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Magic with Words: The Top 6 Screenwriters in Feature Animation!

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Screenwriters in animation are, like animators, directors, and storyboard artists, the unsung champions of animated films. But they are unsung champions for wholly different reasons.

Take a moment and reminisce about your favorite moment from any animated film. While animators are often heralded for creating these moments – particularly sequences of high emotion – it’s easy to forget that before any animators were involved, these scenes were born in the mind of writers who had to realize these moments with nothing more than typewriter (or in today’s world, a word processor) and a vivid imagination. Before anything else, those writers had to do the heavy work of making those moments sing on paper before they were brought to life through the production process. This is almost quite literal, since writing for feature animation requires screenwriters to be more descriptive than for live-action.

Think about it, how would moments like Mufasa’s death in The Lion King resonate if Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton weren’t there to hit the right emotional notes needed to make that scene hit home. How in the world would something like the ‘Forbidden Friendship’ sequence from How to Train Your Dragon be pulled off – without dialogue – if Will Davies, Dean DeBlois, and Chris Sanders couldn’t realize it in a way that took advantage of the animators’ visual storytelling.

That’s how important screenwriters are to the process of developing an animated film. It’s all well and good for a story to come alive through an animator’s touch, but that magic also needs to come alive through words.

Today, in a rare return to the saturated arena of ‘listicles,’ I’m going to highlight six screenwriters who who are responsible for crafting some of your favorite animated movies. This list isn’t really meant to be definitive, but I feel it’s a strong sampling of some of the best screenwriters working in feature animation today.

Dean DeBlois (How to Train Your Dragon trilogy, Lilo & Stitch)

I already mentioned him in my introduction, so I might as well get him out of the way first. If you are a long-time reader, it’s no secret that I love Dean Deblois as a director and I definitely admire him just as much as a storyteller. Even when he made his screenwriting debut as a co-writer on Lilo & Stitch, the story possessed a few noticeable flourishes that would soon become his trademarks – a strong focus on family issues, character-driven plot turns, layered themes, and a notable talent for creating scene-stealing critters who become the face of a franchise.

Those trademarks would crop up again when he and collaborator Chris Sanders teamed up for How to Train Your Dragon. Here, he would use said trademarks to build one of the most effective executions of the ‘boy and his X’ story that I’ve ever seen. Then, in How to Train Your Dragon 2, Dean DeBlois essentially ‘comes of age’ as a writer as he marries those talents with his sure-handed skills as director. The result is a blockbuster-level animated fantasy spectacle, and one of the best animated films of the decade (in my opinion).

What’s even more remarkable about DeBlois’s work with the Dragon films is how his writing has inspired something rare for animation: a franchise that thrives on a singular vision and is incredibly lore-driven, with ongoing arcs that weave through films, shorts, TV shows, and (eventually) graphic novels. By the time How to Train Your Dragon 3 comes out, Dean DeBlois will have constructed one of the most intricate animated film sagas of all time, and he will have done it with the knowledge that he was able to maintain his creative imprint as a storyteller across all three!

Bryan Lynch (Puss in Boots, Minions, The Secret Life of Pets)

There are movies like this year’s Kubo and the Two Strings, that give viewers a richly-crafted and un-apologetically mature piece of animated storytelling. Then, there are films that don’t aim as high and just want you to come in and enjoy the show (turning your brain off might be a factor as well). We get maybe two or three of those films every year (this year’s top examples: Angry Birds and Storks). So, wouldn’t these films be easy enough for a screenwriter that he or she could write them in their sleep? Not exactly. Animated movies of that caliber still need to hit the notes they need in order to be worthwhile or else they turn into Norm of the North. So, who’s really the best at writing this type of animated movie? I’ll make the case for Bryan Lynch.

Lynch, who hails from the world of comic books, made his bow as a co-writer on Hop (yeah). But it wasn’t until he became co-writer of Puss in Boots that he really showcased his talent for making an animated film that was simply ‘entertaining.’ I should know, as someone who went into Puss in Boots expecting to hate it and came out with a grin on my face. And while I have my issues with Minions and The Secret Life of Pets, Lynch’s knack for buoyant pacing and great action sequences put him at least a notch or two above his lesser-skilled peers (again, see: Norm of the North).

I still don’t think that Bryan has written his ‘breakout’ movie, but he must be doing something right with these movies if even a divisive film like Minions can score a billion dollars at the box office.

Jared Bush (Zootopia, Moana)

This man has only written two animated films to date. But it’s a testament to his strength as a screenwriter that both those movies were smash hits in a year full of smash hits. Yes, I’m talking about Jared Bush and his work on Zootopia and Moana.

In Zootopia, Bush took the talking animal sub-genre to its logical extreme and did so by using it as a means of saying something meaningful about the current relationship between police and minority groups. Similarly, with Moana he took audiences to a new world with a new mythology and a different kind of Disney princess (well, not really a princess).

Bush hails from the world of television, best known to some as the co-creator of Disney XD’s Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero. He’s definitely made an entrance into feature animation if he’s been able to hone his skills well in TV and apply them to feature animation. Definitely mark this guy down as one to watch.

Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger (Kung Fu Panda trilogy, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, Trolls)

I mentioned this elsewhere before, but Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger are an underrated commodity in feature animation. They are both capable of crafting quality franchise films through a mix of action-y set pieces, well-executed humor, and creative world-building. Not least of all, they are reliably good at it, which helps if you want a franchise film (or in the case of Trolls, a potential franchise starter) in steady hands.

They even surprise in areas you normally wouldn’t expect to derive any enjoyment from. For example, Monsters vs. Aliens is one of DWA’s lesser films, but it was made watchable by way of some funny moments and cool action sequences. Meanwhile, Aibel and Berger took what could have easily been a ‘phone-in’ job and made The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water into a passably entertaining diversion.

Also, much like Dean DeBlois, Aibel and Berger did something unique with the Kung Fu Panda trilogy. They crafted what may be the most complete – thematically and in its narrative – trilogy of animated films in recent memory. That alone illustrates how valuable they are as a ‘package deal.’

Jennifer Lee (Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen)

Jennifer Lee, like Jared Bush, is relatively new to animation as a screenwriter. But she too has made an impression with the two films she has written thus far.

Wreck-It Ralph was something unique for Disney at the time of it’s production, stepping outside the usual studio conventions to deliver a unique and lovingly-crafted adventure film and a love letter to video games. And while everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion about Frozen, you can’t deny that Lee did what few other newcomers had done: craft a female-led monster hit off the back of a script full of immediately iconic characters and moments.

What makes her success that much more important is that she’s achieved it all as one of only a few major ‘big name’ female creators in feature animation. This carries with it the hope that she will continue to carve a path for other female creators to get involved in feature animation (in screenwriting and elsewhere).

Well, that was my list of top screenwriters in animation! Again, it’s by no means definitive, so be sure to tell me who your favorite screenwriter in feature animation is in the comment section below. If you don’t have a favorite, pick a moment you liked from an animated movie and give credit to the writers who wrote that scene!

What do you think? Do you have a favorite screenwriter in feature animation?

Edited by: Hannah Wilkes

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About Brandon Smith

Brandon is your average nerd with a love for nerdy things (games, comics, anime/manga, etc.). He also loves reading and writing and plans to be an author someday. For now, he writes with passion and curiosity about the world of animation. He lives with his family in North Carolina and is currently attending college.
  • Fadi Antwan

    I’ll go with screenwriter. Any production company can make a pretty movie, but screenplay is the soul of movies.

    • Manuel Orozco

      One thing for sure, Pixar has defined the standards of animation screenwriting.

      • racy1285

        I say all the above. You can have the best script or story in the world. The film can still end up being terrible if the animators arent on their game. For example “The Black Cauldron” and Bakshis “Lord of the Rings”.

        And Vice Versa as well.

        • Manuel Orozco

          I only saw a bit of the animated version of Lord of the Rings.

          • racy1285

            Me too the Animation is just too crude to try and enjoy for long periods.

            Im still waiting for some company to get the Chronicles of Prydian and Chronicles of Narnia book adaptations just right. It boggles my mind that of all the film companies Disney is the one who dropped the ball on both of them. Fantasy should be in their wheel house.

          • Manuel Orozco

            You never know

  • Renard N. Bansale

    As one who studied screenwriting in college, I’d argue that there has yet to be a truly great screenwriter for animated films. Save for Wreck-It Ralph, I wouldn’t call any of these films gems in screenwriting.

    By the way, I find absence of Hayao Miyazaki on this list inexcusable.
    Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird are also disappointing absentees.

    • Fadi Antwan

      Wow Wreck-it Ralph was the literally the first animated movie that popped into my head when I thought of great screenwriting in animation. I like you!

    • brandon

      Again, I stress that this list isn’t meant to be a definite statement on screenwriters in animation. It’s more my personal opinion on who the top talents are in that field right now.

      And yes, Hayao Miyazaki, Andrew Stanton, and Brad Bird technically need to be included, but that’s the thing. It would have been too easy to fill this list with the usual suspects (everybody else will). So I decided to focus on names that have recognition, but aren’t generally recognized all that much.

    • Manuel Orozco

      Having one Pixar writer would have made the article extra special. I do agree that Wreck It Ralph’s screenplay stands out because of it’s sense of excitement, nostalgia, whimsy and heart.

    • Renard N. Bansale

      If you asked me, these names might be strong for the medium, but when put into the arena of the greatest screenwriters in general…maybe only Hayao Miyazaki contends. He’s credited as the sole screenwriter on over a dozen animated films, most of which he also directed.

    • Rachel Wagner

      Yeah Hayao Miyazaki is a no brainer

  • Manuel Orozco

    I don’t have a particular screenwriter in any form of filmmaking. However, these five individuals you have selected as mentioning are full of surprises. They have taught us to expect the unexpected, taken us on magical adventures and captured our hearts and imaginations. I loved Wreck It Ralph. the KFP trilogy (equally awesome) and Puss in Boots. In the early days of animation, the credit for a beautiful scene of animation belonged to the animators for drawing it. But in this time as we are in the middle of a new golden age of feature length cartoons, we should give thanks to the screenwriter the most.

    • brandon

      Six, actually. Aibel and Berger are a pair.

      • Manuel Orozco

        Forgive me. But do you agree at least with what I said?

        • brandon

          Yeah.

          • Manuel Orozco

            Thank you very much

          • Manuel Orozco

            Hey me again I’m just wanting to ask you if I will like Trolls?

          • Manuel Orozco

            Never mind I liked Trolls

  • Dante Panora

    I think it comes down to what kind of narrative if it’s supposed to be. The more simple a premise is the more it can rely on visuals to tell and enhance the story.

    • Manuel Orozco

      Very nice way to put it. Imagine the Peanuts Movie without those colorful drawings that stayed truthful to the original character designs from the comic strip and cartoon specials.

  • TripleStrykeLover

    To me they almost have the same definition, but I think I would go with animator.

  • I don’t really pay that much attention to screenwriters, and it is something I should do more often. The animation has to follow the vision of the words, or even the silent moments the screenwriter creates, so it makes sense for them to be a bit more important.

    • brandon

      Great point. I mentioned in the article that screenplays for animated films are generally more descriptive than the standard live-action scripts. This is so that animators can have a clear-cut idea of what they are putting on the screen. It’s hard to have much of a shorthand in that area, unless you happen to be an animator AND a screenwriter (like Dean DeBlois is).

      • Manuel Orozco

        Or Don Bluth is

  • Screenwriting is so fascinating to me, I sometimes like writing whenever I have an idea for something and I really look up to screenwriters for inspiration and this list of screenwriters is amazing and can’t wait to see what the future has in store for them with their talent ^.^

  • surfercharlie25

    Brad Bird is definitely at the top of my list! The Iron Giant and The Incredibles are both compelling stories; they both grab the audience’s attention quickly and don’t let go. In fact, Bird is one of my favorite modern screenwriters, period, in live-action or animation.

    I’m also a fan of Ted Elliott &Terry Rossio. They’re not quite as flashy or well-known as Brad Bird or other writer-directors, but they’re really talented craftsmen. They’re the team behind Aladdin, Shrek & Shrek 2, and Treasure Planet 🙂

    Honestly, I think screenwriters are the most underrated and the most important figures in the film industry. Without a good script, your chances of making a good movie are slim to none.

    • Rachel Wagner

      Brad Bird is a very good pick. Lord and Miller would also be high on my list. The writing in Lego Movie was brilliant.

      • brandon

        I was thinking about including Lord and Miller, but I had no real desire to extend the article (remember, I despise listicles) and I would have to talk about one film I really enjoyed (The LEGO Movie) while trying to find something positive to say about a film that I didn’t like as much (Cloud with a Chnace of Meatballs).

        Idk, maybe I’ll throw them in as a bonus later.

        • Rachel Wagner

          That’s true. I forgot they did Cloudy, which I really don’t enjoy

          • Manuel Orozco

            I didn’t see Cloudy

        • Rachel Wagner

          Bryan Lynch is the one I guess I disagree with most. I think all of his screenplays have been kind of bad

          • Manuel Orozco

            I did like Minions and Secret Life Of Pets. But they weren’t standouts compared to Puss in Boots

          • brandon

            He’s no Dean Deblois (or Andrew Stanton, or Lord and Miller, etc), but I’ll take him over two dudes who can’t write their way out of a box of cliches to save their life (Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio).

  • Rachel Wagner

    hmmm. Jennifer Lee and Jared Bush I can see on the list but the rest I don’t think there is anything that special about the writing of those films. In fact some of the writing like in Minions was awful. It only made a lot of money because of existing properties not because of the writing. I would go with Pete Docter. Every single one of movies he’s written has been brilliant.

    • Manuel Orozco

      Inside Out to me is better than Monsters Inc and Up combined.

      • Rachel Wagner

        I will agree. Inside Out is his best script but the others are still strong IMO

        • Manuel Orozco

          I agree back at ya as ususal Rachel.

  • Cale

    What about Andrew Stanton? He helped co-write the stories for Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, WALL-E, Toy Story 3, Finding Dory and Toy Story 4. That’s nearly half of Pixar’s filmography.

    • Manuel Orozco

      Finding Dory wasn’t as great as the original. However, it proves that Andrew Stanton still has got some magic up his sleeve.

  • I’ve admired Dean DeBlois ever since I first got into animation. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is the film that first attracted me to the animation world. I adore his masterful use of storytelling, especially in those dialogue-less moments in the first film, so I was super happy to see his name on this list.

    I may be a bit biased regarding the poll, as someone who aims to work in the animation industry on the storyside of things, and greatly admires scriptwriters, I couldn’t help but pick scriptwriters. Though animators are equally as important! In order for a film to really work, both sides of the coin have to work together. One can’t exist without the other (ok that was really cheesy).

    • Manuel Orozco

      I actually prefer HTTYD over LILO & Stitch. But I do agree that Dean’s work is unexpectedly touching. When I think of the dialogue free portions, I imagine them as being part of a ballet.

  • I hope to write screenplays someday.

    • Manuel Orozco

      As long as you have promising story ideas, your life will be full of success