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.
THE GIRL WHO LEAPT THROUGH TIME – 2006
Japanese director Mamora Hosoda started out by making feature length versions of popular franchises, such as several of the Digimon movies. But in the mid 00s he moved away from this with the excellent The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. A compelling high school romance with a sci-fi element, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a beautiful assertion that Hosoda could do more than just rely on the pre-existing popularity of franchises.
Although the eventual conclusion of the story is not especially satisfying, the ride itself is great as we follow seventeen year old Makoto in her discovery that she can suddenly make time-leaps, a power that she exploits readily for the most trivial and selfish of reasons. Eventually, however, she comes to realise the effect this leaping around can have on others. Makoto is an endearingly klutzy heroine, emerging from her time-leaps entangled with objects with which she has collided and, in one of the best scenes, utilising her powers in a futile attempt to escape a moment of social awkwardness which repeats with a relentless inevitability. Hosoda oversees this with the expertise of a great storyteller, something he followed through on with his superb next film Summer Wars.
FURTHER WATCHING: You may have picked up on the fact that this will not be the last Hosoda film on the list so instead of exploring his work further at this point I’ll take the opportunity to recommend Makoto Shinkai’s 2016 Japanese phenomenon Your Name, another high school romance that incorporates fantastical elements (in this case cross-gender body swapping). Like most of Shinkai’s films, Your Name does have a slightly maudlin quality but it is offset with elements of humour and a greater realisation of the story’s epic scope than the director managed in his earlier work.
PERSEPOLIS – 2007
Based on Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel of the same name, the beautiful Persepolis retains the look and feel of its source material largely thanks to Satrapi taking screenwriting and directing credits too. A coming of age tale set against the backdrop of the Iranian Revolution, Persepolis follows little Marjane’s childhood in Iran and her growth into an outspoken, rebellious young woman who is inspired by the actions of her relations and the energy of punk rock! Persepolis was perhaps too unusual to be a commercial hit but it looks like no other animated film with its beautiful use of black and white imagery to evoke its graphic novel origins and its energetic animation, which captures the energy reflected in the blossoming of Marjane into a young woman. Persepolis is a wonderful, critically-revered triumph and an animated feature that can truly claim the title of thinking-person’s-animation.
FURTHER WATCHING: For anyone interested in other animated films adapted from graphic novels and comic books, you could do worse than checking out the series of Asterix films which began in 1967 and are still being produced today. While some are a tad dreary (Asterix the Gaul is a wobbly start and Asterix and the Big Fight completely fumbles adapting one of the best books in the series), others like Asterix and Cleopatra and Asterix in Britain are quite charming. The high point is undoubtedly 1976’s The Twelve Tasks of Asterix, which benefits from one of the best stories as Asterix and Obelix try and prove themselves to be Gods by completing twelve Herculean tasks.
NOCTURNA – 2007
Firmly inhabiting the ‘I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this’ category, this Spanish/French film by Adria Garcia and Julio Fernandez is a beautiful work which should surely have been a huge hit worldwide. Telling the story of Tim, an orphan whose fear of the dark sets him off on a mission to find out why his favourite star has disappeared, Nocturna is a brilliant, traditionally animated gem that creates its own magical night-time kingdom, complete with swarms of tail-flicking cats and oddball characters like the Cat Shepherd, all working to create and maintain this nocturnal world. Nocturna won the Goya award for best animated film, the Spanish equivalent of the Oscar which was later awarded to such gems as Chico and Rita and Wrinkles, although the fact that it also went to Planet 51 in 2009 suggests that the Goya awards are as vulnerable to lapses in quality-control as the Oscars! This triumph on its native soil aside, it remains a mystery as to why barely anyone has heard of this film which should surely already be a staple of Christmas TV and a must-have acquisition for all animation fans.
FURTHER WATCHING: For fans of nocturnal adventures, Stephen Schesch and Sarah Clara Weber’s German animated feature Moon Man combines a picture-book prettiness with a slow-paced, considered approach to storytelling which combines the fantastical story of the Man in the Moon’s visit to Earth with some pointed satire about political corruption as he encounters an unscrupulous president who wants him back in the sky.
SITA SINGS THE BLUES – 2008
Independent animator Nina Paley created the unexpected gem Sita Sings the Blues almost singlehandedly. A wonderfully clever film which utilises 2D computer graphics, Flash animation and shadow puppets to wonderful effect, Sita Sings the Blues tells the story of the Ramayana but with a feminist spin sympathetic to the character of Sita. Paley takes us through the story via various techniques. Episodes from the Ramayana are enacted, a trio of shadow puppet narrators provide hilarious improvised discourse on the events and we are also treated to a series of musical numbers as Sita lip-synchs to great, largely forgotten jazz songs by 20s/30s singer Annette Hanshaw. Paley also throws in a charmingly sketchy representation of her own romantic heartache, presented in energetic Squigglevision which seems to have leaped right out of a sketchpad.
FURTHER WATCHING: Sita Sings the Blues is a genuinely unique creation but for some reason it suggest the recommendation of the Uruguayan oddity Anina, which uses a flat but captivating animation style to tell the strange story of a little girl who is punished for a schoolyard transgression by being presented with a black envelope that she is not allowed to open for a whole week. The anticipation of what is inside haunts her every waking moment and drives her subsequent adventures. Anina is aimed at a much younger audience than most of my favourite animated films but its genuinely original and worth a watch for curious fans of the medium.
IDIOTS AND ANGELS – 2008
With Idiots and Angels, Bill Plympton finally made the full length masterpiece he had clearly always been capable of. I adore Plympton’s work but his films usually have an episodic feel which suggests, as is often the case, that they have been constructed so that they can easily be broken down into separate short subjects as well. But with Idiots and Angels Plympton dedicates himself to one clearly defined story, making for a deeply satisfying ride. The artwork here also has greater consistency, with Plympton imposing a darker, sometimes monotone look on his typically flowing, alive animations. Unlike the wild anarchy of I Married a Strange Person or the cheerful non-sequiturs of The Tune, Idiots and Angels feels subversive but carefully plotted and controlled. A dank, grimy barroom tale of despicable human beings, Idiots and Angels cleverly imposes unwanted redemption on one of its characters when the detestable thug Angel suddenly grows wings which, to his horror, force him to commit good deeds. As he struggles to rid himself of the immovable appendages, his grasping acquaintances realise they can exploit the situation for their own gain. Once again completely drawn and animated by Plympton, Idiots and Angels has one last remarkable trick up its sleeve. The whole thing is told without any dialogue whatsoever. The characters grunt, groan, cackle and howl but it is their actions that speak the loudest. Idiots and Angels, though typically overlooked, is one of the great underground animated films.
FURTHER WATCHING: As well as the usual host of great short films, Plympton has also made two subsequent animated features since Idiots and Angels, both of which I am yet to catch up with. The acclaimed Cheatin’ reportedly tackles romantic relationships, jealousies and infidelities in the classic Plympton style, while Revengeance (written by and co-directed with animator Jim Lujan) has a more action-based plot about a bounty hunter and an ex-biker/wrestler turned US Senator called Deathface. Colour me intrigued!
MARY AND MAX – 2009
Australian stop-motion animator Adam Eliott came to my attention through his masterful Oscar winning 2003 short Harvie Krumpet. When I heard Eliott was making a feature I could barely contain my joy and, when it finally arrived, Mary and Max did not disappoint. Tapping into the same mordant humour as Harvie Krumpet, Mary and Max examines the friendship between two unlikely pen pals, a lonely young Australian girl and an obese American with severe Asperger syndrome. The story unfolds through the two characters’ letters to each other and we learn much about them through Eliott’s witty, blackly comic missives, as read by Toni Collette and Phillip Seymour Hoffman (along with wonderful narration from Barry Humphries). Perhaps the most memorable voice however comes from young Bethany Whitmore as the 8 year old Mary, who is exceedingly cute without straying from the film’s unsentimental tone. Mary and Max manages to be moving without the slightest hint of manipulation, as Harvie Krumpet had been years before. It’s a lovingly made adult animation that will appeal to those with dry, some would say warped, senses of humour but who also have empathetic hearts.
FURTHER WATCHING: Fans of Mary and Max will definitely want to check out Adam Eliot’s short films. The bittersweet trilogy of personal family tales Uncle, Cousin and Brother are deeply moving and mordantly funny and the oddball Ernie Biscuit applies Eliot’s unique approach to storytelling to a silent tale in sharp contrast to his usual narration-heavy approach. But undoubtedly the must-see work is the Oscar-winning, 23 minute Harvie Krumpet which tells the story of a monumentally unlucky man, narrated to perfection by Geoffrey Rush.
FANTASTIC MR. FOX – 2009
Like so many people my age, I grew up loving the books of Roald Dahl. However, decades of Dahl’s work being mishandled slowly eroded any interest I might have had in forthcoming movies based on his work. However, the news that Wes Anderson was to write and direct a version of Fantastic Mr. Fox made it irresistible to me. Anderson has been one of the most unusual and consistently brilliant directors of recent times. His distinctive sense of humour, deadpan style and excellent repertory cast (including such talents as Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman) have resulted in an as yet unsoiled catalogue of astonishing films. And yet I couldn’t quite imagine how these two very different visionaries could fit together and create something worthy of either of them. It took about 20 minutes for me to realise how Anderson had got around the problems of making a successful Roald Dahl film: he hadn’t made a Roald Dahl film at all. He’d taken the excellent source materiel as a starting point and then proceeded to mould it into something instantly recognisable as a Wes Anderson film.
Anderson has added a few well-judged plot points and characters to flesh out the story but he maintains the quirky feel of Dahl’s book by opting to tell his story with traditional stop motion animation. The animal puppets are impressive, slightly grotesque creations inspired by the pioneering animated feature The Tale of the Fox. The sets are all magnificent and the whole film has a gorgeous, autumnal look. The voice cast is headed up by George Clooney and Meryl Streep, both great in their roles as Mr. and Mrs. Fox, and also features Anderson regulars Schwartzman, Murray and Wilson. The cast, particularly Clooney and Schwartzman, all give beautifully understated performances as they rattle off Anderson’s hysterically funny dialogue. Anderson also takes a gamble by opting to include another of his trademarks, an impeccably chosen soundtrack of classic pop music. The thought of Fantastic Mr. Fox set to the sounds of The Beach Boys’ ‘Heroes and Villains’ or The Rolling Stones’ ‘Street Fightin’ Man’ may sound ludicrous on paper but the gamble pays off. Again, this is due to the fact that Fantastic Mr. Fox is far more a Wes Anderson film than it is a Roald Dahl one.
FURTHER WATCHING: Anderson’s first foray into animation was so successful that he returned to the medium nearly a decade later with the acclaimed Isle of Dogs (more on which later). Ladislas Starevich’s 1937 classic The Tale of the Fox, discussed fully in part one of this list, should appeal to anyone who likes the scraggly puppets of Fantastic Mr. Fox, while anyone looking for another animated Roald Dahl adaptation could do worse than Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer’s duo of computer-animated short films based on Revolting Rhymes, the first of which was Oscar-nominated in 2017.
TOYS IN THE ATTIC – 2009
Twenty-three years after his brilliant, dark adaptation of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Czech animator Jiri Barta returned to the animated feature with a seemingly more commercial prospect: a film about a group of discarded toys in a junk-filled attic. With the third instalment of Toy Story on the way the following year, promoters of Toys in the Attic were keen to play up the links between Barta’s film and the Pixar juggernaut but in aside from the fact that they both star a cast of toys there is very little connection between the films. Unlike Toy Story 3 which was instantly subsumed into the canon of classic family animations, Toys in the Attic did not make much of an impact and though it was given a wider release than most of Barta’s previous work, its dark political subtext, eerie stop-motion atmosphere and sense of genuine threat did not sit well with audiences duped into expecting something akin to the adventures of Woody and Buzz (not that the Toy Story films are lacking in a sense of genuine threat or sociological resonance either). But to oddballs like myself, Toys in the Attic proved to be pure catnip. Like a rediscovered work from the 80s animation boom, perhaps hauled out of a similarly dusty attic to that depicted in the film, Toys in the Attic is a beautiful, idiosyncratic, underappreciated masterpiece. It tells the tale of a marionette, a teddy bear, a mechanical mouse and an amorphous plasticine creature trying to rescue a doll from the clutches of the despotic Head of State (a terrifying, disembodied plaster bust) who rules over the Land of Evil, the eastern side of the attic which is divided from the happier land in the west. Picking up on any political symbolism yet? Don’t worry if not, as Toys in the Attic is easily enjoyable as a straightforward adventure tale of a daring rescue, making it ideal for both adults and children who are after something a bit different.
FURTHER WATCHING: All of Barta’s work is worth checking out but fans of Toys in the Attic may find the transition to his extremely dark The Pied Piper too drastic a tonal shift. I would advise bridging the gap by going directly to Barta’s exceptional short The Club of the Laid Off, a 25 minute film about abandoned mannequins discarded in an old warehouse, a superficially similar premise to Toys in the Attic which also moves towards an examination of political and social barriers.
CORALINE – 2009
This fascinating adaptation of a Neil Gaiman novel saw Henry Selick bounce back in style after a couple of misjudged failures. Unfortunately, since all the advertising proclaimed that Coraline was from the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas, most people wrongly gave Tim Burton the credit for a film he wasn’t even involved with. Selick’s masterful handling of Coraline tapped into an inspirational magic that recalls his work on The Nightmare Before Christmas without ever feeling like a retread of that film’s unique style. The story of a young girl who reluctantly moves to a three bedroom apartment with her parents and stumbles upon an alternate reality, which at first seems preferable to her own but ultimately reveals itself to have a horrifying price, Coraline is in no rush to get to its major set pieces and instead languishes in its atmosphere of thrilling uncertainty and chilling unfamiliarity. The stop motion animation is superb and there are plenty of wonderful visual moments throughout but Coraline is perhaps most memorable for its deliberate pacing and sometimes frighteningly creepy air. A remarkable film, Coraline was the debut feature for Laika, a studio that rapidly grew into one of the most consistently interesting and exciting producers of animation.
FURTHER WATCHING: Laika Studios quickly proved that Coraline was no one-off fluke, remaining loyal to the oft-neglected art of stop-motion in a series of excellent subsequent features all of which were Oscar nominated. Their latest, the exceptional Kubo and the Two Strings (more on which later), may be their best but there are delights to be found in the more light-hearted horror spoof Paranorman and the gross-out fantasy adventure The Boxtrolls.
SUMMER WARS – 2009
Mamoru Hosoda’s next film after The Girl Who Leapt Through Time was the even better Summer Wars, a fast moving comedy adventure in which a gifted maths student, Kenji, is forced to pose as an acquaintances fiancée when she visits her oddball extended family for her great grandmother’s 90th birthday. On top of this, Kenji also becomes entangled in an online war when a stranger begins destroying the virtual reality world he is a moderator for. Things escalate from there in both domestic and online warfare, with the stakes ramping up to unexpectedly dire levels. Summer Wars is a consistently exciting animated take on the Summer blockbuster, with plenty of thrills and laughs, lively characters and attractive artwork. A real blast.
FURTHER WATCHING: Hosoda has proved himself a director who can handle a range of tones with his subsequent Wolf Children (more on which later) flirting with elements of tragedy and realistic social concerns mixed with fantasy. But those who enjoyed Summer Wars may want to go directly to Hosoda’s 2015 adventure The Boy and the Beast, which once again plays up the action-adventure elements that made Summer Wars so enjoyable.
MY DOG TULIP – 2009
Based on J.R. Ackerley’s memoir of the same name, Paul Fierlinger’s beautiful independent animation tells the story of one man’s fifteen year relationship with his German Sherpherd. Dryly witty, emotionally moving without being sentimental and at times even coldly factual with regard to the dog’s bowel movements and sexual activity, My Dog Tulip is a film that achieves its appeal through its focus on the minutiae of owning and loving a dog, as well as the more unusual events. The viewer is easily drawn into Ackerley’s world through the mixture of the mundane and the amusing, beautifully reflected in the film’s various different primitive but effective animation techniques. My Dog Tulip emerges as a realistic depiction of life’s less thrilling moments, something rarely seen in the animation medium, which makes the film all the more refreshing.
FURTHER WATCHING: Fierlinger is a fascinating figure and those craving another animated feature should go directly to his hour-long autobiographical TV movie Drawn from Memory. But there are also gems to be uncovered in his short films including the Oscar-nominated It’s So Nice to Have a Wolf Around the House, a charming children’s book adaptation, and the beloved Teeny Little Super Guy series which appeared sporadically as segments on Sesame Street and followed a wise, Peter Falk-esque man who exists inside a plastic cup and doles out advice to other kitchenware-clad creations.
THE SECRET OF KELLS – 2009
In a great year for animation, this beautiful hand-drawn treat became the surprise fifth nomination for Best Animated Feature Oscar. An Irish-French-Belgian production, The Secret of Kells is a magical little dip into Irish mythology which depicts a fictionalised version of the creation of the Book of Kells. It follows the adventures of Brendan, an Abbot’s nephew who is expected to follow in his uncles footsteps but has his own ideas. The Abbey which they inhabit is under threat from Vikings, which provides the film with a meaty, dark plot thrust which combines nicely with its magical supernatural elements, such as Brendan’s wonderful journey into the forest and run in with a spirit. Director Tomm Moore and his team were influenced by Richard Williams lost masterpiece The Thief and the Cobbler and this is clear in much of the animation, which can only be a good thing.
FURTHER WATCHING: Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon are rapidly becoming one of the most exciting studios out there, with all of their animated features so far quickly being embraced as modern classics (more on which later). Their unique house style is apparent in all their creations but asserts itself without restricting the individual auteurs who guide the projects. Witness Louise Bagnall’s sensitive, Oscar-nominated examination of dementia Late Afternoon and the ace children’s TV series Skunk-Fu and Puffin Rock.
CHICO AND RITA – 2010
This Spanish animation tells the story of two lovers, a songwriter and a singer, whose lengthy and complex affair plays out against the backdrop of the 40s and 50s jazz scene, an era when many Cuban jazz musicians were leaving their country for America where their expertise and innovations helped push jazz into new territories. Filled with great music and even some animated appearances by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente and Thelonious Monk, Chico and Rita tells a compelling story of fiery passions and life-changing loves. Beautifully and seamlessly combining CGI and inspiring hand-drawn animation, the film looks gorgeous, saturated in vivid, joyous colours. From the moment I saw it, Chico and Rita instantly became one of my favourite animated features of all time. I just love it, it strikes such a chord with me emotionally, as well as visually and aurally.
FURTHER WATCHING: For a similarly adult, if stylistically very different, examination of adult relationships, Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s chillingly downbeat stop-motion feature Anomalisa effortlessly incorporates Kaufman’s bleak comedic style of writing with Johnson’s unpatronising approach to animation. It should come as no surprise to fans of the absolutely monumental Adult Swim series Moral Orel that Johnson worked as a director on that series too. The tale of a morally-confused but good-hearted boy’s struggle against the religious zealotry of his numerous unsuitable role models, Moral Orel begins as a straight parody of the religion-themed Claymation series Davey and Goliath but develops across three seasons into an epic deconstruction of the detrimental effects religious fanaticism has on communities, families and individuals. It’s one of the most important forgotten series of the 21st century and demands rediscovery and reappraisal.
THE ILLUSIONIST – 2010
With The Ilusionist, Sylvain Chomet did the improbable and topped his first feature The Triplets of Belleville. Based on an unproduced Jacques Tati script and starring an animated version of Tati, The Illusionist is less viscerally grotesque than Chomet’s previous works and instead achieves a dramatic sense of melancholy, the like of which seems naturally interlinked with this sort of pantomime clowning. Told, as is usually the case with Chomet, with almost no dialogue, The Illusionist follows the dwindling fortunes of a magician in 1959 as he finds himself unable to compete with more modern forms of entertainment. Taking his act to Scotland, he inadvertently acquires a young fan who follows him to Edinburgh. The girl believes he has real magic powers and, not wanting to shatter her illusions, the magician strives to keep up this impression, making life financially difficult for himself in the process. The Illusionist is an achingly beautiful film, with Chomet’s painstakingly detailed hand drawn style being the highlight. It had the misfortune to come out the same year as Toy Story 3, which pretty much swept all animated Oscar competition aside, but while that was a magnificent film, The Illusionist is a slow-burning classic which rewards many viewing and just seems to get more mesmerising each time.
A TOWN CALLED PANIC – 2010
Based on a puppetoon series from Belgium, this big screen version of A Town Called Panic was one of the most unexpected delights of 2009. The story of three small plastic figurines, Cowboy, Indian and Horse, and their surreal adventures, A Town Called Panic is frantically animated with tiny little plastic toys. It needs to be watched on as big a screen as possible just for the sake of the viewer’s eyes! The plot jumps from one wacky event to the next with a strange sort of nonsense-logic and the fact that it’s all in French with subtitles somehow makes it all even funnier. Although it is quite, quite bonkers, A Town Called Panic is also tremendous fun and seems to charm many an unsuspecting viewer who will ultimately say ‘What the hell was that?! I loved it!’
FURTHER WATCHING: Fans of A Town Called Panic should go directly to Mark Baker’s legendary 80s short The Hill Farm, an acknowledged influence which shares the film’s focus on minute detail and absurdist gags.
MEGAMIND – 2010
When Dreamworks’ Megamind came out it was criticised for being derivative and accused of being inferior to the supposedly similar Despicable Me, which also shone the spotlight on a villain rather than a hero. Pixar’s classic The Incredibles was also mentioned a lot in reviews of Megamind, although that was hardly the first film to play with the superhero conventions for comedy effect. It’s a shame Megamind got so overshadowed by discussions of other films because it’s a superb, clever piece of work and a clear stand out in the Dreamworks canon. Will Ferrell is great in the central role of a supervillain who opens up an existential can of worms by inadvertently succeeding in killing his nemesis. What is a supervillain without a superhero to face off against? That’s just one of the questions posed by Megamind‘s cerebral script, which is full of great little ideas, none of which are overused (my favourite is Megamind’s tendency to mispronounce words. His pronunciation of Metro City provides one of the film’s cleverest jokes, a triple whammy of simple gag, sneaky pun and cheeky reference). Although it can’t completely avoid some of the pitfalls of mainstream animation (must EVERY animated feature end with a dance-off?!), Megamind rises above many of its entertaining but forgetable peers.
FURTHER WATCHING: While the first two Despicable Me films may offer a more obvious go-to for fans of Megamind, I’d suggest the latter’s more cerebral tone and genuine interest in the mechanics of superhero relationships makes Batman: Mask of the Phantasm a more appropriate recommendation. Based on the critically lauded TV show Batman: The Animated Series, Mask of the Phantasm is filled with the incisive psychological content and strong, uncompromising storytelling that made the series so great, using the dark, tainted romance plot to generate plenty of action and intrigue.
KUNG FU PANDA 2 – 2011
The Kung Fu Panda franchise is a masterpiece of modern animation that crept up on me. I remember seeing the first film in the middle of the day one Christmas, half-watching it through a haze of half-chewed festive snacks and early afternoon libations and then casually dismissing it as just another Dreamworks trifle. Upon returning to that film years later I saw what a fool I’d been but it took its crackerjack sequel Kung Fu Panda 2 to inspire me to give it another try. I still remember sitting down to watch Kung Fu Panda 2 with no expectations whatsoever and emerging enthused to the point of fidgety excitement by just how superb the film was. While the first film focused on the overweight panda Po’s unlikely appointment as the Dragon Warrior and his lengthy training process to help him fulfil his destiny, the sequel launches headlong into an action-packed adventure right from the off as Po and the Furious Five head to Gongmen City to take on a psychotic, kung-fu hating peacock voiced by an on-form Gary Oldman. As well as a fast-moving plot that boasts great action sequences and moments of genuine emotional resonance, Kung Fu Panda 2 also has better jokes than its predecessor, with barely a scene going by that doesn’t offer at least one big belly laugh. Having fallen in love with Kung Fu Panda 2, I went directly to the TV spin-off Legends of Awesomeness which is indeed awesome, opening out the world wonderfully and bringing a cinematic edge to its natural Saturday morning slot. By the time the third cinematic instalment arrived I was in love with the franchise to the extent that I’m willing to call it one of my favourite animation phenomenons ever. But it is this second instalment that remains the high watermark in the franchise.
FURTHER WATCHING: My experiences with Kung Fu Panda 2 illustrated how disastrous it can be to have preconceptions about a studio’s entire output based on previous works. In this case, my dislike for the Shrek franchise saw me narrowmindedly ignore Dreamworks’ subsequent output for many years, to my own foolish detriment. Ultimately, I have found much to love in many Dreamworks’ films including the surprisingly great Shrek spin-off Puss in Boots and the epic fantasy crowd-pleaser How to Train Your Dragon which, at the time of writing, has just become the fourth Dreamworks franchise to reach the three film mark. Kudos to them.
WRINKLES – 2011
Ignacio Ferreras worked as an animator on Sylvain Chomet’s masterpiece The Illusionist and his first feature as a director more than lives up to the high expectations this connection breeds. Based on the comic book by Paco Roca (who also co-wrote the screenplay), Wrinkles is a touching, funny, realistic and, crucially, completely unsentimental look at growing old. Ferreras skilfully avoids any of the usual nonsense that portrays the mere ageing process as something heroic, or dying as something beautiful, instead opting for a moving but unmanipulative depiction of the last years of life and lucidity.
Set almost entirely in an old people’s home, this Spanish feature follows the story of Emilio, a man in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and his introduction to Miguel, a roguish veteran of the home whose antics veer between amoral and downright sinister but who pledges to help Emilio avoid being taken to the dreaded upper floor of the home, where the ‘assisted’ cases (also known as ‘the lost causes’) are kept. There are plenty of surprising narrative developments and complex character developments for anyone who fears this may be depressing, and the traditional cel animation, complete with its autumnal colour palette, invest the whole thing with the perfect melancholy of a rapidly diminishing art, itself struggling against being consigned to animation’s metaphorical home.
FURTHER WATCHING: Sharing an elegiac tone with Wrinkles, Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s gorgeous biographical drama Loving Vincent made history as the first fully painted animated feature. Using live-action performances as a basis, Loving Vincent overlays painted animations in the style of Van Gogh’s work to tell the story of the artist’s final days through imagined interviews with those who encountered him in the final hours leading up to his suicide. Although the script is occasionally clunky, Loving Vincent is a captivating work, its experimental style never less than beautiful to look at.
LEAFIE: A HEN INTO THE WILD – 2011
Based on an extremely popular children’s book, Leafie, a Hen Into the Wild (known in English-speaking territories as Daisy, a Hen Into the Wild) broke box-office records for South Korean animation. Although its posters make it look like a cutesy fable for the tiniest of tots, Leafie, a Hen Into the Wild is actually a brutally honest, deeply moving and frequently extremely sad tale of a selfless, devoted mother who, having escaped a miserable life in a farmyard, adopts a little duckling whose parents have been killed by a one-eyed weasel. In its unflinching approach to the story, Leafie… combines elements of Bambi, Animal Farm and Watership Down, although it is quite unlike all those films in visual style. Choosing to adhere to a 2D look, director Oh Sung-yoon combines traditionally cartoony characters (some cute, some grotesque) and painterly backgrounds which make for beautifully evocative settings.
Leafie, a Hen Into the Wild was a real surprise, as I sat down to watch it expecting an easy-going piece of Saturday night escapism and instead got an intensely emotional experience that left me feeling oddly sad when it ended. Although there are elements of the uplifting in Leafie’s self-sacrificing approach to adoptive-motherhood, the film’s overwhelming effect is one of haunting melancholy and the effect stayed with me long afterwards.
FURTHER WATCHING: In terms of emotional resonance, Leafie: A Hen into the Wild immediately brings to mind those two classics of traumatising animation, Watership Down and Ringing Bell of Chirin, both discussed in part 1 of this list. British fans of Leafie… should note that the current region 2 DVD is slightly edited in one of the pivotal final scenes and the full, uncut finale is twice as effective and upsetting, offering up a small detail that is crucial to the film’s message.
IT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY – 2012
Originally released as three separate shorts films, It’s Such a Beautiful Day tells the story of Bill, a man with a humorously mundane life which takes a dark turn when it becomes apparent that he may be suffering from a potentially fatal mental disorder. The feature debut of cult animator Don Hertzfeld, It’s Such a Beautiful Day is one of those incredible films that animation enthusiasts dream of unearthing. An instant classic and a completely unique experience, Hertzfeld’s first foray into feature animation not only lives up to his catalogue of classic animated shorts (the most famous of which is the Oscar nominated Rejected) but surpassed them completely. Hertzfeld takes on the subject of serious illness with his usual irreverent style but crucially, while he mines the mordant humour out of every situation, he is also respectful and never drifts into rude, pointless nihilism. This is outsider art of the highest quality. Hertzfeld’s trademark stick figure characters and monochrome backgrounds do nothing to diminish the film’s cinematic qualities and he enhances these with a series of impressive in-camera special effects. It’s Such a Beautiful Day received rave reviews upon its limited release but it still remains relatively buried for all but the most dedicated animation fans or Hertzfeld devotees. I won’t pretend that its black humour, measured pace and cerebral outlook will ever see it rival the likes of Despicable Me for universal appeal but those who are intrigued enough to seek it out will likely fall in love with it as much as I did.
FURTHER WATCHING: Don Hetzfeldt’s catalogue is a veritable treasure trove of gems that fans of It’s Such a Beautiful Day will no doubt adore. Though his early student films are undoubtedly interesting and funny, the internet sensation Rejected, which was subsequently Oscar-nominated, is the real turning point. A hysterically funny depiction of an animator’s descent into madness as portrayed through his increasingly baffling work, Rejected was followed by the mesmerizing experiment The Meaning of Life which was indicative of the ambitious Bill films that followed. While It’s Such a Beautiful Day would likely have represented most artists’ absolute peak, Hertzfeldt’s subsequent World of Tomorrow shorts have continued the astonishing levels of quality.
That’s it for Part 4. I hope you’ll join me for the final part where we’ll be looking at the period between 2012 and 2019 and unearthing some more cult classics and hidden gems. Until then, get watching!