As an obsessive lover of the medium of animation, I have always adored the masterworks of Disney, the modern classics of Pixar and the breathtaking Japanese animated films of Studio Ghibli. Most people are familiar with the films from these three sources but to stop at that is to miss out on whole other worlds of animated brilliance. In the hope of inspiring our readers to seek out some of these lesser-known gems, I’ve compiled a chronological list of 100 animated features from outside the sphere of these three major studios, which I’ve divided into five parts of 20 entries each, in order to allow time to digest each chunk. This is not intended to be a definitive ‘Top 100’ but more of a doorway into the vast, glorious medium of animation but as there are far more than 100 animated features to recommend, I’ve also included some suggestions of further watching for anyone who wants to probe even deeper into this exquisite world.
Part 1 can be found here.
THE CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO – 1979
Hayao Miyazaki’s first feature The Castle of Cagliostro, which predated the founding of the Ghibli studio, was based on manga series Lupin III about the master thief Arsene Lupin and his determined nemesis Inspector Zenigata. Fans of the series often criticise the film for being less edgy than other films in the series and for making the main character less flawed and more heroic, but having seen other examples of the Lupin series I much prefer Miyazaki’s version. A thrilling, old-fashioned action adventure tale which evokes memories of great Saturday morning cartoons but features much higher production values and script quality, The Castle of Cagliostro finds the genius of Miyazaki arriving fully formed and the talent that would go on to produce fantastical classics like Castle in the Sky and Spirited Away is clearly in evidence. The film has a slightly more irreverent edge than some of the more famous Miyazaki films but this would resurface in his wonderful adult noir-fantasy Porco Rosso.
FURTHER WATCHING: The obvious recommendation for newcomers to Miyazaki is to check out his amazing Ghibli films but as this list is about recommending lesser known works, fans may also want to check out some pre-Ghibli work that Miyazaki was involved in including the child-friendly short Panda Go Panda (directed by Isao Takahata) or the anime series Future Boy Conan. The curious might also want to seek out some other Lupin films to see a less softened version of the character, although I do prefer Miyazaki’s version.
GALAXY EXPRESS 999 – 1979
The debut feature by legendary Anime director Rintaro, Galaxy Express 999 condenses a lengthy manga and 113 episode television series into a two hour and ten minute film. Although fans of the original may have been incensed by this adaptation, from what I can tell Rintaro has done a sterling job, creating an epic sci-fi tale with elements of the revenge western. It follows the tale of Tetsuro, a young boy who is out to avenge the murder of his mother and will do anything to obtain a ticket for the Galaxy Express, a space train that only visits Earth once a year. He manages this through an apparently chance encounter with Maetel, a strange woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to Tetsuro’s late mother. Together, the two go in search of the evil Count Mecha, with Tetsuro determined to obtain the machine-body that will make him strong enough to fight the Count. But what is the real price of this transformation? While the original series saw Tetsuro and Maetel visit over a hundred planets in their quest, Galaxy Express 999 the movie condenses this to just four. Although this does mean that the narrative has to include some incredibly fortuitous coincidences, the story never seems less than epic and the sometimes limited animation is disguised in the fantastic artwork and sprawling space settings.
FURTHER WATCHING: I have not seen any more of Rintaro’s work save for one 21st century masterpiece (more on which later) but he has a large catalogue of anime films, including Adieu Galaxy Express 999, a sequel to this film. The original anime series of Galaxy Express 999 is also an obvious port-of-call for anyone who enjoyed this film. Those who enjoyed the notion of a space train might also be interested in Gisaburō Sugii’s 1985 anime Night on the Galactic Railroad, a strange, hypnotic, philosophical work in which two anthropomorphic cats take a metaphysical journey on a magic railway. It’s a visually striking, deliberately paced oddity of a film which immerses itself in all sorts of different religious and spiritual philosophies.
NEZHA CONQUERS THE DRAGON KING – 1979
For those who found the action of the Wan brothers’ animated feature Havoc in Heaven too lengthy, too chaotic and the film’s anti-hero too unlikable, Nezha Conquers the Dragon King offers a more palatable alternative. The film follows the story of the warrior deity Nezha (who had a cameo in Havoc in Heaven, unsuccessfully taking on Sun Wukong in battle) and his ongoing fight with the Dragon king of the Eastern Sea (also featured in Havoc in Heaven). While it may lack the visual dazzle of Havoc in Heaven, this shorter, pacier Chinese animated feature is still extraordinarily entertaining, focusing again on some nifty fight scenes but this time giving us a clear hero to root for. Unlike the self-aggrandising antic of Sun Wukong, Nezha’s motives for fighting are to put a stop to the bullying, murderous ways of the Dragon king and his kin. Despite opposition from his own family, Nezha fights on and while we are in little doubt of the ultimate outcome (thanks, spoiler-riffic title!), the journey is still a thrilling one. The colourful 70s animation, though it wavers in quality, remains appealing throughout and the story, slim though it is, moves at a real lick.
FURTHER WATCHING: Fans of Nezha might want to check out 2003’s 52 episode China Central Television series The Legend of Nezha, though I cannot vouch for its quality having not seen it myself. I can do no better than directing viewers who enjoyed this film to the aforementioned Wan Brothers’ feature film Havoc in Heaven in which Nezha cameos, although this time is not quite so all-conquering.
LE ROI ET L’OISEAU – 1980
French animated feature The King and the Mockingbird has a lengthy history and it is important to research before watching as there are several versions of the film out there. Begun in 1948, the definitive version of The King and the Mockingbird was not released until 1980. Director Paul Grimault had the film taken out of his hands by his struggling studio, who released it unfinished in 1952 against Grimault’s wishes. In the interim several versions of the film have been released, with awful titles like The Curious Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird or Mr. Bird to the Rescue. The version that must be seen to be fully appreciated is the 1980 version, which Grimault managed to secure funding to complete over 30 years after it was begun. This version is usually referred to by it’s French title Le Roi et l’oiseau.
Le Roi et l’oiseau is an extremely unusual film and fans of Western animation may be totally baffled by it. It is a surrealist, chaotically plotted tale of an evil king and his jealousy over the love between a chimney sweep and a shepherdess. This description doesn’t begin to scratch the surface however. For instance, I haven’t even mentioned that the lovers are actually paintings come to life. Or that the king is also arbitrarily deposed by a painting of himself early on in the story. Or that the lovers are assisted by a bird who hates the king for killing his wife. Or the bat-police… oh, you’d better just see it for yourselves! Although the plot borders on the nonsensical, there is so much to Le Roi et l’oiseau visually that it genuinely doesn’t matter. The characters play second fiddle to the gorgeous animations of the towering, shapeshifting palace. The definitive version of Le Roi et l’oiseau also ends on an angry image that leaves a real impact and is missing from all other versions.
FURTHER WATCHING: Another French film about illustrations coming to life which may appeal to fans of Le Roi et l’oisaeu is Dominique Monfery’s Eleanor’s Secret, a charming little film about Nat, a boy who inherits a library of first edition classics from his grandmother but must conquer his inability to read with the help of the miniature inhabitants of the books, including Alice, Peter Pan and Pinocchio. Jean-François Laguionie’s The Painting, which I have not yet seen, also features paintings coming to life.
SON OF WHITE MARE – 1981
Perhaps the most internationally revered of all the great films to come out of Hungary’s Pannonia Studio, Marcell Jankovics’s Son of White Mare is even more visually stunning than his debut Johnny Corncob. While Johnny Corncob had revelled in kaleidoscopic imagery heavily influenced by 60s psychedelia, Son of White Mare takes things to the next level with burningly vivid visuals that you can barely believe could be sustained throughout a whole feature. Although there is an entertaining plot involving heroes, dragons and princesses here to keep viewers watching, the real attraction is the amazing animation, with symbolism, suggestion and eyeball-scorching colour pushed to the forefront. An amazing work.
FURTHER WATCHING: Another adventure that take the heroes into mysterious underworlds is Jorge R. Gutierrez’s The Book of Life, a relatively overlooked gem which has begun to find an audience on TV and is now widely seen as a forerunner of Pixar’s Coco. Benoît Philippon and Alexandre Heboyan’s fantasy-adventure Mune: Guardian of the Moon also boasts dazzlingly bold characters that bear some resemblance to those in Son of White Mare, as well as a similarly well-realised, densely mythological approach to storytelling.
GRENDEL GRENDEL GRENDEL – 1981
Based on John Gardner’s novel which retells the Beowulf legend from the point of view of the monster Grendel, Alexander Stitt’s very funny and unusual Australian animation should please adults and children alike. For adults there is the cerebral subject matter (a small amount of knowledge about Beowulf helps a great deal) and the voice talents of Peter Ustinov as the titular monster. For children there are the antics of the daft inhabitants of the kingdom and the simple but effective animation style which is colourful and pleasingly basic. As an adult with an actively nurtured inner-child, Grendel Grendel Grendel appealed to me across the board. True, there are a handful of seriously awful musical numbers to get through but those aside, I smiled all the way through this film. It evoked the humour of childhood favourites like Danger Mouse, Count Duckula and Victor and Hugo, albeit with a greater literary underpinning. Given its overall tone, the final emotionally affecting moments are surprising but fitting and effective.
FURTHER WATCHING: Alexander Stitt’s only other film as a director, Abra Cadabra, is also a lost gem; a witty take on the Pied Piper story only with added space wizards! The visual style is quite unlike any other animated feature I’ve come across, completely forsaking inking in favour of bold colour splodges of characters. The script is witty with plenty for both children and adults, drawing on pantomime and modern satire as influences. These disparate ingredients knit together wonderfully into an utterly charming whole.
THE MYSTERY OF THE THIRD PLANET – 1981
For those who find the animated features of Rene Laloux a trifle serious and intense, there’s a film out there that evokes the same otherworldliness but counterbalances it with a healthy sense of humour. Based on Kir Bulychov’s series of children’s books, Roman Kachanov’s cult Russian sci-fi feature The Mystery of the Third Planet is a real treat for animation fans. Following the adventures of Professor Selezynov, his intrepid daughter Alice and the pessimistic Captain Green as they travel to different planets in search of unusual creatures for Moscow Zoo, The Mystery of the Third Planet recalls the charmingly contradictory animated simplicity and ambitious ideas of the best Saturday morning cartoon shows of the 70s and 80s, while the oddball creatures and locations instantly bring to mind Bob Clampett’s Looney Tunes short Porky in Wackyland. There’s a touch of Scooby Doo corniness thrown in but that can’t derail this mesmerizingly bizarre gem. Be sure to see the original version with its distinctive synthesiser soundtrack, rather than one of the awful dubs with an ill-fitting soundtrack of pop music by Rod Stewart and Bruce Springsteen.
FURTHER WATCHING: Roman Kachanov’s catalogue of short films includes some of Russia’s most famous films, including the stop-motion gem The Mitten and the iconic Cheburashka quadrilogy. These films differ considerably from The Mystery of the Third Planet however so viewers taken with that film’s bold, colourful visuals and absurdist humour might want to seek out Vladimir Popov’s trilogy of Russian shorts about the village of Prostokvashino and its odd inhabitants, beginning with 1978’s classic Three from Prostokvashino. And while we’re on the subject of classic, whimsical Russian animated shorts, I should also mention Fyodor Khitruk’s remarkable trilogy of Winnie the Pooh films which differ significantly from Disney’s adaptations but are just as relentlessly charming.
CHIE THE BRAT – 1981
Isao Takahata is Studio Ghibli’s second more famous director after Miyazaki. Unlike Miyazaki’s fantastical worlds, Takahata’s wonderful films generally tend to be a little more grounded in reality, though they can be given to flights of fancy. Before his work for Studio Ghibli, Takahata directed this wonderful film version of a popular Japanese comic strip. Chie the Brat follows the story of a young girl, Chie, and her estranged family. Chie struggles to maintain a functional relationship with her impulsive meathead of a father while also secretly seeing her level-headed mother behind his back. She also attempts to balance school and her job at the family restaurant. This simple premise gives rise to a number of amusing vignettes which nicely reflect the characters’ ongoing existences without ever coming to neat conclusions. Elements of all Takahata’s later, more famous films can be seen in this early effort. The social realism of Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday are present in the examination of a broken family unit, but the whole thing is most definitely filtered through the more cartoony style of the underrated My Neighbours the Yamadas, the Takahata film that Chie the Brat most closely resembles. There are even shades of Pom Poko in a truly bizarre subplot involving three semi-anthropormophic cats and a severed testicle. It should be a mess but Takahata pulls the whole thing together beautifully, making for a fun, anarchic, bittersweet animated feature with few restrictions and a lot of energy.
FURTHER WATCHING: Takahata’s Ghibli output contains numerous masterpieces but those interested in his pre-Ghibli output will find much of interest as well. Horus, Prince of the Sun (aka The Little Norse Prince) is a seminal work and the children’s short Panda Go Panda has its simple charms but other major gem from Takahata’s early period is the feature film Goshu the Cellist. Unlike the mesmerizingly wayward Chie the Brat, Goshu the Cellist is a deeply focused, scaled-down piece of storytelling adapted from a short story by Japanese author Kenji Miyazawa. It tells the story of a mediocre cellist who takes a step towards greatness with the help of some seemingly troublesome animal spirits. Largely set in Goshu’s woodland hut as he practices his cello at night, Takahata uses this limited space to great effect, particularly in an early scene in which Goshu’s playing propels a formerly smug cat all over his cabin. The artwork, though more simplistic than Takahata’s Ghibli works, is no less appealing or inventive. He throws in moments of anarchic abstraction which contrast breathtakingly with the gorgeous woodland scenery and cute animals. Particularly memorable is a baby raccoon who appears to be a prototype for Takahata’s brilliantly bonkers Pom Poko twelve years later.
AMERICAN POP – 1981
Ralph Bakshi is one of the true independents in the world of animation and managed to make a string of nine animated features across two decades which gained significant attention for their racy content and idiosyncratic style. Bakshi has his fans but I’ve always found his films frustratingly lacking, their proclaimed satirical bite blunted by vaguely-defined narratives and a lack of insight which renders the potentially groundbreaking sexual content as little more than flaccid pornographic doodling. Bakshi best film then is his most atypical. Eschewing the crude counterculture comedy of his early work in favour of something with a greater sense of sincerity, Bakshi’s American Pop focuses on four generations of a Russian Jewish immigrant family whose lives parallel the development of pop music across the 20th century. The script can be a tad overwrought but it never undermines itself with glibness, instead committing completely to the sometimes soapy narrative. Bakshi also makes prominent use of his favoured technique of rotoscoping, in which scenes are shot with live actors which are then used as the basis for the animation. While rotoscoping can often look strange or downright cheap (not least in Bakshi’s own films), here it is used exceptional well, with Bakshi employing a range of techniques including watercolours and computer graphics. The clear live-action template also emphasises the human element of the story which is so crucial in bolstering the emotions of a film that could otherwise just feel like a technical exercise. Incorporating a plethora of real 20th century events and songs into its 90 minute run-time, American Pop’s fast-paced, episodic structure and visual flourishes made it the perfect film for the imminent MTV generation. The legendary music channel would debut just months after Bakshi’s film was released.
FURTHER WATCHING: As you can probably tell from my comments above, I’m not the biggest Ralph Bakshi fan but the curious who want to check out more of his work might want to try Heavy Traffic, which at least has an endearingly scrappy energy and occasional sense of real invention to offset its clumsily delivered, X-Rated examination of urban decay. Bakshi’s most famous (and perhaps most dated) film is his debut Fritz the Cat, an adaptation of the comic strip by Robert Crumb which Crumb himself hated so much that he subsequently killed the character off. The extremely controversial and bewilderingly jumbled Coonskin, meanwhile, is sometimes hailed as Bakshi’s masterpiece but is such a mess that I wouldn’t even know where to begin picking it apart in ideological terms. Perhaps Bakshi’s other most famous film is his Lord of the Rings adaptation, which moved away from the controversial material but emerged as an ugly and inadequate adaptation with a half-finished look. If I’m going to really recommend another film by Bakshi, I’d have to move away from feature films and instead point viewers in the direction of his great short adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s The Butter Battle Book.
THE LAST UNICORN – 1982
Rankin/Bass’s The Last Unicorn is a largely forgotten and underrated fantasy adventure with a cult following of viewers who grew up with the film. I came to the film much later and was fairly sceptical as most of its admirers seemed to be viewing it through rose-tinted glasses. But I was pleasantly surprised. Although the animation is fairly standard, it also has the charm of a really good Saturday morning cartoon and the character designs, particularly some of the supporting players, are warm and fun. The storyline is unusual and features some moments of real peril and imagination, while the starry voice cast is superb and lifts the film still further. In a climate where fantasy films were starting to become ubiquitous, The Last Unicorn holds its own amongst its bigger budget rivals.
FURTHER WATCHING: The Last Unicorn was Rankin/Bass’s only theatrical release of the 80s but it was surrounded by a series of TV movies that focused on similar fantasy material including two Tolkein adaptations (1977’s The Hobbit and 1980’s The Return of the King) and the straight-to-video adventure The Flight of Dragons. I admit that as yet I have not seen any of these, although I’m particularly keen to see the much-loved Flight of Dragons which has all the hallmarks of the sort of great family fantasy film that is much rarer in this era where fantasy is usually a much grimmer, more serious genre.
TIME MASTERS – 1982
Based on a novel by French sci-fi writer Stefan Wul, Rene Laloux’s second feature was produced in conjunction with Pannonia studios and is markedly different from his debut Fantastic Planet. Constrained by budgetary concerns and struggling against a tight deadline with a less experienced team of animators than he was used to working with, Laloux had the good fortune to have legendary artist Moebius on board as a designer, contributing significantly to Time Master’s exquisitely surreal backdrops. Given the problems that dogged its production, it is amazing that Time Masters emerged as such a wonderful film. From its limited animation to its occasionally convoluted plot, Time Masters is a deeply flawed film to be sure but its overcomes these problems through sheer invention and the goodwill it inspires in its audience. Telling the story of Piel, a young boy who finds himself stranded on a planet filled with odd creatures, and the rag-bag crew of space crusaders who launch a mission to rescue him, Time Masters mixes some occasionally televisual animation with artwork and ambition that imbues it with a truly cinematic scope. With an agreeable sense of humour that is missing from his other films, Time Masters stands out from Laloux’s canon as a film with a broader appeal without sacrificing any of the director’s trademark ingenuity.
FURTHER WATCHING: Having already mentioned Laloux’s other film Gandahar in the previous part of this list, I’ll take this opportunity to recommend a very different but tangentially linked film; Chuck Jones’s The Phantom Tollbooth. This 1970 fantasy-adventure is another flawed but endearing adaptation of a novel (Norton Juster’s classic children’s book, a personal childhood favourite. Juster himself hated the film) which ambitiously takes on some densely complex material and falls short without missing the target entirely. The story of the apathetic young Milo who gains entry to an educational world of wonders through a mysterious tollbooth that is delivered to his apartment, The Phantom Tollbooth captures an appealing sense of vintage children’s TV animation without quite reaching the cinematic aspirations it sets itself. In this respect it is far less successful than Time Masters but well-worth a look for anyone who still nurtures their own inner-child.
THE SECRET OF NIMH – 1982
Former Disney animator Don Bluth, dismayed by Disney’s cost-cutting techniques at the expense of quality, left the studio taking eight other animators with him and set up his own studio with the intention of returning animation to its golden age. The first film Bluth directed, The Secret of NIMH, is generally considered his best. Although it was produced on a tighter budget, The Secret of NIMH is certainly a cut above many of the Disney films from the era and for a while Bluth’s work became a serious rival to the studio. Bluth’s debut feature is an extremely beautiful film but it also exhibits some of the awkward features that mar several of Bluth’s subsequent films, including vaguely defined plotting and a maddening insistence on always casting Dom DeLuise! But Bluth’s love of golden age animation also imbues The Secret of NIMH with a real sense of magic and peril and the film is never less than gorgeous to look at. Perhaps the boldest move on Bluth’s part is in offering the audience a widowed mother as a central character in a market flooded with doe-eyed juveniles and muscle-bound men as the expected leads. It’s testament to Bluth’s desire to innovate which counterbalances his conservative worship of Disney classics and ultimately makes The Secret of NIMH a lot more interesting than many narratively sounder films.
FURTHER WATCHING: Don Bluth’s stint as a genuine threat to Disney was cut short by the Disney renaissance of the late 80s and early 90s which also happened to coincide with a significant downturn in quality in Bluth’s films with Rock-a-Doodle, Thumbelina, A Troll in Central Park and The Pebble and the Penguin all being slammed by critics. Still, there is much to admire in Bluth’s canon, with An American Tail largely delivering on the promise of Bluth’s debut and the enduring The Land Before Time spawning an unbelievable thirteen straight-to-video sequels to date, the last one appearing in 2016. Bluth also got back on track with critics with 1997’s Anastasia and made the underrated, enjoyably flashy sci-fi experiment Titan A.E. in 2000.
TWICE UPON A TIME – 1983
Directed by John Korty and produced by George Lucas, Twice Upon a Time is a wonderfully weird comedy adventure. Using a primitive but effective style of animation in which plastic cutouts are moved on a light table, Twice Upon a Time feels like a companion piece to Grendel Grendel Grendel in its easy charm, its combination of the silly and clever and its winning simplicity. Although the story is all over the place (intentionally and not to the film’s detriment), Twice Upon a Time is often hilarious in its non-sequiturs, beautifully delivered by a voice cast made up mostly of improvisational comedians. Animation fans will probably recognise Lorenzo Music (who voiced Garfield, and Peter Venkman in The Real Ghostbusters) as Ralph the All-Purpose Animal, a droll shape-shifter who acts as the film’s unlikely hero. Also excellent are Judith Kahan as a down-to-earth Fairy Godmother and Marshall Efron as the villain of the piece, Synonamess Botch. Best of all though is James Cranna in the dual roles of Scuzzbopper (gotta love those names), a shrill voiced jester, and the hysterically self-centred and useless superhero Rod Rescueman.
Although some may find it overwhelmingly weird at first (the film opens with some of its most outlandishly illogical narrative backflips, such as Ralph and Mumford’s attempts to take out the trash), once you settle into the film’s rhythm and style it is a treat throughout. Twice Upon a Time is available in several versions, including one featuring some swearing which director John Korty has long attempted to suppress. My advice would be to watch any version of this lovely film, should you be so lucky as to stumble on the opportunity.
FURTHER WATCHING: The obvious recommendation to make of the back of a subversive fairy tale film might seem to be Shrek but I’ve always felt that franchise to be extraordinary overrated and comparatively charmless. I would suggest instead trying Cory Edwards, Todd Edwards, and Tony Leech’s underrated 2005 film Hoodwinked! Most reviews understandably compared Hoodwinked! to the Shrek franchise but said that it was let down by comparison because of its cheap animation. In fact, Hoodwinked’s animation makes the best of its financial restrictions by opting for a charming imitation of the stop-motion style, with the cumbersome characters resembling clay models in their design and movements. It adds to the storybook feel, which is so deftly subverted (but, crucially, not cynically undermined) by the Rashomon-inspired story, in which the well-known moment when Red Riding Hood goes to visit her Granny becomes a cordoned-off crime scene, in which the Wolf, Red, Granny and the Woodsman are all held in custody and asked to give their side of the story, with every tale introducing new and important details which cast the previous information in a whole new light.
THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN – 1985
Although he may note be a household name, Will Vinton is one of the most important names in the development of stop motion animation during the 70s and 80s. Coining the term ‘Claymation’ to describe his striking clay sculptures, Vinton’s film are exquisitely organic. You can see that these creations are lumps of clay and yet you believe in them completely and the visible nature of the process somehow makes the results even more appealing. Vinton had already been nominated for several Oscars for his short works (winning in 1974 for the seminal Closed Mondays) and the following year he would create his most popular on-going characters in the shape of The California Raisins. In between these achievements, Vinton’s feature length gem The Adventures of Mark Twain somehow slipped through the cracks.
Right from the outset, The Adventures of Mark Twain is a beautiful creation. We see a book open and spew forth a torrent of clay water which forms into the Mississippi river. It also quickly becomes apparent why the film failed to make much of a commercial impact. Despite its jaw-dropping visuals, it is too cerebral a creation for many and relies heavily on the audience’s familiarity with the life and works of Mark Twain. The narrative combines a Jules Verne-esque adventure starring Mark Twain and his creations Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Becky Thatcher with snippets from Twain’s writings and a psychological exploration of the author himself. Some segments, such as the version of Twain’s first short story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County or the adaptation of The Diaries of Adam and Eve, are instantly appealing for all viewers (although the target audience is adults over children) while others, particularly the infamously creepy Mysterious Stranger sequence, are baffling to anyone without some idea of Twain’s oeuvre. The main throughline, which follows Twain’s attempts to catch up with Haley’s Comet in a self-designed airship, is dense with references to Twain’s life, with much of the dialogue culled from his famous quotes. When I first saw The Adventures of Mark Twain I knew little of the author and found it almost completely confusing. The visuals were so gorgeous however that I resolved to learn more about Twain in order to better appreciate the film. This lead me to the wonders of Twain’s work and in doing so introduced me to one of my favourite authors. Happily, when I returned to The Adventures of Mark Twain richer for having read all of Twain’s novels and read up on the life of the man himself, I found the film much easier to follow and a complete delight. My advice to any animation lovers would be to seek this film out but maybe study a little Mark Twain first. You won’t regret it.
FURTHER WATCHING: Though this was his only feature film, Will Vinton’s catalogue is a treasure trove of delights for the Claymation lover. Of particular note are the Oscar-nominated Rip Van Winkle, the trio of Emmy-winning Claymation Holiday specials (A Claymation Christmas, A Claymation Easter and Claymation Comedy of Horrors) and the spot-on California Raisins music documentary spoofs.
WHEN THE WIND BLOWS – 1986
Based on the superb Raymond Briggs graphic novel of the same name and retaining Briggs’s distinctive character designs, When the Wind Blows is a satirical yet chilling depiction of a nuclear attack on the UK, as experienced by an elderly couple in Sussex. James and Hilda Bloggs are a simple, sweet pair and through their 80 minute running dialogue (as well as a few nicely placed stylised fantasy sequences) we get to know much about their life together across the years. This makes it all the more upsetting when the effects of the nuclear fallout begin to take hold and we watch them degenerate before our eyes.
When the Wind Blows has been called one of the most depressing animated films ever made (animation historian Jerry Beck put it in his top 3 most depressing, alongside The Plague Dogs and Grave of the Fireflies). It’s also a film that is impossible to look away from. Beginning as a seemingly gently amusing satire on the completely ineffectual government pamphlets about creating a nuclear shelter, When the Wind Blows quickly becomes much darker and, while it still features a bitter vein of comedy throughout, the overriding emotions become horror and sadness. The film is still enormously hard-hitting but would doubtless have been more so on its initial release, when the threat of nuclear war was a very real concern for many in the UK.
FURTHER WATCHING: For those who enjoy Briggs’ work but want something a little less hard-hitting, the short films The Snowman and Father Christmas are reliably enjoyable seasonal staples which retain Briggs’ signature style in their artwork. Those who are interested in animated perspectives on the devastation of nuclear war might want to check out Mori Masaki’s unflinching 1983 anime Barefoot Gen, which provides a child’s view of the bombing of Hiroshima.
THE PIED PIPER – 1986
Czech animator Jiri Barta’s extraordinary adaptation of German fairy tale The Pied Piper of Hamelin erases all the colour and whimsy of previous versions and instead takes German expressionism as its inspiration, echoing such silent classics as Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in its art design. Barta pulls no punches, depicting Hamelin as a vicious capitalist nightmare where money is everything and people are nothing. Dialogue is all delivered in a nonsense language so it is up to the expressive puppets to convey the characters feelings and motivations. Barta finds ingenious ways round this, such as the early scenes of customers haggling with market vendors in which the prices they wish to pay actually emerge from their lips as floating coins. Barta spent six months researching the project and studied many different versions of the story. As a result, he chooses to deviate from the most well known version, offering a conclusion that is more symbolic and even more chilling than the abduction of Hamelin’s children. It’s fitting for this relentlessly bleak but mesmerizing piece of work.
FURTHER WATCHING: Jiri Barta’s short films should provide plenty more fodder for those who liked the eerie tone of The Pied Piper, with 1989’s The Club of the Laid-Off being a particularly brilliant piece. Barta also released a significantly different feature film in 2009 called Toys in the Attic (more on which later). Other films that have a similar sense of the grotesque and unsettling are Christiane Cegavske’s handmade stop-motion feature Blood Tea and Red String and Dave Borthwick’s The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb which combines stop-motion animation and pixilation (a process where live actors are shot frame by frame) to disturbing but slyly amusing effect.
CAT CITY – 1986
The charmingly witty and simple Cat City is a Hungarian animated feature from director Bela Ternovszky which parodies gangster and spy films, notably the James Bond franchise. It’s simple plot, involving a mouse agent’s attempts to obtain the secret plans for a machine that could save his species from the feline domination of their planet, is peppered with humorous digressions, such as a vicious cat crimelord and his snivelling feline underling’s attempts to find an equivalent weapon or the hiring of a completely ineffectual group of gangster rats to dispose of the hero. Cat City‘s trump card is its confidence in its own simplicity. The animation is not dazzling but it is energetically alive and charming; the story is wantonly cliché-ridden but plays up to these tropes and humorously subverts them. Although it’s not quite the masterpiece its most avid fans would have you believe, Cat City is a gem of undiscovered feature animation that adults and children should enjoy in equal measure, even if the original Hungarian puns that apparently litter the film are indecipherable to foreign viewers.
FURTHER WATCHING: For more crime stories involving cats, you might want to check out Michael Schaack’s Felidae, a semi-successful attempt to create a sort of sleazy film noir using cats as its main characters. There are moments when the animation style and the murderous and sexual content seem distinctly at odds and some of the character designs are less than subtle (neighbourhood bully Kong is one of the most lasciviously overstated brutes in animation history) but Felidae is often gripping and sometimes visually exciting, as in the nightmare sequences that have contributed strongly to the film’s cult following. For something a bit more family friendly, Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli’s A Cat in Paris is the immensely charming story of a heroic jewel thief, a band of dangerous crooks, a little girl and a cat who leads a double life.
ROYAL SPACE FORCE – THE WINGS OF HONNEAMISE – 1987
Hirouki Yamaga’s Royal Space Force – Wings of Honneamise is an absolutely terrific, visually stunning epic which masquerades as a sci-fi adventure film but is really an emotionally complex examination of one not-entirely-good young man’s struggle towards meaning and enlightenment through his involvement with his nation’s widely derided and politically cynical space program. There is plenty of action and humour but ultimately Wings of Honneamise comes across like The Right Stuff directed by Ingmar Bergman. It’s a highly unique, beautiful and sometimes intentionally uncomfortable watch. Look this film up anywhere online and you’ll find people complaining about a scene in which the film’s protagonist, Shiro, commits an attempted rape. While it is undoubtedly unpleasant, this scene is also characteristic of the film’s uncompromising approach to it’s main character’s shaky morality and the subsequent apology he receives from his victim Riquinni is also in keeping with her enigmatic and equally insecure character and not simply a mouthpiece for the director’s views on rape. The fact that this issue has to be constantly addressed in relation to Wings of Honneamise is a sad indication of the child-friendly, uncomplex expectations still equated with any animated film, no matter whether its target audience is clearly adults or not.
FURTHER WATCHING: Although they are quite different from the more emotionally-grounded Wings of Honneamise, now seems as good a time as any to mention the enormously popular anime sci-fi features Akira and Ghost in the Shell. Many animation fans may be annoyed to not find these two films on the main list but Ghost in the Shell in particular is a film I found a little too cold and calculated to connect with. Akira, on the other hand, is a slightly different story. The first time I saw this cyberpunk action film I was mesmerised by its beautiful visuals but found the storytelling to be too chaotic and unfocused. But on subsequent viewings I’ve realised that the enigmatic, event-filled plot is actually one of the film’s major assets, especially in terms of rewatchability. But what keeps me coming back to Akira is the startling look of the film. Akira features full, fluid animation and immense detail that draws you into its world. Filled with energy, invention and, crucially, a smattering of humour, Akira an unforgettable, if sometimes disorienting, experience.
THE BRAVE LITTLE TOASTER – 1987
Jerry Rees’ The Brave Little Toaster is an indie film in the truest sense, produced against the odds but with a creative freedom that would doubtless have been reduced by studio interference. Disney backed the film by purchasing the television and video rights and Hyperion managed to gain further backing from a couple of other investors but the film went into production with a budget of only $2.3 million, compared to an average of $24 for Disney animated features of the time and about $12 million for Don Bluth films. This fact is rendered entirely superfluous by the ample charm, energy and wit that characterises everything about The Brave Little Toaster. Based on the novel of the same name by Thomas M. Disch, The Brave Little Toaster follows the adventures of five outdated appliances who have been abandoned by their “master” in his family’s former home, a country cabin. Sick of waiting in false hope for his return, the appliances decide to set out on a journey to the city to track their master down. It sounds like a fairly standard, kiddy film concept but The Brave Little Toaster actually turns out to have a dark, melancholy atmosphere constantly bristling beneath its brightly rendered surface.
The melancholy and peril in The Brave Little Toaster is more than balanced out by the cheeriness and originality of its comedy, the brightness and inventiveness of its visuals, the excellence of its musical numbers and the sweetness of its message. It transcends its modest budget to lodge itself in the viewers’ hearts and minds and is one of those rare 80s cartoons that is exactly as good as, if not better than, you remembered thanks to its refusal to talk down to children and its multiple age-range appeal. Whatever age you happen to be, it’s not too late to discover this remarkable film for the first time.
FURTHER WATCHING: The amount of love I have for The Brave Little Toaster makes it hard to recommend anything else of the back of it. It stands alone for me and remains one of my favourite animated films of all time. I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to interview director Jerry Rees who turned out to be an absolutely lovely guy and whose insight into the film and its production only enhanced my adoration of it. For the sake of full disclosure, I should mention that there were two Brave Little Toaster sequels made without the involvement of Rees, The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars and The Brave Little Toaster to the Rescue. Rees admitted to me that he had never seen either and I too have avoided them (the idea of sending the appliances to Mars seems entirely removed from the world the first film created) but they are out there for the curious to track down.
ROBOT CARNIVAL – 1987
Robot Carnival is an absolutely brilliant though largely unknown Japanese anthology film that was released in Japan in 1987 but only reached Western audiences in 1991. Featuring eight stories by different directors, all of which involve robots in some way, Robot Carnival features several different styles and, more importantly, different tones which makes it constantly interesting and entertaining. The sequences themselves are of extremely high quality, the one exception being the so-so sci-fi action hokum of ‘Deprive’. Elsewhere there is the blackly comic mad scientist shaggy dog story ‘Franken’s Gears’, the teenage girl romance of ‘Star Light Angel’, the avant garde beauty of ‘Cloud’ and the comedy action propaganda spoof of ‘A Tale of Two Robots’. All are impressive but the clear highlights are the hauntingly melancholy ‘Presence’, in which an emotionally isolated man creates and then destroys a robot woman, an action which stays with him for the rest of his life, and ‘Nightmare’, a darkly funny horror which simultaneously pays tribute to two Disney films, Fantasia and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Perhaps my favourite of all though are the film’s opening, closing and epilogue sections by Katsuhiro Otomo in which a literal robot carnival, a gigantic machine originally intended for entertainment, has become a rampaging, rusted weapon of destruction.
FURTHER WATCHING: Two of Robot Carnival’s major contributors teamed up for Roujin Z, putting a new satirical spin on the Japanese giant robot sci-fi film. Roujin Z sees an electronic hospital bed that cares for it patient’s needs rampaging through the streets when its unwilling elderly test subject decides he wants to go to the beach! Directed by Hiroyuki Kitakubo and written by Katsuhiro Otomo of Akira fame, Roujin Z shows the same expertise in writing as that more famous film did, forsaking the stony-faced wannabe cool for multi-faceted characters, lively comedy and the defiant appointment of an ailing, elderly man as the film’s central hero.
That’s it for Part 2. I hope you’ll join me for Part 3 where we’ll be looking at the period between 1987 and 2006 and unearthing some more cult classics and hidden gems. Until then, get watching!