Tuesday, February 2, 2010

2009 Year in Review: Animated Films

This has been a wonderful year for animation. Normally, the Oscars only nominate three movies for best animated film, but this year, they are going to nominate five as there were so many animated films released. The pleasant surprise for me is that while I sometimes struggle to find three quality nominees for this category, this year I would be happy for any of the top nine animated films on the list below getting a nomination (although, one sadly, is not eligible). In addition to these 10 there were other animated films that I saw - but they were mostly disappointing like Robert Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol, Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and the opening of anime epic Evangelion 1.0. I would have loved to have seen A Town Called Panic before the deadline, but alas, it was not in the cards.

10. Monsters vs. Aliens (Rob Letterman & Conrad Vernon)
Monsters vs. Aliens is just straight ahead, fun family filmmaking. A group of aliens come to attack the world, and all human weapons are useless against them. So the American government unleashes a group of monsters to attack them – including their newest member a giant woman (with the voice of Reese Witherspoon). The real reason to see the film is the entertaining byplay between the other three monsters – with the voices of Seth Rogen, Hugh Laurie and Will Arnett, and of course the hilarious vocal styling of Stephen Colbert as the inept President. The 3-D animation is also top notch. Not a great film by any means, but it sure as hell is entertaining.

9. 9 (Shane Acker)
This is certainly among the best looking animated films of the year – a stylish, futuristic movie where people have been wiped off the face of the earth, and the only things left are a group of rag dolls created by a mad scientist and the machines that wiped out humanity in the first place. There is not a frame of this film that is not breathtaking and gorgeous. If only the story, which is a little too pat and predictable, had been better, this easily could have been much higher on the list.

8. Mary and Max (Adam Eliot)
Another one of those movie that barely secured a release, this melancholy, black and white stop motion animated film is decidedly not for children – even though the main character Mary is a child for most of the movie. She is an overweight kid in Australia with no friends, a distant father and an alcoholic mother, who finds an interesting name in the book down at the post office for a guy in New York City and decides to write him a letter. Max has mental problems of his own. There pen pal friendship lasts for years and keeps both of them going through hard times. Philip Seymour Hoffman delivers a wonderful vocal performance as Max. This is an intelligent, thoughtful animated film, and while it is a little drawn out (I think perhaps a short would have been better), it is still a wonderful animated film.

7. Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Palfrey)
This movie, only available online because of copyright issues, is one of the most joyous do-it-yourself movies I can ever recall seeing. Reeling for a breakup, director Nina Palfrey decided to make this wonderfully absurd animated take on the Hindu story the Ramayana, about God Rama, and his long suffering wife Sita. The result is a movie that mixes animation styles, modern storytelling and wonderful jazz music from the 1920s (hence the copyright issues) into a hybrid of movie that is simply a joy to behold. I cannot wait to see what Palfrey does with a real budget.

6. The Secret of Kells (Tomm Moore)
This barely released Irish animated film surprised many by getting a best picture nod at the Annie Awards this year. But if you had seen the film, you wouldn’t be surprised. It is a charming, classically animated story of a little boy in Kells whose strict Uncle will not allow him outside the walls of their town, and is busy trying to prepare for an invasion by the Vikings. Then a new man arrives in town, with a secret book, and asks the boy to help him with it. The Secrets of Kells is a grand adventure story, very well animated with charming voice work. I hope this finds an audience on DVD – it deserves one (and its shocking Oscar nomination this morning should help it get one!).

5. Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki)
Hayao Miyazaki is one of the greatest animators in cinema history. His previous films include at least two masterpieces – Princess Monoke and Spirited Away. His most recent film, Ponyo, does not reach those heights. It is a little too cutesy and predictable for that. Yet, it is still a wonderfully animated film about a little girl from the sea who wants to become human and be with her friend forever. The film is magical for kids, and a wondrous visual experience for adults.

4. The Princess and the Frog ( Ron Clements & John Musker)
It had been over five years since Disney made one of their classically animated movies – and almost 10 since they did one properly. But The Princess and the Frog brings Disney animation back in a marvelous way. Set in New Orleans, the movie is about an industrious young woman who works hard to make her dreams come true – that is until she kisses a Prince who has been turned into a frog, and turns into one herself. The movie is animated in the classic Disney style – which is wonderful to see again – the music by Randy Newman, which recalls some of his old music – works wonderfully well. Cinematic comfort food of the highest order.

3. Coraline (Henry Selick)
Henry Selick is finally out of Tim Burton’s shadow with this wonderfully dark, creepy kids movie from Neil Gaiman’s novel. Coraline is a little girl stuck in a big old house with no friends or siblings to play with, and parents that ignore her. She enters a dark mirror world where everything is like she dreamed, but there is something decidedly off about the whole thing. The film has a wonderful look – the 3-D is among the best I have seen in a theater so far – and the movie doesn’t try to lighten Gaiman’s dark original. The director of Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas is finally getting his due.

2. Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)
Wes Anderson’s films have always been so closely controlled by the director, so colorful and intricately detailed, that the move to animation seems to have been preordained from the beginning of his career. Finally, he can have absolute control over every aspect of the visual look of his films, making the characters move just how he wants them to. The film is brilliantly well detailed – the different animal and human characters all have a distinct look and way of moving – yet the film is more than just a visual delight (although, it must be said, it is one of the most delightful visual films of the year), but also a touching, bittersweet family drama. Just because the family at the center of the film are foxes, that doesn’t mean they are any less human.

1. Up (Pete Docter)
Pixar seemingly always makes the best animated film of the year. The reason is simple – they spend as much time and effort on writing their films as they do in making them the best looking animated films, so the result are emotionally powerful films that stick in your mind (and your heart) long after they movie is over. Up is a movie about a widow who wants to go on an adventure – by himself – and he finds that without friends and family around him, it is all meaningless. The movie switches gears from emotional tearjerker, to soaring adventure, to gripping action, and never loses sight of its goal. This ranks among the best movies that Pixar has ever made.

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