Cartoons, ‘toons, traditional animation, 2D animation…these terms all refer to the movies we enjoyed as kids, the bright, vibrant colors and fantastical characters in each Disney film that drew us in and refused to let go.
But the studios let go and at the turn of the century, traditional, non-CGI animation almost died. Disney closed its animation studios when “Treasure Planet” tanked at the box office, and Pixar’s success led other companies to make imitative 3D movies while leaving hand-drawn cartoons in the dust.
If there’s any movie issue I feel most strongly about, it’s traditional animation and the need to keep it alive as a unique artistic medium with endless possibilities. Thankfully, current developments could be signaling its resurgence, with last year’s “Princess and the Frog” and the upcoming “Winnie the Pooh,” but the fact that many still believe animation is mere “kid’s fare” disturbs me. That’s why I’ve compiled five animated movies you might not have seen–to show you the medium’s greatest accomplishments, the reasons why we must keep cartoons alive. The cream of the unseen:
“Fritz the Cat” (1972): Who do you think of when I say “animation?” Walt Disney, obviously, and maybe Hayao Miyazaki. Do you think of Ralph Bakshi? He’s the Quentin Tarantino of the cartoon world, an indie cinema oddball and an animation visionary. His debut film, “Fritz the Cat,” makes that fact clear. It was the first X-rated animated film ever made, although it’s no worse than “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy” at their most profane. It’s a satire of the hippie era and all its excesses: the racism, demonstrations, free sex and police brutality. The fact that the characters are anthropomorphic animals only adds to the humor, with pigs as policeman and crows as African-Americans. “Fritz the Cat” showed cartoons could appeal to adults, too.
“Watership Down” (1978): Martin Rosen’s “Watership Down,” like “Fritz the Cat,” conveyed adult themes uncommon to animation, but instead of expressing the themes through satire, it expresses them through an epic, frequently dark story of rabbits trying to survive in a world hell-bent on destroying them. Unlike Disney’s recent movies, “Watership Down” takes its premise and characters very seriously, with little comic relief to ease the tension. As a result, it’s a tense, grim viewing, but a satisfying, beautifully animated one all the same.
“The Secret of NIMH” (1982): Don Bluth, a former Disney animator, left the company and made a name for himself with hit films such as “The Land Before Time,” “An American Tail,” and “Anastasia,” “NIMH” was the movie that established his talent as an animator and filmmaker. Compared to “Fritz the Cat” and “Watership Down,” it is more traditional family fare, but it tells a wonderful story. Mrs. Brisby ranks as one of cinema’s best female protagonists, and Don Bluth pioneered many experimental animation techniques to create the warm, smooth movement that has since become his trademark.
“Grave of the Fireflies” (1988): Anime, Japan’s brand of cartoons, is probably the only form of animation that rivals live-action in its home country. It’s a controversial form of entertainment, nevertheless, with a strong list of supporters and equally strong list of detractors, but “Grave of the Fireflies” remains one of the few anime films with universal appeal. It details the struggles of a Japanese brother and sister orphaned during World War II, and ranks alongside “Schindler’s List” as one of the most powerful, poignant anti-war films ever made.
“Les Triplettes de Belleville” (2003): Sometimes, a movie’s beauty comes from the fact the filmmakers had a blast making it. That’s the feeling I get watching Sylvain Chomet’s surreal “Les Triplettes de Belleville,” a half-nostalgic, half-cynical look at the old days of silent filmmaking. The story is unabashedly absurd—a grandma saves her cyclist son from the mafia with the help of three aging vaudeville singers and a dog—and the art style is appropriately demented, painting characters as grotesquely huge, grotesquely thin or grotesquely small. Chomet and his animation crew must have had a blast coming up with every visual gag, plot point, and character design, and it reflects in the finished product, the best traditionally animated film this decade.