Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Animated Thoughts: The Top 25 Animated Features, pt. 4 of 5

When you mention feature-length animated films, most people immediately start talking about Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, or Japanese animation. But many other countries have their own animation industries: France, Russia, and Canada, for example. And many others are trying to get into the game both domestically and world-wide. After years of domestic box-office failure, three-years ago South Korea released their most successful animated feature: Leafie, A Hen into the Wild. Based on a children's book, Leafie recouped it's production costs domestically within one month! But where do we see these films legally here in North America (read that: without bittorrenting bootleg copies on the internet)?

Now seems like a good time to talk about the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema. Located in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, the Waterloo Festival is the only animation festival in the world that showcases animated feature-length films exclusively. Every year, theatre owner and festival curator Joe Chen scours the world animation scene for the best features available including many that become North American premieres--like Redline or the Evangelion relaunch films. Joe also enhances the experience with guest lecturers and panel discussions that detail the history of specific animation topics: like the history of animation during the Soviet Union or the works of Mamoro Oshii. After discovering WFAC a few years back, the Waterloo Festival has become a yearly trip for me every November and the last animation festival I visit for the year. I'm continually thankful that the animation community has people like Joe who is willing not just to do the hard work in bringing in films from around the world (and deal with the headaches involved in doing so) but that his festival is within a four hour drive of Michigan. It's one more reason to stay in the Great Lakes region.

Now, in the words of the late Casey Kasem: on to the countdown.

16. Redline
Whenever anyone asks me 'what is anime' this is my go-to film. Completely hand-drawn in a time where most production is going digital (although they used computers for compositing and many of the special effects), Redline covers almost every trope that you're going to see in anime: aliens, magical girls, giant robots, buxom heroines, kaiju, and action that is out of this world. Redline is the story of "Sweet JP", a race car driver trying to find redemption, love, and victory in the universe's top racing circuit: the Redline! I made a seven hour round trip to the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema just to see this movie and it was worth every minute of the drive (and every dollar spent on gas).

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

17. Rio 2096: A Story of Love and Fury
In Rio 2096, Brazil's Lightstar Studios tackled the difficult subject of their country's history from Portuguese imperialism all the way to a possible future where the Amazon rainforest has been decimated and water is the most precious commodity of all. This film follows the story of an immortal native Brazilian warrior as he searches for his lost love throughout the ages. Submitted for an Academy Award, it was an utter travesty that Rio 2096 didn't get nominated. If it had, I would've been rooting for Lightstar Studios to win the award instead of Ernest & Celestine.

Availability: Not available in the States, but hopefully this will change soon.

18. Sita Sings the Blues
What do you do when you're an animator and your husband moves to India for a job and divorces you by e-mail? If you're animator Nina Paley, you make a feature-length animated film almost single-handedly! Borne out of the painful situation she found herself in, Nina found a parallel story in the ancient Indian text 'the Ramayana', only it was the story of Rama's jilted wife Sita. Thus, an independent animated feature was created and was animated almost entirely by Nina herself. After battling copyright issues on some songs used in the film that may or may not have been public domain, Nina took the step of releasing her film for free under the Creative Copyright banner and then became a proponent of the free content movement. So. If you want to see Sita Sings the Blues, you can watch it for free online.

Availability: Available in the States online. Click here to watch the 1080p version on YouTube.

19. Spirited Away
I've seen most of the animated features that Hayao Miyazaki directed at Studio Ghibli, and Spirited Away is easily the best film that he's created to date. Spirited Away follows the story of a little girl who finds herself in a bathhouse for the spirits--and at the whims of it's denizens as she tries to save the lives of her parents. This film is a visual feast filled with enough visual subtext to make Guillermo del Toro jealous. Throughout the film, we watch the heroine, Chihiro, grow from a whiny, selfish little girl into maturity as she faces one challenge after another in the spirit realm. But much of this internal character growth is shown visually (and very subtly) through camera angles, color palettes, forced perspective, and evolving body language. While more than one Miyazaki film has suffered from one-dimensional characters and deus ex machina events to resolve plot holes (see Howl's Moving Castle or Ponyo), Spirited Away suffers from none of those flaws and works on almost every level. If you only ever watch one Miyazaki film, make sure it's this one.

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

20. the Secret of Kells (Brendan and the Secret of Kells)
Secret of Kells tells the story of a young monk and Ireland's greatest national treasure--a lavishly illustrated copy of the four gospels. Throughout the story, Brendan is torn between helping his uncle prepare their monastery for an invasion by the Vikings and helping an old monk finish illustrating the Book of Kells. Drawing parallels with the illuminated text, the visual style looks like a stained-glass window come to life with flowing animation that is reminiscent of UPN or many of Chuck Jones' more avant-garde shorts. A co-production between Belgium, France, and Ireland, Secret of Kells won multiple awards during it's festival run and even saw a limited theatre run here in the United States.

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

Honorable Mention: Animal Farm
You can't have a countdown of the top twenty-five animated films without touching upon the works of John Halas and Joy Batchelor: the husband and wife team who created Great Britain's largest animation studio--and Great Britain's first theatrically released feature-length animated film. Halas and Batchelor had created an earlier feature-length animated film, however it was a training film for the Royal Navy. Incidentally, Animal Farm was also paid for by the Central Intelligence Agency which reportedly influenced the translation of George Orwell's story from book to film as part of the propaganda initiative during the Cold War.

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

We're almost there. In two weeks, numbers twenty through twenty-five of the animated feature films everyone should watch at least once! And as an added bonus, you'll find out what movie inspired me to become an animator.