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By Kevin Nelson · November 22, 2021
Animated films have a long and rich history. From cave walls to celluloid to digital files, the medium continues to push the boundaries of the movie-watching experience.
With animation, the impossible suddenly becomes possible, allowing writers to break free from the confines of their imaginations. Want to see what toys do when you leave the room? Take off in a giant peach to a new land with some new critter friends? Explore the soul in the afterlife? By reading these scripts — you can!
Every screenplay on this list not only exhibits a mastery of the craft but they also demonstrate the creative force collaboration can be when talented writers join forces. That’s why reading animation scripts (especially these ones) is highly recommended to anyone who wishes to learn the craft.
Here are some of the best animated feature screenplays ever written.
Toy Story made history in many ways. Pixar was a fledgling little animation studio that was on the brink of bankruptcy. The animation department run by John Lasseter mainly worked on commercials but got a boost when they struck a three-picture deal with Disney on the strength of their animated short Tin Toy.
It also was the beginning of Pixar’s Brain Trust, which would later become its primary development process. The Trust allows a group of writers, producers, executives, and storyboard artists to engage in a development process rooted in respectful peer review where nothing is sacred and everything is examined in order to make the film the best it can possibly be. The process would go on to inspire other studios to adopt similar writing by committee styles.Download the script
Written by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse broke the conventions of animated superhero films by finally making use of the source material: comic books. Not only in story, but formatting and design.
The script is a perfect example of how to format any out-of-the-panel ideas that you may have so that it reads clearly on the page. Lord and Rothman use every tool in their arsenal — three-panel split screens, voiceovers, montage, thought bubbles, splash pages, and more. Read this script for a masterclass in screenwriting formatting and technique.Download the script
Written by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston, with a story developed by the Disney Story Trust — a development engine that was directly inspired by Pixar’s Brain Trust.
Now working as the Disney Animation Chief Creative Officer, John Lasseter fielded pitches from filmmaker Byron Howard. The common theme amongst the ideas was anthropomorphic characters. He liked that idea.
The film transformed from a James Bond-style spy thriller into the more grounded reality of a world designed by animals for animals. Each with their own role within society and their own personality. Giving these animals not only human characteristics but human jobs and routines such as the sloth working at the DMV offers a great way to laugh at ourselves.Download the script
Sometimes the best revenge is to become a massive success, and then collaborate with the company that fired you. While working for Walt Disney Feature Animation, Tim Burton wrote a poem titled The Nightmare Before Christmas that was inspired by classic Christmas television tales like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Disney bought the rights but development floundered, and Tim Burton was subsequently let go from Disney for not being able to fit its sunny disposition.
After the success of Beetlejuice and Batman (NOT ON TSL), and under the leadership of Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg (who had a hand in many of the films on this list), Burton returned to Disney to rekindle the rights. Instead of the off-beat tone being a hindrance by tarnishing the Disney brand, Katzenberg saw Burton’s vision as a way to expand it much in the same way he did with Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. It showed that Disney was capable of thinking outside of the frame ratio.
It’s a great script to read if you want to write a musical, especially if you like exploring subjects that are off-key.Download the script
Written by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was groundbreaking in that it combined live-action with animation. Jeffrey Katzenberg saw the potential, and director Robert Zemeckis even offered to direct it in 1982. His prior two films had been flops so Disney passed on him at the time. So he did what most meddling directors do — went on to direct two blockbuster classics in Romancing the Stone and Back to the Future. He was hired in 1985.
If you want to see how to perfectly blend live-action with animation without missing a beat in your writing, make sure to check out this one.Download the script
Written by Irene Mecchi & Jonathan Roberts, The Lion King touched on universal themes of loss, betrayal, and the warrior’s journey. In the tradition of Disney fare like Bambi, this film wasn’t shy about touching on themes like the pain of losing a loved one. Young Simba’s journey touched the hearts of all ages and demographics. An entire generation of youth was scarred by Scar.
Like in The Nightmare Before Christmas, the song lyrics are written into the script. And yes, Mufasa’s death scene is just as gut-wrenching to read as it was to watch.Download the script
After resigning from Disney, Jeffrey Katzenberg (remember him?) co-founded DreamWorks SKG with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen in 1994. It was around this time that producer John H. Williams was pitched the book Shrek! by William Steig by his two young sons, who were in preschool and kindergarten at the time. Spielberg already owned the rights to the book, and it quickly went into development in 1995.
Chris Farley was originally cast as Shrek and recorded most of the film. Due to his death in 1997, Mike Myers took over as the titular character and gave the character a Scottish accent.Download the script
Written by Chris Miller & Phil Lord, The Lego Movie is just plain fun to read. It is clear that the writers are having a good time writing it. After all, they’re writing about Legos. Normally, this would qualify for the Slinky/Lincoln Logs debate on Script Notes, but Legos has so many different characters and worlds throughout their long line of toys that there’s gotta be a story in there somewhere.
Legos helped fuel our imagination as children, and it’s clear that the scribes of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs were running on all cylinders with this one.Download the script
Written by Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon, Wall-E could easily be one of the best screenplays to read for anyone who wishes to write for animation. Their use of white space shows that less can be more. Every action line is direct and to the point and written almost like poetry. They are able to direct the reader without using language meant for a directory of photography. Instead, every word has a purpose and advances the story — even when revealing exposition.Download the script
Pete Doctor first conceived of the idea for Soul in January 2016, when he began to think about where human personalities are formed — a place devoid of time or space between life and death. When he and co-writer Mike Jones settled on the protagonist being a jazz musician, they hired Kemp Powers to add authenticity to the character.
Powers emphasizes the importance not only of the portrayal of his character but that of the black community in the film and the protagonist’s relationships within that community. Pixar created a trust made up of black creatives that included Herbie Hancock, Terri Lyne Carrington, Questlove, Johnetta Cole, Jon Batiste, and Quincy Jones.
Soul is a must-read looking for that extra spark.Download the script
Pete Docter often uses his films as a way to sort out something that is happening in his life. As his daughter began to retreat into the anxiety of adolescence, he conceived of the first inklings of Inside Out in order to come to terms with it. A story team was formed with half of the team being women. The brain trust worked in overdrive as the filmmakers researched psychology, personality types, and emotional states.
They streamlined over 26 emotions into five main characters that make up Riley’s mind: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. The script is as solid as one can be, being shaped and refined for years by some truly great writers that include Docter, Meg LeFauve, & Josh Cooley, with story help by Ronnie del Carmen.Download the script
Lee Unkrich had the idea for Coco after the release of Toy Story 3. The problem with the original script was, none of the writers had Mexican roots. Longtime Pixar collaborator Adrian Molina was hired for his first writing assignment and went on to become a co-director on the project.
The group went to Mexico and worked with consultants in order to research the culture and make sure that the film was authentic and also celebrated the culture.
Oh, and the writers use beats in the dialogue — proving that there are no golden rules to screenwriting. Be consistent, but more importantly, be brilliant so that no one will notice whether you use beats or not.Download the script
Written by Bob Peterson and Pete Doctor with help on the story by Tom McCarthy, Up features one of the greatest opening scenes in animated film history. Going into an animated film, the audience thinks that they’re going to see something geared towards children with hints of depth that appeals to adults.
The first fourteen pages of Up surprised audiences and thwarted their expectations as they were confronted with a very adult subject matter right off the bat: love and death. Only after this initial grounding do things take off for the children. Reading the sequence is just as heartbreaking as seeing the film. It’s so beautifully written. If you want to see how to build up an audience and then tear them down into a puddle of tears, read this one.Download the script
The Incredibles was a departure for Pixar in a number of ways. It was the first time that a Pixar film was written and directed by a single outside source — writer and director Brad Bird. It also was the first time that a Pixar film featured humans, albeit superhumans.
Bird was going through a rough patch while finishing up The Iron Giant. He found himself wondering if he was sacrificing his family life for his career. The father in the film is similarly going through a midlife crisis. This goes to show that the more vulnerable you are with your writing, the more it’ll ring true for others.
The superpowers of each of the family members represent the family dynamic. Fathers are supposed to be strong, so Bird made the father strong. Moms are pulled in a million directions, so she’s elastic and stretches. Teenagers are insecure and defensive, so Violet can turn invisible and activate shields. Boys are hyperactive and babies have unrealized potential.Download the script
The Secret Life of Pets, written by Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio, and Brian Lynch, has one of those concepts that makes you think, god why didn’t I think of that? The concept alone made this the sixth highest-grossing film of 2016. What do your pets get into when you aren’t home? What are they thinking? Is your Chihuahua headbanging to Slayer?
The fun concept is supported by the age-old animal story of their journey home but this time we find it uniquely set in New York City. Audiences are used to animal adventures through rural landscapes. Oftentimes, if you can find a unique setting to stage a tried-and-true story — it’ll shine.Download the script
Written by Marc Haimes & Chris Butler, Kubo and the Two Strings is a stop-motion samurai epic fantasy. It’s a genre film that has seen plenty of great anime, but never stop-motion. Stop-motion requires a lot of painstaking hours to create models that capture every single movement.
The script reads like a samurai saga built around familial betrayal. Magic is slowly built into the narrative until it becomes the defining weapon against evil. This runs parallel with Kubo being tested enough to access and wield it.Download the script
I wish I could let this one go, but I can’t turn away and slam the door.
The Snow Queen had been in development for years. Since Walt Disney still ran the joint. The film finally found traction when Chris Buck returned to Walt Disney Animation Studios at the behest of John Lasseter. Still, something was missing.
It wasn’t until Jennifer Lee was brought on that they went back to square one and things finally came together. Much of that had to do with approaching Elsa not as a straightforward villain but a scared woman struggling to control her gift and curse. It made her a multi-faceted character with depth.
The film subverted Disney’s concept of true love. It wasn’t a prince’s kiss that thawed the ice, but an act of love between siblings. It was refreshing to see women resolve the conflict without the aid of a man. If anything, Prince Charming turned out to be a toad.Download the script
The television show South Park made a lot of noise when it premiered in 1997. My friend wasn’t allowed to watch it so he slept over at my house and we snuck out to the small TV in the family room when my parents went to sleep. We had never seen anything like it on TV.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s brash satire ultimately led to this crazy film that went far beyond what the show was capable of portraying. With a hard R rating, the two creators pushed the limits and fought hard not to have their wild imaginations tamed or censored by the studios.Download the script
Based on the children’s novel by Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a stop-motion animated film written by Wes Anderson & Noah Baumbach. They share the writing credit with Roald Dahl as homage. In all of Anderson’s mumblecore glory, you even read the dialogue in monotone.
One of the defining characteristics in Dahl’s writing is a clever finality that shows itself in the bits of dialogue. Each exchange is punctuated with a witty take on the situation.
Anderson’s writing is just like his directing, stylized and tailored to an uncomfortable perfection.Download the script
Finding Nemo made a splash (ugh, I know!) in 2003. Written by Andrew Stanton, Bob Peterson, & David Reynolds, the film became the second highest-grossing film of the year and won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
The inspiration for the film came as early as Stanton’s childhood, where he loved to visit the dentist where he’d get to see a fish tank. He always imagined that the fish were brought from the ocean and must’ve missed their home.
He wrote the screenplay while in post-production on A Bug’s Life, so it went into production with a completed screenplay, which is unusual for a Pixar production. It’s considered one of the best animated films ever, featuring some great writers in their prime. Be sure to check it out.Download the script
Animation writers are some of the best in the business. A large part of this is because animation lends itself to collaborating and knowing that the more great minds that come together on a project, the better it can become. It’s not about ego or taking all the credit — it’s about creating a story that moves an audience like the animation on the screen. That’s what audiences come back for.
Whether hand-drawn, computer-generated, or built by hand — the heart of all animation is in the story.