Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Top 10 Animated Movies

Great news! Animation isn’t just for kids any more! America has finally clued in on the fact that you can create a film of moving drawings and it can be more than mindless pablum for ADHD-stricken brats (though there is still plenty of that, make no mistake). Pixar is knocking down the barriers between kiddie yuks and adult humor, Japanese anime is reaching a wider and wider audience, and big-name folks like Wes Anderson, Zack Snyder, and Jerry Bruckheimer are experimenting with the medium of animation. Heck, these days you’re just as likely to find A-listers like Clooney and Brangelina voicing cuddly cartoon animals as playing real people! In light of this exciting revolution, I’m going to present my all-time favorite animated films -- from those that left a mark on me in my youth, to those that have inspired me more recently. Watch these if you haven’t already!


The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985)
I must have been seven years old when I first watched Will Vinton’s claymation take on the life and work of Mark Twain, and I was sucked right into the trippy, surreal, funny, scary adventures contained therein. Vinton seems determined to get inside Twain’s complex brain, and he does so by staging a swashbuckling yarn in a strange meta-world where the famous author exists alongside his most beloved creations. With the unwitting help of Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher, Twain boards a fantastical airship and sails the skies in search of Halley’s Comet; along the way, the trio of fictional kids dive headlong into some of Twain’s work and witness the antics of his characters, including the Celebrated Jumping Frog, Adam & Eve, The Mysterious Stranger, and more. All this is portrayed in an incredible, vibrant swirl of color and form where reality shifts and distorts according to the whims of the animation. I’ve never seen claymation this detailed; it’s truly a work of art, an impressionist journey through the psyche of a literary lion. It grabbed me as a kid and hasn’t let go since, and every time I watch it, I find something knew to marvel at.
BEST SCENE: The creepy Mysterious Stranger sequence is probably the most well-known part of the film, but I prefer the climactic chase scene, as Twain and the three kids literally pilot the airship through Halley’s Comet. It’s a tour-de-force of animated action and beauty.

Fantasia (1940)
Waaaaaaay back before most of us were born, Walt Disney was a man with a plan to revoluntionize animation. With him at the helm, Disney Studios created Fantasia, an experimental “concert film” that fused classical music with a variety of animated styles and themes. Walt D. hoped that the concept would grow and expand over the years. The experiment flopped (a new Fantasia wasn’t made until sixty years later in 2000), but that doesn’t stop the original from being one impressive movie. Each piece of music brings life and narrative to an amazing work of animation, and the sequences range from the abstract to the realistic, from slapstick to pathos. Enchanted broomsticks, Greek gods, dancing hippos, demons, dinosaurs, fairies, fish, and even stranger entities cavort to the music; there is no dialogue beyond a bit of narration from music critic Deems Taylor, but you don’t miss it one bit. I think Fantasia was a bit too ambitious for its time; audiences weren’t even used to feature-length cartoons back then, let alone a freakin’ “concert film.” But it has endured, and I love to revisit it.
BEST SCENE: I have to pick “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” just because it’s so iconic. (It’s where the image of Mickey Mouse in a wizard costume comes from.) But it’s a tough choice. The “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence, in which a vast demon presides over a danse macabre of ghosts, devils, and bare-breasted harpies, is about the most hardcore thing you’ll ever see in a Disney cartoon. In a good way.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
This movie fills me with joy and I don’t even know why. I can’t love it as a Roald Dahl fan, because it cheerfully butchers and/or ignores almost everything from his book. I can’t love it as a Wes Anderson fan, because I’m not one. Maybe I love it because there is nothing else quite like it in existence. I mean, here we have cute forest animals, crudely rendered in stop-motion animation, struggling to escape the crushing soullessness of their bourgeois existence by stealing farmyard produce. Here we have George Clooney and Meryl Streep creating a sexy, loving, and utterly believable married couple out of two gangly fake foxes. The soundtrack mixes the Stones with Burl Ives, the cinematography looks like a series of 4th-grade dioramas, Willem Dafoe voices a strutting Spanish rat with a switchblade, and the dialogue parodies yuppie-speak to great effect (“I have a phobia of wolves!”). I don’t know what to make of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, yet I could watch it again and again on an endless loop. It’s that....fucking....loveable.
BEST SCENE: Jarvis Cocker strums a banjo and sings his heart out while Mr. Fox and his fuzzy sidekicks rob the three evil farmers blind. And then they dance. And dance. And dance some more. And it is the weirdest, cutest dancing you will ever see, especially from woodland creatures. You will say “WTF” and then fall in love.

The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
This movie was supposed to be your usual Disney fare: serious plot, lots of musical numbers, strong moral message, blah blah and blah. Thank CHRIST that plan went pear-shaped and the filmmakers scrapped the budget and made a screwball comedy instead. The Emperor’s New Groove is about the funniest, most irreverent thing to emerge from the Mouse House, in which the plot -- about a bratty South American ruler who gets turned into a llama -- is practically buried under a gleeful landslide of slapstick, sight gags, and flawless comic timing. Yeah, there’s still a moral message about respecting others and how money and power aren’t everything, but how great is it that they took such a crazy route to get there? The voice cast (David Spade, John Goodman, Eartha Kitt, and Patrick Warburton) are clearly having so much fun that you wish you were there for the recording sessions, and each setpiece is like an escalating explosion of belly-laughs. “Kronk, pull the lever!.....WRONG LEVEEERRRRRR.....” Thank you, Disney, for breaking your own rules.
BEST SCENE: Every scene with Kronk (voiced by Warburton), the calamatously dumb evil henchman who exists in a surreal comic world of his own. “Uh, is he doing his own theme music?” Brilliant.

Kung Fu Panda (2008)
Dreamworks’ animated films are very hit-or-miss; for every Shrek, there’s a Shark Tale. But I gotta say, they hit a home run with Kung Fu Panda, a slapstick-heavy homage to chop sockey that lovingly recreates the tropes of Chinse martial arts extravanganzas even as it parodies them. Jack Black voices a corpulent panda named Po who is inexplicably picked to be the Dragon Warrior, trains with Kung Fu masters, learns that It’s What’s Inside You That Counts, and so forth. If the plot moves along the usual rails, the sumptuous color pallette, atomospheric scenery, and blistering kung fu scenes make up and then some. It would’ve been easy to stuff the movie with obnoxious pop culture references and fart jokes and call it a day, but you can tell the filmmakers are in love with their subject matter; it shows in every floating cherry blossom and swooshing bamboo pole. Plus it’s hilarious. Plus Jack Black is actually not totally shitty and annoying for once. Whoa!
BEST SCENE: “You are free to eat.” Po’s mentor, Master Shifu, offers him a single dumpling...if he can get it. What results is a kung fu duel of epic awesomeness (to paraphrase Po himself) that’s so fast and funny you’re laughing five minutes later as your brain catches up. Second place: Bad guy Tai Lung escapes from a cavernous prison fortress and takes out a batallion of rhino guards while hopping across freefalling stalactites. BADASS.

The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
You never see this Disney flick on the lists of superior sequels, and it’s a total crock. Sandwiched as it was between The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, this adventure about two brave mice rescuing a little boy from a vile poacher got totally overlooked when it came out. I’m here to tell you to see this film because it is AMAZING. The animated vistas and landscapes of Australia are brought to dizzying, vertiginous life, and the action sequences are well-worthy of Indiana Jones and his ilk. There are no musical numbers, no princesses -- in fact, the one major female character, Bianca the mouse, is one empowered and resourceful lady, and her sidekick, Bernard, is totally pussy-whipped. Take that, anti-princess feminists! Seriously, though, this movie is unforgettable, and also carried a strong environmental message: the brave boy Cody risks everything to save a beautiful golden eagle from the creepy poacher in his giant killdozer. Kids will love it and learn from it. I know I did! As for the original Rescuers movie....ehhh, something about bayous and crocodiles. As forgettable as its sequel is brilliant.
BEST SCENE: Either the pulse-pounding “SOS montage” as word of Cody’s abduction travels to the Rescuers in New York City, or the jaw-droppingly gorgeous sequence when the eagle takes Cody flying. I should mention that this movie has one of Disney’s best orchestral scores ever; the music for both these scenes sends me through the ceiling with bliss.

Spirited Away (2001)
If only Hayao Miyazaki could live forever, making wonderful and timeless animated films. It’s so hard to choose a favorite of his, but I think I’ll go with Spirited Away. This movie is constructed with such love, devotion, and attention to detail that it leaves me breathless; it’s like an intricate puzzlebox that slowly unfolds to reveal one wonder after another. It’s about growing up, about shouldering responsiblity and learning to stand on your own two feet. This is dramatically visualized as the young heroine, Chihiro, becomes entraped within a marvelous bathhouse for the gods, run by a wicked witch, in which reality and form are as fluid as the play of light across water. Speaking of which, no one can fill a cartoon with quirky and lovable details like Miyazaki; listen to the little squeaky noise as the obese Radish Spirit waddles along, or witness the eccentric behavior of the Soot Sprites in the basement. Or the haunting, silent spectre called No Face, who morphs into a ravening monster when fed. Or the train sailing across the surface of an endless shallow sea. Or the three bug-eyed bouncing green heads. Or, or, or.....I could go on. Chihiro’s journey takes her through layers of dream and idea, and we follow along, entranced. This movie honestly gives me faith that the human imagination will never die.
BEST SCENE: Hoo boy. Every scene. Can I pick every scene? No? Okay, I’ll go with the train journey near the end of the movie. It’s so....quiet. So still. It pushes the pause button on the entire plot. For a minute or two, we’re just there with Chihiro and her friends, riding the train. Watching the dreamlike scenery outside. Thinking. Wondering. I get goosebumps every time.

Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent My Vacation (1992)
I remember going to my grandparents’ house and watching Nickelodeon all day. Some shows ruled and some sucked, but I always danced for joy when Tiny Toon Adventures came on. Then I found this Tiny Toons feature film on VHS, and thus entered paradise. Like Animaniacs, Tiny Toons was hilarious, subversive, and funny on multiple levels, and the film -- which follows various characters through their summer hijinks -- took the brilliant buffoonery to the highest level possible. Buster and Babs Bunny are swept downriver and wind up in a parody of Deliverance. Plucky Duck joins Hampton Pig and his family for the road trip from hell, complete with a pork-eating psycho in a hockey mask. Fifi the Skunk pines for a stinky movie heartthrob whose resemblance to Johnny Depp is sooooo totally coincidental. The sight gags and pop culture references fly so thick and fast that you basically HAVE to watch the movie several times, and it’s so worth it. Solid gold animated anarchy. God, I hope this exists on Torrent somewhere.
BEST SCENE: After spending the whole movie in the car, Plucky and Hampton finally arrive at the glorious theme park of Happy World Land, and (spoiler alert) Plucky’s bubble of bliss is rudely burst when the pig family immediately turns around and heads home, declaring: “Don’t wanna overdo it on our first visit!” Comic payoffs rarely get better.

Wall-E (2008)
There is no way to pick the best Pixar film. Can we all agree on that? They’ve not made a bad animated movie yet, and it is SO BLOODY HARD to single out my favorite. But I guess....yeah, I guess it has to be Wall-E. Everyone who’s not living on the ocean floor knows why this film is so good, but let me just address what makes it so amazing to me personally: the silence. For a great deal of the movie, there are no human voices beyond a few faded recordings and the vaguely phonetic chirps and squawks of the titular robot, who has spent centuries tirelessly gathering refuse on an abandoned, trash-encrusted planet Earth. Yet the wordless Wall-E is as good a physical comedian as Keaton or Chaplin and as lovable as E.T. The romance between him and EVE (the sleek, sexy, feminine iBot who’s way out of his league) is hilarious, hopeless, and heartwarming, and the resulting sci-fi action shenanigans are driven, not by plot or by the need to blow stuff up, but by the simple bond between two robots who, like all robots, were built by us and represent everything we hope for and fear about ourselves. Think of that. Marvel on it. If Dreamworks had gotten their paws on this property, Wall-E would be screeching with the voice of Will Ferrell and using farts to propel himself. Thank you so much, Pixar, for being classy and old-fashioned, for knowing how to tell a perfect story. For tapping into wonder.
BEST SCENE: Wall-E’s befuddled courtship of EVE, as I said. Not only will it make you laugh and break your heart at the same time, it foreshadowed the even more sob-inducing wordless romance at the beginning of Pixar’s next film, Up. Grab a box of tissues and a bar of chocolate.

The Wrong Trousers (1993)
Long live Wallace and Gromit! The Wrong Trousers wasn’t the first claymation I’d ever seen, but one look at it and I knew this was something special, something charming and British and definitive. I only have to summarize the plot -- evil penguin uses pair of remote-controlled robotic pants in a diamond heist, only to be foiled by inventor and his dog -- and you want to see this movie, even if you’ve already seen it. I fell in love with Wallace, the delightfully dopey inventor in the tweed vest, and Gromit, his resourceful and long-suffering pooch, who emotes more with his clay eyebrows than many actors do with their whole damn body. I was genuinely creeped out by Feathers McGraw, the dead-eyed penguin bad guy. Each scene is constructed with loving attention to detail, and each gag beautifully sets up the next one in an escalating chain of craziness. British humor works by its own lovely mechanisms, and how lucky we are that comedy can be internationally shared! Wallace and Gromit have made a feature film and several shorts, all brilliant, but The Wrong Trousers will always be my favorite. It’s a perfect animated film to me.
BEST SCENE: The train chase at the end. And by “train chase” I mean model trains, as our heroes pursue their feathered nemesis around the living room. No scene can provide thrills and belly-laughs in such equal measure.

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