In 1937, Walt Disney gave the world Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first feature-length animated film ever produced. For the next half-century, the Disney company held a near-monopoly on the medium, and to this day, the quality of their animated features generally dominates that of its competition. The last three or four decades, however, have started to show a slight change in the standings with animation coming from other studios continuing to close the gap in an effort to stay on par with their age-old counterpart. Many would even go so far as to say that certain films from other studios have begun to surpass even the best of Disney fare.
In honor of the wide release of Studio Ghibli's The Red Turtle, this week's top ten list will count down the ten best non-Disney animated films I have seen. I must say that this list was incredibly difficult to create - I had to leave a number of favorites on the cutting room floor - but I will stand by my ten. Be sure to check out the fan choices at the end of the post. If you'd like to contribute your opinions to the fan's top ten choices, be sure to get yourself added to the Facebook group page!
All that being said, let's jump right into the list!
10. The Road to El Dorado
We start this list with a film I for years thought actually belonged to the Disney canon. In my defense, the animation style does prove to be similar, and the soundtrack team of Elton John and Tim Rice certainly hearkens back to the Disney Renaissance period a decade earlier. The Road to El Dorado instead belongs to the earlier days of DreamWorks animation, and while they may taking heavily from the Disney template, it still presents a fun and relatively carefree offering for its audiences. The visuals are arresting, and the original music composed for the film prove stellar. El Dorado is a great but often overlooked gem in the DreamWorks camp.
9. The Land Before Time
Five years before Spielberg unleashed his adventure sixty-five million years in the making, Universal Pictures gave us an equally memorable foray into prehistoric times. The story centers on Littlefoot, a young sauropod trying to reunite with his family. Aided by his group of friends, the gang attempts to outrun the fearsome Sharptooth on their way to the Great Valley, a beacon of safety and paradise. As much as I love Jurassic Park, much of the credit for my early love of dinosaurs stems from my connection to the characters in The Land Before Time. The film does offer a few dark and frightening moments, but it definitely stands the test of time and holds strong against the music-centric straight-to-video sequels it inspired.
Admittedly, Rango is an acquired taste, but fans of the western genre will certainly be in for quite a treat. After rousing success with the original Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp teamed up for this smart and visually stunning delight. The film serves as a fantastic homage to the westerns of yesteryear, and the film as a whole works as a movie-lover's paradise, offering reference after callback. The characters prove to be perfect caricatures of the western fixtures we have grown to know, and everything about the universe as a whole feels beautifully-constructed. Again, this movie may not play well to the masses, but if you get a kick out of the old cowboy flicks, Rango is right up your alley.
7. Surf's Up
In the mid-2000s, a penguin craze took cinemas by storm. First came the 2005 documentary March of the Penguins; the following year, the penguins sang and danced their way through Happy Feet. They even became a featured component of the Madagascar series. They reached their peak, however, in 2007 after splashing into theaters in Surf's Up. This mockumentary plays as a pitch-perfect send-up of an ESPN 30-for-30, hitting all the necessary twists and emotional notes. Bolstered by a killer soundtrack, Surf's Up works not only as a great animated film but also as a stellar surf flick as well.
6. FernGully: The Last Rainforest
In 1992, Robin Williams was wowing audiences with his turn as Aladdin's genie, but my earliest recollection of his vocal work stems from his character Batty Koda in FernGully: The Last Rainforest. At the time, I latched onto the goofiness of Batty's persona, but subsequent viewings at points later in my life have given me a deeper appreciation for the social commentary the movie attempts to provide. The visual aspects of the film enhance the overall storyline - about saving the destruction of a beloved rainforest - by presenting a fantastic dichotomy between the beauty of the environment and the bleakness presented by the entrance of humanity. The film also receives an all-star performance from Tim Curry as the central villain Hexxus, who represents the very embodiment of pollution. The fact that FernGully also gave me my earliest appreciation for Wilson Pickett simply proves to be the cherry atop this sundae.
Here's a bit of fun trivia: while the Disney and Pixar machine has mostly dominated the Animated Feature category at the Academy Awards, the first-ever win in the category went to a little DreamWorks flick about a brutish ogre and his faithful donkey... er, steed. In a film that works as a stand-alone effort while still managing to satirize the aforementioned animation juggernaut, Shrek presents an elegant and traditional story while toeing the line with the very conventions that set it on its course. This is one of the first animated films in which I was very aware that it was made for both children and adults alike, and I can even recall a grown man running up and down the theater aisle in a fit of laughter during the course of the story. Although the Shrek name has been slightly sullied in subsequent years, the original flick proves to be a strong contender in the world of animation.
4. Mary and Max
I have my sister to thank for introducing me to this beautiful little stop-motion picture. First-time feature director Adam Elliot crafts an emotional powerhouse of a film centered around a young Australian girl and a middle-aged New Yorker with Asperger syndrome. What seems like a bizarre scenario soon becomes a thoughtful conversation on loneliness and the necessity of human interaction. Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman provide the vocal work for our titular characters, and their pitch-perfect performances let the audience fall in love with their on-screen personas. Truly a masterful work.
3. The Iron Giant
What kid wouldn't love to have a giant robotic alien from outer space come down and be their new best friend? That's exactly what happens to young Hogarth Hughes in The Iron Giant, a heartfelt tale about friendship that shares similar tones with a film like E.T. The Iron Giant works based on the chemistry of its two stars. With a story set against the backdrop of the early days of the Cold War, its themes still eerily echo in today's society. Yet at its core, this film revolves around the ideas of friendship and acceptance and serves as a wonderful lesson for its key demographic while adding just enough to keep its adult audience invested.
2. Fantastic Mr. Fox
I will admit to being an unapologetic Wes Anderson fan, having seen and enjoyed nearly all of his films. His quirky style lends itself to his overall tone, but his stop-motion foray Fantastic Mr. Fox proves to be the peak of his abilities thus far in his career. By taking a classic children's story - one of my own personal favorites from those days of yore - and crafting it into something even more adult-accessible, we as an audience are given an incredible visual, comedic, and emotional feat. Bolstered by an incredible vocal cast would put most other films on this list to shame, Fantastic Mr. Fox truly is fantastic.
1. South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut
Aside from something along the lines of Fritz the Cat, this may be as far from a Disney film as you'll ever seen in animation. And yet, the South Park movie still manages to offer a number of parallels in its method of storytelling and its slew of musical numbers. That, however, is where the similarities end. As with the television program, this movie strove to push the boundaries for what could be considered acceptable from animated fare. It presents itself in meta-theatrical fashion, lending its own backstory and controversies to the hilarity of its plot. Bigger, Longer, & Uncut offers a perfect extension of the show while still managing to be a great stand-alone effort. This may not be the most kid-friendly or most beautifully-animated movie on this list, but it supplants those detractions with a brilliantly satirical screenplay and a mesmerizing soundtrack. This Academy Award-nominated flick definitely stands as an incredible effort.
Here's a look at the top five films mentioned on the Facebook group page. In total, a whopping fifty-eight movies were mentioned from the Shaun Talks Movies fans, and over twenty of them received multiple votes! Clearly, this is a category that reaps plenty of rewards. If you'd like to join in the discussion for future Top 10 lists, request to be added to the group!