Or, rather: my top ten favourite animated films… at the moment. Unlike my favourite live-action films list, there’s only one childhood favourite here. These are all films I either watched for the first time in the last four years or have recently revisited. Many of the films on this list are relatively recent releases.
What does that say about my tastes? I really don’t know. But I really love animation.
10. Ocean Waves
This is a list I’ve been planning to make for a while – and for a time I was bothered by the lack of Asian entries. Sticking Spirited Away on here would have felt more tokenistic than anything else – especially since as much as I like and admire Spirited Away, I don’t love it.
Then a while ago Channel 4 did a marathon of Studio Ghibli’s films in the week before Christmas. I managed to tune in only once, on Christmas Eve, when – probably intentionally – the scheduled film was the somewhat obscure Ocean Waves. The plot summary they gave didn’t grab me, but I stuck with it when the Studio Ghibli logo came up. I stuck with it through the immensely awkward subtitles. I stuck with it when the rest of my family sat down for pre-dinner drinks. Thankfully I have an understanding family.
For all Ocean Waves is completely different from your average Ghibli film, it’s the one that made me want to watch more. It was something about the incredible level of detail in the animation – and just how evocative it is. Ocean Waves is a TV-movie romance, but it’s more than that. It’s a film about being on the cusp of adulthood – about being asked to bear responsibilities you don’t feel ready for, but simultaneously feeling fenced in by your youth. It’s about nostalgia. It’s about issues and arguments and emotions that seemed world-shaking turning out to actually be… not that big a deal.
It’s a film with a very clear age-bracket when it comes to appeal. The Christmas I watched Ocean Waves was only a year or two after I started university. For me it was beautifully evocative.
9. Belleville Rendez-Vous/The Illusionist
I can’t choose between these two films. They’re both so good, but in very different ways – and since they were made by the same director, I can’t really give them two slots on this list.
Both films are near-silent – Belleville Rendez-Vous has two lines of dialogue, one at the beginning and one at the end; The Illusionist has dialogue scattered throughout in three different languages and only one line which must be understood to follow the plot. But that’s really all they have in common.
Belleville Rendez-Vouse is a cynical, surreal satire of – well, basically everything. French people. Americans. Cyclists. Gangsters. Dogs. You name it. It’s about a grandmother raising her recently orphaned grandson. The only thing she can find that cheers him up is cycling – and this comes to define their relationship as she becomes his cycling trainer.
But when he finally enters the Tour de France, he is kidnapped by the sinister bicyle Mafia, who spirit him away to Belleville (New York). His Grandmother follows him across the atlantic in a pedalo and, with the help of the Triplets of Belleville, a group of aging Vaudeville performers, searches him out.
It’s a strange and at times nightmarish film (some people I’ve shown it to found it intensely creepy rather than enjoyable) – but also weird and wonderful. It’s an exercise in visual storytelling, in making the grotesque endearing – and in making an adventure story about a group of old ladies.
The Illusionist is squarely in the real world. It’s set in late fifties (or possibly earlier sixties) France and Scotland: the story of an old-fashioned stage magician trying to sustain a career in a world that no longer has space for him. He travels to the Hebrides to perform at a party celebrating the island’s brand new electricity connection, where he befriends a young girl who takes him for a real wizard.
And I shall stop there, because I don’t want to spoil the rest of the film. I went into The Illusionist almost completely blind: I’d watched the trailer, which consists largely of the magician’s rabbit misbehaving intercut with Scottish scenery, but I deliberately hadn’t looked up the plot.
I got the DVD for my birthday and since I was spending the day alone – largely by choice – I sat down to watch it in the evening with pizza. This was probably a mistake. For you see The Illusionist is one of the bleakest films I’ve ever seen. It is soul-crushingly sad, to the point that I’ve not yet been able to rewatch it. The cake afterwards didn’t help much with the misery.
I think Belleville Rendez-Vous is in many respects a more interesting film – The Illusionist, though it has some fascinating themes, dips into emotional manipulation at times. But The Illusionist excels at visual storytelling where Belleville Rendez-Vous sometimes flags and I probably enjoy watching it more – when I can stomach the bleakness.
I sometimes think that, even after seventy plus years, Pinocchio might be the best film Disney ever made. If nothing else, together with Fantasia it’s the pinnacle of pre-WWII Disney.
As best I can tell, it was after the Second World War that Disney animation – and possibly Western animation in general – really became a children’s medium. With the exception of Dumbo, Disney’s very early films are all highly artistic, surreal, often frightening and occasionally sexy.
Pinocchio is a strange and unsettling film from start to finish. It’s full of absolutely stunning hand-drawn animation that in places easily tops a lot of more reason computer-supplemented animation.
All of Disney’s early films have an amazing ability to provoke truly intense emotional responses in people. Dumbo and Bambi are known for their tearjerks; Snow White is known for its horrifying transformation scene. Pinocchio manages the full spectrum of emotional responses, from comedy to fear to tears, making the ending incredibly cathartic. And few films capture as well as Pinocchio the experience of being a child.
7. Prince of Egypt
As much as I love The Prince of Egypt, it makes me a little sad. It’s Dreamworks Animation’s best film – and also their first. In a sense it was all downhill from here. But that’s not fair – I love many of Dreamworks’ more recent films, but none have the pure, breathtaking epic quality of The Prince of Egypt.
Though slightly hampered by its short run-time, Prince of Egypt is a true Biblical epic in the vein of The Ten Commandments. But it’s also a very human drama, and in some respects it is all about the importance of human relationships and interactions. An interesting little detail: in The Ten Commandments, Moses is given the robe and staff that mark him as a prophet on his exile from Egypt. In The Prince of Egypt, he gains both during his time living among the desert tribe – they initially mark him as a shepherd, not an exile, and signify his inclusion into his new community. Given the clear influence of The Ten Commandments on Prince of Egypt, this is quite probably deliberate.
Prince of Egypt places its primary focus on the relationship between Moses and Rameses, here imagined as brothers. The break-down of their relationship is the heart of the film – and it really does hurt. Upon the death of Rameses’ son in the final plague, upon finally being released from Egypt, there’s a moment of awful realism: as soon as he is alone, Moses breaks down in tears, grieving for his brother.
And visually, this film is stunning. It takes advantage of its medium so well, with its vast, otherworldly images, that it might just be the best-looking Biblical epic ever made.
6. The Secret of Kells
I talked in a previous post about the frequent disparity between animation quality and writing quality. The Secret of Kells is a prime example. Visually it is beautiful, with a distinctive style and some wonderfully creative images – watch Brendan’s battle with Crom Cruach on youtube and you’ll see what I mean. The animation style is illuminated manuscript meets Butch Hartman (The Fairly Odd Parents, Danny Phantom).
Sadly, the writing doesn’t quite match up. Or in a sense it does – the narrative of Secret of Kells is distinctive and creative and highly original. It’s not by any means bland or uninteresting – it’s just poorly structured. It took me two watches and some research into the historical Book of Kells to work out why it ends as it does.
The Book of Kells, by the by, is an illuminated manuscript of the Four Gospels and one of Ireland’s foremost national treasures. I recommend reading up on it before watching the film as it’ll make the experience immensely richer. The Secret of Kells is a (very heavily) fictionalised account of its creation, drawing together various different theories and traditions – and throwing fairies and Pagan gods into the mix.
The fantasy elements tend to raise a few eyebrows – but it really is seamless. Aisling, the forest spirit, is not mere fancy; she symbolises Pagan Ireland, nature, and chaos. She’s a foil for the Abbot of Kells. The interplay between the sets of opposing forces is interesting – though somewhat confused.
5. Under the Red Hood
It’s a direct-to-video animated Batman movie. Hear me out. Under the Red Hood currently holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes – that’s higher than The Dark Knight and higher than Batman and Batman Returns. It’s a really good Batman film – unfortunately one that requires a higher degree of familiarity with comics canon than most. But reading the relevant Wikipedia pages is probably enough to see you through.
Under the Red Hood is adapted from two Batman storylines, Death in the Family and Under the Hood. It’s the story of Jason Todd, Batman’s second – and least successful – Robin. Jason Todd is mostly known for (stop reading here if you want to avoid spoilers) having been killed off following a telephone poll in 1988… and then coming back from the dead.
Like many of DC’s animated films, Red Hood exists in its own little bubble of canon, allowing it to throw out and streamline plot elements as it pleases. The narrative is split between achronological flashbacks showing Jason Todd’s time as Robin and unfolding events in present-day Gotham as a mysterious figure called the Red Hood cuts a bloody swathe through Gotham’s criminal population.
More than anything else, it’s an action-packed psychological study. Under the Red Hood is dedicated to the question of what drove Jason Todd to become the Red Hood. Was it his death at the hands of Joker? His unnatural resurrection thanks to Ra’s al Ghul? Was he just born that way? Or was it Batman’s influence? Or all of the above?
Under the Red Hood mostly leaves the answer ambiguous – but if anything is certain in the final scenes, it’s that Batman will always blame himself. And he is probably right to do so.
For whatever reason, I tend to prefer Pixar’s less popular films. I absolutely love A Bug’s Life. I thought Cars was pretty good. And Ratatouille is probably my favourite and I don’t know why.
Even for Pixar, this is a weird concept. It’s about a rat who wants to be a professional chef – because rats are actually sapient and capable of communicating with humans, they just pretend not to be. He has visions of the ghost of the dead chef who is his hero, then befriends a man working in the kitchen of the chef’s old restaurant. They’re able to form a partnership because the rat can control the human by… pulling on his hair? Not direct him – actually control him, like a puppet. It doesn’t make a lick of sense.
But other than some logical hiccups, it’s such a fun film. It’s full of beautifully animated food, frankly adorable character designs, and a message that, though not novel, is sweet and sincere: ‘true greatness can come from anywhere‘.
It’s a film about striving to succeed in a creative field that traditionally locks you out. You could probably replace the rat/human divide with a class, gender or racial divide and the plot would work – but Pixar, being Pixar, went with rats and did not go for any allegory in particular. The rats are rats. The problems they face interacting with the human world are rat problems. It’s a story that is applicable and identifiable, not allegorical.
There are better Pixar films that Ratatouille, but for me this one is the prettiest, the sweetest, and the most fun.
I loved Fantasia when I was a child to a degree that was probably unnatural. Fantasia isn’t really a children’s film. It doesn’t have a plot or any real characters – and I think that’s why I loved it so much. Fantasia was a blank canvas for my imagination. As far as I was concerned, Fantasia was one long story – just not a linear one.
If I’m remembering right, this was my reading: Fantasia is the name of the world where the film is set. The various shorts show different parts of this singularly awesome fantasy world where wizards and centaurs and hippos in tutus reside. The opening short, Tocata and Fugue in B Minor, was not so much a part of this world as a gateway to it. Its imagery was what you would see as you passed through the wormhole and its various gateways – then some of the features of the world itself. Or, alternatively, Tocata is the creation of the world of Fantasia out of chaos.
I’m not really sure how I arrived at this conclusion, and even at a young age I knew it wasn’t really how the film was meant to be read – the narrator practically says as much – but I still loved watching the film and trying to work out how the various shorts could be slotted together.
But despite my love for it, I almost never watched Fantasia to the end. Night on Bald Mountain terrified me beyond belief. I always had this sense that it was something I should not be watching – that it was full of strange, grown-up things that I didn’t fully understand. Watching it back now, I’m not sure why I thought that, because it really is just a bunch of scary images put to music. Maybe it was the clearly visible nipples on the harpies.
Even if I got through Night on Bald Mountain, Ave Maria just bored me to tears. A while back Sporcle.com did a quiz asking you to identify the final shots of Disney films. I didn’t get them all – because Fantasia stumped me. Seriously.
2. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
As much as I try to avoid admitting it, Hunchback is my favourite Disney film. Not because it’s very good – quite the opposite.
Hunchback is a mess. I do not understand what possessed Disney to adapt the book; of all their adaption choices, this is the one that makes the least sense. It was never a children’s story, there’s no cute animals – why, Disney?
The result of that thoroughly weird decision was a film that is an absurdly light and fluffy adaption of the novel – but a weirdly dark Disney film. It’s a thoroughly flawed film – but flawed in a way that is quite fascinating.
At times, Hunchback is very true to its source material – Hellfire, for instance, which is one of the darkest sequences Disney has ever put to film. But then there’s the singing gargoyles, and the slapstick, and A Guy Like You – it’s unbalanced, mismatched, and downright weird. I find it fascinating that Disney decided to make this film, and fascinating that they then insisted on so much comic relief.
It also has a fantastic soundtrack. I could listen to it over and over, songs and instrumentals both – I have listened to it over and over. With a few exceptions the songs are both brilliant and quite un-Disney, and I love each and every one of them.
1. How to Train Your Dragon
This is not the best film on the list in terms of animation or narrative, neither is it the one I enjoyed the most on first viewing – but How To Train Your Dragon is the one I could watch over and over and get the same emotional notes every single time.
It’s a pretty straightforward coming-of-age nerd fantasy film: awkward teenage boy earns respect of his father and his peers and gets a hot girlfriend. Instant plot, just add dragons!
But it’s all done so well. Hiccup’s relationship with his father has so much realism to it; Stoick is, from the start, just a decent guy trying to raise a son he doesn’t understand, not a bad father. Hiccup’s conflict between his own culture, the dragons, and his conscience is beautifully realised.
Then there’s the dragons and the dragon-riding. Dragon-riding is not by any means a new trope – The Dragon-Riders of Pern is probably the ur-example – but How To Train Your Dragon is, I think, the best depiction of dragon-riders on film (though given that its main competition is Eragon, that may not be saying much).
The dragon-riding scenes are beautifully animated, creating a strong sense both of motion and of mechanics: we see Hiccup design the system that will let him ride Toothless, and so come to understand exactly how and why it works.
Plus the dragon-designs are so inventive – not so much the dragons themselves as the fire. On the DVD commentary the creators talk about animating dragonfire and point out – this I hadn’t noticed – that dragonfire on film is traditionally based around what can be created easily on a film set: i.e. fire that burns very intensely, but very quickly, without damaging anything.
But How To Train Your Dragon is an animated film, and the creators realised they didn’t have to follow convention. The result is a dragon that spits Napalm, intensely destructive fire, and a real sense of danger.
That, I think, is what is so good about How To Train Your Dragon: everything about the world it creates feels real and solid. You fully believe in the viking village and its culture, in the dragons, and particularly in Toothless and his relationship with Hiccup. It’s so sincere and so very touching, from start to finish.