Monday, January 16, 2017

The Ten Best Animated Films of 2016

Say what you want about 2016, it was a fantastic year for animation. I was continually impressed by the quality of the animated films this year, with several contending for ten best films of the year, period. Here are the ten that stuck with me the most.

1
KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS
(Laika)

Every now and then, a film comes along that restores your faith in the art of filmmaking itself. After a long, dreary slog of a summer movie season, along comes KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, a breath of fresh air that isn't just the best animated film 2016 has produced so far, it's one of the finest films of the year, period. Produced by Laika studios (which also gave us such fantastic films as CORALINE and PARANORMAN), there have been few mainstream, widely released films this year that have been so thrillingly original, so wondrously crafted, or so deeply engaging as KUBO.

It often feels as if a legend is being born before our eyes, as young Kubo, a boy with only one eye, is sent on a quest for three pieces of sacred armor - a quest on which his father died many years before. Pursued by his two evil aunts and his diabolical grandfather, the Moon King, and with only a cursed beetle warrior and a talking monkey for company, Kubo must rely on his wits and his skill with magical origami to stop his evil family from stealing his one good eye, and returning him to their celestial kingdom, where he will be blind to the suffering of the world.

You'll find no instantly dated pop culture references, bodily humor, or current pop songs here, as are so often present in many contemporary animated films. Instead, KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS focuses on storytelling and character, crafting an epic tale like no other. It also has a depth that few children's films ever touch. Kubo's grandfather is a god-like creature who has deliberately turned a blind eye to the suffering of the world, writing it off as a dark and terrible place, insisting this his family remove themselves from it, forbidding all emotional involvement. In that way, KUBO is one of the most indelible rebukes of Trump-ian cynicism and isolationism that I've seen in a long time. While not a political film by any means, it is a celebration of a beautifully flawed world, of hope, family, and that which unites us, as well as a repudiation of negativity, division, and fear. It is a film that feels timeless, but one with a message that resonates in our current political climate with a loud and clear cry for optimism. You'll find no trace of cynicism or irony here. Instead, KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS is a warm-hearted and throughly entertaining surprise, a rollicking adventure that is one of the most unique and creative animated films to come along in a very long time.

2
YOUR NAME
(Funimation)

When a once-in-a-millennium comet passes by the Earth, a young man and a young woman who have never met awake one morning to find that they are trading lives in their dreams. As they live each other's lives, improving them as they go, they begin to fall in love, until a cosmic tragedy threatens to tear them apart forever.

Makoto Shinkai's YOUR NAME is a dazzling, heart-stopping, altogether wonderful film. It is a love story like no other, a breathtakingly animated tale of two seemingly unconnected people who have been searching for each other without ever knowing it. Shinkai's take on dreams, destiny, and the mysterious nature of love is a unique vision all its own, one that never loses sight of its emotional core even as its time-jumping plot becomes more and more complex. YOUR NAME is like a dream, a rapturous, haunting dream from which I never wanted to wake. Say what you want about 2016 - it was an incredible year for animation.

3
MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI
(GKIDS)

MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI may have an unusual title, but it might be the most unexpectedly emotionally devastating film I've seen this year.  It's the story of a boy nicknamed Zucchini, who is sent to an orphanage after the accidental death of his abusive mother. Teased and alone at first, he soon finds himself ingratiating himself to the other children, each the product of neglect, abuse, and broken homes. Everything changes, however, when a girl shows up at the orphanage, whose abusive aunt is determined to adopt her in order to receive a stipend from the state. 

It's all very serious subject matter for an animated film, but it is all handled so beautifully by director Claude Barras. The screenplay absolutely nails the children's dialogue and worldview, even though the children have seen such horrors, they remain absolutely authentic. MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI tackles the horrors head-on, but with a sense of child-like innocence that never feels fake or heavy-handed. It is a story about growing up in an imperfect world filled with pain, but finds a beautiful silver lining in a dark, dark cloud. A sensitive, astute, and wholly disarming, MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI is a marvelous work of art, a portrait of broken childhood that is as heartbreaking as it is uplifting. Bring a tissue. On second thought, bring a whole box.

4
THE RED TURTLE
(Studio Ghibli)

A castaway who finds himself on a deserted island with only fiddler crabs for company, is suddenly visited by a mysterious red turtle who thwarts his attempts to escape the island. Enraged, he kills the turtle, only to have it turn into a beautiful woman, whom he marries and builds a life on their tiny little island at the edge of the world.

Evocatively animated and dialogue-free, Studio Ghibli's THE RED TURTLE is pure magic, a deeply moving fable about the beauty of a life well lived. It occasionally feels like a short film that has been dragged out a bit too long, but it soon recovers and delivers a truly moving emotional sucker punch. There is just something about its painterly images, combined with the lush score by Laurent Perez Del Mar, that makes the film such a mystical wonder. It's almost as if we're watching a life flash before someone's eyes, a series of moments in a young family's life, filled with laughter, pain, and most of all, love. That may sound a bit hokey, but there is nothing hokey about THE RED TURTLE, a rich and deeply moving work of art that stands as one of the year's finest pieces of animation.

5
ZOOTOPIA
(Disney)

Disney tackles racism and prejudice in a surprisingly smart way in their latest animated feature, ZOOTOPIA, which follows a provincial rabbit named Judy Hopps who dreams of being the first rabbit to ever become a big city cop in Zootopia - a city where predators and prey now live in harmony, having overcome their historic differences. Raised with a mistrust of foxes, she goes on to accidentally befriend a streetwise hustler named Nick Wild, who also just so happens to be a fox. Tasked with solving a recent rash of disappearances, Judy inadvertently stokes a fear of predators into a city that is predominantly prey. When she uncovers a plot to demonize predators and sew fear in the hearts of the majority, only she and her new friend, Nick, can set things right.

It's a heavy topic for a film aimed at kids, but it treats it with a surprising about of dignity and respect. ZOOTOPIA is also Disney's most charming, non-Pixar film since TANGLED (sorry FROZEN). It presents us with a world that mirrors our own, and one can't help but hear the rhetoric of Donald Trump echoing through the goals of the ultimate villain (who I won't reveal here), trying to stoke fear of "otherness" in order to inflame and unite the majority. No other major animated film has so indelibly and directly tackled racism as ZOOTOPIA, and it does so without feeling like a finger wagging lecture. This is a movie with heart, a movie with brains, a clever and incisive piece of entertainment that presents a striking portrait of our own world in ways that are easily digestible for children without being patronizing. It's a real winner.

6
FINDING DORY
(Disney/Pixar)

There are few animated films that have reached the popular and cultural heights of Disney/Pixar's FINDING NEMO. The breakaway star of that film was, of course, Ellen Degeneres' forgetful blue tang fish, Dory, whose mantra "just keep swimming" went on to become an iconic catchphrase.

It's surprising, then, that it has taken 13 years for Pixar to deliver a sequel, especially considering there have been a third sequel to TOY STORY, a MONSTERS, INC. sequel, and one much maligned CARS sequel in the time since FINDING NEMO was released. 

Thankfully, the long-awaited follow-up, FINDING DORY, turned out to be worth the wait. The new film shifts its focus from clown fish Nemo and his dad, Marlin, and onto everyone's favorite sufferer of short-term memory loss. Dory is one of those rare comic supporting characters capable of headlining her own film, never wearing out her welcome or descending into mere shtick. In fact, through FINDING DORY, Dory becomes an even more fully developed character in her own right.

The film introduces us to young Dory, perhaps the most adorable baby fish this side of the Great Barrier Reef, whose forgetful nature leads her to wander away from home, then forget that her parents ever existed. Prompted by her adventures with Nemo and Marlin, she begins to remember parts of her roots, and heads off on a journey across the ocean to put together the pieces. Along the way, she meets a nearly blind whale named Destiny, a grumpy (and stunningly animated) octopus named Hank, who just wants to get to Cleveland and be left alone, and a host of other sea critters who help her on her quest to rediscover her roots, and remember who she really is.

Like FINDING NEMO before it, FINDING DORY heavily explores the idea of home and what that means to different people. Ultimately, it's not just Dory's family who represents home, but Marlin and Nemo as well. Home is where we belong; our chosen family, not just our blood family, and FINDING DORY manages to take those themes that were first explored in FINDING NEMO and give them an even deeper resonance. That's the hallmark of a great sequel - it expands, rather than repeat itself, it goes deeper, rather than merely treading water. It's also every bit as funny as the original, even if it doesn't quite hit the same emotional highs. Still, while it might not be a ten hankie weepie the way some Pixar films are, it's still a crackerjack sequel that doesn't rely simply on nostalgia for its meaning. Even Thomas Newman's score mostly ignores the iconic piano melody from the first film, replacing it with lovely new thematic material representing Dory's adventure. 

Degeneres is as charming as ever as the beloved Dory, giving the film an energetic yet emotionally grounded center that remains one of Pixar's most indelible creations. FINDING DORY is a worthy follow-up to FINDING NEMO, a warm, big-hearted sequel that takes everything we loved about its predecessor, and crafts a fresh new adventure that feels every bit as spirited and beguiling as its predecessor did 13 years ago.

7
MOANA
(Disney)

Based on Polynesian mythology, MOANA is the tale of the daughter of an island chieftain who sets out on a quest to save her people by finding the lost demigod, Maui, in order to restore the heart of an ancient island, whose disappearance has put a curse on the local tribes. 

Under the direction of Ron Clements and John Musker, MOANA becomes one of Disney's strongest animated musicals in years, thanks to glorious new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa'i, and Mark Mancina. They may not be as readily hummable as some of the studio's classics, but they're easily some of the most lyrically graceful in the entire Disney canon. It's also one of the most stunningly animated films  the studios has ever made, coming alive with vibrant color at every turn. 

It's interesting that Disney has moved away from tales featuring conventional villains, often taking a less black and white view of the world. From BRAVE to MALEFICENT to FROZEN, Disney continues to showcase strong women without the need for a love interest or a conventionally evil force. The "villains" of Disney's contemporary works are less evil and more misunderstood, people and beings who are just misguided or suffering in ways that the hero needs to understand. It's a more complex view of the world, but one that I think strengthens its young viewers world views, even if I miss the great Disney villains of old.

8
SAUSAGE PARTY
(Columbia)

Seth Rogen and team take on Pixar in this bawdy, profane, and altogether riotous animated comic satire about foodstuffs whose ideas of life after the grocery store ("the great beyond") are shattered when they discover their true purpose. SAUSAGE PARTY is a gleefully blasphemous allegorical take on faith, organized religion, and the search for meaning, as the characters discover that their belief in an afterlife was created to assuage their fear of death. 

Bitingly funny and unrepentantly vulgar, SAUSAGE PARTY is a wildly original and irreverent work of animated anarchy that has a surprisingly layered take on issues of faith and fact (and the sometimes inherent need for both). It often becomes enamored with its own obscenity, but when the satire is this sharp, and Alan Menken's self-parodic music is so good, it's hard to ignore the intelligence at the heart of its crudeness.

9
MISS HOKUSAI
(GKIDS)

An animated biopic of O-Ei Hokusai, daughter of legendary artist Tetsuzo Hokusai, MISS HOKUSAI is a gorgeously rendered tale of a woman who struggled to make her own living as an artist in the shadow of her famous father, often painting works under his name without credit. 

While the supernatural elements that skirt the edges of the film never really come together in a satisfying way, it's hard to ignore the elegant beauty of this film, and its lovely blending of modern and classical sensibilities. Yet those elements are an important part of its exploration of an artist's vision, and the importance of creating a complete work of art. Director Keiichi Hara uses abstraction to take us inside Hokusai's mind, allowing us to see the artistic process from beginning to end, separating great art from the poseurs. At times, it almost feels like an animated Mizoguchi film in its portrayal of a strong woman's societal plight. It may not have a strong plot, but Hara seems content to focus on character details. It honestly feels like no other animated film I've ever seen, taking its beats and cues with a laid back sense of time and place, revealing in the small moments rather than the big picture. It's a small scale, quietly powerful triumph.

10
KUNG FU PANDA 3
(Dreamworks)

Po is back, and this time facing a supernatural threat from the spirit world - a former partner of Master Oogway who has returned from beyond the grave to take the Chi from all the kung fu masters in revenge for an ancient grudge.

While not quite as good as its predecessors (what threequel ever is?), KUNG FU PANDA 3 is still a surprisingly strong and ultimately satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. At first it feels like its back tracking on the lessons Po learned in KUNG FU PANDA 2, but it soon becomes a moving exploration on identity, and what it means to be a family. Director Jennifer Yuh has done a fantastic job of steering this franchise into emotionally grounded territory, rather than rely on overly self-reflexive or pop culture references for humor. 

In KUNG FU PANDA 2, Po learned that he didn't need to rely on his past for his identity. Now that Po has found his panda family, it allows Yuh to explore themes of recognizing culture and tradition while forging your own identity. These are surprisingly strong, but incredibly relevant themes for a kids movie, and Yuh continues to relay them with humor and grace. KUNG FU PANDA 3 lets kids know that it's OK if your family doesn't look like the traditional model - that your family is what you make it. It's OK to have two dads, even if one of them is a goose. There are a lot going on in these films, and even if some of the jokes are beginning to feel tired in their third iteration, there's enough here to keep things fresh and bring the series to an entertaining and heartwarming conclusion.

Also strong, but just missed the top ten:
APRIL AND THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD
THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS

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