Disney bought Pixar in 2006. Since 2007, the only year Disney or Pixar hasn't won the Academy of Film Arts and Science’s Best Animated Feature Award was 2001—the one year neither production company had released an eligible film.
This year, Pixar’s Coco will probably snag the statue, which is fine. It’s visually stunning, wholesome, funny, and a box office juggernaut. But there was a lot out there in 2017 that doesn’t mimic the Pixar mold of high production value, #relatable stories about the importance of family. There are stories about broken or cruel families, niche narratives hand-animated by microscopic teams, and surreal parables about humanity’s relationship with technology. For the most part, these aren’t movies you’d watch with your grandma or bring your nephew to during the holidays. Without further ado, here are the best non-Disney/Pixar animated films of the year.
You don’t need to know much about Loving Vincent that isn’t in the stunning trailer above. Hundreds of artists factory-produced Vincent van Gogh–style paintings for every frame of the feature-length film. The plot follows an acquaintance of the artist who, in the wake of his suicide, travels all over Europe to return a letter to van Gogh’s brother. In the process, he meets all sorts of kooky, van Gogh associates, rotoscoped from performances by actors like Chris O’Dowd, Saoirse Ronan, and Jerome Flynn. The historicity of the film is up for debate, but exploring the legacy of the archetypal starving artist with such an innovative process earned a standing ovation in the theater where I saw it.
My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea
Comic artist Dash Shaw’s first foray into feature films is the opposite of Loving Vincent. My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea relies on strong writing, memorable lines, and relatable characters to pull viewers through 80 minutes of choppy, low-fi, gorgeous animation. This is an experimental film, animated mostly by Shaw and his wife, Jane Samborski. A skeleton crew pulled the movie together and a handful of A-List actors, including Jason Schwartzman, Lena Dunham, Susan Sarandon, Maya Rudolph, and Reggie Watts, bring it to life. If you can dig Shaw’s mixed-media visual style, his story of teens navigating floods, sharks, and emotional conflict on a journey to the roof of their sinking high school is more fun than playing hooky.
Robot fights, virtual reality, surreal dreams, magic, giant robot fights, self-driving cars: There's certainly a lot going on in Kenji Kamiyama's airy new feature, Napping Princess. Set in Japan on the cusp of the 2020 Olympics, the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex alum weaves together two stories. The main plot is a five-minutes-in-the-future speculation about modern technology centered on a nap-prone schoolgirl named Kokone. Conflict arises when her father is arrested for allegedly stealing self-driving car technology from his deceased wife’s former workplace. Kokone is his only hope. Her attempts to rescue dad are intercut with sudden dreams of a Howls Moving Castle–ish realm where medieval hierarchy meets magic and advanced technology. They seem like a distraction, until Kokone realizes her dreams could be the key to saving her father. The premise is kind of out there, but if you’re down to go along for the ride, Napping Princess is a fun and innovative anime for fans of sci-fi, fantasy, and everything in between.
Birdboy: The Forgotten Children
If Aesop's Fables had threesome with Sartre SparkNotes and a My Chemical Romance album cover, the baby might come out something like Birdboy: The Forgotten Children, a not-for-kids film by Spanish animators Alberto Vázquez and Pedro Rivero. Parents suck, conformity is strictly enforced, and drugs—except for the "happy pills" on every mantlepiece—are blamed for all society's ills on an island nation crippled by an industrial disaster. Its only hope is Birdboy, a nice guy who is unfortunately possessed by a demon that scares the daylights out of everyone from murderous rat scavengers in the lawless dump to canine police officers who enforce brutal law and order in town. The only one unafraid of him is Dinki, a quirky white mouse who wants to leave the island and pursue a better life. Birdboy is a brand-new emo classic—Tim Burton with teeth—so if you’re not o-fucking-kay, get to a select theater near you before it’s gone.
You may have heard about The Breadwinner because it’s a passion project of Angelina Jolie, who executive produced the animated tale of Taliban-occupied Kabul in the early 2000s. But it’s way more than a feather in her philanthropy cap. Director Nora Twomey, fresh off a streak of award-winning animated films like The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, has beautifully adapted the novel of the same name by Deborah Ellis, based on interviews with Afghan refugees, into a beautiful meditation on childhood, gender, and war. Thirteen-year-old leading lady Saara Chaudry is a joy as Parvana, a fierce young girl who masquerades as a boy to feed her family under the Taliban’s draconian modesty laws. Despite genuinely joyous and beautiful moments, Twomey doesn’t sugarcoat the dark reality of the setting. At a screening and Q&A, I saw an Afghani woman rise and thank the director. She had never seen a mainstream film address this period with such nuance before.
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