The dirt is there will only be three animated feature films nominated for the Oscar in 2010. By my count, there is approximately 15 films distributed theatrically. So don’t mind me if I see this as another snub by the old guys running the Academy. Also, four of the top ten money making features of 2010 were animated (and a fifth, “Tangled,” well on its way). The reason, simply, is quality. Give me a “Toy Story 3,” “Despicable Me” or “How To Train Your Dragon,” over “The Expendables,” “Eat Pray Love” of “Salt” any day. Yes there were excellent live action films from “Shutter Island,” “Howl” to “True Grit,” but quite frankly the overall original storytelling, daring direction/cinematography and, quite frankly, plain old acting is far superior on the animation side.
In fact, the quality level is so high trying to come up with a top five was really tough this year. Any on my list would have been my top choice in previous years. Also encouraging is I’m starting to see more European imports entering the domestic market, providing a much needed third option to standard American family comedies and East Asian anime.
Quite frankly, after writing about animation for slightly over 20 years, I couldn’t ask for more. So let’s review my personal Top Films of 2010.
#1) (tie) “The Illusionist” (Sony/Django) & “Toy Story 3” (Disney/Pixar) – The monolithic Pixar did it again. Just when you thought they couldn’t surpass the storytelling mastery of “Wall-E,” they “Up” the ante with “Toy Story3.” Then there’s the very French “Illusionist,” a wondrously super-traditional tour-de-force from director Sylvain Chomet (“The Triplets of Belleville”), who is rapidly becoming a force in animation all on his own.
As different as these films are production-wise, they both really are bittersweet explorations of what happens to people as times are changed. “TS3,” it isn’t really about the Woody, Buzz and the toys being left behind by their boy, Andy. It’s all about him growing up and leaving childish things behind. With “The Illusionist” we sadly watch the slight-of-hand artist Tatischeff as his vaudeville world is replaced by rock’n roll. We also watch the ugly duckling teenager he adopts become a woman of her time…while learning magic is all in the eye of the beholder.
These two exemplary films are what top movie-making is really about. They are about superlative storytelling that doesn’t rely on funny animals or other stock cartoon situations. Try to find any animated-much less live action-film this year that handled the subject of changing time as well as these two. You can watch toy story 3 on netflix.
3) “Despicable Me” (Universal/Illuminated) – In this case, the story isn’t that original. Films about rogues with hearts of gold are nothing new. Yet “Despicable Me” handles the theme with such aplomb, audacity and smart scripting. Kudos must also be given to Steve Carrell’s voice wok. His Boris Badinov is wonderfully modern and all the funnier for it. If this is an indicator of what’s coming from Illuminated, Pixar better watch out for their next film “Hop.” They got some new competition.
4) “How To Train Your Dragon” (Dreamworks) – Any other year, “Dragon” would have placed higher on my list. It’s a wonderfully high spirited tale of a Viking boy and his pet monster. By the team that previously gave us “Lilo & Stitch,” I think we have just seen another pair who have now earned the right to be kept an eye on. They’ve taken the odd couple concept to absolute new heights.
5) “Tangled” (Disney) – The latest Disney Princess epic is an audacious Broadway send-up with a smooth hero, an utterly modern manic/depressive heroine, an evil stepmother ripped right out of the pages of “Mommie Dearest,” and a rogue’s gallery of truly outrageous supporting characters. Wildly witty with a superlative musical score, this film left me busting a gut more than once, plus it is nice to see Disney, particularly director Glen Keane, injecting fresh energy into the formula.
Honorable Mentions: “Summer Wars” (Madhouse/GKIDS); “Shrek Forever After” (Dreamworks); “Tales of Earthsea” (Ghibli/Disney); “Megamind” (Dreamworks) and “Metropia” (Atmo/Tribeca)
Movies weren’t the only area quality animation was making its play. There were some incredible displays coming out of TV land as well. Just look at this list and try to match it for its diversity, maturity and inventiveness. In fact, there are just so many good shows I had to go with a top 15.
0) “Adventure Time” – This show of the adventures of a boy named Finn and his magical dog Jake put a much needed fresh perspective in today’s comedy. Living in a kingdom with many other special creatures, each episode manages to be funny and fulfilling. If you haven’t seen any episode of this show, you must watch adventure time soon! There is a reason that it is the uncontested number 1 in our top shows list this year. Give it a go and enjoy following the great adventures with many interesting characters!
1) “Monster” (Viz/Syfy) – This amazingly fresh Japanese import is new terrain for the animated TV, period. It tells the tale of a surgeon who saves the life of a young boy with a bullet in his head. Years later the surgeon learns the boy is now the greatest serial killer of all time…and he’s now been framed for all the crimes.
That isn’t all that’s amazing about this film. Part “The Fugitive,” part “Twin Peaks,” “Monster” is a trip through the Europe right after the fall of the Berlin Wall, exposing the dark underbelly of Eastern Europe as what rotted over there reacts to the sunlight. Absolutely amazing television, you should still be able to catch this series on Hulu.com. You can watch Monster on most streaming anime websites.
2) “Sym-Bionic Titan” (Cartoon Network) – The legendary Genndy Tartakovsky (“Dexter’s Laboratory,” “Samurai Jack’) returns with a giant-robot story with memorable characters, a unique, eye-popping CGI/traditional hybrid animation style and a very absorbing plot that’s absolutely addicting. If you need proof that Genndy is a truly iconoclastic genius, look no further.
3) “Futurama” (Comedy Central/Fox) – This sci-fi’s off again/on again history is great material in itself. Now that it’s back, it does so with its amazing sense of satire and multi-level gags fully intact. The future of animation is a lot brighter as long as the continuing tale of Fry and the Planetary Express crew is still with us.
4) “Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” (Disney XD/Marvel) – It looks like Marvel Animation is back in the game with this respectful treatment of their original superhero team. This contemplation of the comic is a mix of great comic adaptation with modern touches. It’s no wonder fans assemble every week for a new episode.
5) (tie) “Maximum Titan/Robot Chicken” (Stupid Monkey/Adult Swim) – God bless the absolutely crazed Seth Green and Matt Senreich. These two guys have proven that having too many toys can be a very good thing, as long as you keep on coming out with cultural fricassees like these two stop-motion satires. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.
7) “The Cleveland Show” (Fox) – The newest entry in the Fox Sunday animated block is turning into a sly, wry take on the modern family. Considering this is a Seth McFarlane production, that’s almost shocking in itself. At the same time, ya gotta love the continuing tale of this former “Family Guy” character and his new brood.
8) “Generation Rex” (Cartoon Network) – Another fresh show from Cartoon Network’s action-adventure block. This show is also showing its share of solid characterisation, great voice acting, intriguing plot and a great sense of fun. What I’m particularly enjoying is how the plot keeps deepening through back story while not forgetting to advance the plot. G.Rex is great TV for the next generation of toon heads.
9) “Phineas & Ferb” (Disney XD) – This is probably the best kid’s show currently on air. How they manage to take their twisted little formula and find so many variations on its theme constantly impresses. To top it, they’ve managed to put out several CDs worth of new music. It almost makes you wish for an endless summer.
10) “Star Wars: Clone Wars: (Lucasfilm/Cartoon Network) – My only gripe with this series right now is the lack of new episodes this third season. Hopefully, that will quickly be rectified and the further exploration and expansion of the Lucas-verse will continue to steamroll along.
11) “Naruto: Shippuden (Viz/Hulu) – The further adventures of anime’s #1 knuckle-headed ninja continue to impress. It would have placed much, much higher if it hadn’t fallen into another cycle of flashback episodes. Admittedly, one or two of them are fun, but over a dozen is way too many.
12) “Batman: Brave & Bold” (Warner Bros./Cartoon Network) – This show dropped a bit because of general unevenness. At the same time, whenever an episode like “Emperor Joker” misses the mark by a mile, it comes back with something like “The Lost Patrol,” showing why this latest incarnation of the Dark Knight deserves its kudos.
13) “MAD” (Cartoon Network) – Animation is a perfect breeding ground for cultural satire. No one knows this more than the guys at MAD Magazine, who have been skewering social norms for over a half-century. Put the two together and you may not quite have John Stewart or Steve Colbert, but it’s getting darn close.
14) “Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood” (FUNimation/Adult Swim) – To redo a classic anime series usually ends up in total disaster (i.e. the 90s version of Jonny Quest). This remake of FDA managed to get around it by adding an incredible level of new depth in the story-line. I’ll admit it. I’m impressed.
15) “The Simpsons” (Fox) – The venerable show that did as much to start the animation revolution as “Little Mermaid” managed to survive it’s record breaking 21st season doing what it does best, making us laugh more often than groan. It’s still destination TV for me, and after two decades that says something.
Finally, while original animation for the ‘net (like “Red v. Blue”) is on the verge of taking off, the direct-to-DVD market is truly starting to flourish. While the made-for-girls/kids subdivision still leaves me cold, the action-adventure/boys market it starting to look mighty sharp If you don’t believe, check out this list below.
DIRECT TO DVD
1) “GI Joe: Resolute” (Hasbro) – I got to give mad props to comic book master Warren Ellis. He managed to revamp the Real American Heroes into a masterful action-adventure team. He also turned their eternal enemies from a pack of colourful clowns into a cut-throat pack of terrorists who are actually truly threatening.
2) The DC Animated Universe (Warner Bros) – This is actually four unique DVDs: “Superman/Batman: Apocalypse; “Showcase,” “Batman: Under The Red Hood” and “Justice League: When Two Worlds Collide.” In the last several years, the DCAU has refined its own original animation team to the point where every new release is jam packed with great action and top notch art. Also, while they do take their liberties with what they’re based on, they still manage to feel absolutely true to source material. These four new chapters continue that trend.
3) “Planet Hulk”(Marvel/Dark Horse) – This very different take on Marvel’s Green Goliath exile on another planet mixes blood and guts with a dark undertone. Under the aegis of the team of Frank Paur and Sam Liu, here’s to hoping the guys at Marvel Animation decide to continue this highly successful comic book series.
4) “Halo: Legends” (Microsoft/Warner Bros.) – This is probably the best game adaptation outside of “Red v. Blue.” Here five different anime directors do their own tale based on the Halo gaming universe. When done, you’ve been through the ringer as they cover everything from screwball comedy to grim and gritty war stories. If you want a great sampling of animation can do, look no further.
5) “Dante’s Inferno” (EA/Film Roman) – Another case of different Japanese and–this time–American animators putting their own stamp on a gaming universe. Not as varied as “Halo,” it still manages to compensate with great voice acting, wild interpretations of the various circles of hell, and a turning of the Italian Renaissance masterwork that’s still, for lack of a better term, “in the spirit” of the original.