I can’t think of a better animated feature to commence this list than Walt Disney’s magnificent epic of “Sleeping Beauty.” It was Disney’s intention to make “Sleeping Beauty” the crowning achievement of feature-length animation. The studio spent nearly ten years developing the film. At the time it cost more money than any animation Disney had ever produced. While the end product didn’t quite live up to the earliest films Disney supervised, it’s hard to deny that “Sleeping Beauty” is anything but an enchanting masterwork.
“Sleeping Beauty” is one of the most unique looking Disney animations, photographed in the technirama widescreen process. The use of widescreen photography gives the film the feeling of one of the great American epics like “Lawrence of Arabia” or “The Ten Commandments.” It also holds a place in history as the last Disney feature to use hand inked cells. Every landscape in the film has the appearance of a living painting. Along with a magical musical score from four-time Oscar nominated composer George Bruns, “Sleeping Beauty” is a delight on the eyes and ears.
What prevents the film from ranking higher on my list is the romance factor. Princess Aurora is one of the most underdeveloped of all the Disney heroines, perhaps because she spends a fraction of the movie asleep. Neither her nor the daring Prince Phillip says even one word of dialog in the film’s second half. The real heroes of the movie are the Three Good Fairies, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather. They’re the one’s who the audience identifies with and follows throughout a majority of the movie. Lets face it, without their assistance Prince Phillip wouldn’t have stood a chance in hell at rescuing the princess. In addition to the fairies, the scene-stealers of “Sleeping Beauty” include a stout king, an inebriated guitar player, and a band of woodland critters.
While the two leads are letdowns, “Sleeping Beauty” redeems itself with the single most menacing villain in the history of Disney animation. Was there ever a colder, more spine-chilling mistress of evil than the malevolent fairy godmother of Maleficent? With light green skin, black horns, and a commanding voice of sophistication, no other Disney villain can contend with Maleficent in terms of sheer wickedness. The final battle in which she takes the form of a black dragon and faces off with Prince Phillip is one of the most historic climaxes in the history of film.
Although Disney films are often observed as innocent kiddy fair, the best Disney animations have been notorious for causing nightmares. Who wasn’t frightened as a child by the scene of Snow White running through the dark forest, or the scene of little boys transforming into donkeys in “Pinocchio,” or the death of Bambi’s mother? During my childhood, there wasn’t a more terrifying movie sequence than the scene of the possessed Princess Aurora being lured up a dark castle stairway to the spinning wheel that would take her life. While the scene always scared me, it was the kind of enthralling fear that you can only experience as a child. In this day and age, incorporating darker elements into children’s films is considered a risk. “Sleeping Beauty” however, is never afraid to invoke fear and creates an exciting adventure for everyone. The film has enthralled generations of audiences, old and young, and will continue to do so in the years to come.
No list embracing the art of animation would be complete without several appearances from director Hayao Miyazaki. If you aren’t familiar with Miyazaki’s work you’re missing out on a treasure cove of timeless classics. Miyazaki has earned the title of the Walt Disney of Japan, where animation is observed as a more serious method of moviemaking. He’s been delighting audiences with his features since the late 70’s. In the past ten years or so Miyazaki has even developed a strong following of Americans through video and DVD. He’s a director who has touched the entire world with his beloved films. Perhaps his most beloved of all pictures is the wondrous “My Neighbor Totoro.”
The film tells the story of Satsuki and Mei, two young girls who move into an old, rundown house with their father. While exploring the backyard Mei comes across two small, mystical spirits. She follows the creatures into the forest where she finds a humungous forest spirit who identifies himself as Totoro, who is adored in Japan as much as Mickey Mouse is in America. Satsuki and Mei have several adventures with Totoro involving a cat shaped like a bus and the birth of a glorious forest tree.
One of the many things I admire about “My Neighbor Totoro” is that it doesn’t conform to the clichés of so many American animations. A majority of children’s movies revolve around kids with only one or no parents. And in the case that both parents are alive, at least one of them is an uptight jerk. I’ve always thought that was kind of depressing material for a kid’s movie. In “My Neighbor Totoro” however, both parents are alive and cherish their children. The father of the two girls in particular embraces his children’s imagination. This is the kind of relationship all kids should have with their parents.
Where most children’s movies today are about loud noises, chases, and pop culture references, “My Neighbor Totoro” tells a subtle and quiet story through beautiful hand-crafted pictures. One might assume that just because the movie is subtle and quiet that it’s automatically boring. Even though it features no forces of evil and the characters aren’t in constant jeopardy, the film still proves to be enormously entertaining. The movie is especially exciting in it’s final act when little Mei runs away to seek out her sick mother in the hospital and Satsuki fears she has lost her sister. What makes this sequence truly intense is that it does not follow Mei or reveal her in peril. Rather, it focuses on Satsuki, her neighbor, and the panic running through their heads. The scene is so genuine that for a while you forget you’re watching an animated film. This situation appears to have been taken right out of real life.
Although the film can be a joy for all ages, this is truly a children’s movie at heart. It’s rare that we see a movie made primarily for children. What’s even more rare though is seeing one executed so intelligently. This is a children’s movie that understands how children think and feel. It touches base on so many of the emotions that kids experience from the excitement of moving into a house that may be haunted, to the young boy down the road who is afraid to even be in the same room as a girl, to the fear that an ill parent may die. The film strikes resemblance to Spike Jonze’s recent adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are,” another movie about a kid who escapes to a world that can only exist in the minds of children. The next time you parents are in a video store in search of a movie for your kids, don’t settle for mere Saturday morning junk. Seek out this wonderful film that you and your children will adore.
Brad Bird started off as a director and executive consultant for “The Simpsons.” Recently he wrote and directed “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” both of which won him Best Animated Feature Oscars. In between that timeframe he directed the 1999 hand-drawn animation, “The Iron Giant.” This science fiction comedy about the friendship between a boy and his robot was criminally overlooked during it’s theatrical run. However, it has developed a much-deserved second life on DVD.
Eli Marienthal gives a terrifically lively voiceover performance as Hogarth Hughes, a young boy living in America during the 1950’s. Hogarth has no friends and wants nothing more than to have a pet. He finally finds a companion one night when he discovers a giant, iron robot from space feasting on metal in the woods. An iron robot that eats metal… isn’t that technically cannibalism? When the Iron Giant becomes tangled in some electrical wires, Hogarth shuts off the power and saves his life.
It’d be easy for a movie centered on a giant robot voiced by Vin Diesel to become a hyperactive, action packed sugar rush with a message of friendship just tacked on. But Bird and screenwriter Tim McCanilies tell a real story about characters the audience cares about. The friendship that arises between Hogarth and the Giant is so profound that it earns comparison to the relationship between E.T. and Elliot or the young John Connor and the Terminator. The movie is full of classic scenes as Hogarth teaches the Giant how to speak and introduces him to his comic book collection. Most importantly, Hogarth shows the Giant that despite his origins he does not have to be a weapon. “You are who you choose to be.” This moral is reminiscent of the life lessons of Walt Disney’s earliest films like “Dumbo” and “Pinocchio.”
In addition to being a great story of love and friendship, “The Iron Giant” is also an endearing comedy full of inspired slapstick and satire. There’s a particularly hilarious sequence in which the Giant’s left hand runs loose and Hogarth must go to extreme lengths to hide it from his mother, voiced by Jennifer Anniston, and a dastardly government agent, voiced by Christopher McDonald. The film also pokes fun at the 1950’s when everybody feared the bomb and honestly believed ducking and covering would protect them. The animation style itself has the essence of a 50’s comic book with a dazzling contemporary spin.
Like “My Neighbor Totoro,” “The Iron Giant” is an intelligent family movie that understands human nature. Of course where “My Neighbor Totoro” was an innocent family film free of hostility, “The Iron Giant” is a much more intense animation that leads up to a big action climax. That’s by no means a criticism towards the film though. This is not the kind of meaningless, frantic action climax we’ve come to expect from lesser animated films. There are serious states here and the audience wants nothing more than to see Hogarth and his Giant live happily ever after. That’s what makes the final fifteen minutes of the movie riveting.
It still baffles me that a movie this clever, beautifully drawn, and engaging could only gross 23 million dollars and something as shallow as “Pokemon: The First Movie” could become a box office hit. Perhaps the studio simply didn’t market it correctly. But I suppose there’s no use in questioning why the film was not a financial success. The point is that “The Iron Giant” is a marvelous and ambitious achievement. In an era that was concurred by animated musicals revolving around princesses and cute animals, this film stood out as a humane story about relatable people and one of the great movie robots.
Tarzan has always been one of the most interesting and celebrated characters of our popular culture. Since the 1918 silent film, "Tarzan of the Apes," there have been numerous screen adaptations of him. But no film quite captured the heart of Edgar Rice Burroughs' original books until the 1999 Disney animated version of "Tarzan." I find it surprising that there haven't been more animated versions of the character. The story of Tarzan is so outlandish that it was born for animation. In live-action, the image of a man in a loincloth being groomed by apes just comes off as silly. In the universe of animation though, the landscapes are less murky, the story reaches it's full potential, and somehow the characters appear more three-dimensional.
In the movie's opening scene, a man and a woman escape a burning ship along with their newborn son. They build camp at a tree house where the mother and father are killed by a leopard. An ape named Kala discovers their infant and saves his life. Kala's husband and the pack leader, a stern gorilla named Kerchak, allows his wife to keep the baby. However, he refuses to acknowledge another creature as his son. Despite their physical differences, Kala loves the child unconditionally and names him Tarzan.
Never has Tarzan's jungle appeared brighter and livelier than in this richly animated escapade. The production crew invented a new technique of animation for the film called Deep Canvas, creating three-dimensional backgrounds with the appearance of a traditional painting. The animation style breaths life into several exciting action sequences, the most exhilarating of which involves Tarzan rescuing a plucky scientist named Jane from a rapid group of monkeys. It's an invigorating spectacle to watch Tarzan sweep through his jungle like a surfer catching a wave.
I have only two minor quarrels with the movie, the first of which regards the lack of a strong supporting cast. Compared to Timon and Pumbaa of "The Lion King" and Sebastian the Crab of "The Little Mermaid," Turk, a wise-cracking ape voiced by Rosie O'Donnell, and Tantor, a paranoid elephant voiced by Wayne Knight, are kind of weak comedic relief. I'm still not entirely sure if O'Donnell's Turk is intended to be a male or female ape. But then I usually find myself wondering that with every role O'Donnell plays.
Secondly, the songs by Phil Collins are perfectly fine. Compared to the show stopping Broadway-styled songs of the best Disney films though, the soundtrack of "Tarzan" feels repetitive. The only number that really stands out is the vibrant and inventive "Trashin' the Camp" song in which every conceivable household object is used as a musical instrument. This is all right though because "Tarzan" isn't truly a musical anyways. It's a rousing adventure full of excitement and romance.
I've always found the romance between Tarzan and Jane to be almost as strange as the relationship between King Kong and Ann Darrow. Here though, the union of Tarzan and Jane is oddly touching. Tarzan has spent his entire life under the impression that nobody else looks like him. When he meats Jane he experiences physical attraction for the first time and Jane returns that attraction. The film is a surprisingly gripping love story that leaves the audience wondering what will become of these two. Will Jane stay with Tarzan in Africa, will Tarzan return with Jane to England, or will the two go their separate ways?
Disney's "Tarzan" exemplifies what many of the live-action movies missed: The struggle of Tarzan, who realizes at a young age he is different from the other inhabitants of the jungle. This movie is ultimately about Tarzan's journey to find his place in the world. After so many failed attempts to bring "Tarzan" to the screen, the people at Disney finally realized the soul of the Ape Man.
I initially gave “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” three stars when I saw it back in 2005. Subsequent to multiple viewings through, my appreciation for the film has only flourished. That’s simply the affect that Wallace and Gromit have on people. The more time you spend with the two, the more you grow to love them. I simply couldn’t deny the cheese-loving pair a spot on this list for their undeniable ability to completely win the audience over. As far as great cinematic duos go, Wallace and Gromit may very well be the Abbott and Costello of animation.
Wallace and Gromit had only appeared in short subject animations prior to the film, two of which won their creator, Nick Park, Oscars. Park lost the third short to himself for his “Creature Comforts.” Wallace is an inventor whose brilliance and ambition often lead to absolute catastrophe. It’s always up to his noble dog Gromit, who the audience can always understand despite his inability to speak, to save his best friend’s life. After tackling a robot from the moon, a homicidal penguin, and a sheep-shaving dog, the two confronted their greatest challenge yet when a monster, vegetable-glutting rodent known as the Were-Rabbit plagued their town.
The wondrous world of Wallace and Gromit is realized through stop motion clay animation. The art form of animation itself is one of the most expensive and time-consuming storytelling techniques. Among all the methods of animation, stop-motion perhaps ranks as the most arduous, shooting one frame at a time to make it appear as if the clay figures are alive. In an age before digital animation, stop-motion was experimented with in live-action movies like "Jason and the Argonauts," “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and in television shorts like “Gumby.” Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit shorts broke new grounds for the process though. His movies proved that stop-motion could be more than just an interesting visual effect but used to tell fantastic stories and create characters that would become forever stitched into our popular culture.
Wallace’s home alone is an entirely unique world within a remarkable world. Every morning the inventor is awaken by the aroma of a plate of cheese, slides out of bed down a trap door, and lands at his kitchen table where robotic arms dress him in his customary green vest and trousers. Him and Gromit then set out on their latest venture, a rabbit catching business called “Anti-Pesto.” While a local brute named Lord Victor Quartermaine fancies exterminating the rabbits with a riffle, Wallace and Gromit go for a nonviolent tactic by sucking up the bunnies with a vacuum. The rabbit-loving Lady Tottington puts the two in charge of capturing the Were-Rabbit, who has been devouring everybody’s vegetables with the annual Giant Vegetable Competition just around the corner. I won’t go into the origins of the were-rabbit though for it will spoil one of the movie’s greatest twists.
The screenplay for “The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” is full of terrific dialog and comedic situations such as when Wallace’s vacuum sucks up Quartermaine’s hairpiece. When he cry’s, “My hair is in your machine,” Wallace obliviously responds, “It’s only rabbits in there. The hare, I think you’ll find, is a much larger mammal.” But the true humor of “Wallace and Gromit” comes through whimsical action sequences. The final fifteen minutes of the film includes a breathtaking chase in which every minor set piece and side plot blend together.
“Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” is purely a delight in every respect. I don’t understand how anybody could not crack a smile at the film’s mix of British humor and lively animation. At the core of the movie and the entire “Wallace & Gromit” franchise is the never-endingly creative mind of Nick Park and his crew at Aardman Studios. Like Pixar, Aardman is an animation studio where you can witness the love and fun that went into every one of their movies.
Robin Hood is yet another character that has been rehashed numerous times over the years. Recently we got a reimagining from Director Ridley Scott with Russell Crowe in the title role. The best movie to capture the Robin Hood legend is arguably Errol Flynn's 1938 "The Adventures of Robin Hood," the definitive swashbuckler of the early cinema that holds up as extraordinary entertainment even today. While I don't think anything can quite top "The Adventures of Robin Hood," a close runner-up would have to be the 1973 Disney version, simply titled "Robin Hood."
This is one of the more underappreciated of Disney animations. On the website, Rotten Tomatoes, the movie only holds a rating of 55% positive. Although among Rotten Tomato users the film maintains a fresh rating of 90%. Fortunately there's a fair group of people in this world with good taste.
Rather than using people, the film casts various members of the animal kingdom to play the historic roles with a thumb-sucking lion as Prince John, a chubby wolf as the Sheriff of Nottingham, and foxes as Robin Hood and Maid Marian. Disney's "Robin Hood" was actually my first introduction to the celebrated hero. So whenever I saw another portrayal of the character I would say, "This is grossly inaccurate. Everybody knows that Robin Hood was a fox not a man."
Two of the film's characters appear to have been interestingly inspired by "The Jungle Book." Phil Harris, who provided the voice of the free and easy bear Baloo, returns to voice Robin's devoted sidekick, Little John, here depicted as a brown bear. It's always soothing to hear Harris' deep voice on screen. Although it's a tad strange that this bear with a blatant American accent would be assisting in a resistance against the British Empire. There's also Prince John's snake adviser, Sir Hiss, who somewhat resembles Kaa from "The Jungle Book." In one of the film's most fanciful moments Sir Hiss inflates a balloon, using his slithering body as a string, and spins his tail like a propeller to travel around a festival in search of Robin Hood.
The picture features several exuberant chases such as when Robin and Little John disguise themselves as ladies to rob Prince John's carriage and an archery tournament in which Robin and Marian escape the clutches of Prince John's henchmen. The movie's most on edge moment occurs at it's climax where Robin attempts to remove a set of keys from the slumbering Sheriffï's belt to free the wrongfully incarcerated prisoners. It's the quite, tense scenes like this that prevent "Robin Hood" from becoming the energetic, overblown chain of mindless action sequences that it could have been.
The problem with many of the modern depictions of Robin Hood is that filmmakers assume his story is supposed to be all about battles, gore, and big speeches. When I think of Robin Hood though, the attributes that instantly come to mind are romance, wit, and above all joy. What people value about Disney's "Robin Hood" is that it gets the legend right, producing a whimsical and thrilling experience that invokes cheer. There's even time for the occasional merry song. The jolly musical number of the Phony King of England is perfectly intoned with the Robin Hood we know and love. Like "The Adventures of Robin Hood" and the best depictions of the character, Disney's Robin Hood is not a self- righteous, gritty epic. It's a joyous adventure with one purpose: To put a smile on the audience's face.
From the 1989 Tim Burton film to the record breaking "Dark Knight," Batman has been one of the most successful film franchises of all time. One Batman theatrical release that you've probably never seen or heard of though is the 1993 animated film, "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm." The film, which was produced by the same team behind the exceptional animated series, was plopped into theaters on Christmas Day without a strong ad campaign. It's a royal shame that "Mask of the Phantasm" was not a financial success because it's one of the finest portrayals of the Caped Crusader ever filmed.
"Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" is considerably better than either of Joel Schumacher's flaming piles of bat guano. But then again, so is a back to back showing of the two "Fantastic Four" movies and "Superman IV: Quest for Peace." What's surprising is that the film is actually more absorbing than Tim Burton's two pictures. While I always admired Burton's "Batman" films for their craft and dark atmosphere, I always felt that they were lacking compelling characters and a story worth caring about. "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" illustrates a breathtaking epic full of mystery, suspense, and even romance. It's so good that it ranges just a step below Christopher Nolan's two outstanding "Batman" films. Just as Disney did with "Tarzan," "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" realizes a classic character in a fashion that could only be depicted through animation.
In this hauntingly drawn feature, Batman is accused for the murders committed by a mysterious vigilante with resemblance to the Ghost of Christmas Future known as the Phantasm. A majority of the movie is told through flashbacks, depicting Batman's origins. Batman's alter ego is of course billionaire Bruce Wayne, voiced by Kevin Conroy, who has made a promise to his deceased parents to bring justice to Gotham City. Bruce's plan faces an obstacle however, when he falls for the lovely Andrea Beaumont, voiced by Dana Delany who would go onto to play Lois Lane in "Superman: The Animated Series." Like Peter Parker in the "Spider-Man" films, Bruce is confronted with the impossible choice of keeping his promise or having a life with the woman he loves. "I didn't count on being happy," Bruce says at his parent's grave, pleading for their permission to let him have his own life.
The only department Nolan's "Dark Knight" lacked in was the romance between Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne and Maggie Gyllenhaal's Rachel Dawes. "The Dark Knight" was really more of a crime saga than a romance though. "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" on the other hand is a love story at heart and what a captivating love story it is. I was surprised by the movie's emotional impact and how involved I became in the relationship between Bruce and Andrea. The love story is so deep that I'd not only go as far to call it one of the greatest animated features ever made but one of the finest romances of all time.
In addition to the romance, "Mask of the Phantasm" is also an immensely exciting entertainment full of breathtaking action and animation. The opening credit sequence alone, as the camera soars through a computer generated Gotham City, is spectacular on the eyes. The film noir drawing style is reminiscing of the best Batman graphic novels, creating a distinctively lingering city of injustice.
As gorgeous as the animation is, "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" is ultimately a character driven piece. Every person is essential to the film, from Bruce's love interest of Andrea who is not a meager damsel but an independent woman with demons and feelings, to his loyal butler Alfred who wants nothing more than to see his employer happy, to Mark Hamill in an extended cameo as the Joker. The only character who's missing is the Joker's would-be girlfriend, Harley Quinn. Maybe the filmmaker's thought she would outshine everybody else.
What I appreciate about "Mask of the Phantasm" above all else is that although the film is animated, it does not dumb down the material. The film handles some pretty serious themes about death and sacrificing your own happiness for the greater good. It's a dark film that is perhaps too intense for anybody under ten. "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" is a movie that proves that animation cannot only be for children but a vessel to tell more adult stories as well.
Earlier I discussed how although Disney animated features are often marketed as innocent family entertainment, a fair deal have scarred children for life. The cat in "Cinderella" has perhaps caused more nightmares than Freddy Krueger himself. That's not the same case with "The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh," possibly the most inoffensive and unaggressive film in the entirety of cinema. While the movie is gentle and innocent, it isn't the kind of overbearing, sugarcoated piece of dribble that you find on Public Broadcasting every weekday morning.
"Winnie the Pooh" epitomizes the kind of wonderful world we would all love to occupy, without any violence or bad guys. The One Hundred Acre Wood is a world where we can escape from the struggles of our mundane lives and have fantastic adventures involving honey trees, blustery days, and a bouncing tigger. I think we all hold a certain affection for Pooh because his universe is so inviting. Merely hearing the voice of Sterling Holloway as the stuffed with fluff bear of very little brain is comforting. Whether you're a child or adult, "The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" is an absolute joy to behold.
Many consider 1967's "The Jungle Book" to be the last animated feature with Walt Disney's own personal touch. If you think about it though, this collection of twenty-five minute shorts was truly the final film to have Walt's signature. Disney supervised 1966's "Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree" and 1968's "Winnie Pooh and the Blustery Day," which he won a posthumous Oscar for. The only one he wasn't involved with was 1974's "Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too," the film in which everybody's favorite character was upgraded from a supporting role to co-star. Then in 1977, the studio merged all three films together into the ultimate "Pooh" movie, marking their 22nd full-length animated feature.
Among all the animated features from Disney, "Winnie the Pooh" is perhaps the most true to it's original source material. Sure, new plot twists, characters, and songs are added like any Disney film. What Disney flawlessly captured was the serenity and simplicity of the original books by A. A. Milne. A majority of animated protagonists set out with big dreams of fame, fortune, and romance. Pooh's prime task in life on the other hand is whether or not he will have enough honey for lunch. And while there is rarely anything major at stake in the One Hundred Acre Wood, it's still exciting to watch Pooh climb that honey tree and Piglet fly through the sky like a kite.
Seeing a movie in a Cineplex for the first time is a significant event in anybody's childhood. It's not easy to find the right picture to mark your child's introduction to the theater though, especially given all the family films polluted with pop culture gags, senseless action, and dark undertones. While there are plenty of great family films being released nowadays, most parents seem to be relying on "Alvin and the Chipmunks" to shape their children's perception of movies. Wouldn't it be great if "The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" could be re-released into theaters every year so new generations of kids could experience an enchanting movie on the big screen?
Walt Disney has been accused of being anti of a lot of things. It's evident from all of his films though that Disney was severely anti-cat and pro-dog. In "Lady and the Tramp," two Siamese cats reek havoc around the house, leaving Lady to clean up their mess. In "Cinderella," the malevolent cat, Lucifer, if triumphed over by the brave old dog, Bruno. Even in a movie that depicted cats in a positive light such as "The Aristocats," it was the two supporting hound dog characters that stole the show. It's appropriate that "Lady and the Tramp" opens with a dedication "to all dogs - be they LADIES or TRAMPS" for there has never been a finer film depicting the nature of the species.
Any dog or anybody who ever owned a dog can identify with this superbly drawn animation presented in the CinemaScope widescreen process. In the movie's opening sequence a woman receives a present from her husband to discover a little Lady puppy inside. That night the couple attempts to get the puppy to sleep in a bed they have made for her in the kitchen. But the lonely Lady howls for her masters, climbs up to their bedroom, and makes herself cozy in their bed. The couple reluctantly gives into their new pet and allow her to sleep with them. This scene has always resonated with me perhaps because I am an owner of a Labrador who is constantly pleading for my attention.
Disney tended to incorporate some sort of love story into all of the movies he produced, from "Snow White" to "Sleeping Beauty." It's interesting that among all the animations that Disney was involved in, his best romance was not between humans but two dogs. This is a sincere and immensely enjoyable love story about an upper-class cocker spaniel that has several adventures with a stray mutt. The movie is packed with wonderfully exciting scenes such as when the Tramp saves Lady from a pack of rabid strays and when a beaver with a speech impediment, who was obviously the inspiration for Gopher in "Winnie the Pooh," helps to remove poor Lady's muzzle. And of course there's the iconic spaghetti scene set to the song Bella Notte in which Lady and the Tramp accidentally share their first smooch. Was there ever a finer make out session in the history of animation?
The earliest Disney animated film's were not known for attracting big stars. Up until the late 80's and early 90's, Disney usually hired unknown actors to provide their voice talents. "Lady and the Tramp" however, features several songs and a voiceover performance from singer Peggy Lee. While there aren't necessarily any show stopping numbers in "Lady and the Tramp," they're plenty of fun nonetheless, particularly the Siamese Cat Song and Bella Notte number I mentioned before.
"Lady and the Tramp" is full of incite about the confusion of being a dog in a man's world such as when Lady learns that her owners are having a baby and fears that she may be replaced in their lives. The minute she sees their baby though, Lady immediately feels the necessity to project the new member of her family. Then when Lady gets taken to the pound and learns what happens to the dogs there, she realizes that the world outside her fancy neighborhood isn't so friendly towards dogs. The movie is even told from a dog's point of view, rarely showing the faces of the humans. Given that dog's cannot express their feelings through speech or writing, there is no first-hand record regarding a canine's way of life. "Lady and the Tramp" demonstrates what it might be like to spend a day in a dog's shoes though...that is if dog's wore shoes.
From “Lady and the Tramp” to “One Hundred and One Dalmatians,” another Disney animation with a cast of not only splendid canine characters but also memorable humans, including one of the finest villains ever concocted out of the Disney caldron. “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” isn’t quite insightful of a look into a dog’s life as “Lady and the Tramp.” There are times in the film where the dog characters appear more human than animal. However, the humane characteristics of the animals and their ability to outwit humans is just one of the many delights of the picture. The movie is every bit as charming as Disney’s previous tale of puppy love and even more inventive, exciting, and timeless. In the spirit of “Lady and the Tramp,” “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” is yet another picture from Disney that entirely embraces man’s best friend.
This is perhaps the most contemporary of all the Disney classics, centered on two English Dalmatians named Pongo and Perdita. When the two dogs procreate fifteen puppies they become targets of the wicked Cruella de Vil, a fashion designer who desires to skin the puppies to make a fur coat. Cruella hires two thugs named Jasper and Horace to dognap the fifteen Dalmatians along with 84 others to complete her dream outfit. When the puppies go missing the entire animal community of London unites to bring Pongo and Perdita’s children home.
Earlier I declared Maleficent of “Sleeping Beauty” as the ultimate Disney villainess. If anybody could give Maleficent a run for her money though, it would have to be the malevolent Cruella de Vil. The toothpick skinny, fur enthusiast defines the term scene-stealer as she flaunts about every sequence with her cigarette and massive fur coat, exploding with eccentricity. This is a character destined for animation and could never be more affective in live-action, as proven in the 1996 Glenn Close version.
The one criticism I have regarding “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” is the design of the backgrounds, which I’ve always found to be flat and lacking in detail. This was the first Disney film to use the Xerox camera to transmit the drawings to cels, replacing the traditional inking process to cut corners and save money. Compared to the gorgeous animation of “Snow White” and “Pinocchio,” “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” and many of the Disney animations that followed up until the late 80’s were never as visually exciting. I may be in the minority of this accusation though, seeing how many animators today praise “Dalmatians” for its backgrounds. Then again, Walt Disney himself was somewhat dismayed by the design of “Dalmatians” when it was first released in 1961.
Despite the backgrounds, “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” still bursts with superb animation. What I admire most about the film is the look of the Dalmatians and how precise their body language is to real dogs. The animators impeccably captured the way dogs wag their tails in enthusiasm and lay their heads on the window seal in boredom. Then there’s the dozens of spots that occupy all One Hundred and One Dalmatians. I’m so grateful the animators went to the trouble and incorporating all of those Dalmatians’ spots and especially the dazzling opening credits sequence of Dalmatian spots.
At 79 minutes, there’s not a single dull moment in “One Hundred and One Dalmatians.” Even today it’s still stimulating to watch the cat named Sergeant Tibbs helps sneak the ninety-nine puppies out of Cruella’s manor with Horace and Jasper obliviously watching a game show. It all leads up to a tense chase in which the Dalmatians disguise themselves in soot to escape the clutches of Cruella. While it’s not the best animation Disney ever produced, “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” is certainly one of the most enjoyable ones to watch over and over again. I wouldn’t half mind if I got to watch the film every day.
I've been talking a lot about animated portrayals of classic characters that succeeded where the live-action outings failed. As far of Peter Pan goes, there have been some good live-action depictions of the boy who never grows up such as the 1954 musical staring Mary Martin and some duds like Steven Spielberg's clunker reimagining, "Hook." Among all the Peter Pan movies though, the most iconic has got to be the 1953 Disney animated classic.
Looking back on the film today, apart of me wishes that Disney's "Peter Pan" reflected more on the hardships of reaching adulthood. The film is really more of a rousing adventure fantasy rather than a deep character study about growing up in the sense of "Where the Wild Things Are." As a stirring swashbuckler though, "Peter Pan" delivers on every conceivable level. To witness the film through the eyes of the child is enchanting. To revisit it as an adult is like taking a sip from the fountain of youth, reviving the child in us all.
One of the many aspects of "Peter Pan" I appreciated on a recent viewing was the film's use of shadows. Not just Peter Pan's shadow, which has a mind of it's own as it flies around the Darling children's nursery attempting to escape it's master, but the use of shadows on all the characters. In the films commencement, shown in silhouette, young John and Michael Darling reenact one of their favorite Peter Pan stories told to them by their elder sister Wendy.
This leads to a hilarious sequence, in which their buffoon of a father stumbles into their nursery to find that the boys have drawn a treasure map all over his last clean shirt. In a fit, the father trips over their dog, Nana, and goes flying into a dresser. Rather than rushing to his aid though, his family immediately goes to comfort Nana. Feeling that Wendy is filling the boy's heads with too many stories, the father banishes his daughter from the nursery and insists that she begin to grow up.
Later that night, Peter Pan enters the Darling children's nursery in search of his escaped shadow, aided by his pixie companion Tinker Bell. The creation of Tinker Bell is as magnificent as anything the Disney animators drew in their history of animated features. Tinker Bell, glittering yellow on a regular basis and fuming red when angry, is a revelation of animation. With every movement Tinker Bell makes she leaves behind a trail of pixie dust, which must have cost a bundle for the filmmakers to animate at the time. In one of the movie's finest sequences, Tinker Bell finds herself stuck in a dresser drawer and attempts to escape with a pair of scissors.
When Peter Pan learns that Wendy is being forced to grow up, he insists on taking her and her brothers to Neverland where they will never become old. In a dazzling flight scene, they travel to Neverland over the gorgeously drawn landscapes of London. When they arrive the nasty Captain Hook immediately greets them via a cannon ball. I remember as a child I loved Hook's clumsy, good-hearted pirate sidekick, Smee. The two pirates are the center of the film's best moments such as when Smee attempts to give his boss a shave and accidentally shaves the ass of a seagull. Although you'd think that a band of ruthless pirates would be able to overthrow a bunch of lost boys who are no older than twelve. If Commondore James Norrington were around he'd undoubtedly refer to Hook as "the worst pirate I've ever seen."
Years later "Peter Pan" would receive much controversy for it's depiction of Native Americans, especially for the song "What Made the Red Man Red?" Although if you look at any Western from this time frame, from "The Searchers" to "Stagecoach," Indians almost always got a bad rep in Hollywood. Disney would later illustrate a more positive outlook on Native Americans with 1995 animation "Pocahontas."
I believe that "Peter Pan" stands out as the best-looking Disney animation of its era, even more so than "Cinderella" or "Sleeping Beauty." Watching the film today is still a marvel with its stunning use of green and blue colors to create a Neverland unlike anything that could have been dreamed of in live-action at the time. Among all the worlds Disney movies have taken us to, Neverland probably most resembles what would become the Disneyland theme pack with it's sense of limitless adventure, imagination, and ability to make any adult feel like a kid again.
Miyazaki's "Laputa: Castle in the Sky" is one of the most rip-roaring entertainments of the cinema, be it live-action or animation. Like many of Miyazaki's films, I did not discover "Laputa" until after my childhood. However, I can certainly imagine seeing the film as a kid and the enthralling effect it would have had on me. "Laputa" is reminiscent of the original "Star Wars" or "Indiana Jones" trilogies, taking the audience on a roller coaster of a journey unlike any other.
This dazzling animated feature is a spellbinding voyage from the get go as a band of pirates storm an airship in search of a young girl named Sheeta, voiced by Anna Paquin in the film's American version. Unbeknownst to her, Sheeta possesses a crystal necklace with extraordinary powers. When she falls from the airship the necklace saves Sheeta, levitating her safely to the surface. A miner boy named Pazu, voiced by James Van Der Beek, sees Sheeta's unconscious body falling from the sky and catches her. The two soon learn that Sheeta's necklace holds the answers to finding Laputa, a mysterious Castle in the Sky that is considered to be only a myth. Pazu's late father claimed to have seen Laputa on one of his ventures although nobody believed him. It's Pazu's determination to find the Castle in the Sky and prove his father was telling the truth. Him and Sheeta then set out on an exploration full of pirates, flying machines, and robots.
Among all of Miyazaki's films "Laputa" is probably the most in the tradition of American animated features. A majority of Miyazaki's movies tell stories of children with alive, loving parents. "Laputa" on the other hand centers on two orphans, like many of the protagonists in the Disney movies. This is also one of the few Miyazaki movies to have a living force of evil. At first it appears that the pirates lead by a cranky old lady named Dola, voiced by Cloris Leachman, are going to be the villains of the film. In turn though the pirates end up providing the film's comedic relief and actually assist Pazu and Sheeta in finding Laputa.
The movie's true bad guy is a sinister government agent named Muska who wishes to find Laputa for his own corrupt reasons. Muska is played by Mark Hamill who also provided the voice of the Joker in "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm." Most people believe Hamill's career merely ended after he played Luke Skywalker. Since his career-defining role though, Hamill has maintained a steady livelihood as a voice over actor in movies and television.
"Laputa" is one of those epic serials that rarely ever slows down in terms of pure adventure. Miyazaki delivers one stupendous action sequence after another, the best of which is a train chase that continues to build and build to a breathtaking climatic moment. As exceptional as the action is, it's the profound friendship between Pazu and Sheeta that makes "Laputa" something more. Unlike most alleged movies about friendship where the two leads spend a fraction of the time arguing, Pazu and Sheeta share one of the most sincere and meaningful relationships I've ever seen in an animated film. They're two people who understand each other from the moment they meet and build an indestructible friendship throughout the course of the movie. "Laputa" represents is the kind of fantastic adventure we all dream of having in our youth and the best friend we wish to share this experience with.
The picture all leads up to sterling final act in which everybody reaches the Castle in the Sky. Laputa itself is an extraordinary sight of ancient ruins, a gargantuous mother tree, green grass, flowers, and robots with the resemblance of the Iron Giant. Picture the lost city of Atlantis, Mt. Olympus, the Death Star, Metropolis, and the moon of Pandora all rolled into one with a hint of the flying balloon house in "Up." Laputa is just one of the many unforgettable images in this unforgettable film.
I enjoyed the original "Shrek" enough to include it on my Best of the Decade list, which should give you an idea of where it will place on this countdown. Some of the recent sequels and television specials though, have lost much of the heart and innovation that made "Shrek" the breath of fresh air it was back in 2001. Where "Shrek" told a real story with a message at it's core, "Shrek the Third" and the holiday short of "Shrek the Halls" were more interested in out-of-place gags and rehashing old jokes. "Shrek 2" on the other hand, was one of the rare sequels that was just as timeless as its predecessor. As over exposed as Shrek has become over the years, looking back on the original two "Shrek" films reminds me why the character became so popular in the first place.
"Shrek 2" is a positive treat from the opening scene, in which Prince Charming arrives at a mounting tower with the anticipation of rescuing Princess Fiona, all the way through. I've always thought of the Prince Charmings depicted movies like "Cinderella" to be the blandest cookie cutter cliches of animated fairytales. In "Shrek 2" the filmmakers have plenty of fun with the character, developing him into a self-absorbed pretty boy who wears a hairnet to preserve his golden locks. When Charming arrives at Fiona's bedroom he is petrified to discover a gender-confused wolf reading a copy of Pork Illustrated in her place. The wolf informs Charming the princess is off on her honeymoon. We then transition to the ogre couple of Shrek and Fiona as they enter a Gingerbread house honeymoon suite.
Minutes after the newlyweds arrive back at their swamp dwelling they receive word from Fiona's parents that they have been invited to their castle in the kingdom of Far, Far Away. Fiona drags her reluctant husband to her homeland along with their dedicated talking Donkey companion. In one of the film's finest sequences the ogres arrive in the Beverly Hills-like Kingdom of Far, Far Away with so many references in the background, such as restaurants entitled Burger Prince and Farbux, that you need to pause the movie to catch all the jokes. When they come to the castle, everybody is traumatized to discover Fiona is still an ogre and even more shockingly has brought home an Ogre for dinner.
Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, and Eddie Murphy all continue to do great voice over work as the characters we came to cherish in the first movie. "Shrek 2" also supplies a kingdom of other memorable supporting players like John Cleese and Julie Andrews as Fiona's parents, Jennifer Saunders as a Fairy Godmother more wicked than the queen in "Snow White" herself, and Larry King in the most dead on casting of the past twenty-five years as the Ugly Step Sister. But of course the real scene-stealer is Antonio Banderas as a sassy swashbuckling cat in the spirit of Zorro named Puss in Boots. Banderas delivers a revolutionary voiceover performance, easily creating the most lovable feline character in the history of movies.
There's not a gag in "Shrek 2" that doesn't work, from the references to "Alien," "Mission Impossible," and Joan Rivers' Red Carpet show. The Best of all is the spoof of the reality show "Cops" where Shrek and his friends appear on the program "Knights." In this hilarious scene the knights repossess a small bag from Pus to discover it's catnip. Pus then responds, "That's not mine."
What makes the first two "Shrek" pictures so special is their message of acceptance as Shrek attempts to live amongst a world of humans. In the first movie he accidentally won over the princess. Now he must convince his in-laws that he's worthy of their daughter and often Shrek must convince himself that he deserves Fiona. Despite his grumpy, disgusting ogre instincts though, Shrek is an all around lovable protagonist who will stop at nothing to make his wife happy. It's the endearing love story between Shrek and Fiona that makes "Shrek 2" a winner of a follow-up. Yet, it's only third best animated sequel on this list.
While virtually everybody saw “Shrek 2,” one animated feature that not nearly enough people have perceived is Henry Selick’s marvelous adaptation of “James and the Giant Peach.” Selcik, who had previously directed “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas,” was in everyway the perfect fit to bring Roald Dahl’s classic story to life. Both Selcik and the late Dahl share the same knack for telling offbeat fairytales. Watching this movie is like witnessing the union of two kindred spirits, born years apart, joining forces for the first time.
The film starts off in live-action where young James Henry Trotter lives the ideal childhood with his loving mother and father. Everything is perfect as he spends his days on the beach, looking at clouds, and eating birthday cake. Then out of nowhere a Rhino gobbles up his parents and James gets landed with his evil aunts who make Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters look like saints. A parent’s death is a common theme in many animated films, notably “Bambi” and “The Lion King.” But never have a child’s parents met their demise in such a bizarre and comically dark fashion than James’.
The miserable James spends his days doing hard labor for his Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker. However, he holds onto the hope that he’ll one day escape their crooked house on a hill and travel to New-York City. James is allowed the opportunity to make his dreams come true once he’s visited by a mysterious man who gives him a bag of magic crocodile tongues. The tongues get away from James though and work their powers on a peach, making it gigantic. James crawls into the massive fruit, where the movie shifts to stop-motion animation. In the peach James encounters a band of enormous, talking bugs, including a sophisticated grasshopper, a loving ladybug, a paranoid earthworm, a beatnik spider, a glowworm with a hearing disorder, and best of all a free and easy centipede.
After the peach breaks off it’s tree branch, the bugs and James rolls out of town into the ocean. They set course for New York City but are left with the inquiry of how to travel there. In the film’s sharpest sequence, James and his friends use the earthworm to attract a flock of seagulls. Once the birds are in range they capture them with Miss Spider’s web, tie them to the peach, and are lifted into the sky. The action doesn’t stop there though. The film continues to build the suspense as a mechanical shark attacks the peach.
One aspect that’s typically overlooked in animated films is the set design. While animated features have received recognition from the Academy in the Best Picture and Best Screenplay categories, one has never been nominated for Best Art Direction. If any animation ever deserved recognition in this category though, it would have to be “James and the Giant Peach.” This movie pops out with such splendid set pieces, such as an underwater sunken ship where James, Miss Spider, and Centipede face off with a gang of pirate skellingtons, obviously inspired by Jack Skellington. When I was six-years-old I didn’t give much thought to how they got the water to flow in this stop-motion animation. Looking back at the film as a twenty-year-old though, I’m astounded by the water’s beauty and flabbergasted to how they accomplished this visual trick.
“James and the Giant Peach” is one of the rare film adaptations that not only lives up to the book. It’s even better than the book, which was a feat of fictional storytelling. Selick’s film delves deeper into James’ fears such as the Rhino that took his parents and his horrid aunts. I’d even go as far to compare the movie to “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” inventing a one of a kind universe that’s occasionally dark but ultimately joyous. With fun songs from Randy Newman, excellent voice over performances, and stunning visuals, “James and the Giant Peach” is one of the most undervalued treasures of animation.
Like "Robin Hood," 1963's "The Sword in the Stone" is one of the most fiercely underrated of Disney animations. Most people don't rank it up there with "Peter Pan," "101 Dalmatians," or some of the other classics of this particular Disney renaissance. Never the less, I consider this to be an all-together magical movie with some hilarious dialog and impressive animation. In addition to being the last film Walt Disney saw completed, "The Sword in the Stone" is also probably the most male oriented of Disney classics. The film features only two human women and two non-speaking female animals. This movie is a regular sausage convention.
"The Sword in the Stone" takes place in the dark middle-evil ages where England is without a king. Meanwhile deep in the woods lives Merlin, a wizard who might appear like an old cook as he gets his elongated beard stuck in doors. But the sorcerer is in fact better educated than anybody in England. His ability to see into the future has shown him that the world is not flat but round and one day people will travel via steam-powered automobiles. Merlin's powers lead him to meet Arthur, an orphan whose foster father and brother refer to as "Wart."
As a kid I never realized this, but three actors actually provided the voice of Arthur. I'm not entirely sure why Disney felt why they needed multiple actors to voice the character that doesn't age throughout the course of the movie. Maybe he's on the break of puberty or something.
The standout performances come from Karl Swenson as Merlin and Junius Matthews as Archimedes, a scene stealing, highly educated talking owl. The two have several humorous banters such as when Merlin attempts to prove that man will fly someday with a model plane. His beard gets tangled in the propeller though and the aircraft collapses into a moat. "Man will fly all right, just like a rock," Archimedes laughs. Nowadays audiences are used to seeing pop culture references in animated films. But "The Sword in the Stone" was one of the few Disney animations of the time to have these sorts of in-jokes.
It's Merlin's desire to educate Arthur so he can grow up to be more than a squire. With his magic Merlin packs all of his books, furniture, and tea set into a single bag set to the catchiest song since Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo, Higitus Figitus. It's a sharp and witty sequence that maybe provided the inspiration for the "Be Our Guest" number in "Beauty and the Beast"
Merlin and Arthur have several adventures in which they take on the form of fish and are nearly devoured by a pike. An even more traumatizing experience occurs when Merlin turns them into squirrels and two lady rodents seduce them. There's also a funny running gag involving a wolf attempting to eat Arthur completely unbeknownst to him. The film builds up to a spectacular wizard duel between Merlin and his longtime rival Madam Mim as they transform into various creatures. Even when Mim appears to have won with a fire-breathing dragon, Merlin manages to outwit her by turning himself into an infectious germ.
Some critics have argued that "The Sword in the Stone" is a little too high on humor and doesn't take King Arthur's mythology seriously enough. As I see it though, the best King Arthur stories are the ones that put a comedic spin on the character. That's why the best of all the King Arthur movies is unarguably "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."
My one and only dismay with "The Sword in the Stone" is that the sword in the stone itself doesn't really come into play until the movie's final act. It would have been interesting to see the events that followed Arthur's crowning such as his quests with the Knights of the Round Table and romance with Guinevere. Disney classics have inspired many sequels, none of which are entirely memorable or necessary. A follow-up to "The Sword in the Stone" however, might be intriguing to see.
Even though there have been various fresh and innovative animated features from Dreamworks and Blue Sky Studios over the years, no other animation studio today can quite top the geniuses at Pixar. With their combination of humor and heart, Pixar has discovered the perfect method of storytelling that's appealing to everybody. While the Pixar films are fun for those of all ages, "The Incredibles" is one movie that maybe resonates even more with adults than children. All the directors at Pixar, from Pete Docter to Andrew Stanton, have undeniably original imaginations. But Director Brad Bird adds another level of sophistication to his movies with dialog so witty that you're left pondering where the writers came up with this. Bird's "The Incredibles" immaculately personifies the humdrum lifestyle of the average contemporary family living in suburbia. The movie's twist is that this family just so happens to be a group of superheroes.
Brad Bird was not one of the initial directors at Pixar. After making the exceptional "Iron Giant" for Warner Brothers, Bird started shopping around his idea for "The Incredibles," initially intended to be a 2D animation. Once John Lasseter of the "Toy Story" films heard Bird's pitch though, he knew Pixar had to produce it. The end result was as superb animated satire, which brought Bird a Best Animated Feature Oscar and an even more deserving nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
"The Incredibles" takes place in a world overrun with superheroes and super villains. It's all in a days work for Mr. Incredible, a man with super strength voiced by Craig T. Nelson, as he rescues a kitty from a tree, stops a high-speed chase, saves a suicidal jumper, and clashes with a baddie named Bomb Voyage on the way to his wedding ceremony. Mr. Incredible's bride to be is Elastigirl, voiced by Holly Hunter. Elatsigirl is a stretching superwoman whose flexible powers also allow her to take on the shape of a parachute and raft. Year's later superheroes have been outlawed due to the million dollars worth of damage and injured bystanders they leave behind.
Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl join the superhero relocation program and have three kids. Their eldest is an invisible girl named Violet who's unnoticed by her high school crush, Tony Rydinger. Their first-born son is Dash, a competitive speedster who uses his talents to place thumbtacks on his teacher's chair. Finally there's baby Jack Jack who has yet to reveal any special abilities. By the movie's end however, he'll develop powers more badass than his entire Justice League combined. Elastigirl has come to accept her new life while Mr. Incredible is fed up with his job at an insurance firm, barely able to fit into his tiny cubicle and car. Mr. Incredible is given the chance to relive the good old days when confronted by a woman named Mirage. She enlists Mr. Incredible to disable a robot with a mind of it's own. Mirage and her anonymous employer though, might have more devious plans in store for Mr. Incredible.
Like "The Iron Giant" it'd be easy for a film like "The Incredibles" to become a manic action picture. Although the film has plenty of action sequences, it's smart and thrilling action that leaves you on edge similar to "Spider-Man 2" or "The Dark Knight." What distinguishes "The Incredibles" though is Bird's screenplay, which pokes fun at many of the clich's of superhero movies and comics. In one scene Mr. Incredible and his super friend Frozone, voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, discuss how villains have the necessity to monologue, allowing the heroes a chance to escape. Director Bird also provides the voice of an oompa loompa-sized costume designer who insists that capes are not acceptable attire for superheroes. Never did I consider that a cape could be a safety hazard that may get you stuck to a rocket, caught in a jet turbine, or sucked into a vortex.
Even though the film is about people with super human powers, "The Incredibles" still rings true to the dilemmas of everyday family life. Elastigirl feels that her husband isn't showing enough interest in his family, not wanting to attend his son's graduation. In response Mr. Incredibles argues, "It's not a graduation. He's moving from the forth grade to the fifth grade!" Is there a married couple with kids out there that can't identify with a moment like this? There's also a hilarious dinner table scene where the kids have a sibling feud with their powers and their mother attempts to hold them back with her stretching knack.
"The Incredibles" is an all around brilliant satire of superheroes and family. After a gleaming first two acts, the film does become a tad tedious in it's final twenty minutes when the Incredibles do battle with their nemesis Syndrome, a superhero wannabe voiced by Jason Lee. That's only a minor nitpick though in what is otherwise a wonderful movie. The art direction is luminous as if a graphic novel was literally sprung to life. Michael Giacchino's heart-pounding score will excite you unlike any typical summer car chase or explosion. Fueling the movie is the never-ending creativity of Brad Bird, who has been blessed with an imagination not like any other man working in movies today.
With the "Toy Story" films Pixar answered the age-old question, "Do our toys have lives of their own when we leave the room?" Then in "Monsters Inc." Pixar explored another inquiry we all pondered as young children, "What do monsters do when they aren't haunting our closets?" According to Pixar, monsters have lives fairly similar to our own. They struggle with romantic relationships and deal with the nuisances of paper work and jury duty. The fact that they also scare kids for a living is nothing personal. It's just their job.
While not their funniest or most emotionally arresting film, Pete Docter's "Monsters Inc." may be the most creative and inventive of all the Pixar animated features. That's saying a lot seeing how Pixar has conjured some of the most original movies of the past fifteen years. It takes a truly incredible mind to envision a world populated by monsters that require the screams of children to supply them with energy.
In the realm of Monstropolis, the top scarers at Monsters Inc. are assigned to a door that acts as a portal to the closet of a child. It's essential that the monsters never make physical contact with children though because they're believed to be toxic. The company's number one scarer is James P. Sullivan, a fuzzy, blue giant likely of the feline kingdom voiced by John Goodman. Sulley has mastered the art of freighting kiddies. Although if he really wanted to scar them for life he could just run into their rooms screaming, "This is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass!"
Goodman is the spitting image of the beastly Sulley, perfectly tailored to voice the gentle giant. Billy Crystal naturally sounds like a sarcastic stand-up comedian making him the ideal fit to play Mike Wazowski, Sulley's best pal and roommate. Mike is essentially a green ball whose diminutive body consists of a mouth and a single eyeball. Yet, the animators are always able to characterize his emotions. Other residents of this Sesame Street-like world include the scratchy-voiced Jennifer Tilly as Mike's Medus-haired girlfriend and Steve Buscemi as the devious Randall who doesn't look nearly as terrifying as Buscemi in real life.
"Monsters Inc." is a fundamentally wonderful buddy picture about Sulley and Mike as they attempt to return an escaped two-year girl to her door. The movie is swarming with hilarious sight gags and incite into the world of monsters. The humor is kind of reminiscent of "Ahh Real Monsters," the old Nickelodeon series about an academy of monsters in training. The animation is stunning especially during a climatic roller coaster chase that would have been exploited with a 3D gimmick had the film come out today. There's also a great deal sweetness to "Monsters Inc." that won't necessarily leave you bawling like in "Up" or "Toy Story 3." The final image in particular however, will certainly tug at your heart. With charm, wit, and boundless cleverness, "Monsters Inc." is a terrific premise brilliantly executed.
It’s not at all surprising that Tim Burton used to be an animator at Walt Disney Studios, working on movies like “The Fox and the Hound” and “The Black Cauldron.” Burton’s movies always have a beautifully gothic artistry to them. In many ways Burton is an artist first and a storyteller second. He has a visionary gift unlike any other director working today. But some of his movies are plainly escapades of art direction, costumes, and makeup that lack any essence or depth. In the past decade he has primarily committed himself to reimagining’s like the enjoyable “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Others, such as his “Planet of the Apes,” probably didn’t need to be remade at all. In 2005 Burton took a break from live-action remakes and revisited animation to craft one of his most original and touching movies since “Edward Scissorhands,” “Corpse Bride.”
Like “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “James and the Giant Peach,” “Corpse Bride” utilizes glorious stop-motion animation to create a black and blue English town where everybody acts like everyday is a funeral. In this Victorian village lives the timid Victor Van Dort, voiced by Johnny Depp, who is arranged to marry Victoria Everglot, voiced by Emily Watson. Despite not knowing each other for long, Victor and Victoria develop a quick fondness for one another that leads them to believe they can make their marriage work. Victoria’s toad-like father and Jay Leno-chinned mother however, find their future son-in-law to be a ninny. If it weren’t for their destitute financial state they wouldn’t have agreed to the courtship at all.
Victor wanders into woods to rehearse his vows and places his wedding ring on what he believes to be a branch. This branch turns out to be an arm however. Out of the ground arises the Corpse Bride, voiced by Helena Bonham Carter, who mistakes Victor for a suitor. She takes her unintentional husband to her home in the Land of the Dead, which turns out to be lot livelier than the dreary Land of the Living. Victor meets several Burton-esk creatures such as a severed head waiter, a hipster skeleton, and a worm that sounds like Peter Lorre. He’s also reunited with his beloved childhood dog Scraps, now reduced to nothing more than a skeleton.
“Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride” is easily the most charming love story ever told about necrophilia. I was surprised by how caught up I became in this romance as Victor unexpectedly becomes attracted to the Corpse Bride. He must decide between his life on the surface with Victoria or sacrificing himself for his beloved corpse. Despite the grim subject matter and the convoluted love triangle, “Corpse Bride” always maintains a merry atmosphere and makes all three leads sincere and likable. I really cared about the predicament of these bleak-looking puppets, which is one of the many magic attributes of animation.
Accompanied by a delightful soundtrack from Danny Elfman and a well-casted ensemble of voiceover performers, “Corpse Bride” is an accomplished work from Tim Burton and co-director Mike Johnson. The movie exemplifies Burton at his premium, combining his artistic genius with his deranged imagination to tell a real story with heart. It’s film’s like this that make me wish Burton made more animated features. Although I suppose a stop-motion animation such as “Corpse Bride” may never make as much money as something like “Alice in Wonderland.”
There’s such a charming sense of menace to Henry Selick’s “Coraline” especially in an age of loud and obnoxious films being marketed as family entertainment like “Marmaduke.” Where so many kid movies nowadays shy away from eerie subject matters, “Colarine” was a contemporary picture that took a risk in potentially frightening smaller ones. I can imagine being under the age of ten and the petrifying effect the movie would have had on me. “Coraline” is not the traumatizing experience of watching “The Exorcist” when you’re five though. Rather, it’s more along the lines of a gloriously dark fantasy like “The Wizard of Oz” or some of the earliest Disney animations that scare and delight simultaneously. “Coraline” is one of the most chilling movies ever made about childhood that appeals to the frightened child in all of us.
Even the opening credits sequence is chilling as an Edward Scissorhands-like hand strips an old rag doll apart to make a new one. A great musical score from composer Bruno Coulais accompanies the scene to add another level of peril. Listening to the soundtrack of “Coraline” is like a choir of dead schoolgirls echoing on an abandoned playground. It’s reminiscent of the music in “Rosemary’s Baby” or “Pan’s Labyrinth.” This is fitting because in many ways the movie is like “Pan’s Labyrinth” for younger viewers.
“Coraline” is a classic tale of a girl who is neglected by her busy parents and is forced to move into a rundown house that may be haunted. Upstairs lives a contortionist mouse trainer and downstairs are two retired actresses who stuff their dead dogs in angel costumes. Down the road lives a weird hunchbacked neighbor boy who won’t quit pestering Coraline. In the midst of all this Coraline discovers a parallel world where her parents and neighbors all have buttons for eyes and entertain her with goodies.
A lot of movies about kids tend to make the young heroes smarter than all the adults. Coraline on the other hand doesn’t always know what’s best for her and sometimes makes unwise choices. She’s also a little brattier than some young animated protagonists who maintain a cheerful attitude even when their parents are dead. This is interesting because a majority of kids under these circumstances and at that age tend to be angry and dethatched from their parents. At some point in our youth we all wish to escape from our strict guardians to a place where we can play games and eat sweets all day. But Coraline soon realizes that the seemingly perfect world her Other Mother has made for her is all a lie. With the help of a slick black cat Coraline must prove herself brave and smart to escape the world she has been tempted into.
This is one of the most visually astounding and unique animated movies I’ve ever seen. “Coraline” overwhelms with incredible art direction from Selick and his team of production designers. Like “James and the Giant Peach,” Selick’s stop-motion artistry and the original source material by Neil Galman made for a perfect marriage in “Coraline.”
I was so happy last year when it received a Best Animated Feature nomination. Any other year “Coraline” easily would have been my selection to take home the grand prize. 2009 was such a groundbreaking year for animation though that two other films ranked slightly higher on my Oscar ballot. These films will indeed appear on this list as well but we’ll get to them later.
Most animated films center on misfits who are neglected by their peers for their physical differences. It’s a general theme that’s explored even in recent animated films like “Shrek” and “Happy Feet.” I think the reason outcasts are still the focus of so many animated films is because it’s something we all indentify with when we’re young and insecure. The movie that really started the misfit theme was Disney’s “Dumbo” in 1941. Sure, you could argue that Pinocchio was the first animated misfit with his wooden body. Although Pinocchio didn’t necessarily face the ridicule that Dumbo had to endure in his journey. Where “Pinocchio” is a film about finding yourself, “Dumbo” is more about finding acceptance.
One night the animals at a traveling circus are paid a visit from a flock of storks. I’ve often wondered, if storks deliver the babies of all the other animals, who delivers the stork’s babies? Do they have other storks that deliver them? And in a universe where the stork legend is true do animals ever make love for sheer pleasure?
Every animal receives a baby that night except for an elephant named Mrs. Jumbo who desires nothing more than to be a mother. Mrs. Jumbo gets her wish the next day when a stork delivers a new elephant baby. The child seems perfect until he reveals his massive ears. Despite the harsh words of the other gossiping elephants that call him "Dumbo," Mrs. Jumbo treats her son with nothing but warmth. When Dumbo is harassed by a group of smartass kids at the circus, his mother goes on a rampage. As a result, she is locked up and separated from her lonely son.
In addition to misfits, Disney movies also often include wisecracking rodent characters. Mickey Mouse had made his feature film debut a year earlier in “Fantasia.” In “Dumbo” another animated mouse named Timothy Q. Mouse broke out into fame. Timothy has a role similar to Jiminy Cricket as he attempts to show Dumbo that his ears are not a disability but a gift. Dumbo also gets help from some jive talkin’ crows that give him the confidence to fly with his wing-like ears.
“Dumbo” is beautifully drawn with vivid animation and watercolor backgrounds. This is a marvelous film to look at with awe-inspiring scenes such as when the elephants and faceless carnies setup the circus tent in a rainstorm. There's also the Pink Elephants on Parade number that provides possibly the biggest WTF moment in the history of Disney animation. The film’s most affecting scene though is the “Baby be Mine” song as Dumbo and his mom are reunited at her cage. It’s hard not to get teary eyed as Mrs. Jumbo rocks Dumbo back and forth with her trunk in this wonderful movie about parent and child. Despite being very sad in parts, “Dumbo” overcomes occasional gloom with charm and an inspirational moral of believing in yourself.
Among the five animations of the first Disney Golden Age that took place during the late 30s and early 40s, “Dumbo” may be the least significant in my opinion. Of course that's like saying that "The Departed" isn't quite as stellar as "Goodfellas" in terms of Scorsese pictures. I'm comparing it to some of the greatest animated features of all time. “Dumbo” is still one of the triumphant achievements of Disney animation and an essential film for every parent and child to behold together.
If you’re an enthusiast of anime or animation in general, Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Akira” is an essential. This is a masterpiece that not only raised the bar in terms of feature-length anime but also contends with the best science fiction films of the past twenty-five years. Gorgeously gritty, visually unforgettable and fascinating in it’s narrative this is one of the most adult animations ever produced. When I consider epic anime, “Arika” is the movie that instantly comes to mind.
“Akira” is based on Otomo’s manga, which is essentially a Japanese comic book. The year is 2019, 31 years following a nuclear explosion in Tokyo that ushered in World War III. The streets of Neo-Tokyo are overrun with thugs that ride bikes similar to the Lightcycles in “Tron.” The leader of a particular gang is Kaneda, a disobedient punk who wears an iconic jacket with a capsule stitched on the back. Kaneda’s longtime best friend, Tetsuo, is critically injured in a gang war when he collides with a deteriorating child that looks a bit like Mickey Rooney. Testsuo is taken to a government facility. There they learn he has mental frequencies similar to Akira, a boy who unbeknownst to the public was given physic abilities through government experiments and caused the destruction of Tokyo. Kaneda eventually teams up with a resistance group to help free Testsuo from government custody. Little does he know that his friend is beginning to loose control of his mind and newfound powers, potentially leading to another nuclear explosion.
The story lags at times and even after multiple viewings I’m still not sure if I fully comprehend the plot. But it’s complexity and ability to sheer up questions is one of the many admirable traits of “Akira.” Like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the original “Matrix” and Christopher Nolan’s recent “Inception,” “Akira” is a movie that has resulted in many heated debates amongst it’s cult following. There aren’t a lot of animated films that people analyze the meaning of. This is one of them.
Even with all the advances in computer-generated animation, I believe “Akira” remains to this date the most artistically striking animated feature of all time. The art direction earns comparison to the stunning futuristic city in “Blade Runner.” Everything from the gorgeous landscapes of Neo-Tokyo to the breathtaking action sequences is awesomely exhilarating. The film overflows with haunting and bizarrely enchanting sequences such as when a series of toys bunch together to form a giant teddy bear leaking milk. And the climatic finale is so astonishing it’s nearly impossible to describe. Despite it’s often gritty, hard-R rated violence and gore, “Akira” is truly a gorgeous movie.
I can’t imagine a film comprised of such unfeasible images ever working outside the realm of animation. As a matter of fact, the Hughes brothers just so happen to be planning a live-action remake of “Akira.” The Hughes brothers are visually gifted filmmakers whom I respect. While I’ll be interested to see their film, I don’t think any reimagining will be able to match the wizardry that is Katsuhiro Otomo’s original tour de force. Besides, if M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Last Airbender” taught us anything it’s that some anime masterworks were not intended for live-action.
In the jumble of animated films this past decade or so none has been more underappreciated than Gil Kenan’s “Monster House.” It did receive a deserved Oscar nomination and was a modest success at the box office. As time goes by though it seems more and more likely that this gem is going to slip through the cracks. Perhaps the reason the movie wasn’t a monster hit was due to it’s eerie atmosphere. Like “Coraline,” this is a surprisingly grim children’s film that the six-year-old me might have been frightened by. But aren’t the best films from our childhood the ones that took chances and didn’t talk down to us? “Monster House” is a movie that exemplifies that when your young it can be a joy to be scared.
Mitchel Musso provides the voice of DJ, a preteen boy on the break of puberty. His best friend is the chunky Chowder, voiced by Sam Lerner. They spend their days contemplating whether or not they’re too old to go tick-or-treating and at long last discovering girls. Across the street lives Mr. Nebbercracker, voiced by Steve Buscemi, the classic old man who lives in a rustic house and keeps beware signs on his lawn. When Nebbercracker seemingly kicks the bucket DJ and Chowder believe he has been reincarnated into his house. When the haunted mansion nearly eats a ginger girl named Jenny, played by Spencer Locke, the three team up to bring the house down.
From the walking castle in “Howl’s Moving Castle” to the flying house of balloons in “Up,” this has been a great couple of years for animated animate set pieces. The monster house itself is a wonderful creation with it’s cracking window’s for eyes, floorboard teeth like a great white shark, trees for claws and a lengthy rug for a tongue. It even has a chandelier for a uvula, which Chowder thinks makes it a female house. The filmmakers give the house a real personality and a presence that’s actually quite alarming.
With a wicked sense of humor and creepy undertones, “Monster House” strikes resemblance to some of the darker family movies of the 80’s like “Gremlins” and “The Goonies.” Actually I’m half convinced that the film takes place in the 1980’s. How many people do you see rock out to 8-track tapes and play video games with the graphic quality of the Nintendo Entertainment System nowadays? Maybe the filmmakers just haven’t been out much in the past twenty years.
The driving force of “Monster House” is the relationship between the three leads in a surprisingly charming tale of friendship, growing into adolescence and still maintaining your inner child. Musso, Lener, and Locke all do excellent work through motion capture, a form of animation that translates the actor’s actions onto a digital model. There’s also some hilarious supporting work from Maggie Gyllenhaal as the kid’s gothic babysitter, Catherine O’Hara and Fred Willard as DJ’s parents, and Kevin James and Nick Cannon as a duo of police officers. Darkly funny, thrilling, well-acted, beautifully animated and all together a lot of fun, “Monster House” is in the purest sense a treat.
In the late 80’s and early 90’s feature-length animation was redefined with the critical and financial success of the latest Disney classics. In addition to reaching new heights in film, animation was making a drastic comeback in television as well. Through shows like “Animaniacs,” “King of the Hill” and “Batman: The Animated Series” people were finally starting to realize that animation could appeal not only to children but adults as well. To this date no series has had a greater cultural impact on animated programming than “The Simpsons.” Had it not been for it’s success we surely wouldn’t have other primetime animated series like “South Park” and “Family Guy.”
I don’t want to dwell too much on the show though. I’ll save that for my list of the greatest animated series of all time. Lets talk about “The Simpsons Movie,” a film that Creator Matt Groening had been passionate about making since the show’s earliest seasons. Production kept getting put off though due to the writer’s commitment to the series and struggle to come up with a story. In 2001 the crew finally buckled down and started developing the script. After another six years of drastic story tweaking “The Simpsons Movie” finally hit theaters. Usually when a project is in production this long and the screenplay goes through so many drafts we get something like the uninspired live-action “Flintstones” movie. The end result of “The Simpsons Movie” though was the best theatrical version of the funny fivesome possible, remaining consistent to the wit of the show with an epic theatrical feel.
“The Simpsons Movie” is great entertainment on several different levels. On one hand the film is a love letter to diehard fans who will catch in-jokes and quirks of Springfield’s lesser-known residents like Dr. Nick, Ralph Wiggum and Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel. On the other hand it also appeals to those unfamiliar with the series who will appreciate the hilarity of Bart’s nude skateboard incident and Homer and Marge’s Disney-esk sex scene. There’s also much topical humor involving the environment, the incompetency of the American government and Rainier Wolfcastle as President Schwarzenegger. The opening scene alone with Itchy and Scratchy is the funniest commencement to an animated feature since “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”
The film indeed delivers in the humor department, supplying just as many laughs as the best “Simpsons” episodes like “Homer’s Phobia,” “Homer’s Enemy” and “Lisa’s Wedding.” “The Simpsons Movie” goes beyond just being a laugh riot though. At the core of the movie and the twenty-one-year-old series is a message of marriage, parenthood and family. It’d be easy to think that Homer Simpson is just a fat, selfish oaf. While Homer sometimes takes his beautiful wife and children for granted, he would travel to world’s end for them. In exchange, Homer’s family truly loves him and to an extent even respects him.
“The Simpsons Movie” is provoking and even touching in it’s embodiment of a dysfunctional family, making it more than just an extended episode of the series. Director David Silverman, whom also co-directed “Monster’s Inc.,” and a team of eleven writers have made a sharply drawn full-blown animated feature and one of the finest ever produced. If you ever run into Matt Groening though, whatever you do don’t ask him when the next Simpsons Movie is coming out.
While there are two other features from Hayao Miyazaki I cherish slightly more, I think “Princess Mononoke” is in almost every respect his masterpiece. This is triumph from Miyazaki that rivals fantasy epics such as Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and especially James Cameron’s “Avatar.” Like “Avatar,” “Princess Mononoke” blends vigorous action with impossible visuals to tell a mesmerizing story about love and nature.
The story’s hero is Ashitaka, a modest young Emishi prince and skillful warrior. One day a giant boar invades Ashitaka’s village. Ashitaka defeats the demented boar but is left with a severe wound that will in due course kill him. The prince is forced to leave his village accompanied only by his loyal elk. His travels lead him to Iron Town where he finds himself caught between two opposing forces. Iron Town’s leader is the cold Lady Eboshi who is at war with the god’s of the forest. Leading the crusade against Iron Town is a pack of white wolves. Among the wolf tribe is an adopted human girl named San who has been marked by the people as Princess Mononoke. She’s a bit like Mary McDonnell’s character is “Dances With Wolves” only she literally dances with the wolves.
What’s interesting about “Princess Mononoke” is its lack of any true villains. Although Ashitaka and San are indeed good guys their adversaries are never made out to be evil. At first glance Lady Eboshi might seem like a corrupt tyrant who wants to kill the Forest Spirit. Unlike most animated antagonists though, Lady Eboshi is not in pursuit of power but believes destroying the Spirit will save Iron Town and her people. Almost all Miyazaki films embody an environmental theme. “Princess Mononoke” is essentially a perfect film about the ceaseless conflict between man and nature, man and beast, and man and man.
Like “Akira,” this is another feature-length anime I don’t believe could ever work without the tool of animation. Sure, anything is possible with modern special effects. But could boars enslaved by black, worm-like creatures, monstrous wolves or a shapeshifting Forest Spirit ever look more convincing in live-action? Animation adds a layer of realism to the world of “Princess Mononoke,” giving the forest the presence of a living creature like in “Bambi.” What I admire most about the film is the careful attention to minor details in the background such as birds, insects, and fog. They didn’t have to go the trouble of animating all that. But Miyazaki spared no expense to make the best movie possible.
Miyazaki apparently spent sixteen years envisioning the movie. Although elements of the story can be traced back to other material, it’s hard to believe that one man came up with this entire concept. “Princess Mononoke” is Miyazaki’s most violent and mature film while still preserving the cheer of his work in “My Neighbor Totoro” and “The Castle in the Sky.” It’s a poignant and wise film that bestows exceptional entertainment for older children and especially adults.
Robert Zemeckis’ “The Polar Express” may be the most misunderstood animated movie ever made. The film suffered during it’s first few weeks at the box office, having to compete with the animated juggernaut that was “The Incredibles.” The movie gradually found an audience as the holiday season rolled in though and has been re-released in I-MAX 3D every Christmas since. Yet, there’s still a group of doubters who protest the film’s semi-eerie tone and the “dead” eyes of it’s characters. Regardless, I believe this is a holiday classic in the making that will stand the test of time alongside “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street.” I can’t think of a film to come out in the past twenty years that better defines the wonderment and magic of Christmas.
“The Polar Express” is of course inspired by the celebrated picture book by Chris Van Allsburg about a young boy having doubts regarding the existence of Santa Clause. His reservations about Santa are changed however, when he climbs aboard the Polar Express one Christmas Eve. Generally I am not a fan of movies that attempt to stretch out children’s literature. Walking into the movie in 2004, I anticipated a kiddie film with a sweat tooth more nauseating than some of the most insufferable television Christmas specials I’ve endured. In addition to realizing Allsburg book through extraordinary visuals though, “The Polar Express” tells a real story with depth. I was surprised by how dark and honest the film was in it’s portrayal of a child facing the grim truth that Santa may not be real.
This is not a movie that talks down to children through it’s characters. The Hero Boy, who like in the book is never given a name, is at times weary of his surroundings and unsure if what’s happening is real or a dream. The Conductor who persuades the boy to climb aboard the Polar Express, voiced by Tom Hanks, is not a happy-go-lucky Frosty the Snowman clone. Rather, he’s matter-of-fact and sophisticated. Like Willy Wonka though, he still has a quirky edge, which enables him to breakout into song about Hot Chocolate. The same can about a hobo who lives on top of the train, also voiced by Hanks, who asserts that seeing is believing. Santa’s Elven employees are trained professions and for once Santa’s sack is a suitable size to carry the presents of every child in the world.
The film made much of it’s profits off of 3D screenings, which jump started the 3D fad that plagues our theaters today. In many cases 3D is either a distraction or adds nothing to the movie whatsoever. How many of you walked out of “Toy Story 3” and “Despicable Me” wishing you had saved five dollars by going to the 2D screening? “The Polar Express” is one of the few films that actually uses 3D to it’s advantage though. It’s an exhilarating spectacle to observe the logic-free sequences as a train ticket soars through the winter sky in 3D. Along with “Avatar,” “The Polar Express” is the finest 3D experience I’ve ever had in a theater. I wouldn’t go as far to suggest that you purchase the 3D DVD though.
“The Polar Express” was a breakthrough in performance capture animation, a technique also used in “Monster House,” which claimed the 29th spot on this list. The look of the “Polar Express” is miraculous, creating a world that appears somewhere in between our reality and animation. Some may find that creepy. I think it’s nothing sort of brilliant. Although I admit that after “A Christmas Carol,” “Beowulf,” and an upcoming “Yellow Submarine” remake, apart of me wishes that Zemeckis would take a break from motion capture.
The breathtaking animation could be wiped under the carpet if it were not for the story though. The first ten minutes of the visually revolutionary “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” overwhelmed me with enchantment. But as the story settled in I became bearably board by it’s flat characters and plot. “The Polar Express” on the other hand is truly about something. We care if Hero Boy will finally believe and if Christmas will work out for a Lonely Boy he befriends on the train. The unveiling of Santa Clause, yet again played by Hanks, is enthrallingly suspenseful and the finale song of “Believe” sums up the entire movie. Like Santa Clause himself, “The Polar Express” is mysterious and creepy but will ultimately leave you feeling nothing but joy and warmth.
If you ask most people what their favorite Brad Bird animated feature is, they’ll likely say “The Iron Giant” or “The Incredibles.” Both films are irrefutably wonderful and have earned deserved spots on this list. I however, believe Bird’s crowning achievement is “Ratatouille,” the endlessly witty tale of a cuisine enthusiast rat named Remy, played by Patton Oswalt whose natural voice strangely sounds like that of a rodent.
Remy is not a well-groomed or self-consciously adorable rat along the lines of Mickey Mouse and Stuart Little, who both apparently live in universes where mice are welcome creatures. He’s constantly told by his seemingly Jewish father to stay away from humans. Remy’s curiosity separates him from his rat clan though and he teams up with a garbage boy named Linguine. Controlling Linguini with strands of his hair like a construction worker operates a bulldozer, the two set out to bring creditability back to Gusteau’s, the once most revered restaurant in Paris.
On paper the premise of a rat cooking in the kitchen might be about as appetizing as a sequel to “Joe’s Apartment.” “Ratatouille” is a movie that just leaves you wanting to come back for seconds though. It not only takes a reviled creature and turns him into a tolerable screen presence, but one of the most compelling protagonists of all animation.
This is a film with so many memorable characters such as Skinner, a bite-sized chef who wants to sell out the late Gusteau’s famous name with a line of microwave dinners. “Ratatouille” also features the most dead-on interpretation of a critic every portrayed on film in Peter O’Toole’s Anton Ego. Anton writes his reviews up in his tower with a life-sized portrait of himself above his desk and lingers over everybody with his toothpick skinny body. He is skeptical man with an infatuation for food and thrives on criticism. But if even his icy heart can be melted with quality, maybe that means there’s hope for even Armond White.
In my eyes, this is the Pixar film with the greatest laugh per-minute radius and the most dialog driven. Through Remy’s several monologues and narration, the audience not only gets the sense that he knows much about cookery but so do the screenwriters. There are a lot of movies that know absolutely nothing about the topics they confront. “Ratatouille” however, understands and appreciates gastronomy. Where a less sophisticated film would refer to a chef’s hat as a “chef’s hat,” “Ratatouille” actually knows that it’s called a “toque.”
Just because the film is high on dialog doesn’t mean it misuses the technique of animation though. “Ratatouille” is as gorgeous drawn as any movie Pixar has ever constructed. The cinematography is magnificent as it follows little Remy throughout the kitchen in which he is almost burnt, run over, and cooked to a crisp. Paris itself has never looked more luminous on screen. You know you’ve made a truly great film when the thought of the French doesn’t make you want to vomit your inners right out.
If you grew up in the late 80s or early 90s, chances are that you owned a VHS copy of the “The Brave Little Toaster.” Some have fond memories of the film’s characters and sense of adventure. Others had to go through intense therapy after witnessing it’s scenes involving an exploding air conditioner, a giant magnet, and a clown that looks like the distant cousin of Pennywise from “It.” The film is, for me at least, a perennial nostalgic classic. I still have recollections of the wondrous effect “The Brave Little Toaster” had on my three-year-old self, influencing me to assemble various household items to reenact the film.
Based on the novel by Thomas M. Disch, “The Brave Little Toaster” tells a forebodingly charming tale of five appliances. Leading the metal pack is a boundless, optimistic blue toaster, whom I’m still not sure is intended to be a male or female. The other appliances include a dim lamp, a disgruntled vacuum, a whiny blanket, and a tube-based dial radio voiced by John Lovitz. The gang has spent the past several years cooped up in a cottage, waiting for their master to return. When the house is put up for sale though, they decide to venture into the outside world to find him.
This premise probably calls the “Toy Story” films to mind. Ironically the film’s original director was John Lasseter, who after being fired from the project went onto to director “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2.” While not as stellar as any of the three “Toy Story” movies, “The Brave Little Toaster” shares the same appeal and inventiveness. Like “Toy Story,” “The Brave Little Toaster” also truly makes its audience reflect on how they treat their possessions. Throughout Toaster’s journey he discovers it is a new age of technology where he is considered outdated. Whenever I mistreat or throw away a household appliance, this is a film that always comes to mind.
The animation itself is lovely. However, there is some frequent inaccuracy with the character designs. For example, sometimes the cords of the appliances are no more than a foot. Other times they’re as long as a tree. But then again toasters and vacuum cleaners can’t talk either. In addition to the inspired animation, there are also four fun original songs from Van Dykes Parks. The music ranges from the happy-go-lucky “City of Light” to the downright menacing “Worthless” where the appliances and their master almost meet their demise in a car concentration camp.
Despite never getting a theatrical release, “The Brave Little Toaster” still earned a wide cult following on home video. As the years go by though, fewer people seem to discuss it. The film seems to belong to my generation and mine only. I sincerely hope future generations of children will discover the movie though. Otherwise this treasure will forever remain diamond in the rough. There’s not much more to say other than “The Brave Little Toaster” still kicks ass!
Robert Zemeckis is often regarded for his work in live-action films like “Forest Gump” and “Back to Future.” Few seem to realize the immense effect Zemeckis has had on the art form of animation though. In recent years he has taken motion capture technology to a new height of storytelling. Several years before “The Polar Express” and “A Christmas Carol” though, Zemeckis combined live-action with traditional animation to breath life into the 1988 feature, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”
The unity of animation and reality was not uncommon at the time of the film’s release. This technology had been used before in “Mary Poppins” and “Pete’s Dragon.” As visually impressive as those movies are, I always got the sense that the animated characters were never really present. In “Roger Rabbit” though, the audience believes more than ever that Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse are living, breathing creatures occupying actual space. Even with all the advances in modern computer-generated creations like Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings,” the effects in this film still leave me in absolute wonderment.
Since a fair portion of “Roger Rabbit” is live-action, some may argue that it does not belong on a list of animated features. But as far as I’m concerned the triumph of “Roger Rabbit,” along with the Disney classics that followed, ushered in a new renascence of animation. The animation portion of the film, which was done by Richard Williams, is impeccably in the spirit of the classic Disney and Warner Brothers shorts. The opening scene in which Roger Rabbit attempts to rescue Baby Herman from certain peril is so well done that I was convinced I was watching an actual cartoon on my first viewing. Then to my surprise, the camera zoomed out to reveal this is not the animated universe but a set where real directors are filming a cartoon.
“Roger Rabbit” takes place in the late 1940s when toons and people lived together in harmony. The most amazing sites in the movie though are not the interactions between the humans and toons, but the between the toons themselves. I was aghast to see animations two leading ducks, Daffy and Donald, together for the first time, sharing a piano duet of havoc together.
One of the biggest toons in Hollywood is Roger Rabbit, who is accused of murdering Marvin Acme, the owner of Toontown. Roger’s only hope of clearing his name is a drunken private eye name Eddie Valiant, played by Bob Hoskins in a wholly convincing performance. A film noir mystery crossed 40’s cartoon characters might sound like the most bizarre premise for a movie ever. “Roger Rabbit” tells a clever and absorbing murder mystery though that sucks you right in. The film has a lineup of memorable suspects, such as a the sinister Judge Doom, played by Christopher Lloyd, and Roger’s sexy wife Jessica, who makes Betty Boop look like the grotesque elephant man she is.
Since “Roger Rabbit,” numerous other films have attempted to recapture its success. There have been some pretty good ones like the Michael Jordan/ Looney Tune mash up, “Space Jam,” and some duds like “Cool World.” No film can quite top “Roger Rabbit” though in terms of visual wizardry, story, and characters. The film is, and will forever remain, the “Citizen Kane” of animated/live-action hybrids.
With “Toy Story 3,” “The Brave Little Toaster,” and “Finding Nemo,” the prison escape/concentration camp theme is more common in animated movies than most people expect. If chicken farms are anything like concentration camps, consider Tweedy’s Farm to be Auschwitz. In this farm the chickens are forced to lay eggs on a daily basis. Then once they cannot lay anymore, the stern, wicked Mrs. Tweedy takes the chicken out back and chops its head off with an ax. When Mrs. Tweedy realizes that she can make better profits by selling pot pies than eggs though, the chickens are confronted with a dire fate involving an oven. The holocaust references just keep coming.
Based on the way I just described it, “Chicken Run” might sound like the most downbeat and depressing animated film since “An American Tail.” But I dare you not to smile throughout this wildly whimsical animated feature from Nick Park and Peter Lord. In this story of perseverance and faith the leader of the chickens is Ginger, voiced by Julia Sawalha. They’ve used every trick in the book to break loose from burrowing underground to dressing up like Mrs. Tweedy. Despite all their failed attempts though, Ginger is reluctant to quit until the day she feels warm, green grass under her feet. Her prayers literally fall out of the sky one day when an American rooster named Rocky lands in the farm and claims he can teach the chickens how to fly. Mel Gipson supplies the voice of Rocky, years before it was appropriate for him to be doing movies aimed at families.
As Park and Lord did with the great “Wallace and Gromit” shorts, “Chicken Runs” is brought to life through claymation. Never have clay figures looked sharper with such smooth, flawless motions. Where figures in early animation were usually just small blobs like “Gumbie,” the chickens and humans are paid great attention to detail here. It was a labor of love for these filmmakers to give these characters such distinctive external personalities to the point you can tell what they’re thinking by simply gazing into their eyes.
While the film looks fantastic, the backbone of “Chicken Run” is the charm of it’s characters. One of the fundamental principles of animation is appeal and that’s one thing that the chickens have for sure. When Ginger and Rocky run through an oven in the style of “Indiana Jones,” you really care whether or not they make it out alive. The climatic escape in which the chickens fly the coop in a plane and Mrs. Tweedy climbs aboard with a hatchet is one of the most genuinely excited action set pieces in any animated film. While the scene alone is both stimulating and clever in its outcome, what keeps the audience invested is the fondness they’ve developed for these chickens and desire to see them survive.
The screenplay by Karey Kirkpatrick is fun too. “Chicken Run” is packed with clever in-jokes such as when the chickens fall from the sky and a couple of scheming rats cry out, “It’s raining hen!” Between Park, Lord, and Kirkpatrick they have made one of the most imaginative stories of recent years, distinguishing themselves as three of the finest storytellers living today.
Last year traditional, hand-drawn animation made a comeback with Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog.” While the film was an instant classic for some, others have argued that it’s not in the same league of the best Disney classics. By that standard, I agree that “The Princess and the Frog” isn’t as good as the earliest animations Walt Disney himself supervised or some of the Disney masterpieces of the 90s. As a stand-alone picture though, this is still a wonderful film that rightfully earns a spot as one of the fifty greatest animated features of all time.
Anika Noni Rose voices Tiana, a highly independent African American lady who dreams of nothing more than opening her own restaurant. She learns from her father that wishing upon a star can only take her so far. It is up to Tiana to achieve her own dreams through hard work. One might say that this diminishes the Disney slogan that “when you wish upon a star your dreams come true.” But remember, Pinocchio didn’t just become a real boy via a wish on a star. He had to prove himself brave and unselfish. “The Princess and the Frog” merely clarifies this meaningful message.
Although Tiana works her fingertips to the bone as a waitress she can never quite come up with the money to buy her restaurant. After years of hard work and double shifts, Tiana is driven to wish upon the evening star. And who should show up on her balcony but a talking frog with a grin of pearly white teeth. This frog is Prince Naveen, hilariously voiced by Bruno Campos, who has been cursed by a slick villain known as the Shadow Man, voiced by Keith David. Naveen mistakes Tiana, who is wearing a gown and tiara at the time, for a princess and insists that she kiss him to break the spell. Tiana agrees to give the frog prince a smooch in exchange for the money to finally get her dream off the ground. Matters don’t exactly go as planned however when Tiana kisses Naveen and becomes a frog too.
Directors Ron Clements and John Musker, who made “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin,” take perhaps the most basic of fairytales and morph it into an enormously entertaining feat of storytelling. The film is full of memorable supporting players such as a jazz-playing alligator named Luis and a firefly named Ray who has fallen in love with a sparkling star. Keith David’s Dr. Facilier is every bit as fun and menacing as the great Disney villains like Jafar and Scar. Stealing the whole show is Broadway actress Jennifer Cody as Tiana’s lovesick best friend, Charlotte, a Southern bell who somewhat reminded me of Kristin Chenoweth’s Glinda the Good Witch from “Wicked.” And of course there’s Jenifer Lewis as Mama Odie, a 200-year-old, blind fairy godmother who Tiana and Naveen seek out to break the spell.
As for the music, there’s not a song in the picture that’s quite as show stopping as “Under the Sea” or haunting as the title song from “Beauty and the Beast.” Then again, how many songs are? “The Princess and the Frog” is a film full of memorable musical numbers from composer Randy Newman. The catchy tune of “Down in New Orleans” captures the essence of the jazz age. The number of “When We’re Human” is every bit as fun as “Hakuna Matata.” The most enthralling song of all is the gospel of “Dig A Little Deeper” as Mama Odie reveals to Tiana and Neveen what is most important in life.
At the heart of the movie is a charming romance between Naveen and Tiana. These are two individuals who instantly win you over and want to see end up together. Prince Naveen is certainly the most original and endearing prince in the history of Disney fairytales. Unlike most cardboard Prince Charming’s, Naveen is somebody with a one of a kind personality and inner demons. Tiana is perhaps the most independent of all Disney princesses. This is a girl who does not wait for her prince to come and takes initiative to realize her dream. Through Tiana, Naveen learns just how shallow and empty his life has been. Through Naveen, Tiana learns that although it is important to work hard, life is empty without loved ones.
Whether or not “The Princess and the Frog” was a big enough box office success to ensure more hand-drawn Disney films is up for debate. But even if this is the last time we ever see traditional animation from Disney, at least the art form has gone out with a bang that revives the same warmth of the best Disney films. It’d be a travesty if our last memory of 2D animation were “Home on the Range.”
Throughout this list I’ve discussed numerous animated features that deserve more recognition, from “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” to “The Brave Little Toaster.” In terms of Disney animation, Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” takes the crown in the underappreciated department. When people consider the golden age of 90s Disney animation, this is rarely the first movie that comes to mind. Maybe the reason “Hunchback” doesn’t get talked about as much is due to its mature themes regarding oppression, lust, tolerance, corruption, and religion. Its boldness to tackle more complex subject matters is just one of the many things I love about “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” though. The combination of Disney magic and Victor Hugo’s classic novel might appear to be an unlikely merger. But the end result is, in the purest sense, beautiful.
The film tells the tale of Quasimodo, voiced by Tom Hulce, a good-hearted, yet horrifically deformed, young man who has spent the entirety of his life in the bell tower of Notre Dame. His father figure is the Minster of Justice, Frollo, who, unbeknownst to Quasi, killed his mother. Frollo has convinced Quasimodo that the world is a wicked place and if he were to ever leave his sanctuary he would surly be reviled as a monster. The only companions the hunchback has are three stone gargoyles, two of which happen to be named Victor and Hugo. It is never revealed if the gargoyles are actually alive or figments of Quasimodo’s imagination. Nevertheless, all three of them act as the repressed voice trapped inside the lonely hunchback, calling out to be released. “We’re only made out of stone,” they tell Quasi. “We just thought maybe you were made of something stronger.”
Quasimodo is encouraged to finally leave his tower, only to find that some people are every bit as cruel and intolerant as Frollo suggested. He manages to discover kindness in Esmeralda, a gypsy voiced by Demi Moore who has undergone oppression herself. In a more conventionally animated feature the two might instantly fall in love. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” offers an engaging love triangle however, as Esmeralda falls for Phoebus, the sarcastic Captain of the Guard voiced by Kevin Kline. Phoebus begins as an enforcer for Frollo. He does his best to keep the peace between his employer and the citizens of Paris. But after witnessing the lengths Frollo is willing to go to achieve his notion of justice, Phoebus decides to switch sides. Quasi and Phoebus are forced to put their differences aside to not only save the girl they care for, but the city they love.
The songs were composed by lyricist Stephen Schwartz and composer Alan Menken, who fashions one of his most perpetually breathtaking musical scores to date. It is a visual and emotional treat to observe Quasimodo swing about the cathedral as he sings the song “Out There,” expressing his desire to one day live amongst the people of Paris. Through the haunting number of “Hellfire,” the audience learns just how twisted and complicated of a character Frollo truly is. Where most Disney villains are one-dimensionally evil, Frollo doesn’t necessarily set out to be a bad guy. Rather, he seems to truly believe that what he’s doing is the will of God. When he becomes conflicted with lust over Esmeralda he thinks the only way to save himself is to destroy the gypsy or make her his own.
Upon its release, some argued that “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” radically simplified the original novel by Victor Hugo. Logically, any material adapted by Disney, be it a Grimm fairytale or celebrated literary work, is going to go through drastic changes to appeal to younger viewers. Besides, people who dispute that the film sugarcoats the novel miss the point. As far as feature-length Disney animated features go, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is by far the darkest, most complex tale the studio has ever told. While it may be their most adult oriented film, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” can also act as great children’s entertainment through its sense of adventure and universally relatable theme of gaining acceptance.
When World War II hit in the 1940’s many Disney animators were drafted and the studio dedicated itself primarily to shorts for armed forces. As a result, Disney had to make financial cutbacks and six low-cost package animated features were produced. Some individual segments from these package films are still commendable like “Mickey and the Beanstalk” from “Fun and Fancy Free” and “Peter and the Wolf” from “Make Mine Music.” As far as I’m concerned though, none of these six package films have ever really stood out as a whole. It wasn’t until 1950 that Disney finally returned to the magic of their first five films and ushered in a new golden age with the triumphant “Cinderella.”
This is the movie that set the bar for theatrical Cinderella Stories. Since then there have been numerous retellings, reimagining’s, and satires of the classic Cinderella Story. Whether you’re young or old, it’s a tale that we all recognize. As routine as the story has become over the years, Disney’s “Cinderella” remains as glorious and enchanting as it was in the 1950s.
I believe Disney’s “Cinderella” still reins supreme over any version of the story is due to the vast range of its cast. Of course the film includes all the basic ingredients of a traditional Cinderella Story like a handsome prince, two ugly stepsisters, and an evil stepmother. But the picture also comes fully equipped with a number of inspired original characters, including a band of lovable mice, a brave old dog, a hot-tempered king, an anxious grand duke, and the most sinister feline in movie history.
What about Cinderella herself though? With so many scene stealing supporting characters, I’d be easy for the title character to be wiped under the carpet altogether. Granted, Cinderella isn’t as compelling of a heroine as some of the more contemporary Disney princesses like Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” or Ariel from “The Little Mermaid.” But compared to the comatose Sleeping Beauty and overly trusting Snow White, Cinderella is by far the most interesting Disney heroine from this era. While the supporting cast may be the ones that stick with you, Cinderella proves to have spunk and personality. Most importantly, the film never forgets that this is her story.
The dominating force of the movie is Cinderella’s stepmother, Lady Tremaine, who just so happened to be voiced by Eleanor Audley, the same actress that played Maleficent in “Sleeping Beauty.” What’s fascinating about Lady Tremaine is that, unlike some Disney villains, she is in no real position of power and possesses no supernatural abilities. She merely has control over one girl, who she resents for no apparent reason. In her exposition to make Cinderella’s life hell, Lady Tremaine maintains such a subtly evil ego. In one of the film’s saddest moments she manages to manipulate her daughters into tearing Cinderella’s dress to shreds. As Cinderella is left on the floor in tattered cloths, Lady Tremaine exits out the door without the slightest bit of sympathy. What an abominable twat.
The film’s only letdown is the cookie cutter love interest of Prince Charming, who feels more like a generic idea rather than a character. Other than that slight nitpick, Disney’s “Cinderella” gets it right in virtually every way. The Cinderella Story has never been more exciting, like when Cinderella races out of the prince’s castle before the clock strikes midnight or when the mice attempt to retrieve the key to Cinderella’s locked room from Lady Tremaine’s pocket. From an artistic standpoint, “Cinderella” remains one of Disney’s most detailed and glamorous animations, most notably the dazzling instance in which Cinderella’s torn dress is transformed into a gown of perpetual sparkles. Through its characters, ironic twists, and intricate exercise of animation, “Cinderella” is yet another fairytale that only Disney could realize so flawlessly.
Miyazaki’s “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is one of the most delightful movies ever made, period. Like his charming “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is an innocent entertainment that lacks the violence and one-dimensionally evil characters of most American animations. Just because the film is innocent does not mean that it is only intended for children though. Rather, this is a movie for everybody that’s as exciting, funny, and touching as it is wholesome. I can’t imagine anybody not being completely won over by this film, even if you are generally turned off by Japanese animation or find yourself too old and sophisticated for a children’s movie.
The film’s young heroine is Kiki, a thirteen-year-old witch who must leave her family for a year to train in another city. Miyazaki’s films typically lack the wisecracking supporting players that Disney animations often feature. Here however, Kiki is accompanied by Jiji, a talking black cat voiced by the late Phil Hartman in the film’s English dubbed version. They eventually arrive in a city by the sea where Kiki decides to utilize her flying powers to start a delivery business.
If I had to single out my favorite scene in the movie, it would be when Kiki is asked to deliver a stuffed cat toy that coincidentally looks a lot like Jiji. While flying over the forest, the doll falls out of its cage. To buy some time Kiki has Jiji pose as the doll and delivers it to the customer who happens to own an old dog. Kiki returns to the forest where she retrieves the doll. With some help from the surprisingly friendly dog, Jiji manages to escape the house and Kiki makes the switch with the stuffed cat. The whimsy and subtle humor of this sequence puts a smile on my face every time I watch it. I love how the suspense continuously builds up as the circumstances become worse and worse for Kiki and Jiji. In the end though, everything works out beautifully for them. Even if you were to cut out the rest of the movie, that fifteen-minute sequence would still make for a great short film.
Kiki herself is as lovable and cunning as any female every depicted in animation. What I especially love about the film is the little relationships she maintains with the supporting cast. Jiji is more than a pet to Kiki, but an honest and trusty friend that looks out for her well being. Another character that acts as a guardian to Kiki is Osono, her nurturing landlord who sees past Kiki’s witch ancestry to find a caring, sweet girl. There’s also a young boy named Tombo that desperately wants to be friends with the new witch in town. Kiki however, finds him to be a bit of a pest at first glance. It’s not often that we see a movie about characters that are all essentially good at heart. Miyazaki possesses a rare gift in creating characters we all wish we knew and had in our own lives.
Some diehard Miyazaki fanatics have actually criticized the film for not embodying the heavy underlining themes the director is known for. Kiki’s journey to find her calling in life may not seem as imperative as the life-threatening circumstances in “Princess Mononoke” or “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.” In my eyes though, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is Miyazaki’s most personal and relatable film. Any young adult can indentify with Kiki’s struggle to find her inner talent and desire be accepted for who she is rather than what she is. Besides, anybody who tries to find fault in “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is disregarding the fact that movie is wonderful. It’d be a crime for any parent to deprive their child the experience of this movie. If you yourself are an adult that has never witnessed the sheer magic that is “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” just remember that it’s never too late.
While I praised “Tangled” in my initial review a few months back, I also claimed that the film wasn’t quite on the same level as “The Princess and the Frog.” After revisiting “Tangled” though, I’ve not only grown to appreciate it more than “The Princess and the Frog,” but also believe that the film is one of the finest animated features ever made. Some may say that it came out too recently to be ranking in the big leagues alongside “Cinderella.” But I know in my heart that “Tangled” is nothing short of an instant classic. How it did not receive a Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination I’ll never understand.
The film tells the story of Rapunzel, a young princess with magical locks of golden hair. As a baby, Rapunzel is kidnapped by the evil Mother Gothel, who wishes to hoard Rapunzel’s hair so she can stay young forever. Gothel conceals Rapunzel in a tower outside the kingdom and raises her as her own. Rapunzel grows up to be a plucky 18-year-old voiced by Mandy Moore who wishes to leave the tower. Gothel manages to keep Rapunzel under wraps and enforce her insecurity through the hilarious musical number of “Mother Knows Best.” Rapunzel finally gets her ticket out of her tower when a thief named Flynn Rider, voiced by Zachary Levi, stumbles into her room and reluctantly agrees to guide her to the festival.
There’s been much discussion about the evolution of Disney princesses since the dim and “sexist” damsel of Snow White. Rapunzel is indeed one of the most charismatic and lovable of all Disney heroines. But if you ask me, there has been an even greater progression in the Disney leading male department. Disney princesses have conventionally been paired with shallow, bland princes, most of which aren’t even supplied with names. Flynn Rider however, is a hip and witty swashbuckler who somewhat reminds me of a cocky Wesley from “The Princess Bride.” The character appeals to more contemporary audiences without becoming too self-aware that he’s in a fairytale.
Like in the best Disney animation features, the stars of “Tangled” are also the most interesting characters. That doesn’t mean that Rapunzel and Flynn aren’t aided by a winning supporting cast though. The film comes fully equipped with traditional Disney friends such as a little chameleon named Pascal, a dedicated horse named Maximus, and a band of roughians who all have greater aspirations. One of the most remarkable characters in “Tangled” is simply Rapunzel’s hair. Her never-ending locks seem almost alive as Rapunzel uses her hair as rope, a whip and a vine.
Donna Murphy gives a hilariously villainous voiceover performance in the same vein of Hades in “Hercules” as Mother Gothel. At the same time though, Gothel is every bit as wicked as Millicent or Lady Tremaine. Unlike some Disney villains that establish themselves as villains to the protagonist early on, Gothel has convinced Rapunzel that she loves her and cares for her wellbeing. Perhaps Gothel does have some affection for the girl she has come to call her daughter. But in the long run all she really cares about is using Rapunzel for her own gain.
At the movie’s heart is a romance between two endearing leads who simultaneously discover their affection for one another in the best sung and best animation musical number since the ballroom sequence in “Beauty and the Beast.” The number of “I See the Light” by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater is the definition of Disney magic as countless lanterns float around Rapenzel and Flynn in the moonlight.
For a while Disney animation was suffering its greatest creative and financial slump since the 1980’s. This likely had a lot to do with the changing tides of Dreamworks Animation and Pixar. Disney believed that they needed to conform to more modern animation to appeal to today’s kids. Through “The Princess and the Frog” and now “Tangled” though, Disney has proven that all they had to do was go back to their roots.
Like “The Simpsons Movie,” “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” is another theatrical version of a primetime animated series that wholly lives up to it’s source material. At the time of its release, “South Park” had already been on the air for two and a half seasons, a much longer run than Creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker ever anticipated. Confident that the show would inevitably get canceled, Stone and Parker saw this movie as a way to close the curtain on their cult cartoon. Little did they know that “South Park” would eventually blossom into one of the most consistently funny and critically acclaimed animated series of the 21st century that’s still going strong in its fifteenth season. But once again, I’ll save my critique of the show for my list of the greatest animated series of all time.
“South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” is a film that goes above and beyond simply stretching a half-hour long episode into a ninety minute movie. It breaks new grounds for the franchise with a clever plot and epic atmosphere. Even if you’ve never seen the show, “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” completely works as a stand-alone animated feature.
The film takes place long before the universe of “South Park” expanded with welcome supporting players like Jimmy and Butters. The preliminary members of the “South Park” crew, Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny, are the focus of this big screen release. Their adventure begins when they sneak into an R-rated Canadian comedy and pick up phrases like “Shit Faced Cock Master” and “Donkey Raping Shit Eater.” When they incorporate their new vocabulary into everyday conversation, their parents immediately blame the foreign film for warping their children’s minds. Matters get out of hand and in due course America declares war on Canada.
The highlight of the movie is its musical numbers, which were composed by Marc Shaiman, the man behind the soundtrack of “Hairspray,” in addition to the musically gifted Stone and Parker. One would never expect an R-rated satire aimed at adults to be accompanied by a show-stopping soundtrack. But there are musical numbers in this movie that are on par with Broadway. Granted, some of these songs may about fucking uncles and the bitchiness of a particular child’s mom. But in the midst of the profanities and gross-out humor, there are several beautiful songs about a young boy’s pride for his mountain town and a homosexual Satan’s desire to live on the surface amongst humans.
Amazingly enough, the film even received a Best Original Song Oscar nomination for the hilariously catchy number of “Blame Canada.” The song might have lost the award to Phil Collins’ redundant “You’ll Be in My Heart” from the otherwise wonderful “Tarzan.” Stone and Parker would later get their revenge though in a “South Park” episode that epitomizes why Phil Collins’ sucks ass.
“South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” includes the same satirical humor that the show is known for as well as a message about free speech and censorship. Parents often spend so much time blaming television and movies for demonizing their children, that they sometimes overlook the fact that maybe they’re partially reasonable. The film also demonstrates how although a piece of entertainment may be vulgar and offensive, it can still convey meaningful morals about our current society. To me that’s what “South Park” has always really been about.
As for the look of the film, it may be easy to construe the animation of “South Park” as crude and flat. While it may be on the coarse side, I find it amazing that the filmmakers managed to take the most simplistic method of animation and truly turn it into something spectacular.
It appeared that the people at Pixar had taken their greatest risk in 2008 with the almost dialog-free “WALL-E.” “Up” however, brings together two old men, a chubby Asian boy, a talking dog, an exotic bird, and a flying house of balloons. Only Pixar could take this outlandish material and develop a real story that’s more humane and moving than any live-action film of recent memory.
In addition to being one of the finest animated features ever produced, “Up” is also a compelling love story. The irony is that a bulk of the love story takes place in the film’s first five minutes. The movie begins with two whippersnappers named Carl and Ellie. Ellie dreams of traveling to Paradise Falls in South America and Carl promises to take her there one day.
A four-minute montage, set to a fabulous musical score by composer Michael Giacchino, depicts the life between these two. It’s a beautiful sequence full of joy and heartbreak that all leads up to a tear-jerking moment in which Ellie passes away. Not since the death of Bambi’s mother has there been a more emotional sequence in an animated film. I dare anybody who doesn’t recognize animation as a serious art from to take a look at this sequence not to get chocked up.
Although Ellie is gone within the film’s first few minutes, her love story with Carl lives on throughout the whole course of the movie. When the lonely Carl faces eviction from his house, the only piece of Ellie he has left, he decides to finally make good on the promise he made to his late wife. With a series of balloons attached to his beloved home, Carl soars away on an adventure of a lifetime. Along the way, Russell, a chubby Asian boy scout, joins the reluctant Carl. The friendship that the two develop is one of the most profound of contemporary buddy pictures as Carl becomes Russell’s father figure and Russell becomes the son Carl never had.
The filmmakers have created a series of unforgettable characters, particularly a talking dog named Dug. There have been plenty of movies centered on talking canines, “Good Boy” and “Cats & Dogs” to name a few. However, I don’t believe any film, except maybe “Lady and the Tramp,” has ever been more truthful to the nature of dogs than “Up.” If dogs could speak they would all converse much like Dug, who loves every human he encounters, cherishes tennis balls, and is constantly distracted by squirrels. There’s just one thing I don’t get. A Chubby Asian boy becomes stranded in the middle of nowhere with no food and a dog shows up. Wouldn’t eating the dog naturally cross his mind?
Director Pete Docter, who made “Monsters Inc.” and co-wrote “Toy Story,” has produced an animated feature that’s about so much more than frantic action and chases. This is a movie about life, friendship, letting go, and new beginnings. Docter remembers that wherever there’s a laugh, there should also be a heart. “Up” is a breathtaking combination of these two essential elements.
For the longest time it appeared that “Beauty and Beast” would forever remain the only animated film to achieve a Best Picture nomination, especially with the Best Animated Feature category instigated in 2001. When the Academy decided to extend the Best Picture race from five to ten nominees in 2009 though, room was finally made for an animated feature with “Up.” Now that the category has been extended, maybe we’ll see an animated film nominated for Best Picture every other year. The question that remains is whether or not an animated feature could ever win the Academy’s highest honor?
“Aladdin” is one of those projects that seemed destined to crash and burn, given the numerous story alternations it underwent, the death of lyricist Howard Ashman, not to mention the Gulf War controversy. The fact that DisneyToon Studios had recently released a similar movie entitled “Ducktales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp,” didn’t help either. Who would have guessed that “Aladdin” would not only be a success, but also become the highest-grossing animated feature of its time?
The poor, kind-hearted thief, Aladdin, spends his days dodging guards as he steels food from the market place. Despite his poverty, Aladdin holds onto the hope that one day he’ll rise above this street rat status and live in a palace where he’ll have no problems. Little does Aladdin know that behind the palace walls lives the imprisoned Princess Jasmine, who has had her entire life mapped out for her. The two meet and have instant chemistry. Aladdin’s odds of ending up with Jasmine are slim, since the law states that the princess can only marry a descendent of royalty. Aladdin manages to find a loophole in the system however, when he comes across a magic lamp possessed by a genie and he becomes entitled to three wishes.
Aladdin and Jasmine, who both look a tad Caucasian to be Arab, are perfectly fun, likable leads. But what makes “Aladdin” standout is its unforgettable supporting cast. The film features one of the most entertaining Disney villains in Jafar, a treacherous advisor to the Sultan who wishes to rule Agrabah. Accompanying Jarfar is his parrot, Iago, a character that was perfectly tailored for the abrasive voice of Gilbert Gottfried. One of the most fascinating characters of all is a magic carpet that Aladdin discovers in the Cave of Wonders. It’s one thing to give personality to a character that never talks, such as Aladdin’s charismatic monkey, Abu. But it’s a whole other ball game to illustrate emotions in a faceless piece of fabric. Yet, the audience can always tell what this magic carpet is thinking through a creative employ of body language.
Among all of these scene-stealing characters, the MVP is undoubtedly the eccentric Genie voiced by Robin Williams. In many ways, Williams truly is an animated character with his consistently energetic, if not completely insane, persona. The marriage of animation and Williams’ seamless ability to change voice and shape were a perfect marriage in creating this timeless character. Williams’ performance was so revolutionary at the time that many critics speculated that he would become the first actor to receive an Oscar nomination for a voiceover performance.
This was sadly the last movie to include a credit from the late Howard Ashman, who initially pitched the idea for “Aladdin” in addition to acting as a lyricist. Prior to his death in 1991, Ashman had written eleven songs for the film along with composer Alan Menken. As the story underwent changes however, many of the songs were cut from the film. The only songs to be included in the finished film were “Arabian Nights,” “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali.”
To fill in for Ashman, Disney enlisted the help of Tim Rice. Menken and Rice went onto develop the film’s most memorable number, “A Whole New World,” in which Aladdin and Jasmine fly through the skies of various Middle Eastern countries on a magic carpet. It’s a beautifully drawn and sung sequence that captures the magic of a contemporary version of “When You Wish Upon A Star.” Although has anyone ever stopped and considered the sexual innuendo behind this song of a magic carpet ride?
“Aladdin” might not have broken new grounds for animation like it’s predecessor, “Beauty and the Beast,” which I’ll get to later. Nevertheless, the film still holds up as one of the most rewatchable of all Disney animations, supplied with an inspired sense of humor and imagination. Just don’t get me started on “Return of Jafar” and “Aladdin and The King of Thieves,” two follow-ups that jumpstarted the endless line of needless Disney sequels.
The 21st century has brought us numerous intelligent and thought-provoking science fiction pictures, with Spielberg’s “A.I.,” “Minority Report,” James Cameron’s “Avatar,” and Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.” But who would have guessed that the most profound of all of these science fiction epics would be a G-rated animated comedy about a little robot named WALL-E? This is a film that not only pushes the limits of feature-length animation, but also reaches new heights for science fiction. At times “WALL-E” even draws on the same lines of Stanley Kubrick with its innovative ideas and blunt depiction of the future.
The film sets itself in a grim future where mankind has abandoned the unsustainable earth. The one conscious being left on the planet is a robot named WALL-E, who has the essence of R2D2, E.T., and R.O.B. from the old Nintendo Entertainment System all in one. WALL-E spends his days compacting leftover trash, which has amounted to a series of haunting garbage piles the size of skyscrapers. The only joy WALL-E gets out of life is listening to his “Hello Dolly” tape and exploring the deserted world with his pet cockroach.
It’s a common misconception nowadays that all animated features have to be heavy on dialog. That’s probably why the producers of the god-awful “Tom and Jerry: The Movie” felt that the title characters had to talk for the first time in history. For its first thirty minutes, “WALL-E” is practically a silent movie. WALL-E may lack the ability to create fluent sentences. Much like the Magic Carpet in “Aladdin” and Gromit of “Wallace and Gromit” though, WALL-E maintains a three-dimensional personality through body language and his eyes. The audience comprehends and sympathizes with WALL-E’s burden of being alone and desire to hold the hand of another machine.
WALL-E gets his wish when he is visited by EVE, a ghost-like robot that has been sent to earth to uncover life. In one of the movie’s loveliest moments, WALL-E takes EVE back to his home, where she is fascinated by his collection of rubik’s cubes, lighters, and light bulbs. It’s a gripping and sincere scene with the essence of an animated short by an ambitious filmmaker.
WALL-E is so determined to marry EVE that he stowaways on her spaceship, occupied by a series of over-weight humans that cannot even get out of their hover chairs. At first it might seem like the films depiction of lazy humans is simply going to be a cheap shot towards humanity. However, there turns out to be more to these humans, who have been engrossed by technology and distracted from the pressing dilemmas back on earth. Jeff Garlin plays the ship’s captain, who is sick of being coddled by machines and wishes to finally accomplish something. The Captain, WALL-E and EVE soon uncover a conspiracy that has kept mankind away from earth through their neglect to care for the planet. This says something about human nature and even offers an environmental message that’s surprisingly subtle.
In addition to being a triumph of science fiction, “WALL-E” also works as a great silent romantic comedy like Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights.” I didn’t think that I could actually care about a love story between two machines. However, Director Andrew Stanton tells a wonderful and touching tale of two robots that are made for each other. Through “WALL-E” and “Up,” the folks at Pixar have not only brought us two of the greatest animated features of all time, but also two of the most thoughtful and unlikely romances of the cinema.
“Finding Nemo” is a cinematic magic, pure and simple. Fish normally don’t make for very interesting pets, let alone protagonists. With their beady little eyes and expressionlessly faces, I never thought I could feel the same affection for an animated fish as an animated human, dog, or cat. Director Andrew Stanton, along with the ingenious storytelling team behind “Finding Nemo,” however, proved me completely wrong with this captivating tale of a daddy fish in pursuit of his missing offspring.
Any parent can identify with Marlin, a single father clown fish voiced by Albert Brooks in an understated performance. Ever since a barracuda devoured his wife and other unborn children, Marlin has sheltered his only remaining son, Nemo, from the dangers of the sea. When Nemo’s first day of school arrives, Marlin nearly suffers a nervous breakdown. Frustrated with his over-protective father, Nemo feels the necessity to rebel and swim into open water. Nemo is taken by drivers and plopped into a fish tank in a dentist office. Marlin sets out on an unthinkable journey to rescue Nemo while confronting his own phobias along the way.
On his exposition, Marlin is accompanied by a blue tang with short-term memory loss named Dory, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres. At first it might seem like the only purpose Dory is going to serve is the film’s comedic relief as she constantly makes trouble for Marlin. In the end though, Dory ends up playing a vital role in reuniting Marlin with Nemo. Her short attention span is not merely treated as a joke but rounds Dory into a sympathetic character that the audience cares about. I simply cannot imagine “Finding Nemo” being half the film it is without her presence.
This is another film that could not be fully imagined without the wonder of animation. “Finding Nemo” takes an ordinary world and makes a universe of it’s own, packing incredible attention to detail in every shot. But the greatest animation in the world doesn’t matter without a compelling story. Animated or not, “Finding Nemo” is one of the most original motion pictures ever made.
I, like many, had a feeling how “Finding Nemo” would ultimately end. How the picture arrives at this destination though is funny, exciting, and unpredictable. Even in an animated film, you’d never think that a fish would be able to escape from a tank and return to his home in the ocean. But “Finding Nemo” is a film that consistently leaves you on edge with surprises around ever corner. The film is also a charming and rare story centered on father and son with a moral for all ages about allowing your children to grow up.
After a long day of being dragged around the mall by my mother as a three-year-old lad, I was rewarded with a trip to the Disney Store. In the midst of Mickey Mouse, Aladdin, and Jiminy Cricket merchandise, my eyes were immediately drawn to a Jack Skellington doll. It still perplexes my mother why a boy of my age would insist on purchasing such a peculiar, gothic toy. I think it’s because there has always been something dark and mystifying, yet still charming, about Jack Skellington that one rarely finds in most childhood icons. Where many animated characters play it safe by being cute and comical, Jack seemed to comprehend my secret desire to be scared and treated like an older audience member. To this date, that Jack Skellington doll still sits in my bedroom, along with an Oogie Boogie and a Mayor of Halloween Town doll as well.
Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” will always hold a special place in my heart, being the earliest movie I can recall seeing in a movie theater. Upon a recent viewing, I was delighted to find that “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is still every bit as inventive and wonderfully weird as it was back in 1993. This is a movie that takes a creative premise and creates one of the most imaginative of all movie worlds.
The Pumpkin King of Jack Skellington is Halloween Town’s most celebrated resident, spreading terror and fright throughout the land. As much as everyone adores him, Jack has become board with the same old routine. Jack stumbles upon something new when he enters the door to Christmas Town, a jolly village run by Santa Clause himself. Fascinated by the holiday, Jack decides to take over Christmas with his own demented twist.
A lot of people mistakenly associate Tim Burton himself as the director of “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Burton naturally played a great part in the film’s production, coming up with the story and characters. But the director of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” was actually Henry Selick, who would go onto make “James and the Giant Peach” and “Coraline.” Selick and Burton are the most natural of pairs, sharing the same bizarre sense of wonder. The two must have been incredibly creative, incredibly stoned, or a little bit of both, to envision the universe of this darkly unique masterwork.
“The Nightmare Before Christmas” is ultimately distinguished by its stunning stop-motion animation, which earned the film a Best Visual Effects Oscar nomination. The utilization of stop-motion animation perfectly breathes essence into Burton and Selick’s vision. Watching this movie, you really feel as if you’ve been sucked into another universe that one has never witnessed before. The end result would never have been as effective through hand-drawn or digital animation.
In a way, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” kind of takes the stop-motion Christmas specials by Rankin/Bass such as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Santa Clause is Comin’ to Town” and flips them upside down. The question that remains is whether of not “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is truly a Christmas movie or a Halloween movie. Either way, the film is nothing short of a perennial classic.
Never has the marriage of animation and music been more perfectly intertwined than in Walt Disney’s tour de force of “Fantasia.” This is one of the few Disney animations that might be intended more for adults than it is for children. It may be easy for some to become wrestles with the film, arguing that there is no plot or coherent story. But anyone who truly admires the art of animation, and filmmaking in general, knows that this is not at all true. Through it’s eight dialog-free sequences, “Fantasia” packs in as much drama and majesty as any animation Disney has ever produced. The end result is like witnessing a festival of great short films.
Following the live-action introduction from Deems Taylor, “Fantasia” commences with its most ambitious piece, Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. The sequence features no living creatures or inanimate objects, just a series of abstract shapes and lines. While this particular sequence has no narrative, it perfectly captures the intangible images that come to mind while listening to classical music. Whenever I close my eyes at a concert, these are the kinds of images that always think of, as if I were dreaming. Through this segment, we get the impression that the masterminds behind “Fantasia” went above and beyond simply setting the music to animation. They lived and breathed music, treating it as an actual character.
Another beautiful sequence is “The Rite of Spring,” depicting the formation of the earth, the reign of the dinosaurs, and their extinction. Over the years there have been many animated films to depict prehistoric life, some good like “The Land Before Time” and others duds like “We’re Back: A Dinosaur Story.” In almost all cases though, the dinosaurs seemed all too human and lacked the instincts of real animals. “Fantasia” stays true to the nature of dinosaurs, portraying them as savage beasts that were nothing like the cuddly figurines kids find in Happy Meals. The segment’s darkest moment is when a stegosaurus futilely attempts to thwart off a T-Rex. It’s an insincere and honest moment that doesn’t cop out by having the poor stegosaurus escape the carnivore’s clutches.
Even if you’ve never seen “Fantasia” in its entirety, you’re more than likely familiar with its most recognizable segment, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Like many of the traditional Disney animated features, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” takes a classic story, or in this case a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and retells it with a few ironic twists. Mickey Mouse stars in his most iconic appearance as a naïve apprentice who uses his magic to bring a broomstick to life and makes it fulfill his daily chores. It’s still enchanting to watch Mickey’s plan backfire as an army of living broomsticks floods the Sorcerer’s castle. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is, with out a doubt, the best Mickey Mouse feature ever produced and is arguably the most fun segment of “Fantasia” to watch over and over again.
In terms of pure cinematic beauty though, I think the segment that easily takes the cake is the epic finale of “Night on Bald Mountain.” The presence of Satan has never appeared more sinister or haunting than in this piece, as the prince of darkness summons souls from their graves. The devil’s follower’s look like cavemen painted on walls, basking in the fires and hell. All the while, Satan toys with their souls and influences all that is wicked. The only thing that can send Satan back is the sound of church bells as a chorus of monks sing the powerful “Ave Maria,” establishing that hope will always triumph over the powers of evil.
Believe it or not, “Fantasia” was not a financial or critical success when it was first released, preventing Walt Disney from ever adding additional segments to the film as he had planned. As time went by though, the film was reevaluated by audiences and earned its deserved status of an animated masterpiece. It is an experience unlike anything an animation studio had ever attempted before and has yet to surpass since. Like all the movies in this top ten, “Fantasia” pushed the boundaries of what animation could do, achieving something magical and otherworldly.
It appeared that Miyazaki had made his pinnacle masterpiece with “Princess Mononoke,” which, at the time, was going to be his last picture. But after meeting the young daughter of a friend, Miyazaki became inspired to tell the story of an indifferent girl trying to find her way back to her parents. The end result was “Spirited Away,” the film that triumphed over “Titanic” as the highest-grossing movie at the Japanese box office. For my money, “Spirited Away” stands out as not only Miyazaki’s best work, but also the single greatest piece of animation ever to come out of Japan. It’s hard to think of any animator, including Miyazaki himself, ever topping it.
“Spirited Away” tells one of the great original stories of the 21st century. The heroine is Chihiro, who, like many ten-year-old girls, is bratty and self-absorbed. Upon moving to a new city, her parents get lost and end up in what they believe to be an abandoned amusement park. Her mom and dad help themselves to a buffet and, through this selfish act, are turned into pigs. Chihiro is aided by the mysterious Master Haku and manages to attain a job at a bathhouse for spirits.
Chihiro is as compelling as any young protagonist I’ve ever seen in an animated film, probably because she feels so authentic to real life girls. Much like Coraline, Chihiro doesn’t necessarily start off as the most likable or smartest adolescent. Through hard work and perseverance though, Chihiro strives towards restoring her parents and returning home. More importantly, Chihiro learns that she’s much stronger and braver than imaginable, making her problems in the real world seem far less overwhelming.
What adds another level of enchantment to “Spirited Away” is its amazing supporting cast. The bathhouse is packed with an assortment of bizarrely wonderful creatures including the toad-like employees, little pieces of soot that work in the boiler room, and all the various spirits. The two most unforgettable characters are Kamaji, a spider-like man with multiple arms, and No-Face, a faceless shadow who is struggling to find his place in the world. It feels like every one of these characters has a fascinating back-story, even the background spirits that never speak. Any of them could easily have their own spinoff movie.
“Spirited Away” shares elements with several other classic stories like “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Wizard of Oz.” However, the film is ultimately a completely original piece of work. It’s unbelievable that Miyazaki came up with this entire premise on his own, not adapting the material from a piece of literature or folk tale. What’s even more astonishing is how subtle “Spirited Away” is, rarely requiring dialog to develop character. Much of the emotions are purely expressed through the film’s atmosphere and visuals, which are every bit as stunning as the story is captivating. “Spirited Away” is a perfect example of great animation from the greatest of animators at the top of his game.
If there’s one animated franchise that’s been beaten like a dead donkey, it would be the “Shrek” series. After the merely okay “Shrek the Third,” the lackluster Christmas special of “Shrek the Halls,” and the final chapter of the franchise, I’m officially starting to get Shreked out. Despite all the overexposure the series has gotten over the years, the original “Shrek” remains every bit as witty, humorous, exciting, and even meaningful as it was back in 2001. Numerous films have attempted to copy the formula of “Shrek” like “Hoodwinked” and “Happily N’Ever.” But none of them could capture the sly edge and concealed heart that made “Shrek” the wicked entertainment it is. I just pray to God that Dreamworks doesn’t subject us to “Shrek 5.”
The voice of Shrek was originally to be provided by the late Chris Farley. While I’m sure Farley would have been tailor-made to portray the disgusting, yet lovable ogre, I cannot imagine Shrek without Mike Myer’s strangely suiting Scottish accent. Stealing the whole show is of course Eddie Murphy’s talking Donkey who introduces the phenomenon of friendship to the cranky ogre. Murphy’s performance is a stroke of brilliance, not merely existing to provide wise cracks. If there ever was a voiceover performance that deserved an honorary Oscar, this is it. Cameron Diaz gives one of her best performances as Princess Fiona, who has a secret that takes both Shrek and the audience by complete surprise.
Another great performance comes from John Lithgow as the villainous Lord Farquaad, a pipsqueak prince determined to rule the land. Of course Lord Farquaad is only the second most menacing villain in Lithgow’s filmography, right after his Trinity Killer from “Dexter.”
The animation is revolutionary with something wondrous in every shot. To this date I am still enthralled by the film’s visuals, particularly during the riveting sequence in which Shrek attempts to slay a fire-breathing dragon. Everything from the way clothes move to the environments seemed so ground-breaking at the time, further establishing the possibilities for computer animation.
Some argue that “Shrek,” along with the Pixar films, caused the downfall of traditional animation and lead to the CGI renaissance we’re currently in. But if you ask me, the blame truly belongs to “Treasure Planet,” “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” and “Home on the Range.” When it comes down to it, the most important aspect of any animated feature is the story. “Shrek” is nothing short of a great premise, brilliantly executed.
In addition to being a terrific animated film, “Shrek” is one of the best comedies ever made. The film brilliantly satirizes numerous classic fairytales and other animated films. There are also plenty of in-jokes that appeal to those of all ages. This is a film that you need to watch multiple times to catch every gag. It wasn’t until recently when I revisited the film that I finally got the scene in which Shrek observes the massive size of Lord Farquaad’s castle and asks Donkey, “Do you think maybe he compensating for something?” And underneath it’s dark humor and pop culture references, there’s a humane story about tolerance.
What I find so compelling about Shrek is that, unlike so many other animated protagonists who desire acceptance, Shrek is one leading man who cherishes his solitude. Society wants nothing to do with him and he wants nothing to do with them. Through the friendship of Donkey and Princess Fiona however, Shrek realizes that there’s more to him than meets the eye. He doesn’t set out to be a daring hero or win the princess’s hand. In the end however, he does just that.
“Bambi” was not a Disney classic that I repeatedly watched during my youth. I think the reason for this was due to it’s daunting themes and the confusion of what exactly happened to Bambi’s mom. Revisiting the film as an adult though, I realized what a landmark “Bambi” truly is in terms of narrative and craft. I’m sure many haven’t seen the film since their elementary school days. But I guarantee that anybody who re-examines “Bambi” as a grownup will walk away with a different perspective of the film.
Based on Felix Salten’s celebrated novel, Disney’s “Bambi” of course tells the story of a young deer that would one day rein as the Great Prince of the Forest. We all remember the naïve Bambi, Thumper the rabbit, and Flower the sweet little skunk. But I think the character that leaves the greatest impact on the audience is the musical score by Frank Churchill and Edward H. Plumb.
Dating all the way back to their earliest shorts like “The Band Concert,” Disney was always gifted in marrying music with animation. In the same vein of “Fantasia,” music plays a key role in establishing the atmosphere of “Bambi.” In many cases the score acts as replacement for dialog, effectively expressing the character’s thoughts and motivations. The sequence that probably best blends animation with music is the remarkable “April Showers” number, as raindrops sprinkle the forest with the sounds of flutes and bells. Through moments such as this, the forest itself evolves into a fascinating character that feels alive.
The cute first act in which Bambi learns to walk and attempts to skate on ice might lead one to believe that this is solely a children’s movie. But anybody who grew up with the film knows that “Bambi” is much more than a way to keep toddlers occupied for an hour and a half. It’s a film that parents must experience with their children once they meet the proper age.
Of course I can’t talk about this movie without bringing up the death of Bambi’s mother. Was there ever a scene in cinematic historic that traumatized more children for life? Bambi and mother are approached by unseen hunters, which are suggested through a luminous theme that likely impacted John Williams while composing “Jaws.” Bambi runs with his mother behind him and a single gunshot follows. Little Bambi makes it back to the thicket, but his mother is nowhere to be found. It’s chilling to watch Bambi walk through the snowy forest, hopelessly yelling out for his absent mother. This leads to one of the film’s few moments devoid of music as his stern father confronts the startled Bambi. “You’re mother can’t be with you anymore,” he simply says, ending Bambi’s innocence.
The scene is one of the finest examples of the saying, “what you don’t see is more effective.” Not only do we never see the body of Bambi’s mom, but we also never see the hunters that claim her life. While humans are referenced throughout “Bambi” and impact that forest critters, we never even see a glimpse of a man’s shadow. A lesser movie like “Ferngully” would downgrade “Man” to one-dimensional villains with no redeeming values. In “Bambi” however, man is more of a notion that foolishly plays God with nature at times.
The film eventually leads to a climax in which a small campfire evolves into a fire that enslaves the entire forest, endangering the lives of animals and humans alike. The scene subtly demonstrates how we can be a danger to ourselves in addition to endangering nature. In that sense, “Bambi” is ultimately a great movie about animal nature, human nature, and nature in general.
“Pinocchio” has got to be the strangest and scariest of all the Disney classics, which is saying a lot given the studios broad history of inspiring children’s nightmares. Whether it was Pinocchio’s nose growing when he told a lie, or Montro the Whale, or the cruel puppeteer Stomboli, this was a movie that left every five-year-old either hiding under the covers or clutching onto their parents in horror. And if you watched “Pinocchio” as a child without the slightest ounce of fear, then you have some serious balls.
I think the reason “Pinocchio” frightens so many children is because of it’s relatable title character. We’ve all been in Pinocchio’s shoes as we are torn between listening to our parents and doing what seems easiest. Pinocchio’s poor decisions throughout the beginning of the film constantly land him in trouble. As opposed to a young adult such as Snow White or an animal like Bambi, there’s something indefinable to an audience of children about a little boy who is in life-threatening danger.
The sequence that stands out the most to me is when Pinocchio takes a trip to Pleasure Island with a pack of hooligans. Upon arriving at the island, Pinocchio and his pal Lampwick roughhouse, smoke cigars, and, worst of all, play pool! Little do they know that the cigars and treats they’ve been consuming will turn them into donkeys. While Pinocchio escapes Pleasure Island, all the other boys are sent to the salt mines. It always scared me that Lampwick and the others suffered such a terrible fate, even if they were troublemakers. It’s a bit like in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” where the audience never learns what happens to the four bratty kids that visit the factory.
Fortunately for Pinocchio, he is aided by a wise conscious by the name of Jiminy Cricket, who is still probably the most recognizable of Disney sidekicks. The shots from Jiminy’s point of view are thrilling, turning an environment such as Geppetto’s workshop into a massive amusement park. “Pinocchio” is such a bright and colorful film to look at, with no spared expense.
The film features numerous great songs, most notably the Oscar-winning “When You Wish Upon A Star.” Other than maybe “Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz,” Disney’s trademark number might be the most influential of all the songs to be inspired by a movie.
It’s only appropriate that I bring up “The Wizard of Oz” in my critique of “Pinocchio” seeing how the two films are, in many ways, counterparts. Few children’s movies are as weird and creepy as “Pinocchio” and the “The Wizard of Oz.” At the same time though, only a handful of children’s films are also as creative, magical, and exciting as these two timeless masterpieces.
“The Lion King” was one of the many significant films that lead me on the road to becoming a critic. While it wasn’t the first movie I ever saw in a theater, “The Lion King” was the first picture that I kept going back to watch. By the end of its theatrical run, I must have seen “The Lion King” at least four or five times. Then when the film came out on home video I re-watched it habitually. I even built an elaborate set of Pride Rock and put on my own one-man production of the movie for my friends and family. In the eyes of my four-year-old self, “The Lion King” was the pinnacle of entertainment.
I don’t think that anyone would argue that the film commences with the most enthralling opening of any animated film. The image of the sun rising over the plains of Africa with the lyrics of “Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba” is eternally stitched in all our minds. Through this number of “Circle of Life,” all the animals of the pride lands gather to pay tribute to Simba, the newborn lion that will be king. The mandrill Rafiki raises the lion cub before his future subjects as a godly light from the heavens shines down on the beautifully drawn landscapes. It’s impossible not to get excited when a movie starts like this.
Simba’s rival for the crown is his power hungry Uncle Scar. In the show-stopping “Be Prepared,” Scar expresses his plan to kill his nephew along with the current king, Mufasa. Earlier I discussed the tragic effect the death of Bambi’s mother has had on countless children. Another heartbreaking scene for any child would have to be the downfall of Simba’s father.
Set to a pulse-pounding score by Hans Zimmer, it’s absolutely thrilling to watch a pack of Wildebeest charge down a hill towards little Simba with the ground shaking. Mufasa arrives just in time to pull Simba out of the chaos. In the process of saving his son though, Mufasa still parishes by the paws of Scar. Mufasa’s demise might lack the subtlety of the death of Bambi’s mom. But the scene is nevertheless tragic and, to an extent, even epic.
Also in the tradition of “Bambi,” “The Lion King” follows its protagonist from childhood to adulthood. The evolution of Simba is surprisingly weighty. The character starts off as an enthusiastic kid who can’t wait to be king. But after the death of his father, Simba shamefully runs away from his kingly duties. He grows up to be a carefree lion, attempting to forget his past life. Although he is pressured to return to Pride Rock and assume the throne, Simba is unconfident in his ability to rule and haunted by his father’s death.
Typically in movies about talking animals, be it live-action or animated, the celebrity voices all sound like parents reading a bedtime story to their kids. Did anybody really believe Ben Still as a lion in “Madagascar” or Adam Sandler as a monkey in “Zookeeper?” There’s not a single flaw in the voiceover cast of “The Lion King” though, with James Earl Jones’ intimidating Mufasa, Jeremy Irons as the deliciously malevolent Scar, and Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella as the comedic relief.
Elton John and Tim Rice deliver one of the greatest of all Disney soundtracks. Their best song by far is “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” in which Simba is reunited with his childhood friend, Nala. For the first time they see each other through the eyes of adults and inevitably fall for each other.
What I love about “The Lion King” is how mature the story is for an animated feature. In the hands of another studio this could have been just another condescending talking-animal movie. But Disney grounded the film with themes of guilt and accepting responsibilities. With solemn morals and even some essence of “Hamlet” in the mix, “The Lion King” is one of the key highlights of the 90’s Disney Renaissance.
The 1980s was undoubtedly Disney’s darkest hour as the studio released several fairly forgettable films like “The Black Cauldron” and “Oliver & Company.” Just when the legacy of feature-length Disney animation seemed lost though, the studio found a light at the end of the tunnel with “The Little Mermaid” in 1989. “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” might have rejuvenated an interest in animation a year earlier. But it was “The Little Mermaid” that proved that the classic Disney formula still worked and built the foundation for the wave of Disney animations that would follow. Had it not been for its success, feature-length animation probably wouldn’t be the increasingly profitable market that it is today.
Returning to the tradition of “Snow White,” “Cinderella,” and “Sleeping Beauty,” “The Little Mermaid” draws its inspiration from a classic fairytale with a few inspired twists. Jodi Benson provides the voice of Ariel, a mermaid that wishes to shed her tailfin and become a member of the human world. Transcending the authority of her unyielding father, King Triton, she swims up to the surface where she rescues a prince from drowning. The prince is awakened by the sound of Ariel’s voice and the two fall in love at first sight.
Triton is furious when he learns that his daughter has fallen in love with a human and destroys her collection of surface world artifacts. In a moment of despair and anger, Ariel cuts a deal with Ursula, the fabulously drawn sea witch composed of octopus tentacles and a seductively obese body. In exchange for her beautiful voice, Ursula gives Ariel a pair of legs and a vagina, which is carefully left unexposed to the viewer. If Ariel can win the heart of her prince in three days, she’ll remain human permanently. But if Ariel fails, she’ll belong to Ursula.
The film includes many memorable supporting characters, including the timid Flounder, an incompetent seagull, and, of course, the Jamaican-accented Sebastian the crab. But the film’s true guiding light is Ariel, who is unexpectedly compelling. Like all the Disney princesses that preceded her, Ariel might fall in love with a prince without ever having an intimate conversation with him. But the movie doesn’t downgrade her to a damsel who just waits for her prince to come. She’s a woman that knows what she wants and stops at nothing to make her dreams come true. Through her resilience and determination, Ariel demonstrated the fully realized heroine that audiences had never seen in a Disney animation before.
One aspect that was missing from many of the eighties Disney animations was music. There wasn’t a song in “Fox and the Hound” or “The Great Mouse Detective” that could hold a torch to “When You Wish Upon A Star” or “Someday My Prince Will Come.” “The Little Mermaid” marked Disney’s first collaboration with Alan Menken and Howard Ashman of “Little Shop of Horrors,” who both introduced Broadway-styled musical numbers to the Disney animated feature.
The film’s fundamental song is “Part of Your World,” a magically subtle number that epitomizes what Ariel wants out of life. As shocking as it might sound, Jeffrey Katzenberg, the Disney Studios Chairman at the time, wanted to cut the number, calling it “boring.” Thankfully, the filmmakers fought for “Part of Your World” and now it’s impossible to imagine “The Little Mermaid” without it.
There’s also the show stopping “Under the Sea,” in which Sebastian and various sea creatures sing about the joys of ocean life, using shells and coral as instruments. It takes an unparallel imagination to come up with a number such as this. I think much of the credit belongs to Ashman, who was every bit as much a storyteller as he was a lyrist. It truly is a shame that Ashman lost his life to AIDS just a couple years after the completion of “The Little Mermaid.” But his creative genius will forever live on through his timeless music.
In addition to unforgettable characters and immortal songs, “The Little Mermaid” was one of the most lavishly drawn animations of its time. The underwater effects are still impressive to look at with countless bubbles following every gesture the characters make. The way Ariel’s glorious head of red hair moves underwater is especially captivating. If the film had been made a decade earlier, Disney surely would have cut corners in the animation department. But Directors Ron Clements and John Musker went all out to bring their vision to life in the most detailed fashion possible.
“The Little Mermaid” is a film that gets it right on every conceivable level. At times it’s an incredibly exciting movie, such as when Ariel and Flounder are nearly eaten by a razor-toothed shark. It’s also a very funny movie like when Sebastian attempts to escape the clutches of a French chef who loves to chop and to serve little fish. The film is even occasionally sad like when it appears that Ariel has lost the love of her prince to a beautiful maiden who is really Ursula in disguise. From start to finish, "The Little Mermaid" is great entertainment for all ages without a single false note.
You all knew that Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” had to appear on this list eventually. I don’t think I need to tell you that the film holds the honor of being the first full-length animated feature. To this date many film historians still consider it to be the greatest of all animated features, cementing it as the “Citizen Kane” of the art form. While there are a couple animated films that I personally admire just a tad more, I cannot deny that “Snow White” is, and always will be, a winner in every imaginable respect. As a fellow moviegoer recently told me, “no animation list is complete without it.”
Virtually nobody believed in Walt Disney’s vision to produce a long-form animation, confident that the project would flop. Yet, “Snow White” exceeded all expectations and became the highest grossing film of all time until “Gone With the Wind” came along two years later. Earlier I discussed how “The Little Mermaid” made leeway for the animated classics of the 90’s and so on. But if it weren’t for “Snow White,” all of the other films on this list would cease to exist and animation would have been forever limited to short subjects.
The greatness of “Snow White” surpasses the fact that it was the first animated feature though. What’s amazing about the film is how well made it is for a first outing. Everything from the detailed animation, to the immortal songs, to the well-plotted story is a homerun. Nothing about the film feels like a trial run, which “Snow White” easily could have been in the possession of lesser storytellers.
The animation particularly stands out with completely realized environments and minor details. I’ve always been awe-struck by the scene in which the seven dwarfs turn around a corner and each of their shadows is directed onto a cliff as the sun sets. The filmmakers didn’t need to include such an extravagant shot, which must have been extremely expensive and time consuming. But the fact that they did makes me feel nothing but admiration for the effort the animators put towards making the best-looking film possible.
While Snow White is perfectly lovable and easy to care for, she’s far from the most compelling of Disney females. You’d have to be pretty foolish to take a nap in a stranger’s house and accept an apple from an obviously evil beggar woman. Snow White’s purity and innocent outlook on life probably provided the most inspiration for Amy Adam’s character in the Disney satire, “Enchanted.” But then again, this is an animated fairytale that came out in the 1930s. At least Snow White isn’t a contemporary woman who is dependent on men *cough* Bella Swan.
What really made “Snow White” an immortal classic is the supporting cast. The seven dwarfs are every bit as much the stars of the movie as Snow White and earn their spot in the title. Complete with distinctive personalities, the dwarfs win the entire audience over the minute they appear on screen. There’s a notably funny scene in which the dwarfs search through their cottage, which has been inexplicably cleaned by an unknown presence. Their first assumption is that something evil is lurking in their house. They’re all taken by surprise when they learn that it is only Snow White, who is seeking refuge from her stepmother.
The film includes one of the most wicked of Disney baddies, the evil Queen who is determined to be fairest in the land. This is a soulless villain who tells her henchman to kill Snow White and put her heart in a box without a shred of humanity in her bleak face. When that plot fails, the Queen disguises herself as an old hag and tricks Snow White into eating a poison apple.
There’s a true sense of dread and suspense as the dwarfs race back to their cottage to stop the Queen from killing Snow White. The Dwarfs manage to thwart the Queen, who becomes dinner for some lingering vultures. But they’re too late to save Snow White, who lies dead on their cottage floor. Nowadays everyone knows that the Prince’s love for Snow White prevails and his kiss brings her back to life. But in a time where there was no standard or formula for animated films, Snow White really seemed gone forever. “Snow White” revealed that cartoons could do more than amuse, but had the power to tap into our emotions and even move us to tears. After all these years, “Snow White” continues to make us laugh, excite us, and choke us up without revealing the slightest bit of age.
I know what many of you are probably thinking, “You can’t dedicate one spot to three films. That’s cheating!” However, I felt that it was only appropriate to consider all three “Toy Story” movies as one entity. When someone thinks about “Toy Story,” a solitary film doesn’t come to mind. Like “The Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars,” “Toy Story” is one of the rare trilogies that works best as a single story. Forgive the following pun, but all three films belong together.
The original “Toy Story” was one of the most revolutionary films of all time, creating its universe entirely through Computer Generated Images. The movie perfectly demonstrated the possibilities for this technology with such lovely attention to detail. Where the backgrounds in most hand-drawn animations at the time looked so clean and perfect, “Toy Story” went the extra mile by incorporating smudge and cracks on walls and dirt on cars. The filmmakers even went as far as to animate the character’s reflection on hardwood floors and glass. Like “Snow White,” “Toy Story” was amazingly well done for a first outing. That’s one of the many reasons why Director John Lasseter deserved his honorary Oscar just as Walt Disney earned his seven mini Oscars for his first feature-length masterpiece.
In addition to looking extraordinary, “Toy Story” told a tale that was beyond worthy of it’s technology. In an age where every other animation studio was trying to rip off the Disney Princess formula, Pixar distinguished itself with a completely original story. As a child, I’m sure all of us contemplated if our toys had lives of their own after we left the room. And if you didn’t, then you certainly did after watching “Toy Story.”
Andy’s bedroom is a diverse sanctuary for playthings such as Mr. Potato Head, Slinky Dog, and a piggy bank named Ham. The self-appointed leader of the toys is Woody, an old fashion cowboy doll that shares an unparallel bond with Andy. Woody’s relationship with Andy is threatened though, when he receives a new-aged space action figure named Buzz Lightyear for his birthday. This setup flawlessly personifies what it might be like to see the world through the eyes of a toy and the relatable problems they suffer from. The film even made for a great buddy picture with Woody and Buzz developing into one of the most unlikely and iconic of screen duos.
After the initial success of “Toy Story,” a strait-to-video sequel was put into development. But Disney thought the story Pixar had envisioned was so strong, that they decided to give “Toy Story 2” a theatrical release. Shortly after that, John Lasseter and the creative team behind the first “Toy Story” took over the sequel. They rewrote the script over the course of a weekend and the entire film was completed in just nine months. A sequel that was so rushed and went through so many changes had no right to be good, let alone better than the original. But “Toy Story 2” ended up being one of the rare sequels that expanded its universe and further developed the characters. It truly is “The Godfather: Part II” of animated features.
The first “Toy Story” was about the love a little boy feels for his favorite toy and the fear of being replace. In “Toy Story 2,” Woody has the realization that Andy will one day grow up and they will have to part ways. There’s a particularly heartbreaking scene devoid of all dialog and set to the song, “When She Loved Me.” It focuses on a cowgirl doll named Jesse, whose world revolves around a little girl named Emily. As time goes by, the two grow apart and Emily gives Jesse away like she never meant anything to her. I always felt guilty after mistreating or selling one of my toys after watching this scene.
At the end of “Toy Story 2,” Woody claims that he’s prepared for that day that Andy finally grows up. But Woody learns that letting go is harder than imagined as Andy leaves for college at the beginning of “Toy Story 3.” It was a risky move on behalf of the filmmakers to age Andy for this third installment. It was indeed the right decision though for it brought the entire saga of Andy and his toys full circle. As somebody who saw the original “Toy Story” as a five-year-old and “Toy Story 3” as a college student, the experience was especially relatable.
First time Director Lee Unkirch settled for nothing less than perfection with this sequel, completely respecting the legacy of the series. This is perhaps the funniest installment of franchise, with a hilarious running gag involving a Spanish soap opera Buzz and a groovy, metrosexual Ken doll voiced by Michael Keaton. As funny as “Toy Story 3” is, it goes beyond simply being one joke after joke. There are stakes here and characters we care about.
I walk into almost all animated films confident that everything is going to work out for the best. “Toy Story 3” is the first animated feature in a long time though that truly left me holding my breath in suspense, wondering how the heroes would overcome their predicament. The scene that has probably resonated the most with audiences is the haunting climax when the toys face certain destruction in an oven. It’s a down-to-earth moment grounded in reality in the same vein of Bambi’s mother dying. The fact that we actually care so much about the wellbeing of plastic only makes the experience of “Toy Story 3” even more incredible.
The final five minutes of the film are perfect as Andy gives his most beloved toys to a little girl. The scene has the sensation of a final curtain call as the audience bids farewell to these eternal characters. There have been talks of Pixar developing a potential “Toy Story 4.” But it’s hard to imagine the adventures of Woody, Buzz and the gang continuing when “Toy Story 3” ended on just the right note.
It’s an incredibly satisfying experience watching all three of these films consecutively, observing the relationships between the characters and how they have evolved. The entire “Toy Story” franchise epitomizes the joy of playing with a toy, the guilt of loosing or mistreating a toy, and the heartbreaking day when you pass on that toy to someone else. We never consider though that letting go can be even harder for a toy than it is for the owner. The “Toy Story” trilogy is such an achievement that it easily could have been number one on this countdown. But there’s one film that I found simply unsurpassable.
Throughout this list, I’ve saluted a wide range of animated features. As much as I love the computer wizardly of Pixar and the endlessly imaginative storytelling of Japanese artists, I’ve always felt that the very best animated features are the traditional Disney classics. Among all the Disney animations, one film has always stood out to me as the studio’s ultimate triumph. Although ranking this list was a daunting task, I knew from the beginning that my number one choice had to be Disney’s tale as old as time. “Beauty and the Beast” is the sum-total of everything I look for in an animated feature with strong characters, unlikely romance, heart-pounding moments of suspense, everlasting music, and meaningful themes.
The story of “Beauty and the Beast” had been told several times before, most notably in the great-looking 1946 French film and the cult television drama staring Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton. Numerous visionaries had also attempted to make full-length animated feature based on the importable fairytale, like Don Bluth of “The Land Before Time” and even Walt Disney himself. Finally in 1991, Directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise led a team of animators, writers, performers, and musicians on a crusade to give us the definitive version of “Beauty and the Beast,” resulting in the first animated feature to ever receive a Best Picture nomination.
The film subtly and brilliantly sets up the story through a series of stained glass windows. The ominous narration informs the audience of a selfish prince who unkindly shuns an old beggar woman seeking shelter. The elderly lady transforms into a beautiful enchantress and turns the prince into a hideous beast for his cruelty. To break the spell, the beast must learn to love another and earn her love in return before the last petal of a rose drops. But who could ever learn to love a beast?
Enter Belle, the unique and endearing heroine voiced by Paige O’Hara. In one of the most spectacular songs ever to commence of movie musical, the townsfolk of a small French town sing about the misfit that is Belle. Through the masterfully lyrics of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s score, the audience learns who Belle is and what she wants out of life. Gaston, a huntsman who boasts about his muscles and hairy chest, wishes to make Belle his bride since she is the most beautiful girl in town. But Belle sees through Gaston’s hansom exterior to recognize the shallow pig inside.
Belle loyally stands by her father, an absent-minded inventor named Maurice. When Maurice gets lost in the woods, he stumbles into the Beast’s castle and becomes his prisoner. Belle selflessly offers for the Beast to take her prisoner instead. Thinking Belle might be the woman that could break the spell, the Beast agrees.
The Beast’s enchanted castle is one of the most glorious of all animated set pieces. His monstrously intimidating fortress composed of stone gargoyles is on par with Xanadu from “Citizen Kane.” Every room in the castle makes the audience feel small, from a grand staircase to a glorious library lined with countless books. The most magnificent setting of all is the golden ballroom where Belle and the Beast share a dance with the sensation of angles walking on clouds. The sequence is set to the unforgettable title number, which ranks right up there with “When You Wish Upon a Star” as the greatest of Disney songs.
Also living in the castle are the Beast’s servants, who were turned into objects for allowing their master to become so uncaring and vicious. The head servants include a lively candelabra named Lumiere, a time-obsessed clock named Cogsworth, and a motherly teapot named Mrs. Potts. The servants greet Belle through the show-stopping “Be Our Guest,” in which they are allowed their first chance to properly serve somebody in years.
As much fun as the supporting players are, the film never forgets that it’s about Belle and the Beast. Belle is easily the most intelligent and fully realized of Disney heroines. Although she agrees to take her father’s place, she is reluctant to further obey her captor. Belle becomes the first person to ever standup to the Beast, helping him to realize this monstrous ways. As time goes by, the Beast begins to demonstrate patience and understanding while Belle begins to see a potentially loving man inside.
As the Beast transformers into a kind, gentle being, Gaston becomes more vindictive in his attempts to make Belle marry him. When he learns that Belle has developed feelings for another, Gaston emerges as a true monster and leads a group of followers to “Kill the Beast.” Gaston and the Beast have it out on the roof of the castle where the Beast is stabbed to death. It’s hard not to shed a tear as the Beast dies in the arms of Belle, who at long last professes her love for him. In the end their love prevails as the Beast is brought back to life in his human form.
There’s not a single misstep in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” telling a sweeping love story about redemption, female independence, and finding the beauty within. The scenery is exquisite, the music by Ashman and Menken feels like a living presence, and the characters will never leave you. For all these reasons and more, “Beauty and the Beast” is nothing short of the greatest animated feature of all time.
Alice in Wonderland: “Alice in Wonderland” hasn’t aged as well as some of the other Disney classics on this list. The film feels like a cauldron of ingredients that don’t quite mix together and the end result lacks heart. Nevertheless, the animation itself is nice, most of the characters remain appealing, and at least this version doesn’t have a break-dancing Mad Hatter. For pure nostalgic purposes, “Alice in Wonderland” is well worthy of a spot on this honorable mentions list.
Anastasia: “Anastasia” was among the many Disney wannabes that plagued animation in the nineties. But unlike “Thumbelina,” “The Swan Princess,” or “Quest For Camelot,” this was one of the rare Disney copycats that actually stood out as quality entertainment. The film proved to be so good that most people actually mistake it for a Disney animation even to this date. “Anastasia” got it just right with first-rate animation, catchy songs, and a heroine nearly on par with Ariel and Belle. The film also redeemed Director Don Bluth after a string of atrocities, most notoriously “A Troll in Central Park.”
Antz: “Antz” had the misfortune of being released the same year as another computer animated picture about insects. But I’ve always found the film to be an incredibly underrated piece of animation that really deserves more recognition. The movie takes an anthill, a picnic blanket, a garbage pale, and constructs an entirely unique universe of it’s own. At the core of the movie is a compelling protagonist voiced by Woody Allen who employs a message about choosing your own place in the world.
A Bug’s Life: Just as enjoyable as “Antz” is “A Bug’s Life,” Pixar’s brightly generated and exciting sophomore outing. Although “Antz” might have beaten the film to theaters, “A Bug’s Life” set itself apart with clever characters and underlying themes of a movie western. Plus you’ve got Kevin Spacey in one of his best performances as an evil grasshopper.
The Cat Returns: Full of heart and humor, “The Cat Returns” is a miraculous anime from Hiroyuki Mortia of Studio Ghibi. Similar to “Spirited Away,” “The Cat Returns” tells a tale of an ordinary girl named Haru that soon finds herself swept away into a wonderland known as the Cat Kingdom. Through her incredibly bizarre travels, Haru develops confidence and becomes a more complete human being.
A Goofy Movie: “A Goofy Movie” might seem like an obscure selection for this list, seeing how the film is essentially a feature-length cartoon. Although it didn’t exactly break new grounds, “A Goofy Movie” was surprisingly well done with colorful animation, catchy songs, and even some big laugh-out-loud moments. There’s even a meaningful father/son story in the mix about a parent trying to hold onto his adolescent boy. Some people argue that the film packed in too many contemporary themes with modern technology and a rock star obviously inspired by Prince. But what’s important is that the filmmakers stayed true to the character of Goofy, who proves to be eternal no matter what era.
Grave of the Fireflies: A heartbreaking and beautifully drawn animated feature from Isao Takahata, “Grave of the Fireflies” is one of the most poignant anti-war films ever made. This is not a movie about how the big bad American government killed millions Japanese civilians. It’s a deeply moving story of survival that demonstrates how World War II was hell whether you were Japanese or American. Among all the films on this honorable mentions list, this is the one I sincerely regret leaving off the top 50. For now you can just consider it my 51st choice.
Fantasia 2000: Walt Disney had always hoped that “Fantasia” would be a film that he would add to as time went by. The film’s initial box office failure however, prevented Walt from ever realizing that vision in his lifetime. But towards the end of the 20th century, the legacy of “Fantasia” was finally carried on with the gorgeous “Fantasia 2000.” The film might not have been as ambitious as the original and those celebrity cameos were just reprehensible. Regardless, this was still a wonderful entry to the Disney library full of diverse animation and lovely music. Here’s hoping that we get a third “Fantasia” somewhere down the line.
Fantastic Mr. Fox: I’d hate to hail “Fantastic Mr. Fox” as fantastic. However, I cannot think of a superior adjective to embrace the film. Based on the classic novel from the one-of-a-kind mind of Roald Dahl, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is a witty family comedy by Wes Anderson. Every shot of the film is a visual treat with the appearance of a toy town sprung to life. Full of sophisticated dialog and charters, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is just as much fun for grown ups as it is for kids.
How to Train Your Dragon: One of DreamWorks subtler animated features, “How to Train Your Dragon” is a charming story about a boy and his dragon, which thankfully doesn’t talk. My only question is why did so many people complain about the story in “Avatar” and nobody seemed to think that the story here was familiar?
The Jungle Book: Like “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Jungle Book” is another Disney animation that I appreciated more as a kid than as an adult. Although the two films hold up fine, they both feel more like a series of misadventures than complete stories. Had it not been the last animated feature that Walt Disney supervised before he died I’m not so sure that “The Jungle Book” would be as highly regarded. Despite its flaws, there is still a lot to admire about the picture. The songs are undeniable timeless, most notably “Bare-Necessities.” While some of the animals just come and go and don’t serve a purpose to the great scheme of things, they’re all fun and well drawn. Kaa the snake is an especially memorable scene-stealer. All in all, “The Jungle Book” is far from my favorite Disney film, but still commendable enough to make this list.
The Land Before Time: “The Land Before Time” is easily Don Bluth’s strongest directorial outing in my eyes. The film tells a charming tale about unlikely friendship as five young dinosaurs struggle to find their way to the Great Valley. The imagery is breathtaking, the landscapes are rich in detail, and the dinosaurs themselves look superb. To this date, twelve strait-to-video sequels have been released, which might make “The Land Before Time” the most overexposed animated franchise of all time. But the original will always standout as a minor classic.
Metropolis: Rintaro’s anime “Metropolis” is a triumph that’s every bit as visually stunning as Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film of the same name. I’ve often regarded the film as a counterpart to “Akira,” painting an astounding vision of the future composed of phenomenal backdrops and inspired ideas.
Ponyo: While not the best film from Hayao Miyazaki, “Ponyo” stands out as a magical fish out of water story with glorious hand-drawn animation and echoes of a Japanese “Little Mermaid.” Like “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Kiki’s Deliver Service,” “Ponyo” creates an innocent world free of hostility and villains without pandering to the intelligence of children. The end result is one of the rare cinematic treasures for all ages.
Race For Your Life Charlie Brown: Most people consider “Snoopy Come Home” to be the best of the theatrical Charlie Brown features. My favorite is the underappreciated “Race For Your Life Charlie Brown.” Director Bill Melendez and screenwriter Charles Schultz craft their greatest ensemble piece with the entire Peanuts gang getting caught up in a river race at summer camp. Along the way, Charlie Brown perseveres and rises up as the leader his dysfunctional friends need to make it to the finish line. I won’t tell you which peanuts member ends up winning the race, but believe me when I say that its hilarious and even inspiring. The film is also a memorable movies set in the summer with a great nostalgic atmosphere.
The Rescuers: The 1970s is often regarded as a hit and miss era for Disney animation. One irrefutable hit for the studio though would have to be the eternally exciting “The Rescuers.” Told from the perspective of two little mice, this is a rip-roaring adventure that proves even the smallest of creatures can save the day.
The Rescuers Down Under: Perhaps the only Disney sequel that’s even better than its predecessor, “The Rescuers Down Under” is a sharp continuation of Bernard and Miss Bianca’s adventures. The film significantly became the first Disney animation to utilize the CAPS process. Through this innovation in technology, Disney produced one of the best-looking animations of the early nineties with exhilarating flight sequences.
The Secret of NIMH: “The Secret of NIMH” is one of the most magical animations of the 80s and remains one of the scariest children’s movies ever made. Carrying the movie is Mrs. Brisby, a strong-willed mouse determined to save her youngest son. It’s inspiring to see of protagonist in an animated movie that is not only a female, but also a mother. With full animation and plenty of darkly exciting moments, “The Secret of NIMH” is a terrific debut from Director Don Bluth.