Ten Amazing Animated Films That Aren’t Disney
Disney Studios usually gets the credit for most of the great animated films, and rightfully so. They did, after all, essentially create the animated feature single-handedly. They do not, however, hold the corner of the market on all the great animated films that have been produced. There have been many animated films that have stood out as instant classics and others that have gained a legion of followers over time. Here is a celebration of ten amazing animated films that are NOT a product of the House of Mouse.
After Disney, one of the most-successful animation-producing companies is Hanna-Barbera who mostly dealt in television cartoons for Saturday mornings. Occasionally, however, they stepped outside of the box and produced an animated feature. Of their attempts, Charlotte’s Web (1973), based on E.B. White’s beloved tale of an unlikely friendship between a pig and a spider, remains their finest effort. Featuring songs from Disney mainstays Robert Sherman and Richard Sherman (who had written music for Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks), the film has the energy and sound of a Disney film. Songs such as “Chin Up”, “Mother Earth and Father Time”, “Zuckerman’s Famous Pig” and especially “A Veritable Smorgasbord” are all delightfully catchy. The voice cast was particularly fun including Debbie Reynolds, Paul Lynde, and Agnes Moorehead.
The success of this franchise is proof in the pudding that the animated ogre Shrek (2001) has become a beloved icon of animated film. DreamWorks pictures turned the popular children’s book into a slightly off-beat, but thoroughly enchanting, fairy tale film about an unlikely hero. The crotchety swamp-dwelling ogre Shrek, with the aid of his eager (and annoying) friend Donkey, must save all the fairytale characters from the evil Lord Farquaad. Along the way, he rescues a princess and wins her heart despite his outward appearance. The film is witty and clever in how it incorporates myriad make-believe characters such as The Gingerbread Man, The Big Bad Wolf, Three Blind Mice, Pinocchio, Snow White and Cinderella into the mix.
An American Tail
Don Bluth, a former Disney animator, ventured out on his own to start his own company. One of his most successful endeavors was his collaboration with Steven Spielberg on An American Tail (1986) that told the turn-of-the-century story of a family of Ukrainian mice who immigrate to America. One of their children, Fievel, is separated from the brood when the boat carrying them across the Atlantic is capsized in a bad storm. The little mouse floats safely to the new world, absorbing all the wonders and horrors this new country has in store, searching for his family along the way. A highlight of this heartfelt film is the song “Somewhere Out There”, written by James Horner, Barry Mann, and Cynthia Weil. The Grammy-winning duet (sung by Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram), conveying the little lost mouse’s optimism for finding his family, touches the cockles of even the hardest of hearts.
The Land Before Time
With the success of An American Tail behind him, Don Bluth did not rest on his laurels, but instead turned his imagination toward the world of dinosaurs. The Land Before Time (1988) is about an Apatosaurus named Littlefoot who is orphaned when his mother is killed by a Tyrannosaurus Rex. When food becomes scarce, he travels in search of The Great Valley where food is rumored to be plentiful. On his journey, he meets and makes friends with a Stegosaurus named Spike, a Triceratops named Cera, a Saurolophus named Ducky, and the Pteranodon named Petrie. It’s a loving story of friends finding one other, standing beside each other through triumphs and tribulations, and demonstrating how we are at our strongest when we come together as family.
No list of this kind would be complete without the Japanese anime masterpiece Spirited Away (2001). Mystical and magical beyond just about any other animated film to date, winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, the film has an artistry distinctly its own. 10-year-old Chihiro and her parents happen upon an abandoned amusement park that is the home of spirits that are taking a rest from their time spent on earth. Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs and held captive there, while the little girl is forced to work for these supernatural beings to gain freedom for her and her parents. Creativity abounds in the representation of the spectral beings and the plot remains intricate and compelling to the very end.
The Book of Life
If you are looking for a stunningly and uniquely animated film, The Book of Life (2014) is a dizzying kaleidoscope of color and visual whimsy. Set on the Day of the Dead, the story follows a bullfighter who takes a sojourn into the afterlife, attempting to prove himself to his friends and family. Along the way, he encounters several fantastic characters. Steeped in Mexican tradition and mythology, The Book of Life is a refreshingly original animated piece that brings to life a culture that has been mostly underrepresented in film. The Day of the Dead imagery pops and explodes, haunting (and occasionally frightening) in its splendor.
The Iron Giant
The 1999 film The Iron Giant is spoken of by animation fans as one of the most deeply moving of all animated features. Based on the 1968 book The Iron Man by Ted Hughes, the story follows a little boy named Hogarth who discovers a mammoth robot that has crashed to earth near his Maine home. The child befriends the robot, who soon becomes as object of alarm for the government who see him as a threat to the United States (the story is set during the Cold War). As the feds seek to destroy him, Hogarth does everything he can to save his newfound friend. The film ends tragically when the Iron Giant intercepts a missile that was intended to bring him down but would have killed Hogarth as well. The Iron Giant is the ultimate tearjerker that concludes with just a glimmer of hope. Vin Diesel, Jennifer Aniston, and Harry Connick, Jr. provide voices.
The Last Unicorn
The Last Unicorn (1982), produced by Rankin & Bass (producers of a plethora of holiday specials including Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman), is an animated classic that is remembered fondly by those of us who were children of the 1980s. A unicorn learns that she is the very last of her kind living in a magical forest. When she learns that there are other unicorns that have been driven to the far reaches of the world by the evil Red Bull, she goes on a daring journey to find them. It’s a harrowing tale that features many celebrity voices including Angela Lansbury, Alan Arkin, Tammy Grimes, Jeff Bridges, Rene Auberjonois, Mia Farrow, Keenan Wynn, and Christopher Lee.
The Secret of N.I.M.H.
The 1971 Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of N.I.M.H. by Robert O’Brien was already a well-received children’s book when it was turned into the film The Secret of N.I.M.H. (1982). Big shocker, Don Bluth (making his directorial debut) was behind this somewhat terrifying adventure about a mouse named Mrs. Brisby (her name is changed for fear of copyright issues regarding the toy Frisbee) who must enlist the help of a mysterious band of wise rats who she hopes can help her move her home before it is mowed-down during spring plowing. There is an urgency that permeates this movie, making it palpably intense and far less kid-friendly than anything to come out of a Disney Studio.
The animated film that comes the closest to achieving the glory of a Disney animated musical is Anastasia (1997). Don Bluth, once again, helms this exquisitely drawn, fictional account of the lost daughter of the Russian Tsar Nicholas Romanov II, Anastasia. The legend of what became of the princess, who was not accounted for when the rest of her family was executed, was a dark but compelling possibility for a film. Broadway composers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (Once on this Island, Ragtime, Seussical) provided the magical score which featured the Oscar-nominated “Journey to the Past”, the haunting “Once Upon a December”, and the gossipy “A Rumor in St. Petersburg amongst its ranks. Angela Lansbury, Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Christopher Lloyd, Kelsey Grammer, and Bernadette Peters provided voices. A stage adaptation is currently prepping to open on Broadway at the end of April.