Part 1: Animation Beyond Pixar
Part 2: 10 More Animated Movies Beyond Pixar
Before you start: I’d like to apologize for the terrible quality in a few of these screenshots. A few of the older/less successful movies are impossible to find in HD. With that, let’s get started! I hope you find something cool!
Sword of the Stranger (Stranja Mukōhadan, 2007)
It’s easy to forget what a good action movie looks like, and even easier to forget that there used to be action movies with actual grit, where the characters aren’t too clever to be fooled or hurt. Sword of the Stranger is both a good action movie and is absolutely caked in grit.
You won’t find many technical innovations in this Sword of the Stranger, and though the styling is beautiful in an austere way it’s definitely not a piece of glittering eye candy. That said, you will immediately be absorbed by its interesting characters and engrossing plot. It’s a testament to the power of good character development and satisfying plot progression/resolution, traits that animated movies often stumble over.
A young boy living among monks escapes as his home monastery is burned to the ground. Pursued by a band of elite Chinese warriors with mysterious motives, the boy runs across a disgraced samurai and strikes a deal for protection.
.The Painting (Le Tableau, 2011)
(This movie is currently available on Netflix US!)
Part of the reason many 3D animated movies are terrible is their sheer banality. Too many of them are about small animals doing something silly for poorly-established reasons (coughDREAMWORKScough). That’s why it’s so incredibly refreshing when a small studio goes for novelty, and turns their creativity towards describing a fascinating premise.
The Painting is an undeniably gorgeous movie, where CGI is turned towards emulating different styles of paintings in really successful and interesting ways.
An unfinished painting sits, abandoned, in an artist’s tiny cabin. Inside the painting the figures have created a stratified culture made up of Alldunns, Halfies, and Scribbles. The only thing that sustains the Halfies and the Scribbles is the idea that their creator might return to complete the painting, but hope is fading fast. With mounting oppression from the Alldunns a Halfie, a Scribble, and a sympathetic Alldunn set out to find their creator, to ask him to finish their painting.
.The Story of Mr. Sorry (Je-bool-chal-ssi I-ya-gi, 2008)
(This movie is currently available on Netflix US!)
Korea’s animation industry is weird. There’s a huge talent pool that regularly produces amazing work, but almost all of it is in the service of American TV shows. Stuff like Young Justice and Legend of Korra are largely designed and animated in South Korea. There’s very little by-and-for Korean animation available, and what is available is often indie (which means that giant talent pool usually isn’t involved).
The Story of Mr. Sorry is one of those indie movies. A dark fantasy animated with cut-out drawings (which, if anything, are vaguely reminiscent of Monty Python, no anime-styling here). The movie is cerebral, sometimes very literally. In tone and substance it’s a bit like Being John Malkovich, kind of quirky, depressive, and willfully weird.
A timid young man is shrunk to the size of a spider and works as an ear-cleaner. While cleaning ears he discovers that he can delve into peoples’ subconscious.
.Heavy Metal (1981)
I love this ridiculous movie. Here’s what you need to know: Heavy Metal was produced by the publishers of Heavy Metal magazine, a British sci-fi/fantasy comics magazine started in the 70s that still runs today. Heavy Metal magazine publishes an extremely specific form of fantasy comic, which is a bit hard to describe. Imagine if Conan the Barbarian fought cyber-goblins in the old west.
The first thing you’ll notice is that there’s almost nothing good about this movie. Choppy animation, horrible voice acting, bad action, bad storytelling. Critical fails all around. The second thing you’ll notice is that it’s so completely, wonderfully ridiculous that you have to keep watching. There’s also an inexplicably good soundtrack with cuts from Black Sabbath, Devo, Grand Funk Railroad, Blue Oyster Cult, and many more. All of this has made Heavy Metal kind of an animated version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The film has always had a cult following, but it really found its audience once it started being used at midnight movie screenings, with people acting along to the ridiculously juvenile stories.
I’m not even going to try to describe the story here. There’s an orb that invades a house for some reason, then a lady who rides a flying horse-thing has to fight a cyborg, then a nerd turns into a body builder so he can beat up horny orcs… It’s just great.
Waltz with Bashir (Vals Im Bashir, 2008)
This is an incredible, sobering movie, and an impressive re-entry into feature-length animation for Israel. The style is impeccable, looking exactly like someone brought an inky, moody comic book to life, in spite of frequent photographic & 3D-rendered backgrounds & effects. Equally-impressive is that not one frame of the movie was rotoscoped, even though you’d swear it was given the incredibly natural movement of the characters.
It’s also a documentary.
Filmmaker Ari Folman meets an old friend for a drink. While catching up his friend relates an disturbing, war-related dream to Ari, which in turn makes Ari realize that he has blanked out his entire time as an Israeli soldier during the 1982 Lebanon war. Later that night Ari has an inexplicable dream regarding his time in Beirut. Unsettled, Ari begins talking to friends, members of his old combat unit, war journalists, and psychiatrists in an attempt to understand the dream, which seems to be related to the gruesome Sabra and Shatila massacre.
.Roujin Z (Rōjin Zetto, 1991)
The early-90s were an odd time for anime, sort of a lull between the giant anime boom of the late 80s and its resurgence via licensed manga properties in the late-90s. It’s always fun to see what an entertainment industry does when the public stopped paying attention. Usually because lots of really innovative and strange ideas manage to seep through the studio filters in that situation. That was definitely the case with Roujin Z, which is somehow an action-comedy about a bedridden old man. Smart and darkly-funny, Roujin Z plays out like the most satisfying kind of satire.
In the near-future the Ministry of Public Welfare unveils its new innovation in senior-care: a robotic, artificially-intelligent hospital bed that can bathe, clothe, feed, and entertain its occupant. However, not everything about the bed is as it seems, and when it goes haywire it sets off a mad-dash between government agencies to contain the situation.
.Fierro (sometimes Martín Fierro, 2007)
Based on a pair of epic poems by Argentinian writer José Hernández, the story of Martín Fierro is considered an indispensable touchstone for Argentinian national identity.
The titular (and fictitious) Martín Fierro is a poor goucho, an everyman who is unjustly conscripted by a Spanish governor to defend a frontier outpost against native attacks. Fierro’s fearsome sense of independence and open rebellion against his Spanish commanding officers made him an instant folk hero in 1890s Argentina.
That sense of national pride really comes through in this production, with a lot of gorgeous background paintings and a really lovingly-crafted score giving the movie a suitably epic, sweeping feel. That said, there are a few problems. Fierro’s simplistic character designs and oddly-placed comedic bits give the movie tonal problems, which the dramatic soundtrack can sometimes exacerbate. It’s sometimes unclear if Fierro wants to be a grand saga or a silly spaghetti western.
.Aya of Yop City (Aya de Yopougon, 2012)
Aya of Yop City depicts a version of Africa that is almost never seen in the west: A peaceful, rapidly-modernizing society with an emerging middle class. It’s based on a series of graphic novels by Marguerite Abouet, who in turn based the series on her own experiences growing up in 1970s Côte d’Ivoire.
This is apparently Abouet’s directorial debut, and right off the bat it is an amazing piece of visual storytelling. I actually wasn’t able to find a subtitle of this movie, but the art direction is so spot-on that I managed to glean most of the movie off of character interactions & tone.
Though the figure-movement can be a bit stiff, everything else about Aya absolutely pops. The character designs are simple but immediately charming, the backgrounds are lovingly rendered for every scene, the score is infectious, and the movie never once feels slow or boring. If this is Abouet’s debut then she’s clearly a fierce talent.
Told from the perspective of Aya, a young adult in the middle-class neighborhood of Yop City, the story follows the travails of Aya’s neighbors. Adjoua, one of Aya’s closest friends, has just discovered she’s pregnant. The father seems to be Moussa, the only son of one of the richest families in Côte d’Ivoire, and he and Adjoua are quickly married. However, when the baby is born Moussa’s domineering father starts doubting the parentage. Meanwhile Aya’s other friend, Bintou, has started dating a rich Parisian man who isn’t what he seems.
.The Thief and the Cobbler (1993)
The Thief and the Cobbler can be viewed as the ultimate cautionary tale for animators. It stands as testament to the fact that no matter how great the creator’s pedigree, how beautiful the film, or how many amazing actors are on board, no film is safe from studio meddling.
It had a notoriously long and troubled production time, starting in 1964 and not seeing the light of day until 1993, having passed through several major production studios and ending up at a cut-rate production bond company. What was intended to be the masterpiece of veteran animator Richard Williams was drastically and haphazardly recut into a direct-to-video yawn. And it’s really our loss, the original animation in The Thief and the Cobbler is absolutely peerless. The amount of beautiful fluidity, or amazingly genuine idiosyncrasies in movement ascribed to drawings still hasn’t been equalled by a major studio.
Thankfully, TTatC got a second life in the animation underground. For years a workprint copy of the movie was circulated by animation fans, and to this day you can still find recuts of the movie on the internet, each one claiming to be closer to Williams’ original intent than the last. The best-known of these recuts is probably Garrett Gilchrist’s “The Recobbled Cut”, released in 2006. Seek it out, it is worth the effort.
The story: The Golden City is an arabesque paradise, ruled by the good King Nod. An ancient prophecy foretells that the city is guarded by three golden balls on its highest spire, and if those balls are ever removed the city will fall to warlike race of one-eyed creatures. If this should ever come to pass the city’s only hope is, “the simplest of souls with the smallest of things.” Meanwhile city-life is moving along predictably for the young cobbler Tack, until a chance encounter with a thief puts him in the clutches of the city’s scheming Vizier, Zigzag, while the thief absconds with the three golden balls.
.The Triplets of Belleville (Les Triplettes de Belleville, 2003)
As the first French animated feature to make a splash overseas, The Triplets of Belleville has become many peoples’ gateway to Francophone animation. And no wonder, it’s a wonderful example of the power of visual storytelling, relying almost entirely on pantomime to communicate its story.
The first feature-length film of Sylvain Chomet (who you might recognize as the director of The Illusionist, another wonderful animated movie), TToB blew everyone away when it first debuted. Somehow it manages to be moody and light, silly and touching, & downtrodden but upbeat all at once. Moreover, in spite of its novel story and ample world-building, it moves along at a very brisk, immensely satisfying pace. You never once catch yourself counting the minutes, wishing the story would move along. That’s an accomplishment in a medium that often inspires self-indulgence.
Madame Souza has trained her grandson, Champion, for years to compete in the Tour de France. However, in the last leg of the race Champion is kidnapped. It’s up to Souza and her chubby dog Bruno to save him. Things look grim as the two follow Champion’s trail to the overstuffed city of Belleville, but a chance encounter with three aging music hall singers may provide the help they need.