The great Charlie Kaufman has made his first foray into the world of animation with the critically praised Anomalisa, which we named one of the best films of 2015. Finally expanding over the next few weeks, to celebrate, we’ve decided to look back at some of the finest animated films that one might not want to show the entire family.
Who said cartoons were just for kids? As this week’s list will demonstrate, some of the finest weren’t necessarily designed with undiscerning young audiences in mind. Crossing genres and styles, these fifteen amazing features should probably be watched after this kids have been put to bed. Of course, there are many great examples beyond these, so please suggest your own favorites in the comments.
Watership Down / The Plague Dogs (Martin Rosen)
Martin Rosen‘s dark adaptations of Richard Adams‘s classic novels, Watership Down and The Plague Dogs, often feel like horror films told from the point of view of defenseless animals. The menacing psycho-killer antagonist is always us, mankind in our stumbling quest to expand our reach and conquer our environment. Treating their talking-animal protagonists with an utter lack of sentimentality, Rosen’s films beautifully mythologize the real-life plights of the little creatures living around us. In Watership Down, we follow a burrow of rabbits who run away in search of a new home following a ghastly premonition of doom. For many children, it was a sobering and important lesson in the sometimes violent psychology of animals. The Plague Dogs is an even bleaker portrayal, following two dogs who escape from an animal-testing facility and are mistaken for carriers of the bubonic plague. Ruled a public-health emergency, the dogs are chased across the country by men whom they believe will take them back to the cursed test facility. One of the most gut-wrenching scenes comes when one of the dogs encounters a kindly man who seems genuinely concerned about the animal’s safety. What plays out is so bone-chilling and horrible as to border on hopeless nihilism. Stunningly written and animated, the cinematic world of Richard Adams is dark, but painfully authentic.
Fritz the Cat (Ralph Bakshi)
While disowned by Robert Crumb, the character’s own creator, Ralph Bakshi‘s Fritz the Cat is a seminal example of the adult animation genre. The X-rated film captured the culture’s attention immediately, grossing a whopping $90 million worldwide. Even today, Fritz the Cat is a must-see rite of passage for young movie fans, whom eventually find Fritz after Garfield’s novelty has become worn. I can even recall the night from my thirteenth year, in which I stayed up late to catch Fritz the Cat on cable, expecting a groundbreaking experience — one that promised to be not only hilarious, but sexy. I tuned in and found it to be… well, neither, yet its kitschy charm held me in a groping embrace until the goofy climax. If Fritz fails to live up to the source material, it’s no shocker. The blame can be laid on Bakshi’s creative sensibilities, which, as politically charged as they may be, fail to reach the festering level of subversion that Crumb’s voice attains.
Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud)
The critically acclaimed Persepolis is a young girl’s sincere coming-of-age story set against the violent backdrop of the Iranian revolution. It’s heartbreaking yet warmly funny, based on Marjane Satrapi‘s autobiographical graphic novel, which beautifully portrays the life of a woman grappling with the struggles of cultural identity. Rendered in a charming black-and-white color pallete, we see Marjane navigating the universal pitfalls of teenage life as she finds herself a terrified witness to the horrors of the ensuing revolution. It isn’t long before her home becomes too dangerous, and her parents send her away to live a better life in Vienna. All the while, the guilt inside Marjane builds, spared of a terrible and torturous fate that her family must still endure. Sobering and insightful, Persepolis is heartfelt proof that, as Marjane says, freedom has its price.
Mary and Max (Adam Elliot)
The most uplifting and hopeful entry on this list follows Mary, a lonely Australian child who strikes up a long-distance friendship with Max, a socially fragile, obese, middle-aged New Yorker. Written and directed by Harvie Krumet creator Adam Elliot, the film may not be entirely appropriate for kids, due to some mild language and sexual innuendos, but thematically it’s perhaps the most essential movie on this list for an impressionable young viewer. The life of a social outcast is handled with remarkable tenderness and realism, despite the oddly disjointed world they inhabit. Victims of teasing and bullying by peers because of their looks or social standing, these occasionally pitiful characters carry on in spite of their pain and solitude. Complete with nearly unrecognizable vocal performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toni Collette, Mary and Max is an utterly unexpected and life-affirming stop-motion classic.
South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut / Team America: World Police (Trey Parker)
It’s easy to forget the cultural tidal wave that was South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, a primitively animated and crudely profane R-rated comedy that brought everyone’s favorite Colorado children to the big screen. While the animation might not be cutting-edge, Matt Stone and Trey Parker‘s stinging and insightful comedy is always offensively top notch. Their cinematic follow up, Team America: World Police, irreverently skewered America’s action filmmaking and culturally corrosive political environment of the time. Indeed, Stone and Parker are two of the most prolific contemporary comedic minds as they continue to shell out hilarious and intelligent comedy on a weekly basis on Comedy Central. There is often a short shelf life for jokes to which the South Park creators seem immune, as their material remains as funny today as ever. Unlike a couple entries on this list (I’m looking at you, Fritz!) the power of Stone and Parker’s comedy will surely endure.
Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata)
The emotional power of Grave of the Fireflies is almost too much to bear. The utterly heartbreaking story of a young brother and sister, lost and starving amidst the carnage of the Second World War, elevates filmic animation to the highest levels of art. The children are left to wander what could be mistaken for a post-apocalyptic landscape were we not aware that events like these really happened to many children all over the world. Meticulously crafted and designed, the brutal tragedy of the story is announced immediately, as we first meet Seita, our teenage protagonist as he lies dying on the cold floor of a train station. It’s a searing masterpiece of Japanese cinema, which Roger Ebert inimitably summarized in his Great Movies review: “Because it is animated and from Japan, Grave of the Fireflies has been little seen. When anime fans say how good the film is, nobody takes them seriously. Now that it’s available on DVD with a choice of subtitles or English dubbing, maybe it will find the attention it deserves. Yes, it’s a cartoon, and the kids have eyes like saucers, but it belongs on any list of the greatest war films ever made.”
Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo) / Ghost in the Shell (Mamoru Oshii) / Perfect Blue (Satoshi Kon)
The universe of Japanese anime is crowded with fan favorites, films that lead their audiences down paths unlike any they’ve ever traveled. Most are adapted from popular manga comics conforming to a lovely 19th-century Japanese visual style. The finest and most famous example is undoubtedly Katsuhiro Otomo‘s Akira, which follows a wounded member of a biker gang who inherits strange and dangerous powers in an accident. Even if you’ve never seen Akira, you may already be familiar with elements of the narrative as sci-fi / fantasy films (e.g. Rian Johnson’s Looper and Josh Trank’s Chronicle) borrow heavily from the Otomo classic. Likewise with Mamoru Oshii‘s Ghost in the Shell, a thrilling film, which exists somewhere between Blade Runner and The Matrix. The plot follows a female cyborg police officer hunting an all-powerful hacker known as The Puppet Master. Satoshi Kon‘s Perfect Blue is a lesser-known, equally engaging gem about a Japanese pop idol who finds herself the victim of a diabolical stalker. The latter is a stylish and shocking gem, that takes influence from the legends of suspense cinema, such as Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma, and even Paul Verhoeven in spinning its psycho-sexual tale of fear and revenge. All three films are more than worthy of your time and would make for an ideal introduction to the anime genre.
Waking Life (Richard Linklater)
The gorgeously rotoscoped Waking Life is a dream within a dream within a film. Its plotless narrative is told from the perspective of a nameless dreamer, an utterly passive protagonist (Wiley Wiggins from Dazed and Confused) who enters town on a train and proceeds to drift from conversation to conversation, experience to experience. Boasting uproarious performances from Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke (reprising their Before roles), and even nut-ball conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, the film marks a return to a structure Linklater previously employed on his debut feature, Slacker. We follow one character for a while and then abandon them for another, a freeform stream-of-consciousness narrative that even ditches its own protagonist for multiple scenes at a time. One of the most memorable moments involves weirdo raconteur Steven Prince, of Taxi Driver fame, telling yet another harrowing true-life story as he did in Scorsese’s documentary short, American Boy. As the mysterious Boat-Car Guy says: “The ride does not require an explanation — just occupants.” Likewise, Waking Life does not require an explanation — just an audience.
Heavy Traffic (Ralph Bakshi)
Fritz the Cat isn’t the only X-rated film in Ralph Bakshi’s catalog, as his sophomore effort allowed him to experiment with a blank canvas for the first time as a feature director. It’s an experiment that surely would have destroyed its test tubes, and the results often resemble a pornographic version of School House Rock. Indeed, Heavy Traffic is a psychedelic snapshot of the ’70s inner-city counterculture. The film is a peculiar jumble of unapologetic sexploitation and gallows humor with some brazen, politically incorrect racial absurdity mixed in for good measure and poor taste. The voice tracks have an unusually crisp, documentary quality, a result of Bakshi’s insistence that his actors improvise and ad-lib, embellishing what was already on the page. Note the rooftop mating ritual featuring cocky Italian alpha males, which predates the boys from Saturday Night Fever by nearly five years. Despite the raunchy humor and copious sex, Heavy Traffic reaches utterly surprising moments of profundity and beauty. Far out, man.
Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman)
Once again, we return to the subject of war. Filmmaker Ari Folman couldn’t remember his days in the Israeli Defense Forces during the Lebanon War until a meeting with an old friend suddenly caused haunting visions of the past to roll back. Folman’s animated documentary (presented in a similar visual style as Waking Life) approach to this searing and sensitive subject places the audience at ground zero, as young soldiers step over mutilated bodies and dodge flying bullets. The eventual Sabra and Shatila massacre hangs over the film like a cloud, an event in which Christian Lebanese militants slaughtered as many as 3,500 innocent people. As Folman drifts back through his mangled memories and fractured psyche, his true role in this monstrous act of genocide becomes painfully clear. Decked with evocative and bizarre imagery, Waltz with Bashir‘s visceral power is strengthened tenfold by the breathtaking use of animation, which renders this episodic film unflinchingly honest.
The Quay Brothers
The work of the Quay brothers is unfortunately little-known in mainstream circles, but their nightmare visions have become an incredibly influential chapter in the history of animation. From their debut film, Nocturna Artificialia, the Quay brothers have worked in a painstakingly specific style, which evokes comparisons to filmmakers such as David Lynch, Béla Tarr, and Guy Maddin. Though light on narrative, the Quays are experts in creating a haunted and disturbing mood, imbuing their films with a macabre atmosphere of uncertain dread. They’ve worked mainly in shorts, although their two feature films, Institute Benjamenta and The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, hypnotically blend live action with their dense and layered stylization. Textured and densely crafted, they’re incredibly dark in tone and lighting, draping their scenery with impenetrable shadows. Legends such as Christopher Nolan and Terry Gilliam have trumpeted the brother’s films as the masterworks they are, the latter naming the Quays’ Street of Crocodiles as the greatest animated film ever made. Their oeuvre is like a dark and foreboding alley that every animation lover eventually finds themselves happily lost within.
Anomalisa is now in limited release and expanding.
What’s your favorite animation not for children?