In the global film market, animated movies continue to be some of the most popular, profitable, and critically acclaimed titles to come out of Hollywood each year. Studios like Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, and Illumination have built an industry out of producing eye-dazzling popcorn movies that are able to entertain the whole family on a semi-yearly basis. The big studio animated films are a testament to the medium and have become childhood favorites for generations, but as films, they only scratch the surface of what can be done with the art form.
Independent animated films are where the medium’s most daring, experimental, and most profound works are being produced. While they may not win as many coveted Best Animated Feature awards, they are more unhinged and often personal than the works being put out by the big conglomerates. They tackle harsher subject matters, explore deeper themes and demonstrate a level of artistry that makes them stand out from the CGI blockbusters.
Here is a selection of some of the best animated works to come out of the indie scene:
The Triplets of Belleville (2003)
When her cyclist grandson is kidnapped by French mobsters, a near-sighted madame and her spindly-legged hound team up with three aged vaudeville singers to bring him home. Written and directed by Sylvain Chomet, The Triplets of Belleville is a bizarre odyssey featuring a charmingly grotesque aesthetic and an otherworldly musical soundscape. The story is told mostly without dialogue and relies on the expressions and movements of its oddly designed characters to progress the plot, making it a practically silent film.
Tomm Moore Irish Folklore Trilogy
Over the past ten years, Irish director Tomm Moore and his Kilkenny-based studio Cartoon Saloon have produced the greatest hand-drawn works this side of the 21st century. Much like Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy, Moore has directed three thematically-tied companion films in what has been called his “Irish Folklore Trilogy”, consisting of The Secret of Kells (2009), Song of the Sea (2014) and WolfWalkers (2020). Each film tells a grand scale coming-of-age story rooted in Irish mythology, featuring forest sprites, selkies and guardians of the wilderness. The connective tissue between each of these films is exploration of man’s relationship to nature and the unknown, as told through immaculately rendered artistry. These films and the other works of Cartoon Saloon continue the tradition of timelessly hand-crafted masterpieces.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Fantastic Mr. Fox is as cleverly composed as its titular Vulpes vulpes. Based on Roald Dahl’s book of the same name, the film is equal parts classic animal fable and urbane adult comedy, telling the story of a sly fox’s fight for survival amidst squabbling family drama. George Clooney leads a decorated cast of award-winning actors to bring Wes Anderson’s quirky dialogue and direction to animated life for the first time. Anderson’s auteur vision flourishes in animation as his style of symmetrically graphic shot compositions and camera movements are manipulated to down to the finest detail, resulting in shots that are among the most visually striking and minimalistic of his filmography. Fantastic Mr. Fox is a cussing fantastic film.
Loving Vincent (2017)
Loving Vincent is as close to living art as a film can get. Inspired by the life and death of master painter Vincent Van Gogh, each of the film’s 65,000 frames is rendered on canvas in oil paint by an international team of 125 artists. Footage of live actors was rotoscoped and painstakingly translated using the techniques and mediums Van Gogh himself practiced in life as the film explores the strains of his despair and the darkness of his final moments. The film dips itself into the style of Van Gogh’s expressionist world of colors as it depicts its atmosphere in the master’s most famous pieces. Loving Vincent is a far cry from just another animated movie. It is an artistic triumph.
There have been dozens of films and specials that aimed to reinvent the legend of Santa Claus and his origins that are played every year ad nauseam, but none have done so as profoundly or timely as Netflix’s modern Holiday masterpiece. Klaus tells the story of how the selfless actions of a fish-out-of-water postman (Jason Schwartzman) and a hermit woodcarver (J.K. Simmons) warmed the hearts of an entire town and redefined Christmas itself. Director Sergio Pablos, former Disney animator and original creator of Despicable Me, sought to have the film’s animation style posit what traditional hand-drawn animation would look like had it progressed further without being overshadowed by the rise of computer animation. The final result is a gorgeously animated treat that is every bit as compelling a holiday tale as the all-time greatest Christmas films and visually stands head-and-shoulders above the jolty seasonal classics of Rankin/Bass.
Charlie Kaufman’s first foray into animation, Anomalisa is not a family film by any stretch. Aside from the R-rating and dialogue intensive script, the film explores themes of identity, isolation and mental illness that would be entirely lost on a younger audience. Michael (David Thewlis) lives his life convinced that everyone around him is the same person part of a collective hive-mind pitted against him, until he comes across Lisa (Janet Jason Leigh), who he becomes infatuated with for her unique individuality. On paper, this film could have been easily executed in live-action or any other medium, but the film utilizes the fact that it is animated to create striking scenes and images that enhance the script and enforce the themes. Michael’s stop-motion puppet mouthpiece falls off, everyone around him has the fame face and voice and the uncanny nature of the aesthetic elicits intended feelings of anxiety.
Based on the autobiographical graphic novels of the same name, Persepolis chronicles the life of author and the film’s co-director Marjane Satrapi from her childhood in Iran amidst the Islamic Revolution to rebellious young adulthood. The film’s comic roots are far from forgotten as practically every scene and every shot are rendered in the graphic monochrome style of the original books and composed as if they were stationary illustrations. Persepolis turns what would otherwise be an earnest portrait of Satrapi’s life and transforms it into a striking celebration of her youth.
Millennium Actress (2001)
Directed by anime visionary Satoshi Kon, Millennium Actress is a testament to young love and the art of filmmaking itself. When a revered Japanese film studio goes bankrupt, two documentarians interview the studio’s biggest star and follow her along as she tells the story of her life and the love she never had. As Kon’s second feature film, it continues the blurring of realities and the cost of fame previously explored in Perfect Blue, but stands as Kon’s finest edited film. As the film dives deeper into the aged starlets’ lifelong career, the line between the life she lived and the roles she played on screen overlap and intersect as both deal with a first romance that was regretfully robbed from her. Kon’s greatest trademark as an animation director is his editing and the film cuts between perspectives and timelines in a seamless and poetically disorienting matter. Out of the late director’s four feature films, Millennium Actress feels the most personal and relatable.
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Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen last played the characters together in 'Revenge of the Sith'.
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