Still from Howl's Moving Castle
Animated film is a legitimate art form in its own right, and these films deserve a viewing. ASAP.
It’s a safe bet that, in 2015, animated films are going to keep being a really big deal. The Pixar Machine continues to churn out solid gold (though I refuse to acknowledge the existence of Cars 2), Disney’s still riding out the sweet merchandising wave of success that is Frozen, and the Best Animated Feature category at the Oscars is always an absolute bloodbath.
However, it’s unfair to judge an entire genre on just a handful of well-known movies that you saw with your niece that one time or sat through with your kids. Animated film is a legitimate art form in its own right, with its own merits. I’m not part of the school of thought that prefers hand-drawn animation over computer-generated graphics, but I do believe that the medium of animation has certain advantages over live-action film. Certain themes and ideas can be explored in richer ways in animation, and actors can more readily portray different characters through the course of the film. Plus, it’s hard to dispute the objective visual mastery of certain films (Spirited Away is one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen, and I just don’t think you can create that world with a live-action environment).
So, without further delay, here’s a list of six incredibly underrated animated films that I feel everyone should track down and watch. While some of them are considered “family films,” all of them appeal to me on at least some level as an adult viewer.
In this glorious visual orgy from Satoshi Kon (Ghost in the Shell, Perfect Blue), dream terrorists break into other people’s dreams with cool new future technology, and scientists get together to stop the crime with the help of an effervescent, adorable dream terrorist named “Paprika.” The film explores the nature of reality versus dreams, and delves into the concept of multi-layered dreams (four years before Inception came out, thankyouverymuch).
The imagery and meta-textual tricks in the film are far more effective thanks to the power of gorgeous hand-drawn backgrounds and Kon’s trademark vivid, futuristic style. I wouldn’t watch this one with your kids, however—it’s a very firm rated R film, due to violent and sexual images. If you’re looking for an existentialist science fiction mindfuck, however, this is for you. (And really, who isn't looking for that?)
Howl’s Moving Castle
While Spirited Away is regarded as Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece, I prefer the visual splendor and story of Howl’s Moving Castle. Sophie, a young woman working in a hat shop, meets a dashing wizard who eats the hearts of beautiful girls and then is cursed by a witch, becoming an old woman. Based on the Diana Wynne Jones novel of the same name, this film boasts inexplicably majestic scenery paired with a brilliant soundtrack and haunting theme by Joe Hisaishi. Plus, Disney really knocked it out of the park with its American voice cast. Howl is voiced by Christian Bale in all of his Batman Begins growly-voiced glory (but I need to not tease him, because it kind of works here), while Billy Crystal voices a grumbly, cute little fire spirit. It’s a lot of fun to watch.
Rise of the Guardians
I’ll be the first to admit that Rise of the Guardians suffered from a poor, weirdly targeted, holiday-themed marketing campaign. All Paramount really needed to put on the posters for this was “Guillermo del Toro produced an animated children’s film” and everyone would have been onboard. Based on William Joyce’s The Guardians of Childhood series, the movie focuses on Jack Frost (Chris Pine) and his struggle to find a place in a world of mythology that doesn’t have room for him. In addition to Hugh Jackman as the Easter Bunny (very rugged and Australian), you’ve got Alec Baldwin as Punk Arm Tattoos Santa and Jude Law (doing his very best Tom Hiddleston-as-Loki impression) as The Boogeyman. It’s an incredibly imaginative and dark family film, and one that deserves far more attention than it’s received. If you loved Pan’s Labyrinth but agree that you shouldn’t show it to small children, Rise of the Guardians is the big-budget family film for you.
Meet the Robinsons
Meet the Robinsons has the important distinction of being John Lasseter’s first film at Disney as their Chief Creative Officer (after the acquisition of Pixar in 2006). Lasseter actually began his career at Disney but was fired, leaving to form Pixar and to single-handedly usher in a new era of computer-animated film. After an early screening of Meet the Robinsons, he chose to scrap close to 60% of the film and rework some of the elements and themes. If the movie is Lasseter’s way of showing his love for Walt Disney, Tomorrowland, and Imagineering . . . it does a damn good job. The movie is an incredibly accurate time-travel film, loosely based on William Joyce’s A Day With Wilbur Robinson and focusing on a young scientist living in an orphanage and dreaming of a science fair project that could change his life for the better. The visual style is a gorgeous Jetsons-inspired '60s bubble party. I want to live there.
How To Train Your Dragon
In How To Train Your Dragon, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is a very flimsy stick-figure of a Viking warrior, struggling to find his place in his village. He decides that if he kills a dragon, he’ll gain notoriety and respect, but as evidenced in the title, he ends up training a dragon instead. This movie involves lots of glorious flying sequences around islands, dragons that act like adorable kitties, and Craig Ferguson as a hook-handed Viking training mentor. Fair warning, I have never cried as much during a family film as I have during this one. I showed up to the theater with my best friend, anticipating mindless 3D sky sequences and instead cried ugly, mascara tears. We held each other a lot. It gets sad.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
I know that it’s based on a well-loved children’s book that didn’t even need a movie, but for a film based on an existing property (and some very loose literary translation) . . . Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is far better than it has any right to be. Bill Hader voices Flint Lockwood, a bumbling scientist who accidentally shoots a machine that turns water into food into the atmosphere, and causes a lot of problems for everyone, really. The Phil Lord and Chris Miller team (The Lego Movie, Clone High, 21 Jump Street) absolutely shine here with an inventive, cartoonish visual style and ridiculously good comedic dialogue. More importantly, Sam Sparks (Anna Faris) is an amazing role model for young feminist aspiring scientists in your own life. Also, Mr. T voices a soft-hearted cop and Neil Patrick Harris plays the voice of a Monkey Thought Translator who flings his own poop everywhere. It’s an incredible movie and there’s a sequel that is actually fairly good, too.