When we think about the point at which movies cross over from being popular entertainment to art cinema—the artificial division between the empty genre film and the poetic, slow–moving indie flick—where exactly do we place animated movies? The proliferation of animation as a major film–making medium has been a long process primarily driven by technological innovation. The special effects of classic films like King Kong would not have been possible without the use of stop–motion animation. Early computer–generated animated films, including Pixar’s first feature film Toy Story, have held up surprisingly well despite the great leaps in CGI technologies. In 2018, Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse garnered significant acclaim for emulating the visual style of a comic book through computer animation. In short, contemporary 3D animation is nothing less than awe–inspiring. However, in addition to innovation at the artistic and technological level, the medium of animation has been a hotbed for inventive modes of storytelling. Many of the greatest animated films in recent memory have transcended the genres and the audiences that we set on such a flexible medium, using the liberties of limitless visual invention to tell the stories that children hold with them well into adulthood.
Most people have a favorite Pixar film, regardless of how old they were when they first fell in love with it. The greatest Pixar films begin with a simple, universal notion about life, which is then transposed into a metaphorical framework where our very human experiences take non–human forms. There is magic in this process, the kind that can bring a person to tears as they watch a lonely robot learn to love in Wall–E, or are reminded of the beauty and pain of growing up through the eyes of Woody in the Toy Story trilogy. Pixar films charm us with their inventiveness, but at the very core of these animated marvels is a masterful hold on what matters to all of us, regardless of our age. The use of animated worlds can be looked at as more than just a way to delight children with things that can only be rendered in the imagination. In the great works of the Pixar canon, to build an animated world is to capture a note on life that resonates with all of us.
While Pixar shines at constructing 3D animated worlds, hand–drawn and stop–motion animation, although older mediums, deliver visual splendor and inventive storytelling in equal measure. When it comes to visually–striking filmmaking, Wes Anderson comes to mind. To date, Anderson has directed two stop–motion animated films, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs. Both are gorgeous to look at and finished with scores by the highly decorated composer Alexandre Desplat, giving way to a rich cinematic experience up to par with Anderson’s live–action works. Fantastic Mr. Fox, in the same way that many Pixar films personify objects, animals, and all manner of imaginary things to tell stories grounded in reality, renders the world through the trials of a meticulously animated world of wild animals. A video essay by Karsten Runquist details why this film, by transposing very real troubles of ordinary life onto an animated fox who comes to accept his own existence as an animal, takes full advantage of what animation is capable of. By beautifully rendering the imaginary, animated films can shape complex, self–aware stories beyond superficial entertainment.
Given their boundlessness, animated films can weave stories and build worlds that haunt us. There is no better example of this than Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece Spirited Away. The world that Miyazaki creates is populated by kami—spirits that take numerous forms and are doused in metaphor. Though we often associate animation with children’s entertainment, and therefore expect a degree of whimsy and levity in storytelling and worldbuilding, Spirited Away has a child protagonist and works as a children’s movie, but is also deeply layered and occasionally disturbing. It boasts the richly detailed hand–drawn animation that Miyazaki’s work is known for while inventing a world full of spirits, creatures, and monsters that critiques the effects of capitalism and over–consumption on modern Japanese society. A child viewing the film may not be aware of this specific theme, but the motif of food throughout the film still communicates how greed and consumption can shape society. The medium of animation colors the film, ultimately creating a world we can fully immerse ourselves in.
Celebrating animated movies is integral to appreciating the full scope of the motion pictures as an art form and a mode of storytelling. Animation, as it has developed over the years, has become such an innovative mechanism for distilling meaning from our lives in some of the most creative and inventive ways. As adult viewers, good animation still offers us so much to experience, reflect on, and marvel at. Whether it is a Pixar classic, or 2018's show–stopping Spider–Man into the Spider–Verse, animated movies provide no shortage of wonder and cinematic innovation.