Animation. It’s not just for kids, but it never really was, was it? Adult humour and situations have been prevalent in the genre since day one, yet for some reason, it’s still associated with children and the whims of fantasy. Perhaps that’s because it has been the domain of fantasists for so long – through the age when CGI can approximate the images that, once upon a time, could only be realised onscreen via cartoons.
Which is not to say that the best animated children’s fare can’t appeal to adults. In identifying our favourite films in the category, my esteemed colleague Jonathan Eig and I have picked a number of movies that were designed for the younger set yet also have sensibilities that grown-ups can appreciate – including the quality of the animation. For our lists, we stuck to feature-length films; as an extra, we’ve also included some shorts that are worth mentioning. Here’s what we came up with … feel free to add your choices in the comments.
Disney’s quasi-experimental ode to classical music is as radical today as it was when it debuted more than 70 years ago, with a selection of greatest hits accompanied by animation ranging from the abstract (Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor features the famously ominous organ melody set to swooping swatches of colour) to the representational (Stravinsky’s menacing masterpiece Le Sacre du Printemps gets the prehistoric treatment, with a host of frolicking and fighting dinosaurs). During this exercise in eye candy, you get some terrific conducting from the great Leopold Stokowski, as well as a welcome appearance by Mickey Mouse in one of the most famous sections: Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Everything comes together in this wonderful film, and although some parts are more enjoyable than others, it’s overall an extraordinary, seminal achievement.
Alice in Wonderland (1951)
This cartoon – from Disney again – comes closest, in my opinion, to the original, classic children’s book by Lewis Carroll out of all the iterations … including Tim Burton’s horrid 2010 live-action version. Featuring animation that approximates the whimsy of John Tenniel’s original illustrations for the novel, plus a host of hummable songs, Disney’s Alice offers a charming, brightly coloured look at the studio’s golden age. The Mad Hatter scene in particular is worth watching, with Ed Wynn lending his wonderfully silly voice to the famously wacky character. The film may not be a masterpiece, but it’s a personal favourite of mine and is imaginative enough to land in my Top 5 for the genre.
Fantastic Planet (1973)
There’s no cartoon like this, a hallucinogenic French science-fiction spectacular that takes place on a distant world inhabited by gigantic, bald-headed creatures. Directed by René Laloux, the film boasts vibrant, un-Disneyfied animation overflowing with wild imagery, from strange plants to exotic fauna. Some of it is a little disturbing, and it may not be the best choice for young children. It’s unique, though, and is as creative as they come. For a cartoon that speaks to adults, this is a good choice.
Watership Down (1978)
It doesn’t get any less Disneylike than this film, a brilliant, gory adaptation of the eponymous Richard Adams novel about a colony of rabbits looking to move to a safer home. Equipped with the vocal talents of some great British actors (including John Hurt and Ralph Richardson) plus one superb American comedic performer (Zero Mostel), Watership Down features gorgeous, pastoral imagery, a lyrical score by Angela Morley and a powerful story that involves what, in my opinion, is the most beautiful ending in all of animation’s history. This is definitely not fare for young children; much of the movie is upsetting, even realistic when it comes to the bunnies’ trials and tribulations, and there’s quite a bit of violence for a flick that was rated PG in the United States. Nevertheless, it’s required viewing for anyone who’s seeking something different in the cartoon category.
The Lord of the Rings (1978)
Any list of one’s favourite animated features has got to include a Ralph Bakshi production, right? Maybe not, but mine does. Though it may not compare to Peter Jackson’s splendid LOTR trilogy (2001-03), Bakshi’s inventive cartoon offers plenty to enjoy, including a creative rotoscoping technique that blends live action with animation. This gives the movie a unique feel, and while it may depart frequently from the books, for a single film it’s quite well done. There’s a little bit of blood, so it may not be appropriate for the youngest of viewers, but many older children and adults may find it just right. Fun stuff.
Disney had already produced three very popular and ground-breaking features by 1941. And you can make the case that Snow White (1937), Pinocchio (1940), and Fantasia (1940) are better movies. But after not seeing the early Disney movies for many years, those three begin to fade from my memory. Surreal pink elephants and a plucky baby with big ears never fade. There are those who have never taken to Disney’s anthropomorphic animals, but if that doesn’t bother you, Dumbo is the perfect distillation of Disney’s appeal.
And how would the world of animation be different if there were no Walt Disney? For a clue, look to Eastern Europe, where the Disney influence was muted. A darker, more adult-oriented animation style took root and the results have been astonishing. Czech animator Jan Svankmajer’s first feature film is an extraordinary mixture of techniques, blending live action, puppetry, and stop motion animation to create a version of Lewis Carroll that had never been seen before. Svankmajer would follow this up with many other surrealist gems, and would be a major influence on the work of Terry Gilliam.
The Lion King (1994)
The Lion King came at the end of a remarkable return to glory for the Disney studio. The wunderkind Jeffrey Katzenberg had produced The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), and Aladdin (1992) over a four-year period. But those movies all had the outstanding songs of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman to buoy them. Ashman’s tragic death in 1991 required a new formula. Katzenberg hired Elton John and Tim Rice to write the songs, and Hans Zimmer to oversee the music. And he also pulled out all the stops to create one of the most beautiful feature cartoons of all time. Oh yeah, and there’s Timon and Pumbaa too.
Toy Story (1995)
Director John Lasseter’s history in animation, and his complex relationship with Disney, could make for a fascinating movie itself. Suffice to say that his company, Pixar, has been the most influential entity in animated feature film over the last twenty years, helping usher in the era of CGI. But with Toy Story, he demonstrated that the form of animation is ultimately subordinate to the story being told. And when you have a brilliant, heart-warming story of courage and sacrifice, filled with quirky, funny, and endearing characters, you have a winner. You may prefer Finding Nemo (2003) or WALL-E (2008), but Toy Story is still my favourite Pixar.
Spirited Away (2001)
And then, standing against the CGI tide, Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli, in a slow, quiet and methodical way, forged a career as the greatest animator in the history of feature film. Only Disney can rival him, and Disney didn’t personally draw the way Miyazaki has over his long career. Although he did make several movies after it, Spirited Away was the capstone. A remarkable concoction, featuring his lifelong passion for environmental themes, astonishing sequences and characters (No-Face’s bath house adventure is among the best in all animation), and an eternal childlike view of a very adult world. My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Princess Mononoke (1997) are astonishing works as well, but nothing surpasses Spirited Away.
Extras (a number of short animated films that we particularly like):
The Critic (1963)
What happens when a nice Jewish critic sits down to watch a pretentious bit of amorphous, preliminary animation? Hilarity, that’s what. This wildly funny short basically showcases Mel Brooks’ voice as his character, a 71-year-old alter kocker, attempts to decipher an artsy, pointless cartoon featuring a bunch of geometric shapes flying around to classical music. Warning: If you watch this once, you may want to watch it again. Brilliantly funny.
Lady Fishbourne’s Complete Guide to Better Table Manners (1976)
A whole lot of laugh-inducing nonsense disguised as a treatise on etiquette, this hilarious short showcases exactly what not to do at the dinner table. Fish run wild. Guests threaten each other. All hell breaks loose. And all the while, there’s the complacent Lady Fishbourne, sipping her tea. Whimsical as all git-out and a pleasure to watch.
One Froggy Evening (1955)
Disney may have dominated the feature market in the USA, but no one did better shorts than the collection of talent at Warner Brothers. Friz Freleng, Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Robert McKimson – they all did outstanding work bringing Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner, among countless others, to screen. But Chuck Jones and his Michigan J. Frog remain an eternal favourite. The details, the songs, and the perfect dramatic structure all come together in this story of one wishful thinker and one really difficult frog.
The Hand (1965)
It was Jiri Trnka’s final film. The great Czech animator had become fed up with governmental restriction and so he gave us this short gem about a sculptor who simply wants to make pots for his plants, but is harangued by a giant hand into paying tribute to the vast unseen forces that control our lives. In the West, we tend to think of cartoons as light entertainment. In Eastern Europe, they developed a tradition of slipping sophisticated political statements into these light entertainments. Think of this as The Cat Came Back with a serious message. The end is very poignant, all the more so if you are aware of Trnka’s career.
About the Authors
Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/ and at https://twitter.com/rockynrudy.
Simon Butler is a writer and editor living in Forest Hills, NY. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and is a big movie buff, with favourite flicks including The Seven Samurai, Lawrence of Arabia, The Seventh Seal and, of all things, That Man From Rio. His film-centric blog may be found at cinemablogishkeit.com.