The Obligatory Year-End Post, Part 2

Continuing from where I left off in yesterday’s post

If 2009 was a good year for science fiction or space opera or sci-fi (not to be confused with SyFy, which in turn is not to be confused with smart rebranding), I’d argue that it was an even better year for animated film, at least in the U.S.

Readers who followed me over from MySpace will know that I tend to advocate for the idea that animation is a medium, not a genre:

It’s very easy on our side of the oceans to equate “animated film” with “kid’s film”, since that’s more or less what we’re given.  But look outside that box, and you’ll find filmmakers who know that you can tell just about any kind of story in animation, along with many you just can’t tell in live action.  And when you know that, then you can go far beyond the expectations of “kids’ films”.

The idea of animation as a medium for something beyond “the crass, cynical, autopilot films that studios who aren’t Pixar and Studio Ghibli revel in” is something that has never quite caught on here.  But this year, something changed.  It might be something very small, but it’s still something…

For me, it started with Henry Selick’s Coraline.  I’d been looking forward to this film for a while.  The idea of Henry Selick adapting a Neil Gaiman novel is one of those concepts that makes so much sense that there’s no way it should work.  And yet it does, to wondrous effect – watching the film, absorbing all its detail, it’s clear that Selick shares Gaiman’s gift for creating worlds that are at once mythical and real.  The result is a near-perfect match of story and visual that, if sometimes obscure, is always dazzling, and never afraid to be scary.  Which is a good thing in light of the misplaced attempt at controversy surrounding the film’s appropriateness for children.  As I discovered in the theater, the kids can take it – it’s the adults I’m not so sure about.

It may not have been as scary as Coraline, but Pete Docter’s Up still plumbed emotional depths we may not be used to seeing in American animation.  Of course, nobody can plumb the emotional depths quite like Pixar, but even for the studio that gave us WALL-E and Finding Nemo and Toy Story 2, the first twelve minutes of Up are something truly daring – nothing more, and nothing less, than the story of a life lived and a love shared, told almost entirely through visuals and the music of Michael Giacchino (who had a very good year all his own).  It’s simple, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s so perfect that it colors everything that follows.  Beneath, behind, before the innocence of Dug (all together now – “I have just met you and I love you”), the menace of Charles Muntz, the mad action of the film’s third act, lies the story of Carl and Ellie.  And that makes all the difference.

The year went on to include the American release of Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo.  Having already reviewed it previously (link above), I don’t know how much more I can add to that discussion, except to quote that review once more:

Like Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind before it, Ponyo is very concerned with the impact of human action upon the world, but has no easy answers beyond a plea for understanding and reconciliation.  Like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, it’s a film with no villains of any kind, whose conflicts arise not from “good” and “evil”, but from the consequences of well-meaning individuals trying to live their lives and do what they believe is the right thing.  And like all of Miyazaki’s films, it’s just plain beautiful to look at. …

This is the part where I look back on what I’ve written and realize that I haven’t even talked about the story.  It’s not because I don’t want to spoil it for you, although I don’t.  It’s because Hayao Miyazaki is one of the most visual storytellers I’ve seen in film.  So much of what makes his films work as stories is in the way he creates and transforms worlds and characters.  They’re films to get lost in.

Not bad for a “kids movie”, eh?

Finally, a film that reverses the usual damnation-by-faint-praise we give to animated films.  We’re used to saying that a film is something for kids that adults will enjoy, but Fantastic Mr. Fox throws that out the window.  With all the hallmarks of any Wes Anderson film – dysfunctional father-child relationships, mid-life existential crises, bizarre song choices that work perfectly in context (“Street Fighting Man”?  I never would have thought of that one), and Bill Murray at his character-actor best –  this is a film for adults that kids can enjoy.  Which makes sense considering the source material’s Roald Dahl.  It’s a shame more people didn’t discover this film in theaters (I was one of three people in the auditorium when I saw it on Black Friday), because it’s as much a joy as any Pixar or Ghibli film.

So, the year in animated film.  Most of it, anyway – still need to see The Princess and the Frog.  But as much as I hope to enjoy that film, I’m not sure it’ll be the same kind of experience I had with Coraline and Up and Ponyo and Fantastic Mr. Fox.  Those are the films I’ll remember from a year that saw the boundaries of American animated film expanded beyond the point of turning back.

At least I hope that’s what happened…

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