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When you think of indie film, animation may not be the first medium that comes to mind, and with so much else going on this year — both cinematically and in the world in general — it would be easy to miss that was a fantastic year for animation. The most ubiquitous vehicle for animation is in computer-generated imagery in live-action films, a tremendously broad and hence uneven field.
Beyond — and it created memorable creatures in Ghostbusters and, of course, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them — but for my money there were three films this year that put it to best use:. I was highly dubious of transforming such a stylized animated film to live action —previous versions have never really clicked for me — but the new animals pull it off.
I always find some uncanniness in the faces of CGI human characters, and the giants here are no exception. But the central performance by Mark Rylance as the Big Friendly Giant gave the animators a lot to work with, breathing life into what could be a tepid character; this vivifies the entire film and just manages to keep him from overstaying his welcome in the long third act.
Turning to fully animated features, quite a few followed recent films like Anomalisa and were aimed strictly at adults.
Nerdland , from Moonbeam City creators Titmouse Inc. The Killing Joke , released straight to video, garnered an R rating in the U.
Controversy ensued for this as well as for its overall shallow treatment of the female character; some fans were also upset at some of its deviations from the original comic. The Killing Joke helped confirm Mark Hamill as one of the best actors to ever portray the Joker onscreen. When Black Birds Fly , created artisanally by James Creamer, follows a similar path into horror and violence, but Sausage Party earned its hard edge through raunchy language and raunchy sex, and unfortunately that is also how it will be remembered: It outdoes Yellow Submarine in terms of psychedelic aural and visual imagery, and the sexual content is frank and explicit.
The sex — even the orgies — mean something to the narrative and the characters, even the minor ones. Tower , from director Keith Maitland, uses interview, archival footage, and rotoscoped reenactments to recreate the mass shooting at the University of Texas at Austin, in which 13 people were killed and 30 more injured.
Still in its theatrical release, this is an interesting film for documentary and animation enthusiasts as well as an important addition to the national conversation about mass shootings and gun control.
Animation is woven throughout the live-action footage, and the film is both a testament to the power of the human spirit and a love letter to the cinema. I was also able to see some short animated docs this year that warrant attention: A Subway Story , directed by Eugene Kolb, mixes live action with animation to tell the story in voice-over of a couple meeting for the first time on a Brooklyn subway.
Both Trolls and Ice Age: Collision Course were more successful artistically, with funny gags, catchy music and heartfelt messages packaged around old properties. If the year-old Ice Age franchise is showing its age — Collision Course only grossed roughly half what the previous film earned — one also thinks this film might have fared better in a less crowded market. Three December releases will probably all appeal exclusively to kids: Sing , about an all-animal singing competition; Pokemon Go: The film is formulaic but thoroughly enjoyable — my two daughters loved it — and features an amazing central voice performance by Katie Crown as the Orphan Tulip, as well as a delightful series of visual gags around a wolf pack that transforms into a series of increasingly unlikely objects like a suspension bridge and submarine.
The closing montage, of diverse families rejoicing with their new babies, is a moving testament to the open, globalized society that has recently seemed to come under increased attack. Several foreign-language productions are also aimed primarily at children, but with some seeking broader appeal and garnering critical praise. Here are the highlights from Europe: More enticing are two hand-drawn French films that are both, interestingly, about young women setting off on an adventure to search for their grand parents.
April and the Extraordinary World is an alternate reality steampunk adventure directed by Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci and drawn in the style of cartoonist Jacques Tardi. It earned extensive praise in France in and the U. Hero is Back , both based in Chinese myth, but the latter apparently pushing harder for an English-speaking audience. Both films bode well for the future of the growing Chinese animation industry.
Japan of course already has the most robust animation industry in the world, and this year it turned out at least four films that appear at least great, if not masterpieces: Miss Hokusai is a biopic about Katsushika Oi, daughter of the 18th-century artist Katsushika Hokusai. Miss Hokusai , produced in , is in its North American release now. Studio Ghibli also released a tale of female empowerment in Only Yesterday , directed by Isao Takahata in and restored, dubbed in English and re-released this year.
The story is of a castaway on small island, but this familiar formula is enhanced with magical realism in the best Studio Ghibli tradition and visual storytelling — there is no dialogue — that hearkens all the way back to silent cinema.
The Red Turtle won a special prize at Un Certain Regard in Cannes this year and is accumulating other honors, and will enter its widest release in the U. Which brings me back to English-language films that are appropriate for families but sophisticated enough to engage adults.
Thus, for me, the top six films from this category in general release this year are:. The Secret Life of Pets: Kung Fu Panda 3: There is of course a high bar for a new Kung Fu Panda film to reach, and this one does it. Legends of Awesomeness , this installment could feel tired and formulaic; the writers avoid this by stripping Po of all his previous accomplishments, going back to his origin story both as a panda other giant pandas are introduced to the franchise for the first time and as the Dragon Warrior.
It was slightly predictable and the moral was not that different from that of the original film, but those are small complaints for a well-executed picture.
The laughs are in all the right places, and the action is as electric as ever. That alone makes it a must-watch film, but of course the gags and stunts keep the story moving and entertaining. If Finding Dory brokers mental disability for kids, Zootopia does it for race. The message — to eschew stereotypes and embrace one another on a personal level — is presented, complicated, resolved, unresolved, resolved again, and even humorized in the very final moment that reveals Flash the DMV sloth as a wanted speed demon roadster.
This is true of the heroes, the villains, their victims, the mobsters, the sidekicks, and the comic relief — from ferocious otters to fat cheetahs to calculating Machiavellian sheep, they all challenge our preconceptions. Build bridges instead of walls. A message even more pertinent today than when the film came out nine months ago. Kubo and the Two Strings: The Japanese-esque lore gives the story weight, and even the focus on origami plays to the strengths of 3D animation. Finally, its at least reasonably realistic denouement deals with death and loss head on rather than glossing around it like would be tempting in a magical fantasy narrative i.
I initially found it abrupt, but its message — that not all happy endings are completely happy — is right on point for the tone of the entire film. The family begins broken and it ends broken, but there has been immense healing along the way. If Frozen earned accolades for crowning its princess queen and relegating its romance to a subplot, Moana is an Elsa who takes center stage, with no need for an Anna to carry most of the story.
As with The Little Mermaid , this upbeat singing crab seems the best poised for an Oscar, so look for Miranda to join the EGOT club in a few months, with a Pulitzer thrown in just for good measure. In sum, Moana is by far the best animated musical of the year, and the music is part of the formula that makes it the best animated film as well.
Finally, I also looked at short animated films and virtual reality for this article and quickly found dozens of titles that I wanted to talk about: Happy watching and happy New Year. What Can the Documentarian Do? Filmmaker magazine is a publication of click here to learn more.