Most of us relate the word ‘animation’ to the colorful, digital imagery of Pixar/Disney movies. We can, of course, understand the appeal of these glitzy movies. The American studios’ talent in building rich, immaculate visuals is unquestionable. However, animated movies are not just visual entertainment targeted at children. They are not just made to give us didactic, happily-ever-after messages. Animation movies are a distinct art form too. They have the power to deal with adult, serious themes in an easy, naturalistic manner. The aesthetic senses of animated movies aren’t only used for overtly humorous antics. They can equally address morally complex feelings.
2016 has bestowed us with cracking, animated kid-friendly flicks, as well as astoundingly hand-drawn, oft-kilter movies. I have tried my best, in the below list, to name the animated movies, which have alternately made me jump in joy and wallow in deep contemplation.
10. Finding Dory
The vulnerable, wide-eyed kid is a recurrent character in Pixar movies. In the sequel to the glorious Finding Nemo, Dory dons that role. The short-term memory loss of Dory, the blue tang fish, bestows her with adorable, child-like Pixar quirks. The movie starts with Dory’s childhood. The sweet-natured fish, due to her malady, wanders away from her adoring parents. As a grown-up, Dory begins to recall those old memories in flashes. And begins the noble quest to search for the parents. Since Dory’s surrogate family members — Marlin and Nemo — initially disagree to help, she embarks on a journey of her own. Co-director/writer couldn’t shake off the echoes and parallels of the first film. The detailing, as usual, is perfect. But most of the scenarios look like clones of Finding Nemo. All in all, it’s moderately entertaining.
9. Sausage Party
Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s pet project is a gleefully obscene version of cutesy Pixar movies. The characters are edible foods (sausage, hot-dog bun, etc). They dwell inside a supermarket and come to life in the after-hours (just like ‘Toy Story’). I didn’t have much interest in watching it. It seemed like yet another foul-mouthed work from Rogen & Co. But the film, kind of, surprised me. Of course, there’s sex, curse words, and detailed crude remarks on food names and shapes. The debauchery does evoke some laughs. Nevertheless, the real surprise is the oddly touching look at the life of these bizarre sentient beings. The existential crisis of Frank, the sausage (Seth Rogen) leads to some interesting misadventures. It is definitely offensive, but a lot smarter than I anticipated.
8. Phantom Boy
Jean-Loup Felicoli and Alain Gagnol’s French animated tale Phantom Boy is a ghost story of sorts with a film-noir vision of New York. Leo is a preteen New York boy who is hospitalized for an illness, closely resembling cancer. The boy has the ability to leave his physical body and float around the city, invisible to everyone’s eyes. A criminal mastermind nicknamed, ‘The Man with the Broken Face’ threatens the city’s harmony. Alex, a courageous cop and a hero figure for Leo, gets injured during his pursuit of the master criminal. Soon, these two team up to stop the crime wave. Felicoli and Gagnol’s utopian-like, outsider vision of New York works well for the narrative tone. The movie gets too light-hearted at times, making the events less gripping. Nonetheless, it isn’t overly formulaic as many American animated tales.
7. April and the Extraordinary World
Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci’s astoundingly imaginative animated tale is based on Jacques Tardi’s graphic novel. It’s set in the alternative historical version of 19th-century Paris. In this version, the eminent European scientists have mysteriously disappeared. The result is a very gray and polluted Paris. A teenager named April is searching for her vanished, scientist parents. Her partner/friend is a talking cat named Darwin. The best thing about such European animation movies is there isn’t a rigid, controlled environment, like in Hollywood films. ‘April…’ flows smoothly like a breeze blending in the best bits of pulpy adventures and a young girl’s coming of age. Even the lack of technical precision in the hand-drawn animation is a joy to experience. Of course, the scope for such pulp fiction is limited. The directors have, nevertheless, cultivated wonderful imagery within the limitations.
Ron Clements & John Musker’s Moana is awash with familiar Disney themes of the past. The protagonist is a spirited young woman on a dangerous trip to fulfill her destiny. Nevertheless, the subtle updates to the time-worn formula plus the storming musical numbers make it a delightful Disney entertainment. Playwright and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda has created catchy soundtracks. It’s also fascinating to see a Disney film pay a fitting tribute to Polynesian culture and their ancestors’ seafaring abilities. Apart from the charming positive messages, the script joyfully satirizes the old studio’s fixation on a princess & schmaltzy love interest. Hawaiian actress Auli’I Carvalho has brilliantly voiced and sung for Moana.
5. Long Way North
Remi Chaye’s gorgeously animated feature tells the winsome tale of a 19th-century Russian teen named Sacha. She runs away from her extravagant house in St. Petersburg, in search of her beloved grandfather. The voyaging grandfather’s ship went missing in the Arctic Circle. The old explorer/scientist’s dazzling adventure tales have filled Sacha’s imagination. One day, the strong-willed girl finds a clue to the whereabouts of the missing ship. This restrained animated tale from French and Danish production houses raises above the formulaic adventure tales of Hollywood. The animation done with a mixture of paper cutouts and oil crayons remains soothing for the eyes. The central theme of female empowerment is impeccably realized, freeing itself from loud, overt messages. Altogether, it’s an immensely satisfying, old-fashioned animation film.
4. Kubo and the Two Strings
Travis Knight’s spellbinding animation film takes place in fantasy-ridden, post-feudal ancient Japan. The 11-year-old gifted hero Kubo lives with his gloomy mother in a cave atop a mountain. Sinister supernatural creatures put forth Kubo on a mythical quest. His companions are an affectionate snow monkey and a protective beetle warrior. The richly realized stop-motion animation tale derives a lot of its backstory from Eastern mythology. Although this is a colorful, fantasy-ridden story, director Knight has diffused deeply-layered melancholia. Complex, real emotions are at play. Knight’s visual metaphors about loneliness, memories, and loss will endlessly appeal to adult viewers. The narrative shifts towards the end are a bit erratic and feel stretched out. Nevertheless, the final imagery will tug at your heartstrings.
A small-town bunny cop Judy Hopps, in the mammal city of Zootropolis, teams up with Nick, the cunning fox, to solve the mystery of missing animals. Zootopia is this year’s surprising American animation film. It has all the familiar Hollywood themes and overly perfect bright imagery. Yet, the tale feels fresh and immensely entertaining. The narrative elegantly mixes up the hard-boiled noir theme of 40s, the buddy cop comedy of 80s, and Disney’s very own life lessons. For a Disney film, Zootopia is more race-conscious. It’s also loaded with a brilliant message about tolerance for Trump’s America. Directors Moore and Howard (the makers of Tangled and Wreck-it Ralph) have conjured up some marvelous visual wits. Shakira’s (who aptly plays the role of ‘singing gazelle’) theme song ‘Try Everything‘ is an endearing addition.
2. The Red Turtle
Oscar-winning Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit’s first full-length animated film The Red Turtle is a compassionate take on the cyclical nature of life. The famous Japanese anime studio ‘Studio Ghibli’ has co-produced the film. Dudok de Wit’s hand-drawn charcoal illustrations diffuse a painterly quality. The film has no definite context, names, and dialogues. Our young, anonymous protagonist is a shipwreck survivor. He ends up alone in a small, lonely island. What starts off as a man vs nature drama wades into surrealistic territory when our hero discovers a red turtle. The tale proceeds to become more mysterious and meditative, posing big questions about life, loneliness and freedom. The director efficiently blends trademark Ghibli flavor with his brand of contemplative visual flourishes. If watched with an open mind, you may easily connect to its beautiful, wistful frames.
1. Your Name/Kimi no Na Wa
Your Name is a joyful, mind-bending romantic tale. Director Makoto Shinkai’s dazzlingly animated tale mixes complex scientific theories, and Eastern mythology along with heart-breaking teenage love. Shinkai’s works – 5 Centimeters Per Second and The Garden of Words – are often cited when addressing him as a worthy successor to Miyazaki and Takahata’s legacy. Shinkai strengthens that reputation with Your Name. This is the tale of two teenagers, Mitsuha and Taki. Mitsuha lives in the countryside with her beloved grandmother, younger sister, and an estranged politician father. Taki lives in Tokyo. Out of the blue, one day Taki finds himself in Mitsuko’s body and vice-versa. They are forced to live in each others’ bodies two or three times a week.
As time passes, they get a hang of the body-swapping routine and slowly form an inseparable connection. Mitsuha and Taki continue leaving notes or messages in their respective settings. One day, the body-swapping stops. Taki sets out to investigate why. The prevalent Japanese fiction themes like memories of natural disaster, patriarchy, and dealing with young-age deaths, are embedded in the emotionally engaging narrative. How he blurs the line between fantasy and reality reminds us of another greatest anime director Satoshi Kon. The anime, on the whole, is a brilliant take on the volatile phase of adolescence. The ending, furthermore, adds a different meaning to the word ‘soul mate.’
Which of these are your favorites? Tell us in the comments below.
An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’