THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989) Voiced by Jodi Benson, Samuel E. Wright. Dir. Ron Clements and Jon Musker

“Somebody's got to nail that girl's fins to the floor.” - Sebastian

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My affection for this Disney classic may stem from having the same name as the heroine herself, or from it having the privilege of being my most viewed animated film of all time, or maybe from being the earliest theater-going experience in my memory. Despite having all those personal attachments, the movie that spawned the Disney renaissance of the late 90’s is still a magical fairy tale brought to glorious big screen life, and the one that proved to audiences that cartoons could be enjoyed not just by kids, but everyone, more in the tradition of golden age Disney classics like Snow White, Pinocchio, and Bambi. The score is memorable and exciting, the first to be crafted in the shape of a Broadway musical, with such classics as “Under the Sea,” “Part of Your World,” and “Kiss the Girl.” The animation still looks great today, the underwater setting freeing the artists from the constraints of gravity, which gave scenes a free floating, dreamy quality and instantly distinguished it from the middling animated films of the previous two decades. The story was simple- mermaid princess Ariel longs to be a human, and makes a faustian bargain with Ursula, the Sea Witch( the best Disney villain since Cruella DeVil) to trade in her voice for a pair of legs, on the promise that she’ll seal her fate with true love’s first kiss. Peppered with sidekicks who also became instant Disney merchandise (Sebastian, Scuttle, Flounder, King Triton), this film was the sleeper hit of 1989, released quietly and began to build on audience word of mouth throughout the holiday season. The Disney studio was revived on the surprise success of The Little Mermaid, and was to thrive throughout the entire coming decade as the reigning king of animation once more, with hit after hit bigger than the one before it (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, etc). Disney was back on top. That is of course, until Pixar came along.

1997 Re-Release Trailer:


JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH (1996) Voiced by Paul Terry, Simon Callow. Dir. Henry Selick

"She won't be coming down here with the spray. She'll be coming down here with a shovel. It happened to m'brother. Split him right down the middle. Now I have two half-brothers." - Earthworm

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Henry Selick is a name that means pretty much one thing to those who know it: Stop motion animation. With the exception of Corpse Bride (2005), all the stop motion animated films since the early 90’s have been directed by this man (which unfortunately includes Monkey Bone). He began as the director chosen to do The Nightmare Before Christmas instead of Tim Burton, who was busy working on a different film, and his cult success with that film led to James and the Giant Peach as his second major feature and one that deserves more recognition than it gets. It’s based on the famous children’s book by Roald Dahl, and brought to life in a way that shows the depths of visual creativity and Selick’s imagination. It seamlessly combines stop motion animation with live action in a surprisingly convincing way and features a fun group of interesting characters. The majority of them are massive insects with voices from actors like Susan Sarandon and Richard Dreyfus. While the idea of enormous talking insects may not seem appealing, they have plenty of personality and character to make up for this. Plus, compared to the two evil aunts, giant talking bugs are downright pleasant. James’s aunts, Sponge and Spiker (voiced grotesquely by Miriam Margolyes and Joanna Lumley) are vicious and vile creatures that have not a single shred of decency between them. Their evilness makes the colorful and animated world inside the peach a haven of wonder and fun. James and the Giant Peach is a terrific family film that distinguishes Henry Selick’s style as a filmmaker more so than The Nightmare Before Christmas, which is clearly a product from the mind of Tim Burton. In this one, there are more surreal and fantastic images such as James’s parents being eaten by a monstrous Rhino that is the personification of fear, and the “Family” sequence becomes a beautiful scene that is both imaginative and heartfelt. It’s also a musical featuring Randy Newman’s compositions, but without him singing, for once it’s easy not to notice it. James and the Giant Peach demonstrated the height of stop motion animation during its time and is still impressive to this day. Do yourself a favor and see it, or the rhino will get you.  –Ian D

Original 1996 Trailer:


RATATOUILLE (2007) Voiced by Patton Oswalt, Peter O’Toole. Dir. Brad Bird

“Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” - Anton Ego

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Pixar has turned out so many classics in the last decade, to great commercial and critical success, that many people have compared it to the reign of Walt Disney himself. They would be right. Pixar rarely missed for a long time (although recent films indicate their streak may be over). My personal favorite from this last decade however, would be Ratatouille, for several reasons. One is director Brad Bird, who brings a personal touch to this that distinguishes it from other films, as he usually does. Director of 1999’s underrated The Iron Giant, and 2004’s The Incredibles, he almost always handles his material with a more adult sensibility, trusting his audience to be smart enough to get the joke, and purposely not catering his films to children. This particular handle on it elevates the material above your usual kiddie fare, often bringing levels to the film that kids probably won't get. Another reason this one works on a different plane is the spectacular way it transcends what it’s about. Remy is a rat who dreams of becoming a chef, who then ends up in Paris and forms a partnership with an untalented garbage boy at a French restaurant to realize his dreams. So the basic premise here is rats handling food. I know what you’re thinking, an inherently gross image that’s impossible to get beyond, but they manage to do it in this movie, by making Remy loveable and sweet, and by making the animated food still look so good. Everything looks good here, from the city of Paris, romance capital of the world, to the gourmet dishes prepared by the chefs. The underlying concept  is a celebration of food and loving what you do, no matter who you are, even if who you are is a rat and what you love is the fine art of French cuisine. Peter O’Toole, funnily enough, gives one of his best performances as the voice of a snotty restaurant critic, whose final monologue on the purpose of criticism is insightful, poignant and thought provoking. For tackling a risky concept and succeeding in every possible way, Pixar and Brad Bird proved, both within the film and outside of it, that with the right amount of creativity, imagination, and love for what you do, there’s no subject that has to be off limits.

Original Trailer:


AKIRA (1988) Voiced by Mitsuo Iwata, Nozomu Sasaki. Dir. Katsuhiro Otomo

"The future is not a straight line. It is filled with many crossroads. There must be a future we can choose for ourselves." - Kiyoko

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Akira is a landmark Japanese animated film from writer/director Katsuhiro Otomo. It’s based on his epic “manga” (or comic book) series of the same name, and while it lacks some of the story elements of the original manga, it is no less impressive by the standards of science fiction films and animation in general. It’s a cyberpunk world set in Neo-Tokyo, the last Tokyo having been destroyed in an explosion that led to World War III. The protagonist is a punk named Kaneda, who ends up joining a terrorist group attempting to rescue the psychic children that are linked to a being referred to as Akira, the most powerful psychic of all time. His best friend Tetsuo is exposed to one of these children and his uncontrollable psychic abilities are awakened, which causes him to then spirals out of control, leaving destruction and mayhem in his wake. There are dozens of complex characters and the plot is very complicated while also tackling many different issues such as violence in youth culture, the nature of corruption, social unrest, the world's reaction to nuclear holocaust, psychic awareness and the growth from childhood to maturity both in terms of the individual as well as the human race. The nature of the psychic boy Akira and the power crazy Tetsuo serve as the examples that perhaps mankind isn’t ready or evolved enough to utilize this kind of power. Akira is a layered and terrific science fiction film, but one of the main reasons it deserves recognition is because of the international acclaim and massive influence it had. Akira launched a massive exposure of anime in the United States as well as the rest of the world. Before Akira, there was only a smattering of anime seen in U.S. television shows like Speed Racer (or Mach Go Go Go as it’s known in Japan) and Kimba the White Lion (Jungle Emperor). These programs had been on TV in the 1960’s, but it wasn't until the late 80’s and early 90’s that suddenly the word “anime” had widespread meaning. After the international success of Akira, a wave of Japanese animation arrived on our shores including films like Perfect BlueFist of the North StarGhost in the Shell and Vampire Hunter D. With its hyper-violence and mature content, Akira shook the foundations of American perceptions of what a cartoon is- and it’s not something meant only for children. -Ian D

Trailer (fan made, but it's a good one and it actually has English subtitles):


ONE-HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS (1961) Voiced by Rod Taylor, Betty Lou Gerson. Dir. Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske and Wolfgang Reitherman

“My only true love, darling- I live for furs, I worship furs! After all, is there a woman in all this wretched world who doesn’t?” - Cruella DeVil

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Not exactly from the golden age era, but still made during Walt’s time, more of a “Silver Age” relic, if you will. This one is slightly different though, or at least it feels that way from the other Disney films produced at the time. The first Disney movie to take place in a contemporary setting, it even has a more contemporary and sly sense of humor. The animation itself was a change in style, as you'll undoubtedly notice, right from the first frame, and the change in graphics fit perfectly with the quirky British quips and atmosphere. You know the story, Pongo and Perdita are the dogs whose owners marry and soon have a litter of their own. But the evil Cruella DeVil, one of the most famous and hilarious of all the Disney villains, sets out to steal the puppies for her own devilish fur coat assembly line, and now it’s up to all the dogs of London (along with the intrepid cat Tibs) to get them back. Dalmatians holds up well, and you can see the beginnings of the spatter of contemporary inside jokes that would bloom to perfection (and later, oversaturation) in the modern era. Here, watch closely and you get subtle jabs at televisions ads, game shows, music writers, dog owners resembling their pets and vice versa, and the offhand condemnation and exposure to the gruesome way furs are actually made (what’s this? A political message in a Disney movie? Well, the closest you’re ever gonna get, it was the 60’s after all). Not to mention the thrilling “prison break” by the puppies along with the exciting action and chase sequence of the final act. In my opinion, an underrated and underappreciated (for its undertones) classic of the highest order.

Original 1961 Trailer:


LUPIN III: THE CASTLE OF COGLIOSTRO (1979) Voiced by Yatsuo Yamada, Kiyoshi Kobayashi. Dir. Hayao Miyazaki

"Lupin! Don't you dare die before I get to arrest you!" - Inspector Zenigata

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Long before Studio Ghibli and even Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, there was a thief named Arsène Lupin III, one of the most famous and iconic television characters in Japan. The first TV series ran from 1971-72, contained only 23 episodes and included three directors.  When the original director left, he was replaced by two young directors, one of which was the great Hayao Miyazaki. Due to low ratings, the series (though influential and ahead of its time) was canceled, but in 1977 it was re-launched, this time in a highly rated, much more successful run (think the Japanese equivalent of the long running Star Trek franchise). Due to the success of the new show, Lupin III: The Mystery of Mamo was released in 1978 and was quickly followed by the sequel, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro. The sequel was made in about 4 months and marks the cinematic directorial debut of one of the first series’ directors, the now legendary Miyazaki. The Castle of Cagliostro instantly feels like a Miyazaki film through the tone and animation, consisting of meticulously painted and vibrantly colored backgrounds. Even though the Lupin series is set in the real world, Miyazaki demands location of his own invention; in this case, the green and lush European country of Cagliostro. The castle, around which the majority of the film revolves, is a labyrinth of trap doors, towers, dungeons and working gears. It’s surrounded on all sides with water and green mountains in the type of terrain that Miyazaki is known for creating. There is also a touch of Roman influence on the medieval castle- it uses aqueducts. Aside from the visuals, the characters are fun and interesting- “The Count” is a fascinating villain; in fact, he is the only villain, aside from Muska in Castle in the Sky, which Miyazaki created to be straight up evil. There is no redeeming quality to this guy; he’s cold, sly, and ruthless. This film is a treat for any audience; the jokes are funny, the animation is very high-quality, and the action is great (not to mention the cool jazzy soundtrack). It holds up very well against Miyazaki ’s other films and it’s hard to believe that this is the first one he wrote and directed. It’s even harder to believe that it was put together in only four months, a time frame that is not only laughable today, but impossible. –Ian D

Original 1979 Trailer:


TOY STORY TRILOGY (1995) Voiced by Tom Hanks, Tim Allen. Dir. John Lasseter/Lee Unkrich

“You are a child’s plaything!” - Woody

“You are a sad, strange little man. And you have my pity.” - Buzz Lightyear

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Pixar broke through in a big way with Toy Story in 1995, and amazingly enough kept topping itself with the sequels to the same story so that it’s impossible to recommend one over the other. You simply HAVE to see them all. Toy Story was the first full length CG animated film and the one that introduced us to Woody and Buzz, those now iconic toys of Andy’s bedroom, along with Slinky, Hamm, Potato Head, and the rest of the gang. Entertaining and hilarious from beginning to end, the first one is less poignant, but probably funnier than the others. It established Woody (Tom Hanks of course) as the leader of the room, Andy’s number one toy until Buzz the spaceman shows up, threatening his favored status. Packed with jokes, memorable voice acting and chemistry between the characters, the movie was a huge hit and immediately set the precedent that animated film was going in the CG direction. It was followed by the sequel in 1999, one that saw the gang going on a quest to rescue Woody after he’s kidnapped by a toy collector. It introduced Jessie the cowgirl doll, counterpart to Woody’s cowboy, and many thought it surpassed the original in terms of story and relevance. The humor and pop cultural references were fully intact, but this time it was established that toys have a shelf life, and eventually get put aside as the kids they belong to grow up. Eleven years later, the final act showed up, and amazingly managed to stay true to the audience that had grown up with the franchise, and to its own established continuity. Exactly the same amount of time had passed in the Toy Story universe as well, with little Andy now grown and off to college, and the loyal toys getting ready to be tossed aside. This time with a prison break plot from the daycare from hell thrown in, this one was a tearjerker on the level of Bambi, if you can believe it. After 15 years of faithful audience devotion, and people who’d actually been kids when the first one came out now grown, the Pixar peeps knew it and took it all in, rewarding their fanbase with what they’d come to expect, plus emotion and poignancy on a level rarely found in film itself, much less animated film. How can a movie make you feel so much for plastic toys? The Toy Story franchise never took its audience for granted, that’s how, by the filmmakers wearing their hearts on their sleeves and managing to create in the end what very few have ever accomplished: a perfect trilogy, with not one film weaker than the others. Take my advice and watch them all in succession. By the end of the run there won’t be a dry eye in the house. 

Toy Story 1995 Trailer:

Toy Story 2 1999 Trailer:

Toy Story 3 Trailer:


TOKYO GODFATHERS (2003) Voiced by Aya Okamoto, Toru Emori. Dir. Satoshi Kon

"God must be busy at this time of year." - Miyuki

"Better once a year than never." - Hana

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From the mind of the late writer/director Satoshi Kon, Tokyo Godfathers is a truly original film with genuine heart and character. The story follows three of the most unlikely heroes as they attempt to bring an infant home to its parents. I cannot stress enough the “unlikely” nature of this group, especially in an animated film. You would never see characters like these in a Disney movie (or even a Miyazaki film for that matter). The three “Godfathers” are homeless people made up of Gin, a bum, Miyuki, a runaway teenager, and Hana, a transvestite. The three characters clash greatly, Hana being the hopeless optimist while Gin and Miyuki are much more cynical. While the basic premise of the story sounds simple enough, it’s darkly comical and could only have come from a mind like Kon’s. It’s essentially a Christmas movie, as the trio find the infant on Christmas Eve and everything that occurs subsequently is tied to the “magic” of the child, presented in the form of coincidence and fate. Their quest leads them all over Tokyo from the central part of the city to the slums, to even a “yakuza” wedding (the circumstances of which are particularly amusing). The city itself is as much a part of the story as the characters. Each one of the trio is complex and has their own history explaining their actions and thoughts, and though the characters might seem exaggerated in the way that they move and yell at each other, the way they interact is not. By the end they have all evolved over the course of their adventure, and learnt lessons of trust, love, and redemption. The animation is stunning and often displays an exaggerated sense of emotion on the character’s faces. This contrast between the serious way the situations are written and the comical and lighthearted art style prevents the film’s tone from falling too far in one direction, instead maintaining a perfect balance of dark humor. I am fascinated by this film, much as I am by all of Kon’s previous work. With Tokyo Godfathers, Satoshi Kon proves once again that he knows how to weave a fascinating and beautiful story, bringing it to life in a way that only he can. - Ian D

2003 Trailer:


BAMBI (1942) Voiced by Bobby Stewart, Donnie Dunagan. Dir. David Hand

"What happened Mother? Why did we all run?" - Bambi

"Man...was in the forest." - Bambi's mother

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It’s difficult to pick just one from the undisputed Disney golden age. You’ll have defenders for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi equally. But I have to cast my lot in with this one. Bambi was the obvious precursor to The Lion King, with its “Prince of the Forest” cycle of life symbolism, and the trials of a young fawn followed through into adulthood. It’s a wonder to look back on now, in many ways a somber and serious tale of life in the animal forest, the gorgeous and delicate hand drawn animation sketching out the backdrop for every season with precision and aplomb. Far more subtle than The Lion King though, and with a more hard edged realism to it, as Bambi constantly faces harsh, cruel circumstances and the tribulations of that always alluded to but ultimately unseen villain- Man. The death of his mother at the hands of hunters is similarly offscreen, but the impact was felt for generations, as that moment became, along with the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz and the boy having to kill his own dog in Old Yeller, one of those movie moments in a film presumably made for children that scarred them forever. Still, in spite of (or maybe because of) the harsh reality of the story, Bambi is one the most renowned and deeply felt children’s movies of all time, captivating generations of moviegoers for decades, as it will undoubtedly continue to do for as long as it’s seen. If I have anything to say about it, another three generations at least.

Original 1942 Trailer:


BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM (1993) Voiced by Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill. Dir. Eric Radomski, Bruce Timm

"Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce. I always feared you would become that which you fought against." - Alfred

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Batman: The Animated Series was a long running cartoon show that defined quality animation and storytelling during the 90’s. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is the animated film from the team behind the acclaimed television series, including such talents as Bruce Timm, Paul Dini and Eric Randomski. The story follows Batman as he attempts to stop a new masked vigilante who is killing off mob bosses and framing him in the process. As the cops hunt him down he is also plagued with memories from his past such as the first time he put on the cape and cowl as well as a romance from his college years. To top it all off, the Joker soon becomes involved in the assassinations and things only get worse. Not too bad for a seventy minute film. Despite the intricate story and subplots involved, it’s well-paced and features a strong cast of characters who are three dimensional and complex. The love story in the film is surprisingly deep and during one of the flashbacks, it reveals a major insight into what finally pushed Bruce Wayne into becoming the Dark Knight. All the voice acting is done by those who worked on the show including Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker. Mark Hamill voices him in a style that is highly theatrical and over-the-top, it's something that you either love or hate. The visual style in the film is one of the highlights; Gotham City is a dark and highly angled place with heavy shadows, 1940’s cars and a blood red night sky. The art direction is reminiscent of classic film noir, yet with a touch of German expressionism. Clearly there was some influence taken from the Tim Burton films, but the city itself is much more modern and it looks stylized in such a way that it could only be done through animation, separating it from the live action counterparts and giving the film its own unique vision of the Batman mythos. The Danny Elfman composition created for the Tim Burton Batman films serves as the main theme here as well. This film is dark and earns its PG rating; characters get killed, suffer from psychological issues, and experience real emotions. There is never a sense that the film is being condescending or intended for younger viewers. It takes its audience seriously, and the outcome is an incredibly deep story about Batman that is easily on par with the best of the live action versions. –Ian D

Original 1993 Trailer:


BONUS PICK

WIZARDS (1977) Voiced by Bob Holt, Jesse Welles. Dir. Ralph Bakshi

"I'm too old for this sort of thing. Just wake me up when the planet's destroyed." - Avatar

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Prior to Wizards, Ralph Bakshi had made very politically oriented adult animated films like Fritz the CatCoonskin, and Heavy Traffic. To prove that he could make a kids film and something that didn’t necessarily rely on controversy to attract attention, he decided to make a fantasy film for the whole family. Well…a Bakshi version of a family film, anyway. Wizards is not as clean or polished as a Disney film. Though a lot of this has to do with the considerable budget difference, it was just not Bakshi’s style to appear polished. For instance, throughout the film you can notice certain things such as recycled cels and a heavy use of stills. The audio also isn’t as strong as it should be. There are some instances of weak voice acting and the general sound quality isn’t terrific, though this again may be due to the budget. Some of the more interesting aspects of this film are the war scenes, which are also the most visually striking. These scenes display a mixture of cel and rotoscoped animation of stock footage from World War II. Aside from the strange combination of animation styles, they are brightly colored, adding a distinctly psychedelic feel to the images.  No one ever used rotoscoping like this before. It makes the battle scenes very chaotic and reinforces the “idea” of war and violence versus actually presenting a clear battle. Overall, Wizards is not a very pretty looking film and the animation has become dated, but there are some aspects of the art that still hold up well. The background art, especially for the land where the evil Blackwolf resides, is detailed and bizarre looking, reminiscent of the style of underground comics of the 60’s and 70’s. The story is still fairly interesting as well, whereas unlike a traditional fantasy set in an undefined past, this story takes place far in the future where the world has been utterly devastated by nuclear war. Much of the earth is covered with radiation which spawns mutants, monsters, fairies, elves, dwarfs, and wizards. Technology has resulted in the destruction of the earth and it becomes more obvious when it is directly and visually linked to Adolf Hitler. The villains use swastikas on their uniforms and flags and watch footage of Nazis with joy. There is something truly cynical about the idea that the only thing to survive a planet-wide holocaust and thousands of years of radiation and ruin would be Hitler. Wizards may be Bakshi’s idea of a family film, but it’s clearly geared towards an older audience. Death is real and bloody, and there is a very real sense of danger around every corner. While it does contain some elements of humor, they tend to be hit and miss. Wizards is a (slightly messy) potpourri of different animation styles, but still an engaging mix of sci-fi and fantasy. – Ian D

DVD/Blu-Ray Release Trailer: