Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Animated Thoughts: The Top 25 Animated Features, pt. 2 of 5

There are a lot of fantastic animated feature films out there that are worth seeing and didn't make my list. For example: Shane Acker's 9, Pixar's Finding Nemo, Aardman Animation's Chicken Run, Sylvan Chomet's Triplets of Belleville, Satoshi Kon's Paprika, Aleksa Gajić's Technotise Edit y Ja, and Don Hertzfeldt's Everything Will Be Ok. Now admittedly, some of the films on my list are pretty obscure, like Boogie el Acetoso, Arrugas and Rio 2096, but this is more of an indictment of the attitudes towards animated films here in the United States since I had to physically leave my country in order to see a number of these films. Tragically, there just aren't the opportunities to see many foreign animated films here in the States and as a result we miss out on some real gems. In America, the prevailing attitude is that cartoons are for children. But I'm confident that no one who watches "Boogie", "Technotise", or "Triplets" could agree that animated films are only for kids.

6. Fantasia/Fantasia 2000/Destino/Little Match Girl/Lorenzo
I'm lobbing these five films into one category as Walt Disney's original intent was to have Fantasia be a film in constant rotation with new segments being added periodically and replacing others. The original Fantasia is a masterpiece of filmmaking that combines both narrative and non-narrative (read that: experimental) film techniques. My favorite segment has always been the dancing mushrooms--though the dinosaur scene was always a close second. Fantasia was one of the first Disney movies that I can remember watching and it has always had a significant impact on me--even as a child of six years old.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.

Likewise, Fantasia 2000 will always hold a prominent place in my heart due to both Fantasia films being a special story shared with my Grandmother. I'll let you read the whole story over on my Animated Women blog, but suffice it to say, the breathtaking visual design and animation (especially in the 'Firebird' sequence) made Fantasia 2000 a worthy successor to the original film. I hope that Roy Disney was proud of the homage he created to his Uncle Walt as it clearly lived up to the Disney legacy.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.

Not a part of the two Fantasia movies, per se, but this short needs to be included in the count if for no other reason than it follows the production history and formula of Fantasia in many ways. Destino was started back in '45 as a work between Walt Disney Studios and Salvador Dali which was tabled, apparently for financial reasons. Then, in 1999, Roy Disney resurrected the project while he was producing Fantasia 2000. While never officially a part of the Fantasia films, according to Wikipedia, Destino was released as a short on the Fantasia & Fantasia 2000 Special Edition Blu-ray disk. Following the story of unrequited love between Chronos and a mortal woman, it's far better to watch this surreal story than try to explain it.

Availability: Available in the States on BluRay, see above.

Little Match Girl is as beautiful a film as it is heartbreaking. Based on the Hans Christian Anderson story 'The Little Girl with the Matches', this story follows the plight of a little girl who, being afraid to go home to her cruel father after not selling any matches, dreams of her grandmother, the only person who had shown her any kindness. Again, while not a part of Fantasia it did get released after its festival run. According to Wikipedia, you can find the Little Matchgirl on the 2006 Platinum Edition DVD of the Little Mermaid.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD, see above.

I doubt we'll ever see the brilliant short Lorenzo released on DVD--since Disney's legal department probably doesn't want to deal with the ramifications of children screwing with the family cat's tail after watching this short. As far as I know, It's been locked away in the Disney vault since its (very) limited run at the animation festivals, part of the Animation Show of Shows, and being played before the movie Raising Helen. I had the privilege of watching Lorenzo at the Ottawa International Animation Festival and it was a real treat. Another short that was apparently tabled back in 1943, Lorenzo tells the story of a pampered cat whose tail gains a life of its own after he taunts a black cat. A clip is included below which gives only the barest hint of how good this short is.

Availability: Not available, sadly.

UPDATE: Lorenzo is now available on YouTube or Amazon Prime and was released as part of the Walt Disney Animation Studios Short Films Collection DVD/BR in 2016.

7. Ghost in the Shell
A masterwork by Mamoro Oshii that still holds up and feels fresh almost twenty years later. As the tale is told, this is the film that the Wachowski Brothers used to explain to the executives holding the purse strings what their script the Matrix was all about. If you're not into hard-core dystopian science fiction with high tech weapons, cyborgs, and artificial intelligence, then this probably isn't the movie for you. But for die-hard fanboys (and girls), Ghost in the Shell is a must-see film--especially for those of us who like movies with strong female leads that aren't afraid to take charge and kick some serious ass.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.

8. Grave of the Fireflies
Sometimes you watch a movie and you say "I wish I had made that film." This is not one of those times. This is a movie where you say "I wish I had never watched that film." It is, in my opinion, one of the best animated films ever made and is worth watching at least once--though you'll never want to see it again, especially when you find out that it's semi-biographical. While we may abhor both the actions of the Japanese during World War II (the Rape of Nanking, the Bataan death march, Pearl Harbor) and the stubborn refusal of the Japanese to own up to their actions in World War II, you can't help but feel sympathy for the two children in this film as they struggle to survive during the Allied bombing of Japan and during the aftermath of the war.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.

9. Heavy Metal
The Fleisher Brothers brought us rotoscoping in 1915 and nowhere have I seen it more skillfully used than in this film. Born out of stories from Heavy Metal magazine, Heavy Metal is a beautiful, erotic, violent, humorous, and horrific merger of the 1970's music scene and some serious talent in the Canadian animation scene. However, Heavy Metal was not without its controversies or production problems, like the women who refused to work on the 'Taarna' sequence due to its violent misogynistic imagery or the removal of the 'Neverwhere Land' sequence which was cut from production due to time constraints. Originally released in 1981, Heavy Metal was finally re-released in 1996 and again in 2011 to crowds of people (including me) who had waited patiently for its return while wearing out our bootleg copies.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.

10. The Incredibles
Without a doubt, my favorite Pixar film to date. As boys, we all dream of growing up to be heroes. However, at the time that we are daydreaming about battles and glory, we never ask the question 'what happens when we reach middle age and find out that the world no longer has any need for heroes?' Brad Bird did a, dare I say it, incredible job of exploring the story of heroes who have made that transition into middle age but cannot escape the memories of what once was. This movie, though ostensibly a kids film, I suspect was really written for all those dads sitting in the audience with their children.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.

Honorable Mention: My Neighbor Totoro
How do you make girls from their early teens to their late twenties squeal with delight at an anime convention? I imagine the answer has something to do with walking around while wearing a life-sized 'Totoro' costume. While not his best film in my opinion (I reserve that title for Miyazaki's Academy Award winning film: Spirited Away), My Neighbor Totoro is easily one of the most beloved films produced by Hayao Miyazaki at Studio Ghibli. Almost every anime fan I know has a story of when they discovered My Neighbor Totoro -- the tale of two little girls who, after moving to the countryside in order to be closer to the hospital where their sick mother is interned, befriend a huge cat-like forest spirit. 'Totoro' is a simple story that is more thoughtful than slapstick and leaves you smiling at the imagination of two little girls -- and Miyazaki's masterful portrayal of their behavior and actions.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.

And thus ends part two of my five part series on the twenty-five animated feature films everyone should see. In two weeks, I'll be back to explore 'Mechs, mermaids, gorillas, pandas, and an actress.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Animated Thoughts: The Top 25 Animated Features, pt. 1 of 5

Recently, I read a list of the top 100 animated feature length films as selected by "experts" in the field of animation. Some of the people who were interviewed, I recognized, others I didn't. Some of the people I actually know, some I don't. But in every case, some of their choices I agreed with, some I did not, and some left me scratching my head wondering what they were thinking. But, since what qualifies as "the best" is completely subjective, to each their own (as I'm sure many will say about my choices). So, in the spirit of self-indulgence, I thought I'd throw my choices out there for the top twenty five animated feature films that everyone should see at least once. :)

One thing I'd like to mention before I get to the list: if you're in the Lansing, Michigan area, Video-to-Go over in the Frandor shopping center has almost all of these films on DVD. I've added a note under each film where applicable. So if you see something that strikes your fancy (or you want to see first-hand how close or far apart our taste in films is), you can stop over to our local video store and pick up a movie or two.

Presented alphabetically:

1. Adventures of Prince Achmed
First and foremost on my list is the silhouette animation masterpiece from Lotte Reiniger--the first woman to create a feature-length animated film. In addition to that accolade, Prince Achmed is also the oldest surviving feature-length animated film. There is anecdotal evidence that Argentinian Quirano Cristani created two feature-length animated films before Lotte Reiniger did, however, no copies have been found. So, for my money, Lotte Reiniger still holds the title: "creator of the world's first feature-length animated film". The British Film Institute has released a DVD of Prince Achmed and in the special extras section, they have a great documentary discussing Lotte Reiniger's life and the times that she lived in. What an amazing woman.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Look for the BFI version as they restored all the original color tints.

2. Arrugas (Wrinkles)
Arrugas isn't your standard comedy: it's the story of a group of people in a nursing home, revolving around one man who is slipping into Alzheimers, and their attempts to hide it from the doctors. This entire movie could have been made in live-action--and probably faster for a smaller budget. But I think that the fact that it's animated keeps the movie from becoming this depressing ninety-minute dirge as we see people struggling with end-of-life issues. Arrugas is pretty light-hearted considering it's subject matter and it treats the characters with a certain amount of dignity, finding the right balance between humor and irony. One of my favorite scenes surrounds a minor character: a woman who sits in her room and stares out the window while smoking invisible cigarettes, all because in her mind she's still in Europe riding on the trains.

Availability: Hasn't been released in the States on DVD yet, but I heard a rumor that this may change soon.

UPDATE: The rumor has been confirmed! GKIDS will be releasing Arrugas on July 16th for digital download and on DVD.

3. Atlantis, the Lost Empire
This film was produced during a time where Walt Disney was riding high on a renaissance within their animation studio years after their film the Little Mermaid almost single-handedly fired up a second golden age of animated film. As such, they appeared willing to take some risks on films outside their 'Rodgers and Hammerstein' formula--like Lilo and Stitch and Emperor's New Groove. Sadly, Atlantis wasn't a financial superstar for Disney but that doesn't mean it wasn't a spectacular film. Aimed more at the teenage boy market, this animated film eschewed song and dance numbers and was not afraid to place it's characters in serious peril--as well as kill off secondary (and a couple primary) characters in spectacular fashion. There are some great animated films in the Disney filmography, but for my money, Atlantis, the Lost Empire remains tied with Fantasia/Fantasia 2000 as my all-time favorite Disney film (though if you held my feet to the fire, I'd probably have to give that title to either Fantasia's "Nutcracker Suite" or Fantasia 2000's "Firebird Suite").

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.

4. Boogie, el aceitoso
He's violent. He's crude. He's a racist. He's a misogynist. 'Oily Boogie' is a caricature of Dirty Harry and probably gives some insight into how American culture is viewed--seen through the eyes of the legendary Argentinian cartoonist Roberto Fontanarrosa. The animation has this digital cutout look that is reminiscent of the Maxx and it gives "Boogie" the movie this comic book quality harking back to the '70's when "Boogie" the character was featured in comic strips. This was not an easy movie to find, even harder to find a copy with English subtitles. But so long as you understand that its a parody of the hyper-violence portrayed in the American media--and it's going to be offensive--it's a rather humorous film to watch.

Availability: Hasn't been released in the States on DVD. You can find it on Amazon, but I think it's a bootleg.

5. Ernest & Celestine
What a delightful little film. Digitally animated but with the look and feel of hand drawn animation containing gorgeous watercolor backgrounds, this film looks like it leapt right off the pages of a children's storybook. Ernest & Celestine is the story of two outcasts from society reaching across cultural boundaries to build a lasting friendship. Based on a series of children's books, it's a wonderful movie to watch with the kids--and one of the few animated films that made me envious of the parents in the theater who had a son or daughter to watch this movie with. It was my pleasure to see Ernest & Celestine in the original French language at the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema, but it has now seen limited release in theaters with an English dub that doesn't seem to have cost the film any of its charm. The DVD will be released on June 17th, 2014, so if you've got kids, grab a copy and save it for a rainy afternoon when you can make popcorn, sit with your kids on the couch, and watch a movie. With all due respect to Frozen (and the hardworking men and women who created it), this is the film that I thought should've won the Academy Award.

Availability: Hasn't been released in the States on DVD yet, but will be available June 17, 2014.

Honorable Mention: Wizards
Ralph Bakshi's films are hit or miss for me. Fritz the Cat and Lord of the Rings... really didn't do it for me. But Fire and Ice and Cool World did. And HBO's Spicy City was fantastic! Wizards is one of those films that is firmly in my "it's okay" column. However, what makes this film worth seeing is that, to my knowledge, it's the first feature length animated film that had an African-American woman working on it as an animator: Ms. Brenda Banks. Below the trailer for the movie, I've included a video documentary about Bakshi where he discusses Brenda Banks and her role in making Wizards. At at time of great racial upheaval in America, Bakshi wasn't afraid to give people a chance to prove themselves. Love him or hate him, you've got to respect the "bad boy of animation", Ralph Bakshi.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.

While the whole half-hour documentary is worth watching, the part about Brenda Banks starts at time marker 21:05.

Well, that's it for this post. Check back in two weeks for the next five films in my list of the top 25 animated features everyone should see.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Animated Quotes: Tim Burton

"One person's craziness is another person's reality."
~ Tim Burton