Summertime is arguably one of the best times for film lovers. All the biggest films get released in what is an endless slew of must-see movie watching. It's also a great time to be a kid, as all the big animated flicks are rolled out to keep kids entertained (and to get them to nag their parents to go to the movies). Unfortunately, plenty of film snobs still doubt the artistic merits of animated films, relegating them to the "cartoons are for kids" pile. While many animated films are indeed made solely with kids in mind, that doesn't make them inferior to their live-action counter-parts. In fact, you could even say that animated movies are more magical.
Next weekend in Miami we'll have four different animated films on the screen to choose from. Pixar's latest, Brave, introduces the company's first contribution to the world of princesses, a badass Scottish one named Merida who's tough enough for the boys who want action and tender enough for girls seeking the newest Ariel or Jasmine. Meanwhile, two of the most successful recent animated franchises return with new offerings: Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted and Ice Age: Continental Drift. Lastly, the Oscar-nominated A Cat in Paris opens at O Cinema.
Disney princesses and kiddie franchise reboots are all well and good. But for die-hard animation lovers, nothing competes with a true classic. So while you're waiting for the next big release, here's a list of animated films every grown-up film buff should see. Now stop being a fuddy duddy and go see some cartoons!
If you're going to talk about animated films, you have to talk about Disney. While many of Disney's animated features are considered classics, Fantasia stands out on many fronts. Released in 1940, Fantasia was only the third feature Walt Disney released, but in many ways it was his most visionary. Using iconic pieces of classical music composed by the likes of Bach, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Schubert, and Beethoven, Fantasia is a non-linear film of animated vignettes. The film is largely dialogue-free, allowing the music and the fanciful animation to do all the story telling. The result is a film that is truly more artistic than commercial and remains a breathless beauty over 70 years later, elevating both the music and the art through its collaboration.
While Japanese Anime may be hard for western palettes reared on Tex Avery and Hanna-Barbera to digest, there have been some remarkable films out of Japan, and Akira was probably the game-changer for the sub-genre. Set in a futuristic dystopian version of Tokyo, this sci-fi epic is an adaptation of the popular manga, but unlike most other animation, Akira's distinction is that it really is an grown-up film about a psychopath with psychic powers set on destroying the city and the efforts to stop him. Violence and bloodshed abound in what is an animated film unlike any other you've seen. See also: Spirited Away or anything else by Hayao Miyazaki.)
The Triplets of Belleville
With charm and whimsy, The Triplets of Belleville forces us to ask the questions: Can the French do no wrong cinematically? When famed cyclist Champion disappears during the Tour De France, his elderly grandmother Madame Souza accompanied by her tubby dog Bruno embark on a journey to find him. Along the way, she meets the Belleville Triplets, once a famed music hall trio, the three elderly sisters join the rescue team to track down Champion and his mafioso captors. Though made in 2003, the film feels like a vintage time capsule find, thanks to its wonderful soundtrack and beautiful hand-drawn art.
With all due respect to Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and the Sherman Brothers, The Beatle's Yellow Submarine may have the greatest soundtrack of any animated film ever made. While the Fab Four themselves had little to do with the making of the film, their music inspired the story and created perhaps the most infectiously catchy soundtrack of any film. Classics like "Eleanor Rigby," "All You Need is Love," "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," and "Yellow Submarine," coupled with the rich and vibrant super-saturated color palette of art director Heinz Edelmann, insured that Yellow Submarine still stands out nearly 45 years after its release. Psychedelic mind trip or imaginative children's film, the result is pure, unadulterated joy.
Vampiros En La Habana
For a country cut off from many first-world resources, Cuba produces incredible cinema. Though most often associated with the live-action work of Juan Carlos Tabió and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, one of the country's greatest cinematic exports comes in the form of a Cuban vampire story with undertones of anti-capitalism and crass Cuban humor. Set in 1930s Havana around a secret formula that allows vampires to be exposed to the sun, the film is a rousing good watch. With a little too much T&A and politics to make it appropriate or interesting to kids, Vampiros En La Habana is the type of film your abuela would be embarrassed to admit she laughed throughout (that is, if she can get past the propoganda and just enjoy the story). (See also: Fritz the Cat, the first American animated film to get an x rating.)
Despite its Academy Award nomination, Palme D'Or at Cannes, and a US release by Sony Picture Classics, Persepolis might be the least known film on this list -- and that is a sad thought. The film is an adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name, and depicts the life of Marjane Satrapi (the real life author/director) as she came of age in Iran amidst the Islamic Revolution. The majority of the film is devoid of all color, save black and white, and retains the same art direction as the novel, resulting in what looks and feels like a moving picture book. Despite its artistic merits, the film was highly criticized in the Arab world, but all controversy aside, it's the type of inspired story-telling that deserves to be seen. (See also: Waltz with Bashir, an animated documentary about the Israel-Lebanon Wars of 1982.)
No matter how you slice it, Ratatouille has the ingredients for a timeless classic: cute animals, Paris, food, and loads of wit. Remy is a smarter-than-average rat who has his dreams set on becoming a famous Parisian chef, despite his father's warnings and the fact that restaurants and rodents don't mix well. The little cook manages to cultivate his passion with the help of Linguini, a clumsy dishwasher who becomes Remy's friend. The film is another stellar creation from the team at Pixar, using themes of passion, friendship, and family to relay its simple human story in a never-dull journey.
The Lion King
For nearly 100 years, Disney has been producing the type of films that mark our lives. In the 1990s, the studio enjoyed a renaissance of success not seen since the death of its founders decades prior. The film that started it was The Little Mermaid, but the one that would become the biggest hit was The Lion King -- it remains the most successful hand-drawn animated film of all time. Featuring unforgettable music by Elton John and Tim Rice, and voices by the likes of James Earl Jones, Mathew Broderick and Jeremy Irons, The Lion King drew inspiration from both Shakespeare and the Bible to dazzling effects. The opening scene of the film still gives me goosebumps. While both The Little Mermaid and Aladdin are high on my list, each time I revisit this film I'm assured that there's not a single moment in The Lion King that wouldn't make Walt himself very proud.
Chico & Rita
The newest film on this list, 2011's Chico & Rita chronicles the life and romance of two musicians in 1940s Havana whose love affair is torn apart by success, politics, misunderstanding, and distance. The story of Chico, an idealist piano player, and Rita, a seductive songstress, is at times rather predictable. However, it's the scope of the film, set across five cities and 60 years, and its painstaking attention to detail in recreating old Havana that make it a wonderful watch. This is all only elevated by the music with an original score by Cuban legend Bebo Valdes and a soundtrack that features Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Thelonius Monk.
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The first five minutes of Up are some of the most beautiful (and some of the saddest) moments in movie history. In it, curmudgeon widower Carl Fredericksen reminisces about the life he led with his his late wife Ellie. With an amazing restraint for story telling and an enviable economy with words and images, one of the greatest on-screen love stories, rife with both joy and sadness, are unveiled in this exceptional film's opening minutes. You'll be completely wrapped up with all the story telling the occurs within the first 10 minutes when you suddenly realize there's another 85 minutes to go. Up manages to ensure it's just as entertaining to children as it is touching for adults. Quietly and without pretense, it will manage to find a way into your heart that you won't easily shake off.
Kareem Tabsch is the co-founder and co-director of O Cinema.