Part 1: Animation Beyond Pixar
Part 3: Another 10 Animated Movies Beyond Pixar
Hey! It looks like people really liked the first post, so let’s do it again. This time I’m going to expand the rules a little bit and show you 10 movies that were not produced by Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, or Studio Laika. Hope you find something cool!
Kirikou and the Sorceress (Kirikou et la Sorcière, 1998)
The breakout hit of French animation master, Michel Ocelot, Kirikou and the Sorceress is an invented fairytale drawing from west African folklore. You’ll immediately notice the style, how it alternates between very lush, lovingly rendered scenery and somewhat limited animation. A lot of the limitations of this movie can be chocked up to the infant-status of French animation at the time, but in spite of a few reused walk-cycles Kirikou is a wonderful film! In fact, Kirikou was such a success in French theaters that it spawned its own sequel in 2005, Kirikou and the Wild Beasts.
The story recounts the birth and early travails of Kirikou, an impetuous but incredibly clever infant boy. Kirikou’s village has been all-but enslaved by the evil sorceress Karaba. It’s up to Kirikou to keep his ailing villagers safe from the sorceress, and find a way to stop Karaba for good.
Sita Sings the Blues (2008)
Sita Sings the Blues is an interesting creature, it’s actually been released under the Creative Commons license, so you can download it for free right now. A labor of love by cartoonist/animator Nina Paley, the movie is entirely animated with Adobe Flash. Ordinarily I’m not very fond of flash animation, it’s become the new fad in TV because it’s cheap, and has unfortunately ushered in a new era of bland, limited animation cartoons (Teen Titans Go, I’m looking at you). That said, Sita Sings the Blues is a wonderful example of how an artist can exceed & in some cases exploit the limitations of Flash to create really charming cartoons brimming with beautiful designs.
Featuring 4 different animation styles and an overabundance of musical set pieces, Sita Sings the Blues contrasts the many trials and tribulations of the mythical Sita (wife of hindu folk hero, Rama) with the waning days of the animator’s own marriage. Interspersed between these two stories is a more light-hearted retelling of the Ramayana (the story of Rama) by indian shadow puppets.
My Dog Tulip (2009)
My Dog Tulip recounts the trials and tribulations of one Mr. Ackerley as he attempts to raise his bratty german shepherd, Tulip. The most striking feature of this film is its styling, which can charitably be called “impressionistic” but more accurately be deemed “scribbly”. Everything is freeform, and the models shift and twist into the most expressive shapes for their given scenes. Considering that every one of its 60,000+ frames is actually an individually-rendered digital painting, the movie becomes quite impressive.
This is a very restful movie, aimed at an older audience, so save it for when you next want to relax. At once charming, silly, dry, and very juvenile, it’s hard not to smile as you watch Ackerley’s animated self blunder through raising his dog. And though Ackerley shamelessly anthropomorphizes Tulip, the film (quite refreshingly) will never let you forget that she’s a silly, fidgety dog.
Perfect Blue (Pāfekuto Burū, 1997)
While Japan produces a lot of animation, most of it is just miserable crap. That said, every so often someone amazing gets to make a movie. Writer/director Satoshi Kon was one of those people.
Kon’s directorial debut, Perfect Blue, is an intriguing, upsetting, suspenseful, and frightening movie. A young pop star leaves music for acting, but is traumatized by her first role. Shellshocked by her first experience, the actress falls into a fugue state, and the people involved in the production start dying. All signs point to the murderer being the actress, and while she should be recovering she’s inadvertently pulled into the world of an obsessive stalker who has been watching her every move.
The Illusionist (L’Illusionniste, 2010)
Based on a recovered script by legendary French comedian/director, Jacques Tati, The Illusionist is the story of the last bright spark of an aging stage magician’s career. Tati loosely based the film on his own stage career, which happened to start at a time when many stage acts were being muscled out of venues by young, hip rock bands. Supposedly Tati wrote the original script as an attempt to reconcile with his eldest daughter, whom he had abandoned as a baby. This is heavily-disputed. Delicately-rendered and beautifully-told, the Illusionist features no distinguishable dialogue, but its sentiments come across crystal-clear.
An older, struggling French magician takes a gig out in the Scottish boonies, and in the process picks up a new fan who thinks his magic is real. The result is a quirky father/daughter relationship between two strangers, the adoration of one keeping the other going during one of the darkest times of his life.
The Secret of NIMH (1982)
If you’re going to talk American animation beyond the big 3 studios then you have to go back, before the Disney Renaissance. If you’re going to talk American animation before the Disney Renaissance then there are two giant, inescapable names that you must address: Don Bluth and Ralph Bakshi. Let’s talk about a Don Bluth movie.
It’s easy to forget, now that Disney has been ascendant for 25 years, but from the 60s to the end of the 80s Disney’s animation studio nearly shut down half a dozen times. Having endured this long decline, Don Bluth, one of Disney’s veteran animators and directors, had enough. He left Disney and took 16 of the studio’s animators with him, intent on getting back to basics and producing feature-length animated films again. His name might not ring a bell, but you’ve definitely seen his movies: An American Tail 1 & 2 (the Fievel movies), All Dogs Go To Heaven, Anastasia, and the original Land Before Time were all Don Bluth movies. The Secret of NIMH was actually Bluth’s first post-Disney feature film, which unfortunately means it’s less well-known than some of his later successes.
The Secret of NIMH shows us the life of a simple farm mouse, Mrs. Brisby. Mrs. Brisby’s son is very sick, and she desperately needs help moving him before her home is destroyed by the farmer’s plough. The only ones that can help are the mysterious rats of the rose bush, strange, almost magical creatures that seem to have known her late husband.
American Pop (1981)
If you’re going to talk American animation beyond the big 3 studios then you have to go back, before the Disney Renaissance. If you’re going to talk American animation before the Disney Renaissance then there are two giant, inescapable names that you must address: Don Bluth and Ralph Bakshi. Let’s talk about a Ralph Bakshi movie.
The king of rotoscope, Ralph Bakshi is the guy who really created and explored the idea that animation doesn’t always have to be for kids. What’s rotoscope? It’s literally animating on top of live-action footage. For ages it was used as a pre-CGI method for creating special effects (the original Star Wars, for example, featured heavy rotoscoping). Bakshi was the first director to use it to animate entire movies, admittedly with mixed success. Rotoscoping allows for incredibly realistic movement, but is (surprisingly) bad at translating facial expressions.
Considered one of Bakshi’s better movies, American Pop is an alternate history retelling of the rise of pop music in the United States. The story is presented through the eyes of four generations of a Russian Jewish immigrant family, each of whom has a profound impact on the music industry of their respective day. It’s a fascinating look at the type of people who defined musical genres through the years.
Azur & Asmar: The Princes’ Quest (Azur et Asmar, 2006)
Another original fairytale from Michel Ocelot! Ocelot has this fantastic skill of drawing from all points of a culture’s folklore and making a movie that’s at once evocative of its inspiration but satisfyingly original.
This time around Ocelot draws from dozens of Arabic folk tales, including some of the more infamous stories of 1,001 Arabian Nights. He also employed a new technique for 3D animation, rendering non-photo-realistic figures on top of painted backgrounds. The effect is absolutely stunning, and gives the entire movie a storybook feeling without looking like a series of drawings. It’s absolutely overflowing with rich colors and intricate arabic designs, and is a complete treat to behold.
The story: On the French countryside two boys are inexplicably born with the exact same destiny: to save the djinn fairy of the east. One is born to a wealthy french household, the other is born to an Arabic nursemaid working in the same household. The boys grow together, are forced apart, and eventually meet back up as fate guides them towards their shared destiny.
A Town Called Panic (Panique au village, 2009)
Most of the animated feature films worth a damn are dramas and serious adventure movies. They can start to weigh on you, if you watch them one after another. That’s why it’s so fantastic that movies like A Town Called Panic exist. An unapologetically silly, borderline nonsensical comedy that injects you into its bizarre world for 80 minutes and keeps you entertained the entire time.
A stop-motion animated feature that uses action figures (kind of like the old KaBlam! shorts on Nickelodeon), based on a Belgian/French TV series of the same name, A Town Called Panic recounts the lives of Horse, Cowboy, and Indian. Three roommates in a small rural town. It’s your average guys-order-too-many-bricks-for-a-birthday-present-then-accidentally-destroy-their-house-then-as-they’re-attempting-to-fix-the-house-with-the-bricks-aquatic-dwellers-start-stealing-their-half-finished-house romp. And it’s a delight. Highly recommended!
The Secret of Kells (2009)
The Secret of Kells is a glorious reminder that 2D animation is very much alive, and capable of being infinitely improved upon. In this case the movie is animated with stylized 2D drawings, but uses computer graphics to add color-washes and other subtle effects. The overall product is an all-too-rare visual treat in a medium that’s increasingly becoming a victim of computer technology, when it should be a beneficiary.
A young boy raised among monks finds his calling as a manuscript illuminator. But in order to become skilled enough to illuminate the legendary Book of Iona he’ll have to brave the dangerous forests of Kells and discover nature’s secrets from its wild pagan spirits.