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By Riley Webster · December 12, 2012
Remember back when there was a stigma attached to animation, where it was just a bunch of fluffy talking animals and it was only for kids? Yeah, I don't really, either. For the better part of my life, animation has been widely accepted for any age, in many different countries. But I still think we should shed some light on the smaller, darker, more mature ones, and remind ourselves that not every cartoon is from Pixar and Disney.
So here were my major rule for this one: the subject matter had to be mature and intense enough as to merit not being "for kids", even if a couple of them are still rated PG or PG-13. There's a lot of films that could've easily been included because of going into darker territories than most, like Antz, Fantasia, Spirited Away, Rango, or Iron Giant. But I feel that all of those are still aimed at children, despite clearly wanting to expand their minds a little bit. For the ones on this list, I really feel that almost no child would be able to sit through it all.
Final note: you may notice a lack of Ralph Bakshi here. He's kinda infamous for being the first dude to make animation very adult, with his films like Fritz the Cat and Heavy Metal. The only reason he's not here is simply because I haven't seen almost any of his flicks, except for Lord of the Rings (shudder) and half of Heavy Metal (yeeeeah, I just couldn't finish it). Anyhoo, here we go….
10. Beowulf (2007)
Robert Zemekis got a lot of flak during his ten year experiment with motion capture animation. Polar Express got a ton of dismal reviews, despite being the greatest animation EVER, and his Christmas Carol was undervalued, perhaps for being pants-shitting terrifying. Even the one he simply produced, Mars Needs Moms, was surprisingly delightful. Beowulf is probably the least of all his mo-cap films, but that doesn't mean it isn't a badass and enjoyable adventure.
The thing that I love about Zemekis' animations was the visual freedom he gave his camera. In all three of the ones he directed, there are some incredibly wonderful shots that go on a single-take journey, flying across time and space. Even casual dialogue scenes have a slowly rotating camera that is simply too excited to sit still. All three are wonders in their own right, but Beowulf was the only PG-13 action film of the bunch; hence it's stature here (the other two could've very well been on this list for being quite creepy, but they're still kid's movies).
Beowulf takes the old legend and strips it pretty bare. There aren't any huge surprises here, other than the idea of the main hero becoming seduced and growing into a bitter old man. And the screenplay certainly has some howlers, although some seem to be intentional (the co-writer also co-wrote Pulp Fiction, and admitted he thought Beowulf was supposed to be kinda funny). But the action is incredible, the violence sometimes shocking, and the sight of CGI Angelina Jolie swimming naked in gold water is just a darn good time at the movies.
9. Akira (1988)
Katsuhrio Otomo's post-apocalyptic anime is a film that takes some getting used to. Certainly, it was one of the first anime's to break into the Western mainstream; along with Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbour Totoro, Akira can be credited with bringing the manga style of Japanese animation right to our front door and making it Ok for adults to watch. The key word being "adults", because no child below the age of, like, 16 should be allowed anywhere near Akira.
I respect the movie, and greatly admire it's power. I also don't understand a moment of it, and by the time the ending comes where telekinetic bikers are morphing into huge blobs of nastiness and swallowing people inside their skin, either you give in and enjoy, or throw your hands up in confused disgust. It's a very odd, disturbing movie, filled with shocking gang violence (including a rape) and nightmarish science fiction that recalls other hallucinatory films like Jacob's Ladder and Dark City.
The script is based on a popular manga comic series in Japan, which might explain why it's difficult for anyone without prior knowledge of the plot to follow along, as it progressively gets more and more complicated. The film is also interestingly without a main protagonist, and often I wasn't sure who I should be rooting for (if anyone). But like Beowulf, Akira overcomes it's story problems and becomes a trippy, disturbing, beautifully animated ride, and it was instrumental in not only aiding the popularity of anime, but also shaping and influencing science fiction films like The Matrix.
8. Waltz With Bashir (2008)
A modern war film of raw intensity and hypnotic animation, Waltz With Bashir has become one of the more popular cult animations of recent years. Immediately opening with a dream sequence of yellow-eyed dogs blasting through a street with a pulsating techno score, Bashir is a film unlike any other I've ever seen. That's not to say it's a perfect movie; the structure of a faux-documentary means many scenes are stagnant interviews, and the opening 15 minutes after the dog nightmare are incredibly slow. But once you get past those flaws, Bashir is just incredible.
I know very little of the Lebanon war, and watching Bashir, I felt a lot of the soldiers didn't really understand it either; certainly even less, now. The director, Ari Foleman, was one of the members of the Israeli army, and he grouped together many of his old colleagues to share their experiences, and try to discover why all of them have difficulty remembering anything about the war. But he animates it all in such a beautiful, but peculiar, style — many have said that it's roto-scoping (filming everything normally, then drawing over top of every frame), but in the DVD the director said none of it was roto-scoped. I don't know how, exactly, they animated it the way they did, but I'm happy they had the balls to go for it.
Because of it's subject matter, Bashir is often troubling, and even depressing. The poetic scene of a young child with a bazooka is incredibly haunting, and for the final scene, Foleman disposes of all animation and simply shows real-life footage of the screaming women and children, mourning the corpses all around them. Waltz With Bashir is a rare animated films that is truly impossible to shake.
7. Paprika (2006)
People who think Christopher Nolan is the world's greatest answer to filmmaking, and who think Inception is an ingenious masterpiece of originality, should immediately check out Satoshi Kon's Paprika. Not to take anything away from Nolan, who is a talented director and who's Inception is indeed an enjoyable action flick. But Paprika is where all those ideas truly came from; entering another person's dreams to extract information, making such processes illegal, and having chase sequences through a person's mind are all Paprika's, and frankly, they do an even better (and far more creative) job of it than Nolan.
Having said that, Paprika is also too damn weird to become the next Inception — at times it even out-odd-ball's Akira in the wacky visuals variety, and if you have any fear of doll's that come to life, avoid Paprika like the plague. But in terms of sheer visual and story originality, it stands above so many recent animations, or movies in general. Because of it's violence and sexuality, Paprika is often a difficult film to watch. But I recently bought the Blu-Ray, and my eyes almost melted at how stunning the animation is.
The plot begins with a dream machine being stolen, and all hell breaking loose with people's dreams and reality becoming impossible to distinguish (so much so, many wind up killing themselves, or others). The film follows a cop and a therapist on the hunt for the thief, but when their realities begin to shift and converge….sweet Jesus, do things get weird. Satoshi Kon also directed Perfect Blue, a famously wonderful anime sadly unseen by me, but Darren Aronofsky bought the rights to remake Perfect Blue (and used one of it's shots in Requiem For a Dream), so that should tell you just how "out there" Kon must be. Paprika is one of the most bizarre films I've ever seen, but also one of the most creative.
6. Coraline (2009)
Ok, so…I know this is only PG, and that it was technically marketed to kids, and so I guess that kinda does make it a children's film, right? Except….HAVE YOU SEEN IT? This is no children's stop-motion animation! It's the stuff nightmares are made of! If I had seen Coraline at any age before, I dunno, 13, I would've barely been able to contain my bodily functions. Even now, when I saw it in theatres with my lovely lady, she was frequently covering her eyes and shaking in fear. Coraline has a very intriuging way of burrowing into your subconscious and making you intensely creeped out.
That it's also an epic fantasy and occasionally gorgeous adventure only adds to how good of a job Henry Selick did. The director behind James and the Giant Peach and Nightmare Before Christmas (yes, Tim Burton did NOT direct that one) proves he was no one-hit wonder, and also surprisingly out Burton's Tim Burton on the creepy factor. Coraline is about a little girl who moves into a new large house with her neglectful parents, and then discovers at night she can crawl though a small door and enter the world of "Other Mother" — a twin of her real mom, except she has buttons on her eyes. Everything appears perfect for Coraline, until Other Mother starts making some distressing demands….
For me, Coraline is not just a deeply troubling adventure; it's a tonally perfect animated film, balancing out the light comedy with sub-dued oddities with aggressive horror in a rather stunning way. The last 30 minutes can honestly make a grown man grip the edges of his seats, which is why the PG rating is a little misleading. True, there is no real violence or blood, but the psychological horror that Coraline goes through is more than many so-called "splatter films" can top.
5. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Ohhh, what a sad movie this is! There are times you just wanna look away, but then, it's based on the Hiroshima bomb in Japan, so you know you shouldn't look away because it actually happened (and not very long ago). Grave of the Fireflies was another of the three most instrumental anime's to break into the West (it was actually the bottom half of a double bill along with My Neighbour Totoro), and for my money, it's the best of the three. Insightful, mature, eloquent, and depressing as hell, Fireflies is honestly one of the best modern war films out there.
The movie follows a boy and his young sister as they try to survive the aftermath of the nuclear bomb. It actually opens with a flash-forward of him dying, and we see his ghost reuniting with his sister in a field of fireflies, and….awww, man, I'm manly-misting already just thinking about it. Obviously, from those two sentences of description, Fireflies is not an overly pleasant or uplifting movie. But it's so gorgeous, seeing these two siblings maintain hope, keep their love for each other strong, and power their way through poverty, disease, and war. In many ways, it's one of the most re-affirming films about family that you can find.
Roger Ebert recently pronounced this film in his Greatest Movies Ever series, and I can see why. True, the script occasionally lags, and some of the siblings' visits with friendly neighbours or distant relatives drag on a little too long. But the emotional core of the film never wavers, and the last 15 minutes are just brutally heartbreaking. If you want to see an anime with no weird action scenes or bizarre monsters or tentacles of any kind, Grave of the Fireflies is the perfect place to start.
4. Team America (2004) and South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut (1999)
I wanted to separate these two movies, and therefore not be a cheater-pants, but…I just couldn't. When I watch Team America, I wind up seeing South Park almost immediately after. The two are like sequels without having anything in common, except for their demented creators, voice actors, and incisive and profane sense of humour. These two films put together are just about the most hilarious combo of any movie of any kind, animated or otherwise (because yes, I'm totally saying that marionette puppets count as animation).
Bigger, Longer, and Uncut came first, and it came hard (like what I did there?) Trey Parker and Matt Stone invented one of the smartest shows on television, and managed to hide all of their insight with what was also one of the crudest and rudest things anyone had ever seen. The movie goes even farther, what with it's hundreds of f-bombs and sub-plot about Saddam Hussein being the gay lover of Satan. But it's also a hilarious satire of American standards of violence over sex/profanity, and the main plot is about the States going to war against Canada because of our naughty words (and Bryan Adams). The fact that it's also a brilliant musical speaks pretty highly of how awesome Bigger, Longer, and Uncut really is.
And then a few years later, Stone and Parker made Team America. Any goodwill they got from South Park went down the tubes with Team, which is easily at the top of the shortlist for vastly underrated, overlooked, and deeply misunderstood films. Because of the sensitivity after 9/11, most critics in the States didn't want to see a movie that made fun of their foreign policies. But look at the world now — EVERYONE makes fun of their foreign policy! Not to mention the fact that Team America's main humour comes from being an incredibly intelligent and side-splitting satire of Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer action films; everything from their plots, characters, dialogue, and even music are perfectly mocked. Two great comedies from the same two guys, and in only 5 years! Well done.
3. Mary & Max (2009)
Of all the films on this list, Adam Elliot's wonderful Mary & Max is probably the one that the least amount of people have seen, or even heard of. It ain't Pixar, or Disney, or Miyazaki, or any major studio/filmmaker at all — it's a tiny independent claymation film from Australia, one that I never even read a review of or knew anything about until one day, a few months ago, I saw it on Netflix and said "What the hell, let's giver a try". By the end, I was soaked in extremely manly tears. To say that Mary & Max is incredibly moving and beautiful is like saying The Keg makes mediocre steaks, or that McDonald's kinda makes salty food (I'm…I'm really hungry right now).
The film stars the voice talents of Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman, as two strangers who almost accidentally connect and find lasting friendship. Collette plays a young, bright Australian girl who decides to randomly pick an address to write to and find a friend. Hoffman is the middle-aged, neurotic Jewish man with Asperger's who she picks (there was a New York phone book at her post office), and he surprisingly writes back, and the two share a kindred relationship over the course of many years. And I shall dare say no more, because destroying the unexpected, dramatic, and horribly heartbreaking events that follow would ruin the movie for ya.
Please, check out Mary & Max. Sometimes when we write about movies, we can do nothing but act as cheerleaders, leaping up and down, desperately trying to get your attention about a particular film. I have no idea if Mary & Max recieved any theatrical distribution in North America, or is even available on DVD here. But it is on Netflix, and I guarentee that you will not find a better 80 minutes to spend today. It's a beautiful, delightful film — full of humour, subtle yet gorgeous stop-motion animation, pathos, friendship, love, sadness, despair, and ultimately hope. It's just plain difficult to find a better buried treasure than this one.
2. Princess Mononoke (1997)
Hayao Miyazaki's masterpiece Princess Mononoke is a wonder to behold — visually spellbinding with a story both surprising and wildly original, Mononoke is just freakin' epic. It took me a while to warm up to the movie; certainly when I first saw it in the seventh grade, I was more than a little confused and disoriented by the kind of magic Miyazaki was weaving. But the more you know about Japanese culture, animations, and films in general (like how the music by Joe Hisaishi is directly referencing Miklos Rosza's scores from the 40's), the more you will appreciate and love Princess Mononoke.
An action/adventure epic in the grandest tradition, Mononoke follows the young warrior Ashitaka (Billy Crudup) as the becomes infected by a warthog demon, and goes searching for the cure, only to find a large militaristic camp led by Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), and the Princess herself (Claire Danes), who rides around attacking the military men on large magical wolves. But the story isn't the point, and like most Japanese animations, the joy is found in the journey, not the destination. With action sequences of epic scope (the opening battle with the demon is on a par with anything in Avatar) and magical details of the forest creatures (my favourite has to be the little forest spirits, whose heads keep rotating and clicking back and forth), Mononoke is a visual wonder like few others.
The big question for Miyazaki fans is — was this his best film? Certainly it was one of his most successful; at the time, it was the biggest moneymaker in Japan, beating out Titanic (and having it's ass kicked by Miyazaki himself later on, with Spirited Away). But is it a greater film than the aforementioned Spirited Away, or My Neighbour Totoro, or Howl's Moving Castle, or Ponyo? I'm not sure. All I know is that it's a masterpiece of a film, from a mastermind film-maker. Despite it's occasionally brutal violence and adult themes (the PG-13 rating is well earned), Mononoke is also deeply romantic and spiritual, and a helluva ride for any viewer.
1. Waking Life (2001)
And sometimes a movie can change your life. Richard Linklater's Waking Life was that movie, for me, back in the middle of junior high. Sure, it made me think I was way smarter and more philosophical than I ever was, and my try-hard attempts to be "deep" and "meaningful" now make me laugh my ass off. But it also opened my eyes in ways few films have ever done, before or since. It made me question reality, spirituality, death, life, love, dreams, nightmares, the concept of Heaven and Hell….everything. And no matter where you stand, questioning these things is not a negative concept; on the contrary, it proves that you're mind is awake, and willing to go wherever life takes it.
And, oh yeah, it's a really cool movie, too. Linklater took the rotoscoping techniques popularized by Ralph Bashki and created something wholly original and deeply subversive. Each scene is rotoscoped, but also done by a different set of animators, so no two scenes in the film look the same as the other, and yet the entire film is a trippy, hallucinogenic LSD trip into awesome-ness. The plot…well, there is no plot. The film simply follows a wanderer of the subconscious (Wiley Wiggins) who talks and talks to endless philosophizers and loud-mouths, all with their own views on a wide scope of topics, and all animated as if the Beatles had dropped acid with Picasso.
Does this sound like a great movie to you? Maybe it doesn't, and if so, that's simply because it defies simple explanations. Waking Life is an experience to have — the movie shows up, happens, and either you fall in love with it, or walk out scratching your head (or fall asleep, because at times it can be rather slow). But for me, Waking Life is the epitome of what an adult animation can be — introduces new ideas, fascinating concepts, and brilliant animation in a story that is the exact opposite of "cookie cutter". There will never be another flick like Waking Life (even Linklater couldn't quite replicate the magic again, with his later rotoscoped drama A Scanner Darkly). It's alive when few films are, and it will simultaneously blow your mind and melt your eyeballs.