To finish off our series of Favorite Films, we’ll feature the genre that drove many of us to do what we do: Animation.
There are countless films that feature the use of animation, from live action to fully-animated cartoon features, including those that have lost their grasp in our fast-growing technological society, namely Hand-Drawn (2D) animation and Stop-Motion (sometimes referred to as claymation). Despite the host of good CG films that have been made in the past couple of decades I opted for this select group of traditionally crafted films because of their extraordinary quality and their impact on me personally. You may feel differently. That said, I hope that you’ll revisit these films (assuming you’ve watched them all before) and see them as the incredible wonders that they are.
Pinnochio (directed by Ham Luske & Ben Sharpsteen)
According to Animation critic and historian, Charles Soloman, “Pinocchio remains the most perfect animated feature Walt Disney produced.” It’s hard for me to disagree. Despite its age, having been made in 1940 just before the advent of WWII, it still holds strong in almost every category; story, layout, color, and, of course, character animation which featured the likes of pioneers Freddie Moore and Bill Tytla whom essentially established the style and character appeal that would come to define Disney animation. Although it’s not Disney’s first film to launch cartoon features seriously — that honor belongs to Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs — it was really the first animated film to tell a truly human story, one that honors the power of myth, features the strength of human courage, and displays the importance of living true and good. Unlike the films of today, which primarily feature characters who don’t fit in or seek individual greatness, themes very typical of modern society that glorifies a more selfish, ego-centric, achievement is everything mentality. Instead, Pinnochio is a story of faith, honesty, love and redemption. Here, we learn that a lifetime of service symbolized by the kindness and generosity of the elderly Gepetto (who has devoted his entire existence to making charming toys for children), is rewarded with the gift of a puppet son. But just because he deserves a boy of his own doesn’t mean the boy himself deserves this gift of love and the blessing of life.
Despite being guided by an official conscience (in the being of Jiminy Cricket) we see how quickly Pinnochio fails to uphold his end of the deal. We’re all familiar with temptation, only in greater variation and abundance today than ever before. Yet we completely understand the young puppet’s trials in his journey. First, he’s lured into the life of fame and glory by the clever fox and then, despite being exploited by the flamboyant yet frightening Stromboli, Pinnochio still refuses to learn his lesson on living up to higher principles. He lies, and then after his release, is easily coerced back towards the easy life of drinking, smoking and gambling before both he and his newfound friend Lampwick get shipped off as donkeys for slavery and slaughter. It’s only in the last act that our protagonist redeems himself, in his search for what’s most important — his father who loves him. Braving the dangerous ocean and the whale Monstro, Pinnochio sacrifices all, not for himself, but for another human being. Can there be a better, and more meaningful message for young people today than that?
My Neighbor Totoro (directed by Hayao Miyazaki)
Hayao Miyazaki has made many fabulous films, but none have captured the wonder, magic and innocence of being a child like his perrenial classic, My Neighbor Totoro. The title character himself has become the iconic symbol of the Studio Ghibli since its inception. A story that seems almost “plotless,” it’s a tale that simply details a few summer days in the lives of two young children who reside alone with their father while their mother is away at the hospital. No reasons or explanation of her stay are given, nor are they necessary. There are no good guys versus bad guys, no chase sequences or fight scenes or any outstanding obstacles that need to be overcome. Such scenarios are not the focus here, but rather the everso peculiar, minute and attentive moments that intrigue the minds of children. In the grounds of their charming country home, Satsuke and Mei discover magical creatures abound, from the fuzzy black dust critters — “Makkuro Kurosuke” which literally translate into “
And did you know that director Miyazaki actually designed and hand-animated much of the film himself? Can you imagine, especially in our age of corporate hierarchy, mass production and outscourcing of labour, such devotion? All around, the film is gorgeous to look at. Each background of My Neighbor Totoro is meticulously painted in luminous watercolor — the purity and translucency of the medium required to capture the marvelous mix of nature and Japanese architecture. In the end, we have a perfect piece of art, a film about experience, friendship and exploration. A world created that we want to become real, a place where we want to hang out and stay, perhaps forever. I still remember the first time I saw that crazy “Cat bus,” I said to myself “I want one” — it didn’t matter that I was already a full-fledged adult male. Such is the magic and charm of this incredibly beautiful film.
Nightmare Before Christmas (directed by Henry Selick)
Tim Burton made three absolutely brilliant and imaginative movies: Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice and his stop-motion masterpiece, Nightmare Before Christmas (which was actually directed by Henry Selick). Unbelievably strange yet intriguing, the underground world of Halloween characters taking over the Christmas holidays is not only original in its conception, but brilliant in its execution. The story begins with Jack Skellington, the lone prince of Halloween, in a state of boredom and depression. Despite his stange looks and the bizarre world in which he inhabits, we somehow can relate to him. Despite all his comforts and position of authority, Jack has simply found that life has become all too repetitive and predictable. No challenges, no discoveries. No meaning. Then suddenly, during a detour into the alter-worlds of holiday seasons, he comes upon the idea of hijaking Christmas Day itself, including an elaborate plan to kidnap Santa Claus. Unaware of the damage his actions cause, Jack find himself in greater trouble than he can possibly imagine, as he proves to be a disasterous Santa Claus substitute. All goes to hell, literally, as his selfish adventure disrupts the entire order of the holiday universe.
With stunny creativity and design, Nightmare Before Christmas is filled with memorable characters and character set pieces. From the utterly awesome design of the two-faced Mayor, to those of the wonderfully freakish Dr. Finklestein and Oogie Boogie, Burton’s imagination factory is on full display here. When I was visiting the Los Angeles County Museum of Modern Ar) featuring a special touring collection of artworks created from all of Tim Burton’s films, the most delicious pieces were the drawings, sculptures and setpieces from this particular film. And to boot, the movie’s got a great plot, an endearing hero and a marvelous score composed by Danny Elfman (who also provided the voice for Jack Skellington). All of it’s weird, a little scary and a helluva lot of fun.
Akira (directed by Katsuhiro Otomo)
There are few films that are as explosively dynamic as Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 cyberpunk anime classic Akira, based on the writer-director’s own legendary Manga comic series. With a theme that is debated to this very day, it’s a film that’s mandatory viewing when being introduced to Japanese animation. Set in the post-apocalyptic city of Neo-Tokyo, its story features a cast of youths, headed by Kaneda, the leader of a local biker gang whose childhood friend, Tetsuo gets hospitalized after a motorcycle collision. In a dynamic turn of events, Tetsuo becomes infected with super-kinetic abilities, powers he’s inherited from the other victim of the vehicular accident, a psychic esper named Takashi. Not used to his new powers, Tetsuo is overwelmed with headaches and allusions, leading him towards a rage of mass destruction, the kind of destruction that could destroy everything as foreseen by Takashi. In a bid to stop Tetsuo, the gang’s leader Kaneda is forced to battle his friend to prevent absolute destruction of Neo Tokyo, a world only recently rebuilt after a previous disasterous event caused by another esper from before their time, a character named Akira.
The film’s themes and prophecies are both complex, convoluted and controversial. Mixing the themes of lost youth with the visions of a cyber-tech world, including telekinesis and singularity (a topic much discussed in today’s fast approaching world of AI and Robotics), Akira is a daring film that would invite endless post-viewership conversation. Accompanied by a kinetic techno score by Shōji Yamashiro and featuring breath-taking hand-drawn animation including some of the best VFX animation ever seen, it’s a film that explodes violently on screen while taking its audience with it. The energy and emotions are so intense, it’s an experience unlike any other film, whether animated or live action. It’s a true science fiction masterpiece.
Beauty and the Beast (directed by Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale)
In the post “Walt” era, it can be said that Disney studios produced several really successful films, notably The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Lion King, all of which helped revive the animation industry after decades of forgetful stewardship. But it’s the studio’s 1991 hit Beauty and the Beast that signaled a serious turn in the studio’s (and the industry’s) fortunes in the 1990’s. A “rough” work-in-progress reel was debuted at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in front of hoard of film critics who got to witness, for the first time, the magic of behind the scenes storyboards, pencil tests and colored backgrounds, and all in the form of a full feature-length film. It opened the eyes of an entire new audience to the magic of hand-drawn animation. With a great story and a marvelous set of characters from the Beast, to Mrs. Potts and Gaston, the film delivered the kind of imagination unseen in decades. The result was, for the first time ever, an animated feature film was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar — which is much different from the current format that automatically gives an Academy Award to a feature film for the year under its own category. Back then, animated films were grouped together with other films, and just like any other feature had to compete against a mulititude of live action movies. Furthermore, only five films were selected for Best Picture nominations, rather than ten today. The achievement was both offensive to some and fantastic in the eyes of others.
Based on a classic story, Disney’s Beauty and The Beast was magical in its beauty, warmth and wonderment. The arrival of Glen Keane’s Beast and James Baxter’s Belle showed the kind of acting that was possible in animation even without the likes of Walt’s Nine Old Men at the helm. Although critics at the time lauded the now-dated computer graphics displayed in the ballroom scene, it’s the mind-blowing quality of the character animation and solid storytelling that has made the film a perfect fit with its timeless tale. Until I saw those wonderfully loose drawings done by likes of Glen Keane, and that I could possibly do THAT for a living, I never would’ve continued my pursuit of animation as a career. It was the magic of the rough “moving” drawing that hooked me. To see that so much can be expressed with so little — literally just a line — was astonishing to me. All this because of the concept of the persistence of vision — a skill animators today often take no notice of, given that a CG puppet already exists in front of the screen as opposed to a blank piece of paper where a character needs to be first imagined and then created. This experience of creating something from nothing is the magic of this craft and the ultimate essence of being an artist. Beauty and the Beast is a film that’s loaded with creative elements that’s also supplemented by a marvelous set of memorable tunes by the trio of Tim Rice, Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman. Modern-day Disney has yet to match that level of excellence in terms of creating a musical that works so beautifully.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox (directed by Wes Anderson)
I really like Wes Anderson’s films. But I really loved his animated Fantastic Mr. Fox. Based on Roald Dahl’s book of the same name, Anderson’s bold entry into feature film animation surprised me. Taking his centrally-focused, one-point perspective camera stylings and his off-beat quirky humor to this classic English children’s tale was a marriage made in comic heaven. The film starts off with Mr. Fox who, despite leading a life of comfort and relative bliss with a lovely home and family, finds himself irritably disquieted by his animal instincts; he needs to chase chickens. He’s a wild animal after all and living the life of a conservative newspaper reporter just won’t do. And when he breaks his promise to his wife to never to steal again, and instead plans a fantastic heist of Boggis, Bunce and Bean’s poultry farms, he ends up endangering all the animals in his neighborhood, forcing them to hide and live underground as the viscious farmers set out to destroy them.
The film features an all-star voicing cast including the likes of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Willem Dafoe and Bill Murray. But unlike most other animated films where celebrity names primarily serve marketing aims rather than provide rich characterizations, the actors here really give weight and substance to their roles. The dialogue here is sharp, mature and yet still marvelously funny to young children. Perhaps because it’s so real — these are conversations adults have all the time and the children are listening. Make no mistake, this is a family film, but it’s also a seriously honest film about human behavior. The vibrant yet nuanced voice performances, witty dialogue and delightful antics by the team of talented stop-motion animators combine harmoniously to make Fantastic Mr. Fox a joy to watch and listen to. Fast-paced, funny and wonderfully-weird, as all Wes Anderson films are, this adventure of Mr. Fox and his cohorts makes for a tasty treat all the way to the very end. There’s even a strange little song that gets interrupted because it makes absolutely no sense at all! What perfect imperfection! The very kind of imperfection that makes stop-motion animation an artform to be treasured.