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Animated Films for Grown-Ups

Anyone who’s seen Princess Mononoke knows animated films can hold their own with their live-action counterparts. For those who still think cartoons are for kids, here are 15 reasons why you’re wrong.

Ratero Mickey Mouse, courtesy of Date Farmers and Ace Gallery

As a child I had a Mickey Mouse alarm clock. As an adolescent I graduated to a Mickey Mouse wristwatch. In high school I wore a black satin jacket with Walt’s signature rodent on the back. I guess you could say I was a fan.

But not of Mickey Mouse, per se. I was a fan more of the entire medium of animation, of which Mickey was the most recognizable symbol. Long after most of my peers had written off cartoons as kid’s stuff, I was still championing the cause. Each year I would attend Spike & Mike’s Festival of Animation. When Who Framed Roger Rabbit opened, I was first in line.

My interest might have petered out as I moved on to college, but 1989 marked the beginning of the so-called Disney Renaissance. And when Aladdin was released in 1992, I felt vindicated. Between the enormous popularity of the film, and Robin Williams’s rapid-fire topical voice work, it proved the point I had been making all along: Animation could be as engaging and relevant for us as adults as it had been when we were younger. Disney’s follow-up, The Lion King, seemed to put the matter beyond dispute.

But by 1995 my enthusiasm was on the wane. I remember sitting in the cinema, watching Pocahontas, and thinking, “You know, I’m just not feeling it any more.” I sat out The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules and Mulan. I was pretty much done.

It’s too bad, because I picked exactly the wrong moment to drop out of the scene. As I was exiting stage left, anime was starting to get a foothold in the United States: Seattle’s Neptune Theater featured Akira once a year at least, and 1995’s Ghost in the Shell was shown in arthouse cinemas throughout the city. Meanwhile, animation was gaining greater acceptance in mainstream America as well, as television shows such as King of the Hill and South Park demonstrated that The Simpsons was not the only contemporary animated show that could appeal to adults.

Half a decade later I walked into a theater, for reasons I cannot recall, to see Princess Mononoke. It was a revelation—somehow, in my absence, animated films had gotten all grow’d up. There were no songs or dance numbers, the plot was complex and disturbing, and the running time of two hours—not to mention some shockingly violent scenes—was far from kid-friendly.

The subtext of Princess Mononoke is one of environmental protectionism—the same theme that Pocahantas wore on its sleeve. Had I had seen the former film in 1995, instead of the latter, I probably never would have left the fold.

But I’m back now, and that’s what’s important. And since my return I have sought out animated films, both the new and those I missed the first time around. Here are a few of my favorites.

Animal Farm (1954)

Holding the title of “first British animated feature film on general release,” this adaptation of George Orwell’s novel is not entirely faithful to the source text, but hews to the book’s central premise. It was (much) later revealed that the C.I.A. secretly funded the film in an effort to promulgate the anti-communism message. Fun fact!

On Netflix streaming? No, but you can see the entire film on YouTube.

Fantastic Planet (1973)

Given the Gilliamesque animation and crazy-far-out setting in the trailer, you’d never guess that this movie won the 1973 Cannes Special Jury Prize. (Well, except for the part in the trailer where they explicitly state that they won the 1973 Cannes Special Jury Prize. The trailer also includes an endorsement from Seventeen magazine, which cracks me up.)

Set in the far future, the film depicts a world in which humans are kept as pets by an indifferent race of blue giants who apparently lack animal cruelty laws. The surreal imagery is paired with a trippy soundtrack for an experience that can be enjoyed with, or in place of, the mind-altering substance of your choice.

On Netflix streaming? No, boo.

Heavy Metal (1981)

I am including this for one and one reason only: because you’ve been dying to see it ever since being forbidden to do so by your mother when you were 13. Well you’re middle-aged now and it’s on Netflix streaming, so buy a half-rack of Schlitz and go nuts. Plus it’s always nice to acknowledge the artistic achievements of Canadians.

On Netflix streaming? Yes.

Contains Sammy Hagar? Regrettably.

The Plague Dogs (1982)

Remember when your dad brought home the Watership Down VHS tape, thinking it was a charming film about rabbits for girls, and the next thing you remember is shrieking as bunnies were being devoured by hawks on television?! Ah yeah, good times. Why not make this a family tradition, by renting The Plague Dogs for your tots? It’s about puppies, and they love them Beethoven movies, so what could go wrong?

The film is based on novel by Richard Adams and, as he did with Watership Down, the author uses cuddly animals to explore complex ethical issues. In Plague Dogs, the topic under discussion is animal testing in the name of research. You will not be rooting for the researchers, let’s just say that.

On Netflix streaming? Yes (but abridged—the uncut film runs 103 minutes).

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

When I asked readers of my site to suggest animated films for this article, “Grave of the Fireflies” was by far the most frequently named. But the suggestions always came with a caveat. A typical recommendation:

“Grave of the Fireflies” is a beautiful film from Studio Ghibli, the same studio Miyazaki works out of. It’s also the single saddest movie I’ve ever seen. After watching it with my wife, she punched me in the arm, screamed “Why did you make me watch that?!”, and went to bed.

Set at the end of World War Two, this Japanese film…yeah. That’s probably all you need to know.

Having previously weathered The Road, I figured this one would be a cakewalk. Yeah, no. Dude. Not exactly the feel-good hit of the summer.

Not sold? Here’s Roger Ebert singing the movie’s praises for eight straight minutes.

On Netflix streaming? No, boo.

The Iron Giant (1999)

On the one hand, this film—clearly aimed at 10-year-old boys—has no place on a list of animated movies for grown-ups. On the other, I am 39 and this is one of only two DVDs I own. Make of that what you will.

Set in 1957, the story revolves around young Hogarth, who follows the trail a blazing “meteor” into the woods near his home, only to discover the fallen object to be a 50-foot robot. The two become fast friends and embark on a series of adventures…until the McCarthy-era government agents show up, muttering ominously about Sputnik.

Writer/director Brad Bird went on to create The Incredibles and Ratatouille, but this remains my favorite of his offerings, and one of my favorite films of all time.

On Netflix streaming? Yes. Or just come to my house and mention that you haven’t seen it—I’ll park you on the couch and insist on a viewing.

Spirited Away (2001)

If Princess Mononoke was the animated film that got me back on the lot, Spirited Away was the one that actually made the sale. It’s gorgeous and sophisticated and engrossing; it’s also, at times, frightening, disgusting, and bizarre enough to ensure months of nightmares about giant, ambulatory, obese turnips.

Both Mononoke and Spirited were written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, who could have dominated this list were I not limiting myself to no more than one entry per creator. Be sure to catch his earlier My Neighbor Totoro and his later Howl’s Moving Castle as well.

On Netflix streaming? No, boo.

Waking Life (2001)

Writer/director Richard Linklater built his career on a series of films constructed almost entirely around dialogue: Slackers, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, and the like. Waking Life continues a trend in a novel way: combining an extended mediation on liminality with a style of animation (rotoscoping) that simulates the experience of lucid dreaming. The structure—or, rather, lack of structure—also approximates dreamwalking, as the protagonist shifts fluidly from one situation or conversation to another without the need for explicit transitions.

In 2006, Linklater again used rotoscoping to great effect in his film A Scanner Darkly, in which the animation style mimics the unreality and paranoia of substance abuse. Both films deftly demonstrate that animation is not only a vibrant medium, but uniquely suited for tackling certain types of topics.

On Netflix streaming? No, boo.

The Triplets of Belleville (2003)

When an old woman’s grandson is abducted while competing in the Tour de France, she follows the kidnappers to Belleville and joins forces with the titular triplets to free her progeny from an underworld that’s as nefarious as it is bizarre. Though light on plot, the prohibition-era style animation and jazz soundtrack are marvelous, calling to mind such dark wonders as City of Lost Children and Delicatessen.

On Netflix streaming? No, boo.

Renaissance (2006)

I like animation and I like science fiction and I like noir, so Renaissance was right up several of my alleys. Mirroring the aesthetic of Sin City (i.e., entirely black and white, except for rare flashes of vivid color), the plot revolves around hardboiled cop Barthélémy Karas’s attempts to locate a missing scientist in 2054 Paris.

You’ll be watching this one for the animation style, as the narrative is no great shakes. But I was willing to overlook a lot of flaws in this Mickey Spillane/Philip K. Dick lovechild.

On Netflix streaming? No, boo.

Persepolis (2007)

Based on the autobiographical graphic novel of the same name, Persepolis tells the coming-of-age story of a young Iranian girl during the Islamic Revolution. The subject is serious, but the movie contains plenty of whimsy, as this clip will attest:

Despite winning the 2007 Cannes Film Festival jury prize, and winding up on innumerable “Top Ten Movies of 2007” lists, Persepolis was beaten out of the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature by Ratatouille. I liked Ratatouille just fine, but come on.

On Netflix streaming? No, boo.

Waltz With Bashir (2008)

Ari Folman’s recollection of the 1982 Lebanon War has caused controversy, with some calling it propaganda for Israel and others blasting it as anti-Semitic. But most view it as even-handed and largely apolitical, a depiction of events rather than an examination of the motivations behind them. In fact, Folman found himself taken aback by his nation’s embrace of the film. “I considered myself this really cool rebel and now I’m the government’s darling,” he said in this interview. “So it’s kind of problematic for me.”

The style appears to be rotoscopting but is actually one of animated cutouts, making the film closer in production to South Park than Waking Life. But as the trailer illustrates (ha!), the quality of the animation is on par with the best:

On Netflix streaming? No, boo.

Sita Sings the Blues (2008)

Nina Paley wrote Sita Sings the Blues. She also produced it, animated it, directed it, and provided the voice for herself in the film. And then, when she was done, she gave it away for free. How about that Nina Paley, folks? What a peach.

The film weaves together elements from the Ramayana (a key Hindu text) and Paley’s own life, drawing parallels between the ancient Sanskrit epic and contemporary life. Doing so caused some controversy, but critical reaction to the film was overwhelmingly positive (its rating of 94 on Metacritic puts it five points above Finding Nemo).

Me, I liked it for the jazz:

On Netflix streaming? No, but the entire film is available to watch online. Like all legally, yo.

Wall·E (2008)

Pixar could be on this list with any number of their films, but Wall·E was my favorite (once I got over the fear that it was essentially Short Circuit 2: Nicer Software and watched it, I mean).

Nearly a century after humanity left Earth behind as a cosmic midden, a sole robot continues to execute his program, and attempts to tidy the planet up in case guests drop by. And drop by they do, eventually taking Our Plucky Hero along with them.

The first third is a silent movie of Charlie Chaplin caliber, and the remainder is so well told that dialogue is almost completely unnecessary. As in days before the “talkies,” the joy in the movie comes from the astonishing skill in which the animators—and not the characters—tell the tale.

On Netflix streaming? Yes. Wait, it’s not? It used to be, I swear—that’s how I saw it. Oh well, go watch Up instead.

Thing I wish I hadn’t just learned? There actually was a Short Circuit 2.

Mary and Max (2009)

Oh, man. I agonized for like five minutes on whether or not to add Coraline to this list, and then arbitrarily decided that stop-motion animation was out of bounds. Then I remembered Mary and Max. It’s claymation! How can I possibly allow it? But how can I possibly omit it?

Oh well. Rule broken. Whatever.

Despite starring Toni Collette (as the voice of an eight-year-old Australian) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (as an obese New Yorker with Asperger’s), and despite the rave reviews it garnered, the film was never released in the United States. (To be fair, cinemas needed those screens for MacGruber). So this is a good one to foist on your houseguests—they are highly unlikely to have seen it, and you will have done your part to augment the ranks of Adult Animation Aficionados.

On Netflix streaming? Yes.

(P.S., As long as I’m cheating, see Coraline too. Peace.)