and through a series of misunderstandings must hide at the local planetarium where he's discovered by one of the antennaed humanoids named Lem. It's harmless but rather cliched and suffers from some flat jokes. This was Spain's most expensive film ever produced at $70 million and was created at the Ilion Animation Studios in Madrid; Dwayne Johnson does vocal duties as the daring astronaut trying to return home.


Ultramarines (2010)

This is a Warhammer 40K feature that isn't known much outside that gaming community but demands to be seen nevertheless. It's a simple story of a squad of cyber-enhanced soldiers dropped on a distant planet to discover why their garrison of fellow warriors has not been heard from. Written by longtime Warhammer novelist and Marvel Comics' Dan Abnett (Guardians of the Galaxy), and though it was never given a wide release it remains a worthy watch on Blu-ray for its distinct Warhammer tone and absorbing story. Terence Stamp, Sean Pertwee and John Hurt head up a serviceable vocal cast that captures the grim world of the far future.


Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (2001)

Paramount, not wanting to be left out of the early 2000s CGI jamboree, launched this retro-themed sci-fi adventure aimed for the younger crowd. After aliens abduct all the parents from Retroville, pint-sized prodigy Jimmy Neutron must build a fleet of interstellar warships out of the local amusement park's rides. Nickelodeon Movies partnered with the major studio to deliver a silly G-rated romp into outer space with all the goofy gadgetry and poop jokes children could ask for. Charming and inoffensive, it was the perfect Christmastime diversion to take the kiddies to during the long holiday break. Made for a relatively cheap $30 million, it was a nice little yuletide bonus for shareholders when it went on to gross more than triple its investment. Nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards.


Escape From Planet Earth (2013)

Things were looking up for CGI animation in 2013 with massive leaps in technology allowing for even greater realism and detail. Escape From Planet Earth follows Scorch Supernova, an intergalactic hero from the planet Baab, as he goes on a rescue mission to the Dark Planet (Earth) and gets captured by the government and imprisoned at Area 51 with other aliens who are being used to invent things like social media, the Internet and smartphones. A talented vocal cast includes Brendan Fraser, Sarah Jessica Parker, William Shatner and Jessica Alba, and the colorful madcap action and solid humor is perfect for a rainy Saturday afternoon or a cross-country flight.


Starchaser: The Legend of Orin (1985)

Here's a true sleeper for Star Wars fans of all ages to devour. A rousing space opera filled with blazing starships, clashing swords, mysterious artifacts with untold power, robot minions, swashbuckling heroes and a devilish villain named Zygon to hiss at. At its core it's an Arthurian-like saga combined with an old-fashioned Flash Gordon spirit absent from most dark dystopian sci-fi flicks of the 21st century. Notable for being one of the pioneering animated features to mix cel animation with computer-generated footage and only the second animated feature ever presented in 3D. Often dismissed as a rip-off of George Lucas' little sci-fi empire but holds its own dynamic charms.


Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)

Yes, Final Fantasy is a Japanese property but this 2001 sci-fi movie was produced here in America and released by Columbia. Directed by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, it showcased some stunning technology for its time, near photo-realistic CGI animation quality that seems semi-quaint by today's standards but was revolutionary for its day. A bomb at the box office, it was an important step in video game adaptations to the big screen and the advancement of CGI innovations. The vocal cast is top-notch and includes Ming-Na Wen, Alec Baldwin, Donald Sutherland, James Woods and Ving Rhames.


Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)

Don't dismiss Dreamworks' slightly-derivative entry into the splashy 3D CGI sci-fi party with this adaptation of the Rex Havoc comic series. Ginormica, a 40-foot woman voiced by Reese Witherspoon, is joined by her posse of monsters including a blob named B.O.B,, Insectosaurus, the Missing Link and Dr. Cockroach as they team up with the U.S. government to halt an alien invasion. Equal parts, Men in Black, The Incredibles and Mars Attacks!, it's Pixar-ish perfection that goes down smoothly as a weekend matinee. They spent mucho money ($175 million) making Monsters vs. Aliens and if it weren't for it not making back its investment, we'd have had a sequel.


Wizards (1977)

If you've never seen this trippy sci-fi fantasy animated by the great Ralph Bakshi (Fritz The Cat, Lord of the Rings) then you are in for a supreme old-school treat. Using traditional hand-drawn animation techniques as well as rotoscoping (animating over live action), Wizards and its post-apocalyptic sorcery is certainly a product of its time, though it features an engaging anti-war story of the benevolent wizard, Avatar, and his quest to stop his mutant brother, Blackwolf, from achieving world domination. The animation looks very dated when compared to more modern fare but it's a hallucinatory experience any serious fan of the medium should watch.


Transformers: The Movie (1986)

This $6 million Transformers spectacular just celebrated its 30th anniversary last year and was given a deluxe high-definition restoration and Blu-ray release. Set in the year 2005, 20 years after the events at the end of the Transformers TV cartoon series' Season 2, this feature’s plot consists of a colorful Autobot vs. Decepticon clash with a colossal planet-munching Transformer named Unicron (voiced by Orson Welles) tossed into the big-screen cosmic cocktail. Composer Vince Dicola conjured up the killer soundtrack using heavy metal guitar riffs injected with the electronic beat of '80s synthesizer instrumentals. And who can forget the infamously cheesy Stan Bush power ballad,"You Got The Touch"?


Heavy Metal (1981)

I was in high school when this rock 'n roll sci-fi light show based on the hip magazine landed on Earth and I probably saw it two or three times opening weekend. Conceived as a sequence of adolescent dreams set to some searing tunes by Sammy Hagar, Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Cheap Trick and Journey, this classic animated anthology is the coolest thing around for geeks of a certain age. Two of the writers were legendary horror comic illustrator Bernie Wrightson and Alien co-writer Dan O'Bannon. The six R-rated sci-fi fantasy stories transcend time and dimensions, all threaded together thematically by the glowing green orb of the Loch'nar, the sum of all evil. Far ahead of its time and still a kick-ass '80s ride.


Robots (2005)

I have a soft spot in my geeky heart for Robots, which was produced by the Ice Age and Rio creators when CGI animation was making gigantic strides forward. It's a light-hearted, old-fashioned tale of a small town inventor 'bot named Rodney who heads for the bright lights and android action of Robot City to chase his dreams of working for Bigweld Industries. Crammed with clever jokes, puns and sight gags, I guarantee you'll crack a smile or two at its technicolor antics and absorbing mechanized characters. Did decent biz at the box office ($260 million) and is blessed with a stellar vocal cast of Ewan McGregor, Robin Williams, Greg Kinnear, Halle Berry, Mel Brooks and Drew Carrey.


9 (2009)

I love this movie and wish it had been discovered by a wider audience; perhaps its exalted spot in this gathering might garner it more attention. Conceived as a CGI feature adaptation of director and special effects artist Shane Acker's Academy Award-nominated 2005 animated short, a weird rag doll voiced by Elijah Wood finds itself in a strange, post-apocalyptic world without humans and must forge a bond with fellow creatures to survive against the dreaded fabrication machines that destroyed all life on Earth. Has a beautiful, haunting quality to it, with a Tim Burton-esque flair (he was a producer on the project) and absorbing its surreal scope is well worth the watch.


Titan A.E. (2000)

Best enjoyed with a feedbag of popcorn paired with a killer sound system, Titan A.E. is a totally enjoyable film blending hand-drawn animation with modern CGI ... then dipped in a hard rock soundtrack echoing into the cosmos. For some reason, audiences overlooked this ambitious animated space opera co-produced and directed by the legendary animator Don Bluth (The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, The Land Before Time) and that's a shame. A failure at the box office after investing $75 million into its completion, leading to the shuttering of Fox Animation Studios, it's a bold adventure into outer space as humanity searches for a lost colony ship after a devastating alien invasion and destruction of Earth. Uber-nerd director Joss Whedon was one of the screenwriters and its darker tone kept being altered as it raced to finish before Disney's Treasure Planet. Truly breathtaking visuals and a spirited vocal cast led by Matt Damon, Bill Pullman, John Leguizamo and Janeane Garofalo make Titan A.E. a must-see for sci-fi faithful.


The Incredibles (2004)

Okay, I know Disney owns Pixar now and I expressly said NO DISNEY on my list but this was made before the House of Mouse gobbled up Pixar in a $7 billion deal in 2006, so it counts! Director Brad Bird of The Iron Giant fame solidified his position with this tale of suburban superheroes forced via government decry to abandon their extrahuman activities. A loving tribute to super-spy flicks, classic sci-fi and Silver Age comics; it's a capital crime that we haven't seen a sequel to this sparkling gem in 13 years! 2019 might change that as The Incredibles 2 is currently in active development at Disney with a script written by Bird.


The Iron Giant (1999)

This heartwarming jewel from The Incredibles' Brad Bird is a touching homage to the wonders of childhood and Cold War Era sci-fi fare of the 1950s. Initially overlooked during its theatrical run, The Iron Giant has become a modern classic ranking right up there with the best that Uncle Walt's Mouse House can produce. Adapted from Ted Hughes' 1968 novel, The Iron Man, and later retitled for American publishers as The Iron Giant. Vin Diesel's creaky metallic grunts and groans launched his career as a go-to vocal talent, later perfected as his Guardians of the Galaxy sentient tree, Groot. A new remastered edition of The Iron Giant was released a few years ago and contains some priceless extras.