Monday, March 2, 2015

Beyond the Oscars: The Many Faces of Animated Films

The Oscars were more than a week ago, and rather than actually WATCHING all of the nominees and making an informed voting decision the awards for both Best Animated Feature and Short both went to Disney for Big Hero 6 and Feast respectively. This type of uninformed decision is par for the course unfortunately.

But I'm not here to dwell on the ignorant apathy of the Hollywood elite. While there isn't much I can do to change the lazy voting habits of the Academy, I can at least inform the movie-viewing audience what animation has to offer besides the run-of-the-mill family friendly film that has pigeonholed animation as safe kiddie fare. All of these movies are available on Netflix, so take some time to check them out if you haven't already.

The Secret of Kells (Tom Moore/Erin Twomey; 2009)

The first word that comes to my mind when I think of this film is gorgeous. The sweeping, elegant artwork perfectly matches the story about a young Irish monk tasked with completing and preserving the historic Book of Kells, a Christian tome known the world over for its beautifully detailed illustrations and ornamentation. The film itself is a French, Belgian, and Irish production and it sheds some light onto the more mature approach that many European studios have toward animation. The Old World fairy-tale atmosphere is the perfect complement to the movie's themes of preservation of self and culture in the face of destruction. If you really enjoy Book of Kells, Cartoon Saloon's second movie, Song of the Sea, was also nominated for an Oscar this year.

The Triplets of Belleville (Sylvain Chomet; 2003)

Where Book of Kells is fantastic and elegant, French animator Sylvain Comet's work is quirky and intimate. His (arguably) best film is The Triplets of Belleville. An elderly woman, Madame Souza, embarks on a journey to rescue her grandson Champion who has been kidnapped in a plot to exploit his professional cycling skills. In the city of Belleville, her and her dog Bruno meet the eponymous triplets who were a formerly famous music hall act from the 1930s. There is virtually no dialogue, and while this may at first seem tedious, the physical acting is so strong and funny that eventually you don't even miss it. Each character brings their personality, warts and all, to life brilliantly. You may spend parts of the movie wondering whether or not you should laugh. Go ahead by all means, this is one of the subtlest animated comedies out there.

Fantasia (Disney; 1940)

This one is included on the list because it shows that the big studios were not always factories for cranking out predictable family films. Earlier in his studio's history, Walt Disney was a trailblazer for showing the potential of what animated films could be. Fantasia is the third movie produced by the studio, but it remains the most ambitious feature the studio has ever attempted. The film itself is a series of vignettes based on various pieces of classical music that range from solid and literal to wildly abstract; from saccharine to haunting. It is a tour-de-force of what top-tier Hollywood animation is capable of when not restrained by decades of tropes and cliches. The fact that this movie was unsuccessful (largely because of WWII raging in Europe at the time) remains one of the greatest disappointments in the history of the studio. Plus, the version on Netflix has restored interstitial segments by master of ceremonies Deems Taylor (well I think it's exciting)!

Fritz the Cat (Ralph Bakshi; 1972)

Ralph Bakshi is one of the most influential animation directors following the end of the Golden Age of Animation. His work combines the long tradition of wacky surrealism with the poignant counterculture of the '70s underground. Perhaps his most well known feature is Fritz the Cat, based off of the Robert Crumb comic of the same name. It has offbeat characters in Bakshi's trademark design that are acutely tapped into to the social issues of urban America during the '70s. Drugs, sex, and racial tension all take center stage as the tuned-out Fritz goes about his life wandering from one existential antic to the next. Bakshi's work can be a little intense and off putting to those not used to it, but as the first animated film to receive an X rating, it is definitely worth a watch.

The Adventures of Mark Twain (Will Vinton; 1985)

Before there was Laika (Coraline, ParaNorman, Boxtrolls), there was Will Vinton and his stop-motion Claymation. One of his few features, The Adventures of Mark Twain is about three youngsters (Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher) who travel with the famous author on his fantastic flying machine as he strives to keep an, "appointment," with Halley's Comet. As the kids explore the ship and talk with Mr. Twain they experience adaptations of some of his best known works. The segment based on "The Mysterious Stranger" stands out in particular as one of the most chilling animated sequences I've ever seen. It is equal parts unnerving and introspective, utilizing simple clay figures to explore the nature of good and evil and the sobering effect of man's mortality. Heady stuff from the same guy who brought us The California Raisins.

It's Such A Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt; 2012)

Don Hertzfeldt is advanced animation appreciation. He is a virtual rock star of the independent film/animation community, and his work is utterly unique and deserving of its reputation. This movie is actually a collection of three short films (Everything Will Be Ok, I Am So Proud of You, and It's A Wonderful Day) that follow the daily life of a young man named Bill who struggles with daily life and finding inspiration. It will make you laugh one minute with its acute observation of everyday foibles, and will shock you into silence with its stark realism the next. All of this is accomplished using Hertzfeldt's trademark use of simple pen and paper drawings and split-screen windows that, while they appear crude, possess a level of beauty and appropriateness for the subject matter. If all of that sounds like high-brow indie film talk, that's because it is. Much like how the work of Alan Moore can only be presented as a comic book, so too can Hertzfeldt's vision only being accomplished using old fashioned paper and ink. If you're only used to animated films that are super polished and like to brag about their ability to render water and hair, then this is definitely worth a watch.

This is of course but a sampling of what the animation medium has to offer. Have any other must-see films? Let me know in the comments, or better yet let your friends know so we can all spread the good word!