[Blogged by Jeremy Grayson]
Though I do watch and write about television quite a bit, I’m not much when it comes to filmgoing. I enjoy TV largely for its longevity, which allows viewers to get to know characters and environments, bit by bit, over (hopefully) extended periods of time. Film, on the other hand, usually constitutes a one-and-done deal, so I find myself less willing to put in the effort of serious investment.
But as the television landscape grows increasingly wider, and fewer and fewer people are following the same shows, film has achieved a crucial edge over its fellow medium: communality. Binge-watching shows in your own home can be fun, but there’s a certain joy in heading to the theater for a couple of hours with your friends or family, eager to have a shared experience you can all discuss on the ride home.
And in the spirit of shared experiences, there is one genre in which film currently has television beat: animation. Whereas most animated TV falls into one of two categories (kid-friendly or adult, with precious few straddling the line), broadly-appealing animated films are made all the time. Knowing the box-office effect of family ticket sales, studios design animated flicks to appeal to audiences both young and old. Visually, too, these films can be a treat – the strides taken in CG animation within the last few years have made for cartoon worlds that burst with life on the big screen.
2016 has been an intriguing year for animation, with the first widely-released R-rated CG film and the biggest animated hit in domestic box-office history. Thus, I’ve decided to do my own “animation retrospective” – looking back at the cartoon flicks I watched this year. I have not seen every animated film of the year, of course – sorry, Sausage Party, you just looked too gross – but the ones I’ve watched give me enough confidence to gauge the year as a whole. The following 11 films are ranked in ascending order summing up my experiences with the year in silver-screen animation.
[The Worst and Best of Our Animated Year]
11. The Angry Birds Movie
Despite my reservations towards the often lazy practice of brand extension, I was willing to accept that a film version of the popular mobile app game could be produced that was wild, wacky, and at least modestly watchable. Judging by the result we got this year, I may have to reconsider. The most offensive thing about The Angry Birds Movie is that its concept isn’t half as lazy as its execution – the humor is stilted, the characters one-note, and the story sluggish and boring. An all-star voice cast (led by Jason Sudeikis, who has thankfully secured a far more entertaining voice role on Fox’s Son of Zorn) does the best it can with a thankless script, which lumbers generically from one plot point to the next. Rather than commit fully to the insanity of its premise (like some other bird-based film I’ll discuss later in this list), The Angry Birds Movie can’t even be bothered to ruffle more than a few of its feathers. Give that I chose to avoid Norm of the North, this is an easy pick for my worst animated film of the year.
10. Ice Age: Collision Course
You’ve got to have some level of perverse admiration for Scrat, the little squirrel who has chased his precious little acorn across the frozen wastelands, through the Earth’s core – and now, into deep space. The outlandish extremes to which this recurring subplot has reached is just one indication of how tired the Ice Age franchise has grown. Now in its fifth installment, the series finds our main characters (Manny, Sid, Diego, Ellie, Peaches, and about a dozen others whose names I can’t recall) out to stop an asteroid from crashing into the planet. Remember how grounded and small-scale the first Ice Age film was? The producers seem to have forgotten, as they throw a nearly endless barrage of wacky jokes and current references (Hashtags! Fall Out Boy!) into this supposedly prehistoric series, all while stringing together a loose series of character arcs that simply feel exhausted. There are some bright spots (including Parks and Rec‘s Nick Offerman as the voice of the main villain), but overall, it’s time to put this seemingly endless series – wait for it – on ice.
9. Batman: the Killing Joke
I don’t watch all the DCU animated original films, but the brief theatrical release of The Killing Joke (and, admittedly, its accompanying R rating) piqued my curiosity. Sadly, the film itself failed to pique my interest. Despite some stellar animation and strong voice acting (I’ll never tire of hearing Conroy’s Batman or Hamill’s Joker), the film’s script is an utter mess. The first half-hour constitutes an uninvolving prologue that has no relation to what follows; the remainder of the film is an uninspired recreation of the eponymous graphic novel. In trying to flesh out Batgirl as a character, the film only underscores just how disturbing and sexist the story’s treatment of her is, with the unnecessary prologue giving her an aimless character arc and leading up to the moment where she and Batman… well, you know. There’s not really much about this film worth getting worked up about – it’s literally a glorified DVD film, and one that’s easily forgotten soon after the closing credits. But between this and Batman v Superman, it’s been a rough year for the Dark Knight; here’s hoping his upcoming Lego movie can redeem him.
8. The Secret Life of Pets
It’s like Toy Story, except with pets! And without complex themes, or interesting characters, or profound emotional moments! The latest feature from Illumination Entertainment (AKA the folks responsible for the global infestation of the Minions), The Secret Life of Pets isn’t a bad film by any stretch, but it’s an extremely by-the-numbers one. It’s designed to entertain kids while being just tolerable enough for parents, who will likely be amused by a bunny rabbit with the voice of Kevin Hart. There are certainly laughs in this film, but not enough to make up for the underdeveloped story, which favors cute animal hijinks over substantial character development. You could certainly do worse than this affable, bland adventure story, but I was hoping the folks at Illumination would do better. Highlight: A cameo from Jane the Virgin‘s Jaime Camil, as the voice of (what else?) a telenovela star.
7. Kubo and the Two Strings
Yes, yes, I know I’m going to get trounced for putting this so low. The best thing about Kubo and the Two Strings, by far, was the animation – beautifully rendered stop-motion used to create some of the most dazzling visuals shown on the silver screen all year. But when it came to a compelling story and interesting characters, Kubo fell short. Poorly paced, tonally uneven, filled with cliché-ridden dialogue, Kubo was far less impressive in its writing than its directing. But oh, what marvelous directing it was. Just turn off the sound in any individual scene and watch the images move – from the slightest rustle of paper to the largest-scale fight scene, the film was a visual treat. While far from perfect, Kubo is another visually beauteous film from the stop-motion whizzes at Laika Animation.
With only two films under its belt (The Lego Movie and Storks), it’s a bit early to tell if Warner Animation Group means to establish itself as the wildest and most madcap player in the animation industry. But if it chooses that path, I won’t be complaining. Certainly, many people will find Storks to be loud and obnoxious – there’s not a truly sane character in the film, nor a single storyline that isn’t detoured into nonsense. But for those who enjoy animated zaniness, Storks is a fine (albeit overlong) example of how to let your movie run wild. There are plenty of laughs, and plenty of humorous vocal performances (Stephen Kramer Glickman’s over-the-top, scenery-chewing work as Pigeon Toady will make or break the film for most viewers) – yet at the same time, there is a genuine heart to this film, which delivers quaint messages about family and child-rearing amidst all the loud and frenzied slapstick.
It was easy – too easy – to peg this Polynesian-based film as a Disney production. Between the disapproving parents, the wise old grandmother, the animal sidekick (knowingly winked at in the film itself), the rhythmic songs, and the “Look inside yourself” messages, Moana was pure Disneyfied entertainment, through and through. But whatever the film lacked in originality, it made up for with its incredibly compelling central character. John Musker and Ron Clements (producing their first film since The Princess and the Frog) have created a young woman who is empowering but not heavy-handedly feminist, eschewing romance in favor of personality and action. Moana falls short of Frozen, the film whose success it’s clearly trying to emulate, but it’s a satisfying film all the same.
4. Finding Dory
Sequels too often do themselves in by attempting to top the original film in scale or scope; ether that, or they fall short of expectations set by their predecessor. It’s a seemingly lose-lose situation – but somehow, Finding Dory found a way to succeed. By setting the majority of the film at Sea World-style aquarium, the film simultaneously reduced the scope from the ocean-spanning geography of Finding Nemo while also upping the stakes, as the characters must try and survive in the air-filled world of the surface-dwellers. Amidst the breathless action, the film provided a strong backbone to Dory, who grew from funny to tragic without losing any of the qualities the first film had made endearing. Pixar seems to be putting too much stock in sequels in the coming years, but if Finding Dory is any indication, they haven’t nearly lost their touch.
3. Kung Fu Panda 3
Few franchises have merged sophistication and slapstick as well as Kung Fu Panda, a series which took a thoroughly absurd premise and, over three films, explored themes of spirituality and inner peace, all while having its main character stuff a ton of dumplings into his mouth. The third (and, given the closure it entails, hopefully final) installment of DreamWorks’ crowning series was a bit more simplistic than the first two, but no less enthralling, as Po was faced with an incredibly powerful opponent, as well as conflicts about his estranged father. The action scenes remain top-notch, the humor remains gleefully lighthearted, and Kung Fu Panda remains one of the best animated trilogies I’ve ever seen.
The basic premise, to say the least, seemed uninspired: It’s animals who act like people! But from this simple concept sprouted one of the most thoughtful and creative family films in years. On one level, Zootopia is an engaging, well-told mystery; on another, it’s a clever commentary on prejudice and cultural tensions. On still another level, it’s a compelling character-based adventure, with two leads who get on each other’s nerves quite nicely before they inevitably reconcile. And on still another level, it’s a sumptuous feast for the eyes, with colorful locales and characters, and more background animal-based puns than an entire season of Bojack Horseman. Just a highly entertaining feel-good film all around, Zootopia is yet another grand entry in the collection of modern Disney classics.
1. The Little Prince
There’s probably some hypocrisy here. I began by talking about the importance of wide-reaching blockbuster films, and… my #1 pick was never given wide release in American theaters. (Plans were made, but they were scrapped, and the film wound up on Netflix.) But when you get right down to it, no animated film this year was as moving, charming, and beautiful as The Little Prince. Based in part on Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s acclaimed 1943 story, The Little Prince tells a strange yet compelling tale about the fragility of childhood and the inevitable horrors of growing up. The original book is faithfully recreated in vivid stop-motion, while the CG-animated framing story pays tribute to the source material while also expanding on it. During its second half, the film takes on an even more surreal quality, yet amazingly grows even more potent in its emotions. Mackenzie Foy is remarkable as the voice of the unnamed Little Girl, and she’s well-accommodated by the likes of Paul Rudd and Jeff Bridges. With the help of director Mark Osborne, they make the film come alive, more so than any other movie – whether animated or live-action – that I watched this year. Its non-theatrical release ultimately doesn’t matter – The Little Prince was too good to ignore.
Thank you all for letting me indulge in my cartoon obsession today. As a reward for your patience, I have one more Blog article that will be published before the end of the year. And no, it will not be another cartoon list. Or a list at all, for that matter. Stay tuned.