My Favourite Non-Disney Animated Movies
As a child I loved Disney animations for their painterly vistas and tight storytelling structures, but there were films from other companies I’ve watched almost as much. I’ve left out the obvious choices – ‘Spirited Away’, ‘The Wind Rises’ and ‘Anastasia’ among them – and am still looking for a decent copy of ‘The Suicide Shop’, which seems to have been pulled over sensitivity to teen suicides. But here are 10 worth checking out.
1. Hoppity Goes To Town (Mr Bug Goes To Town)
The original title meant nothing in the UK, being a pun on ‘Mr Deeds Goes To Town’, and we didn’t use the word ‘bug’, so it was changed. This, the second Fleischer Brothers film, from 1941, was far better than the stilted and hard-to-love ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ (which was crushed out of the competition to be the first animated feature by the Disney studios). The climactic race to save a missing letter by dragging it to the top of a skyscraper is a miracle of rotoscoped animation, and the insects have terrific characters. What’s more, the storyline has a classic construction, with the hero succeeding too easily and then being outcast, only to rediscover his resolve and win the day. And it has a great last line!
2. My Neighbour Totoro
Roger Ebert had this to say; ”’My Neighbor Totoro” has become one of the most beloved of all family films without ever having been much promoted or advertised. It’s a perennial best seller on video. On the Internet Movie Database, it’s voted the fifth best family film of all time, right behind ”Toy Story 2” and ahead of ”Shrek.” A mother dying of (presumably) cancer, a lonely child, a great inflated cat-like creature that can fly – Miyazaki’s extraordinary film captures the wonder of childhood in a way that eluded Disney in later years. The long scene in the rain where the little girl and the creature first become aware of each other is a masterpiece, flat out. And it’s topped by the arrival of the cat-bus.
3. Porco Rosso
This is my favourite Miyazaki – its opening plays like a Spielberg film, with the air-pirates finding they’ve raided a cargo of really exhausting and uncontrollable schoolgirls, but somehow it morphs into a profound and moving tragedy. It’s the kind of pitch that Hollywood would never have bought; a veteran WW1 pilot now kicking his heels post-war in 1930s Italy, who has been cursed to look like an anthropomorphic pig. The film has an airiness that feels as if Miyazaki left all the windows open while he was making it. I always cry at the end.
4. American Pop
In 1981 Ralphn Bakshi finished a labour of love that attempted something ambitious and new, and the film remains his best-realised work. ‘American Pop’ is a potted history of 20th century music that starts with the ethnic cleansing of Russian Jews and ends with Ziggy Stardust, told through four generations of one family and their experiences in America. Along the way it takes in virtually every form of American music. It’s an adult-themed movie, as the younger members of the family fall by the wayside, felled by wars and drugs.
5. The Iron Giant
Simpsons veteran Brad Bird had an early tryout for his later successes with this, a 1950’s set Cold War parable in which a huge mechanical man, the Iron Giant, learns E.T-like behaviour from a little boy and finds that he is not doomed to be a weapon because you can ultimately be what you choose to be. It was based on a book by the poet Ted Hughes, and has poetry in its simple visuals, something Bird repeated with ‘Ratatouille’.
6. The Thief And The Cobbler
Back in the 1980s I did some marketing work on this unfinished widescreen masterpiece. The problem was that Richard Williams’ film – based on Persian miniatures and the writings of Sufi philosopher Mullah Nasruddin – was a labour of love that predated CGI, and was eventually overtaken by it. The version I worked on had Vincent Price, Kenneth Williams and Eartha Kitt among its voice talents. After funding was withdrawn it was released in an embarrassing version from Miramax. In 2006, an animator created an unofficial version titled The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut, featuring a restoration of the movie he edited based on Williams’ original workprint. Williams never officially commented on it. I wish someone would release it now – the visuals are surreal and breathtaking.
7. Cats Don’t Dance
Mark ‘Rocketeer’ Dindal’s rags-to-riches Hollywood tale set in the studios’ heyday features anthropomorphic animals and is really a series of set-pieces, but I love this film for its unusual villain, clearly modelled on Shirley Temple. Her climactic slip into twitching insanity as she blows up Grauman’s Chinese Theater gives the film a musical slapstick sendoff. Like ‘The Brave Little Toaster’, its reputation has grown over the years
8. Gnomeo & Juliet
It’s my one CGI-choice (I could fill a page with those non-Disney films) but is worth mentioning as a small British film that got lost among all the Pixar biggies. Elton John’s dream to retell Shakespeare’s greatest love story using garden gnomes seemed a bonkers idea, but works beautifully. The ceramic garden ornaments conduct their affair against a backdrop of hoses and hoes (and pink lawn flamingoes) as the neighbouring warring gardens perfectly represent Montagu and Capulet, set to pumped-up versions of Elton’s greatest hits catalogue. Spoiler alert: This time there’s a happy ending.
This came as a surprise. Who in their right mind would dare to remake Fritz Lang’s somewhat exhausting masterpiece with a cute little robot girl, and yet not allow sentiment to swamp the tale? The writer of ‘Akira’ and the director Taro Rin, who take the concept and spring it into a much larger adventure that asks adult questions about artificial intelligence. It’s a challenging, beautiful work that keeps changing your expectations. The destruction of the city is set against Ray Charles singing ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’, and is unbelievably powerful.
10. The Illusionist
Jacques Tatie, who died in 1982, wrote the screenplay for this film but never made it, intending it for live action. His daughter took it to Silvain Chomet, the directors of the charming ‘The Triplets of Belleville’ and relocates the story of a magician’s final roll of the dice during the dying days of the music halls to Edinburgh, still starring the great French comic, so that it visually becomes the Tati film that Tati never made, as well as a love letter to Scotland. The reason for the original idea stemmed from Tati’s shame of abandoning his daughter during WWII, and the film is shot through with melancholy (and some lovely jokes).