Animated Shorts: Best of 2009 - Movies

New one-sheet poster from Henry Selic's 3D stop-motion animated adaptation of Neil Gaiman

2009 will go down as a truly exceptional year for feature-length animation, both quantitatively and, most important, qualitatively.

This year I saw a whopping 15 different films on the big screen. Go on the Wiki and one will see the number of theatrical releases, admittedly worldwide, is about four times that. It’s not too long ago when a dozen films, period, was virtually unheard of.

Further, it looks like there’s another studio out there, Sony, that’s ready to go toe-to-toe with the triumvirate of Blue Sky/Disney-Pixar/Dreamworks when it comes to providing box office blockbusters. The more, the merrier.

But what really counts is while picking the top ten was relatively easy, dividing them into some semblance of which was better than the other got down to splitting hairs. For instance, all three Disney/Pixar releases this year would top a number of past lists. When push came to shove, the final argument was personal taste. Yet I have no issue about a person choosing , or over my personal selections.

To top it, there was plenty of top entertainment provided from the direct-to-DVD market. Marvel and Warner Bros’ DCAU team provided their best work yet. More important though is a number of solid entertainment came from other distributors, too.

So this is how it’s going to be done. This list is divided into two groups. The first are the films that were released direct-to-DVD. From there, it’s time to move on to theatrical. After that, let the debate begin.

DIRECT-TO-DVD/TV

10) Sky Crawlers (Sony/Production IG)

This latest from anime master Mamoru Oshii is a true sleeper. Based on the Japanese sci-fi works of Hiroshi Mori, it speculates teenagers are bio-engineered/cloned to fight wars. From there, nothing is truly explained. What Oshii does do is give his audience much to meditate over.  

9) Turtles Forever! (4Kids/Mirage)

If a series has to end, it should end like this. The 4Kids adaptation of the heroes on the half-shell has their lives rudely interrupted by the Wolf-Murakami editions. By the time everything is done and over, the original Mirage mutant shinobi are called in to save the day. What more can a true fan ask for?

8) Afro Samurai: Resurrection (FUNimation/Gonzo)

This sequel never quite had the mojo of the original, but it’s still a solid piece of bloody entertainment. Set after Afro becomes #1, the sword master finds out about the hollowness of his victory and he has some very heavy dues to pay for his bloody quest. The animation, as always, is superb and RZA’s soundtrack is haunting.  

7) Wonder Woman (Warner Premiere)

The solo directorial debut of Warner wiz kid Lauren Montgomery shows she has a solid grip on the Amazon Princess. Her action choreography and character design are superb, and while lead voice actors Keri Russell (Diana) and Nathan Fillion (Trevor) leave something to be desired, the rest of the voice cast are solid.  

6) Green Lantern: First Flight (Warner Premiere)

If you want to see how much Montgomery improves, check out her second entry in the DCAU. This time, the mawkishness of a Diana/Trevor relation is a non-issue as we watch Hal Jordan, voiced by Law & Order SVU’s Christopher Meloni, become the top cop of the Green Lantern Corp. Victor Garber’s Sinestro is also top notch. There are some superlative combat sequences out there in deep space. Space opera at its best.

5) Hulk Vs. (Lionsgate/Marvel)

Animation master Frank Paur goes totally gonzo, giving Hulk fans what they want, lots of violence. Divided into two mini-movies, “Hulk v. Wolverine” and “Hulk v. Thor,” Paur packs enough action into the first half to keep even the most bloodthirsty fan satisfied. The second half, directed by Sam Liu and supervised by Paur, takes things on a more cosmic scale, and does a respectable job.  

4) Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (Warner Premiere)

This release deserves kudos just for reteaming DCAU voice vets Clancy Brown, Tim Daly and Kevin Conroy as the voices of Luthor, Big Blue and the Dark Knight. Kudos should also be given to scriptwriter Stan Berkowitz for his deft handling of Jeph Loeb’s original comic. Finally, director Sam Liu handled it all with exceptional skill considering this was his first solo theatrical directorial outing. Another one for the fans, and deservedly so.

3) The Haunted World of El Superbeasto (Starz/Anchor Bay)

Rob Zombie’s first animation endeavor harkens back to one of the true greats, Ralph Bakshi. A luchidore-turned-pornstar, El Superbeasto (Tom Papa) must thwart the nefarious Dr. Satan (Paul Giamatti), a nerd he ES to give super-wedgies in high school. Rosario Dawson is over the top as ultra-chica Velvet von Black. Can Superbeasto, his superhero sister (Sherri Moon Zombie) and her trusted robot companion Murray (Brian Poseyn) stop the apocalypse? Find out when you stop rolling on the floor.  

2) Futurama: Into The Wild Green Yonder (Fox)

If you had to end one of the truly greatest animated series to ever grace the small screen, this is the way to do it. Fry, Bender and the crew of the Planetary Express must stop Amy’s dad from building the biggest mini-golf course ever…before it sinks the universe. With virtually every character of the original series making at least a cameo, creators Matt Groening and David X Cohen gave true fans a proper send off. Of course, like a true sci-series, it’s announced that Futurama is coming back with new episodes on Comedy Central. It just proves you can’t keep a great sci-fi series down meat bags.

1) GI Joe: Resolute (Hasbro/Titmouse)

Anyone who had even the slightest trepidation about Resolute should have taken a look at the main creators, Warren Ellis and Joaquim Dos Santos. Ellis handed in a script that took all the infernal goofiness of the Joes and replaced it with the no-nonsense attitude. Then he made eternal enemies Cobra is a pack of bloodthirsty, vicious sociopaths. The animation, credited to Titmouse but looks an awful lot like Madhouse had a hand in it, is superb. The action is non-stop, and Dos Santos juggling of Ellis’ four-or-so simultaneous storylines deft and masterful. There’s apparently a new Joe animated series in the works. If it’s anywhere as good as Resolute, it will wash the evil taste of Michael Bell’s live action abortion away forever.

10) Monsters v. Aliens (Dreamworks)

A solid, overall standard Dreamworks movie. It did what it was supposed to do, make me laugh…a lot.

9) Fantastic Mr. Fox (Fox)

Any time a Raoul Dahl film makes it to the big screen basically intact, that’s cause for celebration. While some of the stop motion is a bit clunky, and George Clooney, Merrill Streep and Jason Schwartzman’s performances were a bit detached, Michael Gambon’s Mr. Bean makes up for all three of them in spades.

8) Ponyo (Disney/Ghibli)

There are times when Miyazaki’s traditional animation still leaves you breathless. At the same time, there are times when this film’s storytelling doesn’t measure up to past masterworks such as , or . Spotty, but with its moments.

7) Up (Disney/Pixar)

Another spotty film from a company used to doing masterpieces. Probably Pixar’s darkest film ever, sometimes the dark tones in the background get oppressive. On the other hand, the tragic opening is absolutely heart rendering, Dug the Dog is brilliant, and the climactic battle between Muntz and Carl top notch.

6) Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs (Sony)

Two of the guys who gave you Clone High channel the spirit of Tex Avery for what is probably the funniest film of the year. There hasn’t been this many food gags since the days of the Three Stooges, and the film is better for it. Watch out world, Sony is turning into a domestic animation powerhouse.

5) 9 (Focus/Starz)

How young director Shane Acker managed to take the lessons learned from Eastern European masters such as Svankmayer and Trinka and make it palatable to American tastes alone makes this a top five film. That he did it with just a fraction of a usual animation budget is even more impressive. A post-apocalyptic masterwork that gets better with each viewing.

4) The Princess & The Frog (Disney)

The Mouseworks’ return to traditional animation is a tasty mix of bayou flavors, from its Jazz/Cajun score to its wonderfully strong personality-driven animation. Special kudos must be given to voice actors Keith David and Jim Cummings. David’s Dr. Facilliard should go down as an all-time Disney villain, and Cummings was unforgettable as Ray the Firefly. A truly wonderful feel-good, traditional Disney outing, the Magic is definitely back.

3) The Secret of Kells (GKids/Cartoon Saloon)

A hauntingly original film set in the Dark Ages that is definitive proof that kids can handle much more mature material than Hollywood gives them credit for. Wondrously iconoclastic use of character design, haunting score and subtle storytelling hasn’t been mixed so well since Brad Bird’s . Watch this film become considered a classic in a few years.

2) Sita Sings The Blues (Nina Paley/FilmKaravan)

Where to being? Is it Paley’s incredible mix of animation styles? Her incredible way of tying a tragic moment of her life to the Indian classic The Ramayana? Her ability to jump from 20’s cocktail jazz to absolutely modern Indian pop? Her incredibly bold way of bucking the industry’s distribution and copyright rules and getting away with it? This is a lady you better pay attention to. If you don’t believe me, go to her website, www.ninapaley.com, or even the IMDB and see this film . Better you see coming to your theater or on sale as a DVD, buy the damn thing and support a person who has the potential of being the biggest name in animation since John Lasseter.

1) (Focus/Laika)

This collaboration between the stop motion master Henry Selick and fantasist supreme Neil Gaiman underscore one basic principle, kids love a good scare, and they made sure to deliver said scares by the bucket load. As reported in a past interview here on Newsarama, was a truly collaborative effort between the filmmaker and the author, fully realizing that what made a good book might not be a good movie. Instead, they came up with something different, but still true. Teri Hatcher’s double role as Coraline’s mother and “other mother” is surprisingly astonishing for a person not known in the VOA world. The support cast, particularly Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Ian McShane and Keith David, were all exceptional. Selick’s mix of stop motion and CGI enhancements have pushed the craft to all new levels. If ever there was a film that deserved top kudos this year, this is it.

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