Sit Back and Be Blown Away
As with all things, animated movies have a gradient to them. In fact, I’m usually surprised and a little bit confused when someone tells me they prefer to watch animated movies or that they go out of their way to avoid animated movies.
At least in my eyes, it’s difficult to dismiss an entire medium. Animation isn’t even really a genre, since the content of animated movies can vary wildly. Unfortunately, even the Academy still hasn’t figured that out, but we’ll talk more about that later.
Animated movies can be great, disappointing, ugly, or gorgeous, just like live-action films.
And that’s why it’s all the more important that I make my recommendations for several animated movies that I think rise above much of animated fare. Many of these in my list here even deserve to be ranked above plenty of live-action movies.
So here they are: visually stunning animated movies that you should track down and watch before sundown.
The Thief and the Cobbler
Long story short, this movie never really got made. After more than 30 years of Production Hell, a version of the movie was finally released in 1995.
Disney’s Aladdin was released in 1992, and it just happens to also be set in the Middle East, and feature a main cast of a poor man, a Princess, a King, and the King’s evil advisor.
Aladdin earned more than $500 million at the box office. The Thief and the Cobbler never had a theatrical release.
And there’s not even enough room in this article to get into Disney’s strange penchant for putting out movies that are eerily similar to established intellectual properties. And I will not officially imply that Disney did anything immoral here.
Instead, I’ll focus on the fact that The Thief and the Cobbler is roughly 50x better than Aladdin, and it’s not even 100% finished.
It’s intricate, fun, endlessly inventive, and all-around a more satisfying movie. Its complex animation style also served as the basis for the work of another great animator, Felix Colgrave.
Stop-motion animation is pretty rare these days. It’s even more rare that stop-motion gets used to tell a story of existential dread.
While some very bad animation of decades past has failed by sliding into the Uncanny Valley (I’m lookin’ at you, Space Chimps), Anomalisa uses the Uncanny Valley effect to reach new heights of creepiness.
From Charlie Kaufman, one of the best living screenwriters, this movie takes that lonely-soul feeling and pushes it to the forefront.
This movie is an incredibly realistic portrayal of falling in love and feeling out of love and looking around desperately for a kindred spirit.
This movie was helped into existence by Dan Harmon and his Starburns Studios, which only adds to the film’s street cred and collective intelligence.
Isle of Dogs
And while we’re talking about stop-motion animation, I’ll go ahead and give a nod to Isle of Dogs, which I prefer to Wes’s Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Isle of Dogs is paced better, lags less, and I want every single frame as a separate poster.
I’m not sure that the movie clicked with as many kid viewers as other releases of that summer (among them Adam Sandler’s Hotel Transylvania sequel, set on a cruise ship, which is definitely not product placement in any way, shape, or form).
But it offers plenty to parents or just 20-something moviegoers like me who want to see some light entertainment with killer voice acting and compelling visuals.
Idiots and Angels
If you’re not already familiar with the work of Bill Plympton, here’s his couch gag for The Simpsons.
That short will give you most of his hallmarks: scratchy, hand-drawn style, little to no dialogue, and hard-hitting themes.
Idiots and Angels has all of that junk and more. Its protagonist is a true asshole, just a real knob. Then the magical realism kicks in and he finds a pair of angel’s wings growing out of his back.
He tries to get rid of them, to no avail. Slowly, he finds himself more inclined to try to do the right thing.
This one lags in a few scenes, but the visuals stay interesting throughout. And you’re not likely to see anything else like a Bill Plympton movie anywhere else.
The Triplets of Belleville
This movie is more detailed than any animated movie I can think of.
It comes to us from Sylvain Chomet, a French fella who’s been making wild cartoons for many years. And like Plympton, he also did a couch gag for The Simpsons.
The Triplets of Belleville, his masterpiece, tells a fairly simple story. But it’s more about the way this story is told, with very little dialogue and visual gags that rival those of the great Jacques Tati (who will likely be talked about a lot on this site, later on).
It’s a movie so visually dense that you might have to break it down into a few watch sessions.
Waltz with Bashir
Rotoscope is one of those techniques that pops up every once in a while, often to the delight of audiences everywhere, despite everyone’s confusion about how it’s actual done.
Rotoscope dates way back to the early 20th century. It was even used in Disney’s Snow White, the first animated feature film of all time.
Basically, you film real people and things first, then draw on top of the film. It lets you keep the fluid motion of real life while allowing for crazy colors and stylistic add-ons.
Waltz with Bashir is a retelling of the 1982 Invasion of Lebanon, based on interviews with veterans and the memories of the director himself, Ari Folman.
It may sound like a downer, and it is, for the most part. But the visuals in this movie are simply unbelievable, and they find a way to make a forgotten moment in history captivating to new audiences.
The Secret of Kells
I stayed away from The Secret of Kells for a good long while. To me, it looked like a bad religious animated short, the kind they show at Sunday school.
And even after watching it a few times, it still feels that way, at least in the beginning.
The movie then expands, both in its story as well as its visual style and scope. It starts using composition in ways that take a few seconds to digest but then wind up being beautiful.
And this one really isn’t just for kids. There’s plenty of subtext to pick up on here. The book is metaphorical, the light is metaphorical. Same goes for the wall and the invaders.
This is a story about knowledge and open-mindedness and enlightenment, the battle against ignorance. And all that symbolism might get tiresome if the movie itself wasn’t shockingly fun to watch.