(This article is part of our Best of the Decade series.)
It’s not that there’s inherently anything wrong with films like the CGI animated remake of The Lion King or the third How to Train Your Dragon movie, but they have oversaturated our big screens purely by virtue of their budgets, parent companies, and the mass-market gamesmanship that fuels them. But audiences crave variety—and I’d argue that we need it to make sense of this world. To that end, the films below are some of my favorite animated films of the decade that weren’t produced in Hollywood.
Ernest & Celestine (2012)
This Franco-Belgian tale of the unlikely friendship between a bear and a mouse was rendered in Flash to replicate both hand-drawn animation and watercolors. The resulting adaptation of the Ernest & Celestine book series by author Gabrielle Vincent is a spirited aesthetic that pairs well with an intimate and action-packed plot. “My idea was to be very spontaneous, like Gabrielle Vincent was in the books,” co-director Benjamin Renner told VICE’s Creators Project of the film. “I was trying to draw animation, but never correct things.”
The Wind Rises (2013)
Hayao Miyazaki, who came out of retirement to helm this movie, has said that he made it for one young boy, that the boy doesn’t know about that reasoning, and that the boy liked it nonetheless. Miyazaki’s films have never not been that personal, even this one, which grapples with war, history, and national identity rather than the whimsy of his earlier works. His vision of a creative laboring to perfect his art in the face of hardship is one that anyone can relate to.
Boy and the World (2013)
Nominated for an Oscar and winner of Best Feature Film at Annecy International Animated Film Festival, Alê Abreu’s dialogue-free Brazilian production is a crayon kaleidoscope molded into a coming-of-age story. His protagonist slowly comes to understand the harsh realities of city life and industry after having spent much of his life in the rural jungle, encountering both wonders and horrors as he goes about it.
World of Tomorrow (2015)
“Now is the envy of all of the dead,” may be the most poignant nine-word sentiment of the decade. Don Hertzfeldt’s wonderful World of Tomorrow is existentialism illustrated through a conversation between a stick figure and her clone as the latter narrates out the arc of society, answering what questions she can along the way and relating them to their own experience. It’s a lovely quarter-hour.
April and the Extraordinary World (2015)
Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci’s deliriously animated steampunk adventure tale sweeps you away with its inventiveness and smooth art style influenced by the great Jacques Tardi. In this alternate timeline sparked by an accident involving lizards and Napoleon III, the greatest scientific minds of the last 60 years have gone missing, and a young woman named April eventually must unravels why with the help of her cat Darwin and a petty criminal named Julius.
The Red Turtle (2016)
More fable than film but no less poignant, The Red Turtle is the story of a man stranded on a desert island who manages to eke out a pretty fulfilling life for himself, in spite of his circumstances. The film’s mysteries don’t get much in the way of explanation, but they don’t need it. This may have been Michaël Dudok de Wit’s first feature, but the director has excelled at telling masterful stories about characters in isolation. His Academy Award-winning short “Father & Daughter” mined some of the same themes.
My Life as a Zucchini (2016)
This Swiss-French stop-motion film by Claude Barras is dark as hell—kicking off with its hero Courgette (“Zucchini”) inadvertently causing the death of his alcoholic mother—but it’s never bitter. The animation lends a warmth to its story of an orphan who finds companionship in his fellow orphans and a kind-hearted police officer (voiced by Nick Offerman in the English-language version). At 65 minutes, it also never outstays its welcome.
Your Name (2016)
Makoto Shinkai’s vibrant anime is packed with photorealistic imagery of Tokyo’s skyline and infrastructure counterposed with beautiful frames of komorebi in the mountainous woods of rural Japan. It’s a body-swapping fantasy and science-fiction parable and romance all rolled into one. And the soundtrack slaps. Your Name works on so many levels, it’s unfair.
The Breadwinner (2017)
Feeding your family always comes at a cost, perhaps a deadly one if you happen to live in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The Breadwinner‘s characters all want to protect and shelter their family from the horrors around them, but the film never shies away from what those horrors are, depicting a repressive regime and an environment where something that looks like a toy could in fact be a landmine. In clumsier hands, Nora Twomey and Cartoon Saloon’s film could easily fail, but it never does.
I Lost My Body (2019)
Who knew that literally losing a body part could be such a great metaphor for teen angst? I Lost My Body—the search for a severed hand to recover its body—defies physics and expectations at every turn even as runs its tireless protagonist through a gauntlet of pecking birds, speeding trains, and vertical plummets on its quest home. When we’re not watching the hand, director Jérémy Clapin weaves in the story of its foolish and immature master, Naoufel, trying to find own way in the world.
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