When we think “animated”, often times we think of cartoons and screwball jokes and a prepubescent target audience. But animation is a medium that allows for high fantasy and effects not possible with live action — even with CGI — employing creatures that push imaginative boundaries and painting brand new landscapes, and all of these films deliver this, but take it to another level with astounding narrative and occasionally mature themes. It’s not your typical Saturday morning stuff.
Honorable Mentions: The Little Mermaid (1989), Moana (2015)
Moana and The Little Mermaid are the same movie: a rebellious and somewhat naive teenager enters an uncharted realm and discovers her own limitations, but overcomes the odds and defeats the bad guy (both who happen to be semi-god females) and defies social norms. The Little Mermaid proved to be the start of a huge Disney resurgence, but Moana feels like a more developed story. Nonetheless, both films have that nostalgic replay element; I’ve probably seen each of them the same amount of times now — the former as a kid, and the latter because I have kids. These films don’t sniff the Top 250, but they might just be overlooked because they’re too sentimental.
The Disney renaissance continued with Beauty and the Beast, a classic tale of true love, prejudice, and anthromorphic household items. To me, it feels overwrought, but it boasts creds — it’s still the only animated film to be nominated for Best Picture — and it has the best single song in the genre in the Dion/Bryson “Beauty and the Beast”.
Miyazaki is a beast. This is well-established to those familiar with his films, but I had no idea what I was getting into until I encountered Nausicaä. This is the true nature-versus-humans anime, juxtaposing a horde of mutant creatures and a nation bent on abusing their power, with Nausicaä herself being the liason between the two parties. The animation is a bit choppy at times, but the imagery is powerful and the message is blaring.
This is basically Nausicaä+ (especially with the environment/man dichotomy), but features a superior narrative, more compelling characters, and several heartbreaking turns. It’s also shockingly violent, which explains its position on the list at #70 (between Das Boot and Oldboy, both violent in their own right). Once again, oversized beasts dominate the screen, but the most haunting creature is the Great Forest Spirit, a towering gentle creature that turns violent once it’s messed with — another apt symbol in the vein of Miyazaki works.
Miyazaki continues his pacifist manifesto with Howl’s Moving Castle, using Sophie, Howl, and his castle as anti-war metaphors. The narrative is somewhat complex, as are the characters, so it feels hard to follow at times, but the animation and imagery is breathtaking, as one might expect from Miyazaki. The involved unspoken romance is also compelling.
While I enjoy films that make a statement, what I appreciate about Totoro is its focus on narrative rather than an agenda. It also has a nostalgic aspect to it, exploring coming-of-age elements such as imagination, loss of innocence, and the unintentional ignorance of parents (though the father seems at least aware, if not an agnostic believer, of spirits). The tension peaks when Mei runs away and her sister takes off looking for her, and the initially reluctant Satsuki encounters the magical creatures Mei advocates at the start.
Though this film has a pretty standard narrative, the crux of the film — and what the remainder leans heavily upon — is the first eight minutes. Everyone desires to make something of their lives, to reach old age and look back wistfully at their experiences and accomplishments. Up portends that life can get in the way, and that dreams get deferred. By the time Carl seems to be ready to go, it’s too late. If you’ve seen this opener, you know what I’m talking about, and you probably cried your face off.
Where would we be without Pixar? Disney and the now-famous CGI animation company were betrothed for over a decade before Disney officially acquired the company in 2006. While their relationship was rocky along the way, the foundation of it all was Toy Story, a masterful tale of a group of toys who come to life when their owner isn’t around, and who become jealous of the oblivious and narcissistic Buzz Lightyear. Borrowing from Lion King, the film features an ensemble cast of actors-turned-voices and a hit original song.
The most heartbreaking and eye opening animated film on the list, Grave of the Fireflies takes a serious dig at the human fallout in war, tracking two children in a perilous environment after a firebombing that separates them from their parents as they make the most of their lives while struggling to survive the landscape. Symbolism abounds in the movie, but the real strength is its ability to portray the innocence and emotion in the siblings’ devotion to each other.
WALL-E works on multiple levels and succeeds. In short, it’s a heartwarming robot tale for kids, but a prophetic unsettling warning to adults. This film is darker than it appears, though the tremendous piles of trash comprising of the opening scene’s skyline might give that away. In a distant reality, it illustrates humanity’s distance from reality, a world where robots express greater compassion and awareness than their creators. The robots themselves are charming, of course, and on the surface level their interaction and their role in the rising and falling action creates a compelling story for all ages, but the foreboding underlying themes seem to weigh far heavier for those who observe them.
This Miyazaki masterpiece admittedly does not have the same narrative punch as other animated features you might be familiar with. But this is like saying the problem with Swiss cheese is that it has holes in it. Spirited Away‘s strength lies in its imaginative characters and masterful artwork, drawing from Miyazaki’s creative well that seems endless. Unlike its peers, the film is dependent upon the expressions on characters and their interaction with each other rather than dialogue or screenplay. The coming-of-age story of Chihiro is both heartbreaking and cathartic; we follow her journey as she loses everything she is, but regains so much more through her relationships with Yubaba and the metamorphing Haku.
The Lion King‘s historical renown is well documented, but with the modern releases of box office heavyweights Frozen and Moana, along with the live action Beauty and the Beast and Malificent reboots, the legendary 90s animated film has been somewhat buried and forgotten. But even to the casual viewer, the film is striking and bears importance. Disney once again uses the death of a parent to take a shot at your emotions, but the symbolic contrast of light and darkness and the Moses-like exile and return demonstrate tremendous depth in storywriting, despite the Disney production company being reluctant about its success when they were putting it together. The artwork and detail is still breathtaking to behold, and the soundtrack is the king of any animated release, remaining one of the best selling soundtracks of all time. Everything else to be said about this film is superfluous at this point.