In an age dominated by the likes of “Frozen” and “Despicable Me,” it’s crucial to appreciate the beauty of animated films done right.
Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
Last Friday saw the release of Laika’s “Missing Link,” a singular and exquisitely crafted piece of stop-motion animation at a time when generic, computer-generated fare is dominating the market (IndieWire’s positive review can be read here). Naturally, it bombed.
This week’s question: In an attempt to call attention to the films that treat feature-length animation like the art form that it is, what’s the most beautifully animated film ever made?
“5 Centimeters Per Second”
Hoai-Tran (@htranbui), SlashFilm
Makoto Shinkai may be best known as the director behind the 2017 global mega-hit “Your Name,” but he has long established himself as a singular anime filmmaker whose pensive metaphysical plots are only bested by his gorgeous photorealistic renderings of modern-day Tokyo. While his 2013 short film “The Garden of Words” is objectively one of the most beautiful pieces of animation ever committed to celluloid, his 2007 film “5 Centimeters Per Second” is the perfect embodiment of Shinkai’s ability to bring to inject new life into mundane settings.
One of his few films to not contain any sci-fi or fantasy elements, “5 Centimeters Per Second” consists of three vignettes following the decades-long love story of two childhood friends, told in a slow-burning, dreamlike fashion. The sparse story only adds to that surreal quality achieved by Shinkai’s photorealistic animation — which is so shockingly close to real life that the shots at time look like photographs. But Shinkai, determined to “present the real world from a different perspective,” manages to transform unremarkable settings into pieces of art through the lush, vibrant colors that manage to pop even off the tiniest computer screen. It’s pure visual poetry.
“Boy and the World”
There’s a synergy between the sublime handcraftsmanship and the socially conscious themes observed in Alê Abreu’s “Boy and the World” —the musically driven, Brazilian kaleidoscopic stunner that became Latin America’s first-ever Oscar nominated animated feature. From the point of view of a rural child searching for his father in the big city, the film addresses environmental concerns, the rise of authoritarian governments, and economic inequality through roughly sketched characters and idiosyncratically graphic, hand-drawn backgrounds.
Crayons, color pencils, cutouts, oil paints, and even live-action footage (used briefly, but intently) make up the awe-inspiring, whimsical, and occasionally sinister world the boy inhabits. Abreu’s mastery of purely visual storytelling enables him to triumph at such tall narrative order without a single word of dialogue (the few lines and song lyrics are purposefully unintelligible). What’s expressed through its colorful drawings and collages yield impressions about humanity at once inspirational, meditative, melancholic, and cautiously hopeful.
Its culminating revelation touches emotional notes most live-action dramas can’t reach regardless of how many lengthy speeches they flaunt. Produced independently with a minuscule budget, its unspoken statements on the dangers of automation over human ingenuity are reflected in its making to powerful effect, thus “Boy and the World” is far more than an arresting beauty but perhaps the most relevant animated feature of the decade.
Laika’s “Coraline” has always stuck with me. I am biased, though. I am a major fangirl when it comes to anything from the mind of Neil Gaiman. Despite my bias, I was genuinely blown away by the animation in the film version of the story; it is based on a book of the same name by Gaiman. “Coraline” resonated with me so deeply because, largely, it’s color palette (of all things!). The bold –– and, also, subtle –– blues, greens, blacks, and purples, all set the tone for the film, which deals with themes of both darkness and light. Coraline, the protagonist in the eponymous film, says, in a notable, quotable line: “When you’re scared but you still do it anyway, that’s brave.” The script stuck with me as strongly as the animation, both of which were admirably formidable and memorable – the way that good storytelling ought to be.
Despite the relative death of hand-drawn animation, we’re living in an embarrassment of riches when it comes to animated films – PIxar and Dreamworks have delivered some stone-cold classics in the realm of CG animation, Wes Anderson’s stop-motion experiments are beautiful expressions of his trademark meticulousness, and Japanese animation is its own unique beast. While recency bias tempts me to gush about “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”, which I still think looks like nothing we’ve ever seen before, the arthouse nerd in me has to lend some attention to René Laloux’s 1973 animated sci-fi fable “Fantastic Planet.” An allegorical tale of an alien planet inhabited by large, blue aliens who treat the diminutive human population of the planet as animals – pets to be kept or rodents to be eradicated. What follows is an intriguingly presented allegory about animal cruelty, prejudice, and subjugation, told with all the seriousness of a hard science fiction novella.
The world is a psychedelic mixture of bizarre, trippy sci-fi landscapes and creature designs, animated by rearranging paper cutouts to achieve the illusion of movement; it’s not exactly smooth, but that just adds further to the surrealism of its startlingly unfamiliar world. Alongside Alain Gorger’ trippy jazz-infused score, and the curiously Dali-esque visual stylings of the planet, the Czech-produced adventure is dark, surreal and deeply strange, unlike anything that’s come out of the Disney/Pixar machine before or since.
“It’s Such a Beautiful Day”
To look at a screenshot, Don Hertzfeldt’s opus “It’s Such a Beautiful Day,” with its rudimentary stick figures and vacant backdrops, would seem an unlikely choice for the title of “Most Beautifully Animated Film.” That rough appearance, though, belies the restless formal inventiveness Hertzfeldt brings to every project, a body of tragicomic work that by now allows him to push the envelope of his signature mixed-media experimentation to breathtakingly unexpected heights. Even if you chafe at the suggestion that this film is beautifully designed, though (in which case you and I probably have some deeper philosophical disagreements anyway), it is absolutely one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen full-stop.
In telling the story of Bill—an everyman cipher with a nonetheless intricately bizarre personal and familial history—slowly succumbing to an unnamed degenerative disease, Hertzfeldt focuses simultaneously on the minute absurdities of everyday life, and on the sense of cosmic awe that comes with confronting the chaotic brevity of our time on this planet. Rather than wallowing in miserabilism, however, Hertzfeldt approaches these bleak ideas with a constant wry sparkle, finding the opportunities for the silly and the sublime where so many storytellers strain for grave import. With a plot that opens on a cringingly relatable sidewalk encounter and ends by transcending time and space, Hertzfeldt uses his stick figures to lend the viewer a new sense of wonder at the depth of grace in those five quotidian words: it’s such a beautiful day. After watching this film, you’ll never take them for granted again.
“Loving Vincent,” the animated Vincent van Gogh biopic that strived to retrace the final days of his life, absolutely floored me in 2017. For one, the crafting of directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s film required patience and time, as their process progressed from the live-action cast filming in front of a green screen to rotoscoping individual pieces of footage onto a canvas. Secondly, rather than employing animators, the filmmakers sought painters to oil paint each frame by hand. Their undertaking required four years in production and resulted in nearly 65,000 painted frames.
The result is quite simply stunning. With many of the frames based around van Gogh’s paintings, we’re bequeathed the vision of this tragic artist. We understand him in relation to his works and develop a vicarious comprehension of how he viewed the world, as the animators’ transposed brushstrokes create a texture and vibrancy not seen in animation before. The blending of painterly art with cinematic techniques, even in a film with an admittedly flawed screenplay, is still a banquet for the eyes and something we’ll probably never see again.
In my eyes, one separator of effort and quality in great animation is picture depth. The moving pieces up front dazzle plenty and often, but it’s rare sometimes to see a film that makes you want to pause and peer around the action to notice the backdrops and settings. No film of the golden era of Walt Disney’s fairy tales accomplished this better than 1959’s “Sleeping Beauty.” Painted by artist Eyvind Earle to emulate Medieval tapestries, the staggering details of his backdrops envelope “Sleeping Beauty” with an ornate stature. His mattes carry texture and vertical symmetry of slim forms that are the most distinctive of any of Disney’s classics. Earle’s bold depth marries perfectly with the swirling colors of magic on top and the sumptuous Tchaikovsky balletic musical flourishes behind it. Here in the Chicago, the Music Box Theatre’s annual 70mm Film Festival recently brought this masterwork out in its full widescreen glory. What a treat!
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”
We’re in a golden age of animation at the moment, which is really lovely to see, because these kinds of movies take considerably more work than most other projects put together — consider the brilliant end credits song for “The Lego Movie 2,” which cleverly gave props to various animators and lower-level FX guys and gals while simultaneously showcasing just how many people were involved in getting the thing made. From those blockbusting enterprises to Studio Ghibli and the many animation houses that have cropped up in its stead, not to mention this year’s highly anticipated fourth installment in the “Toy Story” series, there are things to drool over in all different kinds of animated movies.
For me, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” was the most awe-inspiring technical achievement in recent memory, totally deserving of its Oscar glory. The combination between comic book visuals, uncanny realism, and street art makes for a gorgeously strange palette. The 3D fuzziness only adds to the experience, and there’s so much going on in the background of each meticulously-created shot that the film just begs to be watched over and over, dissected frame by frame, to catch every little thing. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen before and it captured my imagination in a way I haven’t felt in a very long time.
Mike McGranaghan (@AisleSeat), The Aisle Seat, Screen Rant
Coincidentally, I just showed my family “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” tonight, and I was again struck by how eye-popping this movie is. It doesn’t look like any other animated feature. Every shot is packed with detail. I just love the whole visual style, which is colorful and bold. Any individual shot could be framed and hung on your wall as a piece of art. It’s an old cliche to say that a superhero movie “looks like a comic book come to life,” but in this case it’s totally true. And the fact that the style compliments the story so well is the icing on the cake. This is one of those movies where you could watch it fifty times and still notice things you’d never seen before.
Ken Bakely (@kbake_99), Freelance for Film Pulse
Though Hayao Miyazaki has made many movies that could easily be named as the most beautifully animated, “Spirited Away” represents a particularly perfect and concise encapsulation of the merits that have rendered his films so enduring. Each location, character, and event in this fantasy adventure is breathtakingly realized with great scope and intimate detail alike, remaining indelible in the minds of viewers, no matter how long it’s been since they’ve last seen it. Within this expansive world lie the deeper thematic musings that add to the movie’s splendor, with classical fantasy archetypes and elements combining with the contemporary sociopolitical commentary present throughout all of Miyazaki’s filmography. Everything comes together to augment a visually gorgeous movie with a rich narrative to match. It’s truly a work of beauty in every sense of the word.
“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”
The phrase “most beautifully animated” makes this tough. I typically name Don Hertzfeldt’s “World of Tomorrow” as my favorite animation film, and if people get fussy about it being a short film, I pivot to Hertzfeldt’s “It’s Such a Beautiful Day.”
And while I think his animation style is alluring, innovative, and beautiful in a singular sense, if beauty is the sole aspect of the animation we’re considering, I have to go with “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” (2013), Isao Takahata’s (“Grave of the Fireflies,” “Only Yesterday”) 117-minute masterpiece and the most expensive film ever produced in Japan. One of the few non-Miyazaki films produced by Studio Ghibli, “Kaguya” is is Takahata’s magnum opus re-telling of Japan’s oldest anonymous folk tale “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.” The film’s animation department was over 170-strong and it still took them more than eight years to finish drawing and painting the film. Kazuo Oga (“My Neighbor Totoro,” “Princess Mononoke”) served as art director and personally helmed the painting of the film’s visually arresting watercolor backgrounds, which heighten and sharpen the colored pencil drawings in the foreground. In a remarkable feat, the etched foregrounds match the emotions of the film throughout, becoming smoother and cleaner in moments of clarity and developing a barbed, blurred aesthetic amidst turmoil. It’s an absolute marvel from start to finish. Takahata died in April 2018, making “Kaguya” his final film.
I think Isao Takahata’s “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is one of the most beautiful movies ever made. Every scene is like a gorgeous painting, yet every moment the film is in motion, exploring and expanding the idea of what a filmed image can be. Nothing looks like it.
Katey Stoetzel (@kateypretzel) The Young Folks
I’m not very good at expressing why something looks good when it comes to animation, so this will be a short answer. But I have to make sure “Your Name” gets some love here. Animation is inherently 2D, but in “Your Name,” from director Makoto Shinkai, everything feels so vast and worldly. The animation is crisp and every scene looks sharp and stunning, I barely know how to talk about it except to add an American live action remake is definitely a bad idea.
It’s fitting that this question be asked on the same week we were treated to the first trailer for Makoto Shinkai’s new film “Weathering with You.” Shinkai’s animation is as strikingly colorful and clear as any I have ever seen, and I could honestly recommend nearly any of his films in this spot. In “The Garden of Words” he animates rain more realistically and beautifully than I believed possible. His animated weather is so incredible that you can practically feel the rain drops bouncing off of your television or theater screen as you’re watching.
But his best work, and my personal choice for most beautiful animation, is in his stunning masterwork “Your Name” (“Kimi No Na Wa”). Watching the film, it’s almost impossible to believe that its visually stunning landscapes are hand-drawn. From facial expressiveness to lighting and shadows to the wide Japanese vistas or bustling streets of Tokyo to the absolutely breathtaking shots of a colorful comet streaking across a starry night sky, “Your Name” is Shinkai’s masterwork and features the most perfect blend of beautifully detailed animation in any film ever made. Tack on the ability Shinkai has to inspire, excite, surprise, and emotionally move the audience through his visuals alone and there is no better example of what animation can be at its best.