Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Animated Thoughts: The Top 25 Animated Features, pt. 3 of 5

Feature-length animated films are becoming more and more prevalent as the cost of the tools and equipment needed to produce them come down in price and increase in availability. One of the most exciting things to see in the past fifteen to twenty years is the increasing number of independent animators who are making their own animated features outside of the mainline established studio system. The 'godfather of American independent animation', Bill Plympton, hand-draws an animated feature every couple of years (his sixth feature Cheatin' is currently making the rounds in the festival circuit). Independent animator Signe Baumane just released her first animated feature this year, titled Rocks In My Pockets. In 2008, Nina Paley animated her first feature: Sita Sings the Blues. Director/Animator M dot Strange has three features to his credit: We Are the Strange, Heart String Marionette, and I Am Nightmare. Don Hertzfeldt released Everything Will Be OK back in 2007. And after being out of the game for years, Ralph Bakshi is currently working on his latest animated feature The Last Days of Coney Island. And this is just a small snapshot of the American animation scene. The beauty here is that increased access to affordable technology is enabling independent animators to tell the stories that they want to tell without outside interference from studio management. To be sure, the financial rewards and audience exposure are probably far less that what they could have had if they were backed by a large production or distribution company, but I'm sure that all of the aforementioned filmmakers would agree that it is a price they willingly pay for complete artistic and creative freedom. My meandering point is that there has never been a better time in the history of filmmaking for independent animators to toss their hats in to the ring and tell the stories that they want to tell.

But enough of my rambling, on to the countdown!

11. King Kong (1933)
While technically not an animated film, respect still needs to be paid to Willis O'Brian for his brilliant use of stop motion animation. Released in 1933, King Kong is the story of a giant gorilla who is captured and brought back to America for display to the masses. Pretty straightforward. Over the years, King Kong has spawned it's imitators (Mighty Joe Young), been integrated into Japanese Kaiju films (King Kong verses Godzilla & King Kong Escapes), been updated for modern audiences (1976's King Kong and Peter Jackson's King Kong in 2005) and even spawned sequels (Son of Kong & King Kong Lives) and two cartoon series (The King Kong Show & Kong: The Animated Series). The legal wranglings over who owns King Kong and what is and isn't in public domain is enough to make your head swim. Fortunately, you can forgo all the controversy and simply enjoy the original 1933 film.

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

12. Kung Fu Panda
Kung Fu Panda is fun on so many levels with a heartwarming message at it's core. In today's day and age, how many times do you actually get to see an animated film where the father-figure is not only physically there for his family but is: a) not played as an utter buffoon, and b) actively involved in being the father who guides his son into manhood (and in the case of Kung Fu Panda, he's even the father that he didn't have to be)? Finding Nemo? Maaaaybe the Incredibles? Well in KFP, even though Po's father (Mr. Ping) is a minor character, James Hong does a masterful job voicing this restaurateur who loves his adoptive son whether he succeeds or fails to attain his dreams. Easily one of the best films that Dreamworks Animation has produced. In my mind, Kung Fu Panda is less a story about the lovable misfit trying to live out his dreams and more about a father (and a mentor) guiding a boy into manhood with all it's responsibilities and consequences.

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

13. The Little Mermaid
If you say that Disney (and Jeffrey Katzenberg) singlehandedly launched the second golden age of animation with this film, I would be hard pressed to find anyone who could provide evidence to contradict that statement. Applying a 'Rodgers and Hammerstein' formula to the Hans Christian Andersen tale, the Little Mermaid breathed new life into the Disney Animation Studio during a period of time where WDAS had been on the decline ever since the death of Walt Disney (and was suffering through the steady stream of retirements by Walt's Nine Old Men who were taking their decades of experience with them). A fun, heartwarming film with songs that stuck in your head, The Little Mermaid was just what Disney needed exactly when it was needed (and by extension, what the American animation scene needed).

As a side-note: the answer is "no". Despite what the conspiracy theorists want you to believe, during the wedding scene, the old priest is not 'becoming aroused'. I met Tom Sito at the Ottawa International Animation Festival last year and he confirmed during his lecture that not only was he the person who animated that particular scene, he stated unequivocally that the priest was shifting his weight from one foot to the other. So that bulge under his robe was indeed his knee.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Look for the "Platinum Edition" if you want to see the short: the Little Matchgirl. Video-to-go has a copy.

14. Millennium Actress
Millennium Actress is the story of a reclusive former film star told almost entirely in flashbacks during an interview with a documentary filmmaker. At this point in her life, the abrupt end of her career is long past and she spends the interview reflecting upon her personal and professional history. I would love to say more about the story and the characters, however, it's difficult to describe this film without spoiling some of the important elements that drive this film. Directed by the late, great Satoshi Kon, this film contains some of the most masterful uses of transitions I have ever witnessed as the actress's present life and past memories blend seamlessly from scene to scene. There is little doubt in my mind that had Kon's life not tragically ended back in 2010 at the age of 46, his past and future films would have been placed at the same level of respect as Studio Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki.

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

15. Patlabor, the movie
The first Mobile Police Patlabor movie is a detective story, plain and simple. While Patlabor was originally a seven episode OVA, and this movie is set shortly after the end of that series, you don't need to have watched the OVA in order to enjoy this film--or the 63 episode television series apparently set in an alternate timeline. Throughout the film, Kazunori Itō and Mamoru Oshii never let the story get sidetracked or overshadowed by the fact that the main conflict has giant robots, called "Labors", at its center. This is a movie that puts the characters right at the forefront of the story, and rightfully so. Now you can't swap out the giant robotic labor units with say tanks or modern construction equipment--the computerized operating system is integral to the plot--but the point is, the robots never overshadow the human drama as the story unfolds, which leads to an inventive and engaging story.

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

Honorable Mention: Akira

Back in 1988 when Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira hit the States, it immediately became the darling of the anime fandom, and rightfully so. Akira skillfully juggles concepts like societal revolution and forced evolution all against the backdrop of a bombed out Tokyo and through the story of a gang of teenage bikers. Released on VHS by Streamline Video in 1988 with an English voice cast, this version has the best English dub performance in my opinion. If you can find a copy (and still have a functioning VCR) it's the best version to watch. While the subsequent DVD releases don't seem to have tampered with the score or sound effects, I've personally found that the new English dub is lacking both in emotive quality with the voice actors as well as has some shots where the mouth positions aren't timed correctly with the dialogue leading to a jarring disconnect reminiscent of badly dubbed kung-fu movies. But, all-in-all, I wouldn't let those issues stop you from watching this film. Akira will keep you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. As an additional note: Akira is not for children under the age of sixteen due to violence, language, and a brief scene of nudity.

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

Well, we're halfway there. In two weeks, I'll delve a little deeper into the world animation scene with only one film listed from numbers 16 to 20 having been produced in America--but what a film it was! Come back in two weeks to find the answer to the question: "what do you do when your husband takes a job in India and divorces you by e-mail?"