They are no longer simply “cartoons.” Animation has reached such a critical and technical peak in the last 15 years – not to mention commercial, since Frozen (2013) was the first animated film to make one-billion dollars at the box office – that what were once only seen as cute diversions prescribed to children and patience-stretched parents are now rightfully discussed as an art-form alongside far more prestigious types of film-making.
Even with this new-found respect, just because you’re animated doesn’t mean you’re appropriate for children. This has always been the case, especially from works outside of America (including anime) and on the fringe, but filmmakers using the benefits of animation for their grown-up stories are becoming more and more common alongside the big-budget, hyper-colored worlds of Pixar, Disney, Blue Sky and the rest. If you’re in the mood to marvel at the animated form, but want to experience it with a more adult-minded story, then these are the films for you.
It’s probably a cliché to kick off a list like this one with Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, but it’s perhaps even more of a cliché to assume a film with as big of a reputation as this isn’t actually as good as they say. Many western audiences’ first experience with the boldly colorful and artistically experimental anime came through Otomo’s dystopian sci-fi fantasy and it holds up. It still mightn’t make much sense, but its lavishly-animated beauty remains a wonder to behold. Equally enthralling is Mamoru Ishii’s Ghost in the Shell (1995).
Czech director Jan Ŝvankmajer has never been known for cute anthropomorphic animals like Madagascar (2005), but perhaps the closest he got was this wildly inventive stop-motion adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Starring the director’s own daughter immersed in a world of skulls and bones, scissor-chopped playing cards, marionettes, porcelain dolls, a fish in a wig and one odd-looking rabbit, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp it ain’t! Genius, however, it most definitely is.
Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters (2007)
Yes, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999) is the superior film, but let’s give due credit to this big screen adaptation of the bizarre and baffling Adult Swim series about an anthropomorphic milkshake, meatball and levitating box of French Fries. Just watch the film’s brilliant opening sequence if you’re unsure. This movie truly is something beyond your average cartoon.
Director Ralph Bakshi doesn’t do things lightly. He did make the first X-rated animated movie, Fritz the Cat (1972), after all. In the racially-provocative Coonskin he turns his sights on not only blaxploitation films, but also the racism of Disney’s Song of the South (1946). Decried at the time as racist, it has been re-evaluated as a vital work of satire and, with its blend of stylized animation and live action, it was hailed by The New York Times as the director’s masterpiece.
The Illusionist (2010)
Prepare to cry. While most people would say Isao Takahata’s WWII survival drama Grave of the Fireflies (1988) is the be-all-end-all of tear-stained animation, my vote goes to Sylvain Chomet’s Oscar-nominated tale of an aging magician, the young girl he takes under his wing (or cape, as the case may be), and the dying form of entertainment that brings them together. It’d be rude to spoil what makes this film so overwhelmingly devastating, but let’s just say the end will feel like a kick to the guts and the nuts.
Fantastic Planet (1973)
Long before James Cameron ever got around to his film about giant blue alien creatures, French director René Laloux was going there in this eye-popping cutout stop-motion sci-fi classic. Winner of the special jury prize at Cannes, and hailed for its radical and inventive style, Fantastic Planet is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Surreal and wonderful in equal measure.
Perfect Blue (1997)
The lead-singer of a Japanese pop group decides to leave the band and forge a career as an actress, but when a stalker disapproves of her playing a rape victim — a job that affects her own mental stability — her grasp on reality begins to slip. This is director Satoshi Kon’s finest work, a piece of intricate detail and disturbing style, although you’d also be wise to also check out Millennium Actress (2001) and the loony Paprika (2006).
Despite featuring a young protagonist, an AC/DC-listening teenager coming of age in Iran, Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s Persepolis is a thoughtfully mature look at the world of war-torn Middle East. Beautifully animated in bold black and whites, this film is unique and a worthy Oscar nominee for Best Animated Feature – it lost to Ratatouille (2007).
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988)
Todd Haynes is known for his allegorical dramas like Safe (1995), Far from Heaven (2002), I’m Not There (2010) and HBO’s Mildred Pierce miniseries (2011), but with only his second film he was already stoking the flames of controversy and imagination. Banned due to its use of copyrighted material and Mattel Barbie dolls to recreate the life of anorexia victim Karen Carpenter, it’s nonetheless a masterwork that can only been seen via bootleg copies so sshhh!
The Tune (1992)
The sort of animation that will not only go over any child’s head, but most adult heads, too. An experience more than a coherent film, famed animator Bill Plympton takes some of his previous short films and incorporates them into a story that somehow involves an Elvis-impersonating dog, a psychotic bellhop, a villain called Mr. Mega, and a main character that gets lost in a town called Flooby Nooby. Of course.
Waltz with Bashir (2008)
Another look at the conflict of the Middle East — this time the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. A documentary told via rotoscope animation, Ari Folman’s film is beautiful and thought-provoking in equal measure. Banned in Lebanon, Waltz with Bashir was nominated for the Foreign Language Film Academy Award and even won the same category at the Golden Globes. This is the type of film that American filmmakers rarely venture near. The director’s latest, The Congress (2014), is out now in theaters and VOD, and features a blend of live action and animation in a story about an actress selling herself to a Hollywood studio.