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The success of animated films like ‘Frozen’ and ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ (check out some great similar movies here) guaranteed a constant flow of family-friendly cartoons during this period. Meanwhile, Pixar released the highest grossing original film (not sequel, not based on existing material) ever produced. Their ‘Inside Out’ – like ‘Up’ and the ‘Toy Story’ franchise – was a masterpiece, not just of animation, but of filmmaking.
Still, the first half of this decade saw a lot of surprises in animation, and an awful lot of wonderful Oscar-nominated films from around the world. No longer a category of the three obvious blockbusters, the Academy’s picks for animation suddenly branched out, embracing international artists working in the medium for more than simply kiddie entertainment.
Here are a handful of films you might have missed.
There are no magicians…
Lots of folks predicted a different three way contest in the Oscar’s 2010 best animated category: ‘Toy Story 3,’ ‘How to Train Your Dragon,’ and ‘Despicable Me.’ But the sly, old-school French ‘toon ‘The Illusionist’ nudged blockbuster ‘Despicable Me’ out of voters’ hearts. Not only is that a nod to the nomination process, but it’s a fitting triumph for a quietly revolutionary film that takes a moment to celebrate something we’ve lost in a culture that caters to that endlessly popular consumer, the young.
Using hand drawn illustrations, Sylvain Chomet – nominated also in 2003 for his smashing ‘Triplets of Belleville’ – lovingly depicts the inevitability of change. Bittersweet and charming, the film shadows one magician as his career dwindles, an unhappy turn of events that corresponds with another, more unexpected life change.
Paced at a stroll that makes the most of the handcrafted images, ‘The Illusionist’ offers an exquisite mixture of the poignant whimsy of writer Jacques Tati (the late filmmaker of decidedly French comedies) and Chomet’s wry imagery.
‘The Illusionist’ sees magic as something we lose, like youth or the innocence of an earlier time. Told from the perspective of a man who bafflingly finds that, in both his work and his personal life, he is suddenly the grown up in a world beguiled with youth, ‘The Illusionist’ tints its cells with a little indulgent melancholy. It’s a nice touch, and the fact that this small homage to lost art, this tiny rebellion against a youth-driven market, takes the form of a hand-drawn cartoon feels quietly, sweetly revolutionary in its own way.
Who has seen the wind? Neither I nor you: But when the leaves hang trembling, the wind is passing through…
‘The Wind Rises’– the Oscar nominated, animated, fantastical biopic of Japanese aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi – may be genius filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s final film. A body of work like his deserves a unique capstone, and ‘The Wind Rises’ is certainly unique. This film is not only unlike anything else Miyazaki has crafted, but unlike anything else, period.
Set in Japan in the early 1920s, the film offers a fictionalized account of a nearsighted boy who dreams – literally – of aircraft. In Jiro’s dreams, Italian aeronautical pioneer Gianni Caproni enlightens the boy to the elegant, creative possibilities of airplanes. Unable to become a pilot because of his eyesight, Jiro determines to design planes.
Like everything Miyazaki does, ‘Wind’ is a visual glory. Whether crowded city streets, mountainside locales, or cloud-speckled heavens, the scenery in this film is breathtaking. Touching, intimate moments and catastrophic acts of God or of war, Miyazaki treats them with the same poetic brushstroke.
The subject matter here proves more adult than his previous efforts, though, and he limits the fantastical elements because of it. Though the dream sequences are a joy, don’t expect to find unusual creatures or outright feats of magic in this one. Rather, Miyazaki attends to some of Japan’s most epic historic moments, contextualized behind the journey of one quiet, delicate young man’s voyage through life. The result is less giddily entertaining than what you might expect from the filmmaker, but no less captivating.
Each person you speak to has had a day, some other days have been good, some bad…
‘Anomalisa’ is writer/co-director Charlie Kaufman’s wondrous animated feature, utilizing a powerful subtlety to explore the challenge and mystery of human connection.
Customer service specialist Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is wilting under the weight of the mundane. Though he preaches about finding the individuality in each customer, he views each person he comes in contact with as interchangeable, hearing the same voice (the great Tom Noonan) each time anyone else speaks. Until he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason-Leigh), and Michael is roused by the sound of a new voice – and by the possibility of rediscovering the joy in life.
Kaufman has created a marvel of complex simplicity. It envelopes you slowly, on an almost subliminal level, and in doing so, the film touches on emotions so universal you may not even realize how loudly it speaks to you.
There is a sly wit at work here as well. At times odd and imaginative, romantic and heartbreaking, ‘Anomalisa’ ultimately feels like a gentle reminder about how much we need each other.
Future, what future? The future never gave me anything! All my hopes are set on the past…
Passion and fame, love and corruption, greed and seduction – not your run-of-the-mill cartoon themes. Don’t go looking for ogres or princesses in the Oscar nominated ‘Chico & Rita.’ This one’s not for the kids.
The film features a stormy relationship between a singer and a pianist in 1948 Cuba, then takes us around the world as the two artists connect and split again and again over the years. Behind them, we see a drowsily animated picture of the tumult and change of that historical period, particularly as it affected the Afro-Cuban community.
The imprecise poetry of the animation style mirrors the turbulent sensuality of the love affair as well as the music that’s the film’s real heartbeat. As fluidly lovely as the film is to look at, it sounds even better, saturated with the Cuban-influenced sounds of late 40s Latin jazz.
Chico and Rita’s love story has a throwback quality, full of desperate decisions, longing, and pride. The film works best as a love song – not just to this passionate couple, but to that moment in time that Chano Pozo brought percussion to Dizzie Gillespie’s life and changed the course of music.
My son, remember me in your stories and in your songs. Know that I will always love you, always…
The Academy Award nominated ‘Song of the Sea’ offers a beautifully watercolored dream that mixes modern day with Irish folklore to spin the yarn of a wee selkie and the brother who begrudgingly loves her. Magical, sweet, charming, and funny, it’s a treat parents will enjoy at least as much as their kids.
Like Moore’s wonderful 2009 effort, ‘The Secret of the Kells,’ ‘Song of the Sea’ mixes Ireland’s fairy folk and folklore with the humdrum human world. Although ‘Song’ is set in modern Ireland, smack in the middle of Halloween, a child’s imagination and the supernatural world naturally collide.
As young Saoirse and her grumpy brother Ben escape overprotective Granny’s house in search of a way back to their father and sheepdog out at the old lighthouse, the parallel story of Mac Lir the Giant and his Owl Witch mother seems to come true. Wee Ben needs to make peace with his little sister or lose her forever.
It’s a beautiful, touching, melodic tale that should not be missed. It should have won the Oscar.
Scads of excellent animated efforts entertained and illuminated during the first half of the decade, with no sign of waning. International animation and animated films crafted for adults continue to populate the cartoon landscape, and while computer imagery dominates the field, filmmakers like Tomm Moore and Sylvain Chomet prove that hand drawn films are as compelling now as they have ever been.
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