Classic hand-drawn animation (The Jungle Book), anime/manga (Ghost in the Shell/Akira), CG animation (Toy Story), overlaid animation (rotoscoping – A Scanner Darkly), stop-motion (Chicken Run), performance capture (Beowulf). We could go on. Indeed a Top Ten list could be compiled for any one of those techniques and you would still come nowhere near scraping the barrel.
It is indeed a rich art form. So, at the risk of reducing the list too much and also at the risk of leaving out too many beloved films, I’m going to go for range and variety rather than trying to rank every animated film in order of quality and then skim off the top six.
It can be tempting to see CG-animation as the future and state of play of animation, but all of the other styles and techniques listed above still have their place.
You cannot avoid the impact of Disney on animation.
Any animated Disney film from 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs through to 1967’s The Jungle Book could comfortably have made this list (including Pinocchio, 101 Dalmatians, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Bambi) and although a long fallow period followed Walt’s passing, eventually the studio got its act back together, delivering the thoroughly impressive sequence of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Tarzan.
But Dumbo gets my vote. Okay, so the crows are more than slightly problematic in their racial stereotyping (long before Michael Bay caught flack for Mudflap and Skids in Transformers 2), but the psychedelic Elephants on Parade sequence (giving us trippy cinema decades before 2001), Mrs Jumbo’s trunk-cuddle of Dumbo, “When I see an Elephant Fly” and the big top sequences all elevate this to top-drawer status, animated or otherwise.
Charming, moving, exciting and hilarious, this will break your heart and then help put the pieces back together. Beautiful.
2. CG-Animation (Part I) – How To Train Your Dragon
DreamWorks had always been able to match Pixar stride for stride when it came to technical accomplishment – Shrek was more than equal to Toy Story in the quality of the rendering – but it had always fallen way behind in beauty, emotional resonance and heart.
Sit Shark Tale alongside Finding Nemo and you saw everything that put Pixar deservedly streets ahead of its only serious competitor. But that began to change.
It really started with Kung Fu Panda, which although knock-about funny, also took time to look lovely, with the impressive martial arts animation accompanied by scenes of beauty such as Master Oogway’s blossom-festooned passage to the after-life. Monsters vs Aliens was a hilarious and affectionate take on the 1950’s-60’s cycle of sci-fi B-movies about which most of the target audience knew nothing and in quality (not just of animation but of story-telling and audience engagement) it was right up there with Pixar’s best.
Then came HTTYD. Our good friend Steven Neish could talk for hours about why this is the greatest of all animated films and I’m inclined to say he’s not far off. The story is great, the script witty and intelligent, the flight sequences moving and thrilling in equal measure, the soundtrack alone is worth the cost of the DVD and the final revelation of Hiccup’s injury from the final battle feels like something that Disney/Pixar wouldn’t have the courage to go near in a million years. The quality of the animation is a given these days, but the emotional heft is relatively new and entirely welcome.
3. CG-Animation (Part II) – The Incredibles
As DreamWorks have upped their game, Pixar seem to have begun to tail off. Increasingly lacklustre box office, tepid critical receptions for sequels (the triumphant Toy Story trilogy aside) and the seeming loss of what had previously been a Midas touch in terms of ideas, stories, characterisation and pathos have all put the previously indestructible Pixar on the back foot.
Cars 2 and Brave fall into the “not bad but hardly classic” category, but that shouldn’t prompt a wholesale revisionist take on what had undoubtedly been an earlier golden run. Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, (Cars – dammit, spoiling my point) Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, Toy Story 3. It is difficult to think of another studio with such an impressive run of form. Apart from Cars. But moving on.
If Up could have sustained the devastating emotional impact of the opening sequence, it might not have appealed to kids so much, but it would certainly have pushed it up this list. Similarly, had Wall-E sustained its silent-movie vibe through the rest of the film, it might just have become the greatest animated film ever made, but these are altogether petty quibbles; these are exceptional film-making achievements.
But The Incredibles gets the nod, most likely because of my undying love for superheroes, but it is there on merit too. Although there is action aplenty, the most effective and affecting elements are to do with Bob’s desire for more than just a normal life and his difficulty in adjusting to domesticity, the writing, voice work and character arcs all exceptionally effective in raising this film above mere spectacle.
Probably better than any other superhero film you could name and a better depiction of disaffected masculinity than any animated film has any business being. Great, great, great.
4. Anime/Manga – Akira
Coming onto the scene when it did, at a time when most of the animation that mainstream audiences saw was of the conventional, predictable (but not necessarily bad for it) Disney variety, Akira was something else entirely.
Set in a dystopian Japanese future, where biking gangs intersect secretive government experiments and devastating superhuman power, Akira gave us violence, spectacle and a giant mutated fleshy finale. The visceral thrill of the motorcycle sequences along with the unconventional (for its time) use of animation for what is a fairly grown up story marked it out from its peers and it remains both highly regarded and genre defining.
The finer points of the plot remain more than a little inscrutable and there are subtleties and convolutions that even repeated viewings won’t likely resolve, but as a visual experience, a thrill ride and the apex of the sub-genre, it is unmatched. There are more accessible films, even within Manga/Anime, but if you want to start at the top and then work your way down, look no further.
Studio Ghibli does not have a faultless track record. Like any other studio it churns out hits and misses, but when it hits, how it hits. Spirited Away is just such a hit, in which a 10-year old girl finds herself in a parallel world of monsters, ghosts and the like and must find her place among them before she can find her way out.
Some genuinely unique creations, from slime monsters to train-travelling spectres to talking frogs stay with you long after the credits roll and there is a real emotional impact to Chihiro’s plight and we long to see her find herself and her path out of this strange but fascinating alternate reality.
As with all of the best animation, there is masses going on in the background, all of it detailed, beautiful and fascinating and none of it superfluous. The story is compelling and wonderfully crafted and the animation is a feast for the eyes that amply rewards multiple viewings. A great entry point for a studio that keeps on giving.
An awful lot could have gone in here – it is a broad church indeed. Mary & Max, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline, ParaNorman, A Town Called Panic, Fantastic Mr Fox – all would have deserved their place. The choice of Wallace and Gromit in part reflects the debt that is owed to Aardman Studios – perennial (or at least as often as they could make one) winners of the Best Animated Short Oscar – for continuing to persevere with what might have otherwise become an obsolete technique as everything seemed to shift over to CG.
As always, the correct medium for your film is whatever enables your story to be told and there is no wisdom in getting everyone to bunch in one bracket (whether it be CG animation, superhero adaps, teen fiction, black and white, 3D or anything else) at the expense of diversity. Although there is something peculiarly, even quaintly British about Wallace, Gromit and the rest of Aardman’s output, the technique is clearly versatile enough to run across a whole host of cultures and contexts. A Town Called Panic, Mary & Max, Coraline and Chicken Run could not be more dissimilar, despite them all sharing the pitch marked “stop-motion”.
As for the Were-Rabbit itself, the film is a thing of beauty. Unbelievably pain-staking in its production, the film finds time for ridiculous levels of in-jokes, background gags and visual humour. Mere frowns, shrugs and smiles convey what might otherwise be pages of dialogue, the economy of the characterisation and story-telling being as impressive as the more obviously technical accomplishments. Were-Rabbit has a rewatch factor that is almost off the scale and as much as anything else you’ll need all of those repeat viewings to catch everything you missed last time and the time before that (and the time before that…).
And a couple of the worst….
Gnomeo and Juliet – Everything is wrong here. Of course it is a derivative story, but strictly speaking pretty much everything in this article is in some way, but it’s done with so little wit and imagination and the animation is so mediocre that it seems to be nothing other than an exercise in drawing attention to its own shortcomings. Very bad.
Shark Tale – At this stage, DreamWorks was more than a match for Pixar’s technical animation skills, but the quality of the product was well off the pace. Far too anthropomorphic, especially compared with the subtle beauty of Finding Nemo, Shark Tale relies on contemporary jokes that raise a flicker of recognition (look, there’s a line from Jerry Maguire and the character voiced by Renee Zellweger sighs!) but age the film terribly and leave much newer audiences pretty non-plussed. Bright and shiny, but as hollow as a big empty hollow thing.
Sammy’s Adventures – A Turtle’s Tale – An environmental story, told with such sledge-hammer delicacy as to make On Deadly Ground seem refined and subtle, Sammy’s Adventures are bland and unengaging, playing off the appeal of Squirt and Crash from Nemo, but with nothing resembling their charm. Obviously the very highest quality animation needs a hefty budget, but as with Gnomeo and Juliet, when the rest of the film is that bad the poor animation draws further attention to numerous shortcomings.