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.
LAUGHTER AND GRIEF BY THE WHITE SEA – 1987
Laughter and Grief by the White Sea is one of those animated features that, upon discovery, you can barely believe has been out there all this time without you knowing. The Russian production by director Leonid Nosyrev is actually a collection of short films based on Russian folklore that Nosyrev had released separately in 1977, 1979 and 1986, with some new segments and connecting footage added in but it retains a thematic and stylistic throughline which makes it clear that these snippets were always meant to be seen together as a whole and as such it works beautifully as a full length feature. Set across one evening during which Russian Pomors settle down for an evening around a kerosene lamp in a fisherman’s hut, Laughter and Grief by the White Sea follows the tales told by the eldest Pomor to entertain the others. Although he claims to be redressing the balance of untruths told about the region, his stories are all fantastical and by the point of ‘The Magic Ring’ they have lapsed into all-out fairy tales. This is brought into sharp contrast by the final sequence ‘Ivan and Andrian’, a true story of two shipwrecked men who spend their last days carving their own epitaphs on a piece of wood. This accounts for the ‘Grief’ of the title and it’s a beautifully judged eleventh hour shift in tone which gives the film a fittingly strong finale, rather than let it just peter out with a final tale of the same ilk as those before it.
Laughter and Grief by the White Sea uses very simple animation due to budgetary constraints but the effect appears more a choice than a necessity thanks to Nosyrev’s brilliant designs which make each story seem like the pages of a book come to life. Through the most rudimentary of means, Nosyrev puts us right in that fisherman’s hut with the Pomors and the effect is genuinely cosy, making the whole thing feel like a series of stories before bedtime.
FURTHER WATCHING: Lev Atamanov’s 1961 feature The Key springs to mind here as another film that uses a minimalist animation style and has a strong Russian feel to the material. A didactic story about the importance of giving something back to the world rather than just coasting along and enjoying yourself, Atamanov makes baddies out of his fairy characters in a way that Disney would never dream of doing. The gift of eternal happiness they bestow on a newborn baby is explored as something of a curse, and Atamanov explores how one person’s idea of happiness could be another’s idea of hell.
ALICE – 1989
Legendary Czech animator Jan Svankmajer’s first feature, Alice is probably the most artistically successful adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, beating the charming Disney version to the prize by virtue of its appropriately unsettling atmosphere in place of that version’s penchant for whimsy. Svankmajer taps perfectly into the air of foreboding that is present in many versions but which is often downplayed in favour of fairy tale fluffiness. Svankmajer utilises his favoured medium of stop-motion animation (combined with some live action) and the results are deliciously creepy and darkly hilarious. Highlights include a hysterically funny, jarring Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and an unforgettably mangy, hideous White Rabbit. Svankmajer ends the film on a suitably brutal note, smothered in the blackest of comedy. Alice truly is a unique film and, while it may alarm those who know only the Disney adaptation, it will doubtless delight animation fans who relish the unusual and the offbeat.
FURTHER WATCHING: Svankmajer is one of the most important and brilliant animators in the history of the medium and his short films should be explored immediately by anyone who enjoys Alice, with 1982’s Dimensions of Dialogue being a good starting point. Svankmajer has also made numerous other features but these tend to use animation more sparingly than Alice, leaning into live-action to a greater extent. Fans of Lewis Carroll’s book may also be interested in the little-seen 1949 British/French production of Alice in Wonderland, directed by Dallas Bower but dominated by the wonderful if slightly creepy stop-motion puppets of French animation pioneer Lou Bunin. Framed by live action sequences and starring a live action Alice, the film is thoroughly charming if flawed (the songs, for instance, are half-realised at best) and deserves to be more widely recognised. Unfortunately a bullying Disney also planned to release their own version of Alice in Wonderland (which emerged two years later) and embroiled the makers of this version in an unsuccessful but damaging legal dispute. While neither film proved to be a commercial success, Disney’s version found latter day fame through television screenings and rereleases, while Bower and Bunin’s film has sunk almost without trace.
THE TUNE – 1992
Bill Plympton has been a major presence in independent animation since the late 70s. His vivid, lively, often violent and sometimes filthy animated shorts are instantly recognisable and completely unique. Plympton’s debut feature The Tune finds him at his most gentle and approachable. The story of a songwriter who has less than an hour to write a hit song for his boss and finds inspiration in the bizarre fantasy land of Flooby Nooby, The Tune is bursting at the seams with Plympton’s imagination and captivatingly-alive animation. It also features a great collection of songs written by his regular collaborator Maureen McElheron, which form the backbone of the film’s slim plot.
Funding issues forced Plympton to create parts of The Tune as potential stand-alone shorts, which he then released separately. Of the four shorts incorporated into the film, only Dig My Do and, at a push, The Wise Man, really fits with the rest of the material. By the latter half of the film Plympton seems to be rushing to incorporate the shorts by just stuffing them in willy-nilly. Tango Schmango and Push Comes to Shove appear with no context whatsoever. Plympton acknowledges this when his main character, after Push Comes to Shove has played out, wonders aloud ‘Why am I watching this?’ It is with this cavalier attitude that Plmypton gets away with this minor flaw and the shorts are so great anyway that few viewers would complain.
The Tune, despite its flaws, is one of the most fun, exciting animated features out there. Whether you like it or not will certainly depend on whether you appreciate Plympton’s unique style but few could fail to acknowledge the achievement of a feature film completely animated by one man. Wonderfully, there was better yet to come from Plympton.
FURTHER WATCHING: Given The Tune’s use of a handful of short films within the body of its narrative, this is perhaps the best time to recommend Plympton’s fantastic catalogue of shorts which range from gloriously grotesque to wonderfully whimsical and fantastically filthy. Oscar nominees Your Face and Guard Dog are both good entry points, while those wanting something a bit racier might want to check out Sex and Violence, a series of short vignettes based around the titular taboos.
THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS – 1993
The visual stop-motion masterpiece that is The Nightmare Before Christmas has become one of the biggest crossover hits in animation history. Frustratingly, most people also believe it was directed by Tim Burton. Burton, of course, deserves credit since he created the idea for and look of the film but the beautiful direction came courtesy of the underrated Henry Selick, whose subsequent work has often been attributed to Burton thanks to the everpresent ‘From the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas‘ taglines. Of Burton, Selick said ‘It’s as if he laid the egg and I sat on it and hatched it’.
The film’s wonderful screenplay, in which the Pumpkin King of Halloween town grows tired of his lot in life and inadvertently stumbles upon Christmas Town, a holiday that he first tries to share in and then outright hijacks, was written in collaboration with Burton by Caroline Thompson and Michael McDowell, who previously worked on screenplay’s for Burton’s Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. But even more crucial than the script are the marvellous songs by Danny Elfman. Elfman claimed writing the songs for the film was one of the easiest assignments of his life and this natural flowing process is obvious on the screen, with unforgettable numbers like ‘What’s This?’, ‘Kidnap the Sandy Claws’ and ‘This is Halloween’ perfectly capturing the spirit and look of the project in musical terms.
Although it baffled some audiences on its original release with its slow pace and excessive use of music, this spectacular film has gradually been taken to the hearts of viewers of all ages and tastes and become a modern staple of Christmas viewing in the process.
FURTHER WATCHING: Fans of Tim Burton’s creepy creations will find much to enjoy in his early short film Vincent, a deceptively morbid tale of a young boy who is obsessed with Edgar Allen Poe and wants to be like Vincent Price (who narrates the film with all the relish he brought to his Thriller cameo). Those curious about Henry Selick’s work meanwhile should probably go directly to Coraline (more on which later), although there are the odd moments of diverting curiosity to be found in his admittedly flawed live-action/animation features James and the Giant Peach and Monkeybone.
MEMORIES – 1995
Based on three manga short stories by Katsuhiro Otomo and co-written by future Japanese animation great Satoshi Kon, Memories is another superb Japanese anthology film to place beside Robot Carnival in the underrated classics file. If Memories has a major flaw its that it makes the mistake of opening with its strongest segment, the breathtaking ‘Magnetic Rose’, in which two engineers on a salvage mission in space encounter the ghostly apparition of a dead opera singer. Visually stunning as well as narratively complex and compelling, ‘Magnetic Rose’ is a minor animation masterpiece with which the other two segments can’t quite compete.
Which isn’t to say they aren’t still excellent. The satirical, pitch-black sci-fi comedy ‘Stink Bomb’ sees an unwitting young lab technician develop a deadly stench which kills everyone who encounters it. Funny, grotesque and exciting, ‘Stink Bomb’ is reminiscent of Otomo’s script for Roujin Z in its humorous approach to darker themes. ‘Cannon Fodder’, meanwhile, is a stylish, brief glimpse at the lives of a young boy and his father who are inhabitants of a city at war with an unseen, possibly imagined enemy and whose lives are built around firing the enormous cannons that make up most of their city. It’s an understated little anti-war piece that never makes anything too explicit and leaves much to the viewer’s own interpretation.
FURTHER WATCHING: Katsuhiro Otomo also contributed to three other notable anime anthology films: the aforementioned Robot Carnival, 1987’s Neo-Toyko and 2013’s Short Peace. I have not seen either of the latter two but Short Peace’s four segments were also released as stand-alone shorts and I have seen Shuhei Morita’s oddball Possessions which was nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Short.
I MARRIED A STRANGE PERSON – 1997
Bill Plympton’s second feature is perhaps closer to what fans of Plympton’s shorts might have expected. In contrast to his relatively gentle debut The Tune, I Married a Strange Person is full of extreme stomach-turning violence and graphic sex scenes… and it’s an absolute blast!!! The story of a newly wed who suddenly develops the power to transform people and objects using only his mind, I Married a Strange Person gives Plympton free reign to indulge his love of grotesque, painful metamorphoses by way of a barrage of visual puns and surrealist gags. A few years later Plympton continued his obsessive pursuit of the extreme with the even sicker Mutant Aliens, a film I didn’t care for at all. It works to the same formula but I Married a Strange Person adds a smidgeon of human warmth, a more coherent plot in which there is a sort of logic to the ever escalating farcical events, and the impression that Plympton is enjoying exploring the baser elements of sex and violence out of a genuine fascination with them, rather than just maturbating as he sketches. It’s indicative of what a narrow-line Plympton’s films can walk and personal taste will dictate whether you rub your hands with glee or cover your eyes in horror.
FURTHER WATCHING: Although Mutant Aliens clearly wasn’t for me, this is the best time to mention it for those who might find it more palatable than I did. Much better though is the feature film that Plympton released after that, Hair High, a spoof high-school romance with elements of horror which works a treat. It also includes a scene in which a man in a chicken costume ingests a powerful aphrodisiac resulting in a huge erection and a compulsion to dry-hump anyone or anything that gets in his way. As I said before, where you draw the line with Plympton’s work will be entirely a matter of personal taste!
KIRIKOU AND THE SORCERESS – 1998
French animator Michel Ocelot is one of the most exciting names working in animation today. His films and storytelling style are so completely different to that of mainstream American and British animation that they feel like a breath of fresh celluloid. Ocelot’s debut feature Kirikou and the Sorceress is the enchanting tale of a newborn West African child who, despite being excessively tiny, can immediately walk, talk and, through sheer determination, save his village from the clutches of an evil witch. Drawn from elements of West African folk tales, Kirikou and the Sorceress evokes this atmosphere with its vivid, beautiful colours and its extremely effective two-dimensional animation style. Kirikou is such an appealing protagonist and the story moves quickly and is filled with wonderful little scenes and flourishes, as well as some great music.
FURTHER WATCHING: Kirikou and the Sorceress was popular enough that Ocelot has returned to the character twice more in 2005’s Kirikou and the Wild Beasts and 2012’s Kirikou and the Men and Women. While neither film improves on the original, they do build up the character’s mythical status and form an agreeable trilogy that fans of the first film will doubtless enjoy.
THE IRON GIANT – 1999
During the first decade of the 21st century, Brad Bird became one of the biggest names in animated features when he directed two of Pixar’s best loved films. But before that he directed this modern classic, a charming and very funny blend of traditional animation with well-placed elements of computer animation. Based on Ted Hughes’ novel The Iron Man, The Iron Giant tells the story of a young boy named Hogarth who discovers a giant robot and befriends him against the backdrop of 1950s Cold War America. It sounds pretty straightforward, dull and sentimental from that synopsis and Warner Bros Animation’s spectacular mismarketing of the film certainly painted it that way, turning a potential event film into a commercial failure. Warner Bros Animation was struggling to recoup losses on their previous animated feature, Quest for Camelot, which failed due to the small matter of it being one of the worst animated features of all time! What Bird gave them in The Iron Giant was an incredible leap forward, an intelligent, extremely funny film with wonderful visuals, a witty edge and the potential for mass appeal. Somehow they just didn’t know what they had on their hands and The Iron Giant fell by the wayside, only beginning to pick up some commercial success to match its critical plaudits when it was released on Home Video.
The Iron Giant is indeed a modern animation classic. In the title role, Vin Diesel is absolutely wonderful, making the giant one of the most effective pathos-evoking-gargantuans since the days of Frankenstein and King Kong. The warmth and charm of the visuals bring a real magic to proceedings but The Iron Giant is far removed from the Disney style, pre-empting Bird’s smart scripts for The Incredibles and Ratatouille. The character of Kent Mansley, a paranoid, ambitious government agent who serves as the film’s unconventional villain, is one of the film’s other major strengths. Wonderfully voiced by Christopher McDonald, Mansley is the sort of figure rarely found in animated family films but who injects a whole other level into the story and ultimately gives us a glimpse of the terrifying implications of Cold War paranoia.
FURTHER WATCHING: If you like tales of gentle gargantuans and their protectors then you could do worse than Bibo Bergerson’s A Monster in Paris. This French CGI animated film, which tells the story of a mutated flea and the Parisian humans who befriend him and must ultimately protect him, has an easy charm and visual attractiveness that compensates for its comparatively weak story. The characters are all likeable and amusing but the greatest pleasure comes from gazing at the beautifully rendered animated version of Paris and its inhabitants. It’s a marked improvement on Bergerson’s previous animated features, the fairly pedestrian The Road to Eldorado and the execrable but somehow Oscar-nominated flounder Shark Tale.
SOUTH PARK – BIGGER, LONGER AND UNCUT – 1999
Attempts to turn adult animated series into feature length productions have rarely lived up to expectations. It fell, then, to Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s classic series South Park to buck the trend. Not only did the series big screen equivalent, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, top anything the duo had achieved previously, it set the series on the road to becoming one of the most vital, intelligent, relevant satires of recent times. What South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut did was tighten up the social commentary and make it the main focus, retaining the show’s recognisable style but upping the stakes considerably. The result was a monumentally smart movie which managed to satirize the controversy surrounding itself before it had even been released.
South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut is a searing indictment of censorship, examining the moral outrage that fictional series ‘The Terrence and Phillip Show’ whips up in the hot-headed adults of a small Colorado town. Parker and Stone’s masterstroke was their idea to make South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut a musical. The songs Parker and Stone wrote (with the assistance of Mark Shaiman and James Hetfield) surpass all of their previous work, making it song-for-song one of the most memorable and witty musical movies in history. Although its impact has been lessened by the subsequent loosening up of censorship in the South Park TV series, the early appearance of a song called ‘Uncle Fucka’, in which Terrance and Phillip repeatedly accuse each other of incestuous union with their uncles, utilising the word “fuck” 31 times in the process, was a genuine shock first time round. Also shocking was just how great the song itself was. True to the depiction in the film, audiences really did leave the cinema singing it! Then there’s the extraordinarily catchy ‘What Would Brian Boitano Do’, in which the boys whip up inspiration by idolising ice-skater Brian Boitano to the point of attributing the pyramids to him and, of course, the Oscar nominated ‘Blame Canada’, which encapsulates the film’s main message in its final line, sung by the parents of America, “We must blame them and cause a fuss before somebody thinks of blaming us”.
FURTHER WATCHING: A handful of other adult animations have made the transition from small screen to a full theatrical release. Much fuss was made of 2007’s The Simpsons Movie, a reasonably entertaining big-screen adaptation of the most successful and at one time the greatest of adult animated series. Sadly, The Simpsons Movie could not disassociate itself from the flabby, heartless abomination its parent series had by that time become and the result felt unfocused and unspectacular. Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butthead Do America did a much better job of scaling up its subjects, although their hysterically funny antics undoubtedly remained best suited to the seven minute vignettes Judge created for their wildly popular MTV series. Variety’s review at the time of the film’s release probably summed it up best: ‘The good news is Beavis and Butt-head Do America doesn’t suck. The bad news is it doesn’t rule, either.’
PRINCES AND PRINCESSES – 2000
Michel Ocelot’s second feature film was a compilation of episodes from his late 80s TV series Cine Si, which had been a critical success but which sank without trace commercially. Using silhouette cutouts (a stylistic concern made for budgetary reasons but which works superbly as a homage to the films of Lotte Reiniger), Ocelot’s stories are beautifully told and have the feel of classic fairy tales but with a modernist twist and an often wicked sense of humour. Intercut with a clever framing device in which two children and a cinema technician meet in a theatre late at night to stage their own stories, Princes and Princesses finally gave the overlooked brilliance of Cine si an audience and lead to a sequel of sorts in Tales of the Night.
FURTHER WATCHING: Ocelot’s Tales of the Night, which uses the same style of silhouette animation as well as the same framing device with the children and the technician, is a more than worthwhile companion to Princes and Princesses using material from Ocelot’s 2010 series Dragons and Princesses.
WAKING LIFE – 2001
Growing up, American independent cinema was one of my passions and the diverse films of Richard Linklater were some of my favourites. His debut, Slacker, was a groundbreaking work in which the camera followed a group of youths as they espoused their personal philosophies, splintering off (sometimes mid-conversation) to follow the next person who happened to walk by. When Linklater revisited similar themes in his rotoscoped Waking Life he topped his original film with a fascinating, funny and visually brilliant animated equivalent. I usually don’t care to much for rotoscoping but Linklater uses it superbly here, with fanciful, colourful animations warping and morphing his characters in ways that reflect their words and personalities. Unlike Slacker‘s looser structure, which was held together mainly by its focus on a particular type of generational archetype, Waking Life is tied together by an ongoing plot in which the unnamed protagonist finds himself trapped in an ethereal dream state and speaks to many people in an attempt to work out just what is happening to him. The script consists of a series of small philosophical lectures and debates captured through the protagonists eyes as he drifts from place to place, sometimes unseen and sometimes actively participating in the discussions. There is so much to take in from both the script and the visuals that Waking Life is infinitely rewatchable.
FURTHER WATCHING: Five years after Waking Life and following the live-action commercial and critical successes School of Rock and Before Sunset, Linklater returned to the rotoscoped animation style for his trippy adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. While not as inventive as Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly’s oddball plot does suit Linklater’s visual approach and the film is interesting if not wholly engaging (although this could be partially due to the unfortunate casting of the less-than-animated Keanu Reeves in the lead role).
MILLENNIUM ACTRESS – 2001
The tragic early loss of Satoshi Kon to pancreatic cancer robbed the animation world of one of its most promising talents. As accessible and magical as Ghibli but completely different in style, Kon’s handful of films include a couple of the greatest animated features of recent times. Oddly, it is usually his first film, Perfect Blue, that gets the most attention. A pulpy psychological thriller that tries to keep too many juggling balls in the air at once and ends up falling in on itself, Perfect Blue showed promise and Kon delivered on it incredibly quickly with his second feature. Millennium Actress has the same level of narrative complexity as Perfect Blue but this time Kon deftly draws all the elements together, making a far more convincing and enjoyable film that scores highly in emotional resonance while also retaining a sense of humour which beautifully balances the epic sweep of its themes.
As a film enthusiast, I was instantly grabbed by the plot of Millennium Actress. As a movie studio is torn down, a TV interviewer and his cameraman interview a now elderly actress who was once the studio’s biggest star. Reality, memories and cinema blur together as the actress takes them through her story, revealing that her career was merely a means to track down her lost love, a search that she acts out cinematically across the years and genres. Kon’s masterstroke is sending the interviewer and cameraman on the journey alongside her. He gets a lot of comedy mileage out of this but also reveals a greater significance for their presence as the film goes on. Millennium Actress is a complex, compelling, beautiful piece of work which will delight all lovers of cinema history.
FURTHER WATCHING: Satishi Kon’s films are varied beasts and so there is no guarantee that liking one will mean you’ll like them all. For my own part, I was not entirely convinced by his debut Perfect Blue, a popular but vaguely predictable and silly psychological horror which fails to blend comfortably. Kon’s final film Paprika is better but is a mixed bag of stunning visuals, confusing overplotting and paper-thin characterisations. Through sheer relentlessness however, Paprika achieves a wonderful sort of dreamlike logic of its own. The colourful, busy images we are presented with are so beautifully rendered that often the viewer doesn’t mind if they’ve lost the plot thread and can just drink in the visuals. There’s also a very fine plot thread about movies which makes several references to classic films, particularly pleasing for a film buff like myself.
METROPOLIS – 2002
Loosely based on Osamu Tezuka’s manga from 1949 which was itself inspired by Fritz Lang’s silent classic, Rintaro’s Metropolis takes a fairly standard sci-fi plot involving the politics of a society where humans and robots co-exist, and makes it into something extraordinary with gorgeous, brightly coloured visuals, instantly appealing cartoonish character designs and a terrifically immersive atmosphere which evokes the experiences of the entire society and makes the story seem more compelling through its sheer expansiveness. More than twenty years after his debut Galaxy Express 999, Rintaro showed that he still had it with this overlooked classic.
FURTHER WATCHING: Sharing elements of Metropolis’s glorious urban sprawl, Michael Arias’s 2006 adaptation of Taiyō Matsumoto’s three-volume manga Tekkonkinkreet is a gritty, gripping, beautifully stylised story of two homeless orphans, Kuro and Shiro (Black and White) who help each other survive on the streets of Treasure Town. Despite the magical sound of that plot description, Tekkonkinkreet is actually a violent, sometimes gloomy but always fast-paced thriller which makes great use of its distinctive artwork (clearly the work of Studio 4°c, who also made Mind Game) to create a world of its own.
FIMFARUM – 2002
Fimfarum is a Czech film that continues that country’s grand tradition of puppetry, making deadpan marionettes incredibly expressive much as Jiri Trnka had decades before. Based on the works of Czech writer Jan Werich, Fimfarum tells five enchanting stories through the medium of stop motion animation. The stories are often blackly comic or grotesque but have the charm of great children’s fables. Pick of the bunch is opening segment ‘When the Leaves Fall From the Bough’, in which a drunkard who fears for his family makes a pact with the Devil to help him stop drinking. His subsequent descent into Hell is one of the film’s highlights. Also superb are ‘Mean Barbara’, a gloriously amoral tale that revels in its lack of the conventional ethics of storytelling, and ‘The Meaning of Fimfarum’, which reintroduces the Devil to proceedings by way of a cuckolded blacksmith. Made in collaboration by young animator Aurel Klimt and Czech animation veteran Vlasta Pospisilova, Fimfarum is a treat for anyone who remembers the days when these unusual, distinctly foreign animations used to be shown on TV. God, I miss those times!
FURTHER WATCHING: Fimfarum had two similarly structured sequels bringing to life more of Jan Werich’s work through the animation of various Czech directors. The stop-motion puppets got more sophisticated as the series progressed, although arguably the primitive grotesques of the original film are more in keeping with the atmosphere of the stories. Aurel Klimt, one of the creative driving forces behind the first two Fimfarum films, went on to make the 2017 feature Laika, a terrifically weird sci-fi stop-motion animation about the famous Soviet space dog of the same name.
THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE – 2003
French animator Sylvain Chomet is one of my favourite animation directors of all time. He has only thus far directed two animated features and a short but oh, what masterpieces they are! Chomet’s first feature, the gloriously inventive Triplets of Belleville (aka Belleville Rendez-vous), has an unusual plot involving the kidnapping of cyclists and the efforts of an elderly woman, her obese dog Bruno and three aged former vaudeville stars to rescue them. Beautiful to look at (in its own grotesque way), Triplets of Belleville manages to combine a series of small ideas on a large canvas to create a world with its own rules and logic, where oceans can be crossed on pedalos and fat dogs can be used as spare tyres. Chomet could scarcely have made a more uniquely impressive debut and there was better yet to come.
FURTHER WATCHING: Sylvain Chomet’s debut short The Old Lady and the Pigeons is a terrific piece of work which predicts the wonderful attention to detail and penchant for the grotesque that characterised The Triplets of Belleville. For the most part the film is silent, with Chomet’s strange, sad and expressive characters carrying the whole show with their exquisite interactions. Small details abound, some of which give the film character and others of which end up playing a far more significant part in the odd but logically structured plot. The result is one of the best shorts of the 90s, a masterpiece that sadly lost out on an Oscar to Pixar’s Geri’s Game.
TOKYO GODFATHERS – 2003
My favourite of Satoshi Kon’s feature animations, Tokyo Godfathers is a Christmas masterpiece about coincidences and miracles. Following the story of three homeless people who discover a baby in the trash on Christmas Eve and set out to find its parents, Tokyo Godfathers presents us with an unconventional surrogate family whose up and down relationship with one another and the effect the baby has on it is the heart of the film. The plot is straightforward but full of surprises and the suspension of disbelief required to buy the coincidences becomes irrelevant as they mount up and we realise that this is one of the film’s major themes. The dialogue and growing relationship between the three main characters, an alcoholic, a transwoman and a runaway girl, is fantastic and as we follow their adventure we steadily learn more about their lives and what drove them onto the streets. Tokyo Godfathers is perfect Christmas viewing for those who want something a little different but that will still give them that heart-warming glow.
FURTHER WATCHING: We’ve already touched on all of his features but Kon’s 13 episode anime series Paranoia Agent is also highly acclaimed, though I’ve yet to see it myself.
CORPSE BRIDE – 2005
Although it was always going to live in the monumental shadow of The Nightmare Before Christmas, Tim Burton’s first animated feature as director is a magical enough film in its own right to make such comparisons pointless. Once again employing Caroline Thompson on script writing duties and Danny Elfman as songwriter (his ‘Remains of the Day’ is the clear highlight of the entire film), Burton has created another unusual, deliberately paced and ghoulish little treat. Focusing more strongly on character than plot, Corpse Bride is a visual treat filled with inspired creations, reminding us not only of the iconic Nightmare Before Christmas but also Burton’s masterful early animated short Vincent. The starry voice cast, which includes Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, Albert Finney, Richard E. Grant and Christopher Lee, is strong but Elfman’s turn as lively skeleton Bonejangles is by far the most memorable performance. Corpse Bride is a beautifully animated, compelling little gothic folk tale which stands as easily the best film of Burton’s disappointing post-90s career.
FURTHER WATCHING: Burton returned to animation in 2012 with Frankenweenie, an updated adaptation of his 1984 live-action short about a boy who reanimates his dead dog. The film’s animation is great but it lacks the imagination of Corpse Bride and ultimately completely cops out on its message, ending the film on a sour note of unearned sentimentalism. Though acclaimed at its time of release, Frankenweenie is rarely mentioned anymore, perhaps because of this unfortunate narrative compromise.
ONE STORMY NIGHT – 2005
Based on Yūichi Kimura’s popular series of Japanese children’s books, Gisaburō Sugii’s computer-animated film about the forbidden friendship between a wolf and a lamb is a visually luscious, emotionally engaging experience that stayed in the Japanese box office’s top ten for months. Although the animation sometime veers more towards Dogtanian than Studio Ghibli, Sugii has created such a vividly realised picture of the lush green meadows, snow-capped mountains and raging rivers of the film’s setting that viewer immersion helps us overlook the occasional gape-mouthed atrocities.
Given its setting and wolf and lamb characters, One Stormy Night immediately brings to mind Ringing Bell of Chirin, although ultimately its themes and tone are quite different, though at times no less upsetting. One Stormy Night is sometimes powerful, often emotionally manipulative but always strongly engaging, with the hackneyed but universal theme of forbidden friendship across opposing tribes shining through. The director does not shy away from the obvious love between his protagonists and their desire to be together despite opposition from their respective groups and, more interestingly, their own instincts is the compelling throughline that drives the film onwards through its comparatively lengthy lifespan.
FURTHER WATCHING: It’s always interested when animated films starring animals choose the path of semi-anthropomorphism, giving animals a voice but retaining the essential characteristics of their respective species. One of a handful of traditionally animated films made by Dreamworks, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron is a 19th century Western following the fortunes of a stallion who becomes separated from his herd and encounters humans for the first time. The titular hero is portrayed with relative realism and though he is given a voice by Matt Damon this is only heard in voiceover narration. If only Dreamworks had been a little braver, it may have been more interesting to portray Spirit’s emotions through gestures alone.
AZUR AND ASMAR: THE PRINCE’S QUEST – 2006
Michel Ocelot’s sumptuous adventure film once again utilises his distinctive storytelling which differs so much from mainstream animations, taking its time to tell the tale in a deliberate, storybook fashion. This seems even more appropriate in Azur and Asmar, which has all the qualities of a lush picture book. The visual style of Azur and Asmar is hard to adapt to at first. It is computer animation but paired with painted backgrounds and non-photo-realistic rendering. At times early on it feels like a cut-scene in a computer game. But then the magic grabs you and you realise what Ocelot is doing. Essentially he HAS created a big moving picture book, full of vivid characters and fantastical beasts, and Azur and Asmar is a wonderful companion piece to Kirikou and the Sorceress, taking that film’s folk tale charm and blowing it up into an epic fairy tale.
FURTHER WATCHING: Ocelot has recently released Dilili in Paris, a feature which shares Azur and Asmar’s bold, colourful visual style and which I’m looking forward to seeing very much. In the meantime, those with a taste for fantastical adventure may want to check out Masami Hata and William Hurtz’s Japanese-American co-production Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland. Though it falls short of its potential due to a lack of focus, this adaptation of animation pioneer Winsor McCay’s fantasy comic strip is a colourful, energetic and at times visually exciting curio which just needed a little tightening up in the plot and character departments.
THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER: RECOBBLED CUT – 2006
This is a tricky one because legendary animator Richard William’s The Thief and the Cobbler is one of animation’s highest watermarks… but only in certain versions. The story of this film’s 28 year production is a fascinating but deeply sad one. Williams began production on his pet project in 1964, always intending to make it his masterpiece and to push the boundaries of animation. Throughout the 70s and 80s he worked on other projects which helped fund his continued work on The Thief and the Cobbler. After Williams had a huge success with his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Warner Bros. signed a deal to fund and distribute the film. But as the budget soared and the production time increased, the studio took Williams’ masterwork out of his hands and handed it to Fred Calvert to complete. Calvert completely re-edited the film, adding tacky songs and voiceovers to make it more marketable. The version of The Thief and the Cobbler that was released is like watching people vomit on great art. It’s a torturous experience for any animation fan who knows the full story so one can only imagine how Williams feels about it.
We may never know the full glory of what Williams might have created and Williams has understandably completely washed his hands of the project. But fan Garrett Gilchrist has done animation fans a humongous favour by creating several new cuts of the film based on and using Williams’ original workprints and notes to create something akin to what Williams originally intended. Even though it will always fall short of what might have been, The Recobbled Cut is still a wonder to behold. Williams animations are jaw-dropping and one only need watch the trailer for this version to see what a feast for the eyes they are in for. The storytelling style is markedly different from the average animated film, with the title characters remaining silent throughout the film and the titular thief providing a cherishable series of slapstick routines in his persistent attempt to steal a set of golden balls which, while they remain one of the film’s major attractions, are also virtually superfluous to the plot. The similarities between The Thief and the Cobbler and Disney’s Aladdin have been well documented (with the bastardised Fred Calvert version of The Thief and the Cobbler often mistakenly labelled a rip off of the Disney film, which in fact borrowed heavily from Williams) but the similarities between the Thief’s obsessive attempts to steal the balls and Scrat’s pursuit of an acorn in the Ice Age films are a remarkable parallel that is rarely pointed out.
FURTHER WATCHING: It may be misleading to mention it in the Further Watching category since at the time of writing only a few small snippets have been made available but Russian animation legend Yuri Norstein’s feature length adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat is a film that has taken on the same mythic proportions as Williams’ masterwork due to its lengthy production process (Norstein began work on it in 1981) and its occasional teasing reappearances in the animation conversation. Norstein stated his intentions to release the first 30 minutes of the film to theatres in 2007 but this plan never transpired. It’s unclear whether we’ll ever get to see The Overcoat in its entirety but in the meantime anyone with a serious interest in animation cannot afford to miss Norstein’s masterful shorts of the 60s and 70s, two of which, Hedgehog in the Fog and Tale of Tales, are rightly held up as being amongst the greatest animations of all time. In my opinion, the astonishing Tale of Tales transcends the medium and should be considered as one of the great masterworks in all of cinema.
That’s it for Part 3. I hope you’ll join me for Part 4 where we’ll be looking at the period between 2006 and 2012 and unearthing some more cult classics and hidden gems. Until then, get watching!