Some of our younger readers may not recall a time when the release of an animated feature was a rare and special thing. Before the milestone that was Toy Story, we in The West were lucky to see a single animated film per year in the cinemas, and barring the occasional Land Before Time sequel the honour of releasing these films generally fell at the feet of Disney.
As with superhero films, we now live in a time of plenty, often with dozens of large budget animated films seeing release in a single year. About a half decade ago, a natural hierarchy began to form, with Pixar and Dream Works productions such as Finding Nemo, Up, Shrek and How to Train Your Dragon reigning supreme commercially, with equally (if not, superior) entertaining films, such as Monster House, Surf’s Up and Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, being produced by other studios to respectable, if slightly less impressive numbers.
What you hear less about are the animated films on the next tier down. The films generally made outside of The States and for a fraction of the budgets, and as such have to find fresh and innovative ways of presenting themselves in the hopes of getting noticed for reasons outside Hollywood polish. The films that practically no one you encounter will have heard of but can represent originality above and beyond their station.
It’s sad to think that such a trifle as the lack of an impressive marketing budget means that productions made with vast levels of love and innovation will go unseen and unappreciated by such a staggering chunk of its potential audience, but unseen they remain, generating dedicated fans only in that narrow field of seekers of independent cinema and animation.
So this is me doing my bit. Here I present my five favourite animated films that you might never have heard of.
The Illusionist: In the days when stage entertainment had lost its shine, a French magician travels to Scotland in search of work and forms an unlikely friendship with a young girl who believes his magic to be real, but keeping up the façade could prove to be the breaking of him.
Coming from the team that brought us Bellville Rendez-Vous, The Illusionist can’t really be described as fun for all the family, because in truth, the very reason the film proves to be so touching is due to its grounded and somewhat depressing realism. The dialogue is spares to the point where it could have actually been a silent film, The animation is slick, if dull of palate but, drab though that may sound, the simple character beats will have you feeling for them every step of the way; heart achingly so.
The Secret of Kells: A young monk, living in the monastery of a village on the brink of invasion, is introduced to the magical but unfinished Book of Kells, by an elder monk. To complete the book he must break the rules, seek adventure and illuminate the way with imagination and creativity.
Stylistically comparable and no less striking than the best work of Genndy Tartakovsky (Samurai Jack, Star Wars Clone Wars), this Irish/French/Belgian co-production is the very definition of the potential magic in animation. Its enchanting story, beautiful design work and admirable moral lessons concerning the importance of reading, creativity and bravery, combine to cast a spell of pure, all-ages entertainment.
Strings: Prince Hal, seeking to avenge the death of his father, finds that not everything is as it seems; both the death of his father and the history of his nation seem to raise questions and reveal untruths.
Perhaps a cheat to this list, Strings isn’t animated per se, but the first fully integrated film featuring stringed marionettes. The puppets here don’t represent humans, but puppet beings in a world where their strings lead up to the heavens and act as their fate. The entire world has been built around this concept, and this reality’s solutions to such simple concepts as birth, combat and even gates, must be seen to be fully appreciated. It’s really clever stuff, but this besides; the story has a classical, almost mythical feel and is shot beautifully.
Azur and Asmar – The Princes’ Quest: Azur, a nobleman’s son, was raised by his nanny and treated as a brother by her son, Asmar. Cruelly separated, Azur and Asmar reunite later in life while seeking to free the imprisoned Djinn fairy, spoken of only in children’s fables.
The Princes’ Quest, in no uncertain terms, is a latter-day fairy tale in every conceivable way. It’s simple, straightforward and wears it’s moral lessons on its sleeve without being too preachy; which is all very refreshing in these cynical and complicated times. Where it really stands out though is with its visuals. Stylised and colourful to a degree beyond explanation, the two-dimensional simplicity is combined with complex patterning to present what can only be described as an Eastern tapestry come to life.
Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis: In the tri-levelled city of Metropolis, an advanced prototype robot called Tima, finds herself on the run from a very powerful party. Befriending a detective’s nephew, the pair seek to uncover the secret of her being so as to evade capture and alleviate potential disaster.
Fearing a lynching if I didn’t include at least one anime in this list, I chose Metropolis, a film that, considering it’s pedigree, inexplicably never fully lived up to the popularity that it should have. Based on a concept by the Godfather of both manga AND anime, Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy), with a screenplay by manga AND anime legend, Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) and animation by Mad House (Ninja Scroll), Metropolis is rarely sighted as a modern classic, but rather has faded into relative obscurity over the last decade. Perhaps people didn’t get along with the way that the old-hat character designs have been integrated with slick action and background designs that can go toe to toe with Ghost In The Shell, but I for one feel it is for that same reason that it should be cherished. A truly original looking sci-fi epic.
As always with my Five to Watch lists, you can click on the titles of the films to view a trailer. If you watch and enjoy any of these fantastic films, then tell a friend about them, and find some obscure animations for yourself, you can support the little guy, get entertained and be a trailblazer, all while watching one film.