Animation enables a director to do virtually anything they can imagine in such a way to make any live-action director green with envy. This amazing medium is too often tied to children’s entertainment, as most wide-release animated features are family-friendly formulaic fare, but there are plenty of directors who use animation to make movies say things meant strictly for adult audiences. These eight animated films use their medium to address complex issues in interesting ways and represent some of the best animation the big screen has to offer.
Based on a graphic novel memoir of the same name, this stirring tale of author Marjane Satrapi’s coming of age in and outside her native Iran in the midst of radical societal change conflicts with her burgeoning womanhood and fondness for Western culture. Despite the political and historic backdrop, the film never loses its focus on the maturation of its main character, portraying her joys and her many struggles as she wrestles with her past and her parents’ expectations on her way to becoming a woman using a striking black-and-white animation style that looks precisely like the graphic novel come to life.
2. Fritz the Cat
The first animated feature film to receive an X-rating, this adaptation of the racy comic books by Robert Crumb follows the exploits of a randy young anthropomorphic cat, using his self-centered opportunism as a means to criticize the hypocrisy of hippie culture in the 1960s. The detestable Fritz stumbles through life desiring nothing more than some grass and whatever action he can get his hands on, using the amateur philosophizing of the counterculture as his means to make it with a tantalizing crow and a group of naive young cats taken in by his lying. Fritz the Cat is a mean satire of an idealized time and place worth watching, even with its few strange scenes that gleefully toe the line towards pornographic.
3. Waking Life
Director Richard Linklater has been making films focused almost entirely on people just talking since his debut film Slacker, but Waking Life sets its endless series of conversations in a dream world wherein every character and scene is brought to life through squiggly, impressionistic animation. Made using a rotoscope animation style wherein animators trace over filmed footage, Waking Life uses the brain-teasing visuals as a means to explore similarly mind-boggling philosophical concepts like metaphysics, free will, and the meaning of life, all in service of an obscure plot hinting at the potential importance of the lives we lead while we sleep.
4. Chico & Rita
This Spanish-English co-production uses animation to tell a romantic tale of passion that would normally be reserved for live-action. The period piece traces the conflicted relationship between the two title characters as they struggle to stay together despite the harsh tides of history during the late ’40s and ’50s, chasing one another from their home in Havana to several major US cities that no longer welcome the communist revolutionaries of Cuba. Despite all the heartache and difficulty, Chico & Rita is too alive with romance, passion and even the dizzying jazz that brings these lovers together, to be a tragedy.
5. The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Director Wes Anderson is famous for his meticulous framing and set design, which tend to make real life landscapes look like immaculately constructed dioramas, so animation seems a natural fit for someone so infatuated with the aesthetics of his films. Here, Anderson recruits a cast of his regular actors (Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray) to voice stop-motion animated versions of the characters from Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. The gorgeous animation allows for plenty of inspired sequences, as Anderson manages to bring each character to life with stunning detail and craft a plot that is equal parts personal drama and rip-roaring crime heist.
6. Waltz with Bashir
Waltz with Bashir uses animation not just as a form of storytelling but as a form of self-therapy and of historic documentation. Israeli director Ari Folman’s novel approach to his own experiences in the messy, uncertain 1982 invasion of Lebanon finds him interviewing other participants for their own stories and animating the stark imagery of the time to portray the war the only way he can — using his peculiar yet lovely style of animation. Waltz with Bashir is something of a documentary and a personal statement, as well as a moving argument for the power of animation in telling important stories, not just rehashed fairy tales for children.
Writer-director Charlie Kaufman of Eternal Sunshine and Synecdoche New York fame moves away from live-action and uses stop-motion animation to make… his most contained film to date. Anomalisa follows a lonely writer named Michael whose crippling depression and loneliness finally overwhelm him during a single-night stay in Cleveland, Ohio, leading him to a romance with a woman named Lisa, who seems immediately different from everyone else around him. That’s because she is the only person in the film, aside from our lonely protagonist, who possesses her own voice, while everyone else has the same voice (that of actor Tom Noonan). This and a select few other surreal touches put us into the miserable headspace of Michael, hinting at the root cause of his all-too-relateable unhappiness without ever spelling it out for us.
8. It’s Such a Beautiful Day
For a pure exercise in the power of auteur alone, it’s worth watching It’s Such a Beautiful Day, an odd, depressingly amusing hour-long film that comes solely from the mind of animator Don Hertzfeldt, whose characters don’t need to be anything more than crude stick figures to move viewers to tears. Hertzfeldt follows the life of Bill, a stick figure doing his best to get his mind in order and simply live life as best he can, despite the flurry of existential questions and vague answers that perpetually surround him. Occasionally, the film paints with broad strokes but its simplicity and straightforward look at everyday struggles make it a surprisingly cathartic experience.
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