Thursday, January 29, 2015

2014 Year End Report: The Animated Films of 2014

As always, I have to complain about how some of the most interesting sounding animated films of the year – those that are eligible for the Oscar anyways – didn’t really get released. All they do is qualify themselves for the Oscars, hope they get nominated, and if they do, use that as a marketing tool. And if not, we’re lucky if the films eventually find their way to VOD services. This year, there are 20 films that qualified for the animated film Oscar –and I have seen 13 of them. Of the other 7, I could have seen Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart on iTunes (and if the reviews suggested there was a reason to, I would have. The other 6 – Cheatin’, Giovanni’s Island, Henry & Me, The Hero of Color City, Miniscule and Rocks in My Pockets –I never had a chance to. Then there is the strange case of two films – The Nut Job and The Congress, which I did see, which somehow didn’t make the list (I assume that The Nut Job didn’t submit itself, knowing it had no chance, and that perhaps The Congress had too much live action stuff to qualify – or otherwise didn’t submit either). But such is life – I have loved to see some of those other films, and perhaps I can, one day. But until then, let’s look back at the 16 animated films I did see.

Once again, it wasn’t a great year in animation, although I quite enjoyed the top five. With Pixar on a down streak (and sitting this year out), I still think we’re waiting for the next great animated film to come out of Hollywood – although #1 comes very close to that this year.

But first, let’s look at the really, really bad animated films that came out this year. Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return (Will Finn & Dan St. Pierre) was quite simply an embarrassment to all involved, and to the legacy of one of the most beloved of all movies. The Nut Job (Peter Lepeniotis) showed that you need more than cute animals to make an endearing animated film. The Pirate Fairy (Peggy Holmes) was a film I watched on Disney Jr. with my 3 year old, and didn’t even know it was released theatrically – and there is a reason for that. Planes: Fire & Rescue (Roberts Ganaway) showed zero ambition to be anything other than a cheap time waster.

A step up for those was the following. Mr. Peabody & Sherman (Rob Minkoff) was fast moving fun, even if it never quite became very good. Penguins of Madagascar (Erin Darnell & Simon J. Smith) had some very clever moments, but never quite got off the ground. Rio 2 (Carlos Saldanha) had some great color, but little else in its busy plot.

Which brings me to two films that I definitely liked, but perhaps not quite enough to move higher, The Book of Life (Jorge R. Gutierrez) was amazing to look at throughout, and a little darker than most, but just a notch or two below the best. The Congress (Ari Folman) had some of the best animation of any film this year, and a great performance by Robin Wright – but was a complete mess in terms of its plot, which went nowhere very slowly – still it deserves to be seen for what works about it.

One last film before I get to the top five, and I have to say I’m kind of shocked it didn’t crack my top five. Perhaps it wasn’t a bad year for animation after all. How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Dean DeBlois) wasn’t as good as the first one-  the biggest problem being that the movie spends so much time introducing Cate Blanchatt’s mother character, and then does absolutely nothing with her in the end. Still its brilliantly animated, and exciting from beginning to end. It’s hard to surprise people twice – and I was surprised by how much I loved the first film, so perhaps that’s the reason it didn’t break my top five – it’s still an excellent animated film.

Top 5
5. Big Hero 6 (Don Hall & Chris Williams)
I’ve become more than little bit of a superhero agnostic this year –I still watch all the superhero movies, and enjoy them more or less, but I don’t really get excited about them anymore – they’re all basically the same. Disney’s Big Hero 6, loosely based on a Marvel comic, is in many ways a typical comic book origin story – a key difference being that the movie is just plain fun from start to finish. The big, marshmallow robot at the heart of the story is adorable and funny – and he’s only the secondary star to the young, genius protagonist. Big Hero 6 is smart, funny, and colorful and action packed. Did it really do anything new? No – but still, I’d rather see another installment of this before another installment of Iron Man or Spider-Man, etc.

4. The Boxtrolls (Graham Annable & Anthony Stacchi)
I love stop motion animation – and the studio behind Coraline and ParaNorman are back with this delightful film. No, it’s not as good as either of those films (mainly because the plot, it must be said, kind of peters out in the end) – but the film looks absolutely amazing, and the darkness of the story (which echoes some pretty traumatic history) is matched by its visual look. The film is probably too dark and disturbing for younger children  - perhaps not as traumatic as some of Burton’s animated films, but not far off – but for older children, it doesn’t talk down to them, and trusts them enough to be willing to scare them a little. And for an adult, I appreciated the darkness in the movie. Yes, the movie needed a little work in the screenplay stage – but visually, it’s amazing, and until the last act it works remarkably well.

3. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata)
My favorite animated film from last year was Hayao Miyazaki’s brilliant swansong – The Wind Rises. His Studio Ghilbi colleague Isao Takahata has made the runner-up this year, with this beautiful, moving film about a princess born who comes out a bamboo shoot and is raised by an overprotective woodcutter, who wants her to have the best of everything, even if she doesn’t want it, and a slightly more understanding mother. The hand drawn animation makes this clearly the most beautiful animated film of the year – it looks like a watercolor painting come to life, and the story is gentle and mournful, that allows darkness to seep in slowly throughout the movie. Yes, the film does go on a little too long (it clocks in at over two hours), and it is a little slow at times, but those are two small complaints about what is lovely film.

2. Song of the Sea (Tomm Moore)
Irish director Tomm Moore’s follow-up to the Oscar nominated The Secret of Kells is even better than his breakthrough film. Song of the Sea is an utterly charming, modern day fairy tale about a brother and sister travelling back to their father and discovering their fantastical origins. As with Secret of Kells, the film is beautiful from start to finish – even more beautiful this time really, with stunning backdrops, and interesting character designs throughout. The story is gentle – it does have some dark elements, but do not dwell on them very much. The ending of the film brought me to tears, which no other animated film did this year. Hayao Miyazaki has retired, Studio Ghibli has apparently decided to stop production on feature films for a while, so there is a gap forming in films like this – and it’s one that I think Moore can start to fill. I really liked The Secret of Kells – I loved Song of the Sea.

1. The Lego Movie (Christopher Miller & Phil Lord)
I am realizing now what a diverse group of animated films we have this year – with distinctly different styles in each of the top four. The Lego Movie looks just as great as the other film on this list – and shows endless visual imagination with the way it creates everything out of water, and how it plays on the nostalgia most of us feel for Lego. But the reason The Lego Movie gets my vote for best animated film of the year is because of just how clever and funny it is – it has a ridiculously complicated plot that it barely bothers to explain – that nevertheless makes complete sense, even as it gets more outlandish. The final twist in the movie actually works two ways in the movie – it both deepens the comedy of everything that has come before, and also adds more emotional content to everything. Yes, the movie could have used more “female stuff” (that’s the directors choice of words, referring to what the sequel will have) – but overall The Lego Movie was far and away my favorite animated film of the year – smart, funny, endlessly re-watchable (I know, because of my three-year old has made me watch it a few times already).

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