Two animated films to definitely check out this year were from studios besides American powerhouses Disney and DreamWorks, and the reason people should see them is because both push the art form beyond the generic, bright colored, snarky-funny corporate formula that has utterly entrenched American animation in the last half dozen years. If you see either one of these films you'll be seeing something different, and thereby special, which is a word I can't remember the last time I used to describe an animated film from this country.
The first is The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, from Japan's Studio Ghibli, and famed writer/director Isao Takahata, who hasn't made a movie in 17 years. His work was known for its darker, depressing, more realistic themes (check out Grave of the Fireflies if you're feeling in a melancholy mood). This one veers away from that though, and into more magical areas, having been based on the Japanese folktale "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter." It tells the story of a man who finds a small, human-like creature in a bamboo tree, and takes her home to raise as his own child. She turns out to have vaguely magical powers of her own, and the answer to her mysterious background gradually reveals itself as she's raised to be a "noble princess." The look of this film is absolutely stunning, relishing in the hand drawn style of storybooks, as you can practically feel yourself turning the pages as the princess grows from a girl to a woman. You can get lost in the art itself, but the what's most welcome is the story, which is a radically feminist tale of a young woman wanting to choose her own destiny and her own fate, from her biological origins to her adopted family, all of whom want to decide her future for her.
This is a wonderful story with a terrific message, and a beautiful film for kids to see- I may have to make an exception to my "no dubbing" rule, if only so that English-speaking children can be exposed to the wonders of this magnificent world. It would be a shame to limit their imaginations to the increasingly "same-y" quality of CG movies, especially with alternatives like this available, even if you have to make the effort to seek it out. I encourage you to do so. The other animated film that made it into this year's Oscar race (at the expense of The Lego Movie) is The Boxtrolls, a delightful little frolic that also boasts a stunning visual palette, even more so because most will probably watch this movie and assume it's the normal CGI animation, but it's all stop-motion, another field entirely, and one that's far more difficult to accomplish.
Based on the British novel Here Be Monsters!, this was produced by the new studio Laika, which has established itself as one of the only studios in the business dedicated to producing stop-motion animated films, and previously released Coraline and ParaNorman. The Boxtrolls tells the somewhat routine story of a baby boy named Eggs, who's raised underground by the little troll monsters of the title, and when years have passed eventually has to fight to save his adopted family from the evil pest exterminator Archibald Snatcher (voiced by Ben Kingsley and seemingly modeled after the creepy childnapper from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang- remember him?) Set in the early 1800's in the fictional city of Cheesebridge, the movie is peppered with the quirky British humor that recalls movies like Chicken Run (one of my favorites), and through its tone is willing to go to darker and slightly grosser places than you'd see in any other animated movie (whether that appeals to you or repels you may depend on your sensibilities) and the look of every frame of this film is so crowded with breathtaking detail, lighting and particular shapes and expressions that you could watch this entire thing with the sound off and still be taken with it.
Luckily the story is engaging enough that that's not the case, and the experience is a fun, funny and wondrous little detour through a fantasy world unlike any other. You can't go wrong with either of these films, and Princess Kaguya I would especially recommend as a masterpiece of the form. For the animators that go out of their way to single out unique expressions of the art, frankly I don't think that their choices in this year's Oscar race constitute a snub of a certain lego-oriented hit, but more an endorsement of movies that want to take themselves and their medium much more seriously. Both of these do just that, and pack a considerable punch.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya: * * * * / The Boxtrolls: * * *