Not so long ago the most you could hope for in a given year was that a small handful of domestically released animated features would rise above the type of mindless kids fare that is destined to drive parents crazy as their glass-eyed offspring engage in multiple uncritical home viewings. But that’s been changing in recent years. It’s hard to top the great year we experienced in 2014 but last year was memorable in its own right, with highlights including new work by two of our greatest independent animators, Lewis Klahr and Don Hertzfeldt; one of the greatest films ever produced by the greatest Hollywood animation studio of our time, Pixar’s Inside Out; and The Peanuts Movie whose realization produced not only a sigh of relief but also earned critical praise and delighted fans of all ages of the most popular and influential American comic strip ever. One only need look beyond the multiplex to the myriad of viewing platforms now available to experience the dizzying array of styles and techniques to be found in films being produced in every corner of the world.
Kaufman’s play about a lonely customer-service guru told through Johnson’s 3-D-printed stop-motion puppet animation is ultimately an inspired marriage of story and form. The awkward intimacy between the characters to which we are privy is constantly confounded by the distancing effect of the puppets, which makes for a restless dynamic, even if Kaufman’s thematic landscape doesn’t quite reach the profundity of his past work.
The Boy and the Beast Mamoru Hosoda
A boy on the run from the police turns down a Tokyo alley and suddenly finds himself in an alternate world where beasts rule and humans are unwelcome. He is befriended and mentored by a bear-like warrior who is a candidate to succeed the current ruler of the animal realm. Years pass and the boy returns to the human world where he finds himself forced to choose his loyalties. Fans of samurai and marital arts film will appreciate the dazzling action and sword-fighting scenes.
Boy and the World
I included this Brazilian film in last year’s list but, since it’s shortlisted for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, I want to highlight it again. The story follows a boy in search of his father who has left the family in search of work. The minimalist visual style is in keeping with the youthful point of view but also accentuates the jarring effect of the contrasts between the city and the country, and the rich and the poor, presented by the filmmaker.
Pete Docter & Ronne Del Carmen
Along with Up and Monsters, Inc., pete Docter has directed some of Pixar’s most emotionally sophisticated features. Primarily set within the mind of a young girl named Riley, the film features personifications of her primary emotions (all memorably voiced; Lewis Black as Anger!) and the balance they struggle to maintain within their host. As is the case with the best from Pixar, Inside Out features state-of-the-art digital animation and a story that appeals to both children and adults.
Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet
Inspired by Lebanese writer and artist Kahlil Gibran’s universally lauded 1923 poetry collection of the same name, this disarmingly sincere film follows artist and activist Mustafa (voiced by Liam Neeson), who has been under house arrest for years but is now allowed to leave if he departs by sea immediately. Under guard, he makes his way to the port, stopping to chat with admiring locals and dispense guidance in the form of his prose and poetry. The framing device is attractively but conventionally animated. The interludes, however, are created by a diverse range of leading contemporary artists including Nina Paley, Bill Plympton, and Tomm Moore.
The Peanuts Movie
There was a lot of collective hand-wringing when it was announced that a 3-D, digitally animated Peanuts film was in the works. (Like it could be worse than Snoopy shilling for MetLife, but I digress.) So it is to the credit of Blue Sky Studios and director Steve Martino that they delivered not only an ambitious and engaging update to the franchise but also one that captured the spirit of both the revered Charles Schulz strips and the Bill Melendez television specials. The success of the film is in the details. For instance, the animators strove to replicate Schulz’s elegant but often imperfect line in both the characters and in the background designs. And the 3-D effect is thoughtfully implemented, accentuating the depth of the background in all scenes except for those depicting Snoopy’s fantasy life, where the action is made to pop out into the audience.
Jean-Loup Felicioli & Alain Gagnol
As in their previous feature, A Cat in Paris, Felicioli and Gagnol present a rich animated film noir world in their latest. Set in New York City, the film follows a seriously ill boy who discovers he has the ability to leave his physical body, allowing him not only to fly but also to pass through walls and physical objects. He crosses paths with a wheelchair-bound cop who was injured by the city’s crime kingpin. They form an alliance and vow to save the city from the mob boss. The stylish, traditional if not retro, 2-D animation distinguishes the film from other computer-animated releases and helps establish a skillful calibration between its more sophisticated, even darker elements and lighter fantasy.
Shaun the Sheep Movie Richard Starzak & Mark Burton
Perhaps no studio is so clearly identified with a visual style as the U.K.-based Aardman Animations with its cartoony stop-motion. Based on the studio’s popular television series, Shaun the Sheep Movie possesses the same dry wit, outlandish situations, and distinctive characters as the Wallace and Gromit films and Chicken Run.
This epic anthology comprised of 12 short animated collage films created between 2002 and 2015 received only one screening last year but it will be one of the most anticipated and talked-about films of 2016 (see review here). The collection recalls Klahr’s best work in which the artist mines American comic books, advertisements, familiar music, and other pop-culture ephemera to create haunting dreamlike landscapes that seem to trigger a memory in the viewer that likely never existed. It’s a major work and what is particularly exciting is that it never occurred to me that I was watching it in a digital projection. It’s stunning.
World of Tomorrow
The first digitally animated film by devotedly lo-fi animator Don Hertzfeldt is, simply, one of the best films of 2015. Hertzfeldt’s great achievement is to take this story about a little girl who is visited by her clone from 227 years in the future and create a hilariously bleak dystopic vision—through his characteristically minimal stick figures no less—while commenting on a contemporary culture that is already headed in that direction.
David Filipiis Director of Film/Video at the Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University, where he teaches animation history.