Long before videogames took on the mantle as ‘most frequently dismissed potential art form,’ the field of animation had been scraping for even the smallest bits of esteem from the cultural majority. Yes, of course animation is ‘kid’s stuff,’ not worthy of the attention of the real moviegoing public.
Never mind that animation allows for a near infinite variety of stylistic opportunities and a far more affordable means of enacting the fantastical and surreal in addition to the low-key and lifelike, or that the timeless quality of the form allows it to escape technological and era-driven pigeonholing far more easily than its live action counterparts (not to mention that stylized videogames age far more gracefully than their verisimilitude-obsessed peers).
But given the general subject matter around these parts, I expect I am (in part) preaching to the choir. So let us instead uncover some gems of animation, from the underpraised works of established geniuses to bold and unproven artists, whether you missed them the first time around or are itching to see them again.
5. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs
Available on: Netflix at time of writing, though who knows with them
It can be too easy to prejudge this movie as being part of the shrill, braindead sugarfloss pedaled by those who think that ‘family entertainment’ means ‘dumping ground for the bottom of the barrel.’ But to do so would be to miss a real treat, made with the kind of love and energy unique to a production crew’s first feature.
Since the movie is based on a book under 30 pages (about food one day raining from the sky), it’s more of a concept jumping ground than a slavish adaptation. There’s plenty of room to make things up whole cloth, and make it up they do. Our protagonist is an energetic inventor of generally useless things, who one day strikes upon the idea for a machine that makes food from water. It’s not too long before the machine winds up rocketing up into the clouds and getting stuck there, causing food to rain from the sky and the little town to become a puff piece phenomenon. It’s even less time before the inevitable breakdown and impending doom, snowballing into a race to shut the machine down before semi-sentient food mows everyone down.
It’s not the plot that’s the draw here so much as the unrelenting energy of every frame (indeed, if there’s a criticism to be made it’s that I occasionally wanted time to breathe). The vivid colors underscore a constant dedication to rapid fire jokes, Muppet-like designs forgo any sense of ‘reality’ to the dimensions of the characters in order to better embody the critical stretch and bounce of comedic animation.
And under all that is a refreshing sense of sweetness, including a really wonderful female lead, whose arc entails embracing her intelligence and ditching the ditzy valley girl persona she feels she ‘needs’ to progress professionally. Even the fairly boilerplate ‘son seeking fatherly approval’ plot has an endearing honesty to it, raising every ounce of the film above what it should by rights be into its own little delight.
4. The Great Mouse Detective
Available On: Netflix, and I’m pretty sure Disney has some weird individual streaming site too
Personal story time: I adored nothing so much as this film as a small child, and wanted desperately to be Basil. So when presented an opportunity to go to Disneyland in college, I brought a whole parcel of money with me. The Happiest Place on Earth is a seller of dreams, after all, and I was all about getting that nostalgia fix.
So I dragged my classmate hither and yon to every corner and wayside attraction, not only in Disneyland proper but in California Adventure and the nearby themed shopping district as well. In total, after two days of searching pins, t-shirts, cups, globes, pens, toys, cards, posters, keychains and mascots, I found one specialty sketch shop that sold handmade redrawings of Disney animation.
Suffice to say, I think we can safely classify this film as a forgotten one (indeed, I was honestly shocked at being able to get a DVD copy). Despite being a pretty significant film and precursor to the Disney Renaissance, as well as the first animated film to make extensive use of computer animation (that’d be that Castle of Cagliostro-referencing clocktower scene), Disney seems content to sweep it under the rug for what I assume are reasons of marketing difficulty.
Certainly ‘Mouse Sherlock Holmes’ doesn’t exactly jive with what’s become the hardworn formula, not to mention that it’s only questionably a musical (though it is the first of the Great Villain Songs, courtesy of the truly magnificent Vincent Price). But that’s part of its charm. The rest of that charm is the two leads, our Sherlock (Basil) and Moriarty (Ratigan). The outsized machinations born of that bitter, obsessive rivalry are a bang and a half to watch, creative and tense and quite terrifying for Disney fare. The running time is short enough that it never allows itself to lag, and most importantly, as I have implied already, it contains Vincent Price. The legendary actor named this as his favorite role, and it shows through in every delightful, hammy second of his screentime. Watch it for him, if not all the other great bits of the movie.
Available on: Netflix. Probably. At least this week.
If all movies exuded the same amount of love, passionate care, and detail that absolutely screams out of every frame of ParaNorman, the world of cinema would be a better place.
Norman is an introverted kid with a love of zombie movies and paraphernalia, who doesn’t have a whole lot of friends on account of all those ghosts that only he can see. He lives in a town whose economy rests solely on the legend of the witch who was hanged there. Norman’s weird uncle he’s not allowed to talk to, normally in charge of protecting the town from the curse the witch laid on it, has chosen this Halloween to kick the poorly timed bucket, leaving Norman as the only one who can be told to do the usual rites last-minute (ghost, and all). It…doesn’t go as planned, and suddenly there’s a zombie outbreak that’s not at all what it appears.
There’s a real soft spot in my heart for the look of handcrafted care that comes with stop-motion animation, and even within that world this movie stands out – every frame is crammed with character details and bits of homage, each space designed to a clear and vibrant aesthetic (from the slightly sickly shades of the school bathroom to the warm sunlight in Norman’s backyard, to the almost mournful browns and shadows of the hillside cemetery), and each character and plot element overflowing with energy.
And the film’s approach to its story is equally unique, approaching tired subjects like fear and prejudice with a thoughtful sensitivity that I could stand to see in more ‘adult’ movies, never mind media for impressionable young minds. A wonderful surprise, regretfully consigned to the ghettos where thoughtful, multi-demographic pieces of animation go.
And here we have a blatant ‘You Kids Today’ pick. No anime critic worth their salt would dismiss the enormous importance of this film, particularly in North America – its strong showing at 80s science fiction festivals was a huge factor in opening the door to the 90s anime boom. I just want to do my little part to keep it in the eyes of new fans.
And it’s no slouch in its own genre, either – you can most certainly see the traces of influence that go on to infiltrate Akira Toriyama’s work, and by extension that of one of the most influential shounen works of all time. And in terms of portraying Japan’s post-nuclear anxiety I’d put it right up there with the original Godzilla, not to mention its unique terror over Japanese youth gang culture.
Loosely, the plot of AKIRA is as follows: a gang of street punks run into a preternaturally old, blue, and psychic child on the highway, and when the government comes to retrieve said child they take a member of the gang, Tetsuo, with them. So we have an A plot, where gang leader Kaneda is trying to rescue Tetsuo (while also getting tangled up with a revolutionary group); and a B plot, where Tetsuo is developing his own psychic powers and getting a nice little god complex to go along with it (sure, his body is turning into Cronenberg-worthy techno-mush, but look at all the stuff he can blow up with his brain!).
Speaking of mush, the plot sort of takes on that shape in the third act as well – the two hour film was adapted from six phonebook-sized manga, which weren’t even finished by the time production had started. So a lot of subplots get lost (Kei especially suffers), and the ending is far more allegorical than concrete.
But really, I just can’t bring myself to care. The film is a hell of a visual experience, one that works on a raw gut level that has very little to do with logic. The most iconic scenes have a surreal nightmare logic to them, haunting and visceral in a way that still, black and white images couldn’t possibly hope to replicate. And for all that the cliché it may represent, I’m all about the raw, repetitive name screaming that was its very own proto-meme. Ultimately the plot of AKIRA doesn’t matter so much as the experience of watching it, a dreamlike experience of companionship and fear and loss, memory and self-destruction. Just be prepared for a sleepless night or two.
1. The Thief and the Cobbler
There’s something uniquely heartbreaking about an unfinished masterpiece. This film is not only that sad story, but something of a bogeyman tale for creative types: animation great Richard Williams (you may know him from Who Framed Roger Rabbit) began the film as his intended magnum opus and slaved over the project for 28 years, only to have the production yanked from his hands by Warner Brothers and chopped up into a completely unrecognizable (and supposedly more ‘marketable’) form for distribution. You can get a good grasp of the history from that great internet comedian Doug Walker here.
Disaster of a mass release aside, painstaking efforts have been made to reconstruct the original film. Efforts that are available online, and so worth your time I can’t begin flailing enough to get it across (hence why I included a video rather than a still image – that animation, friend). The two titular characters have not a stitch of dialogue but bubble over with personality, from Tack’s charming, clumsy earnestness to the thief’s Chaplin-caliber slapstick; and yet another appearance from Vincent Price, smarming it up all over the screen.
The visual element is, of course, the star of the production, breathtaking in its perspective tricks, camera changes, dynamic and fluid movement of the characters, and lush landscapes (best to view it as an abstracted fairytale, because a critical reading gets real unfortunate real fast). Even in its unfinished state this is a rare work, one that deserves all the accolades historical obscurity snatched from it. Watch it to see something new, to see one of the clearest labors of love in existence, to honor the efforts of a master, or out of sheer curiosity. So long as you watch it.