As someone who grew up watching cartoons and animated films – like many others, I presume – I have not really been doing my homework with regard to this genre over the past couple of years. Most mainstream animated productions of the last decade have not particularly impressed me – in fact, most of them have showcased a severe lack of originality. The most common approaches have consisted in either reiterations of the same characters and ideas (Toy Story), efforts to milk the cash cow as much as possible and make the project ultra-marketable (Frozen) or simply taking a pre-existing story and remaking it with a ton of CGI splashed over (The Lion King). I’m not saying that any of the aforementioned productions are bad, I’m simply concluding that in terms of originality and substance, they are a little lacking. Thus, I decided to present you a list of less-known animated films that I love, which you might have missed.
Upon its release, Kubo and the Two Strings was the longest-ever stopm-motion animated film, and if I am not mistaken, still holds the record. More importantly, however, it is also a fantastic film in its own right. Set in Feudal Japan, it tells the story of an 11-year-old boy called Kubo, who is sent on an ambitious quest. The well-woven story is a wonderful metaphor about the roles our parents play in shaping our lives, and the narrative style offers many pleasant surprises along the way.
“Each person you speak to has had a day. Some of the days have been good, some bad, but they’ve all had one.” Here’s another really special stop-motion project, that instantly became one of my favourites after watching it in an almost empty Glasgow cinema back in 2015. It’s a very niche project of Charlie Kaufman, who is mostly known for writing The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich. It’s a musing on what it means to be human, and what individuality really signifies. The two main characters are voiced by David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and literally everyone else is voiced by Tom Noonan – a very interesting and meaningful choice.
It’s a very difficult task to single out a Miyazaki project in a list such as this, largely due to the multitude of criteria and options for selection. I ultimately decided to go for a more in-between choice from his decades-long career. It might not be the classic that Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke are, but this anti-war film set in a magical kingdom offers many wise takeaways. Of course, the image and metaphorical significance of the murky moving castle on top of bright green hilltop is a perfect representation of Miyazaki’s genius.
This is one of my favourite animation films, coming from one of my favourite filmmakers – Richard Linklater. Although I was not a big fan of his animated adaptation of A Scanner Darkly, Waking Life immediately captured my attention. The unorthodox, almost trippy visuals and drawing style, combined with a plethora of themes from human evolutionary biology and lucid dreaming to language formation, telepathic links and a collective human consciousness, lead to a very impactful overall impression.
Song of the Sea also grabbed an Oscar nomination, but unfortunately couldn’t compete in a more mainstream setting. The film is beautifully drawn, and its use of colours is impeccable. It tells the story of Ben, a young Irish boy, and his sister Saoirse, who can turn into a seal. The two of them subseqently embark on an adventure, with the aim of rescuing the fairies and saving the spirit world.
Despite its Oscar nomination, The Red Turtle was largely overlooked upon its release, and has only become known to a rather niche audience. ‘Minimalism’ would be the best-fitting term to describe this project by Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit – as both the visuals and the narrative showcase a particular sort of charming simplicity. No words are uttered throughout the film, with the task of storytelling falling exclusively upon the visuals.
I couldn’t finish a list of great animated films without including at least one Wes Anderson project. And, as Isle of Dogs is the most recent one, I instead opted for Fantastic Mr Fox, released over a decade ago. Its cinematography is simply beautiful (it’s a Wes Anderson project, after all), and both its tone and general atmosphere languish perfectly at a middling point between a lighthearted film that is perfect for kids, and a serious philosophical musing on what it means to be human in the 21st century.