By Cole Rothacker
Last year was an interesting year for animated films. For the first time since 2006, we didn’t see a Pixar release, which for the most part have become event films themselves, often overshadowing other animated offerings throughout the year. Remember when Brave beat out ParaNorman at the Oscars? Christ.
Despite Disney’s Frozen coming obnoxiously close to hogging 2014’s limelight (even though it was released in November 2013), we got a lot of great animated films from different studios and in a wide array of styles. If you don’t see one you like below, that means I didn’t see it, because I didn’t care. Sorry. But not really.
This is the movie that took almost everybody by surprise—a hyperactive CGI kids movie based on a line of toys that don’t even have original characters or pre-existing narratives. Hell, this isn’t even the first Lego movie we’ve gotten, as there have been many, many direct to video movies produced over the years, some of them just being cobbled together from video game cut scenes. But, I wasn’t surprised—and that was because of two key elements: Lord and Miller.
Phillip Lord and Chris Miller have been around for a while, alternating between animated kids comedies like Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs and raunchy R-rated comedies like the 21 Jump Street films. They’ve made a career out of just fucking killing it, making original, hilarious, and thoughtful movies out of otherwise horrible ideas (a short children’s book, a Johnny Depp TV show from the ’90s, toys, a comedy sequel). Having them, alongside a killer cast that included Chris Pratt (who as of this year will have starred in three movie franchises that have Lego tie-ins), Elizabeth Banks, Will Ferrell, Morgan Freeman, Will Arnett, Charlie Day, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, and just about every funny person in Hollywood, I knew we were going to get a likable and fun animated movie, but man, did it exceed my expectations.
The Lego Movie was fun, it was likable, it had amazing CG animation, it had an infuriatingly catchy song from Tegan and Sara with The Lonely Island—but underneath it all, we ended up getting a movie that somehow was a refutation of the well-worn “Hero’s Journey” monomyth that Hollywood screenwriters love to use as a crutch. In equal measure, The Lego Movie is a satire on politics and pop culture, and the harrowing tale of a schizophrenic police officer battling his angels and demons who ends up murdering his parents. It’s dizzying, but it comes together in an amazing way with a climax I genuinely did not expect.
I have no idea how they’ll pull off a sequel to this movie, but we’re certainly getting one, along with a Lego Batman movie. It’s hard to say if these movies will be as surprising as the original one was, but as long as they retain most of the original creative team, I’ll be seeing each and every one of them. Except Lego Ninjago, because that sounds dumb.
Despite having a title fit for a weird porno, The Boxtrolls was another stand-out animated film this year. Made by LAIKA studios in Portland, the same folks behind Coraline (2009) and ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls is another in a long line of slightly creepy stop-animated films, fitting comfortably alongside the likes of The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and The Corpse Bride (2005).
The movie was marketed quite heavily as one for the kids, which I think hurt it, because it’s a surprisingly dark and adult movie that serves as a parable about classism and even racism.
The movie has all kinds of crazy elements: cheese-obsessed aristocrats, violent allergic reactions, transvestism, and a truly sublime performance from Tracy Morgan. LAIKA continues to push stop-animation with their movies, mixing some very old techniques with some very new ones. Make sure you hold on through to the credits to see a mind-boggling meta sequence involving two characters from the movie having a moment with a higher power.
Big Hero 6
I was anticipating this one for a number of reasons. First and foremost as a Disney fan, I tend to check out whatever they put out every year, even if it’s not my usual cup of tea. I saw Frozen in theaters by myself because I like to go see movies at their first matinee showing because I like to not spend 20 dollars at a movie theater. I don’t even give a fuck. Point being, I see Disney movies. But what was also of interest was that this was the first animated Disney movie based on a Marvel comic since Disney absorbed the comics publisher into its pulsating mass in 2010. Was it going to tie into the live action Marvel movies? Would we see some familiar characters?
Turns out, no, but it was still a really well-made film. BH6 was VERY loosely adapted from a Marvel comic published some 15 years ago, featuring a few X-Men characters but also a number of new characters that as far as I can tell haven’t crossed over to the mainstream Marvel Universe. The comic isn’t even in print anymore; it’s quite hard to come by.
As to whether or not BH6 takes place in the MCU alongside Iron Man and Loki—that was quickly established as not. Instead, BH6 takes place in the fictional portmanteau city of San Fransokyo.
What I really appreciated was the fact that, despite being within the superhero genre, and set in present day, BH6 continues the tradition of Disney adapting stories for their own aesthetic; creating something new altogether. Instead of a fairy tale, though, this time it was a Marvel comic.
The movie itself is really brisk and enjoyable, with fun characters, cool costumes, amazing visuals, and probably the best cameo Stan Lee has ever made in his illustrious career as a professional Stan Lee. Despite more than a few similarities to The Iron Giant (1999), this one still holds its own, and I’m definitely going to be checking out Big Hero 7, which will hopefully feature Stan Lee as its villain.
But hey, if we’re gonna talk cartoons, we can’t leave out television. TV is practically the only place you can still see traditionally animated stories, and there was a lot of great stuff in 2014.
Clarence completely took me by surprise. Its initial TV spots didn’t appeal much to me, and I thought it was going to be just another in a long line of “WOAH DUDE BROFIST AND UKULELES BRO” cartoons that seem to be pretty popular today. But, to my surprise, Clarence is a very genuine show about kids; probably the only show since Ed, Edd, ‘n Eddy to speak to my personal experiences as a kid.
The characters are all surprisingly easy to relate to. I feel like I know all these characters as people in my own life; they feel so real and rough around the edges. Clarence lives with his mom and her boyfriend, they don’t really have a lot of money, he plays in the mud with his action figures, his friends and family snicker at crude humor, Clarence’s friend Sumo lives in a trailer park with his many younger siblings and two frightening older brothers, and their other friend Jeff has two moms. This doesn’t feel like any other cartoon that’s on TV right now, and I for one certainly hope we’ll be watching Clarence for a very long time.
Over the Garden Wall
This was like a cartoon that was made for me specifically. Combining elements like Halloween, Max Fleischer animations, Stand By Me, Windsor McCay comics, and so much more, this was a show I just couldn’t stop watching. What makes it groundbreaking also ends up being a disappointment, as this is only the first animated miniseries Cartoon Network has produced.
At 10 episodes, each 11 minutes long, this is basically a feature film cut up into sections, with a definitive beginning, middle, and end. It’s very episodic, but all the episodes tie together pretty fluidly, and you ultimately get fairly invested in the story and characters. I’m really hoping this same team will come back to do another series for Cartoon Network. I’ve never seen anything quite like OTGW on Cartoon Network, or any animation network for that matter, and I hope it sets a trend.
But hey again! What about 2015? You know, the year in which we’ve already made a solid dent? What animated movies are coming out this year? Well, I did my research and I have some answers for you.
So this movie already came and went in theaters. I didn’t see it, but it’s a real curiosity. The film was directed by Pixar alum Gary Rydstrom, although all the trailers seem to want you to think it was all George Lucas. Lucas indeed came up with the story, in an effort to make a film for his three daughters, which is sweet! Except they’re all grown ups now so, better late than never I guess? And boy, was this movie late.
This was Lucasfilm’s first foray into animated filmmaking, and it probably started production some three or four years ago, in 2011. But as we all know, at a point between then and now, Lucasfilm was bought by Disney, and I’m afraid this movie just kind of got lost in the shuffle.
Disney only wanted them for their Star Wars money, and maybe a little Indiana Jones money, and everything else was just gum on their shoe. I’m not convinced the movie would have done well even if that didn’t happen, though. In fact, even without the feeble Disney marketing it had, I can guarantee this would have been an even bigger financial disaster, and it’s already had one of the worst openings in box office history for a mainstream release. The reviews don’t do much to convince me otherwise. I’ll certainly be checking it out when it hits Redbox in a couple of weeks probably, but man, I feel for the folks who toiled on this for years only to have it get sucked into a Disney Hole™.
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water
The first SpongeBob movie came out over ten years ago, which is genuinely terrifying. I was enough of a kid back then to be really excited for it, watching the trailer over and over again in anticipation. And when I saw the movie, man, was it great. One of the very best adaptations from TV to film. It was hilarious, had awesome musical numbers, some amazing animation. It was a complete success. I still enjoy it to this day.
But times have changed. I’ve changed, and even SpongeBob has changed. While I at one point might have counted it as my favorite cartoon, I haven’t watched the show since probably around the time the movie came out. After that happened, I’m pretty sure most of the men and women that imbued Spongebob with the things that I liked about him left to go do other stuff. And really, the movie felt like a finale. The show was, at its core, about a young guy-sponge-thing maturing into young adulthood, living away from home and getting his first job. The movie ended with him being promoted from fry cook to assistant manager of the Krusty Krab. That’s about as definitive an ending as you can get.
But, they kept going. Even after creator Stephen Hillenburg left, Nick kept it alive. I can’t speak too much to the quality of the show, but I stopped watching all the same, and every time I’ve taken a peek at what’s going on with SpongeBob now, it’s left me baffled. This could very easily be a result of me now being older, but I like to think I’m young at heart enough to enjoy cartoons still. All this is to say, I was pretty skeptical of the new movie.
But my skepticism proved to be unfounded, as the new movie turned out to be a lot of fun. They lured Hillenburg back, as well as a lot of the old crew from the early seasons of the show, to contribute to this film sequel, and it really shows. The comedy is as sharp, witty, and funny as I remembered SpongeBob being. The animation, the character design, it was all great; they hadn’t skipped a beat. The CG was especially very impressive. It was like watching moving vinyl SpongeBob figures doing funny stuff.
As far as the story goes, it was a little more all over the place than the first one. The plot of the first film was much more focused; there’s a pretty clear arc for the characters that’s a bit more palpable in that one than in the new movie. At the end of this movie, things go back to status quo. You’ll also blow a gasket trying to figure out how this works as a sequel to the first movie, because it really just doesn’t. I’d almost say it’s a reboot, but at the end of the day, they’re just cartoons and I don’t think the creators were too worried about things like “continuity,” so neither should you. If you go into this expecting a fun time, that’s what you’ll get. I greatly enjoyed it even as a lapsed SpongeBob fan, and I suspect if you’re into that kind of thing, you will too.
Shaun the Sheep Movie
This is the new stop-animated movie from the fine folks at Aardman Animation. They are the ones who brought us Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run (which, to my surprise, is still used as a selling point in the marketing for their films). Everybody loves those! They also had a series of shorts, commercials, and a TV show based around the Shaun the Sheep character, and now he’s got a movie, because at some point everything will have a movie. Even you’ll have a movie.
This has already been released in the UK, where it’s actually gotten really good reviews. You’ll probably see it at some point, and in the future when you’re watching the scene in the movie about you where you watch Shaun the Sheep Movie, you’ll probably start to wonder what more you could have done.
Yeah, I dunno guys, it’s another Dreamworks movie. Could be good, could be not good. It’s got Jim Parsons in it! You like him, right? Yeah, you do. #Bazinga
Ooh, hey! Pixar is back, baby! And with a new movie that isn’t a sequel or a prequel. It’s one of those old fashioned “original movies not based on an existing intellectual property” my grandpa told me about once. The film is from the mind of Pete Docter, who brought us Monsters, Inc. (2001) and Up (2009), I really liked those movies! I’ll probably like this one. You’ll like it too. And then we’ll all hate the sequels together.
Those lovable Minions you might recall from your Burger King cups are back in their own film. Unlike other spin-offs, this one is a little different. It takes place in the 1960s and shows the Minions making their way through life before they became Steve Carell’s helpers.
The hook here is that they have been the minions to all of history’s worst villains. Does this mean they once minion’d for Charles Manson? I’d really like to see that movie where they’re roped into the Manson Family and then try and get out because it’s just way too real for them. The kids will love it.
Hotel Transylvania 2
Alright, I’m going to tell you some wild shit here: I’m really looking forward to this movie. The first Hotel Transylvania caught me completely off guard. It’s not the best story, some of the stunt casting is pretty grating, but oh man, is that a cartoon, and I mean a cartoon in the literal definition of a “funny drawing”—except it’s CGI.
Forgoing the naturalistic style of Disney and Pixar movies, Hotel Transylvania is the 21st Century equivalent of Looney Tunes. Funny expressions, wild poses, sight gags, it’s truly an overlooked achievement in animated storytelling. The film was the theatrical debut of Genndy Tartakovsky, the creator of Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack, and Sym-Bionic Titan, which were all fantastic. He’s the fucking man. He made a cartoon based on the Star Wars prequels and actually made it really cool. He took a bullshit Adam Sandler cartoon movie and made it hilarious.
The guy can do no wrong in my book, and next year in 2016 we’re going to get his interpretation of POPEYE for the big screen. For cartoon fans, that’s a big deal, and if it means we have to get a sequel first, I’m all for it. As long as it’s as entertaining as the first one, you won’t hear a complaint from me.
The Peanuts Movie
This is the big release of the year for me, as far as animated movies go. I will be there on opening weekend for this. I’m not too big on Blue Sky’s past movies, but this looks like something really special. I love Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and all those characters. Like many over the course of many years, I grew up watching all the specials and reading all the comic strips.
When I first heard they were doing a CG Peanuts movie, I had no idea what to even expect. You could argue that the inherent appeal of Charles Schulz’s characters is their flat, graphic quality, so how can that be accomplished in CG?
But when that first trailer came out, I was blown away. Every image from this movie looks gorgeous, and it seems they’ve pushed CG animation in a direction it’s never been before, treating each frame more like an individual cell as in traditional animation—this opposed to the flowing animation of Pixar, and even the zippy animation of Hotel Transylvania (2012). Jury’s out on if the story and characters will be true to the original movies and comics, but the Schulz family was involved in writing the script, so I’m optimistic.
The Good Dinosaur
Pixar is back, baby! Again! Two in one year! This has never happened before, but it wasn’t entirely intentional. See, we were supposed to get this movie last year. This was Pixar’s 2014 release, and it got pushed way back. Bob Peterson, a longtime man of action at the Pixar offices, and the voice of Dug in Up, came up with this one and it was to be his directorial debut. But Pixar wasn’t happy with the way it was turning out, so they took Bob off the project and put in whiz kid Pete Sohn as its new director. Pete Sohn’s been at Pixar for a while, and is in fact the real life Russell from Up. If you can imagine these events happening with those two characters in real life, it’s a lot funnier than it probably was.
Anyways, from what I understand, the movie’s been completely gutted creatively. This isn’t the first time Pixar has done this, and it’s also not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, all of their movies start out drastically different from the final product. There’s only been two where they were deep into production and decided to shake everything up.
The first was Ratatouille (2007), which was originally conceived by Jan Pinkava before being handed off to Brad Bird, and I think everyone’s in agreement it was for the best.
Then they did it with Brenda Chapman on Brave. They’d originally brought in this guy that shouts a lot named Mark Andrews, who had done a lot of great work on movies like The Iron Giant and The Incredibles (2004), but I don’t think he ultimately brought a lot to the table for Brave. It sounds like he added in a lot of fight scenes and that’s about the last thing that movie needed. A shame.
So, will it be The Good Dinosaur or The Bad Dinosaur? I don’t know! I like to think it will be good. Right now it’s The Schrodinger Dinosaur, and we all just have to wait and see.
This is Paramount Animation’s first crack at an animated film, aside from the just released SpongeBob movie, which was a co-production with Nickelodeon. Not much is known about it, except it’s about monster trucks. Will they talk, or is it about people that drive monster trucks? Will there be a Dracula truck, a Wolfman truck, and a Frankenstein monster truck? I’m kind of doubtful of the latter, but who knows.
And that about does it for the 2015 lineup. I’ll see them and tell you if they suck or not. You can repay me in Chipotle gift cards.