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Good Animated Movies (1995-00): Testing Limits

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Hope Madden itcherPixar’s utterly brilliant one-two punch of ‘Toy Story’ (1995) and ‘Toy Story 2’ (1999) bookended the early period of the upstart animation company’s cinematic reign. Somewhere in between was one of the studio’s rare bits of mediocrity, ‘A Bug’s Life,’ but there was no question by the time the Woody & Buzz sequel hit theaters that Pixar had something no one else did. ~ Hope Madden

The Dangerous Imagination

In other corners of the animated universe, envelopes were being pushed. Matt Stone and Trey Parker – maverick cartoonists for television – moved their particular brand of animated humor to the big screen in a decidedly adult-oriented effort.

Likewise, humorist and cartoonist Bill Plympton returned to the cinemas with an extraordinarily odd little gem not meant for the wee ones, and the great Hayao Miyazaki’s classic ‘Princess Mononoke’ circled back to the themes of his earlier film ‘Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind’, setting aside adorable creatures and marvelous adventures to tell a fantastical tale more suited to older audiences.

It was an excellent period for family films as well. Joining Pixar in making beloved childhood memories, Nick Park took his stop action plasticine style to the chicken coop while Brad Bird’s pre-Pixar career gave us an oversized underdog to root for.


Marvelous Animation Movie Recommendations

‘Princess Mononoke’ (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997)

You cannot change fate. However, you can rise to meet it, if you so choose…

This ecologically-minded classic explores the dangers of an industrial, militarized population on the planet that must sustain us.

Set centuries ago, when forest gods and humans were bristling against disparate goals for their shared planet, young Ashitaka must seek out the Great Forest Spirit to save him from the corruption he endured by slaying the demonic boar god Nago.

Here’s what it comes down to: the myopic destruction of the natural world for unnatural (monetary, governmental) gain corrupts everything. Plus, do not screw with little girls raised by wolves. Really. These rules should both be self-evident, but Miyazaki has such a magical way of making the statement that it’s just more appealing to let him tell you.

‘Princess Mononoke’ (which is Japanese for Princess Monster, by the way) can be as bloody and grim as it is lyrical and gorgeous. It is a cautionary tale told with Miyazaki’s trademark surreal flourishes, enthralling creatures, and hard-won wisdom. It is among his very best – and that is saying something.

‘The Iron Giant’ (Brad Bird, 1999)

Wow, my own giant robot! I am now the luckiest kid in America! This must be the biggest discovery since, I don’t know, television or something!

In a nutshell, director Brad Bird – who’d go on to win two Oscars with Pixar for ‘The Incredibles’ and ‘Ratatouille’ (check out some great similar movies here) – puts Vin Diesel’s voice inside a weapons-grade robot from space.

At the height of the Cold War, lonely boy Hogarth befriends the monster, teams with a beatnik (Harry Connick, Jr.), and tries to hide the innocent metal heap from the US government that seeks to destroy it.

Bird creates a sweetly retro feel for the film, bathing it in nostalgia without losing the attention of a young audience. The film has the feel of a throwback Sci-Fi flick, which is appropriate for the time period within Hogarths’ world, but ‘The Iron Giant’ never appears stale or derivative. Instead, it’s an almost devastatingly tender buddy film.

Engaging, heart-wrenching, and utterly lovely, ‘The Iron Giant’ somehow managed to badly underperform at the box office when released in ’99, but would go on to secure a rightly deserved status as an animated classic.

‘I Married a Strange Person!’ (Bill Plympton, 1997)

When’s the last time you tried to tell two fifty-ton tanks to stop having sex!?

Promising “mirth and elation across the nation,” animator and cartoonist Bill Plympton takes a sometimes jarring look at the artistic bankruptcy of network TV, the absurdities of marriage, and the dangerous power of the imagination with ‘I Married a Strange Person!’

Romantic in its own way, the story tells of newlyweds Grant and Keri, whose relationship hits the skids when Grant’s imagination becomes literal: whatever he thinks automatically appears in the concrete world. It makes sex a little unusual, sure, but when a flagging late night talk show segment makes his powers known to the corporate execs, they will own him and his ratings-draw or no one will.

Broken glass, flame throwers, tank crashes, and a lot of bullets later, Grant could die unless his imagination and his wife work together.

All this because of some fornicating birds.

Plympton’s unsettling animation and Maureen McElheron’s giddily subversive music are the real marriage here, combining to give life to Plympton’s imagination in a way that’s maybe just a tad dangerous as it is.

‘Chicken Run’ (Peter Lord & Nick Park, 2000)

Right, we tried going under the fence, and that didn’t work. So the plan now is, we go over it…

It’s a race against the clock for spunky old Ginger. She lives in the stalag-like confines of Mr. and Mrs. Tweedy’s egg farm, where barbed wire and dogs keep the hens inside, and less-then-optimum egg production can find a chicken on the dinner table. Ginger regularly concocts plans of escape, none of which work, all of which send her to solitary confinement on the farm.

Then two things happen. 1) Mr. and Mrs. Tweedy decided to sell chicken pot pies instead of eggs. 2) A Road Island Red flies like a miracle into one of the chicken coops. As soon as his broken wing is mended, he can teach Ginger and the other girls how to fly to their freedom!

Freedom! Sorry – that’s funny because it’s none other than Mel Gibson lending his voice for Rocky, the rooster pretending he can help this camp full of ladies while he hides out from his own prison – the circus that keeps shooting him out of a cannon.

Nick Park and Peter Lord’s stop action animation has that plasticine feel of the best Wallace & Gromit films, and their screenplay is sharp, droll, and very silly. Particularly wonderful is Miranda Richardson as the dastardly Mrs. Tweedy.

It’s a hoot.

‘South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut’ (Trey Parker, 1999)

But, Mr. Minister, it isn’t like this film is the first troublesome thing to come out of Canada. Let us not forget Bryan Adams…

I saw this film in the theater. As a mom and her 4-year-old made their way to their seats, she sheepishly commented, “He’ll have to learn about it somewhere!”

Just about the time Kenny goes to hell – which is an estimated 35 f-bombs, or 5 minutes, into the film – she changed her mind, gathered up her sobbing toddler, and left the theater.

Her loss!

Oscar nominated (best song – it counts!), the ‘South Park’ film packs more profanity into its 81 minute running time than any film had ever managed with a full 120. It’s a record! God help you once the song about Terrence and Philip’s uncle gets stuck in your head – but know that it will.

Director Trey Parker, working with longtime BFF/co-writer Matt Stone, proved that he could do musicals better than anybody working, and that his particular brand of punk humor transcends the small screen.

As their round-headed 4th graders head into bloody battle with arch-nemesis Canada, and Satan works out his relationship problems with Saddam Hussein (a sultry poster of Skeet Ulrich behind them), it’s more than the balance of good and evil, this world and the next, in the offing. It is the future of utterly juvenile, absolutely adult, undeniably brilliant animation unfolding before us.

As Sheila Broflovski points out, “Remember what the MPAA says: Horrific, deplorable violence is OK as long as people don’t say any naughty words!”


The End of an Era

The new millennium approached, and with it would come not only a revolution in animation technology that would all but end hand animation in the studios. The next decade would be the last to see the cinema as the primary venue for feature length animation.

Online viewing, streaming, and on demand services would bring more and more movies – animated and otherwise – to people’s homes, tablets, and phones. It would change the way animators conceptualized their work. We’d see more 3D – a desperate attempt to draw people back into theaters – as well as more intimate stories, mixed-media efforts, international features, and adult-oriented offerings.

But that’s still a few years off. Back between 1995 and 2000, animated princesses were few and far between, Stan and Kyle were leaving the small screen behind, and animators were pushing the envelope.

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