Animated films are not always taken seriously in the canon of ‘great cinema’. Especially anime films – no one really takes anime fans seriously when they say a film is good, unfortunately. Many people doubt the seriousness of an animated film, or the power of them. But the ability to create an alternate world, the power to enchant and the power to inspire joy and grief is equal to that of live action films: I challenge anyone to find a film as joyful as My Neighbour Totoro, as intriguing as Waking Life and as devastating as Grave of the Fireflies.
Here is my celebration of animation with a list of five of the best. I’m cheating a little, including two films as one as they were released as a double feature.
Richard Linklater’s seemingly improvised philosophical animation follows the same format of prior film Slackers, but with the addition of a fascinating technique called rotoscooping, which involves animating live footage. Waking Life is both intriguing and hypnotic. It follows a young man who wanders through a dream-world (or is he awake?) as he encounters a mix of people who all share with him their views on existential philosophy, society, love and other contemporary topics. Each person the young man meets is as passionate about their philosopy as the next, and we learn that it is not the beliefs themselves that are important, but the act of understanding and deciding for yourself.
The Jungle Book
Produced under supervision of Walt Disney, The Jungle Book is based on Rudyard Kipling’s book about a small child raised by wolves in the jungle. The film features a swinging soundtrack and beautiful animation, and explores the relationship between man and the natural environment in a way that appeals to both adults and children alike. The Jungle Book offers an alternative to the traditional Disney fare – there are no princesses and there are no villains, per se. There is a tiger who may be seen as the villain, but he has been made so by the unseen force of Man, the real threat.
Akira is based on the manga by Katsuhiro Otomo and is a cult classic in the US and UK. Set in a post apocalyptic Tokyo, Tetsu is part of a neo-biker gang that become involved with a government project that deals with telekinetic abilities in children. Along with Blade Runner, Akira holds its own as one of the greatest futuristic sci-fi films ever made. This highly stylised animation and fairly complex plot may baffle some, but this is good, because it offers something new with every viewing. In a testament to its timelessness, Hollywood have plans to offer up a live action remake in the near future, which will undoubtedly be a disaster: Akira is the kind of film that simply cannot be effectively translated into live action.
Sylvain Chomet’s second feature length film is about an ageing magician who is slowly being forced off the stage as pop groups take over. He performs a show on a remote island in Scotland and a young girl called Alice becomes enchanted with him. She stows herself on a ship and follows him to Edinburgh. They quietly bond, and he rewards her enthusiasm with lavish gifts that he cannot afford. Desperate not to disappoint her, he is forced to take increasingly menial jobs until he ends up performing magic tricks in a shop window at night. As time passes, Alice falls in love with a young man, leaving the old magician alone. Created using a screenplay by Jacques Tati, the magician has all the traits of his Monsieur Hulot – that quiet, tall and befuddled Frenchman with a pipe and long coat. Hand-drawn, scene by scene, Edinburgh is faithfully and beautifully recreated, and the characters are full of life and little quirks. This bittersweet film is not to be missed.
My Neighbour Totoro
Hayo Miyazaki’s best-loved film My Neighbour Totoro is the landmark movie that launched Studio Ghibli. Loosely based on The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, My Neighbour Totoro is a celebration of childhood, family and nature. This film has no villans, no monsters and no fighting. Sunset is is not a time to cower under the duvet but a time to wander into the garden, and the woods are safe and beautiful places to explore. There is a scene at a bus stop in the woods at night – in a Disney film, this would be a location for terror. In this film, the two Kusakabe sisters are silently joined by a giant totoro who is delighted by the falling raindrops on the umbrella that the girls give him. In another variation from Disney films, a young boy, their neighbour, tells the girls that their house is haunted. This is not in the ghosts and ghoules sense that Westerm cinema has taught us the expect, but by ‘soot sprites”, curious little black puffballs that will move out as soon as they hear the Kusakabes have moved in. Another difference: This film has none of the kids vs adults theme. When Mei tells her father that she has seen totoros and soot sprites, he reasonably accepts this. Whether or not they really exist or they exist in Mei’s head is of no consequence. She does not need to explain because the family is a place of support, love and nourishment.
Grave of the Fireflies
My Neighbour Totoro was released in 1988 as a double feature with Grave of the Fireflies. The two films, however, could not be more different in tone. Grave of the Fireflies is based on a semi-autobiographical novel, and tells the story of two children trying to survive Japan’s second World War bombing. Going far beyond the categorical ‘tearjerker’, Grave of the Fireflies remains one of the most emotionally devastating experiences in cinema. Critic Ernest Rister compares it to Schindler’s List, saying: “It is the most profoundly human animated film I’ve ever seen.” In turn, critic Roger Ebert states that is “one of the greatest war films ever made.”
Honourable mentions: Princess Mononoke, Fritz the Cat, Ferngully, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Watership Down, Animal Farm, Spirited Away, Pinocchio, Toy Story, The Iron Giant, Porco Rosso, Persepolis, The Triplets of Belleville