Tuesday, January 15, 2013

2012 Year End: Best Animated Films of 2012

It was not a banner year for animation in the sense that we didn’t have one truly great animated film this year. However, we did have more very good animated films this year – by my count 4 films worthy of lots of attention. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s more than many years.

True, we had some unnecessary, loud, obnoxious sequels like Madagascar 3 Europe’s Most Wanted and Ice Age 4: Continental Drift both of which gave me a headache. I didn’t hate Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax but it is certainly true that it needlessly complicated a simple, great story by the master children’s author. Rise of the Guardians was good enough that you wish it was just a little bit better – a great idea that doesn’t quite live up to it. The Secret Life of Arietty does not quite reach the levels of the best Studio Ghilbi films (which is a near impossible bar to hit), but is still wonderful, old school animation. And there are probably some great foreign films lurking out there among the films Oscar qualified, that we won’t be able to see until next year. The Pirates! Band of Misfits was not quite up to the high standards of Aardman, but was still an absolute delight.

But, for now anyway, the following five films were my favorite animated films of the year.

5. It’s Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeld)
Don Hertzfeld’s trilogy of animated short films – made from 2006-2012 – and edited together in this film, just barely over an hour, is easily the most original animated film of the year. It’s hero is Bill, a stick figure who has waking dreams and nightmares, which start out funny and absurd, and then slowly turn darker. Eventually, he will be diagnosed with an unnamed, but possibly fatal, disease, which explains his condition – and a flashback to his family life sheds even more light. The film is the most crudely animated film you’ll see this year, but it at times touching and funny, and the work of a true artist, struggling with mortality. Not completely satisfying as a feature – the fact that it was made as three shorts shows – but such an original film, you hardly care.

4. ParaNorman (Chris Butler & Sam Fell)
Like The Pirates, ParaNorman is also a stop motion animated film (with some CGI help) that has a wonderful hand-made look and feel to it. The story, about a strange little boy who can talk to dead people, who is the only one who can save his small New England town from the Witch`s Curse, is rather predictable. But the film is full of small details that make it a never ending delight to watch. For one thing, Norman is your typical kid’s movie hero – there is something undeniably creepy about him. And while the supporting cast seem to fall into archetypes – the bully, the ditzy older sister, the supportive mom, the strict father, the loving grandma, the crazy uncle – the film plays with those stereotypes quite effectively. The film also is filled with clever references to cinema`s Golden Age of horror movies. The film is a little creepy for younger kids – but older and intelligent ones should love it. If you missed it in theaters, and many seemed to, make sure to check it now.

3. Wreck-It Ralph (Rich Moore)
Although Wreck-It Ralph was made by Disney Animation, and not Pixar, the film certainly does follow the Pixar formula – of mixing great animation, heartfelt storytelling and nostalgia into an irresistible package. In this film, Ralph, a Donkey Kong like video game bad guy, is tired of being the guy after 30 years, and wants just once to be the good guy – so he escapes into another arcade game, and all hell breaks loose. The relationship between this big lug, and the charming, adorable girl race driver (voiced to perfection by Sarah Silverman) is genuinely heartfelt and moving. The animation is full of clever touches – like the way characters from older video games move compared to the more realistic newer ones. And old gamers, like myself, will certainly be thrilled to see many of their favorites show up in cameos. The movie doesn’t quite reach the levels of Pixar`s best – the third act is touch reliant on non-stop action for that, but for the most part, this was one of the most enjoyable films of the year – animated or otherwise.

2. Brave (Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman)
Pixar has painted themselves into somewhat of a corner. Because their best films – Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E, Toy Story 3 and Up – are all great films in their own right, when they make a film like Brave – which is merely really good – it can be seen as somewhat of a disappointment. The storyline of Brave is rather straight forward – the type of Princess story that Disney has been making for decades, albeit with a modern twist. Its effective, but does feel like a little warmed over. Yet the animation in Brave is as stunning and beautiful – if not more so – than anything Pixar has ever made before. Princess Merida`s hair itself is a visual triumph. If any other studio made Brave, it would rank among their very best. But because Pixar, as I have said many times before, is the most consistent creative force in American movies today, Brave ranks as one of their middle pictures – like Monsters Inc. That`s still damn good, just not quite great.

1. Frankenweenie (Tim Burton)
Unfortunately it seems like pretty much every parent made the decision that Frankenweenie was too creepy and scary to subject their kids to, and that’s a shame, because this was my favorite animated film of the year. Every time I see a Tim Burton animated film, I think it would be better for all of us if he just stuck to animation full time – it is the perfect medium for his dark, creepy point of view. This remake of his own live action short film from the 1980s is made in brilliant, beautiful black and white, and is full of references to the old school horror and sci-fi films Burton was weaned on. It is also a surprisingly touching film about a boy and the love he has for his dog, even after the poor thing is killed by a car. This is Burton`s best film in years – and perhaps his most personal. So while I do not think this was a great year in animation, I have no problem with naming Franenweenie the best animated film of the year.

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