13 Amazing Cartoons from the National Film Registry

Every year since 1989, the National Film Preservation Board declares a selection of movies to be "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant," and therefore worthy of being recognized as national treasures. This National Film Registry boasts movies like Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and Gone with the Wind, but there are also 32 animated films that have been deemed significant. Here's a sampling of the stories behind 13 of these amazing examples of America's animated heritage.

Little Nemo (1911) and Gertie the Dinosaur (1914)

Winsor McCay was a revolutionary newspaper comic strip creator, but was also a pioneer in animation, creating techniques and methods that are still in use 100 years later. His first production, Little Nemo, has an impressive two minutes of color animation featuring characters from his Little Nemo comic strip that were set in motion by 4,000 drawings created over a span of 30 days. The artwork is notable for being more refined than earlier animated films, which starred little more than stick figures, setting a new standard for animation that is extraordinary even today.

McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur introduces what many consider to be the first cartoon character. Before Gertie, an ornery Brontosaurus, early animated characters didn't have much in the way of personality.

In contrast, Gertie danced and even scuffled with a mastodon, but McCay also made her part of an expertly timed interactive performance. Standing next to the movie screen, McCay would talk to Gertie, who would react according to his commands. Then, at the end of their schtick, McCay would walk behind the screen, an animated version of him would appear in the film, and the two would ride off into the sunset together. Later versions of the film had McCay's dialog placed onto title cards and featured additional live-action scenes so the film could tour without being a live show, but it was still as effective for audiences who marveled at the "living" dinosaur on the screen.

Steamboat Willie (1928)

Although most people know Steamboat Willie as the debut film of Mickey Mouse, it's also notable for being the first cartoon with fully synchronized sound. There had been earlier attempts at synchronized sound cartoons before, but the audio never quite stayed on track with the animation. In fact, the first recording of the audio for Willie didn't stay perfectly synchronized either, but Walt sold his beloved roadster to fund a re-recording. His sacrifice was worth it – the film became a huge hit and helped kick start the Disney animated empire.

The film has also gained notoriety for never lapsing into the public domain. Oddly, every time Steamboat Willie's copyright is about to expire – in 1956, in 1976, and in 1998 – Congress has changed copyright laws to grant extensions for historical works. Whether this is just coincidence or the result of lobbying by Disney is up for debate. Either way, some opponents called the 1998 extension the "Mickey Mouse Protection Act." Unless another extension is granted, Steamboat Willie will finally pass into the public domain in 2023, nearly 100 years after its debut.

Snow White (1933)

Although Disney's version of the classic fairytale is also on the Film Registry for being the first American animated feature-length film, this cartoon, starring squeaky-voiced flapper Betty Boop, is included because of its extensive use of rotoscoping. Rotoscoping is a technique where the cartoon images are drawn over individual frames of film from a human actor's recorded performance, making the animation very fluid and realistic. In this case, a character named Koko the Clown was animated using dance footage of jazz great Cab Calloway, who also provided the voice. The film is also unusual because it's the work of a single animator, Roland Crandall, who was given the opportunity to make his own movie by Fleischer Studios as a reward for many years of loyal service.

Rotoscoping went on to be used for films like 1978's The Lord of the Rings and, more recently, Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, which use computer rotoscoping to surreal effect. Of course, rotoscoping is also the precursor to today's motion-capture technology that helped bring the simian stars of Rise of the Planet of the Apes to life.

Gerald McBoing-Boing (1950) and The Tell-Tale Heart (1953)

United Productions of America (UPA) was a little-known but very influential studio in the 1950s and '60s. Their Oscar-winning short film, Gerald McBoing-Boing, a Dr. Seuss story about a boy who can speak only in sound effects, introduced "limited animation," a process that uses fewer drawings, simpler character designs, and repetitive, sparse background art. UPA employed limited animation to artistically distance itself from the more realistic style of Disney. However, the technique was widely adopted by television animation studios in the 1960s, most notably Hanna-Barbera for shows like The Flintstones and other cartoon staples, because it was much cheaper to produce than traditional cartoons.

Before The Tell-Tale Heart, based on Edgar Allan Poe's short story of the same name, theatrical cartoons were strictly kid's stuff. But this 8-minute short, produced by UPA and narrated by James Mason, was deemed so disturbing that it became the first cartoon to be rated X by the British Board of Film Censors. That didn't prevent the Academy from nominating the film for Best Animated Short, though it lost to Disney's music education short, Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, which, oddly enough, uses very sparse and stylized background art like the type typically found in limited animation productions.

Duck Amuck (1953), One Froggy Evening (1956), and What's Opera, Doc? (1957)

With three famous Warner Bros. cartoons, director Chuck Jones is the most represented single animator in the National Film Registry. The selected shorts aren't necessarily technically innovative, but there's no doubt they're culturally significant.

Duck Amuck is a surreal, Fourth Wall-breaking cartoon of Daffy Duck being agitated by an unseen animator (SPOILER: It's Daffy's rival, Bugs bunny). Over the course of the short, his voice changes, the scenery changes, and his physical form becomes everything from a duck to a cowboy to a strange flower-headed creature with a screwball flag for a tail. Jones has said that the film was meant to show audiences how a cartoon can instill a character with personality, changing Daffy in drastic physical measures but never altering the cantankerous wit that he is best known for.

One Froggy Evening tells the story of a frog found inside the cornerstone of a building that is being torn down. The construction worker that discovers him is astonished to learn that the frog is a top hat-wearing, one-amphibian Broadway act... but only when no one else is looking. The cartoon is most likely based on the story of Ol' Rip, a lizard that was allegedly buried in the cornerstone of a Texas courthouse in 1897, only to be found alive and well when the building was demolished in 1928. (There's no indication Rip could carry a tune, though.) In the original cartoon, the frog has no name, and the man who provides his "Hello! Ma Baby" singing voice goes uncredited. However, in the years since, Jones named the frog Michigan J. Frog, and the singer is now credited on DVD releases as Bill Roberts, an obscure nightclub singer from the 1950s.

Most people mistakenly think this famous cartoon is called Kill the Wabbit, but its title is actually What's Opera, Doc? Based upon the works of composer Richard Wagner, the cartoon features Elmer as a Viking and Bugs Bunny disguised as the Valkyrie he is trying to woo. The short didn't offer much in the way of innovation, but it's so funny and creative that it's clearly the work of a director at the top of his game. It's no surprise this was ranked the best cartoon of all time in 1994 by 1,000 professional animators.

Tin Toy (1988)

Today, Pixar is a household name, but in 1988, only a few animation studios had heard of them. In an effort to sell its new PhotoRealistic RenderMan software, which later became the first computer program to win an Oscar, director John Lasseter created Tin Toy, a short film about a wind-up one-man band trying desperately to hide from its new owner, a destructive baby. In 1989, it became the first computer-animated film to win the Oscar for Best Animated Short, helping put Pixar on the map. After the win, a half-hour TV Christmas special sequel was considered but, at the urging of Disney, Pixar decided to focus on developing a feature length spin-off idea instead. That idea became Toy Story, which was inducted into the Film Registry in 2005.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Aside from being a fan favorite, Beauty and the Beast received six Oscar nominations in 1992, including the first animated film up for Best Picture. That honor wasn't bestowed on another animated film again until the Academy expanded the field from five to ten nominees in 2010, when Pixar's Up received a nod. Beauty and the Beast didn't win the Best Picture that year – 2011 Film Registry inductee The Silence of the Lambs did – but it didn't go home empty-handed either, winning for Best Original Score and Best Original Song.

Bambi (1942) and A computer Animated Hand (1972)

2011 saw the induction of two more animated films, both significant in their own right.

At the behest of Walt, Bambi was a major shift away from the cartoony artwork Disney Studios was known for to a much more realistic style. This was accomplished by having the animators draw using live animals as models, which were shipped to a temporary zoo at Disney Studios. Unfortunately, it was this realism that hurt the film among critics, who preferred the more fantastic style they were used to. The movie was also a financial flop upon its initial release, most likely because the European markets were closed off due to World War II. it would make its money back with subsequent re-releases, of course, and the critics came around as well, eventually making it one of the most beloved of all of Disney's films.

The one-minute film A Computer Animated Hand might not seem impressive, but when you consider the technological movement this short clip has spawned, it could be one of the most influential animated films in history. In 1972, two University of Utah students, Edwin Catmull and Fred Parke, made a digital model of Catmull's left hand, which they were able to manipulate on the screen, creating one of the world's first 3-D computer animated sequences. Catmull and Parke also later animated a human face using the same techniques to creepy, but similarly groundbreaking, results. After college, Parke became a professor at Texas A&M, while Catmull went on to change computer animation forever by founding a little company called Pixar.

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Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
12 Surprising Facts About Robin Williams
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA

Robin Williams had a larger-than-life personality. On screen and on stage, he embodied what he referred to as “hyper-comedy.” Offscreen, he was involved in humanitarian causes and raised three children—Zak, Zelda, and Cody. On July 16, HBO debuts the documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, directed by Marina Zenovich. The film chronicles his rise on the L.A. and San Francisco stand-up comedy scenes during the 1970s, to his more dramatic roles in the 1980s and '90s in award-winning films like Dead Poets Society; Good Morning, Vietnam; Awakenings; The Fisher King; and Good Will Hunting. The film also focuses on August 11, 2014, the date of his untimely death. Here are 12 surprising facts about the beloved entertainer.

1. ROBIN WILLIAMS GOT HIS START AT A COMEDY WORKSHOP INSIDE A CHURCH.

A still from 'Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind' (2018)
HBO

After leaving Juilliard, Robin Williams found himself back in his hometown of San Francisco, but he couldn’t find work as an actor. Then he saw something for a comedy workshop in a church and decided to give it a shot. “So I went to this workshop in the basement of a Lutheran church, and it was stand-up comedy, so you don’t get to improvise with others, but I started off doing, ostensibly, it was just like improvising but solo," he told NPR. "And then I started to realize, ‘Oh.’ [I started] building an act from there."

2. HE FORMED A FRIENDSHIP WITH KOKO THE GORILLA.

In 2001, Williams visited Koko the gorilla, who passed away in June, at The Gorilla Foundation in Northern California. Her caregivers had shown her one of his movies, and she seemed to recognize him. Koko repeatedly signed for Williams to tickle her. “We shared something extraordinary: laughter,” Williams said of the encounter. On the day Williams died, The Foundation shared the news with Koko and reported that she fell into sadness.

3. FOR A TIME, HE WAS A MIME IN CENTRAL PARK.

In 1974, photographer Daniel Sorine captured photos of two mimes in New York's Central Park. As it turned out, one of the mimes was Williams, who was attending Juilliard at the time. “What attracted me to Robin Williams and his fellow mime, Todd Oppenheimer, was an unusual amount of intensity, personality, and physical fluidity,” Sorine said. In 1991, Williams revisited the craft by playing Mime Jerry in Bobcat Goldthwait’s film Shakes the Clown. In the movie, Williams hilariously leads a how-to class in mime.

4. HE TRIED TO GET LYDIA FROM MRS. DOUBTFIRE BACK IN SCHOOL.

As a teen, Lisa Jakub played Robin Williams’s daughter Lydia Hillard in Mrs. Doubtfire. “When I was 14 years old, I went on location to film Mrs. Doubtfire for five months, and my high school was not happy,” Jakub wrote on her blog. “My job meant an increased workload for teachers, and they were not equipped to handle a ‘non-traditional’ student. So, during filming, they kicked me out.”

Sensing Jakub’s distress over the situation, Williams typed a letter and sent it to her school. “A student of her caliber and talent should be encouraged to go out in the world and learn through her work,” he wrote. “She should also be encouraged to return to the classroom when she’s done to share those experiences and motivate her classmates to soar to their own higher achievements … she is an asset to any classroom.”

Apparently, the school framed the letter but didn’t allow Jakub to return. “But here’s what matters from that story—Robin stood up for me,” Jakub wrote. “I was only 14, but I had already seen that I was in an industry that was full of back-stabbing. And it was entirely clear that Robin had my back.”

5. HE WASN’T PRODUCERS' FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY MORK ON MORK & MINDY.

Anson Williams, Marion Ross, and Don Most told The Hallmark Channel that a different actor was originally hired to play Mork for the February 1978 Happy Days episode “My Favorite Orkan,” which introduced the alien character to the world. “Mork & Mindy was like the worst script in the history of Happy Days. It was unreadable, it was so bad,” Anson Williams said. “So they hire some guy for Mork—bad actor, bad part.” The actor quit, and producer Garry Marshall came to the set and asked: “Does anyone know a funny Martian?” They hired Williams to play Mork, and from September 1978 to May 1982, Williams co-headlined the spinoff Mork & Mindy for four seasons.

6. HE “RISKED” A ROLE IN AN OFF-BROADWAY PLAY.

Actor Robin Williams poses for a portrait during the 35th Annual People's Choice Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on January 7, 2009 in Los Angeles, California
Michael Caulfield, Getty Images for PCA

In 1988, Williams made his professional stage debut as Estragon in the Mike Nichols-directed Waiting for Godot, which also starred Steve Martin and F. Murray Abraham. The play was held off-Broadway at Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. The New York Times asked Williams if he felt the show was a career risk, and he responded with: “Risk! Of never working on the stage again! Oh, no! You’re ruined! It’s like you're ruined socially in Tustin,” a town in Orange County, California. “If there’s risk, you can’t think about it,” he said, “or you’ll never be able to do the play.”

Williams had to restrain himself and not improvise during his performance. “You can do physical things,” he said, “but you don’t ad lib [Samuel] Beckett, just like you don’t riff Beethoven.” In 1996, Nichols and Williams once again worked together, this time in the movie The Birdcage.

7. HE USHERED IN THE ERA OF CELEBRITY VOICE ACTING.

The 1992 success of Aladdin, in which Williams voiced Genie, led to more celebrities voicing animated characters. According to a 2011 article in The Atlantic, “Less than 20 years ago, voice acting was almost exclusively the realm of voice actors—people specifically trained to provide voices for animated characters. As it turns out, the rise of the celebrity voice actor can be traced to a single film: Disney’s 1992 breakout animated hit Aladdin.” Since then, big names have attached themselves to animated films, from The Lion King to Toy Story to Shrek. Williams continued to do voice acting in animated films, including Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Happy Feet, and Happy Feet 2.

8. HE FORGOT TO THANK HIS MOTHER DURING HIS 1998 OSCAR SPEECH.

In March 1998, Williams won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. In 2011, Williams appeared on The Graham Norton Show, and Norton asked him what it was like to win the award. “For a week it was like, ‘Hey congratulations! Good Will Hunting, way to go,'” Williams said. “Two weeks later: ‘Hey, Mork.’”

Then Williams mentioned how his speech accidentally left out one of the most important people in his life. “I forgot to thank my mother and she was in the audience,” he said. “Even the therapist went, ‘Get out!’ That was rough for the next few years. [Mom voice] ‘You came through here [points to his pants]! How’s the award?’”

9. HE COMFORTED STEVEN SPIELBERG DURING THE FILMING OF SCHINDLER’S LIST.

At this year’s 25th anniversary screening of Schindler’s List, held at the Tribeca Film Festival, director Steven Spielberg shared that Williams—who played Peter Pan in Spielberg’s Hook—would call him and make him laugh. “Robin knew what I was going through, and once a week, Robin would call me on schedule and he would do 15 minutes of stand-up on the phone,” Spielberg said. “I would laugh hysterically, because I had to release so much.”

10. HE HELPED ETHAN HAWKE GET HIS AGENT.

During a June 2018 appearance on The Graham Norton Show, Ethan Hawke recalled how, while working on Dead Poets Society, Williams was hard on him. “I really wanted to be a serious actor,” Hawke said. “I really wanted to be in character, and I really didn’t want to laugh. The more I didn’t laugh, the more insane [Williams] got. He would make fun of me. ‘Oh this one doesn't want to laugh.’ And the more smoke would come out of my ears. He didn’t understand I was trying to do a good job.” Hawke had assumed Williams hated him during filming.

After filming ended, Hawke went back to school, but he received a surprising phone call. It was from Williams’s agent, who—at Williams's suggestion—wanted to sign Hawke. Hawke said he still has the same agent today.

11. HE WAS ALMOST CAST IN MIDNIGHT RUN.

In February 1988, Williams told Rolling Stone how he sometimes still had to audition for roles. “I read for a movie with [Robert] De Niro, [Midnight Run], to be directed by Marty Brest,” Williams said. “I met with them three or four times, and it got real close, it was almost there, and then they went with somebody else. The character was supposed to be an accountant for the Mafia. Charles Grodin got the part. I was craving it. I thought, ‘I can be as funny,’ but they wanted someone obviously more in type. And in the end, he was better for it. But it was rough for me. I had to remind myself, ‘Okay, come on, you’ve got other things.’”

In July 1988, Universal released Midnight Run. Just two years later, Williams finally worked with De Niro, on Awakenings.

12. BILLY CRYSTAL AND WILLIAMS USED TO TALK ON THE PHONE FOR HOURS.

Actors Robin Williams (L) and Billy Crystal pose at the afterparty for the premiere of Columbia Picture's 'RV' on April 23, 2006 in Los Angeles, California
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Starting in 1986, Williams, Billy Crystal, and Whoopi Goldberg co-hosted HBO’s Comic Relief to raise money for the homeless. Soon after Williams’s death, Crystal went on The View and spoke with Goldberg about his friendship with Williams. “We were like two jazz musicians,” Crystal said. “Late at night I get these calls and we’d go for hours. And we never spoke as ourselves. When it was announced I was coming to Broadway, I had 50 phone messages, in one day, from somebody named Gary, who wanted to be my backstage dresser.”

“Gary” turned out to be Williams.

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind premieres on Monday, July 16 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.

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Walt Disney Pictures
10 Facts About Hocus Pocus
Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

In a 2014 Reddit AMA, Bette Midler said she'd be interested in doing a Hocus Pocus sequel. "You have to go to send in your cards to the Walt Disney company," she said. "The ball's in their court." While you get those cards ready, here are some facts about the original, which arrived in theaters 25 years ago today.

1. THE STORY ORIGINATED AS A BEDTIME STORY.

The story for Hocus Pocus came about after writer David Kirschner invented a bedtime story for his kids. He later wrote the story up and submitted it to Muppet Magazine (why does this not still exist?), where it gained recognition.

2. THE WRITERS USED PROPS TO PITCH IT TO STUDIO EXECUTIVES.

Bette Midler in 'Hocus Pocus' (1993)
Walt Disney Pictures

To pitch the story to Disney, the writers had execs enter a dark room with broomsticks and a vacuum cleaner hanging from the ceiling. They also scattered 15 pounds of candy corn throughout the room in an effort to invoke Halloween nostalgia. It obviously worked!

3. IT WAS NOT AN IMMEDIATE HIT.

Though it’s a cult classic now, Hocus Pocus didn’t do that well when it first came out in 1993, perhaps because it was released in July instead of September or October. Though it didn’t have a terrible opening—$8,125,471, putting it in fourth place at the box office that weekend—it fell to $2,017,688 a few weeks later, and bad reviews from the critics didn’t help matters.

Entertainment Weekly was particularly put off by the movie, calling it a “piece of corny slapstick trash” and saying that “It’s acceptable scary-silly kid fodder that adults will find only mildly insulting. Unless they’re Bette Midler fans. In which case it’s depressing as hell.”

4. BETTE MIDLER LOVES IT.

Bette Midler, by the way, has said that Hocus Pocus is her favorite film out of all of the films she’s ever done. (At least as of 2008.) Thora Birch agreed, recently saying, “The most fun I ever had on a film was Hocus Pocus.”

5. KATHY NAJIMY LOVES IT, TOO.

Midler isn't the only star of the film who isn't immune to its allure: Kathy Najimy has said she watches the movie with her family every year on August 15.

6. IT COULD HAVE STARRED LEONARDO DICAPRIO.

The role of Max was originally offered to Leonardo DiCaprio. He turned it down to do What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

7. SARAH JESSICA PARKER IS RELATED TO A WOMAN FAMOUSLY ACCUSED OF BEING A WITCH.

Had Sarah Jessica Parker known then what she knows now, she might have approached the role of Sarah Sanderson a little differently. When the actress went on the show Who Do You Think You Are to trace her family history, Parker discovered that one of her ancestors was Esther Elwell, one of the women accused of being a witch during the Salem Witch Trials. After a young girl said she saw Esther’s “spectre” strangling neighbor Mary Fitch, Elwell was arrested, but escaped going to trial.

8. THORA BIRCH REVISITED THE NEIGHBORHOOD IN AMERICAN BEAUTY.

While the kids are prematurely celebrating victory against the Sanderson sisters after locking them in the kiln, they’re shown talking in front of a house as they walk to a park. The house was later used as the house Thora Birch’s character lived in for American Beauty.

9. THE KIDS WEREN'T HUGE FANS OF THE CATS.

The kids all hated working with the cats. Many different cats were used to represent Binx, and each one served a different purpose—one was good at cuddling with the kids, one would jump on command, etc. Every time a new cat was used, the children would have to coerce the kitty to trust them by using treats and a clicker. They got sick of it.

10. MUCH OF THE ORIGINAL CAST REUNITED FOR A 20TH REUNION.

Most of the cast participated in a 20th anniversary event for D23 (the Disney fan club) members. Sarah Jessica Parker and Bette Midler were not in attendance, but pretty much everyone else was, including Kathy Najimy (Mary Sanderson), Vinessa Shaw (Allison), Omri Katz (Max), Thora Birch (Dani), and Doug Jones (Billy Butcherson). You can watch some of that reunion above.

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