I found some good animated films in 2010, but I didn't find ten. And it's likely that only two of them are titles most moviegoers have had the chance to see. My list reflects a growing fact: Animation is no longer considered a form for children and families. In some cases it provides a way to tell stories that can scarcely be imagined in live action. The classic example is the Japanese "Grave of the Fireflies" (left), about two children growing up on their own after the Bomb fall.
The first of my best films, unlike some of the others, was primarily intended for children:
This one begins with the truth that villains are often more fascinating than heroes, and creates a villain named Gru who freeze-dries the people ahead of him in line at Starbucks, and pops children's balloons. Although he's inspired by many a James Bond bad guy, two things set him apart: (1) His vast Mad Scientist lair is located not in the desert or on the Moon, but in the basement of his suburban home, and (2) He dreams not of world control so much as merely dominating the cable news ratings as The Greatest Villain of All Time.
Gru is voiced by Steve Carell, who gives him an accent halfway between a Russian mafioso and a crazed Nazi. His life is made more difficult because his mother (Julie Andrews) sometimes gets on his case. Memories stir of Rupert Pupkin in his basement, yanked from his fantasies by his mother's voice. Gru's most useful weapon is the Insta-Freeze Gun, but now, with the help of his genius staff inventor Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), he can employ a Shrink Ray. Just as global-scale villainy is looking promising, Gru is upstaged by his arch-rival Vector , who steals the Great Pyramid.
To make a villain into the hero of an animated comedy is daring, but the filmmakers bring in three cute kids to restore good feelings. Gru finds them at his friendly neighborhood orphanage, run by the suspicious Miss Hattie. His plan is to keep them at his home until his Moon scheme is ready to hatch, and then use them to infiltrate Vector's home by subterfuge -- pretending to sell cookies, say. It follows as the night does the day that the orphans will work their little girl magic in Gru, and gradually force the revelation that the big lug has a heart after all. The refreshing thing about "Despicable Me" is that is violates the convenion that children's animation must have a perky, plucky young hero. Carl Frederickson of "Up" put an end to that.
Our hero is Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III a young Viking who lives in Berk, a mountainside village surrounded by the crags and aeries where hostile dragons live. Hiccup tells us that his village is very old, but all of the houses are new. An alarming omen. Led by his father Stoick and the dragon master Cobber, the villagers have been in combat with the dragons since time immemorial. It would seem to be an unequal struggle; the dragons are enormous and breathe fire, and the Vikings, while muscular, have only clubs, swords and spears. They may however be smarter than the dragons, although you wouldn't know that just by listening to them.
Young Hiccup is ordered to stay inside during a dragon attack. But the plucky lad seizes a cannon, blasts away at the enemy and apparently wings one. Venturing into the forest to track his prey, he finds a wounded little dragon about his age, already chained up. He releases it, they bond, and he discovers that dragons can be perfectly nice. With his new friend Toothless, he returns to the village, and an alliance is formed with good dragons against the bad dragons, who are snarly holdouts and grotesquely ugly.
One evil beast is covered all over with giant warlike knobs, and has six eyes, three on either side, like a classic Buick. In one scene, a Viking hammers on an eyeball with his club. Not very appetizing. The battle ends as all battles must, with the bad guys routed and the youngest hero saving the day. The aerial battle scenes are storyboarded like a World War I dogfight, with swoops, climbs and narrowly missed collisions with craggy peaks and other dragons. For my taste, these went on way too long, but then I must teach myself that I do not have a 6-year-old's taste.
Jacques Tati played (and was) a tall Frenchman, bowing from the waist, pipe in mouth, often wearing a trench coat, pants too short, always the center of befuddlements. If you've seen "Mr. Hulot's Holiday," you know all that. Tati, who died in 1982, wrote the screenplay for this film, but never made it. He intended it for live action. His daughter Sophie Tatischeff still had the script, and handed it to Sylvain Chomet, who made the miraculously funny animated film "The Triplets of Belleville" (2003). He has drawn it with a lightness and beauty worthy of a older, sadder Miyazaki story. Animation suits it. Live action would overwhelm its fancy with realism.
The story involves a magician named Tatischeff who fails in one music hall after another, and ends up in Scotland, where at last he finds one fan: A young woman who idealizes him, moves in with him, tends to him, cooks and cleans, and would probably offer sex if he didn't abstemiously sleep on the couch. He's a good magician on a small scale, flawless at every trick except producing a rabbit from a hat. His problem there involves his frisky rabbit, which likes to sleep on Tatischeff's stomach at night. The rabbit makes it a practice during the act to pop up and peep around at inopportune moments.
If you recall the opening scenes of "Up," you know that animation is sometimes more effective than live action for conveying the arc of a life. This man does what he does very well, but there's no longer a purpose for him. Did Tati feel the same when he wrote this in the 1950s, before "Hulot" was a world wide success? Important to the charm of "Illusionist" is the grace with which the character of Tatischeff has been drawn. He looks like Tati, but much more importantly, he has the inimitable body language. The polite formality, the deliberate movement, the hesitation, the diffidence. His world is an illusion, which he produces nightly from a hat.
Here is the story of a man who finds love only once in his life, for 15 perfect years. It is the love of a dog. It may be the only love he is capable of experiencing. As other men write books about a woman in their life, J. R. Ackerley wrote a book about a German Shepherd bitch he rescued from a cruel home. My Dog Tulip now becomes an animated film combining elating visuals with a virtuoso voice performance by Christopher Plummer.
The film is animated, but not intended for children. It is told from and by an adult sensibility that understands loneliness, gratitude, and the intense curiosity we feel for other lives, man and beast. The story is narrated by Plummer, in the voice of a man in is 60s who works for the BBC and lives in London. He is a soloist, cantankerous, crabby, lonely. Ackerley is educated by Tulip in the needs and ways of domesticated dogs. He attends to the feeding of Tulip, the training, the grooming, the walking, the territorial marking behavior, the sexual needs, the illnesses, the personality, the life and death. No parents of a child have never been more observant or taken better care.
To this story, directed and animated by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, "My Dog Tulip" brings Sandra's watercolors. Fierlinger is the sort of watercolorist one would collect. Her colors, her line, her ability to saturate or wash, are well suited to the story. She makes London when its black cabs and red buses come alive, and then turns pastoral on Putney Common. She's an original, but if you know of an artist named David Gentleman you'll get the idea.
Here is a film about a young and very brave medieval monk named Brendan, a sacred book, a storied monastery, a fairy girl, an alarming creature and a forest containing little nuts that make brilliant green inks. The fairy girl is quite real, as Brendan can see for himself. If there are any leprechauns, she no doubt knows them. If there are not, how does she know for sure?
Perhaps little Brendan was once one of them. Perhaps some of that brilliant emerald green was his, extracted from nuts he gathered in the forest. Brendan (voice of Evan McGuire), the youngest and pluckiest monk in the walled monastery, befriends old Brother Aidan (Mick Lally), a traveler who has arrived bearing the precious book. Some pages remain to be created, and Aidan says Brendan must help. He can start by disobeying the Abbot (Brendan Gleeson), venturing outside the walls, and gathering the nuts.
Tomm Moore's is a little like an illuminated manuscript itself. Every shot of the film filled with patterns and borders, arches and frames, do-dads and scrimshaw images. The colors are bold and bright; the drawings are simplified and 2-D. That reflects the creation of the original book in the centuries before the discovery of perspective during the Renaissance.
The movie has a wide appeal, with a gap in the middle. I think it will appeal to children young enough to be untutored in boredom, and to anyone old enough to be drawn in, or to appreciate the artistry. For those in between, the "Transformers"-damaged generation, it will seem to be composed in a quaint, unknown language.
"A Town Called Panic" takes place in a town where panic is a daily emotion. Here, in a house on a hill much larger inside than out, live the friendly roommates Cowboy, Indian and Horse. Their neighbor is Farmer. Law is enforced by Policeman. It is Horse's birthday, and Cowboy and Indian decide his gift must be a brick barbecue. They go online to order 50 bricks, but order 50 million through a computer error, which causes no end of problems. All of these people, by the way, are little action figures.
The movie is the work of Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar, a Belgian team who first created this world in a group of short films that became enormously popular in 2003 on European television. I've never seen anything like their style. It's stop action, but really stop action, you understand, because that's the nature of plastic action figures. Cowboy and Indian can move their arms when they need to, but their platforms keep them upright.
I enjoyed this film so much I'm sorry to report it was finally too much of a muchness. You can only eat so much cake. But I don't think that's a problem. Like all animated family films, this one will find a long life and its greatest popularity on video. Because the plot is just one doggoned thing after another without the slightest logic, there's no need to watch it all the way through at one sitting. If you watch it a chapter or two at a time, it should hold up nicely.
Now don't get me wrong. I'm glad I saw it on the big screen. It has an innocent hallucinatory charm. The friendship of the three pals is sweet. I liked Horse's bashfulness when he's smitten with Madame Longree. And his patience with Indian and Cowboy, who get them into one fine fix after another.
In Disney/Pixar's "Toy Story 3," Andy has grown to college age and the story leaves the toys pretty much on their own. Their problems begin with that most dreaded of commands, "Clean out your room!" Andy's mom gives him three choices: (1) attic; (2) donation to a day-care center; (3) trash. As Andy examines his old toys, his gaze lingers fondly on Woody (voice of Tom Hanks), and he decides to take him along to college.
What with one thing and another, the other toys find themselves at the day-care center, which seems like a happy choice, until a dark underside of its toy society emerges in the person of an ominously hug-prone bear named Lotso. Buzz Lightyear is back, still in hapless hero mode, but after a reboot, he starts speaking Spanish and that leads to some funny stuff. I also enjoyed the plight of Mrs. Potato Head, whose missing eye continues to see independently of her head. This raises intriguing physiological questions, such as, if Mr. Potato Head lost an ear, would it continue to hear, or if he lost a mouth, would it continue to eat without a body? These are not academic questions; at one point, Mister becomes an uncooked taco shell.
This is a jolly, slapstick comedy, lacking the almost eerie humanity that infused the earlier "Toy Story" sagas, and happier with action and jokes than with characters and emotions. Some viewers thought it a masterpiece. I thought it was just fine, but "Tulip and Me," it wasn't.
The Elephant in the Room. This is 3D, of course. It is the misfortune of contemporary animation that it must mostly be viewed as if through the fog of a peat fire. It is too dim, I tell you, TOO DIM! Do I make myself clear? And more expensive -- and not worth the extra money. Blast and damn, thundernation, tonnerre le brest, rumble, grumble...