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Friday, June 22, 2012

The Definitive Animated Films: 10-1

Scene from "An American Tail"
courtesy of
Well, here we are. We've reached the end of the road. If you had to see ten animated movies, these are it. These are the ten that revolutionized animation in film. These are the ten that will be looked at in 50 more years as classics in the genre. These are the ten that, if you were teaching a master class of animated films, would make up the majority of the curriculum. Here they are - numbers 10 through the much lauded number 1.

#10. South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (1999)

It was the show that saved a dying cable network and beat down the walls of what is allowed on television. In 1999, Matt Stone and Trey Parker took South Park to the big screen with the story of Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and Cartman seeing the R-rated "Terrance & Phillip" movie and their parents' insistence that the film is reason enough to pressure the United States into attacking Canada. Just like the show, it's crude, hilarious, satirical, and delightfully clever (and uncut, so the profanity flies). Featuring some celebrity voices playing other celebrities (Brent Spiner as Conan O'Brien, Minnie Driver as Brooke Shields, Dave Foley as the Baldwin brothers), the film also grabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song with "Blame Canada." Want to know how to transition a popular TV show into a great movie and only add to the original? This is it. 

#9. Fantasia (1940)

What was one of Disney's biggest financial failures (hence the quick release of Dumbo to recoup the damages), Fantasia is essentially a plot-less rumination on classical music. Featuring animated interpretations of great orchestral music from the Western world, the film featured some of the most memorable segments in animated history, from "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" to "The Rite of Spring." With music played by the Philadelphia Orchestra, this collection of eight sequences is a tough, sometimes boring watch for many children, but the innovative approaches to animation and the surrealist ways the music is painted on screen through the cartoon artists is magical.

#8. Yellow Submarine (1968)

So, in the mid 20th century, there was this band of young guys from England that made some music that you may have heard. Animation producer George Dunning directed Yellow Submarine, a psychedelic musical set to the tunes of The Beatles (they only actually participate in the end of the film). Pepperland exists below the sea, protected by Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Harts Club Band. When the land is attacked by the Blue Meanies, Old Fred takes the submarine to find Ringo , who helps by gathering his "mates" and returning to Pepperland to save them through the power of music. Yes, I cheated - the very end of the film is technically a live action segment as The Beatles return home with stories of their adventure. But the true impact of this film as an expression of art would be copied as the years went on, from The Wall to Purple Rain. And now, with the advent of musicals set entirely to one artist's catalogue, Yellow Submarine seems even more ahead of its time (and better than most of those films).

#7. The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie (1979)

In what was basically a collection of short stories starring the classic Warner Brothers cartoon characters, this 1979 classic is intercut between those segments as Bugs Bunny reminisces about his past exploits. Including some of the most memorable cartoons from the Chuck Jones/Phil Monroe production company, the approach of piecing together skits to make one 98 minute movie has been popularized greatly, but may never have been done as well as it has here. Most importantly, this film was the first appearance of "What's Opera Doc?" - the Elmer Fudd/Bugs Bunny melodrama - and "Duck Amuck" - the brilliant Daffy Duck cartoon where he breaks the fourth wall by speaking directly to the animator. To be honest, you can catch all these smaller cartoons on their own and don't need the Bugs Bunny narration segments, but the collection of them together here makes for an entertaining romp through some of the most influential animated moments of all time.

#6. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Another entry from Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, the beloved story of two young daughters and their interactions with spirits in postwar rural Japan is magic encapsulated. After their family moves into an old house to be closer to the hospital where their mother is recovering from an unnamed illness, Satsuki and Mei begin to discover creatures all over the place - tiny black "soot spirits," rabbit-like creatures - the largest of which they call "Totoro" (from a mispronunciation of the word "troll") - and a giant bus-shaped cat. When their mother has a setback, a family fight results in the disappearance of Mei, and the creatures wish to help. The story is whimsical and never takes itself too seriously, but proves that, even with what seems like a low-stakes plot, a movie can capture your imagination and, most importantly, introduce you to a catbus.

#5. Beauty and the Beast (1991)

The first animated film to grab a Best Picture nomination, Beauty and the Beast was the second film of Disney late 80's/early 90's comeback in the animation genre, a beautiful adaptation of Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont's classic story. When Belle's father is captured by a beast who lives in an old castle, she offers herself as a replacement prisoner. The staff - who have been transformed into household items like a clock, a candlestick, and a teapot from the same curse that affect the Beast - hopes that Belle is the woman who can break the spell and change them all back. Nominated for six Oscars and winning two (Best Original Score and Best Original Song), Beauty and the Beast featured the voice work of Robby Benson, Jerry Orbach, and Angela Lansbury, among others. Also inspiring a Broadway musical, this film still proves to have one of the biggest influences on the Disney empire.

#4. Spirited Away (2001)

The final Hayao Miyazaki film on our list, Spirited Away is both his best film and his most imaginative. Ten-year-old Chihiro Ogino is upset when moving into a new neighborhood, then finds herself trapped in an alternate reality where her parents are transformed into pigs. To find her parents and return to her own world, Chihiro must work in an evil witch's bathhouse and give up her name (going forward, she is called "Sen"). She and her guide Haku cross paths with everything from magic dumplings to a monster named No-Face to a ridiculously oversized baby as they try to find a way for Sen to escape this world. Curiously colorful and masterfully surrealist, Spirited Away received the most votes in the British Film Institute's poll of the 50 films you should see before the age of 14. Forget 14 - everyone of any age should see this masterpiece.

#3. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Producer Walt Disney and a team of six directors managed to bring the world the first full length cel-animated film in 1937, an adaptation of the German fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm. Snow White was the first and, though many feel the most important, was, at the very least, the stepping stone to better production, better scripts, and better films overall. Original drafts of the film by staff writer Richard Creedon told a much more comical story, painting the Prince as more of a clown and included overly hilarious descriptions of the Witch's appearance. Since the original Grimm story did not give the dwarfs names, Disney narrowed down their names from about fifty potential ones, including Deafy, Wheezy, and Tubby. Eventually, the film was given a much more realistic tone - albeit a whimsical one - after producers questioned the characters' believability. In the end, what Disney did in 1937 created a new genre, a new style, and a brand new medium to deliver full length films.

#2. Toy Story (1995)

Snow White started it all. But in 1995, the game completely changed when a smaller entity of Disney called Pixar released the first full length film ever made completely with CGI. Toy Story was Pixar's first feature film (they had created a number of short films up to that point), directed by John Lasseter, with a screenplay by Joss Whedon, Andrew Stanton, Joel Cohen, and Alec Sokolow and story by Lasseter, Stanton, Peter Docter, and Joe Ranft. Starring the voices of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen (among others), the film focused on the story of a toy named Woody (Hanks) who feels slighted by the appearance of a new toy, Buzz Lightyear (Allen), and their owner Andy's perceived change of preference. The appearance of plenty of brand name classic toys (all given a personality) and music by Randy Newman gave this film tons of heart and wit, as well as a bevy of characters that could translate into other stories. Made for about $30 million, the film had a domestic box office gross of over $360 million, giving birth to two sequels (Toy Story 3 was nominated for Best Picture) and an upcoming fourth entry into the series. Since then, CGI has become common practice, almost replacing major studio traditional animation forever.

#1. Pinocchio (1940)

While Snow White and Toy Story were pioneers, Beauty and the Beast and Up received the highest award recognition, and Miyazaki films expanded the animation horizons overseas, there is still one early Disney offering that stands up as the most important and influential animated film of all time. The second animated film from Disney was adapted from Carlo Collodi's story The Adventures of Pinocchio, Pinocchio is the tale of a puppet who will be brought to life if proves that he is "brave, truthful, and unselfish." The film starts with the most important song in the history of Disney animation ("When You Wish Upon a Star") and is told in flashback by Jiminy Cricket, detailing Geppetto's creation of Pinocchio, his journey as a living, walking puppet, his naivety in the face of con artists, and his eventual trip to Pleasure Island and dealings with shady characters. Disney's lack of politically correctness was on display, as Pinocchio gets drunk, smokes, gambles, etc., while eventually coming back to his father and the things he cares about most. It's a hero's trial, for sure, but it's one that helped influence various other offerings on our list. Pinocchio didn't create the genre. It didn't perfect the art. It took a simple story that kids could enjoy, added deeper storylines to appeal to parents, and featured a beautiful score and wonderful songs. In other words, animation - and film, in general - wouldn't be the same without Pinocchio.

Comments? Have at it...


  1. Very surprising choice for #1. It wasn't a big hit in the box office when it first came out, and it's not really remembered that clearly today. I get the feeling many people have seen it, but don't fully remember it. Some great choices on the list though.

  2. It really set the standard for Disney traditional animation. It's both sweet and dark - just a really near-perfect film.