Best Animated Films (& D2D) of 2008

WALL*E Dir. Andrew Stanton Interview, p2

A image from Dreamworks new animated feature, Kung Fu Panda
A image from Dreamworks new animated feature, Kung Fu Panda
Here are some rough stats to ponder. Based on what research there is, 2008 saw approximately 100 animated feature films released worldwide, of which approximately 30 were produced/distributed in the U.S . This list includes true theatrical releases and Direct-to-DVD (D2D). These numbers pretty much match 2007. So thoughts about the “glut” of the mid-decade seems to be over and done.

From there, slightly nearly 20 films got U.S. theatrical releases. This includes domestic (Wall*E, Kung Fu Panda) and international (Fly Me To the Moon (Belgium), Azur & Asmar (France)) producers. A similar number were released D2D.

The thing one can now say one couldn’t a decade ago: It’s virtually impossible to see all the animated feature films released any particular year. Animation is now tracking like comics. You have to pick and choose your poison. You can’t walk into your favorite shop (or theater) and get’em all. Also, films that you know are future classics will be hard, if nigh impossible, to see…at least at first run.

For instance, anime masters Mamoru Oshii and Hayao Miyazaki’s latest have done some film festivals this year. In fact, Oshii apparently released three animated film; Sky Crawlers, Rebellion: The Killing Isle and a revamping of Ghost In the Shell (2.0). I just don’t know if any are in the U.S., at least yet. The Australian film $9.99, is in exactly one theater this week, in L.A, for Oscar consideration. It’s already up for an Annie. Still, does this really qualify as an American theatrical release, especially when you consider Israel’s Waltz With Bashir is getting a true limited run – one that started Friday, December 26?

On a more positive note, there still is some quality work being done, and they are easily accessible. Four films, Disney/Pixars’s Wall*E, Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa as well as Fox/Blue Sky’s Horton Hears A Who made the top 10 box office money makers list. Before Christmas, Bolt was $100,000 short of the top 20. So, in that sense, it’s been a good year for the animated feature. No monster film like Dark Knight or last year’s Shrek III, but when you add those five films up, that’s a cool $1 billion, without considering international revenue.

I wish I could say the same thing regarding the overall quality issue. When you look at that picture, one sees a gigantic divide between good and bad, with a rare few being mediocre. On the plus front, when a film is good, it’s usually outstanding, such as three of the top four. That still doesn’t make up for things like Space Chimps or Fly Me To The Moon. Those films bordered on the out-and-out terrible.

Thus a “best of” list becomes more imperative than ever. Yes, everyone and even their elder siblings—and that used to be a very rare situation—are going to see Wall*E and KFP. The bad news is films like Azur & Asmar are being drowned in the process. That’s just plain wrong.

So, here’s my list for 2008. Feature films first, then Direct-to-DVD. We’ll discuss TV on New Year’s Eve. As always, there’s the comment section for those who may have different ideas...

Theatrical

Azur & Asmar (Weinstein/GKids)– This latest French confection from animator Michel Ocelot plainly places the man in the real of masters such as Hayao Miyazaki and John Lasseter. He has pushed his craft to the limits, blending European tapestry, Muslim mosaic and the latest computer technology into a totally original film. To top it, the story matches the art. Two boys, one white one black, are initially raised by the same nanny in 15th Century Andalusia. When the white boys bigoted father forces their separation, it will eventually lead both “brothers” into a quest for the mythical djinn fairy, turning the film into a gently told, although not subtle, diatribe on racial and religious hypocrisy and ignorance. Open your own eyes to see this film. It’s still in distribution so you have no excuse.

Igor (MGM/Exodus) – This film has to be the best animated comedy of the year.

In this all-ages parody, a Transylvania-like country makes its living by creating monsters, and then blackmailing the world by threatening to unleash them. It is also ruled by mad scientists, who can’t survive without their hunchback assistants, called Igors. Enter our Igor (John Cusack), his pals a brain in a jar Brian (Sean Hayes) and an immortal, thus suicide prone, rabbit named Scamper (Steve Buscemi). With the sudden death of their scientist, the trio creates their own Bride of Frankenstein-like monster, Eva (Molly Shannon). The problem is instead of a video tape of zombie movies, she’s programmed with scenes from James Lipton’s Inside The Actor’s Studio. You’ll never here Annie’s “Tomorrow,” in the same way again…and you will be grateful for it.

Kung Fu Panda (Dreamworks) – The inside story is when Communist China saw KFP for the first time, a serious national debate began as how a pack of Hollywood bah-gwai from could produce something understanding Chinese folk lore as good as they could. In return, the film is now the third most popular film in the history of the nation and a government-spawned movement to match that kind of quality.

Yes, this film wouldn’t have been worth a bowl of soggy old noodles without the vocal performance the two pandas, Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman. Still, what truly sets this one off from the rest of the pack is the incredible detail spent on the overall designs by directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson. A solid bit of family entertainment. I want to see what the sequel in 2010-11.

WALL*E (Disney/Pixar) – The true brilliance of this film is in the first 40 minutes. There’s not a word of dialogue for that half of the film, and you don’t need it.

Like Charlie Chaplin nearly a century ago, Director Andrew Stanton created a character who can express himself beautifully with speaking hardly a word. In a masterful demonstration of acting with pixels, the robot Wall*E saves the human race with a series of squeaks, squawks, various “Whoas!” and a reinvigorated use of some clips from Hello Dolly!. It’s also a flawlessly executed cautionary tale about issues such as rampant consumerism, over-reliance on machineries of joy, green environmentalism and what truly is human. I’ll let other sing more praises about this latest Pixar piece of perfection.

Movie Review: Waltz With Bashir
Movie Review: Waltz With Bashir
Waltz With Bashir (Sony) – Talk about the year ending with a bang. This tale of the true cost of war is rapidly going to become another reason why animation is not just for cute animals and kid-oriented gags. For more, see my review, just out last Friday, and linked above.

Honorable Mentions: Bolt, Delgo, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, Sita Sings The Blues, The Tale of Desperaux.

Direct to DVD

Appleseed: Deux Ex Machina (WB) – A rare case of the sequel truly blowing out the original. This tour-de-force, based on the manga of Shirow Masamune (Ghost In The Shell) explores a different viewpoint of what is machine versus human. Superlative imagined, incredibly choreographed and solidly acted. Anime may be in a rut, but this qualifies as a true masterwork.

Batman: Gotham Knight (WB) – This U.S./Japan hybrid grows on you. Yes, segments like Brian Azzerello’s “Working Through Pain” and the animation on Josh Olsen’s “Have I Got A Story for You” (Shoujirou Nishimi) are what’s going to hook you. Then segments such as Alan Burnett’s “Deadshot” and David S. Goyer’s “In Darkness Dwells” (which owes a lot to Mike Mignola), grow on you with each repeat. If the upcoming Wonder Woman feature comes even near this, then there’s going to be lots of good times over at the DCAU.

DVD & Blu-ray release of Futurama's foray into swords & sorcery
DVD & Blu-ray release of Futurama's foray into swords & sorcery
Futurama: Bender’s Game (Fox) – This time Fry, Leela, Bender and the crew of the Planetary Express delivery service stand Dungeons & Dragons, Orson Scott Card, JRR Tolkien and the energy crisis on their collective heads. It’s probably also the only time you’ll get to see Fry ride Leela bareback (even if she’s a centaur at that moment). Let’s hope there are a lot more after next year’s final D2D release.

Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow (Lionsgate) – Usually when a set of comic book icons are so radically rewritten, the best thing to do is run away as quickly as you can. Not so here. This series posits a world where Ultron takes over the world and kills most of the Marvel Heroes. Now it’s up to an aged Tony Stark to raise the next generation of Avengers and take the Marvel Universe back. Remarkably well written, with overall highly believable characters, now you should run to your nearest store and get a copy of this D2D. I wouldn’t object to it being turned into a TV series, that’s for sure.

Turok: Son Of Stone (Starz) – A surprisingly unexpected but enjoyable reinterpretation of the Gold Key comic book character. Exceedingly violent, but supervising director Tad Stones (Hellboy) and veteran sequence directors Dan Riba, Curt Gida and Frank Squillace put together a solid action flick with some nice twists and turns in the plot.

NEXT COLUMN: Now it’s time to look over the best of TV in 2008.

Related:

Movie Review: Tales of Despereaux

Jeffrey Katzenberg 1-on-1: Part 3D - Dreamworks' TV Future

Talking with the Oscar Winners for 'Peter and the Wolf'

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