Since Fantasmagorie first wowed audiences in 1908, the art form of animation has grown exponentially to one of the most creative and versatile art forms in terms of film-making and media, with it becoming a box office powerhouse and something that almost anyone of any age can find something to enjoy in. However it is something that has always been looked down on to an extent by certain voting boards for awards such as the golden globes and academy awards, with an animated film never being nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars until 1991 when Disney’s Beauty and the Beast finally broke through that barrier, signalling that animated films were no longer regarded as a lesser form of storytelling.
Over the past 20 years, animation has really started to evolve with some of the most interesting and thought-provoking stories having been told through this medium. Previously seen as something that was only relevant for young audiences, films such as Waltz with Bashir, Mary and Max, Chico and Rita (a personal high recommendation) and Anomalisa have pushed the envelope and demonstrated that this medium is not less of a genre that live action tales. These pictures signaled to the world that mature and detailed stories could be told without talking down to them, or be a childish endeavor.
It hasn’t just been Disney and the western film industry alone that has blazed the trail of animation through the history of the film industry and there have been a number of studios and production companies who have helped transform the image of the art form within the industry as well as to the wider public. Companies that will be discussed here such as Laika, Studio Ghibli, Dreamworks, Warner Brothers Animation and Funimation have all brought a wide variety of stories to the silver screen. Showcasing tales that vary from the down to earth to the subversive and unique, all the while signalling a growing change where animation is becoming a more dominant narrative device. It’s important to pay homage to those studios and figureheads that have created such memorable cinematic moments that we have come to cherish and well as pass onto our friends and families. It does seem likely from all the evidence in front of us, that we are in a golden age of animation with more and younger film-makers being inspired to learn and develop the craft than ever before, just because of the films that have been produced over these past number of years
If you know your animation cinema then the name Hayao Miyazaki will immediately jump out at you and bring back memories of seeing the magical works of Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki founded the iconic studio with Toshio Suzuki, Isao Takahata and Yasuyoshi Tokuma in 1985 and they have gone on to create some of the most revered and beloved animated works in the world. Together among numerous collaborators, they have made such recognizable tales like My Neighbour Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service and the renowned Spirited Away. Spirited Away made history in 2003 when it became the first Japanese film and the only hand drawn film, to win Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards and has been cited by many as the paradigm shift in the industry taking animated cinema more seriously. Ghibli have been an inspiration to many for decades now including notable creators such as John Lasseter and Guillermo Del Toro. Their films are simple, detailed and elegant with some of the most stunning artistry you are ever likely to see on-screen. There is a reason this studio brings out such devotion in people and if it stays true and Studio Ghibli is no longer producing feature films. They can rest assured that they will go down in history as true masters of the craft.
On the other side of the ocean, we come to Tomm Moore. A name not as recognizable as Miyazaki, but an artist who has recently brought a wider amount of attention to the lesser known Irish film industry. He may have only made 2 features at this current point but they have been stunning examples of telling a simple story in the most engaging fashions. Tomm’s first feature was ‘The Secret of Kells’, the story of a young boy who has quest through an enchanted forest to complete a magical book, aided by a wolf-girl called Aisling. Moore managed to evoke that brilliant feeling of hearing a folk tale for the first time but in the most beautiful and magical way and deservedly garnered a lot of praise for his work. He followed this up with ‘Song of the Sea’ which was just as well received, if not more so. Both of Moore’s works have been shining examples of telling stories that are known to many, but in new and vibrant ways that will entertain the new generation just as much as the old one.
A style of animation that has sadly fallen by the wayside quite a bit in the last few years has been stop motion. With production costs increasing and the demand for high quality CGI to be made and showcased in record times, the painstaking but charming craft has admittedly become more of a niche that it previously was. However 2 studios in particular still champion this device and have created tales using their expertly crafted methods that has captured the hearts and minds of many people.
The most widely known of these is more certainly Aardman, who are known worldwide for the clumsy but lovable pair of Wallace and Gromit and the little slice of reality that’s several parts surreal of Creature Comforts. Since the mid 90’s this production company has poured their hearts and countless hours into creating stories that are down to earth and relatable, but never stops themselves from daring to dream. This isn’t just a studio that relies on two figureheads to pay the bills and churn out carbon copy tales again and again. Aardman has created a plethora of stories to entertain all with films such as Chicken Run, Shaun the Sheep the Movie and The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists filling out their very impressive resume.
Alongside Aardman is Laika, who go a slightly different route with their creations and have made a number of fantastical and wondrous stories, with worlds and creatures in them that even Guillermo Del Toro would be proud of. The most recent effort from Laika was 2016’s Kubo and the Two Strings that told the story of young Kubo, who has to battle a demon from the past alongside his companions Monkey and Beetle, to ensure that the world’s worst fate does not come to pass. Laika have been pushing the boundaries over what stop-motion can do since their first feature Coraline in 2009. Whilst a lot of these visuals can be very easily and simply created in CG, it’s the love and care that this company pours into their work that translates from the screen to the audience and you cannot help but feel yourself become a part of their world as you watch.
This is not to say that CGI is not as powerful an animation tool as more traditional styles, far from it. Today’s film-going audience is very well versed in what digital animation can achieve. But it takes a little something extra to transform your experience in that cinema from a pleasant evening out, to creating a memory that stays with you for years after. This is an art all on its own and Pixar have undoubtedly become the most shining examples of this. Pixar revolutionized the industry in 1995 with Toy Story, the first feature film entirely animated on computers and caught the attention of millions around the world with the characters they brought forth. Since then, they have become the authors and a back catalog that is the envy of most studios, with films such Finding Nemo, Wall-E, Monsters Inc. and The Incredibles.
Now whilst it can be said that the quality of Pixar’s work has wavered a little in the past couple of years, it cannot be denied the towering effect that this company has had and have been the sole production behind the only 2 CGI animated features nominated for best picture at the academy awards (Those being Toy Story 3 and Up), as well as domination the Best Animated Feature category since its inception.
World cinema has been a driving force of this change in perception as well with France and Japan being two dominant forces themselves. French animation studios have created some gorgeous stories that have stood the test of time of the past few years and well as creating new modern classics such as Belleville Rendezvous, April and the Extraordinary World, A Cat in Paris and Persepolis being shining examples of this.
Japan too has cultivated a powerful industry with Anime become a genre which countless people across the world have grown to love and has spawned such titles as Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Wolf Children and most recently Your Name (which recently become the highest grossing anime film of all time, overtaking the record from Spirited Away). There is a common element amongst these examples of films in that they have narratives that are not childish and include mature themes that challenge the audience to think and feel something, rather than just watch and walk away feeling nothing.
There really is a grand palette of animated features that showcase that this type of genre is just as effective and powerful as its live action counterparts. Animation has told numerous stories that may not be possible with live action and that has helped it grow and develop into a unique avenue for film-makers to take, so they can tell the stories they want to tell in the best way possible. It would take an awful lot to deny the fact that we may truly be in a golden age of animation where artists and storytellers alike can flourish and make even small moments of cinema that inspire the next generation and it may be safe to say that long may it continue.