I will never not be disappointed that so many foreign animated films do little other than qualify themselves for Oscars, and then either barely release, or wait until the following year to do so. But, it happens, and I’m tired of complaining about it – so I’ll just note a few animated films that were not particularly easy to see that I missed – like Long Way North and Miss Hokusai both of which played in Toronto for a week or two, and then disappeared (they’ll come to VOD at some point – I’ll certainly watch the later, the former, I’m not so sure. There were two films that I heard were great and would have love to see – but they haven’t hit Canada yet - Your Name and My Life as a Zucchini. Also in that category were films that I heard much less about like – Bilal, Mune, Mustaga & the Magician and 25 April all of which qualified for the Oscars, so I guess they came out somewhere. I could have seen Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV, Monkey King: Hero is Back, Norm of the North, Phantom Boy, Ratchet & Clank and Snowtime! without too much effort, but never got around to them.
I did manage to see 19 animated film this year – when you have a 5 year old, you see most of the kids’ stuff – which I do, sometimes begrudgingly, sometimes not. The top five are interesting – and could perhaps be put in any order, and I’d be okay with that.
This year wasn’t that bad to be honest, with only a few films being truly bad. The Boy and the Beast (Mamoru Hosoda) was a major disappointment, as I usually love anime, but this confused, disjointed film did nothing for me. Ice Age: Collision Course (Mike Thurmeier) made the very strong case that this series needs to die – now. The Wild Life (Vincent Kesteloot & Ben Stassen) was snuck into theaters in the fall to make a quick buck – and I seem to be the only parent dumb enough to go with their kid.
Better, but not exactly good was: The Angry Birds Movie (Clay Kaytis & Fergal Reilly) which really is about as good as you could expect a film version of a plotless video game to be. Kung Fu Panda 3 (Jennifer Yuh & Alessandro Carolini) was still fun – but all the originality in the series is gone, and they’re now just going through the mainly enjoyable motions.
A few films that I did quite like, despite some misgivings include: Nuts (Penny Lane) an enjoyably bonkers animated documentary, whose style fits perfectly with its subject – a “doctor” who surgically implanted goats nuts into men to cure impotence in the 1920s – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The Secret Life of Pets (Chris Renaud) was a very fun animated comedy for kids, with just a little something for adults. Sing (Garth Jennings) was amusing and fun, with lots of music and comedy, but a fleeting pleasure at best. Storks (Nicholas Stoller & Doug Sweetland) which was a surprisingly sweet and funny film, that grew on me a little – and has a killer moment near the end. Trolls (Mike Mitchell) is undeniably 90 minutes of brand extension – but it’s also an enjoyable musical comedy as far as it goes.
In a lesser year, I could have easily had a few others in my top five: April and the Extraordinary World (Christian Desmares & Franck Ekinci) is a wonderfully animated film, set in an alternate reality 1930s Europe, about a girl’s strange journey to find the truth. The Little Prince (Mark Osborne) is an interesting mixture of animation styles and themes – that deserved more of an audience than it got. The Red Turtle (Michael Dudok de Wit) would have been a shoo-in for the top five in most years – this gorgeous, quiet, introspective anf fanciful film is a gem. Sausage Party (Greg Tiernan & Conrad Vernon) an R rate, gross-out, sex comedy about food in a grocery store and their existential dilemma – which is good, to a point.
The Top 55. Finding Dory (Andrew Stanton)
It isn’t fair to expect Pixar to create a masterpiece every time out – and so even if I would end up describing Finding Dory as minor Pixar, it’s still clearly one of the best animated films of the year. Witty and charming, brilliantly animated, fast paced and fun – Finding Dory is great entertainment – but it’s also entertainment with a heart. No, I didn’t weep like a child when watching Dory like I did Inside Out (or hell, even The Good Dinosaur – even if Dory is clearly the superior film) – but its story about the difficulty of raising a child with special needs is quite touching. Yes, I do think some of the plot machinations used to keep all the characters in play were a little strained – but overall, Finding Dory remains a wonderful Pixar film – even if it is a “minor” one.
4. Kubo and the Two Strings (Travis Knight)
I am still of the belief that Laika Studios can do better than they have so far – as much as I l have like ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls and now Kubo and the Two Strings (I almost view Coraline as its own thing – considering the Selick and Gaiman connections) – I do think there is still a level where the story and thematic elements of their films do not quite match the visual magic of their films. As far as pure visual beauty, I think Kubo and the Two Strings is the best animated film of the year – and yet, I’m not sure if the story ever really comes together. There is still a lot to love about the film – some wonderful creepy moments, good actions, some emotional beats that work – and overall, the film is a superb entertainment. But I don’t quite think Laika has quite pulled it altogether yet. When they do, watch out.
3. Zootopia (Byron Howard & Rich Moore)
Disney’s Zootopia is many things. It is an enjoyable, colorful, fast moving entertaining romp – full of visual imagination, as a bunny from the sticks moves to the Big City to become a cop, and ends up investigating a series of disappearances, with the help of a con man fox. It has references to film noir and The Godfather. It is the odd children’s film I enjoyed more than second time than the first – as it gradually grew in my mind, when I realized how effortlessly it did many things. It is also a film that celebrates diversity, and makes having a conversation with your kids about issues such as race easier – as it’s all right there in the film (the metaphor becomes strained at times – but not too strained). It treated both kids and adults with respect – and is also pure fun.
2. Tower (Keith Maitland)
Tower is an animated documentary – an ever expanding genre since Waltz with Bashir a few years ago. Like that film, the animation is key to the success of Tower – which basically gives a moment to moment accounting of the horrific incident in 1966, when a gunman went up the bell tower at Texas State University, and opened fire for more than an hour. The animation allows the film to recreate those moments, in the words of those who survived, while also not simply wallowing in blood. This isn’t a film about the gunman – he’s barely mentioned or seen in the film, but rather what it was like to live through an incident that seemed unthinkable in 1966 – and is now all too common. The rotoscoped animated is brilliant, and it packs a wallop late in the film when Maitland reveals the real life people, who survived. Tower is probably the best animated doc yet – and it’s so good, because it is brilliant as both animation, and documentary.
1. Moana (Ron Clements & John Musker)
Disney’s Moana is their best “princess” movie in a long time – and that’s mainly because it sidesteps all the pitfalls of those Princess movies – even the more modern ones of the last 10 years or so. It’s a thrilling animated adventure about a teenage girl teaming up with a demigod to fight monsters across the oceans – and it’s filled with brilliant music (by Lin Manuel Miranda), top notch animated and wonderful moments. In many ways, the film is typical, Disney princess storytelling – except that there is no Princess dresses or love interests, etc. I know out of all the animated film this year, this is the one that will be watched most often in my house with two young girls over the next few years – and I don’t have a problem with that. A triumph for all involved, and the best animated film of the year.