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Good Animated Movies (2000-05): Taking Cartoons beyond the Mainstream
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Good Animated Movies (2000-05): Taking Cartoons beyond the Mainstream

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Hope Madden itcherAs the new millennium dawned, Disney struggled to find their footing with new technologies and changing tastes, while others – major animation studios and independent artists alike – seized the budding opportunities with both hands. While some forged ahead, making missteps and imaginative strides using computer animation, many found their voice using traditional stop-action and hand drawn animation. Those voices, more often than not, spoke to a different audience than the one generally associated with animation. ~ Hope Madden

Dreamy Worlds Brought to Life

Pixar continued their reign as the rulers of animation during the first half decade of the new millennium with such memorable pictures as ‘Finding Nemo’ and ‘The Incredibles.’ Meanwhile, the ‘Shrek’ franchise solidified DreamWorks’ place on the playing field. Together, these giants appealed to mass markets, seizing both critical acclaim and box office results. 

But in smaller markets, animators were toying with a blend of new technologies and old, sometimes mixing the two with lovely, thematically resonant results. Ghibli studios released the highest-grossing film in Japan’s history, an animated masterpiece from the genius Hayao Miyazaki, while France’s Sylvain Chomet saw his first Oscar nomination for a decidedly odd kidnap caper.

England’s plasticine duo made the leap to the big screen with glorious results, while back in the States, two major filmmakers brought their own distinct personalities to animation. It was a pivotal time in the changing art form, filled with bright efforts for children and adults alike.

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Peculiar & Compelling Animated Movie Recommendations

‘The Triplets of Belleville’ (Sylvain Chomet, 2003)

Swinging Belleville rendez-vous / Marathon dancing, doop-de-doo / Voodoo, can-can aren’t taboo / The world is strange in rendez-vous…

Surreal, bizarre, hilarious, and endlessly entertaining, ‘The Triplets of Bellville’ sees a team of elderly women on a quest to rescue a kidnapped cyclist who actually does not even know he’s been nabbed. When Madam Souza’s grandson is taken during the Tour de France, who but Granny, her hound, and an old vaudeville-style song and dance team can save the day?

This Oscar nominee for Best Animated Film as well as Best Original Song promises a most unusual experience. Director Sylvain Chomet’s sly humor and wildly original style are at work in both the story and animation, a wondrous blend of nostalgia and unpredictability. Hand drawn animation paced beautifully, between the action on the screen and the utterly infectious soundtrack, will keep you enraptured, while his clever screenplay cannot help but surprise and delight you.

Whether you speak French or not, the Triplets’ song will get stuck in your head for days – see if it won’t!

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‘Corpse Bride’ (Tim Burton, 2005)

But first! A toast, to Emily. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride! Tell me, my dear, can a heart still break once it’s stopped beating?

Tim Burton co-directed the stop-motion fulfillment of his own gothic sketches, detailing a Poe-esque love story and yielding wonderful results. The film is equal parts wholesome and gruesome somehow effortlessly combined. 

Timid, frail, somber Victor – patterned after Burton, of course, and played by Johnny Depp – is on the verge of marriage, but he can’t remember his vows. He flees the rehearsal and practices his vows in the woods, unwittingly awakening the spirit of a doomed lover, murdered on her wedding night. Things go from bad to worse for poor Victor when the Corpse Bride accepts his vow of marriage. The reluctant groom is ushered into the afterlife, which is more like a cool blues club than a cloudy resting place. There, he is welcomed by a delightfully grisly cast of characters.

The film has everything a great animated feature needs: it’s well written, effectively voiced, and brought to animated life – or animated walking death, as it were – with inspired artistry. The sets and characters are exquisite, and Danny Elfman’s music is as big a part of the triumph as anything. Burton is at home, and it shows. He brings his own brand of humor and wormy humanity to this film, as he does with all his great work. And he brings Johnny Depp, who’s even cute at a puppet.

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‘Waking Life’ (Richard Linklater, 2001)

The trick is to combine your waking rational abilities with the infinite possibilities of your dreams. Because, if you can do that, you can do anything…

Richard Linklater’s first flirtation with animation and, in particular, an adapted rotoscope style of animation, was this existential dilemma. Linklater filmed actors and later had the footage digitally animated, creating a beautifully trippy aesthetic that perfectly mirrors the talky philosophy of the screenplay.

An unnamed protagonist meanders through a dreamlike world, listening to bits of conversations and, eventually, engaging in dialog. As he begins to believe that he cannot wake up from this dream world, frustration builds to existential crisis in a film that never fully resolves its situation, preferring instead to explore and document heady concepts about what it is we call life.

Though the filmmaker has experimented with narrative and cinematic structures in many of his films – sometimes even more successfully – ‘Waking Life’ will always be among his most provocative and lovely works.

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‘Spirited Away’ (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)

Once you’ve met someone you never really forget them. It just takes a while for your memories to return…

The great Hayao Miyazaki’s only Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature, ‘Spirited Away’ is not only the animator’s most financially successful film, but also among the most lauded works of animation in history. You simply must see this movie.

Never have Miyazaki’s fascinating creatures overrun the screen with more grace or imagination as unhappy little Chihiro does. She plots to escape an enchanted realm and save her newly-porcine parents. Childlike logic informs the dreamy fantasy, where witches and spiderfolk, stink spirits and dumplings carry mysterious powers, and one little girl must remember who she is if she hopes to return to her comfortingly dull life.

There is no film, no animated landscape in history quite like the world Miyazaki creates with this film. As utterly absorbing and visually overwhelming as any film you will ever see, it is the most glorious effort of one of the greatest animators on earth.

Whether the subtitled Japanese original or the respectfully adapted English version, ‘Spirited Away’ is an absolute masterpiece of self-discovery.

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‘Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit’ (Nick Park, 2005)

Their tiny bunny brains are being saturated in my veg-free mind waves…

This film is so utterly enjoyable, charming, and silly that you almost miss the true ingenuity and craft in the animation itself. British plasticine duo Wallace – inventor and cheese lover – and his silently worried dog Gromit, take on the bunnies that have been upsetting town gardeners. But things go all Halloweeney on them, and Wallace once again finds his brain for inventing and his desire for cheese working against him. 

Aardman Animation’s sophomore effort with DreamWorks, after 2000’s wildly entertaining ‘Chicken Run,’ was five years in the making, while CGI techniques could be created to effectively couple with the trademark plasticine, and the result is stunning. Homely, googly-eyed Brits and their gardening needs have never looked quite this remarkable.

This is the kind of film that begs to be scanned for its clever details (the town barbershop is called A Close Shave, for instance), but it’s the un-self-conscious, cleverly innocent comedy and remarkable animation that make the film a stunning success.

Wallace & Gromit belong in the highest echelon of doofus and silent sidekick comedy teams, and everyone in your family has reason to see their first full length feature.

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Using Art to Touch Everyone

New technologies and old clashed and coagulated during the first part of this decade.  Some animators used the old style, hand drawn art to underscore themes while other filmmakers explored new technologies or combined old and new to create something wondrously other.

Filmmakers were beginning to truly understand how to make technology bend to the needs of the film itself. The results were a wonderful mixture of family and adult entertainment.

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