Ten Non-Disney Animated Movies
With Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’ getting good reviews, I thought I’d take stock of animation. As it did for many of us who wanted to be artists at some point, animation played a huge part in my early childhood cinema, but Disney films went in quality cycles, from the watercolour innovation of ‘Pinocchio’ through to the stifling conservatism that marred much of their output in the fifties (their ‘Cinderella’ is about as unimaginative as it gets), the drying up of quality that hit a nadir with ‘Robin Hood’ and the blossoming of a new era of quality with films like ‘Beauty and the Beast’.
But running parallel to Disney there have always been films from other studios, some suppressed by the Disney machine, some simply considered not good enough to compete. Disney set a model that was impregnable, locking itself into saccharine fairytales with songs – but even Walt was capable of pulling out surprises. There’s no doubt that seeing ‘Fantasia’ at age seven helped ease me into classical music even as it offended purists. And if you watch ‘Lady & The Tramp’ now, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that it’s a very unusually constructed film, most of which is very slow, takes place in a single set and is almost obsessively concerned with the transfer and loss of affections.
One problem for competing studios is that their animated films tend to be too long. ‘Dumbo’ clocks in at just over the hour. And the Disney films were blessed with gifted songwriters who planted earworms into every viewer. Pixar have reinvented the wheel, but can sometimes lack the joie de vivre you get from Disney hand-drawn films. Elsewhere on this site I’ve written up the sad, mangled history of a favourite, ‘The Thief and the Cobbler’, so I haven’t included it here. But these are some of the non-Disney films I go back to.
‘Hoppity Goes To Town’ (1941)
Originally titled ‘Mr Bug Goes To Town’, the title was changed for the UK because it relied on a film pun nobody here knew and also involved the word ‘bug’ – a word unused in the UK. It was originally meant to be an adaptation of Maeterlinck’s The Life of the Bee, but the Fleischer brothers were unable to get the rights to the book, so it ended up with a Jimmy Stewart-like grasshopper trying to lead an insect colony to a new life up a skyscraper. The film destroyed its studio and disastrously opened between ‘Dumbo’ and the attack on Pearl Harbour. It’s now considered a classic.
‘Alakazam The Great’ (1960)
A Japanese manga based on a Chinese novel, this bears some resemblance to passages from the immense ‘Monkey’ folk tale of China, as Alakazam the macaque becomes so arrogant that he abuses his magic powers and is sent on a punishing but colourful pilgrimage. Films about the learning of humility didn’t play well in 1960 America. The film was butchered, with scenes cut and redubbed to include teen idol Frankie Avalon. I’m unaware that it has ever surfaced in its original form.
‘American Pop’ (1979)
Ralph Bakshi loved rotoscoping, the technique of drawing over filmed sequences – he was ahead of his time, but also the product of it, created the smash hit ‘Fritz The Cat’, the first adults-only animation feature – but his version of ‘Lord of the Rings’ suffered from budget limitations. A series of counter-culture animated movies followed, of varying quality. But this, his history of American popular music from the 1900’s to the 1970s, is extraordinary. The soundtrack features a roster of musical talent that would be unimaginable to put together now (check it out).
‘My Neighbour Totoro’ (1988)/’Porco Rosso’ (1992)/ ‘Spirited Away’ (2001)
So much has been written about Miyazaki’s movies that it’s redundant going into the same material here, but these three are for me his pinnacle, for their storytelling and their balance of unsentimental humanism. There’s something else at work in many Miyazaki films; a melancholy eeriness, from the moss-covered robots of ‘Castle In The Sky’ to the wood sprites in ‘Princess Mononoke’, a sense of things lost or too precious to lose. And the great thing is that they’re as much for adults as younger audiences.
‘Cats Don’t Dance’ (1997)
The only feature by Turner, this was designed to be a film for Michael Jackson but ended up as a tribute to Old Hollywood, with the involvement of Gene Kelly. During production, management at Turner Feature Animation changed repeatedly and each head that came in attempted to make drastic revisions, including updating the setting to the 1950s rock-and-roll era. Thankfully its original style, complete with a brilliant villain (a sort of demented Shirley Temple) remained. It was the first non-Disney animated film to win the Best Animated Feature award, but bombed without studio support. There are widescreen versions knocking around in Europe.
‘Tokyo Godfathers’ (2003)
This was never going to be an easy sell. A Japanese Christmas Eve urban parable involving an abandoned child, a little girl, a trans-woman, a drag queen and an alcoholic adrift in nighttime Tokyo, it’s exquisitely animated and follows themes of family, loyalty, love and redemption. It’s also very unexpected and funny. The US trailer tries to hide the fact that it’s not in English, and much else.
‘The Illusionist’ (2010)
Not sure if I prefer this to the innovative ‘Les Triplets De Belleville’, but it’s a milestone, being based on an unrealised script from Jacques Tati, and feels very much like a Tati film. It’s also a love letter to Edinburgh, where a failing magician adopts a young woman and develops a father/daughter relationship with her in the dying days of his act. Elegiac, touching and filled with lovely touches, it’s more downbeat than its predecessor but a widescreen marvel.
‘Wonderful Days’ (2003)
This South Korean film deals with environmental and class issues. It’s set in 2142, where pollution has led to the breakdown of human civilization. A technologically advanced city harvests energy which uses pollution in a catalyzed reaction to generate power, and the extraction is carried out by people who live outside in the surrounding wasteland. But it’s the strange, lonely landscapes and innovative use of music that make it all work so beautifully. It was called ‘Sky Blue’ in Europe.
An animated Japanese reboot of the Fritz Lang original which features children rather than adult leads, this a visually stunning Japanese anime interpretation based on Osamu Tezuka’s outstanding 1945 illustrations. A Japanese detective and his young nephew go on the trail of a dangerous scientist, who they discover has created the beautiful Tima, destined to control humanity’s future. It takes off in extended action sequences showing the elaborate working of the city. The destruction of Metropolis is conducted in hyper-real motion to the Ray Charles song ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’, and is surprisingly touching.
I anyone has seen newer Korean or Japanese animations as good as the last two, do add them here.