Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Animated Thoughts: The Top 25 Animated Features, Epilogue

Here's a couple films that didn't make my list, but I think are worth seeing if you have the chance. They missed my top spots for one reason or another--plot holes, animation that was a little less than stellar, weak dialog, or just personal preference. But that doesn't mean that they aren't worth your time.

1. The Iron Giant
A fun romp with great voice acting and animation, a wonderful story, well thought-out characters, and almost seamless visual compositing between the 2d cel animation and 3d CGI characters which was directed by future Incredibles director: Brad Bird. It got a little too political for my tastes at the end with it's shout out to the anti-gun lobby, but it was still a great film nonetheless that deserved to do far better in the box office than it did.

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

2. Jason and the Argonauts
An incredible use of stop motion animation and old-school compositing by master animator Ray Harryhausen. The skeleton fight from this film is still a classic example of stop-motion animation composited with live action which, apparently, took Harryhausen three months to complete. For those of you interested in stop-motion animation, the hour-long documentary "The Harryhausen Chronicles" can be seen on at the following link: YouTube. It's a must-see for budding stop-motion animators who have enjoyed films like Laika's stop-motion films Coraline and Paranorman (or trailers from their upcoming film The Boxtrolls).

Availability: Available in the States. Video-to-go has a copy (make sure it's the 1963 version starring Todd Armstrong with stop-motion effects by Ray Harryhausen, not the 2000 Hallmark production with Jason London and Natasha Henstridge).

3. The Last Unicorn
Ah, a classic Rankin/Bass production--stilted animation, campy dialogue, and not-too-subtle anti-Semitic characters (he said mostly in jest; seriously, a magician named "Schmendrick"? Hmmm...). Still, as a kid who grew up playing Dungeons and Dragons, I greatly enjoyed this film as a child. And along with another Rankin/Bass classic, A Flight of Dragons, I still enjoy it today. It's a beautiful film that deserves to be introduced to a new, present-day audience. Rankin/Bass had some really interesting productions back in the day ranging from the stop-motion holiday specials we all know and love (Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman) to Tolkien classics The Hobbit and the Return of the King. One little tidbit that most people don't know: almost all of their productions were animated in Japan! I have to wonder if The Last Unicorn inspired any Japanese animators in their younger years given the sizable number of fantasy Isekai anime series nowadays.

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

4. Allegro Non Troppo
Bruno Bozzetto's answer to Walt Disney's Fantasia. The live action storyline that introduces each animated segment is pretty tedious. Best just to fast forward through it in order to get to some superb and dynamically inventive animation. Throughout the film, there's this wistful, melancholy feeling to many of the stories that is illustrated brilliantly in one of my favorite sequences where a cat, wandering around a burnt out building, remembers what it was like to be part of a loving family. Still animating today, Bozzetto's more recent animated shorts are always a favorite of mine whenever they're included in the line up at the Ottawa International Animation Festival.

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

5. 9
Shane Acker's 9 started out as a short film which he parlayed into a feature-length animated film. 9 was a very good short that didn't make the translation into feature as well as it could have. The story, visuals, and animation in this "stitchpunk" tale were supurb, however, the film's main weakness was it's dialog. Seriously, you could make a drinking game out of every time a character gasps in shock. But, regardless of its flaws, 9 remains a very unique film that's worth seeing.

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

6.Technotise, Edit y Ja
Not a very deep story, and it borrows probably a little more than it should from Ghost in the Shell, but Technotise is still a fun film that looks like it jumped right off the pages of Heavy Metal (Metal Hurlant) magazine. It's not a rock-opera like the Heavy Metal movie, nor is it an animated Sci-Fi B-Movie like Heavy Metal 2000, it's just a good science fiction story out of Serbia.

Availability: Not available in the States. Up until recently this film was available for streaming online via Amazon's streaming service. It remains to be seen if it'll be offered again.

It's here that I wrap up this series on my blog with a shout-out to local video stores. Here in Lansing, Video To Go is a second home for film buffs and a cornerstone of the film loving community. Owned by Tom Leach, whose son Justin would go on to become an animator on such films as Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, and Ice Age, Video To Go is the best place I have ever found to see many of the popular classic films of animation as well as more recent films that rarely get seen.

When doing research for this series of blog posts, I was floored to see animated films like The Painting, Persepolis, Cool World, Fritz the Cat, Chico and Rita, and Jin-Roh on Video To Go's shelves--just waiting to be discovered by a new audience. These, and many other animated films are ones that you normally only see at animation festivals or through limited run direct order DVDs. It gives me great hope for the medium of animation, knowing that there are men like Tom who aren't afraid of streaming video services and national video rental chains and are willing to risk their money by bringing adult, independent, and avant-garde animation DVDs to local audiences.

So before you spend a half-hour on Netflix, searching for something to watch, consider making that drive down to your local video store (like Video To Go) and spending that time browsing their shelves. Not only will you be supporting a local business but you might just discover one of these rare gems of animation that could become a part of your list of animated films that everybody should see at least once.

Thank you for your time.

Charles Wilson
Smudge Animation LLC

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

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

Well, this is it, my last five animated feature films that everyone should see at least once. I'm wrapping up the list with video games, robots, animated non-'Rodgers and Hammerstein' musicals, and political allegories told by bunnies. At this point, I hope everyone has seen a couple films that they'd love to watch or something from their past that they'd love to watch again. Thanks to everyone for following the countdown.

21. Tron
I have to include Tron in this countdown as it was the film that inspired me to become an animator. While not the first film to use computer animation (and the CG animation only comprises approximately 20 minutes of the film's total running time), in its day, Tron became a milestone for 3d computer graphics and set the stage for the coming years. The story of a maligned computer programmer who finds himself brought into a computer (literally) during his search for justice, Tron was a mixture of old and new animation techniques as the live action scenes inside the computer were filmed in black and white, printed out on film stock, then rotoscoped to add the color. You can find more detail about Tron's production history on their Wikipedia page if, like me, you enjoy geeking out over the techniques used to create this film.

Though not a financial success, Tron did serve as inspiration for many other animators, most notably Pixar founder John Lasseter, who is reported to have said: "without Tron there would be no Toy Story."

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

22. The Tune
No list is complete without mentioning the godfather of American independent animation: Bill Plympton. While Bill has made many feature length animated films (his latest film Cheatin' just screened at the Toronto Animated Image Arts Festival International), I keep going back to his first as my all-time favorite Plympton film: The Tune. As the story goes, after producing a series of successful animated short films, Bill realized he had enough material that could become a feature with the right metastory to tie them all together. The Tune tells the story of a songwriter who is trying to write the perfect song in order to save his job while, at the same time, trying to make it to the boss's office by the end of the day. Where does 'the Tune' fit in? Well during his travels, he bumps into a wide variety of people with their own inspiring songs. Drawn in Bill's signature visual style and animated at five-frames per second, The Tune is filled with Bill's quirky sense of humor and visual gags that have become his trademark.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. If you want a copy though, you have to go to Bill's online store to get one.

23. Wall*E
Wall*E is about as close to a perfect film as I've seen. I have watched this tale about a little robot with a soul almost fifty times at this point and I have yet to find any serious flaws or plot holes in the storytelling. Once again, Pixar proves that they're willing to take risks on unorthodox storytelling--like having the first act of this film told without any dialogue--and reap the benefits of taking that proverbial (and oft clich├ęd) road-less-travelled. If you have the chance, check out Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull's book "Creativity, Inc." Within Chapter 5, you'll find some great information about the 'Pixar Brain Trust' and why it works so well when applied to finding the flaws in their films and fixing them before they hit the screen. I'm not going to go too in depth about Wall*E since at this point, I'm assuming that almost everybody reading this list has seen it at least once. Suffice it to say though, setting aside their enormous technical achievements, Wall*E remains one of the best examples of Pixar's success because in this film they never lose sight of how important it is to tell a good story.

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

24. Watership Down
Yes Virginia, the life of a bunny can be a brief and violent one. Much like Animal Farm, Watership Down is a thinly-veiled political allegory that highlights the differences between various political systems--in this case told through the lives of bunnies who are struggling against different forms of tyranny in the search for their own freedom. Watership Down was originally a story by English author Richard Adams, who also wrote an even more gut-wrenching film called Plague Dogs which tackled the difficult subject of animal testing (and incidentally included voice acting by a young Patrick Stewart). Both films can be very tough films to watch as they don't shy away from violence, brutality, and death. While not for younger children, both Watership Down and Plague Dogs can be very good tools for promoting a discussion with older children on topics like the needs of the collective versus the rights of the individual or what is the role of mankind's stewardship of nature when viewed through the lens of tests performed on animals (or through mankind's consumption of animals)? Or perhaps how media can be used to influence our beliefs by provoking emotional responses.

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

25. Wreck-it Ralph
Another movie about video games, Wreck-it Ralph is filled with puns and pithy one-liners, like "it's hard to love your job when nobody likes you for doing it." But don't let the plethora of gags fool you, Wreck-it Ralph has more heart than most animated films (and even more live action films). Something that I really appreciated was the path that Disney took with Ralph as he went from anti-hero to actual hero. Ralph's journey is one mistake after another as he starts out his story being a bum and a liar who thinks that he can get what he wants by cheating. By the end of the film, rather than copping out by ending the film with Ralph 'accepting who he is', Disney pushed the story further by having Ralph learn the lesson that you don't have to be thought of as a hero in order to be one despite what your lot in life is. It's very reminiscent of Dr. King's statement: "If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well." There's a lot more that I'd like to write about this film, but it's hard not to write about Ralph's "hero journey" without totally spoilering the film for those who haven't seen it yet. If you have kids, this is a great film to watch with them and discuss the evolution of Ralph's internal character growth.

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

Honorable Mention: The Illusionist
Like Arrugas (Wrinkles), this is another movie that didn't "need" to be animated. You could have told the entire story in live action and it would have been just as beautiful and as touching. However, much like director Sylvan Chomet's earlier film, the Triplets of Belleville, there is almost no dialogue in this film. By doing so, it's probably one of the main reasons why the film does work better as an animated feature rather than a live action feature--how many live action films out there exist where none of the characters speak? Taken from a script written by the late Jacques Tati, and supposedly inspired by the regret he felt over abandoning his daughter as a baby (and the girl's mother), the Illusionist is the story of an old magician nearing the end of his days as an entertainer who finds himself in the unlikely position of being a father-figure that guides a young girl into womanhood. Setting aside the controversies behind this film, Sylvan Chomet has woven a multi-layered tale filled with bittersweet moments and the recurring theme of the old giving way to the new--whether through the relationship between the Illusionist and Alice or through the vaudeville entertainers who are watching their careers disappear amidst the onslaught of television and rock-and-roll.

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

Well, perhaps we're not 'completely' finished with the countdown. As a special bonus, in two weeks, I'll post a list of six animated features that are great films in their own right and are worth watching, but didn't make my top twenty-five list for one reason or another.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Animated Quotes: Ralph Bakshi

"The computer is the greatest single instrument that ever happened to an animator."
~ Ralph Bakshi
Source: Cartoon Brew Interview, May 5, 2014