Beyond the heavy hitters of Pixar and Disney lies a diverse world of animation that oftentimes remains unexplored by the general public. Movies like Perfect Blue, one of Satoshi Kon’s masterpieces, can become massive influences to Hollywood films (Black Swan being an example in the case of Perfect Blue), and go unseen by so many. So, in an effort to introduce some of my favourite animated movies to more people and to just get a chance to talk more about some well-known movies that I love, I’ve chosen to make this month’s theme Animation, and I’ve made the deliberate choice to include movies from multiple countries and time-periods.
Sidenote: I am not trying to say that these are lesser-known movies. They aren’t and that is perfectly fine. I’m just telling you all to watch them.
The Last Unicorn (1982), dir. Arthur Rankin Jr and Jules Bass, United States
Based on Peter S. Beagle’s novel of the same name and directed by Rankin and Bass with a screenplay by Beagle, The Last Unicorn is the story of the titular last unicorn as she attempts to discover where the rest of her kind has gone.
The Last Unicorn was animated by Topcraft, a now-defunct Japanese animation studio that would eventually become Studio Ghibli and it shows. The backgrounds are gorgeous and vibrant and aside from Eyvind Earle’s work on Sleeping Beauty (1959), are my favourite backgrounds in any movie. Interestingly enough, the unicorn tapestries that the opening credits of The Last Unicorn take their inspiration from were also a massive influence on Sleeping Beauty (a little bit more on that movie later). I’m so glad that Topcraft’s work continued even after it ceased existence.
Aside from the animation, The Last Unicorn’s soundtrack is great and if you somehow haven’t heard the title song yet please listen to it with the understanding that I spent many a day yelling it at the top of my lungs as a child no doubt causing quite a few headaches for my parents.
I was a unicorn kid growing up and I still adore this movie. To be perfectly honest, I still love unicorns, they’re great.
Destino (2003), dir. Dominique Monféry, France
Destino began its life in 1945 as a collaboration between Salvador Dalí and Walt Disney. However, due to Walt Disney Studios’ financial troubles in the years surrounding the Second World War, it would not be completed until 2003. After being storyboarded for eight months by Dalí and John Hench, a short animation test was made in the hopes that interest in the project could be rekindled. Instead, it was put on indefinite hiatus.
It wasn’t until 1999 when Roy E. Disney discovered the project while working on Fantasia 2000 that Destino would get a second chance. Walt Disney Studios Paris would be tasked with completing the project. After deciphering Dalí and Hench’s storyboards, the team of 25 animators led by director Dominique Monféry brought the ill-fated love story of Chronos and a mortal woman named Dahlia to life using a mixture of traditional animation (including Hench’s original animation test) and computer animation.
Destino is a one-of-a-kind short film that very nearly didn’t exist, it’s one of those rare pieces of media that has a backstory as interesting as the actual plot and very specially in the case of this short film, the imagery. Dalí’s work and influence are plain to see in this. After all, it even has a melting clock.
Princess Mononoke (1997), dir. Hayao Miyazaki, Japan
Princess Mononoke is one of Miyazaki’s many masterpieces. A nuanced story that explores environmental themes through a story about nature spirits, Princess Mononoke is a must-see. It has the gorgeous art you would expect from a Studio Ghibli movie and more than delivers on the heart aspect.
The first time I saw Princess Mononoke, all I could do was marvel at the fact that someone was able to just come up with that story. It was (and continues to be) astounding to me that someone had the vision for this movie floating around in their head and was able to bring it from a kernel of an idea to a fully formed plot. Of all of his films, Princess Mononoke is easily Miyazaki’s masterpiece. It’s nuanced and gorgeous and it’s in my favourites on Letterboxd for a reason.
Also, it features Gillian Anderson as a wolf which is far more than can be said for most other movies.
Song of the Sea (2014), dir. Tomm Moore, Ireland
Song of the Sea is the equally gorgeous follow up to The Secret of Kells (2009), the first film in director Tomm Moore’s “Irish Folklore Trilogy” which concluded with 2020’s Wolfwalkers.
The film follows Ben, a ten-year-old boy who discovers that his sister Saoirse is a selkie (a mythological being who can change from human to seal by shedding her skin), just like their mother was. Ben is antagonistic to his sister Saorsie, something that is clearly a part of the grief he feels at the loss of his mother, which he feels his younger sister played a part in. At the same time, Ben and Saorsie’s father is grieving the loss of his wife in a way that prevents him from taking proper care of his children, leading their grandmother to take them away to live with her in the city.
Song of the Sea is a story about grief and how different people process it. Ben aims his anger at his sister, his father Conor shuts down, and the villain Macha decides that perhaps emotions aren’t worth it when they hurt so much. It’s always lovely to see animation tackle complicated themes, and it’s even nicer when those themes are not frequently explored in a realm of filmmaking usually reserved for children’s films. Tomm Moore is a masterful storyteller for being able to fit so much magic and heartfelt emotion into his works and I am so excited to see what he does next.
Sleeping Beauty (1959), dir. Eric Larson, Wolfgang Reitherman, Clyde Geromini, and Les Clark, United States
When I started this I told myself I would stay away from Disney and yet here I am with two entries by Disney. How the mighty have fallen.
Sleeping Beauty deserves to be on this list if only because of how gorgeous the art is. Drawing on both medieval art and art deco, Sleeping Beauty is both beautiful and distinctive. Eyvind Earle’s backgrounds are some of my favourite work in any animated film ever and continue to be massively influential (see: The Answer, an episode of Steven Universe). One look and it isn’t hard to see why I love the art as much as I do.
As well, the music which is heavily based on Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty is phenomenal. George Bruns (One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Sword in the Stone) does an incredible job of blending Tchaikovsky’s work with his own and the end result is nothing short of amazing.
Also, Skumps slaps.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021), dir. Michael Rianda, United States
Look. I know this is a new movie and is also super well-known. Odds are that you’ve seen this one by now which is totally fine, if that is the case then feel free to skip this section and focus on the previous five recommendations.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines was not going to be part of this until almost the last minute but after seeing it last week, I knew I just had to talk about it. I get affected by movies in many ways and this one affected me deeply and made me so happy that kids who are like I was; a bizarre film nerd who’s just discovering her identity as a queer person, will have this movie as they grow up. When I first noticed the writing on Katie’s hands I broke out into a grin because I still almost constantly have notes written on my hand in various colours of ink. Katie is the kind of character that I would never have let go of as a kid.
Beyond Katie, this movie is so heartfelt as it shows us a messy family and the fraught relationship between a father and a daughter who’s on the cusp of adulthood in ways that I’ve never really seen in an animated movie, and to think it does all of this with a robot apocalypse happening.
Mitchells vs The Machines is just another bit of proof that Sony Animation knows what they’re doing and that Hollywood animation is able to rise to the occasion and deliver some real gems. Please, if you haven’t already taken the time to watch it, do so.
I’ll be back next month with more recs, but in case you missed the last column, check it out here.