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.
WOLF CHILDREN – 2012
With Wolf Children, Mamoru Hosoda has proven himself as a director worthy of being mentioned alongside fellow countrymen Hayao Miyasaki, Isao Takahata and Satoshi Kon. Wolf Children tells the fantastical tale of a young woman’s tragic romance with a man who is part wolf, resulting in the birth of the titular lupine infants. When her husband is killed while following the call of the wild, it is up to Hana alone to raise their offspring, but single motherhood is hard enough as it is, without having to hide the fact that your emotionally volatile children could turn in wolves at any moment. Despite it’s premise sounding like a recipe for either weak farce or sappy sentiment, Wolf Children emerges as Hosoda’s most realistically grounded work, using the supernatural element of the story to give a euphemistic depiction of single motherhood and the passing of children from infants to young adults. As with Hosoda’s previous work, the visuals are gorgeously detailed and the story is multi-faceted and emotionally gripping. Wolf Children may well be Hosoda’s greatest masterpiece yet.
FURTHER WATCHING: Fans of Wolf Children’s subtly magical atmosphere may find something to love in Mary and the Witch’s Flower, a more overtly magical offering from Hiromasa Yonebayashi, an ex-Ghibli animator and director who left the studio to establish Studio Ponoc. The story of a young girl who finds a mysterious, glowing flower which gives her the powers of a witch, Mary and the Witch’s Flower couldn’t escape inevitable Ghibli comparisons and it lacks something in its uneven screenplay but viewed as a starting point for a newly-established studio its an impressive and lightly enjoyable creation.
THE PIRATES IN AN ADVENTURE WITH SCIENTISTS – 2012
Since I was very young I have loved Aardman Animations but I greatly preferred their numerous exceptional short films to their disappointing features. I even found the much praised Wallace and Gromit feature Curse of the Were-Rabbit to be overstretched and half-hearted. So I was delighted to see this cracking and extremely funny film live up to the charm of Aardman’s short film catalogue. Chock full of gags, many of them extremely clever, some delightfully silly, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists is a fast-moving film which doesn’t entirely sacrifice emotional involvement for the sake of a cheap laugh. In the central role of Pirate Captain, Hugh Grant gives his best performance and is practically unrecognisable. The stop motion animation is fantastic as always and all signs point to the film becoming a firm favourite with animation fans.
FURTHER WATCHING: As stated above, I’ve found most of Aardman’s feature films a little disappointing but 2015’s Shaun the Sheep, a big-screen spin-off from the TV show of the same name (itself a spin-off from the Wallace and Gromit film A Close Shave), worked surprisingly well as a sort of silent movie pastiche. The studio’s first feature, Chicken Run, is also enjoyable but sadly I’ve found the likes of Early Man, Arthur Christmas and especially the really-rather-dreary Flushed Away to be disappointing at best. But to talk of Aardman in such a negative light is ludicrous when you look at their pivotal place in animation history. My advice, then, would be to plunder their exceptional catalogue of shorts in which you’ll find very few disappointments and an embarrassing amount of the greatest animation shorts ever made. Of course there are the Wallace and Gromit films (of which The Wrong Trousers is the clear masterpiece) but don’t miss out on early gems like the Conversation Pieces series, the grim political satire of Babylon, the Oscar-winning classic Creature Comforts, the Shakespeare-in-5-minutes pageantry of Next, the laugh-out-loud creation story Adam, the violent anarchy of Pib and Pog, the Prince and the Pauper riff of Wat’s Pig, the melodrama-spoofing Stage Fright… the list goes on and it is monumental!
CONSUMING SPIRITS – 2012
A true labour of love, Chris Sullivan’s astonishing feature Consuming Spirits is a long, eloquent, dreamlike, blackly comic meditation on poverty, madness, death and depression in a small industrial American town. Created over the course of fourteen years, during which it morphed from a mini-series into a 90 minute feature and finally a 128 minute film, the natural progression of Consuming Spirits’ material is clear in its fluid structure and extremely satisfying denouement which ties together its numerous threads and makes sense of what initially seems to be an elusive narrative. Focusing on the lives of three quietly desperate individuals and their struggles to cope with the problems and secrets of their past and present, Consuming Spirits lays out its plot strands across five acts. What first seems disorienting and vague becomes clearer with each of the film’s five acts but Sullivan helps differentiate between the images of the past, present and representations of dreams and imaginings by employing several different animation styles. The characters are mainly presented as stop-motion cut-outs while images of the past appear as stark black and white line drawings or manipulated photographs. Outdoor scenes of cars driving through town are represented by defiantly artificial model shots. The fascinating visual experimentation and narrative structure are bolstered by Sullivan’s excellent screenplay which is built around drily philosophical monologues delivered by Earl Gray, the host of the local radio stations gardening show who constantly segues from the subject of gardening into elaborate musings on life and death. The tone is expertly struck so as to allow plenty of mordant laughs while never undermining the pain and suffering that underscores everything. There are many scenes that are almost overwhelmingly emotional but never overplayed and the voice case, which includes Sullivan himself, are uniformly excellent at capturing the vulnerability and awkwardness that pervades these sickened souls and makes their lives that little bit more difficult than it already is.
FURTHER WATCHING: There’s really nothing else quite like Consuming Spirits out there but another film that uses the animated aesthetic to explore issues of mental illness and tragedy is Keith Maitland’s documentary Tower, which uses rotoscoped reconstructions to the 1966 shootings at the University of Texas, Austin. A powerful example of how animation can be used as an effective tool by documentarians.
MINUSCULE: VALLEY OF THE LOST ANTS – 2013
For a while in the late 90s animated insects were all the rage, with the release of both Dreamworks’ Antz and Pixar’s A Bug’s Life. Both films were reasonably enjoyable creations but placed the viewer squarely among the insect communities and instilled their protagonists with recognisable human traits and anthropomorphic qualities. Fifteen years later, French directors Hélène Giraud and Thomas Szabo gave us something far more intriguing with Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants. The story of an injured ladybird who, no longer able to fly, takes up with a colony of black ants and becomes involved in their war with a colony of red ants, Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants keeps the viewer at one remove from the action, as if we’re watching events unfold through a surreptitiously parted patch of grass. Staying true to its name, Minuscule never gives the insects a false sense of being larger than they are and while they do perform some tasks that real insects couldn’t, they are only semi-anthropomorphic. The key to Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants enduring charm is that its characters are not given voices. Although there is abundant music and sound effects, not a word is spoken throughout the runtime. The film also makes inventive use of lush real-life locations, placing its animated insects against real parks, forests and streams, making it a real breath of fresh air to watch.
FURTHER WATCHING: Minuscule:Valley of the Lost Ants is actually a feature length spin-off of the series Minuscule, also created by Giraud and Szabo, which features six minute vignettes starring various creepy-crawly characters. A feature length sequel to Valley of the Lost Ants entitled Minuscule: Mandibles From Far Away has also recently been released and sees the ladybird accidentally transported to the Caribbean. I can’t wait to see it.
ERNEST AND CELESTINE – 2014
Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar’s debut animated feature A Town Called Panic was one of the most unusual and bizarrely appealing animated films of recent times but its frenetic stop-motion and absurdist script left little clue of where the pair would go next. Certainly no-one could have predicted Ernest and Celestine, a modern classic of animation that trades in A Town Called Panic‘s wild energy for a cosy, charming, painterly style which recalls some of the loveliest animated shorts of the 80s and 90s. Based on the series of children’s books by Gabrielle Vincent, Ernest and Celestine tells the story of the unlikely friendship between a starving, brutish bear and a curious, adventurous little mouse. Although it may look like a twee little parable on the power of platonic love and friendship conquering all, Ernest and Celestine in fact retains much of the edge of Aubier and Patar’s previous film, with the plot taking in elements of the fugitives-on-the-run crime genre. The impeccable storybook style of the artwork captures the mood perfectly and the pacing is gentle but engaging, betraying the influence of a third directorial collaborator Benjamin Renner who would go on to make the excellent The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales… (more on which later).
FURTHER WATCHING: Though it bears little resemblance to Ernest and Celestine, I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to crowbar in a reference to the 1980 TV movie Animalympics and this tale of animal characters will have to do as a segue! Constructed as a series of vignettes based around Olympic events (both Summer and Winter), Animalympics is an inventive, fun, occasionally slightly weird film which features voices by comedy legends Billy Crystal, Gilda Radner and Harry Shearer and a soundtrack by 10cc’s Graham Gouldman, including a couple of music video style segments, a comparative rarity in this pre-MTV age.
SONG OF THE SEA – 2014
After the critical success of his debut feature The Secret of Kells, Tomm Moore confirmed his potential as one of the most exciting new animation directors of the 21st century with his masterful follow-up Song of the Sea. An utterly timeless, magical adventure that is once again rooted in Irish folklore, Song of the Sea tells the story of ten year old Ben who lives in a lighthouse with his father Conor and mother Bronagh. When the birth of Ben’s sister Saoirise causes his mother to disappear, Ben becomes resentful of his mute sister and, six years later, is whisked off to live in the city with his grandmother after Saoirise apparently almost drowns. But in reality Saoirise is a selkie, a combination of human and seal, and Ben and Saoirise’s attempts to get back to their home on the lighthouse reveals other magical secrets about their family. Combining real magic with deftly realised symbolism, Song of the Sea has just as much to say about the difficulties of childhood in the real world as it does about the realm of faeries and owl-witches, and this link to reality makes the film all the more powerful even when it is at its most whimsically fantastical. The gorgeous art style of Moore’s previous film, something that pervades all Cartoon Saloon productions without being rigidly restrictive, is present here and Song of the Sea emerges as one of the most gorgeous animated features in recent memory.
FURTHER WATCHING: Since I’ve already recommended pretty much everything from the Cartoon Saloon stable, I’ll take this opportunity to recommend Hayo Freitag’s wonderful German animated feature The Three Robbers, another film with a bold, hand-drawn style. Based on a children’s book by Tomi Ungerer, who narrates portions of the film, The Three Robbers retains the delightful illustration style of the book and in its bold use of colour and shapes recalls some of the classic UPA shorts of the 40s and 50s. Whatever you do, avoid the British version which was retitled Trick or Treaters and cuts out large portions of the original film while also shoehorning in an unnecessary Halloween theme.
This also seems like the ideal time to strongly recommend Luke Pearson’s extraordinary Netflix series Hilda, which follows the adventures of a headstrong blue-haired girl and her mother as they are forced to move from their woodland home to the city of Trolberg. As they adapt to city life, Hilda finds the fantastical elements of her life in the forest continue to recur in her new life, where she now has two friends of her own age to share them with. Filled with fantastic characters, funny dialogue and gorgeous, colourful artwork, Hilda is a children’s classic waiting to be discovered.
THE LEGO MOVIE – 2014
When I first saw trailers for The Lego Movie I doubted that any film could adequately capture the joy of its titular building-brick institution. The news that the film was written and directed by Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs alumni Phil Lord and Christopher Miller raised my hopes slightly. And when I finally saw The Lego Movie I absolutely loved it. Eschewing the cheap ‘nudge-nudge, wink-wink, here’s one for the adults’ approach of films like Shrek, The Lego Movie genuinely achieve cross-generational appeal through its superb evocation of the joy of the toy that forms its basis.
The Lego Movie‘s laugh ratio is extremely high and what has been deemed an overly sentimental final act is actually a reassuring moment of heart in a medium that has in recent years all too often tended towards cold cynicism and empty surrealist nonsense. Unlike TV series Family Guy, which relies on a barrage of pop culture references that will irreparably date it in years to come, The Lego Movie draws on the continued popularity of its ingenious product by utilising some of its most iconic characters previously immortalised in Lego, such as Batman and Superman, references that will surely not date in the lifetime of anyone involved in the movie. The Lego Movie hints at some social satire, with the already infamous brainwashing anthem ‘Everything is Awesome’ ironically becoming a hit in its own right, but crucially it relies more heavily on strong characters, including subversions of well-known icons alongside new creations and generic Lego heroes, such as Benny the 1980s spaceman. A deserved hit, The Lego Movie is another exciting brick in the careers of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller.
FURTHER WATCHING: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have had their fingers in several excellent animation pies, beginning with the very funny and deceptively unusual Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (just don’t touch the awful sequel with a bargepole). Lord co-wrote the almost universally-acclaimed Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (more on which later) and co-produced with Miller and the pair also wrote The Lego Movie 2 (which I’ve yet to see). Lord and Miller have also produced other Lego based films The Lego Batman Movie (excellent) and The Lego Ninjago Movie (disappointing).
ROCKS IN MY POCKET – 2014
Latvian animator Signe Baumane’s first feature, Rocks in my Pockets is an acerbic, witty, moving exploration of mental health viewed through the stories of five female members of the filmmakers family who have suffered from severe depression. In her quest to confirm her suspicions that her grandmother committed suicide, Signe (in animated form and providing her own voiceover narration) probes deep into her own experiences with depression and the suicidal fantasies that lead to her spending four months in a mental institution. Rocks in my Pockets never shies away from the severity of its subject matter but neither does it present it as something exotic or strange. Signe’s matter of fact voiceover reminds viewers of how many people suffer with their mental health and how ridiculous the stigmatisation associated with such prevalent and important issues is. The abundant humour here is vital in providing a tonal balance and yet it never once undermines or trivialises the seriousness of the subject matter. The simple but elegant 2D art style, which also incorporates several 3D sets made from cardboard, plywood and papier-mache, is perfect for providing striking visual accompaniments which never threaten to distract from the fascinating narration. Rocks in my Pockets is an important, intelligent and timely animated feature which deserves much wider distribution.
FURTHER WATCHING: For another deeply unusual film with adult-themes and a mixture of humour and an unsettling edge, Israeli director Tatia Rosenthal’s stop-motion oddity $9.99 is a unique little curio focusing on the inhabitants of a Sydney apartment. Like an animated version of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, the plot weaves together many different stories involving the interlocking lives of the apartment dwellers. Some of the stories retain a realistic quality, while others are surreal, fantastical or just flat-out strange.
LONG WAY NORTH – 2015
Remi Chaye’s extraordinary and beautiful adventure film Long Way North tells the story of Sasha, a teenage girl in 19th Century Russia who runs away from home in a bid to reach the North Pole and prove wrong the slanderous accusations against her explorer grandfather. Chaye’s sumptuous art style, which presents characters without outlines allowing the bold colours to bleed into each other beautifully, is matched by a thrilling and satisfying story which takes its time to unfold. A lesser storyteller would have leapt straight to the North Pole scenes but Chaye builds slowly through scenes at the inn and on the boat, all of which present their own problems to be overcome in a manner that reminded me of classic adventure games.Chaye worked on Tomm Moore’s The Secret of Kells and there’s certainly hints of the Cartoon Saloon influence in his hand-drawn stylisations but Chaye has forged his own path, establishing a unique personal style and emerging with one of the finest animated features of this century so far. The news that Chaye is currently working on a Western animated feature with elements of Long Way North‘s female empowerment narrative is cause for massive celebration.
FURTHER WATCHING: For another unusual, ambitious adventure film, Swedish animator Per Ahlin’s The Journey to Melonia is a curious reimagining of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which was at the time the most expensive animated film made in Sweden. The Journey to Melonia has much going for it, but given it’s lengthy production process one wonders if they might not have spent a little longer actually making up their minds what to do with the script. Taking the major characters from The Tempest, Ahlin begins with what looks like a semi-faithful adaptation, then takes it towards a more conventional action adventure plot with elements of sci-fi before finally veering towards a confusingly self-referential direction when the characters find a copy of The Tempest in an abandoned theatre and begin staging a version of the source text that the film is based on. If it all sounds like a bit of a mess, it is and you can’t help wishing Ahlin had opted for a straight adaptation of the play instead. That said, there’s much to recommend The Journey to Melonia. It’s big budget is visible on screen but not in an overwhelmingly glossy way. The characters looks like appealing newspaper cartoons come to life and the colourful surrounding and lively animation is great. Also, though I was a little taken aback by them at first, some of the more outlandish character designs are far more imaginative than most animators would have attempted. Aeriel, for instance, is here part albatross, part human, while Caliban (one of Shakespeare’s most fascinating villains, although here he is more of a put-upon hero) is a creature made out of fruit and vegetables and eventually ends up lumbering around as a Godzilla sized monstrosity. The wild plot lurches and superfluous supporting characters (Captain Christmas Tree Foot anyone?!) are almost mesmerising and keep you glued to the screen to see where it’s going. And where it ends up is a pro-revolutionary ideal in which Prospero is chastised for his enslavement of Ariel and Caliban and everyone celebrates a world without leaders. Now there’s a message I can get behind. Viva la Revolution!
PHANTOM BOY – 2015
Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol’s Phantom Boy is a superbly exciting, involving and fun fantasy drama with elements of a superhero film. 11 year old Leo is regularly in and out of hospital due to an unspecified but serious illness from which he may not recover. But the malady comes with an unexpected bonus: Leo has developed the power to separate his spirit from his body, allowing him to float all over the city unseen and unencumbered by physical barriers. Meanwhile, while on the trail of criminal mastermind The Man With the Broken Face, police officer Alex breaks his leg and finds himself in the same hospital as Leo. Discovering Leo’s secret, Alex teams up with him in order to use his special powers against the force of evil that is threatening to take control of the city. It’s a classic crime caper plot, building on the tropes of the genre that were evident in the duo’s first film A Cat in Paris. The charming, stylised animation of that film is also back, utilising a childlike simplicity that perfectly compliments the undemanding breeziness of the plot. While some have found Phantom Boy’s story disappointingly formulaic, it makes for a thrillingly nostalgic experience, tapping into the child that is inevitably still alive in viewers susceptible to this film’s immense charm.
FURTHER WATCHING: Fans of Phantom Boy should check out Gagnol and Felicioli debut feature A Cat in Paris. Although this story of a heroic jewel thief, a band of dangerous crooks, a little girl and a cat who leads a double life, does have its flaws in some elements of plotting and pacing, it overcomes these little niggles with the sheer force of its immense charm. The angular drawings, the bold animation and the classic cliches of the crime genre all serve to make A Cat in Paris an awesomely nostalgic experience for animation fans like myself who grew up intrigued, excited and a little creeped out by the unusual cartoons that inspired it.
APRIL AND THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD – 2015
Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci’s visually exquisite steampunk adventure lives up to its promising title by bolstering a lively plot with beautiful, hand-drawn visuals. Bursting with imagination, April and the Extraordinary World visualises a 1940s Paris trapped in the 19th century and cursed by a rash of disappearing scientists. The plot, though grounded in several adventure film tropes, goes all over the place, allowing Desmares and Ekinci to conjure up talking cats, environmental crises, secret jungle eco-systems beneath cities, bumbling policemen, rockets and intelligent komodo dragons. The challenge when working with material this unusual is getting the audience onside and keeping them there, a trick which April and the Extraordinary World manages with surprising ease. As a lover of both hand-drawn animation and full-blooded adventure stories, this was bound to be a winner with me.
FURTHER WATCHING: For fans of April and the Extraordinary World’s steampunk aesthetic, Katsuhiro Otomo’s 2004 action-adventure Steamboy has plenty of steampunk eye-candy, although its plot is a bit on the flabby side. A better bet is Anthony Lucas’s sumptuous silhouette animation The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello, a mesmerising half-hour adventure filled with intricate, interlocking cogs, rails and steam-emitting devices which are made somehow even more beautiful by being depicted in bold, flat black.
ETHEL AND ERNEST – 2016
Another terrific animated film based on the works of Raymond Briggs, Ethel and Ernest was the crown jewel in the BBC’s 2016 Christmas schedule. Directed by Roger Mainwood who had worked as a key animator on several previous Briggs adaptations, Ethel and Ernest was a deeply personal work for the author, detailing episodes in the lives of his mother and father. Mainwood retains this sense of personal significance in the warm but unpatronising presentation of the titular couple’s courtship and marriage, spanning a period from the late 20s to the early 70s and taking in major events such as World War II, the Depression and, of course, the birth of Raymond Briggs himself. As with When the Wind Blows, there are shades of comedy and tragedy which knit beautifully together, accurately capturing a sense of the emotional ups-and-downs that are inevitable in the period of a lifetime. But unlike When the Wind Blows, which places an ordinary couple at the centre of a monolithic, nationwide tragedy, Ethel and Ernest presents large-scale events from the point of view of the couple’s small, suburban terraced house. Their conversations, beautifully voiced by Brenda Blethyn and Jim Broadbent, sound like dialogue you would overhear on the street or in a local pub, never overpolished for the sake of exaggerated entertainment, and this realism means that the emotions, both positive and negative, are more keenly felt by the viewer. The film ends as it must, with the death of both characters, and it doesn’t shy away from the bleakness of leaving this world or being left behind. And yet the overall feeling after watching Ethel and Ernest is one of great joy, even if it moistened many a Christmas jumper’s sleeve with tears upon its triumphant TV debut.
FURTHER WATCHING: The obvious recommendation off the back of Ethel and Ernest would be When the Wind Blows, already discussed in part 2 of this list. But given its emergence at Christmas and its subsequent repeat airing during the Yuletide season, it might be just as appropriate to recommend the short animated Briggs adaptations The Snowman and Father Christmas, both of which Mainwood worked on and both of which are festive staples in the UK.
KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS – 2016
Since the release of their first feature Coraline, Laika Studios had been churning out delightful, primarily comedic stop-motion features but it took their fourth feature Kubo and the Two Strings to really recapture the melancholy magic that made that first film so special. Travis Knight’s directorial debut, Kubo and the Two Strings tells an epic fantasy tale of a 12 year old boy in feudal Japan who must defeat a vengeful spirit. The plot sounds like standard fantasy stuff but the film has a cornucopia of unique wrinkles to mark it out as something special, from odd plot points, like the theft of Kubo’s left eye during infancy, to astonishing visual ideas such as the prominent use of origami figures. These innovations saw Kubo… become only the second animated film to be nominated for the Visual Effects Oscar (the first being The Nightmare Before Christmas). This nomination was due in large part to the creation of a fantastic 16ft skeleton monster, which the film proudly showcases in its closing credits. Kubo and the Two Strings is undoubtedly a visual feast but its plotting and atmosphere are also key in making it stand out as the finest Laika creation yet. There is plenty of humour but it is less arch that that of Paranorman or The Boxtrolls and is folded naturally into the plot rather than foregrounded. In recapturing the intangible essence of Coraline, Kubo and the Two Strings recaptures its appealing strangeness and manages to improve on it in the process.
FURTHER WATCHING: For another gripping adventure film of a different stripe, you could do worse than Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. As Spielberg’s first animated film as director, it admittedly doesn’t quite live up to that promising concept, largely due to the disappointing decision to use the technique of motion capture which tends to result in ugly, creepy-looking characters. Thankfully, there are enough fun action sequences and a decent enough script to recapture as sense of Spielberg’s previous forays into the adventure genre.
MY ENTIRE HIGH SCHOOL SINKING INTO THE SEA – 2016
Writer Dash Shaw’s debut feature is a terrific combination of the high school and disaster movie genres which uses an experimental animation style to get around the enormous budget it would otherwise require. The tale of a group of students at Tides High School, an institution located on the edge of a cliff, who stumble across staff corruption at the same moment that the cliff edge breaks off and plunges the school and its inhabitants into the ocean below. The brilliance of the narrative is that it focuses just as much on the social structure of the school and the trials and tribulations of teenage angst, with the protagonists battling through their relationship and scholastic issues even as they fight for their lives. Shaw has assembled a great voice cast including cult comedy icons Jason Schwartzman, Maya Rudolph and Lena Dunham, as well as a fantastically frazzled, scene-stealing Susan Sarandon as the cometh-the-hour, cometh-the-woman hero Lunc hLady Lorraine. The unusual, shape-shifting script is perfectly served by Shaw’s unique visuals which combines ultra-simple, thick-lined character designs with splashes of garish, psychedelic colour that give the film an exhilaratingly unique quality. For anyone open to its stylistic innovations (and several critics were not, complaining of its cheap look as if it were accidental), My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea quickly reveals itself as a readily accessible action-adventure parody ripe for acquiring a large cult following.
FURTHER WATCHING: Another film with a unique visual style, Jean-François Laguionie’s Gwen, or the Book of Sand is a fascinating post-apocalyptic sci-fi set in a desert where a strange entity regularly drops giant replicas of everyday 20th century objects such as phones and armchairs. Laguionie uses gouache, a type of paint that’s a cross between watercolor and pastel, to create a beautiful painterly style but his characters are stiff creations that move awkwardly. While this may be partially a budgetary concern, Laguionie uses it to his benefit, seeming to seek out instances that require more fluid animation and then getting round them with his effective stylisations which susceptible audiences may even begin to find preferable.
MY LIFE AS A COURGETTE – 2016
Claude Barras’s stop-motion exploration of life in a foster home combines cute characters and a simple plot with an emotionally-charged, confident engagement with its subject which makes it a rewarding and accessible experience all round. Running for a comparatively brief 65 minutes in a world where most mainstream animated features are now reaching at least the 90 minute mark, My Life as a Courgette (aka My Life as a Zucchini) is exactly as long as it needs to be, never feeling like it needs longer to engage with its thoroughly probed emotional core. The animation is appealingly classic in its smooth but deliberately cartoony characters. It is to the credit of the excellent, unshowy screenplay that the artificiality of the characters does not make them seem any less human and this allows their brightly coloured appearances to help sweeten the film’s hard edge, making it ideal for younger children who will gain an understanding of the complex themes or perhaps even see their own lives represented by some extent.
FURTHER WATCHING: Gil Kenan’s Monster House is another film with artificial-looking characters but, unlike My Life as a Courgette, this is not a deliberate choice or an asset to the film. Instead, Monster House has to get out from under the use of the Robert Zemeckis-pioneered performance capture technique in which live-action actors perform the characters while linked to sensors. Zemeckis used the technique in a string of ugly, lacklustre animated films he directed himself including The Polar Express and Beowulf. Thanks to a decent screenplay and a well-realised 80s style kid’s adventure atmosphere, Monster House helps viewers forget the dead-eyed look of its characters whose aspirations of looking realistic take things too far in the other direction. The result is a film that could have been a lot better if shot using different animation techniques but which nevertheless makes an enjoyable Halloween treat.
IN THIS CORNER OF THE WORLD – 2016
Sunao Katabuchi’s beautiful exploration of a Japanese family’s lives during World War II, leading up to and in the direct aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima is a slow, deliberate film which takes place across the course of ten years. Following the young Suzu as she marries a suitor she barely knows and moves from Hiroshima City to Kure, In This Corner of the World focuses for the most part on family life and Suzu adapts to her new surroundings and responsibilities. Though there is a meditative beauty to much of the film, the weight of what we know is coming hangs over the whole film and pervades even the small moments of humour that punctuate the vignettes of Suzu’s transition. The hand-drawn animation is beautiful, with boldly rendered characters set against accurately recreated backgrounds for which vintage photos, documents and memories of living people were used as reference. The result is a completely immersive version of 40s Japan that increases the emotional impact of the real world events. When the inevitable happens, it is handled as elegantly as everything else in the film, without shying away from the horror of the reality. At over two hours in length and with a complete dedication to its considered pacing, some may find In This Corner of the World testing but those who see it through to the end may find themselves feeling more rewarded for having been privy to all the details of the family’s everyday lives so as to greater understand the full impact of unimaginable tragedy.
FURTHER WATCHING: Mizuho Nishikubo’s Giovanni’s Island is another Japanese animation exploring a family’s experiences in World War II. A similarly emotional experience, Giovanni’s Island incorporates fantasy elements alluding to Kenji Miyazawa’s Night on the Galactic Railroad, itself made into an animated film by Gisaburō Sugii in 1985.
THE BIG BAD FOX AND OTHER TALES… – 2017
The second feature film by Ernest and Celestine’s Benjamin Renner, co-directed by Patrick Imbert who worked as an animation director on both Ernest and Celestine and April and the Extraordinary World, The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales… more than lives up to these impeccable credentials, emerging as one of the most purely enjoyable animations of recent years. Divided into three stories all of which star the same group of animals, The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales… features a framing device that suggests the animals are actors staging these short vignettes for the audience’s entertainment. Though it was originally conceived as a set of half-hour TV specials, the framing device brilliantly ties the stories together and makes the audience feel closer to the characters as they endeavour to amuse us. The stories themselves are all great and genuinely funny in a way that both children and adults will appreciate without the cheap insertion of inappropriate adult references. This is also that rare thing, a foreign animated film with an excellent English dub. The original French voice track is also great but English audiences will no doubt relish the excellent work of instantly recognisable comedians Bill Bailey, Adrian Edmonson, Celia Imrie and Phill Jupitus.
FURTHER WATCHING: One of the chief joys of The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales… was how its style of humour took me right back to my childhood by instantly reminding me of the fantastic output of Cosgrove Hall Films. TV shows like Danger Mouse, Count Duckula, Victor and Hugo and Chorlton and the Wheelies were all staples of my youth, not only entertaining the hell out of me but also playing a major role in shaping my sense of humour. Cosgrove Hall also produced the excellent 1989 animated feature adaptation of The BFG, which for me easily trumps the more recent Steven Spielberg version.
THE BREADWINNER – 2017
Another home-run for the amazing Cartoon Saloon, Nora Twomey’s The Breadwinner is the story of 11 year old Parvana, a determined girl living in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan who disguises herself as a boy in order to provide for her family after her father is taken away. Twomey, who had co-directed The Secret of Kells with Tomm Moore, worked with executive producer Angelina Jolie to bring a version of Deborah Ellis’s source novel to the screen. With its emphasis on storytelling as a valuable nurturing tool and a character-building escape from harsh reality which also enhances our understanding of life, animation was the perfect medium to capture this story. Switching between the gorgeous, instantly recognisable Cartoon Saloon style for the scenes of Parvana’s life and a simplified storybook illustration style for the stories she tells, Twomey seamlessly blends the two together at crucial moments of the narrative to powerful effect. Notching up a well-deserved third Oscar nomination for Cartoon Saloon in the Best Animated Feature category, The Breadwinner was widely praised as a sensitive, realistic depiction of serious real-life subject matter in a way that can be appreciated by audiences of all ages.
FURTHER WATCHING: Former Disney animator and director Roger Allers’ (The Lion King) wonderful 2014 film The Prophet shares a storytelling-through-animation theme with The Breadwinner. The Prophet depcits the writings and conversations of a political activist and poet in Lebanon during the Ottoman Empire through animated segments by various contemporary animators including Cartoon Saloon’s Tom Moore, legendary independent Bill Plympton and Sita Sings the Blues director Nina Paley, making for a unique experience in which many diverse talents from the medium are brought together in one place.
ISLE OF DOGS – 2018
Wes Anderson’s second foray into stop-motion animation, Isle of Dogs was developed from an original story set 20 years in the future about Megasaki, Japan, a city that has taken to banishing all dogs to the aptly-named Trash Island after an outbreak of dog flu. As the canine inhabitants struggle to create a life for themselves amongst the squalor, a young boy arrives on the island in search of his deported dog and enlists the help of five dogs in his quest. Anderson gathers many of his usual collaborators as voice artists, along with several new collaborators including Bryan Cranston and Frances McDormand, all of whom throw themselves into the deadpan but emotionally resonant style that Anderson has so firmly established as his own. The usual excellent visuals are also in place, making Isle of Dogs at least as effective as its director’s previous animation Fantastic Mr. Fox. Although its release saw Isle of Dogs accused of racial stereotyping and cultural appropriation, as well as being an example of the white saviour narrative, the film has also been widely hailed as one of the director’s finest achievements yet. Like Fantastic Mr. Fox before it, Isle of Dogs secured an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, as well as the unusual honour of a Best Original Score nomination.
SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE – 2018
As someone who has very little interest in comic books, producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s stated intentions to make Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse seem like a comic book brought to life did not excite me in the way it did so many comics devotees. What did pique my interest however was those names, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Further excitement was generated by the trio of directors working on the film, two of whom had worked on interesting animation projects in key roles; Bob Persichetti as writer of Netflix animated feature The Little Prince, and Peter Ramsey as director of the flawed but underrated feature Rise of the Guardians. It didn’t take more than a couple of minutes for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse to remove any doubt that I was going to fall for it as hard as any comic book fan. The film does indeed look like a comic book come to life but it achieves so much more than that intention seems to promise. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse looks like no other animated film I’ve ever seen. This was achieved by combining CGI animation and 2D animation, with line work, painting and comic-book-style dots being overlaid on computer rendered frames.
If the much-discussed visual style was all Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse had going for it, the film would not be able to sustain its near-two-hour runtime. Fortunately, Lord and co-writer Rodney Rothman have clearly put as much work into the screenplay as any other element of the film. The story is complex but accessible, fantastical but involving, hysterically funny but emotionally engaging. A key factor in achieving this resonance is the excellent voice cast, which includes Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali and Nicolas Cage. As a non-comic-book-fan, I’m sure there is much I am missing in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. It is a film tailor-made for hardcore fans, filled with Easter eggs and in-jokes that will reward multiple viewings. But it is not a film that leaves anyone out in the cold and the fact that there are potentially more delights for the comics enthusiast does not decrease the enjoyment of those who just want a good story, great animation or fast-paced action. This high level of accessibility should allow the film to maintain its instant reputation as a classic even as its visual innovations inspire imitators and spin-offs.
FURTHER WATCHING: Peter Ramsey’s Rise of the Guardians, in which a group of fantasy figures including Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy join forces to protect the world’s children from a nightmare-spreading bogeyman, was a commercial underperformer for Dreamworks which has been cited as one of the reasons for the company’s subsequent restructuring in which 350 employees were laid off. This sort of bad publicity can damage a film’s future reputation but Rise of the Guardians proves to be a better film than its rocky history suggests. Though it is not as emotionally engaging as it needs to be, the film is imaginative, slick and fun. Mark Osborne’s The Little Prince, co-written by Bob Persichetti, is a fine adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s famous children’s book which combines a computer animated framing narrative with stop-motion interludes to charming effect. These two films give an interesting glimpse into Ramsey and Perischetti’s previous work and is ample evidence of why they were hired for the ambitious Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
So that’s my list and I sincerely hope you’ve enjoyed reading it. It should be noted, however, that even with 100 entries and numerous related recommendations I’ve only scratched the surface of this amazing medium. I still have an enormous list of animated features I haven’t seen yet that keeps growing all the time: Sébastien Laudenbach’s The Girl Without Hands, Alberto Vázquez and Pedro Rivero’s Birdboy: The Forgotten Children, Alessandro Rak’s The Art of Happiness, Alê Abreu’s Boy and the World, Joann Sfar and Antoine Delesvaux’s The Rabbi’s Cat and Sanrio’s The Sea Prince and the Fire Child to name just a handful. If I’ve piqued anyone’s interest to look a little deeper into the world of animation than the output of the major studios then I’ll be sincerely delighted. Happy watching everyone.