The importance of animation is somewhat disregarded by many mainstream viewers, seeing them as a juvenile approach to film only aimed towards a younger audience. But animation has been an integral part of cinema history for a long time, and while a younger audience can be the main focus, a lot of movies strive for creating beauty in their animation while telling a range of stories to reach a variety of ages. Pixar, Ghibli and Dreamworks may be the front line in mainstream animation, but there is a whole plethora of quality out there that is worth your time.
A Town Called Panic (2009)
Director: Stephane Aubier, Vincent Patar | Runtime: 75mins | Comedy, Adventure | Language: French
Cowboy and Indian attempt to give Mr. Horse a good birthday, but when disaster happens they must go on an adventure to fix it.
If you were describe the plot of A Town Called Panic to someone, you may sound a little unhinged. Because the entire the plot is driven by spontaneity and unbridled randomness, jumping from small towns, to underwater odysseys, to deep diving through caves, there is no place this movie won’t go and for that it consistently rises in entertainment.
Using the underappreciated form of stop-motion, it follows three figurines (a cowboy, a horse and a native american) as they escalate to one barbaric scenario to another. But why this film works is, just like it’s characters, it comes straight from the bedroom floor of a child. There is so much bizarre imagination that you’ll find yourself in a perplexed state for the majority of the film, but it’s the film’s ability to somehow structure the barbaric narrative that pushes this films quality higher than you’d expect.
There’s a horse romance of sorts, an epic snowball encounter featuring a robot penguin, and so much more to add to the adventure. It’s balls to the wall approach can only be matched by maybe Dead Leaves (2004) (which is a little more adult), but the comparison is very minimal, leaving A Town Called Panic as a breathe of fresh air in the landscape of animation.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki | Runtime: 86mins | Fantasy | Language: Japanese/English
Two young girls move closer to their Mother in the countryside where they begin attracting the attention of mythical forest spirits.
As this list has already mentioned, one of the animation behemoths of today is Japanese company Ghibli. Mostly down to the work of acclaimed directors, and probably their most talented, Hayao Miyazaki. Every film he makes oozes imagination, every creature feels so integral to the unthinkable world he has created. While most people veer towards Spirited Away (2001) as his best work, we believe that it’s an extremely close second to My Neighbor Totoro.
The reason we love this so much is because it’s imagination is delicately balanced with humanity, as Totoro himself acts as a crutch for two girls struggling to come to grips with their mother’s illness. It becomes a distraction rather than imagination, and no Ghibli film has captured emotion better than this one.
The stunning animation has created the most iconic characters to come out of Ghibli, and something that Miyazaki does so well here is create characters on such wholesome foundations. Satsuki and Mei are two of the most lovable protagonists you’ll see, and without that genuine connection to them this film’s emotional core suffers, but luckily for the film (and us) Miyazaki is a legendary director in full control of his capability to tell a story and create something ripe with warmth and imagination.
Secret of the Kells (2009)
Director: Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey | Runtime: 75mins | Fantasy
Brendan (Evan McGuire) lives in a remote medieval outpost, ran by his hardheaded Uncle (Brendan Gleeson), where he must abide by the safety precautions. It’s not until a master illuminator arrives with a powerful book that Brendan gets his call to adventure.
Much like a Miyazaki film, Secret of the Kells is bursting with imagination and wonderful animation. Because of this film, as well as The Breadwinner (2017) and Song of the Sea (2014), Nora Twomey and Tomm Moore have become low-key figures in modern animation. Both coming from Irish backgrounds though, Secret of the Kells highlights the authenticity both of the directors respective voices.
A lot of the story though comes from it’s main characters yearning for more. Being held back by his stoic Uncle (voiced wonderfully by Brendan Gleeson), Brendan wants to explore the fantastical nature of what surrounds the outpost. This is just one of the layers that the film offers us, using the mystique and magic of the stories plot devices to push it’s character into the arms of adventure.
On the other side though, and where the film gets a lot of it’s plaudits, is in it’s ability to highlight responsibility and safety. Through all the risk and adventure, there is a genuine reason for Brendan to be held back, and while taking a leap is something we can all admire, it’s the importance of his Uncle’s caution that resonates as well.
Mary & Max (2009)
Director: Adam Elliot | Runtime: 92mins | Comedy, Drama
Mary (Toni Colette), an 8-year old girl living in Melbourne, and Max (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a lonely old man living in New York, become pen pals and unlikely friends.
Another stop-motion gem, Mary & Max is about the small ray of sunshine people create in each others lives. Max, an older man who’s life is restricted of colour and positivity, goes about his day in dreary fashion with no real motivation. But with such melancholic visuals the story is able to amp up just how important this friendship becomes to Max, and in doing so creates such a sense of genuineness for it’s character dynamics.
On the other side of the stamp is Mary, who’s outlook is somewhat juvenile (as an 8-year old girl), and who’s troubles lie more in the loneliness and isolation felt being a child. While her world is a little brighter (maybe it’s the idea of a brighter future still ahead), her problems will still resonate, possibly even more than Max’s. There relationship is built on mutual melancholia, and while the film is a tough one sometimes, the most important thing it does is juxtapose the relationship so well with it’s world, making the film’s focus so visible.
While neither Mary or Max’s problems completely resonate that of an individual audience, it’s there blossoming relationship and important bond that will hit home. It’s the little things that count, and Adam Elliot’s soft approach wonderfully builds this films sentimentality and it’s a real shame that this is the directors only feature attempt.
Waltz With Bashir (2008)
director: Ari Folman | Runtime: 90mins | War, Documentary
Director Ari Folman interviews veterans of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and reconstructs their memories using animation.
For those not familiar with this films subject, it’s about the Israel invasion of Southern Lebanon in 1982, of which director Ari Folman is a veteran. To an international audience this probably isn’t something we are familiar with, but what Folman does is lay it out in Documentary fashion but with the added punch of stunning shadowy animation, which surprisingly resonates more than the actual footage.
In it’s most basic form it’s softening the reality of the story, but also it gives us something visually resonant to watch instead of watching interviews. Sure structurally Waltz With Bashir is a little episodic, but there is something so wonderful about this approach. It’s sheer volume of stories is a powerful representation of just how manic the war was, and with such a personal connection to his film Folman has created something authentic.
The animation isn’t frantic though, it has constant movement but never enough to overpower the voices that are speaking, as this movie really is about the people who suffered and not about showmanship. It’s wonderfully balanced, and while it’s not child-friendly in tone, it acts as exhibit A to the close minded opinion that animation is just for kids.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
director: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman | Runtime: 117mins | Action, Adventure
When Miles (Shameik Moore) gets bitten by a radioactive spider, he becomes the new Spider-Man of his reality. While trying to adapt to his new powers, he must help fellow Spider-Men, from different realities, to stop Kingpin (Liev Schreiber).
I imagine for a lot of people the idea of another Spider-Man movie was exhausting, with the franchise being rebooted twice by Sony and once by Marvel, it came as quite the surprise when the Phil Lord driven story propelled this movie to one of the very best that 2018 had to offer.
Miles Morales, while not the most associated name with the spidey suit, cemented his place into everyone’s hearts as the super-smart (and super awkward) teenager that’s gifted with the powers of Spider-Man. Not only is his character flawed in the best way, his flaws latch on too the other Spider-Men in the story, turning the high-concept into genuine relevance. Not only that but the film pokes fun at the overplayed origin story while simultaneously being the greatest incarnation in Spidey’s cinematic history.
Not only does is work as a superhero film, but it’s animation and writing burst off the page, it has the campiness of a comic book but the maturity of 21st century film, as well as a message about finding your own voice to really resonate. It also nods to previous works as well (for their good and bad aspects) all while having the most unique voice any Spider-Man film has ever had.
Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
Director: Travis Knight | Runtime: 101mins | Fantasy, Adventure, Action
Kubo’s (Art Parkinson) quiet life is disturbed when a vengeful family spirit comes to attack him. With the help of a snow monkey (Charlize Theron) and a beetle (Matthew McConaughey), he must find the magical armour worn by his late father, in order to protect himself.
Laika Entertainment having been making headway in the world of animation for some time, with the likes of Coraline (2009), The Boxtrolls (2014) and last years Missing Link (2019) in their catalogue. But the shining star (by a country mile) is Kubo and the Two Strings. Bursting with heart and astonishing animation, Kubo is soft in it’s approach to emotion but also spectacular in it’s visual presentation.
Set on the surface of it’s origami-like animation, it challenges the bond between child and parents, as Kubo’s search for his late father’s armour and weaponry becomes his chance to experience something he never had. The scenes about parent and child relationships are rattling, as well as the mystical elements of spirit aunt’s and grandfathers.
While the animation and story on point, everything else pushes Kubo to a wonderful final product. The music wonderfully gets incorporated into our character, using his shamisen evoke emotion from whomever hears him. If Laika maintained this amount quality in all their work, chances are they might be closer to the level of Pixar as one of the strongest voices among the animation world.