12 Animated Movies And The Real People And Events That Inspired Them

Growing up I was a huge fan of cartoons and animated movies, and that love continues into adulthood. My palette for animation definitely evolved as I grew — I went from loving funny animals making jokes to furry animals delivering medicine across Alaska to cure sick children. Here are some of my favorite animated movies based on real people or events, and the stories that inspired them.

Anthropomorphic animal facial expression illustrations.
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Poster image for the Disney animated film Pocahontas featuring the titular character on a boat with a raccoon and a hummingbird.

Let's start with the most obvious one. Pocahontas had us all singing "Colors of the Wind" as we danced through the forest but the true story was much different and very tragic.

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Here's an image of Matoaka (aka Pocahontas) and the Colonial Settlement of Jamestown, Virginia:

Painting depicting Pocahontas saving the life of John Smith.

Yes, Pocahontas did exist and the name "Pocahontas" was her nickname, her actual name was Amonute and her private name was Matoaka. Pocahontas was the daughter of Powhatan, a ruler of more than 30 tribes in what we now know as Jamestown, Virginia.

The idea that she was in love with John Smith might have just been a myth, created by John Smith himself. Powhatan's brother, Opechancanough, captured John Smith, and after many days (according to John) he was about to be killed when Pocahontas saved him by placing her head on top of his before it was about to be struck. Pocahontas was always in attendance when the English and Powhatan's tribe traded and the English needed the help of the tribe to survive.

She married Kocoum, the warrior in the movie she turned her back on, and they had a son. She was captured and taken hostage by the English and used as a bargaining chip because Captain Samuel Argall wanted to improve the relationship between the English and the Powhatan tribes. While captured, she improved her English, learned about Christianity, and this is when she met John Rolfe, the man she would marry after converting to Christianity and changing her name to Rebecca. She eventually died around the age of 21 after a trip to England.



Poster image for the animated film Persepolis, with the main characters face in profile looking at her family sitting within a dream bubble.

Persepolis is a stunning movie based on the autobiographical graphic novel by cartoonist, illustrator, and film director Marjane Satrapi.

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It's a coming-of-age story set during the Iranian Revolution. The movie is a must-see, and the graphic novel is a must-read.

Photo of Marjane Satrapi dressed in a white spotted gown with a collared shirt, her reflection is on the left.

Marjane Satrapi was born in Rasht, Iran, and witnessed the Islamic Revolution firsthand as a child. Women lost the right to seek divorce or the opportunity to retain custody of a child, the dress code mandated a veil, and legal marriage for girls went from 18 to 9. The film chronicles her journey from a young girl to a woman during this time of political and social change.



Still from the animated film Charlotte, depicting the main character painting.

Charlotte is a movie about survival and creativity in the face of unspeakable odds. The artist at the center of the film is Charlotte Salomon, a German-Jewish artist from Berlin.

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Charlotte Salomon was the definition of prolific, creating an autobiographical piece called Leben? oder Theater?: Ein Singspiel which translates to "Life? or theater?: A song-play."

Photo of Charlotte Salomon, painting in a garden.

It comprises seven hundred and sixty-nine gouache paintings. All of them were painted in the south of France while she was hiding from Nazis. She would eventually be captured by Nazis and deported to Auschwitz where she was gassed to death while five months pregnant.



Poster for the animated film Anastasia, depicting the main characters face seeming confused at the top, the costar and villain of the film flanking her, and a scene below her of Anastasia being led down a flight of red stairs in a ballroom dress.

One of the best princess movies that was not made by Disney, Anastasia was a fairy tale about a young girl who lost all of her memory and goes on a journey of self-discovery with two con men who want to pass her off as the real Anastasia but unbeknownst to them...she is REALLY her.

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This fairytale was based on the real legend of the Grand Dutches Anastasia of Russia who was the youngest daughter of the Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. In reality, she and her family were killed by Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1918 when she was 18.

A Black and white photo of the real Anastasia as a child sitting on a couch while wearing a white dress,

But just like Tupac, the public didn't want to accept her death as a fact, and rumors of her escape spread around the world. And from these rumors several women claimed to be Anastasia, hoping to get a piece of that royal fortune hidden in Swiss banks. The most famous of these women is Anna Anderson, who tried to take her fight all the way to court to get a piece of that royal pie. But she was unsuccessful.

Eventually, genetic testing in the 1990s put any lies and urban legends to rest. The animated film turns this search for a living Anastasia into the ultimate fairy tale.


Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin

A photo of the real Rasputin, dressed in black, his left hand is resting on his stomach

Wait, we're not done yet. Anastasia features a wild villain attempting to kill Anastasia from the afterlife with the help of a bat. Yes, that man existed, (who knows if the bat was real) and his name was Grigori Rasputin, a fascinating historical figure. A mystic, healer, holy man, and con man who amassed a ton of influence with the Czar Nicholas II.

His nickname was the Mad Monk. He went from peasant to giving political advice to the Czar. The family saw him as a faith healer when he helped their only son Alexei heal from hemophilia. He lived like a rockstar, got drunk, slept with all the ladies (not the royal ones), and bragged about his influence on the royal family.

But what's most interesting about this guy is his assassination. Yussupov, one of his killers, wrote about it in detail. He invited Rasputin over to meet his wife, who was out of town, and served him wine and cake laced with potassium cyanide. That didn't kill him. Then he got a revolver and shot Rasputin several times. That also didn't kill him!! The final cause of death was found to be drowning, because of water left in his lungs.


5.Miss Hokusai

Poster image for the animated film Miss Hokusai, featuring a collage of all the main characters and a wave in the background.

The first time I saw Miss Hokusai I actually didn’t know it was based on a true story. It hit me in the feels because, like the main character, I’m an artist.

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This film captures the beauty of what it feels like to create. Miss Hokusai tells the true story of a master Japanese artist, Katsushika Ōi, who lived in the shadow of her more famous father Katsushika Hokusai.

Drawing of artist Katsushika Ōi

Most biographies tell a straightforward story of the individual, but this movie gets into the mind of the artist. She divorced her first husband because she thought his art was wack, moved back in with her father and the two of them were so obsessive over art they ignored housework and only took breaks to sleep, eat ready-to-cook meals, and smoke.


6.Grave of the Fireflies

Poster Image for Grave of the Fireflies depicting the two main characters walking a battle scarred place while holding a tattered umbrella, as fireflies fall from the sky.

This classic is oftentimes considered one of the saddest films ever made. It comes from the legendary animation powerhouse that is Studio Ghibli.

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Based on the short story by Akiyuki Nosaka, the film is about two siblings, a boy and a girl, surviving the final moments of World War II, specifically the fire bombings of Kobe. While the work is not directly autobiographical, it is inspired by the very real life of Akiyuki Nosaka, who lived through the very real events that inspired the film.

When Kobe was firebombed, Nosaka's adopted father was killed and his mother was badly injured. He ran away with his infant sister, but she died as well. He landed in a juvenile detention center for stealing where many of his fellow classmates died of starvation. He uses the power of storytelling to share his experiences with us through his short story which became the animated film.

7.Waltz with Bashir

Poster image for the film Waltz with Bashir depicting topless male soldiers walking in the water toward a city on fire.

Waltz with Bashir is an animated documentary film, which also served as a form of therapy for the filmmaker.

Bridgit Folman Film Gang / Alamy

It depicts the true life of its filmmaker, Ari Folman, recalling moments from his past that have stuck with him.

Photo of Ari Folman, dressed in a black leather jacket.

Ari was a soldier in the 1982 Lebanon War and uses the film to place, front and center, the horrors of war from an Israeli perspective. It's a film that explores trauma and how it's affected Ari and his former fellow soldiers.



Poster image for the animated film Tatsumi depicting the main character drawing a comic at his desk during a rain storm as pages fly away.

Tatsumi is one of those animated films that sticks with you for days after you watch it. It shows a darker side of normal life, depicting adult themes in short stories while telling the real-life story of iconic and groundbreaking manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi.

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The film was based on the 855-page autobiographical manga chronicling his life from 1945 to 1960. He’s credited with creating the Gekiga style of manga, which are comics that lean toward more dramatic, alternative, and/or adult stories.

Photo of Yoshihiro Tatsumi sitting at his desk beside filmmaker Eric Khoo


Poster image for the animated film Balto, featuring the face of the dog Balto at the top and several scenes from the film in a collage at the bottom of the poster around the Title.

I remember seeing Balto as a child. It has the vibes of the little engine that could, but with snow dogs.

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Balto was an Alaskan Husky owned by Leonhard Seppala, who led a team of dogs on the final leg of a relay, where the mission was to deliver life-saving medicine to a small town in 1925. The destination was 500 miles away and was through the brutal Alaskan weather. One sled dog team would have taken a month, which was too slow, so they decided a relay was the answer.

Statue made in honor of the real dog Balto, standing in a park.

Balto and the other dogs were led by musher Gunnar Kaasen and they fought harsh weather and winds, but they got the medicine to doctors in Nome completely intact. Also, another dog named Togo did the longest run of this journey and he deserves his flowers, too.



Poster image for the Pixar film Up, featuring a boy hanging onto a garden hose as he flies into the clouds

Up is that one Pixar film where everyone cries in the first ten minutes.

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It's a story of love, loss, friendship, and resilience.

Photograph of Edith Macefield's house flanked by the large corporate building built around her house.

But, at the same time the movie was being produced, it was playing out in real-time to Edith Macefield. She, like Carl in Up, held onto her home in the face of a new expensive development. The 108-year-old farmhouse she called Whitewood Cottage was her home, and she’d refused several offers of hundreds of thousands of dollars by developers so she could stay in it. So the development was built around her home, creating a striking image that perfectly mirrors Carl’s home in Up.

In China, this same phenomenon is called Nail Houses.



Still shot illustration of Amin Nawabi from the film Flee.

Flee is a documentary and animated film about a man going under the alias of Amin Nawabi who shares his epic journey fleeing from war-torn Afghanistan in the 1990s to Denmark.

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This is a true story narrated by the man it happened to firsthand. However, he uses an alias so that he may be his most truthful while protecting his safety.

Flee aims to uncover how it feels to have your reality rocked. Amin Nawabi turns into a refugee and must learn to survive that journey along the way. It's a story of the human condition as much as it is a story of what it feels like to be a refugee. Jonas Poher Rasmussen is the filmmaker, and friend of Amin, who turned his stories into this powerful animated film.

12.The Road to El Dorado

Poster image for the animated film The Road to El Dorado featuring the two main characters on a white horse in front of a city of gold.

On its surface, this is a story of two con men and best friends who happen upon the city of El Dorado in their search for gold.

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The two men trick the Indigenous inhabitants of El Dorado into believing they are gods so that they can be showered in golden treasures. Hernán Cortés is the looming threat the two con men have to evade in the end. His arrival in El Dorado would mean the end of this beautiful city. Even though the con men were not real, Hernán Cortés was most definitely real and he did end an empire.

Cover illustration for the book, Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes and the Fall of Old Mexico, featuring Spanish explorers meeting south American indigenous people.

This movie takes place during The Age of Discovery, which was a time from the mid-15th to the mid-16th century when European countries explored and colonized places around the world. Cortez was a Conquistador for Spain, exploring and brutally colonizing the Americas, causing the fall of the Aztec Empire in 1521.

Several European explorers blazed through South America in search of gold. Gold in these communities was treasured not for its monetary value but for its spiritual value, as in the Muisca society, where gold was placed on the body of a leader who had just died. Nonetheless, tales of golden cities spread like wildfire attracting European conquerors on a mission to please their rulers back home and place their names in the history books.